30 January 2010

Quote: On Screen-Writing (Avatar)

Unlike my most recent post in which I recognize a quotation about screen-writing for its aptitude, in this post I aim to recognize another quotation about screen-writing for its ineptitude. That is, I ran across this quote earlier today, while I was trolling the hillocks of film-land, and I thought it ostensible enough to warrant reposting here:

I whacked Monsters and Aliens (US#4) and Avatar (US#38) for borrowing extensively from other films, but my problem was that the writers of those did not leave their thumbprints on them. In fairness to James Cameron—yes, that’s a line I never thought I’d write—my eight year-old grandson loved Avatar, because as he wisely pointed out when we discussed it, he had not seen all those movies it borrowed from and so it seemed fresh to him. (Tod Stempel, "Understanding Screenwriting #39", The House Next Door)
While on its surface the recognition that material so reprocessed - as James Cameron's Avatar (in written form) - will nevertheless be fresh and new to one who is unfamiliar with the originating source material sounds like a major revelation from a perspective jaded by its own past, at its core such a recognition is but an overexaggerated falsehood that equally substitutes one subjective perspective - albeit jaded - for another - albeit not yet jaded. In order to truly take an objective stance on this issue of novelty and quality, especially in the area where lives the screen-play of Avatar, one must sidestep locating oneself in anyone's particular, jaded or not yet jaded, subjective perspective and must instead locate oneself firmly in the only objective anhuman perspective that there is: that of history (and time). From such a perspective, that not only knows all events in the great canon of filmmaking in the 20th and 21st centuries but also knows all events in the compendium of human story-telling art of all time, it is obvious to see that it is impossible to declare the merely selectively subjective novelty of any work to be an apt or accurate measure of that work's true objective novelty or quality, as well as to see that any pretensions at doing so are severely (similarly) naïve. From such a perspective, it is obvious that to see such pretensions as otherwise is tantamount to declaring that any contemporary European emigré's first glimpse of America is as novel, exciting, and worthy of (historical) recognition as was Christopher Columbus' - or even the Vikings' for that matter. Clearly, any principle that inherently allows for such dramatic errors in judgement is one that is dramatically misguided as a whole. Thus, to say that Mr. Cameron's screenplay is anything but sadly derivative - even in consideration of those potential millions of people who never heard the 'Tale of Pocahontas' or one of its many many reiterations before seeing Avatar - is itself a dramatically misguided judgement. Perspective, Mr. Stempel (and others who would insouciantly espouse his above musing), please.

P. S. Otherwise, Mr. Stempel, your views on screen-writing, especially on the screen-plays of Broken Embraces and It's Complicated from this year, are quite informed.

26 January 2010

On Cinematography This Year (2009)

I believe, I'm going to make these posts (i. e., this and last year's) the first two editions of an annual early-year tradition: selecting my favorite still-frames from all the motion pictures that I have seen in the past year. Like most of my traditional lists (e. g., Most Eagerly Anticipated), this newly traditional list will have 10 items, plus one eleventh extra mostly for fun (see last year's #11, Oogway's transcendence from Kung Fu Panda [2008]); and, in a small effort to add a bit more content to this log, I'll explicate each item verily. So, without any further ado, I'll dig in:

  1. Fish Tank by Robbie Ryan- In this beautifully shot British independent film, the natural light and the squarish framing create some tightly acute and illuminative images, completely coherent with the spirit of the piece, (e. g., the young protagonist Mia watching her mother dance in her underwear through the tiny squared portal into their kitchen, the newly caught fish puckering for its life on the sodden riverbankside); but the lead of these images is this #1 item, a fluid portrait of Mia, sitting in quiet consternation, from the beginning of the film.

  2. Bright Star by Greig Fraser - With her able cinematographer Mr. Fraser, directress Jane Campion opens her film by pointing us to the Romantic sweeps of the pastoral hillsides, dotted by sheep and expertly costumed actors, in this image among others that aptly recall the landscape works of the then contemporary Dutch master-painters and set the stage for her dreamy historical tragedy.

