Sunday, March 29, 2009

R.I.P. Maurice Jarre 1924-2009

The brilliant, brilliant, BRILLIANT (need I say more?) film composer Maurice Jarre, perhaps best known for his work on David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Doctor Zhivago" passed away.  His work will undoubtedly speak for itself for ages to come.  Please enjoy the video of him conducting London Philharmonic on the Suite from Lawrence of Arabia:

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Watch and love. Spike Jonze is going to do astounding things with this adaptation.

Peter Morgan's latest Tony Blair-themed romp raises my eyebrows

Peter Morgan is the probing political writer who did the screenplays for The Deal, The Queen, Last King of Scotland, and Frost/Nixon.  He's kind of a big deal in the writing world.  His latest (and third film) about Tony Blair (sort of) is "The Special Relationship," his first outing in the directors' seat.  It's going to be a TV film co-produced by HBO and BBC.

So why do I care?  Well, it's actually about Bill Clinton.  And if you've been paying attention, this is the first movie that will actually dramatize part of Clinton's presidency directly, concerned with Clinton and Blair's relationship from 1997-2000.  Okay, okay, why else should anyone care?  Michael Sheen is reprising his role as Blair from The Queen.  But the pick for Bill?  Dennis Quaid.  Yes, THAT Dennis Quaid.  The pick for Hillary Clinton?  Julianne Moore.  Yes, the two stars of "Far From Heaven" reunite a la DiCaprio and Winslet.  Sound strange yet?  According to The Guardian, Quaid beat out the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tim Robbins to get the part.  Just close your eyes and imagine Tim Robbins as Bill Clinton.  In a sick way, it's a lot more awesome than imagining Frank Langella as Nixon or Josh Brolin as Dubya.

But hey, if Helen Mirren can pull off Queen Elizabeth then what do I know about anything?

Here's a link to the article in The Guardian:

'Duplicity' steals show with ex-spy romance - The Mix

'Duplicity' steals show with ex-spy romance - The Mix

"Duplicity" - * * * / * * * *
D: Tony Gilroy
W: Tony Gilroy
S: Clive Owen; Julia Roberts

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Michael Bay to receive award for filmmaking excellence (?)

Yes, this is - somehow - the state we've come to.  That guy who directed "Armageddon," "Pearl Harbor," "The Island," and "Bad Boys" is now receiving actual awards.

According to Variety, director Michael Bay will receive the ShoWest 2009 Vanguard Award for excellence in filmmaking at their upcoming confere in Las Vegas.

My brain hurts at the thought of this, but at least it's a group of theater owners giving Bay the award instead of, y'know, a critics organization (he tried to plead with them when he made Pearl Harbor and he created an insipid propaganda piece).

Although this DOES remind me of a perfect comment given by a colleague when someone lamented on Bay's "Armageddon" being part of the Criterion Collection for DVD: (I paraphrase) "He IS the most widely recognized creator of ridiculous, explosion-filled, dumbed-down action movies, and he somehow does it to eye-popping if brain-numbing effect and has indeed created a unified ouevre, so his recognition in Criterion recognizes that he fills that niche in many regards" (my wording is better, I think).  Sad, but f*@%ing true.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"Away We Go" Trailer

I'm sure I'm not alone in being instantly excited about Sam Mendes's latest.  Some people are writing it off as a "quirky indy comedy," but there's some real beauty and hints of complexity in here.  Plus John Krasinski.  His movie efforts so far (Leatherheads, License to Wed) have been flops, but this could be his birth as a real film talent.  I'm hoping Mendes bounces back after the insufferable "Revolutionary Road" - this looks like a great, humble way to do so.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Don't watch the 'Watchmen' - The Mix

Don't watch the 'Watchmen' - The Mix

"Watchmen" - * * / * * * *
D: Zack Snyder
W: David Hayer; Alex Tse (screenplay); Dave Gibbons; Alan Moore (graphic novel)
S: Jackie Earle Haley; Billy Crudup

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Does "Blue Velvet" Near Perfection?

So I was doing a survey of a few films I was considering showing to the Film Club at USC.  As a David Lynch nut, I thought about Blue Velvet, since Mulholland Dr. is a bit too much for anyone to begin to handle on a supposedly relaxing Thursday evening.  Two things are sure after this most recent viewing: I refuse to screen it for people who aren't my close friends, and it may be one of the most perfect and highly misunderstood movies ever made.

While Lynch is probably, next to the Coens but apart from them, the most vital US filmmaker working today, nowhere was his maniacal vision of the world realized more than Blue Velvet.  A lot of people will say Mulholland Dr. And that's fair, because that movie is a dizzying dream, it's pure bliss, but among everything else it ends up a puzzle film.  Blue Velvet is the nightmare to the dreamscape, an agonizingly probing and direly intense film that NEEDS to be seen by everyone before they die.

I refuse to screen it for the general public mostly because of its explicit sex and nudity, its bloody violence, and generally unsettling subject matter, but it's the best BECAUSE of these things.  The first scene alone directly responds the film as a celluloid heaven, a world of small problems and dismissive evil.  For two bleak hours, David Lynch plunges the depths and destroys everything we love about the movies - arousing mysteries become tortured pain, sexual awakening becomes a sadistic affair, pleasant communities are upended by their seedy underbellies.

