Saturday, August 28, 2010

Can there be love without memory?

That's the question posed by the Canadian film Away From Her (2006). Contrary to what you expect in a film centered around an Alzheimer's patient, the central crisis is experienced by the husband of the patient, who comes to doubt his own identity and reason for living when his wife no longer remembers how they loved.

So, despite the focus on Julie Christie, who still looks lovely and is unafraid to give an unsympathetic performance, the central character is played by a respected Canadian actor named Gordon Pinsent, who is quiet and decent and long-suffering, and helps make this the most Canadian movie you've ever seen. In fact, it's so Canadian, that it takes the audience to brink of a terrible truth--that Alzheimer's patients die before their death--and then it pulls back from that truth, afraid to frighten the audience.

We are the cumulative result of all our experience. We start with certain proclivities and perhaps predispositions (I can testify to that as a parent) and then time and events go to work on us and make us who we are. But Alzheimer's takes that process away, stripping identity and in the process, connections with other people. Many Alzheimer's patients become very unpleasant people because they cannot remember why they are connected to others, what they should feel towards them, what they owe them or what they used to provide for others. It is a terrible living death.

Away From Her toys with that, as Christie's character develops an attachment to another patient, then becomes moody and ill when that patient leaves the facility, utterly ignoring and neglecting her husband. Then, being a Canadian movie, Christie gets a little better and she hugs her husband, and the movie fades out before the really, really bad stuff comes. Phooey.

I would prefer utter and complete fantasy to this weak, mealy-mouthed skirting of the terrible possibilities in a story. One would think that, given the talent, the proximity to American resources and the potentially large North American audience, that Canadian film would be robust, certainly more robust than some lesser countries that have bigger film communities. Yes, I know that Hollywood constitutes a big drain, but Away From Her has drawn cast from Hollywood and England, so it can be done (especially with Atom Egoyan as an executive producer).

But if your films are going to come up to the edge of drama, of conflict, of strong feelings, and then skitter away from them and have a cup of cocoa, you are not going to have great film art. The only art form I know that Canadians excel in is polite, institutional, semi-classical theater--middlebrow and middleclass, just the thing to see after a nice lemon chicken and a Riesling.

I'm not saying that a film has to start with a multi-vehicle pile-up and a couple of guys whacking each other with two-by-fours to be good.* But until Canadians get comfortable with conflict, they are not going to be important players on the world film stage.

*If you've made a movie that starts that way, please do let me know.

Friday, August 27, 2010

It was a dark and stormy night...

The clip above contains numerous spoilers--it's really the denouement of the movie. But it also neatly demonstrates most of the virtues of The Spiral Staircase (1945) in one not-brief excerpt.

The film is a sort-of fusion between women's picture, 19th-century gaslight melodrama, early noir and Val Lewton-style horror, and old-dark-house thriller. What all of those genres boast is bravura black-and-white photography, which Spiral Staircase has in spades, as you can see in the clip. I wonder if this creepy staircase--which winds up being not as important as the title might suggest--remained lodged in Alfred Hitchcock's memory when he began working on Vertigo 12 or 13 years later.

Director Siodmak has great noir credits, but Spiral Staircase does not have the sense of fate, guilt or a hidden fretwork of evil that characterizes the best noir. It is a woman's melodrama, with a woman in jeopardy and a single evil man. Interestingly, the film changed the novel's original physically crippled heroine to a psychologically disturbed mute--a handicap which can (and is) overcome by the right circumstances. Still, it uses some excellent noir technique, especially the close-up on the killer's eyes before the killings we witness, which not only gives psychological focus but actually masks the identity of the killer. There is also a lot of dark and rain, which are noir tropes. The staircase could represent a place the heroine wants to go, but fears (such as marriage and sex). To get to the house with the staircase, you have to pass through a forest--with similar symbolic significances. And like noir, Spiral Staircase is less interested in mystery than it is in evil.

This film deserves to stay in the repertoire if only because of the fantasy sequence that begins at 0:51 minutes of the clip below. The music, the design and decoration, staging, camera placement and movement, sound treatment, all show the Hollywood machinery at full throttle (I can't help wondering if this house is made from bits of the sets for The Magnificent Ambersons) to convey a psychological crisis which precipitates the final resolution. Siodmak's work is fine, but one should not slight the dozens of crafts people who create such a richly detailed tapestry:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

How they killed THE MESSENGER

The Messenger (2010) is a brilliant 30-minute film about two men commanded to do an impossible, soul-destroying job. After that first 30 minutes, there is mixed up pile of melodrama and faux humor which discards the value of the work done at the outset.

That might be too extreme. As long as the film adheres to the specifics of casualty notification procedure, it retains a certain balance and tension between natural human inclinations and the protocol established, a protocol which has evidently proved effective in protecting family members and the persons serving in the notification unit. Yes, it's artificial, but it's proven to be safe.

Then apparently, someone said, "Well, let's see what happens when these experienced and loyal officers decide to toss out their training and discipline and act like any ordinary lunkhead." So one notifier strikes up a tentative romance with a widow (yecch!) and the other one falls off the wagon (after, evidently, many years on) and it all feels as though the scriptwriter was working away, getting the job done, then took a break, watched The Last Detail, and decided, "That's what we need--a lot of overcooked histrionic horse crap!"

One of the pleasures about stories about the military (this is especially true of the British military) is those moments when everyone involved knows that what is needed is the suppression of emotion and adherence to protocol. This fuels some of the best John Ford films, in which personal desire is sublimated to duty. The Messenger is indulgent in a way that seems like an outsider, a non-military person, imagining how they would act in this situation. Without any narrative destination, the movie walks around in a big circle, like a dog looking for a place to lie down, and goes to sleep.

There is no technique in the film to speak of. Long takes to let actors do their long, drawn-out thing. Other than letting the camera run there does not appear to be any awareness of the possibilities of film technique.

