Saturday, September 27, 2014

Review: Life of Pi (2012)

I finally saw Life of Pi -- on Blu-Ray no less -- and must confess to feeling underwhelmed. I am, in general, a big fan of Ang Lee's work, especially The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, and Brokeback Mountain. Lee is one of the richest visual directors around, he composes beautiful shots and the visual poetry of his work (if you'll forgive the somewhat vague and pretentious phrase) is always breathtaking. Even those films of his that I like less -- Hulk and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- are undeniable visual masterpieces rife with lovely eye-candy.

So what went wrong with Life of Pi?

Ang Lee-style eye-candy abounds -- the film is every bit as visually mind-blowing as the director's previous work. But there are two key problems that keep Life of Pi from resonating with me and had me checking my watch several times during its two-hour running time:

(1) Too many of its beautiful visuals rely too heavily upon digital effects. That is, they are way too obviously created by computers, and this (for me) causes a disjunction between the "real" photography and the CGI. It is not seamless, and it makes it hard for me to accept -- or care about -- what I am seeing onscreen. Much of what happens to Pi while he is alone at sea feels fake-o.

(2) The "twist" ending, which is, I admit, fairly impactful (at least in theory), loses most of its power due to #1 above and due to the early parts of the film focusing upon the wrong things.

I am actually not going to say too much about point #2, since my associate A.J. has already covered that topic brilliantly in this post on his own blog. Simply allow me to quote a chunk of and briefly comment upon his assessment [which includes SPOILERS]:
Early on in the film's second part, Pi attempts to live with a vicious Hyena, a calm elder Orangutan, a Zebra with a severely broken leg, and, of course, a large Bengal Tiger. This clearly cannot, and (SPOILER) does not, work. The carnivorous animals eat the Zebra and the Orangutan, and eventually Richard Parker [the tiger] eats the Hyena. 
Now in the novel, each animal death marks another strong blow against Pi's will to survive. And rightfully so, as these creatures are his sole companions and the only remnants of his entire life up to this point. Their deaths are specific and, frankly, horrifying. They feel harsh and cruel well before that little twist at the end of the book, making the "truth" that is revealed all the more disturbing. 
Fastforward to the 2012 BIG HOLLYWOOD MOVIE adaptation and we are instead treated to a hyperspeed version of those profoundly impacting events. Rather than the slow torture, particularly of that poor Zebra, that ends with Pi alone with Richard Parker, we instead are treated to about one minute of quick dashing about ending far-too-soon with three animal carcasses (essentially blood-less and certainly gore-less) hidden under the Tiger's tarp-covered half of the raft. I cannot stress it enough, despite Pi's emotionally charged rebuking of the Hyena, this scene is not even remotely as powerful as it was intended--and ought to have remained. This diminishes the entire impact of the ending to the point where it feels pointless having left it in. When Pi talks to the Japanese business men at the end of the film [. . .] it just sounds like he's lying to them.
Now I haven't read Yann Martel's novel so have no basis for comparison there, and furthermore, I do not necessarily read Pi's concluding story told to the Japanese businessmen as being a lie per se -- I think the movie keeps its options open on that score. However, I completely agree with A.J. that the impact of that late scene is severely deflated by the fact that we do not care very much about those other animals (besides the tiger) nor do we care enough about Pi's parents (especially his mother) for the second version of the story to matter much to us. It is kind of momentarily horrifying but doesn't cut deeply enough.

The end of the film also makes me wonder, as A.J. does, why the first act even bothers introducing Pi's romance with Anandi? As it was happening, I was really invested in that part -- in fact, I think the first quarter of the film, before anybody gets on any cargo ship, is the best part of the whole film, both narratively (it hasn't been mismanaged yet) and visually (not much CGI yet, just good, old-fashioned, beautifully staged and lit shots). But then the romance subplot goes nowhere, when that time could have been spent extending the scenes that build to the big payoff at the end. Isn't that the point of narrative cinema?

Visually stunning though it is, Life of Pi features a bit too much of this . . .

. . . and not quite enough of this.

That said, I am not here to go on a screed against this film or against computer generated imagery (CGI) in general -- I know that this is how things are being done these days in Hollywood. Yet I expected more from Ang Lee and his team here. I expected the astounding CGI to blend more believably with the live footage in Life of Pi, yet it didn't. The moment I knew the film was in big trouble was during the sinking of the cargo ship, when Pi finds himself in the lifeboat with the zebra, and the little boat starts zinging and zanging all over the place, hyper-kinetically zipping around the sinking mast of the ship like some kind of cocaine-fueled, obviously digital, video-game version of itself. That crap doesn't impress me any more that the opening shot of Star Wars Ep. III: Revenge of the Shit does, and feels out of place in what is supposed to be a somewhat meditative and thoughtful Ang Lee movie.

Is Life of Pi worth seeing? Probably. It is almost a good movie, and the visuals taken on their own merits are mostly quite beautiful and pleasurable to watch. But as far as substance goes, if you want a truly great "survival at sea" story, check out the vastly superior All Is Lost. If you want a meditation upon the meaning of spirituality and existence, try Waking Life or Wild Strawberries. And if you want a film about how lies and truth get all mixed up, look to Rashomon, Rules of the Game, or Network. 

In short, don't get your hopes up too high and you will likely find much to enjoy in Life of Pi. Me, I'll be eagerly awaiting Lee's next directorial effort.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Why The Terminator Kicks Terminator 2's Stupid Ass

The Terminator (1984) is better than its sequel, largely (but not entirely)
 due to the role played by this lady right here.

Okay, this time my use of the adjective "stupid" in the post title is not fully warranted: Terminator 2's ass is not completely stupid. In fact, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) is actually a good movie that I enjoy. I admit outright that my main reason for using that post title is to create a sense of uniformity with my last post in this series.

