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A note on Shame

February 22nd, 2012 No comments

I stood with Bianchi and The Wife outside the Chinese Theater in a stand-by line for Shame during the AFI Fest and we didn’t get in.  I was pissed but we calmed ourselves at 25 Degrees, a delicious burger joint in the lobby of the Roosevelt. Weeks later I had a chance to catch the film at the ArcLight, but alas, The Wife was called into work that night and I was home with Boston. But now, as I’m working with the Academy Awards, we get the added perk of a box full of DVD screeners we can sign out for a night at a time.  And for last weekend’s viewing pleasure I finally got my hands on Shame, the beautiful and heart-wrenching tale of a man addicted to sex. To say the least I have been anticipating this movie. When expectations get this high it is difficult to satisfy them.

Shame warrants a discussion on art versus pornography, which I already addressed in my review of AntiChrist so revisit that article and get back here. My feelings on the subject remain unchanged with Shame, where we get another director as fearless as Von Trier (with less crazy) who miraculously gains so much trust and respect from his actors he could probably lead them off a cliff. Steve McQueen (not the manly man from The Getaway) has certainly proven himself a director with tight control over his characters, actors and camera.  People often praised Capra as having a “classic control” over every shot in his films and McQueen shares that ability. However, where Capra explored the virtue and optimism of man, McQueen explore man’s darkest vices and the extreme limits of being.

Brandon (played by Michael Fassbender who collaborated with McQueen on Hunger) is a sex-addict who lives a life of dedicated routine, so much so it would seem he’s addicted to his daily process. He’s successful, handsome and he gets any women he wants. He sometimes buys sex, other times he picks up women in bars, restaurants, the office or on the subway. He is hardly a character I cared anything about. As The Wife said, “so this is just a guy going around having a lot of sex? What’s the point?” Touche, wife, touche. If we intellectualize it, that may be the conclusion McQueen wanted us to draw. There is no point to this life. But as a visceral response as an audience member, I couldn’t get engaged. When his sister, Sissy (played by Carey Mulligan), arrives there is this spark of interest. There is an opportunity to find out something deeper about this man, insight into his behavior or reasons for this apparent animosity toward his sister. But no. Not until Brandon watches Sissy perform a heartbreaking arrangement of “New York New York” do I feel any connection with the characters or have any emotional response.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mulligan’s performance was captured in real time with three cameras, no other shots were necessary. Sissy takes the stage in a close up and sings “New York New York” as a morose dirge that evokes a sense of longing and loss. The lyrics say “I want to be king of the hill, top of the heap,” about a person ready to conqueror this asphalt jungle that is NY. But I don’t believe Sissy. The arrangement turns her into a dishonest performer; she’s lying to us. She doesn’t want to fight her way to the top, she hasn’t the fight left in her. She wants support and comfort and she’s asking for it to come from her brother across the room. She’s singing to him, not New York. Just like that we start to understand this complicated and tortured relationship, something full of pain and rejection and abandonment. It’s the first glimpse of complexity in Brandon’s character and it is revealed without dialogue, without a flashback. Their history manifests itself into a single tear that streaks down Brandon’s cheek conjured up by a performances so overwrought with melancholy I almost cried myself. What? I can admit it, I don’t need to protect my masculinity, I’ll fight you.

McQueen returns the trust actors have in him by trusting them to carry the burden of the scene.  A film student would have shot that performance from 15 angles with an extreme close-up on Fassbender’s tear and Mulligan’s lips out of fear their actor’s couldn’t provide the emotion needed to illicit the appropriate response form the audience. But get fearless actors with a fearless director and you can allow scenes to play out. Which brings us to the sex scene between Brandon and Marianne (played by Nicole Beharie).

If there is any person Brandon wants to have a connection with, one person to ease his loneliness, it’s Marianne; she’s the co-worker he has been coveting. Everything about their relationship feels authentic and comfortable. Their date is one long take at the restaurant table and at the end of the night he does not have sex with her. Like in Jazz, the note not played resonates the most.  Once the physical activity does start up in their relationship it is again covered in one long take.  Unlike sex Brandon had with the other girls, this had an honest pace and progression that was natural. It was conversation leading to kissing, caressing, gradual undressing; it was the intimate, personal sex of a couple in a relationship. And he remains flaccid, asking her to leave in his humiliation. Perhaps he didn’t want to involve her in this self-destructive cycle.

Mr. Dill would lecture that in film every frame derives its meaning from the frames that precede it; therefore through comparison, the final sex scene creates in us a different attitude toward coitus. Brandon enters an apartment without a word and then immediately engages in lurid sex. It’s composed of tight shots, cut so quickly you don’t know which body parts belong to whom – it is easily the most explicit scene in the film. We hold on one shot for the longest period of time. It’s Brandon who begins to cry, out of what I assume, is shame.  There is something unreal, disconnected and emotionless about this sex scene that is created on how McQueen shoots and edits the scene together.  And it’s even more impersonal because we got the scene earlier that felt some familiar.

The opening of the film works as a sort of prologue, introducing us to Brandon. Then we get a bookend.  He travels on the subway and draws the flirtatious stare of a married woman sitting across from him.  She becomes uncomfortable and flees before the flirtation can go further (all done with suggestive glances and no dialogue).  At the end of the film the same married woman appears, she’s ready and willing this time around. Brandon just looks up at her, they make eye contact and then we cut out. With the tragedy his addiction help bring upon him in the past few days, has he reformed? Will he fall into temptation? It’s the sort of ending and elaborate character study that is brilliant for the avid art-house film lover, I’m sure it will get them aroused intellectually as well as sexually. And I myself am one of those art-house regulars so this certainly satisfied my intellectual needs, however, the unwavering attention to detail as a character study got me thinking my way through most of the film and only getting emotional involved in a few scenes. And what I was hoping for was something that satisfied both, like Hunger did for me. Fassbender, McQueen and Mulligan are the best in the business, they do awe-inspiring work, this just could not catch up to all I was anticipating.

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Notes on A Mondo Night at The ‘New’ Beverly!

October 11th, 2011 No comments

If you aren’t familiar with Mondo posters, don’t fret, as of now they are still only a part of the cinephile lexicon but are quickly becoming the pinnacle of movie posters, turning out limited editions that are truly coveted by collectors. If you want to know more about Mondo you can read all about them here and here.  I collided with Mondo when Brazie shot an event for them in Hollywood and scored tickets to their Mystery Screening at The New Beverly Cinema. Luckily for me his girlfriend left for the weekend on a camping trip and I was invited in her stead. Date Night!

We waited in line as poster fanatics fidgeted with their cardboard tubes and speculated which films were going to play and which artists would be doing which genre of film poster.  Bianchi barks at us from the back of the line, he got a tweet hinting to the films that await us.  Well, one film and apparently three episodes of an old sitcom.  Can that be right? The rumor he continued to stick with was 3 Ninjas and three episodes of Hanging With Mr. Cooper. Ahhh! Can that seriously be right??