I don't want to sound callous. But officers value professionalism. And so do some filmmakers. But not the ones you see in this film.

Loneliness of the long distance killer

When did consciousness of the idea of film noir begin to affect filmmakers? There is a photo of Robert Aldrich in 1955 clutching a copy of Panorama du Film Noir, the first book-length work to address the subject. Certainly, Touch of Evil, made in 1958, seems self-consciously about its own style, but that may have more to do with Orson Welles than it does with noir.

The question comes somewhere in the 1960's--what is part of the original creative thrust of noir, and what is a self-conscious revival. And then one must separate the threads of which films are noir because that is the prevailing style of black-and-white crime films, and which films show evidence of having drunk the noir Kool-Aid. And I suppose if it's in color, such as Point Blank, it's neo-noir.

Clearly actor-director Allen Baron, knew what kind of film he was making with Blast of Silence (1961): A cheap but competently professional crime film suitable to be a calling card in the feature film business. An independent film scene was developing in New York at the time, most famously culminating in the films of John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke. The resulting films are mostly theatrical in origin (not based on plays, but using the personnel and techniques of theater, especially improvisation), self-conscious and relating to the edgier aspects of downtown New York life--jazz, interracial love, gangs, drug addiction.

Blast of Silence is not having any. In fact, Frank Bono (pronounced "bon-no") might like to be part of the downtown scene. He might like to be part of any scene. But he's from out-of-town, he's alone for the Christmas season, just here to execute a hit and split. Forget all those depressed hippies, Bono is the definition of alienated.

I haven't actually been hired to kill someone (yet), but I have been alone in a city for a number of days at a time, and the film captures the boredom and isolation of that situation. And when Bono does have the opportunity to reach out to someone else he fumbles it. Which makes his own death logically right. Zero minus zero, nothing lost, the universe is still in balance. Barron's non-acting suits this perfectly. (Peter Falk, originally cast, would have been terrible, too ingratiating, too needy. Barron is a cipher, albeit an unhappy one.) The overwritten second-person narration (reportedly by a blacklisted Waldo Salt) is irritating at first, but you learn to tune it out--I almost wish Criterion could issue a version of the film without it.

A great deal of the contemporary pleasure of this film is seeing the New York locations, the Village, 125th Street, Rockefeller Center as they looked in the very early 1960s--some recognizable, some not. Shooting quick and dirty on the streets of the city means you don't have to actually have a cinematographic style. Those brightly lit yet dingy streets give you a production design and a shooting style by themselves--foreground objects and low key lighting not necessary (as Sweet Smell of Success demonstrated). Although there is an awe-inspiring shot as Barron approaches us from a long perspective, tiny at first, then filling the frame (my guess is it's East 34th Street near that large diagonally-placed building that sits on the corner of 34th and Park.)

Barron doesn't seem to have a great psychological or sociological point. It's a simple tale, crisply told. The best-laid plans and all that. The points make themselves via the pictures. And this Blast of Silence might be the last pure blast of noir before self-consciousness sets in.

Friday, August 20, 2010

What? Apocalypse again?

As I write this post, the second sperm-donor-comedy is opening in theaters. (The Switch with Jennifer Aniston--don't look forward to a post about it.) The Book of Eli (2010) opened earlier this year as the second post-apocalyptic road movie, after The Road. Next to The Road's stripped-down elemental narrative of survival, The Book of Eli, with its action staging, dynamic protagonist and twist ending feels like Mad Max Goes to the Twilight Zone.

All of these films owe something to Sergio Leone, who took the vast and varied space of the American West, so dramatic and poetic in John Ford and turned into a blasted heath for an army of angry Lears to rail on. Strong, reticent heroes, reluctant to turn to violence until absolutely necessary, like Gary Cooper and Randolph Scott gave way to gun-toting sadistic psychopaths. For Washington and company, it's shoot first and ask questions later, strange for a character whose chief function in life is to safely transport a copy of the Bible. Sure, we had bible-thumping psychos before, most notably Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter. But he was the villain and an obvious hypocrite. Denzel is a sympathetic hero.

And what's with the religion thing? In a John Ford western, the church and the schoolhouse arrive with womenfolk, the end of the frontier, and the beginning of family life, stability, order. In Eli, the Bible introduces further mayhem, jealousy and covetousness.

The movie is one of those Sixth Sense deals that has an outrageous twist at the end that changes everything that went before it. Sixth Sense played by the rules. A second viewing reveals taht it never violated the story point that was revealed at the end. But although I have no desire to watch Book of Eli again to verify it, I am fairly sure that a number of the events and scenes in the movie are impossible or at least ridiculous in light of the final story twist.

It's not surprising given that this is also one of those movies that is so extensively treated in post-production--color drained, background elements CGI-ed in, that nothing in the film can be believed or trusted. And that is what is most disturbing about the fantastic possibilities of post-production CGI--nothing can be trusted, nothing can be relied on. If live-action film becomes no more convincing of its own reality than a fully-animated film, then why bother with it at all?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The road to . . . what?

Taste of Cherry (1997) could be titled "Several Conversations About The Same Thing," but that would make it sound tedious, when it is instead strangely riveting. Perhaps it is the question itself, or the very fact of that question being posed in an Islamic context. The question: Can suicide be a positive good? Obviously, the Qu'uran answers with a clear "no," clearer even than Judaism or Christianity.

But even more strangely riveting is the way these conversations are conducted. We are not sitting at a table as in My Dinner With Andre, nor trapped in a radio station as in Mother Ghost. Instead, the protagonist, Mr. Badii is driving around Tehran and environs in his Range Rover, meeting people and giving them rides as he asks their help with his suicide. The crunch of the gravel under the tires, the turn of the steering wheel, Badii's searching gaze, lend a hypnotic rhythm to his quest. Writer-director Abbas Kiarostami eschews hand-held, subjective or any sort of experimental shots in favor of rock-steady, smooth motion. Even Badii's careful hand-over-hand handling of the wheel contributes to an air of calm contemplation.

