Saturday, June 25, 2005

Batman Begins

It's been some busy times lately, my sister graduated on Wednesday and I've been doing a bunch of work over at LMC to get ready for the camp. However, before this busy stuff happened, I was still guilty of one major film/comics related sin and that was not seeing Batman Begins until nearly a week after its release. The film was getting amazing reviews and everyone I talked to who saw it seemed to love it, so I was expecting something pretty good. However, I was still wary because I'm such a huge fan of the Tim Burton Batman films, particularly Returns, which is #8 on my top 100 films list. I think I might be the film's biggest fan in the whole world, it's just a transcendent piece of cinema, and I wrote a bit about it here, as well as in a 23 page paper on the film for my action cinema class.

Anyway, in that piece, I also wrote about my thoughts on the upcoming Batman Begins, saying:

And I feel like this film makes the upcoming Batman Begins seem so irrelevant. There's no way Nolan can top this film, and in making a Spider-Man style blockbuster out of Batman, he'll just embrace the commodification of Hollywood that is preventing really personal films from being made. Batman Returns is so unique because it's one of the most personal blockbusters I've ever seen. You can sense Burton's involvement in every level of this project, and maybe that's why the film wasn't successful. To make a film that some people will really love, you're going to alienate others. But, I'd rather have a film that a few people absoultely love than one that everyone likes.

Now that I've seen the film, I think I was a bit off in my assessment of it. It's a film that has actually ended up being pretty much loved en masse. The reviews are not of the grudgingly positive variety, they're raves and people out in the world seem to absolutely love the film. I would not qualify the film as a Spider-Man style accessible blockbuster, it's darker and less pop than that film. However, what it is not is a personal film, or a good film.

Watching Batman Begins, I admittedly went in with a bit of resistance, due to my love of Burton's films, but I was open enough to the film to love it if the quality was there. Then I watched the film, waiting for it to get good, to see what made people love it so much, and it just wasn't there. The whole movie went by and I was unmoved and unimpressed by a fairly generic post-Se7en neo-noir, that features a guy who dresses up in a bat suit instead of a newbie young detective.

This film really falls prey to the problems that mar so many contemporary action movies. The most important is in the pacing. I hate the idea that Hollywood executives like to lock a story into a three act structure with set emotional beats and character arcs, but this misguided rigidity is drawn from the basic storytelling principles that have worked for centuries. In order to keep the audience's emotional involvement, you have to put your hero through trials and have them changed 'by the fire.' The events of a movie should make an impact on the characters. In this film, Bruce Wayne has a pretty solid character arc for the first hour or so, he goes through changes and eventually decides to become Batman. This is a big step, but there, his journey basically ends. Once he is Batman, his problems basically stop, and other than a few minor injuries, everything goes extremely well for him at the end. There's no struggle, no sense that he earns the victory, and while this may have been intentional, it means that the entire second half of the movie is devoid of emotional stakes.

Even though it's not technically based off a comic, the definitive superhero narrative of recent years is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The key here is that she has all these powers, so fighting people isn't that tough, but when you bring emotions into the battle, it becomes much more complex. So, beating the Master in year one, very easy, beating Angelus in year two, agonizing, and the leap in quality is enormous. You need to have your hero in danger, and emotional consequences are actually better than physical danger, because the movie is called Batman Begins, we know he won't die. Admittedly, it's a bit unfair to compare a TV series, with so many more hours to build up the characters, to a film, but the basic storytelling principles are the same.

The entire movie is paced at roughly the same speed and emotional level. We get none of the ups and downs, there's no moment where we think Batman might lose. Cheesy and cliche though it may be, you really need your hero to have some problems and between his money and physical prowess, Batman can do whatever he wants. We never doubt him and that makes for bad storytelling. This movie really needed the moment where Batman is beaten, almost dead, then a swell of music starts and we see him pulling himself up, somehow mustering the strength to finish the job. Those scenes are in movies because they work on an emotional level, it may be cliche, but it's better than nothing. It reminds me of Terminator 3 in the way that a lot of events happen in the movie, but at the end you don't get the feeling that you actually watched anything of substance, it all just sort of passed in front of you in one block of footage.

