Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Somebody get Aristotle in here for a rewrite"

As it happens, I am teaching bits of Aristotle's Poetics to my AP Literature class. A lot of it seems so elementary and self-evident, and yet apparently it isn't. For instance, Aristotle writes that a play is an imitation of an action. Not a person, not an idea, an action. Yet major expensive films omit that on a regular basis.

Take The Conspirator (2011), about the sham military trial and summary hanging of Mary Surratt, accused of being part of the Lincoln assassination conspiracy by virtue of being Southern, being related to one of the conspirators and of living among angry wounded people (Americans) desperately in need of scapegoats. Ignoring the prologue, which shows the various parts of the conspiracy in motion, at the outset of the story, Mary Surratt is going to be tried before a kangaroo court and be hanged. Not only do those facts never change, but the purported protagonist, Surratt's appointed lawyer never manages to change them. The second hour of the film runs out of narrative gas so badly that it repeats the same scene three or four times. Stanton tells Aiken nothing can be done. Seward tells Aiken nothing can be done. The other lawyers tell Aiken nothing can be done. Round and round the wheels spin, throwing up mud and going nowhere.

And then there is Dean Spanley (2008), which I will, exercising the utmost self-restraint, not describe as a shaggy-dog story, but which also would earn Aristotle's scorn. It also happens that I am teaching a creative writing course (yes, my teaching life is quite wonderful at the moment), and I am trying to hammer into the students the importance of making a timely promise to the reader (or audience) as to where the story is going to go. The classic rule in film is that by ten minutes in, you have to clue the audience in as to what the film is going to be about, what the objective is, what the conflict will be.

Dean Spanley lets an hour go by before it settles down and decides what story it wants to tell. It does have quite a touching and remarkable payoff, but not one worth that arid first hour. At least 45 minutes of the movie are engaged in pure misdirection, whether or not intentional it is hard to say. But it makes it hard to invest in the emotional stakes the film is really interested in. Once again, filmmakers have attempted to cram one hour's worth of story into two slam-bang hours of middle-aged men sipping liqueurs.

People, these are not just rules for their own sakes. Breaking the rules of screenplay structure has consequences! You're playing with fire! Or in the case of Dean Spanley, some rather tepid and dingy bathwater.
On more purely cinematic territory, why was everything in the past blurry, grainy and distorted in color? Was the air that different back when? This penchant, as displayed in The Conspirator for arty visual treatment to suggest earlier eras (it's even worse with future noir films) started, to my recollection, with The Godfather, which stood for the proposition that everything in the past used to be more yellow. That was bad, but it at least had to be planned in advance so that filters could be put on lenses. Now directors can decide in post-production that the whole world is topsy-turvy colorwise, which raises the question as to whether future cinematographers will need any competence at all, given that images can be reframed, objects added or removed and color timing completely reconfigured at will.

And are there no American actors other than Paul Giamatti (who seems particularly contemporary to me) who can portray people who lived long ago? Look at the picture at the top of this blog, and there is an Englishman facing off with a Scot, pretending to be 1865 Americans. I think SAG needs to step in here. (At least they got John Cullum, as authentic a Virginian as you can find anywhere, to play a Southerner.)

I think the English can share their objection, given that in Dean Spanley, English people are portrayed by Ozzies and Kiwis in a quite indiscriminate way. What next? Carmen sung by a soprano? Or a bass?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Hard as steel in Pittsburgh. And Cleveland.

This is from the opening sequence of Kill The Irishman (2011), a hard-nosed, hard-boiled, hard-knuckled semi-noir gangster picture set in, of all places Cleveland (because it is based on a true story that happened there). This is not an innovative or surprising movie. It has Paul Sorvino and Vincent D'Onofrio playing Italian mobsters, which is hardly a new idea. (I think you should be able to just buy ready-made clips of Paul Sorvino playing a big mafia don and just paste them into your movie without troubling Mr. Sorvino to come to your set or read your script, which seems hardly necessary in the circumstances.)

Irishman falls solidly in the category of "underdog union stiff who becomes union leader then becomes mad dog gangster who's nice to kids and old ladies." Jimmy Cagney would have been right at home here. But Cagney would also have to acknowledge that Ray Stevenson, who has been a big, solid, completely dependable, yet surprisingly nuanced actor in international film and television projects for a while is, in this film at least, a big fat movie star. He is utterly riveting, and makes all the contradictory parts of the character fit together. (Speaking of big and fat, Val Kilmer is becoming frightening. Doesn't he have any friends or family who will tell him what is happening to him? He is becoming so puffy, he is losing control of the facial muscles required for acting.)

Here's what you need to know about Kill the Irishman: a lot of big guys hit each other in the face hard, and an incredible number of bombs go off. Mostly car bombs (one of which provides Christopher Walken with perhaps his best movie death ever), but at one point the baddies take an entire house out. And as best as I can tell, it's neither a miniature, nor CG. This relatively low-budget movie blows a real house up. Or down, as the case may be. It's worth the price of admission. Other than the lack of nudity, Joe Bob Briggs would LOVE this movie. I appreciate that it stays hard and tough straight to the end. They don't round the edges off the protagonist, Danny Greene, nor even elevate him to a tragic hero. He gets a lot of people blown up until someone blows him up. To me, movie-wise, that's money in the bank.

