Sunday, November 25, 2012

Looking for something different to watch with the kids?

This is a time of year when parents and children are watching TV together.  If you're feeling fed up with the same animation (especially Disney), and would like to share a very quirky original with your (hopefully) quirky children, here's a 1949 British adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with stop-motion animation by the Louis Bunin studio.  There is a live-action prologue, but it's not all that long, and it sets up a number of characters who re-appear in the story as in the MGM version of The Wizard of Oz. It is probably the most faithful version I've seen, both in incident, spirit and visual approach of the Lewis Carroll classic. It's the perfect family movie for weird families.  And the baby does make a very handsome pig.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A sharp veer to the left and straight off the cliff

I have just seen two films recently which, in a strange coincidence, both feature John Goodman and Melissa Leo (who played a couple in Treme) in separate storylines for which they share no scenes.  And both films start in one genre, suggest a certain layer of complexity which is never fulfilled, and then make a sharp 90-degree veer in a different direction, one with more success than the other.

Michael Parks and John Goodman talk theology.
The films are Red State (2011) and Flight (2012).  Both had wonderful marketing campaigns that were criminally misleading.  I have no idea why Red State was marketed as a horror film, which automatically put a lid on its earning potential, while at the same time directed it to the wrong audience, which rightly rejected it.  The fact is, that the first half-hour of the film trades on a premise which might also be used in a horror-film:  teenage boys lured by the promise of sex, but delivered to a very different and frightening fate -- some sort of unspecified harm by a bunch of Westboro Church-type evangelicals led by Michael Parks.  Except that that particular velvet glove not only lacked an iron fist, it lacked any content whatsoever.  The threat turned out to be utterly fake, and the film morphed into a satire of the inadequacy of government bureaucracy in the face of utter suicidal lunacy.

To Kevin Smith's credit, he started off with a cardboard political agenda which he is simply too good a writer to adhere to and -- perhaps unconsciously -- realizing that when he got there there was no there there, took off not so much for another target, but in favor of character over ideology.  He wanted to make fun of extremist evangelists, but he seems to have been distracted by the idea of some poor working stiff in the ATF having to sort out a potential Waco-type mess he wants no part of without it blowing up in his and everybody else's face.  It's this sort of thing that leads me to wonder if Kevin Smith ever writes second drafts, or whether -- given that it takes him years to get the energy to crank out a script -- he is satisfied with just getting something down on the page, then immediately dials up his production manager and starts perusing the craft services menu.  (Yes, I know that he raised the financing and distributed the film himself, so the process was a bit more complicated, but...)

Nonetheless, once you get past the tedious set up of the premise of the movie, with a long, redundant monologue by Michael Parks, the film centers around the always-satisfying John Goodman as a man in the middle, squeezed between doing the right thing and toeing the line with his superiors.  This is first-rate satire, but it lacks the time and scope to have enough weight to anchor the entire film.  Then Smith tosses in an anti-climax in which what sounds like The Rapture turns out to be some hippies teasing the evangelicals.  I say "tossed in" because what could have been an intriguing and funny scene is conveyed by some dialogue in a brief denouement scene.  (Plus Smith admitted it was added after the fact in his video Q&A, Kevin Smith: Burn in Hell.)  The result feels like an anthology of different films from different genres stitched together sequentially.  I don't know how Red State performed commercially, but I can't help but think that there must have been a LOT of disappointed horror fans.

Denzel got some explainin' to do.
When John Goodman appeared on screen in Flight (2012) a lot of the audience, including me, "ooh"-ed with the feeling of "Oh boy, this is going to be good."  We were also to be disappointed.  After a slam-bang initial half-hour of Washington performing an heroic landing of a wounded passenger plane while drunk and high, one looks forward to the story of transcendence and transfiguration promised by (a) the title of the film; (b) the spiritually suggestive trailers and television ads; and (c) Zemicki's work in Cast AwayForrest Gump and the failed by aspirational Contact.  No such luck.  John Goodman's role as Denzel's connection turns out to be dispiriting rather than energizing, and the rest of the film is a rehash of The Lost Weekend, Days of Wine and Roses, Clean and Sober, 28 Days and every other movie about a drunk trying and failing to clean up.  These stories are always repetitive -- they have to be if they're going to be realistic, but that doesn't make them any more fresh or insightful.  This is a movie without anything to recommend it other than Denzel's presence, albeit he doesn't have anything else to do.  And a movie that can waste Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Melissa Leo and a lot of less-famous but equally ill-used actors rates as a major waste of time for the audience and the filmmakers.

It would seem that would have been fairly easy to make a much better, much more original film.  And how disappointing that Denzel finally breaks away from the tedious potboilers he has given so much of his working life to (Safe House, Unstoppable, Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Inside Man), the result is still deja vu, just in a more exalted genre.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Found in America

Aladeen explains the fine points of the Bill of Rights to a NYC policeman
You knew as you were watching Sasha Baron Cohen's film Borat that, like Daffy Duck blowing himself up, it was a one-time only performance.  The film's very popularity would make it impossible for Cohen to slip invisibly into another identity with which to trap and trick people.

It turned out to both true and not, as people have short memories and Cohen has a very adaptable face.  Still he is never going to take America by surprise quite the same way again.  So he can hardly be faulted for taking the scripted route to pursue many of Borat's themes and tropes again in The Dictator (2012)   He can be faulted for adopting the hoary old substitute-the-double-for-the-king plot that goes back at least to The Prisoner of Zenda and never seems to stop being reworked.  You'd think monarchies would have the good sense by now to seek out all the perfect doubles that seem to riddle the earth and have them done away with to avoid problems.

Three other observations.  The female lead played by Anna Faris claims to have attended Amherst College.  This is impossible because (a) she is wearing the Mt. Holyoke College uniform (basically grunge drag) and (b) she pronounces the name of her school "Am-hhurst."  Even those who attend U Mass are aware that the "h" is not pronounced.

Second, what is there about comedies about dictators which calls for a speech late in the third act?  Chaplin's Great Dictator speech is (rightly) criticized for being overlong and unfocused.  Cohen avoids such problems and goes straight for the jugular.  Yet, though this is the sharpest humor in the film, it seems to go unnoticed amid the slapstick and buffoonery.

By definition the film can't be as outrageous as Borat but it almost makes up for it by incorporating a large cohort of sketch and stand-up comics, probably the contribution of director Larry Charles, who is more likely to be plugged into American comedy circles.  Aasif Mandavi, Rizwan Manji, Horatio Sanz, Chris Parnell, Jessica St. Clair, Chris Gethard, Fred Armisen, Chris Elliot, Jon Glaser, Bobby Lee, Joey Slotnick, J.B. Smoove, Kathryn Hahn, Seth Morris, Nasim Pedrad, Ed Norton, B.J. Novak, Jim Piddock, John C. Reilly and Gary Shandling all have walk-ins and sometimes quite a bit more in this film.

It really suggests that what Cohen and Charles should be reworking instead of Zenda is an all-star comedy extravaganza along the lines of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

GUEST BLOGGER: Why I Will Never Think Pink

This post is by a suspiciously similarly-named author, Samantha Lockhart, 2010 graduate of the College of William and Mary, environmental activist and organizer and former member of my household.  Following are her thoughts on a childhood favorite, the Fred Astaire - Audrey Hepburn musical  Funny Face (1957).

Contrasting career choices in Funny Face

It is a special experience to rewatch a film that was a favorite as a child, but which you have rarely seen since.  It brings this feeling of comfortable familiarity – like you both know and don’t know what’s about to happen next.  Like having a recurring dream or watching a new M. Night Shyamalan movie.

