29 November 2010

七人の侍 (Shichinin no Samurai / Seven Samurai)

This got watched in two parts with almost a week between, split in half right at Intermission, but I had the pleasure of watching it with someone who'd never seen it before. Plus, it'd been a long time since I'd last seen it, so all in all I was watching with fairly fresh eyes. The movie splits easily into three parts, each roughly an hour long: act one is rounding up the samurai, act two is preparing the village for attack, and act three is the battle itself. For the most part it does well keeping clear its large cast and crucial-to-the-story geography, though I admit a couple of times someone would get shot and one of us would turn to the other and say, "Wait, which one was that?" (It was almost always cleared up for us in the next scene, however.) Much of this is due to Kurosawa's choice to stay wide during fight scenes, even when it's a single character out of the crowd we are meant to be concerned with. I'm not criticizing this choice, because keeping it wide allows the sheer physicality of the performances to carry much more excitement than cutting into close-ups could sustain, but the result is sometimes all those frantically moving Japanese men in period outfits blur together. So it goes.

I also really enjoyed how clumsy both sides got during the final battle -- the attempt to waylay a horseman would fail, and the villagers would have to chase desperately after a bandit into the village, but then the bandit would have trouble controlling his horse because of the chaos of the battle. It felt kinetic and unrehearsed and gave both sides an amateurish quality akin to realism. And of course Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) proving with every scene exactly why he'd never be a samurai and yet why he deserved that honor just as much as the nobler, better-trained warriors he fought alongside. That he was given a samurai's gravesite without a single word spoke more to the respect that he'd earned than any long monologue ever could have. Allowing the story's biggest beats to be conveyed visually in the background of a scene is a strong choice for a film of any era, but it pays off because it challenges the viewer to put it together himself: it all goes back to the old adage that showing is more impactful than telling.

I know I just focused entirely on surface, fairly obvious cues from one of cinema's most famous and thematically rich films, but it's late and I haven't watched it in a while, so forgive me that. I actually intend to return to the two Criterion commentary tracks (something I don't do often enough), and if I feel like I have enough to say about it, perhaps I'll make a post about their viewing as well.


When this movie sticks to its procedural guns -- that is, when it tells the story of a super-infectious outbreak and the efforts by the military and the CDC to contain it -- it is in strong territory. When it heightens tension with romantic entanglements and infected loved ones, or evil generals hellbent on capturing and killing our hero to save their own necks, it kind of loses traction. (It's also, to be honest, built up on an awful lot of ugly coincidences and moronic slips in protocol: smuggling a monkey out of a cargo depot I can handle, but the nurse who sticks his hand in the centrifuge was a bit much.) Structurally, it falls right in line with a Roland Emmerich film: fake-out opening, meet the hot-headed genius nobody believes in, give him some data nobody will believe when he shouts about it, give him some deadlines and obstacles -- usually petty-minded antagonists and various loved ones in peril -- and start the clock running. And like Emmerich, it shortchanges some of the relationships and has a lot of needlessly clunky dialogue, but it moves along at a good clip by keeping the goals small and sequential, with heightened stakes and smart right-angle turns in all the right spots.

I don't have much to say. It makes me realize the kind of military approach exhibited in both versions of The Crazies is exaggerated and unreal, and I'd be better off toning it down if I can. That is, if I keep pushing on. (It's a weird thing, but watching Skyline earlier today kind of derailed me a bit. To stretch that metaphor, I have to decide if I get back on these tracks or drag myself over to some better ones now.) The military response in Outbreak (disregarding Donald Sutherland's turn as a ridiculously monomaniacal villain) is pretty reasonable and balanced. It's interesting to note that this was pre-9/11, but I actually imagine a response more like this one still being reasonable (possibly with more panic from the public and a lot more media scaremongering) over the round-em-up/fuck-it-kill-everyone approach from The Crazies. To be fair, though, Romero's a satirist, not a realist. So it's hardly a criticism to say Wolfgang Petersen is more of a realist.

Village of the Damned

It's funny because even though I really liked the 1960 version of this, I also imagined it could be remade a little darker, a little tenser, and with more in-depth characterization. Watching John Carpenter's 1995 version is like a cautionary tale to remakes. It has a bigger-name cast (Christopher Reeve! Mark Hamill! the woman from Crocodile Dundee! uh, Kirstie Alley!) and sharper effects (the eyes are never weirdly off-center), and it's got a more tense ticking-clock climax (literally), but overall it feels a lot more clunky, forced, and staged. Whatever magic made the original move smoothly and feel like a steady downhill slope into creepy land has been sucked out of this version.

The truth is, John Carpenter films tend to be group-protagonist stories about what happens next, and almost never about who it's happening to. I like stories to be about the who at least as much as the what, and Village is, I think, a story that wants more than most to be about individual characters. Mark Hamill's preacher who turns sniper is one example of a great dramatic evolution that wasn't given much due. But even more than that, this version spends too long spinning plates in the middle. The kids do their glowy-eye-thing and force people to do things against their will, and they do it first as retribution and then ultimately as self-preservation, and yet people keep pissing them off in basically the same ways (an accident, a taunt, a threat) and they react in basically the same way (glowy eyes, offender hurts or kills themselves in whatever way is both most convenient and suited to the nature of the offense). Once or twice this is scary, but then it keeps happening, and we don't even get a quick-cut shorthand version; each time we watch the full sequence with the glowy-eyes, the music, the zooms, the struggle not to off yourself, and finally bang, suicide. The repetition feels a little exhaustive and doesn't help keep the suspense up.

