Fresh Blood For The Old Guard: Sherlock Jr/One Week

Due to the overwhelming nature of Buster Keaton’s genius, any evaluation of his works leads to a lot of superlatives getting launched his way. So, this article can’t help but double as Mad Man McKinnon’s Marvelous Menagerie of Magnificently Manly Men.

Holy crap do I love Buster Keaton. When it comes to reckless ambition in the history of film, he has few peers. No one I can think of displayed such an unchained cinematic creativity, and when you combine his eagerness to put his body on the line in set-pieces so dangerous they make me cover my eyes to this day, you end up with a totally unique film making force worthy of deification. Why I waited so long to finally see Sherlock Jr and One Week, I can’t say. Needless to say, my affection for the great Stone Face has expanded.

Keaton knows the limitations of silent film, and he keeps his plots straight forward. One Week concerns a couple trying to assemble their first house, and the utter disaster that ensues when a rival mislabels the boxes of hardware. The result is a madhouse of a home, with doors, walls, and windows totally out of place. There’s a sweetness to the persistence with which Keaton and his new bride try (and fail) to build a life together, and Sherlock Jr continues that big hearted tradition. Keaton plays an aspiring detective/projector operator at a local movie theater, wrongfully accused of stealing from his beloved’s father. In a nice little bit of irony, it’s Keaton’s girlfriend that proves the talented detective by following a trail of evidence that exonerates Keaton. Both Sherlock Jr and One Week feature lovable losers fighting indefatigably for their love, but it’s on the skeletons of these simple, threadbare plots that Keaton really works his magic.

Physically, there aren’t many like Keaton. Spectacularly agile as well as utterly fearless, Keaton’s unique abilities leap off the screen to this day, and when coupled with his extremely cinematic imagination, we all get treated to some pretty special setpieces. One Week has some amazing bits, such as a scene in which a tornado turns Keaton’s house into a tilt-a-whirl, and Keaton desperately tries to reenter it, repeatedly sprinting and leaping over and across his balcony. Sherlock Jr, however, tops One Week pretty easily. In a heartstopping sequence late in the film, Keaton races through a city while sitting on the front of a motorcycle, barely dodging cars, driving over the roofs of trucks, and racing across collapsing scaffolding. In the finale, he crashes into the side of a house, flies through a window, and dropkicks a villainous rival. I fancy myself a dropkick connoisseur, and that one is easily the finest I’ve seen. Seriously, I bet it’s the reason Jackie Chan gets out of bed every morning.

It’s not just the daring that makes Keaton’s movies a wonder to behold. There’s an enormous ambition and a wonderfully imaginative mind at work in his films. One Week has tons of funky moments, all centered around the aforementioned madhouse. Doors lead to nowhere, floors sink, and walls spin. You wouldn’t want to live there, but it looks like it’d be fun to visit. Sherlock Jr, meanwhile, is a bit more magical. In a dream sequence, Keaton imagines the film he’s playing to a packed house as acted out by his beloved and a rival suitor. With some nice disguised cuts, Keaton climbs into the screen, but the editing of the film does him no favors, arbitrarily transposing him to new locales and constantly robbing him of props he intends to use. It’s a brilliant bit of comedy on the insanity of film making and the editing process, and it couldn’t exist in any other medium. There’s a reason Keaton is held in such regard not only as an actor and clown, but as a genuine force of a director as well.

Despite all Keaton’s physical talent and cerebral versatility, neither One Week or Sherlock Jr would be so endearing if they weren’t so darn adorable. In One Week, Keaton and his wife simply refuse to let themselves get down, no matter the countless disasters they encounter. They’re madly in love, and they’re building a life. Their optimism and cheerfulness is infectious. Sherlock Jr is no different. There’s a lovely scene where Keaton sits with his beloved on a couch, and each attempts to summon the courage to reach for each other’s hand. Their fingers cross, and they both pull away, shy. Finally, aggressively and assertively, Keaton’s beloved slams her hand down, and Keaton follows suit. Their fingers entwine, but they’re interrupted. Tender moments like these are the sorts of scenes that make you fall in love with a movie.

One Week
and Sherlock Jr delight on so many levels. Their creativity excites the mind, their physicality get your heart pounding, and their love stories make you smile. They have the feel of works of a true genius, one with enormous ambitions yet zero prententions. Buster Keaton was physically amazing, technically brilliant, and emotionally pure, yet his sole desire was to entertain. We should all be grateful.

