Pre-DJANGO

December 30, 2012

I have seen Django Unchained and will write about it soon, but in the meantime I checked out the archive to see what I had to say about Quentin Tarantino’s previous film.  I wasn’t crazy about it either for some of the same reasons.

From August 2010:

In the last week, I have seen the beautifully rendered anime film Ponyo, which is engaging, the movie adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife, which is a mess, Inglourious Basterds, which cannot be so easily reduced to a single adjective, and lots and lots of episodes of the TV series Mad Men.  In some ways, the titles of the latter two – Inglourious Basterds and Mad Men – are both descriptive and could be interchangeable.  While the titles actually describe a fair number of characters in both, the narratives of the popular movie and the critically acclaimed but little watched television series are far from interchangeable.

I keep thinking about how Quentin Tarantino’s film is a mild disappointment to me while the original AMC show lives up to the hype.  In the end, I think it’s a matter of resonance and focus.  Both Inglourious Basterds and Mad Men are period pieces, which presents its own challenges in production design and narrative, and both are consciously engaged in social commentary, but the TV series eclipses the film for me by offering a series of narratives over time that hold together and create a larger ideological unity while the film offers a series of five chapters, not unlike episodes, that have some well-crafted moments and scenes but ultimately present a fractured work.

Sometimes bits and pieces offer a postmodern pastiche can come together to create moving images that are ultimately larger than the sum of the parts – I’m thinking of movies as diverse as Moulin Rouge and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, which I believe is probably the film of  his that holds up the best.  Unfortunately, Inglourious Basterds does not rise to this level.  Simply put, some of the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle are intrinsically interesting, but they don’t fit together.

Mad Men, on the other hand, gives lie to the saying – and I’ve often said it – that there is nothing to watch on TV.  I admit that I missed this series when it premiered, then was turned off by the media hype.  But last week, I caught up.  You might say I became obsessed with the series by watching the first two seasons and the season three premiere over several days so I could be caught up by Sunday night, but I prefer to say that I took a late summer vacation and submerged myself in Mad Men instead of a pool somewhere.  I must say that Iam so glad that I dived into the series.  Mad Men seems fresh as a  multi-layered counterpoint to films and television of the early 1960s that depict the era as modern and uncomplicated.  Mad Men also contrasts with films like Revolutionary Road that cover some of the same terrain of suburban angst and the ill-fit of the gray flannel suit, but the series is more nuanced than most of those stories.

Mad Men deals with the issues of the day, particularly sexism and racism, in ways that let us look anew at how much culture really has changed in the last fifty years while also prodding us to recognize ways in which changes have been incremental.  But the series is also fun to watch.  This is what TV used to be like when there were shows you loved, those appointment TV episodes that you watched then discussed with friends and family because the drama was so compelling.  The good news is that the first two seasons of Man Men are on DVD, and that really is the best way to watch since AMC is not presented in HD.  You don’t have to choose between catching the latest Quentin Tarantino flick or staying in with a great TV series, but if there is a choice to be made, I vote for popping your own popcorn, putting your feet up, and taking a mini-vacation by diving into episodes of Mad Men.  It really is that good…

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LES MISÉRABLES

December 30, 2012

Lots of people are gushing – including a close friend of mine who made me promise to write in my blog that she LOVES Les Misérables.  She’s talking about the new movie, of course, but since this is my blog, I will add that I think she went into the film predisposed to like it because she loves the show and its exquisite music from her Broadway experiences.

You might say that I was predisposed to like this film, too, because it is a show I have admired and have seen twice in London’s West End over the years.  Although musicals are often a tough sell for me (there’s the disclaimer some of you are waiting for), the music in this one is wonderful, and the story’s call for social justice appeals to me, too.

How about Tom Hooper’s film version?  Not so appealing to me.  I should have been forewarned by the complex preview trailers that tried to inoculate the audience for the quality of the singing by painstakingly explaining how these are unprecedented live vocal performances designed to highlight the acting and emotion of the scene over the singing.

Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t work so well.  Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Amanda Seyfried (Cosette), Samantha Barks (Éponine), and especially Eddie Redmayne (Marius) are quite good.  Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) gives a nice performance but the singing is a bit spotty at times.  Russell Crowe (Javert) is less than uneven.

This is a musical.  Singing matters.  With a franchise like Les Misérables, casting a singer in the “heavy” role who is less well-known but possesses the voice for the role does not seem to be a financial risk and would have improved the film, especially early on before Seyfried, Barks, and Redmayne show up to breath some life into things.

