Tuesday, September 27, 2011

It's a matter of time and space

Watching Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008) put into clear focus for me exactly why opera is never really going to be cinematic, albeit I enjoy quite a few opera movies. Like all adaptations, part of the problem is about space, but opera has a special relationship with time that cinema does not share.

Hitchcock limned the essential nature of theater on film, the compression of all events into a space which should be preserved if the filmmaker is to take any power from the play being adapted, rather than dissipating that compression by "opening the play up." The point of Dial M For Murder or Wait Until Dark is that the heroine, and by extension, the viewer, is trapped in a room with a murderer. If you can open the door and run out to the street, the peril is seriously diminished, if not eliminated.

And indeed, many plays are limited or telescoped in time. Alan Ayckbourn has even written three plays which take place at the same time, in parallel, in three adjacent locales. (They have even been produced in such a way as to prove that they perfectly dovetail -- an exit in one play corresponds with an entrance in another, and so forth). But the addition of music -- and nearly constant music -- gives opera a peculiar relationship with time.

First of all, opera abandons the pretense of simulating life in any way. In an instant, we recognize that we are in a rarefied world of artifice -- that everything present is standing in for something else, that nothing has been brought here from the real world. At once, we are in trouble with the cinema aesthetic. Still, fantasy has been made to work on film, especially in the Rings films and the Harry Potter series. But music has specific demands on time itself. It requires a specifed time to unfold, which may or may not correspond with the dramatic value of that moment or the words being sung to that music. In short, opera, and especially operatic dialogue, takes a relatively long time to unfold, and the adapter must either weave a cinematic design through that preset duration, or must simply "fill" the time. And cinema which is filling time is frittering its most hard-won and precious resource.

Rock opera compounds the problem. Whereas in classical opera, the music is filled with harmonic and contrapuntal complexities to engage the ear when the eye is not being refreshed, typically in rock or any music with its roots in the blues, each 4-bar phrase has only 2 or 2-1/2 bars worth of melody. Think of Bessie Smith singing a phrase and Louis Armstrong echoing and embroidering her melody in the interval before her next line. Rock usually dispenses with the embroidery and just "holds still" for 1-1/2 to 2 bars. Again, this is antithetical to film. The usual solution on film is to decorate those moments with theater-style staging: characters pace around, gesticulate and generally thrash around until the next line comes along. Thankfully, Repo! eschews the kind of cheap doggerel in the dialogue sequences favored by Jesus Christ Superstar and other dismal rock operas; the dialogue is sharper and able to move more swiftly than usual. But it is telling that even with this higher level of skill and attention to theatrical detail, we still are not convinced we're seeing a movie. It seems to be a movie of a performance, rather than an aesthetic object complete in and of itself.

There is much to like in Repo!, especially the singing of Anthony Head (best known for Buffy on television), the quavering but resilient tones of the aging Paul Sorvino, a spacey performance by Sarah Brightman and the surprising aptitude of Paris Hilton, whose singing and characterization are surprisingly professional. The notion of a cartel who finances organ transplants and reserves the right to re-possess on defaulted organs is a promising one, although we don't see any reason for those repossesions except cruelty or perversity. (That is, the story would make more sense if there were specific recipients demanding specific organs, and the air of moral ambiguity would be increased of those recipients were actually worthy and sympathetic.) The whole affair has a gratuitously goth-emo element which cries out for contextualization.

But no matter how much more coherent or well-structured the story might be. Even with good lyrics and energetic music, Repo! may do some good deeds aesthetically, but unlike Pinocchio, it will never become a real movie.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The negative argument for irony

If it does nothing else, I hope Hobo With A Shotgun (2011) puts to rest any critical reservations with regard to the self-conscious reworking of genre engaged in by Quentin Tarantino and his comperes. That layer of meta-comment and irony is exactly what makes QT's films worth re-watching, thinking about and discussing, whereas his templates are cinematic potato chips, to be quickly consumed without expectation of nourishment or indeed any lasting effect other than faint nausea.