I would still like to see a version that exploits how the children take for granted that they can read your thoughts and that you are trying to stop them. All encounters needn't end in death: they could simply mind-warp you into defusing bombs or unloading guns when you tried something, and any conspiracy against them, they would know about and be able to circumvent. Then more time could be spent in the uncomfortable position of interacting with them, exploring the hivemindedness of them, and facing the unstoppable threat of someone who can control you if they have to and knows your every thought. In both versions, the scenes of the one "trusted" man trying to get through to them -- to simultaneously educate them and learn about them -- are the best scenes. It'd be easy to keep the dread up while building on those, I'd think. Neither version quite goes this direction, but both touch on it. (A common theme in my critiques: "Hey, this movie started to go in this interesting direction but it had something else on its mind and went elsewhere instead. I want to see a version that goes in that other direction instead.")

In the end, this is not a bad film, but it's definitely inferior to the 1960s version, and there's just no getting around it. But it feels definitively Carpenterian; in fact it's easy to see this as the final part in a loose trilogy that includes The Fog and The Thing -- though I do like The Thing quite a bit more than the other two.

28 November 2010

Skyline *

This is a confusing concept, so bear with me: If I were to sit down right now and make a detailed checklist of Things To Not Do when making a film, especially the kind of film I've been writing lately (and just so we're clear, I have sat down and made such checklists more than once), and then if someone else were to stumble upon my checklist and hand it to some special effects wizards with a very douchey aesthetic and tell them it was an outline for a small-budget alien invasion story… well, that's just about the only way I can imagine Skyline coming into existence.

Don't be inconsistent with your monsters/threat: keep it simple. Make sure the monster's actions, even if we don't know the motivation, remain consistent and follow some kind of logical pattern. If you have something as efficient as giant human-sucking vacuum cleaners, does it really make sense to then round up the individual strays with massive, cyber-cthulhu Matrix squids? If you have something is brutally inefficient at human-brain harvesting as massive, cyber-cthulhu Matrix squids stalking highrise windows and chasing down individuals, does it really make sense for them to ignore easier targets to keep chasing the same target? (I guess you could try and make a case, when you discover why it's harvesting human brains, that a clever survivor's brain is more valuable than a passive victim's brain, but it really felt a lot more like they were motivated to keep chasing the guys the camera was following.)

A lot of people tell you you have to have likable characters. You don't. Or relatable characters. Technically you don't even need that. It's not complicated: you just need characters people care about. One way to do that is to make me like them. Another way is to make me relate to them. The only thing that matters, though, is that I care about what happens to them, and want to spend time with them. Someone should have explained that to these guys. The characters here made me uncomfortable from frame one. They are shallow greaseballs and D-list actors all just barely on the sleazy-tan side of artificially attractive, and their motivations are petty and (worse) inconsistent. I didn't want to know what happened next because I didn't want to be in the same room as these people. It's like being in an elevator with a bunch of Malibu frat guys. All you can think about is the doors opening on your floor and you getting out, walking away, and never having to see or hear these people ever again. I'll admit that I was squirming with dread and discomfort throughout, but it had nothing to do with wondrous magic lights, aliens machines or brain-suckers.

Don't let the level of peril peak too early, and don't make it easy for your hero to beat obstacles. Too many close-calls or irrationally hesitating villain/monster moments and the conflict dissipates. It doesn't make a difference how many redshirts you kill. It only matters about your hero. And if your hero, by the way, is special, like if the magic light infected him with super strength and if his brain is somehow uncontrollable to whatever mecha-control other human brains succumb to, please make it make sense. Your audience -- whatever part of it is generous enough to give your movie the kind of thought you hope audiences will give it -- is going to wonder about stuff like this.

God. The bottom line here is, this movie was bad in the worst way: it wasn't even fun. The story is completely derivative (Cloverfield, Independence Day, The Mist, The Matrix, Starship Troopers and especially the Spielberg War of the Worlds) without adding anything substantial to the equation. There were a couple of concepts that maybe, if played just right and stretched out into weird existential levels (if handled like the tone of act two of War of the Worlds, say), might have been worthwhile -- but they weren't overly great. The aliens need your brains to run themselves, okay. And so -- what do you do with that? That concept could be better used than merely as an act-three denouement/twist. On top of everything else, a couple of times in the movie there seemed to be much more interesting stories going on elsewhere, but the camera refused to leave the side of this band of contributing-nothing-to-society, useless and thoroughly unappealing pretty nobodies.

On a personal note: right this second I feel very much like trashing all my work on my script and starting over afresh, or just looking for a new idea. I have an almost phobic kneejerk terror to the idea of making this movie; to the idea that someone like me will watch a film I've made and feel the way I do about Skyline, too exhausted to even bother rolling my eyes at the screen and saying, "So what?"

I mean, can you think of a worse effect a creative work can have on you than to corrode away your desire to make art yourself?

Seen at the Regal Lloyd Mall 8.