However, I am here to tell you that the original 1984 film, The Terminator, is definitely much better than its fun but problematic sequel. As enjoyable as that sequel is, it is not nearly as tight on the filmmaking front as its predecessor, nor is it the pro-feminist work that many uninformed persons believe it to be. In fact, the first Terminator is both a better film and a more feminist film than Terminator 2.*

Let's start with that main ideological issue: sexism. In The Terminator, Sarah Connor is an average twenty-something woman living in L.A., who happens to get targeted by an invincible killer cyborg from the future. While she seems frightened and somewhat in shock when she first realizes she is being stalked, she makes several smart moves -- staying in public places and calling the cops ASAP. Then, once she learns about the whole time-travel thing from Reese, she adapts quickly to her new circumstances and responds quite well to Reese's elementary lessons in survival and weapons training. She does make one crucial error -- calling her mother to tell her where she is -- but even this blunder can be explained by her naivete about the full capabilities of the Terminator, and needn't be read as some kind of feminine weakness or hysteria. In fact, the Sarah Connor of The Terminator practically never gets hysterical, nor, ultimately, does she need to be saved by a man, except right at the outset. She shows resilience and depth throughout, and by the end, after Reese dies, Sarah manages to save herself and to destroy the Terminator all on her own.

"You're terminated, fucker!"  

By contrast, in Terminator 2, despite (or perhaps to chauvinistically compensate for) her badass muscles and paramilitary training, Sarah Connor gets sold out; she loses agency and power relative to the first film. While the early scene in which the mental institution staffer is shown erotically licking her face against her will is gratuitous and humiliating for her character  -- I have never understood the necessity of that moment -- the main way in which Connor's agency is undermined is via the ascendancy of her adolescent son. As John Connor slowly comes of age in this film -- under the tutelage of the gendered-male Terminator, NOT Sarah herself, mind you -- he also becomes her surrogate parent, bossing her around and preventing her, with the help of his new cybernetic daddy/buddy, from making the horrible errors she plans to make by assassinating Dyson. And the film wants us to sympathize with young John in this, showing Sarah's actions to be badly thought out, rash, histrionic, even outright crazy. This character who supposedly has the mental fortitude to withstand the first Terminator attack, the loss of Reese, her own subsequent institutionalization, and the appearance of yet another (and more powerful) Terminator in her time, suddenly loses it, requiring her tweener son to not only rescue her but to counsel -- no, order -- her back into a state of relative mental stability. Which she never quite regains, because she spends the whole last third of this movie taking orders from this kid, who SHE should in fact be training!

This is a progressive, well-rounded depiction of a heroic female character.

This isn't. 

Now I totally get that one should not be too nitpicky about blockbuster action movies making too much sense -- otherwise, NONE of them would be any fun. Yet I do ask for a certain basic level of adherence to THEIR OWN internal rules, and on these grounds I find the inconsistencies created by second Terminator film to be distractingly bad for the franchise.** For example, see item #3 on this list, in which the author notes that the main rule for time travel established by the first Terminator film -- "The time machine can't transport non-living matter" -- is flagrantly broken by the second one:
Now, technically, the first Terminator is a machine with living tissue layered over its endoskeleton, so it gets a pass, we guess. Enter the T-1000, the second film's liquid metal Terminator that can take nearly any shape and recover from nearly any wound. Oh, and it can turn its arm into a knife.  
The problem is, this Terminator is composed entirely of liquid metal. No living tissue, no flesh, just 100% mimetic-poly alloy (thank you, James Cameron). That means, according to the rules clearly established in the first movie, it cannot travel back in time.
Indeed. This has always bothered me, since no such flagrant problems exist in the first, tightly scripted and well-thought-out film.

Sure, the first Terminator movie does create a kind of temporal paradox by revealing (SPOILER!) that the time-traveling Kyle Reese is the unborn John Connor's father, which means that none of the future events of the film would have happened at all if he hadn't come back in time in the first place -- but this I write off as one of the inevitable results of ANY time-travel scenario. Paradoxes arise and exist. I don't have a problem with this twist because it doesn't fundamentally undermine the premises set up by the film. It just fucks with our heads a bit because time-travel scenarios are ALWAYS illogical and paradoxical.

Reese finds shoes --  a great moment from a superbly shot and edited chase sequence 
early in the first Terminator film. 

And who cares about the occasional temporal paradox when the action is this good? With only one major exception I can think of -- the truck-and-motorcycle chase along the L.A. River in T2 -- I argue that the action sequences in the first Terminator are uniformly better than those of its sequel. Sure, those exciting bits in the sequel are more over-the-top and quite pleasurable, but I urge you to take a careful look at the opening cops-chase-Reese sequence in The Terminator, or the final showdown of the first movie from the point where Reese and Sarah leave the hotel room and end up at the factory. The editing and cinematography (not to mention the great soundtrack) are all so effective in these sequences, so pulse-poundingly exciting and suspenseful, that they generate a cumulative intensity that cannot be matched by Judgment Day, good as it is.

The L.A. River chase = the best action sequence in T2, and the only one 
that matches the intensity of those seen in The Terminator

Lastly, one of the biggest flaws in T2 is that there's no Michael Biehn -- Reese is one of the most badass parts of the first movie. Instead, we get a somewhat annoying 10-year-old kid. calls the young John Connor (Edward Furlong) the flaw that nearly ruins Terminator 2, lambasting the film for "giving us a 10 year old John Connor who, upon repeated viewing, is so obnoxious that you spend most of the movie wanting to see him shot in the face, fate of humanity be damned." Taken together with my feminist critique about how grating it is to have such an immature kid bossing his mom Sarah around, I am inclined to agree with this point. I don't hate young John Connor per se, but he's no Kyle Reese.

The Terminator's Reese sez: "I'm a badass --  AND Sarah's driving the car right now!"

To conclude, while I am not here to disabuse anyone of their love for T2 -- let me reiterate that on the whole, I enjoy the film -- I would urge all my readers to take another serious look at The Terminator, and see if you can tap into the crazy intensity, tight direction, and more satisfying character arc for Sarah Connor that leads me to champion this film over its (perhaps undeservedly) more popular follow-up.

T2's Sarah Connor sez: "Get me out of this hysterical role in this sexist movie -- NOW!"

* This same logic applies to the first two Alien films: while falsely believed to be as good as Alien (1979), and also supposedly more feminist, James Cameron's Aliens (1986) is in fact no better than Ridley Scott's Alien from technical standpoint and is actually more sexist than its 1979 predecessor. But that is a subject to return to later.
** As one of the guys in this funny video puts it, "James Cameron is like: 'Shut up and watch this badass thing I made but don't you dare fuckin' think about it!'"

