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 very favorite films, bar none -- it appears on my "Top 40 Films" list of last November and is one of only 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 menagerie.

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 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 respectable 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 now, 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 movie 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 in fact 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 from 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 the viewer see the shark more or less right away.* The attack on the waterskier and her friend is flat-out awesome -- it concludes with a motorboat exploding in flames, one of the film's greatest moments. Even greater 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 -- it's 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 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 monologue rather than a conversation between four guys as in Manhunter. By having Graham be verbally reticent despite his visual centrality, Mann's film makes him more pensive, mysterious, and haunted. Ratner's approach changes Graham into 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 movie.

(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.

In contrast, 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.

(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 1:04:57 mark of the linked video.
*** 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.
Yes. 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 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, 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.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Review: Snowpiercer (2014)

I saw Snowpiercer, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's English-language debut, earlier this week, and was, as I expected to be, blown away. It is an epic, action-packed, beautifully made, perfectly paced blockbuster. Anyone who enjoys movies and has a stomach for some intense but not overly gratuitous violence will enjoy this film.

I have written before about how much I love Bong's work, and I knew going in that Snowpiercer was going to be well-shot, well-written, and -- most importantly -- character driven. In these areas the film does not disappoint. It is Bong's most grandiose, action-loaded, and spectacular film yet; it is much greater in scale than any of his previous films. For example, The Host (2006), whose action covers many areas across the city of Seoul, is still focused on the fate of one family in that one city.* By contrast, the train in Snowpiercer, despite its linear physical confinements, is literally global in scale: it traverses the world, its passengers encompassing all of surviving humankind. With its expanded, multinational cast and furious, frequently large-scale action sequences driving the plot relentlessly forward, Snowpiercer feels bigger and more kinetic than any previous Bong film. When we catch glimpses out the windows or pull back for a wide exterior shot, the titular huge train moves fast! 

I have previously outlined a schema for interpreting summer blockbusters:

According to this formula, I would place Snowpiercer in the "creative and complex" category, but only barely on the complex side of the line. That is, the film is visually unique and very creatively set-designed, costumed, and shot (i.e., "creative" on the vertical axis) yet actually adheres quite closely to the conventions of the action thriller and does not really allow its plot to twist overmuch -- there is a nice surprise or two near the end, but nothing too complex. No, the film actually earns its "(barely) complex" designation due to the way in which it reveals key plot and character information: slowly and gradually, in layers. The viewer is given certain visual or contextual clues early on, which pay off later when their full nature or importance is revealed. But the main thrust of the story and the action is made very clear from the get-go, and never wavers from its general course.**

This is one of Bong's great strengths as a filmmaker: his keen ability to know just how much to reveal and how much to withhold in order to keep his audience tantalizingly on the hook. Bong has always been good at this but Snowpiercer may constitute his most subtle and refined use of this technique yet. I will keep this review spoiler-free, but suffice to say that one of the best "reveals" in the whole film is a confessional speech made by protagonist Curtis (Chris Evans) just before the final climactic battle. What we learn about our "hero" and his relationships to some of the other key characters in that very effective (and affective) speech adds a whole new layer of complexity and pathos to all we've seen to that point, and brilliantly sets up what's at stake for the final showdown.

Along a similar line, since Snowpiercer is completely character-driven AND is deadly realistic in its depiction of the consequences of violence, there is much at stake here. Many characters perish during the course of this movie. Watching Snowpiercer made me realize that one of the biggest drawbacks of the current vogue for superhero blockbusters is that most superheroes cannot or do not die, so there is rarely a sense of mortal threat or the high stakes that come with risking one's life in those movies. Not so here. As in the Hunger Games films (which this one somewhat resembles tonally) characters we care about in Snowpiercer can and do meet terrible fates, and this only heightens the intensity of the action and our involvement in it. 

On top of all this, and most importantly, Snowpiercer is completely involving and entertaining the whole way through. Its running time is 126 minutes (actually fairly short by today's blockbuster standards) but it does not feel long or exhausting. I simply cannot recommend this movie highly enough, especially right now while it's still in theaters. If you enjoy dark, post-apocalyptic actioners like The Hunger Games films (2012 and 2013), The Book of Eli (2010), and Children of Men (2006), then you will surely find lots to enjoy in the tension-filled, visually stunning, and dramatically compelling Snowpiercer. ***

 Tilda Swinton plays one of the most interesting and creepy villains ever in Snowpiercer.

Bonus Afterthoughts: While the whole cast of Snowpiercer is quite good -- Chris Evans does a terrific job playing what could have been a very generic-feeling character in a way that makes us care without making him too vulnerable or sentimental, and Bong regulars Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung are both excellent as well -- the real gem here is Tilda Swinton. She just blows her performance away, more or less stealing every single scene she's in. Her Mason is the best, most loathsome villain I have seen in a very long time; her performance alone is worth the price of admission. Also, in addition to several intertextual references to Bong's other films (especially The Host), watch for a very clever and subtle The Shining reference two-thirds of the way in.

Curtis sez: "Hey, I'm in a gold room!"

UPDATE 7/7/2014: A friend called my attention to this super-sharp review of Snowpiercer which not only calls the film "an exciting and well-constructed action movie, with more interesting characters and more legible cinematography than the chaotic visual gibberish of CGI and explosions that comprise most contemporary American blockbusters," but also claims that the film conveys a radical critique of capitalism -- a compelling argument I am inclined to agree with.

UPDATE 7/21/2014: Another friend of mine has written this smart review in which she claims, among other things, that "Snowpiercer is the first film I’ve seen since District 9 that takes the tropes of the blockbuster and transforms them into something so compelling that days after seeing it, you stop can’t thinking about it." Indeed!

UPDATE 8/4/2014: My friend A.J. has added his voice to the critical chorus in support of this great film. I urge you to check out his review, whose best line is: "Having recently been on a bus to Brooklyn, NY, I applaud Snowpiercer's attempt to resonate with just how diverse the world of long-distance public transportation really is." Bravo!

UPDATE 8/5/2014: Here is a link to a terrific, well-produced video offering a smart interpretation of Snowpiercer.

* Note that Bong's The Host is about a mutant monster who emerges out of the Han River in downtown Seoul and starts eating people, NOT to be confused with the recent U.S.-produced YA film of the same name.
** In this aspect -- the straightforwardness of its plot and the clarity of what's at stake -- Snowpiercer is a lot like last year's Pacific Rim, which I also enjoyed a great deal. The main difference between the two movies is that Snowpiercer's characters are more developed and therefore the stakes are higher when things happen to them. And Bong is probably a more artful and innovative visual stylist than Guillermo del Toro, though the latter is no slouch in these areas himself. I should add that the narrative economy and coherence of both these films -- their strict adherence to the conventions of cause-and-effect, setup and payoff -- place them both firmly in the blockbuster tradition that includes Steven Spielberg and owes a great pre-blockbuster-era debt to the work of Alfred Hitchcock.
*** One of my film-viewing friends also mentioned The Fifth Element during our post-Snowpiercer discussion, and while Besson's distinctive 1997 film is lighter in tone and more generally gonzo than Snowpiercer, I think this is an apt comparison. Another friend name-dropped Pandorum (2009) as being broadly similar in plot but said the latter film is far inferior to Bong's action masterpiece.