Friday, December 16, 2011


Martin Scorsese's Hugo, based on the book by Brian Selznick and adapted for the screen by John Logan, has been hailed as one of the best films of the year by a multitude of critics and cinephiles.  It was selected as the number one picture by the National Board of Review, it has been nominated for Golden Globes and it will no doubt be nominated for the Oscar.  I like the film a lot.  It's a feast for the senses.  It's a master-class in film craft.  It has moments that are arguably more moving than anything else I have seen this year.  When we left the theater my wife exclaimed: that movie was made for you! And yet, although I don't want to be persnickety, I couldn't quite let go of these nagging questions.  Oftentimes critics tear into a film for no other reason than to prove that they can.  The tiresome assumption that a critic must always be critical irks me to no end and often sends me stomping my feet like Paul Reubens in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, shouting: "But but but!  Why does everybody have a big but?"  But still I have a but.  I have a few buts, because I can't help but feel there's something mildly dispiriting about a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese making a children's film like this.

Peter Bogdanovich has noted that b-movies have become the new a-pictures and through this lens one simply can't compare a movie like Hugo to great Scorsese classics like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or Goodfellas.  The press kits all insist that this is Scorsese's most 'personal' film yet, but I find that about as easy to swallow as I did when they said it a few years ago about Gangs of New York.  The story is the utterly charming saga of an orphan boy living in a train station, who inadvertently discovers a shopkeeper's secret, and, together with the shopkeeper's niece sets out to redeem one of the great forgotten silent-era filmmakers: George Méliès.  We know Scorsese himself 'survived' his childhood by escaping into the movies and discovering a lifelong passion for film history and preservation.  But, did the same filmmaker who used to record neighborhood conversations on his tape deck and play them back for co-writer Mardik Martin (to meticulously capture the real voice of his characters as research for Mean Streets) really overlook the fact that everyone in his 1930s Parisian fantasia speaks English in an English accent? Like I said: persnickety, but it's there just dangling in front of us.

On the other hand, the movie isn't really about reality, it's about the dream world of the movies.  Seen through this lens, the production recalls the Dickension world of David Lean's Oliver Twist as much as it evokes the work of its ultimate subject George Méliès.   As I discussed in my profile on De Palma, there are filmmakers who work hard to remain invisible in the telling of their story and there are filmmakers who constantly want to remind you that you're watching a movie.  Scorsese has always been the latter type, but I've also felt that his attention to detail in recreating the reality of his stories was what gave his best films their electricity.  More than any other filmmaker in history (excepting Bergman and maybe Fellini), the pull between documentary realism and cinematic wizardry is what gives a Scorsese picture its resonance. Here he discards that realism and the result is a pseudo-chilren's film.

It has the look and feel of a family film and it embraces the gentler emotions that allowed a young Steven Spielberg to win over a major audience, but its deliberate pacing and slow-growing mystery may prove too demanding for attention-challenged younger viewers.  Although it evokes the wonder of youth, Hugo is really a lovingly-crafted ode to the founders of cinema. The movie is often wondrous and it is easy to become transfixed by the remarkable craft on display.  The 3D storytelling is arguably the best I've seen and those less persnickety than me will argue that the form fits the content; because the film's real subject is a filmmaker/illusionist who was a pioneer of early special-effects, the use of modern special-effects and technology to tell the story seems uniquely justified.  I still find 3D distracting.  No matter how good Scorsese is at immersing us in his story, the 3D yanks me out.  But, perhaps it's unfair to demand perfection from a man who has delivered so many spectacularly brilliant movies.  Perhaps, his true intention in working on such a large canvas is to preserve both the memory of auteurs like Melies and the movie theater experience itself  -- which is currently being threatened by the sophistication and relative low-cost of modern home theater technology.  Hugo is a big-screen movie and the paradox is that even though I'm burdened by these modest apprehensions, I can't wait to see it again.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Descendants

The Descendants is a charming little movie that touches on some pretty lofty themes and shrugs them off with breezy savoir faire.  It's tactful, but a movie about a man who learns his wife had an affair before she slipped into a coma arguably shouldn't be so tactful.  The particulars of performance, characterization and plot all converge quite nicely, but the story builds to several climactic moments of confrontation and reconciliation that aren't fully satisfying.  There is something inspired about the Hawaiian locale which often engulfs the characters and stresses their relative smallness in the universe.  Tragedy often makes one feel small, and The Descendants taps into this aesthetically.  Unfortunately, the movie never fully breaks the surface.  It doesn't break free from its elegant understatement to deliver the messy emotional payoff it seeks to build to.

