30 January 2011

Make-out with Violence

I don't really know what's the best way to judge this film. On the one hand, if I look at it as the first feature film by a collective of artist friends who've never done this before -- if, that is to say, I view this as a bunch of aspiring students putting together their first major endeavor -- I can admire the very fact of its existence, overlook its many shortcomings, and respect the fact that a cohesive whole with some decent ideas even exists somewhere in there. I can admire the boldness of the idea and the willingness to leave so much out of the story (like how Wendy died, why and/or how she came back, who tied her to a tree and why), both in order to focus on the details that matter and also to leave a surreal mystery at the fringes of the story (the thing is lousy with Twin Peaks homages). If I consider this the way I'd consider a locally made film by friends or peers of mine, I can get a little excited that it comes as close to working as it does.

On the other hand, this film has an awfully big crew, and touts an awfully showy soundtrack (though no big names jump out at me), and has won an awful lot of accolades & audience-choice awards at festivals, and all of that encourages me to treat this film like a grown-up movie, not an aspiring kid making good. But if I view this with the critical eye I use on other films, it's hard to be nearly so kind. The acting is bad -- but bad acting is one thing. Here, the acting just doesn't make sense, which means the directing is what's bad. Tiny moments feel forced and come off with the weirdest energy, casual gestures feel as artificial as if they'd programmed very stoic robots to perform them. Motivations barely exist, and many actions in the story seem taken so the characters can quietly make visual puns or poetic imagery for an unseeing audience (i.e., the camera). Key dramatic (especially tragic) moments and emotional beats are skipped over, and would-be contemplative moments are lingered on lovingly -- which frankly means that the writing is also bad, here. If I were to believe in these people as they are presented in the film, I would assume this community is six people large, all of them are heavily sedated, and suffer from Asperger's sydrome.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't a hatefest for Make-out With Violence -- nothing of the sort. It's just that, all good-intentions and young-punk energy aside, this film stands as everything I'd be terrified my first feature film might be. It's like a parade of wrong choices: from casting to performance to direction to script to photography to camera and lighting choice to tone to jokes to pacing to theme to perspective. Nothing is an unmitigated disaster, but not a single one of those things ever hits spot-on like it wants to (or should, at least). Every single choice looks wrong, in the end, and most of it smacks of a) limitations due to budget concerns, b) a lack of bravery or tenacity with the story/emotional world, and possibly c) the result of direction by committee -- as "the Deagol Brothers" is a self-professed collective and no one member has stepped up to claim the title of writer or director.

So, yeah. I guess Make-out With Violence doesn't work for me, pretty much at all. And it was frustrating to watch (and emotionally unsettling, as I can imagine myself falling into a lot of these traps). But it wasn't miserable, and I don't regret the time I or the filmmakers spent on it. In other words, it's amateur and messy, but it's not the The Green Hornet.

29 January 2011

The Green Hornet *

This is a lousy movie. There's just nothing else to say about it. Seth Rogan wrote a lousy movie. Michel Gondry directed a lousy movie. I am shocked at how bad it was, and I would have walked out of the theater had I been seeing it alone (and I never do that -- in fact I've never done it). Rogan's Britt Reid is an unrepentant dickhole who lives in a world of bro-tastic bro-ness, complete with debilitatingly intense gay panic and that weird, acerbic camaraderie entrenched in an ugly loathing for oneself and everyone else in roughly equal measure. It is styleless, toothless, and feckless. Rogan and Jay Chou have zero chemistry. Diaz, Waltz, Wilkinson, and EJO all play thankless, meaningless roles -- more like props than characters, in fact. And I haven't seen this many nutshots in a single movie... ever.

Funny enough I didn't hate it, but almost. I went in expecting it to be bad and it was at least as bad as I'd expected. I have nothing invested in the idea of a good Green Hornet story, though I'm aware enough of the original to see how shoehorning in a frat-boy trustafarian douchebag and a lot of "dude don't be so gay" jokes is egregiously off-key. There were almost no spots that worked, and even less that made the remotest bit of sense. Most of the Gondryisms were half-assed and felt like afterthoughts to a story that didn't call for any -- the only one I even enjoyed was the screen-splitting montage of word-of-mouth, but it was pretty unmotivated and too deaden to be whimsical -- and honestly? That's just an expansion on an effect he'd pretty much already mastered 13 years ago.

The editing, too, deserves a special note for how pointedly lazy it is with the story: a newsroom scene has a bunch of reporters rattle off a list of offenses the Green Hornet has been seen doing over the past few days, which is followed by (not preceded by) a rock-n-roll montage of them doing all those things -- most obviously, shooting out a stoplight-camera. I imagine they decided the scenes worked better in the opposite order, but anyone actually paying the tiniest bit of attention to dialogue would find it a little suspicious that the Hornet seems surprised by the ability to shoot out a stoplight-camera if they'd just done so last night as well. I'm not convinced anyone cared.

I hate to say this -- then again, it's also not the first time I've said it -- Michel Gondry is not a brilliant director without a brilliant script to interpret, and one that calls for his particular skills. This film is neither of those things, even a little bit. Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind both play as sloppy messes as films, but as passable entertainment as delivery systems for Gondryesque moments. Human Nature is decent, and of course Eternal Sunshine is a truly gorgeous perfect-storm of talent and style, but The Green Hornet should have been a McG project that nobody paid any attention to or something. At best it might have been doctored and worked into a good movie by David Gordon Green or Jody Hill, maybe. But there's nothing for Gondry here. And Seth Rogan is at least as unlikable here as he is anywhere. This film is... yuck. It's just lousy.

Seen at the Regal Cinemas at Lancaster Mall.

28 January 2011

Monkey Business

Marx Brothers films are always so hard to write anything about. They only work because they're funny, with a kind of savage anarchic wit and seeming utter contempt for convention. The four just make such a well-rounded team, and for all of their seeming randomness their films are always intricately planned, choreographed, and put together. The truth is, as a story it barely makes any sense but as a series of gags (some sight, some puns, some slapstick, some romantic or musical) each segues into the next with a surprisingly natural fluidity. Maybe it's because the overarching story is so haphazard here (a ship ride and castaways somehow leads to getting mixed up with gangsters, making almost a two-part story with some crossover), but here the connecting elements really stood out to me as more worried over and planned out than later films like Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, and A Night at the Opera, where (as I remember it) the seams between each setpiece were more invisible. But that's not all bad: it really makes me realize what consummate professionals these guys were, carefully orchestrating their chaos.

And just like Harpo's harp solo in Opera, Chico gets a piano bit here that's simply a joy to watch. The way his fingers move is like a funny dance. (Harpo also hits the harp again here, for the record.)

I don't have much else to add. Some of the bits were funny, but Duck Soup remains my favorite Marx Brothers film so far. An interesting palate-cleanser after Blue Valentine (though I'm not sure I needed one).

27 January 2011

Blue Valentine *

It's been a while since I watched a film with this kind of emotional rawness or verisimilitude of character. The stuff I've watched lately has been classics, (good) Hollywood stuff, and silly adventures about wizard children. So in an odd way, although this was a little rough, it was also incredibly refreshing.

There was a point fairly early on where, even though I already liked both characters, I couldn't help but see all the clichéd plot points they were hitting, and was a little worried about where the story was going to go. The script takes some awfully familiar turns, like the use of extensive flashback counterpoints or Cindy missing her daughter's recital. I wasn't faulting it really, but I couldn't pretend not to notice. By the end, though, I think it actually did this cleverly, and in a way I was glad for it.

The characters are much more lived in than most movies (literally, it turns out, if you read any behind-the-scenes trivia about the filmmakers) and much more dimensional. Dean and Cindy act like real people, and they are both lovable and wonderful to each other, and deplorable and terrible to each other. For the writers to hang all this on a chain of familiar tropes is actually very clever, for a couple of reasons. First, it does have the effect of keeping your general audience a little more anchored and properly oriented -- that is, it keeps the tougher-to-take emotions more palatable -- but moreover I think it highlights the difference between this film and your typical romantic comedy (or drama).

At first glance, to this viewer, it seemed they were establishing Dean as the loving family man, capable of dealing with traumatic situations and keeping his cool, devoted to nothing so much as his wife and daughter; and Cindy as the more serious-minded, job-oriented marmish mother, concerned with propriety and a little neglectful emotionally of both Dean and their daughter Frankie. By the midway point however, these two traits had been magnified and on closer inspection, it became clear that Dean was oppressively affectionate, so intent on giving love that he was unable to see the recipient of it as a genuine person; and that Cindy had grown into who she was in part as a reaction to this, that her tongue-clucking and scatterbrainedness both stemmed from the difficulty of having a man-child love her too intensely. And by the end we see everything in such stark, unapologetic detail, that it's impossible not to blame both of them for their collapse, and yet it's equally impossible not to sympathize with both as well. Like Closer, a much more stylized story with equally flawed characters falling in and out of love messily, you sympathize because you've been that guy or girl.

Much of the film hits close to home, and of the people I saw it with, I think I had the least obviously relatable recent past. Even so, it hits hard to see the way you are, or more often the way you have been, up there on the screen, and see the good and the bad of it. Not enough films are willing to show that, to show love as messy and damaging and to show relationships as genuinely broken and unfixable and still the thing you want to cling to desperately (because at the end of Blue Valentine, against all odds and against all logic, I wanted them to work it out anyway).