Monday, August 4, 2014

Carter's Top 50 Films (August 2014)

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe."

Just under a year ago, I composed a "Top 40 Favorite Films" list. Following Lee Sabo's suggestion that I treat such lists as a kind of thought-exercise, like a Rubik's cube, I have decided to create another such list now, for fun. I have expanded it to fifty selections this time.

Remember, this is NOT a list of "must-see" classics provided by a film scholar or "expert," but rather a slapdash list of my "favorite" films at the present moment, the main criterion of value being how much pleasure I take from viewing and re-viewing these particular movies.

I have tried to go on instinct and simply jot down what the Top 50 might be, without reviewing my list from last time.

Here are a few notes on the changes and what they tell me about my tastes these days:

I typically do not throw newly discovered films into my "Favorites" list until they've had some time to "season." Given the types of films I generally prefer -- films made for adults with some narrative, thematic, and/or visual substance and ambition -- it doesn't do to rush movies into my personal canon until I ensure they will withstand the test of time.

That said, two films I discovered only last year -- We Need to Talk About Kevin and Holy Motors -- have made this list. These two are definitely solid favorites despite their newness to me.

I may be kind of "over" James Bond, I haven't sat down to do a Bond-fest in quite some time, and thus Thunderball -- still the best-ever Bond film IMO -- has been bumped.

I could have put First Blood and Blue Velvet and Female Trouble and especially Nebraska on this list, but the first three are ones that I haven't returned to as much lately and the last one is a "new favorite" I've only seen once -- Nebraska needs further road-testing before making a list like this.

I also more or less ignored documentaries on that previous list -- I don't know why -- and have corrected for that omission here.

So. . .

Tabloid (2010) *
Pitch Black (2000)
Holy Motors (2012)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
Bernie (2011)
Brother's Keeper (1992)
Blade Runner (1982)
Zodiac (2007)
Memories of Murder (2003)
The Room (2003)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
King Kong (1933)
King Kong (1976)
Nashville (1975)
Chinatown (1974)
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Shampoo (1975)
The Parallax View (1976)
The Birds (1963)
Dogville (2003)
Rashomon (1950)
Caché (2005)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Videodrome (1984)
Contagion (2011)
Election (1999)
Muriel's Wedding (1994)
The TV Set (2006)
Cure (1997)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Duel (1971)
Alien (1979)
The Terminator (1984)
Rio Bravo (1959)
The Last Waltz (1978)
Heat (1995)
Double Indemnity (1945)
City Lights (1931)
Fargo (1996)
A Serious Man (2009)
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
Chuck&Buck (2000)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Deep Water (2006)
Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

UPDATE 8/6/2014: A few more ruminations on the process behind and implications of this list:

First, Mother and Snowpiercer did not unseat Memories of Murder, the latter still being my favorite Bong Joon-ho film. This highlights the subjectivity of the film experience, in that Memories, while a terrific film, and surely worthy on an artistic level of being on any more objective "best films" type list, is my #1 Bong Joon-ho film in part because of my personal tastes (I love serial killer stories) and due to how strongly I bonded with it when I first saw it (I was absolutely spellbound). As a scholar and film critic, I would say that Mother (2009) is Bong's objectively best film, and that Snowpiercer (2014) is his best big-budget, mass-audience film. But humble little Memories of Murder is still my personal favorite.

Other substitutions on this list are more arbitrary -- Contagion for Bubble, Dogville for Melancholia, The Birds for Psycho -- and these were based mainly on what came to mind this time. I probably like each of the films in these pairs about equally at the end of the day. In related news, I vaguely considered swapping in Zero Effect for The TV Set, because I saw the former Jake Kasdan film more recently and remembered how much I like it. But no dice on that one. See how arbitrary this process is?

Eyes Wide Shut, The Lost World, Election, and Rashomon represent films that would have made it onto last November's list if I were more honest with myself and/or I had remembered them when composing it.

Finally, yes, I do enjoy Jurassic Park 2 more than I usually enjoy the original Jurassic Park; I have watched the sequel MANY more times than the original. As with the Bong films discussed above, I know it's odd how much I like the second Jurassic Park film -- I am not saying that it is objectively better than the first, only that I personally enjoy it more.

* This was a really tough one; Errol Morris is my favorite documentarian and I struggled with whether I should put Tabloid, The Thin Blue Line (1988), or Standard Operating Procedure (2008) down as my fave. Tabloid won out because I watched it (again) most recently so its pleasures were freshest in my mind.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

EW #9: Nashville (1975)

Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton in Robert Altman's masterpiece Nashville

Although this entry once again emphasizes the strong bias of the EW staff in favor of 1970s American cinema, Nashville, Robert Altman's 1975 epic about the music industry and American politics, is truly a masterpiece worthy of very high placement on any Top 100 Films List. For Altman himself and for 1970s Hollywood cinema writ large, it just doesn't get much better than Nashville. 

Nashville is one of my personal very favorite films, bar none -- it appears on my "Top 40 Films" list of last November and is only one of nine movies to place on my personal Top 40 and on EW's 100 Best Films list.*

Film critic Robin Wood identifies Nashville as essential Altman, stating that
Everything in Altman so far -- the good and the bad -- comes together in Nashville. Its great scenes -- Gwen Welles' enforced striptease, Ronee Blakley's onstage breakdown, everything involving Lily Tomlin -- are all centered on the characters' exposed vulnerability and realized with painful intensity. At the other extreme are the embarrassingly Cutie-pie uncredited guest appearances of Elliott Gould and Julie Christie as Themselves.
Unlike me, Wood is none too keen on these latter moments of meta-textual wit; for him, they disrupt or lessen Nashville's potential political impact. He concludes:
The film's total effect -- for all the marvelous local successes -- is to engulf the spectator in its movement of disintegration, making intellectual distance impossible. The ironic force of the ending, with the crowd confronting catastrophe by singing "It don't worry me," a communal refusal to think, is weakened not simply by the inability to offer any constructive alternative but by a perverse rejection of the possibility.**
Wood claims to feel "somewhat sick and depressed" at the end of Nashville, and that, I think, is a proper response (though I typically respond with schadenfreude-laced elation). The film's dead-on accurate portrayal of how American jingoism blinds us to the real machinations of capitalism should indeed disturb and, to some extent, sicken us.