And thank God Ishmael was just being a deceitful prick on Twitter and Bianchi was simply being gullible (or playing along, I can never tell).  Sitting in the historic theater Ishmael announced, this is going to be a horror film night.  The first film, Danny Boyle’s ingenious vision of a virus apocalyptic in scope turning England into the United Kingdom of Zombies; 28 Days Later… Here is the poster from Mondo, artist Charlie Adlard. There was a variant design which we did not get.

The movie starts with images of chaos and violence, people acting out in Rage without any infection yet to speak of, and a horrific scene of chimps being tested.  Animal rights activists storm the lab and attempt to free the chimps, but all the chimps have what the scientist calls an infection of Rage for which they have no cure. CUT TO:

Jim (Cillian Murphy) lying nude, looking emaciated, in a hospital bed with a scar on his head.  He was a bicycle courier who has been unconscious throughout the entire outbreak and now wakes to find London desolate.  It is a fresh introduction to the world of zombies.  Boyle had Dod Mantle shoot the movie on video, giving it a haunting reality. We travel through the abandoned metropolis like we would a well shot travelogue. Few horror films can build empathy toward a character this quickly, but with this visual style, not to mention the amazing production value as they got actual shots of one of the world’s most populated cities completely abandon (a tremendous feat I would imagine), they gain my empathy.

The success of the first act of 28 Days Later… is a testament to Boyle’s mastery of his craft.  He’s a director that can cross genres effortlessly (see Trainspotting, Millions and A Life Less Ordinary) because he continues to have a focus on the emotional, character driven aspect of each story. Jim and Selena (Naomie Harris, who we unfortunately don’t see in more films) find the remnants of a family in a high rise apartment building.  The father (Brendan Gleeson) has barricaded himself and his daughter, Hanna, in their apartment waiting to come across other survivors.  Now with Selena and Jim’s help they can all traverse the infected land together to find the Army who has been broadcasting a message from Manchester.  The road trip that ensues provides each character what they have lost in the Zombaclypse; they get a taste of what they future could be, and they are hopeful. It becomes a story about finding and choosing family, where the the zombies become an ancillary presence that simply bonds our characters together.

Boyle, whether intentional or not, brought social commentary back to the zombie genre.  When George Romero made Night of The Living Dead he set out to make an allegorical story of what would happen when one culture overtakes another and the resistance that oppressing culture would face (there is an article HERE that discounts the idea of an intentional racial allegory). Now Boyle explores Romero’s original concept even further as Selena, Jim, Frank and Hannah are baited into a false sense of security when they find the last surviving members of a military force that was overrun at Manchester.  The soldiers seem to have set up a haven; they are in a mansion surrounded with landmines, well fortified and stocked with food.  But, as Howard Zinn wrote, “In the short run…the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.”

The soldiers, themselves tainted with the surrounding culture of Rage, turn on their new guests and attempt to subjugate the woman and force them into a life of procreation and sexual servitude.  This is where the allegory gains strength, because it is a common thing in the World to be oppressed, whether militarily, economically, socially or politically, and it is common for victims to seek help from “stronger” victims.  And it is also common for those offering help to become corrupt themselves, which is why it is up to the virtuous to continue the struggle. With Jim’s diplomatic attempt spurned he must fight the men that hold them.  Boyle handles Jim’s fight with a wonderful fervor that shows Rage can permeate a society without a physical bite. It is the savagery of man when pushed too far.  Jim attacks so viciously the oppressors that Selena briefly suspects his is one of the Infected.  When the struggle subsides we are left feeling that good can triumph as long as under the optimistic, pacifistic and diplomatic surface of the virtuous there is a controlled Rage that will dispose of it’s oppressors. Rage On!

Okay!  So, it took almost an hour to dispense the posters to all the fanboys in the audience before the second movie was announced.  Where one horror film was intelligent and could be considered social allegory, the second film is one of the most unintentionally funny horror films since Ed Wood helmed a picture; Hellraiser.  Only familiar today because of the cult following it achieve since it’s release in the late 80’s, an uberfan may try to argue an intelligent slant to this movie, but let’s not give Clive Barker that much credit.

The plot is rather simple.  Frank (Sean Chapman/Oliver Smith) delves into a world of sad0-masochism and purchases a box that will open up what seems to be Hell, with demons that are driven only to torture whoever opened the box.  The torture never seems to produce sexual gratification in either the victim or the demons (called Cenobites), but nonetheless Frank is curious and the demons destroy his body. The blood from Frank’s brother, Larry, is spilled in the attic where Frank was “killed” and the blood is absorbed into the wood, bringing Frank back.  But for the transformation back to a human form to be complete he needs more blood and recruits his former lover (his brother’s wife) to bring victims home and murder them.  His hope is to escape the Cenobites before they realize he has returned to the human world.

There is a certain camp value to the film that makes it entertaining enough to sit through, but do so only if you are a few beers deep and with friends.  The shooting style is crude, where painstaking effort went into the special effects that are brilliant for the late ’80’s, it is shot as though the director was rushing through the scenes because they bored him.  His disconnected approach to the characters and performances become so “cheesy” that I would break out laughing.  We are given exposition about the relationship between Frank and his ex-mistress through a bizarre sequences of flashbacks that fade in and out of present day with a familiar 80’s soft light and filter.  It was a sequence worthy of a Bonnie Tyler music video.  Clare Higgins performance of the scene adds to the comedy, as she practically convulses as she recalls her orgasms with Frank.

The Cenobites are a wonderfully morbid creation.  I was six years old when this movie came out, and the faces of each Cenobite has been scorched into my memory.  They are proof that Clive Barker can be an interesting and creative filmmaker. But, his lack of attention to story, character and depth of subtext put him, in my mind, in the ranks of the most overrated horror directors (expect for Candyman, which I still enjoy).

But I never felt much of a connection to any of the horror movies of the 80’s, as I’m convinced that may be among the worst decades for American cinema.  The 80’s were the growing pains of the film evolution that lead to movies I adored in the 90’s.  We were seeing the revolutionaries from the American New Wave and Film School Brats go the way of commercial tripe. The 80’s (except for Raging Bull in 1980) saw the worst films of Scorsese’s career, Bogdanovich was hardly even on the scene, there was the slow death of Coppola’s career although if you like Peggy Sue Got Married, I’d listen to your argument. Lucas showed promise as a director with THX1138, American Graffiti, and Star Wars, but abandoned the director’s chair for the back office.  Even the older greats from the 60’s and 70’s like Peckinpah (who died too early) and Sam Fuller (who did atrocious films like White Dog in 1984) seemed to ignore filmmaking as a craft.  William Friedkin! Roman Polanski! Filmmakers that stormed the scene with intelligent movies and changed the face of film were now wallowing in the post-Renaissance of American movies. Spielberg was the only one from the 70’s wunderkinds that really focused and perfected his storytelling.  And even though we saw some magnificent films come from the decade (more than I can possible list), and it brought us the Coen Brothers, it also brought us a remarkable number of films I wish I could forever wipe from my memory.

