Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Out on Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese's latest effort, Shutter Island, has people talking, mainly about the solution to the mystery introduced in the opening scenes, a solution some see coming while others don't, judging from conversations I've read online so far. I'd say the ending doesn't matter as much as the film itself but that the film itself isn't good enough to carry the weight of an ending that doesn't matter as much. And it's not because Scorsese does a bad job of directing, in fact, I'd say he does an excellent job. Robert Richardson does an superb job framing the shots Scorsese wants and Thelma Schoonmaker does her usual level best at editing it all together in a quickly paced but not frenetic fashion. The performances are solid as well with everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo, as the two Federal Marshalls investigating the mystery, to Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow, as doctors at the island psychiatric hospital, turning in good, strong work. The problem, I think, is in the screenplay. There's simply too much of it.

Brevity, the old adage says, is the soul of wit. I would argue that, in a roundabout way, it's the soul of mystery too. It's not because if a mystery takes too long the audience starts looking for solutions, that's a part of the fun. It's because in a mystery there isn't much in the way of character development or story. Dramas have story, mysteries have plotting. A drama, like The Godfather, is about a character, Michael, and his story. It can go on for hours and multiple movies because the point isn't to figure out a solution, or have one revealed, but to delve deep into Michael's soul, or lack thereof. In a mystery, like Witness for the Prosecution, the point isn't to learn all about Sir Wilfred Robarts, but see if he can solve the mystery, or have it revealed to him. So if the plotting in a mystery, along with the requisite red herrings, goes on too long it starts to feel like just so much padding. The mistake of Shutter Island is that it thinks it's a drama instead of a mystery. I have even read reviews and comments in which it is stated that perhaps Scorsese didn't even care if the solution is let out of the bag early. If so then that lends support to my theory that this movie is mistaking what it is and what it's supposed to be.

Still, that confusion does not produce a bad movie. Visually striking and expertly paced it is, in fact, a very good movie. But for a mystery to examine character like a drama the mystery has to subvert itself to the character. Take Vertigo for example. It's a classic example of a drama that explores the psychological depths of its protagonist, John "Scotty" Ferguson as played by Jimmy Stewart, by involving him in a mystery. He is involved in the mystery by simply following a woman (Kim Novak) around and eventually starting up a relationship with her. The mystery is merely a way into Scotty's obsessions, which is the real subject at hand much like Close Encounters of the Third Kind is about Roy Neary's (Richard Dreyfuss) quest for meaning in his life and finding his place in the universe. That drama's "way in" is alien visitation. But Shutter Island has no such mission for its main character and thus, in continuing on and on with excessive plotting, starts to drain the life out of all the good things that are there. Let's use Vertigo once again to go at this from a different angle.

Imagine Vertigo starting at the point where Scotty has his nervous breakdown after the woman he was following falls to her death at the mission tower. Further imagine the movie runs for two and half hours from that point on as Scotty tries to solve the mystery of this new woman, Judy, who seems like a ghost from his past. And all of the buildup before the breakdown of knowing Scotty and who he is and his search for a connection to another wanderer? All of that, all of what came before, will simply be told in flashback at the end for five minutes. If you've seen Shutter Island that will make sense to you and if not, sorry for the confusion.

Martin Scorsese knows direction like geese know migration - it's in his blood, in his genes, it's who he is. There's never a point in Shutter Island where the viewer feels there is an unsteady hand at the helm and Scorsese draws us in quickly and efficiently. His skill continues to hold us there for quite some time but soon, even with all of his talent, we start to see the same trees, the same footprints, the same broken twigs and realize we're going in circles. From the opening shot of a ferry emerging from the mist there is a heavy sense of a story and characters moving relentlessly towards a doomed inevitability. By the end we're relieved that the doom has finally arrived but only in the abstract. Only because it has taken so long to get there with little in the way of anything about the characters developing into anything more than pieces of a puzzle. It wants to be a drama and a mystery and spends so much time trying to meld the two it ends up being neither. In the end, I half-heartedly recommend it but only for those interested in seeing the technical virtuosity of a now seasoned master of the cinema. Outside of that, I'd say you're better off staying on the mainland.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Easy Living
(1937, d. Mitchell Leisen)

