Saturday, September 24, 2011

On Movie Stars and Hands in Jars

The above image will START to explain the title of this post, anyway. Point is, I have two new reviews up at Battleship Pretension, and I have been remiss in sharing them. The first is of the amicable, if not exceptional, Moneyball by the might-be-great-someday director Bennett Miller. I found his Capote to be similarly bland, directionally, though he's now two-for-two in bringing out great performances from his leading men. Not a major accomplishment when dealing with Philip Seymour Hoffman (who also co-stars, rather ineffectually, in Moneyball), but Brad Pitt has a surprisingly uneven track record as a leading man. In fact, looking at it now, this is only the second time I thought he's actually given a truly great lead performance*, for reasons detailed in the linked review.

On the other end of the equation, I gushed for many, many words about The Criterion Collection's outstanding release of all of Jean Vigo's films, titled appropriately enough, The Complete Jean Vigo. As I said, my gushing knew no bounds there, so I will keep it necessarily bounded here. Other than to say if you've never seen Vigo's work, life's about to get a little sweeter.

*The first was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and you can just suck on it if that's not good enough for you. Or read my lengthier, more well-worded rational, here. Also, he was not the lead in Fight Club, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Seven, or probably any other movie about which you're ready to say "well, clearly you haven't seen..." though I welcome all attempts to the contrary.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Help (dir. Tate Taylor)

There has, unsurprisingly, been a lot of discussion surrounding The Help since its release. Movies about race tend to do that. There have been the usual claims that it's another movie about whitey saving the black folk (although the film makes great pains to not come across that way, and I really don't think it does). There have been issues of representation - are the black people too saintly or just saintly enough? And perhaps more importantly, there's been debate about whether making a comedy about mid-century race relations in Mississippi is a good idea at all.

All that is sort of besides the point to me. My big beef with the film - along with several smaller beefs - is that it doesn't give racism its due.

Now let me explain. Racists be crazy, we know that. But there has long existed a strand of institutionalized racism in this country, and when people use that term "institutionalized racism" they're not talking about the institution like the government's an institution. It's not as though someone laid down the law and all the white people kind of sit around saying "I know, this segregation's a bitch, but what'll you do?" It was an institution because nearly everyone was onboard with it. Undoubtedly there were some people who bowed to public pressure because they're trying to keep up appearances or wanted to fit in or hey life's hard enough as it is without doing the whole changing the world thing and sometimes you just want a decent meal and to keep the electricity on. But for the most part? That was an ugly scene, man. But The Help would have you believe that NO ONE in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s was totally down with the whole racism thing except for ONE PERSON, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard, playing somewhere in the key of Timothy Dalton in Hot Fuzz), who must have some sort of unimaginable power over the residents because she's managed to convince all of them to go along with this whole racism idea of hers. All except that damn feminist!

The story nominally centers around Skeeter (Emma Stone), a recent college grad who just landed a job as a journalist, in her quest to give voice to the long-suffering maids of Jackson, though she doesn't really have much of a story here herself. Her purpose is purely political - she's there to convince us we'd be just like that if we lived back then, and to assure the viewer that the filmmakers don't believe these racist things the characters are saying, because look here's this nice independent liberal woman who agrees with 2011 sensibilities and rolls her eyes at all this other silliness. Dramatically, her role is as the vehicle in which we travel to visit the maids - chiefly Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) - or the racists, or all the nice people who just can't wait for Skeeter to get the word out that black people are people too so that they can finally come out and say the same thing. It's as though, by the end, everyone suddenly woke up and said, "my goodness, the 1960s are here!"

There are other more objective, dramatic issues with the film. For instance, just to make sure Hilly isn't the only one we'll have, we're given Minny's abusive husband, who exists entirely offscreen, lest he take on the qualities of, y'know, a person. That'd be complicated. Then there's an extended, frequently referred to bit of quite literal bathroom humor that, were it a part of a Farrelly brothers film (and it would not be out of place), would earn derision from the very crowd who here celebrated it. But perhaps that's speculation on my part. Maybe what I meant to say is that it wasn't funny the first time, nor the nineteenth time the movie makes a joke about the same freaking incident. Don't these people have anything more important to talk about? There's also the scene in which Skeeter completely rips into her date, who despite being a bit of an ass, probably at least deserved the consideration of a conversation. And I'd appreciate this bit as a nice little character flaw on Skeeter's part - maybe she's a bit of a hothead? - if the film didn't leave a beat for the audience to cheer.