The writer/director Alexander Payne has pulled off a neat trick.  His leisurely tempo and light touch have given us a take on adultery and death that feels almost cozy.  The heart of the story is a genuinely touching tale of a man (played by George Clooney) struggling to gain the acceptance of his two confused daughters.  Clooney's performance is characteristically sober and likable, but the real standout from an acting perspective is Shailene Woodley, who plays his eldest daughter as a girl whose seemingly self-destructive behavior proves to be a front for a very grounded intellect.  Ultimately, The Descendants is solid entertainment; the kind of movie that would be fun to discover while flipping the channels on a Sunday afternoon.  Whether it is truly worthy of the kudos it's receiving would seem to be a function of the current state of movies rather than any legitimate claims it has to greatness.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mister De Palma

Is Brian De Palma the genuine article?  As a huge devotee of Hitchcock's and a glutton for the thriller genre in general: I have asked myself this question on more than one occasion.  I love movies and if you love movies as much as I do, you will understand when I say that the question of De Palma's legitimacy as a 'major filmmaker' has (at times) consumed me as profoundly as Einstein must have been consumed by his theory of relativity.  Trying to reconcile warring personal views on a controversial figure like Brian De Palma can be a remarkably frustrating exercise marked by late-night screenings and reassessments, the deepest kind of soul searching and occasional negotiation with one's own values.  Having grown up watching and studying the films of Hitchcock for example: I had always admired his restraint in the treatment of violence and sexuality.  In my view Hitchcock's restraint was representative of the class and good judgment that set him apart from the modern breed of filmmakers who throw everything up on the screen (among whom De Palma is one of cinema's most "arch" perpetrators).  On the other hand, a late Hitchcock retrospective reveals good old Hitch pushing boundaries of decorum like never before with the graphic sexual violence of Frenzy and the baroque excess of Family Plot, which reads almost like a queasy self-reflexive spoof of his earlier work.  Given the liberty, it seems that even the master was not beyond indulgences of a more reckless nature.  I use this of course to rationalize some of De Palma's more infamous sequences in which a chainsaw, a straight razor and yes, even a power drill are used in ways that Black & Decker likely never imagined.  

Amidst the changing tides of taste, and a movie audience that seems to demand more extreme thrills with each passing year, was it inevitable that De Palma would become the heir apparent to Hitchcock's legacy?  If Hitchcock had lived another twenty years, would we have found him competing with or even borrowing from De Palma to deliver against audience expectations?  This much is clear: just as Hitchcock defined the thriller genre by refining its themes and techniques, De Palma has done more to bring prominence to the genre in the ensuing years than any other mainstream director.  In his interview with Marcia Pally in Film Comment circa 1984, he was unapologetic about his methods.  "The content of my films is a secondary issue...I don't start with an idea about content.  I start with a VISUAL IMAGE."  Eight years later, his viewpoint hadn't changed, but there was a sense that De Palma had grown more indignant of his critics.  "I could take a script out and photograph it and I can be called a director," he rhapsodized to Peter Keough of Sight and Sound, "the story's all there, they walk in the door, they sit down, then they get in the car and there's a car chase.  But to me, that's not directing, it's being asleep at the switch."  

Add to this attitude the fact that the thriller genre seems to invite the hyper-stylized visual flourishes of a De Palma like no other genre and we begin to grasp a complete picture of the man.  There is scarcely a thriller that doesn't represent a 'heightened reality' by amplifying one of the following: the intrusion of violence into every day life, the effort to conceal hidden truths, the duplicity of heroes and villains and other such familiar tropes and yet the appeal of these themes when handled smartly is virtually inexhaustible.    Thrillers remain one of cinema's most popular international currencies and it is surely no coincidence that Hitchcock and his thrillers made him the most popular filmmaker of his generation.  So, what does this tell us about the less popular De Palma being the genuine article?  My hope is that we can start by agreeing on these points: 

(1) Restraint in and of itself has no greater intrinsic artistic value than excess, provided it has a purpose -- although some would argue for a narrower view of restraint as the only technique that heralds ambiguity and truth in art.  

(2) If it is artistically valid and even preferable for form to reflect content in a film, the thriller genre would seem to validate the giddy operatic excess of a filmmaker like De Palma.  

The question that remains has dogged him for most of his career.  Does Brian De Palma have an authentic point-of-view or is he little more than a derivative knock-off artist?  I believe that De Palma is trying to do more than simply re-think and pay homage to existing cinematic material.  I also agree with his claim that there is a cinematic language (developed by Hitchcock) which makes sense for storytellers; particularly in the thriller genre.  Seen through this lens, it isn't so much a question of what the director is doing but how he/she is doing it.  Is he/she using the devices of cinema appropriately and authentically? In the case of Brian De Palma, I believe the answer is yes.  