BUT I DIGRESS!  We were talking about Hellraiser, another film from the 80’s with value stemming only as far a humorous exercise in camp and special effects.  The best part of sitting through this movie again was the poster handed out at the end, take a look above.  It’s from artist Florian Bertmer and is far more interesting than the movie.

 

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A Note on Drive

September 25th, 2011 No comments

Stress has been attacking Lindsey’s body as she completes her Labor and Delivery training while being 8 weeks pregnant.  My solution, a date night starting with a couples massage at a small place on Ventura Boulevard.  It was one of the best massages Lindsey claims to have ever had, and for me, it was a painful and brutal experience – not the enjoyable kind. The masseuse nearly dislocated my knee during what I can only describe as a “lay all my body weight on you” massage.  But it wasn’t for me, it was for Lindsey, and in that it was a success – so off to dinner.

No time!  We need something quick and at the Galleria that means Fuddruckers; two burgers, sweet potato fries and quick walk to the Arclight to catch Drive.

Two previews stand-out: one, an adaptation of the novel that truly introduced me to reading, The Rum Diary. I had of course read books before I was 19 years old, but I never understood the depths in which you could consume and become intoxicated with literature until I read Dr. Thompson’s journey through the surreal world of Puerto Rico. Now Bruce Robinson is bringing it to life with Johnny Deep as Paul Kemp – Excitement! Then, as quickly as excitement set in, I’m made completely flaccid by the trailer for Red Tails.  A high-flying, racially tense action film laden with CGI planes and explosion with contrived patriotism.  It repels me. Wall to wall action is more boring than L’Avventura.  It worried me that Drive may be similar.

In a “heist” film, or “action” film, (which I will call Drive because there are a couple heists, yet this is not your typical heist film) the first sequence usually sets the tone for the entire picture.  Fast and The Furious and The Transporter (for example) both start with a “high octane” car chase with extraordinary stunts and daring getaways.  With Drive you get a smart, calculated getaway.  It’s a new pace for what has been marketed as an action film and that is where we find brilliance in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s direction.  Most director would’ve fallen into certain traps with this script by exploiting the sexual aspects, amping up the chases and neglecting the character development and very emotional story. But Refn had tight control over his direction and vision for this script.

Cut to: Lindsey and I walking out of the theater where Lindsey and I were the most divided over a film since the deplorable Sweet Home Alabama. Our conversation was being echoed in a conversation between a couple behind us where the Man complains about the slow pace saying he “was expecting Action Action Action.”  No!  Yes, this was marketed as a “heist” film full of action, but it is successful exactly because it isn’t action action action.  It is story, character and brutality.

The biggest problem with the “Triple A” film the man was looking for is the expense involved to make it worth watching.  It is far too expensive to pack 2 hours of action with practical stunts so you end up relying on fake, bizarrely improbably CGI action (again; Red Tails). My senses have stop responding to that sort of action film.  It’s a desensitization that has slowly decayed my interest over that past years and I now sit unstimulated for 120 minutes.

notice the similarities in Drive poster above

But, delivering on what we’ve come expect from Refn with Bronson (a must see) and his Pusher Trilogy, Refn presents a very fresh and unique vision – Refn’s Drive is not an action movie, it’s an emotional story with action in it.  At times it felt like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, with a sinister foreboding constantly stirring under a city that seems to have infected our anti-hero, inspiring him to become a savior.

The music pulsed, bolstering each scene even when the score superficially seems in contrast to the events unfolding.  A homicidal stalking set to opera? Yes! A classical music prelude to a violent head-stomping? Yes! Refn seems a master at selecting music that pulls the subtext of a scene, explores the emotional state of a character, and brings it to the surface.

Gosling plays the character Driver with a gentle subtlety that is off-set by his explosive fury when faced with the violent men with whom he’s become entangled.  There is a staggering complexity to a character that can go from beating a man with a hammer to a childlike flirtation with his neighbor Irene, played by the charming Carey Mulligan.  Drive becomes a true anti-hero, a tragically flawed man doing the right thing.  It’s refreshing and a bit inspiring actually at a time when it seems no banker, politician, corporate exec or anyone else is outside the grasp of all-consuming corruption.  It is nice to think anyone is capable of doing the right thing and being a hero.  Refn uses the music to say it repeatedly, addressing the man looking for the action action action, this is a story about a real hero – or at least a real human being, becoming human when we decide to sacrifice our own safety for the safety of others.

The film is not without it’s flaws.  In the cutting especially it might feel a bit pretentious, a bit of a throwback to the 80’s.  The script wasn’t perfect, especially in some of the expository moments and it felt weakest in the dialogue, but the strengths of the film overshadow those flaws.  Some audiences might think the film too violent, which Refn seems to delight in exploiting, but hitting those extremes felt organic in each scene especially for these characters, so it is easy to accept the brutality.  In the end, having firmly cemented his style, we are able to look at Refn’s body of work which seems to be tending more toward the optimistic.  I’m thrilled to see what he has coming next.

 

 

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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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A Note on ‘Insidious’

April 16th, 2011 No comments

thanks, movie poster, now I have to look up the distinction between "further" and "farther"

With more and more close friends starting to get positions in film and television it can become difficult remain objective when watching movies they’ve worked on.  It becomes even more difficult when you’re joining that friend, along with others, to watch the movie during its opening weekend. So, from two weeks ago. Opening film: Insidious.  Location: The Grove.  In attendance: a small group of film friends, myself and my wife.  Our friend’s position: additional editor. The Wife and I arrived a bit late, right in the middle of the previews and were feeling a bit rushed, but sat comfortably, calmed down and got ready for this latest movie from James Wan, the director of the original Saw. Knowing Wan I was anticipating another gore fest style film that passes off as horror these days. Wan surprises us by resisting the temptation to “gross out” and gives us some genuine thrills – but that doesn’t excuse some very clear flaws.

He manages to build slow tension through the first two acts, which a lot of credit goes to the pacing provided by some pretty tight editing.  Alaniz, if you’re responsible for any of that, well done.  Yet, it’s a very typical horror film setup; a seemingly perfect family gets a new house and slowly things start to haunt them.  It’s a bit eerie and it’s fun to whisper back and forth with The Wife – did you see something in that shadow? didn’t she already put those books away? I think I hear children voices, why are kids’ voices so scary? oh! shit, what just crossed camera? I see a face in the drapes!! And goosebumps. Jumps. An early scare is the best in the film done with a quick edit and hard-hitting bass sound effect. It made my stomach sink through my back and I felt a throb from my heart in my abdominal cavity that was now vacant, because remember my stomach exited out my lower back.

