Road Rage

Posted on:  October 24, 2011

There are fewer and fewer reasons to go to the movies these days especially in terms of good cinema stories that when a film like DRIVE comes out, it’s an event.   But this is a good thing.  It makes movie going become rare and special.

Again it’s no secret how much I love minimalism in terms of story telling and characters that reveal themselves through action. The hero story is played out and we know it.  But as Joseph Campbell notes, the hero has a thousand faces.  And sometimes there is a very thin line that separates the hero from the villain. Both are human but only one has real humanity.  It’s in action that real character is revealed and the subtext is exposed.

In terms of story telling, Drive does something I always look for in great films:  You can’t wait to see what will happen next.   It has such an simple screen story it could have easily been boring and trite (and over written) without the care of a good film maker (in this case, the talented Nicolas Winding Refn).  Because a majority of film making today is plot driven, it suffers from a plot generated cycle of patching up holes while creating new ones.  The result are scenes that only answer themselves and not to a greater theme.  No turns in the story lead to characters explaining rather than acting.

Like the nameless George Clooney character in The American.  The kid in Drive is someone who is at a crossroads.  Someone who is ready to walk the straight and narrow.  But like anything there are repercussions and consequences for our actions.  And as the movie’s slogan denotes, “there are no clean getaways”.

The heroism isn’t in what the kid actually does (in such a brutally beautiful way) It’s the fact that he is willing to selflessly give up so much in pursuit of  freedom which in a sense, is as vital to happiness as life itself.

Filling in the blanks

Posted on:  September 5, 2010

What’s good storytelling to me? Simple: It unfolds in front of you and told in one character’s point of view. No tricks. No gimmicks. And if you’ve read previous posts of mine you already know my gravitation towards minimalism.

THE AMERICAN is a fine example of what a satisfying story can be. It is interactive and engaging cinema. It succeeds because of what it doesn’t show you rather than the opposite. George Clooney has become the go-to leading man when it comes to playing the quiet, subdued protagonist with seething inner turmoil. His character (who goes by many a name in this one) is in the people disposal business and he is very good at his craft. But unlike a character like Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men) Clooney’s character is weighed down by the collective baggage of his job. An acceptable job hazard for someone in that line of work.
Like a classic Sergio Leone film, the dialogue is sparse for almost three quarters of this movie as the camera focuses on Clooney and the small Italian village is is holed up in. He does a lot of things we see. It is clear in intent. His interactions with the townsfolk are all we need to get to know this man. He is there to do one job. One that is fairly simple in nature. But he is a man at a crossroads. Someone who might be ready to make a course correction. He wants the nightmares to go away. He wants to fully connect with real people. The tension band is slowly stretched in such a brilliant way that when it snaps you feel a collective sigh.
I won’t spoil the rest of this for you because films like this are rare in the era of loud, obnoxious cinema. The American is a fine example that action is not only louder than words, it is more profound and affecting. Maybe it’s because we as human beings spend most of our time thinking what we are going to do instead of actually doing.
103 Minutes
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Written by Rowan Joffe from a novel by Martin Booth

..but what does it all mean?

Posted on:  June 28, 2010

The book is finished (for now) so I finally have a chance to catch up on some films I missed, starting with A Serious Man written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. I often rave about their work here on this blog because whether you agree with their point of view or not, their films are studies in character, setting and story telling.

As I’ve said before, their films are pseudo-cartoons inhabited by people that are not only real but hyper real, all seamlessly blended in a melting pot of genres.

On the surface, A Serious Man is about a slice of American Judiaca. Set in 1967, it’s about a series of life altering events that befall an urbane college professor which all culminate around his son’s Bar-Mitzvah. But save all the jewish tradition and culture and one still gets to the big question of the film: What is life really about? It’s as philosophical and basic as you can get.

As with any Coen Brothers film, the characters a superbly constructed and developed. Their characterizations are entertaining and amusing and most of all, the storytelling is unbridled and profound. Visually, Roger Deakins shows us once again why he is one of the modern masters of composition and lighting.

The meaning of life is what we individually derive from it. We either answer our own questions or we dont. We make choices based on the limits of our conscience and from what we know is true. The rest is pretty much out of our control.