On the whole, the Tate Taylor's direction is an abomination that would make Stanley Kramer rise from the dead to join Paul Haggis in saying, "miiiiight wanna hold back a little there." Every opportunity for subtlety is completely glossed over - Hilly is absolute evil and Skeeter is absolute good. Pure and simple, and even the slightest suggestion otherwise would totally undermine what we're going for here, which is the oh-so-daring message that racism is bad. At least Kramer and Haggis had the guts to tackle the subject in their own time, and with characters that had some semblance of dimension. Taylor's direction is flat and uncompelling, barely a step above Judd Apatow aesthetically and near the bottom of the barrel emotionally. I know there are those out there for whom this created a grand emotional swell, but I simply can't get that worked up when the film can't give me an actual person to root for or against while actively denying the very real stakes that would have been present in this setting. It's no great victory defeating the concept of racism when that entire struggle is waged against a single person.

I swear the movie would have you believe Hilly invented racism, and as of 1960, was its sole proponent, so if we can just do away with her this whole misunderstanding would clear right up! Even her ancient mother (Sissy Spacek), who probably knew people who fought for the Confederacy, just adores the maids in that homespun racist sort of way (and the film urges us to laugh along with, and celebrate, a character who not too long ago had Minny fanning her with a newspaper, with absolutely no sense of irony about the whole thing). In one scene, one of Hilly's friends even tries to speak up on her own maid's behalf, and Hilly just keeps shutting her down like an abusive husband.

I don't have a problem with light, frilly entertainment, but I do think it's immoral and irresponsible to present something so complex, volatile, and still relevant so simply. The film's treatment of racism is too pat for a force that continues to drive at the way this country operates. It's a nice enough way to introduce a 7-year-old to the concept, I suppose, but no adult should accept the ideological undertones of the film. Sure, it makes mention of the KKK and of other people, somewhere over there, committing horrible acts based solely on the color of a person's skin, but the people in your neighborhood, the ones you go to church with? Oh, they'd never do that. Look at how nice they are! They might be a little curt, but that's only because life's stressful sometimes and they are so very Southern. But give them time, talk reasonably to them, and they'll understand. The film doesn't quite end on a note of "and none of that was ever a problem again!" but it seems to suggest it's only a few years down the line (just as soon as Mighty Liberal Skeeter puts a stake through Hilly's heart...or something).

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Contagion (dir. Steven Soderbergh)

This will be no great insight, particularly since I heard it from the man himself in an interview, but Steven Soderbergh has a distinct preoccupation with the process of various professions. Whether it be something as entertaining as the process of a heist in the Ocean's films, the process of raising your profile in the prostitution game in The Girlfriend Experience, or especially the process of a revolution in Che, Soderbergh loves examining skilled people at work.

So it was for that reason (not to mention my delicate stomach in exploring the inner workings of the human body) that I was delighted to discover that his movie about disease outbreak, Contagion, is more about the process of containing and eliminating a deadly virus than about exploiting its effects. Aside from a show-stopping moment for Gwyneth Paltrow and a few people with an awful lot of sweat, Soderbergh restricts his virus' outward damage to some discoloration and scar marks around the mouth. But the societal damage, of course, can be far deeper, from people exploiting widespread fear to others simply acting out of it. Contagion isn't about the panic that results from such an epidemic, but it does frequently acknowledge it, but Soderbergh knows that an empty airport can be as terrifying as a hectic mob. I fear that in doing so, however, many will be turned off by its resulting lack of urgency.