Posted in Fresh Blood For The Old Guard, Mad Man McKinnon's Marvelous Menagerie of Magnificently Manly Men | Leave a comment

Fresh Blood For The Old Guard: The Conversation

Francis Ford Coppola most definitely sits high up in the pantheon of great film makers, probably with tenure. Nothing in his estimable career can match up to the year he had in 1974, when he released a pair of Best Film Nominees: The Godfather Part II and The Conversation. It’s near impossible to overstate the impact of The Godfather saga on the history of film, and some even consider Part II the high water mark of the series. But where does The Conversation fit in the discussion? Was the Academy right to pass it over?

The central concern of the film seems to be the role of trust and privacy in intimacy. Harry Caul is a guarded, paranoid surveillance expert who keeps all his secrets to himself. In an early scene, he visits his girlfriend, who couldn’t be a kinder, more comforting presence. When she innocently asks for a little bit of insight into his past, he breaks off their relationship. Immediately, he regrets it. But his is a profession that proves people are never safe. Wherever you go, whatever you do, someone could be listening and readying themselves to exploit you. He can’t bring himself to be vulnerable, and thus he alienates himself from everyone around him.

Despite his nature, Harry longs for connection and absolution. His confessions to a priest are an incredibly painful (but necessary) opportunity to actually discuss himself. When he meets a girl at a party, he unloads his heartbreak over his break-up on her, but still frames his scenario as a hypothetical, vainly trying to keep his distance. In a dream sequence, he eagerly admits every failure he can think of to a fading specter. He’s a man burdened by tremendous guilt, and no one can ease him of it because he is incapable of trust. Despite being a talented saxophonist (as far as I can tell), he is embarrassed to the point of rage when his hobby is revealed against his will. And in yet another hint to the depths of his loneliness, he only plays the sax while following along with a record, so that he may pretend he’s part of the band.

His guilt is a constant presence in his life. Years ago, he managed to record a conversation between a pair of conspirators that mystifies his professional peers. But the results of that recording led to the brutal murder of one of the conspirators and his family. Harry’s greatest achievements are simultaneously his greatest sins. Though Harry pretends he is not culpable for what his surveillance leads to, he is haunted none the less. When he applies his craft to a couple he is assigned to follow and goes over the tapes of their conversation, one key phrase becomes his fixation: “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” In this moment, Harry sees the beginnings of a cycle repeating itself, and he worries the ominous Director will seek retribution on the couple. Harry gets a second chance. Or at least it seems that way.

The Conversation attempts a 3rd act twist that caught me off guard a bit. I guess that’s the central goal of a big twist, but it kind of derailed the movie for me. It didn’t really seem to fit with the allegory and emotions the film had been playing with. Fine. So the couple had actually been planning to murder the Director, and Harry misunderstood the key phrase. Is it surprising? Sure. But what does it mean? It kind of robs the story of the guilt and ethical dilemma that haunted him. Harry was borderline powerless in the scenario. What could he have done differently to avoid this tragedy? Spied better? Truly, better surveillance, better invasion of privacy seems the only solution. All this twist suggests is that people are fundamentally unworthy of trust or space, and that seems cynical to the point of insanity. I doubt that’s what Coppola wanted to suggest, but it seems like an inevitable conclusion. Maybe I’m missing something, but this was the worst kind of twist. Not only did it have nothing to do with Harry or his journey, it totally undid the significance of all preceding events.

My violent reaction to the twist speaks to how well the movie was working for me, so I’m willing to entertain the possibility that something went over my head. Particularly since the the final scene of Harry tearing up his apartment and desperately searching for a recording device is such a powerful one, and the final image of Harry playing his saxophone in the ruins of his home such a lasting one. The Conversation is certainly a great piece of film making, but with that twist looming over the whole production, I can’t help but feel it’s more a visceral than a cerebral one.

Posted in Fresh Blood For The Old Guard | Leave a comment

Fresh Blood For The Old Guard: Intolerance

In this era of blockbusters, casting as wide a net as possible seems to be the top priority. Films must appeal to four quadrants, and do their best to keep from alienating any particular group of people if they hope to break the bank. Consequently, we’ve got a lot of middle brow, virtually amoral stuff dominating the box office these days, and any property with even the most remote familiarity gets preferential treatment over a novel or daring new venture. The current climate doesn’t really lend itself to stepping out on a ledge.

