A Note on ‘The Master’

October 24th, 2012 No comments

When the lights faded up in Cinerama Dome at the Arclight there was the sound of one person clapping slowly in the back of the theater. I looked to the steel expression of my friend, Shebaugh. “Don’t even ask me what I thought, Patton, I gotta let this one sink in,” he told me and that sums up the feeling I got from the crowd as we all filtered out. Paul Thomas Anderson has become a master of writing and directing complex and interesting characters but with each film he continues to dissect the idea of a narrative down to what now amounts to a beautiful portrait of a troubled character and a false prophet.

Freddie Quills is an alcoholic navy man recently discharged from service and, therefore, is forced to some how re-assimilate himself to civilian life.  When we open on him he is mixing some alcoholic concoction in a coconut on a beach. His navy buddies sculpt a woman out of sand,  which Freddie playfully “humps” causing the navy buddies to leave. Freddie masturbates into the ocean like an animal and then lays down next to the sand woman. He looks at this mound of beach with longing, like he has projected the face of someone he misses onto the sculpture. He is alone, seeming lost and full of regret.

Once discharged Freddie faces the normal societal challenges of fitting in and holding down a job.  He bounces around, no direction. He is constantly mixing up any liquid with any alcohol content and pursues women with a insatiable lust, but never seems to sleep with any of them.  At one point he is running for his life from vengeful migrant workers only to end up a stow away on a small yacht. This is where he meets The Master, Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Here Freddie has found someone that might, for at least a short while, offer guidance.

It is remarkable how vehemently some people can attach themselves to a leader.  Our current political discourse leading up to a national election is our most accessible example. People react with either vitriolic comments made on Twitter, Facebook or other public forums or with the occasional violent outburst at townhall meetings all in defense of the leader they support.  We see that violence and loyal defense in Freddie who assaults people who question Dodd or challenge his views. He attacks a man who essentially calls Dodd a cult leader, he attacks police officers who arrest Dodd for practicing medicine without a license and he attacks the publisher of Dodd’s book who criticizes the teachings of “The Cause.”  These outbursts, this violent defense of Dodd’s unconventional practices, comes with nothing more than a promise that “The Cause” will help. But Freddie sees no improvement. He continues to lust after women, he continues to drink heavily and he cannot get a handle on his temper.

The exercises Dodd implements when treating Freddie are repetitive and maddening.  At one point Dodd has Freddie pacing for hours between a wall and a closed window, asking him to keep his eyes shut and each time describe what he feels.  Back and forth, Freddie starts to go almost mad but continues to follow this man’s direction.  It’s played so well by Phoenix you will start to go mad with him.  It would appear Dodd keeps Freddy around despite protests from other part of the movement because this case truly challenges the teachings of “The Cause,” and if successful the ‘religion’ will have a new poster-child. Yet their relationship goes deeper than that.  In the belly of the ship, on the second night after they met, Dodd ‘processes’ Freddie by asking a series of questions during which Freddie cannot blink.  If he blinks, they start over.  The progression of the questions, the anger, the melancholy, the way the truth bubbles to the surface in a heart-breaking performance you can feel a bond between them. There is a silent understanding at that moment that they need each other to embark on a voyage of complete self-discovery.

The character arc is so subtle it might be unperceivable to some audience members but it is there.  For Dodd, he’s realized his methods cannot cure all, he might not be the leader he campaigned to be.  And there is a sense of self-awareness and acceptance in Freddie that wasn’t there before. Yes, he’s a drunk womanizer and he accepts that in the end. More importantly he accepts the mistakes of his past and lone journey he must take through life.

Thinking over the movie again, with hyper-awareness of political campaigns we just cannot escape, it exemplifies the desperation many of us feel for a strong leader; not a showman, but an effective activist who knows how to implement the promises he shouts from the stump. Until we learn to recognize true leadership and abandon our habit of glomming onto the hucksters, the profiteers and megalomaniacs we will forever be Freddie Quills, pacing futilely between a wooden wall and closed window, a democrat and a republican, banging our heads in madness crying for progress.