Saturday night my wife and I and the youngest took in Easy Living at the A.F.I. as a part of their tribute to Jean Arthur this February. Made in 1937 it was written by Preston Sturges who was still more than a couple of years away from directing his scripts and so directing duties fell to renowned Hollywood director Mitchell Leisen, director of such films as Death Takes a Holiday, To Each His Own and Captain Carey, U.S.A. among many, many others. And while the three of us enjoyed ourselves and the movie, it did leave me asking the question, "Can a comedy be too screwball?"

Apropos of the finest tradition of screwball comedy the plot is absurd in the extreme. Edward Arnold plays J.B. Ball, a wealthy banker whose son, John Ball, Jr., played by Ray Milland, doesn't want to be idly rich but instead work and earn his money so he stomps out on breakfast with his father after explaining this and we don't see him again until halfway through the movie excepting that in the meantime J.B.'s wife buys a $58,000 mink coat without asking and J.B. throws another of her coats out the window which lands on Mary's head (Jean Arthur) who tries to give it back but instead he buys her a fur hat and everyone thinks they're having an affair and then a hotel J.B.'s about to foreclose on puts her up as a guest thinking he won't foreclose if his mistress lives there and then she meets John working at the automat and he gets fired trying to give her free food and then somewhere, somehow, J.B.'s stocks crumble because Mary gets asked about steel and asks John and... (takes in deep breath)... Oh Christ, I don't know. Frankly, it's no more absurd than Libeled Lady or My Man Godfrey or The Awful Truth but it feels more absurd, or at least more frantic.

There's a breathlessness to the film that's expected from a screwball comedy but Mitchell Leisen makes the mistake of keeping the pitch at fever level from opening frame to last, not just in pace but in attitude. There's nary a moment in the film when the characters aren't yelling their lines and at least 50 percent of the film's total screentime involves pratfalls. I'm not kidding, at least half the movie involves long sequences of falls and foodfights and tumbles down stairs. Everyone falls all the time and when they're not falling, they're yelling about falling, or yelling that someone else yelled that they yelled about falling. You get the point. Yelling and falling. They're in ample supply throughout.

All the Preston Sturges trademarks are here, including a little sex, as well as character actors like William Demarest in a brief two minute role a couple of years before he would become a Sturges standby in the forties. What's not here is Preston Sturges the director, pulling on the reins tightly. Sturges movies were barely contained free-for-alls but they were contained. This one is just a free-for-all. Think about Sullivan's Travels or The Lady Eve and think about all the craziness that's broken up by all the non-craziness. In Sullivan's Travels there's the poolside scene, several moments on the bus, McCrea and Lake in Shantytown, at the diner and so on. Each wacky scene is broken up by three or four sedate scenes to draw the audience back into the story. But here there is one sedate scene that I recall, and only one. A brief scene in Mary's suite where she and John talk about life and work. For a couple of minutes. Then it's back to yelling and falling.

It seems strange to think Sturges would have made a difference as a director with the same script he himself wrote but bear with me. There are many scenes in the film that should be played sedately and aren't. There are scenes between J.B. and his wife Jenny (Mary Nash), in his office, or with his secretary in his office, that could've and should've been played straight but Leisen has them yell their lines throughout. I don't think Sturges would have made that choice and I think it was the direction of his scripts by people like Leisen that prompted Sturges to give a shot at directing himself. I believe Leisen was under the mistaken conclusion that for screwball to work it had to be played at the top of one's lungs. Sturges understood you have to pull it in so that the audience relaxes at which point you uncork the dam again and drown your audience in fits of laughter.

As for the acting, Jean Arthur walks away with the whole film, even though she appears in only roughly half of it (and Arnold's character the other half). Unlike Arnold and Milland and Nash, fine actors all who do fine work here as well, Arthur's character is the only one that doesn't yell very much and is given the time develop, at least a little bit, while everyone else bulges their eyes and busts their prats.