26 November 2010

The Year of Our Lord 1974

It's funny, because the first time I watched this I remember being fairly impressed until about halfway through, and then spending each scene of the second half increasingly less engaged and hopeful than the last. Too much comes too easy, and though the scenes are all crafted with a viscerality and a punchy wit, it doesn't really ever amount to anything. It's all so direct.

But then I got to thinking (in large part because the DVD of this film opens with unskippable trailers for the other two films in the Red Riding trilogy), maybe I'm taking this too much at face value. This is part one of a trilogy, right? And the other films continue the hunt for this killer through almost an entire decade of storytelling, and small characters and events from previous stories pop up again in future stories, right? In retrospect, maybe the discover of, hunting down of, and eventual SPOILER revenge-killing of John Dawson is supposed to be just too damn easy. His toss-away response to "what about the children" is that he's no angel himself, a comment so glib that Eddie has no compunction about following through with murdering him, but the more I watched this I kept thinking that Sean Bean's sleazy political-minded real estate developer was evil, but not the kind of evil who sawed the wings of swans and stitched them onto the backs of underage little girls, whom he then raped and murdered -- let alone the kind of evil that's crazy (or dumb) enough to dump the bodies on his own lots, where they will be easily discovered.

Eddie Dunford killed the wrong guy, didn't he? Because if so, then I think I'm curious to continue the series, and I'm willing to withhold final judgment on the first act of the trilogy until I've seen it all the way through. I hope that the next two installments will make me look back on this one with a very different perspective. Partially because that might make me like it more (right now it's pretty so-so-at-best, as a standalone movie), and partially because that'd just be cool. Clever storytelling and all that.

So, here's hoping.

20 November 2010

The Crazies

I had to go back and review what I said about the original film to remember my reactions, and although these two are pretty different it's interesting that they both flirt with a kind of infection-paranoia that I find really engaging and exciting without ever following through with it. Here especially, though I remember having similar issues with the original, my main complaint is how inconsistent the infection is. At the beginning of the story, it makes a couple of characters slow, methodical killers with a creepy deadpan (even sing-song) quality to them. In the middle there is much talk (especially with Deputy Russell) that the virus makes you belligerent, violent, and gives you impaired judgment, such that it's difficult under the trying conditions to know whether someone has the Trixie virus or is merely angry, scared, and pushed to the edge. In the end, though, they're basically just your contemporary, fast-running bloodthirsty make-up-heavy zombie monsters: no brain, no personality, just a mindless killer done up in blood and gore and ready to be chopped down in novel and gory ways. The less personality they have, the more the issue becomes (to quote my friend Mr. John C. Worsley) merely an engineering matter, and no longer an engaging character-driven drama or a challenging psychological quandary. You can't engage with a mindless monster, and you don't fear for the person it once was. As soon as you cross that line, it's just zombies, and it's boring.

The movie aims at some kind of commentary, I think, but it comes off more like an intellectual exercise ("given x conditions, and y response, what would be the outcome?"). But since x is plastic, constantly shifting around to suit whatever would make each scene that much grimmer and more exciting, the intellectual exercise is a cheat, even at that. But despite everything I've said, I'd say I liked this film a lot more than I didn't like it. It just kind of kept slipping, notch by notch, from clever and engaging to hollow and exciting. It averages out fairly well, I'd say. But the bar isn't set too high.

A lot of the military response stuff in here touches a nerve in my own script, in that there is a lot of the same kind of attitude and backstory (no doubt semi-consciously influenced by the original The Crazies) in mine as there is here. Only I have to admit, it feels more focused and more sharply handled here than in my own work -- which is just a rough outline, to be fair, so a lot of elements are unfocused and half-conceived right now. But it does give me a lot to think about as I move forward. (I'm sort of staying vague when I talk about "my script," for fairly obvious reasons, and as I've said a dozen times this isn't a blog about my writing, it's a blog about my movie watching. But the two often overlap, and so it gets a mention now and then. What are you gonna do.)

19 November 2010

Under the Volcano

This film feels like it's purely about the charisma of staring into the abyss, the magnetism of a downward spiral. Specifically, this film charts a varied and colorful spectrum of alcoholism through a single man so far gone that he -- to paraphrase his own summation -- must drink the right amount to strike a balance between the shakes and oblivion. The way his loved ones, his estranged/returned wife and his half-brother, tolerate his behavior speaks of a different era and philosophy, but it also speaks of a hard-earned understanding, painful though it might be, of what is left of Geoffrey Firmin and how this man survives. His emotional and psychic states are just as stormy and delicately poised as his physical, and the question in Under The Volcano is never "Will he live or die?" but "How long will he last, and what specific indignity will be his undoing?" After all, it's the Day of the Dead, and Geoffrey has been drinking himself to death for a long time now. Now's as good a time as any to let go.

Supposedly the novel -- apparently called one of the best novels of the 20th century, though to be honest I scarcely know of it outside the context of this film -- is full of colorful descriptions of drink-induced hallucinations and surreality, but the film is decidedly literal, grounded, and lacking in flights of fancy. I read a review somewhere that suggested Huston left all the hallucinations inside Geoffrey's head, and allowed Albert Finney to portray them as such. I don't know about all that, but the quality and quantity of madness behind those dark shades and half-confounded fish-face lips is legion. Under the Volcano threatens to collapse under its own weight, but at the same time it is amazing to watch, to take in, to let all that bleak energy wash over you.

17 November 2010

Buried *

This was a film I knew I had to see.