Although this film is cited as an inspiration for Goodbye Solo, it has nothing in common with it other than a car and thoughts of suicide. Whereas the would-be suicide in Solo has made his decision, and settles into a sour funk, Mr. Badii is on a spiritual quest, albeit one with a possibly negative conclusion. But Mr. Badii does not offer a reason for his desire to end his life, he shows no bitterness, exudes no air of failure or disappointment. He seems in search of a higher purpose to the ultimate act of negation.

He meets a number of other men in this journey, all of whom are engaged in significant work, even if it is dull or repetitive. All are making a contribution. The most engaged is the Turk, Mr. Bagheri, who works with his hands and appreciates the palpable physical pleasures that, to his way of thinking, God has made for his children to enjoy. And those joys should be enough, given that any pleasure, probably savored, bespeaks infinity. As seen in the illustration above, Mr. Bagheri's care for other people and appreciation of life seem to earn him entrance to the gates of Heaven. (They're actually the gates of the university, but I'll take a visual metaphor where I can get it.)

The film does not conclude, but merely stops, borrowing a Brechtian trick seen before in films such as O Lucky Man!, The Imposters, The Maids and even the films of Mel Brooks. I have no idea what it is supposed to mean in this context, but it is disappointing, because until then, Kiarostami was on the path to achieving the impossible, making a film, not of a story, but of the process of thinking and of making a decision.

And if this film depresses you, and it shouldn't, just swipe a plum from the fridge. There it is, all the goodness of the world. So sweet and and so cold.

Brain trust

For a film about the development of trust, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009) doesn't trust its audience very much. It turns out the lights, turns up the music, and bangs us over the head with some of the most grotesque and nauseating personal violence ever seen in a mainstream movie. It purports to condemn violence against women, then serves up a big steaming bowl of it, including attacks on and by the title character (who is not the central character).

Most of the film occupies that newly-established place bridging mystery, thriller and horror film, pioneered by Silence of the Lambs and continued with 7even. The addition of horror elements means not only horrific depictions of the murders, previously only described in more polite mysteries, but also violence upon one or more central characters, and thereby to be experienced by the audience.

That accretion of new genre conventions is almost necessary, because once the audience is past the preliminary investigation into piles of original documents and photos, the principal mystery becomes fairly easy to guess--I did so, and I'm terrible at solving mysteries. Thus, the final bursts of violence are perversely welcome after a long becalmed period, incorporating an improbably romance between the protagonist, a middle-aged reporter and the title character, a badly damaged young woman who has discovered a talent and passion for hacking. After that, there is a very limp resolution of the "outer" plot, in which the inner story has been nested. Thus, Dragon Tattoo has some unintended common ground with Inception, in their mutual Russian-nesting-doll structure.

The trust trope is thoroughly infused into the narrative: most institutions in this universe betray and degrade the people they are meant to serve. Government employees, businessmen, guardians of minors, lovers, fathers, brothers--none of them are trustworthy. It's a miracle that Blomqvist or Lisbeth can look anyone in the eye. And although the romance does not necessarily pan out, it's very existence, though brief, is a spiritual triumph.

The color palette is washed out as is de rigeur these days to indicate "atmosphere," and the production design is oppressively drab. Presumably this was deliberate--everyone seems desperate to find happiness or joy in this very bleak world. This movie's going to kill Swedish tourism.

Finally, although this is not a reflection on the film itself (which is what I try to confine myself to), one must applaud the producers' boldness in committing to filming the entire trio of mysteries at once. The Americanized version will not be done that way--there will be a slow, tentative stab at the initial installment, then a reluctantly made decision to go ahead, by which time the original actors and/or director will not be available, or perhaps the series will be abandoned incomplete due to the natural gutlessness of the American film finance market.

And will the villains in America be Nazis? That does not have the resonance in the States that it has for Europeans, who were faced with the actual option to join the party. American Nazis are fringe cuckoos. European Nazis could be either evil or careerists (like Herbert von Karajan).

But then driving out ambiguity is what American mainstream filmmaking is all about. At least they hired David Fincher for the remake, so we can hope.

Emergency! Everybody to get from stritt!

As it is August, and I would rather be in Maine, I pulled out an old friend, the movie The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming (1966) which reminds me of New England and of the summer in Maine when I first saw it. (I was surprised to learn it was shot in Sausalito, so accurate are the rickety little New England houses and stores built for the movie.) I loved the movie then and my inner 10-year-old still loves it, perhaps because the children are the only ones who behave sensibly while the adults run around like idiots. The art is in the varieties of hysteria exhibited by the denizens of a small New England island (based on Martha's Vineyard in the 50s) when they believe Russians have launched an attack.

My first reaction in re-watching it, is to wonder why Jewison didn't cast a stronger leading man as the writer played by Carl Reiner. Reiner was never successful as a star (his sitcom Head of the Family didn't work when he starred in it, only when it was recast with Dick Van Dyke). Dick Van Dyke would have been a logical choice--he was making a lousy picture for Walt Disney at the time that could have been postponed. Jack Lemmon would have been good, too.

But then I realized Reiner was the perfect choice, because he is actually second banana. The story is really about the submarine officer leading the landing party, and again director Norman Jewison exhibits his casting genius by bringing Alan Arkin to the screen for the first time, in the fully justified confidence that Arkin would more than carry the film--he would triumph. In this case, the movie is inconceivable with anyone but Arkin. I can't think of another comic actor of his generation who seeks so little approval from the audience, or even awareness of them. Like Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, he is fully absorbed in the task in which he is engaged and has no time for "business" or "takes." He just exists, unaware of and undistracted by the absurdities piling up around him. Yet, somehow, he is likeable, if only because of his earnestness and the way his essential competence has been tripped up by circumstance.

