Friday, November 2, 2012

AFI A-Go-Go! and Other Housekeeping Measures

Not that you were likely expecting a sudden flood of content here, given the state of things (sorry, as always, for the paucity), but I'll be at AFI Fest from now through Thursday, and you can follow all of my ensuing coverage at Battleship Pretension. Already posted there are reviews of Olivier Assayas' Something in the Air and Christian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills (as well as an overview of the whole dang festival), and at CriterionCast I review Leos Carax's Holy Motors (from which comes the above image). All are excellent, well worth your time and, I would say "money" if they festival weren't free. But for those not in Los Angeles, yeah, it's worth that, too.

If you're in the mood for something a little more homebound, and you refuse to be limited by various region-coding measures, why not take a look at a recent Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release? Their new edition of Fritz Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is really extraordinary. And even if you just have a Region 1 DVD player, you can still enjoy their DVD edition of Samuel Fuller's two-fisted newspaper saga, Park Row.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Tony Scott in Stills

Tyler and David at Battleship Pretension were kind enough to invite my babbling ass on to discuss the career of Tony Scott, a filmmaker I adore and for whom my respect has grown immensely in the last week after watching (or rewatching) nearly all of his films. I only missed a three-film chunk in the late 80s/early 90s, but it proved to be one of the most invigorating weeks of moviewatching of my life. Anything that I watch in the next week or so will inevitably feel like a comedown.

One of the elements of Scott's work that I addressed on the show (albeit in a sideways manner) was this idea that he's a filmmaker of surfaces, an accusation that has been hurled his way since Top Gun. Not only do I feel that's kind of a surfacey complaint (so much of the appeal of cinema is surface-level; to dismiss it is to dismiss the joy of the movies), but I find his imagery to be infinitely more substantial than many of his contemporaries. On the show, I said this would be a gallery of images too weird to describe, and we certainly have those, but more than anything, this is a testament to just how sharp a filmmaker he was. As incredible as he was with capturing (and creating) kineticism and movement, his single frames - if you can manage to catch them - are stunning.

I didn't have DVD copies of everything I watched - notably The Hunger and Enemy of the State - but I made do as best I could. So let's dive in...

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Pick a Point

For those more time-sensitive readers, the first three paragraphs may suffice, but I get at a lot more of the film, including the title, which is no small thing, in those that follow.

Near the end of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of a cult religion known only as The Cause, takes three members of his "family" - his daughter, Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), her husband, Clark (Rami Malek), and an itinerant war veteran named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) - out to the desert to engage in one of his many ill-defined exercises. Previously, he'd asked Freddie to walk from one end of a room to another, describing what he feels when he touches a wall and a window. Later (or perhaps simultaneously), he had Freddie and Clark stare at one another, saying whatever came to mind, and forbidding each to react to the other. The exercise in the desert is the first to have a name - it's called "Pick a Point."

In the scene immediately preceding this, Dodd had unveiled the apparently-long-promised "Book Two" to the assembled followers, which was met secretly with derision (Bill (Kevin J. O'Connor), who served as Dodd's welcoming committee in New York, simply tells Freddie "it stinks," and that they should have condensed it to a three-page pamphlet to hand out on the street), and in a more confrontational manner with heavy doubt. Helen (Laura Dern) is a devoted follower, having hosted Dodd and his self-assembled family in her home in Philadelphia, and has now traveled all the way to Phoenix with the urgency and eagerness of a Harry Potter fan, determined to read the new book the moment it's available. Indeed, Dodd has no sooner concluded his introduction than she's already on page thirteen, where she has found a major change to one of the foundational aspects of their belief system. When she, rather politely, asks Dodd about it, it's clear he's given it no thought, and is aghast at both her determine to undermine him and his own lack of conception of something he truly seems to believe (and perhaps a great many other things; much dramatic development in this film is pointedly not depicted).

So when Dodd takes these three out to the desert, and tells them to merely hop on his motorcycle and drive as fast as they can towards a point picked nearly at random, it's not hard to divine the larger thematic undertones. Dodd is now grasping at straws, determined to find purpose in whichever direction he stumbles (his cries of "yahoo!" as he speeds through the desert are not the most convincing). Yet unlike a character in a movie who becomes consumed by his own neuroses and flailing ambition, Dodd will actually become more successful thereafter. And unlike a story in a movie, writer/director Anderson tells his without any real concern towards dramatic structure, character development, or arcs. As is the experience for most of us, is certainly the experience for Freddie, and is the case with The Cause as a whole, The Master stumbles from one event to the next, not always concerned with creating connections between them, but finding commonalities; bowling without restraint towards its determined direction, then turning around when the wall doesn't provide the answers we seek.

As such, the hints the film provides at anything resembling a resolution will ultimately come up dry. Near the opening of the film, Freddie is shown in some sort of hospital undergoing psychological evaluation immediately following the end of World War II. And unseen speaker addresses the group, telling them that many people in the outside world won't understand the condition these men have, which we understand in modern parlance to be posttraumatic stress disorder. Then, it was more commonly called "shell shock." But to chalk up Freddie's erratic behavior (his predatory sexuality and violent outbursts are most common, but he's also given to depression, adolescent humor, alienation, and he alternates between attempting to appear much smarter than he is and satisfactorily owning his intellectual limitations) to merely the effects of war is a limiting perspective. For starters, his mother was committed to a mental institution and his alcoholism has turned towards utilizing household chemicals (and a little torpedo fuel), which can't be doing the holes in his brain any favors.

But more than that, Freddie is the expression of the void, the inherent denial of the constructs of civilization and surrender to our base instincts. Freddie will likely never be able to maintain a stable home, job, or relationship (romantic or otherwise), though he's shown to be such fine company that many will take him in along the way, and Peggy (Amy Adams), Dodd's wife, is probably right when she says he's beyond help (and even more right when she says he can't take this world straight), which she assumes is Dodd's primary reason for taking him in. It's both more personal and more sinister than that, though - in Freddie, Dodd sees a perfect method of expressing his belief system, both because Freddie is easily manipulated and because, in the course of Dodd's instructions, he reveals things even Dodd could have never dreamed up. Dodd's son, Val (Jesse Plemons), is correct to a certain degree when he says that his father is just making it up as he goes along, but in direct contrast to his supposed inspiration, L. Ron Hubbard, Dodd is never shown to be a writer of fiction. One man's "making it up as he goes along" is another's continual inspiration, and we see how he takes elements revealed to him by Freddie (laughter is a big one, but also Freddie's conclusion at the end of the wall-to-window exercise) and divines from them larger "truths." Dodd is searching for meaning every bit as much as his followers; he just had the initiative to start writing it down.

Hoffman and Phoenix play off of one another beautifully, opposed as often as in unison, but complementary of one another in the way the brain's right side more dominantly manages arenas of thought the left does not, and vice versa (called to mind forcefully when Dodd is thrown in a jail cell adjacent to Freddie, and we see their very divergent reactions to imprisonment in one beautiful frame). Phoenix's performance is the kind of towering feat that will be remembered by force, an actor whose own lack of restraint dares the film to similarly expose itself. It's the kind of "big" performance that some would assign merely to an actor's ego, were Phoenix not so willing to look so pathetic much of the time, never mind the success he achieves on whatever terms you assign. To say he plays a big role in opening up Freddie's psyche would reflexively undermine an actor's inherent contribution, but it's hardly all there on the page - Phoenix reacts in ways you would never expect, constantly calling into question your conception of his character, a notion matched by the film, aesthetically. Especially at the start, cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. lights Phoenix so that he almost looks like Two-Face (yes, the Batman villain), deep and shadowy on one side with almost exaggeratedly divergent eyes, intuitively asking what else about this man is will go unrevealed.

