Archive for the ‘Avoid It’ Category

A Note on “American Sniper”

February 21st, 2015 No comments

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 11.40.50 PM If the talk on the Internet over the controversies surrounding the movie American Sniper were audible, it would be deafening. The controversy, of course, calls into question the veracity of the “true story” while accusing Chris Kyle of being a lying, blood-thirsty, jingoistic racist. If you want to read all the inaccuracies in the movie or all the ways Kyle is not the offspring of a bald eagle and apple pie, then Google it. There are plenty of articles that challenge the entire time line laid out in this film.  BUT, I don’t want to talk about that. Going after a decorated soldier based on this film would be unfair.  I want to change the conversation. Instead of focusing on truthiness, let’s focus on poorly written, ham-fisted story telling from the writer and director.

The opening scene starts on a rooftop, Chris Kyle prone with a sniper rifle cradled in his shoulder as he watches over Marines going door to door. It’s a tense scene that focuses on the sniper dilemma of making the calculated decision to kill an individual while spying suspicious characters approaching the Marines.  And to make this moment an even greater moral issue, it’s a woman and child in his cross hairs.Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 11.40.06 PM

It’s a great way to introduce the Chris Kyle character. A large bearded All-American with his backward baseball hat, sitting in a sniper’s nest guarding fellow Americans on the ground like the watchful eye of God. Then we cut back to his past with tension in our shoulders, left wondering, “will he kill that mother and child?” This is the best the story telling will get in this film.

When we cut back to his childhood we are served up nostalgic scenes constructed with as much subtlety as Eastwood wrapping a Bible in an American flag and hitting you in the face with it. We are treated to a painful speech from his father about three types of people in the world; The Wolves (bad guys), The Sheep (ignorant pacifists) and The Sheep Dog (the selfless protector of the sheep against the wolves and the only one allowed in the Kyle household).

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 11.39.36 PMTheoretically, based on the conventions of screenwriting, this flashback is completely necessary for laying the foundation of Kyle’s character. But the execution was poorly staged with stale performances. This childhood sequence is indicative of the problems that persist throughout the film. There is a complete lack of subtlety and nuance. Ignoring all use of subtext, the dialogue written for soldiers consists of them directly praising Kyle, but he is of course never fully satisfied with his contributions. He wants to go house to house! And we know it’s the deadliest job there because a fellow SEAL tells us immediate, also saying the soldiers on the ground just “feel invincible” with him on over-watch. So just in case we missed it, Kyle is a selfless sheep dog that will gladly volunteer for the deadliest job to “get the bad guys.” And you could have missed it, because you know, subtlety.

It’s as if the Department of Defense commissioned the film as they did with Capra and Stevens and other American filmmakers during WW2. I felt the troubles a returning soldier faces at home were glossed over. At one point, in a car repair shop, his time home felt like what we could call a “humblebrag.” A soldier approaches Kyle, telling him that Kyle saved his life in Iraq by pulling him from a building. Kyle seems off-put and uncomfortable with the praise, especially when the soldier leans down to tell Kyle’s son that his dad is a really hero. It’s one of those, “man, I am an amazing person and saved so many people I can’t even remember all my heroics, but geez, all the praise just makes me uncomfortable, you know? Heavy lies the crown of The Legend” type of moment.

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The final showdown is with Kyle and the elusive Iraqi super-sniper Mufasa. Like I said above, let’s forget that this never actually happened in real life and is just added for dramatic tension. We need to evaluate this again based on the writing of a fictional film.

Kyle sets up on a rooftop, surrounded by enemy combatants, and is anticipating the presence of this nemesis. When Mufasa makes the mistake of killing a Marine, Kyle is made aware of his location, sets up with his rifle and takes aim. Now, just in case we need to be reminded of his level of sheer awesomeness, he measures out 1800 yards. Another soldier says, “pfft, you can’t even see that far out.” Then he corrects himself, “Nope, it’s 2100 yards.” Is that tough? Well, let’s ask the soldier next to him who conveniently tells the audience (I mean Kyle!) that 2100 yards is over a mile. “An impossible shot.” Yeah! Impossible for some God-Damned Sheep maybe! But we’ve a got a freakin’ Sheep Dog here!!