Admittedly, this is a more academic discussion than I typically choose to entertain on my blog.  I can't help feeling ambivalent about admitting that I take movies as seriously as I do.  I know that it's much  hipper to feign irony and cool detachment, but I'm willing to confess that I believe De Palma embodies what the French would call an artiste.  There, I finally said it.  More than almost any other modern mainstream filmmaker, De Palma has been criticized for his methods and he has balked at his detractors by continuing to practice in much the same fashion.  Rather than silence his critics, his success has only incited a deeper level of scrutiny. 

Nevertheless, his maverick aesthetic, his painstaking re-working of classical cinematic themes and his propensity to go over the top posits a world in which anything can happen.  Even when you recognize the language being used, De Palma is capable of shaking you up because he's willing to break all the rules.  With movies like: Sisters, Carrie, Obsession, Dressed To Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, Body Double, The Untouchables, Casualties of War and Carlito's Way, De Palma digests the tropes of classic film storytelling and re-engineers them to make an overt and deliberate comment on the way we watch movies.  Why else would the man repeatedly employ devices like split-diopter cinematography and split screen editing, if not to focus our attention on the way we watch his films?  His use of fluid crane shots, slow motion and steadicam, his stubborn insistence on a dizzying camera spiraling around two figures (often dancing), and his tightly edited montages (usually triggered by an outbreak of violence) are just further examples of a style that is both immersive and distancing.  

I believe De Palma's body of work is more than mere homage.  It is also an attempt to test how far audiences are willing to be sucked into a film while still aware that they are watching something manufactured.  De Palma himself has been vocal about this creative strategy since the beginning of his career, as evidenced by comments he provided in a 1973 interview in Filmmakers Newsletter, where he told Richard Rubenstein: "I am constantly standing outside and making people aware that they are watching a film....There is a kind of Brechtian alienation idea here: you are aware of what you are watching at the same time that you are emotionally involved in it."  These contradictory intentions are what lends a De Palma film such palpable tension.  The world of his films is both visceral and self-reflexive.  His post-modern sensibility lies at the height of his fascination and it accounts for the misguided rancor he's incurred from the critics for "borrowing" so liberally from the old masters.  But before you accuse me of going off the rails, let me just say that I recognize there are holes in the argument.  Although De Palma's films embody a virtuosic command of cinematic craft, his stories often shun conventional logic and at times eschew narrative coherence altogether.  It is difficult to determine if this is laziness on his part, or merely part of his experiment to test what audiences are willing to accept.  

If his sometimes laughable plots are in fact conceived as cinematic jokes by the self-proclaimed "gallows humorist," I find it is easier to subscribe to the theory of the man as a surrealist genius.  It is a fact that he uses the 'film-within-a-film' motif throughout his body of work.  In Hi Mom it appears as the faux-documentary sequence.  In Sisters it is both a fictional game show and a shocking newsreel detailing the tragic life of two siamese twins.  In Blow Out it is the slasher film spoof that opens the movie and the flip-book of images that Travolta matches to his sound recording.  In Body Double it is the staged porn footage -- a satiric retort conceived to dispute the theory that De Palma himself was a purveyor of smut.  The most current example is Redacted an entire film in which the manner with which it is made calls into question conventional notions of reality.  Sometimes the result is so over-the-top that it's hard to know whether De Palma is in on the joke, but an examination of his anarchic early films demonstrates an outrageous counter-culture sensibility that bears resemblance to his modern period not by way of genre but of risk taking.  

De Palma's use of meta-fiction in his films is so consistent that it can be seen as a key to his unique working method.   His "meta" approach to telling stories affords him incredible latitude with respect to credibility, allowing him to tow the line between dream and reality -- a distinction he seems to relish playing with, given the number of dream sequences in his films (Carrie, Obsession, Dressed To Kill, Femme Fatale, etc).  His use of the film-within-a-film and the dream sequence forces us to accept the events 'outside the dream' as truth, even if that truth is absurdly lurid or melodramatic.  We are compelled, even as we laugh at the dream logic of his plot or his overcooked visuals. His protagonists complete the effect by embodying the themes that fascinate him.  In most cases De Palma's leads are either voyeurs who are forcibly transformed into participants (Irving in Carrie, Travolta in Blow Out, Wasson in Body Double, Allen in Dressed To Kill, Fox in Casualties of War, Banderas in Femme Fatale) or individuals at odds with their own public image (Pacino in both Scarface and Carlito's Way, Cruise in Mission Impossible, etc).  Always the protagonist is forced to enter a world that he/she was once outside of as a spectator, only to find their worst fears realized.  