  3. A Single Man by Eduard Grau - Director's, Tom Ford's, début A Single Man contains a plethora of list-worthy images, from which I've selected this one to recognize his and his Mr. Grau's captivating work. This still, a reflected collage of Mr. Firth's Professor George Falconer's trimline briefcase and his young neighbor's turquoise shoes and skirt reflected by the earthy brown of the local bank's marble floor, was all the image that I needed to see, to make me interested in seeing the whole film - spectacular.

  4. The Secret of Kells by Tomm Moore - The surprisingly stunning animated feature The Secret of Kells is the former of two films on this list that well exceeded my initial expectations of visual aptitude in the feature. Fittingly described by guest-blogger José at The Film Experience as a dazzling confluence of influences from all eras and media in art-history (see here, ¶ 6), this Irish animation, like Mr. Ford's début, offers many instances worthy of inclusion in this list; however, I have selected this most particular of those instances: that depicting young protagonist Brendan, combatting with the diamond-eyed snake-god that willfully blocks his success, in a nebulous and chalk-inspired dreamscape, where the beast and he both as here pictured mimic the tension inherent in a densely clustered neural network, vying for balance between desire and understanding - yes.

  5. The Hurt Locker by Barry Ackroyd - In creating a list such as this one, one simply cannot ignore this signature image from directress', Kathryn Bigelow's, hot-topic The Hurt Locker. A succinct and fateful allegory for the inextricable puzzlement weighing down upon the men at the heart of her film, this image depicts her protagonist (played skillfully by Jeremy Renner) unearthing a literally explosive network of bombs from underneath the dusty and dry Iraqi soil.

  6. The Messenger by Bobby Bukowski - Director's, Owen Moverman's, also surprisingly (visually) adept feature The Messenger was the latter surprise-feature of this year in film 2009 for me: Delicate, sensitive, honest, earnest, and entirely captivating, the film is a work of serious, gracious mettle. The image that I've selected from it depicts the quiet, ochre-stained removal of the film's protagonist from his world, both a world of feeling and of people; alone thereby in his sparsely decorated bedroom, he plays at disguising himself, even in the dark and solitude, while trim memories of his history figure awkwardly in the lamp-light.

  7. 歩いても 歩いても (Still Walking) by Yamasaki Yutaka - Perhaps the most perspicacious film of the year 2009, Hirokazu Kore•eda 's 歩いても 歩いても (Still Walking) richly observes the extremely delicate interpersonal threads, weaving together a rather disparate family on the anniversary day of a beloved family-member's past death. Though few images from the film recapitulate the natural breath-taking-ness that possesses many other images on this list, such that those other images can almost stand as stills on their own, this image from Mr. Kore•eda's film is certainly one that does achieve equivalent power, by sparing nothing and attending to everything: The image here at #6 depicts the altar, sustained for and ritually honored by the family of the deceased, where it stands deceptively as a superficial common-place fixture in the family's house, deceptively as a deep and literally and figuratively central pivot-point in all the family's emotional turns.

  8. Antichrist by Anthony Dod Mantle - The images of Antichrist may to the rather cursory observer seem like the finely tuned vacuities of an eye, connected with hands in possession of lustily high-tech. gadgetry, through which there can be only the desire to exaggerate and have fun; time-lapsed, highly defined specters of misty etherea waft in and out in almost clinically exact extractions and colors hit saturation-points thick with sticky dyes. However, there is - or, at least, there attempts to be - beyond this cursory superficiality always a visual steam, like a fluid, guiding and shading and solving the fantastical figments and pigments that compose each scene; the images' intention resides behind the eye, connected with the hands in possession of the lens. In no still more than this still is that intention clearer, in which an exhausted She contracts fetally, pressed against the dry and fallow boards of the cabin at Eden and situated at the feet of 'The Three Beggars', who like spectral familiars both become tutelaries and yeomen of her lament, while the referential snowy window blows quietly in the back - captivating.