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 11.55.16 PMHe fires, perfect head shot! This alerts the combatants to their whereabouts and a firefight ensues (with a sand storm bearing down on them). But Kyle can’t participate in helping his fellow soldiers for long because now that he’s killed Mufasa, he needs to bust out the SAT phone to call his wife and let her know that now he is ready to come home. You know, like you do when a swarm of jihadists are shooting your comrades-in-arms all to Hell!

It was a bizarre climatic scene that made me actually laugh. I was over this film far before this moment, but it was the second bookend, complimenting the childhood flashbacks. It just reinforced my feelings and I was left thinking that people must be flocking to the theaters out of some sort of patriotic duty, or maybe for Bradley Cooper, because I guarantee it is not for the brilliant story telling. And I’m telling you all, it’s okay to say you don’t like this film. It doesn’t mean you hate America, it means you value quality filmmaking.

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A Note on Trance

May 9th, 2013 No comments

The Wife and I got a night to go see a movie, called Zalmans – plurual – grabbed some delicious Bier de Garde – part of New Belgium’s Lips of Faith brews – we laugh, lament about work, eat good food and then the most entertaining part of the night was over.  We were all going to see Trance.

Any time John Hodge and Danny Boyle get together it should be something to get excited about. Shallow Grave showed promise then Trainspotting taught us there was something extraordinary between these two creative minds. So, when I heard Boyle was to team up again with Hodge for Trance I was, as I said above we should be, excited.

Trance opens with the same frenetic energy as Trainspotting, right down to a sort of feverish narration that plunges us into the character and the story.   Simon, played by James McAvoy, whisks us through a quick heist of a priceless Goya painting, which turns ugly when Simon hesitates to hand the painting over to partner in crime, Franck, played by the always-brilliant Vincent Cassel.   Simon suffers a head injury in the scuffle and yet still manages to get away with the painting.  However, the head injury seems to have erased Simon’s short-term memory and, now the central dramatic question, where did Simon hide the painting and how can Franck unlock the secrets in Simon’s mind?

With the appropriate suspension of disbelief, the first forty minutes had me completely engaged, I liked it and sat in anticipation for the upcoming acts.  Performances and direction were very solid despite some weakness in the script.  Franck recruits Elizabeth, a psychologist played by Rosario Dawson, to hypnotize Simon in an attempt to ascertain the location of the painting but of course Simon is terrified that once he reveals where the painting is Franck will kill him.  So his subconscious is protecting the information, it has become a vault or fortress. Elizabeth will need to use all of her skills and knowledge to unlock his memory. And it will require her shaving her pubic hair.  Yes, that’s right, the only way to really gain a man’s unfettered trust is to present a completely bare mons pubis.

You cannot have the hairless vulva as a major plot point and not expect some scrutiny.  Not to mention the scene is handled in a way that you would think she was presenting him with the Holy Grail; she has delivered to him a rare object coveted by all men throughout the ages and upon receiving it he weeps, “how did you know?” Well, damn it man, maybe she’s read a Playboy in the last two decades. Or!

(stop reading now if you don’t want spoilers…)

Perhaps you told her years ago because of a fetish you’ve developed while restoring Renaissance art.  Now, I know it took a crack team of incredibly intelligent individuals to incept Cillian Murphy’s mind. It took an innovative doctor and a band of misfit techs to “eternal sunshine” Jim Carrey’s memories. But Elizabeth was able to incept and eternal sunshine Simon in a matter of several short hypnosis sessions.  She is the sort of psychologist Scientologists have warned us about.

