Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I mean, it's practically begging you...

Another "Not Quite a Movie Recommendation":

So, when I finally got around to watching M. Night Shyamalan's The Lady in the Water (2006), I found that I actually liked it and thought that it was a pretty good movie. Which is not to say that I think it was unfairly panned by critics or that it was "underrated". Actually, even though I like the movie, it does three things that are impossible not to criticize and, while I was able to more or less ignore these things, if you can't ignore them or don't want to ignore them, my guess would be that the movie would drive you batty.

M. Night Shyamalan's First Annoying Thing:

He names the two species of fairytale creatures "Narfs" and "Scrunts". These words look silly enough on paper, but it is even sillier to hear actors say these words while keeping a completely serious look on their face. The silliness turns to something genuinely annoying, because we keep hearing "narfs" and "scrunts" over and over again. And while "narf" is just sort of ridiculous, someone involved in making the movie should have told M. Night not to give a fantasy creature a name that sounds like the combination of "scrotum" and "cunt". I expect this is fundamental to what killed the movie with the general audience.

M. Night Shyamalan's Second Annoying Thing:

In a rather petty, adolescent move, he makes the "jerk" character a movie critic (named Farber), I guess to get back at critics who didn't like Signs and The Village (or something). M. Night has always been bigger with the people than with the critics (although his first two films were fairly well reviewed for genre movies), but one would have hoped that he'd be able to rise above this kind of mean-spiritedness if only because he's been so successful despite what critics have had to say.

M. Night makes it even worse by giving his hero a speech that goes something like "How dare that critic interpret a story! How dare he assume that his interpretation is the only correct one!" This is so absurd because all of M. Night's movies are allegorical: they are crying out to be interpreted and at their best (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable), like any good allegory, they support multiple readings!

M. Night Shyamalan's Third Annoying Thing:

Maybe he could have gotten away with it if he had stopped with the first two annoying things, but I think this one really pushed him over the edge as far as movie critics were concerned. It's one thing to suggest that all critics are know-nothing parasites, it is another thing, though, to cast yourself as an author of a book of such world-changing importance that magical creatures go to war over your very survival. It's not even cocky or conceited or arrogant: it's just absurd! I mean: though M. Night has appeared in his other movies, it's always in small (though not insignificant) roles. Here, while he's not the protagonist, he's at the center of the film and you can't help putting the pieces together. That is: he casts himself in the role because he believes (on some level) that he is the author whose work will have world changing importance. How's that for setting yourself up as a target of ridicule and scorn?

My favorite goofy character in the movie.

Actually, it's the size and obvious deliberateness of these "Annoying Things" that make it possible for me to ignore them (more or less) and like the movie anyway. In a perverse way, I might even like the movie more because of them: not because they aren't really annoying, but because they are such obviously bad ideas that they're almost too easy to beat up on. It's like he's asking for the abuse.

So - what exactly is there to like in a non-perverse way?

Well, have you read any of James P. Blaylock's novels? He's one of my favorite fantasy authors (I recommend The Last Coin and The Paper Grail). I tend to describe his books as being like Stephen King's with the horror/scare-factor dialed way down, although they're a lot more modest. They're generally about a contemporary American everyman bumping up against the fantastic in the middle of everyday contemporary American life. Despite some of the megalomania that manifests itself in Annoyances 2 and 3 (not to mention the huge budget), The Lady in the Water is similarly modest movie. "The Everyday" is never overwhelmed by "The Fantastic": rather, "The Fantastic" is always creeping around the edges. And, as in Blaylock's books, the characters are all refreshingly low-key.

(Alas, the climax of the movie features the kind of half-assed mumbo jumbo hand-waving as most recent Stephen King novels.)

From a film geek perspective, I like all of M. Night's long takes and his willingness to give his actors room (both time and space) to develop their performances. And I also like the way he works in self-imposed limitations, like never taking us outside of the apartment complex. It's a bit of a stunt, but (somewhat paradoxically) a low key stunt that doesn't call attention to itself. It's more noticeably in retrospect. I like seeing someone making a big budget movie for popular audiences that doesn't pander and doesn't ape all the standard conventions of big budget filmmaking.

That said, Adam at Film at 11 is probably right to put the Strained Seriousness label on M. Night.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Not quite a movie recommendation...

Not quite a movie recommendation this time, but rather some thoughts about contemporary filmmaking practice (esp. with regards to comedies) and a link to a clip.

I'm reluctant to simply lead with the clip - from the original The Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, 1963) - because the only version I could find on the internet isn't all that great. The scene - a complex car chase around a fountain in a small Swiss town, involving crooks and police officers, all in "fancy dress" costumes - needs widescreen presentation to really do it justice. Unfortunately, the internet clip crops the image and doesn't even show the entire scene: the rhythms of the editing and the camera movement seem a lot choppier than they should and the climax is missing. Still: there's enough there that what I'm saying shouldn't seem completely unfounded.