The proof is that when a purer, more authentic hommage to 80s trash comes along, like HWAS it is quickly evident that it is utterly lacking the kind of vision of resonance that keeps it continually engaging. Yes, the premise is unbelievable, and in a sloppy way that no self-respecting would tolerate. A guy who dispenses justice with a gun has to be good at it and smart or someone will shoot him. That is the whole point of a great film like The Gunfighter. The use of a gun is not a resolution, but the beginning of a string of questions, both narratively and morally. I mean, come on, anybody could shoot this hobo in the back. Yes, the villains are idiots and buffoons (which also weakens the film, because although they are cruel and ruthless, they could be defeated by a reasonably crafty group of 7th graders).

So the makers of Hobo had the good sense to hire Rutger Hauer, an actor of presence and resonance, but not enough sense to engage that resonance in any meaningful way. He just stomps and snorts his way through some poorly staged violence, with the cheapest, most unconvincing blood gags this side of your neighbor kid's backyard videos just because. And to top it off, the film pretends to move toward a grand apocalyptic confrontation just peters out with a few more feeble gun blasts. No gigantic blood orgy, no jeopardy for the protagonist, no reversals or surprises, and no scaling-up of the conflict.

Frankly, if a film revisiting a genre of an earlier generation is not going to be mega- (like Spielberg) it has to be meta- (like Tarantino). Otherwise, why not just turn to the originals, which are readily available, and have the advantage of being pure, authentic and unself-conscious. What I'm trying to say kids, is if you really think you want to see HWAS, just skip it, and rent a Billy Jack movie.

And by the way, how come the rising generation still resists Westerns? They are obviously still looking for a way to tell stories about communities that have no super-structure of law and civil order, a community in the process of forming its ideas of good, evil and justice without too much history to encumber it. So they have to invent post-apocalyptic scenarios, whereas as the Western template is ready-made and would permit a filmmaker to have a dialogue with his predecessors (and not reinvent the wheel). It is the perfect stage on which to explore mythos. Perhaps they are afraid that the Western has a lot of rules they don't know or want to know or want to bother to master. That should be no limitation. After all, the Italians came along in the 1960's and threw all the rules out the window, keeping only the landscape, and even altering that landscape to a Spanish desert instead of the Southwestern mesas.

Seriously, I can't wait for the Quentin Tarantino Western.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Don't nobody know how to tell a story no more?

Maybe it's better to look at Source Code (2011) as a great little trainbound "B" movie like the original Narrow Margin, because it effectively ends at about the 70-minute mark. Hero Jack Gyllenhall solves the mystery, foils and captures the villain and saves Chicago. (Hope that's not a spoiler for anybody, but do you really think a little movie like this had the guts to destroy a major American city? It's released by Summit, for heaven's sake. It takes a Paramount or Disney to destroy major real estate.
Seriously, and I do mean seriously, screenwriter Ben Ripley, whose first produced screenplay this is after 16 years in the business, and Duncan Jones, who made the similarly and more successfully claustrophobic Moon, have thing they want to say about love, identity and indeed what it is to be human. Problem is, they never really signalled us that this was the way they were going to go. We signed on for a popcorn roller coaster ride, not a meditation on mortality, and the solution to the mystery of why what starts as a cracking good thriller, Groundhog Day On A Train With A Bomb only grossed $54 million is answered by the 20-minute appendix, which even on its own terms makes no sense.

You see, Jake Gyllenhall is inhabiting another guy's body. Not really, because it's all some of kind of simulation-that's-not-a-simulation kind of thing. Anyway, to "the girl" he looks like some other guy she knows only slightly, but inside he's Mr. JG. And she falls in love with that hybrid guy in 8 minutes, and they will spend eternity together in simulated-Chicago-heaven. Really, there's nobody that can explain this higgledy piggledy ending. I'm sure they think it's profound and something out of The Twilight Zone but it's just ill-conceived, poorly executed and made no sense to begin with.

Here's the deal -- you gotta dance with the guy what brung ya. Walk in a thriller -- you can do some awesome non-thriller stuff, meaning of life and all that stuff -- but you have to keep the thrills going right to the end, or you're going to get a reputation, and not a good one.

Another case in point, Rango (2011). Of course the big question here is just who this movie was made for, other than Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski's friends. For one thing, much of its time is taken up with a parody of both classical and spaghetti Westerns. Yeah, that's what Westerns need, a good kidding. First of all, nobody's ever done it before. Second, it's such a robust and popular genre today. I can't wait for Mr. Verbinski's scorching take-off on silent German mountain movies, and then a hot rip on Ruth Chatterton, whose popularity waned around 1932. That'll be a hoot!

