Friday, April 30, 2010

Morvern Callar

It started with moving images. Later on, it sound was combined with the images. In essence, all film can be reduced to moving images and sound, and the interplay between the two forces is what makes the base on which all film is built. Sometimes, films are made where the value of the work can be reduced to the ways the sound and image play off each other, such as in Morvern Callar.

The film one expects when they hear the storyline and the film that results, in this case, are two completely different things. The story goes that Morvern Callar, played by Samantha Morton, finds her boyfriend has killed himself on Christmas Eve, leaving behind an unpublished manuscript and a mix tape. Callar decides to change the name on the manuscript to her own, and also go partying as her boyfriend decomposes on the living room floor. Now, take everything you might expect from that premise, and forget about it, because the plot merely gives a rough direction and a bit of imagery.

What you get instead is a pure mood piece. The dialog is sparse, the plotting moreso, and it takes a good 30 minutes before much really happens, story-wise. That's because the story exists to give a direction, not to actually dictate events. We are let into the world of Callar through Morton's performance, the suspiciously perfect mix-tape, and the sublime mix of sound and image.

What is the mood it creates? Well, it's a mix of moody depression and light creepiness, and not just because Callar's boyfriend sits on the living room floor for so long. The film is mostly about grief, trying to convey that sense of loss simply through the power of cinema. Anyone expecting to find anything of a story will be disappointed, as will anyone unwilling to be absorbed into a picture which wants to convey an idea over a coherent plot.

If you're willing, it's an easy film to get lost in. It is beautifully shot, the music selection is amazing - apart from one song I generally can't stand that is nonetheless wholly appropriate for the scene - and while it can sometimes can seem inscrutable, it's easy to see the ideas and the pure thought that went into the overall atmosphere. It's a very different kind of movie, and one that might not be for all people, but it is worth exploring and giving a chance.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Amores Perros

This year at Cannes, for the first time ever, director Alejandro González Iñárritu is going to debut a movie not written by Guillermo Arriaga. I'm excited, because Inarritu is a top flight filmmaker who really needs to get someone else writing screenplays for him. Not that I hate Arriaga, but he's kind of a one trick pony, as evidenced by their first collaboration, Amores Perros.

So, as you should already know, it's a film about several characters tied together by one central event. In this case, a big, really nicely executed car crash that opens the film. It's caused by dog fighter/douchebag Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal) who did some stupid things while trying to get money to run away with his abusive douchebag brother's wife (Marco Perez as the brother, Vanessa Bauche as the wife). He runs into successful model and owner of an astonishingly stupid dog Valeria (Goya Toledo) who has really shrill arguments with her man Daniel (Álvaro Guerrero), who just separated from his wife so they could live together in an apartment with a hole in the floor and an amazing view of the successful model's legs. Saving the best for last, there is also the Hobo Assassin (Emilio Echevarría), who goes around being awesome with his pack of wild dogs and his regrets.

So, we have three stories crammed together into one film, all about how love screws you in some way (a translation of the title is Love's a Bitch). While it's the beginning of the collaboration, having seen this film last of the three that director and writer collaborated on, it's familiar ground that they will pretty much draw all life out of following this. While it's handled in a relatively clever way in 21 Grams, and there is a lot more of it in Babel, between the three films they have done pretty much everything possible with the structure.

The question with this is, does this need the structure at all? Two of the three stories could do perfectly fine as a stand alone feature. The douchbag dogfighter chapter needs a bit of fleshing out post-accident and it's will do fine. It feels more familiar than the other two, but it would certainly work well as a film of its own. It's got an interesting perspective on a battered wife that doesn't really get explored enough - why is she so loyal, for instance?

The best chapter, however, is that of the Hobo Assassin. Never mind how cool he is - there's a scene where he goes over a hill with obligatory ass-kicking music and his hobo cart and feral dogs, it subverts cool action hero cliches and is completely awesome in its own right. Where was I? Oh right, it doesn't matter that he's just cool, he's got a compelling story, the arc of his assassination attempts on a rich guy with greasy hair is compelling and there's a bit more that can be done with the characters involved in the assassination plot. He is, on his own, much more interesting and compelling than every other character in the story, and really deserves a complete two hours rather than having to compete with two other stories.