Here's the link.

What strikes me about this scene is not only how good it is as a gag, but also how its "goodness" (i.e. what makes it funny, what makes it interesting, what makes it work) is tied up with a number of (related) elements that are nowhere to be seen in contemporary Hollywood/Indiewood/Eurowood comedies (or movies in general).

They are:

(1) Longer takes/fewer cuts/camera farther away from the action. Everything here is accomplished with very little fuss in terms of camera placement, camera movement, and editing. Edwards stays (mostly) in long shots and doesn't do too much to "energize" or "push" the sequence. He achieves his effects through: the choreography of the driving, the silliness of the drivers, the reaction of the silent witness.

(2) It is primarily a visual gag, although by no means a "silent" one (the sound/image choreography is very important). It relies on a very inventive use of the location, precisely coordinated stunt driving, moments of visual rhyming, a playfulness regarding off-screen space and the edge of the frame (for instance: the "climax" - not seen in the clip - happens off screen - anticipating JLG's Weekend(?)), and a few basic camera movements (most noticeably the pans from one side of the circle to the other and the dollying in and out).

(3) Builds as a gag/built to as a sequence. Edwards takes some time to set things up and then goes through a few variations, which get more complicated (and funnier) until the final, capping moment. But more importantly: the entire car chase itself builds on some of the movie's earlier gags. The two gorillas meeting echoes their earlier interaction in an homage to the Marx Bros. "mirror" sequence and throughout the movie Edwards has built gags around the edges of the frame - for instance, Sellars's stymied romancing of Capucine in the hotel room. That means that the sequence can't be completely appreciated divorced from the movie as a whole, not just in terms of plot and character (i.e., why that guy is doing that thing and what it means in the big picture of the story) but also in terms of filmmaking choices. We're still (somewhat) used to seeing that kind of deliberateness in Hollywood action movies (e.g. 300), even if it is not always appreciated, but it is virtually absent from most comedies. And when we do come across a comedy with this kind of elaborateness/deliberateness, it is usually carried by the dialogue (e.g. The Big Lebowski) or the set design (e.g. Dick and Down with Love) or both (e.g. Wes Anderson's movies).

(4) The whole scene is presented from the POV of a "background" character. This seems like a little detail, but it might be one of the biggest differences between this sequence and the kind we're most likely to run into today. It isn't just that we spend the whole scene without ever seeing the faces of the stars, but adding another pov helps to open up the movie. That is: the movie doesn't limit itself to the povs of the stars. This kind of choice is digressive from a stylistic standpoint (although not a narrative one): these kinds of digressions are rare in contemporary Hollywood-style movies.

(In David Bordwell's terms, these are all things that have been lost because of the move towards "Intensified Continuity" as the default style for popular narrative filmmaking).

So what does this all mean? Well, to get back to Judd Apatow...

As much as I like Superbad and as funny as I think it is, it doesn't come close to The Hollywood Knights. My somewhat glib reason: unlike Superbad, The Hollywood Knights was made by a filmmaker, not just someone who (to borrow from my friend Nick) turns on the camera and lets the actors be funny.

To be fair to Mottola/Apatow/Rogen/et al.: they are near the top of this school of moviemaking, but their main gift - nailing down a certain kind of post-slacker dude banter - manifests itself on a scene-by-scene basis, without ever coalescing into something bigger.

Still: Superbad and Knocked Up were two of the best-reviewed and best-received comedies of last year and I can't help thinking: "Is this all we expect of a 'great' comedy?" Not that they aren't funny or that they don't have some memorable/rewatchable moments/scenes/etc. - they made me laugh, they presented some very true-to-life characters, they capture the dynamic of guys engaging in that kind pop culture one-upsmanship that is a substitute for conversation - but they're scrawny when compared to The Pink Panther or The Hollywood Knights.

Placed next to The Pink Panther, we can see how limited their repertoire is: with only a few exceptions, the humor is either verbal or based on facial expressions. And it's not only that there's no physical humor or what I'd call cinematic humor (like the car chase from Pink Panther: gags that rely on staging, composition, choreography, etc.), the verbal, dialogue exchange-based humor is all of the same type and pitched at the same level.

Placing Superbad next to The Hollywood Knights or Knocked Up next to (say) The Apartment (because Andrew Sarris has suggested that Apatow has received the same kind of critical acclaim as "Billy Wilder"), we can see how limited the Apatow movies are in terms of range of insight and experience. By which I mean: the women characters in Superbad seem to exist mainly as props - they are important as characters only in terms of their relationships to the leading guys; the women characters in The Hollywood Knights (I'm thinking especially of Fran Drescher's character), though they may not have as much screen time as the guys, have their own motivations, desires, and integrity.