As if that was not enough of an entertainment treat, the movie can't even decide what its story is. There is a rule that movies need to make a promise to the audience within the first ten minutes, narratively-speaking. Rango not only doesn't promise, it's still being coy and hinty past the 20-minute mark. This was bad enough in the 3rd Pirates movie (I wasn't masochistic enough to see the 4th) when Johnny D wandered around in a white void for 20 or 25 minutes for no apparent reason. I remember there was a lizard in that, too.

But animation is best when it is most efficient. Rango is positively roccoco. At one point, the characters all got on their birds and began to ride (they're too small to ride horses) and before they got where they were going, so many things happened I couldn't remember what their intended destination and purpose was. Clearly, this movie was intended for 82-year-old teenage boys, who can still get excited about things but can't remember what or why.

Johnny Depp is, however, a terrific voice actor, and that is part of the problem. He doesn't settle on a voice we can identify as the hero of the story. It's OK for Robin Williams as the Genie, to scramble through all his canned impressions of extinct celebrities. You're not rooting for the Genie (at least not much). But Rango is supposed to be the center of the story and I know he's a chameleon, but the film doesn't even make that fact interesting or endearing.

The curious thing is that Rango is funny all the way through. My wife and I laughed consistently in nearly every scene. There was always a clever reference, an hilarious non-sequitur, a peculiar bit of characterization. But nothing amounted to anything, nothing added up, and the stakes never seemed to matter (although we were talking about water, which means survival, nobody seemed committed to anything more than the next joke). It's like sitting down to a meal and then eating a whole bag of potato chips. (Not as if I've ever actually done that. I'm just imagining what it would be like, you see.) Lord, knows them chips is tasty but when you're done you feel oogy and sick and bloated and your body is still craving nutrition, just as your mind will crave an actual story after 107 (!!!) minutes of Rango.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

You say "slick" as if it were a bad thing...

I admit it. I was hoping that the protagonist of The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) would be a guy who admired and quoted Abraham Lincoln, not a guy who rides around L.A. in a gas guzzler. Still, it is a pleasure to see a film and a leading actor who both exhibit well-earned confidence, falling just short of swagger. And somehow the earnest version of Matthe McConnaughey is more convincing when it peaks out from behind a slick and self-assured facade.

Producers Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucchesi are to be commended for putting their confidence in director Brad Furman, whose rather thin resume makes such commercial polish and pace less than a certainty. Furman does not appear to be one of those Hollywood hotshots who's dying to sell out without having had any integrity to begin with, like those maestros of emptiness, Brett Ratner and McG, And the casting suggests that director and producers had ambitions, especially the presence of the ever-reliable, ever-rewarding William H. Macy, Marisa Tomei and Frances Fisher.

But the piece of casting that will likely continue to resonate is Ryan Phillipe as a relentless sociopath. Phillipe has always seemed a blank surface, and his lack of traction as a leading man could be ascribed to the sense of deadness behind his eyes. Here that deadness is put to excellent use, and I suspect that he is now as permanently set as, if not necessarily a villain, certainly an unreliable character, just as Tony Perkins always seemed about to go "off" after Pyscho.

Yet, with all this skill, why does Lincoln Lawyer feel like just another movie, and not another Verdict? First of all, the film feels as though it were being deliberately set up as the first of a series, although at this point that is evidently unlikely (it is based on a book which is the first of a series, but as I write this the follow-up is more likely to be on television than in the movie house). And like a series character, Mick Haller doesn't learn or change much over the course of the film. The plot lines are neatly tied up, and of course, no character is introduced unless they will serve the storyline at some later time. Incorporating something for the sake of context, texture and character revelation is alien to this kind of storytelling machine -- hence, the whiff of television lingers around what is a very skillful feature film.

And the bad guy is both generic and sui generis; either way, he is someone we are never going to meet -- the evil will never threaten us the viewers. It is purely a mystery-thriller that never threatens or challenges the viewer, the way a whodunnit feels so cozy despite its implied violence.