Many of the film's characters - CDC head Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishbourne), field doctor Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), researchers Ally (Jennifer Ehle) and David (Demetri Martin) - are the types who deal in this stuff every day. They might not know exactly what they have on their hands, but they know the parameters. Namely, that very little can be known immediately, that it takes a long time to develop a vaccine, that all their research can be thrown out in a single moment as a virus evolves, and that the loss of human life is inevitable. That this whole thing is a process. Thus, after the first act, the film is mostly about people waiting - waiting for clearance, waiting for lab results, waiting for a phone call, their turn in line, anything.

It should be boring, but it's not in the least. It helps that Scott Burns' script turns back to Matt Damon's grieving father for a more street-bound perspective, but perhaps I simply share Soderbergh's fascination with watching highly qualified people doing their job. I love the lively banter that neither over-explains nor undercuts, the petty squabbles (I could've spent a whole movie watching Winslet's Erin sparring with the Minnesota government to get even a basic operation going), and the small manipulations of power. Soderbergh has a very casual attitude towards corruption, which shows how innocently such transgressions can occur. Though the film is cloaked in many colors (Soderbergh's palette in his digital era has been decidedly lively), it's the shades of gray that are most fascinating here, which makes it all the more depressing when the film shows such absolute contempt towards Jude Law's blogger character from the start.

Other problems abound, but hardly detract from what the film had already achieved. Soderbergh certainly could've used another half-hour - 105 minutes to cover six months of story with at least six people who could be said to be main characters is a pretty thin stretch - and the last scene is a complete waste, especially after the outstanding shot that preceded it. This isn't going to go down as one of his towering works, or even one of the year's best, but it's a very, very good film from someone who knows his craft inside and out.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Drive (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

The other night I was watching The Long Goodbye, one of my very favorite Robert Altman movies (which would place it high in the running for favorites all around), and marveling, as one is wont to do during such an occasion, at just how freaking cool Elliott Gould is. But the thing is that neither Altman nor Gould call much attention to it; it's almost as if they don't even notice it. They're just doing their thing, and their thing happened to result in one of the coolest film characters in one of the coolest visions of Los Angeles.

And Drive wants to be that. It wants to be it so badly that it will stop at nothing until you bow before its absolute, unrelenting cool. Driver (Ryan Gosling) is so cool, because he has no name and doesn't really say much. He just looks at you, constantly thinking, in the words of Chili Palmer, "You're mine. I fuckin' own you." But unlike Chili, Gosling is constantly feeling one way or the other about it - or anyway, his director is.

I've only seen one other Refn film to date (Bronson), and I liked it an awful lot, but he's up to something very different here. There, he was crafting a cage from which his totally unbound star could express his every whim; here, he's doing the expressing for his terribly contained characters, but he's doing it sort of poorly, cheaply. He's doing it with quasi-deep-cut music cues and oh-so-elliptical editing tricks. I'm a staunch defender and admirer of movies that put their style first, but Refn is suggesting here a film that doesn't exist. I love his vision of Los Angeles, in no small part because it so closely aligns with my own (and of course it would take a foreigner to show the self-loathing Coasters the beauty of this fine city), but this sort of pace would suggest a man apart from his surroundings, but in actuality, Driver lives a pretty cool life, and seems pretty satisfied with it. The resulting conflict comes because he went looking for it, not that it found him.

The film's violence, which is remarkably pronounced, is also something of a mystery. I know Driver's supposed to be all mysterious and so forth, but what are we to make of his actions when he actively hunts down, and kills in the most brutal way possible, his enemies? Is Refn trying to say something about man's inescapably violent nature? Or is Driver himself a man of violence, and his little affectations - his choice of music, his manner of dress, his constant supply of toothpicks - are just barely restraining his true nature? These are questions not asked by the film, but by me, on the ride home, digging deep into a film that is content simply imitating prior modes of communicating such concepts.

The performances, sadly, follow suit, playing modes of characters rather than characters operating within modes. Most of the cast seemed hired for their aesthetic qualities (which, in a cast that includes Ron Perlman, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Carey Mulligan, and Christina Hendricks, are considerable), and were left at that. I am especially perplexed by the outcry for an Oscar nomination for Brooks, who, fine as ever, doesn't exactly bring any unexpected or exciting quality to his role of "mob boss."