Speaking of money in the bank, that's on the mind of Russell Crowe in The Next Three Days (2010), who, in one of the best sequences, does not rob a bank. Yes, yes, I know, the movies are filled with scenes of people not robbing banks. But this one is really fine, especially since there is not one word of dialogue about anybody robbing a bank. But his decision, his plan, and his reconsideration of that plan are all conveyed without a word. Bravo, director Paul Haggis, who as a writer, would have been expected to spew words at such an important point, only Mr. Haggis seems to understand how movies work.

No, I don't buy that Pittsburgh community college teacher Crowe can suddenly become a resourceful, lightning-reflexed commando-spy as he rescues his wife from a life sentence for murder. No, the idea that a couple running from the law would take along their 6-year-old child is a bit of a strain. And using Liam Neeson in a single scene to deliver some exposition is both insulting and a waste of natural resources. But the movie goes at a good clip, especially in the second half and Russell Crowe has the movie-star gift of being able to clearly represent what he is thinking without a word or a gesture, which is useful because the story does not give him anyone he can share his plans with (a pretty bold choice in itself). Much of the fun of the first half is just wondering, "what the devil is he doing that for?" and awaiting the pay-off you know, given the iron laws of film narrative, will be coming.

Here's another thing to like: Elizabeth Banks really seems as though she would be worth it. If your choice was whether or not to break the law, risk life and limb and go into permanent exile in order to save say, Sandra Bullock or even Katherine Heigl, from an unjust punishment, you might have to give it some thought. Maybe it's just me (and I don't even care for blondes much), but Elizabeth Banks, who has been such a loyal buddy in all those Judd Apatow movies, seems worth the risk. And I don't think that's a little thing, as movies go.

I do wish the movie had given us a more interesting head cop to chase Crowe, although perhaps casting a star in that role would have been cliche, and, with an ensemble of unknowns one can enjoy the illusion that these somewhat bumbling cops are a long-standing team who really know each other. Brian Dennehy, the tight-lipped father of the tight-lipped Crowe (good thing these actors are not paid by the word), has, unlike the universe, stopped expanding, and now looks ill, for the opposite reason that he used to look ill. Perhaps a completely healthy-looking Dennehy would be disturbing.

Neither film was very successful. I suspect Kill The Irishman didn't get the marketing to overcome the fact that it's star is not yet established as a leading man and the true story it is based on is neither well known, startling or heart-warming. The wrap-up of The Next Three Days was probably unsatisfying for American audiences; it is established that one smart cop has figured out what really happened and that Elizabeth Banks is innocent, but he fails to uncover the exculpatory evidence which is indeed yet to be found and we presume that Crowe, Banks and son will be forever on the run, which is sad-making for most people.

But they are both kick-ass movies that move and keep moving for most of their running times, and better yet, both feature generous authentic helpings of flyover country which is so rarely on display in mainstream American film. Maybe somehow people in the future will figure out that not everything in America happened in New York or Los Angeles.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Straw Dogs actually corresponds to its reputation

OK, if Straw Dogs (1971) is the basis of your argument that Sam Peckinpah was a poet of violence, I'll buy it. I've been hearing that for years about Peckinpah, and have been exploring his oeuvre in the hope of seeing some poetry, but instead there was mostly cheap titillation. Most repugnant of all is the endless, pointless and phony ketchup-fest at the end of The Wild Bunch which demonstrated nothing except that a 72-frame-per-second camera must never fall into the wrong hands. Such a sequence doesn't say anything about violence, except that it is just as boring as anything else when it goes on too long. (It doesn't help when it doesn't look or feel anything like real violence, which comes quickly and is shocking, not balletic.)

As advertised, Straw Dogs is truly about the horribly corrosive effect violence has on the human psyche. It is not a veiled soft-porn advertisement for violence, tut-tutting while showing even more (shocking!) examples. The violence in Straw Dogs is really awful and awfully real.

Some surprises. Straw Dogs is best example of a theatrical use of mise en scene outside the work of Sidney Lumet. At least half of the film takes place in the living room (or parlor) space seen in the clip above, yet without one repeated angle, and throughout a clear sense of how stifling and confining that space is. In addition to the brittle, virtually non-sequitur dialogue between the Dustin Hoffman character and his wife, played by Susan George, Peckinpah shoots and cuts the scenes so as to emphasize the awkwardness, the sense of disconnect between them. Like most really good dialogue cutters, Peckinpah spends more time on the listeners than the speakers. (Is there anything more amateurish than a scene made of alternating one-shots of people talking?)

It is easy to see today that audiences were misled by the casting of Dustin Hoffman in 1971, who was not only the best-known name in the cast (he still is, but he is no longer a superstar, and seems relieved about that), but had a profile as a loveable schlep. Even Ratso Rizzo, greasy and whiny as he is, is non-threatening and is capable of earning deep affection. But he is the villain of Straw Dogs, more than the local bullies who threaten him. Narcisstic and casually cruel, the story pushes him past his everyday psychological sadism into actual physical cruelty, revealing his true nature. Critics in the past thought Peckinpah was advocating this liberation of the male psyche through violence, whereas he is simply stating an unpleasant fact. Absent all other factors, men seek conflict, and do not feel the conflict is satisfied except through violent action.