We might have been satisfied with this sort of thing on the big screen 40 years ago, but despite the high skill employed, which is why although the film seems designed for sequels, Mick Haller will probably find his home in our homes.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Mach One Mock Doc

This is the trailer for a partially improvised documentary about a year in the life of four public school teachers (and administrators) called Chalk (2006). I don't like to use trailers because they are not the movie and often contain things that are not in the film or distort the tone of the film. But this trailer is reasonably accurate and gives a sense of the upbeat deadpan tone of Chalk. Its immersive quality is reminiscent of Christopher Guest's films but at no time do the characters have the distance and occasional aloofness that sometimes visit the Guest films.

These teachers are not above the events in the movie -- they're not above anything. Neither are they caricatures or buffoons. Well, one is a buffoon, but the film is not out to be cruel. And never has the terrible yet sometimes rewarding experience of the first year of teaching been so well represented on film.

A real, grass-roots mockumentary like Chalk highlights how TV series like The Office and Modern Family, funny as they are, have bastardized the form they sprung from. Chalk uses only a handful of professional actors, filling out the cast with friends, family and real teachers and students. One of the funniest teachers, a seriously repressed neurotic, is played by the film's assistant director. None of the teachers is dishonest or contemptuous, or a lout. They are genuinely trying to do their best. Some are under-experienced, some are overworked, some lack perspective on themselves and one teacher is just not very bright. That happens, although not as often as politicians would have you believe. But they all want to do well by the students.

[I didn't see the Cameron Diaz atrocity Bad Teacher because I refuse to patronize a movie that says that a drunken lazy slut can become a teacher without any accountability. Sorry if I'm a little over-sensitive, but that just doesn't strike me as funny. What if they made a film about a drug-addled terrorist who became a uniformed police officer? Does that make any sense? Is it funny? Neither was Bad Teacher's premise.]

Chalk is unique for maintaining the teachers' points of view. Students do not become significant or notable characters. (This is not true in a teacher's working life, but they had to keep the thing down to 90 minutes.) This manages to defuse the traps of sentiment and melodrama that something like Up the Down Staircase was inclined to fall into.

But what I've failed to say is that not one minute goes by in this film that doesn't make you laugh. Or at least made me laugh. And some minutes much more than that. And its sincerity and lack of condescension make you feel as though you saw something when it was over, not just a string of gags and blackouts. I especially recommend this to my fellow teachers -- it is funny because it is very true. (Incidentally it is available on Netflix streaming until February when the Starz contract expires.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

How did these herrings get so red?

Unknown (2011) is another Liam-Neeson-running-around-a-European-city potboiler, so there is little to say about it with regard to film aesthetics or history. Just a few observations, then.

This film and X Men: First Class present conclusive proof that January Jones can't act. She has a petulant childish presence that works for her role on Mad Men, but nothing else to offer as an actor. She doesn't even move well, as you might expect of a former model. Can we throw the towel in on her?

Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who made a similarly botched and derivative horror film, Orphan, has a bad habit of shooting and editing ordinary events into little bitsy shots evidently intended to ramp up the suspense when what is happening on the screen is not and should not be a subject of suspense. Case in point - a baddy slides down the fire ladder from the roof down to the ground. It is presented in three separate cuts as if there was some question as to whether he would reach the ground, or perhaps suggesting that a surprise awaited him at the bottom. But no. He hits the ground and runs away. In fact, once he had left the roof, there is no reason whatsoever for the film to stay with him.

The whole film is a festival of red herrings, which do not serve as clever misdirection, but merely annoying clutter and lack of focus. The film huffs and puffs for a long time about the recovery of a briefcase which doesn't affect the story in the least.

The story turns mostly on Liam Neeson not being who he says (and thinks) he is. It takes him a really long time. About a minute into a really good but violent and destructive car chase through Berlin, replete with fancy stunt driving, I figured out that Neeson was not really a botanist. He didn't find out for another 15 or 20 minutes.

There is one moment of really good production design -- a cat and mouse scene in an art gallery filled with life-size photo portraits. Hitchcock would have known how to use the contrast between the real people and the images of people and the idea that the characters are presenting false images of themselves. Collet-Serra fumbles it.

Also, a filmmaker should have more respect for Frank Langella. He shows up, has a too-short scene with Bruno Ganz, delivers some information, half of which we had guessed, and then dies. That's a waste. You could get Dylan Baker or somebody to do that.

