Category Archives: Filmmakers

Sci-Fi Going Corporate?

Greg Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau is maybe best described as sci-fi-lite. It raises issues of free will, fate, and the conflict between personal happiness and professional success, only to reconcile the contradictions nicely. It should not come as a surprise that Matt Damon’s character David Norris leans towards love over career at the pivotal moment, but there’s still food for thought.

Nolfi’s ideas and representations are interesting partly because they aren’t particularly original. In Bureau life is run by angels dressed in three piece suits and fedora’s, bland professionals who are more conscientious than decidedly evil or good.

Terrence Stamp in all his eurovillain greatness

Look at the man above. He’s Thompson, an “agent”, one of the men trying to stop Norris from pursuing Elise Selas (Emily Blunt). At the most basic level, Thompson is Agent Smith(s) from the Wachowski’s The Matrix (1999), the fabric-weaving Fraternity from Bekmambetov’s Wanted (2008), and Conducter 71 in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946). They are the referees of our world, challenging our existential desires to be in control of our actions, our futures. Adjustment Bureau most closely resembles Life and Death, where David Niven’s character (David Niven = David Norris maybe?) fights a legal battle with heaven to stay on earth with the woman he loves. In both films angels are dutiful subjects of an enormous and puzzling bureaucracy, slightly Kafkaesque but not overwhelmingly good or evil. Pressburger reinvented heaven in 20th century terms: reception desks and log books for the recently deceased, secular courts, and the same human propensity for clerical error and inefficiency.

Hugo Weaving to the power of x

Why does Fate tend to look like an investment analyst or Wall street banker? It’s remarkable that Nolfi and the Wachowskis went for such a commonplace look (though the Bureau‘s agents could be referencing Mad Men) considering how fantastic their powers are. You have to wonder if agents always dressed like this or simply imitate the dress codes of the elite of each generation. In Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) the Conductor where’s the elite clothing of his society, the French nobility during the Enlightenment.

Christopher Nolan thought along similar lines when conceiving Inception. A.O. Scott of The New York Times was right to observe how “pedestrian” the content of the dreams were. The subconscious, which could have taken any form, was conceived as men in suits in armoured SUVs, shooting at each other. More Fleming than Freud.

In the New Yorker David Denby complained that the dreams did not look like dreams but “different kinds of action movies jammed together“. Like Nolan, Nolfi is clever without being too original: he continually refers back to our common cultural understanding of what looks cool and assured. There’s less time spent reflecting on choice, destiny, etc  in Adjustment Bureau than running around Manhattan, some of it to the Britpop nostalgia of Richard Ashcroft songs. That’s fine  because Nolfi succeeds in making an enjoyable experience. He has no mandate to be thought-provoking.

You could nail Inception and The Matrix for not fully pursuing the interesting philosophical and existential questions they raise, but you would miss the real point of their type of science fiction. Some films are meant to be enjoyed as fast-paced and easily digestible thrillers.

In the post-Star Wars age, I don’t think science fiction is going to be nearly as visually inventive or removed from our symbols and styles. Even our superhero movies have taken a more realistic turn. Superman and Spiderman are out (for the time being); Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are in love with technology and commercial intrigue; Ironman is a love song to rascally capitalism.

Expect more men in suits, less Bladerunner or Brazil-ian dystopia. While the dilemmas will remain as interesting, the environments will probably become familiar and sleek, the villains more like executives at Goldman Sachs.

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“The film wasn’t released, it escaped.”

After months of campaigning, the ever-lengthening awards season draws to a close in January, when the new releases feel like leftovers from the summer. Look at the mediocre debuts of the last few weeks: The Rite, The Dilemma, The Green Hornet.

You can always find exceptions to the rule, even if you have to go far back into history. On January 25, 1970, 20th Century Fox screened MASH at a few theatres in New York, New York. It is surprising Robert Altman’s film even got that far. Fox was heavily campaigning for the upcoming releases of Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora!, weighty affirmations of American patriotism that were to be the real war movies of the year.

Until MASH was in front of its audience, it had always been a hard sell. Richard Hooker (born Hoernberger) wrote and edited the book over eleven years, only to be rejected by everybody except William Morrow. The book was a hit. Fox was interested, though they only paid Hooker a couple hundred bucks for the right.

Neither was there much enthusiasm among filmmakers for the project. Altman was thirteenth in line for the throne. His love of improvisation and overlapping dialogue, his disdain for scripts – these would become his celebrated trademarks. In 1970, everyone on set was wondering what the hell he was doing.