Indeed, as much happens off screen in The Master as it does on. We don't get a precise fix on the timeline, but several unseen events are directly alluded to (Dodd and Freddie's initial meeting, the scenes in which anyone other than Dodd learns about Freddie's background, the moment of decision at which Freddie decides to leave The Cause), never mind the many conflicts that are left unresolved. We never find out what happened to the salesgirl who Freddie drags out of the store with him following his violent assault on a customer, nor the man whom he might have killed with his homemade alcohol. We never learn exactly what was in the letter from Doris - we understand it to be unwelcome, but Freddie is surprised to hear she's been married three years when he finally goes back to Massachusetts to try to talk to her. Indeed, we don't even learn much of Freddie's life immediately following the war, which leaves a reasonable five-year gap between then and when he meets Dodd, who states the year to be 1950 in his initial attempt at "processing" with Freddie. We get pieces of his life, and generally understand him to be a wanderer, but five years is a long time, and Anderson makes no apologies for the inherent inability to fully tell of that span in a few minutes. But he does get at the nature of that period of Freddie's life, just as he gets at the nature of the events and people to follow, however elliptical his expression (never mind that the drama he does depict is absolutely arresting cinema). Rather than feel frustrated by the film's limited viewpoint, I felt freed, invited much closer into a truer experience of life in which meaningful events cannot be sufficiently summarized in a two-hour film. We're trusted with a collection of moments that add up to something significant, but which the film doesn't come out and state; a sense of longing and loneliness and the vague hope of finding some truth in our relationships.

Which brings me to the matter of the title. Anderson has long expressed an aversion to titles that are stated within the film itself, and his work prior to this bears that out, so it's worth considering what, exactly, "The Master" is all about. Most simply, many people refer to Dodd as "Master," much more often than he's called by his real name (I think only the police and judge use it in addressing him, but I may be wrong), and Hoffman conducts himself as something of a master of ceremonies. I like what Bill R. wrote - "Dodd is an ideal character for [Hoffman], as it lets him do just about everything an actor could want to do." Hoffman has enjoyed quite a career so far, especially in the years since Capote, for which he won an Oscar. He's been able to be as wild and untamed as only a film like Mission: Impossible III would allow, a forceful and determined presence in Doubt and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, and extraordinarily sensitive to the human experience in Synecdoche, New York and Jack Goes Boating, his directorial debut. Lancaster Dodd seems custom-tailored for him, utilizing all his talent for humanistic comedy and authoritative presence, while also revealing quite a bit more of his range - his character's desire to hide his own self doubt. It's a tricky line to toe, but his Dodd is never fully in control nor fully without a grasp on the situation.

But getting back to the title, there is also Dodd's treatment of Freddie, as a friend, certainly, but more to the point, man's best friend. Constantly using condescending compliments like "good boy" and "you're the bravest boy I've ever known," never mind his more aggressive statements, when he might as well be whacking Freddie over the nose with a newspaper, Dodd is taking his manipulative abilities to their natural conclusion. And his general ability to wrangle Freddie to do his bidding, typically expressed a series of tricks designed for his guests' amusement, becomes more and more grotesque as their relationship evolves. Soon after their initial encounter, Dodd gives a speech to the people on his boat about taming a dragon, and the way Anderson cuts between Dodd and Freddie provides a clear link, and a hint of things to come. Dodd is not purely manipulative towards Freddie anymore than a man is to his dog, but there's little doubt as to who Dodd feels is truly the "master" of their relationship. Until the end.

The confrontation between Dodd and Freddie in England left me reeling, and is the chief reason it took me until the next morning to really conceive of my own feelings towards the film (both times I saw it, at that). It's not the choice I would have expected Anderson to make, or the natural choice for anyone to make, but once again, The Master is not the kind of story we're used to seeing. Somehow, Hoffman and Phoenix wring so much emotion from this scene that's all about past lives and Paris and losing only two balloons in the worst winter on record and a heartbreaking rendition of a song I'd never heard, so that when the former tells the latter that if he leaves, that he never wants to see him again, and if they should meet in the next life, he'd be his sworn enemy..."or you can stay," we're just about in tears along with Freddie. This is as close as Dodd can get to pleading, but it's not something Freddie can satisfy.

Dodd gives him a compliment I'm not sure he entirely means, nor would he entirely deny (characteristic of many of his statements), that he admires Freddie for finding a way to live "without a master," which points not just to their past relationship but towards Dodd's own sense of place in the universe. If Freddie is commendable for this, then Dodd, too, serves someone, or feels he does. There are indications that Peggy holds this position, but the way he speaks points to an existential sadness greater than a man merely trapped in a bad marriage (one of many). It's perhaps that he's a man trapped by his own designs, forever struggling to live up to the image he's built of himself, and which others have expected him to.

The final true scene of the film is between Freddie and a woman he picks up in a bar. They're having sex and, contrary to our conception of Freddie's sexual impulses (the man is forever a mystery), it's actually very gentle, caring, and fun. But when he diverts for a second to the intellectual sparring that initially bonded he and Dodd, he opens up the possibility of alternate lives. She says, "I hope this is not my life."* Anderson repositions her upright, fully exposed (in several ways), and for just a moment, deeply sad, until she and Freddie go back at it. And The Cause promises at least that much; that whatever your troubles in this life, they are but a sliver of the totality of your soul's experience. This is not to apologize for a cult mentality, and I don't think Anderson is either - rather, he's revealing the inherent sadness that comes from searching and not finding, from never being truly certain that anything more lay beyond the temporal, and that the void Freddie expresses may be closer to the truth than the absolution Dodd promises. Among a great many other things, of course.

*I deeply regret that I cannot recall her specific phrasing, but it's close to this.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Busby Berkeley's Spectacular Humanism

As one would imagine with a film not only choreographed, but totally directed by Busby Berkeley, 1943's The Gang's All Here is not terribly motivated by, nor concerned with, the emotional tension for which many other directors would mine its premise. Concerning a soldier who falls for a nightclub singer, in spite of his unspoken, family-bred engagement to a nice suburban type, and the various machinations that result in them all coming together for a weekend at the country, Berkeley's Technicolor wartime spectacular doesn't even approach the conflict with a depth of a romantic comedy. Rather, his premise allows him to move effortlessly from one jaw-dropping musical number to the next, a never-ending carousel of the set pieces typically reserved for the finale of the films with which he was previously involved (Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, etc.).

Yet I don't buy the tag that Berkeley purely exploited the human form for his own mechanistic whims. For one, The Gang's All Here contains a great deal of pictorial romance, from the gleaming (and, it should be noted, gloriously inauthentic) starlight to the opening shot, bathed in near-total darkness, to some visions towards the end that I dare not spoil by failing to describe them. Let's just say Berkeley was very attuned to the possibilities of the "moving picture."

But more than anything, Berkeley's work feels overwhelmed with the joy of collaboration, the possibilities that exist when you throw people together to create one glorious collage. And rather than feel dehumanized, there's actually a charming disharmony to the movements, a sometimes slight, sometimes rather pronounced reminder of a number's underlying humanity. A couple people will come in slightly off-beat, or one will land just off their mark, and while it's easy enough to say, well, you can only get it so perfect, that assumes Berkeley was aiming for perfection, which I doubt. These are, in essence, grand experiments, the kind that can only be tested on a large scale, and it feels like Berkeley was as interested in the results as he was in his vision.

To take that point a step further, this kind of massive collaboration casually builds up the necessary public morale at an uncertain time, certainly through the Depression but especially during the war years. A "we're all in this together!" mentality wasn't just espoused by the propaganda machine; it was embedded in the public conscious (and, for that matter, conscience). Without coming right out and saying it, Berkeley was illustrating what amazing things can be created when people pool their talent and resources. Which, to me, is far more inspiring than the standard triumph-of-the-individual narrative so pervasive in Hollywood cinema of any era.