  9. L'Heure d'Été (Summer Hours) by Eric Gautier - While perhaps not an architecturally formal film in its cinematography, the images of director's Olivier Assayais' contemplative work, much like the images of Kore•eda's 歩いても 歩いても (Still Walking), communicate nevertheless deftly by including in coherent fashion the passing affections that its characters allot toward their fellow others as well as toward their artefactual surroundings. In perhaps the epitome of this style of passing depiction, this image, from the third act of the film, centers (in constant revolution) around a desk that had once been integral in life but since has been quite displaced - even from its accompanying chair - in the cold and artificial podium of museum, whose relics and reliquaries are dimly acknowledged by the touring hoards, featured at back from the back, in passing. At frame's left, a member of the coterie who knew the desk before its current state looks on, herself quite displaced, at the creation of artifact - bravo.

  10. Inglourious Basterds by Robert Richardson - Half too structured, half too quick, Mr. Richardson's cinematography for Quentin Tarantino's spaghetti-Western vacillates between gorgeous absorptions of the stunningly executed sets and art-direction and gratuitous divulgements of the brass and comedic quippery that really sets this top of a film a-spinning. Though impossible to say whether either approach is exactly wrong or exactly right - really neither alone is, which is quite the point - the resultant images as a better whole did stay with me well past the first viewing. For that stickiness alone, the work deserves a place on this list, but all the more it receives such a place here for this #10 image of Marcel, Shosanna's Black lover confidant and accomplice, standing silently in the half-lit space behind the film-screen, where the eye of film trains on him - a deliriously reflexive and bountiful still.

  11. Los Abrazos Rotos (Broken Embraces) by Rodrigo Prieto - Not an especially visually pleasing film, Los Abrazos Rotos, written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, nevertheless does have one image poignant enough to merit placement on this list, in whimsical slot #11: the temporally tense, essentially self-referential still of protagonist's Mateo's now aged hands vainly groping for the faintest wisp of textural revision the staticky frames of his last fleeting kiss with his muse and lover (Penélope Cruz), a kiss remembered now only by himself and by the film, two mutually exclusive eyes that hinge on the same image yet exist in radically different spheres. (While the addition of the wristwatch on Mateo's wrist does feel a bit heavy-handed,) the electricity of this shot cannot be dissuaded (by such hyperconscious details.)
Honorable Mention: Where the Wild Things Are by Lance Acord - Director's Spike Jonze's 2009 feature-adaptation of the controversially classic children's book of the same title certainly was a mixed bag of highs and lows for both myself and the general viewing audience. Whereas moments in the film to be loved were plentiful enough, the equally plenteous rest was also there, in sorry counterbalance. Nevertheless, cinematographer Lance Acord, when he did deliver those moments to be loved, delivered them in royal heaps, on top of which is in my opinion this #8 image (not shown) of protagonist's Max's visual exploration of his new friend's artistic masterpiece, a sculptural miniature of his world entire.

20 January 2010

Quote: On Screen-Writing

I ran across this quote earlier today, while I was trolling the hillocks of film-land, and I thought it smart enough to warrant reposting here:

Writing screenplays must be a bizarre practice, as if building a sturdy enough skeleton that will one day be able to sprout the efficient internal organs and developed musculature of great filmmaking and contain the throbbing heart and stunning facial features of great actors. (Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience, 19 January 2010)
Though I hesitate to fully share Mr. Roger's subsequent views on this year's screenplays, I admire his personal conception of the screenplay (as stated here) and admire his stated reasons for his subsequent views, despite my own personal opinions at variance to the contrary. In short, "throbbing heart" = apt description.

15 January 2010

Announcement: The April Criterion Releases!

Earlier today The Criterion Collection announced its April-expected inductions into its canon of film with the following post on its very own blog, The Criterion Current:

This April, the best classic and contemporary cinema keeps coming: Godard’s visually stunning New Wave masterwork Vivre sa vie; Sidney Lumet’s brilliant Tennessee Williams adaptation The Fugitive Kind (certainly overdue for a renaissance), starring Marlon Brando; Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours, voted 2009’s best film in a poll of over 100 critics at indieWIRE; and the Civil War epic Ride with the Devil, now reconstructed to director Ang Lee’s original vision. Plus, Essential Art House, Volume V!

13 January 2010

Essay: The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Having just seen Alfred Hitchcock's early film The Lady Vanishes (1938) for the first time, I was struck by how spot-on a closure this great essay, linked to the film's page on The Criterion Collection's official site, was to this great film. Enjoy it too here.