This really was a hard-hitting story emotionally, and I'm not sure that comes through all this analysis of story and style. Only from the safe distance of home can I look back and see what I've seen. In the moment, I was Dean and I was Cindy and everything that hurt them hurt me, and all the tiny things that thrilled them thrilled me. It's rare to be swept into a movie, especially one that's sort of tonally bleak, but it's also a beautiful thing. Enough corniness now, though. It's a great movie, and I hope everyone sees it.

(And on a side note: that this almost got an NC-17 rating, I find atrocious and frankly, morally reprehensible. There is no excuse for shuttering a story like this and encouraging youth to see torture porn and movies with rape. Honestly, if protecting the children is the motivation of the MPAA, then a film like this where sex has seriously messy consequences and love and sex do not solve everything should be mandatory and films like Van Wilder and whatever Katherine Heigl is in right now should be reserved only for viewers 21+, who know better. End rant.)

Seen at the Regal Fox Tower.

26 January 2011

Pickup on South Street

I have really mixed feelings on this one, to be honest. I like the tone of the story and the world that's set up, and I enjoy the performances of the pickpocket Skip and Moe the snitch, but the cops and feds and commies -- and the "muffin," Candy -- barely register. It's hard to determine who the real protagonist is, which might be interesting in an espionage-laden crime noir about some accidentally stolen government microfilm, but it would necessitate all players to be as much fun to watch as only some of them are. Whenever the story cuts back to Joe and his Red conspirators, or to Captain Tiger and the authorities, the story loses all its steam instantly. Candy is interesting, but her part is undercooked -- she has no real reason to get so deeply involved in the first place, and too much of her motivation in the second half is dependent on that old movieland fall-back, Love At First Sight. Since it never feels quite logical, it never carries the weight it's meant to in the story. In fact, that Skip and Candy get each other in the end doesn't even seem to matter. On that note, I'm not sure I would've been very disappointed if Skip had been caught, or Candy killed, or hell, if the Reds had gotten away scot-free. Realizing how little I've invested in any of the players, even my favorites (though I suppose it's a shame Moe had to die), doesn't help me build a case for liking this film much.

But I have to admit, I do kind of like it. It's got that raw Fuller energy that nobody else had back then, like an indie filmmaker fifty years before the term was invented. It's not that he's making b-movies, though he obviously uses some b-movie actors and techniques, it's just that he's making movies cheaper and looser than the era was used to, and getting away with more. I do like the world set up here, and I have a feeling there's some straight lines to be drawn between the cops-and-robbers seediness of Pickup and the French New Wave films of someone like Melville or maybe Truffaut.

The film presents us with a world that's concise and sharp, with fun (probably made-up) slang like "cannon" and "muffin," where every single pickpocket working has a "signature move" and if you want to know who robbed you, you just buy a tie from the crazy lady (and the hoods don't begrudge her her snitching, seeing it rather as all part of the cops-and-robbers game). It's just that the players in this particular game aren't very exciting. And the stakes of the game (I know, I know, national security and the red scare and all that) aren't really used to any emotional end. In Shock Corridor all the American History stuff stood for deeper psychic pains in both the inmates and the world as a whole; but here the same kinds of elements feel like they exist just as an excuse for one team to distrust the other, almost as a cheapening of the politics, as if to say: reds vs yanks, it's no different than the cops and crooks in our silly action movies. I guess I see (and totally agree) with the point, but it's not a very strong one, and I'm not even positive it's intentional.

Anyway, I can't hate it, but I don't love it. Which made it an ideal choice to rewatch while I work (though the movie got a lot more attention than my work did).

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

I have a real fascination with madness, with the way madness sets in and changes a man, the way it paradoxically heightens his senses both perceptual and psychic, the way it burns a man out if left hot too long, and the way madness is one of the most contagious diseases man can fall victim to. It's easy to see all that on display here, in both titular characters. Jesse is a folk hero and an old west rock god, not to mention a stonecold killer when the need arises, and the weight of all that is too much for anyone to bear. Bob Ford, on the other hand, is none of these things, except perhaps the last one, and the unbearable lightness of barely being (if I may borrow and abuse a phrase) is too much for him to bear in much the same way.

The kind of humanity on display throughout The Assassination is pretty universal. As it unfolds, Jesse descends from detached celebrity to cult status to paranoid to ivory-tower madness (partially affected, but isn't it always). Correspondingly, Bob goes from hero-worship to cult member to conspirator to broken-hearted assassin. He had to kill Jesse James, not just because he was slowly groomed and coerced into doing so by an exhausted, soul-weary Jesse himself (though there's something to that) but also for the same reason anybody assassinates a celebrity: that same cocktail of love and hate, fear and loathing, fascination and morbidity, and the need to simultaneously prove and defy the truth -- that our gods are in every way mortal. Once the deed is done, Bob gets what every tragic hero gets: everything he wished for, and just as Jesse dragged those around him to misfortune or madness, Bob continues the game. But where Jesse's understanding of people was part of what made him almost superhuman, his ability to know the world and those in it in almost spooky ways, Bob's understanding was too hard-won and came far too late for him to take control of his own destiny. So although they met similar ends, what follows each end is dramatically different: Jesse remains a the legend he was in life, and Bob's hollow celebrity collapses on itself, deflates, and he is forgotten, returning to his status as a footnote in the greater man's life.

This film is poetry, in its dialogue, in its far-reaching themes and its psychoanalysis of epic characters, and in its astounding photography -- that makes two films in a row for me set in the Gothic Old West that explore the dark places in a man's soul and do so with magnificent expressionistic photography. (Sidebar: somehow I either did not know or completely forgot that this was shot by Roger Deakins. Hardly surprising. Talk about superhuman.) The performances here are subtle and powerful, with beautifully lived-in and filled-out secondary characters and some of my favorite work from Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck and Sam Rockwell -- all three of whom have long lists of great work.

I know the Oscars are a famously bad measure of quality cinema, but lately (I guess it's the time of year and all) every time I watch a movie this undeniably cinematically great I feel the need to peek at how it was rewarded when it came out. Of course Assassination was overlooked, but it reminded me that 2007 was the year of this, There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, Eastern Promises, Zodiac, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I'm Not There... I keep lamenting how ambitionless 2010 seemed -- well, the truth is I realize now I'm comparing it to 2007. 2007 is the bar. Not to harp on the case, but it was also the year of Ratatouille, Gone Baby Gone, Michael Clayton, The Lookout, the Grindhouse double feature, Sunshine, hell even The Darjeeling Limited and my favorite Harry Potter movie. Put it all together and 2007 looked like a year where film could do anything. Looking over this list, even a lot of the bad movies seemed eager to try something new or break with tradition.

I'm just saying, if The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford came out in 2010, I would have called it the best movie of the year. But the truth is, it's sadly hard to imagine that happening. Maybe 2011 will be better.

25 January 2011

The Night of the Hunter

I don't have much to say about this. It's quickly become one of my favorite "classic" movies. Everything about it is so artificial, so contrived, so stagy, but it's also so incredibly beautiful and dreamlike. Having dissected the story the first time I saw this, I watched it more now for mood and cinematography. The number of iconic shots throughout are really exciting. (If you click the composite image above, you can see a larger version of it: this is an image I found online, and I think it predates the Criterion blu-ray release, which makes those images even more stunning.)

Mitchum's performance is so over the top that at times he becomes a cartoon character, and Shelly Winters, here as in Lolita, plays such a tragic, fucked-up woman... she's fascinating to watch for how un-starletty she plays her leading ladies. It's fun to watch someone from this era play a victim with such depth: she really seems emotionally scarred and vulnerable -- not just vulnerable but so malleable as to seem brainwashed, even before meeting the Rev. Harry Powell. The kids' performances aren't quite "real" but they match well with the style of performance from the adults.

All the shadows, the setpieces, the icons. It's a film that exists to be explored visually more than dramatically. It's a world of stark German-expressionist-era paintings of light and dark. It's freaky and dark and cool. And for all of its overt staginess, it's got a real scary core and some great human characters and ideas. I can't help but wonder what Laughton would have done if this had been even remotely successful, and he'd gone on to make a second film.

23 January 2011

Shock Corridor

When I saw Hitchcock's Spellbound, I was so frustrated with the silly, ignorant depiction of psychoanalysis and dream-analysis that I couldn't enjoy the film. Everything about Spellbound hinges on psychoanalysis working a way that is so obviously unrealistic, an unresearched explanation of an at-the-time new school of thought, and if I couldn't accept the basic premise then I couldn't accept the story built on it. I had the same trouble with Inception, which depends entirely on an artificially constructed series of rules about dreaming, only I have to admit that on second watching I was able to accept the in-story rules and enjoy the film. Perhaps I owe Spellbound another try. Salvador Dalí directed the dream sequences, after all.

The same sort of phenomenon is at work in Shock Corridor, although to be honest it doesn't so much ruin my enjoyment of the film as it does color it. Like Inception, I can say, okay, inside this story the rules work this way, and within those rules as long as we stay consistent I can enjoy the story. Like Inception and like Spellbound, the main drama and the concepts and themes that drive the story are just as valid, whether or not psychoanalysis, or dream states, or clinical insanity work in real life the way they do in the stories.