The Gang's All Here is playing for the next few days at Cinefamily in Los Angeles in a brand-new, astounding 35mm print. Beyond the more esoteric qualities to which I alluded above, it's just a gas of a picture, constantly keeping your feet a-tapping and your face a-smiling. See it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Naruse is on Fire

Okay, so that post title only works if you mispronounce his name (NA-roo-say is the correct way), but I never was good at titles. All of this is to say that over at CriterionCast, we've gone positively nutty for the largely-overlooked, but supremely talented Japanese filmmaker Mikio Naruse. In addition to my ongoing series on those films of his available on Criterion's Hulu channel, David Blakeslee and Robert Nishimura were kind enough to ask me to join them for the second episode of their podcast, The Eclipse Viewer, to discuss his surviving silent films. Even without my involvement, I'd be happy to recommend the program, into which they put an incomparable amount of work, diving into research and analysis, making for an incredibly informative monthly show. They mentioned to me off-air that their aim is for these episodes to serve as the supplements that Criterion's Eclipse series lacks, and they do a hell of a job at that.

It goes without saying that if you haven't waded into Naruse's silent work, or any of his films for that matter, they are an absolute necessity. Everyone in the West tends to have "their guy" when it comes to Japanese cinema, and while I love Kurosawa and Ozu (and Mizoguchi, but I'm really just getting started there), I've quickly become overwhelmed by Naruse's passion and formal precision. His silent work is considerably rougher than that which follows, so perhaps start with When a Woman Ascends the Stairs or Yearning and then go back to see where he comes from, but with a little contextualization, few cinephiles would be hard-pressed to not be immediately drawn into these silent films (all of which are also available on Criterion's indispensable Hulu channel).

So let me, David, and Robert provide that, and give the latest episode of The Eclipse Viewer a listen. Whole worlds await you.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Best of Times

If you have a Blu-ray player, and especially if you can play discs from all over the world, this is a big week for you cinephiles out there. First, the wonderful people at Masters of Cinema have released Rumble Fish, one of Francis Ford Coppola's best films (yeah, I'd even put it a notch above The Godfather), in a splendid Region-B Blu-ray package, available today. My full review for that can be found at CriterionCast, but it is an essential addition to your library.

Then tomorrow, Criterion will be putting out what is hands down the best new-to-me film I've seen all year, Pál Fejös' Lonesome. I wrote about the film back in April after seeing it at TCM Fest, and I am absolutely ecstatic to get the chance to see it again, and on Blu-ray at that. I did not receive a copy for review or consideration, and will likely be paying for it like everyone else; I'm simply trying to spread the word as much as possible because I love the film so very much. The disc also comes with two of Fejös' other films (which I've not seen, but am, needless to say, very eager to), making it very much like a box set for the price of a single disc ($28 on Amazon, which is nothing for what you get from it). The image at the top comes from the film (which was designed for select uses of color), and should be more that sufficient to convince you.

I'm really hope these releases encourage more people to check out these largely-underseen, and certainly under-appreciated, gems. The canon of cinema is ever-expanding, both towards the future and deeper into the past.

Friday, August 24, 2012

I Forgot...How BIG...

I never knew Joe Versus the Volcano (playing tomorrow at midnight at Los Angeles' New Beverly Cinema) as a flop, though that is the unfortunate reputation with which it has long been saddled. It was introduced to me by the man who co-ran my high school's drama department (and whose class on playwriting was more valuable and formative than any writing class I took in college), simply as a movie everyone should see, and more pressingly due to the fact that our relationship largely revolved around talking about movies, as a litmus test. If someone he knew didn't like Joe Versus the Volcano, he simply didn't discuss movies with them. And knowing him, and knowing Joe Versus the Volcano, I could kind of see his point.

I've introduced the film to various people over the years, mostly met with some polite "it was cute" or "that was fun" responses. The occasional person totally got it. But it has remained near and dear to my own heart, and when I compiled my personal Top 100 list recently, I put it at #8 with little hesitation. At this point, it looms almost too large to discuss with any serious objectivity, so I won't bother. I simply treasure every second of this still-totally-unique piece of cinema. Elaborately designed and simply plotted, it celebrates life even as it respectfully acknowledges death. It bemoans the circumstances we so casually embrace, choosing instead abject bravery in an action as simple as asking a girl out to dinner, as monumental as making a one-time leap into a volcano.

Writer/director John Patrick Shanley came from the theatre, having seen eight of his plays produced by the time Joe Versus the Volcano was released. His film is unapologetically a marriage of the stage and screen, with some scenes feeling as though they'd be right at home in an off-Broadway production (Joe's office, and boss, are ready-made with their repeated, rhythmic dialogue and exaggerated set design), and others being impossible in any other medium. It'd be easy to point to anything on the boat for this (particularly its eventual fate), but I recall best a much simpler scene. From the outside of the building, we see Joe descend the interior stairs of his doctor's office, walk out the door, and hug a passing dog, all while the camera slowly pans back to incrementally reveal the scene. It's quietly operatic, underscoring the news with which Joe has just been saddled, and giving him an instant outlet to openly express it, all the while pointing out that there's a whole life surrounding Joe to which he is not yet attuned. It does what so many great shots do - encapsulates the entire film.

I could go on and on about the joys abundant in this film (it is still a comedy, after all, and a very funny one), but I'll leave those for you to discover. For those in the Los Angeles area, there is a can't-miss screening of the film tomorrow night (August 25th) at midnight at the New Beverly Cinema. Warner Brothers is leading the charge towards digital projection, so I had long since assumed I'd never get the opportunity to see Joe on honest-to-God 35mm, but here we are. I'll be in the front row, gazing towards the heavens.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Comply with Me, Comply, Comply Away

Compliance - about a group of people who subject themselves to increasingly humiliating treatment at the behest of a man on the phone claiming to be a police officer conducting an investigation - is a small miracle of tone and execution. Balance is everything. Tip everything too far against the protagonists, writer/director Craig Zobel could be accused of mocking his characters, who are having enough trouble already. Sympathize with them too much, you run the risk of looking a little stupid yourself. It doesn't take long for Compliance to get to the point at which I found myself saying, "well, now, I wouldn't do that," and I can only imagine that impulse has led to the many walkouts reported since the film's premiere at Sundance. But I don't go to the movies to see people do what I would do, or even what I would want or hope to do. I want to know what they would do, and what we as a people are capable of doing.

As such, Compliance is a grueling experience, a film I'd easily classify as a horror film even though it's free from any specifically identifiable monster. Sure, there's the guy on the phone, warping the perception of reality, but it still comes down to these people - a fast food manager, three of her employees, and her fiancee - and the decisions they make (and, as tellingly, the ones they don't) when given specific instructions. It goes beyond the question of knowledge of police procedure (and this film is, if nothing else, an object lesson on the importance of teaching civics) to basic questions of human dignity. When we think back on those times in which human beings were regularly, and quite legally, subjected to the kind of treatment (and worse) that Compliance deals in, it's easy to imagine those who stood up, said "no," and gladly sacrificed societal freedom for moral. But the truth is that most people went along with this treatment, and some aspect of our interior retains that impulse to comply with authority, even a perceived one.