 

 

 

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi

May 12th, 2012 No comments

Lindsey was 9 months pregnant, a couple days past her due date, so we were trying to take our mind off just waiting for labor and thought we should use up our AMC gift cards. About $100 worth. After looking at the line up of films at the nation’s second largest theater chain I hoped I could sell my gift cards to someone else.  The wife objected, we went to Hunger Games and when we got home I paid our babysitter with an AMC gift card.  Days later we went back to AMC to watch The Five-Year Engagement. I’m still unsure how the screenwriting duo that brought us the fantastic revival of The Muppets could possible make the worst film of the year (that I’ve seen), but they accomplished the feat admirably. With ten dollars left on a gift card I was using it to practice my Gambit style card attack as I whipped it like a dagger into watermelons; I have since cut it into an effigy so my two-year old can perform puppet plays where she provides the dialogue, which is mostly just “puppies” and “mommy,” but still contains a better story arc than anything you’ll find at AMC right now. With my hard earned cash I am driving out of the valley, miles out of my way and paying Landmark’s higher ticket price to see Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Filmmaker David Gelb takes us down a slow moving escalator, beneath the immense, monolithic Tokyo where success and money fuel afrenzy of people like a school of angry tuna, to a corner of a subway where nobody would ever expect to find the world’s most revered sushi chef. Jiro Ono owns and operates a 10-seat restaurant with a small team of very loyal apprentices and his son, Yoshikazu. In the cleanest part of a subway I’ve ever seen, there is no room for pretense. They do not exude success with any flash, pomp or glamor, but because this team is lead by a man committed entirely to perfecting a craft. Preparing sushi is an art of tremendous complexity beyond what I thought possible for raw fish and rice.

Jiro left his home at the age of 9 and started in the sushi world at the age of 10, working for the last 75 years to perfect the subtleties of sushi. Now it is a family affair. Sitting in a subway corridor,at 50-years old, Yoshikazu slaps dried seaweed over hot coals. His father instilled in him a dedication to a method taught to him over the decades of demanding work.  His focus on this method has done what seemed impossible; he’s helped his father earn a 3-star Michelin ranking.

This high of a ranking essentially means that it is worth a trip to the country just to eat at this one establishment. Gelb embarks on an intimate journey into the inner-workings of the smallest 3-star restaurant in the world. Through a mixture of melodic, minimalist score (provided in large part by the great Phillip Glass) and beautiful images the process of making sushi becomes a ballet, or a symphony or like what it must’ve been like to watch Jackson Pollack dance around his canvass to create a masterpiece.  It made me want to eat sushi, but not just any sushi.  If I were to eat sushi anywhere else I would in some way be cheating myself. So I have to wait at least a month (as is the earliest reservation) and a year (as I need to save money for the trip).

This film taught me that considering sushi to be merely rice and fish is a gross oversimplification; it reminds me that storytelling is an art of equal complexity, often oversimplified to just images and sounds.  In his debut feature film David Gelb was able to make sushi intriguing, enthralling and manages to dive deep into a fascinating character. This is the type of movie that will feed your soul, not barrage your senses leaving you feeling intellectually, emotionally and spiritually malnourished. (see: Hunger Games, The Five-Year Engagement and other films at your local AMC).

 

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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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Rambling about Capra and Sturges

February 4th, 2012 No comments

On my continuing journey into American filmmakers I compared Preston Sturges and Frank Capra, two great comic directors of their day. I watched the films directed by Sturges and Capra and read their autobiographies.  They both wrote their life story in the same way they told stories on the screen; Carpra wrote his life similar to his message films, like Mr. Smith Goes To WashingtonIt’s A Wonderful Life and Mr Deeds Goes To Town, where his determined will and faith in the American dream helped him overcome the odds and reign as king of Hollywood in the 30s and into the 40s.  Sturges tells his life as a somewhat episodic disjointed narrative, the way I feel The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story waere told, and he only touches briefly on his career in Hollywood spending most of his time reminiscing about lessons he learned during his wanton exploits as a globe-trotting youth being dragged around by his “Bohemian” mother.

FRANK CAPRA

Capra portrays himself as a man driven by a worship of money and success with a hubris only matched by that of his studio boss, Harry Cohn.  Throughout he makes vain attempts to be self-effacing, wanting us to believe that his motivations are pure in the spirit of the American dream and ideals. Everything for Capra began with a prophetic letter his family received in Sicily from his older brother telling them about the promise of Los Angeles. Capra’s only laconic moment of the book is when he tells us about the horrid condition on the ship across the Atlantic and how he started peddling newspapers on street corners at the age of 6.  He struggled against the odds to attend school, become an exemplary student and got into CalTech.  He worked three jobs while staying up on his studies to graduate with a chemical engineering degree.  Every event and conversation during these early years seem as though they were steered by Divine Providence.

