Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Retrospective Review: Twlight: New Moon

Bella Swann (Kristen Stweart) may be one of the unluckiest characters in all of literary history. She certainly is close to the most pathetic if not naive as well. How unfortunate it is, after all, to have to fill the gaping hole left in your heart from a departed vampire lover with a new werewolf lover.

Certainly there has to be a mortal boy or two at her small town Washington high school, no? That would certainly solve most if not all of her emotional afflictions, which in New Moon, the follow-up to Catherine Hardwick’s Twilight adaptation, are pushed out of the realm of innocent and dumb teenage after school special flirtation and into that of unbearable melodrama. Bella’s love belongs to the vampire Edward Cullen who is played by Robert Pattison who looks like the son of Bela Lugosi, is eternally posed in some dark tableau of deep suffering and whose hair seems to have its own center of gravity.

Fearing that such a mortal is not safe amidst his family of bloodsuckers, he ditches Bella and disappears in hopes of protecting her. Of course the split hits hard; so hard in fact that Bella’s suffering surpasses that of general high school moping and instead keeps her up at night screaming out in such pain that you’d think she was in the throws of a heroin intervention program. I guess that’s why it is unwise to give all of your love to the only boy in class who would rather bite your neck than caress it.

However, what Bella discovers is that, whenever placed in any sort of mortal danger, visions of Edward appear, who warns her against her actions. Bella thus becomes an adrenaline junky and in one scene narrowly escapes disaster when she crashes a dirt bike at top speed after being distracted by Edward.

In an effort to cope with her pain, Bella begins becoming close with her neighbour Jacob (the invariably shirtless Taylor Lautner), who is both Native American and, she soon discovers after he too abandons her without explanation, is slowly turning into a werewolf as he ages. As if puberty isn’t hard enough.

The werewolves of course are part of his tribe and have a pact with the vampires, their enemies, which agree that they will leave each other alone, so long as the vampires stay on their own land and don’t run around biting humans. This proves to be a problem as Bella’s feelings are caught between both Edward and Jacob and so forth. There is also a rather fruitless subplot about Edward travelling to Rome to kill himself in front of a vampire committee of some sort named the Vultrians after he believes Bella has died during one of her adrenaline rushes.

The Vulturians are lead by Aro who is played by the British actor Michael Sheen (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) who got to play a werewolf in the uninspired Underworld: Rise of the Lycans and goes just over the top enough here, his body twisting and contorting in on itself, proving himself a man in serious need of a leading role in an Anne Rice adaptation.

The film this time was directed by Chris Weitz, who directed two invaluable comedies (American Pie and About a Boy) with his brother Paul before heading out on his own with the truly underrated Golden Compass. Weitz, a more honest storyteller to Hadrwick’s more stylistic tendencies, trades in the ugly blue murk that covered the first Twilight film and replaces it with a brighter, more natural autumn look.

And that’s about the only difference. Weitz, a good filmmaker, is awash in a sea of juvenile, ridiculous and, more often than not, just plain dumb material. What’s most shocking is how very little actually happens in the film, which feels like a constant build up to some big event that never quite gets around to happening.

The first film did that too. Bella loses Edward; gains and loses Jacob; is attacked by bad vampires; is saved by good wolves; is reunited with Edward; is taken in front of the Vulturian and so on and so forth. But there is no overriding dramatic arch that makes the story feel like a self-sufficient whole.

The entire crux of the film is then placed on this silly, uninspired, two-thirds immortal high school love triangle. You’d like to think that, at the close of 2009, the least one could expect from a special-effects fueled blockbuster is some meaningful action that its characters are engaged in and that propels the story into some sort of complete narrative.

At the end of the day all of the scenes with the vampires and the werewolves and the Vulturians are simply a collection of surplus episodes that all lead up to the slender but dire question of whether or not Bella and Edward will end up together again.

Of course it would be hard to blame Weitz or any of the cast and crew involved in the Twilight adaptations for any of this. All problems seem to originate directly between the pages of Stephanie Meyer’s books from which they are based. The books, although aimed at a preteen market, are written at about a nearly incompetent third grade level and would seem to have no concept of the politics of drama, plot or story structure. It doesn’t help that the screenplays are written by Mellisa Rosenberg at the same level of incompetence.

Take this exchange, directed at Bella from a fiancĂ© of one of the werewolves: “So you’re the vampire girl?” “Yeah. So you’re the wolf girl?” “Yeah. Well, at least I’m engaged to one.” What? She’s engaged to a wolf girl? Did no one on set really not see a problem with these line, least of all the ones reciting them?

At the end of the day, Twilight needs to be put into complete artistic turnaround. It needs a director and writer who are willing to break it down, move it as far away from the original texts as possible and rebuild it back from the ground up.

Fat chance of that happening though.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Knight and Day