Zobel recognizes this, and rather than mock his characters for their weakness, he chooses instead to sympathize with (though not excuse) them, underscoring once again that this is an innate aspect of humanity wrought large. As the manager, Ann Dowd gives what must be regarded as among the finest performances of the year, a ball of "yes sir" defaults, assumed authority, and a general mode of operation that demands she push through any unpleasantness without dwelling too thoroughly on the consequences. Early on, that means going around her regional manager's back to hide an oversight. Later, it will mean leaving her fiancee in a room, alone, with a naked girl. Later still, well...Dowd navigates her character's tricky sense of morality and duty with an assumed righteousness that is neither off-putting nor dishonest; it's the position we all take, in the moment if not in the aftermath.

She has a rapport with Becky (Dreama Walker), the subject of all the various misdeeds, that is very familiar to anyone who's worked these sort of low-wage, no-commitment jobs - friendly, yet assertive, eager to fit in with the mostly younger crowd she oversees, as long as she remains the one in control of the conversation. Becky, conversely, protests even innocent questions out of habit without ever putting up honest resistance; she's vocal, but not commanding. Walker is put in an almost impossible position as an actress, but she handles all the fear, uncertainty, and humiliation very well, giving into the discomfort in a way that almost implicates the audience for watching.

Along with cinematographer Adam Stone (the man behind the camera for Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter) and first-time composer Heather McIntosh, Zobel creates a terrible atmosphere of dread in which the question of things taking a turn for the worse is never asked, for the quicksand-like atmosphere demands it. At a certain point, it becomes clear nobody here is going to stand up and say, "no, that's going too far," for, once it's established that these people will come wade in the shallow end, there's no question that they'll eventually be dunking one another. It's a fascinating, tightly-controlled experience with some very messy people. Enormously complex in its abject simplicity.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Moving Pictures

I was deeply saddened last night to learn of the tragic passing of Tony Scott, a filmmaker whose work (Domino, shown above, in particular) I have long admired and championed at every opportunity. He was a termite artist in an era that seemed to have no use for such masters, so quickly are those with a true vision pushed through the machine towards more "respectable" fare. Scott seemed to actively avoid respectability, or at least traditional avenues thereto. In his 60s, he was doing the most radical work of his career, and outpacing those half his age. His ever-shifting, never-cemented aesthetic was a constant search towards expanding what we perceive the limits of narrative cinema to be, but his content was really something else altogether. Domino is aggressively alienating, rising to near-heroic status the types of characters cinema rarely even goes near, while Deja Vu is, in its own demented sort of way, a rosier version of Vertigo's foundation - falling in love with the image of a woman. It also has the wildest car chase you'll ever seen.

His final film, Unstoppable, was a much more mainstream work, but one which he lent no less of his considerable craftsmanship. By insisting on using real trains rather than CGI, you never forgot the stakes of the scenario, and knew every second that this thing could completely wipe people out. Domino was an equally hand-crafted film, a process I explained and praised in several blog posts (here, here, and here) if that's the kind of thing in which you might be interested. As I said on Twitter, Tony Scott was an innovator, adventurer, a superb craftsman, and a fearless experimental artist. I'll miss whatever he would've come up with next.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

I Talked with a Zombie

If life were fair (and it's not), stop-motion animation factory Laika would be putting out a film every year, and would be considered alongside Pixar as an animation house that consistently delivers the goods. And I know, two films in might be a little early to place Laika on what, for some, is rather rarified air, but when a company's first film is as audacious, thrilling, and moving as Coraline (2009), one tends to reflexively speak in hyperbole.

ParaNorman inspires similar ecstasy. Though it lacks the formal rigor and aesthetic looseness of their debut film, this is one of the more purely fun films you're likely to experience this or any other year, certainly in the animation division (a field once rife with invention that has become decidedly stagnant in the era of the computer). As the film begins, we are introduced to Norman, a horror aficionado who we immediately discover is a little out-of-place, in no small part because he believes he's communicating with his dead grandmother. It's not uncommon for kids to seek refuge in imaginary conversations, so we accept this flight of fancy, even if his parents are growing increasingly irritable with it.

And then we come to understand why. Not only does Norman talk to his grandmother, but in fact to all dead people, and this is in no way fueled by his imagination; this is very much happening. This lends his fascination with the horror genre a weird, intriguing duality, as if he came to love horror films to better understand himself (a theme to which many of us can relate, it should be noted). And while that may make his social life inconvenient, it does put him in the perfect position to attempt to prevent, and then later conquer, an ancient curse that will cause the dead to rise.

The film's first two-thirds are relentlessly funny, cleverly written and employing just the right visual references (a Halloween bit killed a certain section of the audience), intermixed with genuine gross-out humor (Norman wrestling a book from a corpse is one of the more unexpected, and unexpectedly hilarious, set pieces I've come across) and smart gags. "Where are the police when you need them?" asks Norman's father, a split-second before an officer rams her bike into his car and flies directly into him with the blink-and-you-miss-it comic timing only possible in animation. This is a film stocked with town looneys, exploding toilets, teenage stereotypes, and ghouls of all shapes and sizes (the monsters in this film are refreshingly grotesque). Never mind a rarified piece of suspense comedy that I will not go so far as to spoil here.

The family film has, like most genres, become more and more self-important as the years wear on, so I was not surprised by the turn it eventually takes, though I slowly sank into my chair as I came to realize the specific no-one's-really-that-bad conclusion towards which it was building. And I'd have come away with a significantly diminished estimation if it didn't deliver its rather banal and noxious message in an absolutely staggering display of animation and drama, one which never lets up on the thrills even as it becomes increasingly surreal and transportive. It's a huge, last-minute save that redeems a rather touch-and-go period.

One arena in this film that's sadly lacking is its third dimension. While Coraline remains the statement for 3-D cinema as a means for both thematic cohesion and visual delight, ParaNorman remains relatively tame, venturing beyond the screen only rarely. A few set pieces, such as Norman being chased through the forrest, really come alive, and it's always great to see stop-motion puppets and sets given that extra dimension, but the film never really takes it all the way, and I found this aspect largely unmemorable, a word I would not attribute to the film as a whole.

ParaNorman may pull its punches towards the end, but it remains a rare beast indeed, a film fueled by communal pop culture experience and familiar structure that somehow emerges from the other side a thing very much unto itself. When it's funny - and it often is - it's exceptional, and when it decides to go big or go broke, it becomes very rich indeed.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


Then they change the subject. Now both of them have finished the book they have been reading for some time; their remarks can therefore refer to the book as a whole: that is, both to the outcome and to the earlier episodes (subjects of past conversations) to which this outcome gives a new significance, or to which is add a complementary meaning.
They have never made the slightest judgment as to the novel's value, speaking instead of the scenes, events, and characters as if they were real: a place they might remember (located in Africa, moreover), people they might have known, or adventures someone might have told them. Their discussions have never touched on the verisimilitude, the coherence, or the quality of the narrative. On the other hand, they frequently blame the heroes for certain acts or characteristics, as they would in the case of mutual friends.
They also sometimes deplore the coincidences of the plot, saying that "things don't happen that way," and then they construct a different probable outcome starting from a new supposition, "if it weren't for that." Other possibilities are offered, during the course of the book, which lead to different endings. The variations are extremely numerous; the variations of these, still more so. They seem to enjoy multiplying these choices, exchanging smiles, carried away by their enthusiasm, probably a little intoxicated by this proliferation...
"But that's it, he was just unlucky enough to have come home earlier that day, and no one could have guessed he would."
Thus Franck sweeps away in a single gesture all the suppositions they had just constructed together. It's no use making up contrary possibilities, since things are the way they are: reality stays the same.
From Alain Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy, a short passage musing on life, art, and how one is not so different from the other, experientially.