This is hardly a radical formulation. John Ford, the great Classicist of American film built most of his Westerns, including My Darling Clementine and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on this idea, and his great romantic comedy The Quiet Man is about a man learning, with some difficulty, that there is another approach to life. Yet no one accuses Ford of glorying in violence.

It's true that Peckinpah is never as clear about this in his other films as he is in Straw Dogs. Many others, including The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett could, looked at superficially, be accused of violence porn. But I don't know how Peckinpah could be any clearer about his point than he is in Straw Dogs, other than to have Alexander Scourby come out at the end and say, "You see, folks, violence is very bad. Don't settle your troubles with violence, lest you reveal the hollowness in the center of your blasted, benighted souls, you bottom-feeding scum." But then, the people who seemed to be confused 40 years ago were professional critics, and as William Goldman said, with cruelty and truth, criticism could not occupy a first-rate mind for ten minutes.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Snazzy modernist house built on smelly dump

If you're going to have a cool shiny sci-fi premise and shoot it all Matrix-y and Fight Club-y, you ought to try and have a halfway-decent premise, not a tired old canard of an excuse. I'm talking about the discredited idea that one only uses 10% of one's brain, and that the other 90% is not available to us. (This doesn't make sense even on its own terms, without trying to prove or disprove it. Why an organism evolve so as to have 1000% of necessary brain capacity?)

The film gets worse from there. First, the hero is going to do a lot of despicable things, so it is necessary to get an actor who is handsome and charming. Instead, they got lizard face sleazeball Bradley Cooper, who looks a comedy group's version of a leading man, not a real leading man. And he has all the charm of the guy who used to stand behind and to the right of the guy in high school who gave nerds swirleys. He is a complete nonentity who the studios are trying to promote into a star the way they tried with Bill Paxton 15 years ago. Notice how people swarm to Bill Paxton movies? These actors are just ciphers that directors plug into roles so as not to upstage those directors and their schmancy tricks.

The picture quickly lurches into a ramshackle remake of X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes, which is to receive an official remake next year; that is, a medical breakthrough gives the protagonist extraordinary powers at a greater and greater cost to his mental and physical health. Unfortunately, Limitless, being a 2011 movie has to have a "happy" ending, requiring it to twist itself into knots and negate its own story.

And it seems Robert DeNiro has decided to emulate his role model, Marlon Brando, picking up easy money by sleepwalking through parts for which he is miscast for films seeking names, whether or not those names fit the story or the role.

Sorry if this post is more judgmental than I like to be, and less observational, but the only thing to observe is the cynical, mechanical way a project like this is put together. That is, not created, but "put together" like a Chevy or a Frankenstein monster.

Monday, October 3, 2011

McCarthy pulls the hat trick

With Win Win (2011) co-writer-director Tom McCarthy has pulled the filmmaking hat trick and dodged the sophomore, or any other slump. If he decides to release home videos of his cat next year, I will go.

As has been my habit recently, a few disconnected observations:

Paul Giamatti is especially good at two modes: the guy who is already exasperated at what you're about to say -- he uses that for his villains and for John Adams; and the guy who knows he's going to be found out, and that it's too late to do anything but wait for it all to come down on him. He employs the latter in Win Win.

I am prejudiced toward any movie not set in New York, Los Angeles or shot in Toronto or Vancouver pretending to be New York or Los Angeles. By the way, I've seen a number of films set in Montreal, but has there ever been a film shot in Toronto which was set in Toronto? Anyway, it made me said that Long Island had to stand in for New Jersey. Still, there's a way that our houses and streets are set in this part of country that we don't generally see in the movies, something that almost screams, "this is not a movie, this is really happening." I know it isn't, but I like the illusion that it is.

McCarthy has achieved the rare accomplishment of placing a "gun in the drawer in the first act" and never pulling it out again, in violation of all conventions of play- and screenwriting. I refer to the threatening furnance in the basement. Maybe it should have its own movie (a horror film, of course).

I'm in favor of more films about high school wrestling. The more we can divorce wrestling from the trashmouth vaudeville they have on TV, the better. But it makes no sense that the leading character, played by Alex Shaffer, an excellent wrestler who plays an excellent wrestler, claims to wrestle as if he were escaping something that was trapping him. Surely only us bad wrestlers (which includes me and the co-authors of the script of Win Win) felt that way. Good wrestlers seem to float over the surface of their opponents, as does Shaffer in this film.

Non-actors like Shaffer can only work on film next to great actors like Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan. A non-actor working alongside actors awash in artificial technique would seem too small, too understated and subject to criticism for not acting. But put an actor next to a Giamatti and the understatement will blend in seamlessly.

I can't wait for the doctoral theses soon to be produced about the "McCarthy trilogy." I just hope Mr. McCarthy never reads any of them.