But lulls occur.  We’re given too much time to think and inevitably logic starts to creep into your mind.  It has to.  I’ve mentioned the suspension of disbelief before, it’s essential to watching a movie and was one of the first screenwriting lessons I was ever taught (thank you William Missouri Downs).  But logic has to creep into your mind.  I’m a logical creature, we are all, aren’t we?  Most of us any way?  But when you are creating a world, which is exactly what filmmaking is, you’re creating a world and inviting an audience along, then you must create and adhere to your own logic.  I don’t care what it is. You can create a world in which gravity apparently exists in space and you can freely walk around the Millenium Falcon (and i don’t care if some fanboy knows a device that explains this phenomenon).  You can create a world where angels walk among us and listen to the sunrise (that’s a Wings of Desire reference, do not think City of Angels you damned philistine). But once you create the world you are now directly and indirectly communicating some logic of this world to your audience and they are going to see the holes.  This is when the whispers become less fun.  It’s more like you’re trying to solve a puzzle that you feel you should enjoy, but you’re starting to wonder if you were given all the right pieces.  Or many given too many!  Why do I have six corner pieces? AH!

– why is that ghost licking her face? – why does he look like Bane from Batman? – why would a ghost listen to Tiny Tim? why would a person listen to Tiny Tim? – what do you mean they aren’t ghosts? – (spoiler alert!) what do you mean the boy is haunted? then why were they going after the mother all the time? – did that chick just put on a gas mask to talk to the ghosts, or what, the what are you calling them? Entities? Just spirits then?- is this turning into a comedy horror? No? – why is this the dad’s quest all of the sudden, haven’t we been following the mom?  – who’s story is this?? – that demon is listening to Tiny Tim now, what the f#@!? – is he not a demon? – what the hell is the Further, you lazy screenwriter?

It becomes exhausting. And once it starts, it’s a slippery slope. There was a world created in which the mom is experiencing a real haunting. This has become a world where she is in need, she needs to grow, so why the shift in focus?  There weren’t many problems with the direction, there was a good mix of some comedy in the thrills.  The editing was tight and told the story, especially through the first two acts (it starts to get hairy in the third act).  The problem is solely in the script causing a big story issue and in the end distracting heavily from some of the film’s actual merit.

And we sat through the credits to see the names of people we knew, then walked next door to the Cheesecake Factory, 45 minute wait. We walked down to the Whispers lounge at The Grove, we check the menu and prices.  We walked across the street to a barbecue restaurant without giving any consideration to the vegan in our group, get a table, get a 25oz beer, a patron margarita and a steak sandwich.  During the meal we are of course regaled by stories of the post process on the film, stories about the director and we congratulate our friend because it’s fantastic that he has a movie in the theaters, he did fantastic job (as did the entire editing staff with what they were given) and if you can get past the story issues, the bizarre third act and if you can stop thinking about where you know that psychic from (it’s Lin Shaye and she was the leathery woman in There’s Something About Mary) they you might just enjoy this film for the quick scares that it provides.

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A Note on Preston Sturges, pt. 2 (major spoilers as I discuss the lackluster endings)

March 28th, 2011 No comments

Between 1940 and 1942 Preston Sturges made three highly regarded comedies for Paramount: The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story.  All three were made in succession right at the zenith of Sturges’ career.  In fact the man never liked taking time off, and by the end of 1940 he had released both The Great McGinty and Christmas in July with The Lady Eve in the can.  He seemed to write and direct with the fervor of a coke-addict. Immediately after wrapping on Sullivan’s Travels he was fully immersed in the script for The Palm Beach Story. He did all this while continuing to write on scripts for colleagues at Paramount and helping to cultivate the careers of up-and-coming comic directors like the great Billy Wilder.  I suppose it was wise for him to attack so vigorously the hot iron because there was a shift in the management at Paramount and he was soon to depart.  But while he still had his bloated salary and contracted players he directed three comedies that some still rank among America’s best films. With the same fury and fervor at which he attacked the scripts my daughter, Boston, and I attacked the Sturges box-set, watching three films in a row.

THE LADY EVE

The Lady Eve is a film that plays heavily on the “fall of man.”  From Genesis forward men have been suckered in by women, and Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) is the biggest sucker since Adam. On a cruise ship back to America after spending over a year in the Amazon studying snakes (again, a Genesis reference), Charles is the rich man for whom all the ladies are clamoring. The poor oaf never picks up on any of their advances, so the conniving Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) plans an elaborate con on the man in order to win his affection and hopefully his money.  Harrington trips Charles in the dining room, and because of his good nature, ends up apologizing to her. Before he knows what hit him he finds himself in her cabin.  The well-choreographed seduction, an example of Sturges’ ability for brilliant mise en scene, sets the tone for their entire relationship.

It was around this time Boston had to take a nap, 9-month olds apparently aren’t great with movie marathons. I tried to keep her up to see this comical card game where Jean and father (Charles Coburn) use their own card tricks to undermine each other while the oblivious Charles just plays along.  But she fell asleep just as we start to see true emotion starting to build between Jean and Charles and she missed the major plot points.  Charles’ loyal attendant Muggsy (played by Sturges mainstay William Demarest) grows increasingly suspicious of Jean and uncovers her dark past of hustling wealthy men.  This effectively ends their whirlwind romance and sets the stage for the second half of the film in which Jean plans to exact revenge.

Jean arrives months later at the Pike estate for a party under the alias Lady Eve Sidwich, but fails to disguise herself any more than speaking with a phony accent and putting her hair up.  Muggsy continues to insist “it’s the same dame,” but Charles thinks she would disguise herself more if she were trying to seduce him again. The only people that could be possibly fooled by this would be Charles and the people working with Clark Kent at the The Daily Planet. AH! It was about a thirty minute nap for Boston and she’s a awake around this point and completely lost.  What does she expect when sleeping through most of the second act?  I refuse to rewind it for her because parenting is all about teaching lessons: #1, don’t fall asleep during movies.

I saw on Boston’s face that she wasn’t buying this con of Jean’s, even with Charles’ firm belief that Eve just can’t be Jean.  We listen to Jean’s partner in crime, Sir Alfred (Eric Blore), lay a thick and wild history of coachmen and torrid affairs on Charles that would explain the coincidence in appearance.  This seems to satisfy Charles and us as the audience, so we let it slide because (lesson #2) it’s important to suspend our disbelief in a screwball comedy such as this, so one explanation should do. And then Sturges goes too far.  He wrote a quick speech for Jean, telling us that Charles couldn’t recognize her because on the boat they were in love and when you’re in love with a person you see them differently. I thought it a weak bit of writing actually, a sign of a writer not trusting that his audience is already along for the ride. Boston scoffed at the line and continued to eat her veggie poofs that taste like healthy Cheetos so I ate a few myself (lesson #3, guard your food).