Knight and Day is everything the The A-Team failed to be. It’s an action comedy that is, oddly enough, both funny and exciting. It has characters and not broad types. It’s about movie stars having fun with each other. It has a ridiculous plot and knows how to use that to its personal advantage. It’s the sign of a promising director being able to play the big money game while still delivering a quality product. It has moments where the characters, between chases, shoot-outs and explosions actually get to talk, about things! Who would have thunk? And, most importantly it has action that is made up of stunts, bullets, squibs and explosions made from gas, heat and oxygen all coming together to complete a scientific triangle. Even towards the end, when there is an electrifying motorcycle chase down the streets of Spain, it looks remarkably like two people actually riding a motorcycle. You couldn’t ask for more. June (Cameron Diaz) meets Roy Miller (Tom Cruise) at the airport after they bump into each other twice. They then find themselves on the same flight. But something is strange about Roy. He’s being watched. On the plane, which is nearly empty, she has one too many tequila’s, chats Roy up, goes to the bathroom to compose herself, and exits to find everyone on the plane dead, including the pilots. At first she doesn’t notice and thinks Roy is joking with her when he tells her he is going to land the plane. Joke’s on her. On the ground Roy drugs June and before she passes out explains to her that some agents will probably come looking for her, saying that he is dangerous and deranged and they are there to protect her. He warns her not to trust them. She wakes up the next morning in a foggy daze, but whaddya know… Turns out Roy is in possession of a Maguffin known as the Zephyr, a battery of unlimited power that could, he helpfully explains, run a small city or a large submarine. It was created by a young scientist who Roy was put in charge of guarding along with his partner Fitzgerald (Peter Sarsgaard) who wanted to sell the battery to a Spanish weapon’s dealer and walk off with a big payday. After Roy steals the battery and hides the kid from Fitzgerald, he is framed, deemed to have gone rouge and is being hunted not only by Fitzgerald but by the arms dealer as well. What results is a collection of high intensity action sequences as Roy tries to clear his name, find the kid, save June from her pursuers and take out Fitzgerald, all while having time to stop for a swim on a tropic island where he appears, shirtless, from the ocean, carrying a bundle of prize fish in one hand, not a spear or harpoon in sight. That my friends, is the kind of talent they don’t teach at any agency. The film is a flight of fancy that ultimately comes down to the chemistry of its stars. Cruise and Diaz are both likable, funny and smooth together. They exchange banter, trade one-liners, crack wise in each other's direction and maintain a flirty mystery throughout the entire film: they think they like each other, but both are too busy dodging bullets, cars, motorcycles, stampeding bulls, etc. for either of them to make a first move. Sometimes life is hard like that. Diaz once again proves herself a welcome comedic presence. She plays June as a girl both naive but intrigued by the world of violence she has entered. She has a sort of disconnected quality in her performance in which she is shocked and surprised by what is happening around her, leading to many of the film’s funniest moments, but also remains aware of her surroundings, excited by the possibility that adventure could lurk around any corner. Cruise, one of the few remaining movie stars that became so because of talent and versatility, does the right thing by playing the Miller character totally straight. He’s an action movie every man. When June is taken in by Fitzgerald he speeds by on a motorcycle, ramps it, lands on the hood of the SUV transporting June and takes out all the bad guys, but not before pausing to tell her how much he likes her dress and compliment her driving skills after being forced to take the wheel. Cruise as an action hero is cool and sophisticated but also delivers his lines as if he were a regular guy and these feats of ridiculousness are but a part of some daily routine. This off-handed approach gives the film a warmer, more human quality than a typical run-of-the-mill action picture and also allows the characters to develop believably during the down time between big stunts, deepening the story beyond a clothesline of endless action. Knight and Day is thus possibly the first true big entertainment of the summer. Where action movies seem to have gone the way of crowding human actors out with oodles of computer generated effects and shaky action sequences that are impossible to comprehend, it’s nice to see one in the traditional vein of big Hollywood excitement. It’s smooth and crisp, using stars to create likable personalities and only using computers when it needs to. Special effects were once thought of as a way to enhance reality not constitute for it and that’s the order of the day here, allowing James Mangold to create the feel of action that is actually happening, while also capturing every glorious detail of it in the process. Knight and Day may be a light-hearted experience but it’s a big step in the right direction.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

One Minute Review- The Wiz

There's a musical sequence to Brand New Day in The Wiz (1974) that is so perfect it's a shame the movie isn't better as a whole. It's one of those perfect movie musical moments: the music sores, raising the choreography from ballet to a kind of grace cut off from gravity, cut to the rhythm of the music, happening on a set built from the mind of a visionary. It may be one of the cinema's great musical sequences. And yet it comes late in a film of extreme ups and downs. The Wiz, based on a Broadway musical, inspired by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, was allegedly the most expensive musical of it's time and certainly one of the most expensive productions ever filmed in New York City. The film was directed by Sidney Lumet, a master filmmaker if there ever was one, and there are scenes of such utter genius in which it appears as if Lumet knows exactly what he is doing. And yet, which such money at stake, the inevitable seems to eat up any potential the film had of succeeding as a whole. It's more a collection of pretty set pieces and snazzy location shooting than any sort of complete narrative. From one moment to the next the film is alive, the songs magical, the experience uplifting and yet there is nothing propelling the story forward. We know the tale from the Judy Garland Wizard of Oz film but it's at the service of art directors, set designers, cinematographers and choreographers. There's too many hands to fit in this pot. Maybe one of the film's most central problems was to set the story in 1974 New York City. By having Dorothy and co. run through subways stations, amusement parks and by building Emerald City in a lot behind the Twin Towers the film is its own distraction and lacks the fantasy element of exploring a new world. In a sense, by those standards, the original film was more believable as a complete immersion into fantasy. The Wiz is, by comparison, a slide show with movement. And yet the film has so much of value. Lumet captures the song and dance as well as any director trained in musicals could have, Diana Ross' voice soars as Dorothy and Michael Jackson steals the show; so gentle and tender buried amid his make-up as Scarcrow. I guess that's the danger of letting money make the artistic choices: The Wiz is magical when taken as a collection of moments, but it's not much of anything else.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Celebrity Connection- Michael J. Fox

I just watched The Secret of My Success the other day. It's an 80s comedy with Michael J. Fox. Think really bad John Hughes meets big business. Like most of Fox's not Back to the Future movies, it's completely air-headed and asks the audience to suspend their disbelief far more than it should, which would be fine if it had been, ya know, funny or something. But while watching it there was one thing that I couldn't stop thinking about:

Could Michael J. Fox really just be Eric Stoltz in disguise? You decide.