Intolerance (subtitled Love’s Struggle Through The Ages) is a particularly peculiar epic, wildly ambitious, extravagant, and shamelessly social minded. It truly wears its heart on its sleeve, and the sheer spectacle of it staggers to this day. With its brutal battle scenes, enormously detailed sets and costumes, and countless extras, its the rare production whose achievement has actually been amplified with time. It’s structure is particularly daring as well, with a story that spans millennia while intercutting four parallel plots: the struggles of a 1916 young lower class couple, the events leading up to France’s St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, Christ’s mission and death, and finally the fall of the Babylonian empire. That’s what the press material says, at least. Christ gets pretty short shrift, appearing in only a few scenes in the hopes of imbuing the other storylines with some biblical significance.

Inevitably, Intolerance can feel pretty dated. It’s nearly one hundred years old, after all, and its depictions of intolerance can seem pretty short sighted to a modern audience. It doesn’t address the modern hot buttons of race, gender, or sexuality at all, and it doesn’t seem particularly concerned with social equality or the inherent insidiousness of subjugation. In fact, in a rather embarrassing choice, suffragettes are pretty mercilessly vilified. They exploit a rich spinster for political power, and then use their new found strength to rob a women of her child. There’s kind of a persistent contempt for the social climbing middle class, actually. In Intolerance, Kings, Princes, and Governors are noble and kindhearted. Its the usurpers that are evil. With our modern sensibilities that constantly question and mistrust authority, those parables don’t really land. Birthright and entitlement aren’t exactly things most of can get behind.

Intolerance’s depictions of its villains also can make it feel like a bit of a relic. For a film ostensibly about acceptance, it sure doesn’t pass the basic test of treating your enemies with love and respect. From the aforementioned suffragettes, to the effete Monsieur La France, to the faceless hordes of Cyrus and the evil Priest, Intolerance can lean pretty hard on shallow caricatures of evil to express its point. And though certainly ambitious, the storytelling isn’t particularly sophisticated. Naturally, the plotlines don’t really have any bearing on each other, and the modern day (relatively speaking) tale of The Boy and The Dear One is pretty clumsily executed. His courting of her is aggressive and villainous seeming from a modern perspective, but the film doesn’t treat it as such. His supposed redemption and abandonment of his life of crime is similarly facile and overly simplistic. He merely severs his ties with the local crime boss, and we as an audience are supposed to reembrace him as a pure soul. But he pays no penance. If we are to believe in his redemption, it has to be tested. We need to see a tangible change in his behavior. He needs to rescue when he would have exploited, show charity when before he would have stolen. Merely saying he’s changed rings hollow.

Obviously, Intolerance needs to be evaluated through the prism of the era in which it was made. Like I said, it’s still a pretty amazing piece of big budget film making. Certain stunts, props, and battle scenes are pretty jaw dropping. The enormity and splendor of its Babylon will always be magnificent to behold, and seeing people getting decapitated in a film from 1916 will always be a pleasant surprise. It also may not be totally fair to criticize its lack of civil foresight. In the end, its heart is generally in the right place. It seeks to imbue the little guy with some dignity, be they poor hoodlum or mannerless Mountain Girl. Its final image of a loving heaven bringing an end to war and turning a prison into a field of flowers captures the spirit of the picture: sweet, sentimental, and just a little bit quaint. Intolerance truly tries to communicate lessons and emotions it values, courageously and unselfconsciously. Big Budget film making is far more guarded these days, often to its detriment.

Posted in Fresh Blood For The Old Guard | Leave a comment

Fresh Blood For The Old Guard: Duck Soup

Trying to form screenwriting and filmmaking criticism regarding strict comedies presents an interesting challenge. A film like Duck Soup makes no pretensions towards crafting a complex or interesting story. Its sole priority is to entertain. There’s no shortage of nobility in that, but since I’m a writer rather than a comedian, it leaves me less qualified than usual to really get into what works or doesn’t work about this movie. The only thing I can say that means anything is that Duck Soup is really, really funny.

Duck Soup is ostensibly about the petty disputes of some world leaders escalating all the way to war. But that doesn’t matter. The film presents the Marx Brothers at their vaudevillian best. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico are so hilarious they don’t even care whether they have the audience’s sympathy or not. Unlike Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, they can’t really be characterized as loveable scamps or downtrodden underdogs. They’re malevolent agents of chaos, who value nothing and victimize indiscriminately. They ridicule and tear down even those who would seem to be on their side. Groucho’s exploitation of the inexplicably supportive Mrs Teasdale is needlessly cruel: he insults her and berates her when it suits him, or compliments and manipulates her when he desires something. Harpo and Chico are similarly merciless with their initial employer Ambassador Trentino, destroying his clothes and covering his rear with glue when he tries to give them some instructions. A lemonade salesman doesn’t have much luck with them either, ending up with multiple destroyed hats and a business in shambles.