This was not the scene when the script fell apart; it was slowly deteriorating before this plot point. This was simply the moment I realized Boyle, a brilliant director, cannot salvage this wreck of a script. You cannot direct your way out of some scripts, even though Boyle gave it a good shot with all the directing tricks in his arsenal.  There were great performances, it is very difficult for me to not like McAvoy and Cassel. Dod Mantle shot it, which looked phenomenal. But all that I like about the cast, the cinematography and first forty minutes does not excuse what happens to the script. We learn that Simon and Elizabeth were in an abusive relationship and she hypnotized him to forget about her. Then she plotted to hypnotize him to steal a painting for her. If that wasn’t preposterous enough, wait for the ending. It goes out in a fiery blaze that pushed this film to the bottom rung in Boyle’s oeuvre. Then, in the final scene, it somehow becomes Franck’s story and we are supposed to care about his final decision to reconnect with Elizabeth or, what, get eternal sunshined via an iPad? I don’t know. I’m going to watch A Life Less Oridnary now and I suggest you do the same.

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A Note on “Water for Elephants”

May 10th, 2011 No comments

It’s taken me a while to think about what to really write about Water for Elephants.  I figure it’s because the movie itself doesn’t have anything interesting to say, there isn’t much depth to it, so there isn’t much to write about.  Have you ever watched a beautiful film, one with a warm welcoming color palate, a story that has been celebrated as prose, studded with the hottest A-Listers in Hollywood and then suddenly you get the sinking feeling that the director doesn’t understand the film he’s making?  That’s what happens when watching Water for Elephants.  I never read the book, but people I’ve talked to who have sing it’s praises. It’s a good story, at times overly sentimental and wistful, but I can see how this plot was captivating as a novel.  As a movie, however, this was the epitome of dull.

The film starts at a modern traveling circus with Hal Holbrook standing in the parking lot as the circus is wrapping up.  Paul Schnieder (from Parks and Rec, All The Real Girls, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) comes out to help the lost geriatric get back to the nursing home. But wait!  This is no ordinary feeble minded geriatric.  This guy has a story to tell and he is going to recount the entire summer of 1931 to this random circus worker. I write harshly about the conventions of retelling someone’s life story only because it’s become trite.  Remember in Titanic when we cut back to the old woman telling the story and the submariners are all captivated and we were left thinking “wait, why are they all so captivated? Is she telling the story better than James Cameron is, because maybe I should just be listening to her.”  That’s how I felt when we cut back to Paul Schnieder who is just riveted by Holbrook at the end.

The story is simple. Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is a student of veterinary medicine at Cornell University but drops out just shy of graduation when his parents die in a car accident and their debts take all Jacob has left.  So, he hits the road and accidentally ends up on a circus train.  The circus boss, August (Christoph Waltz), intends to throw him off the train at the next stop, but soon learns of his training as a vet and hires him on to care for the animals, especially his main attraction of black and white steeds. But, as I’m sure you can guess, the relationship becomes contentious as Jacob hopes to provide proper humane care for the animals and August intends on just keeping them healthy enough to perform.  Oh! And Jacob falls in love with August’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).

You will get a spark more quickly by rubbing glass against the flame retardant from a fire extinguisher than you will rubbing Reese and Robert together. They lacked anything resembling chemistry which fails to draw in the audience (even though my wife disagreed, she thought there was mild chemistry). Without any emotional investment in their relationship the entire story simply falls flat.  The only saving grace is 1) the, once again, fantastic performance by Christoph Waltz, which makes us wonder why it took so long for this actorto be introduced to the US moving-going audience. And 2) the gorgeous cinematography by Pierto.  However, while beautiful, the photographic choices were wrong for this story. Looking at the image posted, there is this clean, warm, welcoming train car housing an abused animal. But this is 1931, a rough and dirty year for the US, and nothing about this circus makes us think clean and welcoming.  They created a fairy tale with their images that, for me, didn’t work. The blame I lay on the director Francis Lawrence. He simply made the wrong choices of visual style, casting and how to execute the script.   The script itself was already a bit hookey, for lack of a better word, but Lawrence decided to slap the audience in the face with contrived emotions from emotionless scenes.  He handled the dialogue as if everything written in the script was the most important line, making sure that even the most throw-away lines were perfectly articulated toward the camera.  I really wish I could have seen this story directed by a director more willing to showcase some of the gritty atmosphere that should really surround this environment.