Monday, June 21, 2010


Let's have a debate. A couple months ago I wrote a piece on Don't You Forget About Me, a documentary in which a bunch of young Canadian filmmakers travel to Chicago in hopes of getting an interview with John Hughes not long before his death. The piece ultimately ended up a reflection on what constitutes realism in film. Check it out here. Essentially, to repeat myself, film realism is not the same as reality because, since the camera is a recorder of literal events, realism in film comes down to what can be considered believable. In that sense The Dark Knight, despite taking place in a fictitious city with superheros and villains, is a more realistic film than say, a satire like Kick-Ass, which takes place in the real world. The Dark Knight creates a world that is both fully believable as itself and that takes itself seriously as a real place. We don't quite know any place on Earth like Gotham City or anyone quite like Batman or The Joker, but they mimic qualities that we associate with real people. They mirror our beliefs and what they stand for makes sense in a logical human world. That's film realism. To repeat once again, John Hughes' movies aren't so much realistic in that they present a portrait of what being a teenager is really like but that they create an idealized portrait of how teenagers would like to see themselves. They deal with emotions that aren't outside of human grasp even if they are simplified flights of fancy when juxtaposed against the messy, complicated realism of everyday life. As I've said before to the age old question of whether life imitates art or art imitates life: it's a two-way street, we'd like to think we talk like they do in the movies and the movies would like to think they talk like we do in real life. Even a film that appears to be dealing in realism like Gus Van Sant's Elephant with it's unprofessional teen actors, it's basis on real events, it's reliance on anti-climax, etc, is not so much a realistic portrait because of it's deliberate artistry. Elephant is a film that translates the banal into poetic-tragedy. It understand what it is like to exist in a moment when something is occurring that you can't quite grasp, but I suspect it is more a 20/20 hindsight reflection of the inherent meaning of Columbine than a realistic portrayal of what it felt like to be there, in that moment, as these events were occurring. In reality, realism isn't much desired in films. As much as we critics pine for it and accuse filmmakers for not giving it to us, what we really want is believability, even in the face of insurmountable perposterousness. A movie, anyway, doesn't need to be believable to be successful, but it needs to at least believe in itself, which, when you think about it, is kind of the same thing. So what do you think? Is there a successful (or any) film out there that is an honest representation of day-to-day reality? Let's throw some titles around and debate this. I believe I know one film that successfully depicts realism (which is what inspired this) but I'll wait to weigh in in the comments after seeing what people come up with.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Bourne Ultimatium

Considering all my complaining about The A-Team and action films using shakey handheld cameras this week I thought I'd cap my thoughts on the subject off with a my review from a couple years ago of the film that does this style the best and indeed creates intimate and exciting action sequence using a handheld camera and lots of edits. The Bourne Ultimatum is an exercise in great post-modern filmmaking from a man who has burned his way into our collective conscious as a filmmaker to be reckoned with. It’s a film that means business and doesn’t screw around getting to it. With airtight economy, the plot doesn’t fool with anything it doesn’t need and instead concentrates with intense focus on every detail it has, creating suspense not through over-the-top action (although there is a lot of that), but procedure. There is not one wasted moment in this film. It is lean, mean and to the point; so intensely good in fact that it leaves no room to question its own absurd plot. Most importantly, it is not smug or sly, it doesn’t wink or waste space with nostalgia because its only point of reference is itself. To see the Bourne Ultimatum as the finale of an ongoing narrative is to understand what the previous films were holding back. As a masterpiece of sound and handheld cinematography, of lighting and editing, director Paul Greengrass has single-handedly reinvented the spy-thriller genre. This is one of the year’s best films. The amnesiac U.S. spy is back for his third outing in the Bourne Ultimatum. Once again Jason Bourne must outsmart CIA agents sent to eliminate him while on a personal quest to find his true identity once and for all. A plot description here would be futile. The plot is no more than a constant back and forth between CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) trying to track Bourne’s every move and Bourne always narrowly escaping. What is fascinating about the Bourne Ultimatum is how the character of Jason Bourne inhabits his own universe. Bourne, although able to accomplish amazing feats like backing a car off a roof or ramping a motorbike up the side of a wall, is not a showoff. Matt Damon has taken his fair share of critical flack these days, being accused of one-note performances. However it is testament to Damon’s talent that he is able to step outside of his boyish good looks in order to play inert, one-note characters. In the hands of a charmer, Jason Bourne would be a second rate James Bond with no memory. As played by Damon he is a cold, hard man who takes no pleasure in the acts of violence he must commit. A man of procedure and not action, Bourne gets the job done as efficiently as possible and moves on. And by presenting a man with no memory, the film inverts the typical action hero: Bourne has no back story, no long lost love, no tragic past and no alliance to anyone but himself, freeing the film of clutter to focus on the simplistic heart of the story: a government spy trying to find his true identity. The brilliance of the performance is that, even when Bourne is doing something fantastic, Damon’s acting is completely internal. If Bourne had more than one note, the film would be a mess. What then makes the Bourne Ultimatum a great thriller is the starling degree of intensity which Greengrass employs in overseeing that his film mimics the very best traits of its main character: lean, mean and without excess. The Bourne Ultimatum is all business. Much has been debated about Greengrass’ use of a handheld camera, which shakes uncontrollably during action sequences, losing the focus as many would argue. And although I have been against the use of the handheld camera in action films for some time now, Greengrass has found a way to integrate the unstable focus of the machine as an integral part of the filmic experience, making the connection between the audience and Bourne as intimate as ever. This makes for the film’s most important asset. If we have no way of empathizing with Bourne over his self obsessed quest for identity, the film at least goes to great lengths to place us so intimately within Bourne’s universe that empathy becomes superfluous. By appreciating the necessity of the handheld camera we can begin to see the precise architecture of the film’s action. Greengrass breaks down the ingrained perceptions of cinematic time and space. In delivering short, intense bursts of spastic motion from all angels, the so-called cinematic “fourth wall” becomes extinct, giving the camera a feeling of 360 degree peripheral vision and giving the audience the sensation of being vulnerable from all sides. In doing this, by keeping the action in the moment, by unchaining the camera from its role of passive observer and transforming it into an active participant in the cinematic experience, Greengrass has captured the visual essence of what it must feel like to be in Jason Bourne’s shoes: always on the run, always ready for action from all angels, and always buried under the pressure of needing to make convulsive decisions in split second moments of adrenaline fueled intensity. This is damn electrifying filmmaking. For all the naysayers, there is no better proof of the film’s brilliant mechanics than in the single most stunning image this or any other action film this year has seen. It is a sequence even more startling than the infamous crane chase in Casino Royale because of both its sheer audacity and intimacy. The sequence requires Jason Bourne to jump off of a roof and through the window of an adjacent building in order to extirpate an assassin who is chasing Nicky Parsons (Julie Stiles). In Greengrass and cinematographer Oliver Wood’s most daring display of keeping the audience as close to the action as possible, just as Bourne makes the jump, the camera jumps with him across the divide between buildings, shooting him from behind on a 45 degree angle looking down. Cut to the reaction shot as Bourne crashes through the window and proceeds to an intense fistfight, shot mostly in close-up, and featuring only diegetic sound. That’s what makes the Bourne Ultimatum so stimulating and to-the-point. It is a film composed with none of the panache and wit of its action counterparts, but rather only nature’s most bare necessities: cold hard sweat and blood.