Many of the early objections to De Palma were propagated by moralists who failed to correctly identify his position on his own films.  The prevalence of freudian and feminist film theory painted a picture of De Palma the sadist and misogynist which is now ludicrous after witnessing his four decades in pictures, but still clings to him like freshly dried linens.  Although the stigma still haunts him today, De Palma has become (like Hitchcock before him) a model of taste compared to current trend-setters such as Eli Roth (Hostel) or Rob Zombie (The Devil's Rejects).  After all, even his most seemingly gruesome scenes cut away from the action at the crucial moment, leaving the results to our collective imagination.  I don't know if any of this will have any impact on you or the way you view the man, but hopefully it will at least get you thinking.   There are many ways to look at a film and De Palma has made a career of exploiting these distinctions.  Is he the genuine article?  I say yes.  Now, if you'll excuse me I need to go find a padded room to thrash around in after the public embarrassment of taking his side in the debate.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Batman: Arkham City - Initial Impressions

The following is a guest blog written by Bill Gienapp, a Hollywood screenwriter and story editor currently employed by SEP in Beverly Hills.  He is a Harvard and USC alumnus and one of the smartest cats I know:

In case you haven’t noticed, video game storytelling has evolved over the past decade to a point in which it rivals - if not outright trumps - much of today’s cinema. Those of us who grew up playing the likes of Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt probably never envisioned the day when a game like Bioshock would double as a philosophical rebuttal to the works of Ayn Rand or LA Noire would spin a hard-boiled yarn with a narrative complexity worthy of Raymond Chandler. I’ll leave the tiresome argument of whether a video game can ever truly be “art” for others to debate… all I know is that a prospective screenwriter can learn a heck of a lot more about constructing a first-class adventure by studying the nuances of character, plot and pacing in the Uncharted series than 90% of the supposed crowd-pleasing blockbusters Hollywood trots out every summer.

One of the very best games this generation to date has been Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, which was rightfully acclaimed for translating the world of its titular hero to a degree never before seen in the medium. However, as great an experience as Arkham Asylum was, I couldn’t help but feel a certain nagging disappointment that, for a game literally set in Gotham’s fabled prison for the criminally insane, it took only minimal advantage of Batman’s unparalleled (and I do mean unparalleled) stable of villains. While there was little doubt of a sequel, presumably it would be a different breed of adventure, leaving one to conclude that the developers squandered their one and only chance to produce a game with a built-in excuse to congregate the entire rogue’s gallery.

Well, I’m happy to report that Rocksteady proved me decidedly wrong on that last count with its just-released follow-up Batman: Arkham City, which, after just a few hours of gameplay, appears to offer everything one could possibly want in a game dedicated to the exploits of the Caped Crusader. From a conceptual standpoint, the premise, in which a sizable chunk of Gotham is sectioned off into an Escape From New York-style prison complex dubbed “Arkham City,” is nothing short of brilliant. It offers a contained environment - like a powder keg into which Batman is dropped like a lit match - but still affords its robust lineup of villains the sort of autonomy that wouldn’t have been feasible in the Asylum. The basic setup thrusts you into the middle of an ongoing power struggle between the Joker, Two-Face and the Penguin, while Arkham’s newly appointed warden, Hugo Strange (who appears to have - (uh-oh) - ascertained Batman’s secret identity), plots sinisterly behind-the-scenes and speaks ominously of something known simply as “Protocol 10.” The initial burst of giddiness only grows more pronounced as Batman ping-pongs tirelessly from one crisis to the next, hunted all the while by Strange’s army of private mercenaries. With all due respect to Christopher Nolan, this is superhero storytelling at its finest.

To be honest, Arkham City doesn’t differ all that noticeably from its predecessor in terms of the core gameplay, employing the same fundamental balance of hand-to-hand combat, stealth and basic detective work. The one key difference is that Arkham Asylum offered the mere illusion of open-world gameplay when, for the most part, it was a rigorously linear experience. No one much complained, given how superbly paced and executed its campaign was, but Arkham City truly makes you feel as if you’ve been immersed in an interconnected, fully realized comic book world. Early on, you overhear Harley Quinn dispatching a handful of thugs to track down Mr. Freeze, telling them “You find the Snowman and remind him what happens when you double-cross Mr. J!” Later, you’re shaken by a distant explosion, with radio chatter indicating that the Penguin has blown up the bridge to the industrial sector, in an effort to cut off the Joker from the rest of the prison. These moments are scripted, of course, yet they reinforce the idea that Arkham City is a living, breathing environment, in which literally dozens of events are occurring at any given time. Exploration, meanwhile, is rewarded with a bounty of side quests that range from forming a tenuous alliance with Bane to destroy barrels of Titan formula, to investigating a series of executions perpetrated by Deadshot, to racing against the clock to prevent Victor Zsasz from claiming another victim. Had there been time limits imposed on these missions - or on the central storyline - the game might have swiftly devolved into a muddled frenzy, but thankfully the developers allow you to proceed at your own pace (a good thing, as I realized I’d nearly burned an hour just chasing down Riddler trophies).