The last battle between Batman and Ra's Al Ghul is completely devoid of tension, because Batman has no real conflict with the villain. Yes, they had the mentor relationship in the beginning, but he has no reason not to kill Ra's. So, without any emotional tension, we'd need Batman to be in some physical danger, and we don't get that either, or more accurately, we can't tell if he is because of the way the fight is edited. You have no clue what's going on because cuts are used to convey action rather than the actors actually fighting. The best action scenes rely on us knowing exactly what's going and being able to easily follow things. Look at the lightsaber duel in The Phantom Menace, wide shots make it easy to follow the action. Here, it's all quick cuts and then somehow Batman has won, we don't know how. But, that's not just this movie, it's a problem with many action movies today.

The other major issue I had with the film was the score. Most movies, you notice a good score and if it's a bad score, you don't even think about it. However, with the memory of Elfman's two phenomenal Batman scores, the absence of anything musically interesting here is glaring. This is another problem with action movies today, what happened to the theme song? Recently, the idea of having one piece of music that recurs throughout a film has gone out of style and it has hurt movies so much. Look at Revenge of the Sith, the score is so thematically developed, you could watch just the music and visuals and understand the emotional beats of the film. Williams has so many developed themes, he just has to choose the right moment for each one and he's got a brilliant score. Or for a more simple example, look at any James Bond film, the best moment is always at the height of an action sequence when the Bond theme starts playing, everything seems so much cooler. The theme is such an easy shortcut to make events seem important and this film's music is so generic, I was actually playing Elfman's Batman theme in my head, just to try to improve things a bit.

Why would a filmmaker not use a big theme song? Perhaps it makes things too easy, too emotionally manipulative, but when something works, it's never too easy. Music in film is like smell in real life, it's tied into emotional memory, and just playing the music can bring up a feeling. To not use the music in aid of the film is like deciding to speak without any adjectives, you might be able to communicate, but people aren't really going to care about what you say. It's so easy to make a theme song, why not just use it? If Terminator 3 had only used the Terminator theme it would have went up in quality by at least 25 percent.

Also, the film had a really generic post Se7en look. It's dark, seedy, rather ugly, and while that may have been appropriate for the story, from an aesthetic point of view, it's uninspiring. I did really like the look of Golden Age Gotham, with that elevated train, but both Burton films show that you can do dark and seedy and still have a little zest in the look of your movie.

So, I've been pretty harsh on the film, and I think a large part of that is due to my love of the Tim Burton films. Brian Singer is making a Superman movie that's pure homage to the 1979 Superman movie and he gets respected and applauded for that, when the Burton Batman films are so much better than the decent Reeve Superman film, and they get no notice from this work. Instead Nolan creates a pretty generic, impersonal film that has for some reason been embraced widely by nearly everyone. Batman Returns was the perfect take on the character and his sort, it came out thirteen years ago, there was no need for this movie to be made, and watching the film, I don't think it did anything that Burton's Batman films didn't.

I'm not claiming to be unbiased, but watching this film, I was waiting for it come alive and it never did. I really feel like I saw a completely different film than other people did, I just don't get how people could like it so much when this is a rather boring story and totally uninteresting filmmaking. Nolan may be getting the reputation as a golden boy now, but his films all fall into this sort of dirty, dark, yet uninteresting neo-noir genre. Memento had a solid gimmick, but watching it again, it's a standard story wrapped in a cool structure. Insomnia was uninspiring and Batman falls into that same sort of not bad, but not good limbo. I think people's expectations have been so lowered by the awful crop of films released this summer (and the lingering memory of Batman and Robin) that anything that doesn't talk down the audience gets kudos. It's what makes Clint Eastwood's competent, but uninspiring films, best picture winners and Batman Begins the hit of the summer.

People crack on Revenge of the Sith for having bad dialogue, but the pure emotion of the lava duel or the intercut birth/death sequence does more both emotionally and technically than Batman does in its entire run. I guess what I'm saying is that not having anything explicitly bad doesn't make a film good, and having flaws doesn't mean that a film can't still be a masterpiece. Batman Begins is competent, but that's not enough, particularly when the shadow of one of the greatest blockbusters ever made, Batman Returns, lingers. Just compare the emotional impact of the final half hour of Returns to the dull action sequence that closes Begins and tell me which does more with film, and which gets closer to the dual nature of the Batman himself.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

We3 by Morrison and Quitely

Grant Morrison is my favorite writer, and probably the best creative person in any medium right now. Frank Quitely is the best artist in comics right now, the man has drawn the best issue of any comic ever, The Invisibles 3.1, as well as the brilliant miniseries Flex Mentallo, both written by Grant Morrison. So, I was understandably excited to read their new miniseries, We3, which just came out in trade earlier this month. The two of them together are a team unparalleled in comics, and We3 pushes the medium in uncharted directions, while at the same time telling a story unlike anything else Morrison has done.