However, I disagree with Wood that intellectual distanciation is rendered impossible by Nashville. In some ways, the film's very mythic/allegorical dimension, the way so many of its characters, while being very particular, feel like stand-ins for classic American types, encourages us to read the film symbolically and intellectually. Nashville's darkly ironic use of the American flag and that closing song surely provoke me to respond thinkingly to the film, to consider it as an eerily accurate mythic summation of the contradictions inherent to American character and culture.

This prominently placed American flag freights the final sequence of Nashville 
with mythic -- if deeply ironic -- layers of meaning.

No, I instead prefer Jonathan Rosenbaum's succinct assessment of Nashville from his book Essential Cinema:
In point of fact, the film celebrates as much as it ridicules -- often doing both the same time -- while giving both its brilliant cast and its audience too much elbowroom to allow for any overriding thesis.***
That's just it. If my post thus far makes Nashville sound like some sort of pedantic manifesto or overt "social statement," that is not an accurate portrait. Altman's great talent lies in creating films that feel "lived-in" and real. His heavy dependence upon his actors and his insistence that they improvise and go off-script keeps his work from ever feeling too artificial or "writerly."† So even if, in the broad strokes, Nashville resonates on political, mythic, and satirical levels, it nevertheless feels so real and alive and delightful in all its interactive particulars that it never feels heavy handed or false. If anything, its ability to draw the viewer in, to involve us in its wonderfully human textures, may be exactly what makes Wood feel so disturbed by the ending of it -- it is difficult, once one is immersed in such a believable, nuanced, and enjoyable onscreen world, to extricate oneself from the darker, more violent implications of that world's underlying logic.

As Rosenbaum puts it,
The difference between conventional methods and Altman's is one between directness and indirectness, actions and interactions -- the actors', the characters', the director's, the scriptwriter's, and our own. It is decidedly a group endeavor, and, as such, one that lives and breathes in an intangible no-man's-land between "thinking" and "playing" for the filmmakers, "thinking" and spontaneous "reacting" for the audience: the relative strengths of both values are held. ††
To sum up, Altman's films, and perhaps especially Nashville, are difficult to describe or assess in words; to see them is to experience something quite ethereal and magical and particular to the workings of (Altman's) cinema.

Yet I can say a few words about why Nashville is particularly essential viewing. Besides the fact that it is one of Alman's most assured and "unified" films (if that word is even appropriate when describing a filmmaker like Altman), Nashville is also an important historical film, one of a group -- including The Parallax View, All The President's Men, The Conversation, Taxi Driver, and The Deer Hunter -- that accurately characterize the vibe of post-1960s, post-Watergate America. Nashville's assassination plot and ironic use of anthemic-sounding music tie it formally to this group of films, while its downbeat, relaxed, even humorous tone make it stand out uniquely among this otherwise heavy assortment.

Further, what Nashville achieves that few other Hollywood films of any era do is to stage an effective critique of the insidious and cruel nature of consumer capitalism. Every single musician or aspiring musician we see in the film has been co-opted and used in some way. Haven Hamilton is a pawn of the Nashville promotional scene and of local politics; Barbara Jean and Tommy Brown are token minorities who are used and then thrown aside; and poor Sueleen Gay is an aspiring singer whose very American dreams expose her to humiliations of the worst kind.

Aspiring musicians perform at a deafeningly loud racetrack, ignored by 
an indifferent crowd. Their plight reflects the fate of all the musicians we see in the film: 
the capitalist system lets them climb toward fame and fortune but gives them nothing in return, killing them metaphorically and (in some cases) literally. 

Indeed, one of Nashville's great strengths is its relentless exposure of the commodification and exploitation of women that lies at the heart of patriarchal (popular) culture. Although Wood argues that "Altman's identification with a female (never feminist) position is extremely problematic: it is limited almost exclusively to the notion of woman-as-victim, to sensations of pain, humiliation, and breakdown," I assert that this strategy is very effective and is aligned with the tradition of melodrama, which foregrounds and ennobles female suffering.††† For me, the heartbreaking scene in which Sueleen (Gwen Welles) does a striptease under duress is one of the most excruciating scenes in all American cinema -- as it should be. Far from exploitative, this scene, like most of the scenes involving the convalescing (recovering?) Barbara Jean, serve to highlight the ways in which the patriarchal entertainment industry -- which has clear ties to our patriarchal political leadership -- vampirically exploits women's bodies and talents in order to make more profit and further its oppressive ends. If everyone is exploited under capitalism, Nashville seems to say, women are exploited most of all, and suffer for it the most painfully.

Ronee Blakley as Barbara Jean, one of the most moving and heartbreaking 
characters in Nashville

Finally, I take it as significant that the song the crowd sings together at the end -- "It Don't Worry Me" is actually a hit radio song composed (in the world of the film) by callow folk-rocker Tom Frank and heard in snippet form on his album and requested by fans at a pub before we finally hear it sung in full by all in the denouement. In other words, far from being a grassroots anthem, this song of "resistance" -- or is it compliance? -- that the crowd spontaneously sings is actually itself a commodity, a song marketed to them by the same Nashville music industry that set the stage for the film's climactic tragedy. The crowd is simply reproducing what the exploitative system has already sold to them. In this way the film interweaves the political and the pop-cultural, showing us that what counts as "culture" in America is in fact a for-profit, totalizing network of systems -- fully encompassing party politics -- that only requires our docile participation in order to maintain its awful, exploitative momentum.  Nashville thus incisively exposes how supposedly "apolitical" performers and activities are anything but.

Yet there I go again, harping on Nashville's political themes, when I should be emphasizing how well-acted, cleverly constructed, witty, touching, and fun this film is to watch. There are many films I consider to be socially or politically important, but few that I return to nearly as often as Nashville for the sheer pleasure of it. I give this film my highest endorsement and urge all of my readers to check it out.

