Sunday, May 11, 2014

Blockbuster Screenwriting and the New Cinema of Attractions

The question of why I don't like very many contemporary action blockbusters has been haunting me for some time now, probably ever since I realized (circa 2008) that I might be one of the few people in the world who was underwhelmed, even off-put, by the Christopher Nolan-directed Batman films. I WANT to like today's "popcorn movies" and do not intend to become a highbrow cinephile who ONLY enjoys art films. Yet something about most of today's summer action blockbusters continues to displease (or at least fails to entertain) me.*

This became evident again recently when I realized that, despite my great enjoyment of The Amazing Spider-Man (2012, dir. Marc Webb) and contrary to my original strong intention to see the sequel when it hit theaters a couple weeks ago, I have decided not to bother with The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The two main reasons are:

1. I noticed its two hour and twenty minute running time, and

2. I then noticed, after digging deeper, that its screenplay was penned by two of Hollywood's most incompetent scribes, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci.

I will return to that first point shortly, but first let me say that Kurtzman and Orci are flat-out terrible screenwriters. Red Letter Media notes this in their Amazing Spider Man 2 video review, during which Mike states (just after the 19:38 mark) that it seems like "any terrible new movie has been penned by these two." On both the story structure and character development fronts, all of this duo's screenplays are just lousy: Transformers (2007), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Star Trek (2009), and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) are all, in Mike's words, "shit scripts." Similarly, a recent CinemaBlend article characterized Kurtzman and Orci's two Star Trek scripts as "typically-complex but still dopey screenplays," and I would call that an accurate assessment.**

To be fair, due to the huge amounts of money involved, non-creative executive production staff interfere with the development of blockbusters in many ways that probably weaken the material: as the CinemaBlend piece notes, "many masters must be served when you're working with $150 million budgets." Yet the consistency and persistence with which these two guys write particularly disorganized and ineffective scripts is hard to overlook.

A prime example of the kind of crappy screenplays Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci 
churn out for today's action blockbuster directors. 

Of course, Kurtzman and Orci are merely part of a much broader contemporary Hollywood trend toward increased emphasis on visual spectacle and intense action over considerations of characterization and script coherence.*** Hell, this trend has been trending since the late 1970s, when a synergistic combination of the multinational corporate takeover of the entertainment industry and the successful release and marketing of the summer blockbusters Jaws (1975) and especially Star Wars (1977) changed the way Hollywood did business. Nowadays all major Hollywood studios hang all their hopes for the fiscal year upon one or two mega-budgeted blockbuster films which need to be "high concept" -- that is, based upon an extremely simple premise -- in order to perform well across all global markets.

Furthermore, various critics from David Bordwell to video essayist Mathias Stork have noted the faster-paced editing, imprecise camera work, and "scattershot" video game aesthetic that has begin to permeate contemporary blockbuster cinema, especially (but not exclusively) in its action sequences. This has led to more of a theme park ride / spectacle based approach to big-budget film production, and a concomitant de-emphasis upon story and character.

This tendency reminds me of Tom Gunning's "An Aesthetic of Astonishment," which outlines the phenomenon of the "Cinema of Attractions" in early cinema:
I have called the cinema that precedes the dominance of narrative (and this lasts for nearly a decade, [from 1896] until 1903 or 1904) the cinema of attractions. Rather than being an involvement with narrative action or empathy with character psychology, the cinema of attractions solicits a highly conscious awareness of the film image engaging the viewer's curiosity. The spectator does not get lost in a fictional world and its drama, but remains aware of the act of looking, the excitement of curiosity and its fulfillment. This cinema addresses and holds the spectator, emphasizing the act of display. In fulfilling this curiosity, it delivers a generally brief dose of scopic [visual] pleasure.†
In his incredibly sharp and penetrating book Post-Classical Hollywood, Barry Langford discusses the push-pull dynamic between visual spectacle and the demands of narrative in Hollywood films. Although he admits that in contemporary (post-1990s) blockbusters "narrative and character are [often] handled in a slapdash and contemptuous way," he also reminds us that "spectacular elements, often highly intrusive and in strictly narrative terms excessive if not superfluous, have co-existed with more straightforward storytelling throughout much of Hollywood history" (253, 251). Langford concludes that we can therefore potentially see today's action blockbusters as "[building] on the experience of the past two decades: 'perhaps the movies of the 2000s are the movies of the 1980s, only more so'" (247).††

In any case, although today's blockbusters are surely part of a longer tradition of spectacle-intense film production, Gunning's description of the "cinema of attractions" seems particularly apt when discussing the contemporary (that is, post-1980s) big-budget action film, especially with regard to the "more so" aspect of Langford's formulation. Indeed, Gunning's comment that "the attraction addresses the audience directly, sometimes [. . .] exaggerating this confrontation in an experience of assault" squares with Stork's assessment of the assaultive, visually excessive dimension of what he calls "Chaos Cinema." I would also point to Charlie Jane Anders' satirical and yet strangely accurate evaluation of Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen as "a brilliant art movie about the illusory nature of plot" that "isn't a movie, in the conventional sense," but rather "an assault on the senses, a barrage of crazy imagery."