This is one of my favorite roles for Henry Fonda, the other is a dark role as the villian in Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West. Fonda plays Charles Pike with an endearing innocence and naiveté mixed with a clumsy charm that plays heavily into Sturges’ theme of the “fall of man.”  According to Sturges in his autobiography (oh yeah, I should mention that I’m reading his autobiography, it’s pictured on my nightstand to the right, the second book down.  The book above it is You Shall Know Our Velocity! by Dave Eggers which I highly recommend) people advised against using so many pratfalls in this film, but Sturges loves his pratfalls and they work  for him.  I’m not a huge fan of slapstick comedy, a guy just tripping over himself doesn’t really get a big laugh out of me, but with Fonda’s approach to Pike’s character it worked with a strong cumulative effect.  From the onset we get the sense he’s an uncoordinated naive man that is quick to fall in love and quick to fall over a couch.  And it becomes important that we understand Pike’s character in this way otherwise we’d never believe the ensuing con on the mainland. Stanwyck and Fonda are great as a screwball couple, Sturges should’ve continued to utilize Fonda in all of his films, but this was the only film that paired the two.  Sturges would move on to work with Joel McCrea.

SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS

Drama seemed to dominate the landscape in film school, and drama tends to win out when festivals and academies dole out awards.  I’m not sure if people simply feel there is more merit in a dramatic film, or if it’s a more difficult task or if they think somehow drama is able to more aptly portray the plight of man but they are all wrong.  A good comedy does more to express the human condition than any drama and it is far more difficult to create a successful comedy.  Now as Sturges explains it, during a time in the early forties when all of his friends were dedicating their pages to the dramatic he got caught up in a conversation about why he would continue to scribe and direct the comedic picture.  Instead of engaging in a heavy debate he decided to make a movie as his answer, and Sullivan’s Travels was the result.

Sullivan’s Travels is Sturges’ biggest “message” film, a commentary on the Hollywood landscape of the 1940’s (referencing his friends Capra and Lubitsch) and addressing the needs of the downtrodden man.  We open with a brilliantly funny scene with a big-shot movie director, John Sullivan (Joel McCrea), insisting on directing “O Brother Where Art Thou,” a fictional dramatic novel. He wants to make a movie about the real working man, about the suffering of the everyday American, a movie with messages and political commentary and then I imagined a modern day film executive driving his Bentley while talking into his bluetooth about how he wants to make a drama about the suffering of the common man. The studio heads must have the same sort of imagine in their heads and they insist Sullivan doesn’t know the first thing about human suffering.  This strikes a cord in Sullivan, so he insists that he will set out on his own without any money or assistance to learn about the suffering of the common man.  The first message in the film comes from one of Sullivan’s servants who says, “The poor know all about poverty, and only the morbidly rich would find the topic glamorous.”  Take note Academy members that vote for movies like Precious.

It was lunch time for Boston and I, but we didn’t want to miss anything from a movie that starts so strong, so we made the lunch in front of the TV, I with a sandwich and she with a bottle and some pears (I wish I loved anything as much as this kid loves pears). On Sullivan’s journey he encounters a struggling actress, played by the stunning Veronica Lake.  Lake is very soft-spoken with a dead-pan delivery of very witty dialogue.  Sturges has a way of writing strong female characters, although The Girl is a small step backward from Jean Harrington.  Now that there’s a girl in the picture, “because there’s always a girl in the picture,” Sullivan has a partner on his adventure.  They try to find hardship, but it proves difficult to get away from the Hollywood execs that are looking out for their director.

We finished our lunch just as The Girl and Sullivan were scrounging the streets for a meal and then run back to Hollywood. Sullivan’s lame attempt at getting in touch with the common man was supposed to end with his generous giving of a thousand dollars to those he feels helped him.  But this act of condescension backfires as a greedy street urchin attacks him for the money.  In the midst of it all he does find some kindness wherever he goes, from other homeless and from a magnanimous prison guard when Sullivan finds himself on a chain gang.  Now I fear spoiling some of the finer points of this smart comedic adventure into the troubles of the working class transient citizens of the world, so I want to skip to something Sturges wrote in his autobiography about this film.

“The ending wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how to solve the problem, which was not only to show what Sullivan learned, but also to tie up the love story…There was probably a way of doing it, but I didn’t happen to come across it.  It might be profitable for a young director to look at Sullivan’s Travels and try not to make the same mistakes I did.”

At the end of Sullivan’s Travels it wraps up with the message being stated plain and simply, we make comedies because sometimes laughter is all a person has. (lesson #4 for the day, never underestimate the value of laughter). It’s strange that he makes a point to comment on the ending of Sullivan’s Travels opposed to his other films.  Sullivan’s Travels may have been the only one that could get away with such a brief conclusion, whereas The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story suffer from the unsatisfying brevity of their final act.

THE PALM BEACH STORY

But regardless of what feels to me a tacked on and unsatisfying end to The Palm Beach Story, it’s so far my favorite Sturges film.  The biggest draw to this screwball comedy is Claudette Colbert’s magnitude (magnetic attitude, thanks Community).  I would’ve absolutely loved to see Colbert in The Lady Eve, I enjoy her so much more than Stanwyck.  And on that note, as much as I like McCrea, Fonda would’ve been pure dynamite opposite Colbert in this film.  I digress! Why talk about what could’ve been when the movie is solid without any changes at all.  So let’s get into it!

Boston has this little chuckle that she does, it’s like a courteous laugh to a joke that wasn’t very funny but you don’t want to make the situation awkward by not laughing.  She chuckled like this through the beginning of The Palm Beach Story, but it’s because I think the whole situation was a bit over her head.  She doesn’t understand the wonderful timing and delivery of Claudette Colbert.  Colbert plays Gerry, a devoted wife that insists on divorcing her husband Tom (Joel McCrea) because of their financial and professional troubles. Earlier in the day “The Wienie King,” a delightful old man who is hard of hearing, gives Gerry enough money to run off to Palm Beach, FL where she hopes to meet a wealthy man she can marry in order to help her soon to be ex, Tom.  But Tom is not willing to give up the woman he loves so easily and tracks her down to Palm Beach, only to find that through a series of comedic events she has gained the favor of one of the richest men in the world, JD Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee). He must now pretend to be Gerry’s brother as she tries to extort money out of her new suitor.