The story I'm focused on right now involves characters alone in an enclosed space (a house), for the most part in near-complete darkness, with frightening and unknown threats both inside and outside, and they are helpless. Buried is like the distilled and hyperexaggerated version of this exact situation: one man alone in a much more cramped, much more enclosed space (an old wooden coffin), in near-complete darkness, facing threats from within and without, alone and helpless.

It is tense, smart, and unflinching. It depends on Ryan Reynolds's performance to work, but even more than that it leans heavily on a smart script. (I read that the writer intended to shoot this himself on a shoestring budget but some friends from a production company read it and convinced him to sell it and get it made as a low-budget studio film instead.) Paul faces a series of threats, builds relationships with some characters over the cell phone, and the stakes build steadily (and relentlessly) to a nail-biter climax that in all honesty is the tiniest bit pat, but works nonetheless. The various strings of Paul's story could feel episodic but they weave together (to run with this metaphor) just enough to feel like one story, not several little stories. It even manages to get some fairly brutal criticism of the way the west has handled post-war Iraq in there without feeling too confusing.

Some things that really stuck with me as object lessons include the sources of light (and plot- and character-driven justifications for each) and use of technology as a lifeline in a tight spot. After reading multiple stories of people who were trapped in the earthquake in Haiti and stayed alive by accessing first aid info on their iPhones and tweeting for help, it was nice to see a film really play on the desperation and isolation of that lifeline. (I have similar ideas running through my story; it also was gratifying that none of my cooler beats were done here first.) It also strikes home just how crucial casting is, because while I think the script is suspenseful enough and smart enough to sustain a lesser actor, it would have come off as a more hollow exercise without the kind of give-all performance Buried gets out of Reynolds.

I'm really glad I got to see this on the big screen (though as a side note: what kind of a person brings a child to see this and feels it's okay to have whispering conversations with them during all the tensest and most emotionally affecting scenes?). And I'm really glad it ends like it does (with one exception: [SPOILER] when Dan Brenner on the phone declares the man in the coffin they opened Mark White, by name, that was far too much for me, far too convenient). This is a good movie, made just the way it ought to be made. I'm bummed that Cortés's other films don't seem to be available in the US. Maybe when this hits DVD/Blu-ray and gets the boost it deserves, they'll release some.

Seen at the Hollywood Theatre.

15 November 2010

Rear Window

I watched this movie in portions over three days -- not the ideal way to watch a film, I admit, but it's not my first time through -- and my experience revisiting Rear Window was actually a lot like my experience revisiting Fight Club: it was weird to see how much of an impact this one film has had on the kind of repeated themes and events that occur in my own work. Somewhere between this and Don Quixote lies a certain kind of story I keep revisiting. I have my theories as to why, but this isn't about navel-gazing. It's supposed to be about my thoughts on watching a movie.

This film falls right on the cusp between what I love about Hitchcock and what I hate about him. It's got a lot of really stagy, obviously artificial setups, dialogue, sets and action scenes, but it also uses most or all of that to tell a story that is singularly Hitchcockian (I'm sure I didn't just make that word up), a novel exploration of suspense and tension, a slightly askew and cheeky morality story, and a bracing headlong dive into relatively uncharted psychological territory. Keeping all of the action across the way and through a window works, it implicates us in our desire to poke into others' lives, and it makes us all the more tense when things do (finally) happen across the way. A key element was Jeff's helplessness throughout: first his inability to convince anybody that mattered that Thorwald may be up to something, then his helplessness as he watched Thorwald move on Lisa, and especially the terror of his immobility when Thorwald turned the tables and came after him. That helplessness is a main ingredient in what makes the movie scary, tense. (Helplessness is a theme I'm exploring, so it's at the forefront of my attention lately.)

But on the other side of the coin, Hitchcock is at his worst when he tries to delve into common human dramas, characterization, relationships. Like Vertigo, like the opening of Psycho, like much of North by Northwest, whenever we have to sit with two characters flirting or two lovers arguing the notes ring a little false, a little bit looking-down-his-nose at the foolish plebes of his stories. (I know he doesn't write them, but the detached stiffness of each film rings similarly false, from writer to writer; I mean, it's hardly a bold claim to suggest that Hitch cares deeply about suspense, tension, and plot and not much at all for character, relationships, or ordinary human drama.) Rear Window slacks for a good chunk of it, especially as poor Jimmy Stewart has nothing to do but sit in a chair, fidget with a camera lens or a pair of binoculars, and twitch back back and forth between the window and the lamp. An inordinate amount of time is spent on tangential issues like whether or not silver-spoon Lisa is suited to traipsing about the globe with rogue-wanderer Jeff. I like that she proves infinitely more tenacious and resilient than he gives her credit for (this may be one of Hitch's most feminist characters), but I'm not sure the issue feels adequately resolved at the end for me, and I'm less sure that it matters ultimately to the story beyond giving Lisa motivation deeper than just echoing Jeff's intense curiosity for some of the bolder actions she takes. Proving something to her man is certainly adequate motivation, but the number of scenes it took to establish this felt a touch exhausting. At least in Vertigo, all the time spent on the strange relationships with women are directly linked to the themes of the story; they may feel dry and phony but it makes sense for them to feel repetitive in a story about obsession. Here, it just felt like constant reminders that Jeff's normally a take-action fearless kind of guy, and that Lisa is expected (by Jeff) to be a pretty princess and cosmopolitan socialite, above getting her hands dirty. All of that could be handled with a lot less.