Often, it means noticing things that you did not see as a child either because your innocence shielded you from it, or simply because you could not have gotten the reference without the social vocabulary that only a liberal arts education can provide.  But for me, and others like me, who grew up watching movies all the time; for those that were raised in part by film and whose life was chronicled in large part by the movies that populated each phase – rewatching these formative movies means so much more.  It’s like finding the pieces of the puzzle that make you who you are today.  Suddenly, you make sense to yourself in some small but important manner.  Like tracing your heritage and discovering your ancestral routes, it is an exercise which can help to show a clearer roadmap that has somehow helped determine fundamental things about the course of your life, your ambitions and your dreams.

Some of this has always been obvious to me, because the watching coincided so closely with my own consciousness of growing-up and self-discovery.  I always knew that The West Wing was a huge part of why I was interested in politics.  That was never a mystery that needed solving, that puzzle piece always fit for me squarely on Wednesday evenings at 9pm on NBC from ages 11 to 17.  But the stuff I watched when I was far too young to notice its impact or to remember it – rewatching those films can be incredibly revealing.  Sometimes it’s in small ways, like realizing that the reason that every time I have only one high heel on, I have the urge to say “Look! I was born on the side of a hill” has something to do with Bringing Up Baby or that every time I wish I was invisible I still shimmy goofily with my arms up because of Time of Their Lives.  But sometimes, the marks that these films leave can reveal themselves to be oddly profound.

Funny Face was one of my favorite movies as a kid, before Fred Astaire’s complete lack of sex appeal bothered to detract from the romance of it.  I remembered most vividly how stunningly beautiful the film is, filled with soft lighting contrasted with sharp, vivid colors that frame Audrey’s stunning face – the true star of the film, but somehow I had forgotten almost everything else. Yet as I watched it, somehow I found myself knowing every word.  One of the tests out there of whether a film has a feminist edge is whether two women ever have a conversation about something other than a man.  Well, Funny Face opens with a scene from a powerful, smart, sophisticated female editor of a major magazine talking to her staff of smart women. True, they’re talking about the color pink, but somehow it doesn’t matter.

And the opening number "Think Pink" ends with an hilarious and somewhat empowering moment in which someone asks the fashion editor, Maggie, why she is the only one not in pink, to which she replies “I wouldn’t be caught dead” and walks away in a chic gray suit.  What I love about this is that Maggie is admitting that she is a marketing genius who has manipulated women across the country to like whatever she tells them to like. Right off the bat, this character means more to me than I ever recognized at the time.  Her success is not tied to a man, she is decisive, smart, elegant, sophisticated, wise – and she refuses to wear pink.  I have obstinately refused to wear pink since the age of 4.  I have always associated it with profound mediocrity.  I am obsessed with black and grey. Maggie is extraordinary, and she would not be caught dead.

Jo – a boy’s shortening of what is assumed to be a longer girl’s name (Joanne? Josephine?), much like mine – Sam - is smart and never thinks of herself as being beautiful.  She finds fashion and modeling trivial and stupid.  I was a very cute kid.  I was more than cute – I was a stunning little girl.  I’m not saying that to be obnoxious, it’s just true.  I don’t think I measure up now nearly as well.  At the age of four of five, however, I could barely go anywhere without someone asking my parents if I was interested in modeling to which I replied a vehement “NO.”  My mother was confused.  She had been a dancer and actress and occasional model, had no moral objection to the venture that she could have passed onto her young daughter.  My parents were in financial straits and a little modeling money probably would not have hurt, but no one was going to make me do anything I didn’t’ want to do and I did NOT want to model. I perceived modeling as being trivial and stupid.  Of course, I believe that I was too young to appreciate the emotional transformation that Jo undergoes, feeling by the end of the film that modeling could be art, could be glamorous, could help her find the man she loves and could get her a ticket to fulfill her philosophic dreams.  HOWEVER, I do think that I picked up on some other things about Jo.

Sticking to your guns
For one thing – Jo has very strong principles that center around this concept of empathy.  She works in a bookstore in Greenwich Village and worships a philosopher in France.  Though she finds herself falling in love with drama and glamour of the fashion world through Dick, she does not lose herself to it.  Dick believes that once she has fallen in love with him, it means he “has” her.  She has entered his world and left her own.  She does not see it this way and gets angry with him, essentially ending the relationship by saying that they are “too fundamentally different” to be together.  She talks a lot about the importance of her principles which Dick seems to make fun of.  She is willing to give up on her budding relationship before she would give up on what she believes in.  I think this lesson hit home with me and has given me solid footing on the otherwise rocky terrain of love. 

Don’t Rescue Me
Dick’s condescending insistence that he knows better serves only to anger Jo.  Rather than let him fight her battles, she fights her own.  From getting the last word (or dance) in the café following Dick’s attempts to embarrass her to hitting Professor Flostre over the head with a statue – she can take care of herself. I’ve always been a fan of fighting my own battles, paying my own way, and living my own life and was known to yell at Gaston during Beauty and the Beast “When a lady says NO, she meeeaaans NO!”  And while studying abroad in India during college, threatened and shouted obscenities at the Indian men who made lude assumptions about Western Women.

Ya gotta be happy.
But the final and perhaps most important lesson from Funny Face  is “On how to be lovely, you gotta be happy.”  This marks the second time in the film in which women interact together in a burst of YaYa level female empowerment!  Maggie, the magazine editor, teaches Jo how to talk to the press about herself and provides a significant lesson.  In order to be beautiful, like Audrey Hepburn, you have to be joyful.  I have finally learned that my overwhelmingly positive and unflinchingly optimistic disposition can all be traced back to a profound and fundamental vanity. 

Of course – I see in this film what I believe I saw then at age four or five.  I am following the interpretation that seems most familiar to me, like finding your way home when lost based on sheer instinct.  Were I to watch this film with completely fresh eyes, I may also point out that Dick is incredibly condescending about Jo’s philosophy and even says of Flostre “he has as much interest in your intelligence as I have” indicating, of course, very little.  Yet Jo, this incredibly beautiful, young, brilliant, principled, woman still ends up with Dick – the condescending photographer with no interest in her intelligence.  I could note that while Maggie is a successful female figure, she also appears to be unmarried and after all, is successful in the field of “fashion” – one typically assigned to women anyway.  I could choose to highlight that Professor Flostre does turn out to be a fraud and only after Jo for romantic reasons, as if to indicate that Dick was right all along and all Jo needed was a good man to show her the way. 

So perhaps it is a chicken and egg situation – maybe I was always a strong and principled girl and the parts of this film that spoke to that in me were the ones that I chose to listen to. But whether it was me looking for a story and  female figures to help more sharply define characteristics I already had or it was me building myself from scratch from the lessons taught by these films, it hardly seems to matter.  Either way, I hate pink.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Way out there in the blue

Looks like Scar had a white daddy, or at least grandpaw...

This blog has been quiet for a while, partly because I've been preoccupied with launching a new film-oriented course, that is, Social Justice and the Media.  This week, we've just finished looking at The Searchers (1956) and I assigned my students to write a reflection on how a visual device or idea is used to support or explicate a theme in the film.  These sorts of ideas are new to my students, so I created a model, and although The Searchers is one of the most written-about films ever mind, I thought I'd share my hair-brained little ideas with you, my friends here.

The overriding theme of The Searchers is a racism which accepts without discussion that European whites and Native North Americans cannot co-exist on the same vast continent, let alone the same home and hearth. (This belief proceeds from both sides.)  The separation among them must be absolute, and any suggestion of crossing the line between those groups brings expressions of anger, contempt and disgrace.

