Sunday, December 19, 2010

Red Riding Trilogy

The Red Riding Trilogy consists of three made-for-TV movies produced in 2009 by the BBC, entitled Red Riding: 1974, Red Riding: 1980, and Red Riding: 1983.  Directed by talented feature film directors and starring quite a cast of experienced British actors, they were so highly acclaimed in the UK that they were given theatrical releases in Europe and America in 2010.  They were hyped quite a bit here at the beginning of the year, but they seem to have been mostly forgotten by end-of-year list-makers.  They are well worth seeking out, however, as a dense, disturbing trilogy of British neo-noirs, with atmosphere that will seep into you brain and stay there.

The films are based on a series of novels by David Peace.  (There are actually four novels, but Nineteen-Seventy-Seven wasn't filmed.)  The books are reportedly even more dark, brutal, and despairing than the films, and that's saying something.  The plot centers on corruption in the West Riding, Yorkshire, police department, as the community is haunted by at least two different serial killers who go uncaught for several years.  The stories are inspired by the real place, and certain actual events including the Yorkshire Ripper murders and documented police cover-ups from the era.  The movies take some major liberties with history, however, depicting a police force as corrupt and evil as any on earth, bearing more resemblance to the KGB or the Mafia than actual British coppers.  The main conspirators repeatedly lift their glasses in a toast, saying, "To the North, where we do what we want!"  The corruption eventually becomes so all-consuming that it becomes unbelievable, at lest for this viewer, though it's depicted so powerfully that it's ultimately forgivable.  And the British critics, apparently, did not find it difficult to believe.  The depiction of Yorkshire in the '70s and '80s, apart from a few of the dirtier details, is apparently highly accurate, and it's fairly horrifying.  The quirky pastoral hamlets of James Herriot All Creatures Great and Small novels this ain't.

The first film (directed by Julian Jarrold) includes the biggest star-making turn of the trilogy, with Andrew Garfield as a young reporter who thinks he's a hotshot but is sadly mistaken.  He's out to discover the story behind the disappearances/murders of several young children in the area, including the body of a young girl found with swan wings stitched into her back.  A classic noir hero at 20 instead of the more traditional 40, he drinks hard, chain smokes, and looks at the world with the cynicism of a big city reporter.  Unfortunately, that cynicism turns out to be dramatically optimistic, and his belief in justice is tragically naive.  He wanders the tribalist, poverty stricken and rotten world of Yorkshire, mouthing off to authority figures and getting beaten up repeatedly, like Philip Marlowe in bellbottoms and leather jacket. And his fatal weakness is, as always, a woman; in this case, the mother of one the murdered girls.  Unfortunately, this woman (played by Rebecca Hall) is terribly under-written, and while they tumble into bed several times, their attraction never makes much sense.  Her actions and motivations, even after the end, are always clouded and never more than guessed at leaving her nothing but plot figure and not a real character.  This is one of the flaws of the series as a whole, that many characters feel under-written and they lack the depth we want need to maintain interest.  Instead, the trilogy focuses on atmosphere and labyrinthine plot maneuvers, which it happily does very well.
1980 (directed by James Marsh of Man on Wire) is also an accomplished film, dealing with the actual Yorkshire Ripper and starring Paddy Considine as a cop investigating other cops.  The police force has really been trying to find the Ripper, but they also wish to blame him for other murders which do not fit his MO, and they avoid following up sources which may take them toward their own deep-seated corruption.  Considine tries to get to the bottom of this while also managing his marriage and a dormant affair with his female partner.  This film, though, is more low-key than the others--though perhaps more believable--and it's rather forgettable compared to the first and last segments.  It furthers the plot and provides lots of important details, but as a movie it offers few thrills or answers.