The critical tack A... (as she is called) and Franck take towards the novel in question is thoroughly discouraged in criticism, which seeks to unpack what is really in a film, not what we want to be there. a sense, it feels as though Robbe-Grillet finds something kind of beautiful in this more pedestrian approach. A... and Franck might not get to the heart of the novel, but in the journey, might find out something about themselves. Not a particularly noble gesture, but potentially more personally valuable.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The...well, Spider-Man, At Any Rate

Since Sony announced they’d be abandoning Sam Raimi’s interpretation of the webslinger in favor of a newer, leaner, meaner, teener version, a lot of talk has taken place about the film’s “necessity.” Leaving aside the issue of whether ANY superhero film is, indeed, “necessary,” I generally expect any given film of any given genre will make the case for its existence. So no, The Amazing Spider-Man is not, in fact, “necessary,” but not because we just saw this story ten years ago; it’s just not a very good movie.

The superhero origin story, undoubtedly the most tedious aspect of an increasingly tedious genre, has somehow become a requirement, treating the hero’s existence as a sort of backwards version of Chekhov’s theory of the gun onstage - if a a web is fired in act three, we must know where it comes from. So the origin story here, once the province of a couple of pages in a comic book, takes on epic proportions, giving us not only the origin of Spider-Man and his eventual nemesis, The Lizard, but Peter Parker (here played by Andrew Garfield) as well. Turns out Peter’s dad was a big-shot scientist with some dangerous theories, so he went on the run and left Peter with his more familiar-to-us guardians, Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Sooner or later he grows up, as all boys must, and I trust you’re all fairly familiar with what happens between him being a normal, if overly-bullied, kid and him becoming Spider-Man, yes?

All right then. The only real difference this time out is that, rather than aiming to win the heart of out-of-his-league-but-geographically-convenient Mary Jane Watson, he instead takes a liking to Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), a girl with whom he attends high school, has classes with, and still has to ask her name. Real classy, Peter. Gwen’s a little bit more his speed, being into science and all, and wouldn’t you know it, interning at the very facility around which so much of the plot takes place. Stone and Garfield have fine chemistry, as far the screenplay allows, though at this point it’d be fair to say that Stone brings the best out of just about everyone, never mind an actor as good as Garfield (who will thankfully walk away from this wreck unscathed). The real relief is that, as she has a little bit more going on than Mary Jane ever did, she’s able to contribute to the ensuing conflict quite a bit more, to the point where she and Peter actually sort of become a team.

Conflict, believe it or not, is actually the point at which the film excels. Director Marc Webb, known best for his only other feature, (500) Days of Summer, proves surprisingly adept at the action scenes, capturing some rather striking choreography as Spidey uses his webs every which-way to attack, dodge, and reposition his enemy. As is too often the case with these films, the best set piece comes smack in the middle, when The Lizard attacks Peter at high school, and the way Peter uses his familiarity with the environment to his advantage is nicely understated while still providing the scene appreciated momentum.

Unfortunately, the film can’t all be Spidey fights, but its biggest failing is not quite knowing what it does want to be the rest of the time. Webb’s visual palette is a discarded David Fincher concept. Shot by Michael Bay veteran John Schwartzman, who knows a thing or two about crafting an appealing frame (say what you will about Pearl Harbor...), seems unable to find his footing with his first venture into not only 3D but also, more damagingly, digital. Many of the scenes, particularly the more conversational, look downright cheap, blown-out and waxy and everything one would usually associate with a much less expensive production. Even when they land on their intended look, the darker tones lend an air of seriousness to the proceedings that the screenplay (courtesy of James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves, good-to-great writers who seemingly rewrote one another into submission) rarely calls for. The result is a lot of humor that feels totally out of place, and a tone that jumps from romantic to glib to morose to snappy to patriotic to ponderous to horrific to cartoonish, all in very sharp, jolting transitions, and the film just feels very misshapen, an amorphous lump of a lot of things that feel like they belong in a movie without ever feeling like they belong in this movie. And as much as many have celebrated the return of Spidey’s sense of humor (and he gets off some good zingers), the film itself lacks a central sense of humor.

There’s some good stuff hanging around in The Amazing Spider-Man. The cast is notably game, and the benefit of having Martin Sheen onboard cannot be overstated. Rhys Ifans may the latest in a series of actors hoodwinked into believing his stock villain carries some sort of gravitas, but he’s always been a bold enough actor to not fear looking ridiculous. Ultimately, film itself just doesn’t seem to want to exist. I totally subscribe to the notion that pieces of art have a soul and a will all their own, and it’s easy to tell when a film just doesn’t want to be. The latest adventures of the superhero that kicked off the superhero renaissance aren’t unnecessary because we’ve already seen them - with the introduction of The Lizard and keeping Peter in high school, there’s more than enough to differentiate this one. The overbearing familiarity cuts deeper, to the sense that all of these movies are just the same story, told the same personality-free way, by the latest director looking to get a leg up on the competition for the next time he really wants to make a movie.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Wilder Things

I liked DVD just fine, but boy do I loooooove Blu-ray. And the just-released Masters of Cinema editions of two bona fide Billy Wilder classics, Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend, are great examples of why. Indemnity in particular is afforded a transfer that can only be described as "revelatory," finding immense detail in the shadows, and in its own small way, redefining film noir. Yeah, it might be terribly naval-gaze-y (or the result of a few too many brain cells burned off by my HDTV), but the manner in which a transfer is handled does legitimately contribute to film history. In this case, MoC's Double Indemnity edition reminds us that film noir is not about the deep, pitch-black shadows and high-contrast we sometimes associate with it, but rather the mission to plumb the darkest corners of the human soul. So there.

The Lost Weekend isn't quite as strong, pitching the contrast noticeably higher, but there's something about the wild, uncontrollable, pitch-black shadows that's pretty damn compelling itself. Needless to say (or perhaps not), both films are truly great pieces of drama, diligently scripted and emotionally taught, and are worth putting on your shelf if you're able to play Region B Blu-rays. MoC got ahold of some great supplements, and The Lost Weekend is almost worth purchasing just for the three-hour 1992 documentary that goes film-by-film through Wilder's entire career with the man himself. Of particular note, besides his considerable insight into his own career and the industry, is that Wilder speaks mostly German, peppered with English when it better suits his point. Pretty freaking cool if you ask me.

Beyond the fact that they were Wilder's third (Indemnity) and fourth (Weekend) American films, they're great companion pieces in a sort of exo-cinematic way as well - t'was Wilder's collaboration with the alcoholic writer Raymond Chandler on the former that inspired him to tackle the story of alcoholic writer Don Birnam in the latter. They also, IMHO as the kids say, represent the best of Wilder's intentions in his darker, more cynical period as a young filmmaker. Which is not to say they're the best of those films, and certainly not the best of Wilder. What I mean is that these two focused his total lack of faith in the human condition on humans rather than institutions (as in Ace in the Hole's journalism industry or Sunset Boulevard's Hollywood, and the overall dismissal of the mass entertainment that he just happened to master along the way). There's a humanist integrity sometimes missing from his middle-period works that make Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend at once much smaller, yet quietly deeper.

Anyway, I reviewed both discs at CriterionCast, a wonderful website you should be visiting every single day. Twice on Sundays. Or, hell, twice today, why not.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Raise Your Bass - Titles, Cartoons, Short Films, and the Original Ending of Phase IV

I take every possible opportunity to extol the virtues of Cinefamily here in Los Angeles. Operating from the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax, they remain the one place in town where you can regularly (that is to say, monthly) see a silent movie on the big screen, but they also go way beyond not only the description given by their venue, but also any description you could find for a contemporary cinematheque. This past month alone, one could wander in and see everything from Bela Tarr's magnum opus Satantango to The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai to Celine and Julie Go Boating to Beyond the Black Rainbow to whatever Hamburger: The Motion Picture is. Never mind their live shows, potlucks, barbecues, and other add-ons designed to draw the community together. But they really outdid themselves this past weekend with a program titled Saul Bass on Film, a two-night retrospective of the famous title designer's work across film (short and feature-length), industrial films, commercials, logos, and cartoons.