This feels like "exploitation cinema" with a conscience and a soapbox, which works better than maybe it should. (It's not my first time seeing it, but it's been a while and I only half-remembered it.) Each of the three witnesses Barrett has to interview have convenient lapses into sanity for him, but in each case the lapses teach us that their breaks from reality were the direct and singular result of primary political movements of the last ten or twenty years: the communist scare and shame of succumbing to a different ideology drove the first witness mad; racial segregation and hatred in the south did in the second; and the construction and deployment of the hydrogen bomb was the burden of the third.

It struck me as interesting that while these large-scale American problems were being exposed as ugly and messy and soul-destroying, our hero was monomaniacally obsessed with such a petty thing: the murder of another patient. But it's not that one single murder in an insane asylum outweighs the impact of all American history for Johnny Barrett: it's that his Pulitzer Prize-winning story, his own fame and glory, outweighs all the carnage and wounded souls of recent American history. Not a very flattering approach to a hero, I've got to say.

A lot could also be said (and no doubt has been said) about the particulars here. His girlfriend -- who is pretending against her will to be his sister -- is a stripper. The soldier-turned-communist-turned-pariah has reverted back to a general on the losing side of an older, equally hate-filled conflict: the U.S. Civil War -- a position which would make him a pariah by modern eyes but a hero in his own. The first black student in a desegregated college has taken on the role of his own oppressor, chasing black men and "founding" the Ku Klux Klan as a way to keep other blacks from "marrying his daughter." And the "most brilliant mind the United States," the doctor responsible for the H-bomb (this story's Oppenheimer, or Dr. Felix Hoenikker) has become an innocent child who only wants to play games. Meanwhile, of course, the reporter hellbent on solving a case and writing an award-winning story is driven insane by the conditions and environmental pressures within the asylum -- of course one of the primary themes here is that asylums do not make people better, but simply foster and incubate more madness (the doctors even say as much, plain as day, at the end).

You can smell the tragedy of the end a mile off, but Samuel Fuller and his cast make it a lot of fun getting there. This film comes after the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (though an excerpt of his autobiography suggests that the idea for this story dates back for Fuller to at least the late 40s, when he wrote for Fritz Lang and Douglas Sirk), but it's hard to imagine that a lot of asylum-centric films like Cuckoo's Nest and 12 Monkeys weren't greatly influenced by the world and tone presented here.

Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid

It's amazing, actually, how little really happens in this film. We meet them over a card game, they ride back to their gang, deal with a would-be usurper, follow through with the usurper's ambitious plan to rob the same bank train twice, get busted the second time, an extended chase across the Old West, flight to Bolivia, a little bit of bank robbin' until their pursuers track them down, attempts at going straight that end in a bloodbath, a little bit more robbin', then a final showdown. That may sound like a lot, but it's almost literally every moment in the story. A side story involving Sundance's girl Etta and a couple of short-lived celebrations in a brothel are all I left out. Most of the story is made of extended sequences of Butch and Sundance arguing and running, or montage sequences that push us along through time as things go well for them. In fact, the better things are going the more likely the script is to fastforward through their lives -- to such a degree that the most hopeful, safe and joyous time they spend is reduced to a montage of sepia-toned stills like some Old West music video. (And don't get me started on the soundtrack; aside from the eerie main title theme I pretty much think all the music here is as absurd and tonally counterproductive as the font in the title sequence, seen above.)

And this is famously and rightfully a film known for its screenplay. It's The Film known for its screenplay to some people, since it's William Goldman. The script, though, I must admit -- it's pretty brilliant. The dialogue is so easy and so telling, the characters so distinct and likable and unshowy, and the action so tight and well-paced, there is nothing to complain about at all in here. I've seen it a dozen times and still, each time, the dialogue (and Newman's and Redford's easy delivery) just sparks.

I think there's something to the fact that most of the big moments in this are outside our heroes' control, that this is a story of two people who've been in charge of their lives for a long time and are gradually losing that control. They never give up, and they keep trying their old tricks with less and less success, to the very end -- because what are you going to do? First their gang tries to turn on them, then the train companies are smarter than them (and meaner than them), then the hunters are smarter than them (and meaner than them), and eventually they are simply out of options. Etta sees it, and duly leaves them. Their friend the old sheriff sees it, and refuses to help them. Even Sweetface "the lying son of a bitch" is forced to see it and turns on them as quick as he can. It's not a world for good-old bank robbers anymore, with the organization of civilization moving in on them from all sides. And to the end, Butch and Sundance refuse to recognize this, dreaming of escaping to Australia -- of repeating the very same pipedream leap of faith that brought them to Bolivia in the first place. Every step of the story, they are backed to the edge of a cliff, and charming Butch and stalwart Sundance, they just keep jumping off. Right to the very last. Whether or not they can swim, or shoot, or speak Spanish.

I'm pretty sure there's a bold political read to this, and an easy existentialist one. But I'm not writing thesis papers; I'm just digging shallowly into great films while I rearrange and trim words out of scripts so I can make my own.

22 January 2011

The Maltese Falcon

It's really hard for me not to compare The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. They're two of the most famous detective novels from the golden age of detective novels -- the former by Dashiell Hammett and the latter by Raymond Chandler. (Much has been written comparing these two, though if memory serves they both loved and respected each other immensely: Hammett wrote sharp action in the third person; Chandler wrote quippy dialogue with a first-person narration... beyond that I forget the details of the debate.) They're both also classic detective movies, obviously both starring Humphrey Bogart, directed by two of the greatest (and both somewhat notorious, right?) filmmakers from the golden age of Hollywood filmmaking: Falcon by John Huston and Sleep by Howard Hawks. And they both take really different approaches to the mystery formula.

In each, the hero (Sam Spade here, Philip Marlow in Sleep) is a tough-as-nails, quick-witted detective who improvises boldly as a way of staying one step ahead of the chaos long enough to put together all the pieces of the puzzle. But where Marlowe comes off as fearless and sarcastic, Sam Spade actually comes off a bit like an asshole. It's hard to imagine Marlowe sleeping around with his partner's wife, both of whom he seems to practically loathe, or feeling so apathetic about a friend's death that the only reason he avenges it is because letting people kill detectives isn't good for business. But the hero's relative morality isn't the difference that stands out to me. What stands out to me is the story, and how linear and rational Huston wants to be, and how loose and abstract Hawk is willing to be.

The Maltese Falcon is at every turn concerned with keeping all the details straight as it goes through its labyrinth of twists and turns. The players are all full of useful exposition and the majority of the story is listening to each character lie or change sides back and forth, as everyone vies for the titular macguffin. In The Big Sleep, the details are so fuzzy that even Hawks, Bogart (and Chandler himself, reportedly) weren't sure why each murder took place or who was ultimately responsible. For sheer story and colorful crooks, The Maltese Falcon seems to win out, because each beat in the story makes rational sense and because Greenstreet, Lorre, and Cook are wonderful character actors used brilliantly. For mood and dialogue, though, The Big Sleep weighs out better.

But the final deciding factor for me between these two is the romantic chemistry and the performance of the story's femme fatale. Falcon comes up pretty weak, if you ask me, and although Mary Astor doesn't do the film any favors (she and Bogart are supposed to fall almost instantly in love, but they have no chemistry), it should be pointed out that her character is written pretty sloppily. Still, it's possible a great actress could sell us on the untrustworthy, self-serving backstabber who becomes a damsel-in-distress at the drop of a hat (and a lot of proverbial hats get dropped throughout), but Astor never manages to tie all the lies and pleas and plasticity into a single, satisfying character. On the other hand, The Big Sleep pits Bogart against Lauren friggin' Bacall, who holds her own against Bogey's sardonic wit and always reads as a character with depth and personality and feeling. So, it's not fair.

I still like The Maltese Falcon a lot. Seriously, any time Bogart, Greenstreet, Lorre or Cook have scenes together it's classic stuff; and it's fun to watch Sam Spade make shit up to everyone he talks to and struggle to outpace all the conniving and backstabbing (it's easy to see how George Lucas and Steven Spielberg drew a straight line from the kinds of characters Humphrey Bogart played into the kinds of characters Harrison Ford would play thirty years later, with Han Solo and Indiana Jones both acting very much as Bogart does here). But even though its story makes so much more linear sense than The Big Sleep, there's really no question which of the two I hold more fondness for.

18 January 2011

There Will Be Blood

The hardest films to talk about are always the ones I love and admire so thoroughly, and there have been precious few films in the last decade I hold in as high a regard as There Will Be Blood. Just like the poster says, it's ambition versus faith, and each side is painted in such savage, unforgiving colors and with so much raw charisma that it's just hypnotic.

Daniel Day Lewis is an actor who relies on external impersonative acting more than internalized character building, but for someone as outsized and showman-like as Daniel Plainview it becomes spot-on casting -- recalling Christian Bale (another excellent impersonator) and his Patrick Bateman, Plainview seems unsure what lies beneath his own surface. But where Bateman had a hollow center surrounded by various affectations, I think Daniel Plainview is truly the same on the surface as he is throughout. We are ten or fifteen minutes into the story before anyone speaks, and during that time we watch Plainview, alone in the desert, every bit the man he claims to be. He gets his hands dirty, so to speak, without hesitation, and if he exploits the existence of an adopted son and denies his loathing toward the humans he strives to outdo and outpace (which is all of them), these are still traits he carries to the very core of his being. "To thine own self be true," right? -- well say what you will about him, Plainview is at least true to himself. Sunday, on the other hand... well... the jury's out on that.