My other large complaint about the film is tied to the first.  Director Tom Hooper uses far too many close-ups (I assume to emphasize the point that these actors are really singing at the moment they are filmed and that is what the viewer hears), but that technique undermines the epic scope of the story.  Overall, I don’t find the compositions thoughtful or the lighting, at times, aesthetically engaging.  There doesn’t seem to be as high a level of craft evident as I would expect from a big picture like this one.

You might argue with me that this is an intentional choice designed to try pair a “realistic” look with the “realistic” performances.  Even if I grant you that, I will still say that it doesn’t work for me.  People are bursting into song in the middle of the most tragic, frightening, desperate, and, yes, lovely and transcendent of moments.  Realism?  Who thinks this is a good idea in the middle of an artificial form of storytelling?  Why not capitalize on the artificiality?

I concede that style and genre are not immutable.  After all, there is a “realistic” musical that I adore, Once, but that is a spare little film that features characters who are musicians and who play and sing because they are musicians.  Most of the earliest musicals are show or stage door musicals in which the characters are rehearsing and performing a show (think of films like Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933) and later films move from this relatively realistic and primitive stage of the genre into more abstract narratives in which characters spontaneously burst into song and dance.

I do like some of the classic musicals but usually because of some attachment from my childhood (State Fair) or because the music, choreography, performances, and design elements are so good that it would be impossible not to appreciate the form (West Side Story).  And, there are plenty that I like for a scene or two but don’t want to sit through again any time soon in their entirety (The Sound of Music comes to mind).

In recent years, I have been captivated by some musicals that push the boundaries of the genre and draw me in on multiple levels (Moulin Rouge and Across the Universe are prime examples).

Les Misérables does not rise to that level for me, but it does make me think of several films that serve a purpose that I find valuable and more representative in film versions of musicals like Phantom of the Opera and Rent, which are useful as archival works and bring the musicals to a larger audience than would ever be able to see them in live performances.

For me, Les Misérables would probably have been more successful as a film if Hooper had focused less on having the actors sing in real time than in having them sing at a uniformly high level and focused more on constructing a visual style that better conveys the epic scope of the story with less handheld camera work and the overall hodgepodge of images that show up on screen.

Again, the film is not bad; it is less than I hoped for if not expected.


SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

December 27, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook is a story about two troubled adults (with family and friends dealing with abundant problems of their own) trying to find a suitable and sustainable equilibrium.

The cast is terrific.  I am a fan of Jennifer Lawrence since Winter’s Bone (possibly my favorite film of 2010), have never thought much about Bradley Cooper before but will after this, and Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, and others are equally memorable.  There is not a false step among the performances.

I think writer-director David O. Russell is enormously talented and am particularly fond of his 2010 film The Fighter.  That film, along with some others he has made, are easy for me to analyze in an appreciative, heartfelt way but with a level of emotional distance I don’t have yet for Silver Linings Playbook.

It is highly likely this movie will land in my upcoming list of ten 2012 favorites, but it touched me so deeply and tells such a complex story (that appears deceptively simple on the surface) that I don’t want to write about it yet in any detail.

This unwillingness on my part to reveal the nexus of my feelings is an unusual response for me to any film I care about, and I encourage you to see it and judge for yourself.

Silver Linings Playbook is wonderful.


THE GUILT TRIP

December 27, 2012

A nice Jewish boy and his mother travel cross-country while he is pitching a product he has invented.

The film would be slight and completely forgettable except that Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen have some mother-son chemistry and (I can say with some authority as the single mom of an adult son) there is some emotional authenticity to their exchanges and what fuels them, hence The Guilt Trip.

Okay, so the film is slight, and the script feels like a first draft, but I still like Streisand and Rogen together.


THIS IS 40

December 23, 2012

Where is the heart?  My favorite Judd Apatow film is The 40 Year Old Virgin, which is a funny movie that works as well as it does because there is a sweet message nestled alongside the crude jokes.

I am also a big fan of the Apatow-produced television series Freaks and Geeks, which is authentic and also full of heart.  Funny People interests me because it seems to break away a bit from some of Apatow’s usual preoccupations, but the more popular movie Knocked Up irritates me as much as it entertains because of an overabundance of shrill women and the men they infantilize.

Sounds harsh? Wait until you hear what I have to say about This is 40.