Again, Boston’s not buying into the plot much.  I remind her of lesson #2 from earlier in the day, suspend your disbelief in a screwball comedy (or any movie for that matter).  She seems to forgive any plot holes in this more than in The Lady Eve.  So we allow ourselves to get swept into the story, laughing at the rambunctious group of wealthy men that smuggle Gerry onto the train, then we got uncomfortable at the overt racism, but again laugh as the plot becomes complicated with Gerry and Tom both getting in over their heads with deceit.  Deceit is a very common theme with Sturges.  From The Great McGinty on he uses aliases and disguises to have characters deceive on and other.  Harrington becomes Eve, Sullivan becomes a vagrant, and here Tom becomes Gerry’s brother who is now being pursued relentlessly by Princess Centimilla (Mary Astor), who still being pursued by an old suitor, Toto.  Toto is the bumbling shadow to Centimillia, but the princess is determined to get Tom as her next husband.

It’s more than a love triangle the ensues, it’s more of a love square.  And Boston can’t keep her eyes open any more and I paused the movie to put her down for another nap.  But kudos to her for making it through all of Sullivan’s Travels.  When I unpause the movie Gerry enters Tom’s room with a zipper that she cannot unzip on her own.  This recalls an earlier incident where simply helping with a zipper turned into a passionate night of sex.  It was wonderfully planted and now paying off as their love for each other cannot be denied.  What was not planted was the idea of having twins.  *SPOILER* When Tom and Gerry tell Hackensacker and Centimillia they are clearly distraught but seem content in knowing that both Tom and Gerry have twins.  So we end quickly with a Hackensacker and Centimillia marrying the siblings of the people they want to marry.  They all live happily ever after, or do they? It was actually an odd, contrived and rushed ending.  It could be argued that the twins were set up in a sort of prologue in the film, but not well enough for the audience to earn this ending.  So, lesson #5 – earn your third act.

Aside from the apparent racism in all of his films (do all black people really talk like that?) the biggest, possibly the my only issue, with Sturges is he doesn’t earn the ending and likes to just burn through the third act.  Like I said earlier, I like the concluding moment in Sullivan’s Travels, but the final sequence of The Lady Eve brings us suddenly back on a cruise ship, Pike trips over Harrington and then they run off to his cabin confessing their love for each other.  It’s just too quick. Despite this flaw of his, Sturges still remains a master of comedic choreography, mise en scene and witty dialogue.  If he made no other films than these three he would still have been cemented as one of the greatest Hollywood directors of the 1940s.

All in all it’s not a bad way to spend a day.  Three good films, funny and optimistic, and some great parenting.  I taught her five very valuable lessons; and she probably took away even more gems that I just shelled out for free not even aware of it.

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A Note on ‘Even The Rain’

February 23rd, 2011 No comments

The Spanish actress-turned-director Icíar Bollaín has, I’m ashamed to admit, been off my radar.  I haven’t seen her other films, but I am going to now.  Her  latest film, Even The Rain, seems simple when you break down the plot into a succinct synopsis like “A film-maker wants to make a movie but the local political/social turmoil makes it difficult.” However, this film is anything but simple and possesses all the subtlety of a punch in the face. What we end up with from Paul Laverty’s (Sweet Sixteen, The Wind That Shakes The Barley) intelligent, emotional script and under Bollaín’s nearly flawless direction is a multifaceted film rich with complex characters and themes that broach social criticism.

Even The Rain essentially works with three plots that directly impact one and other.  The first two exist in the actual film we are watching starring Gael Garcia Bernal as the ambitious Sebastián, a director with a vision to make a movie about the real events surrounding Columbus colonizing the “New World.”  His efforts, and the efforts of his stalwart producer Costa (Luis Tosar) are continually tested by the second story-line within our main plot; the fictionalized account of Daniel and his involvement in the real Cochabamba Water Wars in which the people rose up against the government as it sought to privatize the water supply back in 2000.  The plot is of the film Sebastián is directing which gives us a visual of the atrocities committed by the Spanish as they forced the indigenous people into slavery and ravaged their land in search of gold.

Costa brought the production to Cochabamba for one reason – cheap labor. The impoverished Bolivians came out in droves to an open casting call overwhelming Costa and  Sebastián. They immediately start turning people away, which is where we first meet Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri) and get a taste of his explosive personality. He’s an instigator, demanding that everyone that came to audition be seen, and this display of indignation secures him the role of Chief Hatuey. And then he demands a role for his daughter.  Costa is uneasy with this casting choice, insisting that his volatile disposition will ruin the production and he’ll be too hard to handle, but Sebastián wants that passion for Hatuey.

As a struggling film-maker myself I was fascinated with main plot, but I like movies about making movies (and if you’re the same watch Truffaut’s Day for Night. Brilliance). Bernal and Tosar have a captivating dynamic.  I’ve watched directors like Sebastián, fearless yet insecure in need of a producer as a cheerleader, and I’ve seen producers like Costa who struggle to steer a seemingly frazzled director on the right path in order to finish the movie. But you don’t need to have knowledge of film production nor do you need to be all caught up on your early 16th century history of Hispaniola to enjoy this film.

The film Sebastián is making is based in large part on the writings of Bartolome de las Casas, a priest who witnessed first-hand the genocide committed by Spanish settlers and the execution of Hatuey, a Taíno chief that led rebellions against the Spanish. We cut seamlessly into the film within the film which causes an effective confusion in the audience.  When the Taíno revolt against the Spaniards it takes the audience a minute to understand it is part of Sebastián’s film.  Without a change in camera movement or visual style I at first thought the extras, which were being paid a slave-wage of $2 a day, had revolted against the film crew.  This directorial choice creates a connection with the past treatment of these people and the current treatment by the film crew. Similar choices were made when staging the violent protests against the Bolivian government.  Daniel puts the film in jeopardy as he helps lead the uprising in Cochabamba and we witness the events cut seamlessly with actual footage of the protests in 2000.  Again this creates a parallel between the exploitation by the Spanish colonials and exploitation of a people in an impoverished area by the millionaires in the government and multinational corporations.

As the protests escalate and the three story lines continue to develop they become entrenched in each other. You can see on Daniel’s face during the filming of the scenes with Columbus and the Spanish that he is connecting the long history of oppression to his own life.  He is the Hatuey of Cochabamba and there are moments when you know he was inspired by the script Sebastián is shooting.  As Sebastián and Costa become more concerned that the protests will shut down production they become desperate, almost heartless, as they try to force mothers to perform in scenes they morally object to, as Costa tries to bribe Daniel to abandon the protesters until shooting has wrapped and as they spring Daniel from jail to film the final climatic scene of the movie.

The performances by Luis Tosar and Juan Carlos Aduviri are incendiary. Tosar handles the character change in Costa with a veteran’s control. He’s the de las Casas of Even The Rain, who comes to Bolivia as part of the problem with dreams of cheap labor and a product that will bring personal wealth, then slowly discovers that there are more important things than money and the film. Aduviri is an animal, a man who attacks acting with a raw intensity that becomes the stand-out performance in the film. Even in his moments of silence there is strength in his Daniel, there is a viciousness to his Hatuey.

