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.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Memories of Fury Road

Attended by hyperbole nearly as loud as the movie itself, the long-awaited post-apocalyptic chase movie Mad Max: Fury Road finally hit theatres this weekend. Visually dense and moving at a nearly non-stop pace, Fury Road more than honors the trilogy that preceded it, taking title anti-hero Max (played with feral rage and a smouldering humanity by Tom Hardy) into directions both familiar and new, and pairing him with  one-armed freedom fighter Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, equally formidable and shaded).

Peopled with a fantastic array of characters, and sporting several dozen different vehicles throughout its extended chase scenes, the thing delivers all the action advertised. And though this is the aspect that many people are talking about, the action, as impressive as it is, is just one shade of what's going on in Fury Road. It is as loud and explosive as you'd want a summer blockbuster to be, but it lingers long after the dust settles. The complexity of its vision, the artful packing of its details are just staggering, and one realizes that it's got imagination enough for about ten movies. Thinking about everything it accomplishes, the movie feels too damn big to write about.

Much has been made, reasonably, of the movie's overt feminism. Tellingly, Theron and Hardy share billing at the top of the movie, and many have argued that Furiosa, imposing with her metal arm and driving skills, is the movie's real hero. Though the non-stop action, at a glance, marks Fury Road as a guy's movie, there are a high number of speaking parts for women in the movie, and all of them are given agency, motivation, dimension. The slogan WE ARE NOT THINGS is even visible on the wall of a cell from which the villain's multiple wives have been sprung. The movie often feels like a full-tilt assault on The Patriarchy, and yet it mounts its attack without being preachy. And it somehow manages to convince us that horrifying violence is part of the day-to-day life in this ruined world (the violations suffered by Max in the movie's first 20 minutes underscore this powerfully) without sleazily rubbing our faces in it. The movie's feminism is more articulated than the simplistic OMG Strong Woman occasionally managed by other blockbusters, and is more than enough to make it the summer action spectacular that many women have been waiting for.

And yet as remarkable (even ground-breaking) as its feminist parables are, they are just ONE facet of the movie with which to reckon. Never mind that director George Miller balances action and feminism while steering well clear of exploitation and didacticism (which is a difficult enough task for any filmmaker who sets his/her mind to it), but he does so within the context of everything else happening in the movie. The grand action spectacle, including chase scenes many, many minutes long, involving seemingly every stuntperson in Australia. The exquisite and jam-packed production design by comic book artist/co-screenwriter Brendan McCarthy (feeling so much like one of his visually dense comics brought to life that it may well be the most sincere and direct comic book movie ever made). And the movie's stunning articulacy in an action movie language, speaking volumes about characters in short, sharp gestures, Hardy and Theron capturing their characters' growing, almost psychic rapport through the fluidity and grace of an almost entirely physical dialogue.

Mad Max: Fury Road creates a colorful, enervating, insanely creative vision within its post-apocalyptic world while superhero movies (its most direct parallel) are comparatively by the numbers, grim and drearily po-faced, and endlessly reiterating their own tropes. I've occasionally mused that the greatest special effect a movie can show you is the rebirth of a human soul, and Fury Road doesn't skimp on it. Furiosa may be the movie's hero, but Max is the one who really changes over the course of its two spellbinding hours, and as he drifts out of her story, it's clear that his is just beginning. And I'd rather see Max's next step than any ten other blockbuster sequels.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

End of Week roundup, May 15

--So given that we keep an eye on movie-related social media, we tend to get more than an eyeful of any big announcements out of Hollywood. Multiple folks tweet/retweet the same article of breaking news, and still others tweet/retweet articles quotig those articles of breaking news, meaning we tend to get many of the same news items over and over again. Through no fault of movie fans following their fave stuff on Twitter, or our fellow movie newshounds online, we see the same news items sent over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, to the point that there are movies we hate before they're even out of development. (We strongly suspect that this was one of the main things that soured us on superhero movies, for example - such blockbusters get reported on so constantly it's no wonder that others besides us are tired of them, more than a year before they're even completed.

--So this often has the effect of ruining our objectivity over things, especially when we see multiple people getting indignant (or, per usual internet discourse, outraged) over certain Hollywood maneuvers. Enough people get upset over the same thing, and you either nod numbly in assent or wonder what the big deal is.

--So. That Jem & the Holograms movie they got coming out.

--It's based on a beloved 80s cartoon, which details the adventures of a supernaturally cotton-candy pop trio, usually against their dark mirror, the trashier (but still kid-friendly) pop trio the Misfits. Pitched heavily toward young females, the candy-colored confection has retained a cult status among those who came of age to it. I don't doubt it's as fondly recalled by women who were teenagers during its run as the GI Joe cartoon is by their male counterparts. Obviously, being a beloved property of days gone by, a contemporary remake was inevitable.

--And now that the trailer's gone live, folks are apoplectic. The engaging, often surreal, if not out-and-out bonkers tone of the original has been discarded in favor of what appears to be a devoutly traditional, familiar, and oddly po-faced rags-to-riches music stardom story, courtesy Step Up franchise director Jon M. Chu. Cue the thinkpieces bemoaning the tone-deafness of the trailer, and the unthinkable desecration of a beloved icon of our youth.

--And in the wake of all of these voices raised as one (mainly out of weariness because, as stated earlier, we see an awful lot of them in a short space of time), we can only resignedly ask: What did you expect? We're in the middle of an increasingly fatigued Hollywood era in which blockbusters are loaded with special effects, drowning out human interplay, tangible character arcs, and artistic vision. Even our most colorful and wacky superheroes are now mired in grim & gritty, over-familiar plotlines that suck all of the pop joy out of their inspirations, turning them into faceless product. Of course you're going to see Jem, the Holograms, & co. shoehorned into a rote, familiar, American Idol-influenced story of modest beginnings-superstardom-falling out-triumphant reconciliation

--Some of the writers of these pieces have even suggested alternatives. Why didn't a woman direct this movie? (Never an unfair question, incidentally.) Why couldn't the Wachowski siblings have turned this into a suitably pop-frenetic piece of eye candy like their Speed Racer? (Indeed, my own pick for the job, Joseph Kahn, would certainly have brought the verve of his music videos to bear and salvaged the inherent colorful absurdity of the source material.) But as good as these alternatives may even have been, this kind of free-wheeling willfully cartoonish work isn't what Hollywood's bankrolling, and it even seems somewhat naive to bemoan that Chu's Jem & the Holograms is anything but the watered-down piece of formulaic dreariness promised by the trailer.

--Trailers lie, of course. Trailers are often put together by marketing departments whose sole goal is to move product & sell tickets. It's entirely possible that Chu's movie is, in fact, the movie that Jem fans have yearned for in the last 30 years. Trailers often obscure what's really going on in the movies they sell, so the next chorus may yet bemoan the fact that a deserving pop confection like Jem was never really given a chance.

--Our thought right now is that it's in the fans' court. They can be as loud as they want online, but the movie, as it exists, is going to happen. If they turn up their nose at a movie that may yet be the movie they'd always imagines, they'll only have themselves to blame. Much more likely, if the movie is the stinker everyone's expecting, but fans go to see it regardless on the notion that even a shitty Jem movie is better than no movie at all, then they'll only have themselves to blame...for the downright inevitable Jem II. Though maybe that movie will give the studio a chance to screw up the Misfits, too.

--Time, as always, will tell. Until then, have a good weekend. And enjoy Mad Max: Fury Road. Men's rights activists are giving it a thumbs down, which is as powerful a positive endorsement as any movie could hope for.

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