The final segment, 1983, is where things really shine, though, unravelling all the plot threads and making the entire picture coherent at last.  It becomes evident that all three films need to be watched together, either right in a row, or on consecutive nights.  This is not immediately obvious because the characters followed are almost completely different over the first two films, and the plot seems to be only tangentially related, but this is a mirage.  There is no point in watching one without the others, because they are incoherent alone.  They do not hold up well as stand-alone movies in any case, not only because the plot plays out over all three, but because characters take on more depth and actions new meaning as new events occur, and they are structured to avoid a real pay-off until the finale. The final film itself is mostly a re-evaluation of all that went before which brings certain characters always lurking in the backgrounds to the fore--especially the mysterious cop played by Paul Morrissey--and it's awkwardly structured as a story.  There is at least one major dropped thread, a romance that starts between Morrissey's cop and a fortune teller-lady which disappears entirely, and is left unresolved, but there are probably several others that are less noticeable.  Nevertheless, the final sequence of the film is incredibly beautiful and powerful, and makes up for all the mistakes.  Everything comes together in the blast of a gun, white feathers blowing in the wind, and a young man wading in the surf and starting to smile.

Overall, the trilogy's strongest trait is its atmosphere, always dank and dirty-looking, with hidden depths to every shadow.  This is not to say the films look alike, however, for they are each shot by different directors and cameramen, and on different film stock to boot.  The films change as the eras change, the first film mostly an ugly '70s green, the second full of black shadows, while the third reflects a more prosperous 1980s with clearer brighter blues and real sunlight instead of clouds.  I was nevertheless rather irritated by the editing.  There was far too much of it, especially in the 1974.  Shots were never allowed to breathe, everything had to be chopped up into tight, moving close-ups. The whole trilogy could have benefitted from more restrained composition; step back and let foreboding fill up the silences.  As good as it is, these films also made me appreciate David Fincher's Zodiac even more.  He tells a very similar story there (hunt for a serial killer at large in the '70s), but he manages to give us an enormous amount of details and incident in less than 3 hours, keeps everything coherent, and frames every shot to perfection.  Red Riding is a worthy trilogy, but it clearly lives in Zodiac's shadow.
(As a post script, I should note the excellent performances of Sean Bean, Sean Harris, Peter Mullan, and Robert Sheehan, who each create powerfully memorable characters despite limitations.  They, along with Garfield and Morrissey, make by far the biggest impressions out of the massive cast.)

Rating:  8/10 Stars.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Quick Thoughts on A Charlie Brown Christmas

I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas on TV last week, as millions of people have done for 55 years now. Immediately afterward, on the same channel, a new animated short premiered which its creators were obviously hyping to become a new holiday classic. It was called: Prep & Landing: Operation Secret Santa.

The contrast could not have been more dramatic. While Charlie Brown was a low-budget hand-drawn animated film from the 60s, Prep & Landing was a brand-new computer animated short that flashed all its no doubt millions of dollars in production costs in our face for its 10 minutes of running time. Charlie Brown had often seemed flawed to me before: its animation is so obviously quickly and cheaply done, with no depth or detail to the images and everyone moving from left to right. The dancing scenes are just made up of a bunch of repetitive little movements, obviously done on the cheap. The jokes are all simple and a bit awkward, without the usual rapid-fire delivery of modern cartoon gags. What could possibly be so special about a Christmas Special so flawed?


A Charlie Brown Christmas is special for exactly the reasons it looks so quaint next to Prep & Landing and others of its ilk. It is the antidote to the modern selfishness and materialism present in so much of the media at this time of year. Sure, things like Prep & Landing throw in a little moral at the end--Santa gets a sentimental gift from Mrs. Claus--but those morals are so obviously fake, underhanded, and unearned. They do not reflect the fact that these specials are made entirely for commercial reasons, and cater to our every contemporary whim, attempting to thrill us with bright colors and pop culture mash-ups. Because it embodies its message in itself, Charlie Brown Christmas avoids all that. Oh, I'm sure people make money off it every year, but who really cares about that? The film itself is what matters, and the motives on display there are entirely commendable. The Peanuts gang are voiced by actual children, many of whom obviously have no idea to act. Their comic timing may be off, but their sincerity shines through. The low key humor is human and compassionate, tragic and beautiful, in a way no manufactured Prep & Landing--or any normal cartoon, for that matter--ever is. When Linus explains the true meaning of Christmas--the birth of Christ--it is a rebellion against modern materialistic amnesia, an act of cultural recovery, and a proclamation of the Gospel on the most soul-sucking of all popular opiates: television. It may not be grand or complex, but it is important, and its purity of purpose is visible in every off-beat dance move and behind-the-beat punch-line its characters make.

