Sunday, February 09, 2014
Every now and then, a movie comes along that critics and the American movie-going public seem to agree upon. Everyone likes it, everyone thinks it's swell, and no one's too quick to offer much in the way of a thoughtful opinion about the ideas at work. I don't want to be the nay-sayer on this one, as I, admittedly, loved about 80% of what I saw. The humor is spot-on, the performances fantastic, and the animation is beyond belief.
That said, I have to point out two tiny, teensy, itty-bitty, minor, insignificant little tenants of good storytelling: 1) stories have to operate according to the internal logic they establish, and 2) stories must be honest in order to ring true. (And before I get started, don't say, hey, monkey, wait a minute, aren't you forgetting, it's a kids' movie! The target audience may be children, but it wasn't made by children − though, if you believe later plot developments, an eleven-year-old would make a great Hollywood director of tentpole feature animation projects; besides, who says kids' movies get a pass on good storytelling?).
Regarding logic, a story's internal logic must be established, generally, from the outset and followed in order for the story to be effective and coherent. Take Toy Story, for example. In that movie, we know, right away, that toys can walk and talk − but only when humans are absent. This basic rule, once established in the first five minutes of the movie, is obeyed throughout by the storytellers, and the result is a series of escalating crises that keep us, the audience, emotionally involved in the story. Now, this doesn't mean a movie can't break its own rules, but the rule-breakage has to be earned and honest. Again, in Toy Story, when the toys finally do reveal their agency to a human, it's to scare the bejeezus out of him, which, let's face it, is what would really happen if your toys started talking (see item 2 above: honesty).
Near the end of The Lego Movie's second act, we learn that "The Man Upstairs" is actually a disappointing dad, a live-action Will Ferrell obsessed with ordering his world, gluing it together, and daring anyone − including his son − to touch it. Until this point, of course, we've simply bought into the premise that our favorite Lego pieces are walking and talking and living in a fully established Lego world that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with reality. I was on board for that, but the odd attempt at merging the Lego World and the real world is jarring. Why? Because the movie did not, from the very beginning, establish any basic internal logic about the co-existence of these two worlds. And, regarding the honesty of this sub-plot, well, it's pap. I don't believe the resolution for a second. Because any man weird enough to super-glue his Legos together wouldn't see the error of his ways so quickly and hug his boy and say he's sorry. No, he'd probably yell at the kid and then crack the kid upside the head, and then the boy's mother would take her son and go to her mother's and call a lawyer and file for divorce. This, weirdly, would have been a more honest route for the storytellers to take; they were the ones, after all, who decided to introduce the notion of a disappointing, overbearing father but then didn't take it seriously. Judging from what I've read in praise of the film from critics and movie-goers alike, not very many people did.
All that said, let me reiterate my praise from above: humor was awesome, voice-cast was awesome, animation was awesome, but everything? Everything, unfortunately, was not.
Written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Monday, January 27, 2014
It's not uncommon these days for a series to be extended past eight seasons, but The Office, despite its longevity and its British roots, is, in fact, an uncommon series. My initial dislike of the show's first season stemmed from the fact that it was weirdly slavish to the UK series, which was and still is, I believe, a touchstone in the history of television. About a year or so ago, I watched a few episodes of Season 2 of the US version on Netflix, and while the parallels to what Gervais and Merchant had done remained, I was hooked. Characters were becoming their own people, far removed from Tim and Dawn and the Brent-Meister General. Crystal joined the fun around episode 4. We kept going and found we had a new favorite thing. The show is funny on the order of Arrested Development, which is very funny, but unlike the Bluths, its characters are you and me and every other person in America who's ever held a job they can't quite find joy in. Joy, the show seems to suggest, is something we find in our connections to other people: spouses, coworkers, friends, family. The work we do is, in many ways, incidental. As the series progresses, year after year, it manages to stay fresh and interesting, to weather even the hardest of knocks; when Steve Carrell leaves the show, the characters that sweep in to take Michael's place are large and memorable. And Dwight Schrute, for my money, is one of the great characters in the history of American television, idiotic but never dumb, big-hearted and wise (eventually), his own man by the end, not a lackey. And then there's Pam and Jim. Their love is the great love some of us are lucky enough to see play out in our own lives, but the writers never take that love for granted; they trouble it constantly. In the end, what makes the show great is the accumulated wisdom of near ten years. Andy Bernard, of all people, says it best, in what for me is one of the show's most touching moments: I wish, he says, you could know you were living in the good old days, so you'd know to cherish them that much more.
Saturday, January 11, 2014
Written by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay
Directed by Adam McKay
Monday, December 30, 2013
Written by Terence Winter
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by the usual gang, all on a journey
Directed by Peter Jackson
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
The best idea in Room 237, which is 90% lazy half-argument, moronic supposition, and pseudo-intellectual gibberish, is represented by the image above. A couple of guys arrange an experimental film-screening of The Shining and run the film backwards and forwards simultaneously, the frames superimposed. What results is an astonishing interplay of images that, believe it or not, make sense; they connect, thematically and situationally, like one of those old MAD fold-ins. No, I don't think Kubrick planned this, but I do like the idea that a director's careful framing of a scene can work in much larger ways that only others with the will to wonder can see. Notice, in the image above, how Nicholson's eyes are bleeding, his nose painted red. Almost a portrait of a sad clown. My favorite theory in the documentary, of course, is that Stanley Kubrick uses The Shining to confess his part in the faking of the moon landing. Could any director have been that bored? Granted, we aren't meant to take all these notions seriously, but critics are applauding the movie for being an ode to movie-love, a celebration of examination. What the movie fails to embrace is any coherent thread of examination; it offers only crackpot ideas, no true point of view. How many poems have been misinterpreted in freshman English because students believe writers are artists hiding or coding their messages? How many of those poems would have been interpreted correctly if readers had simply paid attention to the literary devices at work? I just don't believe it's enough to celebrate ideas for the sake of ideas, interpretation for the sake of interpretation; they need to be good ideas.