As I have confessed before, I came of age in the 1980s and was raised on the blockbusters of Spielberg, McTiernan, Verhoeven, and George P. Cosmatos. None of these guys ever even dreamed of breaking the rules of Hollywood continuity style: their shot compositions were coherent, their editing choices logical, and their sense of character motivation and spatial legibility rarely faltered. They were trained in the ways of "classic" Hollywood, and even when their films were thinly plotted or even over-the-top silly, they nevertheless followed the aesthetic rules that had been in place in Hollywood since about the mid-1910s.

Arnold Schwartzenegger in the great, if silly, mid-1980s action blockbuster Commando.  

Nowadays, new forms of visual excess have taken hold, and today's blockbuster directors -- Nolan, Jackson, Snyder, Bay, and the late Tony Scott -- have not only diverged from the old rules of continuity editing and coherent camera work, but they (or their studios) have seen fit to expand the length of these narratively incoherent CGI-driven "attractions" to over two, often almost three hours. This is a strategy that echoes the expanded visual scope and running time of many of the "widescreen epics" of the 1950s, yet those films were still made in the classical mode: they had compelling stories and world-class stars, actors, and screenwriters on board. True, their widescreen-ness was heavily marketed in order to compete with television, which had just arrived on the scene, and it is also noteworthy that the 1950s also saw the first major rise of 3D movie technology, another parallel with the "striking but superficial imagery"-driven 2000s.††† Yet I argue that those earlier epics, despite their lengthiness and emphasis on spectacle, still hewed closer to classical Hollywood's demand for rigorous continuity, comprehensible character motivation, and tightly scripted narratives than today's blockbusters typically do.

Note that the shortest of the contemporary blockbusters in my sample,
Man of Steel, has the same running time as the longest of the
 1970s-80s blockbusters, 1978's Superman

Which brings me back to The Amazing Spider-Man 2. As A.A. Dowd of the Onion AV club puts it in his review,
Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci struggle to transition among scenes of city-demolishing combat, indie-rock-scored montages of Peter pouting in his room, and intrusions of corporate-espionage backstory. They’ve written a checklist, not a screenplay.
So, I am boycotting of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 not because, like all other Hollywood action blockbusters, it is sexist or racist, though it's true that in general I am weary of the retrograde ideologies of our biggest blockbusters. No, rather, I am resisting it because I actually want character development and decent screenwriting in the films I watch, even the "popcorn movies," especially at their current, incredibly lengthy running times. I truly do not think that this is too much to ask.

UPDATE 5/17/2014: It looks like more or less agrees with my assessment, noting The Amazing Spider-Man 2's "abysmal script" in their rundown of 4 Bizarre Choices That Doomed 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2'

UPDATE 6/18/2014: The Red Letter Media guys also seem to notice that a tight screenplay =  a better blockbuster. In their video review of X-Men: Days of Future Past, they laud the film for the coherence of its screenplay and even single out Amazing Spider-Man 2 as a negative counter-example.

Godzilla says: "Come see MY movie this summer! It's gonna be great!!"

* There are exceptions: as I have previously written, I really enjoyed The Avengers (2012), the first Iron Man movie (2008), Pacific Rim (2013), Skyfall (2012), and a great many earlier blockbusters such as the first two Die Hard films (1988 and 1990) and the great Schwartzenegger vehicle Commando (1985).
** For a more in-depth exploration of Star Trek: Into Darkness's baffling incoherence, see the Red Letter Media guys' brilliant review of the film here.
*** In fact, Kurtzman and Orci are only two of the most egregiously mediocre members of a larger group of sloppy, vapid, "high concept" screenwriters that includes David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel), Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies), and doubtless many others I don't happen to know by name.
† Gunning, "An Aesthetics of Astonishment," in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, Film Theory and Criticism Seventh Edition (2009), pp. 742-43.
†† This is a particularly sharp insight given how many of today's summer blockbusters are literally reboots of '80s hit films. Also, I really cannot recommend Langford's excellent history of Hollywood from 1945 to the present (published by Edinburgh University Press in 2010) highly enough. It is a must-read for any serious cinephile and/or film historian.
††† Langford, Post-Classical Hollywood p. 246.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

EW #7: Mean Streets (1973)

Harvey Keitel leads a stellar ensemble cast in Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese's best film.