12 January 2010

Addendum: The Best of the Ones

Of the many blog's lists of 'Bests' that I've read (mentioningly in my original post on the subject), the following two are a couple that I just couldn't keep myself from linking here for their incisive, clever, and simply fun takes on their included items, which - I admit unashamedly - either complement or coincide with the items on mine:

  • Nathaniel Roger's at The Film Experience, whose favorite moments include calling the included foreign-language films by their original languages' titles, placing all the films (and film-makers) that he did place in his Top 10 in his Top 10, and preluding the "Tier 1" (i. e., Top 6) films with his phrase "As sustaining as oxygen or water or pets or friends[:] If you try to take them away from me, I will cut you." (Bonus points for also tackling actors' performances [male here and female here].)
  • Peet Gelderblom's at The House Next Door, whose favorite moments include making his list a list of the possibly overlooked rather than a list of the 'best ever,' inadvertently favoring romanticism, and numbering Mr. Glazer's Birth (2004) 1.
P. S. The House Next Door also provides the most noteworthy review of Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire that I have read of all that film's many reviews and mentions:
So Precious, a quiet, obese, African-American sixteen year-old goes home to her apartment in Harlem in 1987. We meet Mary, her mother from Hell. Mary spends most of her time watching television and yelling at Precious. A little of this goes a long way. Mary is a one-note character and gets just as tiresome for us to watch as she must be for Precious to deal with. Yes, she does have some reasons to be angry with Precious, since her boyfriend, Precious’s father, has raped Precious and gotten her pregnant. Twice. The first baby has Down’s syndrome and lives with Mary’s mother. But Fletcher has not given Mary any counterpoint to play. Mo’Nique, the comedian and talk show host, plays Mary as well as she can, which is considerable, but the script limits what she can do. How about a moment, before the big scene at the end, where we get some sense that Mary loves Precious in one way or another. That would not only be more interesting for Mo’Nique to act as well as for us to watch, since it would make her even scarier than she already is—we and Precious would never be sure which Mary is showing up.
So Precious has her second baby and we get a couple of nice scenes in the hospital when her classmates come to visit. Then she has to go home and Mary goes full-tilt psycho, throwing them out and dropping a television set down the stairwell that nearly kills Precious and the baby. Meanwhile Precious has been telling her life story to Mrs. Weiss in the Welfare office and we are sneaking into Oprah country. The actress playing Mrs. Weiss is someone named Mariah Carey, only one of whose previous movies (The Bachelor [1999]) I have seen, and I don’t remember her from it. Like Mo’Nique and Paton she does what she can and does it very well. If she can resist Hollywood shaving off her moustache and trying to turn her into a glamor girl, Carey may have a future.
The big finish is an extended scene in the Welfare office in which Mary confesses that she let her boyfriend have sex with Precious, starting when she was three. The scene goes on forever, like an episode of Oprah, and not in a good way. There is very little drama to the scene (Mary would like Precious to come home, Precious understandably does not want to), just relentless confessing of how everybody feels. There is a reason why most therapy scenes are so boring to watch on film: they are all talk, and very little happens. That it happens here is part of the Oprah-ization of our culture: if we just talk about how we FEEL, everything will be OK. Because then we will all be self-empowered. Self-empowerment has its limitations, such as often making it difficult if not impossible to get along with other people. The self-help books make it clear you have to take charge of your own life, but they say very little about how you then deal with others. That’s because most self-help books are aimed at women who are trying to get over trying to be all things to all people and need to develop a little independence. Guys, for better and for worse, already have that independence and don’t need to learn how to do it. Imagine the scene in the Welfare office, but with Precious’s father wanting to get back together with her, and you can imagine the howls of protest from Oprah and her fans.
And so Precious does not go home with Mary, but takes off down the street with her two children. And the “take control of your own life” vibe of the last half of the movie suggests this is a good thing. Let’s recap: here is a now seventeen-year-old girl who is homeless, has two babies, one with Down’s Syndrome, no husband or other means of support, and no high school diploma or GED. I really don’t see that as a happy ending. (Tom Stempel, "Understanding Screenwriting #38" on The House Next Door)

