Friday, June 5, 2015

Love and Mercy: The Finest Vibrations

Delighted to see Love and Mercy finally opening wide this weekend. We've talked about it before, and if you'll bear with us we're going to talk about it here, since it deserves more consideration than an end-of-week roundup will allow. (Indeed, the music of Brian Wilson, particularly during the unfettered peak of his creativity, captured in Love & Mercy, seems to invite that kind of obsessive revisiting.)

Just over a month after seeing it for the first time memories of it still remain. Two very different performances by Paul Dano and John Cusack, both of whom capture this guileless innocence that seems core to Wilson's being, a fragility that comes hand in hand with this incredible musical genius. The feeling that you're watching these incredible songs being born before your very eyes. The contrast between the documentary approach to the 1960s sessions (shot in the same studios where they took place) and the more somber approach to Wilson's desolation, and shot at rebirth, in the 80s.

Any movie based on facts is going to lie. A fully accurate depiction of events as they happened would turn forensic in a hurry, and yet a movie can be too slap-dash in its interpretation of real events. Love and Mercy from start to finish feels like it honors its subject, capturing beautifully the essence of his music, but also capturing the conflicts around them. (In one of its memorable extended sequences, it shorthands the lengthy genesis of "Good Vibrations", but frames it mainly as a willful compromise between Wilson and ever-contentious bandmate Mike Love, a joint effort to find common ground.) The movie goes deep, in multiple directions, to capture an elusive truth, and even when it boldly strikes out for Stanley Kubrick territory it does so to serve the rich and complex inner life of its subject, staking a claim for Love and Mercy as one of the deepest, most moving American movies of the year.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

San Andreas Rocks Rohan

(We're surprised that our friend Rohan Morbey had so many nice things to say about the disaster blockbuster San Andreas, but hey, if he's happy, we're happy. Rohan's original review can be found as always at his site Closing Credits - do follow him on Twitter!)   

If I said “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore” about San Andreas I’d forgive you for thinking I’d gone mad but only if you hadn’t seen the film. Make no mistake, San Andreas offers nothing new to the disaster movie genre, but what it does it does as well as can be expected, and its flaws come with the package. These movies, the like of which I hadn’t seen since Roland Emmerich’s 2012, are simply created to be the cinematic equivalent of a hypodermic needle to inject pure spectacle into our eyeballs. The special effects are special indeed, creating a vision of destruction and mayhem which Hollywood has been perfecting ever since the golden age of the genre back in the 1970s. And each scene is realized as well as could be hoped for, especially from a director (Brad Peyton) who hasn’t been involved in a production anywhere near this size before.

Peyton’s direction is crucial to the film’s success. He keeps the action clear and crisp where so many film makers today go out of their way to show similar scenes of mayhem as obnoxiously as possible (think Bay, Synder, Liebesman), with edits every two seconds and a camera which never stays still. I’ll go further and point out one fantastic scene which plays out like one single take (although I have to assume there were hidden cuts), starting with a wide shot of Los Angeles crumbling and pushing in through a window of a skyscraper showing us the survival of a key character whilst panic ensues all around. Moments like this, where a film maker decides how to show us spectacle in such a carefully orchestrated way, may sadly go unnoticed on audiences assuming the movie offers only the same old, standard frenzy.

Nothing is more boring than action caused by convoluted plots and storylines, and it was a pleasure seeing a city destroyed by a natural disaster, not by some dumb villain who fires a blue light from the heavens. Disaster movies are so straight forward that they set up just two things; a disaster which impacts many, and the survival story of a select few. San Andreas doesn't complicate this tried and true combination of cause and effect.

Characters in disaster films are rarely deep but rarely do they purport to be. When you think of the best examples you see a trend in the quality of actors involved, not the quality of the screenplay; John Cusack, Helen Hunt, Tommy Lee Jones, and Morgan Freeman in the modern era and Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Burt Lancaster in the 70s all made us believe in the spectacle and stunts unfolding before our eyes. Whilst San Andreas can’t boast of anyone to match that list the cast do exactly what they need to do, with Paul Giamatti and Carla Gugino leading by example. But the casting of Dwayne Johnson put doubts in my mind, for he had yet to win me over in any film I’d seen him in before. After San Andreas I know why this was. Unlike most I don’t buy Johnson as the muscle-bound indestructible hero to fill the void left by Schwarzenegger and Stallone, but here his role isn’t defined by his size and strength and the film never once puts his character into a position where he needs to have arms like tree trunks. It could have been played by any of the aforementioned leading men and the film would not necessarily have broken through the ceiling of its limitations – and that is to Johnson’s credit.     