One innovation. You know that cliche where someone is trying to defuse a bomb, racing against time as the readout counts backward? And you know how they always finally succeed at the last moment? They don't do that here. It's almost worth seeing the whole movie.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Side by side by 'Scope

Here it is September, and I'm still catching up with the last few Academy nominees for last year; specifically Mike Leigh's Another Year (2010), which was nominated for screenplay, which is ironic given Mr. Leigh's modus. Reportedly, he works with a group of actors around some characters and themes he is interested in. After a few months of improvisation, he goes away and writes a complete script based on that work. So in a way, Mr. Leigh partakes of a committee-type writing procedure, even within an Art tradition.

A few disjointed observations. The critical consensus was that this film was about class. Perhaps that is a British perspective, because I don't see a disparity in income as synonymous with membership in a different class. One can be part of the managerial-professional class without being particularly well-heeled. Class is substantially, if not primarily, a matter of self-identification. And the major characters in this film are all middle-class in outlook, even if some of them are skint. There are no laborers and no aristocrats to be found.

The film is not so much about the unequal distribution of money so much as it is about the unequal distribution of happiness and how people choose to deal with it. Some writers have found the central couple played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen to be smug and self-satisfied, whereas I think they are simply comfortable with themselves, a trait many people are not familiar with, and therefore find strange.

But to my mind, the film is structurally flawed at its heart, perhaps due to the quality of those afore-mentioned improvisations. It seems as though the film was meant to be an ensemble piece, not perhaps full-on Altmanesque, but a widely distributed set of storylines revolving around a theme, rather than the usual toolbox of suspense and melodrama. But Leslie Manville's Mary (seen in the clip) above and her desperation to belong and to be loved hijacks the film, sucking the energy out of every other corner of the film. This includes the sequence that should have been the highlight, wherein Broadbent goes to help his older brother bury the brother's wife, a procedure interrupted by a bitter, estranged son. But the incident feels isolated and without resonance, and Broadbent's brother becomes significant to the film only because of his brief awkward scene with Manville. Even Broadbent struggles to remain at the center of what was supposed to be his own vehicle.

I love Cinemascope ratio, described variously as 2.35, 2.39 and 2.40. Doesn't matter much. It seems to me to be made to show two or even three people sitting side by side. Academy ratio is for isolated stars, or perhaps two stars in tight embrace. But 'Scope lets you see the space between people (or the lack thereof) and seems to me to be far more useful in storytelling. Throughout this film, Mary wants to be close to people who don't want to be close to her, and vice versa and 'Scope is the perfect vehicle for this trope.

One odd thing about Leigh's technique -- given that it is actor-based, one would expect long, uninterrupted takes. But I was not aware of long takes or gaps between cuts. Everything proceeds along relatively conventional lines. And thankfully Leigh does not indulge in the usual practice of American character-based filmmakers -- the long static shot of a character doing nothing. I never know what to do during those. They seem embarrassing. Leigh keeps his comedy of embarrassment on screen, among the characters, rather than between the characters and the audience. It's all part of being British, I suppose.

Pictures that move the viewer

About 20 years ago, the Japanese network NHK co-produced a great documentary about the history of cinematography called Visions of Light, primarily to demonstrate the quality of the high-definition television system NHK was developing. (Ironically, this film is not available in a high-def format, at least not in the US.) That film did more to change me from a movie fan to an analytical viewer of film than any book or college course. It was a powerful wake-up as to how important the actual images that make up a film are to the impact of the film and the significance of the cinematographer in the history of not just film style, but narrative itself.

Another film that performs a similar function IS available in high definition (which is the way I saw it on Netflix) is Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010). As the photographer of Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and African Queen, Cardiff is probably the first consistently great photographer in Technicolo(u)r. US studio technicians such as Leon Shamroy and Harold Rosson were very good, but they were primarily decorative. Cardiff's work is deeply expressive, and he became an indispensable collaborator with his directors (most famously Michael Powell).

I don't have a good clip to post for Cameraman with its marvelous mix of clips and interviews and especially Cardiff's incredible work as a painter. But here is an excerpt from Black Narcissus that demonstrates why his work with color as a storyteller has never been equaled to this day:

And if you want to see all of Black Narcissus or Camerman, they're both on Netflix streaming, so you could go there right now (as well as The Red Shoes and Cardiff's best film as a director, Sons and Lovers).

If they don't open your eyes as to what color CAN mean to film storytelling when it's not taken for granted, then you probably knew already.