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...

Sunday, June 24, 2012

End Of The Road

Learning to share your essential self is never hackneyed.
Seeking A Friend For The End of the World (2012) is being categorized by the lazy movie reviewing press as a quirky romance with an odd setting, but it is really a road movie, in the mode of The Road and Zombieland, both fine examples of the genre.  (Heck, the old guy Homer made something pretty good out of the form in The Odyssey.)

The essence of the form is the voyage of self-discovery.  The protagonist should have a clear, specific stated goal, but in the best road stories, that evolves into a pretext, and is sometimes abandoned altogether.  Carell's Dodge (convenient name for a man who has dodged relationships?) and Knightley's Penny (who lets people devalue her) both need to see some people before the world ends (and hats off to writer-director Lorene Scafaria for not hedging that one -- it's never in doubt that the world is going to end). But they find other things on the way, naturally.  I suppose it would be obvious that they found each other, but that doesn't feel as obvious and pre-destined as it does in most films of this kind.  (Remember The Sure Thing back in the 80s?)

In this case, some goals are achieved, some abandoned, and some are discarded.  What keeps it from being predictable might be attributed to Steve Carell's nose and Keira Knightley's teeth.  Both of them are a little "off" as romantic objects, and that helps to maintain the author's intended misdirection.  (Yes, I know Knightley can be cleaned up to be stunning, but she doesn't have to look that way all the time, which is an advantage for an ambitious actress.)  I would even dispute that they are even a romantic match in this movie.  What they are is valuable companions when companionship is really needed.

And if the structure is a bit picaresque, rambling or even just plain arbitrary, well, how organized do you expect the end of the world to be?

The best reason to see this film, especially with someone who is important to you is in order to lead into that conversation about what you yourself would do given a limited time left.  I might want to be lying face to face with my SO, but I might want to be on that enchanting beach (shown in the picture above) with dozens of people and their children laughing and playing music and eating and being baptized and enjoying being alive and by the ocean and with each other and having been alive before they were dead.  That seems like an awfully good idea, and part of me wishes the movie had simply ended there.

Found footage losing its way

Actor moves hand, stagehands crush car.  Movie magic!
One might analogize the "found footage" genre in film to the use of Pirandellian effects in theater.  Pirandello was a writer obsessed with the dividing line between artifice and reality, and who liked to use the immediacy of theater to blur the line between the agreed-upon artifice and the uncontrollable aspect of live performance to create a confusion within the audience.  Scenes appear to be spontaneously created or interrupted by the actors or by the characters.  The form is lent an air of verisimilitude and should (if it is working properly) reduce the sensation that the creators are manipulating the story for their own convenience.

But like any convention, you have to set rules and stick to them.  And that's where Chronicle (2012) goes a bit off the rails.  In Cloverfield, for example, the creators are fairly scrupulous about adhering to the geography of the camera's travels and makes ingenious use of the idea that camcorders can over previous recordings in order, which can survive in snippets in order to simulate flashbacks.  (Digital media, by the way, destroy that narrative device, since data is simply wiped without prior artifacts surviving.)

Chronicle sets up the convention that different people can pick up the camera, or even that there are multiple cameras.  But there are a number of shots (I'm thinking especially of the party sequence) in which the camera perspective is completely unexplained and unidentified.  It just was too inconvenient to stick to the rules, so the filmmakers cheat and start presenting third-person points of view -- a complete violation of the genre, and a confession of a lack of faith in the format.

Which goes to the heart of the problem with Chronicle -- the story has no reason to be told in the found footage format, except that is all the rage with the youngsters, most recently in the atrocious Paranormal Activity franchise.  (One notes that something called Chernobyl Diaries didn't even open this year, but sank like a stone within hours of beginning its run.)  The problem is compounded when the more complex effects shots begin, because they start looking slicker and slicker (presumably there wasn't time and money to make them look as fuzzy and funky as they should have) and weaken the illusion that we are looking at home video.

Then the film completely collapses its own premise in the final 20 minutes, when it turns into a garden-variety telekenesis destructo-fest, with transparently effect-y effects going on and on and we are stuck with three repellant characters competing to see who can be least repellant, although no actual heroism or courage is ever displayed.