The Way It's Done

A few months back a friend pointed out to me how the action movie hero is basically a thing of the past. He was right, but what's even more obsolete these days is the action movie director. In the 90s America had the best action movie directors in the world. Guys like Antoine Fuqua, John Singleton, sometimes Michael Bay, Brett Ratner to a lesser extent and the best of the best, Rob Cohen. Look at the titles these guys produced: The Rock, The Fast and the Furious, 2 Fast 2 Furious, The Replacement Killers, Money Talks, XXX. These were real action movies. They prided themselves on big, bogus stunts, real explosions, great special effects and, to top it off, interesting enough characters to keep the story flowing. But there was also an art to what they did. They knew how to film action and capture it in such a way that the audience got the most excitement out of it. They put the audience in the middle and built the action around them. Nowadays action is alienating as it jumps and bounces and comes from all angles so fast that it's nearly impossible to know or care about what is happening. I say this because I realize that I didn't so much hate The A-Team as hated the way it was made. It's not that this style of hand-held, shaky, quickly edited action is anything new but The A-Team does it worse than just about everyone else, to the point where all the big stunts are blurred by a frenzy of editing. I went into the film wanting to see some entertaining action and was left with even more of an appetite for that stuff leaving it. Funny then that today I actually saw some good action in the form of last year's Star Trek reboot. The film is enjoyable in a forgettable sort of way but it kicks things off after the title with a great car sequence that is not only filmed well, but knows how to use special effects to their fullest extent. Instead of then giving the film a one minute review I decided to break this sequence down into pieces in order to show how good action is filmed.
The first shot at 00:27 is a great one. The camera tracks past the car at a furious clip. Instantly we have kinetic motion. However, going along with what I said in the first paragraph of my A-Team review, director J.J. Abrhams doesn't cut after he's passed the car. Instead he turns the camera 90 degrees as the car turns out onto the road and continues to track away from it until it is too far to continue to care about visually. It doesn't matter that we aren't in the heat of the chase because the camera continues to move and that's what's important. Not only has Abrams set up what to expect for the next two minutes, but he's also established the landscape in one unbroken shot. 00:36 finds the camera in front of the car. Abrams wisely films at medium length to ensure that the car is not only in the centre of the frame but to show both the road and the landscape as it whizzes by. We associate road and landscape with reality and thus the sequence is grounded in the plausible and therefore all the more exciting. That's the value of establishing landscape in action films. Abrams, without cutting, swings the camera around to show the young Kirk inside. Not only is Abrams building character visually with this introduction, but he's also establishing the entire setting for the sequence. Doing it like the Russians did, Abrams cuts to a close up of the speedometer around 00:40 as one last visual stimuli to establish what we are to expect before getting into the heat of action. Staring at 00:41, with only 6 cuts in 20 seconds Abrams builds even more character by having Kirk take a phone call from the owner of the car, scolding him for stealing it, which Kirk ignores. It's a breather moment in the midst of the adrenaline. 1:00 leads to the beginning of a joke. In close up Abrams films Kirk loosening the car's top. At 1:04 he cuts to outside the car for the punchline of the top flying off in the wind and let's the audience appreciate the full impact of the moment at 1:05 when he cuts to a long shot of the topper flying into the air, completing the joke at 1:08 as it lands on the road behind the camera as the car zooms off in the background. An excellent shot happens at 1:12 which begins as a long shot, tracks to the left quickly and intercepts with the car when it is at medium length. The audience can't feel the excitement of being in a speeding car themselves, so it is up to the camera to not only capture the action but mimic it as the camera is the audience's sole connection to the action. 1:17 employs another kid hitchhiking to set the scene once more. Abrams cuts between both Kirk's view from the car and the kid's view from the road. At 1:24, after Kirk has driven by, Abrams shoots the kid in close-up from the side and uses a camera trick to make it look as though the background has shifted in the wake of Kirk's rushing by. As a police hover cycle zooms by, Abrams establishes it's presence in relation to Kirk at 1:30, not through editing but by swinging the camera around the car so that it is at eye level in a medium shot, capturing both Kirk behind the wheel and the cop in the background. The key to a great chase sequence is to establish distance between the participants by showing them together in the same shot. Editing one imagine of the car and then alternating with an imagine of the cycle would give no visual sense that these two people are occupying the same space. To take from a theory by Andre Bazin, by putting the two things in a single image without a cut, it gives the sequence a sense of realism, especially since the bike is quite obviously a special effect. Abrams cuts to Kirk's reaction, then shows another shot of the two in the same frame but from the bike's perspective. This sets up the next shot at 1:39 which starts with a close-up of the cop and then stays in position but pans left and tilts downward to look over the cop's shoulder as he looks down on Kirk in a high angle. Abrams has established this cop as having power over Kirk. 1:44 sees Abrams taking from the Russians again as he quickly cuts to a close up of Kirk's foot jamming on the gas pedal and cranking the wheel left. At the cut at 1:45 Abrams stays with the cop as he looks back and sees Kirk evading him in the background. The cop has lost his power and is once again on Kirk's level as they are both visually on the same plane in the shot. 1:53 cuts between head-on shots of the intensity of the cop on his cycle and Kirk in his car in order to show how desperately fast the chase has become. Abrams adds to the motion of the sequence once again by starting the shot of Kirk's tires at 1:53 and moving in quickly on them until they are in close-up, giving the sense of the car speeding up. The odds are now winner takes all and neither party is giving up without a fight. The gate at 1:55 is a nice, if cliche visual flourish. Abrams raises the stakes at 1:59 as he starts with a high angle long shot of both cop and Kirk in hot pursuit. He then, without cutting, tracks the camera overtop of them and pans up slightly to show the canyon that is coming up in the distance. Not only has Abrams maintained the excitement of the sequence, but in one shot has also established the danger the lies ahead. as the camera flies towards the canyon. Abrams cuts from a close up on Kirk as he gears up for what is coming to an extreme high angle long shot. He films from in front of both car and cycle as he pulls back over the canyon, revealing even more of the drop as we see the two parties speed toward it. One last close up of Kirk, the gear shifter and the gas pedal as 2:12 moves back outside for an overhead shot as the car drifts around, sliding towards the canyon. Abrams tracks left and up past the car, while still keeping it in the shot to show the full extent of the canyon drop from overhead. Kirk jumps out of the car in slow motion and 2:17 beginning the action portion of the sequence's final shot. Kirk, in close up, lands as the car skids behind him and tips over the canyon. The camera continues to track with Kirk as he himself slides towards the drop. When Kirk makes it to the edge. where he grabs hold going over the side, the camera, without an edit, swings over top of him, shooting him from above and tracks up to reveal, for the first time, the canyon floor as Kirk hangs over it, clinging for dear life. The sequence ends as Kirk pulls himself up and is established for the first time by name as the cop asks for it. Captain James T. Kirk has now had his character established for the rest of the movie. Now that's how you film action.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