Unlike the best of the post 70s disaster movies (Twister, 2012, and Alex Proyas’ sadly overlooked Knowing) San Andreas does feel the need to add some unnecessary back story and to make one character wholly unlikable solely to create pathos for our hero, and it stretches the levels as to how much we actually care about the characters towards the end (we know they aren’t going to die, why pretend otherwise?), but these are minor issues and barely detract from the fun. The end message is far too heavy handed too, as if the screenplay was a first draft written on September 12 2001 when the poignancy of ‘rebuilding’ was rightfully heavy in every American’s hearts. In 2015 the very end of San Andreas feels like it’s from another time, and is perhaps the film’s worst offense.

Minor niggles aside, however, the only reason you'd walk out of the cinema disappointed is if you don’t know or like the genre. Of course it’s ridiculous and preposterous and of course all logic goes out of the window, but do we expect anything else from a disaster picture? I’d even go further and ask if this is what we secretly want.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Recommended!: The General (1926)

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is in full swing thru Monday. We've only taken in one program so far, but we've already seen: a Maurice Tourneur short film spun from a Grand Guignol play (in collaboration with key members of that theatre company); numerous filmed accounts of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, with eyewitness accounts given stirring, heart-rending voice by actor Paul McGann; restored Technicolor footage shot at La Cuesta Encantada, aka Hearst Castle; and a look at the process by which the long-lost 1916 Sherlock Holmes (the first film of the character, played by famed actor/Writer William Gillette) was restored, prior to the North American premiere of the revival on Sunday (which we mentioned on the blog a couple of months back).

The program spoke to the diversity of silent filmmaking. Even without the accompanying, sometimes heroic, stories of these movies' rediscoveries the movies themselves are engrossing narratives in their own right. And since we're all about connecting online cineastes with excellent, new-to-them movies it seems right to talk about some of the silent movies available on line. And the first movie that came to mind was Buster Keaton's The General.

The Civil War-era story is a simple one, casting Keaton as Johnny, a good-hearted train engineer from the South who must cross enemy lines to save both his favorite girl and his beloved locomotive from Union soldiers. The love story is gently, sometimes movingly, played, and the photography is deeply evocative of the Civil War time period.

And dear Lord, the stunts. Decades before Mad Max or Bullitt, Keaton was starring in some of the most spectacular stunts ever captured on film, usually planning and directing them before stepping into frame (and into very real danger). Keaton's just status as a legendary comedian often overshadows the real risk he took executing these scenes (also incredible is his ability to retain his famous stone face even as hilarity and danger unfolded themselves around him). And Keaton and collaborators (including co-director Clyde Bruckman) seem to have listed out every single calamity that can befall a train engineer, and plotted each calamity into this movie (the climactic crash turned out to be the single most expensive stunt of the silent era). Watching Keaton piloting his engine along rubble-strewn tracks, clearing obstacles while dodging attacks from Union defenders, one often gets too caught up in the action to wonder just how the hell he's pulling it off. And that question lingers in the afterglow of the movie, adding to its considerable charms.

For this and other reasons, The General lingers happily in the mind, whether one can entirely believe what they saw or not. It's engaging, entertaining, and accessible even to audiences who might not think they "get" silent movies (and it's easy to find all over the place on line - don't be put off by the wrong movie description on the Jaman page for it, though we're working on that). It's a great place to start for newcomers to silent cinema, and to those for whom classic cinema is well-trod territory it feels like coming home.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Rohan: Within Tomorrowland

(We were off thru Memorial Day, but happily goodbuddy Rohan Morbey caught Tomorrowland opening night, and shared his review to fill the weekend gap. His original review can be found as always over at Rohan's site Closing Credits - do follow him on Twitter!)   

The world’s ending, it’s all our fault and Disney want you to know about it. But first let’s have a fun time at the cinema, buy the merchandise and check out the theme park before the cities crumble. It’s this hypocrisy which pulls director Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland in one direction only to push it into another; resulting in a film which, though fun at times, never feels anywhere as genuine as it needs to be.

I appreciate and welcome a massive budget family movie which isn’t based on the usual checklist of ‘how can we make easy money’ (sequel, remake, superhero, best-selling kids novels) and which has a meaningful message at its core; yet, despite being inspired by Walt Disney’s vision of a utopian future the movie ends up being packaged just like all the rest. The script by Damon Lindelof and Bird is so full of padding and filler it soon draws attention to the fact that very little is actually going on, despite the bevy of special effects lighting up the screen. The opening twenty minutes could be conveyed in a few lines of dialogue but instead we get George Clooney as a kid discovering Tomorrowland, somewhat lessening the revelation when the exact same thing will happen to our hero Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) in the following act.