So many subtle foreshadowings I caught this time, as when Eli (mud-coated and furious, having just been physically beaten and humiliated by Daniel) takes his rage out on his elderly father, wailing on him and crying out how Paul the brother is the cause of all their troubles -- just before "Henry Plainview" appears and, acting as Daniel's brother, causes new troubles. Just little moments like that stand out and impress, mostly in the order of scenes or the way the context of one scene is inverted to become the subtext of the next.

When Daniel and his deaf son sit to eat in the local restaurant, but Daniel's business competitors get served first, the shot is framed such that one of the competitors' shoulder and arm crowd the frame, that we have to look over and around him to see Daniel and H.W., but even more telling than that is the man's menu, a diagonal slash through the frame separating Daniel from his son. From the moment the newcomers sit down, Daniel cannot relax and be a father to his boy, and soon raises up, drunk, and causes a bit of a scene, even threatens to become violent. If his boy represents his best hope and strongest connection to humanity, then the outrage of comparing himself unfavorably to some uppity businessmen from the big city drives a wedge in there. He says it himself, "I have a competition in me." But it's the way tiny moments like this are put to us that illustrate the point stronger than any magnetic, hyper-charged words. I mean, when H.W. is struck deaf and the oil derrick at Little Boston erupts with an endless flame that tells them what a treasure they're sitting on, it's hardly coincidence that the sky deepens within a single minute from clear day to blackest night, that they seem to be peering excitedly into the gates of hell, and that Daniel's face is coated in a black slime. These things say more than the words around them.

I mean, I could go on, but it's just a laundry list of minutiae done well. Every detail from the smallest to the largest is in aid of a strong story here, one of the best, and a hard one for me to argue with. You know it's a good year when you are not just rooting against the Coens, but a little offended when No Country For Old Men (hardly a bad film, by any means) steals all the Oscars, but in ten years, or twenty, or fifty, I think There Will Be Blood will be dancing circles around that particular Coen Brothers film. Compare it to A Serious Man, however, and I'm less positive which will be considered more of a classic.

I'm not sure if this makes sense or not, but in my mind I consider There Will Be Blood as the contemporary benchmark for the line between what people call cinema and what people call movies.

影武者 (Kagemusha) *

I took Japanese in high school, because it was offered and Spanish, French and German all sounded boring by comparison. Within the first week, my freshman year, they made us choose Japanese names that we would keep for as long as stayed in that program (I and my friends did all four years). Off a list of names I chose Shingen before I could even read it, because it looked easy to write in hiragana. Later our Sensei explained to me that Shingen was the name of a famous Japanese general. When we had to pick fake last names and play-act various language lessons with full names, she practically insisted I choose Takeda, because that was Shingen's name. So for four years, I actually answered to "Shingen-kun" or "Takeda-kun." All I knew was, this was something like the equivalent of an ESL student deciding to call themselves George Washington.

Kagemusha is the story of the last days of the famous Japanese warlord Shingen of the Takeda Clan, and now it's 15 years later but I still think of "Shingen" in the back of my mind as some kind of name associated with me. This has no bearing on anything, other than novelty and coincidence, but I wanted to share anyway, since it was in the back of my mind as I watched Kurosawa's epic. (Also, she did a pretty terrible job explaining to me Furinkazan, but perhaps she should get props for even trying, considering she wasn't a history teacher and was barely a language teacher. I was surprised and excited by how clear Kagemusha makes the concept, and also how central it is to the philosophy of the story.)

The story is an epic war movie, with larger-than-life characters and events, massive battles and hundreds of armor-toting, horse-riding extras, but it's surprisingly philosophical (surprising for a war epic; not surprising for a Kurosawa film). It's also, appropriately, the dramatic story of tragic characters in tragic times -- including Takeda himself, his brother/double, the rescued thief who becomes his Kagemusha ("Shadow Warrior," or professional impersonator), many of his generals, and even his young grandson. Each of them suffers in one form or another for the "greater good" of maintaining the Takedas' strategic foothold in an unending three-way war.

I'm pretty sure you can chalk this up to the drastically alien time and place, but it was interesting to watch a film literally about war and not feel turned off by the war-porn nature of it. In fact, I found the notions of honor as depicted in the film to be attractive, and admired the men in many cases. Takeda's enemies, for one, refused to feel joy at the loss of their most dangerous adversary out of respect for the man, and the loyalty felt by Takeda's generals led them to kowtow to an impersonator for three full years after his death. Then again, even the Kagemusha himself was so moved by the power of the man's shadow that he found himself willingly playing the role and continuing the legacy.

That's, I think, what Kagemusha is really all about: the "shadow of the king," the way a great man's reputation can outlive him and as if by sheer inertia continue propelling people down paths he's willed for them. Their enemy's "bravest general" turned back willingly and unhesitatingly at the very sight of "Takeda" sitting atop the hill, as immovable as a mountain, and his personal guard gave their lives just as willingly and unhesitatingly to the very idea of the man, standing in the way of incoming arrows to protect a common thief who stood only as symbol of the once-great, beloved and feared Lord Shingen.

But on the other hand, we see all too clearly (and anticipate for over half the film, which adds some great tension) how easily that same legacy can crumble the moment your followers lose their faith in your legacy, as in the end (the ruse is exposed by such a fleeting accident, when the lord's horse bucks the well-meaning impostor) Takeda's son Katsuyori seals the fate of the entire clan simply by "moving the mountain." His impetuous need to prove himself more than just an unloved son standing in the shadow of a great man unraveled the quaking fear and grudging respect their enemies had for them, after which each aspect of Furinkazan fell one by one, systematically: the speed of the wind wasn't enough, nor the silence of the forest, nor the ferocity of the fire -- not without the undefeatable mountain behind them. The moment Katsuyori moved the mountain, everyone knew, the magic was gone. There was no shadow to stand within, and that was all that held the Takeda Clan together.

An interesting and somewhat conservative message which I can accept as beautiful and noble within the confines of the story, even without knowing if there was anything the warlords fought for beyond power and borders (that is, ideology doesn't matter here; war is simply the thing you do if you're a warrior). But if you transport this message into twenty-first century terms, it's actually kind of appalling. Honor and pride and military might are things that can be moving when the world feels like a fantasy -- knights and dragons, samurai and musketmen, even the Klingon warriors from Star Trek (who to be honest I found myself reminded of more than once, since I've been watching a lot of Star Trek lately). So really, I'm glad for stories like this, because honor and nobility are such daring and bold subjects, and you would never be able to get me to sympathize with a modern-day story of war and great generals -- at least not in the same way.

This is a great film that runs three hours long and splits its time between massive battle sequences and conferring generals and warlords (real and faux) gnashing their teeth, but it's never boring for a second. Plus it's beautiful, both in its photography and its characterizations. It makes me eager to seek out Ran and Throne of Blood, two Kurosawa samurai "classics" I've yet to see.

Soon, maybe.

Seen at Cinema 21.

17 January 2011


Usually I manage to blog immediately after seeing a movie, but this time I had to wait until the morning, so this will be short. You're welcome!

It'd been so long since I've seen Persona that I forgot a lot of it, including the "avant-garde" film breaks and such. I didn't immediately remember the beginning with the film starting up, the rapid onslaught of images (including a single frame of a cock) and the thin boy whose sheet won't cover his head and his toes, grasping at the projection of the young woman's face. (I watched this with Jen, who nailed it: I think that was the boy from Alma's story who became "massively" infatuated with his mother.)

Bergman films are so plain-faced in their symbolism and emotional rawness that they can be a little uncomfortable to sit through, like a best friend looking you directly in the eyes and telling you how sad he feels when he's alone. I don't think that's a bad thing, to be confronted by a film's emotional intent so boldly, just as it's not a bad thing to have your friend tell you point-blank how he feels, even if it's squirm-inducing. But I'm glad not every film does that. As to the symbolism, I confess that I was not in a mindspace (specifically, I was almost falling asleep, alas) to delve too deeply. The obvious parallels in them being parts of a single person, confusing one for the other despite looking reasonably different, are strong. The major emotional shift that happens halfway through when Alma reads Elisabet's letter is a great move, and possible saves the story for me -- if it didn't have that shift in the balance of power between them it would be exhausting.

I'm going to go read an analysis of the film by Susan Sontag now, but it would be cheating to post after reading that. (Ha, I watch a movie rich enough to finally warrant all the dismantling and exploration of symbols I like to do, and all I can say is, hey I watched it, and this beat of drama was good. Oops. Sometimes life gets in the way of a good blogpost, you know?)

16 January 2011

Body Double

Brian De Palma films are funny creatures. A lot of his output is only made for cinephiles, with inside references and layered homages to all the classics that shaped him and shaped film. Like Hitchcock, his favorite go-to, De Palma worries over complicated camera moves and the iconography of details more than he worries over actual cinematography (which ranges wildly from gorgeous to naturalistic to flat) or performance (which ranges wildly from comedic to dramatic to hammy). His sense of pacing within a sequence is very good, but like Hitch, his sense of pacing for the story as a whole is often awkward, with fits and starts and time devoted to minor beats because they are tense at the expense of major beats that, though less tense, are actually the more important moments.