But five characters are bound together visually by their distinctly blue eyes, which “pop” in the bright color process of the mid-1950s – the eyes of Ethan, the angry hater; of Martin Pawley, the “half-breed”; of Laurie, Martin’s probable bride, who turns out to be an unthinking racist and therefore more worthy of contempt than Ethan’s knowledgeable fear and loathing; of Debbie, Ethan’s niece, who might have been and might actually be Ethan’s daughter and the eyes of Scar, killer of Debbie’s family and possibly her husband. The suggestion is that Scar himself may have been the result of miscegenation, bringing further contempt from Ethan’s burning eyes. Their can be no question that director John Ford chose to use a non-Native actor not just because he didn't know any Native actors who were right for the part, but because he wanted those blue eyes and almost Aryan appearance. And in the final analysis, these characters form a strange family-- uncle/father – son – bride – husband, each connected to all, directly or indirectly.

Moreover, the blue of those characters' eyes are mirrored by the bright blue Western sky under which so much of the action takes place; even though the events are dark and the seasons are varied, the blue sky remains a near-constant from first shot to last. (Even the winter scenes and night scenes are played in shades of blue.) Thus, blue becomes the color that unites and embraces the universe of The Searchers, and while Ethan begins the film in a red shirt of anger, at the end,wearing a deep blue tunic, he lifts up his niece/daughter, clad in a long skirt of blue (or perhaps that is the blue blanket Marty wrapped her in); the blue of loving eyes, of the long horizon into the future, of the harmony of creation itself, sky and sea, embracing all living things.  

A bit grandiose, perhaps, but the more you watch The Searchers, the more you see the balances and resonances in it.  Time with this film is never wasted.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Roots of evil

You'll shoot your sister's eye out,  kid.
Finally, someone has made a good film inspired by Columbine, although We Need To Talk About Kevin (2012) is not about Columbine, nor, for that matter is Beautiful Boy (2010). Still, neither film would have been made but for that atrocity.  And the existence of both films illuminates the difference between solid professional craftsmanship and genuine art.

The central question of any such "Bad Seed" movie is whether evil proceeds from the parent, even at a distant, or whether it springs forth spontaneously in a given generation, leaving the parents and other ancestors scratching their heads, attributing evil to random, mutation, the malevolence of a fallen angel or perhaps God's own perversity.

Beautiful Boy, as I would probably do myself, throws its hands in the air and humbly confesses that it has no answers on the subject.  Instead, it is the portrait of a marriage under severe stress.  At the beginning of the film, the stress fractures are already evident, buttoned-up husband Michael Sheen has already asked wife Maria Bello for a divorce and the news that the couple's son has perpetrated a Virginia Tech-type attack seems likely to be fatal to the relationship.  Perversely, they are brought together by the stresses, especially the shunning and vituperation arriving at their doorstep as though they were collaborators in their son's terrible act.

The film's highlight is an acting dual tour de force when the couple has retreated to the anonymous safety of a motel to avoid the scrutiny and hatred of the mob and they pass through a cathartic variety of contributions, including moments of intimacy just short of those in Blue Valentine, and to similarly devastating effect.

But fine work as it is, the film is ultimately a doughnut, circling around its subject, but leaving a hole where there should be drama, or at very least reflection by the characters.   No attempt is made to show any connection between what the parents may have said or done at any time and their son's shooting spree.  It is perhaps meant to be ironic and telling that the final phone conversation with the son, shown in flashback, is mundane, if a bit distant, but in any event contains no foreshadowing of horror to come.  But it raises the question of why the filmmakers designed a story with a central impetus they are unwilling to examine anyway.  To say, "nobody knows where evil comes from" is a cop-out.  If that is so, why make a film about it?

The makers of We Have To Talk About Kevin had no such shyness, and the world was presumably forewarned, as the film is based on a widely-praised novel.  Irony is still on display, as the one thing nobody ever does is talk about Kevin, who really should have been talked about.  He is a Bad Seed, different from previous bad seeds in movie only for the plausibility of his evil, given both the story's less melodramatic scale and tone (compared to, say The Bad Seed, The Omen and similar titles) and by the horrific events of the last dozen years or so, which suggest a persistent subterranean collective psychosis among the nation's young.

Kevin is not afraid to stare into the abyss, at least in the person of his mother, played by the fearless, if not reckless, Tilda Swinton, whose character never wanted a child and resents the obligations of motherhood from the start.  The child's apparent psychopathology emerges as both a judgment on and a product of her indifferent child-rearing.  Honestly, when have the movies given us a bad mother who wasn't a Southern Gothic clown, or a straight-ahead Bad Witch?

The truth is that Kevin's evil stems directly from his desire to irritate and punish his mother, and whether that is cause or effect of her bad mothering is not clear.  And so, when he is incarcerated and robbed of power, she can love him, in one of the eeriest denouements in all of Bad Seed Cinema.

Other writers have pointed out Kevin's most striking cinematic accomplishment, the recasting of the novel's epistolary narrative structure (presumably by writer-director Lynne Ramsay) into a mosaic of flash-forward-and-backs into what is obviously a very carefully designed warp and woof of spiritual horror.  Color, especially red, is used to make connections between distant times and places.  (These places include a very confusing opening montage--I learned by reading online that what is being depicted is a tomato festival that is a cross between the running of the bull sin Pamplona and the Indian festival of Holi, when color is thrown at any and all persons.  It does show Kevin's future mother as a free spirit, but in my case, I had to seek outside help to decipher that sequence, which is not a good thing.)  The resulting cacophony of visual information is perhaps a better, deeper insight into Kevin's mother's mind than the novel's letters may have been -- the memory of images, after all, are pre-conscious, lacking the deliberation of a composed letter.

And Swinton seems to be redefining film acting over and over again.  It seems no accident that she resembles Buster Keaton, who inhabited film more than he appeared in it.  the same might be said for Swinton, who seems to work without self-awareness or self-consciousness, indifferent as to whether or not her character is sympathetic.  Like Keaton, the blanker she is, the better she is.  Wise is the filmmaker who eschews the condescending clarity of melodrama and leaves space for her audience.  OK, Ms. Ramsay, you go on the list.  I'm down for wherever you want to take me.

Still, the greatest Bad Seed film may still, however, be World's Greatest Dad, which truly comes to grips with the awfulness and spiritual void of parenting a truly terrible person and which, black comedy though it be, explores the lengths to which such a parent will go to seek solace for the consequences of their own unintended and perhaps even nonexistent crimes as parents.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Clowns in my coffee, clowns in my coffee

Kevin explains it's all part of a cosmic pattern and it is.
Jeff, Who Lives At Home (2012) is part of the subcategory of Shaggy Dog Stories in which everything takes place on one magical day after which Nothing Is The Same.  Such conceits carry a high component of whimsy (and as Groucho said when told he was full of whimsy, "Can you tell from over there?") but that is somewhat familiar country for the Duplass brothers, as is stories about battling brothers in different places in their lives and the struggle for meaning and purpose.

But Jeff pulls off a neat trick which I can only analogize to Hitchcock's feat of switching audience sympathy from Norma Crane to Norman Bates in Psycho.  As the film starts, one gets the impression of a nascent stoner comedy, with Jason Segal, as Jeff,  trotting out his pathetic man-child yet again.  But he is not so pathetic as he is poetic.  He is part of the half of the human race which thinks everything makes sense cosmically and in the long run and that everything eventually connects.  I just have to point out that this is a natural bias for an author, who has the power to make his or her universe do just that thing, connect, make sense and explain itself.  I would advise authors subject to that trap to spend some time doing group improvisation, let go of the need for control and see what it does for their writing.

In the book of interviews Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock discusses his troubles with the part of the audience he calls the "plausibles."  He dismisses criticism about coincidence, asserting that life is full of coincidences, but rejects convenience, by which the creator makes things too easy on himself and gets the snake to swallow its own tail.  I can't accuse the Duplass Brothers of making things easy for Jeff, but they do permit some self-satisfaction on the basis of a single selfless and, indeed, heroic act which does not do a thing to address the serious problems in Jeff's life, and which in fact, he seems to use to justify his continued aimless existence.  Nonetheless, warm fuzzies all around.