This entry in the Entertainment Weekly All-Time Greatest film list represents one of the most pleasant and exciting surprises on the list for me personally. True, EW's placement of Mean Streets so high in the rankings seems to support the notion that EW's critics overwhelmingly favor Baby Boomer cinema -- The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde, Mean Streets, and Nashville are all in the Top 10, with seminal Boomer comedy Annie Hall just around the corner at #13. However, their placement of Mean Streets as the highest-ranked Martin Scorsese film, described in their laudatory blurb as "the director's greatest exploration of crime, rock and roll, Italian-American manhood, and the wages of sin," also agrees with my own firmly held contention that Mean Streets is indeed Scorsese's best film, bar none.

While Bonnie and Clyde (1967) pioneered the form of the revisionist, anti-heroic gangster film, it was nevertheless a period piece and an homage (intentional or no) to the 1930s Warner Brothers gangster film cycle. Scorsese's Mean Streets brought that form up-to-date and into the present moment. Mean Streets is the progenitor of the contemporary, fast-talking, pop-culture-referencing crime film, and without it, the careers of Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, not to mention the more polished and ultimately less interesting Scorsese picture GoodFellas (1990), are all unthinkable.*

But more important than its enduring influence is how truly enjoyable Mean Streets is to watch. With few exceptions (like possibly Bonnie and Clyde or Hal Ashby's The Last Detail) there are few 1970s Hollywood films that feel this lively, fresh, witty, and urgent. There is a lot of life and a lot of humor in this film, and unlike the later GoodFellas, which is polished and controlled and very "clever," the humor and action in Mean Streets emerge (dare I say) organically from the tension between the youthful naivete of (most of) its main characters and the very real dangers they face as they cockily take on forces much more powerful and deadly than they. As the only level-headed one in the bunch, Harvey Keitel's Charlie does his best to herd these kittens, but despite his best efforts, their ambition and anger will not be contained or corralled. This, of course, has brutal and disastrous consequences.

The famous "mooks" pool hall fight, viscerally shot using a steadicam and set ironically 
to The Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman."

In essence, all the elements that constitute Scorsese's best-known signature style -- fast-talking street toughs, brilliant use of pop songs, brutal violence, and long takes of people entering crowded clubs -- are already present in Mean Streets, accompanied by a rawness and energy that just isn't there in most of Mr. Scorsese's later films, not to the same degree anyway.** I simply cannot recommend Mean Streets highly enough to anyone who likes GoodFellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed, or any of Scorsese's other "hit films" of his middle and late career. If you have seen those others and you haven't seen this, then you truly are in for a treat. Do yourself a favor and see Mean Streets.

Mean Streets is also required viewing for anyone interested in the "Hollywood Renaissance" period of filmmaking. It stands alongside Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Waltz as one of Scorsese's crucial contributions to that bygone yet enormously influential era of 1970s Hollywood.

"I'm a mook? What's a mook?"

Bonus Afterthought: After Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Taxi Driver, my next couple of favorite Martin Scorsese pictures include Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) and The King of Comedy (1982). Both are unusual in Scorsese's filmography: the former is a female-centered romantic drama, and the latter a dark comedy starring Robert DeNiro as a social misfit, would-be comedian, and stalker. But both films display a remarkable subtlety and sensitivity in Scorsese's directing style, and are just flat-out pleasurable to watch. Alice is especially recommended if Scorsese's usual testosterone-laden approach is not your thing. If you prefer mellower slice-of-life fare closer in vibe to Altman or Ashby rather than to "usual" Scorsese, then King and especially Alice are not to be missed!

Rupert Pupkin says: "Check out The King of Comedy!"