The plot itself is a pretty Hitchesque mindfuck, and that's fun, but it's a little too easy to piece together for Jake. Maybe it's that I just came off a couple of mystery films that devote time to connecting all the pieces and Body Double isn't a mystery at all, but a thriller, but when the hero makes the leap of logic and gets it right on the first try, it always smacks of a writer who doesn't care about his story so much as he cares about the scenes that make it up. Which is, like I just said, exactly what I think Hitchcock and De Palma are both guilty of. They are master scene-craftsmen who didn't always make the best actual films. Anyway, I do like the scheme, it's a nice way to update a Hitchcock-styled conspiracy and mistaken-identity story into 1970s Hollywood and add lots and lots of boobs. It's not a bad film, though, if you just roll with a couple of strange details -- like that the police don't detain Jake, or the exact method with which the "Indian" murders the woman.

A couple of funny things stick out to me, though, as clearly deliberate choices that I haven't made peace with just yet. For one, Sam's death (the dog leaps into him and they both fall off a cliff into the reservoir) is just so sudden and ludicrous and unexplained -- wasn't that his dog? who protected him no matter what? ...plus it's basically a deus ex machina no different than an elf getting you out of a dungeon, since the villain's death and the hero's salvation aren't even at the hands of the hero. For another, Holly's entire performance (and especially her comedic wake-up-shouting routine immediately after the villain has died/disappeared) -- she seems a little too dense for no reason, which makes her seem less like a character and more like a plot-contrivance; she just switches motivations on a dime to match whatever is needed of her in the moment.

The thing is, though, that both seem almost Brechtian in their design, here, as De Palma goes to great pains several times to remind you this is just a movie, after all, just a cheap, tit-filled thriller. Even Jake's claustrophobia is about as real as Scottie's acrophobia in Vertigo, with a lot of fairly preposterous nail-biting and tooth-gnashing and paralysis. But this is De Palma, doing That Hitchcock Thing, and I'm torn between the idea that he just let these things be contrived because that's how Hitchcock handles them and movies make no promises about being real, or whether he is deliberately inserting unnatural elements because this is a movie about the joy of watching movies. Either way, they stick out like a sore thumb and I haven't decided if that's okay or not, but on a single viewing I'm left wondering as to the filmmaker's motivations with them.

On the subject of Brechtian beats however, I actually did enjoy the mid-climax break from reality back into the opening scene's film shoot, the chat with the director and the hero taking charge of his own paralyzing fear. It wasn't real but it was nice, and for being such a break from reality, it was smoothly integrated and never disorienting. It was one of many nice moments in here.

Also, a final thought: in addition to all the Hitchcock stuff, this movie kept calling Chinatown to mind. It has a woman posing as someone else to frame our hero, a hero named Jake who follows people around on their day-to-day lives, a showdown at the reservoir, and even makes references to Chinatown at one point. Or maybe I've just got Chinatown on the brain.

L.A. Confidential

Truth is, this was picked for unrelated reasons, but it makes such a great counterpoint to The Thin Man, at least in terms of how messy and chaotic a mystery story can get and how differently you can deal with that phenomenon. Like any good Chandler or Hammett story, the deeper a detective looks the more mess he uncovers, and it takes a staggering genius to take all those loose threads and craft a single tapestry. One way to deal with it, the way most common for '40s PIs like Philip Marlowe and Nick & Nora Charles, is to just dive into the chaos and come out the other side with a story, and let the middle just be a mess of shadowy characters and uncovered conspiracies, murder stacked on murder until the detective(s) point the finger and solve the case. The joy here is watching the hero walk through the muck and get in and out of pickles and interact with boldness and tenacity. But the contemporary mystery often takes a sharper and smarter route, and L.A. Confidential may be the best example of that style: the detective(s) don't walk through quite so much muck, and they don't get into and out of quite as many pickles, and they don't interact with as many thugs and villains with the same kind of near-nihilistic daring -- instead they actually go through the procedure of solving a case, and all those loose threads and uncovered conspiracies are more than just excuses for more thugs and exciting traps and sexy dames. In the old films, I think the color was the story, but now the clues are the story. And like I said, L.A. Confidential does a great job of juggling an amazing number of disparate clues and crimes and cover-ups and bringing them all together to a single story without ever feeling clunky or confusing or obnoxiously detail-oriented. It's a full two hours long but it zooms by and although your head swims a little in subplots, you never feel like you're drowning. It keeps its eye on the goal and it keeps moving forward. It's a brilliant story and a brilliant script.

Plus, I'm always a big fan of any solid trio of heroes. Luke, Leia and Han; Kirk, Spock, and McCoy; Peter, Egon and Ray; The Dude, Walter and Donnie; Groucho, Chico and Harpo; even, yes, Harry, Hermione and Ron. The dynamic of trios is always the most fun, and each can represent a different personality trait or philosophical perspective. The unspoken rule is that, really, it takes all three to be a complete person, and that's why they always work. Heart, Brain and Body; Id, Ego and Superego; Words, Actions and Feelings. Break it down however you like, but I'm always much much more excited by trinaries than binaries. Pull out a single element, explore what the new dynamic is and what's missing. An endless wealth of drama is built into every good trio. And here, with Bud White, Jack Vincennes and Ed Exley, you get a character driven toward thoughtless instinctive action (loosely, the id), one driven toward self-aggrandizement and narcissism (the ego), and one driven toward a moral universe with an unbreakable conscience (the superego). But of course we also undermine each, by having Bud need to protect women and want to be smarter than he is; by having Jack's conscience creep in and drive him to do the right thing; and by having Exley constantly and deliberately maneuvering himself toward positions of political power. So each is sufficiently self-contradictory that we want to spend more time with them and explore their inner conflicts, but they play off each other and the world around them in beautifully archetypal ways that serve the story well. No two of them alone ever would have solved the case of the Nite Owl Massacre, let alone uncovered the corruption behind it all, and it's naturally and appropriately the perfect storm of bringing these three men together than allows the house of cards Dudley Smith and his co-conspirators have built to collapse. You need the fighter, the thinker, and the charmer to gather the pieces. That they all mistrust or outright hate each other until the very last possible moment that they can reconcile and align... well, that's good drama. Like I said: this is an amazing script. I don't normally check this kind of thing, but I had to here -- and yes, L.A. Confidential won best adapted screenplay for 1997.

Good damn thing.

15 January 2011

The Thin Man

Of all genres, I think detective stories and murder mysteries may have the most freedom to run all over the map and continually introduce new characters and subplots willy-nilly until the very last possible second. (On second thought, that's almost certainly not true: musicals or anything under the umbrella of "comedy" surely have more license for freeform plotting, but nevermind that.) Anyway, so long as they can still bring everything together with a result that doesn't feel like a cheat, the murder mystery gets a lot of leeway in terms of how chaotic and haphazard it can feel. This is why it's hard to pin down the actual plot of films like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or The Big Lebowski, or anything by Raymond Chandler or Agatha Christie. Trying to pay painstaking-close attention to the machinations of a good mystery plot is aggravating, and actually not all that rewarding. I think in a strong novel you can follow along with all the clues and just maybe try to outguess the detective (though even then I never try; what's the fun in that? I'm much more happy to follow the story for its own sake and then on second viewing identify the clues and red herrings), but in a film the pace usually makes that hard: you can't slow down and take stock, and you're not supposed to. You're Dr. Watson at best, following along with the action, keeping up as best you can and if you can't, getting clued in by the master detective either along the way or, more likely, at the end. The fun isn't the answer, anyway: the fun is all the mystery. A mystery is about, in a way, having fun with a story, and there's no denying that Nick and Nora Charles are fun.

In fact, Nick and Nora remind me of a roarin' 20s style boozy and funner version of George and Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The large, complicated cast of characters and the intersection of uppity highbrows with dour lowbrows reminded me of The Rules of the Game or Gosford Park. It's easy to see the light-hearted approach to such a dark caper as a sign of the times (the film was made in 1934, after all) and the audience's need to escape, and I think that very same madcap almost comic-pitched tone has helped it age well. At first it's a little off-putting, because the jokes aren't very subtle (though they're often very witty, especially the back-and-forths between the Charleses) and the reaction shots feel particularly hammy -- plus the story is confusing from scene one until nearly the end. But at a certain point you realize that they're playing it against type, consciously. Nick won't take the case no matter what, but everyone around him from crooks to cops keep treating him as the authority on the subject. Suspects sneak into his house in the middle of the night to try and clear their name at gunpoint, and he's not even involved in the case! In a single dinner-party scene, every member of the suspect's family shows up individually and is secreted off to different rooms of the apartment for private info-dumps on the couple who aren't even in on the case. After a point, the backwardsness of it becomes hilarious.

It's the complete inverse of a classic Agatha Christie formula. Usually you begin with a bunch of suspects in a single place and a stalwart mastermind determined to solve a murder. Here Nick and Nora have thugs and cops bully every suspect into a single dinner scene at the end of the film, where he rattles off what he admits privately is only one possible version of the mystery's solution and waits for someone among the bunch to blunderingly tip their hand. His speech seems to call out one or two obvious ones, but these are decoys, and he even interjects a name or two of his own in a sharp accusatory way, only to ask them casually if the oysters are to their liking. It's all a parody of murder mysteries, and throughout it Nora keeps saying to him she'd really like to see him be a detective one of these days. In fact, after spending over an hour trying to find and either accuse or absolve Dr. Wynant, Nick does his only bit of actual sleuthing and determines that the man's been dead for three months now -- the entire case itself is turned upside down in a single moment that brilliantly brings us into the act three dinner sequence I just mentioned. Although it never quite tips its hat to the audience (which is nice), this is a murder mystery standing on its head every step of the way. And it's a lot of fun.