Lots of TV Christmas specials claim to rail against commercialism and deliver the true meaning of Christmas; only one actually does it.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Where was the audience when this movie came out in August? For some reason, people stayed away from it in droves, thereby missing out on one of the most hilarious, creative, and original movie in years. There has never been anything quite like it in the world of film, and for that reason alone it would be worth seeing.
Scott Pilgrim is a young college graduate living in Toronto with a roommate, trying not to think what he ought to do with his life. He starts the movie dating a high school girl named Knives Chau, but soon loses his heart to the girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers, an exotic beauty from New York. Problems ensue. Namely, Scott has to attempt to juggle two girls, while Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes attempt to kill him at every opportunity, obliging him to engage in numerous video-game-style battles to the death (death in this movie consists of popping out of existence, leaving a pile of coins in one’s wake). If that sounds complicated, it is, but it doesn’t feel that way while watching the movie. Events whip by so fast your head might spin, but you will certainly never be bored.
The comedy in this movie comes from everywhere (the characters, the situation, the environment, the story), in every form (verbal wit, slapstick physicality, general goofiness), using every trick in a director’s book (musical cues, special effects, sound effects, cinematography, and editing). This bewildering barrage of humor might be unprecedented if it did not come from Edgar Wright, director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. His style was apparent from the first film, and he has only broadened and honed it since. It is worth noting that over half the gags come straight from the sources comics by Brian Lee O’Malley, but their transference into film is still remarkable and unique. Many effects have never been seen in a live-action film before, though quite a few will be familiar to fans of Japanese anime, and various Asian B-movies. Wright manages to appropriate techniques from video games, comic books, music videos, and animation, without every making us feel we are not watching a movie. This is experimental cinema masquerading as mainstream blockbuster.

Scott’s world consists entirely of teenagers and 20-somethings--no older or younger people exist. This makes the film’s scope limited perhaps (and probably limits its audience--I doubt many people over 40 would be interested), but then Wright and O’Malley are not trying to distill all life, just embody a certain brief period in the lives of the Millennial generation. This they do extremely well. Unlike The Social Network, though, which attempts to analyze its era in depth, Scott Pilgrim exemplifies life in the 21st century by playing with our collective fantasies and entertainments, swirling it all up in a colorful mix easily digestible to our miniscule attention spans. First, they get the culture right. The old John Hughes eighties rules of cheerleaders, jocks, math geeks, and screw-ups no longer apply. Scott Pilgrim’s world is populated by gamers, geeks, jocks, hipsters, slackers, indie rockers, celebrities, and Asians. If the story took place in an American city, there would no doubt be more minority representation, but this is Toronto. (An example of the new melting pot: Knives comes from an immigrant Chinese family, but goes to a Catholic high school.) Scott himself embodies several of these categories--he is a gamer, a geek, and a mild rocker--but he is mostly a slacker. The story is not a celebration of this slacking, though, but a call to resist it, put it behind one, and grow up. Scott’s growth is clear over the course of the film: he must learn to take responsibility for his actions, become proactive instead of passive, and put others before himself. Cera plays the part deftly, alternating from dumb to sweet to heroic with ease. He has taken criticism for always playing the same character, but with his last couple movies he is proving these critics wrong by expanding his range in several directions.

The weak point in the movie may be its female characters. They are everywhere, but most get little screen time, and we never really understand them, especially Ramona’s inexplicable attraction to Scott. This is not the fault of the actors involved--every single one of them is perfect, and I wish I could single all of them out for individual praise. The graphic novels, of which there are six, allow much more time for the relationship to develop and have scenes which focus on characters other than Scott. If you felt a little lost in the story or just wanted more of it all, I highly recommend the comics. They give needed back story and definitely added to my appreciation of the movie. In the end, though, I think I prefer the movie. It really does a fantastic job of packing everything in the comics into 112 minutes--the entire first book is in there mostly word-for-word--and the jokes are often funnier onscreen than on the page--adding color and sound helps a lot. As for character development: We see everything from Scott’s perspective, and he doesn’t understand the girls around him at all, so how are we supposed to understand them? He spends most of the movie being remarkably selfish--his journey is about learning to appreciate others as separate individuals in their own right. I think the movie accomplishes that.
With this film, Edgar Wright has surpassed previous genre parodists like Mel Brooks, and become a true auteur of the cinema. It was always obvious that his movies were better than the average Scary Movie clone, but now it is clear that his only peers among current directors are Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. The older generation might never get him, but I think his works will become classics to be watched for years to come.