It's a shame, because the first hour of the film addressed some really interesting moral and ethical issues raised by the entire superhero genre; specifically, how should superpowers be used?  What if we're not as good and pure as Superman, or as driven as Batman?  What if a superhero was just a regular person before (Peter Parker, anyone?)  How do you establish the rules about when to use your powers and when to refrain?  How do you define "using your powers only for good?"  Especially when the powers are in the hands of teenagers, whose heads are filled with a roiling stew of impulses, hormones, idealism, half-digested cynicism, media influences and family history?  That could have been a fine film, but the makers of Chronicle seem to have become intimidated by the Pandora's Box they opened up and reverted to genre slam-bam.

Too bad.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Story circle

Believe it or not, this scene is before Shirley MacLaine's character dies.
Richard Linklater's Bernie (2012), enjoyable as it is --and it is enjoyable-- straddles contradictory conventions of genre in a way that feels unfairly confusing, at least in the immediate aftermath of viewing the film.

Some reviewers have made comparisons to the Coen brothers, presumably because of the quirky characters, the wide streak of black comedy with shads of slapstick and the small town setting.  But the film takes more from the book of Erroll Morris, especially Vernon Florida and Gates of Heaven, which consist almost entirely of old people taking in wide-angle close-up.  As Bernie begins to unspool, one assumes that Linklater has found local Texas actors who fit his vision and style and deftly give the illusion of speaking spontaneously as part of the dramatic convention of "based on a true story."

But the film's actual words are "What you're fixin' to see is a true story."  Not based on-- true.  And not "going to see" but "fixin' to see."  So the tone is set -- playful country, in fact kidding the very idea of country.    So is it true or not?  Well, it is, in that "fixin' to see" kind of way.  True with a little topspin.

Because to me, at least, it was not clear exactly how close Bernie stuck to the known facts until the end of the film, when we see the real Bernie and his erstwhile lady companion.  That conclusion raises the suggestion that the interviewees were the real people who knew the real Bernie.  Did they even know they were in a Jack Black movie?  A Pirandellian effect begins to spin out of the last few minutes of the film that research makes difficult to resolve.  (Most of the on-camera interviewees are indeed actors with substantial regional resumes.)

Perhaps confusing the issue is that Jack Black does a real acting job for perhaps the first time, at least in my filmgoing experience.  This character is not even a variation of The Jack Black Character, but developed from the real materials, just like with a real actor.  Yet his beautiful clear singing voice places a level of reality under the artifice that blurs the question evn more.

And although interviews Linklater has given have revealed that the film was shot digitally, to my eyes, at least from the print showing in our somewhat run-down neighborhood house, the film looks quite grainy, almost as if the entire thing had been shot 20 years ago around the time of Linklater's Dazed and Confused, with an unstable and washed-out palette.  (I look forward to seeing it on disc to see just how rough Linklater wanted the image to look.)

I guess your mom would say we're not laughing at the people of Carthage, Texas, we're laughing with them.  But I have to say, enjoyable as the film is, the rules are not always clear.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


There has long been a need for a large-scale Hollywood production to tell the story of the Tuskegee Airmen in battle, completing the story begun in HBO's film.

Red Tails (2012) will have to serve as a placeholder until that film arrives.  It's not bad, and if you're an aerial combat movie fan, I'm sure you'll get your jollies.

Clearly, the script was written for a Stanley Kramer super-earnest aren't-we-good-liberals production of 1956.  Some actual quotes:  "Experience is a cool teacher, gives the exam first and then the lesson."  "We have a right to fight for our country. The same as every other American."

Mind you, somebody got paid to write that.  I checked my watch to make sure it was still 2012.

Did I mention there were snarling blonde Germans with big facial scars?  And Cuba Gooding smokes a big fancy pipe which has the double purpose of reminding you of cliched air force officers in other movies and relieving Mr. Gooding from having to come up with a character.

The worst thing about the CGI, especially in a movie produced by George Lucas, is that it does not adhere to the George Lucas rule of technology props -- they must not look like you took this stuff straight out of the box.  Remember how beat-up the Milennium Falcom was?  Made it more believable didn't it?  The planes in Red Tails look like they were made by Aurora, not Boeing.