"It's a strange world," mutters Kyle MacLachlan all too early in the film.  His character, the most identifiable expression of Lynch himself in a film to date, is like Alice trapped in Wonderland, and it's in his earnest pauses, his awkward posture, his strong but fragile face that the film holds itself.  Blue Velvet asks us why evil exists, why we believe the world is inherently good when so many terrible things happen, and condenses it all into that song, that fabric, a symbol of sexuality that gets continually turned around and toyed with, its meaning inverted and reverted, affirmed and denied, pleasant and frightening.

It's a film of strange images, be it the voyeur scene in the closet, the severed ear in the field, the lip-synch of "In Dreams," or the surreal teen dance that unites MacLachlan and Laura Dern in a sublime and almost dread-filled kiss.  Part of the criticism lobbed at Lynch over the years is that his films lack reality, they are filled with unnatural blocking, positioning, and edits that create awkward beats within scenes, not to mention music that always feels too mellow or distinct.  But that assumes Lynch is responding to our reality, for Blue Velvet distills its criticism through constructing television and film plots and images of ideal America.

It's more a thriller or suspense film than anything, but damn if it isn't one of the most terrifying and wholly original views of the vacancies of society ever produced.  The first time I saw it, I literally had no idea what to make of it.  I think I've seen it 4 times now, and having read "Lynch on Lynch," heard interviews, seen documentaries, and pondered through some outside criticism, I think I have a solid grasp on the film.  It's a dangerous pill to swallow, but so rewarding.  Will I show it to friends?  If I want to shake up their world, maybe.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Revisiting "The Deer Hunter"

It had been about a year and a half since I actually sat down and watched Michael Cimino's grand masterpiece, "The Deer Hunter."  I've only seen it in its entirety maybe 4 times over the years, and each time I see it I constantly remember the first night I sat glued to the screen until about 2 AM, and then felt so unbelievably sad and distraught.  I still can only half-watch the more violent parts of the film.

I actually don't have many words to actually write about the film.  It sucks adjectives out of me.  I notice more and more how even its structure is, as it's really 3 movies stapled together: life before Vietnam, life during Vietnam, life after Vietnam.  How these three acts relate to each other and echo each other creates the real tensions within the film.  I was reminded of how beautiful Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography is, not only in the wilderness but also in the intimate framing of De Niro or Walken's close up.

"Overpowering" is probably the best adjective for it.  31 years after its original release, and probably 5 or 6 years since I first watched it, I still feel an unbearably personal attachment to it as a story and as an artistic accomplishment that makes it hard to put it into words.  So why bother blogging about the movie at all if I have nothing to say?  Probably because having spent so much time away from it, I thought maybe I would come up with something profound in its craft that would help me understand why it's forged such a connection with me and why I still place it towards the top of my greatest films ever list (it's currently at 36).

I didn't. I did find shot after shot of stunning composition, a direction that was surprisingly laid back and passive, performances that emerged from the emotional core of all involved, and a portrait of small town America and its inhabitants that rings with such poetic simplicity.  That it is drawn in such broad strokes is part of its staying power, its ability to captivate and engage for over 3 hours while never being extremely melodramatic.  It's a pity Michael Cimino couldn't continue to make fantastic films, I would have loved to see more dramas from him.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Why "Watchmen" Doesn't Work

I'm going to catch a flack for this opinion, I already know.  My opinion of Zack Snyder has not changed; he is a hack, he is a pseudo-filmmaker contributing little-to-nothing.  I approach my opinions on the film from outside viewpoint.  I purposely did not read the graphic novel before seeing the film, because I'd heard the overt-fidelity is the film's biggest weakness.  I didn't want a graphic novel in my mind, I wanted to judge it as a film.  Sadly, "Watchmen" is not even allowed to be the deep, meditative, deconstructive, or visually arresting film it wants to be.

The biggest *problem* with graphic novel adaptation is that for SOME reason writers and directors think graphic novels are equitable to storyboards.  Some can make the point that comic books are provocative for their slight emulation of cinema, for their dynamic compositions, their "edits," their ability to distill everything into a bounded frame - something completely different from a novel.  The question that comes into my mind is "what can films do that graphic novels can't? What can graphic novels do that films can't?"  It's a crucial question of literary adaptation ("What can novels do...") that gets into a key concept of "media specificity."

Over 100 years, films have developed their own syntax, their own language, and as I watched "Watchmen" I did not feel like the source was being "adapted" into another syntax, but that somehow Snyder believed that there was a feasible connection between the two.  This is a naive belief.  I find a connection to silent cinema close to film's birth, when many early directors and cameramen believed it made more "sense" to "film a play," effectively turning the frame into a proscenium arch where the actors would move about in extended, largely lifeless takes.  The "invention" and elaboration of editing allowed films to grow into a zenith of artistry circa 1925-27, until the invention of sound inevitably made films take a small step back, going back to pointlessly extended edits to accommodate for synch-sound recording.