The film has the usual flaws of a film based on a script by William Rose: it is too long and redundant, with many scenes devolving into mere squabbling, without real comic bite or crispness. Rose has an interesting career, with a lot of almost-great work. He was an American living in England, and had his first hit with Genevieve, a sort of low-rent version of The Great Race, which exhibits his trademark over-talkativeness. Then came the brilliant Ladykillers (the original British version, puh-lease) and the charming Smallest Show On Earth, which should be better known to film-lovers, because it is about them. Then he seems to have run afoul of American producers, and the drift began. He wrote Scent of Mystery, a gimmick film in which clues were rendered as "Smell-O-Vision." Then came the grotesquely swollen It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a brilliant idea buried in mountains of dull dialogue. (I was going to call it pedestrian, but that would be unsuitable for a road movie.) Then Russians, The Flim-Flam Man, a not-bad con movie with George C. Scott and Guess Who's Coming for Dinner, for good or ill, and again with the redundant dialogue. What Rose could have done with a good editor or co-writer!

Back to Russians: I have seen criticism of this movie on a political basis; that it establishes a moral equivalency between the US and the Soviet Union. This is the kind of irony that's hard to pull off. To judge this film that way is to make exactly the same mistake made by the hysterical ninnies in the movie. This movie is not about dreaded Soviet invaders. (Why is it that today's conservatives can't remember that Ronald Reagan's dream was not to defeat the Soviets, but to negotiate disarmament with them?) The movie is about a poor cluck who has an idiot for a boss, and idiot who made a problem (running the sub aground) which he now has to fix. Clearly, they have no interest in ideology or conquest. Arkin and his crewmates are just trying to keep their heads down and get their jobs done--just like anyone else in this predicament. Soviet Communism was not like a terrorist cell, or some other tiny group of fanatics. It was a huge bureaucracy, and the process of surviving under one of those is universal and essentially apolitical.

And it is good to see Norman Jewison unafraid of letting broad actors do their broad stuff. Paul Ford, Tessie O'Shea, Ben Blue (forever chasing his horse "Beatrice"), Jonathan Winters, Michael J. Pollard--this is one of the biggest servings of ham ever put on film. Today, directors mostly have two modes: (a) fear of actors, so they are never given an opportunity to do what they can, because their performance has been cut into tiny shards of film, and composited like a Byzantine mosaic; or (b) over-solicitousness of actors, so that the camera zooms in on each quivering eyelid and pulsing cheek muscle in long-long takes of nothingness. Jewison and his actors were old enough to remember the last stages of vaudeville (Jewison started in television variety programming) and knew that actors like these need space and time to do what they can do. Then Jewison places Brian Keith as the quiet, still center of the movie which heightens all the lunacy around him.

Incidentally, this is one of the few films or plays (The Importance of Being Earnest is the most important example) that observes the Rob Lockhart Terminal Title Drop Rule (by which rule, once the title is stated, the film, play, novel, what-have-you Must End Immediately). In the case of Russians, it's hilarious.

And--I can testify from seeing the film with audiences over the years--the movie still stimulates laughter. Laughter--how can I explain what that was...See, in the old days, in comedies, instead of people merely performing bodily functions or saying the baby words for them (which excites hysterical laughter in 2-year-olds of all ages), they actually did things that were funny and made you laugh, which Wikipedia says is "an audible expression or the appearance of happiness or an inward feeling of joy (laughing on the inside)."

Oh yeah, joy.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

If I did know Carl La Fong, I wouldn't admit it

I had a bad night last night. Think I could use a little nap.

Spiritual quest porn

Back to basics: Movies are pictures. They do pictures well. They even do pictures of things that are better experienced than viewed: hence there are successful movies about sex and food. But pictures do not reveal depths of meaning. There is no accurate picture of the inside of the mind. Sure, you can have voice-over narration, but that still needs to be concise and pithy in a way that naturally reduces and homogenizes a complex task like a spiritual journey. As Liz Gilbert, protagonist of Eat Pray Love (2010) says to her friend Richard (see illustration), "Do you always talk in bumper stickers?" The whole script is sort of a bumper script pasted onto a Range Rover taking the viewer on a marvelous journey which is less than the sum of its parts.

One symptom of the problems with this film is that never once does it explain how Liz is living for this 12-month quest. Pains are made to tell you that her bitter ex-husband has taken all her money and her house. Let's see, broke and homeless--time to travel around the world! What?? I've been gainfully employed for many years and only just got to Paris a couple of years ago, and then for just a few days. My wife tells me that the book explains that this whole one-year sojourn was on assignment. Not only does the film omit that, but it omits any sequences indicating that she is writing. She sends a couple of desultory e-mails, but as for being a disciplined professional, dependent on her skills to make a living, it is typical of the Hollywood fantasy machine that all that icky real-life stuff is overlooked. Even worse, the filmmakers seem to be unaware that anyone would want to know such things. Or else, they just don't care if we believe in the story they're telling. (Which is a hint that they don't believe it either. Sad for a story based on real life.)

Ryan Murphy comes from television and seems to believe that filmmaking is nothing but script and acting. He does not seem to be aware of how the camera, the editor or the composer could help him tell his story--it is hard to see if his technique is invisible or non-existent.

Frankly, only the first part of the film is executed with complete confidence, as it focuses on food and sex, albeit Liz abstains from the sex herself. Nonetheless, the sexual vibes are pervasive, along with red sauce and red wine. It begins to lose its bearings when it gets to India, where everyone is eager for Liz to have a spiritual experience, especially Richard, played by Richard Jenkins, a wonderful actor who almost makes this character seem to be a person, although the writer has given him nothing but a propensity to give unsolicited advice. He has a teary monologue about being a drunk and NOT hurting his kid. That gives you a clue to the kind of stakes the movie likes to play with--everything is close to being real, but just doesn't get there.