Walking the Tightrope

Posted on:  April 4, 2010

(Swedish actress Noomi Rapace gives a stunning and courageous performance as the enigmatic Lisbeth)

What you put in is as important as what you leave out. This is a common notion that is at the heart of every creative endeavor and in how we communicate as humans.
The overall effect of how information is perceived is dependent on the messenger and how they manage the dissemination. At some point the messenger has to make the conscious decision to edit or add details to increase the impact of their message. Good messengers have good instincts. And in film, this is sometimes the difference between the good, the bad and the profound.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is good movie which I enjoyed watching. It had the elements of a classic thriller and the rather unconventional alliance it’s protagonists forge between them was intelligently developed. The film makers did their homework. The plotting was carefully planned. But after 152 minutes, what keeps this movie from being profound?
In this case the film makers spent a great deal of time making you anticipate and create empathical bonds with it’s main characters while concurrently integrating the dark unfolding mystery of it’s main plot. (as they should) Unfortunately after all this, the movie loses some focus. Rather than be subtle in execution and editing, the movie clumsily degenerates into a chase, and ends with the film makers’ odd sense to tie every last detail down. Details that had they been left to the imagination would have given the audience some room to ponder and generate their own conclusions.
In storytelling, the process of elimination is as important as the addition. It is a fine balance. A series of crucial choices. And most of the time those choices are the difference between acceptance or oblivion.

A simple plea

Posted on:  January 13, 2010

Dear prospective director/producer/re-booter of movie franchises:

Is it nostalgia? The seduction of CGI? The well-meaning intention of sharing a fun but fleeting experience from 30 years ago?

Whatever it is, all we can say is that nothing good will come from it. Unless you’ve got your head stuck in the ground since the eighties, the track record critically hasn’t been that good. (If Indiana Jones 4 and three Star Wars prequels don’t come up as flags for you then we don’t know what will) Money? Oh you’ll make lots of it.

And we’re not limiting it to old franchises either. Superman and Spiderman need a break and we’re just about there with Batman. Hopefully The Hulk has thrown a tank in anger for the last time as well.

Please remember that we didn’t get stuck in suspended animation. We got older too just like you. Ghostbusters, Alien, TRON, The Thing, Predator. All good films which should be left alone. There are exceptions of course but for the most part, it’s an exercise in futility.

But you say that these are really aimed at us devoted fans from the old times… The ones that branded these films as modern classics….Frankly, a lot of us have kids and mortgages and are increasingly getting dubious about spending 20 bucks at the movies to watch lame facsimiles of the originals.

Besides, as cool as Peter Venkman or Ellen Ripley, or Kevin Flynn is to us, our kids would consider them lame and unappealing compared to Harry Potter and nine-foot tall blue aliens. What kid would really admit they like what their uncool parents used geek on anyway?

Here’s a suggestion. Save the 100 million and give it to charity. There was a huge earthquake in Haiti yesterday. Lots of people lost their lives and property. Donate it. That’s a far better alternative than seeing an older Bill Murray and/or Dan Aykroyd try and squeeze a laugh out of a younger audience who couldn’t care less.

Sincerely yours,

The people who grew up in the eighties

(and everyone else) who are tired of the damn re-boots.

PS -
That logo seems very apropos don’t you agree?

Moving Pictures: Let The Right One In

Posted on:  September 21, 2009

I‘ve already given my two cents about this film back in January so I won’t be redundant. I did mention then how impressed I was at the way this movie was shot. It’s a true study of composition and a great example of how films can achieve an the extra level of richness by adding a visual subtext to the narrative. Overall the look of this movie is reminiscent of the late eighties Polish mini-series called The Decalogue by acclaimed director Krzysztof Kieslowski

Isolation, desolation and the dark side of humanity are at the heart of this film. It is enhanced further visually in a photography and production design sense. It is set in the early 1980’s just outside of Stockholm, Sweden during winter. The cold weather, the desaturated winter colors give out a very foreboding and bleak essence. The sharpness of the intersecting horizontal and vertical lines exude feelings of imprisonment and captivity. All of these intelligently designed elements help make this genre-busting film elevate itself from the glut of vampire films that have come before and after it. (I think you know which ones I am talking about)
And at it’s core is a story that features simplicity in setting and complexity in character. It is more about people and less about vampirism. Which is why i’ll be watching this one over and over for years to come.
(A word about about subtitles: If you click on the comments section, you can follow the discussion about the rather mediocre dub and english subtitles on the DVD. This was something that I was aware of beforehand but was rather negligent to point out. So to make things clear, the North American release of LTROI does not contain the original english theatrical subtitles, which follows closely the swedish dialogue in the film. And for reasons unknown, Magnet and Magnolia films decided to go with a totally newer set of subtitles in the North American version.

But let not the clamour of the natives be under-estimated! Apparently the folks at Magnet and Magnolia Pictures are responding to the public backlash and will be releasing a new version with the original english subtitles. The full subtitle thread and update is HERE

Having seen both the theatrical and North American DVD versions, I have to admit that a considerable amount of subtlety is lost. But in my opinion, the film can still be enjoyed and appreciated viewing the DVD version so the choice is up to you. Either way…… don’t watch it dubbed!

Thanks to artist Benton Jew for the help!)