If the Marx Brothers bothered with a plot, such brutality wouldn’t fly. But they don’t ask for sympathy or affection beyond any preexisting relationship the audience has to them. They’re here to entertain. Pathos is irrelevant, and punchlines come a mile a minute. If ones doesn’t land, another is upon you instantaneously before you even the chance to dwell.

Duck Soup may not have an once of pretension, but that doesn’t preclude it from being wildly ambitious. Massive song and dance numbers pepper the film at seemingly arbitrary intervals. They’re performed with such eagerness to please that they amuse despite their superfluousness. Even the forgotten Marx Brother Zeppo gets in on the action for ‘This Country’s Going To War!’, his nearly irrelevant Bob Roland suddenly and conspicuously side by side with the principals despite his utter forgetability. But who cares whether he’s important to the story or not if he can wring a smile from you?

Duck Soup doesn’t bother to challenge, enlighten, or enrich. Regardless, it’s obviously a tremendous success, and has contributed countless classic moments of comedy to our cultural cannon. But can something that’s such an obvious trifle still be an important landmark of film? Of course it can. Film is a flexible medium, and there are countless ways to make a great movie. The more interesting question is if the movie would have benefited from a little bit more attention payed to plot or structure? Would Duck Soup be more memorable if we could more easily get behind the Marx Brothers and genuinely root for their triumph?

Unfortunately for us aspiring dramatic writers out there, I doubt it. The reality is what little plot there is in this movie is basically a waste of time as is. Any more would just dilute the fast-paced laughs further. Consequently, Duck Soup is a unique and inimitable masterpiece that can’t really teach you a single thing about screenwriting. Maybe you can gleam how to frame a joke or gag, but no amount of work or analysis can really help you to grasp the ineffable brilliance of the movie and apply it to you’re own work. When you get right down to it, you’re either as funny as the Marx Brothers, or you aren’t. Obviously, that leaves me out of luck. But that’s fine. Not everything has to be a learning experience. A laugh is a lot more fun, anyway.

Posted in Fresh Blood For The Old Guard | 2 Comments

Fresh Blood For the Old Guard: Spartacus

No matter how much of a fanatic we profess to be, we all have gaps in our knowledge when it comes to our passions. Here, I’ll share my first experiences with canonical pieces of cinema.

A few years ago, I didn’t really think of myself as Kubrick fan. I respected and admired films at the top of his filmography like A Clockwork Orange, 2001, and Dr Strangelove. I enjoyed some of his allegedly middling (relatively speaking) work like Lolita, but was ambivalent towards late era stuff like Full Metal Jacket and The Shining. But lately, I’ve been getting into some of the deeper, more obscure cuts. Early films like Paths of Glory and The Killing really surprised and delighted me. So I was really excited to have a look at his first truly massive production: Spartacus.

Spartacus is the tale of a man’s rise from slave to leader of a revolution, and is a uniquely sensitive, socially conscious, and even socialist take on the old sword and sandals genre. The character of Spartacus is an early, extremely effective example of a hero for the downtrodden we’ve since seen in movies like Gladiator and Braveheart. He values his principles and his people beyond his own life, and desires a symbolic victory over a practical outcome like survival. So that’s right down my alley.

What sets the film apart is probably the becoming aspect of Spartacus’ journey. The scene in which Spartacus encounters his future wife is a great one. She comes to him as an offering, a prize for good behavior, and he is excited to have the first woman of his life. When he realizes his masters are leering at him, prodding him to have his way, he rebels and declares “I am not an animal!”. Varinia immediately repeats his very words to him, and Spartacus recognizes the hypocrisy of his situation. He breaks the cycle of subjugation, and shows her true tenderness and sympathy for the rest of the movie. When he gets a brief opportunity to speak to her, he asks “Did they hurt you?”. Their courting of one another is a very gentle, very thoughtful and respectful subplot, and executed with tact and grace exceptional for any era.

Spartacus also broaches the subject of race with a surprisingly deft touch. Early in the film, Spartacus reaches out to an Ethiopian named Draba, who rebukes his pretensions towards friendship due to the adversarial relationship among slaves inherent to their school of gladiators. When pitted against each other later in the film, Draba defeats Spartacus, but actually shows him mercy. Rather than kill Spartacus, Draba lashes out as his captors, and makes a futile attempt at an escape. It’s an extremely symbolic gesture central to Spartacus’ development, and imbues Draba with a dignity and heroism seldom seen in portrayals of minorities this early in Hollywood’s history.