Written and directed by Rodney Ascher
Monday, October 14, 2013
With Doctor Sleep holding at number one on the bestseller lists, there's been a great deal of talk in book presses and blogs lately about Stephen King's take on Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of The Shining. No secret by now that King has strong dislike for the film, mostly owing to Kubrick's interpretation of the characters and his cold tone. Wendy, for example, King says, is one of the most misogynistic portrayals of a woman ever committed to film (his hyperbole paraphrased). I recently re-read Roger Ebert's review of The Shining, one of his Great Movies, and at the end of the review he tells the story of asking Shelley Duvall what it was like working on the picture. "Almost unbearable," is her answer. She describes the year-long shoot as nine months of crying, five and six days a week.
She means crying in the role of Wendy Torrance, of course, but in Vivian Kubrick's documentary, Making The Shining, we catch glimpses of very real tears. Duvall has a fainting spell; the assistant director cracks wise. Jack Nicholson ignores her, directs his flirtations elsewhere. Kubrick himself mutters impatiently, occasionally yells at her. Duvall, as tall and strikingly pretty as she is, like a weird wide-eyed forest creature by way of Tim Burton, seems small and frail on set, almost overlooked. "After all that work," she tells Ebert, "hardly anyone even criticized my performance in it, even to mention it, it seemed like. The reviews were all about Kubrick. Like I wasn't there."
First, it's important to note that Wendy, in the movie, performs no action that Wendy in the book does not do. Wendy in the book looks out for Danny. Wendy in the movie looks out for Danny. Wendy in the book stands up to her husband when her son appears with bruises on his neck. Wendy in the movie does, too. In fact, Wendy in the movie locks Jack Torrance in the pantry all by herself, whereas in the book, her hands are shaking so badly her five-year-old son has to slide the bolt in place for her (granted, that's because she's been beaten with a mallet by her deranged husband, but Wendy in the movie never allows herself to be beaten). My theory, as uncharitable as it is toward King's notions about women, is that Shelley Duvall simply isn't the Wendy he describes: long blonde hair, great legs, beautiful. Not that Duvall isn't beautiful, but she's not King's Wendy. She's an altogether different kind of woman whose long features and odd physicality is amplified by near-constant screaming and crying (all of which is perfectly logical within the circumstances of the film; her terror is meant to be our terror). Simply put: she doesn't look strong because she looks odd and she cries and screams a lot. But how or why do these things equal weak? Does a woman, Mr. King, have to look or act like Rebecca DeMornay to be strong?
Was Kubrick a misogynist? On this set, probably. Does he destroy Duvall's performance, crush her spirit? No. Conversely, does the way he treats her somehow add to her performance, make it better, more natural, more harried? Not in the least. She persists in spite of Kubrick, I think, not because of him. To endure a year-long shoot in such isolation with so many men, I think this is the strength we're ultimately seeing in the film version of Wendy Torrance. Is it a quiet performance? Not always. Is it pretty? Not always. Is it graceful? You bet.
Consider what's happening in Shelley Duvall's early monologue about Jack dislocating Danny's arm. Notice the fragility she conveys, the complex psychology at work behind her mask. She tells the psychiatrist it was just "one of those things you do to a child a thousand times," but we get the sense that Wendy has never done any such thing to Danny, or would she ever. It's her husband she's really talking about in this scene, and the subtext of her fear of him is all there in the way she trembles, the way her eyes widen, the way her cigarette ash lengthens, forgotten. The way she smiles. Hers is, in fact, the first great moment of naturalistic acting in the movie, following a scene of oddly calculated, mannered dialogue between Nicholson and the manager of the Overlook Hotel. How is this, then, a misogynistic portrayal, to shoot her in light and colors so becoming, to make her the first great moment of the movie?
One thing I will give Kubrick credit for: he understands Jack Torrance better than anyone. King seems to think Torrance is an everyman, and detractors of Nicholson's take on the character often cite the fact that he seems crazy from the beginning (King has said this himself). In the novel, Torrance is, in fact, crazy from the beginning. He's the heavy, an angry man whose issues with rage, not alcohol, seem to be the true root of his madness. Yet in the novel King allies Danny with Jack, creates a bond between them that his Wendy is jealous of. Kubrick, to his credit, makes Jack the villain with no apology, and allies Danny with his mother, not his father.
In fact, in the movie, Duvall saves Danny's life on at least two occasions. She drops him down the snowbank away from Jack and takes up a knife to defend herself. She finds him outside the hedge maze and drives the Snow Cat down out of the mountains. What's more, she's confronted with the horrors of the hotel after the horror of her husband, and she survives both.
In Vivian Kubrick's documentary, there's an unforgettable moment in which Scatman Crothers, who plays Dick Halloran, is asked what it was like working on the film. His eyes water. Tears spill down his cheeks. Extraordinary, he says. Just extraordinary. Shelley Duvall's answer to that same question, ten years later, from Ebert: "Almost unbearable." In light of the fact that Kubrick put Crothers through almost 160 takes of a single scene, I can't help wondering if the old man was spilling tears of relief just to have survived.
Written by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson
Directed by Stanley Kubrick