So, why doesn't the accident victim deserve an entire film devoted to her? Well, it's a big dead weight in the middle of the film. For some reason, Arriaga writes people who have recently been in debilitating and life ruining accidents as shrill, screaming morons without common sense. This was especially apparent in Babel, but it's pretty bad here, as the character of Valeria - who should be at least a little sympathetic - wears out her welcome early and then wastes away any remaining good will by just being annoying, until being annoying and jealous. Her boyfriend bitch slapped by the screenplay, as it seems to suggest that he got what he deserved for leaving his perfect in every way wife, who is on screen for so little we don't understand why he left her. They're not very interesting characters, and then they make themselves hateful, Valeria especially taking what should be an identifiable character and ruining her with shouting, pettiness and jealousy. It smells of someone wanting to focus on the victim, and then trying in vain to make a story around a woman sitting in a wheel chair with a stupid dog underneath the floor boards for some reason, by trying to incite marital drama that has no need to exist.

That said, this was mostly a good movie, and the dead weight in the middle is prime opportunity for a bathroom break or to get some snacks. It does make me think that the Inarritu/Arriaga partnership needed to end. Inarritu is just too good of a filmmaker to keep making these same pictures over and over again. I wonder what he can do with a narrative that's a bit more focused. Arriaga needs the confidence to fit only one story in his pictures, as the timeline-jumbling everyone-is-connected thing got stale quickly and smells of someone who doesn't have enough confidence in his own work to follow through with an idea. Someone needs to do a proper, feature length film focusing entirely on the Hobo Assassin, he really deserves to shine.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Bonnie and Clyde

The mark of a true innovator is how common their innovations become after they do them. Dede Allen, who died earlier this week, was a true innovator. Action films are cut like Bonnie and Clyde, her use of jump cuts and edits as pacing are pretty much staples now, and it seems hard to believe that the work she edited was not cut like that before she came along. How many other editors have gotten as many loving tributes as she has had during the past week? How many editors are even recognized at all? That tells you just how much of a ground breaker she was. It's appropriate that, by sheer coincidence, I had Bonnie and Clyde cued up for this week, since this a large part of the reason she has gotten the recognition she has.

Bonnie and Clyde is one of those films where, if you come 20 years after the fact, you're not going to quite get what the fuss was about. This isn't a knock against the movie, but more an observation of just how much film was influenced by it. You hear about its groundbreaking editing, filming style and the innovative and visceral way it handled violence. Then you watch it and think, yeah, it's good, but it's hard to appreciate that once upon a time not all films were like this. If it changed the face of film, it did so in a way that everyone has since copied, to such an extent that it's difficult to appreciate how different it was at the time.

That is not to say that this makes the film worse. There is a very good reason why everyone has been influenced by this little film about violence and sexual frustration. The story is one that has captivated people since Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow started robbing banks and being sexy. Warren Beatty's Clyde is a charming ne'rdowell who Faye Dunaway's Bonnie spots trying to steal her mothers car. Lightly turned on by the danger this charming stranger represents, Bonnie decides to follow him and his impressive gun, and they start robbing banks and styling themselves as a modern day Robin Hood. They bring along C.W. Moss (Michael J. Parsons), a kid from a gas station who they convince that robbery will be fun, Clyde's brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his screaming wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons), and go around robbing banks and getting in violent shootouts. Then, things go quite badly, though everyone knows this because the story is pretty famous.

The film is entirely about sex, and the violence is presented as simply sexual urges expressed in a different way. We get a clear indication that this is the intent from the first robbery, as Bonnie can't keep her hands off of Clyde after he does some good old fashioned armed robbery. As he spurns her advances it becomes steadily more violent, until finally they do the deed and they are no longer seen armed. It's a clever way to approach sex in a society that fears it to no end, and somewhat disconcerting that bodies full of holes are acceptable while a nipple still sparks outrage.

Okay, this is not historically accurate, fine. It doesn't have any desire to be, it uses near-legends to express a point, and it's probably better for it. The real Bonnie and Clyde had a much less tidy story arc to them, and while an entire television series could be made of their exploits, one movie is a bit of a stretch. Considering that sex played into the legend as it was, it's entirely appropriate that a sex-themed film was centered around them.