Both Knocked Up and The Apartment document shifting social mores. But though Knocked Up does a good job describing/depicting the contemporary phenomenon of extended male adolescence, it does so in a vacuum (how exactly any of those guys really maintain that lifestyle is never addressed, the women characters are only sporadically believable). The Apartment's take on alienated, urban office workers is grounded in a well-realized social context.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Movie Recommendation: Hallelujah I'm a Bum

Hallelujah I'm a Bum (Lewis Milestone, 1933)

Hallelujah I'm a Bum, like Rene Clair's A Nous la liberte or Le Million, is, from a film history perspective, interesting as an example of a movie that suggests alternatives to what was then becoming the conventional way of making sound pictures. That is: (1) Milestone's staging, which often made use of elaborately choreographed camera movements, and the strategic use of rapid-fire, rhythmic editing feel like techniques carried over from silent filmmaking; (2) the relationship between sound and image, though not as playful as that in Le Million or A nous la liberte, has more variety than that in conventional "talkies" (its most noticeable feature in this regard is the spoken-sung dialogue written by Lorenz Hart).

Its status as a kind of "transitional" film between the silents and the talkies comes through in the casting: Harry Langdon facing off against Al Jolson. Its take on socialism vs. capitalism also makes it interesting as a piece of history, but the movie has virtues that go beyond these curiosities. Namely: a fully-realized star performance from Al Jolson, a great supporting cast that includes vaudevillians Frank Morgan and Chester Conklin; some of Lewis Milestone's most inventive filmmaking. Milestone is operating here as what I tend to think of as a "full" filmmaker: that is, one who makes use of a wide variety or techniques and styles, rather than working with a more limited palette. ("Full" here isn't meant to imply that filmmakers who make use of fewer available options are somehow "lesser" filmmakers: both approaches are valid, but I do think they represent a difference in philosophy).

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Schlubs and the women who love them

Jim Emerson's post on whether or not the "Apatow Schlub" is too ugly for the girl inspired a comment from me:

My problem with the "Apatow Schlub" in Knocked Up specifically, is not that I think Katharine Heigl is too attractive for Seth Rogen in some cosmic sense, but that I don't believe that their specific characters would ever think "Hey, let's start a relationship!" (I can just barely buy that she'd go home with him in the first place). For me, this shows a lack of imagination on the part of Apatow & Co.: why not make the her character an up-and-coming comedian/writer on some kind of MAD TV-type show (just as a for example)? In other words, make her a character who (a) might be attracted to Rogen's character for his humor or laid-back attitude and (b) would be enough of an outsider not to be turned off by his lack of ambition.

In movies like The Disorderly Orderly or Billy Madison or Norbit, it doesn't matter that the schlub ends up with a woman who (realistically) seems way out of his league, because those movies don't really try to make sense on that level. At this point, I'd say that the schlub (or loser or whacko) with the babe has become such a convention of these kinds of Jerry Lewis-style comedies that in Dumb & Dumber the Farrelly Bros. get laughs by subverting the convention.

But Knocked Up, in that it is trying to observe and comment upon a real cultural phenomenon (the extended adolescence of post-slacker dudes), should try to make sense on that level. It doesn't (for me, at least), so that's why I think it's only half successful (well, a little more than half: Leslie Mann and Kristen Wiig manage to pick up some of the slack from Heigl's under-realized character).

I'm playing a similar tune in my post on Superbad, here.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Movie Recommendation: Track of the Cat

Track of the Cat (William Wellman, 1954)

The movie is, rightly, known for its striking design: Wellman shot on color film, but the set design and choice of locations emphasizes blacks, whites, a greys, making the few bold colors - like Robert Mitchum's red wool coat - pop out at you. (It's a kind of an analog version of some of the color effects in the the adaptation of Sin City). The exterior of the ranch - built on a soundstage and seen through an fx-created snowfall - has a haunting, otherworldly quality.

That said, the movie has a number of other strengths: a screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides from Walter Van Tilburg Clark's novel that at time seems to anticipate the style and tone - not to mention the dysfunctional families - of Sam Sheperd's Buried Child and True West; a strong lead performance by Robert Mitchum that makes the most of Bezzerides's off-kilter dialogue; fine supporting performances from Teresa Wright, Beulah Bondi, Philip Tonge, and Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzer; a pretty great gag involving an alcoholic's hidden stash(es); and some tense, Val Lewton-like, action scenes.