Another good review which says most of what I just did better can be found here. And lots of other great reviews and perceptive comments can be found here.

Rating: 10/10 Stars

Friday, November 26, 2010

Review/Thoughts on The Social Network

The Social Network is a movie so teeming with life and ideas that it is difficult to know where to begin. It is an unapologetically ambitious film, boldly dashing from subject to subject, touching on everything from websites to lawsuits to college life to social hierarchies to human relationships to business ethics, all in the midst of a surprisingly thrilling narrative. It is quite possibly the film of the year.
The movie, as everyone will have heard by now, is about the founding of Facebook. It covers a couple of year’s time, from when Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg first gains notoriety by inventing a prank website called Facemash through his development of Facebook into a billion dollar company and the lawsuits he is hit with by old friends and associates angry at him for various reasons. Whether these reasons are legitimate or not is one of the main subjects of the film. Zuckerberg is played terrifically by Jesse Eisenberg, before now often referred to as a poor man’s Michael Cera. Here, however, he rises far beyond Cera, commanding the screen with arrogance, wit, and intensity. He is ably assisted by many other young actors, including Andrew Garfield as Zuckerberg’s best/only friend Eduardo Saverin, Rooney Mara as the girl who dumps him in the first scene, and Armie Hammer in a hilarious dual performance as the Winklevoss twins, wealthy jocks who sue Mark for stealing their idea. Justin Timberlake is perfectly cast as Sean Parker, flamboyant, hard-partying inventor of Napster, sometimes known as the “homeless rock star of Silicon Valley.” Every actor has to deliver a great deal of high-speed dialogue filled with large words, while conveying roiling emotions just under the surface, and they pull it off beautifully.
David Fincher is a director who has occasionally flirted with greatness (Fight Club, Zodiac), and often missed it through seriousness and obviousness (Se7en, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Here, he nimbly cuts through the clutter of a highly complicated storyline, never lingering too long or oppressing us with too much atmosphere. While many of his contemporary directors are also writers whose work is easily seen as of-a-piece (Tarantino, PT Anderson, Wes Anderson, Christopher Nolan), Fincher always works from the scripts of others. This means his body of work is eclectic, but often uneven--he never seems able to completely rise above the level of the screenplay. When the script is good, the film is good; but when the script makes poor decisions or starts to fall apart, Fincher goes right along with it, filming bad scenes and weak plot twists as well as they can be filmed, but never excising or changing things to make it work. Here he is blessed with a perfectly structured script from Aaron Sorkin that is witty and eloquent and has been praised to the high heavens as the most brilliant Hollywood script in decades. Actually, it is fairly obvious in places, occasionally so on-the-nose that it makes you wince--or would, if Fincher were not deft enough to take all the punch out of the obvious points and keep everything on a light and equal footing. The film comes off as a disparate bunch of suggestions and conjectures about Zuckerburg and modern society, but by never attempting to hammer them home it achieves an ambiguity and thoughtfulness it might otherwise have lacked. This is Fincher’s doing, and he deserves credit for it.

Mark Zuckerburg is presented as a brilliant student, ambitious and driven, but also arrogant and thin-skinned. His need for success will drive him to ruthlessly establish an internet empire, but end up alienating his closest friends along the way. The credits sequence can be taken as a metaphor for the entire film: Mark, clad in hoodie and backpack, jogs silently through the streets of Boston, staring straight ahead and ignoring those to either side of him, while Trent Reznor’s gorgeous, unsettling score plays on the soundtrack. Mark is socially awkward and sometimes cruel, and the picture is certainly not one the real Zuckerburg would expected to be happy with, but it is not unsympathetic. It is quite clear, for instance, that the Winklevoss twins have no real grounds to sue him. He blew them off after saying he would work with them, but he did not steal their idea, he came up with a better one. With MySpace and Friendster already online (plus and eHarmony), it’s not like the concept of connected personal webpages was the copyrighted property of two undergrads at Harvard. And while his treatment of Eduardo is undoubtedly cruel, it is also clear that Mark was the brains of the operation from the beginning. Eduardo is an intelligent kid who looks up to Mark--watch the way he quickly says “you’re right” immediately after offering an objection--but he is not ready to run a billion dollar company, and when he gets left behind one can see it as a necessary sacrifice. Whatever else he may be, when it comes to matters of computer code and business strategy, Mark is always right.
In the end, Mark is left sitting at a conference table, endlessly refreshing a Facebook page, alone with his creation. This is a Rosebud moment that can be taken--wrongly--as a full explanation: He just wanted to impress a girl. I initially took it as an awkward and on-the-nose ending that undercut rest of the movie. Like the original Rosebud, though, it offers only one more clue in the puzzle of a rich and powerful man. This is just one moment of his life, after a string of legal depositions dragged every ugly secret of the last couple years into the light, and he is feeling lonely and depressed. At this moment, he decides to reach out to a person he wishes he hadn’t screwed up with--the one person who broke with him, not the other way around. It’s probably hopeless, but it makes him feel better. Surely we can’t begrudge him that.