In the end, the three of us enjoyed it for what it was and certainly couldn't fault it on pacing or length. We had a nice night taking in a movie and a late dinner (pizza, for the curious) but I have a feeling the movie portion of our evening would have delighted us more had Mr. Sturges been behind the wheel. Maybe that's the mark of a great director, when all you can think about is how much better it would have been with him in charge. Leisen was a skilled and talented director no doubt, but the best director for a Sturges script, it turns out, is Sturges. Certainly something to talk about at least. Just don't yell.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Godless Girl
(1928, d. Cecil B. DeMille)

I went into The Godless Girl with a bit of trepidation. After all, it was made in 1928 so I wasn't expecting to find a fair, even-handed assessment of the rejection of religion and belief in God, specifically Christianity. If anything, I was expecting to find the demonization of atheism and pretty much that's what I got, up to a point. The Godless Girl is to atheism what Reefer Madness is to marijuana, that is to say, a ridiculously wrong-headed portrayal of the subject at hand.* But two things mitigate this portrayal of atheism. One, the portrayal of Christianity is just as bad so the film seems oddly balanced, and two, this is a Cecil B. DeMille film, not a liturgical one. As to the first, it is a great irony that the way the good, religious types are portrayed in this film is exactly how a filmmaker today portrays religious types when he wants to ridicule them. All intolerant caricature and no depth. As to the second, that this is a Cecil B. DeMille film, the meaning there should be clear to any student of film history. DeMille wasn't interested in a theological dialectic, he was interested in spectacle. To put it another way, by reworking Clint Eastwood's famous line from Unforgiven: Religion's got nothing to do with it. This film is about atheism like Psycho is about a secretary stealing $40,000. Sure, that's a part of the story and it definitely gets things rolling but it's dropped faster than an "H" at the Doolittle family reunion and before you can say "'Enry 'Iggins" the story becomes a combination Romeo and Juliet/prison break movie.

Lina Basquette plays Judy, the Godless girl of the title, who holds Godless Society meetings at the high school she attends. The school wants her pamphlets for the club stopped and Bob (Tom Keene), president of the Student Body, volunteers for the task. It's during one of the Godless Society meetings that Bob shows up with hordes of religious students and all hell... oh, I'm not going to say it. A riot starts in the stairwell and in the incredible sequence that follows one of the members of the Godless Society falls to her death. After this Judy and Bob are sentenced on manslaughter charges and sent to juvenile prison along with "Bozo" (Eddie Quillan), the comic relief of the story and the character that caused the girl to fall after he was pushed into her.

The main thrust of the film, if you haven't guessed by now, is the burgeoning romance between Judy and Bob, separated by an electric fence at the juvenile prison (would it surprise you if I told you at one point Judy touches the electrified fence and crosses are burned into her hands? I didn't think so.). It's not long before the film becomes a tract against the inhumanity of juvenile prisons complete with the well-worn cliche (or was it fresh in 1928?) of the brutal guards being worse than the prisoners. This being a DeMille film there are more riots, jail breaks, nudity and a final prison fire that is a wonder to behold. Quite frankly, this is one hell of an entertainment. With the exception of an overlong introduction of the characters to the prison, the movie moves along swiftly and never loses the viewers' interest.

The story itself is rather banal, it's true, but the actors keep the story interesting regardless. Lena Basquette and Tom Keene do a fine job in the leads and, this being the tail-end of the silent era, keep the over-emotive pantomime to a minimum. Eddie Quillan provides comic relief without feeling obnoxious and in her short time onscreen, Mary Jane Irving, as the stairwell victim, gives a performance that evokes both terror and surrender in equal measure and ends up genuinely moving.