Arnold Schwartzenegger and Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye.

Bonus Afterthought: Despite my deep appreciation for the Altman films I have seen (about nine altogether, and a few of those so long ago I don't remember them well), I have not seen a great many and am no expert on the director. (Sure, nine films sounds like a repectable number, but Altman is prolific and that count does not include crucial entries like California Split [1974] and 3 Women [1977]. Plus my memories of the seminal McCabe & Mrs. Miller [1971] are rusty at best). Nevertheless I can point you toward a few of the other Altman features I have enjoyed most: Gosford Park (2001), Short Cuts (1993), and The Long Goodbye (1973).

A bit less ambitious but no less well-crafted than his mid-career epics, Gosford Park is a delightful treat that any moviegoer should enjoy. One of Altman's few films set outside the U.S. context -- in Great Britain -- this comedy of manners/whodunit will surely appeal to fans of the hit BBC series Downton Abbey, particularly since its screenplay was penned by Downton creator Julian Fellowes.

The Long Goodbye and Short Cuts are both exemplary L.A. films, the former a parodic riff on film noir, the latter another lengthy "tapestry" film of interweaving stories similar to Nashville. I have a hard time choosing which of these two films I like better -- they are tied for my second-favorite Altman film after Nashville. I recommend Goodbye to fans of film noir and offbeat comedy, but would probably have to consider Short Cuts more essential viewing if you have the time to invest in it -- at just over three hours, it is twenty-five minutes longer than Nashville.  

* The nine films appearing on both lists are: The Wild Bunch [#83], 2001: A Space Odyssey [#25], Blade Runner [#81], Chinatown [#31], Double Indemnity [#40], Nashville [#9], Psycho [#5], Rules of the Game [#39], and Night of the Living Dead [#79].
** Wood, Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan . . . and Beyond, p. 36.
*** Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema, p. 92.
† The exception to this rule is Altman's debut feature, MASH, which, as Rosenbaum points out, is a relatively focused "thesis film" quite different from all of Altman's subsequent work (Essential Cinema pp. 81-2).
†† Rosenbaum, p. 81.
††† Wood, p. 38. For more on melodrama, see Linda Williams' "Melodrama Revised" and/or Kathleen Karlyn's Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

What Makes The Room So Great?

The Room's Johnny asks "Why is this happening to me?" -- reflecting
the sentiments of many who watch this film.

I recently re-watched Tommy Wiseau's The Room (2003) -- my fourth or fifth viewing I believe -- in order to share its greatness with my girlfriend. During our post-screening discussion she asked me a very provocative question: Why is The Room such a gleeful pleasure to watch while the Star Wars prequels are not? If all these films are flat-out terrible (which they are), how and why does The Room cross over into "so bad it's good" territory while Star Wars Episodes I - III cannot?

While the Star Wars prequels are as badly written and directed as The Room -- and I say that in complete earnest, no hyperbole intended -- the thing that makes them disturbing and gutting rather than fun is that we know that their creator, George Lucas, is capable of delivering at least decent, and sometimes even great, movies.* So Lucas' numerous artistic and technical failings on the prequels are haunted by the possibility that those movies could have been good. If Lucas would have brought on additional writers, surrogate directors, etc. and just focused on the one thing he knows how to do well, i.e., deploying special effects, those movies might have been at least watchable and maybe even enjoyable. As it is, they are some of the worst movies ever made -- incoherently scripted, boringly shot, and abysmally directed -- and it is confounding to think that they could have been, with just the slightest bit more thought and effort, something more. That could have been aspect is a major part of what ruins the fun and makes those films unwatchable.

Not so with The Room. There is no better version of The Room out there, haunting our viewing experience of the version we have. No, The Room as it exists today is a perfectly realized, painstakingly crafted, highly accurate expression of Tommy Wiseau's complete lack of understanding of what constitutes a watchable movie. It is so terrible as to be miraculous. The Room looks as if a third grader with no understanding of American life or storytelling conventions was given the money and equipment to make a movie, and did so. Its understanding of human motivations, and its approach to the art of filmmaking, are so infantile that it is a total pleasure to watch, constituting as it does a truly unique artifact in the history of failed cinema.

 Meet the only two believable characters in The Room, Michelle (Robyn Paris) and an unnamed party guest who delivers many key lines in the film's climax despite having never been previously introduced as a character.

The Room is not merely a bad movie in the technical sense. In fact, the lighting, sound, design, etc. are passable, and the camera work, while dull and unimaginative, is no worse than that which pervades the Star Wars prequels (again, I am being serious -- no hyperbole intended here). And The Room's glaringly obvious and fake-o greenscreen work is, again, no worse-looking than the same techniques as relentlessly abused in the Lucas prequels. No, the thing that makes The Room such a true masterpiece of badfilm is the complete seriousness with which it takes its ridiculous self.** It does not seem to know that it is one of the worst movies ever, and that naivete and earnestness is what makes the film a perfect and delightful masterpiece of camp.

In her seminal essay, "Notes on 'Camp,'" cultural critic Susan Sontag observes that
Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp ("camping") is usually less satisfying. The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious.
Now this factor alone would not fully explain why The Room is camp whilst Lucas' failed prequels are not, for I assume that Lucas also was "dead serious" when he made those shitty movies. But Sontag elaborates:
In naive, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naive. When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it's often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn't attempted to do anything really outlandish.*** 
And this is where the Star Wars prequels fall short -- they lack outlandishness or artistic ambition. They may be technically ambitious in the sense that they (over-)depend upon digital effects to achieve their aesthetic ends, yet there is little imagination or fantasy or passion to be found in them. As others have pointed out, the prequels mainly rehash imagery from the original Star Wars trilogy and show little interest in wowing us with their exciting new ideas or deeply felt commitment to the art of producing exciting cinema. They just feel like badly scripted, mediocre retreads of something that used to be pretty great. 

Tommy Wiseau says: "I'm a strange, emotionally infantile weirdo 
trying to be serious -- and that's funny!"

Jar Jar Binks says: "I am a disturbingly racist caricature 
trying to be funny -- and that's depressing!"