I should say that I didn't outright hate Drive; I'm sympathetic to its general cause, stylistically, and especially the few instances in which it achieves the perfect nirvana it hopes to elicit throughout its running time. It has one of my favorite shots all year (a POV shot from Driver's perspective, looking through a window at Ron Perlman letting out a howl of a laugh while a middle-age woman looks on with something between contempt and boredom) There's an action scene at its center that is pretty fantastic, and by far the best extended sequence of the film, but then this isn't a film about action now is it. This is about crafting a specific mood, a certain vaguely detached vision of the seedier side of Los Angeles that has nothing new to say about detached visions nor Los Angeles. Nor crime. Nor, certainly, existentialism (and all the critics who throw that label around need to watch some serious amounts of Antonioni before they go too far with it). It's a film with nothing to say in search of a reason to be.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Traveling Through Time and Space From Beverly Hills

Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker are fond of saying that the further you look back at cinema, the more you realize that everything you're attempting has already been done. And if you'd never found convincing evidence of this, one could hardly do better than "A Trip to the Moon, And Other Travels Through Time, Color, and Space," an event that took place last Tuesday evening at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

After all, they had 3D back then.

The program was hosted by Serge Bromberg, a French cinephile whose business it is to find as many rare films from the silent era as possible and restore them to their best. Not bad work if you can get it. Bromberg made for a tremendous host - not the most comfortable in front of crowds, but full of information, and more importantly, out of his mind excited to show us what he had. Even more surprising was that he played live accompaniment on the piano for all the films that required it. So yes, he was easily the classiest guy in the room.

Let me get this out of the way - I have now seen six 3D films from the 1900s. Three, from 1900, were very short - under 10 seconds - and were not originally exhibited theatrically, but rather through a sort of personal viewing device (I wish Bromberg had explained this a little further, as it was a little unclear, but apparently watching movies on a tiny screen isn't such a modern development either). One showed people strolling about a train station, another featured a young woman being awakened in the morning, and the final one...well, frankly, it looked like the beginning of an orgy. It only lasted about four seconds, but a man was approaching a bed from which two sets of women's legs could be seen kicking about, so you tell me.

The second set weren't 3D films precisely, but they did reveal that the same production techniques were used to conquer piracy even then (if not exactly the same sort of piracy).

See, Georges Melies made almost no money off of "A Trip to the Moon," even though nearly everyone saw it (the Avatar of its day, Bromberg said more than once). That's because nearly everyone who exhibited it was showing a duped version, or even a dupe of a dupe (of a dupe and so forth). Demand was too high to wait for Melies to make copies in France, and hey, it was cheaper that way. After that, he made his shorts by filming on two cameras simultaneously, and sending one print immediately to the United States while keeping another in France. But in doing so he also created the exact elements needed for stereoscopic 3D. So Bromberg and his team simply combined them digitally, and showed them to us in the now-common digital system.

Something, huh?

And no, for you purists out there, the 3D then wasn't remarkably better than live-action 3D now. It still has the same problem of appearing more as a series of layers, and not keeping up with movement very well (especially in the days of hand-cranked cameras). But it was pretty amazing to see 3D films from the turn of the century (and kind of weird to see a 3D film with damage marks).

Beyond that? I saw the saga of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, a totally indescribable animated short, a butterfly hunter besieged by his targets, only to end up under their study, a very racist (but incredibly amusing) optical trick to create the illusion of gymnastics, and an acrobatic fly (to describe "The Acrobatic Fly" any further would be nearly impossible, and unconvincing - it really had to be seen to be comprehended, much less believed, so I've embedded it below). I saw a short in which a man seduces a woman on a train (which contained probably the best use of dissolve to show the passage of time this side of Buster Keaton's car traveling to the other side of town in Seven Chances), something of a peep show in which a woman gets nearly nude for a bath, and an actor (badly) pantomime opera. India came to life in glorious hand-tinted color.

Many of them, in fact, were in hand-tinted color (the process of which entailed a group of people - typically women - going in and painting individual frames of film by hand). The process obviously fell by the wayside with the advent of Technicolor (and Eastmancolor and all the rest), but the result is a totally unique view of the world.