Bryan Cranston is showing up in movies lately like that jerk who got himself in the picture for every club in the school yearbook.  Note to producers -- Cranston is good, but there are a couple of other good actors in the movie business.

John Wayne would be disturbed by the predictability and cliche of this movie.  Buy the Blu-Ray pack, take out the History Channel documentary Double Victory and throw the rest away.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Places (Or Why Sad is Not Unhappy)

Ewen is not paying attention to his Happiness lessons
I'm not sure if I'm right about this, but I think the title of the film Beginners (2011) is taken from the British theatre idiom by which the stage manager notifies the actors that the play is about the start.  In the States, the SM calls "Places," whereas in the UK and much of the Commonwealth, the call is "Beginners."  (This is, of course, further proof that the Brits do not understand and cannot use the language that they initiated but which, since the death of Shakespeare, they have managed to complete bungle and misuse.  The proper word should be, clearly, "Beginnings" not "Beginners," unless the theater management has decided to replace the cast at the last minute with rank amateurs.)

My point is that "Beginners" signals the time when one is supposed to start.  And although it's a start, it's a place you've been before, such as the last time you performed or rehearsed the play.  Nonetheless, you start over, fresh, as if you've never done it before, surprised, dismayed and enlightened all over again.  An actor in the theater must "lose it" over and over again, every night.  It is a state of ever-renewing innocence.

And this wise innocence informs the film, from its dark yellow palette, its Wes-Anderson-like narration, the heroine who threatens to go Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but is too smart for that pigeon-hole, even a very perceptive Jack Russell terrier, who acts as mute Greek chorus.  There is a beautiful, simple clarity which drives the stark production design, the jump cuts which are surely written into the script, the rapid shifts of place and time.  Although the texture is dense, each small piece of the mosaic is eminently clear and well-defined.

Arthur does his best to see Oliver through.
Most of all, writer (and director) Mike Mills writes with a simplicity that would warm the heart of E.B. White.  That may well because Mills and his melancholy but not neurotic protagonist, Oliver, played with a lack of self-pity by Ewan MacGregor, both experience mourning as a normal natural part of life, not to be pushed away, but not to be wallowed in, either.  (Mills previously wrote and directed Thumbsucker, an agreeably quirky indie, which offered little beneath the surface of its odd premise.)
If you've heard of the film and not seen it, you probably heard of because Christopher Plummer won an Academy Award for playing a man who comes out at age 75.  And he does it wonderfully and fully deserves prizes.  But do not skip this because you think it is an old gay man movie and you've seen that one.  This is not a movie about an old gay man, it is about a young sad man.  But sad is not depressed.  Sad is simply a color in the rainbow of emotions, one we must have in order for the other colors to make sense and maintain their relationship with each other.  Sad is OK.  The trick is to come through and come out the other end.

SPOILER ALERT:  He does it.  He gets through.  It doesn't end with a music montage and everyone splashing in the ocean, but happiness is possible.

This post has more outright expression of opinion than I like, but simply put, I found Beginners one of the most elegant, poetic and overlooked movies of 2011.  There is a lot more to see here than Plummer's rightly-celebrated turn, including Melanie Laurent's mountains of charm and Goran Visnjic's enchanting child-man as Plummer's lover, the compact of secret playfulness between young Oliver and his bemused mother, well-limned by Mary Page Keller -- these are all recognizable human beings, rare creatures in contemporary film.  But most of all, there is the emergence of Mike Mills as an authorial voice in film whose future work I, for one, intend to follow.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Are you here for an affair?

I know, romantic, right?
The title of the post is, of course, that great line Buck Henry wrote for himself to deliver in The Graduate.  And of course, Benjamin IS there for an affair.

Mademoiselle Chambon (2009), on the other hand, demonstrates that when one is out to make a romantic film, it is all-or-nothing.  Dithering one's way in and out of a relationship may be realistic, but it is hardly diverting or enlightening.  Noel Coward's lovers in Brief Encounter may have been English and talkative diffident and shy, but they were clearly and demonstratively and knowingly in a relationship, conflicted as they may have been and uncertain as to how they should proceed.  The lovers in Chambon don't seem to be able to figure out what they're doing at all.