Everyone else who has the key to spiritual enlightenment in India seems to be English--Michael Cumpsty and Sophie Thompson. But the key seems to be held by a magic elephant who appears, rather delightfully to tie up that sequence. (There is an Indian wedding, but those are getting to be a dime a dozen in movies these days.)

Finally, the film arrives in Bali and its willpower completely collapses. Liz falls into a blindingly predictable romance with Javier Bardem, who is both Natural Man and Brilliant Businessman. She shows she is now strong and independent by shying away from his romantic proposition, then seeing her spiritual advisor and then accepting. How disappointing--she learns that her problem is that she has to learn how not to be with a man all the time. So she goes out and finds a man to be with. Problem solved. It feels like a bad Audrey Hepburn movie once removed.

Which takes us to the principal asset of Eat, Pray, Love. Julia Roberts is made to be in movies. Her large expressive features are completely legible at all times, and although she is not bad at delivering lines, the movie is better when it is most quiet, focusing on food, landscapes, sunsets, ocean views and Julia's big brown eyes. It doesn't get deeper than that, but since I couldn't afford an August vacation this year, this will have to do.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Requiem for lost innocence

Watched Brick (2005) again; ordinarily I see it as part of the syllabus of my film course, but we didn't get to it this year, more's the pity. But I had family members who really needed to catch up on their film knowledge and see this brilliant comment-pastiche of film noir, set in a Southern California high school and starring the always fine Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

There's a lot to be said about how it uses and plays with the conventions of the genre. But watching it this time, I was really struck by the music score. Because the film was made with a very low budget, and the composer is the director's cousin, I had not given the score sufficient attention or respect.

Listen to the first theme in the music video posted above, "Emily's Theme." The instrumentation is strange--the melody instrument, whatever it is, cannot sustain, so it substitutes rapidly repeated notes for sustained sound, like a mandolin, balalaika or xylophone. It is like Emily herself, who does not have lasting power. But she haunts, she reverberates, like the echoing notes of the melody. If you listen to the entire video, every piece of music is original, not imitated from anything, except perhaps the faintest traces of Morricone. Some of it is just pure texture, as is often true of film scores, but there is a high proportion of melody, higher than is usual in film, especially in contemporary and low-budget film.

I became a fan of Rian Johnson with Brick, and although his career has been slightly disappointing since, I still anticipate each new project and hope to be astonished again. Re-examining Brick, it is still a film of numerous pleasures, whether its compositions, its strange patois and wonderful dialogue rhythms, the nuanced and balanced performance of Gordon-Levitt and the cast; but now I am a fan of Rian Johnson, and I will definitely be following his career going forward.

Monday, August 16, 2010

They blowed up good

Only Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok could do justice to The Expendables (2010). Those were the guys who rated films on the basis of whether things "blowed up real good."

Really, there is no way to be analytical about a movie like this. It is there to deliver speed, noise and surprise the way a pancake is, fundamentally, a maple syrup delivery vehicle. The only question is whether the speed, noise and surprise is delivered in sufficient quantities.

The film doesn't even bother to ground itself in any sort of political (or temporal or physical) reality. There is a Latin American dictator doing unspecified bad things under the direction of a bad American gazillioinaire for unspecified reasons, but you can just tell they are Bad by Looking At Them. (This is not the kind of political thinking we want to encourage, but at least it's not as damaging as the Rambo series which people were encouraged to think was relevant to Southeast Asia. I'm not aware that we have big issues in Latin America right now, so we can dump on them with impunity, I guess.) And the mayhem and stunts precede therefrom. Sure, nobody is actually surfing on a missile or KO'ing a helicopter with a Crown Vic, as in Live Free and Die Hard, but they don't make much more sense than that.

For example, it's never explained why this dictator--given that he has an entire army at his disposal--doesn't just turn around and have the superbaddy (played atrociously by Eric Roberts) killed. Yes, he'll have to sacrifice a few drug connections, but I'm pretty sure that if you have the drugs and an army, you can make connections. Oh, sorry, I was trying to find sense in a movie that has characters named Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and Ying Yang (Jet Li). And an automated weapon that seems to shoot surface-to-air missiles without any evident recoil.

Even on its own terms, it sometimes comes up short. What has happened to the master shot? You know, the shot from a certain distance that allows the audience to orient itself and figure out who is putting their fist into the middle of who's face. Why do editors think that a fight without any context is interesting? I suppose there are sports fans who will watch any damn game that is on, but most of us want to have a rooting interest, which the master-less sequence denies us, because we have no idea what is going on. It is a challenge to come up with something to think about during these fight scenes that won't be too distracting once the story of the movie resumes.

Moreover, the lack of master shots even makes the stunts look fake and ineffective. In one particularly notable example, Stallone leaps sideways to catch onto the opening of a plane which is taking off, and hangs from it sideways, Buster Keaton-style. Except that they cut quickly from the master of the stunt man running and leaping to a studio mock-up of Sly hanging sideways, just like a cheesy-60s movie, and although someone probably did a great stunt, the urge to cut to Sly's face completely destroyed its credibility.

Don't get me wrong. We had fun at the movie, especially when the loud noises shut down the rational parts of the brain. There is some banter, much of it terribly lame and stale, although surprisingly, wrestler Randy Couture has the best of it. Jason Statham is awarded the greatest degree of character development via a girlfriend who has acquired a bad boyfriend, who Statham has to beat up. Thus, relationships with women is about protection and possession. Great. The other characterizations boil down to a sentence: Jet Li needs more money for his family, Randy Couture has a cauliflower ear, Terry Crews likes big guns, Dolph Lundgren is a bigoted junkie (but he gets better). But Mickey Rourke doesn't need any lines to project his weird, damaged-looking variety of cool, and this is a movie that is, like the women that these sort of men prefer, better when it is not talking.

Don't try to think, don't try to philosophize, just run around, throw knives, shoot guns, punch people in the face and pour on some extra gasoline for the really big boom.