And speaking of coincidence, a man was fished out of his car the very day in the very city I saw this film.  As that provided no benefit to me, I guess Hitchcock was right.  Coincidental, but not convenient.

It is interesting to see the way artists like Les Freres Duplass can enter the mainstream partly because the type of actors they need to execute their ideas, actors like Jason Segal, Jonah Hill, Ed Helms and John C. Reilly are available and bankable (at least for Duplass-level budgets).  A nice case of artistic temperament meeting the zeitgeist.

Speaking of the zeitgeist, can we put to bed, the term "mumblecore."  All it means is a low-budget film which is dialogue based.  That defines at least 80% of low-budget films, because the cheapest thing in the world to shoot (and safest) is people talking to each other.  Untrained actors often don't have the most distinct diction, just like actual humans.  And maybe if film writers stop using the term mumblecore, the Duplasses will no longer feel obligated to fool around with the zoom on the camera constantly.  In at least one case in the film, the zoom felt like a "meta" comment on what was happening, like Jimmy Finlayson swinging his head around in a big vaudeville doubletake in a Laurel and Hardy movie.  This zooming doesn't make the film feel natural, it feels just the opposite, constantly saying to the viewer, "Don't get involved, don't get attached.  This is just a movie, it's all fake."

I direct plays with novice actors and I have to teach them that one of the most unnatural-feeling postures on stage, standing straight with your arms at your side looks the most natural on stage, far better than folding one's arms or clasping hands.  Try it.  Try standing with your arms hanging straight down and doing nothing.  Feels weird, right?  Doesn't look weird.  So in film, it seems artificial to take a camera, pick an angle and plonk the camera down on a tripod and leave it alone.  Almost theatrical, setting a frame around the actors and events.  But on screen, it looks natural, just as cutting between opposite angles looks natural.  Perhaps we've grown accustomed to these conventions, or they are inherently natural, but they pass by our eyes without objection or comment.  Shooting hand-held, whipping the camera around to catch the action and fiddling with the zoom and focus ARE natural, but LOOk unnatural.  So, Duplasses, your next movie, however low the budget, get a tripod.  People will start treating you like grown-ups.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Who is this movie for?

Like it or be indifferent to it (it's hard to hate something so deliberately dopey), the stage musical Rock of Ages knew exactly what it intended and who it was intended for.  It was Mamma Mia for the hair rock crowd, with a borrowed and indifferent plot linking a bunch of familiar hits perfectly suited for singing along, awash in middle-aged nostalgia.  The young people in the story served as surrogates for the audience, who was young 25 and 30 years ago, and the older characters were figures of fun.

The film of Rock of Ages (2012) does not seem to have such certainty.  Whereas people could attach themselves to the abstract surrogates of the young lovers in the stage version, film is always more specific, and the young people are no longer substitutes for the audience, but other, recognizable actors.  (Julianne Hough, specifically is now a veteran of Burlesque and Footloose and better get a job in a non-musical before she becomes unemployable).  We see, in full-color close-up, how young and fresh-faced these kids and they are no longer us.  Now we are the oldsters -- we are burnout Alec Baldwin or trying-to-reclaim-lost-glory Tom Cruise.  Both give superb performances, and both remind us, through their own appearances and our shared history with them, that we are old.  And nobody pays $12 to be reminded that they are older than they ever meant to be.

The other interesting question about the film (and there aren't many) is its narrative conventions.  Traditionally, music in musicals, as derived from the stage took part in the theatrical convention that snogs were heightened speech and that they were experienced by both the singer and the hearer as a heightened experience, but not necessarily as a song.  Song was a conventionalized special type of speech, akin to a character in verse drama launching into a long poetic flight.  The other characters may have felt the thoughts and emotions of the person speaking or singing, but they did not think "Hey- that was a good song" or "Hey - that was a purty poem."  Musicals took place in a parallel universe, or more accurately through a special musical prism which refracted high emotion in the form of music.

One day that convention started to make people uncomfortable.  Who is to say why conventions go in and out of style.  Film is riddled with them, but only some of them are apparent to most viewers.  They are acutely aware of, for instance, narrative cliche, but they refuse to notice that film is made out of bits and pieces of moving images which could not have been captured sequentially in continuous time and do not resemble the way we experience the real world in any way.  (This is excluding long boring art films shot with stationary cameras.)  One set of conventions infuriates people, and others are completely invisible to them.

A-ny-way, people started to think it was funny when film characters began to break into song, presumably because the space they occupy, both in the actual world and in the apparent film world, seemed more "real" to them than the more explicitly symbolic theater.  "People don't really do that."  (Presumably they do engage in high-volume gun battles in the street which have no casualties except for the Bad Guys -- I mean, nobody complains that action films are unrealistic, whereas they are just as stylized as any musical.)  So, since 1972 when Bob Fosse adapted the Broadway show Cabaret in such a way that all the music was what film professors call "diagetic", meaning that the songs are taking place in the world which the characters occupy in the rest of the film, musicals have adopted one of two pretexts for a musical number: (a) that people are performing right here and now in a conventional performance context and that the people present can hear them and are enjoying ; and (b) that the musical number is a sort of fantasy which is only being experienced by the person imagining this musical number.

Some films and shows have it both ways.  Chicago had them both ways at once, in which the events of the character's "real" life were re-imagined by her as performance numbers.  Thus, the songs could be strikingly specific to the story situation, more so than a real performance number would be, and their unreality could be shrugged off as being part of the performance context.

The television show Glee apparently alternates among the conventions.  Mostly, we see the eager children bursting to perform their heartfelt songs which are so coincidentally related to the story situation.   Often the realistic performance context (kids in school clothes in a schoolroom) gives way to an elaborately costumed and staged performance (not to mention processed, compressed and AutoTuned to a fare-the-well).  Since it would be ridiculous to imagine such complex performances being prepared on a weekly basis by high school kids in suburban Ohio, one must presume that the schmancy versions of these songs constitute the children's fantasy of what their number feels like, just the way Snoopy imagines that he really is a World War I flying ace or the way I imagine it's important to maintain this blog.

The other principal use of song in Glee is as inner monologue, as a reflection of a character's inner state.  Traditional theater musicals do this as well, in songs "in one", meaning all the way downstage, with the performer relating directly to the audience.  Dramatically speaking, a play need never define or decide whether this singing is "really" happening.  When Billy Bigelow imagines life with his son -- or his daughter -- in the Soliloquy from Carousel (Hammerstein borrowed the term straight from classical theater), it all takes place in a half-world in which a character sings out loud and strangers seated in front of him hear him and respond and react.  And he is allowed to acknowledge their presence.

Film has no such luxury.  When it does attempt to acknowledge the audience it comes over "theater-y" and stiff.  Buster Keaton was right to rap his knuckles on the glass of the camera lens.  There is a permanent barrier between actor and audience in film, and not just of the lens, but of place and time.  We live in two different "now"s and never the twain shall meet.  So film usually emulates Olivier's Hamlet, beginning the sung monologue with a close-up on the face which is thinking these thoughts.  From time to time the lips may move in synchronization with the music, but they may stop doing so.  Performance energy, which is central to the stage musical, is unnecessary and irrelevant on film.  That energy is provided by camera movement, dynamic staging and editing, rather than the performer's sweat and tears.

Rock of Ages plays it both ways, and the audience's easy acceptance of these two different and perhaps even contradictory conventions of song in narrative may mean that we are finally relaxed about musicals and can accept their artificial interludes in the same way as a kung fu fight, a car chase and other such entertainment elements in the types of films which are put together like fruitcakes; an often undigestible cake which can be tolerated for the periodic bits of candied fruit which are the cake's "raisin d'etre." (Pun intended, so don't e-mail me about misspelling.)