Prior to this weekend, I only knew Bass from his famous work on title sequences. It was fitting, then, to start out with the short lecture documentary Bass on Titles, which goes through some of the more notable ones and the inspiration therefor. This was playing as we entered the theater, so my attention wasn't exactly firmly engaged, but it provided a great recap of his range of influence, experience, and expression. Highlights included West Side Story, Grand Prix, Psycho, VertigoThe Man with the Golden Arm, and more.

From there, we were off to the races, drinking in a breadth of cinema that was quite striking, unexpected, and, most of all, inventive. His commercials of the era, mostly for beer, seem like they'd be right at home in the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Price, with one detailing the sort of existential despair of office life in a city, making the daily routine of one worker into something as once noble and tragic (though he can always rely on a bottle of National!).

Bass had an extensive career in logo design, creating some so iconic they're still instantly recognizable. In a nearly half-hour piece, Bass detailed the creation of the new face of AT&T (then still known as Bell System), going through every possible permutation of the concept for their new logo until they arrived at something sleek, simple, and instantly recognizable. It's a rather impressive process, one which loses a bit of steam in retrospect when they extol the virtues of stripes (noting that they denote something modern and efficient!), which were ubiquitous on their company vehicles and other surrounding property.

Cinefamily Executive Director Hadrian Belove, our host for the evening, introduced the short The Searching Eye by noting it was made for the 1964-65 World's Fair, and financed by Kodak with the intention of showing off their camera technology. It features a young boy moving about the world, discovering some basic facts of the world. The film was shot in a combination of 35mm and 70mm, and whenever the camera turned to what the boy was seeing - usually some form of wildlife - the film would blow up to 70mm. Even on 16mm, it was a pretty cool little movie, but I can't imagine how astounding it must have been to see it as it was intended. It points to an important current running throughout the films we saw this weekend, which is the belief that humanity is essentially positive, and progress essentially a noble movement in human evolution.

The headliners for the night, if we knew what we were in for, were easily Notes on the Popular Arts and Why Man Creates. I'll attempt to account for the totality of the latter in a second, but the former did a fine job of dispatching with the current obsession with meta/deconstructive narratives that so proliferate modern culture. It illustrated how various mediums provide and encourage escapism, or the habit of removing oneself from the tedium of everyday life and traveling into the adventures of your favorite protagonists. So the kid who can't master his violin lessons becomes a superhero whose dissonant music foils a bank robbery. A woman unable to assert herself over an uncooperative receptionist imagines a version of herself who saves a political leader's life in surgery, thus preventing revolution, and moving right into a dramatic courtroom speech that exonerates her client and targets the real criminal. And so forth. Bass' sense of humor really came out here, finding a way to both mock and endear us to his characters, while still capturing the magic of art, the way it lifts us out of our lives, even if it's just cheap fantasy.

Now...Why Man Creates is certainly an ambitious title. Doubly so for a half-hour film. And yet, mixing live action with animation (sometimes in the same frame), it's as close to a satisfying exploration of the topic as I can imagine. It's divided into eight sections, the first of which, "The Edifice," provides a very cursory, animated summation of man's creative - both industrial, artistic, societal, and political - accomplishments since pretty much our beginnings, culminating with what Bass depicts as an overwhelming, crushing confluence of creativity and industry. And this was only 1968! What would he have thought today?

From there, he ruminates on the very conception of creativity and how it is received by the public. He asserts that no creator has total control over the end product. Outside influences, be they tangible (materials, funding, etc.) or ethereal (every artist knows the piece itself has a say on its final form), will always determine the piece as much as the artist. He doesn't express a great deal of faith in the public, as they look on at an unknown accomplishment with skepticism, disbelief, hatred, and mockery, except for one or two people who dare to say "I don't know, there might be something there." Through ping pong balls, of all things, he illustrates how those who stand out and are willing to take the greatest chances are cast out, then approached curiously, and finally revered.

He takes a momentary digression to two snails, one of whom asks, "Have you ever thought that radical ideas threaten institutions, then become institutions, and in turn reject radical ideas which threaten institutions?" The other snail replies, "no," and the first one shrugs (insofar as snails can shrug) and say, "Huh, for a minute there I thought I was onto something."

The penultimate section visits the offices of three researchers, one looking into a solution to the world hunger problem, another into a cure for cancer, and the third into the origins of the universe. The first thing a modern audience realizes is that these are still well beyond our grasp, which is especially heartbreaking given each man's assertion that they're a few years away from a solution. But Bass really cuts to the core of these sort of fields, which involve years of intense exploration into a particular hypothesis that can come up totally empty, epitomized as he follows one man whose seven years on one area came to a total dead end. It's a quietly heartbreaking note to (nearly) end on.

His final answer to the titular question isn't one I'll give away here, not because I feel particularly precious for having seen it, but rather because you have to kind of go through the whole thing for it to have the appropriate impact, and also because it's blindingly obvious. Its clarity, however, makes it no less true or profound. Even at thirty minutes, it made a pretty deep impact on me in its investigation at this inherent driving force within humanity, and how, even when it tears us down, it gradually lifts us up. If only by the sheer fact of its existence.

Prior to Why Man Creates, we were also treated a short cartoon that Bass designed for Stan Freberg. You can see it in its entirety below:

And prior to that, Belove sat down with with title designer Pablo Ferro (probably best known for working with Stanley Kubrick on the titles for Dr. Strangelove and the trailer for A Clockwork Orange, and for accomplishing the split-screens in The Thomas Crown Affair) and Bass's assistant editor for his titling work in the 1960s, Michael Lonzo for an extensive chat about all things graphic design. Lonzo was especially eager to discuss his working relationship with Bass, going into everything from his first interview for an office assistant position (which Bass conducted personally) to his unusual hours (Bass once scheduled him for a fifteen-minute meeting at the office at 3:30 AM) to his small contributions to the overall form. He recalled that Bass was incredibly tidy, and his desk was arranged "as if he himself had designed it," with pencilled pre-sharpened and placed in order of length. He insisted on talking about the title sequence for Seconds, and not without reason, as it's an elaborate sequence, especially laborious at the time it was made, involving shooting, printing, projecting, reflecting, and editing in various combinations.

(from left to right: Hadrian Belove, Pablo Ferro, Michael Lonzo)
And that was the first night!

The second night began with The Solar Film, an industrial short designed to highlight the importance of solar energy without being becoming a series of facts and figures. Bass nicely illustrates the impermanence of oil through an animated sequence, then moves into a really fine exploration of the positive feelings associated with the sun, and how those go hand-in-hand with renewable energy. Once again, Bass would have fit right in at SCDP.

But the big attraction for the evening was certainly Phase IV, Bass's only feature, which hasn't enjoyed the best reputation since its release in 1974. While there's plenty to mock - the performances are pretty phony - Bass's cinema is exquisite. The film is essentially about a potentially deadly event which, instead of causing the end of the world, instead causes super-intelligence in ants. That sounds terribly lame, but in practice - through a long, nearly dialogue-free prologue showing nothing but ants - it becomes incredibly unnerving. Bass takes the human/ant dynamic and transforms it into something almost poetically haunting. It tackles such diverse and converging ideas as war, communism, the thin line between humanity and animals, and loss.

