Saturday, August 27, 2011

Pulling it together

Happythankyoumoreplease (2010) is an agreeable modest debut whose existence is surely owed solely to writer-director-star Josh Radnor's leading role in a television sitcom. Ordinarily a young filmmaker would have gotten such a rudimentary and ramshackle film out of his system in film school or in an ultra lowbudget shot-on-video festival debut on the way to truly gathering his or her powers and making a truly vigorous and authentic gesture as an artist. As is right and proper for the early work of a fledgling filmmaker, its mostly made of bits and pieces from other people's work with the exception the storyline around a woman afflicted with alopecia, richly limned by Malin Akerman and her love interest played by the always welcome Tony Hale.

Of the other main story threads, one is both implausible and vaguely distasteful and the other is quite dull, but there is one sequence to celebrate, borrowed though it is from Annie Hall (Woody Allen is clearly Radnor's model). It is the climactic scene in which all the threads are brought together and resolved, edited to footage of the female lead singing a song of redemption and joy in a nightclub. In Annie Hall it was Diane Keaton singing "Seems Like Old Times." In Happythankyoumoreplease it is the sweet Kate Mara singing a little-known and completely delightful song by John Kander and Fred Ebb called "Sing Happy." (It is from their debut musical, Flora The Red Menace in which art student Liza Minnelli found herself inadvertently mixed up with Depression-era Communists.) To my mind, this little film will have completely justified its existence if it does nothing more than bring "Sing Happy" into the consciousness of more singers, music directors and film goers.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Steve Carell at the crossroads: Brand or actor?

Ten years ago, Steve Carell was an adroit actor/comedian emerging on The Daily Show, albeit without such a set persona as Rob Corddry or Steven Colbert. Then, with the double-whammy of The Office and 40-Year-Old-Virgin, Carell's name became a household word. But Carell still had the power to decide what that household word would mean.

Many, probably most, comedians become brands. Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Bob Newhart -- we know what we are in for when we walk in. (Peter Sellers is perhaps the only brand known for its unpredictability; however, we should note that his superstardom is owed to the rather narrow character of Inspector Clouseau.] But recent performers have straddled the divide between brand and ac. Perhaps Bill Murray was the first; certainly Will Ferrell is working both sides of the street, especially since it appears that his brand (the overgrown adolescent) may not be sustainable as he ages. (This is what happened to Jerry Lewis.) Jim Carrey is attempting to negotiate the transition, but it has been rough for him.

Carell's brand, which is what he relied on in that bit of commercial fluff, Date Night, is a quiet, decent everyman who wanders across a range from narcissism to self-deprecation, but hovers over the reasonable center. If he's going to do something crazy, it's because he has been pushed to it, whereas a Jim Carrey-branded character starts at stark raving bonkers and amps it up from there. Crazy, Stupid, Love. cements that trend and rests a lot of its ambition on the skill and warmth of Carell's acting, as seen here, partnered with the impeccable Julianne Moore.

This is worlds away from the disconnected and perhaps insane weatherman Carell played in Anchorman, one of the films that helped build his reputation. But more surprising, having made the step up to feature film leading man, is that the crazy, spontaneous improv comic is still lurking around, albeit literally disguised.

Ordinarily when animators hire famous actors to voice characters, they are trading on the recognizability of the voice being engaged. (Before the modern era, voice experts rendered their own versions of voice types. Paul Frees or Daws Butler had their own version of Ed Wynn, Charles Butterworth, Lou Costello or even Phil Silvers. June Foray has a devastating Marjorie Main. Sometime in the 1980s, it became evident that real movie stars, many of whom grew up on animation, were willing to become, nay enthusiastic to serve as animation voice talent. Imitators were no longer necessary, except for dead personalities, e.g. Maurice LaMarche's great gloss on Orson Welles.) So when Despicable Me (2010) was announced to star Steve Carell, it was not to be expected what a transformative performance he would give.

One good sign -- the character designs bore no resemblance to the actors providing their voices, clearly signaling the animators' disinclination to trade on the actors' celebrity personas, including those of Russell Brand, Jason Segal, and most especially Julia Andrews, none of whom are cast in ways they would be in a live-action film.

It is rather heartening to hear Mr. Carell hold onto his inner Peter Sellers. There are comics around who still trade on their versatility -- Hank Azaria and Christopher Guest come to mind. But such performers are rarely stars. So here's hoping that while Steve Carell solidifies his brand, he hangs on to the versatility and range which were so important on the way up.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Who let the monsters in?