It's not perfect, but nothing is. The real Blanche Barrow objected to Estelle Parsons making her look like a screaming ass, and she's right. Yes, she won an Oscar, though if your objective was to look like a screaming ass it was a good job. That's pretty much the only thing I didn't like about it, but I've never been a fan of the constantly screaming woman character.

The passage of time might mean it's hard to see what was so innovative about Bonnie and Clyde, but that's fine. It hasn't dulled what makes it a good movie, and at the end of the day, innovation only matters if the innovations catch on. Bonnie and Clyde's innovations did, and it remains an excellent movie on top of it. So it's everything you might have expected, it's just hard to see right away.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

American History X

I mentioned before that I live in an area where every black man is either a doctor or a football player. It's a factoid that puts me at arm's length from the specific breed of racism often explored in American films, though not from racism in general - my area has very real problems with racism against aboriginal people, just look up Jim Pankiw for a clear and shameful example - but maybe it gives necessary perspective to see the narrative problems in American films exploring the subject. Let's take a look at American History X, which tries so hard to tell a message the narrative gets lost.

Edward Furlong is Danny, a punk kid with neo-nazi leanings, something he learned from his brother Derek, played by Edward Norton. Derek was a neo-nazi kingpin of sorts, finding lost and confused kids like himself, and getting them to unite in anger against a common enemy, anyone who isn't a white guy. Danny narrates the story of Derek's redemption, as he learns that being a racist prick isn't actually a good idea, and through the power of a wacky laundry man in prison, stops being racist. There's a message about how racism is inherited from the people you trust most, and how people who look up to you are influenced by your actions.

It's a difficult subject to take on, and if I'm completely honest, I don't actually think it works very well here. Much like Crash years later, it has the problem of wanting to make sure there is no possible way to misinterpret the story. As a result, there are a lot of speeches punctuated by actions which underscore how you are supposed to feel during any given scene. It might as well have big flashing signs telling you what you are supposed to feel at any given moment.

Not saying it needs ambiguity - it's not an ambiguous subject - but would a bit of subtlety and nuance be too much to ask? The majority of racist people aren't shooting people and doing lengthy speeches about why anyone who isn't the same as them is bad, they're much more subtle about what their actions. It's a subject that requires subtlety, because going over the top doesn't allow people to realize what, exactly, they're doing in their own lives that might be a little bit racist.

It's interesting that director Tony Kaye wanted his name off of it, saying that Edward Norton took over and re-edited the film to make himself look good. Even if he did, I've got to say, this film would be nothing without Norton. If the script is filled with heavy-handed speechifying, it's speechifying that gives Norton an extremely difficult job. He has to straddle the line between being a sympathetic character we root for and a horrible person, yet make both sides believable. His transformation would not have worked without a bit of subtle kindness in the before. It's a minefield of a role, as tipping too far on one side could make the rest completely unbelievable.

I almost wonder if films like American History X and Crash are well regarded not because of their narrative quality, but because there's a feeling of immense guilt among the population of the US about how black people are treated. Every time a halfway decent movie about the dangers of racism comes along, it's always considered quality, even winning Oscars, no matter how heavy handed it might be. The message here is good, and I like the idea of how people influence the views of each other, but I can't help but wish for a bit less heavy-handedness, a bit less speechifying, and a bit more subtlety. The message would still be clear, but I can't help but think it would make for a much more compelling approach.

Friday, April 16, 2010

All About Eve

The trouble with legitimate classics is that it's always such a struggle to say anything interesting. Everyone knows that All About Eve is a good film already, and the story and title have been referenced in such an odd assortment of ways that the story is pretty much part of the culture by now. What more is there to say about it?

The story of Eve has shown up so many places that it's almost a cliche, though I imagine it was much more original in 1950. Anne Baxter plays Eve, who is, at first appearance, a naive young woman star struck by Margo Channing, played by woman with eyes that make boys think she's a spy, Bette Davis. Channing is already insecure about getting older and aging her way out of the parts that provide her bread and butter. Then, Eve comes along, and is the most perfect assistant in the world, and really seems like an adoring fan who just wants to be around her famous friend. Eventually Eve is cast as an understudy, and is revealed to be a brilliant actor, mostly because all that crap about being a naive fan who wants to be around her favorite star is effectively bullshit. Eventually the audience sees it all, and it culminates in an ending which has a bit of subtle karmic retribution woven in.