On the other hand, given Rock of Ages's difficulty in finding its audience, perhaps its reception in the theater, positive though it was, is not a significant indicator of anything.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

What is left unsaid

It is fascinating to see film writers go after what they consider implausible in the couples-counseling-comedy Hope Springs (2012), a procedure they would never consider undertaking for, say, the latest installment of the Batman franchise.  That is because they think that movies obey different rules according to genre, but the fact is that all narrative adheres to the rules of narrative, and genre merely denotes the existence of conventions, merely a framework of expectations between audience and filmmakers, not a genuine difference in the rules of storytelling.  So it is not necessary to debate the real-world plausibility of this kind of film, but merely examine its consistency according to the rules it sets up for itself.  But because Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones do not dress up in black rubber suits and ride in a jet-powered automobile, the critics seem to expect Hope Springs to be some sort of documentary, rather than an entertainment.  

What is remarkable about a film driven by its script and acting is what it accomplishes by non-verbal means, and by that I don't mean merely the panoply of grunts and shrugs that make up Tommy Lee Jones's performance.  Most especially there is the mise en scene, from the careful calibration of familiar middle-class locales--the home with too-large simulated antique furniture, the spare EconoLodge room, the fussy but delightful New Englande Inne, the spruced-up shabbiness of a New England town undergoing a mini-boom.  There is the extremely careful costume design by theater great Ann Roth, particularly for Meryl Streep's Kay, who nervously vacillates between revealing herself as a woman and trying to cover herself and disappear into the woodwork.  (How interesting that Roth emphasizes Streep's weak point as a film actor--her too-small eyes, by giving her heavy-rimmed glasses to hide behind, so as to better bring off the reveal when those glasses come off and we get a gander at Meryl's baby blues.  And additional kudos to Ms. Streep's hair stylist, who offers similar character hints.)  And I would guess that Tommy Lee Jones's wardrobe was bought entirely at Sears and/or Kohl's, while Steve Carell has been outfitted at L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer, as would be appropriate for a casual professional in Northern New England.

But the greater challenge is the sequence of scenes in Carell's office which are the principal expositional device.  Although there must be at least six or seven of those scenes in the same locale, never once is it lit in the same way, altering not only the pattern of light and shadow but the color temperature, which lends variety to the costumes and even the actors' skin tones.  It would be interesting and instructive to lay screen grabs of all of the office scenes next to each other to see what cinematographer Florian Ballhaus, with the collaboration of production designer Stuart Wurtzel, has done to reinforce and illuminate the narrative thrust of each of those very different scenes.  They range from a warm and sunny red-to-yellow range after the couple has had a rapprochement to a virtual film noir Venetian blind-shadowed look when they are closest to crisis.  And I wonder how much of the audience even noticed.

The most frequent criticism of the film is that its resolution seems unmotivated or unexplained.  I think what people are feeling but not saying is that the resolution is not verbal, not logical and rationalized.  It is the product of non-verbal, nay pre-verbal passion, the very basis of all such relationships.  Such things are not easy to dramatize, and perhaps this one was not well prepared, but it doesn't change the fact that for this viewer, who has lived and been married about the same time as these characters, the ending made perfect sense to me.  Essentially, Jones's character says to himself, "the hell with what I've been fronting all these years, it's better to just be happy.  Never complain, never explain."

The final vows on the beach are utterly charming--I urge you to stay through the whole film.  But I can't think of a beach in Maine that looks anything like the one in film, not surprising since it was shot in Connecticut.  And after all, what would "Hope Springs" be doing in Coast Maine?  Natural springs virtually never occur that near the shoreline of the ocean.  This is a landscape of the heart.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Shakespeare without poetry

No sense in being coy about it:  I would place Ralph Fienne's adaptation of Coriolanus (2012) among the top four or five Shakespeare films which are real movie-movies, not recordings of stage productions and which require no preparation and no excuses.  (If you want to know, Welles's Othello and the Ian MacKellan Richard III are among the others Oh, and by the way, that guy Shakespeare has 869 credits in imdb as I write this.) When I sat down to watch the film, intimidated by never having read the play, I turned on the titles.  Unnecessary.  Completely unnecessary.  My guess is that Fiennes ruthlessly pruned whatever poetic flights the play has in favor of utter and complete clarity, which he achieved.

As I look through the reviews and discussion of the film, I can't claim to have observed anything much that other writers haven't.  Perhaps it was because taking in this story of power, politics and betrayal for the first time was rather overwhelming.  It will certainly re-pay re-viewing.

Obviously, choosing cinematographer Barry Ackroyd of Hurt Locker fame was central to the conceit, which places the story in a vaguely Eastern European war zone.  Fiennes also did something so many stage-experienced directors fail to do, which is cast visually distinctive actors in the supporting roles so as to help the viewer keep track of who's who.  There was some criticism of the use of cable news talking heads, but to me they are a perfect analogy to the play's choral characters.

But the film's raison d'etre is the performance of Vanessa Redgrave, playing an exemplar of that strange species, the mother of a Roman General.  I would argue that this is her best work on film.  She conveys a steely strength which is not so much cruel as it is heedless of ordinary considerations of human relationships, because the Roman noble household is all about power, the getting and maintenance thereof.  If Coriolanus doesn't make it into the time capsules on its own merits, it will surely be represented as a landmark in Redgrave's great career.

And, hey, what a year Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Help), has had!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Sunday in the Park with Wolfgang

No, not that Wolfgang.  It's the name of a wine-seller, who along with several other non-professionals spent the weekends of Summer 1929 to make a film about the delights and ambiguities of everyday life and romance in a major city (Berlin).  People on Sunday (1930) is almost an unintentional classic, intended merely to earn its makers a foothold in the high-powered German film industry, which would soon become unavailable to them as Jews. 

There are many places to learn about the interesting history of the making of this film, not the least the package of goodies to be found in the Criterion release of the film and at this page.  I don't intend to go into that, nor the way People on Sunday anticipates Italian neo-realism, which is also rehearsed and rehashed in many places.  No, to me, the remarkable thing about the film is that it stills works.  It is not a stuffy museum piece, nor a mere time capsule of the Weimar Republic.  It can, against the odds, still speak to an audience.  The question is why.

Here's an excerpt, after the central foursome have been swimming and are now lazing in the afternoon summer sun.  Swimming costumes aside, they seem completely contemporary and modern.

Oddly, one of the aspects of the film which makes it most archaic rescues it from being as dated as it might be, specifically, the decision to shoot a silent film after that form had virtually died in the cinema.  But the film's silence interlocks perfectly with the other key decision, to use non-actors in the leading roles. As we know from far too much reality television, most people are pretty bad at acting, even as themselves.  There needs to be a simulation of the lack of self-consciousness and ease before the camera that makes the events being enacted convincing as real events taking place in the real world.  Delivery of dialogue requires real acting experience and training to carry off as being "real."  Liberated from having to memorize and deliver a writer's lines, the non-actors are free to simply "be," to just exist.

Second, the story is so natural as to be virtually off-handed.  There is no melodrama and no artificial "writer's humor" to be delivered.  What little story there is concerns possible pairings and re-pairings among the foursome.  Momentary jealousies, imagined slights and palpable delights.  This may be the most "neo-realistic" aspect of the film, its eschewing the conventions of theatrical drama, which dominated mainstream commercial film right through the 1950s.

Third, Eugen Schufftan's photography stays close to its subjects, dispenses with glamour and reveals the true, tousled and freckled beauty of these people.  It looks like snapshots of your friends, or at least of your grandparent's or great-grandparent's friends, who, despite your notions to the contrary, were also real people.  By ignoring fashion, it frees the film from the ravages of time.