A great deal has already been written about the film, with many varying interpretations and analytical angles. Jim Emerson sees the film as being essentially about codes, both social and technological, while Richard Brody sees it as a story of Jewish success and assimilation, and Roger Ebert sees it as the story of a lone genius who saw the big picture even though he lacked basic social skills, not unlike Bobby Fischer or John Nash. Matt Zoller Seitz sees it as a horror film. Dozens more interpretations can be found here. I do not have a grand interpretive theory, so, as a college student in the new millennium whose life has been utterly changed by the internet, I will offer a personal response to the film’s portrayal of my generation.
Mark’s habitual costume of a hooded sweatshirt and flip-flops is a trademark of the real man, but it is certainly not out of place on a college campus (a corporate business office is another matter). Even a scene of him stumbling in the snow in flip-flops is not an exaggeration--I have seen others do the same. The depiction of college partying may seem over the top, but it is not necessarily. The party shown in the film is the first party of the semester thrown by a Final Club, a fraternity-like group which makes a tradition of this kind of thing. They bus in girls from other schools--something that did in fact happen at Harvard, though not exactly as depicted--and proceed to have a wild booze-fueled party, complete with underwear dancing and lesbian kissing. Certainly most college parties are not this wild, and few dissolve into wild orgies, but none of these things are unheard of. Alcohol, of course, is ubiquitous, and girl on girl kissing is something of a fad at the moment, done mostly for the amusement of the boys. Drugs are easily available if one knows where to look, though hard drugs are pretty rare--marijuana and its many forms are by far the most popular. This is all most popular at large state schools, but it is not confined to poor students or frat houses. It is possible in a modern university to discuss your plans for getting a PhD one minute and where you can get cheap drugs the next. I hasten to add, however, that it is also possible to get an excellent education while avoiding these parties altogether. When you move in different circle, at college, it’s possible to be completely unaware of what’s happening in other circles.
Computers have had as great--perhaps greater--impact on our day-to-day lives than any new technology since television, and telephones before that. Facebook has become an integral part of our internet experience. Relationship status is all-important--as shown in the film--and it can and does destroy relationships regularly. We are connected more than ever online, but we are so often oblivious to the people in front of us because we are texting or updating our status on our smart phones. (Facebook has become so ubiquitous that I saw a TV commercial the other day where a person talked about “updating their status” without ever mentioning the word Facebook--it was understood.) IPods are everywhere, and we wear earbuds when walking down the street or the hall, with people all around us. Loneliness has not been eliminated by all this new connectivity; it’s just found new ways to incarnate itself. Facebook itself has created dozens of new ways to hurt and exclude--just look here.
Millennials want to change the world but we’re still immature. This movie shows what happens when we take power prematurely. Zuckerburg’s conflict with the Winklevii is not so much a Jew vs. WASP grudge match (though anti-Jewish jokes are not uncommon--”dude, that’s so jewish!”--real anti-semitic feeling is very rare), as it is a continuation of the Nerds/Geeks vs. Jocks battle from the ‘80s. The Geeks have been winning since Bill Gates, though, and the Jocks are on the ropes. It also continues the never-ending battle between Old Money and the Nouveau Riche, only now the Old Money fights with lawsuits when it can’t get its way.
In other words, I find The Social Network a highly accurate and critical depiction of my generation and the state of the world at this moment. I do wonder, though, whether it will age well. What if Facebook is suddenly overtaken by other technology in three years. Twenty-five years from now, will we look back on this film as one that captures and defines its moment for posterity, or one that seems a strange relic of a backwards era, goofy in its delusions? Only time will tell.