By credibly engaging its protagonist with exceptionally illuminating supporting characters, Spartacus manages a pretty rare feat of crafting a parable that is simultaneously socialist and individualist. Certainly, Spartacus rises above his brethren and becomes a great leader, but he does so with humility and a great sense of obligation to his fellow man. What makes the famous “I’m Spartacus!” scene such a powerful one is that Spartacus is just as willing to lay down his life for his men as his men are for him. It’s a truly special moment in cinema because not only does it reveal the strength and conviction of its hero, but of all mankind.

Spartacus, as mentioned above, does a fantastic job of approaching topics like race and sex with egalitarian wisdom and clarity, but it stumbles just a bit when it deals with sexuality. To its credit, the mere acknowledgment of differing sexual orientations was a pretty significant taboo to tackle for such a major production, especially given the era. Spartacus deserves some credit for even alluding to the reality of bisexuality. Unfortunately, it does so by framing it as the ultimate decadence of its greatest villain, Crasus. His assertion that “tastes” and “preferences” should not be subject to moral scrutiny by those who simply lack the inclination is actually a pretty persuasive one, but when it comes from the mouth of someone as blatantly villainous as him, the structure of the story tends to direct an audience towards dismissing or even disagreeing his point. It’s not necessarily fair, but his speech certainly would have carried more weight (and admittedly, been far more dangerous and risque) if spouted by a more explicitly heroic character, or at least a less dubious one.

Overall, Spartacus struck me as one of the high points of its genre, and an unusually brave and sensitive epic. As I’m coming to see, however, that puts it squarely in the middle of the pack as far as Kubrick movies go.

Posted in Fresh Blood For The Old Guard | Leave a comment

Scattered Thoughts: Avengers, Justice League, and why superhero team-ups actually mean something

With the Avengers laying absolute waste to box office records around the world, it got me thinking about superhero crossovers in general. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by them, no matter how bizarre or arbitrary they may seem to outsiders. For the Avengers, Marvel had an advantage: for decades, characters like Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor have existed predominantly side by side. Over years, Marvel also placed threads and characters who would reappear throughout film after film to ease and massage the eventual transition. So what could have seemed like a clumsy pairing of wildly different personalities and skill sets came off as natural and organic.

The big question now is whether DC comics will attempt a similarly complex and lengthy gambit, or rush to get a Justice League movie up on its feet. As much of a fan as I am, I certainly hope they take their time. They ought to follow the example Marvel set, and try to reestablish (or even introduce) some of their major characters, particularly in context to one another. Besides a casual reference to Gotham City in Superman Returns, DC and Warner Bros. have been far less aggressive in linking the worlds of their beloved characters, and rightfully so. Christopher Nolan’s especially “gritty” and “realistic” depiction of Batman and his universe doesn’t exactly lend itself to the occasional interjection of colourful, super powered personalities.

At the very least, the emergence of a DC universe on film would call for a drastically different depiction of our beloved Dark Knight. It seems a little blasphemous considering how successful on so many different levels Nolan’s films have been, but all reports point to the series coming to a close this summer, anyway. That being said, why mess with what’s worked? While some (the uninitiated, I’ll call them) resist the notion of people like Batman and Superman crossing paths, to me they’re essential to one another. They’ve grown together side by side for decades, defined and focused each other by contrast.

Superheroes appeal to us losers and outcasts because they are bold, distinct individuals accountable only to themselves. They romanticize solitude, imbue loneliness with dignity and nobility. It’s no coincidence that we come upon them in our youths when we struggle to define ourselves. Guys like Batman and Superman make being alone seem okay, like it’s merely the tragic, universal burden of the truly exceptional.

But just because it’s tragic doesn’t mean it’s true. The most beautiful, comforting, important truth of the world is that we aren’t alone. No matter how strange, alien, and unique we may be, we have like minds out there. If we look, if we are willing to open ourselves up, we all have peers to be discovered. People to lean on, people who can make us stronger. Even when we have nothing, we always have each other.

No man is an island. No man needs to be. Not even Superman.

Posted in Scattered Thoughts | Leave a comment

Oscar Talk: Midnight in Paris

There’s an interesting thing that happens when a writer becomes a celebrity. Woody Allen is probably the only screewriter I can think of who has this issue. Sure, there are some famous screenwriters out there, but Allen’s life is uniquely well documented, and not just by himself. Consequently, there’s a temptation to look in his narratives for crossover with the well known, larger narrative that is his life, especially since the man spent so many years playing unabashed proxies of himself before age forced him to cast actors who could better disguise his arrested development. Anyway, I’ll do my best to discuss Midnight in Paris in an ignorant, unbiased vacuum, and hopefully thus better judge it on its own merits.