A special point also must be made to quickly commend Rocksteady’s bold decision to weave Catwoman into the proceedings, not only as a narrative wild card, but as an actual playable character. Her sequences serve more as the figurative cherry on top, but are such an entertaining change of pace (“I don’t suppose Red’s still ticked off at me,” she asks, before making the dubious decision to try and recruit Poison Ivy to her cause) I would wholeheartedly support a future game dedicated entirely to her exploits.

If there’s any criticism to be had of Arkham City in the early going, it’s the fact that the game is so jam-packed with content, it can feel a little overwhelming at first. The opening sequence is intensely cinematic but light on exposition, and players who haven’t cut their teeth on Arkham Asylum are apt to find their heads spinning. Still, to quote Catwoman, upon narrowly escaping execution at the hands of Two-Face and a sniper’s bullet courtesy of the Joker - “This place is dangerous. I like it.”

Thursday, October 20, 2011

One Dull Thing

Nostalgia for John Carpenter's The Thing brought me to the latest reboot/prequel, also aptly named The Thing.  Scary movies are my favorite way to celebrate the coming of Halloween each October, and watching them has become an annual ritual for me that typically goes unobserved for the rest of the year.  Unfortunately, this Thing doesn't succeed as nostalgia and the only dread it generates is a fear of which successful franchise the studios will seek to destroy next -- not to mention a fear of narcolepsy.  I almost fell asleep twice.

In the right hands, the project could have been a sure thing.  The notion of a creature from another world that can absorb and convincingly impersonate anyone is a corker ripe with with possibility.  The makers of this movie had nearly 30 years to let a new idea germinate -- for instance: imagine the Thing running rampant in a major city!  Nobody is who they seem.  That would be an interesting follow-up.  Instead, the big idea of this movie is to set-up why the dog is being pursued by Nordic scientists in the opening of the Carpenter film.  Finally, the question is answered!  Unfortunately, we learn nothing about how the creature comes to earth or why it feasts on human flesh with such unbridled fervor.  It's as though after all this time, the studio panicked and pushed the project into production before the script, cast and crew was ready.  Which begs the question: why now?

Although Carpenter's 1982 film was also a remake, it was shrewdly conceived with a unique visual style all its own and a particularly lean and chilling screenplay.  I don't object to remakes as a rule, but  remakes only work when they do one of two things: enrich the original material with new conflict and deeper characterizations, or use the original material to develop a unique visual approach to the telling of the story.  This thing looks exactly like the Carpenter film, which only underscores all of its weaknesses.

There isn't an original idea in the entire picture unless you count the revelation that the "thing" cannot impersonate its victim's dental fillings.  The best part of the movie is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who tries her best to generate a modicum of audience engagement.  The worst part of the movie is the senseless timing of the monster attacks.  It literally seems as though the creature waits until the most potent moment of on-screen silence to tear things up.  Perhaps in the sequel we'll learn precisely why it lies dormant inside its human hosts and holds full conversations before arbitrarily revealing itself to its prey.  Still, I did marvel at the many ways the filmmakers found to turn the titular slime creature into a gelatinous abstraction of the human form -- sometimes with two partially digested heads.  That's real efficiency.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


I may have a more highly developed sense of empathy for primates than most, having directed a short film called Going Ape, but it would be dishonest to say that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is anything short of the blockbuster of the summer.  I'm as surprised to be writing this as you must be to read it, but you'll have to see it yourself to judge if I've completely taken leave of my senses.  The pseudo-science-fiction set-up involves a new alzheimer's medication called ALZ 112, which endows the apes of the title with accelerated brain function.  The drug is being tested by James Franco, who is mild but believable as a biochemist with a personal agenda (his father, played by John Lithgow suffers from alzheimer's).  When his boss threatens to put down the apes due to complications during testing, Franco rescues a newborn orangutan and raises him privately in his home, as the Marcel to his Ross -- it's like Friends gone awry.

There is something altogether kooky about the Addams family bonds that are formed between Franco, his girlfriend (played by Frieda Pinto) and the aptly named 'Caesar,' who ultimately leads the ape uprising, in order to escape a nasty situation at an animal detention centre.  The concept will be familiar for anyone who saw Renny Harlin's b-movie classic Deep Blue Sea, in which an alzheimer's drug inadvertently increases the brain-power of the killer sharks at a waterbound medical facility.  The ending is also rather blatantly forecasted by the title, so the big surprise is how many unpredictable little turns the story takes.  In a movie with such a grand scale, the screenplay offers an extraordinary number of small details that render the characters and themes most immediate.