When Capra was down and out, living in a room from which he’d soon be evicted and unable to find an engineering job, he was approached by a man named “Tuffy” who offered Capra $20,000 to build a still for bootlegging. He tells the story as though he wants to convince us that he is the embodiment of incorruptible American ideals.  He refuses the money, trusting that again Providence will deliver him prosperity in legitimate work. From here on out, moments that tested Capra’s morals felt more like they came from one of his movies than they did from his own life.  I can picture Gary Cooper as “Frank Capra” and Akim Tamiroff as “Tuffy” exchanging witty banter as Tuffy tells him “look here kid, this is 20 Gs, don’t be a fool.” To which Cooper stands tall, “Tuffy, I don’t want any of your, or anyone else’s, dirty money. I’m looking to make an honest living.”

The nameless man in Mr Deeds…

I would be remiss if I were to ignore Capra’s tenacity and hard-work.  He started out as a gag-writer for Hal Roach’s “Our Gang,” worked through the picture-mill at Mack Sennett studios, made a comic star out of Harry Langdon and fought like hell to become a director at Columbia, bringing that little studio some major prestige.  But the manner in which Capra tells of his rise rings insincere. The same insincerity in his autobiography I felt in his message films.  In fact, there is a moment in the book where Capra is claims he talked himself into a mysterious illness when a nameless man comes to him and calls him a coward.  He tells Capra that he can reach hundreds of millions with his movies and if doesn’t use his God-given talents for God’s purpose he is an offense to God and humanity.  In the Capra’s film Mr Deeds Goes To Town, a nameless man storms into Mr. Deeds office and tells him he was given this money to do good for humanity. Perhaps he just used the encounter as inspiration for Deeds, or perhaps when reflecting on his life he recalls it being far more inspired and serendipitous than it was. What other people have called the heart and soul of some Capra films I saw as a contrivance. This is why, when I think of the genius of Capra as a director, I focus on It Happened One Night and Arsenic and Old Lace.

It Happened One Night was the movie that should have never happened.  Most people rejected the script, actors and actresses refused inflated salaries to avoid being cast.  As Capra tells it, Louis Mayer was punishing Clark Gable for demanding more money so he sent him to Columbia, dubbed Poverty Row by the bigger studios.  Then there is the incredibly charming Claudette Colbert. She was on contract with Paramount and would only do the picture if they could finish with her during her 4 week vacation and double her Paramount salary.  $50,000 for 4 weeks work.  What resulted was a production chalk full of concessions made to the two demanding stars who Capra eventually got to lighten up enough to inject incredible life into a funny script.  This road-tripping adventure has everything you need in a good comedy; quick witty dialogue mixed with physical comedy expertly and surprisingly turned by Gable and sexual innuendo that laughed in the face of the production code. “The Walls of Jericho are coming down.”

Arsenic and Old Lace was already a wonderful play by Joseph Kesselring then adapted by the genius screenwriting duo, Julius and Phillip Epstein. and Capra busted the film out on a very short schedule before he went into the Army to make war films for the Defense Department. Where One Night was successful on the performance of two stars, Arsenic and Old Lace benefits from an ensemble cast lead by Cary Grant in his funniest role. A man who, for me, only conjured up ideas of style and poise took on a script laden with physical comedy that showcased a versatility rare in actors.  But while he headlined the film, it is the supporting cast that helps this comedy transcend everything else Capra directed. Jean Adair and Josephine Hull steal the show as the delightfully, charmingly insane aunts that have been poisoning widowed men as “sympathy” killings.  They play killers that are so affable and sweet that I would probably accept any drink they hand me as to not hurt their feelings.  And while exuding a certain innocence that become endearing, you see Mortimer (Grant) doing everything to protect his aunts, risking his own life and his marriage in the process.  Rounding out the cast is Peter Lorre as a drunk and inept doctor who has butchered plastic surgery on Mortimer’s brother Jonathan played by Raymond Massey.  When each of these eccentric characters find themselves sharing a legal and deadly predicament, chaos erupts in the home.