It is possible to make films, even great films, driven by things other than classical dramatic narrative structure.  There are character portraits, explorations of environments or communities.  But you can't set a story on the knife edge of a binary choice--will-they-or-won't-they?--and leave it there for 100 minutes and engage an audience.  Or at least you'd have to be a greater artist than writer-director Stephane Brize.

At least Lean and Coward knew how to sustain the tension.  The affair remained unconsummated, although they did go to an apartment which Billy Wilder transmogrified into The Apartment.  In Chambon, the lovers go to bed but it is the audience that his put to sleep.  The encounter answers no questions, reveals no information, accomplishes nothing.

There is literally one interesting cinematic moment in Chambon, and you've seen it in other films, although actress Aure Autike as the wife in the middle, executes it perfectly.  We are at a little garden party, Mlle Chambon has been invited to play her violin, and she plays a piece of particular significance to her and her lover, Jean.  Jean, who has been established as a rather uncultured and inarticulate character (another problem with the film) is absolutely gobsmacked.  His jaw goes slack and his eyes go all gooey like a character in a P.G. Wodehouse novel.  But the way the wife sees it and makes the connection is quite wonderful, silent-film-style storytelling, and represents the one interesting moment that is not a pale shadow of Brief Encounter.

As a film buff, I can't help feeling your time would be better spent renting or buying the Criterion edition of Brief Encounter, rather than bothering with Mlle Chambon or even continuing to read this blog.  Go!  Now!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Chill of death

Is this how a brother looks at a sister?
If nothing else, Shame (2011) all by itself justifies digital filmmaking.  I daresay the film would be impossible by any other means, with Sean Bobbit's camera gliding smoothly as it does over the surfaces of the Manhattan night, resting for long, long takes which measure the vast distances between people, even people who have known each other well.  A cut, even to come closer to the faces would disturb the frost as it grows up between the isolated figures on the screen.  The camera is rock-solid steady.  I would bet there was not a handheld shot in the film -- if there was, it didn't call attention to itself.

This has to rank as one of the chilliest films ever made about sex, bathed in a bottle-green palette, and frequently accompanied by Glenn Gould's recording of The Goldberg Variations

Moreover, the Brits who made this film, including director Steve McQueen and actors Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan are using New York not as an environment, as a native filmmaker does, but as a location; a location to be explored like the caves of Lascaux, both quaint and dangerous.  It's OK that Fassbender and Mulligan not completely convincing Americans -- it's like those movies where you can tell they're speaking German because they have a German accent.

Perhaps most interesting is how the film keeps moving without an appranet narrative engine.  Nobody has anything they need to accomplish in a set period of time.  Nobody is looking to change, although Mulligan's character would probably like to get her own apartment and a steady gig.  Fassbender does not bottom out.  He does not go into treatment, or fail in treatment.

I would argue that, the title notwithstanding, there is no evidence that the character does feel shame.  A little self-hatred, a sense that what he's doing isn't working, a fear of getting caught.  But no sense that Fassbender can or wants to do anything about his addiction.  Not even after getting a beating.

It's really not a movie.  It's a snapshot.  But just as the young woman at the bar, who has come with her boyfriend, stares rapt at Fassbender's lewd proposition like a mouse staring at a snake, we can't take our eyes off the thing the protagonist has become, a thing which sheds the characteristics of a human being as the film progresses until it (he) has no reason to live other than the next pointless encounter, like a shark endlessly swimming in search of prey.  And a shark's life doesn't have to have meaning.

They really could have titled this movie Dead Man F******.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Luckily, Snowy is paying close attention.
Shouldn't it actually be titled SomeAdventures of Tintin (2011)?  That lies somewhat at the heart of the one problem Steven Spielberg's motion capture action adventure.  Namely, Tintin does not seem to have any animating principle in the story (wordplay only subconciously intentional).  Indy has to stop those Nazis from opening the Ark.  Marty McFly has to stop himself from disappearing.  Luke has to save the Princess.  But Tintin doesn't have anything he has to do.  Sure,  Captain Haddock has a big interest in the results of the adventure -- it's his legacy and his family honor. 

Not having been a fan of the comic books (I only encountered them in French language classrooms along with the Asterix books), I only caught that Tintin was some kind of a reporter about halfway through the movie.  He's a reporter without an editor, or, indeed any superior or any family.  He is the Pippi Longstocking of detectives -- a juvenile who neither has to worry about human ties nor the burden of earning money to live.  He can fail, I suppose, but he doesn't have anything to lose.  No stakes, no story.