Nostalgia is the name of the game in Midnight in Paris. When Gil, a successful screenwriter working on a novel, visits Paris with his fiance Inez, he longs for a simpler time, when great artists of every medium roamed the streets. Thanks to a little bit of midnight magic, Gil is transported to the 1920s, where he meets greats like Earnest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali and countless others. Embraced as one of their peers, Gil gets to live his dream, and as he falls in love with Adriana, he grows distant from his fiance Inez.

There’s a whiff of narcissistic wish fulfillment in the writing when Gil encounters great artists and they instantaneously embrace him and his work, or when he effortlessly pries Adrianna away from Pablo Picasso. Personally, nothing puts me more at a distance from a character as everyone telling the audience he’s great, but in Midnight in Paris, it serves as a counterpoint to how out of place Gil feels in his own era: he hates his job (incidentally, it’s one that I’m jealous of), and he (correctly) believes his fiance is cheating on him with Paul, a blow hard intellectual.

The two eras stand in obvious contrast to one another for Gil, but all characters surrounding him are essentially caricatures. In the present, Gil’s fiance is little more than a shrew, and in the past, the artists are little more than everything their reputations suggested they were. Nobody really gets a chance to reveal any unexpected depth, or an unseen layer. Consequently, Midnight in Paris can feel a little bit like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure for the arthouse sect: a fun, flimsy stream of mostly superfluous cameos.

Fun is fine, and Midnight in Paris is fun. It’s a light, breezy film that has an effortlessness about it, in good ways and bad. Despite Gil’s vocation, it doesn’t really seem interested in the ‘work’ of writing. The content and plot does little to prove its theme, or Gil’s suppositions. When he accuses his wife of cheating, he doesn’t really have much to go on besides a petty jealousy/contempt for her friend Paul. Instead of investigating or gathering evidence, she merely confesses after some prodding. When Gil and Adrianna are transported to her favorite era, la belle epoch, he asserts that people belong in their own era, but he has nothing to motivate that conclusion beyond his unwillingness to spend time in that particular time line. Nothing ever occurred in the 1920s or present that proved his nostalgia misplaced, yet rather than be labeled a hypocrite, Gil simply dooms himself back to the present.

Midnight in Paris merely presumes Gil is correct rather than proves it through the unfurling of its plot. It knows it’s wrong to wallow in fantasy or nostalgia, but it’s clearly not really sure why. Nothing really keeps Gil in his era; after his engagement to Inez is called off, he has no obligations that he’s shirking. For Gil’s assertion to Adrianna in the past to hold any water, he would have needed to suffer repercussions for his forays into the 1920s, but he never does. He just hangs around with all his heroes and gains invaluable insight into the world and his own life. The body of Midnight in Paris falls far short of proving its conclusions, but maybe that’s not it’s truest goal. It’s tourism, a chance to live in a beautiful time vicariously through Gil. He has to go back to his era because we as an audience have to go back to our’s. When the movie is over, so is our journey. If we don’t get to keep hanging around, why should Gil? That would just be depressingly unfair.

Posted in Oscar Talk | Leave a comment

Oscar Talk: The Descendants

When people walk into a movie theater, or pop in a dvd, their first and simplest hope is to see something new. People want to be transported, brought into novel worlds with unfamiliar cultures and bizarre new sets of rules to be assailed. Perhaps The Descendants’ greatest strength is that it shows a seldom before considered side of one of the world’s most well know paradises.

Matt King (played by George Clooney) plays a husband whose wife Elizabeth has just sustained a catastrophic head injury rendering her comatose. Upon reuniting with his estranged teenaged daughter Alexandra, he discovers that his wife had been carrying on an illicit affair, and had planned to leave him. Together with his family, and Alexandra’s dopey male friend Sid, King investigates his wife’s affair, all the while trying to decide the fate of a preposterously valuable piece of land that has been in his family for centuries.