One Minute Review- I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell

At the beginning of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell there is a disclaimer informing that this film is based on a true story...and then adds, "Unfortunately." It's hard to say if the film is trying to be ironic or if it actually knows just what a pathetic display of human waste it is about to wallow in, but I'm thinking it's leaning towards the former. Not least because the film was written by inexplicable Internet sensation Tucker Max who wrote the book that it is based on, which chronicled his own shallow exploits into sex, booze, feces, what have you. On an artistic level the film's first problem is that it doesn't know who it wants to be about. It can't be about Max himself because he's essentially a walking human tragedy in clown's clothing. So it gives him two friends, one who thinks he is being taken to his own bachelor party weekend but is actually being dragged along so Max can hopefully add to his collection of deformed sex experiments. He's had a deaf girl under his belt, now he wants a midget. The other guy is too smart for his own good, would rather play Xbox than breathe, talks in a sickening, condescending way that no one but he could ever mistake as clever and hates women. His best line at the bar is to tell a girl that if she doesn't get away from him he will gut her. That he hooks up with a stripper who disgusts him but matches his insults is, I guess, what passes for sweetness in Max's world. Until this point the film is just a stupid, shallow unfunny comedy about some uniformly unlikable guys trying to live an Animal House fantasy life. Then the film slips into complete degradation as Tucker and a girl he picked up at a bar have a serious case of the poo-poos after his beer is spiked. I won't describe what follows other than to say that when I woke up today I was prepared to see any number of different things. I man spilling his liquid excrement atop a hotel lobby floor was not one of then. Tucker Max, I suspect, is the kind of guy who gets off simply by having a medium for him to write about himself, which is his only subject. At the top of his website he introduces himself as an a**hole and I don't doubt for one second that he is. However, as played by Matt Czuchry he's nothing short of a despicable slimeball who no self-respecting woman would ever be caught dead with.

The A-Team

The best shot in The A-Team is the very first one. The camera flies over some barren Mexican landscape. The shot is smooth, clear, and most importantly, continuous, being allowed a duration of what feels like 5-10 seconds. What’s on screen hardly matters because it is being captured so well. This shot is an ideal one to call out in the argument for the importance of smooth, uninterrupted takes in action films. When the camera is tracking it’s best to allow it the freedom to move without interruption because a long take means movement, which is inherently kinetic, which is inherently exciting. Think about a roller coater ride. The reason they are so exciting is because they involve one unbroken stream of action in a single, controlled, straight forward direction. You understand what is coming with complete clarity and the movement makes it exciting. Imagine a roller coaster ride with jagged edges coming from every angle, meaning you can't see or know what is ahead of you? Sounds more sickening than exciting no? The A-Team is a film built on jagged edges. What is becoming one of the film's most quoted lines is one where A-Team mastermind Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) declares that overkill is underrated. He’s right; it can be, if it’s filmed right. The A-Team, despite a plot that is convoluted, hard to follow and not easy to care about, is not, to say the least, filmed right at all. There’s a helicopter chase sequence at the head in which schizoid pilot Murdock (District 9’s Sharlto Copley) not only spins his chopper 360 degrees around to avoid incoming fire but also avoids two heat seekers by flying the craft upwards until it’s on a 180 degree angle and then kills the engine, sending it into a free fall. It would be an amazing feat of ridiculousness, if you could see it happening. Instead director Joe Cranahan (Smockin’ Aces) and his editor kick it into overdrive and lose the entire focus of the stunts. Before Murdock can even get the chopper all the way flipped the film starts cutting away at a pace so rapid it veers way past unintelligible and into the realms of the unbearable. Instead of seeing a wicked trick the audience is subjected to cuts from above, below, right, left, and what seems like every degree between 1 and 360 and back again. The fourth wall isn’t shattered here, it’s vaporized into extinction before the audience can even decipher that they are missing something important. Did Cranhan actually sit in an editing room at some point, looking at this and think that he had something great on his hands? Producers raise millions of dollars so that these films can have the best special effects on the market. The least Cranahan could do is let us catch a peek of them as they happen. I’ve just described ninety percent of all the action in The A-Team, which, in and of itself, is about ninety percent action. But this is not an action movie: it’s a headache. It’s a loud vomit of random images strewn together in a blender at an inhuman pace. Fist fights happen but you can’t see who is landing punches or if anyone is even throwing them; bullets are shot but God-forbid we get to see who is shooting them and who they are being shot at in one continuous flow; and the handheld camera not only films in close-up most of the time but shakes uncontrollably in the wake of action. There’s a scene where the A-Team are on wheels and the bad guy is in a bank. He runs, shooting through glass panels to make it to the road in time to intercept them. It would have been an exciting moment, but the cameraman runs after him, losing complete focus of the character as he bobs in and out of view and also losing the excitement of a man with a machine gun shooting out glass panels at random. Another good sequence down the tubes. This is unnecessary overkill. The sequence could have been perfect were a track lain and the camera pushed along behind. Maybe that would have required too much thought? It’s a shame because there’s nothing all that inherently wrong with anything about The A-Team besides that it was directed, shot and edited by mad men with no respect or knowledge of the filmic conventions of an action picture. The story is typical: a group of soldiers are betrayed by their government and seek revenge to clear their name. Ya know, The Losers kinda stuff. The acting is all as good as it needs to be with Bradley Cooper and mixed martial artist Quinton “Rampage” Jackson heading out the other half of the team. They are funny and work well together and Copley shows that there might even be a great character actor in him as he takes most of the films laughs. It’s funny to ultimately end up mentioning The Losers which was a much better film with just about the same story. It’s proof that nothing about The A-Team would have needed to change outside the key technical players to make a good film. All of the elements are there, the special effects are great and the action sequences are inventive and exciting. You just can’t see them. I sincerely believe that in the hands of a better director the exact same film could have been made well. Cranahan has the wrong hands and the film, thus, is a disaster.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Celebrity Connection- Jack Skellington