  • Random: Wasn't the boat race sequence sweet? With In the Hall of the Mounatin King on the soundtrack and the shift tilt photography that makes everything look like models, it was like nothing else in the entire movie, and it was glorious.
  • I said this before, but the supporting cast in this movie is terrific. Andrew Garfield gives an Oscar-worthy performance, and Armie Hammer isn't far behind. Hammer's is mostly comedic, but he somehow has perfect comic timing while playing two characters at once, bouncing off himself! If that isn't award-worthy, I don't know what is. And Justin Timberlake is pretty much spectacular, full of charisma and sleaziness. He may be playing a version of himself, but he does it very very well, and the fear and distress that show up in him at the end are totally believable.
  • I think the trailer is one of the finest I have seen. So much complexity and ambivalence conveyed just by the choice of music: Radiohead's "Creep" sung by a Swedish choir over close-up shots of Facebook profiles, suggesting alienation and a longing for friendship at the heart of the Facebook phenomenon.

  • I think this little video is terrific, too. It conveys why I think Mark is worth rooting for, even if he's not really admirable. Because he's right.

Rating: 10/10 Stars

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Review: The American

The American is a European-style art film that happens to star one of the biggest movie stars in the world. The previews understandably played up the action to draw a crowd, but the crowd did not get what it came for. Consequently, the film won it’s opening weekend in box office, but experienced a harsh backlash from audiences. In the showing I attended, people around me started complaining as soon as the film ended (screen to black--immediately, two rows back: “Awful! Just awful!”). If you attend with the proper expectations, however, you might find a beautifully shot and fascinating, if flawed, character study well worth your attention.
George Clooney plays a master assassin generally known as Jack. This is not his real name, but no real name is ever given. He is no secret hero, or a killer with a conscience who only takes out bad guys, but a real assassin who will kill absolutely anyone to survive. After a deal goes bad and other killers are sent after him, his handler, known as Pavel, sends him to hide out in the Italian countryside. There he is given a job by a mysterious female assassin to build a gun for her, and carries on a torrid but low-key romance with a prostitute. And that is basically the entire plot.

Jack leads a highly disciplined, ascetic life. He rises at dawn, stretches, exercises, and reads ornithological guides while sitting in a coffee shop. When building a weapon, he works carefully and cleanly, intent on his work, a true craftsman in his element. Clooney plays him with careful restraint, doling out emotional details in small hand movements and eye-flicks. This is one of his finest performances. The director, Anton Corbijn, focuses on these little details, allowing them to gather import and emotion. He spent most of his career as a landscape photographer, and that comes through clearly here in a movie that is often breathtakingly beautiful, yet sterile and cold. He frames each shot with precision, the aloof compositions reflecting the personality of his protagonist.

Jack’s cold aloofness is a facade, though. He has grown old, and his hardness is leaving him. He begins to dream of escape and perhaps redemption. His asceticism is broken by talks with a local priest and repeated visits (shown in passionate and not completely necessary detail) with a prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido). His desire for human connection leads him to gradually invest in these relationships, though he never reveals details of his work. The drama comes from his internal struggle with purpose and motivation as we wait for his enemies to discover him.

The most fascinating scenes are between Jack and the priest (Paolo Bonacelli). The priest is jowly and at first seems naive, but gradually reveals himself as a shrewd judge of character. He knows the American is hiding something, and suggests that Jack does not have to be what he is, that salvation is possible with God. Jack tries to deflect the questions, dismissing the idea of redemption for himself, but cannot shake that idea of being something else, of having some other job and life. Irritated by the way the priest gets under his skin--and desiring to see his own sin in everyone else--Jack noses into his private life and accuses him of hypocrisy. The priest, however, admits it easily enough, owning his actions and repenting from them. He is a sinner, not a hypocrite. His past actions still give him pain, but they also led to joy, and wisdom. Two possibilities of redemption (or at least escape) are presented to Jack: that of religion, and that of love of a woman. There is little doubt which one a man like him will choose.