The Descendants does an admirable job of putting a likable character in extremely tough spots. King repeatedly distinguishes himself, gaining a sort of dignity along the way, regardless of his attire. From the beginning, King is drawn as a man of admirable qualities: responsible, hard working, and the noblest of his family’s stock. He may be at a bit of a distance from his daughters, but his hard working nature and his refusal to live off his family’s money are the root. After the initial shock of his wife’s betrayal, the Descendants gives King the opportunity to handle horrible situations with grace. When he confronts Brian, the man with whom his wife had fallen in love, King shows him mercy and keeps the affair secret from the man’s wife and kids. Later, in an over-the-top scene, King’s father-in-law Scott mercilessly spews venom, irrationally blaming King for putting Elizabeth, a doting, loyal woman, in this situation by not spending more money on her. Instead of compounding the old man’s grief and throwing his daughter’s infidelity in his face, King keeps his silence, and concedes Scott’s ludicrous, heartache fueled accusations. And finally, when the time comes for King to decide on the fate of his family’s piece of land, despite the potential vitriol of his countless cousins, he decides to maintain his family’s legacy, and not sell the land.

When King refuses to sell the land, the film cuts away before he tells his cousins. This is a device I’m beginning to notice more and more. Cinematically, King is spared the consequences of his decision, and I can’t help but wonder if there’s something unethical about that. Personally, doing the right thing is only meaningful if it’s done at a great personal sacrifice. Granted, those consequences are still implied, but is that a cop out? Or is it simply sparing the audience the tedium of a predictable scene? If so, does the fact the screenplay relies on such a predictable scene in the film’s climax, even if excised from the on screen narrative, diminish the greater overall product?

Honestly, I don’t know the answers to any of those questions, but I find that scene somewhat emblematic of my broader issue with The Descendants. It puts its characters in tough spots, but it pulls back when the time comes to put them through the ringer. In the early going, King reunites with his supposed train wreck of a teenaged daughter, discovering her drunk at the boarding school to which she had been sent off to deal with substance abuse issues. He quickly discovers that she’s always had his back, and her former substance issues are apparently non-existent. When King attempts to honour his wife’s wishes by informing Brian of her accident, there’s the potential that he’s inviting an awkward, unwanted presence into Elizabeth’s passing, but Brian wants no part of any of the proceedings. When the time comes to reveal to King’s youngest daughter that her mother is going to die, rather than King having to tell her, the news is broken by a brand new, unfamiliar character. As the film rolls towards its climax, characters are left off the hook more and more.

In the opening voice over, The Descendants claims Hawaiians suffer just like folks in any other region, but the script takes it awful easy on its characters. It’s a humble, comfortable, unambitious exercise. It feels “adult” in a bad way: it lacks vitality, urgency, and daring. Its depictions of youth feel woefully, almost condescendingly out of touch, leaning pretty hard on “kids say the darndest things” bits of respite, and cliche, unimaginative depictions of teenagers. Alexandra transitions from a token bad girl to a vacant accomplice almost instantaneously, and her friend Sid’s revelation of his father’s recent passing fails to mask his raison d’etre: he’s a young fool for a wiser audience to chuckle and shake their heads at.

Restraint can certainly be a virtue, and The Descendants offers plenty of it. When a film makes no attempt to surprise or excite or challenge, it must offer some overwhelming strengths to mitigate that. The Descendants offers the minor irony of familial strife juxtaposed against a pleasant landscape. But in the end, there is a sweetness and a comfort to The Descendants’ subdued approach. In the film’s nearly static final image, King sits with his daughters, peacefully and happily as they watch a movie. It’s a proclamation not only of this family’s survival, but it’s restoration. With small, innocuous moments like these, the Descendants is a film that honours simple triumphs.

Posted in Oscar Talk | Leave a comment

Oscar Talk: Hugo

More so than any other medium, film seems to embrace a rich and flattering appreciation for its own history. This year’s Academy Award frontrunners, Hugo and The Artist, can certainly attest to that. Maybe it’s because making a film is such a monumental, communal achievement. It takes countless moving parts, elaborate trickery, crafty fund raising, and a great deal of luck and passion to get something up on the screen. When that much work and suffering goes into making a story, making a story becomes a story in itself.

Hugo‘s positive reception, I feel, has much more to do with its choice of subject matter than its craftsmanship. As a film fan, I can see its heart is in the right place. George Melies, one of cinema’s first great creative minds, is a man very much worthy of a great, celebratory eulogy, and Hugo certainly gives us that. Throw in the fact that the great Martin Scorcese, perhaps the most valuable film making and history resource alive, is behind the camera, and it is with a heavy heart that I find myself sighing at the film’s sloppy, juvenile writing.