But the real star is Cecil B. DeMille. Watching this last silent film of his (but not his last fully silent as two short sound sequences were added to try and rescue it at the box office) one is reminded of how exciting a filmmaker DeMille was before the elephantine epics of the late forties and early fifties cemented his fame for successive generations who would grow up unfamiliar with the silent career of this master. From the stairwell riot and death to the prison break chase scene to the final raging fire and last second rescue this is a master class in how to make action sequences work and how to edit a two hour movie so it feels like an hour and a half. DeMille never regained the assuredness of his silent era works, and certainly not the vigor, and it's a shame that such a well-known filmmaker has so much of his best work unknown to the general populace, even among cinephiles. Hopefully that will change thanks to the restoration of this film by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

The restoration of The Godless Girl allows cinephiles everywhere to witness the last great gasp of a director in the silent era before sound slowed him down. The print is beautiful, pristine and sharp, looking as good if not better than when it was originally shown in the theater. It has been given a new piano score as well, composed by Martin Marks that is both perfectly matched to the action and unobtrusive to the experience. I would like to thank the National Film Preservation Foundation for sending me the DVD of The Godless Girl, as well as other shorts and films I will highlight this week here and at Unexplained Cinema, and giving me this opportunity to take part in this fund-raising blogathon.


This review has been a part of the For the Love of Film Blogathon, hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren and sponsored by The National Film Preservation Foundation.

The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.

The NFPF will give away 4 DVD sets as thank-you gifts to blogathon donors chosen in a random drawing: Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 and Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986.

Make your donation now. Thank you.


*I think my favorite intertitle in the whole movie is, "I'll teach you to tell my kid sister there isn't any God!"

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Blogathon is Here!

The For the Love of Film Blogathon is here, hosted by Marilyn at Ferdy on Films and the Siren at The Self-Styled Siren. Go to The Siren's page for updates on all new posts. I made this second commercial to advertise and celebrate the blogathon and if you'd like to put it up yourself just follow the YouTube link below. Later in the week I'll be doing a write-up of Cecil B. DeMille's 1928/29 The Godless Girl, one of film preservation's triumphs as sound footage, thought lost forever, was found and restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive in 2007.

Embedding code for commercial can be found here. Thanks.

Friday, February 12, 2010

For the Love of Film

Don't forget the For the Love of Film blogathon coming up this February 14th through the 21st. It will be dual-hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren and sponsored by the National Film Preservation Foundation. Go to the Siren's site for a list of participants as well as further info on the blogathon. The commercial seen below, as well as banners, can be found here.

We've had a rough week of weather here and everyone has been snowed in. When the blizzards break the shovelling begins, through several cycles so far. Next week, I promise, things will return to normal around here. Thanks.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Toerifc Tomorrow: White Dog

Tomorrow I will be commenting over at Cinema Fist on the movie White Dog for the Toerifc February selection hosted by Joseph Campanella. After that things should slowly return to normal around here. While I'm still watching movies and posting interesting tidbits I find at Unexplained Cinema it's a little harder to get anything written up for Cinema Styles, what with 27 feet of snow and no school to rein in the brood. It's actually been a lot of fun, and shovelling (lots and lots of shovelling), and today we're all going to go out to lunch together, not something we all get to do very often these days. So I promise, after Wednesday (more snow expected today and tomorrow by the way) I'll get some more posts up here. In the meantime, watch White Dog if you can before tomorrow morning and join in the discussion. Thanks!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Opening Scenes I Love:

This lead-in to the credits of Ingmar Bergman's 1967 Persona has always reminded me of the closing of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Persona's opening the central character is a young boy in white pristine surroundings finally reaching out from his bed to a giant screen holding the faces of Bibi Anderson and Liv Ullmann. In the 2001's closing the central character is an old man in white pristine surroundings finally reaching out from his bed to a giant monolith, alone and silent in the middle of his room. Was Kubrick influenced by Bergman here or are the similarities just in my head? Probably the latter. Still, this opening sequence, truncated here to just the lead-in and credits, is one of my favorites. Thanks and enjoy.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

UP is the new Z

The Oscar nominations are out. Up received nominations in both Best Animated Picture and Best Picture, much like Z in 1969 received noms in both Foreign and Best Picture as well. The full list of nominations follows.

Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, Up in the Air

As for acting the expected winners were all nominated - Jeff Bridges, Sandra Bullock, Christoph Waltz, Mo'Nique - and the two front runners for Director, James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, got their expected nods as well.

But let's get back to Up for a moment. I have a longstanding disdain for Pixar's movies and have learned to bite my tongue on the subject. However, Up has now received nominations in both and I want to at least air my views on it since it now has the whiff of distinction about it.

I consistently find myself less enamored than everyone else of Pixar's insufferable whimsy. I find most of their films good to very good as children's films but not very good as films overall whereas I would rank something like Carol Ballard's Black Stallion as an excellent children's film and an excellent film overall. And of course I do like several Pixar efforts, from Toy Story to Finding Nemo. Around that point, after the release of Finding Nemo, they started to believe their own press and started injecting their childhood fantasies with adult sentiments, producing for me an uneasy mix. And now, against my better judgment, I will let loose.

I have often heard full grown adults speak in reverent tones of movies like Ratatouille, saying things like, "It's really about this," or "really about that." In other words, if one disdains the story of a rat wanting to be a chef one gets, "Oh, but it's really about being honest with yourself and ..." blah, blah, blah. They say this as if for the first time in cinematic history Pixar is delivering messages with its movies and thus is better. I always follow up by asking if other children's classics, from Snow White to 101 Dalmatians, aren't also "really about" something else. Of course they are. All children's movies, books, television shows and all other forms of media are about lessons. Pixar is not new in this. What they are new at is trying to package the lesson for the adult viewer and then having the great mass of unsophisticated adult viewers lap it up.

"Oh, that final statement by the food critic about where art can come from... it was just so amazing, wasn't it?"

Oh, Christ! That pretentious pie-hole speech in that goddamn high-on-itself movie makes me squirm in my seat. The only thing that could have made it bearable for me was if the filmmakers had been honest and before Peter O'Toole's character delivers it, put up a title card that read, "Attention: The movie you have been watching, about a rat that can control a human's movements by pulling on his hair, will now make a faux-serious statement about art so that critics and fans can claim this is a great movie. We sincerely hope you are gullible enough to shovel it down your throat and ask for more. Thank you for your time. Enjoy."

Okay, that's going a little too far but damn, it felt pretty good to type that. I have felt this way from Ratatouille to Up. This need to inject some kind of adult statement into the mix to signal it's more than "just a kid's movie" which, in my book, implies kid's movies aren't worthy enough on their own and so I would propose Pixar is the enemy of the kid's movie. Take the "Baby Mine" scene from Dumbo. It does what a kid's movie should do, it plays on sentiment that children can understand. That often comes off as too cutesy or sentimental to the adult in the audience but too goddamn bad, the movie's made for your kid not you. But not anymore. Now they want to get the money of the teens and the twenty-somethings so they inject a little pseudo-adult dialogue into the mix, plenty of wry humor and the kid's movie more and more recedes into the history books. And the children suffer for it. Having four children who grew up with Pixar changing the landscape I can tell you that I have heard far more praise for Pixar movies from adults than I ever got from my kids.

The latest Pixar release was Up, the movie that started this whole post. I haven't been pleased with other Pixar releases but Up bothered me more than most. One of the things most discussed by those lavishing praise on it is the montage of our lead character and his wife as they go through their lives together leading up to her death, including the indication that they cannot have children. I found this montage not Dumbo-like in its sentimental heart-string tugging but entirely too self-aware of its importance as a set piece. And I then wondered why others didn't view it that way. Like the Ratatouille speech it should come with a title card explaining its true purpose is not exposition but wowing the critics to help hype the movie. It's not a bad way to provide exposition, in fact it's a very good way to do so, but the movie makes too much of it, takes too long with it so enamored is it of itself. Imagine the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane, showing the deterioration of Kane's marriage, stretched out to ten minutes. Where's the restraint anymore?