Grant Morrison has a lot of pet themes that are present in almost all his work, the boundaries between fiction and reality, the evolution of humanity to a superhuman level, exploration of the nature of reality, and while I love all those themes, it does mean that it's pretty easy to recognize and understand a Morrison work once you've done in depth study of his major opus, The Invisibles. We3 is a major departure from everything else he's done before, it's like no story I've ever experienced before, and the thrill of discovery is always something I like to experience.

The book is about a team of cyborg-animal assassins, a dog, a cat and a rabbit, who have been trained by the government to kill people. They have been augmented and given the ability to speak, however, the team has become outmoded, prompting the military to end the Weapon 3 project. However, the animals escape and go on a search for 'home,' all the time being pursued by a military that needs to destroy them to prevent evidence about the project from getting out.

The work has two really notable things about it. One is the art which is some of the most dazzling I've ever seen. Quitely's work here rivals JH Williams' on Promethea in terms of how he invents an entirely new visual language for depicting events. Quitely has always been an incredible artist, the way he draws things is very cool looking, and even when he's working on a more conventional book, like New X-Men, his stuff looks better than anyone else out there, but here, he's in experimental mode, and it's a joy to behold.

The whole work is told from the animals' point of view, and to facilitate this, Quitely depicts almost all the human characters in fragments, just a mouth or legs, to show how animals would view them. This is really notable in the first scene where we see the team. We can see the animals' faces, but not any of the government people. Similarly the silent sequence that opens the book builds so much suspense, culminating in an amazing page in which we see a man being literally split apart.

The first issue also contains a great security camera sequence, with six extremely dense pages of eighteen panels each, almost all silent, a sequence that culminates with a double page spread of the animals breaking out. After the incredibly claustrophobic tight panel layouts, the double spread gives the reader the same relief that the animals feel.

In the second issue, we see the animals fighting and these sequences are the most violent, incredibly rendered things I've ever read. Quitely does a few layouts in which there's a big main image, with a whole bunch of little panels showing detail of the violence. The rendering on these details is so brutal and tells you absolutely everything you need to know. The violence here is genuniely disturbing and you feel the consequences much more than in a book like Preacher.

The third issue features probably my favorite layout of the series. On the left is a splash page of the cat leaping through the air, an archetypal superhero pose, and he is incredibly menacing. On the next page, we see him rip into Weapon 4, tearing his eye out, then pushing him out through a brick wall. The brick wall breaks into the next panel and their fall continues onto the next page, as they both fall onto a highway. The way the panel builds a structure is what's so cool, even the shape of the panel contributes to this. You really understand how this place is laid out and can easily see the physical element of the action.

But, more than specific panels, what's most notable about Quitely's work here is the way he makes the animals into characters. You really feel for them and that's because of the incredible facial experessions he gives them. His images are so visceral they produce an incredible emotional reaction.

And that emotional content is the other thing that's so unique and amazing about the story. Grant's work always affects me, but to read this book is to be immersed in an incredibly poignant, brutal story. I don't even like animals, but seeing the characters here and their utterly pure desire to find their home, you can't help but feel for them. Really emotional works are usually accused of being manipulative and melodramatic, but this work gets you without any cheap ploys, just the nature of the characters and their plight is enough.

A lot of it comes from the way they talk. The animals can speak, but they have a limited vocabulary, and most of the things they say are very simple, but the simple experssions of emotion almost subliminally tap into something basic in all of us, or at least me. Words and higher thought sometimes get in the way, but here, we just get the purest, unfiltered emotional thought. At the end of the first issue when the cat, Tinker, says "We3 no home now" it tells you everything you need to know and with that one sentence he experesses the extent of damage that has been done to him. As the covers show us, these critters used to be regular pets, but that life is gone, they've been used and now they've got nowhere they belong.

In the harrowing sequence at the end of issue 2, we see Pirate shot, not by the government, but by a civilian who's afraid of him. Quitely's rendering of the shot is explicitly violent, and showing the violence hammers home the pain they feel. Normally in movies, showing violence of this extent forces you to distance yourself from the work, and rarely do you see a creator merging violence and emotion because that may be too much to take, but Morrison and Quitely do it here and it works so well.