Whenever I watch a Hitchcock movie, I always praise his sense of story and structure, and how he knows his way around a setpiece, but I also always come away griping that he spins plates too long, has no sense of pacing in his dialogue or character-building moments, and loses a lot of (or all) his well-built steam and well-earned excitement. Well, what can I tell you? This is no exception. It's a really, really good movie, except for the parts that aren't.

11 November 2010

Village of the Damned

I've been mildly obsessed with John Wyndham lately, who seems to have such a methodical and clinical approach to depicting creepy, subversive invasions, so I finally sat and watched the first of a couple of adaptations of The Midwich Cuckoos. It plays out like a smart b-movie, with a ton of exposition but a patient, steady hand telling an interesting story. Even the leaps of logic that get us to the "truth" of the matter leave most everything pleasantly ambiguous, which I always find more frightening and more believable than spelling it all out. What was the children's end-goal, exactly, beyond survival and propagation? And did they know about intelligent life in outer space or not? How exactly did the mass blackout facilitate the impregnation of all the village's women? I'm asking these questions precisely because they remain unanswered, and I am thankful for that level of obtuseness in the story. Overexplaining ruins a good mystery, and if there's no mystery there's no drama.

Technically the movie relies on some stoic acting from children (pretty easy), some creepy music (check), and an optical effect to make the eyes glow white. Occasionally the optical effect doesn't quite line up, and it's invariably creepier for the subtly misplaced shapes. A similar effect showed up occasionally on the original Star Trek series, and I always felt the same Uncanny Valley freakiness whenever the overlaid effect wasn't perfectly lined up with the original image.

I've got very little to say about this. It's good, in a "Twilight Zone" way, and it's sparse in a way that leaves little to complain about. It wraps up a little quickly, and the choice of making the main character a hopelessly optimistic professor seemingly incapable of doing wrong is an interesting one (even when people die from his hubris, he owns it immediately with that Wyndham clinicalness). But overall, it worked even better than I expected, and now my only question is do I watch the sequel or the remake next? Either way it'll be another night. It's late and I'm sleepy.

05 November 2010

L'enfance Nue (Naked Childhood)

All I really knew about this film going in was that it had insight into a child's troubled upbringing and was kin in spirit to The 400 Blows. At first I was disappointed in the story's lax tone and pacing. It's not that I want every film to be tightly crafted and efficient machines, but I didn't really feel like the style was really doing much here. We stay outside François's head as he continues to be a menace to whoever cares for him, and I think the obtuseness of that, the lack of understanding beyond that of an observer that you have with François, is what made the observational, realist tone came across dry and slow, rather than patient and meditative. Plus, for all the slow advancements (kicked out of a nicer home, François is shuffled off onto an older couple, the Thierrys, who even before they've had to deal with him you can tell are going to put up with his aberrant behavior and love him nonetheless, not because he's special but because they are) it doesn't seem like the kid is learning much. He still has outbursts of violence, vandalism, and theft, and he remains stoic and pensive throughout. Sure, he likes the elderly Nana, and he had a grudging brotherly relationship with Raoul his older foster-brother, but these relationships didn't transform him so much as momentarily distract him from being a menace. Not that they should, mind you; I liked that he wasn't some quick-fixed case of "boy just needs a little love and he becomes an angel," but it still left you with a sense of treading narrative water for a bit.

But I have to admit, in the last twenty minutes, when (SPOILER) Nana dies and François returns to his undistracted hooliganism, even causing a bad car crash by throwing rocks from an overpass, I felt a little more affinity for him. In retrospect, he had changed as the story advanced, but it was so slowly and so patiently that I hadn't registered it entirely. (Plus, full disclosure: I started this film late one night and finished it eight hours later the next morning.) By then the tone and pacing had become familiar to me, the naturalism of what I assume had to be non-actors playing close approximations of themselves (Grandpa looks at the camera about once every fifteen minutes: it's adorable) had been laid down well enough that the very understated drama, most of it offscreen, drove the story forward nicely. There's no big catharsis here, no massive tragedy or uplifting emotional victory. François pays for his actions by being kept under observation for the rest of the year, and his elderly family actually miss the little trouble-maker.

From the agency where he's being kept, François writes them a letter promising to be good so they will let him see them during Christmas, and that's that. He's on a delicate road to being a better kid but he's not fixed. The damage he's done is not undone. Life is messy and you have to be patient with kids who don't understand any better than you do why they do things. (One great, telling sequence was when the director of the orphanage/adoption agency asks older Raoul why he ran away from home. Raoul answers, "Because I didn't do my essay." It feels like a perfectly accurate and honest way of how a kid views things. Small motives. The director pushes, clearly wondering if the timing of his runaway and François's removal from the home is less than coincidental, but Raoul just shrugs. He has nothing to add. He saw a teacher and was embarrassed about his essay. The bigger motives of unrest at home, or confusion over missing a troublesome foster-brother, don't even enter his mind. Just that essay.)

So obviously I came around. I can't say I was in love with it, but I definitely respect it, and see why Criterion would preserve and distribute it. And in the end, maybe it did give me a little bit of insight into the messy way a kid's mind works. It's been a while since I've been one, and I was never quite that angry (though I had my days), but we've all been there, and it's nice to be reminded from time to time what it was like. Messy and terrifying and basically flying blind.