The one I really want to call attention to is "A Trip Down Market Street," which was the first up and might have actually been my favorite of the evening. In San Francisco in April of 1906, two filmmakers were assigned to record a boxing match, which ended roughly twenty rounds before a typical match would. Instead of just bringing the extra film back, they hopped aboard a trolley, and filmed life as it passed in front of them. The film is essential several long, rarely broken tracking shots down a major city road at the turn of the century, and it was unbelievable. Admittedly, I'm fascinated by any documentary whose mission it is to simply show life as it happens, but who wouldn't want a window into city life then? Who wouldn't want to see cars interact with horse-drawn carriages and trollies and pedestrians (free from crosswalks, I might add) and bicycles? If rules of the road existed then, I'd need someone to explain them to me - people drove on the right side of the road, but that was about it. The print of the film was a wonder, and seeing it on the big screen (the screen at the Samuel Goldwyn theater is massive) was revelatory.

A lot was made of the fact that the film was shot no more than five days before the 1906 earthquake (a historian determined this by tracing the license plates on the cars, which were registered as late as March, 1906, then studying weather patterns to account for the puddles on the ground), which is certainly of interest, but this could have been shot five years before the quake or fifteen years after and it would be no less gripping.

The main event was, of course, the unveiling of "A Trip to the Moon" in color. We didn't quite make the North American premiere (that honor went to Telluride mere days prior), and certainly not the world premiere (it opened the Cannes Film Festival in May), but I'll take it.

"A Trip to the Moon," for those who have not yet had the pleasure, is completely insane in the best way possible. It's about a group of scientists who design and execute a giant gun to shoot a capsule containing them at the moon. It works, naturally. Once on the moon, they battle moon people, before pushing their capsule off the edge of a cliff and falling back to Earth. And because it's a silent movie (and hand-tinted color at that!), visuals are everything, so every plot point is communicated with enormous gestures (lending the scientists an element of the eccentric), scantily-clad women are there for some sort of technical support, all of the backgrounds are gorgeously painted, and the moon people do cartwheels, 'cause hey, why not.

But it's a treat, it really is, so much so that I stuck around for a second viewing following the restoration presentation. The first time they presented it with a new score by the band Air, which was...interesting...if not terribly fitting. Modern scores on silent films can really run the gamut. The Alloy orchestra ones are particularly snazzy, utilizing a definitively modern take on classical music while still crafting tunes that fit the era in which they're working. But the Air score was so out there, so bombastic, it felt more like it was trying to bring change the film to suit a modern audience, rather than a modern audience to suit the film. The second showing was delightfully narrated by Randy Haberkamp, the Academy's Director of Education, with Bromberg on accompaniment. I suspect the best version lies somewhere in between.

In terms of its visual splendor, the print looked spectacular. Anytime you hear the story behind a massive restoration (in a far-too-long presentation - it was interesting material, but much of it got repeated over the course of the 45-minute lecture), you come away with so much more appreciation of what's in front of you. And this one was a doozy.

Essentially, when they received the color print, it was totally unusable. The nitrate film had solidified to resemble more of a brittle glass, making it impossible to project or digitally scan. Never mind the condition of the individual frames. What followed its acquisition in 1999 was a two-and-a-half-year process in which Bromberg and his team stuck the film in a gas chamber and slowly peeled away at it, bit by bit, sometimes removing as much as three or four frames, other times coming away with only a fraction of one. They photographed those elements using the best digital cameras available at the time.

And then they waited. Mostly for technology to catch up to what they had on hand. And, of course, for money.

Finally, in 2010, funding came through from the Academy, and the long process of editing all of those elements together to create a new, playable print began. The files were not well catalogued - utilizing different file formats and unclear labeling systems - so they had to basically go through each picture and visually match it up with a black-and-white version of the same frame in context. If they only had pieces of the frame, they had to be lined up, the seams digitally erased. In the case of missing or totally unusable frames (in which the damage was too great to clean up), a black-and-white master was used and digitally colored, using a process that mimicked the original hand-painted color.

Before/after comparison. See more at the Academy's website.