By contrast, The Room is incredibly ambitious -- director Tommy Wiseau seems genuinely convinced that he has created a true cinematic masterpiece that all Americans should see multiple times in order to suss out its deep nuances. And as badly written, directed, and acted as it is, no one can fault writer/director/star Wiseau for lacking passion for the project. If The Room does not possess Sontag's "proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naive," then I don't know what does. It is a perfect storm of pure Camp. And hence, immensely enjoyable. I recommend it highly.

* By my reckoning, I count American Graffiti and THX1138 as decent films, and the original Star Wars and its sequel The Empire Strikes Back as good, possibly great films. I will return to this subject in more depth in my discussion of Empire, which is entry #53 on EW's 100 Best Films list.
** badfilm refers to fringe films deliberately championed for their technical badness and/or outlandish, grotesque visual and thematic content. I picked up this term from Jeffrey Sconce, who discusses badfilm and other forms of "paracinema" in his sharp, interesting essay "Trashing the Academy," found in Screen 36.4 (Winter 1995).
*** Sontag, "Notes on Camp" in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (Picador, 2001) p. 282, 283.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

In Defense of the Jaws Sequels


While the original Jaws (1975) is by far the greatest film to carry that name, I am a staunch defender of the many pleasures to be had in the three Jaws sequels, particularly Jaws 2 (1978) and the much-maligned Jaws: The Revenge (1987). Allow me to briefly explain why.

Tina Wilcox screams: "A . . . SHARK!!!" in Jaws 2.

Jaws 2 (1978)
Sure, Jaws 2 is basically a rehash of the first Jaws film with a less stellar cast. There is a shark out there off Amity Island, Chief Brody knows it's there, and Mayor Vaughn and the townspeople don't believe him. And with Quint dead and Hooper not present, the amazing character dynamics that drive the last third of the original Jaws simply don't exist in the sequel.

But Jaws 2 makes up for this lack on two fronts:

(1) It substitutes in an ensemble cast of sailboating teenagers, and those teen actors are actually quite good. In a way, we actually care more about the victims in this installment because we get to know them better than, say, Chrissy the night-swimmer or Alex Kintner form the first film. Tina Wilcox (Ann Dusenberry) is a particularly great and pivotal character in Jaws 2.

(2) The actual shark attacks in Jaws 2 are more grandiose and badass than in the first film. Knowing he cannot replicate Spielberg's slowly-built suspense and delayed reveal of the shark from the original, Jaws 2 director Jeannot Szwarc just says "Fuck it" and lets us see the shark more or less right away.* The attack upon the waterskier and her friend is flat-out awesome, and it concludes with a motorboat exploding in flames. Cool! Even cooler is the shark's incredible takedown of a Coast Guard helicopter (!) late in the film.

So Jaws 2 is a winner. The destruction of the Jaws 2 shark by electrocution is almost as badass as its being blown up in the original. The remainder of the supporting cast -- Murray Hamilton, Lorraine Gary, Jeffrey Kramer -- is top-notch as well and the film takes Chief Brody's storyline seriously despite the ludicrousness of the overall premise (i.e., that ANOTHER shark has come to Amity). After the original, Jaws 2 is my next most favorite Jaws film.

Dennis Quaid and Bess Armstrong anchor a solid cast in the somewhat boring Jaws 3-D.

Jaws 3-D (1983)
Despite its clever premise -- the Jaws shark runs amok in SeaWorld -- I think Jaws 3 is the weakest of the Jaws sequels, for two reasons: (1) the film is played a bit too seriously, with too few cool shark attacks and not enough campy humor to sustain a Chief Brody-less installment, and (2) it was made to be exhibited in 3D so many parts look stupid and shitty when watched today on home video.

This 3D shot of the shark looks really fake-o and dumb on DVD.

That said, what are the good points? The cast is good, especially Bess Armstrong, Lou Gossett Jr., and a terrific Simon MacCorkindale as a roguish undersea photographer and adventurer. The premise is good, if it is executed with little flair or panache. 

Probably the best scenes in Jaws 3 are the character development parts in which the Brody brothers and their girlfriends hang out at a bar or go frolicking in the sea. I also like the subplot wherein a SeaWorld worker goes missing (killed by the shark of course) and his brassy girlfriend shows up demanding answers. But there just isn't enough decent shark action to really carry this thing off -- essential viewing for Jaws completists only.

Michael Caine and Lorraine Gary are great in the so-bad-it's-good Jaws: The Revenge.

Jaws: The Revenge (1987)
After Jaws 2, the much-misunderstood Jaws:The Revenge is my next-most-favorite Jaws sequel. This film is rightfully criticized for being ridiculous and somewhat shoddily constructed -- this latter point surely applies to its ending, which intercuts newly shot footage with recycled images from the climax of the 1975 original. Yet I truly do not understand why more people do not champion this film as one of the great "so bad its good" delights of the cinema. For me, Jaws:The Revenge stands up with films like The Room in terms of the sheer quantity of unfettered pleasure it delivers via its campy badness.

The movie's premise is one of the most absurd premises ever committed to film: having driven Chief Brody to a fatal offscreen heart attack, the Jaws shark is now systematically hunting down the surviving members of the Brody family, and it is up to the Chief's widow, Ellen (Lorraine Gary) to protect her children and granddaughter. After the death of her younger son Sean in Amity, Mrs. Brody travels to Florida to be with her older son Michael and his family, and -- of course -- the shark follows the family south!

The shark sez: "This time it's PERSONAL, muthafucka!"

Despite the craziness of this concept, and the film's cheap recycling of original Jaws images (the climactic shark explosion, Martin's interactions with young Michael at the kitchen table as Ellen looks on), I nevertheless maintain that Jaws: The Revenge is well-scripted and well-constructed from a purely structural point of view. Unlike many of today's blockbusters, the film makes sense given its premise. It is actually better scripted and acted than any of the Star Wars prequels or any Michael Bay Transformers movie.

Much of the pleasure of Jaws:The Revenge stems from (1) its unabashed, over-the-top commitment to its absurd concept, and (2) its cast. Regarding the latter, Lorraine Gary is great in the lead, and the always-entertaining Michael Caine gives a standout performance as Hoagie, the charming pilot / gambler / ne'er-do-well who develops a romantic interest in the widow Brody. His one-liners during the final shark battle are totally priceless. And speaking of one-liners, Mario van Peebles is another welcome comic addition to the supporting cast, serving as the somewhat dull Michael Brody's marine biologist sidekick.