Don't get me wrong, nobody's going to reinvent the cinematic wheel with a planet of the apes film but this one gets the formula right and even gives us pause occasionally to think about hubris and the ill effects of good intentions when they aren't fully thought through.  The writers have clearly digested their material and mined it for the uncanny.  They have also successfully translated many of their more theoretical ideas into images that are both exciting and frightening.  Many of these moments occur during the inevitable ape revolution which culminates in a battle atop the Golden Gate Bridge.  In the capable hands of director Rupert Wyatt, we see more of the bridge than we will ever likely experience (short of the apocalypse) and in spite of all the CGI, he makes sense of the chaos through his expert staging and editing.

When the battle is momentarily interrupted by the fog, I couldn't help but smile at such ingenious storytelling.  Yep, that's the Golden Gate Bridge alright.  This little dose of reality helps to balance all the unreality of the unfolding situation and this is just one of many examples in the film.  I surrendered to the filmmakers because I knew I was in good hands.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes is what summer blockbuster movies are supposed to be: a great ride.  Even the ending strikes a tone I didn't quite see coming.  And, the performance of the computer-generated Caesar (created through motion-capture technology) by actor Andy Serkis may very well be the best performance by an actor (human or otherwise) that I have seen all year.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Hitchcock Close-Ups

Hitchcock worked with Hollywood's most glamorous stars and created many of their most iconic moments, often casting A-list players such as Cary Grant and James Stewart against type to reveal the darker underside of their star personas.  His mastery of the subjective camera crystallized in the 1950's and seduced us into absolute kinship with his leads, alternating between an objective and subjective camera in movies like Rear Window, Strangers on a Train and Vertigo among many others.

In Rear Window, we see Jimmy Stewart in a wheelchair, looking out the window onto his apartment complex.  These objective camera angles are then matched to Stewart's subjective point-of-view, looking through the window at his neighbors.  This subjective angle puts us in his shoes and also implicates us in his act of voyeurism; a technique that is repeated throughout Hitchcock's work.  We see an actor and then we see what he sees.  This becomes a structure by which we are trained to identify with the Hitchcock protagonist.  Apart from creating this identification, the Hitchcock style also makes it possible for us to comfortably observe people trapped in particularly queasy situations, guilt-free.

Occasionally however, Hitchcock also uses the objective-subjective camera to disrupt our voyeuristic comfort by cutting away from the protagonist to train our eyes on a new character, usually a stranger, observing a central character from outside his or her current situation.  We see this in To Catch A Thief when Cary Grant is lounging on the beach and suddenly we are made aware that a bodybuilder whom we've never met is watching him from a chin-up bar.  We also see it in The Man Who Knew Too Much, when Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day de-board after their flight and a woman in the crowd (with an alarming pair of wire-rimmed glasses) observes them from afar.  Perhaps the most audacious example is Psycho, which sets up Janet Leigh as the protagonist with whom we identify for the first 45 minutes of the film until she is stabbed to death in the shower.  This shocking break in continuity then forces us into identification with Norman Bates, as he proceeds to clean up his "mother's" mess.

Abrupt perspective changes are a classic Hitchcockian device that implicate us as voyeurs by introducing sinister characters who are watching the hero, just as we have been.  They also give us outside information which may be critical to the hero's survival and this knowledge generates suspense, as we wonder if the hero will clue into this hidden information and be able to make use of it before it's too late.  In memory of Hitchcock's birthday on August 13, 1899 it is fun to reflect on his sly entertainments.  He made it possible to walk a mile in Cary Grant's shoes and then he pulled out the red carpet from under them.

Some lesser-known Hitchcock films that are worth a look: Sabotage, Shadow of a Doubt, I Confess, The Trouble With Harry, The Wrong Man, Marnie, Topaz, Torn Curtain, Frenzy.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens * 1/2

Although I haven't seen The Smurfs, first let me start by commending all those who chose little blue creatures over big slimy monsters on the weekend of July 29th.  I don't know you personally, but I would hazard a guess that if you spent ten-plus dollars on such nostalgic alternative programming you probably got your money's worth.  If however, like me, you were chomping at the bit over the prospect of gunsmoke and laser beams, send me a message and together we'll initiate an effort to reclaim our hard-earned money.

Cowboys & Aliens may satisfy you if you: (a) have never seen a movie before, (b) don't speak English and plan to watch the film without subtitles, or (c) enjoy going to the movies so that you can invent a better version of the story you are currently watching.  That being said, I'm afraid fans of Westerns and Alien invasion films would be well advised to stay away.  Although I tend to agree that there is 'strength in numbers' the rule typically does not apply to screenwriters of which Cowboys & Aliens has seven, not including the uncredited ones.

