Thursday, May 14, 2009

Popcorn Trek

JJ Abrams' giddy new Star Trek reboot is an occasionally exhilarating, cleverer than usual, summer popcorn spectacular, which is a nice way of saying it is easily digested and ultimately forgotten.  The story re-imagines the "origins" of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and the Starship Enterprise.  When this became an obsession of the mainstream is beyond me, but it seems the studios believe that we have a tireless desire to learn more about how our icons became icons.  

Inevitably, this line of inquiry results in the revelation that sweet Jiminy, these guys are just like us!  The only problem is, I don't want to know that Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) was a shameless horn-dog, or that Spock (Zachary Quinto) was teased as a boy because of his "mixed" parentage.  These things are fair enough as entertainment goes, but I would rather face the mystery of how these men became who they are than have the explanation spoon-fed to me.  

I have never been a Trekkie, so maybe this is new ground broken.  Maybe I should just shut up and enjoy the eye-candy, but when I go to the movies I don't want cleverer than usual, I want genuine undeniable wit and originality.  Delivering this with a movie as heavily branded as Star Trek, isn't strictly necessary because it already has such a huge built-in audience, but I hoped for more based on the movie's reviews and J.J. Abram's prodigious reputation.  

As for the film itself, the story concerns an angry Romulan (Eric Bana), whose native planet was destroyed in a supernova.  Now he has figured out a way to travel back through time and enact his revenge on the starfleet -- who he blames for failing to save his dying people.  Circumstances bring Kirk and Spock together with Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scottie (Simon Pegg), Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) and Bones (Karl Urban) to combat this evil foe and defend the galaxy. 

The casting of these archetypal roles is spot on, although Uhura is underwritten as is commonplace for women in this genre.  She's basically a post-feminist woman, content to kick butt in go-go boots and not beyond shedding a tear or two -- but she isn't hard on the eyes so all is fair.  Bana's villain lacks potency and fades into the background of the busy plot.  The real show is Kirk and Spock, butting heads and yet hurtling towards an inevitable reconciliation.  This is the most winning ingredient of the movie and Pine and Quinto perfectly inhabit their parts.  

The movie has a slick, colorful, eye-popping aesthetic.  The opening scene is so effectively thrilling and heart-wrenching all at once, that I was reminded of vintage Spielberg, but then the picture settles into a more complacent rhythm.  Complacent in following the same overstuffed, over-manufactured mantra that drives the current crop of summer movies.  Abrams works hard to dazzle us and he succeeds for the most part, but the picture is too busy.  

The special effects are too loud and too frenetic to follow at times.  Like most modern blockbusters the action lacks a tactile quality and therefore overcompensates by trying to elicit a visceral jolt.  The effect is kind of like a Bourne film married with one of the recent Star Wars films.  It stirs us up well enough.  We just can't seem to remember everything we've seen -- particularly during the climactic jumble that passes for a third act.  

I feel obliged to point out that in spite of these flaws, the film is a fun ride and fun is a precious commodity that seems to be lacking in many of the other more morose and ponderous summer offerings.  Perhaps all this-nitpicking is ungrateful of me.  The movie happily delivers all of the key ingredients we look for in summer movies.  I more or less got what I paid for.  I just wish it hadn't seemed quite so familiar.  

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Lost Art of Suspense

Topaz is a mineral that appears in prismatic crystal and changes colors depending on the angle from which it is perceived.  It is also the title of a complex, unusual, Hitchcock gem, that is arguably the highlight of his late career.  The movie was released in 1969, at the height of the critical debate over Hitchcock's validity as an 'artist.'  This was also  the era of Antonioni and Godard.  An era during which many avant-garde European filmmakers were taking cinema in an esoteric new direction.  It is this aesthetic that Hitchcock seems to adopt and make his own, and perhaps this can account for the outrage early test audiences felt when they discovered that their ever-reliable master of suspense had gone cerebral.  

In Topaz we see the seeds of Hitchcock's unfinished serial-killer project Kaleidoscope, which was to be a gritty, verite style thriller, photographed on grainy 16 mm film with a cast of unknowns.  The story is based on a Leon Uris novel that presents a fictional account of the players who plotted and ultimately stopped the Cuban Missile Crisis.  For the first time in the history of his career, we have a Hitchcock plot dealing with real nations and real politics.  The emphasis on reality is reflected in his choice not to cast any major stars.  Instead the master assembles an international cast of character actors, chosen  to represent the working-class pedigree of the real life spies who were mixed up in the cold war.  The cast lacks the charisma of the stars that Hitchcock traditionally worked with, but this is precisely the point. 

In Topaz, Hitchcock attempts to deglamorize the spy genre.  He rejects the very same James Bond ethos he helped to invent with North By Northwest and this is part of the movie's fascination.  Topaz is not designed to please an audience the way most of his other films are.    The story does not lead to a decisive, crowd-pleasing climax.  Instead, the movie leaves us with a troubling conclusion in which our 'hero' Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) allows his countryman to get away with murder and treason.  Why does he let him get away?  Because he learns the man is sleeping with his wife and he wants to expiate his own guilt over the affair he himself has had.  Our would-be protagonist, Devereaux, finds himself torn between the Americans and his own people in an effort to uncover the truth behind the Soviet presence in Cuba.  He is also moonlighting between two women: his wife (Dany Robin) and his mistress (Karin Dor), who is a leader of the underground Cuban resistance.  We never learn where his allegiance truly lies.

