Nowhere Boy vs Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

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Quite without planning it, I ended up watching a double-feature of music biopics last night. While I would normally write them up separately, it was more interesting how these two played off of one another in the watching.

So this ended up as a smack-down between contemporaries John Lennon and Ian Dury. Musically, their influence and popularity was more serial than concurrent, but they were only a few years apart in age. For the record, I like both performers and listened to their music and still do, so this wasn’t about whether I appreciated them. However, the movies took very, very different approaches to telling their stories.

Nowhere Boy tells a great story about a kid and his family. That this kid grows up to be The John Lennon is actually rather beside the point of the script. That it tells Lennon’s back-story is a nice-to-have for those that knew him, and for those that didn’t it really wouldn’t matter. In fact, the only nods to Beatles music is in the opening chord in the movie (from Hard Day’s Night) and a slight nod to what might have been the genesis of Hello or I Wanna Hold Your Hand, depending on which way it went and a very quick, funny moment at The Cavern. So what you really get out of this a well-done family drama of Liverpool in the 50s and 60s.

S&D&R&R on the other hand is an homage to Dury and the roots of his art which overlaps completely with Lennon’s life. Perfectly acceptable approach for anyone who is fascinated by the punk icon and wants to know more. But you really have to want to know more and care about the real performer to make it through the flick. Serkis does an amazing job in the film, as do all of his supporting cast, but the story just isn’t compelling. It is part retrospective of his climb and part music video trying to show how his brain might have worked. All interesting, but not really a stand-alone movie despite the inter-cut remembrances of abandonment and recovering from polio. What is frustrating was that this very interesting life became more of a clips show with almost no emotional investment.

When recapping a life in fictional format, it is always important to tell a story, even at the expense of the details of the truth. The truth of the story is what matters. Learning that lesson is one of the hardest for writers and artists in general. At the core of every tale is the truth of what your story is about.. all choices must serve that truth. The truth in Nowhere Boy was served by concentrating on his aunt and mother. The truth in S&D&R&R was lost… I think it was to talk about turning disadvantages that, especially in that time period, would have crushed most people into fuel for expression. I think. But it just didn’t come together.

If you love Drury and the Blockheads music and want to know more about their rise and fall, you might well enjoy this. Me, as much as I appreciate the music, I zapped through the last half of the movie to see just the performances because the movie left me wanting. Whether or not you like John Lennon or the Beatles, but you enjoy a solid movie about a rather screwed up family and the outcomes, you’ll like Nowhere Boy.

The Fighter

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This is a soft three stars for me despite great performances by Leo (an Oscar pick for me in Supporting) and Bale (not a pick for me, despite some great work) and a visual production style that feels dead-on even if misleading. The film is over-exposed, making it feel like 70s film stock, but the story is from the late-90s and early 2000’s. It makes sense in the context of the town and people, but threw me temporally.

Unlike last year’s The Wrestler, directed by Aronofsky (and pertinent because he Exec Produced this opus by Russell), this movie is about boxing rather than people. Or better put, while The Wrestler was the story of a man and his family at the end of his career, The Fighter is about the beginning of a career for a boxer and his family. It really focused on the boxing rather than the relationships… and Eklund was a boring boxer. Even Raging Bull, which has long boxing scenes was really more about the marriage than the fights. It can be argued the story isn’t about Wahlberg’s character but about Bale’s (the older brother) and I think that was the intent, but if so, it didn’t quite work for me. Perhaps Russell stuck too close to the truth of the facts rather than the truth of the story? I can’t say for sure, but it left me bored and unaffected despite some of the craft that put it all together.

RED

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Last night was a pallet-cleanser between the awards-nominated movies. RED was perfect for that. Silly, well-executed fun. Mary Louise Parker was a perfect choice for Willis’ side-kick and Karl Urban continues to impress me with his skills and understanding of humor. One of the most interesting aspects of the film was how every one of the characters manages to perform their tasks in the most relaxed, efficient, even tired ways… perfect for a story of retired spies and it added another layer of amusement to the proceedings. Kudos to Robert Schwentke for that bit of subtlety in his direction.

I’ve only two minor gripes. First, that they gave away far too many of the best moments in the trailer (damned marketers!). Second, the energy of the film, while relentless forward, never seemed to quite top out for me. This latter bit didn’t ruin it for me, but it didn’t provide complete catharsis either. Still, I’d watch it again and probably more than once and I know I’m there for the sequel that is moving forward even as I type…

The Social Network

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It has been said in the past that Aron Sorkin could make even the census interesting. The Social Network is an unlikeable story with unlikeable characters that we somehow are fascinated by and, at least for me, in the end sympathize with. There is plenty of congratulations to go around for the success of the film, but Sorkin is one of the main reasons and he is likely to walk away with Best Adapted Screenplay for his efforts.