The story we're served is a gourmet platter analagous to the "snake surprise" in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but without the surprise.  It all begins when Daniel Craig wakes up in the middle of the desert with a mysterious electronic cuff on his wrist, not knowing who he is or how he got there.  By the end of the movie, I'm not sure he finds the answer.  What he does find are lots of explosions, several alien attacks, a rivalry with the curmudgeonly Harrison Ford and romantic tension in the form of a woman who isn't really a woman and comes from a planet we never learn about.  Along the way there are triumphs, tribulations and unfortunate Native-American stereotypes, which compliment all of the cliches smashingly.    The aliens grow increasingly unfriendly but we never learn what it is they want and after a while it becomes unimportant.

 The most unpredictable aspect of the story is Craig's wrist-cuff which seems to have a mind of it's own (shades of my old Waring 7.5 amp blender) and knows exactly when to kill people without even being programmed.  We never learn how this is possible or why the cuff repeatedly rescues Craig from the very beings who designed it.  Add to this the fact that in spite of some dandy special effects and a stellar cast of actors, the movie completely loses its hold in the second half.   The end result feels more like a visit to a wax museum than the cinematic joy ride that could have been.  You can make out the familiar faces but there's something unsubstantial about it all.  Something that no measure of special effects can make up for.

I know it sounds jaded but believe me, I'm really not knocking the filmmakers here.  I'm actually reveling in the realization that I was naive enough to have expected more.  With each passing summer movie season it's becoming increasingly important to let go of one's lofty expectations; they interfere with the fun.  Yes, a concept can be more than the sum of its special effects but who am I to purport that one man alone could effect this change?  We're all in this together.  This is the kind of entertainment we'll all be paying for well into the 22nd century, unless of course we can learn as a civilization to appreciate the Smurfs.  At least then we might actually get our money's worth.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Super 8 **1/2

Super 8 is J.J. Abrams' weakest film because it lacks the imagination that allowed him to breathe new life into the Mission Impossible and Star Trek franchises.  The movie plays as a compendium of moments from vintage Spielberg films, including E.T., The Goonies and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but it never breaks free from this reverence for its source material.  The first half is infectious for anyone who grew up loving these kinds of movies and the youthful cast is very good; from Elle Fanning all the way down to Gabriel Basso, whose character Martin bears an uncanny resemblance to Cory Haim in Lucas -- coincidence?  Eventually the thrill of identifying these allusions wears thin and the movie's hollow centre is revealed.  Like so many other recent mainstream movies, Super 8 plays like a movie about other movies, rather than a movie about real people facing real problems.  The brilliance of the early films was grounded in Spielberg's ability to use extraordinary situations to reveal something universal about ordinary lives and the choices each of us makes.  Abrams' film works hard to generate this connection, but it isn't emotionally moving.  Kids who are new to the genre will enjoy the film.  It's fun to watch and the action set-pieces don't assault you; they have a pace and structure that is sorely lacking in modern summer blockbusters.  I just can't bring myself to fully get behind a movie that "celebrates storytelling" by referencing somebody else's stories.  The script should have been better.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Shutter Island ***

Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island is the type of movie where red-herrings are seemingly piled on top of red-herrings and the actors seem to have an easier time shouting their lines than they do speaking them softly.  It is almost as if each character exists solely to get a rise out of the next and DiCaprio embodies this ethos with his explosive performance.  His moods change so quickly, it's almost like watching a master class in faking a panic attack and yet his performance anchors the movie firmly to the left of center.  It isn't until the end that all becomes clear and suddenly the rationale behind these theatrics takes on an entirely different meaning.  

As it is unfolding, much of the film is claptrap nonsense made legitimately engrossing by Scorsese's directorial energy.  Although the subject takes him far from home, there is a tangible sense of the fun he is having, bending different genres and juggling the atonal rythms of the story.  His effort is impossible to miss.  It isn't subtle, but his force as a storyteller is the real show here.  Critics were mixed when the picture was released earlier this year and it is easy to get sucked into appraising this as one of the director's minor works.  I believe it's one of his most interesting films.  In time, as he has wandered from his usual milieu of wiseguys and street hoods, Scorsese has emerged as a passionate narrator of American history.  Shutter Island can easily be viewed as his vision of post-war paranoia run amok.  But, it is also an exercise in storytelling form that allows him to push narrative boundaries, thanks to a superb climactic twist.  