The story also suffers, as so many blockbusters do, with the insistent need to have a villain to instigate a large scale finale. Here Hugh Laurie takes on the thankless role, presumably because he’s British. I’d have hoped a film maker of Bird’s proven ability would have taken the road less traveled and insisted on any climax which didn’t feature robot fights and large objects falling from up on high. Yet all the usual clich├ęs are thrown into a climax which arises from nothing other than the need to exist. Ironic then, for a film which wants us to take a good look at ourselves and save the planet that $150 million was blown on this non-event.

That said, there is an undeniable charm in how Bird directs and it is only he and the genuinely likable Robertson who save the film from utter disappointment. Robertson shows a comic ability to match Bird’s trademark sense of visual humor, which always hits the mark and had me laughing on many occasions; whether that be belching from downing two bottles of Coke or the very clever cross cutting between exploring Tomorrowland whilst battling the elements in the real world. Bird showed us in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol just how well he understands action and set pieces – a concept seemingly lost on many action directors today – and in Tomorrowland we’re treated to two or three splendidly crafted scenes, each one filled with the same details and cause and effect which would make Steven Spielberg proud. When it works the film feels like it’s from the Spielberg school of action directing (not that it's anywhere close to Spielberg at his best), accompanied by Michael Giacchino’s delightfully playful score reminiscent of John Williams and edited by Walter Murch (yes, THAT Walter Murch of Apocalypse Now and The Conversation) so clarity is never in question. Simple as though that may be, it’s so easy to overlook the craft of visual storytelling and Bird continues to show why he’s one of the very best in modern cinema.

Certainly a mixed bag of onscreen adventure and screenwriting misadventure, Tomorrowland contains enough fun and energetic set-pieces in the middle to just about make up for the flaccid start and tedious end. This, it should be pointed out, is an end where people of all races look like they’re in GAP commercials as the message is forced down our throats as far as it will go... so Bird, Giacchino and Murch’s fine work almost goes to waste in the worst way possible.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Rohan: Grim, Grey Maggie

(The domestic zombie drama Maggie had a sporadic release schedule, but our friend Rohan Morbey caught up with it and shares his thoughts below. His original review can be found as always over at Rohan's site Closing Credits - do follow him on Twitter!)  

The zombie genre has hit a new high in popularity with the success of the FX show The Walking Dead, and the last thing cinema needs is another zombie film where an infection breaks out and a band of ‘everyday’ people try to survive for two hours. To the credit of first-time director Henry Hobson, Maggie is not the typical zombie film, but it offers essentially nothing new to the genre either, made worse by the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a role in which he can establish no authority.

Hobson’s crucial mistake is making his film so dour and one-note without fleshing out the main characters (the titular Maggie, played by Abigail Breslin, and her father Wade, played by Schwarzenegger) to a point where we care if Maggie lives or dies, and all emotional involvement drains away earlier on. The premise is certainly intriguing but Hobson’s treatment of his characters and situation always too shallow and minimalist to satisfy anyone looking for a fresh take on well-trodden ground; the zombie infection is treated like any terminal disease in real life, where the sufferer is affected physically and friends and families are affected emotionally, and whilst this may sound deep and thought-provoking, Maggie soon proves bereft of ideas. Quite why we should care about the fictional dilemma is unclear when the film pads out its modest running time with precious little more than you might find in a Nicholas Sparks weepie. Cancer or zombie infection – what’s the difference except that one is entirely made up and carries no weight whatsoever in a world which is never established as anything more than... grey.

And grey is the only color Hobson seems to know. I read that he was a title designer on several features and this is seemingly the limitation of his cinematic sensibilities; he evokes far too much of The Walking Dead to convince us he has a truly original idea in mind, and uses a floating camera too freely, without enough emotional depth to warrant its use. Like the story and characterization, Hobson’s directing technique is empty and vapid; if we cared it might have some resonance but dark and dingy alone is not enough to take the place of character and emotion – John Hillcoat’s The Road it certainly is not.

One scene which introduces Maggie to a boy her age who has also been infected is certainly the film’s only strong sequence. Here we get to see Maggie interact and see what life she once led and how the infection doesn’t make her an outcast from everyone but her father. The film needed more scenes like this, where conversation between people could lead to us caring about Maggie’s demise; but Hobson favors the dark and dreary finality from the very start. All hope is lost before we ever have the chance to lose it, so quite why we would want to be told this tale is anyone’s guess.

The casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger sets out expectations. Of course we shouldn’t expect anything like 80s and 90s level of Arnie charisma today, regardless what type of film he’s in, but Maggie shows his limitations without him doing anything wrong; nothing here suggests why he should ever have been cast, aside from getting the film financed. One still cannot see anyone other than Schwarzenegger regardless of whatever character he plays – and that used to be the reason why we saw his films. In Maggie I just wondered why John Matrix looked so tired all the time. Perhaps he knew what was coming for the next 95 minutes.

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