Both films were made quickly, shot from the hip as they say, which allowed pure magic to happen.  Capra didn’t have the lax schedules he had with some of his other films and I think that restriction produced his two best films.  If you haven’t watched these movies, watch them immediately, you won’t regret one minute.  And if you have a soft-spot for the Capra-corn/Capraesque message films, they are all good, tightly directed films from a master craftsmen in the purest sense. But I highly recommend You Can’t Take It With You above all others.  It’s a film that happens to mix Capra’s good-natured message with a mix of zany characters lead by Lionel Barrymore.  And a quick final note on Capra: the films he went on to make for the War Department became the “Why We Fight” documentary series which are incredible, beautiful propaganda films that highlight Capra’s strength as a director.  They inspired a jingoism in me that I have felt in over a decade.

 STURGES

While Capra was busy chasing his fame and gold statues over at Columbia, Sturges was a brash screenwriter emerging at Paramount.  He started writing plays almost out of spite of girl that left him and then transitioned effortlessly to Hollywood.  Between 1940 and 1945 he wrote and directed The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, Miracle and Morgan Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero and The Great Moment (originally titled Triumph Over Pain).  He literally shot like a meteor to the top of Hollywood, but came on a whim, like he did everything in his life.

Born just months apart, while Capra fought his way out of poverty working three jobs and earning a degree, Preston’s mother, an eccentric bohemian, dragged Preston across Europe. She continually abandoned him at boarding schools and with guardians throughout his life as she traversed the continent with her friends.  Preston became part of her misadventures in between school terms and found himself around the elite class of Europeans as well as around hustlers and grifters.  His mother in fact took him along as she hustled thousands from a bank by exploiting a devaluation of the franc to bring her extra funds. The personalities and experiences from Preston’s childhood stuck in his mind and they all ended up in his movies.  Where Capra had a life of deep thought, tough struggles and a fulfillment of the American Dream while he coveted money, Sturges was raised without a country, without respect of money and events that to him seemed (derived from the structure of his book) episodic.  One event was never really born from the preceding event and this fast paced life directly contributed to the frenetic energy of his films.

The Great Moment was not a very good movie.  Sturges had ambitions for the film that stood in direct opposition to those of the studio and they took the film over. It’s not worth a review here.  Instead, I wanted to mention two brilliant comedies, both successful in large part to Eddie Bracken: Miracle at Morgan Creek and Hail The Conquering Hero.

Miracle is about the loving, and yet unloved, Norval Jones (Bracken).  He wants desperately to be a soldier going out to the front lines, but doesn’t pass the physical.  He is also deeply in love with Trudy Kockenlocker (HA!) played by Betty Hutton who has a resounding admiration and attraction for men in uniform.  She finds herself married and pregnant after a night with the troops but can’t remember who the man was and believes the used fake names, so who could track him?  Norval steps up, offering to help Trudy, but when her father (Sturges mainstay William Demarest) gets involved Norval finds himself running from the law.  It is high energy, quick moving comedy that brings back Akim Tamiroff and Brian Donlevy to reprise their roles from The Great McGinty.  The ending is rushed and truncated again, like all of Sturges’ films, with one last play at a joke and ‘The End.’

I didn’t know Eddie Bracken before this movie but he’s a brilliant comic actor with great physicality and seems fearless as he asks us to laugh at him. Sturges again tapped into Bracken’s strengths for Hail The Conquering Hero.  Bracken now plays Woodrow, a soldier who is going to return home without ever seeing battle (again physical ailments prevent him from fighting).  He is afraid of returning home in disgrace, so William Demarest and a group of soldiers returning form the battle at Guadalcanal tell his hometown that he is in fact a front line hero.  One white lie spins out of control as Woodrow gets nominated for local office and finds the praise to be more than he can bear.  Sturges’ pace is so quick that you hardly have time to question the town’s Woodrow-fever, all you can do is sit back and go along with it.

In the end, Sturges is the fun fling. Watching Miracle  or The Palm Beach Story is always good for just an entertaining laugh. A capricious restaurateur, filmmaker and vagabond, Sturges didn’t take life too serious, believing in Sullivan’s message that laughter is all some people have. Capra is the more intellectual filmmaker that takes his role in the world much more serious.  He took his life much more serious. But no two filmmakers proved Truffaut more right than these men, possibly the first two auteurs of American talking cinema.  Their personalities and life experiences are not just stamped on their movies, they are engraved in the emulsion of every frame.  It wasn’t until studios started to control them did their movies lose their audience, and their award prestige. According to Capra the artistic fortunes that brought such great American films in the 30s and 40s started to slide with the sale of Liberty Films to Paramount in 1947.  He said, “…practically all the Hollywood filmmaking of today is stooping to cheap salacious pornography in a crazy bastardization of a great art to compete for the “patronage” of deviates and masturbators.  If that isn’t a slide, it’ll do until a real avalanche hits our film Mecca.”