Update on Inception:

There are some excellent discussions of Inception at a blog hosted by the Sun-Times called Scanners (see link in my blogroll). You can read them here, here and here. Especially remarkable when the author of the site doesn't care for the film much.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Music for the deaf

There are a lot of good things in the film version of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter (1968) some of which I'll get to, but perhaps the most significant is right up front, when the Warner Bros. - 7 Arts logo begins the credits. The film dates back to the long-forgotten days when the major distributors were still interested in making good films, no matter their size, and no matter if they weren't necessarily Oscar-bait.

It's based on a novel by Carson McCullers, who is best remembered today for Member of the Wedding, due to both the fine film version and the continuing life of the play in the theater. Like Member, but instead of an innocent girl, it is a deaf-mute men who manages to touch the lives of everyone around him without really being known himself. There is also a young girl (presumably a surrogate for McCullers), who finally makes a connection with John Singer (ironic name, that), played sensitively by Sondra Locke, an actress who never impressed me otherwise, here making her film debut.

Alan Arkin's portrayal of Singer demonstrates his usual total absorption and complete lack of narcissism as an actor. It speaks well of American film that he was a movie star for a while, and is still a dean of acting. For a character who must indicate his thoughts, he never indicates his performance. I have to admit a personal satisfaction with the performance of kiddie show host Chuck McCann as the town's other deaf-mute, who, despite his limited mental capacity, has become a brother to Singer.

A few things to celebrate in the film: the eminently practical music of Dave Grusin. By practical, I mean that each music cue has a clearly defined function, moving us from place to place, whether literally or in terms of character. So much instrumental film music is poured over a movie like syrup, drowning everything in its wake, especially clear emotions and transitions. Another is the unfussy depiction a self-acknowledged, unrepentant drunk with a streak of chivalry by Stacy Keach, Jr. (His father was still working in those days--he can be seen as a scientist on Get Smart.) And another is the offbeat casting of Cicely Tyson, who quickly became a Noble Self-Sacrificing Black Woman, but here is an impulsive, loving, sometimes self-absorbed, hot-headed but generous girl on the way to becoming a woman.

And then there is this marvelous cross-fade. We don't see cross-fades in movies much anymore. They used to represent a passage of time and were very useful, especially for giving the audience time to breathe and reflect, something they're not called to do anymore. The one I'm thinking of begins with one of those lightboxes doctors use to read X-ray photos. The X-ray photo in question shows that the one doctor in town who will serve blacks will soon be dead. The image of the bones and organs and that ominous black dot dissolve into a strange organic fretwork which gradually becomes green with sunlight pouring through, and we see that it is the underside of the canopy of a large tree, probably an oak, and the camera tilts down to begin the next scene. If you can picture that rhythmic device in your mind, you can begin to conjure this film from a time which has disappeared about another time before, also long gone.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Paris, actually

Paris (2008) feels like another attempt to employ the Love Actually template to tell parallel stories which will converge, at least spiritually, if not in fact. In this case the hub is Paris rather than love, but both films are about battling loneliness.

The model might go back farther, to Grand Hotel, with its doomed petty clerk going to spend the time and money he has left in Berlin. In this case, a dying dancer feels himself withdrawing from the world, yet the world keeps rubbing up against him, and the people of it against each other. I suppose only a Parisian would anchor such a film to terminal illness; this is not Funny Face or Amelee, but finally there are some chance connections that make baby steps toward something more substantial.

The music is Satie, and that seems just right. Serious, reflective, but not heavy or dramatic. The professor who ambles into a foolish affair is given too much time to pontificate about French history--that point could be made much more quickly. There is that Parisian rarity--snow. Juliette Binoche is allowed to look a tired, lonely and bedraggled mother of two small children--a shocking misuse of a great natural resource. And one half-hour from the end there is an enchanting, if somewhat artificial, interlude that reminds one of a scene from Fellini, as fashionistas invade the wholesale meat market just before dawn to tease and flirt with the big strong men who haul and butcher meat. There seems to be some kind of liberation that comes with that early/late hour, and the film breaks free of its straightforward editing style and begins to skip and lark about a bit.

I appreciate that all the characters do not perfectly intersect in a marvelous complex culmination that is a glory of the screenwriters art, but has nothing to do with life as lived on this planet. Still, after all, our observing and observant central character draws no conclusions from all the dramas that pass by his windows, and we never learns if he lives or dies. C'est la vie.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Everybody get off here

As best I can tell, novelist James Parini and film writer-director Michael Hoffman intended The Last Station (2009) to be an investigation of how people maintain long and often difficult marriages. It is meant to be a paean to enduring love. Unfortunately it is as packed with useless clutter as a 19th-century dacha which cloud the virtues of the project.

First, they confuse the audience by casting James McAvoy to play the same role he played in The Last King of Scotland, goggle-eyed witness to the eccentricities of the celebrated. In order to give him an actual role, they concoct a 20th-century woman for him to fall in love with, then whisk her offstage, failing to disguise what an empty story line she represents. Then Hoffman cast, in the place of two thoughtful complicated people, two of the biggest theatrical hambones on the planet. Mind you, I think they are wonderful actors, but subtle they ain't.

Christopher Plummer plays Tolstoy as if he were looking for a proscenium to climb and some scenery to chew on, and Helen Mirren's character alternates between being an overprivileged whiner, an elderly paranoid crackpot, and a sex-crazed lady of a certain age who thinks she's still 16, especially when she jumps in the lake because she's not getting enough attention. Moreover, Tolstoy does not appear to be a great novelist but an old-time barnstorming actor, and the Countess was his manager. The Tolstoyans thus come off not as ascetics but groupies. The fine and often subtle Paul Giammati has been called upon to make a grumpy infant face and pound his fist on the table a lot. The whole thing looks as if the cast had slipped from the director's control, which, given his mediocre track record (Restoration, One Fine Day and the worst version of Midsummer's Night Dream on film, and that includes the one with Mickey Rooney).