As I said, Waltz delivers another engrossing performance, but the way they handled August (as I later found out was two characters from the novel merged into one all-encompassing bad guy) was vilified so one-dimensionally that he might as well have strutted on stage with hisses in the sound track twisting his mustache wearing a monocle and cape.  He was supposed to be portrayed as this paranoid schizophrenic, which Waltz delivers as he goes from explosive rage to contrite in a matter of minutes, I just wish the idea of this character weren’t a movie cliche.  If it were left as two individual characters, Uncle Al as the irrational red-liner and August as the schizophrenic wife beater, I think the film would have had stronger dynamic and possibly would’ve given more sympathy toward August.  If he is buckling under the pressure that all the other circus workers are under working for the tyrant Uncle Al then his mood swings may have been justified. But the filmmakers didn’t do that. They decided to give two personalities to one character effectively changing the dynamic of the entire story.

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Rambling about “Howl”

January 30th, 2011 No comments

A narrative film pulled from the transcripts of interviews and court documents about the obscenity trail surrounding the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s 4-part poem “Howl” was something I was dying to see, anticipation building since I read of the production and the premiere at Sundance, and in a small red envelope it arrives and my hopes are high.  The wife is at work tonight, her first night shift in three years, Bean goes down early with exhausted eyes after a day of crawling through the DVDs that surround my TV like carpet crumbs and I start the Howl.

Like the poem itself the film starts like a white hot spark, blaring jazz music accompanying the rhythmic lyrics about madness destroying the minds of a generation as they drag themselves naked through negro streets, Franco now synonymous with versatility pounds on the keys of an old typewriter, recites the “obscene” words in a smoke-filled joint packed with post-war hipsters, a new lost generation seen through the thick rimmed Ginsberg glasses and Conflagration! each steel arm of the typewriter scorches the paper with eternal ink and animation depicts the flames that ignited in the inspired beat generation that consumed the conservative opposition – the flames pour out of an animated jazzman saxophone while burning spirits singe the night sky over New York.  The film was not disappointing, not a first.

A trial.  A trial with no real stakes established is intercut with Ginsberg reciting the poem, giving an interview about the poem to an unseen reporter, snapshots of his life as he fell in and out of love with straight men that pioneered the beat generation they spent the rest of their lives trying to distance themselves from and the pace of the film slows.  Moments of spontaneous outburst keep this dying document of drifting Dada-men and coldwater flat poets alive but the hybrid approach to a nonfiction/fiction film starts to fizzle quickly as we are left with soldering embers that glow intensely only when Franco recites the poem with the delivery of a comic, a revolutionary, a lost post-war soul and a melancholic, broken-hearted romantic searching for love among the madness.

This film would have been brilliant if it were Franco, Ginsberg’s words and the animation mixed with the smokey hipster joint.  It could’ve been a short.  While the trial was interesting at times, it was a speed bump, worse than a speed bump, it was ignoring the severe tire damage signs and crippling the momentum of an electric poem and performance.  But perhaps the filmmakers were attempting a little jazz with some literary merit. What was it the literary expert said on the stand? “Great literature always creates its own form…” I suppose there is some merit to that, these documentarians mixing forms to create something new, something of value and hopefully inspire mimicry – but it’s not a new form.  Recreation, reenactment, it’s all been done.

And then!  I hear a term that excites me… “Fear-trap.” Ginsberg, through Franco, says that while he was working a suit and tie and desk and secretary job in San Francisco he was stuck in the fear-trap.  It’s the fear that so many people propagate, the fear that if you don’t have your stable job, your suit and tie, your two cars, four bedroom house, 2 kids and slowly growing IRA then you are failing somehow at life – your ambitions are meaningless if they are not to bank your retirement and secure the financial future for your entire family through the monotony of daily routine.  I’m not saying you can’t find happiness there, Sisyphus can why can’t you, but it is not for everyone so people shouldn’t say it is.  It is in avoiding this culture of fear, this Fear-Trap, that pushes people out to the fringe where they delight in the struggle of late night crew calls in the dank streets of Crenshaw or abandoned lofts of the warehouse district as they work for meal/copy/credit and the hope that the bond formed with fellow fringe-dwellers on these indie sets will lead to inspired work on creative projects and hopefully find a way that insatiable creativity can earn them a living.