That’s a bit of a pessimistic attitude coming from Capra. If he felt the deviants got hold of Hollywood in the 60s, the 70s should have killed him. But he does end the autobiography with hope. He admires filmmakers like Lumet, Kubrick, Wise, Schaffner and Jewison. Yes, there is a certain “wholesomeness” to the comedies of the 30s and 40s on the surface, but they worked in plenty of controversy (I mean, Betty Hutton didn’t even know which soldier knocked her up, Gable blew down the walls of Jericho).  His biggest complaint seems to be that he doesn’t feel filmmakers have something important to say anymore and he ends by encouraging people that have something to say to give it shot, saying “…to the discouraged, the doubting, or the despairing… ‘friend, you are a divine mingle-mangle of guts and stardust. So hang in there! If doors opened for me, they can open for anyone.”

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A Note on Herzog at the Egyptian

November 11th, 2011 No comments

 

Thank God for the AFI Fest and their free tickets to shows that I just can’t convince my wife to spend money to see.  She’s not interested? No matter, a few friends are, so I reserve the tickets to Werner Herzog’s Into The Abyss at Grauman’s ornate relic from Hollywood’s Golden Years, The Egyptian.  Outside the palatial theater Brazie and I stand in line with other ticket holders, but we’re just about bringing up the rear of the line, so we’re nervous about even getting in.  But that is why I showed up an hour early, that’s why I printed my confirmation page off the AFI website, to get into this documentary.  I was confident we’d get in without any issue.

I end up apologizing to Brazie when we don’t get in.  We were turned away at the door as I had only printed my confirmation page and had not gone to the festival box office to exchange it for a hard ticket.  There was Herzog, in front of the AFI banners posing for the cameras ready to enter the theater and there was Brazie and I, rejected by the girl at the door who is probably some Freshman undergrad film student who has only taken her intro to film studies and screenwriting courses so can tell me all about Eisenstein’s montage theory but is completely unaware of the living legend she is refusing to let us see! After waiting in the rush line, we are ushered in, a few people didn’t show up and there are ten more seats available (or so they say but once Brazie and I took tickets 9 and 10 we saw a handful of empty seats inside the palace).  We ended up in the second row.

Werner comes out and introduces the movie, it’s brief, he just wants us to know that this film is not to take a stance on the death penalty and it is not his intention for this to be any sort of call to action or condemnation of the death penalty.  It’s simply a tale about death, a tale about life.  Thunderous applause, quick title cards with the sponsors being prominently displayed for the AFI Fest (brought to us by Audi) and then the face of Fred Lopez, the chaplain that stands in the room with the men that are executed.  He’s in front of the Huntsville cemetery where those executed are buried without names, just numbers etched on the crosses marking their resting place. “Why does God allow for capital punishment?” Herzog asks him. Starts to feel like a message movie.

More interviews begin, with family members of the victims of this triple homicide, with Michael Perry who is ten days away from his execution for said crime, with the accomplice Jason Burkett who got life in prison, with Burkett’s father who is serving another 40 years, with witnesses and with a former executioner.  I think I’m onto Herzog, a man I know from the past is anti-death penalty, so I can see him building this case as he builds sympathy for Michael Perry. Then we interview some family members of the victims and I’m not so sure. They are all pretty comforted by the death penalty as a form justice. And with each interview Herzog’s message seems to fade and it starts to feel more like a documentary from a younger Errol Morris.  We’re now just spending time with a group of people all tangled in the same web of misfortune.

Herzog’s latest documentaries have been either darkly and morbidly comedic or wondrous poetry, but both felt like Herzog had a very firm direction that he was pushing the documentary toward.  With Into The Abyss he only captured 6 hours of footage and what he cut together had it’s own unaffected life.  There wasn’t an opportunity for him to capture anything trivial or irrelevant.  Even when it seems to break off on a tangent with an interview of a local young man who once had a screwdriver stabbed through his chest you feel that it is all interwoven.  He had a loose connection to the boys convicted of the triple homicide, but still a connection and was affected by what had happened.