The one commendable aspect is the physical production, largely due to being so low budget, which forced shooting in East Germany, and the use of pre-existing theater costumes rather than new built. Everything looks a bit lived-in, as is right and proper.

The final encounter, the title event of the piece, is expressly designed to short-circuit dramatic confrontation. This famous man decides to run away until he gets sick; his momentarily-estranged wife follows, and do they have a tender reconciliation? No, because history must be observed, and Tolstoy was too sick to really talk with his wife or understand much of what was going on. He dies (and oh, by the way, for no good reason, McAvoy's randy girlfriend pops up again to cheer him up).

If they hadn't been stuck with Tolstoy, they might have invented a tempestuous older couple with plenty of sturm and drang in their relationship, and they would have had the freedom to resolve their story any way they liked. Instead, they serve up this tepid porridge slathered over with outrageous overacting, which is the perfect recipe for the middlebrow cultural snob hit.

Too bad, because the theme of maintaining love between two strong people over 50 or 60 years is an excellent subject, and I hope somebody does make a good movie about that some day.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The vehicle

Years ago, in the Classical Hollywood days, there was a thing called a vehicle, which was a film (or a play or whatnot) which existed solely to display the skills, or charisma or what-have-you of the star. It was not meant to be cinema art or social content. It was just: here's a star--like her and you'll like the movie.

Vehicles may be for established stars, although nowadays producers are more likely to get hold of a script, then attract the interest of a star, then get the script rewritten to suit the star. (In the old days, they could write for the star in advance, since she was under term contract and rarely could turn a studio assignment.) And then the most antique item of all, the vehicle created to introduce a new star. Often this was a star from another entertainment medium--the stage, radio, recordings, flea circus, what-have-you. In the 50's New York and London stage sensation Audrey Hepburn was deliberately introduced in Roman Holiday, one of the best vehicles ever created, and inconceivable without her.

But this has been a less reliable process with singers. In the 30s, radio singer Kate Smith was introduced with a film called Hello Everybody! (her catch phrase) so that everyone could get a look at her. They did, and Hello Everybody was Kate Smith's last starring vehicle. Paramount spent a while trying to turn the excellent singer Rosemary Clooney into a movie star, and that didn't catch either. In recent years we have had vehicles for Mariah Carey, Britney Spears (remember--she used to sing, not just parade her corpulent self) and Kelly Clarkson. None of the latter presaged a movie career (although Mariah Carey did a great surprise job of acting in Precious).

But they keep trying. Somebody evidently asked comic and beginning screenwriter Craig Ferguson if we would create such a thing for the Welsh sensation Charlotte Church. He obliged, writing a decent part for himself which would not upstage the ingenue, and named it I'll be there (2003), taking the title from the Four Tops song "Reach Out." There's not a lot to be said about the film. It's a pleasant time-filler with a lot of engineering involved to explain how Glaswegian Ferguson can be father to a girl with a thick Welsh accent. There's a touch of quirky-small-British-town comedy, some funny old-rocker-burnout humor. Ferguson does a pretty professional job, beginning with a well-conceived long tracking shot which literally places Church's singing talent in a church, where it was nurtured. If nothing else, former wildman Ferguson proved that he could be domesticated when necessary, and he has since been rewarded by the showbiz gods. This is not to say I think he's a sellout--at the moment he is wickedly deconstructing the very notion of the late night chat show. It's just that he has demonstrated he knows when to turn the wacky off and on. (Which is a sub-theme of the movie.)

Ms. Church has not launched into a movie career, and she was not robbed. She plays herself pleasantly, and sings very well and without the kind of ridiculous affectation that infect other classical-pop crossovers, like the wobbly-voiced Andrea Bocelli or the stratospheric voiced Anya and her imitators. That's OK.

Everybody famous is not entitled to a movie career.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The kids are not the problem

What writer-director Lisa Cholodenko has done in The Kids Are All Right (2010) is one of the oldest story-telling tricks, notwithstanding how nimbly it has been done. Howard Hawks pulled it off in His Girl Friday and cop shows like The Closer have been doing it for years: take an oft-told story and change the gender of one pivotal character.

Look, here's an idea for a movie: an adopted child reaching 18 wants to meet her natural father. The adoptive parents resist it, but finally give in. The natural father begins to integrate into the family, and finds a supportive, positive role for himself. The adoptive mother feeling bored and neglected, drifts into a relationship with the adoptive father. This almost wrenches the family apart, but the outsider is barred and the rest muddle through.

You've seen that movie, right? Or if not that one exactly, close enough to be bored by the idea. So let's make the couple lesbians, and make the natural father a sperm donor. Now we're interested. Why is that? Is it the sex? Certainly the implication that all a tired neglected lesbian needs is a quick hop into bed with a man is questionable and uncomfortable. Actually, awkward is the keynote of the film. The first meeting between Mark Ruffalo and his sperm-donor-kids was an essay in awkward worthy of The Office. And so, making the parents a lesbian couple just amps up the awkward. But just to make sure that the folks buy tickets to the movie, one casts heterosexual actresses. (The movie even makes an intramural joke about it as Jules disdains lesbian porn, "They use straight actresses and the lack of authenticity...")

These types of films tend to be all script and acting, that is, the technique is fine but unremarkable, because the director is much more focused on content than expression. However, I do want to point out a couple of remarkable moments. First, in the scene when Ruffalo and Moore have their first sexual encounter, it appears that the director uses shorter and shorter lenses as the scene progresses. The effect, especially in over-the-shoulder shots is to (apparently) shove the characters closer and closer to each other until they cannot help but fall into each other's arms. Odd how, while I did not anticipate that story turn at the outset, it seemed inevitable once Moore and Ruffalo were alone together. (Wishful thinking from someone who sees too many indie films?)