14 January 2011

De battre mon cœur s'est arrêté (The Beat That My Heart Skipped)

It's nice to have something more character-driven and naturalistic to watch. There's not nearly so much I have to say about this as, say, the Harry Potter series. Because this isn't a story about what happens next so much as it is about who it happens to and what their choices (or lack of choices) are, I feel like I'm watching with a different part of my brain turned on.

I really liked the tone of this. 90% of the story's tension is between Tom Seyr's dreams to be a pianist and the pressure in his world to be a crooked real estate man and petty thug for his father, but neither of those storylines felt like they depended on any shorthand or easy formulas from the hundreds of films that came before it. The way the piano playing was depicted was concise and clear, even to a non-musician, and having a coach who didn't speak his language kept the scenes from ever relying on easy exposition or colorful language to carry the action, instead showing us that he cannot relax, that he plays too quickly and stiffly, that his concentration is off or his anger issues are getting in the way, strictly through the playing or the non-verbal interactions between him and Miao Lin. Likewise, the real estate "thug" half of the story -- seemingly so disparate from the world of concert pianists (I have not seen Fingers, which I now recall this is a remake of; that's okay with me, though I may someday seek it out) -- never feels like a crime-story cliché. Instead, it feels awkward and desperate and messy and emotional and brutal. It feels like what you'd expect real crime feels like: quick, dirty, and often improvised.

The only other thing I have to say is, the last ten minutes -- the "two years later" coda, makes the story for me. Up until that point it was just another character-driven drama with a lot of expertly-done tight handheld camerawork and some gritty performances. Something about the epilogue transported it for me to a different kind of movie, I guess in the way it was all so painful and full of consequence but ambiguous. From the moment [SPOILER] Tom came home and found his father dead to the moment, two years later, that he sits in the audience, shaking and covered in the blood of his father's killer (or so we assume, and so does he) and shares a look with Miao Lin, everything moves so quickly and so definitively that you almost can't keep up. It's like Tom's playing: he doesn't slow down or take breaths, he just rolls through, excited and anxious about each next note, and then over in a flash. That kind of performance may hurt a delicate piano piece, but here that pacing strengthens the end of an already pulled-taut drama film.

Cutting to black on that look is just the right way to end it: all judgments and reactions have to exist outside the film. Room to breathe would have only made room for sentiment and consideration, and for better or worse, Tom's world hasn't had a lot of those things in it.

13 January 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 *

Well, for obvious reasons this is a tough one to get too into until I've seen both halves. It quite literally cuts off without the slightest semblance of resolution or anything. In fact it felt a lot like when I was a kid and we had movies on laserdisc, and I would watch Star Wars, and Grand Moff Tarkin, fed up with the princess's lies, would bark the order, "Terminate her! Immediately!" -- and at that exact moment, the disc would cut to black and wait to be flipped over. The end of this, with Voldemort snatching the Elder Wand from Dumbledore's dead hands, just after we bury Dobby (more on that in a moment), hasn't resolved anything. I mean, that's okay, at least in theory, because the book is vast, and apparently uncompressable, and you can make a lot more money if you release two 150-minute films rather than one five hour film, and that's what's done here. I refused to go see Kill Bill in theaters for this reason; I wasn't willing to fork over money twice for a single film, and I wasn't willing to try and understand a single story with a six-month gap between parts or whatever. Here I've gone ahead and done so, but I still can't judge this story until I see how any of these things pan out. Subsequently, all I can do are discuss scenes or elements, but not the overall narrative, which is frustrating. As such, this may come off even more like a list of hopefully-not-too-petty problems even more than usual. I legitimately don't know how this story ends; all I can do is judge what they've given me here.

And so, with due apologies:

The biggest problem is the "end" of this half, then, so let's start there. Harry and HermioRon are captured by Bellatrix and the Malfoy clan. Draco is forced to identify Harry, who's had an uglification spell cast on him, and the pressure is really on because, I guess, if he mis-identifies the most famous boy in everywhere, Voldemort will kill them all for the bother -- because Voldymac isn't interested in maybes, only sure things, and he values his soldiers just that little. Anyway, they all fear him and he's crazy and evil and I'm splitting hairs, but no no, let's stay on track here: Draco has to decide if this is really Harry. It's important, suffice to say. You'd think if he was on the fence, maybe he'd be swayed the existence of Hermione and Ron, who he probably recognizes as Harry's ginger sidekick and that one kooky chick who punched him in the nose three or four years ago. But okay, maybe he wasn't on the fence until he saw H&R, and so now he's 50/50 and still unsure. But then Bellatrix (which seems to be Helena Bonham Carter's Jack Sparrow impersonation, by the way... she seems to have wandered in from another, much more spastic film) sees that the snatcher bandits who brought them the kids have the fabled sword of Godric Griffindor. So she decides it's time to mount Hermione (why Hermione? I assume the answer is racism) and cut her a little for being racially impure. While she does this, Harry and Ron are thrown in a dungeon along with Luna Lovegood and Ollivander the wand merchant. Okay, I admit it, all of this is a snarky build up to right here: Ron and Harry are trapped in a dungeon and Hermione is being low-level tortured, and they are in the stronghold of the crazy evil bad guys, and magic is right out -- so how will they ever escape?

This is the kind of brilliant corner a writer wants to get his or her characters into, because it's these kind of moments that really show us what a character is made of, and there's nothing more exciting that when the hero is backed into a corner and still finds a way out. The trouble is, the writer actually has to come up with the way out, and the goal here is that the way out of the no-win scenario comes from an active character and is sufficiently clever to impress us. If the solution is too random or arbitrary or comes from unexpected third parties, well, it's kind of a cheat, isn't it, because our hero just got lucky, and when that is literally a plot device that comes out of nowhere we call this -- you guessed it -- deus ex machina. And if you have an elf magically pop in and break existing rules ("I can use magic; I'm an elf") and save the day with little to no effort, maybe it's called elfus ex machina, but no matter what you call it, that my friends is a plot device, and in case you can't tell from my tone, using it does run the risk of irking your audience. And then they get on their blogs and piss and moan about it, and nobody wins.

But seriously, that was a cheat of the worst kind, and just in case we didn't know how literally the storytellers were taking this Dobby-as-plot-device thing, he is killed immediately after saving the day, so we don't have the excess baggage of another character, one whose super rule-breaking magic might have come in handy again later. And then we have to mourn him, because he "died to save our hero," and the whole thing is just frustrating.

Okay, you know what? I'm being much more sarcastic than usual here, and it's actually not because I have some special hatred for this movie. In fact I don't. This is tangential, but the truth is I've become a little more sarcastic because I have become acutely aware of a funny kind of solitude in writing these Harry Potter rants. I feel like I'm uniquely positioned between those who don't love the stories and therefore haven't watched them all (or at all) and those who passionately love the stories and therefore watch them all uncritically. I may have even taxed my girlfriend's patience tonight with too many questions; even though they were all sincere and open I'm afraid they were all a little leading, as I was seeking out which things were plot holes, which things were shortcomings in translating to the big screen, and which things I merely missed or misunderstood. Long story short, my excess of acid is actually the result of indulgent self-consciousness. The further along in storytelling these mega-blockbusters got, I think the easier time they had selling their fans on each next installment, because they'd established a ride where hard questions weren't rewarded, and everyone had already agreed to enjoy the ride. (And it's not like I don't succumb to this phenomenon: anything from Labyrinth to Star Wars [even the "good trilogy"] to Indiana Jones doesn't hold up if you dig too deep, to one degree or another.)

I have a feeling the long, meandering bit in the various wildernesses of England did not need its full allotment of time to get across its point of hiding and reading, or whatever they were doing when they should have been racing around looking for the horcruxes and all. I have a feeling that that is one place they could have trimmed to get this story down to a single long movie. I have a feeling I will feel exhausted with the number of artifacts and fetishes this final story is going to make us obsess over, as it's already starting to feel like a Sierra King's Quest game with swords and rings and amulets and cloaks and wands and books and potions and everything -- I mean, no good wizard story could happen without magic items but I have a feeling this may constitute magic-item overload here. I also have a feeling all my big-picture questions like what the muggles understand (or experience) as Voldemort and his Death Eaters run around doing what they do, or why it's so hard for a room full of professional adult wizards to ever catch three plucky teens with amazing luck, or how much of the future Dumbledore could predict and how much he couldn't and why he had some glaring blindspots despite other moments of miraculous accuracy -- I have a feeling these will all remain largely unanswered.