04 November 2010

Paths of Glory

Generally when a film is anti-war and anti-military it accidentally (or at least incidentally) becomes a film which is half war-porn, which is either too concerned with being "fair to both sides of the argument" or simply shows too much bravery and valor and so-called heroism. Either way, the result is often a film which too easily can be seen as pro-war by anyone hoping to see such a thing. But Paths of Glory is much less equivocal about it. This is a film that depicts authority as distanced, amoral and petty, and doesn't leave much wiggle room to see it as anything else. Generals are self-serving and interested only in the prestige of victory, in what it will do for their careers and reputations. The death of their subordinates is shown (in the least uncertain terms I've ever seen) as registering no more guilt or difficulty than the loss of supplies, or fuel, or time.

The drama of the story is strong, anchored by Kirk Douglas and a sharp script. To be honest, not every performer lived up to the material, but it's always easier to forgive that in a movie over fifty years old (it was a different era, etc., etc.) and anyway it's not nearly enough to drag down this film. Plus, the film is deceptively short! Maybe I'm just used to grander pieces by Kubrick, but I expected more from the first trial... and when I didn't get it I naturally assumed the greater story would be the second trial, of the general whose glory-seeking traitorous orders set the story in motion. But no, once Colonel Dax tells off the Major General the story has a quick and beautifully abstract (that is, tangential to the direct plot but resonating on a deeper level to what we've seen and what we know) closing scene, and it's done. In and out in under 90 minutes.

But there's something great about that. Because really, by that point it's said all it has to say. It didn't really wrap up all its threads in a cathartic-resolution way, but each story got enough that I'm not left wondering what next. It didn't overstay its welcome because the message is a little more poetic if it's left unspelled-out, the occasional loose end or raw nerve only making the sting a bit sharper.

And as a side note, just before watching this I'd asked a friend if he could think of any repeat performer in a Kubrick film besides Kirk Douglas. There must be other examples as well, but right here in Paths of Glory, as the outspoken, too-smart-to-be-a-soldier Private Arnaud, is Joe ("Joseph") Turkel, a.k.a. Lloyd the bartender from The Shining, also familiar to film nerds (like me) as Eldon Tyrell, the proto-Jobs/Gates-hybrid CEO/Father/God from Blade Runner -- so young!

Fight Club

I had a weird meta moment tonight while watching Fight Club, which sounds more appropriate than it was. I've been sick for a couple of days, all head-foggy and hot-cold flashes, and we put this on as a kind of familiar, non-challenging thing to watch together, my girlfriend and I, and while I watched I had the thought, "Oh man, I don't want to have to blog about this." There was a period where I probably watched this movie once or twice a month, minimum, for about a year or two. I read the book two (or is it three?) times, and I can quote most of the commentaries, let alone the dialogue. Even the soundtrack I've exhausted the ability to hear objectively.

The thing is, Fight Club came out at an appropriate time for a young dude who needed to latch on to a kind of intelligent, retaliatory nihilism -- which is what I was in my early twenties (and clearly I was not alone). The freedom of not caring has always been a powerful idea to me. Until tonight I don't think I've seen the film in six or seven years, but there was a point where it was my keystone. It's difficult to be critical of something so ingrained into you, so crucial to a certain point in your life. It's also a film about which I've read too much supplemental trivia and analysis, and it's hard to separate original thoughts from the mindweb of data I've taken in. All of which adds up to, I don't know what I can say about it, as there is hardly a "first impression" left for me to have.

But I will say this. It's interesting to see how many elements of this have bled unconsciously into my stories over the years. My first short film (a trainwreck I won't show anybody anymore; that's a rule) was basically ripping off the pseudo-philosophy from Fight Club and the basic plot outline of Christopher Nolan's Following -- both accidental but undeniable. Another script of mine is about a man and his doppelganger, and a couple of scenes or settings from it feel like they were lifted wholesale out of Fight Club, pushed deep into my subconscious for a while to mix around with whatever else was down there, and brought back out as something like a fresh new concept. I guess that's how ideas form, in lots of cases, but it's curious to recognize the seed. Hopefully I've strayed far enough from the source material that it's not plagiarism (I'm reasonably sure I have), but it's still a strange sensation.

But how about I say something about the movie, instead of myself? I can do that. Fight Club is a good movie. It holds up. It's a curious mix of deadly serious meta-drama and tongue-in-cheek nihilist/fascist rallying cry, and it's got a sort of Looney Tunes quality to the violence, action, and dialogue. It's also a puzzle of a movie, maybe more than a drama (though it still holds up well as a drama), but it's smart enough to justify itself. I'd been putting it off, I think, half out of fear it would come off gimmicky or a little hokey in light of everything that followed, but I am pleased to report that it actually ages pretty well.

03 November 2010


I've already gone on at length about how cheap imitators of Psycho were so prevalent that they created a bad formula for an entire genre of film ("slasher" movies). And pretty much every critic ever seems to have belabored how awful the last ten minutes are, with Dr. Useless-Psychobabble-Exposition coming in and sullying an intelligent story's elegant conclusion. It's not enough to ruin the film, but that's only because the film is so good. Hitchcock consistently underestimated his audiences, I think, and this ending moment is one of the worst cases of it. (Another case is Spellbound: a beautiful drama, with dream sequences directed by Salvador Dalí, that hinges on a lot of overexplained, poorly understood gibberish posturing as psychoanalysis.)