* It's true, I am no great fan of GoodFellas -- what many see as a career apotheoisis, I see as a harbinger of  Scorsese's long slow slide toward the middle. But since GoodFellas has its own entry as # 68 in EW's Top 100 List, I will discuss my specific views on that film once we get there.
** I exempt Taxi Driver and Raging Bull from this declaration; though much darker in tone and theme than Mean Streets, those two seminal works have the same vital energy and gutsy drive that make this earlier film a must-see.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Review: All Is Lost (2013)

Veteran Hollywood star Robert Redford gives a career-topping solo performance 
in the gripping survival adventure film All Is Lost

To begin with, I think choosing the "best" acting performance or film of a given year is an inherently absurd task, since it's comparing apples to oranges, but that said, there is something seriously fishy about the fact that neither All Is Lost nor its star, Robert Redford, were nominated for Best Actor or Best Picture at this past year's Academy Awards. In my personal ranking, I wouldn't put Redford's performance above Chiwetel Ejiofor's in 12 Years a Slave, or above Bruce Dern's in Nebraska, but Redford should have given actual winner Matthew McConaughey a run for his money in the category.* And the film itself may not be better than either of the above-mentioned movies either, but I assume it is better than either Gravity or Captain Phillips, both of which it may even structurally resemble at certain points, being an adventure film about survival at sea.**

In short, I am baffled that All Is Lost was not an even more buzzed-about and critically recognized movie of last year. True, Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty placed the film at #9 on his year-end "Top 10 List," but meanwhile the more erratic EW critic Owen Gleiberman didn't place it anywhere on his list (the only films they both listed were Fruitvale Station, 12 Years a Slave, Before Midnight, and Gravity). And how the Academy overlooked this wonderfully written, shot, directed, and acted gem is a mystery to me.***

The reason for my bafflement is that, taken as a whole, All Is Lost is simply one of the best films I have seen in many years. Its premise is utterly simple, yet it is executed with such confidence, competence, and artistry (on several levels) that the end result is utterly absorbing from start to finish. Redford gives the performance of a lifetime in this one-man show, even though (or perhaps because) he speaks only about three lines of dialogue (one of which is an opening voice-over) throughout the film's entire one-hour and forty-five minute running time. The visuals throughout are spectacular, both onboard his damaged yacht and during the various scenes of underwater cinematography. The editing is very well paced, fast enough (especially during the many action sequences) to keep the viewer on the edge of his or her seat, yet allowing for graceful pauses in which Redford's unnamed protagonist -- and the viewer -- may take in the ramifications of each new calamity and setback. And even when things are going wrong for "Our Man" (as the end credits call Redford's character), which is much of the time, the scenes at sea are nevertheless breathtakingly beautiful. Some of the best shots are during a nighttime storm-at-sea sequence, or when the camera shows us a perspective on events taken from underwater.

One of many beautiful underwater shots from All Is Lost

I could go on, but in some ways this is a film best seen, not talked about. I cannot imagine who wouldn't enjoy this film. It is a suspenseful, taut adventure yarn with extremely high stakes for its main character, conveyed in simple, and always strikingly visual, terms. And while there are some subtle hints at a political sub-theme (about which more in a moment), the main emphasis here is upon the survival narrative, and the small but crucial choices Our Man makes at each step in his solitary struggle against chance and the elements. All Is Lost presents a well-crafted, gripping story conveyed with great precision and surprising depth.

One other aspect of this movie that I enjoyed is the very subtle implication that (a) Our Man is a man of privilege, given that he is white, owns a yacht, and eats "organic" canned beans, etc., and that (b) many of his calamities come about due to the global consumer capitalist system from which he, as an affluent American white guy, presumably benefits. I do not wish to give away any spoilers, but let me simply say that a couple key plot turns occur as a result of shipping containers like the kind seen in the photographs of Edward Burtynsky:

A Vancouver Container Port photographed by Edward Burtynsky.

The idea here is that, as in so many monster movies and "revenge-of-nature" films, All Is Lost connects the misfortunes that befall Our Man at sea to these emblems of the hidden labor flows undergirding his exploitative lifestyle under global consumer capitalism.

But you do not need to notice, care about, or even agree with my ideological interpretation to truly enjoy All Is Lost. I highly recommend this great, well shot, amazingly acted adventure movie to all my readers.

Redford's unnamed character experiences an extremely vulnerable moment, 
the likes of which I have never seen in the actor's earlier career. 

* Yes, I have now seen Dallas Buyer's Club and while I really like the film a lot and think McConaughey is great in it, he's got nothing on Ejiofor or Dern.
** Please do not give too much weight to this last sweeping comparison; I do not believe I have any right to judge a film I have not seen, and I have seen neither Gravity nor Captain Phillips. I presume the latter is a very well-made thriller but I am suspicious of its racial politics; the former is surely visually dazzling but for whatever reason I just am not drawn to it.
*** Though not really: the strong likelihood is that distributor Lionsgate did not have the wherewithal or inclination to mount an effective Oscar campaign for All Is Lost. Perhaps they had their hands full with the release of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.