On the other hand, I suspect and hope that more of Snape's backstory and motivation will come into play as the muggle genocide gets underway, and that the pathos of his sacrifice will be realized at least partially before we're done. I suspect and hope that many questions about Harry Potter and his parents will be answered, and that we will better understand what Voldemort's master plan actually is, and that the final showdown between Voldy and Harry will be big and nasty and taxing and I'm even holding out hope that despite the Dobby Incident above, the end of the whole series will probably be less of a cheat and more about the inner strength and bravery in Harry, and that love will probably play a part -- possibly the love between Hermione and Ron, which seems a little random from a prophecy standpoint but more or less sound from a dramatic one -- and that we will see in the end that a lot of people worked in a lot of ways behind the scenes to make sure Harry is prepared for that final showdown, and to make sure that Harry wins in the end. I also suspect and hope that things will get a lot worse, a lot darker, before they get remotely better.

But I reserve final judgment on all such things until the whole story is told. And until this summer when Part 2 finally comes out, I shelve all these concerns and complaints, criticisms and witticisms (see what I did there?), and move on to other worlds and interests and passions. From the beginning I feel like I've been simultaneously shooting fish in a barrel and beating a dead horse (and raining on my friends and loved ones' parade, while we're mixing metaphors), but I also feel that for the last ten-plus years I've been goaded endlessly into the position I'm now in, answering the claim by so many people that the series can be enjoyed by intelligent adults as well as dumb old kids.

I'm really not trying to pick a fight with anyone, and I can name a dozen or more popular series I like or would like a lot less than Harry Potter, and I'm openly admitting that the books do sound better than the movies with regards to at least many of my complaints. I do not hold anything (more or less than I did before) against the books. But I get the feeling most of these films only work as dim reflections of the novels, as accompaniment for those who enjoy the books and want to return. It's exactly how I feel about the recent Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy film, for example, or the Watchmen movie. The bottom line is, I'm not an enormous fan of the Harry Potter movies. They are uneven, overlong, kind of graceless, and lack a certain special something (a certain "magic" if you will). They don't feel like they were made out of passion but out of rote, like they were made because the thing simply had to exist. There was a demand, and the demand was met.

But that's just me. Quite obviously, your mileage may vary.

Seen at the Regal Broadway Metroplex.

12 January 2011

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

A pet cause I often rant about is the frustrating misperception of a writer's responsibility when adapting a work to another format -- particularly, of course, to the big screen. It isn't exactly a new thought to suggest that what works as a comic book or a novel doesn't always work as a TV show or a film. That an adaptation must stay true to its source makes inherent sense, to an extent, but to most people that seems to mean that the adaptation must be a verbatim translation across mediums, and that even the slightest beat lost or altered is a savage crime against the text. The more religious your fanboys and fangirls get about a thing, the more demanding of exactitude for the sake of exactitude the audience tends to be. But adaptation should be about finding the spirit of a thing, the thing that makes this story great, and keeping that alive at all costs -- literally, at the expense of the details. Sometimes when you are too careful to preserve every bone and sinew when creating a new creature you lose the thing's soul, and the end result is hollow, or malformed (or formless), and the impact isn't just diminished, it's lost. I haven't read the Harry Potter novels, and I'm reasonably sure I never will, but I get the feeling that this is happening here. The fan-enforced painstakingness of translation -- adaptation by committee, essentially -- may be sucking a lot of life and breath out of the work.

I can only judge the movie as-is, as a movie, which is how it is meant to be judged. And so, all considerations of "oh but if you read the book" aside, Half-Blood Prince has some pretty good stuff in there somewhere, but it doesn't seem to know how to get there. Furthermore (and this I think is intentional, but in this case it doesn't help), it's not even a complete story. This is to the Harry Potter series what Empire Strikes Back is to the original Star Wars trilogy. This is "the one where things get dark," and it's also the one where all that tension boils over into romantic entanglement -- by way of easy character development. In fact about half of the story is given over to a lot of really artificial love triangles.

I'm guessing that we were supposed to root for Ron and Hermione to finally "snog" with such passion that every step away from it was meant to be agonizing. Likewise I gather that because Ginny Weasley once came down the stairs excited to see Harry in, like, movie 2 or 3? I forget which -- anyway, because of that we are meant to secretly hope these two will get together. Maybe I'm just too much a cynical thirtysomething dude and not enough of a fourteen year old girl for this, but it all sure feels like forced shipping to me. Anyway, two years ago we had Wizard Prom and the boys and girls were just starting to notice each other. Now, love is really in the air, stinking everything right up. This is part of what feels like a novel to me, because there isn't anything directly linking the continued romantic explorations of these characters to the return of Voldemort and the machinations of his evil ragtag gang of followers. Technically, Potions Class, and potions in general, form the link, but it is a weak link at best. And for the record, not every single scene of this was bad -- in fact, most the actual scenes were well handled (the cast and crew have gotten into a natural groove with each other, and the photography is always very pretty; in general the whole thing's gotten more palatable even when it's a wreck at times) -- it's just that the dynamics at play here feel arbitrary and unearned, and as such I don't actually care much about them. I like Hermione just fine, and Ron is mostly okay, and if they get together I think that's cute, but I don't really care one way or another because it's just as believable that they'd be happy with others as with each other, so it's hard to imagine an hour needed to be spent on who is kissing who and who they'd really rather be kissing. At least when that's not remotely what the story's really about. Anyway, like the film itself, I digress.

In theory, this is the story of Dumbledore and Harry's attempts to stay out ahead of Voldemort and his cartoonish acolytes (led by a cartoonish Helena Bonham Carter... the snob in me wonders whatever happened to that amazing actress I used to admire, but the pragmatist in me realizes that she's getting paid buku bucks to play a horde of fun roles and what's so great about straight-drama?). We "reveal" Snape to be a villain in a scene so direct and unambiguous that, after five films of is-he-or-isn't-he I immediately disbelieve it, which is a shame. They pushed the scene too hard on us, which had the reverse effect of making me read the "second reading" subtext of the scene on my first viewing of it. Even before the final scenes between him and Dumbledore (and despite them leading to [SPOILER?] Dumbly's death), I was ready to bet real money that Snape was an agent of the good guys all along, and that he was going to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to bring down Voldemort once and for all. It would have been nice to feel betrayed, but Snape was never a character capable of that, because we've gone to that well too many times. We are told so often to mistrust him, but oh wait he's good after all and we were wrong to mistrust him!, that it's pretty clear what endgame we're going for. He's got one note as a character, and so we're playing out the misunderstood-ally role to the very end.

(Oh, wait, I just remembered, I have one other complaint about Snape here. It's revealed at practically the last second that the "Half-Blood Prince," which was apparently important enough to name this story after is none other than Our Pal Severus -- but that's it? It's not a clue to anything, or useful to understanding Snape's role in this or Harry's, or a connection to the past or anything -- it's just a random detail. Harry has a note-covered Potions textbook that belonged to a seeming genius at potions, and it turns out to be the gloomy former Potions professor's. Okay, I guess I can see that making sense, but what the fuck does "half-blood prince" mean?? And what does it mean that Harry found and used his book? Surely it's not just a funny coincidence! Come on guys. Is this something the book explains but the film drops the ball, or what? Somebody explain to me the title here.)

Back to the point of how they've used a character in previous installments undermining how they're trying to use him now: I've got a similar beef with our other so-called would-be betrayer: little Draco Malfoy. Seriously, from the first time we met him on he's been one evil dojo away from sweeping Harry's leg, although before this film every single scene of him being a bully or a prick ends with him cowering or humiliated. He is never given a chance to be anything other than an embarrassing petulant brat with the most stubbornly puffed up sense of self-importance ever. He's never shown as capable or deserving of attention or respect long enough to feel worthy of the scene they thrust upon him here. Neither his intent to murder our story's Gandalf nor his pussing out about doing so are meaningful scenes because this is never a character we took any interest in, seriously, as either protagonist or antagonist. At best he's a comical thorn in Harry's side, at worst he's a heckler from the sidelines. He's always been too small in scale for the kinds of trouble that Harry has per story for him to even register as a villain, and suddenly now Voldemort has picked him? I'm assuming Voldy's recruiting pool is pretty small here, if he thought Draco Malfoy was the man for any job. Then again, maybe the plan all along was to find someone pathetic enough that Snape (of all people! or something) would pity him and get pressured into a binding magical promise to do the job for him. Actually, all kidding aside, maybe that really was the plan all along. Anyway, you can't argue with results.

On a side note, I wonder if I'd have found Dumbledore's death more moving if it hadn't been famously spoiled for me. The truth is, I suspect not, because at least in the movie, it felt telegraphed for the majority of the story. It felt more like a game of when and how than if. But I think I can see how this would be a good hard shock in the books.

So things end here appropriately darkly, that Empire Strikes Back ending. It's more of a cliffhanger than an ending of its own, and since this is an ongoing series after all, I try not to fault it for that. We're six films and something like fifteen hours into the epic story here, so you'll get no complaints from me if you bypass the reset-button at the end of every movie and the start of each next. A lot of stuff happened, which is all fine and good. (I managed to rant about so many things I didn't even talk about how odd it was that Harry's preferred choice of action throughout the story is to lurk... that in fact eight or nine different times he is a peeping tom, an eavesdropper, or an out-and-out spy on a situation he's not supposed to see. It seemed like all he knew how to do was hide and watch people, and that was weird.) But there didn't seem to be a lot of strong themes tying together everything we saw, perhaps because the storytellers were much more excited by what was actually happening. Without unifying themes it's sometimes hard to pull together a single story out of disparate elements, or to compare scenes or relationships to each other and see any bigger picture here.