Jesse Eisenberg’s amazing ability to emote without emoting–giving us one of the clearest, honest depictions of an Asperger’s geek–earned him his nomination. His last moments of the film are brilliantly framed with his first (yep, back to that first and last frame discussion again) and he sells it. However, the chances of him beating out Firth, in my opinon, are slim. He’s too young and has too much to prove yet. I think the lack of Andrew Garfield receiving a nod (though he did for BAFTA and Globes) is another indication of which way the Academy Awards will go. And, frankly, I think Garfield’s performance should have bumped Ruffalo’s at the very least… and I liked Ruffalo in The Kids are All Right.  

Looping back to first frame/last frame, Fincher’s direction and the astounding editing job (I do think they should get Editing since Inception isn’t in the mix) pulled the whole frenetic story together. There wasn’t a slack moment in the story or the action and everyone felt right. In fact, this is the first movie of Fincher’s I’ve really enjoyed since Fight Club. All the others have been missing some crucial element to make them truly great.

Whether this will get Best Picture or not is up for grabs right now in the media. I suspect it won’t as it isn’t an “up” film and the target audience is skewed younger. In addition, its competitors are more traditional story telling and that tends to take the day.

You may or may not like the story and people in this film, but I dare say you won’t be bored by it.

The King’s Speech

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This is a good film, propped up to glorious by the performances of Firth and Rush, both of whom I am picking for winning an Oscar this year. Rush for his delightfully understated approach and Firth both for his intense but subtle king and for being passed over for last year’s A Single Man. For these two men alone you should see the film. Their relationship and craft is worth the price of admission–you will not regret the time a jot.

Overall, however, while each scene was well done, I felt Hooper let it drag a bit here and there, opting for reality of events over pushing the story forward. I suspect this will cost it the Director and Editing Oscars, but this film has a head of steam on now and anything is possible. Despite these lacks, I do think it will pick up Best Picture for its feeling of triumph and, again, due to the powerful performances of all the cast.

Finally, there was some mild amusement for me in the casting Jacobi as the archbishop. While one of my favorite British actors, his earlier depiction of the stuttering emperor in the titular character of I, Claudius made me smile. I doubt it was an intended nod, but who knows?

127 Hours

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How do you take a disaster and make it a joyous celebration of life and drive? You sic Danny Boyle onto one of the most infamous stories of the last decade and let him turn Utah into a character, that’s how. The story of Aron Rolston is well known and Boyle plays with the audience setting up the moment it will all go wrong right from the opening credits. We get to know Rolston, played by James Franco, as a fearless lover of life and loner. Everything is something for him to enjoy. He is pure Id. And that is what finally bites him.

Franco’s performance is wonderful, but not because he shows us Rolston’s resolve and metamorphosis into a person who recognizes the people around him as a vital part of his life, but because with Boyle’s help Rolston is transformed into a modern Everyman. What would you do and what would you be capable of in the worst of circumstances? How would you survive and what images and dreams would keep you going? What is your relationship to the world and people around you and what should it be? What is important?

We see Rolston’s choices, but that is just the story, not the meaning. At least it wasn’t how I experienced it. See the opening and closing images for how you view them (they’re just repeated) for the effect he produces. I’ve discussed opening and closing frames before, but this is a wonderful example of how the story itself is shaped by those moments and how they provide the legend for the map of the film.

This is not an easy film for all the reasons you’ve likely assumed and probably a few you haven’t. Well worth getting through the squeamish bits to experience the exhilaration. I don’t know that I’d need to rewatch it, even with the glorious landscapes, visual metaphors, and the beast that is the slot canyon, but I’m glad I saw it once.

Who Do You Blame: Actor, Writer, Director?

Figuring out why you like or dislike something is often difficult at best. Presentations, whether on film, TV, or stage are collaborations. You hear about stars and Pulitzer prize winning writers, and Oscar winning directors, not to mention costumes, make-up, editing, sound, etc. but without all of these bits and pieces, you only have part of the whole. And when all the pieces come together well, it all becomes invisible. Outside of stylistic pieces, how often do you really notice make-up or costumes (other than in period dramas)? If you’re thinking about the script while an actor is talking, something is definitely wrong somewhere.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t stand-outs in any collaboration. Often in my reviews you’ll find me calling out specific aspects. I base my comments on experience in the field, but let’s be honest, they’re personal comments and guesses about actions and decisions that I have no way to easily prove. However, many people have asked me how I even manage to tease the parts from the whole, so I thought I’d try to capture some of the process and clues I use.