The film is not without its logical problems. There are shootouts in the street that never bring any police, and character motivations that seem forced. Most grievously, the use of guns in the film is apparently hopelessly flawed (see here). This is a serious error, as the film is very specific in its gun details and presents Jack as an expert beyond experts. There is also a great deal of nudity, not all of which is warranted, though some contributes useful character and plot detail.

He is known to the locals as the American. I do not believe this is political, as some have suggested. Rather, it is reflective of his lack of personal detail and connection; he is known only by his nationality. Within, however, he is full of a pain that has been building up for years. When it finally boils over, and he hits the steering wheel in frustration, it is a moment of hopeless self-recrimination reminiscent of Jake Lamotta pounding the prison wall in Raging Bull. I left the theater shaken.

Rating: 7.5/10 Stars

Monday, October 25, 2010

Superman (Donner, 1978)

Superman: The Movie is the first modern superhero film. While the current cycle of big-budget, high-profile superhero movies have begun with 1998’s Blade or at least 2000’s X-Men, the superhero film as we know it started with Superman in 1978.

Before that, superheroes had had plenty of big-screen incarnations, but they were all fairly low-budget, often matinee serials, and nearly all of them have been forgotten. The exception might be 1966’s Batman: The Movie, which starred Adam West and Burt Ward, and was a spin-off of the popular television series. However, this was an exception only in the sense that it has not been completely forgotten; otherwise, it was low-budget, poorly acted, uninterestingly directed, and had little to no influence on Hollywood.
Superman: The Movie, on the other hand, was a big-budget effects extravaganza. It had several A-list actors, including Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, and Jackie Cooper. It had an up-and-coming director in Richard Donner, fresh off The Omen. But most importantly, it was the first movie to ever take the idea of superheroes seriously. And because of that, Superman deserves to be remembered as the genre’s founding masterpiece, the superhero’s Stagecoach or Maltese Falcon. It may seem pretentious to mention these films in the same breath, and I will not claim that Superman is the equal to the others in artistry or even influence, but I believe the comparison is more worthwhile than it might seem.

The first half of the film is epic, stirring, and mythic in a way that no other superhero movie I’ve seen has ever been. The grand opening on Krypton is otherworldly beautiful, reminiscent--to me, at least--of 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Like a Ray Bradbury story, though, it retreats from scientific explanation and allows space to remain mysterious and magical.) Director Donner saw this as an American epic, a Paul Bunyan tall tale crossed with science fiction, John Ford crossed with Star Wars. There are religious overtones to Superman’s story as well--he is presented as a secular savior for mankind, a hero to not only defeat bad guys, but to stand as a model of goodness and decency for a world that had almost forgotten what those things were. Brando as Jor-El is an almost Biblical figure, Old Testament prophet as alien scientist, whose words roll out with the finality of holy writ: “They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show them the way.”