I should conclude by saying, see the film only if you’re a big fan of Ginsberg and are familiar with ‘Howl’, which you can read here – HOWL.

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A stream of thought on a King’s Speech tease…

December 16th, 2010 No comments

hanging low the fog coming off the ocean miles off it smells like salt a salty rain that smell of rain just moments away chilling a hot decemeber day hot in december 80 + degrees  i miss colorado decembers hot on the sunset gower lot and an endless meeting endless list of games but tonight a walk a walk through a salty low lying fog headlights blooming im relaxing 915 walk to landmark theater anticipating Kings Speech with much hype they always hype everyone hypes i despise overhyping a film nothing ever lives up to the hype but excited to see firth and rush and carter and the house of leder and the worlds worst vegan for free he donates blood at ucla with movie ticket voucher rewards that i cannot get because of a bone graft less than a year before tonight i am walking through salty low lying blooming beautiful late night la fog to a landmark with the worlds worst vegan and the house of leder to see the king give a speech

ALACK! deception the man in a horrible shade of burgandy cries out this theater is screening the taymor adapted shakespeare finale The Tempest SPRING! up my head and wide  my eyes look to W.W.V and the house is laughing but jokes on him the language of elizabeth will spin his head and how does he a man that loves nothing but bourne agree to this he loves the action the quick dialogue landing firmly on the nose wont watch a black and white and now a psychedelic trip navigated by the woman that helmed titus that i never finished nothing spectacular couldnt hold my interest and frida that somehow bewitched me on first viewing and lost it lost it lost it on each subsequent dvd attempt despite naked selma hayek then the public raping of the beatles anthology jumping from decent segment to atrocious so why not      why not turn prospero into prospera why not see caliban as merely a black slave caked in mud and not the deformed monster that i once while in undergrad envisioned when reading the tempest for the first time i saw caliban a foolish naive villain of sorts that wants nothing more than to reclaim a throne he has rightful claim to but will never sit where his mother sat for he’s a slave to prospera still doesnt sound right and played well by the djimon hounsou from the slave rebellion aboard the amistad amazing but was not directed as the villain that i always hoped to see caliban nor were there any true villian AH! the heart of the issue with this film it is a lack of true conflict conflict being the catalyst of drama conflict being the impetus to story so why ignore conflict ms. taymor why oh you must be distracted think you can distract us with onslaught of visual stimulus my phone vibrated i check Ooo email why not not into the story i lean to the leder he leans to me and i what do you think and he i  forgot how much talking is in shakespeare and i that is sort of his thing and he just laughs goes back to not paying attention to why is ariel now a blue genderless spirit how is prospera this omniscient omnipotent being omnipotent only by commanding ariel who can do anything so why not break the bonds of slavery and suddenly Distraction! russell brand comes not so nimbly over the rocks and spastic and drunk and slurring and aldous snow speaking in iambic pentameter is still aldous snow

a visual barrage an intellectual bore and everything goes exactly to prosperas plan and what conflict what interest what drama what its hardly even a story the way its presented shakespeare must be pissed as i think of it days later it gets worse or maybe i just romanticized the tempest when i first read it and would be just as disappointed if i revisited but i cant no i wont believe that i liked the tempest before i can like it again despite taymor despite aldous snow and despite oh wait there was a shining star in the thats a song by the manhattans by the way the shining star here is that felicity jones  where has she been my whole life she a beauty she that handles the shakespearean prose with a masterful tongue nibble lips and possesses the innocent curiosity that i wanted to see in miranda she matches blow for blow with veteran actors no doesnt match outshines those veterans perhaps im too harsh on the movie perhaps it could be enjoyable if i suspend disbelief suspend thought suspend intellect simply enjoy the spectacle enjoy the prose enjoy felicity because how beauteous this film is o brave new tempest that has such felicity in it

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