The twist at the end of the film is also the key to the center of the film and we are treated to the rare surprise ending that amounts to more than the surprise itself.  Unlike other popular "puzzle narratives" such as The Sixth Sense or  Fight Club, Shutter Island rewards multiple viewings with more than a few sly winks and an "aha, I fooled you."  Watching Shutter Island for a second time is an entirely different experience than the initial viewing.  The tone is different, motivations are clearer, and it has a much deeper emotional resonance.  Only a director of Scorsese's caliber could pull off this high-wire act without sacrificing on either entertainment or substance.  Even once you know what's coming it is impossible to look away.  

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

There Will Be Blood ****

Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood may be the finest film to come out of Hollywood in the last 10 years.  Surely no other American film has been filled with such unabashed anger, audacity and clarity in its point of view.  These qualities make it uncommonly provocative both in terms of its subject and in terms of how it is executed.  While a movie like The Social Network earns critical kudos for the spotlight that it shines on our current state of culture, There Will Be Blood traces the origins of our current state to meditate on the root of the world's biggest predicament.

The story is simple enough.  There is a man, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis), who arrives in the town of Little Boston at the turn of the century to drill for oil.  He cons the townsfolk into adopting him as a savior of sorts and then gradually drains their land of its riches (both literally and figuratively) until there is nothing left for him to take.  In the process, Daniel forsakes his adopted son and comes up against the local minister, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) who professes a desire to protect the community, and yet shares the oil man's mercenary talent for manipulation.  Both men know what they want and their every action is filled with an ambiguity, that forces us to question their motives.

Their personas are self-crafted and calculated to elicit a response that will advance their cause.  Scarcely a single word is uttered between them that we can be certain is sincere.  This is all the more disturbing in the case of the minister, who we would like to believe is doing what he's doing for a higher purpose, but the hypocrisy is undeniable.  When Daniel unveils the first oil derrick in Little Boston, does he bless the rig because he's superstitious?  To manipulate the town?  To spite the minister?  We never know.  When the minister baptizes Daniel (in one of the film's most harrowing scenes) are his methods just a little more vicious than they need to be?  Is it a purity of heart that leads him to bless Daniel, or is he merely stringing him along in the hopes of receiving a larger cash donation?

In their colossal clash of wills, the men come to represent the two most important pillars of modern life: faith and finance.  The film exposes the inverse connection between the two and suggests that there is a duality within every man that often cannot be resolved.  This duality is iterated from the very outset by the curious appearance of Paul Sunday (Eli's brother), who comes to bring the family's oil claim to Daniel.  Both brothers are played by Paul Dano and by the end of the film it is impossible to know whether they actually both exist.  By the time Eli comes crawling to Daniel begging for money, we wonder if he didn't masquerade as Paul in order to extricate himself from the guilt of his own greed.  Either way, this ambiguity is the heart and soul of the film in every respect.

The lingering camera hangs on the action, creeping forward eerily like the greed that slowly infects Daniel's soul.  As he continues to dig himself deeper, we want to believe he can still be redeemed.  Anderson's impartial camera forces us to study Daniel.  It forces us to project a humanity onto him that ultimately proves not to exist.  When he reflects on his relationship with his son in the film's penultimate scene, contempt overtakes his sense of nostalgia.   No one but Daniel Day Lewis could have played this part. His performance embodies both the loftiness and the grim humor of the movie's many themes. It is Daniel Day Lewis who makes the story so unpredictable, projecting a queasy blend of volatility and  mock tenderness.

The entire film teeters on the edge between wrath and restraint; between the Judeo-Christian ethic and a shadier, more complicated hierarchy of motivations.  Visually this is expressed in the inky saturation of the color palette and the murky blur of light and dark that frames the film.  Daniel's thirst for power is matched only by Eli's hunger for religious authority.  Both men use their status to manipulate people.  Both men aspire to absolute dominion over their kingdoms.  Both men become so consumed with defending their interests that they are willing to sacrifice their core ideals in order to pursue them.  The finale is all the more disturbing because of how senselessly it is resolved.  Daniel is seen emerging as the victor not because he has actually won something tangible, but rather because he has come full circle to embrace his true nature without pretense.  Eli is never given that chance.

There is a dogged sense of justice to all of the film's mysterious events.  Daniel abandons his son and gains what he thinks is a brother, only to learn that he is being conned.  Eli pretends to abandon his faith in order to save his church, only to realize that he has abandoned everything.  But what is it that we are ultimately left with?  Is Anderson blaming the absence of reason on the absence of god, or is he saying that god leaves us mortals to grapple with the questions?  Perhaps his vision has nothing to do with god.  Perhaps instead he is saying that his two pillars will continue to feed off one another for all of time until their inevitable destruction.  Still, there is something comforting in the power of ideas so expertly articulated.  Great art is filled with such ideas.  Maybe Anderson is actually telling us it isn't too late.  As long as there remains a debate we each have the power to resolve it.