Okay okay, so what's my point?  My point is that trying to create a graphic-novel-as-film is a largely futile exercise.  "Watchmen" is, in a broad sense of the term, an experimental film, a gigantic attempt to do something visually different.  Like Snyder's previous "300," the visual experiment drowns under its own pandering repetition.  Mostly because slow motion is equated with "comic book frame," and this changing reconfiguration of individual time creates a strange imbalance.  Action scenes move with painful inconsistency, dramatic movements are accentuated through their bizarre slowness, and this stops becoming fluid and starts becoming silly.  It's not cutting edge or thrilling -- it's a dumb technique SEEMINGLY ripped right out of The Matrix.

But where I think The Matrix creates this "graphic" aesthetic by using it in small doses, letting most of the film exist on its own terms and integrating its startling re-framing devices at precise dramatic moments, "Watchmen" does not have a real sense of itself.  Snyder cannot be called a "visionary" if his film always feels like it's at the mercy of Moore and Gibbon's original work.  It's not a transformation so much as a cluttered, suffocating attempt to pander to fans.  In attempting to stuff everything in, the larger picture seems to get compromised.  And if Snyder IS going for a "real" comic book aesthetic, why does he move his camera so much?  The actors and the story become second-hand in favor of this clamoring hope to redefine aesthetic molds, and its pomposity that hurts the film as it lunges into its 2nd hour.

For the first hour of the film is fairly good.  Jackie Earle Haley astounds as Rorshach, Billy Crudup is magnetic as Dr. Manhattan, and the film yanks and pulls around its own boggling chronology, alternating itself as a genre deconstruction act, a conspiracy neo-noir, a meditation on violence and self, and even a study on the dislocation of humanity.  But for some reason, all these tangents remain only tangents.  They are touched on with visuals or fleeting bits of dialogue, but never feel like real sustained undercurrents.  At 163 minutes, "Watchmen" is too bloated for its own good.  Had it reshaped the story, cut back characters, altered its focus, or even trimmed down or excised completely its redundant and poorly choreographed action sequences, it could have emerged as a startling "new" look at this 24 year old novel.  There is nothing gained by staying THIS faithful, and "Watchmen" is a pretty good argument against fidelity to the screen.  Why people judge adaptations based on how much gets left in is beyond me.  Some films have done it very well ("Grapes of Wrath" comes to mind as a brief example), but by and large the adaptations that have been most regarded over time are the ones that realize things must be changed, that film is a different medium with different considerations, and these films have taken "essentials" from their sources and reinvented them, communicated them in different and startling ways, found new ways to create visuals out of words in a transformative dialogue.

But graphic novel adaptation is an increasing problem.  Since the late 80s/early 90s, it's been an evolving trend.  The expressionist exaggerations of "Batman" (1989) are now viewed as a campy alternative to Christopher Nolan's more realistic, intertextual, or maybe "cinematic" "Dark Knight."  The camp recreations of "Dick Tracy" seem silly.  Meanwhile, works like "Road to Perdition" and "A History of Violence" are adapted from graphic novels but breathe with the syntax of the cinema by engaging in the crucial idea of intertexts - looking at their themes, their visuals, their motifs not only through the original source but by a thorough interaction with cinematic genre and convention.

Is this the fate of "Watchmen"?  Is it too suffocating for its own good, or will it be viewed as a step forward in adaptation?  I see it as a step back, a film with compromised vision with a focus so preoccupied with aesthetic recreation that it loses itself as a film.  Just listen to the bizarre soundtrack that Snyder chooses - "The Times They Are a-Changin'", "All Along the Watchtower," "Halleljuah," "Sound of Silence," even an opera by Philip Glass are all used as a "singles sampler," and they all feel ridiculously misused.  Nowhere else do I get a sense of Snyder's inability to address the multiple media tracks of the cinema than here.  He goes for contrapuntal sound and instead creates ham-fisted juxtaposition that betrays his film in favor of a "good soundtrack."

Fans have been vocal since Friday about what a "great job" Snyder did, how it's a "beautiful adaptation" and "extremely faithful."  People not versed in the graphic novel have been left confused, bitter, and apathetic to this supposedly astounding film.  That there is SUCH a divide and that it rests on the spectrum of fan-dom says, to me, that the adaptation ultimately fails.  Pandering to the fans' wishes to see a COMPLETE realization of (almost) every element of "Watchmen" has inevitably created a film that shuts everyone else out.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

"Public Enemies" Trailer

Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Michael Mann.  I get a great vibe from this trailer, Depp looks fabulous and I think Mann's direction is going to plow 40's gangster films (or Bonnie and Clyde?) with a mix of 90s crime films.  Sound like a weird mix?  Provocative, to say the least.  That's my impression.  I've got huge hopes for this one, and it looks much more elegant than Mann's last misfire - "Miami Vice."

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Terminator: Salvation Trailer and Bad News for "Watchmen"

Excellent new trailer for Terminator: Salvation. Effects look REALLY top-notch and the action looks magnificent.
I have no qualms with this as a fan, it looks like the hard-hitting war film McG promised.

On another note, "Watchmen" has 7 reviews on Metacritic right now and hovers at a dismal average score of 35. More on this as the week goes on