Although Herzog claims this isn’t an “issue film,” and for a good portion you forget about the issue and focus on the characters, at the end you are too aware of the filmmaker’s stance on the issue for it to not be considered an “issue film.”  He creates enough sympathy for both Perry and Burkett through interviews with Burkett’s father and wife and the way he presents Perry that regardless of guilt you don’t feel that anyone deserves to lose their life.

Herzog said in the Q&A afterward it is not about establishing guilt or innocence.  Which is true, it is a captivating look down on a menagerie struck with violence both from civilians and from the state.  At times I felt each person was absolutely crazy.  Burkett’s wife met him online, fell in love with him sight unseen and agreed to marry him on her first visit.  She later became pregnant with Burkett’s child despite not being about to do more than hold hands on each visit. To which Herzog asks knowingly, “there is often reports of contraband being smuggled into jail, but is there much contraband being smuggled out.” To which she replies, “we prefer to say that the child was artificially inseminated.” Oh!  and of course she doesn’t see herself as one of those inmate groupies that goes around falling in love to convicted felons. That would make her crazy.

A poor iPhone photo

As the interviews progress they become very human. Listening to the former executioner talk did more to cement any message than Herzog’s own words could, which is why narration would have been inappropriate for what he wanted to achieve.  In the end, it is a very engaging tale of life and inevitable death.  It’s fascinating to hear someone talk that knows when and how he will die, a torment (or comfort) that none of us have.

The Q&A only lasted about 15 minutes, and Herzog took that time to answer just one question (he’s a bit of a talker) so I didn’t get to ask him what really drew him to this particular story. It doesn’t seem like there was anything remarkable about this case opposed to any of the other hundreds of death row cases in Texas.  That speaks to the masterful hand of a veteran filmmaker who can take, in some of these cases, only 30 minutes to interview a subject and get right to the heart of the issue with a focus on the most interesting aspects of their character and life.   Knowing them now as human, it seems eerily disconnected to mark each cross with just a number, as though the state doesn’t want to think they’ve buried a name just a body.

 

 

 

 

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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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Shooting Steven Spielberg

June 7th, 2011 No comments

Working for the New York Film Academy has some perks; aside from getting to bask in the cheery personalities that work the equipment room (Bianchi), we get to shoot video for the Q&A’s of working professionals after we screen one of their films, or in the case of Joe Mantegna a reel of his work.  We had more gear today, we started earlier today and had more faculty, students and camera operators than normal.  Today was a 35mm print of Jaws (1975) in the Hitchcock theater on the Universal lot with special guest Steven Spielberg. There was a bit of frenzy; students trying to get into the screening but being turned away because they failed to get on the list of 250.  The formidable Greenwood stood guard at the door and told students to take the next shuttle back to the school as they griped “I sent the email, I should be on the list.”  “Can we pay to get in?”  “Oh, let me see the list, I’ll just show you my name.” Nice try.  I even met some new faculty that suddenly turned up for a screening.  Where were they for The Bridge to Terabithia?

Knowing the theater was going to be packed I set up a little chair for myself while setting up the lights.  I tucked it next to a source 4 up in a balcony and nestled in for my first print of Jaws experience.  If you haven’t seen Jaws…. ….. – i couldn’t think of a snide witty thing to say, i was actually at a loss for words thinking there is someone who hasn’t seen Jaws – how about, shame on you? Every time I watch this movie I find more elements that become compounded to make this one of the best bits of story-telling to come out of the last 40 years of Hollywood. The first time you watch it, if you’re a kid like I was, it’s all about those tense shots of a dorsal fin, legs kicking under the water, the scares and the blood!  Then next time it’s all about the score, you’ve matured a little in your understanding of film and can pin-point what is helping build that tension. Then, after years of watching movies, you watch Jaws again and become aware of the amazing shot economy.  There are not nine angles to cover one conversation. This is the work of a director who is sure of himself.  He doesn’t need nine angles just to have choices during the edit.  He can choreograph an efficient oner of three men in an argument and land with a vandalized billboard of Amity Island square in the background to illustrate the point of the entire argument. Filmmakers today rely very heavily on fast “MTV” style editing along with dozens of angles because the director is lost on the set, doesn’t know what he needs to tell the story and hopes that he can desperately glue something together on his Avid (or FCP if he can’t afford a man’s editing system).