This week was the first time I did one of these in quite some time and now I'm back with a second one already. Call it good fortune. I hadn't thought much of it and then it struck me:

Could Jack Skellington simply be Jack Pumpkinhead in disguse? You Decide.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Filmic Measures-Where's the Airship Movies

Back in January, before many people were reading this site, I did a post in preparation of seeing Leap Year about what I deemed Chocolate Bar Movies. I think all critics do this to some extent: make up definitions of critical measures in which to judge movies of a certain genre. Gene Siskel used to fondly quote Howard Hawkes who, when asked what a good movie was, replied "Three great scenes and no bad ones." These little tidbits always come out when thinking about certain films of certain genres and are generally quite helpful in both defining and gauging the success of like-films. Needless to say, from the couple of people who read the Chocolate Bar Movie post, they seemed to like it, so not only am I going to do it again, but I've even given it a name so that it can be like a new series around here, although, as regular readers know, my series' happen, not so much on a regular basis as whenever I feel like I have something to add to them. No matter, let's get to it.

The logic behind Where's The Airship Movies comes from The Incredible Hulk. Let me pull a quote from me original review

Around the midway point of the Incredible Hulk, the not-quite sequel to and not-quite remake of the 2003 Ang Lee Hulk film, General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) looks off into the sky after watching the Hulk take out a barrage of foot soldiers, hummers and two high powered cannons, and in close-up asks, “Where’s that airship?” That’s basically the question at the heart of the entire new Hulk adventure: when the soldiers don’t stop him, and the hummers don’t stop him, and the tanks don’t stop him, well, where’s that airship?

And so the term was born. Where's the Airship Movies describe a not new trend in recent action films in which the focus is on throwing as much fire power on the screen as possible to basically no avail. It describes the useless endeavours of the human characters in the Transformers movies, who throw everything they have at the big robots without ever leaving so much as a dent. It refers to metal crashing against metal; rock against rock; bullet against wall; and so on. If the handgun doesn't work let's get out the shotgun, the machine gun, the bazooka, the cannon and so on. It talks about films in which the bad guys throw millions of rounds of ammunition the hero's way and never so much as even come close to hitting him. In all simplicity, it describes films that have no more in mind than blowing up as much real estate as possible. There's nothing to care about in these films in terms of character or story because, their narrative ark always comes down to the same thing in the end: just where the hell is that airship already?

Monday, June 7, 2010

One Minute Review- Legend

You ever get the sensation of too much tranquillity? Like being in the woods on a beautiful day with butterflies fluttering and birds chirping and other miscellaneous things floating about and it just takes it out of you? It reminds me of a famous Richard Pryor quote, "There's something about the woods that just makes you want to...s**t." Ridley Scott's Legend from 1985 suffers from tranquillity overload. It has golden hues, unicorns galloping in slow motion, fairy's glowing in the sky, pedals falling in slow motion, water glistening, Mia Sara, and enough soft focus to make the lightest of eyelids hang heavy.

That's the light side of the story. As the opening credits reveal, the universe exists due to a balance between light and darkness, this balance creating legends. Think about this though, if light came along and banished darkness into an underground abyss, how is that balance? Isn't that light triumphing over darkness and casting it aside? If there were balance wouldn't the two get along and work towards achieving the same desired ends? Forget it. The darkness is ruled, no kidding, by The Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry, under so much make-up that it's of little consequence whether it's actually him or anyone else). The darkness is made up of hammers thundering against metal, sparks flying and fire bursting out in every direction (which is kind of the opposite of darkness if you think about it, but no matter). The story involves some such business about how unicorns keep the world in light and Lord wanting to kill the last two.

This is all undermined by the fact that the hero (Tom Cruise) is an afterthought behind Scott's relentless visual muck. Legend is a film comprised of nothing more than thin air. There is not one meaningful thing that happens in it; not one speck of continuity and not one character who is remembered long enough throughout the duration of the film to amount to anything meaningful.

There is though, an interesting Celebrity Connection:

Could that fairy really be Taylor Swift in disguise?