It's an engaging story, and the characters themselves have a level of depth and interest that is not always present in the ripoffs. Eve, Margo and the rest all are human characters, with their own insecurities, desires, and needs. They behave like people, and even the sympathetic ones can be jerks, and believably so. It's also clever how it introduces Eve herself, even knowing how the film ends Baxter plays her in a very likable manner, leading on to think she's not so bad. You begin to understand the choices made and the character of the individuals involved, it all makes sense.

That said, it's certainly a wordy thing. Not that lots of dialogue is a bad thing necessarily - and one scene where I questioned not just doing a straight up flashback had to be filmed in that manner once the entire context was known - but there are moments where scenes go on for one or two lines too long, or there's a bit of an unnecessary info dump to establish characters in the beginning which I didn't think really added much. There's a sense that Joseph L. Mankiewicz was so in love with his script that he didn't want to cut a word, so sometimes there are moments of simple redundancy.

Yet, saying that, it is REALLY GOOD dialog, so I can't complain too loudly. Even with scenes that go a few lines too long, I notice that the lines are still really clever, witty ones, and I can't say I'd be too thrilled about a cut were I in Mankiewicz' shoes. Like the characters, I fully understand the faults, though faults they remain.

The funny thing about the entire enterprise is that it has a pretty simple message at the end, one about people themselves. It presents a narrative about people, and flawed as we all are, we do need each other. Those who use others as a means to an end are successful yet unfulfilled, those who give others a place in their lives are still successful, but more importantly, much happier than those who don't. Flaws and all, we need each other, so don't be a dick.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Huey P. Newton Story

Spike Lee, much like Woody Allen last week, is wildly inconsistent. Yet, somehow, I think this might be his best quality, since he's inconsistent mostly because he'll try anything that might be interesting. Yes, he's got common themes, mostly involving racial identity, but he's willing to express these themes in a variety of different ways. So, here's Lee filming a one man show for television (MaR, not just theatrical releases here!), A Huey P. Newton Story.

The story, of a story, is this story. Huey P. Newton (Roger Guenveur Smith) is a co-founder and leader of the Black Panthers. Here, he sits in a chair, smokes, and tells stories about his life, his beliefs, and what it means to be a black man in the world, and the problems that black people face in the current world and in the past, and why change needs to happen. He sometimes rambles off topic, sometimes seems to stutter, but is often engaging, funny, and the message has a real point to it.

I've undersold it, and I admit that. A summary can't sell a one man show, it's all about the actor doing it. Roger Guenveur Smith is a good actor. He's constantly engaging, bringing a neurotic chemistry to the role, stringing together serious points along with jokes, poetry, and an appreciation for history and literature. He's just fascinating to watch all around, something that he has to be in order to carry a show which is basically him talking for an hour and a half. He sells it, and makes it worthwhile.

So, what does Spike Lee do here? He doesn't have to do anything, he can have a static camera and it'd still be worth watching, Smith is that engaging. Lee, however, brings archive film into the background, constantly plays around with the camera and keeps looking for alternate ways of capturing Smith's performance. It doesn't detract in any way, and some of the archival footage provides context. It's not strictly necessary, but it doesn't hurt, and I imagine for some who might get impatient with a man talking for an hour and a half they provide some interest.

I didn't need that though, Smith sells it well enough that he's all I needed to get the film. Yes, I'm a pudgy white guy from an area where the only black people are doctors and football players. I'm about as far from the target audience as you can get. Yet, I was engaged, and I understood more about Huey P. Newton than I had before, and I was more interested in the Civil Rights movement than I had been before. If that was the goal, then consider A Huey P Newton a success.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Brothers Grimm

In this world, there are many things that should have been great. Among those things is today's entry, The Brothers Grimm. In the starring roles, Matt Damon, who remains one of the most likable screen presences out there, and the late Heath Ledger, who, in spite of having some monumentally poor choices in roles, was a frequently engaging screen presence. In the director's chair was Terry Gilliam, who, in spite of famously bad luck, has an arresting visual sense and a taste for the whimsical and the macabre. Who could be more suited to a movie inspired by the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales, which are all bizarre and twisted? This should have been a fantastic film.

Should have.