The final issue is the most emotional of them all, starting with the opening in which a homeless guy finds We3 hiding in a condemnded building, Pirate spouting mechanical nonsense. The man offers them food and for the first time, the animals are loved. The man gets taken away by government troops and it's an incredible scene in which Bandits tells them to wait there for him, because he said he'd be coming back. He has such a trust in people and believes exactly what they say. It's this pure desire to help mankind, something we also see in the scene where he drags a man out of a river, saying "Gud dog, help man," and at the end of the scene we realize it's just a corpse.

So, the final issue sees all hell break loose, as Tinker and Bandit duel with the military and weapon 4. The best scene in this sequence is when Roseanne, the woman who built them meets Bandit. Bandit tells her, with the saddest look on his face, "Doc-tor Rose-anne, No Dee-Comm-Ish We3," and we can see him prepare to die, but Roseanne jumps in front of him and takes the bullet. It's an incredible panel in which we see her ripped apart with Bandit looking on. It's ultraviolent, but it serves the story and conveys the brutality of these military people.

I already talked about the battle with Weapon 4 above, but in the context of the story that's such a high point. Seeing the cat go back to help Bandit, defying his nature in favor of friendship, is the perfect fusion of emotion and action. Particularly after the emotional drain of the previous scenes, this is such a catharsis, to see our heroes finally get one back and win.

The Doctor Roseanne meeting has Bandit thinking differently and after the leg of his suit falls off, he begins to question the nature of what he is. These animals had been programmed to believe that the suit was a part of them, they are inseperable, but Bandit, crying, says "Is Coat Not We," essentially interrogating his very nature. He doesn't have to be a killing machine, he can go back to the pure animal within, and that's what he does, stripping off his suit and Tinker's, and leaving them behind to detonate, providing cover for their escape. Bandit realizing that nature of the suit is one of those moments that Morrison does so well, where all of reality comes crashing down, and a character has to create a new paradigm, live in an entirely different world than they had before.

This leads to an incredible two pages in which the cat kills a rat and brings it to Bandit. Throughout the whole book, Tinker was only looking out for himself, but he's changed, and he brings food to his dying friend. On the edge of death, Bandit asks Tinker where they are, and Tinker says "Is Home," with the most incredible expression on his face. That one panel contains so much emotion, just the happiness on this cat's face after their journey, they have achieved their dream, and after that, they finally get a happy ending.

The finale was unexpected. Halfway through issue two, I thought for sure that they were all going to die, but instead we get a happy ending, one that I think is earned. Much like The Office, this is the sort of thing that could be cheesy in another movie, but because of the hardship, you can't help but be happy for these characters who have finally found the home they were looking for.

Ultimately what the book tells us is that love is the only thing that can really save people, a classic Morrison theme. Rather than trying to destroy them, they show them that they don't have to be weapons and save them. It's breaking down the manichean view of good and evil, just like in The Invisibles. In that way, the work is very close to the rest of Morrison's canon.

So, on the whole, the greatest thing about this book is the emotional impact. I was thoroughly drawn into the story, and desperately wanted the characters to avoid being hurt. There was no distance from the events, I was right there with them, thoroughly absorbed into the fictional world. Morrison has been on an incredible role lately, New X-Men was the definitive take on that property, Seaguy was thought provoking and really fun, and then this is Morrison's most emotionally immersive work to date, not to mention his best use of the medium, and Quitely goes above and beyond his already brilliant standards to redefine what is possible with the medium.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

70s Cinema, Box Office Economics and Auteur Filmmaking

So, after watching The Dreamers yesterday, a film about cinema and societal changes in the 1960s, today I watched Midnight Cowboy, a film that is actually from the 1960s, and is a prime example of the social changes that were happening then. This is a film that was rated X, but still won the best picture Oscar. Admittedly, it's definitely an R by today's standards, but still, the fact that the traditionally conservative academy rewarded this film demonstrates the sort of bold social change that was happening in the cinema.