But it's the actual story that bothered me most. Carl Fredericksen watches newsreels as a boy of a great adventurer, Charles Muntz, who, after going to Paradise Falls in South America, returns with the skeleton of a great exotic bird that the experts say is a fake, and that Muntz is a fraud. Muntz vows to go back to Paradise Falls and not return until he has a live bird to prove it. Carl meets Ellie, another Muntz admirer, and the two promise to go to Paradise Falls together one day but never do. They spend their lives together until her death when Carl is left alone. At which point he decides to fulfill Ellie's wishes and go to Paradise Falls.

NOPE! I just made that last sentence up! That's not what happens. What happens is that Carl has run afoul of developers who want to buy his house for urban development. The construction people are very nice to him and always friendly. He does not at any point in the movie seem to notice this. Instead, when one of them accidentally hits and then tries to fix his mailbox, a mailbox that he and Ellie made, he is attacked by Carl who whacks him with his walker, cutting open his forehead. After
this Carl is prosecuted and ordered to sell his house so that he can be put into nursing home care, which seems like a real stretch but we go with it because that's what the movie says. Truth is, when one person blocks major urban development cities invoke the right of Eminent Domain and simply buy the person out whether that person wants it or not. But again, the movie goes with the judgment against Carl as their story route so we go with it. And then on the day he is to be taken away, Carl (who has somehow attached thousands of balloons to his house without being noticed - he sold balloons at the zoo his adult life) releases the balloons and, supported by strings, they lift the house off its foundation and he's on his way to Paradise Falls. NOT because of Ellie, rather to evade the court-ordered judgment. The message for kids being, I suppose, that if you ever break the law and the courts pass down a judgment you should flee before it can be carried out.

Now that he is traveling to Paradise Falls we realize he has a charming kid in tow to be his humorous sidekick throughout. All kid's movies have to have a sidekick and Russell, the kid, suffices well enough. Then they arrive at Paradise Falls and come across dogs with special collars that allow them to speak. Whimsy overload warning! They also come across that magical bird, drawn to Russell's chocolate. And then, lo and behold, they come across Charles Muntz, still there, still holding to his promise to not return until he had a live specimen. And for his troubles the movie promptly makes him the villain. That's right. The old guy, Carl, who never did what he promised Ellie until he had to escape prosecution is the hero. The old guy, Muntz, who stuck by his word for all these years is the bad guy. To writer Thomas McCarthy and writer-directors Bob Peterson and Pete Docter, may I just offer up a healthy and hearty "fuck you!"

And it gets worse. They turn Muntz into a homicidal maniac because... well, I don't know why quite honestly. For whatever reason this noble adventurer now kills people who come to Paradise Falls. Was he killing people before if he thought they were stealing his glory? I don't know but he sure does now. And how did he make the talking-dog-collars? Couldn't he sell that, make billions (hell trillions - can you imagine if people could buy a collar and then actually hold a conversation with their dog!) and then fund a MASSIVE expedition to prove he was right? Anyway, he doesn't. He just hangs out and kills people and here's the worst sin: He wants to... oh my God... it's so horrible I dare not type it.

I'll try again.

He wants to... no, no I can't, it's too horrifying.

Okay, one last try.

He wants to... take the bird back alive.

Wait, what?

Yes, he wants to take it back alive.  Not kill it or harm it in any way. Just take it back alive, like all those animals in the zoo Carl worked at that, apparently, Carl never had a problem with. There, I said it. That's what he wants to do. He wants to have something to show for seventy years of searching. And this, we are told explicitly by the actions of the movie, is an unforgivable evil. And he must die. And he does die. And we are made to feel happy that this evil man is now dead. And I don't care if I just spoiled it for you. Maybe now you won't put any money into this movie's pocket.

I know this movie received top flight reviews from some of the best out there. I know many of my most trusted comrades online liked it, hell, loved it. I am, of course, immeasurably disappointed by this but what can I do? Sometimes people just see things differently and I see Pixar in a vastly different light than do most others. Hopefully though, I have provided some evidence as to why. And so I find myself depressed that Up not only received nomination in the "Best Animated" category, and has the support of so many, but also in the "Best Picture" category, giving it a distinction that I sincerely and profoundly do not believe it deserves. And frankly, that just gets my ire... up.