Lead actor Donald Sutherland, worried that reels were being wasted on secondary characters, tried to get Altman fired. In retrospect the attention to ensemble acting is what makes the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital such a colourful community. Comedy and tragedy mingled over surgery tables of spurting blood, stripping death and the military of sacred status.

MASH cost 4 million to make and expanded from a platform release to make over 80 million, the second highest gross of the year. Although Altman was done with Fox, he now had the credentials to start other projects. In the next few years he made McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974) and Nashville (1975), the bulk of his legacy.

Media historian Rick Mitz argues the film made dark comedy a staple reflex of mainstream entertainment. Humour is often the only possible reaction to the futility of life, and where can the human condition appear so desperate (and hilarious) as the front line of an inconsequential war? There is little overt reference to Korea, the film’s official setting, and most filmgoers associated Hawkeye and Trapper’s mischief as reactions to the frustrations of the Vietnam War.

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Dramas, Blockbusters, and the Academy Awards

Almost every year detractors complain of the Academy’s disregard for popular entertainment. In Oscar’s eyes, the “movie” is somehow inferior to the worthy “film”. As a filmmaker, you either dumb down your craft to make nine figures, or you take your work seriously, because Academy voters like nothing better than art that knows it is serious. When both coalesce it is the exception, not the rule.

Last year the dichotomy between pop and art were obvious: Cameron’s crowd-seducing Avatar vs. Bigelow’s indie thriller The Hurt Locker. I use the labels “movie” and “film” with caution. They are more economic distinctions than aesthetic ones. Avatar glowed with as much breathless artistry as The Hurt Locker simmered with tried-and-true exercises in Hitchcockian suspense. Bigelow’s effort made back its $11-million, but only squeaked in and out of theatres. Meanwhile Avatar charged, dominating the box office for seven straight weeks.

By giving Best Picture to The Hurt Locker, the Academy lived up its reputation for high-brow snobbery. Of course, they would not give the award to the biggest cinematic event of the year (which Avatar was, tepid plot aside). Of course, they would not give The Dark Knight a nomination in 2008. Even doubling the amount of nominees did not give the popular films a fighting chance at the award.

This year, unique visions and commercial appeal have paired together in a surprising number of films that won critics and audiences. In an industry increasingly dominated by massive budgets and groundbreaking special effects, Americans (and, let’s not forget, Canadians) have turned overwhelmingly to niche auteurs and dramas.

A group of strong contenders are poised to carve the Academy between themselves, maybe evenly. There is no binary Cameron-Bigelow showdown. Undoubtedly, The Social Network is the zeitgeist biopic routing the accolades and winning the critic’s affections. Fincher’s cynical drama raked in $192 million, despite having little star power (only Justin Timberlake in a supporting role) and an unsympathetic host of characters.

Even more extraordinary was True Grit, which grossed $138 million domestically. Considering the Coen brothers are hardly mainstream material and the Western is a genre long thought dead, this was the year’s runaway hit. The psychosexual Black Swan also exceeded expectations with an impressive $83 million, despite director Daren Aronofsky’s poor history with the box office. Other indies excelled: The Fighter won $75 million; The King’s Speech crossed the Atlantic and the $100 million mark.

From hollywoodnews.com

This was an amazing year for dramas, original concepts, and a dead monarch’s stutter. Even among the blockbusters novelty prevailed. Who would have thought a two-and-a-half hour mindbender like Inception would gross $800 million? Granted, the ads were prefaced with “From the Director of the Dark Knight”, but Christopher Nolan does not have the same draw as Spielberg or Bay. Neither does Tim Burton, who gambled on an unpromising March release date to sell the monumental Alice in Wonderland.

But what about the usual cash machines, the sequels, remakes, and star vehicles that fill the most seats year by year? As Brooks Barnes noted in The New York Times, a large number of expected steamrollers tanked. The Killers and The Tourist needed foreign rentals to make back their budgets, despite having the full weight of studio marketing. Sex and the City 2 and The Revenge of Kitty Galore also underperformed domestically.

I have hope, as Barnes does, that audiences are becoming more demanding. They want an Inception or a Despicable Me rather than another Prince of Persia. Strong numbers for the Oscar front runners could be a signal of audiences maturing out of the governing 18-25 male demographic.

To understand the shift to quality it is useful to go back to last winter, when Avatar was well on its way to breaking the billion-dollar benchmark. Cameron’s visuals, scope, and 3D mastery have not yet been equalled, even challenged. Has the standard been set too high for subsequent blockbusters to compete? Were Avatar’s stunning looks and banal story so mismatched as to train us to spot rehashed material in subsequent spectacles?