On this viewing I also noticed some good old tell-tale signs of 1970’s filmmaking including using a split diopter and the zoom lens.  Filmmakers in the 70’s really enjoyed their split diopters and zooms, they were somewhat new and people were experimenting.  The good thing with Spielberg, and he’s shown the same restraint with digital tools (excluding in Indy 4), is he uses the tools sparingly enough to tell his story.  Not every shot needs a split diopter, but when an old man with C-cup man-boobs is talking your ear off while you’re trying to keep an eye on a kid swimming in shark infested waters but the boy is far outside the depth of field for your lens and stop, then a split diopter is perfect to tell your story.  Man in foreground is in sharp focus yapping about God-knows what and we can see the sheriff is still concentrating on the boy in the water, as he is also in sharp focus.  Spielberg had a tool and used it appropriately as dictated by the story.  Bravo.

At the close of the film my work had to begin, throwing a hefty HPX up on the shoulder to be the “wandering” camera during the Q&A.  Spielberg emerges from the balcony to thunderous applause, I catch him coming down the stairs, high fiving students and taking his seat.  Immediately the moderator, I should probably know who she was but can’t remember, mentioned that she loved watching Jaws because there were practical effects.  She liked knowing the actors were on location, actually in the water, on a boat sinking, etc. She mentioned it twice before Spielberg had to step in to defend the implication of modern film-making.  It was obvious she was implying that it’s a nice change of a pace from the digital world everything is created in today.  For instance, have you seen this photo?

Seeing a photo like this, I understand the moderator.  But Spielberg refused to allow an attack on digital cinema.  He said that if someone would have offered to him back in ’74 a solution to Jaws that meant he could get off the ocean and stop futzing with that shark, he would have taken it. He said that computer effects has allowed filmmakers to start realizing the potential of their imagination which is a very positive thing.  He, of course, did not deny that it is abused.  When the film becomes about the special effects, about the CGI and not about the story, that’s a problem.  People used to have limits on what they could afford to put into a film, or what they could shoot, or what the schedule allows for, and that restraint on their ability unleashed their creativity. But now they have the ability to barrage each frame with everything of which they are capable by throwing money at post-production and forcing their team of editors, assistant editors and post PAs to work 36 straight hours at a time to get it done (I’m looking at you Pirates 4)

As Spielberg continued to answer question after question my arm started to fatigue. Then, around minute 40, it feel asleep and my handheld skills feel to absolute crap. Long lens shots? Forget it. The editor is probably watching the second half of my footage thinking the operator was either drunk or handed the camera to a five year old that had to pee. No matter!  Just keep pointing the lens at Steve and enjoy the conversation.  Oh, wait! My buddy Randy showed up, I handed off the camera and could concentrate on the last two questions (one of which was interrupted by the moderator’s cell phone, tsk tsk).

During these last two questions Spielberg echoed what I’ve been hearing all of the biggest professionals in Hollywood say and that is “you never get what you want as a filmmaker.  I still don’t everything I want.”  He expounded more on the topic, basically saying that film-making is about the compromises you have to make.  Too often I hear students on sets complain that “I must have curved track for this scene to work!” “That curtain must be red, or this doesn’t work!”  “I need her to eat breakfast nude or the scene doesn’t work!” Etc.  Spielberg went on to say, essentially, that as creative filmmakers we must be malleable, we must adapt to what is available.  Do your prep work.  Shot list absolutely every detail if you want, but once you get on set remember that it will all change and you have to be ready for that.  A lot of scenes that ended up in the final cut of Jaws was made up during the long days waiting for a shot on the ocean. Spielberg even stopped bring a shot list to set when shooting on the ocean.  Most iconic movie moments were “happy accidents” that occur during the exploration of collaboration.

This advice seemed to go back to what he told several students asking for advice on how to pursue a career of Spielberg’s caliber and he told them you need to have a plan but be ready to adjust it and accept the unexpected.  Life, like making a movie, doesn’t have one set direction or plan.  The more frustrated you get by any deviation from that plan, the more you are going to allow life, or the movie, to get away from you.  That’s when you fail as a director, when you refuse to allow deviation.  Maybe a refusal to deviate from your plan is the sign of a very insecure director, one that doesn’t know his story.

I hope these students took that point to heart.  I hope that when I go back to one of their sets this week I don’t need to spend an hour explain why they really don’t need to hang a jib off the roof of their apartment for the story to work.  Shoot the story, not the red curtains and not the cool dolly shot that you believe helps reveal the inner turmoil of the blah blah blah.