Copyright 2008 Magnolia Pictures

Running time: 115 minutes – Country: Sweden
Director: Tomas Alfredson – Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Production Design: Eva’ Noren

District 9

Posted on:  May 1, 2009

Here’s the trailer for the NEILL BLOMKAMP‘s new film DISTRICT 9.  The film is produced by PETER JACKSON and is based on Blomkamp’s 2005 short film called ALIVE IN JOBURG.  After seeing Joburg a few years ago, it really left me wanting to see more and apparently, Peter Jackson did too and the result is District 9.    

DISTRICT 9 looks promising but I have to admit that the aliens in Joburg look so much better. (the bug like hominid in the interrogation cell is a definite buzz kill)   I also hope that the strong social commentary in Joburg isn’t replaced with geeky and senseless alien fight sequences.   What made Joburg so effective as a film is that science fiction is merely used as a tool to tell a bigger story.
Neill Blomkamp on Wikipedia
NOTE:  Being that videos routinely get pulled off of YouTube, i’ll try and keep reposting with fresh embeds.  You can also view the District 9 trailer HERE via the Apple Movie Trailer site.

Jim Bissell: Production Designer

Posted on:  March 4, 2009

Today I had the privilege of attending a lecture by renowned production designer and director Jim Bissell, whose credits include E.T. the Extraterrestrial, The Last Starfighter, The Boy who Could Fly, The Rocketeer, Goodnight & Good Luck, Leatherheads, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and most recently, 300.  He is currently the production designer on Brad Bird’s live-action account of the great earthquake of San Francisco called 1908.
He played us a montage of his best work and talked about what the role of a PD is:  Before the cinematographer can capture the best photography, the production designer has to create the best opportunities for good photography.  
Mr. Bissell is an old school artist who still has a passion for building models and miniatures. But he had to admit that using digital pre-visualization revolutionized the industry and that he had found a happy medium from which to use both traditional and CG to fit his needs.  The technical methods between designing The Rocketeer and 300 where vastly different, but his approach is the same:  Make things clear and entertaining.  
During the Q & A, someone asked him what was the most challenging about his work.  He responded by saying that each film brought it’s own baggage and its own challenges.  But in the end, it’s about whether he chose to “play it safe” or take a chance.  He obviously emphasized the need to push your ideas because the pay-off is so much bigger and so much more fulfilling:
“When it comes to design, you can keep playing it safe but at some point you’re going to have to go out on a limb and take a chance, to do something outside your boundaries…..”
….Spoken like a true artist.
Jim Bissell on IMDB.

A Fine Weave

Posted on:  October 7, 2008

Very few in Hollywood can write and shoot enigmatic films like Joel and Ethan Coen. Each of their films are a unique journey in every sense. Story, setting, production design and especially character.

Their films have the feel of stage plays where characters are real but in a novel sense. It’s as if they create worlds and characters that exist in a bubble so the audience gets enough detachment to reflect from. The Coen brothers are also quite adept at blending genres and their conventions just enough to make things interesting, but not overbearing. They’re neither dramas, comedies, musicals or farce perhaps because reality is not that cut and dried.

Just like in Fargo, the characters in Burn After Reading are funny, flawed, dark and unsettling not just because they are overtly quirky but because they could easily be you or me. No one is who they say they are and things are never what they seem. The Coen Brothers took those notions and wrote a memorable screenplay ripe of satire, darkness and humor.

What seemingly are mundane events are innocently complicated by individual agendas.  It all starts with the discovery of a rather innocuous CD of personal data, add a little innuendo and a dash of human frailty and watch what people can do.  (This includes the rather secret device George Clooney’s character builds in the basement)

In the end, everyone gets what they either need or want. Except it may not be ultimately what they where looking for.  It all sounds too familiar don’t you think?

Sydney Pollack: 1934-2008

Posted on:  May 27, 2008

A great actor and director has died. Sydney Pollack passed away from cancer in Los Angeles today surrounded by his family. His amazing career as a director was highlighted by receiving the best director Oscar for the sweeping epic “Out of Africa” in 1985.

His other directing credits include Jeremiah Johnson (1972), The Way we Were (1973), The Firm (1993) and the wickedly funny, gender-bending comedy Tootsie (1982).

s much as I admire him as a director, I will remember Mr. Pollack more for his unique presence as an actor where he had an uncanny ability to bring credibility to any role he portrayed. He exuded strength, wisdom and grit just by being there. Something very few actors possess.

In this memorable scene from Tootsie, Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) storms in to the office of his agent George Fields (Sydney Pollack) demanding an explanation on why he was passed up for a part. Dustin Hoffman is brilliant here but notice how Mr. Pollack’s incredible sense of delivery and timing made this the amazing scene that it is.

A tremendous talent and by all accounts, a wonderful man. He will be missed.

UPDATE: Film Critic ROGER EBERT writes a short but meaningful eulogy via his website.