What I haven't noticed really before this watching is that Psycho isn't a horror at all. It's barely even a thriller. It's pretty clearly a mystery film, if you ask me, and one that plays on three levels simultaneously without missing a beat. Check it out: there's dramatic irony because we know far more about what's going on than the various characters do (and I have a feeling Psycho can be read with Norman Bates as a late-appearing protagonist or with Everyone Else as a collective-protagonist and Norman as the antagonist; I'm inclined to see it as the latter). And then there's the twist, when we see "what really happened." In other words, there's level one, the story Lila and Sam and Arbogast and everyone assumes is true, that Norman (or, perhaps Arbogast? or maybe just Marion herself) ran off with the $40,000 and it's only a matter of putting together clues to get on the trail of the money, and Marion (alive or dead). But then there's level two, the story we assume to be true, that the money is meaningless and Norman is a (mostly) decent, sweet guy, who we can root for, who's just protecting a psychotic, murderous mother. But then there's level three, the reveal/twist (I'd say "spoiler," but come on... more people know the end of Psycho than know the end of Citizen Kane), in which Norman's mother has been dead for ten years, and in fact was murdered by Norman himself, and that Norman has taken to becoming his mother to sublimate the guilt of what he's done, thus lording over his own life the way he expects she would (or perhaps did). These three things aren't subplots, they're more like parallel explanations of what's happening: what they think is going on, what we think is going on, and what's actually going on. And all three are juggled masterfully. Up until the reveal, every single one seems reasonable, even the one we know is a wild goose chase for the world's most famous MacGuffin: Marion Crane's stolen money.

Once you know the end of course, there are plenty of clues throughout that this is what's happening. Never once does the movie "cheat" or have a moment that isn't satisfied by the final explanation. But even more than that, it's fun to watch some of the tiny gestures, to watch the evolution from Norman Bates, goofy shut-in (and by the way, I love the shit out of Anthony Perkins here... he may be my pick for greatest performance in a Hitchcock film, though it's a small list) to Norman Bates, sexually confused young man -- and of course it's the latter that triggers "Mother." When Marion comes in, all is well. When she says she's from Los Angeles, something about this triggers Norman, and he gives her the room closest to his office. Little moments like this, ways in which she makes herself available to him (gestures meant only as friendly, confusing and enticing to a reclusive man who longs to leave behind crazytown but knows he cannot) draw him to her. You get the distinct impression it's not a random crime, and that Norman doesn't kill every passerby (in fact we learn he's only killed twice before, both young ladies). This is a crime of passion spurned on by the feminine wiles of a nice young lady with a bit of the flirt in her and an obvious lie in her backstory. None of this is said, even in that unbearable info-dump denouement. It just is. It's all there to see, so (like everything else in the denouement) it doesn't need to be said at all.

The characters and the story are brilliant. The horror moments are strong, but I still say this is more of a murder mystery with a dose of thriller, and not really a horror at all. But considering how Hitch sold it to audiences, and the ripples it's created in today's horror movie... uh... pond (there's a metaphor that collapsed, ha!), it's not surprising it's thought of as a horror film. I guess that's not surprising, as a lot of the best films of any genre are the ones that come from elsewhere and bring with them a novel perspective and unique elements. The cinematic equivalent of genetic diversity, say.

02 November 2010

The House of the Devil

Maybe it's poor timing to watch this; after all, I just complained at length about the way they light "darkness" in films. The moon is supposed to be gone, the power out, but the lights inside are bright and the witchy woman prays out a window where light is brighter than midday. It's not quite as bad as The Trigger Effect but it stands out. Anyway, that's nitpicky, but as I've started to practically fetishize real, frightening darkness in film, these things stand out.

The truth is The House of the Devil has an unengaging-but-not-bad first act and a half, but when (at the hour mark) it starts to finally build some tension and mystery into the story, it works. In fact, I'd say it works more for the pacing than for the mystery, because if I stop and think about it I'd have to admit that I was never all that intrigued by the mystery of the story (and gratified that things were explained away in quick, dialogue-free shots that bordered on cutaway/b-roll, rather than some clunky exposition for stuff we didn't care about). But I didn't stop to think, really, because the story kept moving right along. I'm not sure Samantha makes a single rational decision in this picture -- so at least she's consistent -- but it worked well enough partially because of the "pastiche" tone of it and partially because, again, momentum kept the story going. We did want her to go up into the attic and peek, so even if she had no reason to do so we went along with her.

So the film worked, and ended pretty well -- the speed of the action just kept increasing until, smartly, there was no time to waste on silly things like unnecessary monologues or performance showboating -- but it did it by sacrificing things like character development. For this particular story I think that was the right decision, but it's not a road I'm very tempted to go down. By contrast Alien manages to be a steady downhill slide into tense action without ever letting the characters act arbitrarily or become one-note voices.

These little first-response blog posts have become more and more navel-gazing the more I treat movie watching as writing research. Apologies for that. It's difficult to record initial thoughts about a film without referencing whatever's on my mind, and lately (as perhaps you can tell by my viewing habits) I've become a bit of a monomaniac. So it goes!