First, a bit about the film. I loved it, it still feels very relevant, and at the same time is such a great document of 60s lifestyle. It's in line with most of the characteristic of 1960s indie/art cinema, the quick cut montages of Buck's memories/dreams reminded me of the acid trip sequence in Easy Rider, and the minimal narrative and outsider heroes are also 1960s trademarks. I think those dream/memory sequences work brilliantly, giving us a hint of what's in Joe Buck's past. We know how he feels about it, even if we don't know exactly what happened, and that's enough. I'm glad there wasn't some big reveal at the end, clarifying his past. Those scenes add psychological complexity to what could have been a caricature.

This movie avoided the art film trap of being so non-narrative you stop caring about what's happening. When Buck gets swindled, first by the woman and then by Rizzo, I really felt for him, I was really behind this guy and wanted him to succeed. The film is admirably economical in its narrative. Huge chunks of time pass, and one image, like the frozen faucet, can tell us everything we need to know.

One of the coolest scenes was the party, really visually interesting and great editing was used to show us things from both Joe and Rizzo's perspective. Throughout the film, there were a bunch of Six Feet Under style imagined scenes which are then punctured by a cut back to reality. I love the device and, particularly in a film where time is short, they give us much needed insight into how the characters think.

It's interesting how the film makes us so concerned with this guy's quest to pimp himself out to middle aged women. When he finally does acheive his 'dream,' it's a really triumphant moment and the music at that moment really drives this home. The ending is rather ambiguous, but you get the sense that Buck has really moved on, he ditches the cowboy stuff and when asked, says he is from New York City. He's reinvented himself, he isn't that boy from Texas anymore, which means he acheived what he set out to do.

So, this was a top notch movie, but perhaps more important than the film itself is the context that allowed the film to be made. In the late 1960s, the Hollywood studio system was falling apart, and the films that used to be successful, like big budget musicals and costume epics, just weren't working anymore. With the box office in decline, films like Easy Rider changed the idea of what film could do. Easy Rider, and Midnight Cowboy, draw a lot on the techniques of the French New Wave, the jump cuts, strong ambiguity in the narrative and location shooting for maximum realism. This is all chronicled in the excellent book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which discusses the era.

It's commonly held that these films paved the way for the 'Golden Age' of American cinema in the 1970s. I'm of two minds about this. I don't love that many 70s movies, and until recently, I'd always held that this idea of cinema's golden age was overstated. I would consider the late 90s, post Pulp Fiction, era of American cinema to be its high point. Directors like Tarantino, PT Anderson, Soderbergh, Jonze and others created a new template of what indie film could be in the same way that people in the 70s did. But, much of this was done in conscious homage to that 70s era, so examining those films is really a must to see why we ended up where we are now.

Obviously, I'm going on stuff I've read and deduced here, since I wasn't around in the 70s, but it seems like at that time, there really was a vibrancy in film culture and that's understandable because the medium was for the first time liberated from the very strict standards of the Hollywood studio system. I'd compare it to the shock of seeing The Sopranos for the first time, and understanding what TV could do without restrictions on content and style. There are great movies made under the studio system, but they have a layer of artifice that The Sopranos, or the films of the 70s movement don't have.

The commonly held idea is that there was a director-driven utopian era of cinema when challenging, adult-targetted films dominated the marketplace, and this was destroyed with two major events, one was the disasters filming Heaven's Gate and the other was the release of Star Wars. Heaven's Gate was a film by director Michael Cimino, who made The Deer Hunter. It was an arty Western that went way over budget and destroyed United Artists studio. The film was seen as an example of director excess, and it led to more studio involvement at all levels of the creative process, to ensure that out of control directors were not allowed to go over budget like Cimino did.

If you read a lot of arty film writing, you'll notice a high level of antipathy towards Star Wars, because of the commonly held belief that it destroyed that utopian film culture of the 70s and led to the current blockbuster based film marketplace. It created a division between art film and popular film and this is a bad thing. But, I think blaming the film for the marketplace that followed it is completely off base. First, Jaws was actually responsible for creating the blockbuster template that Star Wars is generally blamed for. That was the first movie to make more than $100 million dollars, and it caused a reassessment of how much money it was possible to make through film. However, Star Wars went way beyond that in terms of box office gross and probably is partially responsible for the box office culture we have now, but I find it disturbing that a personal, auteur film would be blamed for reviving tight studio control over movies.

George Lucas is actually the only person to achieve the dream of creating wholly independent films, free from studio influence. He put his own money on the line to pay for the Star Wars sequels and as a result, he was able to maintain tight control, and make the movies he wants, without concession to the marketplace.