Considered in the context of Hitchcock's other work, Topaz is strangely analogous to Munich, Steven Spielberg's ambiguous and under-appreciated political film, which also alienated mainstream audiences.  Moral ambiguity is a trademark of Hitchcock's, but in Topaz every subplot leads us deeper into an abyss.  There is no single point of view.  We do not know which characters to trust or believe in and loyalties are constantly shifting.  Some viewers will lose patience with the film based on this lack of cohesion.  Others will find it seductively atonal.  The movie keeps us off balance by constantly shifting between colors and tones, like it's geological namesake.   This seeming lack of direction creates a different kind of suspense. But for those who seek vintage Hitchcock there are still many virtuoso moments to reflect upon. 

We know we are watching a Hitchcock film from the dazzling opening sequence in which a Russian family stages a harrowing defection to the United States with scarcely a sentence of dialogue uttered.  The torture of two Cuban resistance fighters is photographed as only Hitchcock can.  After their interrogator extracts their confession, we watch the man's hands slowly slide up his thighs in resignation.  In Cuba, Hitchcock intercuts staged footage with actual newsreel footage of a Castro rally by matching the film stocks seamlessly.  Most startling is the murder of a woman in a purple sun dress which pools beneath her like a gallon of blood as she slumps to the floor.  There is also a striking use of color to distinguish between locales and countries and the sets are effectively decorated with the highest attention to detail.   

 The master is after a different game here and although he got a bum rap, the film is worth a look.  His approach to the material is occasionally miscalculated.  The ambiguous characters and understated cast fail to emotionally engage us as in prior works.  The complicated mechanics of the plot sometimes grow tiresome and sluggish.  Still, although Topaz is not as iconic as many of his more popular hits, it ranks with Vertigo and The Birds as one of his few true 'art films.'  Watching it, we see a master filmmaker at the top of his craft, stretching to redefine himself and his work.    Even the tiniest gestures -- a tilt of the head, a casual handshake, are charged with sinister implications.  Topaz, as with any of Hitchcock's work, is instructive in the art of suspense.   We may as well call it a lost art for the time being.  

Monday, May 4, 2009

The State of Documentary

When it comes to documentaries, I can be a bit of a counter-snob.  Ever since my parents dragged me kicking and screaming from
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, I've been aware of the debate between the so-called "intellectuals" who profess a slavish devotion to non-fiction and those weak-willed dreamers, the "escapists," who blindly champion the art of make-believe.  Off the record, to be perfectly blunt, I am a fiction guy.  There is nothing I find more exhilarating than the human imagination.  The giddy rush I get from a triumphant piece of fiction has no analog.  Probably because great fiction always has a strong point of view.  My favorite documentaries have this same fidelity of vision -- which isn't to suggest that they can only be interpreted one way.  As far as I'm concerned, a movie's point of view can be completely ambiguous, so long as there is an organic cohesion between image and text, rhythm and tone.  Unfortunately, point of view is sorely lacking in the three films I've seen thus far at Toronto's Hot Docs International Film Festival. 

When We Were Boys, directed by Sarah Goodman, is an observational, verite-style documentary designed as an intimate portrait of pubescence, that purports to make us a fly on the wall at an all-boys private school.  Although the movie is entertaining, the rug is quickly ripped out from under its promise of daring expose.   Ultimately the film lacks shape and fails to enlighten us with any key revelations.

In contrast, Rembrandt's J'Accuse by Peter Greenaway, has too much shape and too revelatory a tone to qualify as entertainment or enlightenment.  The movie presumes to teach us about visual literacy, by uncovering the 31 "mysteries" behind the conception of Rembrandt's famous painting "The Night Watch," which hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.   My party, who had eagerly awaited the screening beforehand, managed to sit through the solution of the first six before leaving the theater for greener pastures.  

Greenaway's cerebral history lesson is constructed using a combination of beautifully photographed art stills, strangely inert dramatizations and scrolling text which looks like a CNN newsfeed, rendered in Lucida Handwriting.  Worst of all is the ill-conceived narration.  Greenaway stacks his images so we can both hear and see his narrator, using a picture-in-picture conceit that would be more at home in a bar-mitzvah video.  There is a fine line between ambition and indulgence and Mr. Greenaway should have known better.   

Art & CopyDoug Pray's history of the advertising industry is the slickest product of the three and by far the most enjoyable, but it still suffers from overlength and a reverence for its subject matter that isn't entirely deserved.  Unfortunately for Mr. Pray, the same rules that apply to fiction film also apply to documentary.  Namely, not to overdress a simple tale with a lot of phony, razzle-dazzle, smoke and mirrors. Apart from a few hilarious vintage ads, the best parts are actually the talking heads.  The film's fascination belongs to the mavericks who re-invented advertising from the ground up.   

Do not construe any of this as a dire warning about the state of documentary in general.  For now, let's just agree that documentaries have to try harder than narrative films to overcome the limitations of reality and achieve that perfect symbiosis of form and content, enlightenment and entertainment.  When they succeed the results can be truly glorious.  Just not in this case...