In conclusion, don't be a hater: check out the Jaws sequels. There is a lot of fun to be had in these unpretentious, if somewhat uneven, cinematic works.

Michael Caine says: "Come fly with me in Jaws the Revenge!"

* Szwarc's actual words, taken from the making-of documentary on the Jaws 2 DVD, are: "I kept saying from the beginning: we must show the shark a lot. Because that image of the shark coming out of the water for the first time, it's already happened in the first one. That is never gonna happen again." 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Why Manhunter Kicks Red Dragon's Stupid Ass

I have been slowly working on this post over the course of the past year, and in some ways have been beaten to the punch by writer Adam Tod Brown, who makes a similar case in item #1 on his recent list of "Four Classic Horror Movies That Get More Love Than They Deserve." He notes that "Red Dragon is just Manhunter with less neon and more bullshit Hollywood-recommended plot lines and casting decisions."

I agree. I would in fact say that Manhunter (1986, dir. Michael Mann) is so utterly superior to the half-assed Red Dragon (2002, dir. Brett Ratner) that it is not even worth anyone's time to watch the latter, despite its remarkably good cast.

On what grounds do I make this claim?

(1) Red Dragon features slow, fucked-up pacing due to clunky editing vis-a-vis its predecessor. While this flaw permeates all of Red Dragon, and is foreshadowed by how long the film takes just to get into its actual plot (it's seventeen minutes until we finally reach the frikkin' Leeds house!), I can illustrate this via one emblematic scene comparison:

In Manhunter, Will Graham attends a briefing at the Atlanta Police Department after his initial inspection of the Leeds house crime scene. The scene in headquarters lasts three and a half minutes and consists of about thirty-seven shots, three of which are satisfyingly long takes that help make other sections of faster cutting feel more intense. The long takes include the forensic expert's discussion of the killer's bite, the Atlanta chief detective's address to the assembled agents, and the great opening steadicam shot of the detective, Crawford, and Graham walking down a series of hallways to the briefing.

Manhunter shoots its Atlanta Police briefing sequence effectively and artfully, 
combining longer takes including this steadicam shot . . . 

. . . (which continues as Graham and co. head around a corner, out of profile shot, 
backs to the camera) . . . 

. . .with shorter takes like this one from the more conventional shot/reverse shot pattern 
that ends the sequence. Note how the pensive Graham stands out visually here 
even though others are doing most of the talking. 

By contrast, the same sequence in Red Dragon takes only three minutes but includes forty-two shots, and is spread over two scenes in two locales, first a large lecture hall, then a smaller office. Despite the additional locale, the camera work is less inventive -- no steadicam work or noticeably long takes here -- and the editing is plodding, mostly shot/reverse shot patterns all the way through both scenes.*

Here is the sole visually interesting shot in Red Dragon's 
Atlanta Police Station sequence. . . 

 . . . meanwhile, the boringly edited scene's longest take is this predictable 
close-up of Graham as he delivers his speech. 

Though Red Dragon provides some minor variation in editing tempo (i.e., one or two slightly longer takes) when Graham gives his speech in the lecture hall, the scene itself is more boring because it is a one-way lecture rather than a conversation between four guys as in Manhunter. By having Graham be more verbally reticent despite his visual centrality, Mann's film renders him a more pensive, mysterious, and haunted character. Ratner's approach converts Graham into more of a talkative know-it-all and photographs him in a way that makes him more visually central (in an obvious way) yet less intriguing and moody.

These may seem like small things but they add up to palpable differences in cumulative effect over the course of each film.

(2) Ralph Fiennes is WAAAAY too good-looking to play Frances Dolarhyde, whose character arc depends upon him being repulsively ugly and socially outcast due to his unusual appearance. Fiennes' casting = epic fail, despite the actor's great talent and that cool tattoo. Manhunter's Tom Noonan is vastly more believable and (therefore) scary in the Dolarhyde role. See for yourself, in these two stills taken from each film's "unveiling to Lounds" scene:

Tom Noonan in Manhunter: creepy looking, awkward, and genuinely scary.

Ralph Fiennes in Red Dragon: The tattoo is cool and Fiennes is a truly great actor, 
but physically ugly social outcast this guy is not. 

(3) Anthony Hopkins' Lecter is a caricature by this point in the game. His added scenes, like the lengthy and unnecessary prelude sequence, are pointless filler that distract from the main event: Graham. Red Dragon's needless over-deployment of Lecter drags the movie down and is a key example of when real-world fandom fucks up a fictional universe.**

Brown notes this problem when he states that
Hannibal Lecter is everywhere in Red Dragon. Pouring wine, walking laps, giving advice, nearly killing detectives in flashbacks, and just generally eating up the scenery like only the Sir [Anthony Hopkins] can. The problem is, he's not supposed to. While there is a Hannibal Lecter character who serves the same role in the plot and is perfectly creepy in his own right, he's not a major focus of the original version of the film. It's more about the interaction between the lead detective and the serial killer.
I love Anthony Hopkins a lot, but I simply cannot buy the over-saturation of Lecter in Red Dragon. The lap-walking scene and the totally unnecessary pre-credits sequence are the most gratuitous examples of this tendency: they slow the movie down and serve no valid purpose. Manhunter gets the Lecter-balance right, leaving him as a sinister presence in the background but not letting him chew scenery and get in the way of the real story being told here.

(4) Lastly, and not to be too sweepingly auteurist, but Michael Mann is simply much better at directing these kinds of movies (and probably better at directing in general) than Brett Ratner.*** As this somewhat recent CinemaBlend post points out,
Ratner is the sort of guy you hire for your franchise when you have no idea what to do, as evidenced by his last two sequels: both Red Dragon and X-Men: The Last Stand operated at the level of a Saturday morning cartoon, the latter a particularly bad one. It’s telling that once Ratner made those films, each series felt the need to follow them up with prequels, producers eager to make audiences forget what just happened. Ratner’s exactly the type to have no idea how to deliver a no-brainer of a concept.
Conversely, Michael Mann has proven himself again and again to be a master of the urban crime thriller: Thief (1981), Heat (1995), The Insider (1999), Collateral (2004), and Manhunter are all superb entries in this genre, and Heat is an outright masterpiece by any measure. So on the basis of Mann's immense capabilities as a director of action thrillers, and of the better filmmaking choices made in practically every regard, I urge you to see Manhunter and to forget that the lackluster Red Dragon exists.