In looking at Star Wars, it's crucial to consider the fact that this was a low budget movie virtually every studio passed on before one guy at Fox agreed to finance it. It wasn't a project people wanted to make, and yet, it became the biggest box office hit of all time. The tragedy of Star Wars is that studios didn't see this as a sign that the process of auteur driven films was working. Lucas was left to do his own thing and it led to a hugely successful movie. He did the same thing on the sequel and it led to an even better movie that was also a huge success.

However, the success of Star Wars, Spielberg's movies and others, put the studios on better financial footing, so the era of experimentation was over. It's widely held that big corporations are going to take the most creative risks when they're not doing well financially, just look at ABC in this past TV season for an example of this, and then they retreat to conservatism when they become successful. So, the success of Star Wars is just one small piece of the move towards financial success that ultimately doomed risky auteur filmmaking. The major thing it did was make the studio aware of the kid audience, and as a result, they began to make movies that targetted the whole family instead of just adults, as most of the major 70s films did.

Generally speaking, I'm more a fan of adult targetted movies, but I think Star Wars is a great example of the sort of film that can show younger people the power of cinema. It's not a kids movie, it doesn't talk down to the audience, but it is accessible to people of all ages, and I know in my case and for many other people, it was the gateway to a lifelong love of cinema. Look at the films in the 90s indie film renaissance, they're full of references to Star Wars, in really strong films like Clerks, Swingers and Boogie Nights. So, the film that 'destroyed' 70s auteur cinema ultimately inspired the generation that would resurect it.

But, the 90s indie film movement was quite different in that those films were never really popular. American Beauty cleared 100 million dollars, but some of the best films ever made, like Magnolia, were financial failures, and even though American Beauty won best picture, the academy generally still favored more traditional movies, like Gladiator or Titanic. I don't think those films had the huge cultural impact that The Godfather or even Easy Rider did. Those films were on the forefront of a cultural revolution, but in the late 90s, they were basically just there, and more people were talking about Godzilla than about Magnolia. So, great films were still being made, they just weren't as culturally important as they were in the 70s.

The reason this is on my mind is because of all the articles about the record box office slump that's going on right now. There's all kinds of articles about how the films that are supposed to be blockbusters just aren't performing like they should, and I think this summer's going to represent the end of the old paradigm of what works at the box office. There's such a need to presell movies that we have essentially no original films in the summer movie season. Last week was Batman Begins, a film that did get good critical notices, but is a 're-imagining' of a movie that came out in 1989, just sixteen years ago. Next week is Bewitched and Herbie: Fully Loaded, two sixties retreads. In July we've got films from two of my favorite directors, but they're both remakes of seventies movies. These films will probably have big opening weekends, but they're not going to get repeat business, because there's not going to be good word of mouth. You don't need to get word out on Herbie: Fully Loaded because everything about it is right there, whereas a film that isn't presold is going to get more repeat business as word about it gets out.

So, perhaps this summer will represent a nadir of creativity and studios will realize that perhaps audiences would be more receptive to original stories in their blockbusters. In the 90s, even though movies like Independence Day may not have been the greatest cinema, at least they were original stories, not just remakes of existing properties. But, the combination of audience apathy and the increased prominence of DVD will hopefully create a revolution in the movie business, and lead to a new Golden Age, like the 70s.

The Dreamers

Tonight I watched the film The Dreamers. It's a film about three people in Paris in 1968, at the time that the street riots of that era were just beginning. Proving that yes, you do use stuff you learn in high school, I recalled that these riots were basically the start of the student protest movement, and they spread to the US creating the primary cultural image we hold of the 'The 60s,' as a time of protest, of peace and love and cultural revolution. This movie is concerned with all of this, focusing on love, sex and cinema.

The first chunk of the movie is primarily about cinema. Seeing the movie you get a sense of a time when cinema was a really crucial social force, setting the tone for what youth culture was. Today, it's not like that, at least not in the circles I run in. I love cinema and I do see it as something that can change the world, but other people don't. People perceive movies as commercial product and rarely view the most important films and even if they do, there's not really a strong film culture anymore. Even at Wesleyan, a place renowned for its film program, there's a layer of irony applied when assessing anything, and judging from this movie, that just wasn't true in the 60s. These people believed that cinema could change the world, and that's something I'd like to get back to. But, I suppose it's easy to say that things were better back then, I doubt if I was alive in 1968 I'd be on the cutting edge of the art cinema movement.