Evidently this doesn't trouble his millions and millions of fans, and more power to them.  But for this viewer, it left the film with an empty core.  This should have made the film fast-moving and entertaining at the outset but dull and flagging as the story went on.  Such is Spielberg's skill  that it became more and more engrossing as complications and obstacles piled on top of each other in a Spielbergian way.  Moreover, Haddock assumed Tintin's place at the emotional center of the film as did, Snowy to a lesser degree.  (OK, I just like terriers.) But as the series continues (and it will) and Haddock becomes merely Tintin's companion and not the object of the story, who will take that emotional space?  A different character for each film?  Will that sustain over time?  The books have, for their audience, but I wonder if film works the same way.

The most interesting aspect of the design of the film stemming from the motion capture (which seems to have advanced substantially since Avatar) is the ability to stage a complete action scene -- I am thinking of a long chase late in the second act which, thanks to the animation technique is followed in a single, very long, preternaturally smooth shot.  The effect is comic, as Tintin strives to keep track of the thing he is pursuing, almost without regard to the vehicle he is riding, object he is swinging from, climbing over, etc., etc.  Such a thing could be done in live action, stringing separately shot pieces together digitally, but the resulting un-naturalness could be disturbing in a way that it is not in a clearly animated film, such as Tintin.

Thus, more interesting than the film itself, which is a reasonably enjoyable time-passer, is the question as to whether and how the series can sustain over a prolonged period of time, especially as Mr. Spielberg and producer/2nd unit director Peter Jackson withdraw from active participation.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Kicking history when it's down

It is difficult, observing the rules I have set for this blog (and which I often traduce), to limit myself to observations regarding Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) and not to make judgments or to make silly jokes with the title, which, in my opinion, is just ASKING for it.

Everybody has to stop taking for granted how great Spielberg is with kids.  From the evidence of this movie, it's not easy, and this is from Stephen Daldry, director of Billy Elliott.  It's not just that the child character is irritating as conceived by the writer, he's irritating in practice.  No wonder his mother lets him roam around the city without supervision.  Anything to get him out of the house.

Second, making Max von Sydow a mute character just means you're too lazy to come up with a reason why this man has a funny accent.  Von Sydow has a beautiful and expressive voice.  There are a million better non-verbal actors than he.  I guess everyone was just thrilled with the novelty of von Sydow not speaking in English or in Swedish, and thought they were some jam-dandy acting.  He's not bad, but as a student of silent film, I've seen a lot better.

Third, dressing up an empty shaggy dog story with a great national tragedy does not give it significance -- it reduces its significance.  Having the boy's father die in the Twin Towers adds utterly nothing to the story; the only thing that matters is that he is dead.  The oblique visual suggestion that he died plummeting from the building just adds a forsting of grotesquerie onto a big Bad Taste Cake.

I recognize that this is a very weak blog entry, but I literally had trouble keeping my eyes on the screen and resisting the desire to look away and do something else.  A movie that is almost successful, though not quite, can sharpen one's powers of observation.  Something this wide of the mark seems to dull the senses.  Sorry.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Steven Spielberg, film historian

Echoing "Night of the Hunter"?
Written reactions to Steven Spielberg's film version of War Horse (2011) is virtually a litmus test of each writer's film history knowledge.  Youngsters who think Titanic is a classic old-timey movie dismiss the film as sentimental slop, riddled with cliche and overstatement.  A few recognized some quotes from Gone With The Wind, usually misattributing the palette and compositions of the film to Victor Fleming, the named director.  But Fleming essentially directed the actors.  The look of the film was designed from top to bottom by William Cameron Menzies with the collaboration of cinematographers Ernst Haller and Fleming's favorite, Lee Garmes.  These would be the source of the oversaturated colors behind near-silhouetted figures as in, for instance the final shot of War Horse.