I have to admit, that as a student of Brecht, Weill, Piscator and that crowd, it is wonderful to see the streets and byways of Weimar Berlin in its twilight moments.  One can sense how the city was a magnet for the young and the creative of that day.

Happily, you don't have to take my word for the virtues of this film.  You can view at using this link, or view it below via YouTube until it (probably) gets taken down.  Enjoy a summer Sunday in the city, preserved forever via hard work, indirection and accident.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Why didn't HAYWIRE make Gina Carrano a star?

Fassbender on his back, but this isn't from Shame.
Steven Soderbergh is probably the most prolific major feature director working today, which has its good and bad points.  Because he is very talented, many of the films he makes will  be very good, or at least will repay the viewer's time.  But because he makes so many films, some of them will have to be sub-par.  And because Soderbergh is willing to experiment, when he swings and misses, he misses hard.

So on the one hand, you have Sex, Lies and Videotape, Traffic, Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brokovich, King of the Hill and Ocean's Eleven.  But you also have Full Frontal, The Girlfriend Experience, Bubble, Solaris and Ocean's Twelve.  And then there's the interesting middle- range films, including The Good German, Che, The Informant! and Contagion -- all films worth seeing, but not going to be in anyone's pantheon.

I suppose Haywire (2011) belongs in that middle class.  It is not without merit, but it clearly doesn't succeed on its own terms, which were to make Gina Carrano, a very successful mixed martial artist, into a movie star.  It was not a feckless task.  Carrano is exciting to watch in a fight, with real flair and personality.  Soderbergh engaged his Limey collaborator, Lem Dobbs to come up with a snappy hard-boiled spy script.  He got actor pals Ewan MacGregor, Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum (now starring in Soderbergh's Magic Mike) to agree to be beaten up by a girl on screen.  And Michael Douglas agreed to drop in the way he seems to do these days.  I don't know what else he's got going on, but ol' Mikey's acting appearances all seem to be drive-bys these days.  (Antonio Banderas turns out to be the bad guy, but the film ends just before Gina gets to beat him up.)

So why is Haywire a misfire?  A few possible reasons, plus one essential reason which makes enumerating the others unnecessary.

First, the stakes involved are neither big enough or small enough.  Today in 2012, after almost a century of spies in the movies, there are really only two ways to go with spy stories.  One must threaten the entire existence of the world, a la Bond, or you go the way of LeCarre or a film like The Matador and center it around the existential crisis of the spy.  But Haywire merely documents a routine surveillance and security assignment, coupled with the familiar story of the spy who is framed and must clear himself (see the Bourne films).  So the story itself is unlikely to engage us.

Second, the fights, which are to a film like this what songs and dances are to a musical are not shot or edited well (although they seem to be well staged).  Somebody has to tell Mr. Soderbergh that the experiment is over, that he need not continue to be his own cinematographer, and that he needs to be recommence engaging more talented photographers than himself and thus benefit from their expertise, experience and taste.  He is not a bad cinematographer, but he is not inspired, and some inspiration would be useful here.  Several different tactics are attempted -- long, single take fights, quick, cutty fights, fights shot objectively, fights shot first-person, but none of them are well assisted by the shooting and cutting, and one can't help wish that a Jackie Chan or other expert had been brought in to give the action the impact it should have had.

Third, having robbed Ms. Carrano of her strong suit, that is, her ability to make an impression through her fighting skills, Mr. Soderbergh failed to give her the support she needed to achieve the projection of personality necessary to be a movie star.  Stars come in all varieties, from the most loveable to the creepiest, but the one thing they all have is the ability to virtually emerge through the motion picture screen itself.  When they are doing nothing but listening, they still draw attention and focus and we always feel their characters in their scene.  When Ms. Carrano is not talking or walking or fighting or doing something or other, she virtually disappears.  She is very attractive, but somehow she never suggests that a man would change the course of his life to be with her.

It's hard to describe an absence, but we all know that stars have something in the eye, or just behind the eye.  Some kind of light that regular mortals, like Gina Carrano, simply don't have.  I wish her well, and expect her to be prominent and successful in her own sphere, but Haywire suggests that film is not the place for her.

Monday, July 16, 2012

More wander, less lust

Wet Hot American Summer, Part 2

Wanderlust (2012), which is a pretty uneven entertainment, is interesting mostly as another bid for mainstream success by members of the sketch comedy group The State, whose heyday was 20 years ago. Given that the group had 11 members, it is not surprising that they have divided into various writing and performing teams, many with overlapping membership. Of all these groupings, the most successful in the movie business has been the screenplay team of Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant, the moving forces behind the relentlessly unfunny Reno 911 and creators of the almost-as-unamusing Night in the Museum series (the entertainment value of which is almostly entirely derived from the odd-couple teaming of Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney). Lennon and Garant are also engaged to “punch up” other writers scripts and have even published a book on how to sell out and write crappy Hollywood movies.

Director and co-writer David Wain and co-writer and actor Ken Marino have done the most to keep the anarchic spirit of The State alive, progressing from the episodic cult hit Wet Hot American Summer through the sketch comedy The Ten (of which I am,as far as I can find, the world's only fan although I think less than half of the movie works) to the mentorship of Judd Apatow, who sponsored Wain and Marino's Role Models, which made enough money to make Universal ask for another film from the Wain-Marino team, again under the Apatow aegis.

Whereas Lennon-Garant have mastered Hollywood formulas well enough to vomit them back up between the covers of a book, Wain and Marino still have to graft stray bits of stories from other movies onto their sketch ideas in order to get their 90 minutes of entertainment to resemble a movie. Most egregiously in Wanderlust, they manufacture a crisis for the entire cast of characters very late in the second act without a scrap of foreshadowing, then dismiss it with the airiest of deus ex machinas, almost as if to acknowledge that narrative is a stupid waste of time in their eyes. From interviews with the creators, it is evident that they write by proceeding from ideas and concepts rather than characters, a procedure which is painfully obvious in the finished work.

Moreover, when it comes to the jokes, Wain and Marino veer rapidly from drastically overstating and repeating their jokes to throwing them away so as to be almost invisible. Endless amounts of time are spent on toilets in this movie, with little additional comic effect after the first statement of the joke. On the other hand, one of the best laughs in the film is invisible as Justin Theroux dismisses Paul Rudd's categorization of his group as a “commune.” “Communes” he scoffs, just means “hippies smoking pot and playing guitars” as he leans against a doorway through which we see and hear a room full of hippies smoking pot and playing guitars. There is no cut-in, no take, no signal to the audience that there has been a joke, which is admirable, but perhaps self-defeating.

The single best comic performance (other than Alan Alda, who gets better and better at kidding his own persona) is by the film's editors, David Moritz and David Nassau who create and improve innumberable jokes with some superb cuts and juxtapositions.  In fact, the very first out-loud laugh in the film involves the cut into the title card itself.  

The question remains as to whether Wain and Marino will ever successfully fuse their sketch-oriented form of humor, based on wildly exaggerated characters and an improvisatory freedom with a real story in which real characters wrestle with real stakes.  In The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr described Harold Lloyd as an "architect of sympathy," building the gags in his films into a narrative structure that virtually forced the audience to feel for the main character and want his dreams to be realized.  What made Lloyd (and Chaplin and Keaton) great is that the narrative push in their best films was not imported from exterior sources but grew up out of the characters and the visual comedy they were prone to, given the quirks and proclivities of those characters.  Character, narrative and gag were all fused, rather than being pasted together.  That takes a lot of time and a lot of films (Lloyd may have made 100 short comedies before arriving at the character who made him great.)  I hope Mr. Wain and Mr. Marino have the opportunity and the ability to realize that fusion.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Anderson in the ascendant

It will be difficult to write anything new about Moonrise Kingdom (2012).  It's the kind of film that makes people who want to write about film want to write about it.  I will try to make my own observations, but it is unlikely that they will be unique to me.