Bartolome de las Casas wrote that when Hatuey was finally captured he and other Taíno were burned on crosses. One priest asked Hatuey if he would repent so he could go to Heaven, to which Hatuey asks “Are there Christians in Heaven?” The priest responded “yes,” to which Hatuey retorted, “then I’d rather go to Hell. I don’t want to be around such cruel people.”  At this moment in the film the writing, directing and cinematography are at their best, almost Herzogian in scope as men are burnt over a sweeping landscape. (That’s right, Herzogian, I’m using his name as an adjective, so what, it’s the most accurate description, watch Fitzcarraldo).  Immediately after shooting the scene the local government arrives to arrest Daniel, effectively ending the shooting of the film and the crew needs to decide if the lives of the men they’ve been exploiting for cheap labor are more important than their film.

The film is not without its flaws, but they are so minute it would only diminish this cinematic achievement to discuss them.  When I’m not seeing comedies (I’m finding I’m more from the Sullivan’s Travels cloth) this is the sort of drama I go to movies for.  Nearly epic, beautifully shot, intelligent and relevant.  It addresses the exploitation of inhabitants in third-world countries by multinational corporations that would claim they’re nowhere near as ruthless the Spaniards; whether you kill a people slowly by hoarding their key resources or do it swiftly with genocide you’re still killing the people.  The key creatives were so tuned into the subject matter that they didn’t shy away from their own hypocrisy.  The Western ideals that were set forth by the Spanish (conquest and personal wealth) permeate all aspects of Western culture, not excluding film-making.  In this manner the film made me consider Herzog again and the horrific stories I heard of the mistreatment of locals on the set of both Aguiree: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Of course Herzog stories could be simple folklore, but it’s not limited him.  Rumors of exploiting local street kids and impoverished non-actors have surrounded production like Salaam Bombay, Slumdog Millionaire and City of God, and in Even The Rain Bollaín and Laverty allow their critical eye to be turned on themselves as film-makers.

Even The Rain is much more than a critique of an endless cycle of exploitation in the West that began with Columbus landing in Hispaniola.  This is a film of hope and optimism. I don’t want to discuss in to much detail what transpires, it will spoil the beauty of the film’s journey, but I can promise it won’t disappoint. (or if you think it does disappoint let me know and I’ll tell you what you missed).

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A note on Preston Sturges, part 1

February 10th, 2011 No comments

THE GREAT MCGINTY and CHRISTMAS IN JULY

Again, the wife has started her night shifts, Bean goes to bed early, so at the age of 30 on Saturday nights in a whirling metropolis I shut myself up in my apartment and satisfy a promise I made to Our Man In Hollywood, Jim Brown.  During my trip to his house for Thanksgiving Mr. Brown was slightly disappointed in my knowledge of classic American cinema and could care less about my knowledge of German Expressionism, Eisenstien, the French New Wave, Italian Neo-Realism, etc. etc. etc. and I realized (again) that my education has in another way failed me.  There isn’t much emphasis on the classics in American cinema even though they directly inspired the filmmakers of other movements that are studied ad nausea. So, even though Brown told me to start with the musicals by Vincent Minelli and Busby Berkeley, I started with the celebrated comic writer/director Preston Sturges.  Starting where it only makes sense, at the beginning, I watched The Great McGinty – it was the first film directed by Sturges, from his original screenplay, and launched a relationship with Paramount that saw Sturges rise as one of the most prolific writer/directors of the 1940s.

The story is told almost entirely in flashback by Daniel McGinty (played by 40s noir star Brian Donlevy) as he lives in exile as a bar tender in a banana republic.  His story begins on the night of a mayoral election.  As a hungry vagrant looking for a quick buck, McGinty hustles from voting booth to voting booth earning him $2 for each vote he casts for the incumbent mayor.  It exposes quickly a layer of corruption that reaches from the mayor, through The Boss and into the police force and breadlines.  After casting 37 votes  around town he’s entitled to $74, which The Politician (played by Sturges mainstay William Demarest) cannot pay.  This gets McGinty into The Boss’ office and starts a profitable but contentious relationship that lasts through the duration of the film.  As a pugnacious opportunist McGinty rises in the ranks of corrupt politics, eventually marrying his secretary for pretense and appearing to be an upstanding mayor.  But as my favorite segment in Paris, Je T’aime says, “By acting like a man in love, he became a man in love.”  His loyalty to his wife and kids forces this corrupt politician into an honest moment that cost him everything and he must flee the country, which was wonderfully ironic that in the end it wasn’t all of his illegal dealings that got him in trouble but his honesty.  It’s the story that could’ve happened if George W. and Karl Rove stopped with the governorship.

Sturges handles the relationship between McGinty and The Boss with a wonderful mix of verbal irony and comedic banter with a streak of slapstick. It’s a dynamic that works wonderfully in a political satire; the two power hungry morally bankrupt men that rely on each other to further their own careers.  The actors Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff played on each other so well that Sturges brings them back to reprise the roles years later (or so I read, I haven’t gotten that far in his film anthology yet).

Even more interesting is the way Sturges presents corruption reaching even to the innocent secretary.  Played aptly by Muriel Angelus, the secretary even justifies the corruption she’s a part of with a funny slant on the idea of ‘steal from the poor and give back to the poor, so where’s the stealing?’  She almost leaps at the chance to marry McGinty to satisfy political aspiration, but more so to save herself from being a single mother of two.  Selfishness and deceit abound! That is, until McGinty and Catherine decide they love each other want the marriage to be legit – then by embracing family values suddenly they take a moral turn.  A message almost worthy of a Capra film.

Preston Sturges had been writing for years, under contract with Universal and then on short term or per project contracts at all the major studios, and becoming one of the highest paid screenwriters in town. It took a while for Sturges to take a chance on him as a director though, it’s that old Catch-22 that still exists. They don’t want to hire you to direct a feature until you’ve directed a feature. While Sturges’ writing far outshines his direction in The Great McGinty, we get that first taste of a director who is on the rise, he just needs to find some ways to improve the visual storytelling.  The best attribute to his directing the camera is his judicious use of the closeup.  I think I mentioned before when lambasting Susane Bier, but when the closeup is overused it loses its power.  So when watching a Sturges film you can feel something happen to the characters when we cut into that closeup. He’s does create great little moments in the film, using small camera pans and tilts for reveals; I love the moment when we do a slow tilt down Catherine’s legs when McGinty  considers marrying her.  Her response, “Well what does that got to do with anything?”