The ant photography, which was headed up by Ken Middleham (who provided similar services on Days of Heaven), goes beyond simply being an astounding piece of documentary to legitimately telling a story. His practices certainly wouldn't fly on an American Humane Association-supervised shoot - beyond gluing insects into place (a common practice), he arranged for them to be destroyed in numerous ways (eaten, squished, pierced, etc.), and they even bred special ants for the purposes of the film - but the results are breathtaking, far more moving and stirring than the human drama.

At the end of the film, we discover that the ants are terrorizing the humans not to destroy them, but rather to assimilate them as members of the ant family. A short psychedelic sequence shows the mental collapse and rebuilding at the hands (legs?) of the all-powerful ants, but that sequence was originally intended to be much longer. Rumors have circulated since the film's release, most saying that it was cut by the studio who already didn't understand how their killer ant movie got transformed into a weird, slow, psychological trip, but some insisted it was never even shot.

Well, shot it was, saw it we did, and it takes the film's inherent odd nature at catapults it beyond the infinite. Comparisons were immediately drawn to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this is something else entirely, at once more focused and far stranger. Some of the imagery is fairly easy to read; humans are compartmentalized into mazes and containers, as we do to ants, then a man's foreheard is bored out from the inside, and finally humans take on the actions of hawks and frogs, becoming one with nature. Others are a little more eclectic - mirror imagery of a woman's swirling naked body, a(nother?) woman giving birth to the sun are a little more eclectic, and a man running across the water makes for some pure, visceral cinema. It's an absolutely stunning sequence, which would have taken an effective bio-thriller with hints of psycho-terror and body horror and really cemented its place in cinematic history. Phase IV could never have been a great film, but it has greatness in it.

The evening concluded with 1984's Quest, a short film Bass co-directed with his wife Elaine (who Belove specifically noted had a huge hand in all of Saul's work, and anytime one talks about his accomplishments, it was important to remember Elaine was right there with him). The film doubled as a tribute to Ray Bradbury as well, as he wrote the story for the film, about a civilization whose people live only eight days. They still age as we do, but, you know, much faster. They send out a newborn to reach a gate that will open a new land where people live longer, and somehow through opening the gate their civilization will find hope, or something. That was a little unclear. What was clear is that this was an incredibly 1980s production, from the score to the titular adventure to the hair to the special effects (so many lasers), but Bass accomplished a tremendous amount on a tiny budget (George Lucas sent people from ILM to see how he rendered so much with so little), and came away with some incredible imagery in the process. Including a man playing a chess-like game involving lasers with an ape creature.

It was an astonishing, eye-opening weekend, to say the least. Phase IV will show again on July 1st (no mention of the alternate ending showing with it), and it's certainly worth experiencing on the big screen. As I mentioned at the top, this was a whole world of Bass's work, and thus of cinema, that I hadn't even glimpsed before, and I am certainly richer for it. Bass's intense interest in human progress, the belief that we can create a better world, permeated even the least of his work. More than just leaving his mark on contemporary design, he made grand statements about the contemporary human condition.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Making a Playlist for the End of the World

When I was a young, introverted high schooler (as opposed to the somewhat older, introverted working stiff I am today), I had a recurring end-of-the-world daydream. There would be some cataclysmic event mere hours, perhaps even minutes away, and the immediacy of death would finally spur me to confess my feelings for any number of girls, a gesture they would surely reciprocate, because it’s my daydream, dammit. At the very least, I wouldn’t have to live long with what I saw to be the more true fact of their dismissal, and it’d still be a little cathartic, right?

Looking back, I still find it kind of sweet in a in a demented sort of way (ahhhh, adolescence). But it's also kind of bullshit, right? It’s narcissistic and cowardly, a invented excuse to really start living life without having to live with the consequences. And it's very much the tune to which Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is scored. But writer/director Lorene Scafaria has no capacity for the dramatics of positivity, and her determination to brush aside her more genuine comedic instincts for Instagram optimism is this film’s deadly blow.

Let's start at the beginning. Dodge (yes, his name is Dodge), being played by Steve Carell and all, is totally helpless when his wife literally walks out on him upon hearing that the world will end (she simply opens the car door and walks away). Instead of spending his time doing anything worthwhile, he goes right back to work at his insurance company. Women express interest in spending romantic time with him, but that's not Dodge's scene. Moping in bathtubs? Absolutely. Enjoying the company of others, even platonically? Boo on that.

Until, that is, his kooky/free-spirit/British/vinyl-loving/sexually-adventurous-but-not-too-adventurous neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), hands him a huge stack of mail that has accidentally gone to her over the last three years, in which lies a letter from his high school sweetheart on whom he's totally had a crush lo these many years. And what do you know, in the letter, she too confesses her love for him! Except she provides no contact information (not even a return address), because, naturally, when you're confessing your love for someone, the last thing you'd want them to do is be able to contact you. Nothing weird about that at all.

So Dodge and Penny, united by their desire to be someplace else (Dodge with his long-lost love, Penny with her family in England), and spurred by the increasing riots in their nameless East Coast city, take to the road, and for awhile, the movie just might work. While escaping the riots, Penny is simultaneously breaking up with her boyfriend, neither of whom are nearly as concerned with the imminent danger as they are with dissecting their differences. Penny and Dodge end up hitching a ride with a simple man with hidden motives, visit one of Penny’s old boyfriends, go to jail, and happen upon a Chili's-style family restaurant turned 24-hour party that doesn't sound good on paper (or in the trailer!), but which I found surprisingly charming, due in no small part to the earnestness of the cast. Scafaria shows a real flair for finding just the right rhythm in these comedic elements, and it’s pretty entertaining, which makes it all the rougher when she decides that's not enough.

Because, of course, what would be the point of having a man and woman team up for an adventure without them getting together? It doesn’t matter how totally ill-fitting the romance is! It’s sweet! It’s not. The levels on which this doesn’t work are innumerable and increasingly troubling. It's not only that you can so clearly see this coming. It's not only that Carell and Knightley are totally mismatched romantically, which isn't only because of the age difference, but rather because their decent comedic chemistry translates not at all into anything lovey-dovey. Centrally, it’s because, like so many of these movies, Dodge brings absolutely nothing to the table.

Sure, who wouldn't love a hot young free spirit like Penny? Considerably less obvious is why she's so hung up on an insurance salesman who's terrible company, never takes her feelings into consideration, and, let’s be honest, looks like Steve Carell. At best you can say it's because she's admitted that she's incapable of not being with someone (handy, then, that she's totally hot), but that doesn't really jive with the way the film posits their romance as the real deal. So this makes two Steve Carell films in as many years (don’t see: Crazy, Stupid, Love.) stuck on the idea of the soul mate while tackling it on only the most superficial level.

And, yes, the whole end-of-the-world thing is a running undercurrent, albeit in a very Urban Outfitters kind of way. It's another fashion for the film, as artificial and fabricated and ill-considered as my high school daydream. People get to act outlandish (fun game - try and figure out how quickly you forget Melanie Lynskey and Patton Oswalt are even in this movie), so long as we don’t have to take them too seriously when the seriously starts getting taken. Because then, watch out you guys, stop fooling around, because this is the mopey part of the dramedy, as we all know the absurd cannot possibly exist alongside the melancholy (#Lubitsch). Now’s time for relationships to be mended and redemption to be found. But it's a deeply dishonest affair. Things happen simply because wouldn't it be nice if they did, confirming, without convincing us of, our greatest hopes in humanity, and assuring the audience that every one of them is a pure force of positivity and selflessness, congratulating them merely for existing.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Whose What Now?