Instead, this is like the second-to-last episode in a serial television show (and I realize how apt that analogy is), where all the pieces are moved around the board to where they need to be for the climax. Dumbledore is dead; Snape is with the baddies; someone named RAB has a horcrux (I'm unclear if this is the last piece of Voldemort's soul or just one they know is out of their reach); Hermione and Ron have pledged their loyalty to Harry as he plans to forsake the school to continue Dumbledore's quest, and they've also pledged themselves to each other (more or less); and somewhere out there is Voldemort, though I'm not sure exactly what he is up to while Bellatrix runs around doing his dirty work. All these things happened to put people where they need to be to begin The Final Race To The Showdown. Unfortunately, because they were all just a bunch of events, it's hard to say if any of them meant anything or not outside the logistical confines of the story.

People are always reminding me: lighten up, Travis, this is just a story. I don't know how to respond to that because nothing is ever "just" a story, and something this many people feel this strongly about is clearly, clearly more than a mere story. I don't feel the slightest bit out of line hoping it means something. And since this episode was all mechanics, that puts a lot of pressure on the two-part finale.

And for the record, I'm not sure it'll all add up to deserving of the passion it's received, but I remain cautiously optimistic that despite its terribly rocky start, the Harry Potter series just might go out on a good note. Here's hoping!

11 January 2011

The Social Network

In my complaints about films not being ambitious enough this year, I kept mentally leaving The Social Network on the fence. It had been three months since I'd last seen it and I couldn't decide from memory how to categorize it. There was no question that Fincher and Sorkin and everyone involved had delivered a pretty amazingly solid film, but would it qualify as "ambitious"? Does it stand out in a year of low-aiming solid work, or is it another of the same?

I don't know. I'm still on the fence. But I'm leaning toward this being more ambitious than average. The problem, I suppose, is the ways in which it's ambitious: it tells a story that didn't need, really, to be told, and a story that should, in theory, be pretty low-key and boring, and it makes it feel like a story that simply must be told and is never for a single frame boring. In fact it's easily one of the most cerebrally engaging films of the year, if not the most. But if there are various ways to pierce your audience -- emotional, cerebral, visceral, spiritual (short-hand for poetic and abstract, speaking to the "soul"), among possibly others -- The Social Network never gets much legwork out of anything but cerebral. I mean, I sympathize to a surprising degree with an unambiguously unsympathetic lead character, but I can't call this an emotional story. A couple of scenes (Eduardo's ousting and Mark realizing Sean is the fuck-up he'd been warned about come to mind) strike an emotional chord, but this isn't a movie about feelings. It's a movie about the pregnancy of ideas so powerful that some of that energy spills over momentarily into emotional or visceral places -- it's still about ideas. But I seem to have wandered off course here.

The point is, it's ambitious in its hard-hitting low-key approach to something we realize not only impacts us all, everywhere, but that sums up the zeitgeist of the times with acidic poignancy. We have always been, all of us, a little bit Mark Zuckerberg, and after the proliferation of Facebook and other sites and interfaces like it, we are a lot Mark Zuckerberg. Detachment of that sort, somewhere between Asperger's syndrome and sociopathic behavior, has become par for the course. We are all either laser-beam focused or completely ADHD, and often, simultaneously, both. So the film is ambitious in that through simple drama and clever energetic exposition, it shows us something in us we don't normally acknowledge. And damn if it's not beautiful, well acted, delicately and sharply written, with almost no missteps at all (Rashida Jones's character's line at the end that Mark "isn't really an asshole, but he tries so hard to be" rings even more untrue to the character and the themes of the story on second viewing, and it rubs me wrong for being an attempt at trite summation; so it's not completely without misstep). So okay, call it subtly ambitious. It's still neck-and-neck for what I consider the best American film of the year.

I don't have a lot more to say, actually. It deserves more viewings, but it's so good at making its own cases I almost feel like I don't need to add anything to it. Or maybe it's just got so many layers to digest that I've got to spend more time working through those layers before I discover anything that feels new or novel and worth discussing. It's such a clockwork masterpiece, and I still think it makes a perfect double-feature with Zodiac as the 21st century example of the intellectual procedural film. It never insults you, but it keeps pushing you forward relentlessly, with what happens next.

And on a side note that has nothing to do with anything, it's also got the classiest physical packaging and menu screens of any Blu-Ray I own, so that's something. Really beautiful and understated.

10 January 2011

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Well, I'm going to be straight with you here. This is hardly a flawless film, but this was the first Harry Potter film that elicited more enjoyment than disdain from me. It's got character development, a single crisis that (convoluted though it may be) ties all of the many threads of action together, and it's even got themes throughout.

In fact, we moved through the Goddamn Dursleys so quickly they didn't even really annoy me very much, and even though the evolution of the Dudley character (into "Big D") was a little embarrassing, they managed to work it into a scene with actual ramifications with the story -- and keep his parents to such a minimum that it felt like a bitter-but-swallowable pill. As to the ramifications, I actually enjoyed how insanely quickly things went from the face-off with Dementors in the tunnel into Brazil into Kafka's The Trial and for about twenty minutes or so I was kind of hoping the entire story would just continue spiraling downward into surreal bureaucratic madness. I didn't quite get my wish, but The Trial did give way to 1984 for a while there, as Umbridge eventually took over the school and began to scrub it clean in a very peculiar and pointed attack on the contemporary education system and its emphasis on impractical rote memorization versus practical applied knowledge or creative thought. And while the whole thing with the Minister's increasing paranoia while Umbridge guts the wizard-education program from the inside-out makes pretty much no sense when you look too closely, it's all in aid of something here -- in fact, it's in aid of both character conflict/obstacles and exploration of the roles and purpose of education and government in our lives -- and in the end, being true to the drama is much more satisfying than being true to logic. (Best to be both, no question, but I prefer to err on the side of emotional truth over logical fact.) And damned if this isn't the first time in about ten hours of story that I've been able to say that.

And although Voldemort plays a pretty crucial role here, obviously, this one works like Prisoner of Azkaban, in that we have concrete antagonists for our heroes as well as abstract ideologies they are pitted against; Voldy seems almost like an additional bonus round when all the rest is said and done. Order of the Phoenix also feels like the first time the storytellers have willingly turned their world on its head and challenged the basic tenets of their society: What is Hogwarts if we remove Dumbledore? What is Hogwarts if we remove magic? What do Harry and the Scooby Gang do if we take away their freedom to cast spells and so on? The answer here is extremely satisfying: they take matters into their own hands, they fight for their own forms of education and applied knowledge, and they form an underground -- a parallel to the Order of the Phoenix itself -- to stand in resistance to the forces of tyranny. All without betraying their characters and, much more excitingly, in ways which greatly develop them as people. Harry becomes a teacher. Hermione learns to paint outside the lines. Ron gains some self-confidence. Even lesser characters grow, as Longbottom learns some spells and Cho deals with the conflicted emotions of liking Harry and mourning Cedric (this last mostly through Hermione's exposition, and it remained unresolved, but it was gratifying to have them address the point, not breeze over it). Harry himself, especially, has clearly grown as a character in a number of ways from beginning to end of this one installment. In the past, most of his development would either come in a miraculous last-minute bout of bravery or off-camera, between years as it were, such that like Luke Skywalker in the original series, he'd simply show up in the next movie a better man. Here, we see Harry grow. I've got to admit, that's nice. Hell, we even get an unusual flashback that shows us how Snape got to be such a dickwad and sheds some less flattering, ambiguous light on the youthful hijinks of James Potter, knocking him down a notch toward mere humanity.

The story is far from without holes or confusing bits. The centaurs, the (ass-lousy CG) giant, Hagrid's role in general, the same stock scenes with Draco Malfoy for the fifth year in a row, and the oversimplistic motivation I touched on above for Minister Fudge and Miss Umbridge, among other things. I could probably go on about those things in as much detail here as I had in previous posts, but it was nice to switch it up, spend a little time talking about something I liked for a change. Lest everybody think my heart is made of coal.

One thing I meant to mention that came up while watching The Goblet of Fire and comes up again here is, all this talk about what kind of an education is needed by these proto-wizards really begs the question, what exactly is the end goal of teaching wizardry? We've seen what the academic life of an adult wizard is like, and some service industry jobs like shopkeeps and busdrivers of course, but this I think was our first actual hint at the world of wizards in a more metropolitan setting (albeit within the various Ministries of Magic). You get your first feel that their world may be just as insular and rat-racey as our own, and so it makes a little more sense -- all things being equal -- to question the nature and necessity of so much emphasis on the Defense Against The Dark Arts. Of course, we've got the return of The Dark Lord and all that, so, you know, all things are hardly equal. Still, all this attack- and defense-related magic... makes you wonder. (On that note: we got to see our first full-on magic combat in Order of the Phoenix, and while it was pretty chaotic and generic, it had the feel of using magic and using it so fast we didn't have time to question which spell was used how... it didn't blow me away but it didn't give me much specific to complain about, either. Nice work, guys.)

Yeah, so anyway, I'm pleased and a little surprised to report that here we have a Harry Potter movie that gives credit to its characters, explores and creatively undermines its world to good effect, and advances the overarching narrative without sacrificing the single story contained herein. Curious what the sixth installment holds for me, but it'll have to wait of course. I ought to get at least a little sleep.