The other is the moment after Nic (Bening) has discovered her partner's infidelity, but must return to a family meal and preserve the niceties. Now the lens is very wide, very close, but the conversation becomes aurally distant, echo-y with a steady ringing, until Nic pulls herself together and returns to the room. I have had precisely that sensory experience upon receiving news I had difficulty accepting. That distance and ringing was perfect.

The scene in which a character receives life-shattering news--most commonly that of betrayal such as infidelity--that might be an interesting blog post in and of itself.

Speaking of blog posts, Kristen Taylor and David Bordwell, the best analytical thinkers about film around has been really captivated by Inception and have written about it brilliantly here. Read it, and if you don't regularly check their blog (the link is in my list on the right-hand column), you should.

Friday, August 6, 2010

How to be an American

James Stewart made Destry Rides Again (1939) right after Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, confirming his new identity as the ideal American. Marlene Dietrich had just finished a long run of playing the exotic foreign temptress, and with this film began a new phase of her career, as a good old gal, always up for a good time, even if she has a Kraut accent. Director George Marshall had been working steadily, but with little distinction since his stint with Laurel & Hardy early in the decade. After Destry, he was identified as a major comedy director, working with Bob Hope, Lewis & Martin and Lucille Ball. Interestingly enough, he was rarely called on for Westerns, other than How The West Was Won. What is it about this film that made all the stars align?

A lot of those qualities are evident in the long clip I posted above, almost a whole reel long. First, you are struck with the lavish and handsome production, especially for a cheap outfit like Universal in 1939. That has to be one of the largest saloon sets this side of Warner's Errol Flynn epics. It is lit and shot with a lot of depth and variety, depth of field being used to delineate characters through the complex staging. The acting is full-throated, based in vaudeville rather than the Actor's Studio. Most of the actors are content to play simple types (especially Charles Winninger as the sheriff) so as to throw the leading roles into stronger relief. Everyone on hand is thoroughly familiar with the conventions of the genre, and rather than subvert them, as in Blazing Saddles, overplays them. This approach demonstrates a greater trust in the audience's ability to discern the contrast between the conventions of the genre and Destry's unconventional behavior (not to mention Frenchy's), as opposed to Brooks's whack-'em-on-the-head treatment.

I read on the Interwebs that the script bears no relation to the Max Brand workaday cowboy novel it is based on, so clearly the filmmakers set out to have some fun, and the producers were hoping to come up with a new brand for studio star Dietrich by borrowing Jimmy Stewart from MGM to have some of his all-Americanness rub off on her. It worked, though I suspect that this character was a lot closer to Dietrich's own off-screen personality than the oogie-boogie voodoo lady they had made her into at Paramount.

Stewart's Destry feels likes a precursor of the James Garner persona: practical, unromantic, but affable. He is, in short, like Jefferson Smith, our idealized image of ourselves as Americans. Frenchie, Marlene Dietrich's role, has absorbed some of that in her time in the States, but as can be seen in the clip above, she is still passionate and excitable, and she will pay for that passion as the story goes on. So we see that European-ness cannot survive in the West--which symbolizes the entire American experiment--while patience and a good-humored tolerance for the differences among us provide the survival tools we will need.

So while this is a "town and saloon" Western--not one set against the landscape or against the hostility of the natives, it still has something to say about who we are and what we should be, especially in this war year of 1939. Perhaps that is why it is so appropriate for Dietrich to be "Frenchie." The name, I presume, comes from the locals, who figure all Europeans are interchangeable, and that a dance-hall girl (Hollywood code for prostitute) should be French. But it is also appropriate that she bears the name of the French, who proved to be utterly unprepared for what would come in the War and suffered for it.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Rabbit hole of madness

Seeing Downfall (2004) just a few weeks after seeing Five Minutes of Heaven, and a few months after The Experiment, I am tempted to conclude that director Oliver Hirschbiegel is the master of small, confined spaces. And here is Hitler, who dared to try and conquer half the world, confined to a rabbit warren under Berlin. Yet he shows no surprise or bitterness, just the tired demeanor of an old sick man who knowingly gambled and lost. Doesn't make him any less mad, just not as delusional as one would be tempted to think.

These madmen and women are trying to reassert their perverse versions of everyday human values. Hitler marries as foreplay to the ecstasy of shared suicide. Goebbels' wife kills her magazine-cover lederhosen-clad super-Aryan-children, telling them that poison is medicine, then waiting calmly for her husband to shoot her before shooting himself. Thus are decent people kept decent before the dirty alien hordes arrive. The point is, everyone feels boxed in--despite the fact that they have brought this all down on themselves--and the film reflects that physical and mental claustrophobia superbly. Production information reveals that sets were built without "wild" walls--those are walls which can be removed to accommodate better or wider camera angles. Instead, the bunker was reconstructed exactly and the cameras had to cope with whatever they could.

Tellingly, no other perspective is presented, other than a few soldiers left defending the city who are eventually brought into the world of the bunker. There is no parallel Allied story, or that of ordinary citizens of Berlin. It is all myopia and literally a mile wide. But there is little ranting, other than the impatient squawk of a tired old man. The madness is quiet, and clear-eyed enough to recognize that the reckoning has come. And perhaps that's the most frightening thing. These people were not visibly any madder than people we meet all the time. The young secretary who provides the point of view was an ordinarily decent person, looking for a good government job.

Incidentally, Downfall has become the subject of a YouTube phenomenon, in which footage of Bruno Ganz as Hitler is re-titled to react to some new pop-culture phenomenon. Most of these contain (subtitled) language not appropriate to this website, but the idea is undeniably funny. More suitable for a film blog, here is a StarTrek II/Downfall mashup I enjoyed:

This sort of thing, along with Mel Brooks's The Producers represents our final triumph over Hitler. We no longer tremble at him, monster though he was. Now he is small and ridiculous and silly--the type of thing that would hurt him the most. Would that we had the perspective to the same to Al Queda and similar threats--see them for the pipsqueaks they are.