Anyway, regardless of its veracity, I loved the picture of cinema the beginning of this film paints. Matthew goes to the cinema and it's a transforming experience, he becomes connected to the forefront of French culture, and when the Cinemateque is shut down, he finds himself with two new friends, Theo and Isabelle. During the cinema shut down sequence, it was very cool to see Jean Pierre Leaud in a current cameo, as well as vintage footage of Godard and Truffaut.

The majority of the film is concerned with the boundary pushing sibling relationship of Theo and Isabelle. Matthew finds himself unsure how to deal with the two of them. I love their early interactions, when the three of them recreate classic movie moments, basically trying to live the life they see on screen. They all hold these really idealistic views of life and society and together create an isolated community, apart from the world.

The movie is one of the rare films to actually take the NC-17 rating and in this case, it's clearly earned. The film's sexuality goes far beyond what we'd see in most American movies, and the characters are almost constantly naked for the last third of the film. I think the movie to some extent loses focus during this chunk. On the one hand, I could say that the sex scenes don't really add anything to the plot, but from an aestethic standpoint, it's certainly not a pain to have to watch Eva Green naked in scene after scene. I can see what Bertolucci is trying to do with these scenes, and there is some interesting exploration of the relationship between Theo and Isabelle.

What we realize at the end of it is that the two of them have a relationship that transcends anything they can have with an outsider. In the really striking scene where Matthew is in Isabelle's bedroom and she has a breakdown hearing Theo have sex we understand the fact that they are connected, like siamese twins, and the wall between them is too painful. They need to be together. That scene is also notable for the extremely striking image of her recreating the Venus De Milo by standing with black gloves in a dark doorway.

I really like the end of the film, in which the twins finally leave Matthew when he refuses to go along with their 'revolutionary action.' What the movie is about is the disconnect between their rhetoric and their action. They talk big, about their support for Mao and belief in change, but even when that change is happening right outside, they spend all their time inside, oblivious to the outside world. At the end, Matthew finally disconnects from Theo, and figures that Isabelle will stay with him. However, that is not to be. The two of them go off together, leaving him in a crowd of rioters. Their month long dream together is over and Matthew is the one left out at the end.

This is a film that I thoroughly enjoyed watching, but will have to give another viewing to determine just how good it really is. It's easy to embrace their ideals and believe in this view of a cinema that can recreate society. I love the recreation of moments from New Wave movies, and visually, the film is absolutely beautiful. The score is top notch too, it's only the fact that the movie slightly loses its way during the middle. However, I think everything's basically redeemed by the ending and after it all, we've got a top notch movie, one made with passion and a vision of a world much more alive with potential than ours today.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Review Revue

Summer moves along and so does the watching of films. Lately, I've been watching mostly older films, mainly because I've seen almost all the recent films that I want to see. There's some foreign stuff that I still want to see, notably Takashi Miike's stuff, but I've covered most American films of the 90s and 00s. What this means is I've been going through older films, mostly stuff from the 70s. I try not to be one of these people who automatically condemns older films, but watching them, I usually don't get the emotional impact that I do from more recent films. I'm a big fan of new cinema techniques, and the sort of intense emotional cinema of people like Wong Kar-Wai and Gaspar Noe. In the 70s, art film seemed to exist largely as a reaction to the excessively emotional films of classical Hollywood, and it can sometimes seem cold. Recent films have done a good job of synthesizing the art and the emotion. What that means is that while I can respect and enjoy 70s films, I usually don't love them as much as recent films. There are exceptions, notably Kubrick's stuff, but on the whole, the point stands.

Luckily, next week New York is having an Asian Film Festival, and I'll be able to check out a couple of interesting films. I've got tickets for Seijun Suzuki's Princess Raccoon and Kim Ki-Duk's Samartian Girl. Suzuki is an eighty year old guy who made the brilliant Tokyo Drifter back in the 60s. I haven't seen any of his other films, but the trailer is really wacky and it looks like a film that'll be worth seeing. Kim Ki-Duk made The Isle, a really interesting, dark film, as well as Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring, a pretty cool, arty film. He's a challenging filmmaker.