MTV Movie Awards

The MTV Movie Awards are basically a waste of time and the worse big budget mainstream films get, the worse these awards get. I won't deny it; when I was an adolescent I used to find them fun but that was when movies were fun and stars were made such because they had talent and personality and things like that. Today's stars seem mostly to be kids involved in trends whose careers will die the moment their current franchise runs out. Nevertheless, Julian Stark from Movies and Other Things has been writing about the awards for some time now (sh'`s efficient like that), covering nominees, predicting winners (as if these awards, voted on by the fans, actually honour the true `best`of anything) and so forth. You can even check out her post-show coverage which is more in depth than it really needs to be. So, maybe because Jillian had them on my mind or maybe because nothing else was on, I watched the show. Here's a few notes on it:
  • The entire pre-show was basically an hour long ad for season two of Jersey Shore as all the cast members show up on the red carpet in limos (reminding me of Seth Meyers` joke on Weekend Update that all you need these days to be considered a celebrity is a pulse). Then the fat annoying one named Snooki co-hosts the event, which ends with a ten minute preview of the upcoming season. It's further proof of MTV`s desire to push popular culture as low as it possibly can before it disappears entirely.
  • Tom Cruise was funny in Tropic Thunder. He wasn't here playing the same character.
  • Host Aziz Ansari is not funny. Not in the least. I have no idea if he wrote any of this material or not but man was it painful. This guy is just a further signal of how stupid, witless and meaningless contemporary stand-up comedy is becoming. Remember when Chris Rock used to host MTV award shows? He was hilarious.
  • Speaking of Chris Rock, he seems to be the only of his four Grown Ups co-stars who knows that their award presentation speech isn't funny. Rob Schneider seems optimistic about it though.
  • P Diddy gets one of the show`s biggest and only laughs alongside Get Him to the Greek co-stars Jonah Hill and Russell Brand. Too bad it comes after the most tasteless as Hill compares the feud between Jacob-loving Twilight fans and Edward-loving Twilight fans to the war between Israel and Palestine. Real classy boys.
  • Katy Perry's songs have a way of getting under your skin. Props to her for actually singing as well.
  • Christina Aguilera is America`s best cover artist. Here's a girl who can actually sing but only pops up every couple of years when there is a trend to latch on to. First she thought she was Britany, then she thought she was black, then she thought she was Marilyn Monro and now she thinks she is Lady Gaga. My hopes of her ever doing something that is an honest reflection of herself quickly evaporates every time she releases a new album.
  • Amanda Seyfried won an award for Jennifer's Body. I didn`t think more than ten people saw that.
  • Rain won for Ninja Assassin. See above.
  • There`s more I could say but I don`t really care anymore. The show was pathetic. New Moon basically won everything to no one`s surprise; nothing was really funny or clever and the only person who actually won an award that was deserved on some sort of serious level was Anna Kendrick for Up in the Air. Until next year.

    Saturday, June 5, 2010

    Film Buffs

    If you ask me where I stand personally in relation to films I'll tell you I'm a critic. Sure I watch a lot of movies just for the heck of it and have a library in my head of dates and names and titles and so forth, but even when it comes to viewing just for the heck of it, or to be caught up, the critical gears are always shifting. It's because I love writing. I love presenting arguments and working through them and I like to think that I have enough knowledge and understanding of both the artistic prospect of film along with the business side to create, for the most part, fair and honest assessments. However, even though I love being in the heat of debate, I also love sitting back and watching the way people behave and interact. I love walking down the street or sitting in a public place and hearing the conversations that are going on around me. Call it undercover sociology. I therefore sometimes like to make assessments on observations I've made. So here it is: there are two types of film buffs, Film Buff A and Film Buff B. Let's work through them. Film Buff A will watch just about anything. They are happy with just seeing a movie and see them out of the love movies give them. They love the social aspect, the feelings they get, the reactions they have and because of this, they aren't biased. They'll be just as happy sitting down to The Proposal as they are to Chloe because a movie is a movie. To them, The Last Song say, doesn't signal another horrible Miley Cyrus movie, but another chance for Cyrus to prove she can give a good performance in a sweet romance. Their weak point is that they can't always give valid or meaningful reasons for liking what they like and they sometimes have no idea what makes a movie good or not but that's fine; they are buffs not critics. Because of this though they tend to like trivia, which I guess, to some, passes as film knowledge. However, they are generally nice to be around. The glass is half full with them as they don't care about trailers or advertisements; they just want to see good movies and, at the end of the day, they know that anything can be made into a good movie with the right people under the right circumstances. In a way, even the seasoned critics can learn something from such purity and, in a not negative way, naivety: they think with their heart, find originality to be an abstract concept and look for the good in films, no matter how bad they may be. Film Buff B is the person who is always trying to out-buff you. No matter what you say they know one better and always have to have the final word. They don't so much debate as grace you with the pleasure of their opinion, are quite selective with the films they see (they only see good ones, you see) but see a lot of them, mistaking this for actually knowing something about film. To many of them them Antoinioni is God, contemporary mainstream filmmaking is to be left for the philistines and there is no way they will like movie X because it starred Y or because it's trailer was garbage or it's story isn't original. They employ the originality argument constantly, use trick words like 'interesting' or 'flawed' and usually compose, what they think to be great arguments out of no more than air because, after all, everything they say should just be accepted as fact. This is, of course, an extreme case scenario. In many cases, I suspect, that kind of attitude is unconscious and develops from a desire simply to appear to have a meaningful opinion on everything. These people love to categorize films, as if they should all have a designated place and also love to create lists, as if lists somehow make opinions more legitimate and make a good reference point for further conversation: "Oh yes, Out of the Past was my third favourite 1940s film noir but ranked second on my list of favourite Robert Mitchum films," prompting of course, if all is going well, you to ask what the other 2 were. Is it exhaustive to look at all film buffs in this light? Of course not, there are always middle grounds that exist between the boundaries when you present black and white portraits of two extreme types as I have here but, somewhere, between these two is where just about all film buffs lie. And remember, we are talking about buffs here (self-proclaimed or not), not causal viewers. I'd leave this little editorial with a question about what category you think you fall under but what's the point, just about no one would consciously admit to being part of the second group. But here's a test you can do to see what group people fall under. Write a list of movies on your blog that you plan on seeing in the next week. I'll do a hypothetical one: Transformers, The Notebook, Leaving Las Vegas and Millions. Film Buff A will respond by complimenting your list and saying something to to tune of "Ah yes, Leaving Las Vegas is one of my favourites, Nicholas Cage is fantastic, I haven't seen Millions yet but would really like to, and I hear the Notebook is really worth seeing," wish you a good week and be done with it. They target one or two they love, one they need to see and maybe some helpful advice they have heard and go about their business. They make no critical assessment of the films, only single out the ones they know about and leave it at that. Film Buff B on the other hand will compliment your list if it is up to their standards and then do one of two possible things. They will eaither provide their own little one sentence reviews of each film on the list, even the ones they haven't seen because, whether they've seen it or not, they must have their opinion. They will draw conclusions based on directors or actors in relations to their body of work and any other such thing to cover up the fact that they just haven't seen the movie. Either that or they will break films down into subcategories for you and rank them all. Personally I don't care much for film buffs because, as I said in the beginning, I like criticism and that's something that film buffs are sometimes (maybe most times) devoid of. Whenever I'm encounted with one, especially from category B, I always think of that great quote from Pierre Rissient, "It's not enough to like a movie, one must like it for the right reasons."