Ralph Fiennes says: "I'm a great actor, but together with Sir Anthony Hopkins, 
I helped ruin this movie!"

UPDATE 7/28/2014: io9's review of Ratner's latest, Hercules, supports my view that the hack director's style beats the life out of everything he makes: "I believe that Brett Ratner is an Entertainment Vampire. By this I mean he finds entertaining concepts and sucks the entertainment right out of them."

* This tendency to cram way more shots into less time and to deny a scene a chance to breathe or vary much in tempo is not limited to Ratner but is part of a broad Hollywood trend David Bordwell has termed Intensified Continuity.
** See also: the over-emphasis of Darth Vader in the Star Wars prequels, as pointed out in Part 3 of this lovely video review of Star Wars Episode III. The relevant section begins at the 1:08:10 mark of the video embedded below:

*** Devoted readers will recall that Mann is one of the directors I singled out as a personal favorite at the end of this post.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Review: Belle (2014)

I saw the sharply written and vividly directed historical drama Belle at the Cinema Theater in Rochester last week, and enjoyed it very much. While conventionally shot, the film is superbly scripted and the performances throughout are absolutely top-notch. Belle dares to take on a complex and thorny subject -- the social status of a mixed-race woman of illegitimate yet aristocratic birth in late-eighteenth century England -- and does so in a way that is both emotionally compelling yet never heavy handed or melodramatic. The film achieves a consistent level of nuance and intelligence of script that, say, Spielberg's structurally similar Lincoln (2012) only lands upon quite spottily. This is quite a feat.

I think the critical press liked Belle but, due to unconscious, gendered generic bias, some didn't quite see it for the accomplishment it truly is. For example, I agree with most of the concrete points made by Chris Nashawaty in his review, especially the notion that
the message is clear: Women during this time were, like slaves, property to be auctioned off, making Dido doubly powerless. The added irony is that although she has a sizable inheritance, she's considered less marriageable than her penniless white cousin. [. . .] Belle subtly skewers the absurd rules and hypocrisies of class.
Yet I must take slight umbrage at Nashawaty's description of Belle as "like a Jane Austen novel spiked with an extra shot of social conscience" and his own subtle implication that the best thing -- or maybe the only truly noteworthy thing -- about the film is Gugu Mbatha-Raw's performance in the title role.* That performance is indeed excellent, but Belle (the film) is much more than a politically charged take on the social milieu popularized by Downton Abbey. The film is a serious examination of a key historical moment in interracial politics and should be discussed alongside other recent films on similar themes like Lincoln (to which Belle is superior) and 12 Years a Slave (2013).

Like the more formally daring yet psychologically excruciating 12 Years, Amma Asante's Belle grapples with larger historical events -- in this case, the pre-abolition Zong Massacre case presided over by Lord Mansfield (the superb Tom Wilkinson) in 1783 -- by telling the story of its protagonist's immediate experiences during this politically charged period. Belle (called Dido by her family) is the niece of Lord Mansfield and she begins to take an interest in the implications of his case as she experiences the personal difficulties of "coming out" to London society (coming of age and going on the marriage market) alongside her white cousin, Elizabeth (played with great nuance by Sarah Gadon).

Dido and Elizabeth.

The film assiduously avoids going melodramatically over-the-top, either in its dealings with race issues or in its romantic subplot. This alone elevates the film above Spielberg's similarly themed films Amistad (1997) and Lincoln -- Spielberg is one of the most technically assured filmmakers alive but he frequently indulges in moments of melodramatic treacle that diminish the impact and import of his otherwise thematically "serious" late-career films. Belle, conversely, exercises restraint throughout and is far the better for it. 

Further, it must be said that the romantic plot is indeed quite sub in Belle. The main events here are Dido's unfolding relationships with her family: Elizabeth, Lord Mansfield, and her pragmatic-but-never-draconian mother (Emily Watson). There is a romantic interest, and since a woman's marriageability is a key concern of ALL the characters and of that sector of society at that time, some (re-)viewers could mistakenly assert that the romantic plot SHOULD be more dominant and/or that the film is weakened by its lack of florid, melodramatically romantic scenes of the kind one sees in other types of movies set in this time period. But no, there is no Colin Firth in a wet shirt moment in Belle, because this film is much more interested in the political plight of women in 18th century Britain and how their circumstances resemble, differ from, and intersect with the plight of slaves at the same time. All these difficult issues are effectively and brilliantly worked out through the evolving personality and paradoxical social position of Dido. 

Finally, I would suggest that Belle is worth watching not only because the film itself is so good -- much more serious and sharp than Lincoln yet far less excruciating and experimental than 12 Years -- but also because it is a film written and directed by women of color. This such an extreme rarity in the mainstream film business that I would probably urge folks to support this film even if it was less than excellent. Luckily, I don't have to. Asante directs not just Mbatha-Raw but her whole stellar cast to fine, compelling, nuanced performances that are both emotionally involving and thought-provoking. I thoroughly enjoyed Belle, I was gripped by it, and it made me think. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a character-driven film featuring world-class acting, assured direction, and a flat-out excellent script.**

 Tom Wilkinson says: "Hey, old chap -- I give an excellent performance in this movie, too!"

* An expert on 18th-century British culture and literature to whom I am close says that this phrasing of Nashawaty's is itself misleading, since Austen's novels are in fact laden with sharp political critique. According to my expert, Nashawaty is making the (all too common) mistake of reading Austen's novels very superficially -- as light, witty romances, rather than as the multi-layered, socially critical, and politically engaged works they actually are.
** I am happy to say that both the New York Times and Guardian reviews concur with my view that Belle balances its elements nearly perfectly.