But Gone With The Wind is just the beginning.  War Horse draws from the work of David Lean (who Spielberg evoked brilliantly in Empire of the Sun) but also other epic filmmakers of the 1950s George Stevens and Fred Zinnemann.  But it also goes straight back to Lewis Milestone (specifically All Quiet On The Western Front), and silent filmmakers F.W. Murnau, Frank Borzage and especially King Vidor, director of The Big Parade and The Crowd as well as the 1956 War and Peace.  Spielberg does not do DVD commentaries (a sensible position), but I would love a commentary by really knowledgeable film scholar who could annotate the sources, whether overt or sub rosa.

Which is not to say that the film is pasted together from film references like a Brian DePalma movie.  Spielberg has thoroughly absorbed this vocabulary, like an author deliberately writing in an archaic style.  With all the fuss about last year's The Artist, I would love to see Spielberg make a substantially silent film--I think he is the director most qualified in the world to express himself in that challenging and classical form.  The exquisite no-man's-land sequence, designed by Rick Carter, would not be out of place in an epic of the mid-1920s, and the dialogue (with a German fluent in English) might have played even better on title cards than being heard.

Which is not to say that Mr. Spielberg doesn't know how to use a soundtrack.  For one thing, John Williams has written his best score in many years, although, he, like Spielberg, is creating in a borrowed idiom.  In this case it is the work of early 20th century British composers such as Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Bax, Walton, Britten and Grainger.  Again, there is no actual plagiarism, but the full immersion in a particular language.

Non-musical sound plays a part in one of the three-shots in this film that I would nominate for all-time greats in film history.  That is the moment when two young German deserters have been discovered and are being shot on the spot at late dusk or early evening.  The camera suddenly jumps from the base of the windmill in which the boys have been ensconced to high in the air, just the other side of the windmill's sails.  The boys are lined up with their backs to us.  The officer calls "Fire" and at that very instant a windmill sail obscures our view.  We hear the gunshot and the sail has passed revealing the bodies strewn on the ground.

Earlier in the movie there is a shot that would have made Eisenstein weep in recognition of a brother filmmaker.  The British are making an insane, under-manned, under-weaponed charge on a German encampment.  (The sequence begins with a brilliant shot of the officers mounting amid tall grass that obscures  the horses.)  At first, the Brits seem to be triumphant until they reach the end of the open field and the edge of the adjacent wood.  There the Germans have hidden their automatic guns, with which they proceed to demolish the British cavalry.  But we never see the falls.  We see the moment of recognition on the cavalry officers' faces that they have made a devastating miscalculation.  Then we see riderless horses leaping over and past the German guns.  Back to the mounted charge.  Back to the empty horses.  The audience puts those two shots together with that beautiful mathematics of film editing:  (Shot of mounted officers charging PLUS shot of riderless horses leaping past machine guns EQUALS officers falling dead from their horses.)

My next is a throwaway, but it simply demonstrates that Spielberg breathes the syntax of film.  It is an establishing shot of a person entering the stable in which the title character, Joey has been hidden.  We see the person first as a large, dark, convex reflection.  Then we realize it is a reflection in Joey's eye.  It is not only an inventive way to open a sequence, but it reminds us that the film is really about Joey and that we are always viewing the world through Joey's eyes.  All of this work, I have to presume, is executed with the superb collaboration of Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg's cinematographer since Schindler's List.

We knew that Spielberg is great with young actors and he has done his usual sterling work with Jeremy Irvine as Joey's faithful friend Albert and most especially with Celine Buckman as Emilie, the beautiful and tragic young protector of Joey.  But one must add to this the evocative "acting" of the horses playing Joey and Topthorn.  Be it the work of handlers and experts, Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn have put the shots together so as to simulate acting that is more convincing than many a so-called human actor.

The climactic reunion between Albert and Joey is most frequently acted as ridiculous, sentimental, implausible.  Again, this demonstrates an ignorance of this classical mode of storytelling.  It is not meant to be journalism, nor is it meant to be startling or surprising.  The mechanics of the scene were carefully put in place in the first act (my wife and I remarked to each other that the particular device would doubtless return in Act III).  The genre is closer to fable or legend than to film realism.  That is not an accident -- it is a choice.

Not only is War Horse one of the best World War I films I have ever seen, making it clear what a price nearly every person in Europe paid for that bit of insanity: I would list it as one of Spielberg's five best films, with Empire of the Sun, Jaws, Munich and Duel.  Yes, it's a perverse list, but hey, this is my blog.  Make your own list on your own blog.