Donner is also unabashedly patriotic, depicting an America of yesteryear that recalls Norman Rockwell one minute and admires the Art Deco skyscrapers the next. He and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth stage everything in glorious Cinemascope, with lots of light and heroic and classical poses. Clark and Martha Kent stand out in a wheat field, staring into the horizon, while discussing his future. Metropolis is obviously New York, filled with a bustling industriousness and built with good old American know-how. When Superman takes Lois flying, the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings are visible below them. (The World Trade Center seems to be omitted, however, probably because it had just been built and the film was supposed to seem timeless.) The film is helped immeasurably by John Williams’ iconic musical score. I am no judge of the score’s musicality or originality, but I can say that I find it stirring as few other scores in film. I think it is grander and more exciting even than Williams’ scores for Star Wars and Indiana Jones. When the trumpets begin as the credits start to role, it is impossible not to feel excitement and anticipation, and the effect is just as strong whenever the music grows later in the film.
This is innocent filmmaking, joyful and without a trace of irony in its glorification of heroism. This is rare today, but it’s easy to forget how rare it was then. It was the 1970’s, after all, and it had been over a decade since American filmmaking had had anything innocent about it. The New Hollywood had been reigning since 1967, and American cinema had been more and more suffused with sex and violence and moral ambiguity. Even the reactions against the culture of the time, like Dirty Harry and Death Wish, were highly violent and morally suspect. The Vietnam War had ended, and Watergate had been pretty well mopped up, and America was ready to feel hopeful again. The last two years had seen a couple of hopeful movies, in the form of Rocky and Star Wars, but they were still few and far between, and neither of those films were as innocent as Superman, an action film where only two people die by violence, and only one of them stays dead. Audiences rewarded this optimism and grandeur, giving it a domestic gross of $134 million--over $450 million in today’s terms. Plus it made even more than that overseas, meaning it would probably be a $1 billion movie today. (Incredibly, it was only the second biggest blockbuster in the U.S. that year; Grease was number one.)
It is innocent filmmaking, but it is not naive or stupid filmmaking. Richard Donner and the many screenwriters (or at least the last couple) understood that they were selling a myth, but to be relevant and connect with viewers the myth had to be relatable. We must be awed by the character, but we must also feel he is speaking to us. The latter half of the film drops some of the mysticism and grand backdrops, and places Superman firmly in the modern world, among average city people. The tone shifts from reverential to humorous and exciting: the newsroom at The Daily Planet crackles with energy and wit: “I want the name of this flying whatchamacallit to go with the Daily Planet like bacon and eggs, franks and beans, death and taxes, politics and corruption!” The humor of the movie is one of its strongest traits--it knows how to enjoy itself, to poke just a little gentle fun at its hero and legend. It never goes too far, though, never really criticizes its hero or succumbs to irony. While the script is quite clever, the movie really avoids this because of the actors. Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and Perry White (Jackie Cooper) are hard-working, cynical New Yorkers. They are not, perhaps, inundated with the stench of an immoral city out of Taxi Driver (or Batman, for that matter), but they expose corruption every day and have lost their naivety long ago. When Superman shows up, he contradicts all that, standing unabashedly for truth, justice, and the American way. When Lois hears that, she wisecracks, and when he tells her he never lies she is almost speechless. (It is perhaps worth noting that while Superman may never lie, Clark Kent lies all the time.) Lois is the audience’s proxy here, and without her this might all seem a bit stupid. But with a clear source of cynicism to push against, Superman’s optimism and morality can stand out all the brighter.
Obviously, the movie wouldn’t be what it is without the performance of Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent and Superman. A former stage actor who graduated from Cornell and studied at Juilliard, his performance here is not of the Method Acting kind that wins awards, but it is a kind that we cannot help but like. As Superman, he is tough, heroic, but funny and approachable. As Clark Kent he is clumsy, weak, but stops just before becoming cringeworthy or irritating. With this movie, he went from nobody to icon in a moment, and has become forever associated with Superman in the public’s mind. Every other actor who plays Superman will always be compared to Reeve. The great Gene Hackman plays a campy incarnation of Lex Luthor--not my favorite interpretation of the character, but for what he is he’s excellent. The character Luthor can be diabolically evil, and in the comics he has far more nuance and complexity, but here he is a comic-relief villain, and that works fine; the film does not require a cruel, violent villain to make it more exciting. And his final plan to kill Superman by sending two missiles in opposite directions and tricking Superman into looking for the kryptonite is pretty brilliant when you think about it (if only he’d kept a better eye on Miss Teschmacher).

Of course, the movie is not without its flaws: The cringeworthy “Can you read my mind?” scene, where Lois rhymes in voice-over about falling in love with Superman. The overly campy acting of Ned Beatty as Luthor’s hechman. The special effects have aged somewhat. And of course, the fact that Superman can turn back time by flying really fast and making the world turn backward, a skill that pretty much makes him all-powerful. It should be noted, though, that in the comics at this point, Superman pretty much was all-powerful, with everything from “amnesia kiss” to “freeze breath” to the strength to move whole planets around in his repertoire of powers. This is a far cry from Action Comics #1, where he couldn’t even fly, merely “leap tall buildings in a single bound.” So while this movie and its sequels gave him powers far beyond what was really necessary, it can’t all be blamed on them. I would also argue that the film’s overall atmosphere and sense of wonder, make the ending perfectly tolerable. It is a fantasy, and it has a fairy-tale ending.
Even with these flaws, though, the film flies high as one of the great entertainments. It is the first superhero movie to treat its subject seriously, the first to be wildly successful, and the first to become a classic. It is the quintessential depiction of an American icon, and it will always be the one against which all other Superman movies are judged.