There are too many outliers to answer in the affirmative. 3D did wonders for Resident Evil: Afterlife and Clash of the Titans, and the requisite summer sequel Iron Man 2 exploded globally. But the same magic is gone, or at least waning. Tron Legacy, in all its attempts to be 2010’s Avatar, was only a moderate success. When True Grit is approaching the same numbers as Tron’s domestic haul, one can be optimistic enough to say we might just be sick of the same shit.

Studios recognize this but, typically, are taking shortcuts. When Sony hired Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) to direct its Spider-Man reboot, industry watchers like Variety called it a watershed moment of abandoning studio journeymen in favour of untested young talent. I think the more pressing issue is that Sony fully expects us to watch Peter Parker learn to climb again. No later than 2013. I thought the success of this year’s contenders would inspire Sony to find Webb a project to suit his subjective and postmodern takes on romantic comedy.

Keep 'em down, boys, don't let him make another movie.

 

Increasingly, it does not matter what Canadians and Americans think. Foreigners are gorging themselves on Hollywood crap. Gulliver’s Travels has little right to make obscene amounts on money, but Jack Black did just that outside the U.S. Flashy, simple, and loud, action movies easily transcend cultural barriers. Producers can jump on the 3D bandwagon (regardless of how gratuitous and poor most 3D is), and exhibitors can charge higher ticket prices.

While I am glad that so many award-winning dramas plundered the  home box office, this might be a minor blip in the Hollywood model and not the start of a trend. Clearly, studios are still hedging their bets on animation, sequels, and comic book adaptations.

Now the challenge is putting new wine into old bottles. Nolan’s reinvention of the derailed Batman franchise showed the MPAA how to inject high-brow gravity, no matter how superficial, into the familiar origin story. 20th Century Fox has already picked up Aronofsky to direct Wolverine 2. The result should be interesting, but I hope auteurs will be given support for their own projects, even if they have to “make one for the system”. However, if attendance continues to drop almost ten percent a year, than the system might have to green light stories as original as their directors.

This article can also be found in next week’s issue of The Varsity, the University of Toronto student newspaper. If you liked this, subscribe to Post Projection on the right.

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An Appraisal of the Sickness Ailing Postmodern Humanity And the Clash Between Art and Life in Tommy Wiseau’s The Room

My friend Dan Miller, an aspiring film scholar, has taken an exacting eye to Tommy Wiseau’s grossly underrated 2003 dramedy The Room. The following is an abstract for what will hopefully be his doctoral thesis:

It is not often that film can perfectly imitate life. It may not even be possible. When one sees a movie one is suspending their own reality by sitting in a darkened cinema and accepting the existence of another world. We hand ourselves over, briefly, to this existential film universe, with the existence of the film needing to proceed the essence. In this scholarly work I will be discussing the relation between postmodernism and existential loneliness in the film The Room. More specifically I will talk about how the incredulity towards multi-narratives effects the structure, form and style of the film and how the reactions to existential loneliness effects the actions of the characters with a focus on the themes of trust, betrayal, and death.

The new poster boy for postmodernism?

Keeping with the theme of postmodern irony The Room eschews multi-narratives by first proposing them. Early in the story we are introduced to many subplots that are never revisited. Lisa’s mother Claudette mentions how she has breast cancer but there is no further mention of her condition. There is a young ward named Denny who is seen early in the film purchasing drugs and getting accosted by a drug dealer but this plot is later abandoned as well. The reason this is done is of course to be ironic. Multi-narratives are parodied by these empty stories which in some cases are introduced and never returned to (as in the aforementioned ones) and in other cases are only seen near their end with no explanation to their beginnings. Characters are introduced relatively late in the film and treated as if they were important friends of Johnny and Lisa.

These obvious plot holes serve two equally supportive purposes, they draw attention to the narrative and its strange irony, and they place the viewer in an excessively obvious and undeniable position as the viewer. This prevents the viewer from losing him or herself in the film. As I mentioned before, people leave their lives when they go to the cinema. However, when viewing The Room they are constantly barraged with moments of sheer absurdity and thus forced to reexamine their roles as viewer. This reinvention of roles is another hallmark of the postmodern aesthetic.