The signature Anderson shot is what I call the Dollhouse shot, in which Anderson's camera roams through divided spaces to show how they are connected (and how they are on a set, which has an anti-realistic effect).  I first noticed it in Life Aquatic, and Mr. Fox is full of them.  But Moonrise Kingdom begins with one. (The picture on the right is a set photo from this sequence.  It is really a photo, though when reproduced in a small size it really looks a Rockwell for the Saturday Evening Post.) I am reminded of how Alfred Hitchcock found it necessary to put his own cameo earlier and earlier in the film so as to get it over with and leave fans undistracted to follow the film.  In Moonrise Kingdom it may have the same function, as well as being a somewhat defiant setting of tone.  "This IS a Wes Anderson film!  You know what that means, and I'm not going to apologize for it."

It is a little appalling to see so many critics jump on Mr. Anderson for having a distinct style.  That doesn't seem to bother them with Hemingway or Faulkner or Dickens or Flannery O'Connor or Raymond Carver.  It doesn't bother them with Hitchcock or Welles or even Spielberg, who has a very particular way of using his camera.  But because Anderson uses conventions from other media, including the fine arts, illustration and the theater, the critics are all jumping up and down and turning blue!  How dare he have a distinctive voice!  All the really good directors are anonymous journeyman utterly without any element of personal expression.

There is a reason critics get excited this way.  They are all Salieris.  Third-rate uncreative nonentities, fully aware that the subject of their scribblings will far outlast those scribblings.  They are also mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging morons.

From this categorization I separate the valuable journalists and historians who deal in fact, like David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson.  These are the kind of film writers who literally count frames.  Some writer who is obsessive in just that way should tell us if Wes Anderson has ever done a push-in with his camera.  The camera always seems to move laterally, and when there is movement in depth it seems to progress in a straight line from the horizon line toward the viewer.  There are no diagonals in Andersonland, and there are no dolly movements in towards the actors.  Too emphatic, perhaps?  Or maybe the Coen Brothers used up the quota of push-ins before Mr. Anderson could get to them.

Two things Anderson gets right that few filmmakers do.  One is very early love.  There is a wonderful mix of narcissistic unawareness of one's actions and their possible consequences and self-conscious detachment in that first fine fall into passion.  At the same time a person is engaged in headlong and reckless acts to pursue the object of passion, one is also aware that First Love is a landmark in one's life and should be observed and considered.  And one can't help wondering if one is doing it right.  Anderson and his young actors get that spot on, doing insane things and analyzing them in an overly sane way.

The other thing is the 1960s.  Most filmmakers visiting the 1960s seem to believe that 1968-1973 was when the 60s took place.  Mad Men has corrected this impression to a great extent, and yet the tone is still off in many cases.  Few things evoke the 1960s so well as the battery-operated phonograph playing a 7" 33 RPM single from Europe, and the single is by a name forgotten to all but a few of us over 50, Francoise Hardy.  That is not an exercise in obscurity, but in precision.  Also, I can't help but be delighted to hear Leonard Bernstein's recording of The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra with narration read by young Henry Chapin (plus a snippet of Carnival of the Animals), a recording my son used regularly to fall asleep to during one early phase of his life.

[On the other hand, I have to admit to being embarrassed that, as a big fan of Benjamin Britten, I was unfamiliar with Noye's Fludde, the excerpts of which sounded wonderful.  Also, it looked great in the film.  Here's a picture of it on the right. I have resolved to hunt a recording of that work down.  Britten also provides the best underscoring cue in the film, a string pizzicato melody from the Simple Symphony, another piece unfamiliar to me.  Seriously, I know a lot of Britten's work very well, but he was quite prolific.]

Noyes Fludde reinforces the film's mythic and fable-like qualities.  To the critics who find this arch, I would direct them to Homer and the Bible and see if those aren't a little non-realistic as well.

Also assisting the period feeling of Moonrise, there's the color. At least in the print I saw, the film looked as though it had been shot in the 1960s on Ansco Color which had since gone a bit green.  Hard to say why, but it helped.

We didn't realize it 15 or 20 years ago, but what cinema needed was more Bob Balaban.  Glad to see Anderson doing his part to correct this problem, and made him omniscient, as is only right and proper.

Is this the first major commerical feature shot made entirely in Rhode Island?  Having summered in Maine throughout my childhood, I can't tell you how familiar and comfortable much of the film looked.  It is the cramped shabbiness preferred by members of the meritocracy.  (See also On Golden Pond.)

Here is a very nice video about Britten's opera I found at the website of Focus Films, distributor of Moonrise Kingdom.  It is quite engaging and I hope it makes up for this very dull post about a very lively movie, which you should see especially if you have ever been in love, or a child or outdoors in the rain.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

You're going to thank me.

I am herewith posting for your benefit, the only 19 or 20 minutes of Skidoo (1968) that are worth seeing.  That said, they are extremely worth seeing.  They are simply buried inside a cinematic tomb that rivals anything old Cheops cranked out.

The backstory. Old-fashioned but still-skillful producer-director Otto Preminger decides to make a film about the scourge of the nation, LSD.  But, being an honest man, he tries it.  And he decides it is NOT the scourge of the nation.  But he's committed to make this movie with a large bunch of mismatched middle-aged and even elderly movie stars which is both for and against LSD.

I have to back-pedal even farther.  When I was growing up, Preminger was a star-director name nearly on a par with Alfred Hitchcock.  He made big pictures about big issues and he plastered his name and face all over them.  And he was not unjustified.  His films got big audiences and made big money.  And his technique, which he had been developing since the mid-1940s was extremely well-suited to the wide-screen epics of the 1960s.  Specifically, he preferred long, complex master shots, sometimes reframing the action with camera movement rather than recutting.  Paradoxically for such a control freak, this procedure gives power to the actors, who control the tempo and feel of the scene.  He counteracted that tendency by calling for extensively repeated takes, wearing the actors down.  (Also paradoxically, Preminger was an actor, and in films such as Wilder's Stalag 17, a good actor.)

His career breaks into distinct phases, beginning with the romantic noirs of the 40s, most famously Laura, and my personal favorite, Where The Sidewalk Ends.  The next phase began with The Moon Is Blue a standard-issue sexless sex comedy from a Broadway boulevard play.  But the heroine referred to herself as a "virgin" and the words "pregnant" and "mistress" were bandied about, causing pearls to be clutched across the country.  The film went out without an MPAA seal, made a pot of money from disappointed filmgoers who expected something sexy and turned Otto onto the controversy racket.

The last phase begins roughly around the time of Exodus in 1960, when controversy transmogrifies into international all-star epic.  Thus follows Advice and Consent, Hurry Sundown and The Cardinal.

Back to LSD.  Otto changes his mind and decides to make a pro-hippie movie.  Or at least a movie that suggests that these crazy kids might be worth listening to.  The first clue is in this unconventional opening in which husband Jackie Gleason and wife Carol Channing (bizarre couple, yes, I know) fight over the remote control, a fight seen from the TV viewer's POV.  (Note the inclusion of Preminger's own In Harm's Way in the onscreen melange.)  [Apologies in advance for any ads inserted by Daily Motion.]

Fairly early on, for reasons not worth delving into, Jackie gets his consciousness raised via an acid trip.  So far, so good, except that the sequence bears no resemblance to any acid trip taken by any known person.  It is fun, but fun like those goofy early 1930s movies packed with random non-sequiturs in the place of actual jokes.