Sturges’ follow up film, Christmas In July, is charming in its brevity – complete and effective at only 67 minutes.  The plot is established immediately with a few quick shots of people from all walks of life huddled around radios.  They’re all anticipating the announcement of the winner of the Maxford Coffee slogan contest with a top prize of $25,000.  Among the masses is Jimmy and Betty.  Jimmy has strong ambition but seems to lack the brains to get there.  With his slogan idea, however, he is just certain life get better.  You see, he’s come up with a slogan he is certain can’t lose; “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee… it’s the bunk.” The trouble is nobody else is very confident in that slogan, least of all Betty who insists that coffee does keep you up at night.

Jimmy’s co-workers decide to have a little fun with him, sending him a phony telegram announcing him the winner of the contest and asking him to report immediately to Maxford’s offices to receive his check.  This creates such a buzz that Jimmy’s boss even thinks his talents could be put to better use helping with their own ad campaigns.  Jimmy is quick to accept the promotion and heads straight down to claim his prize.  While the committee to select the winner is still deadlocked, the head of the coffee company, Dr. Maxford, assumes the telegram is legit and pays him out.  Jimmy embarks on a spending spree, amassing gifts for almost everyone he knows and ring for Betty.  By the time Dr. Maxford discovers the selection committee is still deadlocked Jimmy has created chaos on his street in celebration and spent the money all over town.

It’s a funny situation that is created by these office pranksters.  Watching executives and business owners try to take the gifts back was a great scene.  But like all films, Christmas In July requires a healthy suspension of disbelief (as in Sturges’ subsequent films).  We have to believe that Dr. Maxford wouldn’t check with the selection committee before shelling out $25,000.  We have to believe Jimmy would go on a lavish spending spree, spreading his wealth and fueling a hype around himself that engulfs his boss and everyone around him.  As soon as we buy into Sturges’ situations we can let go and enjoy them for what they are, and here it is an examination of the hysteria that can result from one small moment of recognition.  Jimmy had gone unappreciated his entire life.  As soon as Maxford Coffee says that he’s an ad genius, everyone believes it.  This becomes a satirical look at power of suggestion.  Nobody believed in the slogan before he won, but if someone loves it, we must all love it.  It’s how I view a lot of modern art.

Sturges didn’t make any great strides as a director going from McGinty to Christmas.  It appears to me he took a step back, honestly.  Where Christmas In July is a more of a situational comedy, McGinty was full of irony, pratfalls and colorful characters in the middle of a situation at is more painful as an accurate depiction of American politics than it is funny.  Dick Powell is great as Jimmy, so convinced that his slogan was a gem that he can’t believe this could be a hoax.  Without any solid counterpart, however, it only made me miss the chemistry between Tamiroff and Donlevy.  I would recommend McGinty over Chistmas but that hardly matters when looking at the career that was launched by having two big successes and an Oscar in one year as a writer/director.  Paramount had found their preeminent comedic director in a decade when audiences were begging for comedy.

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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 Note on The King’s Speech

January 20th, 2011 No comments

There’s not a traditional villain or antagonist in The King’s Speech.  This makes it very difficult for a director to provide a visual to for the audience to identify the “villain,” in this case a speech impediment leading to a fear of public speaking.  During the opening credits Hooper gives us the visual we need as he singles out microphones as the antagonist.  Through wide lenses we see the microphone from every angle and we see one seasoned speaker ready to take command of this device while juxtaposed is Bertie (Colin Firth), a man who shrinks in its presence. Or, it at least appears that he has shrunk thanks to Hooper’s flawless direction and Cohen’s beautiful photography.  Before the large, imposing microphone Bertie stammers through the opening of a speech before we cut away and there we have it; the first bout between underdog and reigning champ and the champ has flexed his muscle, defeating the timid would-be stammering king.

Immediately after the heartbreaking speech we join Bertie in a speech therapy session with a joke of a doctor who encourages Bertie to smoke to relax his throat and hold marbles in his mouth while speaking, an archaic method that hasn’t proved successful since ancient Greece.  The transition in tone from scene to scene, from dramatic to comedic, is handled with an imperceptible fluidity.  It’s incredibly difficult to juggle these tonal shifts in a film, to be both as funny and tragic as life really is, but Hooper accomplishes this with the skill of a master craftsman.

It’s established in two scenes that The King’s Speech is something rare; it’s one of those films you wait all year for, it’s the sort of film that can achieve the artistic, the intellectual and the entertaining and the emotional. It’s something I think Truffaut would have loved; something entertaining while historical, socially relevant and ultimately optimistic. Although I’ve read some articles that question the veracity of the script, they’re misguided and clearly missed the point of the film.  The historical accuracy of this adapted story has little affect on the success of it being told in cinema.

In order to overcome his debilitating stammer Bertie ends up relying on the help of the unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who becomes an unlikely friend and confidant. Their friendship drives the story as Bertie begins to show progress, and like any true friendship, they have tumultuous times that end up bonding them.  A friendship forged by fire.  Firth and Rush are sublime, playing off each other like two actors who love their craft, able to blend humor and pathos so seamlessly that you forget when you stopped just watching a movie and started to really care.

But I don’t want to just go on about the merits of this film (Helena Bonham Carter, the script, etc.) and it would be pointless to discuss it’s very few flaws (second least favorite appearance of Guy Pearce who I usually adore, and a few awkward camera moves).  I’d rather write about why my eyes were tearing up during the King’s final speech, that’s right, I can admit it.  Yes, there is this wonderful moment between these two friends, locked together in a cozy room seeing all their hard work bear fruit and yes, the score is the perfect emotional accompaniment but there is something much more.  I believe I was tearing up because of envy.

Envy what? Envy that England had their reluctant hero.  They had a man who didn’t lust after the spotlight or fight to get his voice in a sound bite on a 24 hour news channel, but one who had the position thrust upon him by birth, by the untimely death of his father and the shocking abdication of the throne by his brother (for Mrs. Simpson? Seriously? You’re a freakin’ prince! You can do better).  Bertie seems to be a man that understood the burden of leadership enough to know it scared him, and that’s what you need in a leader; a leader should know his responsibility is so enormous that it terrifies him.  That’s why we’ve heard so much about this film, it was released at a time when it can resonate in more than just the US.  I don’t believe I’m alone in hoping for that reluctant hero to be forced to become a great leader.  I want to see someone who is more concerned about what the people need to hear and not what they want hear.  I want to see a leader more concerned with working hard in his office and in the service of the public and not concerned with getting an emotionally abusive mother of eight to go on a camping trip for a reality show.  I want a leader who wants to be a leader and not a celebrity.

Was King George VI this leader? Maybe. Maybe not. Historically speaking it doesn’t matter, because the King presented to us in this film was.  The King’s Speech was entertaining, it was emotionally stirring and was so socially and politically significant that I was getting jealous to the point of tears over a King that Britain had over 60 years ago. Or he’s just the King in David Seidler’s impeccable script.  Either way, it all equals one fantastic film.

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