By drawing attention to the narrative the film is forcing the viewer into an uncomfortable position where they become aware that they are watching a movie. They are forced to constantly reevaluate their relation to the film. Also, many basic characteristics of classical Hollywood cinema/viewer relations are ruined here. The audience cannot build up a relation to any of the characters and are thus alienated from the plot. They are aware that they are watching a film but are unaware of how to react. When a shocking moment is introduced it is not uncommon to hear laughter from The Room’s audience. Many people consider The Room to be a poor movie, but it is important to note that Waiting for Gadot was unpopular too when it came out. The Room challenges all notions as to what a film can be and as such would work best on an audience that had never before experienced cinema. But film does not exist in a vacuum. People gauge movies by other movies.  Thus the modern viewer is left baffled by many of the film’s sequences, and in a confused state many will just laugh. This is not a sign of the movie’s comedic value but rather the uncomfortable position it places the viewer. The Room is made to confront the modern viewer, and its difficulty to grasp coexists with the difficulty of its higher subject matter.

 

Nothing like some passionless pre-coital tomfoolery.

In the postmodern world humanity is affixed with new ailments which are explored to great depths here, one central theme is the destruction of civil people and the community in the favor of empty self service, and anonymous urban existence. One negative consequence associated with the world of today is the demise of community in favor of self-serving relations. Johnny is a caring individual who treats his future wife Lisa “like a princess”, he has a very strong relationship with his best friend Mark, and he even takes care of a local ward named Danny whom Johnny is trying to help through college. Johnny seems to be the perfect model for how a well functioning person should live their life. But instead of being rewarded for his good heart, and trusting nature he is punished. With deliberate postmodern irony both his best friend and future wife betray Johnny when they engage in a long lasting affair which serves as the main plot function in the film. Betrayal is perhaps the strongest narrative theme in the film. Johnny puts his trust into Lisa who responds by getting him drunk so she can spread rumors about him. Johnny of course does not drink and this element is representative of his own innocence and naivety. She lies to him about being pregnant, and she tries to pit him and his best friend Mark against each other. In the frightening self-serving world of today nobody can be trusted and selfish opportunists will punish a good man. In the end the honest soul cannot win. Everyone will cry over his body in death but they never truly loved him in life; except for Danny who truly did.

The demise of Johnny represents the demise of trust in society, the demise of personal relations between people, and the impeding cold world of technology that we are left with. The Room is a film about the changing world; it both embraces and effaces this world. When Johnny takes the gun to his head and proclaims, “I’m sick of this world!” he is talking about the new world that has grown up around him. It is a world that he cannot understand. The question is not whether one can flourish in a world of Lisas and Marks, but whether one can survive. Danny is hopeless without his provider, and is sure to fall back into the life of unspecified drugs. He is not one of this world either. Johnny is like an alien: he speaks in an incomprehensible accent not native to any region on earth: he is like everybody and nobody all at once. He kills himself to escape pain but the postmodern pain of his existence is not truly escapable, even in death the film is bitterly ironic as Lisa and Mark mourn for him. And in the background the sounds of sirens, a nondiegetic addition, announce it is all but over. Pain and struggle, life and death, actions and reactions, all encapsulated within ourselves, like a room. When it comes to the incredulity to multi-narratives and existential postmodern loneliness, no film captures these difficulties in such a brazen and ironic way. Mourn for the death of Johnny, but save a tear for all of us. Tennessee Williams could not have done a better job himself.

In a world of lions, how can the lamb survive?

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Some Words on a Short Dark Familiar…

As the closing credits of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger rolled (white Windsor Light Condensed on black, as always) I pondered over what the previous 90 minutes signified in the Woody Allen catalogue. It was a watchable  film, the forty-first addition to forty-five years of filmmaking. But it is not Allen at his best or moderate best. Tall Dark Stranger takes familiar stories played out in the Woodman’s other work, introducing itself with Shakespeare’s line about life being full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. That observation could also be applied to Allen’s recent output.

Everyone knows Woody Allen writes about himself, and, to a large extent, for himself. Odd is how of late he has been writing scripts about his other scripts. He paired an wealthy older man (Anthony Hopkins) with a prostitute with a heart of gold (Lucy Punch) as he did in Deconstructing Harry (1997) and Mighty Aphrodite (1996). He shows the breakup of a marriage between a washed-up writer (Josh Brolin) and fed-up wife (Naomi Watts), a formula applied to Kenneth Branagh and Judy Davis in Celebrity (1998) and to himself and Mia Farrow (ah, the days of Farrow-Allen!) in Husbands and Wives (1991). Hopkin’s wife Gemma Jones experiences supernatural communication with the dead; this happened to Mia Farrow in Alice (1990) and Scarlett Johansson in Scoop (2006). Allen can always make the ordinary watchable, but even the help of monstrously talented casts cannot cover up this act of recycling.