Far better than seeing Groucho's head in place of a lightbulb is the acid trip experienced by veteran character actor Fred Clark, which is not only accompanied by a charming Harry Nillson song, but features some of the wackiest dancing and carrying-on by Clark as a prison guard who has unknowingly dropped LSD.   Clark was usually seen as grouchy bank officials turning down nice people for loans or mean neighbors who won't give the kids their football back and rarely had the opportunity to clown this way. The song in question begins at the 3:00 minute mark in this clip.

Finally, we have the last nine minutes or so of the film.  This includes the rather catchy title song, accompanying an incomprehensible sequence in which Carol Channing and her daughter's hippy friends occupy gangster Groucho Marx's yacht, while Groucho turns on and becomes a Buddhist.  I include this clip principally for the final few minutes in which Harry Nillson sings the credits.  All of them.  Right down to the wardrobe mistress and the production accountant.  That's freakier than Gleason's acid trip.

Make no mistake.  By no means is Skidoo a good film.  But it is an instructive bad film, and one with some moments of inspiration of enchantment.  Personally, I would never have thought Otto had it in him.

Friday, June 29, 2012


Janet McTeer trying to convince Glenn Close to quit trying.
There is almost nothing to be said about such an inert piece of pandering Oscar-bait like Albert Nobbs (2011).  I can see the development meeting:  "We don't need a story or characters!  Glenn Close is dressed as a guy!  She's old now, so she's not pretty any more, and she's guaranteed to get an Oscar nomination!  We'll shove it out during award season and nobody realize it's completely empty and dull!"

This is a clear demonstration that a famous actor need only stutter, put on a clubfoot or dress as the opposite gender to get an Oscar nomination.  Why do I say that?  Because Close made the mistake of putting herself side-by-side with a lesser-known actor, Janet McTeer, who is also in male drag and mops the floor with Close.  Close's concept of a woman acting like a man is to hold very, very still so as not to wiggle anything.  McTeer adopts a bold swagger and mashes Close's amateurish work into the dirt.

And to be clear, Ms. McTeer is a very attractive woman.  She just hasn't been a lazy, self-congratulating Hollywood actor for 30 years, so she hasn't learned how to put on a complicated make-up or add some lines to a screenplay or take a title as executive producer so she can pretend she's really acting.  McTeer just shows up, does her work and kicks Glenn Close's butt.  Rent the movie if you must, but fast forward to McTeer and skip the rest, unless you have persistent insomnia.

My mother the bear

Don't look now, but your mother's right behind you
Brave (2012) really has the animation fan world's knickers in a twist, fiercely debating as to whether Pixar has slipped and whether they are losing their knack of inventing and telling heart-rending stories.  I suppose time will tell.  As I sat down in the movie theater, I regretted not having a kid to watch the movie with, but then had the pleasure of three young girls behind me of various ages to react to, discuss, explain and evaluate the movie.  Believe me, I didn't mind their talking through the movie, because it was such a valuable window into how the film was working on its intended core audience.

And they LOVED it.  Brave gives us the second female archer of the year (after Hunger Games), although the story doesn't turn on that skill as much as the posters and trailers might make you think.  The title and the advance publicity led me to expect a female-centered action adventure film, but what Pixar has done is invent a new fairy tale which, like so many fairy tales, turns on questions of growing up, changing family roles and coming into one's "powers."  I have to admit I didn't expect a movie with so much time spent on bears, especially when one of them sort-of resembles those dumb bears that used to help the fat park ranger clean up the park in Disney shorts of the 50's.

In a way, I don't care.  Because the reason to see an animated film is not to see more of what live-action films do -- tell stories about characters.  Everybody tries to do that.  The joy of an animated film is that absolutely everything you see is completely fabricated.  Not one thing has been taken unadorned from life in front of us.  It is an entirely designed, drawn, engineered world.  Nothing is real, and you are asked to believe in it all.  This is something only movies can do.

There is nothing inherent about the arranging of images in a sequence in time that requires three-act tales of conflict, challenge or personality development.  The technology is neutral.  It dares the creator -- "Go ahead, put some pictures in order and let's see what an audience will accept."  It's moving ink blots; what you see is a function of what your brain is willing to organize.  So the derivation of classical American cinema from the theater is merely a matter of economic expedience -- this is the cheapest way to put together a whole lot of stories using the resources we already have and understand.  But it is not the complete catalog of what somewhat might choose to put in front of a lens.

So we have Merida's incredible curly, frizzy, tangled mane which is a wonder to behold in and of itself and which would have used up half the computing power in the world 30 years ago, I should imagine.  We have the multiplicitous ways in which dozens of goofy Scottish lairds march into a hall, each of those walks created by an animator expressing his art.  Every background, prop, leaf and arrow, all created by artists, not imported from the "real world."  And to that extent, I will never stop feeling wonder at first-class animation.

If you don't believe me, see the incredible way King Fergus, voiced by the immortal Billy Connolly, impersonates his own teenage daughter as he and his queen roleplay a mother-daughter conversation.  "I don't want to get married, I want to stay single and let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset."  It is gloriously and hilariously demented in a way that only animation, and excellent animation, can render.

I don't know whether Brave represents a slipping of Pixar's standards or if Merida is a wonderful new entry into the pantheon of Disney princesses.  But it is a superb piece of animation.  And just the way there are things that only Americans can play in jazz and only the French can do with a fish, there are things in film that only great animation can do and you should go see that, and on a big screen if possible, if only for that reason.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Without a song

You can see this is a model of happiness and tolerance
Pariah (2012) could be considered a feel-good movie for middle-aged middle-class white guys like me, because it makes clear that we are not responsible for all the bigotry and intolerance in the world.  Hooray for us!

Seriously, writer-director Dee Rees has done a brave thing, dramatizing intolerence within a group that has historically borne discrimination.  I am reminded of the flack Spike Lee got for revealing skin color discrimination among blacks in School Daze
I don't have a lot of original observations to make about this film -- it is remarkable how much was accomplished with color-coding in the cinematography (by Bradford Young) while appearing to be a realistic, documentary-style film.  By color-coding I mean that different environments were given different color temperatures, but in a much more subtle way than in, say, Steven Soderbergh's Traffic.  Her

What surprises me as I scan the credits at imdb is that there does seem to have been a music department.  I honestly cannot recall music in the film and that was a problem for me.  The film very honorably steers clear of melodrama and theatrics.  The big confrontation scene with the mother became a revelation of character, not a celebration of conflict.  So the director was not going to call for a big dramatic score that tells the audeince how to feel from moment to moment. 

But I really can't remember any music, other than the diagetic music in the nightclubs and parties.  And this is a film that does not let the viewer in on what the characters are thinking and feeling.  It keeps its distance and relies on the audience's observation of behavior to draw its conclusions.  The result for me was that the film felt closed off and chilly.  Dees was so scrupulous about not overstating her case, that she barely bothered to make any case.  I could not help but feel that a music cue or two would have helped make an emotional connection between the protagonist, Alike, and the audience.

Because dialogue, counter-intuitive as it is, is historically a distancing element in film storytelling.  In the silent era, the character and audience made a direct, pre-verbal connection which made it easier to ignore distances in time and setting and culture.  Silent film inherently brings out the universality between characters and audience and music helps bind that relationship, if it is properly done.  Silent film at its best represents the interiority of the characters as a novelist does, in contrast with the spoken words of the playwright.

To dispense with that interiority is to keep the audience at an arms length.  Perhaps that was Ms. Dees's intention.  Perhaps she did not want sentiment and pity.  But it was also hard to feel identification.  So I felt for Alike's dilemma, but I had no doubt she and her family would work it out and eventually it would all be OK and where should we go for a snack, I could really kill for some ice cream...