Lately, I've been trying to support more arty movies with my filmgoing dollar. I feel like the reason Hollywood doesn't make more intelligent movies is because people never go see them in the theater. Look at Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, by this point, virtually everyone I know has seen and loved the movie, but when it came out in the theater, the box office was anemic, while bad horror movies and mindless action stuff gets huge opening weekend grosses. So, even though Eternal is better liked and might make a lot on DVD, the studios see those opening weekend grosses and decide that those big budget films are what people want to see. So, if I can support Princess Raccoon and Samaritan Girl at the festival level, maybe it'll make it out to more theaters. I'm going to try to see Mysterious Skin while I'm in the city also, a film I've heard good things about.

More than anything else, I really would like to see contemporary Asian film getting more exposure. Why do studios insist on remaking movies instead of just challenging audiences with the original? Hero was a big success, largely because it had such a good advertising campaign and a wide release. If you give the same boost to Oldboy, you can make more money than if you do a remake.

The entire concept of remaking movies infuriates me because it completely misses the artistic point of film. A film is more than its story, every single shot and acting choice is a part of it, and a remake misses those smaller things. I'd rather see filmmakers be inspired by the challening, original work coming out Asia to make their own new films, instead of just being inspired to make bad copies of Asian films.

Anyway, some of the films I've seen recently are...

Mr. and Mrs. Smith - I saw this last week. This is a film where the press coverage brings so much baggage to the actual film, it's hard to separate the public image of the actors from the characters they're playing, which in this case actually helps the film. Obviously the two main characters are good looking people, and up through the resolution of their conflict, it's a pretty solid film. Pitt and Jolie have good chemistry and the script is light enough to keep things entertaining. However, the movie peaks about 40 minutes before the end, when the two Smiths fight and destroy their house. After that, there's a stretch of weak action scenes. The film just kept going after its character arcs were done.

One From the Heart - This is the film that Francis Ford Coppola did after Apocalypse Now. Apparently, at the time it was a notorious failure that went way over budget and essentially destroyed Coppola's dream of building a 'live cinema.' Not bringing this baggage to it, I was able to enjoy it, even though it's clearly a rather flawed film.

The most notable thing about the film is its look. The film is shot entirely on stage and it's gorgeous. The opening title sequence is probably the best part of the movie. The camera moves through the desert into Las Vegas, the sand forming abstract shapes as we snake through interesting structure. Throughout the film there's these wonderful neon lit scenes, as characters move through dreamlike environments. The lighting is very theatrical, with heavy blues and reds intruding on the scenes, most notably in the sequence Hank and the acrobat are going around the used car lot.

The film is backed by music by Tom Waits. I wasn't a huge fan of the music, but there's some good moments. The dance sequences are very 80s, as evidenced by the presence of a man in tight, neon purple tank top. But, I think the 80s has passed from dated to classic, so the sequences work.

What doesn't work about the film is the main story. We're not really given a reason to care about the main characters being together. Most of the film is spent on the couple split up, being tempted by other partners, and these other partners seem much more appropriate for them. The Raul Julia character seems much better for Frannie than Hank, and because I felt this way, the film uses its emotional drive. You have to want the characters to get back together, if you don't then it just doesn't work. But the visuals are so good, it's still a really enjoyable film. It doesn't deserve the reputation as a colossal failure.

Mean Streets - This is Martin Scorsese's first major work, and notably, his first film with Robert Deniro. Scorsese is a filmmaker whose films I usually respect more than I enjoy. I really liked The Aviator and Goodfellas, but other than that I haven't really fully enjoyed any of his other movies. Scorsese's movies usually draw on a traditional view of masculinity, this idea that characters have to be tough and emotionally closed. They're always protectors or warriors, and this film seems to establish the traditional Scorsese protagonist.

Harvey Keitel's Charlie is an up and coming mobster who has to look out for Deniro's Johnny Boy, who's something of a loose cannon, with huge debts all around town. Charlie has a lot of extistential crisis about what he's doing, but it doesn't really go anywhere. It's an enjoyable film to watch, but there's not that much of an emotional connection to the characters and that makes the ending rather underwhelming.

I feel like The Sopranos has made almost every other mob story irrelevant. What The Sopranos does is really examine the emotional motivations of its characters and bring their flaws to the surface. This film tries to do that, but you don't care about the characters enough to worry about their problems. The genius of The Sopranos is the fact that the characters are completely normal people, except for one thing, the fact that they're in the mob. The characters in Mean Streets don't feel like normal people.