Who are these people (I know, Apatow’s real life wife and daughters), and why is this billed as a comedy?  It’s not that I dislike the movie completely, it’s that I have serious issues with the characters and am glad that the only time I have to spend with them is (an overlong) two hours and fifteen minutes onscreen.

“Pete” and “Debbie” are forty, and she is fighting it.  They are self-absorbed but not self-aware, and both of them seem incapable of gratitude for…well…for anything.  Supposedly, there is some realization they make near the resolution of the film that changes they have been trying to make in their lives (read between the lines changes that Debbie is trying to impose) don’t actually improve things, and they really do love each other after all.

What?  I didn’t see even the most modest of character arcs for anyone (well, okay, for Debbie’s dad maybe), and none of the main characters is any more likeable or even more interesting at the end of the film than at any other point throughout the narrative.

Ostensibly, I should like this film because it is, at its core, an episodic, slice of life picture of the type I generally have a predilection to enjoy, but these characters don’t confront interesting situations or gain important insights or seem to have even the slightest glimmer of intellectual curiosity.  The characters are shallow, and that really only works well when there is context that offers a contrast and does so in the service of larger points about humanity.

Oh, and, where is the heart?

 

 


THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

December 21, 2012

Bad movie, ugly process, but please don’t send me hate mail.  We can just agree to disagree.

The narrative is a good place to start.  Why is this movie nearly three hours long?  Not very much happens, really (though the Orcs and other creatures look pretty creepy), and the pacing is terrible.  Why does it take so long to get through the exposition?  Why does Bilbo Baggins finally decide to go along for the trip?  And, why does Gandalf seem so reluctant (or incapable) of using his mysterious powers?

Let me provide one example.  The scene when Bilbo has the riddle duel with Gollum must go on ten or fifteen minutes (and regardless could have been accomplished in half because it plods), but that’s a prime example of when some intercutting between that scene and the ongoing battle above might have helped things a bit.  Plod-ding!

I could give more examples, but don’t want to think about it any more.  To say something nice, I must recommend the stunning vistas (which I’d like to see without production design and digital “enhancement”).

Now to assess the 48fps format as used in The Hobbit.  Let me say, first, that high frame rate processes can look good, but this one doesn’t.

The depth effects are decent – the mid-frame and background are generally nice – but the foreground where the characters are mainly positioned looks harsh, flat, washed out.

As I was sitting at the Grand 18 in Winston-Salem yesterday (one of five theaters in North Carolina showing the film in 48fps), I kept thinking, “The foreground image looks like one of those old, BBC television period dramas shot on video.”   Of course, I’ve enjoyed the content of some of those movies more than this one because of the writing and performances, but I never cared for the aesthetic.


HITCHCOCK

December 20, 2012

It’s not that I expected a lot, really, but if the film Hitchcock had been only marginally as well-conceptualized as the great director’s better films, it would have been more thought-provoking and even informative than the film about Alfred Hitchcock’s production of Psycho turns out to be.

Three things I like about the film:

(1) More people will now know the name Alma Reville after seeing it and will understand her large role in the creative process of “Hitchcock films.”

(2) It’s fun to see the recreation of the sets and the filming of some iconic sequences in Psycho.

(3) I think the discussion of whether or not to use music in the shower sequence (and the stair sequence) and Bernard Herrmann’s ultimate victory on that front is pretty accurate and interesting even if it becomes almost a throwaway in the film Hitchcock.

Three things I don’t like about the film:

(1) The internal dialogues and obsessions attributed to Hitchcock don’t seem authentic (though he had plenty of thematic preoccupations if not outright obsessions).

(2) Anthony Hopkins doesn’t sell me (sorry, Toby Jones came closer for me in the equally problematic HBO pic The Girl).

(3) The breezy tone throughout doesn’t work for me because it makes the stakes seem so low.  Competing emotional tones are one thing, but this coasting along on a pleasant plateau is another matter.

These biopics are dicey business and tend to work best when the movies cover compressed periods of time and largely unknown stories, though there are exceptions.

While the basic facts of Hitchcock are not in dispute, I did not find myself drawn in the way I did with My Week With Marilyn last year.  And, whether it is “true” or not, I didn’t feel emotional authenticity in the depiction of the director that I did with the star, there was no insight gleaned – plenty that felt “factual” but not so much that felt “true” – and flatness rather than suspense.

Hitchcock is moderately entertaining and will be fun for movie buffs.