Acting performances are typically the easiest to spot as stellar or… well… not. The actor is the one up in front of everyone’s eyes and ears. All things being equal, it is the performance that takes a script and makes it sing. Dialog becomes seamless and natural–lines, no matter how poorly written or cliche, seem absolutely right. Assuming the story is relatively straight-forward and it is told in chronological order, most anyone can spot good and bad performances. Once editors get involved and the time-line is inter-cut, it becomes more difficult, but I’ll discuss this aspect when talking about directing. Generally speaking, if the character (not the actor) becomes real and you invest in them emotionally, the actor has succeeded. If you don’t, they didn’t. If all you are thinking about is the actor (male or female), somewhere it has all failed. However, as it has been said often, great actors can make the phone book sound interesting, so at the extremes a good performance is almost always easy to spot even if the story is a bust.

Writing affects viewing experience primarily in two ways: dialogue and plot. Good dialogue is utterly invisible. Seriously. If the words are so natural to the situation that you can’t imagine a better way to put it or a more natural reaction, that is good writing… someone who gets the character and the situation. David Mamet is one of the modern masters on this point. I’m sure you can figure out bad dialogue on your own. This doesn’t address excellent writing that is just simply thrilling to listen to, and while not quite natural, so incredibly smart, you wish it were and so go with it. Aron Sorkin is one of the modern masters of this. Tom Stoppard is somewhere between, oscillating between completely natural and believably florid–and is one of my personal favorites.

Good and bad plot is similarly spottable. We all know a good story when we hear it… it is in our genetic make-up. Since we were kids, we were horribly disappointed at a weak ending or silly twists in bedtime stories or bad TV. Either you believe how a story unfolds or you don’t. Either the story kept you engaged or it didn’t. Either you got way ahead of the story/mystery/reveals (my personal bugaboo) or you didn’t. I think most folks respond to plot even more strongly than they do to actors or dialogue though they may place the blame elsewhere without realizing it.

Directing is probably the least understood and most ephemeral aspect of influence on a production. Most directors will tell you that casting is 90% of solving your problems. Sometimes this will mean finding a visually or energy appropriate person or it can simply mean someone they can work with. Every director is different. Some prefer puppets on strings, others prefer to set them free (Woody Allen is squarely in this last camp–barely speaking between filming scenes). Most are somewhere in between providing guidance and shade to what the actor brings after some discussion of the overall piece… I’m speaking, of course, of main roles. Minor and bit parts are lucky to be called by their proper names on some sets (I kid)! The best Directors also bring “vision.” Vision is that complete whole that often helps you spot by look and/or feel a particular Director’s work. Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton come immediately to mind. You know one of their films almost from the first frame. Others take longer, but the sensibility of their approach to story has a feel and cadence that are as good as fingerprints. This is why we love artists. Even action films have their champions, see Michael Bay for an example. Directorial stamp isn’t an art thing, it is how they express themselves. We sit down in the theater or in front of our TVs with these “friends” and enjoy their conversation with us.

And finally, the Director brings their thinking to bear in how the production is edited and put together, which is their most difficult responsibility. Different edits or inclusions or order of scenes can utterly change the feeling or even the meaning of a production. Recently, I reviewed Salt where this aspect of influence was shockingly clear. The order in which things occur can utterly change your impression of the characters or the film. Imagine Memento in chronological order; then again, why would you?<g> See All That Jazz and the sweat poured into the editing of the comic routine. There are many examples, but it is what story-telling comes down to–where is the beginning and how do you tell the tale?

As a short side-note in an otherwise massive post, I should touch on the role of the Studios in all this. Studios have a varying amount of influence on the productions they fund depending on their contracts. They sink in 100s of millions of dollars and, quite understandably if not with expertise, insist on changes from run-time length to content. I’m not even going to try and untangle that mess today. It is sufficient to say that when you see something so cliché or out of kilter in an otherwise well-done and thought-out piece, it was usually the Studio sticking in their hands. That isn’t to say they can make some things better, but when it works, you really don’t notice and the director gets the credit.

I think that is sufficiently long to annoy most of you. I considered doing this in multiple posts, but I’ve many movies to get to this week and will have enough to write about on that front. And tomorrow, the Oscar noms come out!