As with any restoration, this information can be vital to appreciating what's in front of you, so the second viewing following the presentation was much appreciated.

While we were standing in line, waiting to get in, the guy in front of me said he couldn't believe so many people had come out for it, and frankly neither could I, but I remarked that it was kind of refreshing. As hardcore cinephiles we too often dismiss contemporary culture readily disposing of the past and moving onto the next big thing, but over one thousand people turned up that evening to watch a program of films that were all (save for one) over one hundred years old. And that wasn't half as staggering as the films themselves.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Winnie the Pooh (dir. Stephen J. Anderson, Don Hall)

I am not a major attendee of the loosely-defined "family film." I see the Pixar flicks of course (even Cars 2, which was the most morally irresponsible film I've seen in some time), a handful of Dreamworks' output, but from there, all I go on are reviews and vibes. So when I say that Winnie the Pooh is the best family film of the year, and one of the best of the last few years, know that I'm not speaking with a great degree of authority, but that I also deeply love films that can truly be enjoyed by anyone of any age. Fantastic Mr. Fox was my favorite film of 2009 for a reason.

And Winnie the Pooh may well land in my top ten for this year. Its overwhelming genius is its delightfully underwhelming simplicity. It runs just barely over an hour, and even then has room to stretch its legs, sing a song, walk across the Hundred Acre Wood, and ponder the similarity between "issue" and "achoo" in certain accents. The plot is threadbare and of little consequence in the grand scheme of things, just as playtime should be - Pooh seeks a pot of honey, Eeyore has lost his tail, and the whole gang is greatly concerned about a monster lurking in the woods after Owl incorrectly reads a note left by Christopher Robin.

Much like Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are, one could (and many have) read the cast of characters in Pooh to be different aspects of Christopher Robin's (or indeed any child's) personality and development. Pooh is the warm, content, and easily satisfied side, Piglet is eager to please, Owl is the know-it-all, Rabbit is fastidious and easily frustrated, and so on. Thus the characters are easily and quickly defined, even to someone like me who hasn't watched or read any Pooh-related material since childhood, and better still, are naturally flawed. Tigger may have boundless energy and optimism, but when he tries to reshape Eeyore in an attempt to imbue him with same, he can be a bit of a bully.

What is remarkable is that these characters are never, at least in the film, torn apart by their differences or sometimes aggressive personalities. They may scowl at Owl (rhyme!) for causing a panic over nothing, but they are constantly encouraging and supporting each other, both for the benefit of the group and because that seems to be their default attitude. There isn't any cynicism in Hundred Acre Wood, nor pettiness. There are no grudges held. Everyone is included in a given activity, because why wouldn't they be? This kind of casual optimism, the idea that people (or, you know, stuffed animals) naturally treat each other with the utmost kindness and respect, may be unrealistic, but it is a perfectly noble and worthy pursuit in a work of art. And it created in this viewer a rare, warm fuzzy feeling all too absent in theaters this or most other years.

There is one final aspect of the film that I have to touch on, and that is its use of language. For a film centered around a bear who, by his own admission, is rather flummoxed by quite a lot of words, Winnie the Pooh shares a concern with language not often found in films for audiences of any age. The characters speak eloquently, in their own way, and there are some misunderstandings and re-appropriations that would delight any enthusiast of the spoken word. It's witty and clever in an understated but no less rewarding fashion. Furthermore, the characters literally interact with the text of the story they're in (as narrated by John Cleese), to the point that their rescue at a crucial moment is aided by the letters themselves. From a simple aesthetic level, it's lovely and nicely creates a storybook feeling, and if one were so inclined, it opens up a number of wonderful interpretations about the importance of the written word in our culture.

But I'll leave it at that for now, save that I was really swept away by this film. The animation is at once clean and slightly rough around the edges - watercolor backgrounds and slight traces of pencil marks give it a personal, homespun touch (fitting for a film set in the woods) - and the voice cast is superb in regards both oratorical and musical. Unpretentious but surprisingly smart and clever, free of cynicism but not from honesty, it is not only the most rewarding family film I've seen in some time, but one of the more pleasurable encounters I've had with the cinema this year.