There is so much greatness in Your Sister's Sister, which I discuss further at Battleship Pretension, that I really, really hesitate in saying it's not worth your time. The performances are marvelous, and writer/director Lynn Shelton's ability to manage dramatic conflict, farce, character development, and improvisational comedy throughout the film's second act is really one of the most beautiful things I've seen all year. But when the film falls flat, boy does it ever. So if you're willing to roll around on some very uneven terrain, proceed to select cities this Friday. But tread lightly.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

How Far Would You Go to Get Your Answers?

This post contain spoilers for Prometheus.

Nobody could be less surprised than I that the early word on the latest Ridley Scott film wasn't terribly good. Conversely, nobody could be more surprised that the film in question ended up being really, really good. Working from an unbelievably flawed screenplay by Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts (and I cannot recommend highly enough reading Drew McWeeny's piece that totally dismantles its character and structure deficiencies), Ridley Scott has miraculously crafted in Prometheus a remarkable artistic expression I no longer thought him capable of, an aesthetic examination of space that also doubles as rip-roaring entertainment.

After he brushes past two useless opening scenes, the real heart of the film begins with David (Michael Fassbender), a robot wandering the halls of Prometheus, a massive spaceship carrying a crew towards an alien planet. While the crew is put into hibernation for the two-year journey, David is onboard to ensure everything continues to run smoothly, leaving him, like the night watchman of a department story, with the run of the place for most of his time.

This sometimes eerie, often touching, always haunting sequence, which I'd gladly have watching for the film's duration, sets up Scott's preoccupations in the film, defined by the way we affect the spaces around us. The concept of Ridley Scott shooting in 3D seemed like the most crass of commercial ventures, but the result is revelatory. Every year, we get a new candidate for "best use of live-action 3D," and I can easily say this now holds the crown - it's stunningly beautiful, and it seems like Scott has taken David Fincher's cues for how to handle digital photography. But more than that, it's purposeful in a very striking way. The way David moves about the ship represents what he is - another cog in the machine. He bicycles without faltering, shoots hoops without missing, and Fassbender inhabits his character and these rooms more to blend in than to stand out.

David also makes two key decisions in this early sequence that, upon further reflection, are much more informative of the ensuing events than they first appear. First, he looks in on Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) while she dreams. This seems at first a way to usher in some backstory on Shaw, which it certainly serves as, but there are any number of ways this could have been accomplished without presenting it from David's point of view, which repositions the action as specifically his, and more importantly, positions his growing interest in and obsession with (love for?) Shaw.

Second, he watches Lawrence of Arabia, and dyes his hair and affects the manner of Peter O'Toole in that film. What robot that hasn't achieved some level of self-actualization would take this action? It represents a longing integral to the character and extremely important to thinking about everything he does from there.

Soon, the crew wakes up, and we're introduced to them in some quickly-sketched, but very effective, ways that also go a long way towards informing some questionable behavior later on (Milburn's desire later on to befriend a seemingly threatening creature is established here, for example), though some characters never make sense from the get-go (sure, Fifield, you're what must surely be a world-class geologist, you committed to being asleep for four years of your life, and this mission to go where no man has gone before is "just a job"). It's not nearly on par with a similar scene in Aliens, but it's solid work.

The crew is quickly debriefed on the purpose of the mission, a scene which itself is about how a dead man can still hold a room (physically, through a 3D projection that mirrors the film's medium, and attentively) without actually being there, or anywhere for that matter (or so we think at the time). The mission must have paid handsomely if everyone signed up without knowing what they were getting into, especially considering it all ultimately boils down to Shaw, her boyfriend/partner Holloway (played by Logan Marshall-Green, who my girlfriend and I immediately began referring to as "Tom Hardy-looking guy"), and billionaire industrialist Peter Weyland's (Guy Pearce) collective desire to meet the beings that created humans, which turn out to be aliens.

While that's a hell of a whim to hang a trillion-dollar mission onto, the philosophical questions invited by the premise alone are pretty staggering, matched only by Lindelof and Spaiht's surprising disinterest in exploring any of them. The hazy, 3am-in-a-dorm-room manner in which they handle the film's philosophy has been widely noted, and rightfully so, in no small part because they capture the shortcomings of those conversations without recognizing the rhythm of them. The sense of superiority for even "going there" is evident in every interaction, forgetting that these characters are scientists, not philosophers, and have a natural shortcoming in addressing these topics. They have an "out" they could have written their weaknesses to, but failed even on that front.

But once the crew gets to the cave, and they do so rather quickly, things pick up considerably. Scott re-establishes the purpose of space (not the "outer" kind, but, you know, our immediate surroundings) in pitching the 3D waaaaayyyyyy back to really evoke the depth of the cave, and they send out probes in an attempt to predict their environment. They come across projections of past actions that seem to take over the cave. Then they arrive at "the door" and everything begins to come together (Shaw's line, "We don't know what's on the other side," is filled with meaning) - the crew's presence in the cave literally changes the space around them. There are a couple ways to read this. Adrian Bott, in his widely-disseminated piece linking the film's religious undercurrents, argues that it's the presence of human emotion that changes the space, but a more scientific reading could simply say it was a sealed container, and the outer atmosphere changed it.

Either way, things start to go bad as soon as humans enter the equation, and the continued ways humans and aliens interact with each other's spaces (both constructed and, once we get to Holloway drinking the black goo and especially Shaw's pregnancy, organic) create more and more threatening scenarios. Part of the reason the Shaw's climactic fight with the Engineer was unsatisfying for me is that it totally disposes with the way the conflict had been pitched up to that point - alien life comes first as an external threat, then as an invasion of Holloway's basic life functions, then to Shaw's reproductive system, and finally to Weyland's soul ("There's...nothing..." he mutters as he dies). The spaces keep getting more and more personal until they attack our very essence, our very reason for being (which is also set up with David's invasion of Shaw's headspace when he watches her dreams).

The bulk of the second act is also where the film's prime entertainment value comes from, and I won't lie that scenes as insane as Shaw's self-cesarean are a big reason for loving the film as well. As much as people are interested in the film's "big idea" themes (though Prometheus feels the product of people more interested in the tropes of "big-idea sci-fi" than they actually are the ideas themselves), I'm far more taken with the film's "big idea" set pieces, and there are few words that could adequately describe how unbelievably threatening that sequence is. As much as one could take issues with the mechanics of the screenplay, a big part of the pleasure of genre cinema (and especially sci-fi cinema) is seeing certain imaginative approaches to conflict, be it people shrinking down and going inside the human body or a robot that just won't die or a computer program reforming the virtual world to defeat the hero. This is, after all, still entertainment.

So while I can recognize some of the issues of Prometheus at a screenplay level, I really regret that the conversation has stopped there for many. Beyond any talk of its "ambition" or "philosophy," it's a grand formal accomplishment top to bottom with a remarkably cohesive aesthetic viewpoint that's a blast to sit through. I'll take that in my summer blockbuster any day.

Further thoughts:

-Although the film's weakest dramatic beat may be its fan-servicing final scene, in which a familiar Alien emerges from the dead engineer, I do like what this adds to the film thematically, and it uses its prequel format in a much more exciting way than the usual "isn't it exciting to see how that got there?" In tracing the genealogy necessary for the first Alien to be born, we go from black goo into human, mixed with human sperm, into a human egg, which is birthed into a wholly distinct life form, which in turn has to...invade? rape?...with an engineer before the deadly creature is born. As much as the film deals with designing life, this reminds us of the randomness of creation, as well as its unpredictable consequences, and our familiarity with the result helps tie it all together, intellectually.

-On that same string, of all the unexplained motivations in the film, I like that David's reasons for bringing the black goo onboard and giving it to Holloway are not addressed. It could be random curiosity, it could be a genuine scientific experiment, it could somehow feed into a part of Weyland's plan to which we are not privy. It could also be David's genuine attempt to create life, which is as touching as it is terrifying.