Hugo‘s title character is a young orphan obsessed with fixing things. After his attempts to repair an automaton fail to satisfy a sense of longing for reconnection with his father, Hugo digs deeper into the machine’s history. He unearths the tragic history of George Melies, a shop keeper at the train station Hugo makes his home. In years past, Melies had been a great film maker, a magician responsible for putting sorcery on celluloid. But now, all his films are thought destroyed and forgotten. With the help of Isabel, Melies’ Goddaughter, and Rene Tabard, agreat film historian, Hugo puts himself to the task of fixing Melies.

Hugo‘s affection and appreciation for its subject matter are genuine and apparent in the filmmaking, but where the writing suffers are its attempts to colour the margins of its world. Unabashedly, Hugo repeats its theme again and again: people are broken, and we all must fix one another. A pair of subplots, featuring a wounded Inspector’s pursuit of a flower girl and an old newspaper man’s wooing of a cafe proprietress, certainly serve that theme, but they are frustratingly tangential and meandering, and have no bearing on the central plot. The threads exist side by side with Hugo’s, but they’re interweaving is arbitrary. When the Inspector, flower girl, newspaper man, and cafe proprietress appear at the party for Melies, their presence is bizarre and unjustified. Their hopes and concerns had no bearing on Hugo, and Hugo’s had no bearing on their’s. Since Hugo is so clearly the main thrust of the story, every one of these side characters innumerable scenes feel utterly superfluous.

That being said, easily my favourite scene in the film exists solely in service of one of those subplots. Near the beginning of the film, the Inspector makes his first attempt at talking to the flower girl. He summons all his courage, takes a single step towards her, and his crude leg brace squeaks so loudly the entirety of the train station stops in its tracks. His courage falters, and he slinks away in shame, the flower girl hardly knowing he exists. It’s a quiet, wordless scene that expresses so much about the tragedy of insecurity.

Does a single great scene justify an entire subplot, particularly when it has no bearing on the greater plot? It’s difficult to say. As far as strict film writing theory is concerned, probably not. I am sure, however, that I am grateful for having seen that heartbreaking little moment.

Posted in Oscar Talk | Leave a comment

Oscar Talk: The Ides of March

The Ides of March is a dark, cynical thriller about the campaign for nomination of George Clooney’s Governor Mike Morris. From the beginning, Ryan Gosling’s Stephen Myers, a political wunderkind, sees Morris as a once in a lifetime figure: a candidate who can genuinely inspire progress, all the while righteously refusing compromise or backdoor politics. But in the Ides of March, there is no such creature. This is a story of moral compromise and the inevitable fallibility of even the most benevolent and noble.

Ides of March is a film of constant betrayals and hidden agendas. In the early proceedings, Myers takes a meeting with rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who compels him to switch sides. However, the story doesn’t really get going until Myers stumbles upon a secret capable of demolishing any campaign: Morris had an affair with, and impregnated, a young intern. From here, the film becomes one immense game of high stakes poker between expert players.

When Philip Seymour Hoffman’s campaign manager Paul Zara reveals to Myers that it was he who leaked news of the secret meeting with Duffy, he does so because he is confident he has control over the situation. As an aside, this scene is an obvious instance of a supposedly intelligent character being significantly dumber than the audience. Due to the fact that Zara is the only remaining unabsolved party with knowledge of the meeting, most discerning audience members should be able to trace with the information presented to Myers that Zara is responsible for the leak, and yet Myers is floored. If an audience is to believe Myers is resourceful and smart, a scene like this discredits him badly.

If the Ides of March doesn’t value intelligence, it certainly holds knowledge in high esteem. As Myers accumulates information, he gains power. Independently, he arranges an abortion for the young intern. When he is the first on the scene of her suicide, the consequences of the politics and machinations of the powerful are laid bare on the screen. And yet the game continues. Myers arranges a one on one secret meeting with Morris, and attempts to blackmail his way not only back into the campaign, but into Zara’s elevated perch. In a fantastic scene, Myers claims to have a suicide note detailing all of Morris’ illicit behavior, and Morris (along with the audience) are left to discern whether Myers is bluffing or not. The stakes are success or ruin for both men.

In one of the film’s final scenes, the intern’s father laments the loss of his innocent, pure daughter. He says she made the world better. Though this father has not been a presence in the narrative at all up until this point, his emotions and his loss are palpable none the less because he gives voice to what has truly been lost. Ides of March is a film about the decay and destruction of idealism. The success of each character in this film is directly proportionate to their corruption. Its twists and turns (with one noted exception) are elegantly orchestrated, and it proves its theme powerfully with its elaborate and propulsive plotting. Clooney, evidently, has great taste in source material.

Posted in Oscar Talk | Leave a comment