    Wednesday, June 2, 2010

    Sex and the City 2

    When the cinema is at it’s best it has the power to create great female characters like the ones of Mike Leigh, Jean-Pierre Junet, Peter Bogdanovich, Ingmar Bergman and so on. Has a man’s camera ever loved a woman more than Fellini’s loved Giulietta Masina? That’s what films about women should strive to do: create strong, interesting, intelligent characters, no different from men. That’s not what Sex and the City 2 does. Instead it spends its time creating unlikable, superficial, vapid, stupid, vein women who do nothing more than talk about clothing, sex, what a burden children are and so on for an ungodly two and a half hours. These women, contrary to why some might like them, are not liberated, but trapped in a petty, meaningless life in which the only way they can fill the black holes that are their souls is to constantly and shamelessly indulge in only the most superficial of splendours. This isn’t a fairy tale, it’s a cry for help. Socrates would have had a field day with these broads. Carrie Bradshaw (now Carrie Preston) (Sarah Jessica Parker) is still married to Mr. Big (Chris Noth), except now she’s feeling a little skittish. They’ve moved into a different apartment, one not as fancy, although not without the perk of a full walk-in closest. Trouble is, he would rather watch TV on the couch then go out to fancy premieres and would rather eat in than fuss about reservations. Carrie doesn’t like this. Oh course she doesn’t, it’s too much like real life; maybe her first ever taste of it. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t know what to do with it. The film begins with the wedding of two of Carrie’s gay best friends. There’s no reason for this except that 1) it wouldn’t be Sex and the City without some reference to gay men and 2) Liza Minnelli, playing herself, marries the two. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) helpfully explains that “Whenever there’s this much gay energy in one place Liza just has a way of materializing.” This leads to an extended musical number of Liza doing a full out song-and-dance number to Beyonce’s Single Ladies, which only brings to light the sad realization of how truly far from Scorsese’s New York, New York we are. That writer/director Michael Patrick King let’s Liza do the whole song and rarely cuts from it is an early indication that he is both incompetent and knows that it’s all downhill from there, so why not make it last? So Carrie has a mid-life crisis of sorts; Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) quits her job because she can’t take the new male boss who also hates her; Charlotte (Kristin Davis) can’t stomach her new baby’s constant crying and is haunted by her braless new nanny as thoughts of Jude Law jump through her head; and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) throws back the vitamins (in one mouthful of course) in order to keep her sex drive raring during menopause. Cattrall is constantly victim of the film’s worst lines, which are mostly entandras that pack the subtly of a sledge hammer. When she spots a gorgeous man in Abu Dhabi, she refers to him as Lawrence of my labia. Get it? Ho ho. So, with everything falling apart around them, the women, through Samantha and her publicist powers, scores a free trip to Abu Dhabi, where they fall off camels, have a gay servant named Abdul (like Paula, get it?), offend the locals with their clevage and so on and so forth. There, Carrie meets a former lover and has a worthless moment with him, leading to a stupid climactic scene that is more petty than cathartic, and Samantha gets arrested while lip wrestling on the beach. Samantha’s antics also lead to a chase through market streets, ending in them being rescued by a group of local women in a scene of such jaw dropping stupidity, ignorance and condescending that it boarders on racism. It's not unlike movies to wave the American flag, but to degrade an entire culture in one foul swoop? Impressive. I didn’t much like the first Sex and the City film either, but I gave that one an easy ride because it was so clearly not made to appeal to me and was an adaptation of a show that I had not seen. I’ve still never witnessed a moment of the show and this film was not made for me either but now I’ve met these women, have a sense of them and know that I am truely irritated by most of them. That they have been dropped into a film that is long, boring, pointless and lacking in anything that could ever come close to resembling wit or charm doesn’t help. If the first film felt like a bunch of episodes strung together with no overarching narrative drive, this sequel feels like a ship that has desperately run out of steam. I’ve been told, on more than one account that the series was clever and sassy and gave the characters actual dimensions. Maybe that’s true, but Sex and the City 2 rarely ever amounts to any more than a feature length peepee joke. And then, as if to fuel the flames, the film makes several throwaway references to the struggling state of the American economy. When the trip to Abu Dhabi comes up, Samantha’s selling point is that they’ve been making bad business deals and suffering so much from the economy that they deserve the trip. Really now? That’s ultimately the philosophy of the entire film: life may suck for you, but it’s still pretty darn good for us. Maybe for the third film the girls can be sent on a trip to China so the Asians can see what their money is being wasted on to keep America afloat.