Alien is about the most classic trapped-in-a-confined-space horror film there is, with the mysterious threat lurking in the dark and nowhere you can run to. The crew reacts intelligently, and distinctly. The main story is not one of personal growth but simply one of survival. The story is told with such incredible forward momentum and a masterful, delicate touch (Blade Runner will always be the more fascinating world and philosophical realm to play in, but Alien is easily Ridley Scott's best-made and tightly-controlled film) that it is almost impossible, after so many viewings, for me to analyze it critically. The detail of the world is engrossing, the construction of the villain/monster is the biggest selling point of all (and why so many sequels would follow), and the tight focus that suggests a broader world is fantastic.

In fact, I recently read an article suggesting stories can either be plazas (environments where you can easily see a global/big picture view of the whole thing) or warrens (environments where only what's in front of you is visible, and the grander view is enshrouded in a fog of mystery, almost impossible to view holistically). The best worlds are warrens. Blade Runner is a warren. The original Star Wars trilogy (especially the first film) is a warren. By contrast, Harry Potter is a plaza. The universe of the latter Star Wars films is very much a plaza. The Alien universe remains a warren, and that's very much part of the appeal. The story is so tightly focused with so little backstory or set-up we barely know what the Nostromo is up to, or why it's out there, but we gather enough. What's important is: a crew of space truckers come across a malevolent new form of life, and it kills them one by one, because it's a predator and a monster. It hides in the dark, doesn't look or act like anything we've seen before, and it's scary as fuck.

I meant to fall asleep here. In fact, I meant to only watch part of it tonight while getting ready for bed and then probably turn it off, but the movie wouldn't let me. It never lets up, it's never boring enough for me to stop it. On the contrary, I could scarcely look away, and I've seen it maybe twenty times or so now. I enjoyed the details of the world, the clear action and geography of the ship, and the endless cascade of schemes and setbacks that make up the plot. The crew remain active protagonists throughout, even as things get more and more hopeless. It's a beautiful script, in a beautiful world, with a wonderful cast. If it weren't for a handful of -- forgivable, for my money -- effects that don't hold up so well (Ash's severed head most notably, and occasionally the xenomorph is too clearly a dude in a black vinyl suit with a funny headpiece), I'd call this film flawless. Nothing to change or complain about. A lot of people seem to consider Cameron's Aliens the best of the series, but to me there's no question that the series opener is the most pure story in the set. Alien is everything it needs to be and absolutely nothing more. It's as elegant and as brutal as its titular antagonist.

01 November 2010

The Trigger Effect

David Koepp is a pretty big name in screenwriting, and occasionally he directs his own scripts as well. This is apparently his first time directing a feature. It's not terribly good. Although he's not my very favorite writer by a long shot, his name is on a number of respectable, decent-to-great projects (among many others, he wrote Jurassic Park, Carlito's Way, Panic Room, War of the Worlds, and the just-watched Zathura), it's clear that at this point he's better with the page than with the picture. Seems like everything about The Trigger Effect would feel good on paper but it all comes across as toothless, over-polished, and non-threatening in the film. From the get-go this is true, as the opening shot, a complicated long take that moves fluidly through a shopping mall and follows a contagious bad mood that spreads quickly and gains momentum until we finally meet our milquetoast hero Matthew and his pushy-but-she-has-a-point wife Annie. During this, a drink is spilled in an unintentionally funny over-the-top way and the two men involved both react really unnaturally (too casual, the spiller; angry but too dismissive, the spillee). Later we track a man into a movie theater to find his friend and presumably, from the way he plays the scene, it's supposed to be pitch dark. It's not. It's not even dim. It's so well lit with such a deep focus that you would never mistake it for a darkened auditorium, and no amount of pretending to peer into the "darkness" or loud gunshots on the soundtrack (to tell us the movie is already playing) are going to ever convince you of it.

This is the problem with the movie. It's about a power outage, where the "moonlight" is brighter than your average evening sun. It's about the collapse of society and the tensions that are supposed to build because of it, but our hero goes from coward to desperate crook with almost no provocation, and yes he's trying to help his family, but the whole story reads less like the slow-build pressure cooker it seems to want to be and more like a turn on a dime from order into chaos, from law into anarchy. Just about all of the dramatic beats and personal conflicts feel forced, unnatural, and worst of all, unearned. I get that many scenes are meant to play for moral ambiguity (as with Michael Rooker and Raymond, who is a lone black man in a seemingly hick-filled bar), but too many scenes just come off as conflicts between two unlikeable people being unreasonable. In short, it's not that outlandish of an idea, and it keeps flirting with being a smartly told, tightly wound thriller story, but it never works. There's never enough tension because the scenario never feels credible. I cannot stress how unbelievable the lighting is, among other things, or how crucial these kinds of details are to making the story work.

The bottom line is, this shows just how important the little details are, making your audience believe in the world of your story above all else. If I get pulled out by obvious lines, unrealistic action or lighting, or easy resolutions (do not get me started on Matthew and Raymond's Mexican standoff inside Raymond's house at the story's climax), I will probably never get fully back into the story. Skepticism is a tough bug to shake (though this film keeps you at a skeptic's distance throughout). No matter how decent a script is, a script is just the blueprint. It's got to work as a movie or it doesn't work at all.