Black Swan

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Natalie Portman carries this film with an intensity and vulnerability that has earned her all the accolades you’ve been hearing this awards season. As I haven’t seen the rest of the nominated films yet (that is what this next week is about) I can’t say she’s the best, but I can say she is impressive. The cast as a whole is strong. Hershey, in particular, gets to let loose the quintessential Stage Mother.

The movie itself is barely definable, but utterly riveting, thanks to Aronofsky’s deft hand. It is a suspense horror at the ballet. However, don’t think Phantom of the Opera where a young girl is preyed upon. Black Swan is about art, truth, drive, and ambition. And a tad about child rearing if I really think about it. Aronosfsky loves these themes that thread through his films from Pi forward. His story-telling is hypnotic and compelling, even at its ugliest moments. Black Swan is at once brash and subtle. The transitions and revelations build in pace and clarity through the film giving the audience a chance to notice clues very early that the heroine misses; voyeurism at its most effective.

Personally, I put Aronofsky on the shelf with other favorite directors Tom Tykwer, Luc Besson, Joss Whedon, Peter Greenaway, Sam Rami, and Pedro Almodovar. Storytellers all. What will be interesting is to see how after The Wrestler and Black Swan, Aronofsky moves into Wolverine 2. Rami made this transition with Spidey quite deftly. When you focus on story, genre is almost moot. However, money and freedom can corrupt.

As a complete aside, I had a number of odd moments while watching the film that should not be misunderstood as diminishing it, but rather as how strange my brain can be at times! The first was that this is the film you could make if Buffy Summers and Faith had gone into ballet together. The second was that this could make a wonderful double-feature with The Company or, potentially, Suspiria or Carrie. At some point I will post some of my favorite unlikely-but-wonderful double-features; that is for another day.

Kamui

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This will be a rare event, I hope. I couldn’t even finish the film. I tried. I really tried, but the translation was so bizarre, bordering on gangsta at times, that neither subtitles nor English audio track could keep me in the story. Add to this a rather empty main character, slow story, and  some laughable CG and wire work and, well, just not worth wasting an evening on it for me.

For some context, I love fun fight flicks and good wire work (Jackie Chan, Hero, Crouching Tiger, House of Flying Daggers, etc.). Notice, I didn’t say believable, just good. Within the story and, to some degree, in the realm of physics it has to feel right. This never did.

Perhaps if I read the manga I’d feel differently, but I’m not even sure that would be true.

Where the Truth Lies

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While somewhat predictable, this period mystery is well worth your time if you like Egoyan who, much as Almodavar, has become his own sub-genre in film. It isn’t my favorite film of his, but it is solid with good performances. In fact, it is an older vehicle for the more and more recognized Colin Firth, who has had a couple great award nomination years (A Single Man and The King’s Speech). Kevin Bacon turns in a nicely nuanced performance as Firth’s business partner as well. The two are sort of a Rat Pack writ small, with a dash of Jerry Lewis telethon magic thrown in. That Egoyan can make all of that work together gives you a sense of his abilities.

Since discussing a mystery often requires giving away the film, I won’t harp on it specifically, but discuss Egoyan more generally from here out. If you don’t like Egoyan, you likely won’t enjoy this film anyway. If you don’t know Egoyan, read on and I’ll try to give you a sense of what he does.

Watching Egoyan is like watching a train wreck in slow motion, and this movie is no exception. He refuses to shy away from the darker side of ourselves and, by doing so, frees the watcher of judgement: We all have good reasons for doing what we do, no matter how dark and twisted. His characters, as he also does most of his own screenwriting, are wonderful sketches of bonsaied humans, twisted in the shadow of their own souls. This is his gift as a film-maker.

However, while he is visually gifted, his dialogue is often stilted. It could be arugued this is by design. His stories don’t really reside in reality, but in some heightened state of the world we know. The locations are often undefineable, even when they are stated outright (in Where the Truth Lies this was Miami, LA and NYC, but not quite). The people are often archetypes of the role they are representing. This modest distance is what allows you to accept the actions and situations without too much effort.

We discovered Atom Egoyan, along with many people, in the early 90s and the release of Exotica, a wonderfully twisty non-chronological tale of desperation and murder… maybe. Most of his protagonists are young women that are often full of strength that either they didn’t or the audience didn’t know they had. His penchant for finding these women and getting them to strip down is also rather impressive. Sex on screen is so taboo in the US that it is usually overblown or there for the purile intent. Egoyan brings a more European sensibility to his stories and the scenes, while often provocative, are essential and natural to the film.

Following his career has been fascinating and watching him develop and refine his ability to pace what are often very slow-moving stories has been fun. He is an acquired taste, but worth sampling if you haven’t tried him yet.

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…