Back when I wrote about Let The Right One In, the Swedish vampire movie, I noted that it had an American remake, called Let Me In (2010). The good news is that the story has not been Spielbergified or otherwise translated into standard Hollywood tropes. The director found a cold and isolated analogue to the claustrophobic Nordic winter of the original. A few things are done better, a few done not so well. My favorite scares seemed to be not quite as good, due to changes in camera placement and cutting, but it may be that since I knew they were coming, I was inured to their shock value. (Specifically, they are the hospital facade scene and the final encounter in the pool.)

The film makes good use of CGI, especially in one sequence in which the protagonist retaliates on some bullies. In the past, such a sequence would have to use misdirection, clever staging and tricky editing to cover up the necessity of not actually injuring one's actors. Now CGI permits such a scene of personal violence to be handled in a straightforward fashion.

On the other hand, director Matt Reeves, the near-genius responsible for Cloverfield demonstrates a Spielbergian flair for a bravura sequence of everyday terror, namely a car crash, using a spectacular mix of real footage, green screen, CGI and composites thereof. Here it is:

And here's a "making of" sequence that explains how it was done:

The best news is that both films are currently available on Netflix Streaming, so you can do a side-by-side comparison. There are many worse ways to spend an evening.

My biggest misgiving about the remake is the title, which, coupled with the poster art, suggests words spoken by a potential victim, rather than the words of the vampire, who, according to standard lore, must be invited into a room.

But that somewhat misleading title puts me in mind of the only entirely worthwhile sequence in the lesser Val Lewton film, The Leopard Man (1943). The film shoots itself in the foot, horror-wise when it introduces the title leopard in the first sequence in such a way as to be no scarier than "Baby" in Bringing Up Baby. Then it meanders around with a dull detective plot for a long time.

The sterling exception is this sequence in which a young girl is sent out on a simple errand by her mother. It has been set up that she is rather fanciful and her mother rather impatient. This Youtube poster has put a number of shots together which in the film are distributed over a longer sequence, but it is useful to see this thread isolated from the other parts of the film. The climax in this clip, consisting of offscreen action, ranks among the top five fright sequences in the history of film, at least to me. As usual, the unseen horror is worse than anything that a filmmaker can picture. If you are seriously interested in film, you owe it to yourself to watch this:

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Keaton's first masterwork

James Emerson has written this lovely tribute to and analysis of Buster Keaton's first true feature, Our Hospitality (1923). I really can't say any of it better than Mr. Emerson did, so I urge you to click this link. Reading his piece is going to make you really want to see the film (again, if applicable). Luckily, you can do that right here:*

* It's 73 minutes, so while it is completely safe for work, I wouldn't recommend you watch it there unless your employer has very lax standards. Or your job is to watch great films.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Did they know?

Sat down the other day to watch Robert Aldrich's cavalry vs. Indians Western Ulzana's Raid (1972), figuring it to be a decent potboiler Western from the last period during which American studios were turning out such films. By the end of the decade, the workaday Western was gone, and when Westerns appeared thereafter as in Silverado and Dances With Wolves they were super-special event movies. I missed a lot of westerns from the 1970's from having been overdosed on them in the 60's, so I missed how they had changed.

In a way, it was the way all American films had changed: the loss of innocence, the note of despair and loss. But the Western has a special talent for metaphor, usually carried in a more elegant form than, say a science fiction, which generally brings its politics out front and center. So it is perfectly possible to see Ulzana as just another example of trying-to-outwit-the-wily-Red-Man and nothing more. Perhaps the racism was less virulent, but still woven into the fabric. Being a 1970's film the violence is a little more realistic -- sudden, bloody and yielding consequences more real and painful than a 1930s cowboy clutching his bloodless chest and falling gracefully into the dust.

Today, Ulzana clearly is a Vietnam film. The enemy is largely unseen and they and their cultural context are, to the cavalry, completely unknowable. Their tactics are terroristic in nature. Their goal is to be simply left alone. The cavalry view the Apache as if they were not human, and least not humans like them. Cavalry officers ignore good intelligence (provided by Burt Lancaster as an old scout) in favor of their own narrative frame. Misdirection, missed opportunities and failure in execution leads to military failure by the cavalry. But in a way it doesn't matter, because a victory now would only be temporary, and either this Apache or another would arise to harass the US Army.

The only honorable allegiance is to truth and to other honorable people. Adherence to one side or another seems feckless. This is not warm, but a cosmic game of Chicken, winner is the last one to withdraw.

So the question is...did they know they were making a Vietnam film at the time? Or was this just something in the zeitgeist? Or am I reading something into it that's just not there? I was around in 1972, and Vietnam was, as a I recall, Topic A. So when is a Western just a Western?