10 January 2010

Review: Crazy Heart

Genre: Drama

Almost a perfect iterative reconstruction of last year's The Wrestler by Darren Aronofsky, Crazy Heart, a film not only directed but also written by ingenu Scott Cooper, is however seldom as drab or as seedy as it may have been as such a film, obliging its superiority above its predecessor to a beautiful coherence among its lead actor, its editor, its writer, and its composer(s). All skilled in their own rights, they together create a major 2/3 that is an exceptionally well-acted, well-paced, well-supported, and well-abstracted film, a major 2/3 that rolls along as drearily passionately bisterly as a portrait of a man such as Mr. Bridges' Bad Blake, equipped with his auburn-bister guitar and tawny-bister McClure's, could be. Fall away for those 2/3 the unextraordinariness of minor players (e. g., Ms. Gyllenhaal, who - much like Mr. Hoult in this year's bizarrely parallel film A Single Man - had only to exist without dramatic error to supply Mr. Bridges' leading character; the cinematography, which is quietly natural and earth-bound) and the insufficiencies of others (e. g.., Mr. Farrell, who - despite his previously brilliant performance, which I honored as the best of last year in the leading category - fails to slough off his Irish urbanism to truly become his character; the art-direction, which attempts to establish contemporary Texas and New Mexico by including new purchases from the likes of Ikea into what are supposed to be the seedy back-motels of those states' rural reaches), in light of the extraordinariness of the majors.

However, endurance is not a friend here; despite the film's great major 2/3, the minor 1/3 that concludes Crazy Heart only marginally surpasses itself above the tail-end of predeceasing films like The Wrestler and Half-Nelson (2006), films about struggling men who find that they can and moreover want to effectuate change in their lives. Instead of retaining the character's personal drama at the focus of the work - an admittedly difficult yet well achieved feat in the major 2/3 - the character is let slip away in the minor 1/3, slip behind the tangible and too-easy problems that previously had only superficially and minutely decorated the broader back of his personage, problems like alcoholism, want of family, and want of musical inspiration. Instead of being only the vehicles or textural touchstones through which we as the audience may recognize the internal changes that he as a character has felt, is feeling, and will continue to feel, they become the internal changes themselves; Bad Blake, though attemptedly kept in weary stride by Mr. Bridges, is roughly hewn, stripped of the depth and complexity that has made him until them almost an unbreakable object of attraction on screen, and left for a less intelligent soul's mindlessly pleasant consumption: the intransigent curmudgeon who has magically transformed into the kindly role model - hardly discernible in this way from the endlessly stock version of Carl Fredricksen who dominates the major 7/8 of Disney-Pixar's sadly thus deflating and deflated Up.

As a film-watcher, one suspects that this insubstantial reduction in the minor 1/3 of the film could likely be due to the imaginary constraints by which the film-makers mandated themselves to reign in a film longer than 2 hours in time. Rough cuts, relative to the delicate and precise transitions that preceded them in the major 2/3, that effect a much faster pacing also than that which preceded it indicate as much to me about the film-makers' later choices. While - true - Crazy Heart by the third act's opening was 'in danger of becoming too long' - whatever that may mean - concision need not mean omission, and I remain convinced that there may have been other, more delicate, and less internally destructive ways to drive the film from where it was to where it needed to be.

Still, it was good work overall, and for that work the workers should of course be commended. Specifically: Mr. Bridges' adds a sauntering perspicacity to a character that could have seemed far less colorful and deep in the hands of another player; Mr. Axelrad, the editor, creates a visual rhythm that maintains Mr. Bridges' character's gait even in those scenes in which that character fails to appear, as if the persistent 'heart' after which the film receives its name; Mr. Cooper creates dialogue that is neither overly nor underly informative and knows how to communicate ideas and sentiments less through the spoken word than through the unspoken image; and Mr. Burnett (accompanied by Mr. Bingham), the composer(s), has(ve) established the bister palette from which the entire tone of the film takes its more-than-less coherent cue. More than these commendable fellows, there is not; but that these fellows are enough to make this film perhaps one of the year's soundest is for it enough.

Grade: B+, good.