So, what went wrong? The story itself isn't a bad idea. Damon and Ledger are the Brothers Grimm, who, instead of collecting folk tales are engaged in being paranormal investigators and con men. Knowing this, French general Delacombe (Jonathan Pryce) gets them to investigate another seeming paranormal scam, which might not be a scam after all, and make those silly Germans believe in logic and reason over fairy tales. Included in the mix are about ten billion references to other fairy tales, and a story that gets lost in its own ideas.

That's part of the problem really, it's got many ideas, but it doesn't know what to do with them. It's over thought, making a conscious effort to tie in as much fairy tale and references in as possible before the story ends. It is trying very hard to do as much as it can to remind everyone that it's a film called the Brothers Grimm and about fairy tales.

The other part of the problem seems to be that someone, somewhere along the line realized that holy crap, it is a script lost very far in its own ideas and as a result a bit weak. As a result, everything is cranked up to 11, from the visuals - which are grim and frightening and certainly nightmare material - to the acting. Oh god, the acting.

Peter Stormare, who plays Cavaldi, a French...something, deserves his very own paragraph for his... whatever this is. He is completely incomprehensible, and flails around wildly and incoherently, trying desperately to bring something to the screen. I am completely confused by what the hell he's trying to do. He's just this distracting screen presence, as he flies around in a fit of pure insanity. While Ledger blubbers and Pryce hops between having a bad French accent and being a sniveling villain, Stormare is just bizarre.

So, it's got nightmare material looks and performances that are completely mad, it doesn't really have a core to it. The story is so lost in the ideas that the actual plot doesn't make sense. What should be something of an engaging romp becomes an unintentional horrorshow. The people involved should have lead to great film, but it isn't. Cursed potential.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


When I first started watching Alice, the idea was that I would not be obligated to write about it. Thing is, this had become something of a chore - part of the reason I went on a brief hiatus already - and I wanted to rediscover why I kept writing about these films, and maybe enjoy watching them again. Without that obligation, I was somehow free to actually enjoy Alice again, and was so bursting with things to say about the film that I couldn't leave this little project alone. Hooray!

Don't take that to say Alice is an unimpeachable work of staggering genius though.

What it is, is a Woody Allen film from 1990. If there's one thing everyone can agree with about Allen is that he's kind of a creepy old man. However, a second thing everyone can agree on is that his work tends to be wildly inconsistent, as he tries to do a film a year whether he needs to or not. Did 1990 need Alice? Well, maybe.

Alice is Mia Farrow, a lovely attractive wealthy lady married to slightly sleepy Doug (William Hurt) - I've come to realize that Hurt is the sleepiest actor ever, though it helps here. She lives in a world of pedicures, shopping and superficiality, and is shocked to the core when she meets Joe - played real life Joe, Joe Mantegna - who is interesting and prone to wearing more casual clothes and playing the saxophone - Allen desperately wants to make the saxophone unbearably sexy, possibly because he... isn't. She goes to visit a mystical Chinese Yoda substitute named Dr. Yang (Keye Luke), who proceeds to give her magical drugs which help her learn about herself, provide convenient ways of moving the story forward, and eventually lead to an utterly painful party scene late film.

Alice, both the character and the film, are very silly. Ghosts, hallucinations, opium dreams and an invisibility tonic all work to guide her into "finding herself", which apparently means making a weak attempt at being a writer and shagging an Italian guy. It tries a bit too hard to make a point about the superficiality and wealth, and Hurt's character is played as so much of a dick that the climactic choice seems hollow. Chinese Yoda is a bit too convenient and to get the story moving, which saps a lot of the humanity from the story. Plus, his collection of whatever herbs are way too convenient, and a cop out when what is really needed is strong plotting.

That said, the film is often funny, there are some good shots, and when Allen trusts himself with these characters, rather than losing his way in supernatural BS, it has moments of beauty and genius. It's just that he doesn't seem to trust himself as much as a guy who had, at that point, made several beloved comedies. It is like Alice herself, stuck in superficial things and not willing to trust itself to just let these characters move in a natural manner.

In essence, the problem I have is that the supernatural doesn't add anything and is used as a crutch, and a good movie could be made by simply getting rid of the lot and instead focusing on the core characters and their relationships. It has moments of good, make no mistake, but it is too timid and uncertain to have a full two hours of good.