There is no doubt that Allen is still brilliant, still industrious, and still more than capable at crafting entertainment. How he can write  more one-liners is, at this point, beyond comprehension. But easier to spot than a genius is a lazy genius. I can imagine him dashing off 10 pages of dialogue in between swallowing Advils, half-distracted by a migraine and a fear of the abyss. Roger Ebert said Tall Dark Stranger was “every frame an Allen film, but it isn’t very much more.” It is definitely funny, definitely ironic, and definitely low on faith in human interaction. The film does not so much conclude as end with a shrug, narrator Zak Orth reminding us of Shakespeare’s line about life being full of sound and…what? Nothing?

Has Allen said all he has to say? If he wanted his career to have an arc, he probably should have stopped after Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989). That sublime combination of comedy and drama would have been a perfect swan song to his humour and the clouds of despair at the universe that hang over his work. It would have shown a level of maturity from the man who made Bananas and Sleeper, a cinematic graduation from the “earlier funny ones” to complex morality tales like Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), that smacked not a little of Bergman. However, Allen went on to write and direct a wildly inconsistent batch of films in the 1990s. Critics stopped looking too hard for glimmers of the old Allen after the box office failure of The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), which is actually not that bad (yet hugely over-budgeted at $33 million; Allen shot the successful Vicky Christina Barcelona for fifteen).

It is hard to call all of post-80s Allen lighthearted – Matchpoint and Shadows and Fog are as dark as he gets – but his work has definitely become airier. Like Tarantino at his worst, Allen can still flourish endless clever premises (Small Time Crooks, Melinda and Melinda, Hollywood Ending) and conjure one liners on the spot. At Cannes he even delivered another funny quip when asked what he felt about mortality: “My relationship to death remains the same. I’m strongly against it.” But he cannot do now what he did in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985): take a meta-fictional story full of ironic postmodernism and make it genuine. It was a love story between poor Cecilia and dashing (yet fictional) Tom Baxter, and a love story between Allen and cinema. Nothing since has been so heartfelt and hilarious. To his credit, Hollywood Ending and Small Time Crooks were amusing (if morally vacuous) comedies. Allen pulls surprising and sometimes implausible endings to leave his characters happy, or the majority  in decent spirits. Deus ex machina was never so obvious as the helicopter that lands in front of Mira Sorvino at the end of Mighty Aphrodite, uniting the unlucky heroine with her future soulmate.

Older but none the wiser?

These forced conclusions come off as subversive from Allen, who has repeatedly told us how deluded and miserable we all are. According to Alfie Singer we should be happy to be miserable. In hindsight it was the most consoling thought Allen ever shared with us. His films are less concerned with puzzling out a moral philosophy than throwing rich attractive people into each other’s lives and beds.  A.O. Scott of the New York Times has called his recent work “timid and defensive”, glazed with the “fussed-over air of a hobbyist’s playthings”.  Rick Groen of the Globe and Mail extends the comparison to

an aging cabinet maker still blessed with craft but grown erratic in design…At best, the little drawers, the ones marked Comedy and Tragedy and Love and Death, pull out smoothly and the whole thing looks relatively attractive and works quite functionally – think Match Point or Vicky Cristina Barcelona. At worst, the conception degenerates into a contraption of ill-fitting pieces and rusty old hinges –Scoop is the obvious example.

Though it is true that Allen has become less audience-friendly, the decline has not been steady. Match Point was one of his best dramas and Vicky-Christina Barcelona (2008), while overrated, glimmered with hope for a Woody renaissance. The shift to Europe, or a warm, upper-middle class version of Europe, might freshen his narratives. But he will probably not direct another Manhattan (1979). He might not even make another Radio Days (1987).

Woody had a lot to say about relationships, sex, anxiety, the human condition, and self-delusion. He could take the best of what European artists were saying – be it Fellini, Bergman, or Dostoyevsky – and translate their ideas for North American intellectuals. New York, once a beautiful character unto itself, became a ubiquitous backdrop to his rushed plots. Unfortunately, Allen’s settings now refuse to be contemporary, as if he is condensing his fear of aging onto postcard locales in Barcelona and Manhattan. Most recently, his “London” is sunny window dressing for Hopkins, Jones, Brolin, Watts, and others to struggle with underwritten characters.

Although Tall Dark Stranger has a lot of different Allen elements, this does not make for a triumphant celebration. It is not like Shakespeare waving goodbye in The Tempest, but more a nod of recognition. Woody is still here, but lately showing up cannot count for 80%.

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