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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 “Hanna”

April 22nd, 2011 No comments

My apologizes to Ms. Hartwig, as I stole Friend-licia to watch Boston the other night so The Wife and I could catch a movie in Century City.  It was a last minute call and we got lucky that Friend-licia was on her way back from Coachella.  After a quick debate over several movies we decided to see Hanna, the new film from director Joe Wright who most recently directed The Soloist, but don’t hold that against him.  He took a departure from his usual fare of sentimental melodrama and brings us a coming-of-age tale masked as an action film.  I only wish he spent as much time working over the script as he did working over the soundtrack.

It starts off beautifully in the frozen forests of Finland with only natural light illuminating the scenes.  We’re introduced to Hanna (Saoirse Ronan from Wright’s Atonement) as a cunning hunter that takes down a majestic reindeer with a single arrow.  Make no mistake, this young sweet looking girl is a predator and dangerous.  She was trained for one mission by her father Erik (Eric Bana) and that is to be a weapon seeking revenge for the death of her mother.  She has been living with Erik her entire life, isolated in a cabin in the woods reminiscent of the Grimm Fairy tales of which she is so fond.  Soon after the script sets Hanna up as the agile predator, we see a gentler moment with her father where she asks him what music sounds like.  This girl is ready to grow up.  Knowing that she is ready Erik allows her to make the decision to activate a beacon that will signal his CIA nemesis, Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett).

From the moment Hanna activates the beacon the film is directed down a path that is part Run, Lola, Run and part coming of age tale.  The mixed genre actually played well.  She would go from driving shotgun next to Olivia Williams with gold light flickering through her blonde hair to knocking in the teeth and slitting the throats of middle-aged men set to the adrenaline-pumping score by The Chemical Brothers.  It is a refreshing change to the typical assassin-that-finds-his-heart storyline.  This is a girl who has only known only objective and as soon as she believes that objective achieved, she is free to explore the world and Ronan plays the part with an endearing innocence that makes you forget just how lethal this girl can be.

Eric Bana’s character was as cold and flat as the Finnish lake where we first met him.  At times it became difficult to tell if it were character choices Bana had made or if it were just a disconnected performance. The bond I thought we should feel between Erik and Hanna wasn’t there. I felt like he was just playing his character from Munich, at least the accent was the same as was his keen ability to kill.  He wasn’t in the film enough to be a real distraction for me, during the movie I was really just drawn into Hanna’s character as this deadly teen struck with an insatiable wanderlust and gentle spirit.  One performances that stood out, although her character was annoying, came from Jessica Barden.  If a character is written to be annoying and then succeeds in annoying you, kudos to the actress.  She provided much needed comic relief and appropriately provided an outlet for her exploration of sexuality.  They never do anything, but she does introduce Hanna to boys and they share a small kiss, but the truth is you cannot become of the world without a sexual awakening.  It was handled with delicacy and humor.  There is a temptation when handling a female coming-of-age story to exploit her sexuality and Wright avoided that temptation, which I applaud.

It would be unfair to the film to claim that major plot holes distracted me.  The only time I wasn’t fully on board with this plot was when a man named Issacs tracked down Hanna.  Issacs is played by the familiar face Tom Hollander, who was fantastic in In The Loop.  You’ll probably recognize him from the Pirates of the Carribbean movies. But he’s commissioned by Marissa to track Hanna down and he finds her almost immediately.  Perhaps I blinked, but it seemed highly unlikely that he would stumble upon the hotel she stayed in when she didn’t give her name, didn’t pay, wasn’t seen and slept in the back room.  But, let’s forget it and just enjoy the chase.

Now, after the credits had rolled and The Wife and I made it safely back to our car we started talking about things we liked about the movie.  Big questions arose (and major spoilers are a-coming). Why the elaborate plan for revenge when it seems they could have just killed Marissa without all the fanfare?  Marissa attacked Erik years ago by just stepping into the street and shooting him.  They couldn’t have done something similar? I guess then there wouldn’t be a movie, but why not track her down, follow her home and shoot her?  Then we got on the topic of who Hanna is, what she is.  It’s a typical “twist” to the story and for me that is where the third act started to go awry. I wanted Hanna to be a girl that was finely trained, nothing more.

But what can you do? These bigger questions didn’t distract me much in the moment, and Mr. Dill always said you should let your first viewing just wash over you.  Later, you can go back and analyze what worked, what didn’t and why.

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