Friday, July 29, 2011

The Lost Art of Bubsy Burkeley and Classic Musical Spectacle.

That sequence, from the film commonly called Gold Diggers of 1933 (to distinguish it from its 1935 remake) is an artifact of mostly lost artform. Musicals in general are nowhere near as popular as they once were, even after the huge craze for them in the late 20's and 30's died down. But they have never truly disappeared. But one thing that seems to have disappeared is the sense of scale and fantasy. All of the famous musicals that everyone remembers, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, or even The Wizard of Oz, have song and dance sequences that stick closely to reality (in as much as a movie can when its characters are constantly and inexplicably bursting into song) and utilize choreography that shows off the skill of the dancers, as opposed to the skill of the filmmaker.

The classic musical director and choreographer Bubsey Berkely had a different way of doing things. He had a grandiose and fantastical style, and crafted sequences that pushed the limits of scale and complexity, often utilizing hundreds of dancers. But more than sheer size, Bubsey Berkeley also recognized how to bring the unique aspects of the film medium into these sequences. The clip above is a perfect example. It begins literally depicting a musical number on a stage. At first we see it unfold very much as if we were seeing it in a theater, complete with the staging and special effects you'd see in that medium, but eventually it morphs into a fantastical sequence that could only be done on film. The camera flies over dancers on a massive set. Dozens of violinists swirlling to the music creates a unique visual effect which then leads to another as the lights are dimmed and the violins become illuminated. This leads to yet more sequences employing cinematic visual effects and editing that expand the sequence beyond the borders of reality, creating something that feels more akin to a dream sequence, or Disney's Fantasia.

Berkeley became famous for this sort of sequence and continually sought to top himself. His sequences are full of optical effects and highly elaborate staging. One of the great pleasures of watching them is seeing how the camera and the editing become a part of the choreography. The use of the camera this way creates a sense of wonder and excitement, since you never really know what's coming. Berkeley also often filled the sequences with subtle visual metaphors and innuendo. A great example is this sequence from Dames (1934):

Its of course incredibly sexualized (this was before the indroduction of the Production Code). Bubsy Berkeley's extensive use of the male gaze has be widely discussed by many film scholars. That being said, I still think there's a great deal of pleasure to be gained from the sheer creativity that goes into it all. And I can't help but laugh when I see the shot at 4:45-5:05.

I really want to see someone try to bring this sort of style back to a modern musical. With the better part of a century past, I'd think the language of cinema has advanced to a point where a creative director who wanted to pay homage to those classics could do some really amazing stuff. Personally, I think that director would almost have to be Michel Gondry. He's a visual wizard and has a background making music videos. I think you can certainly see an echo of Bubsy Berkeley his video for The Chemical Brother's "Let Forever Be":

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ok. First off, I think there needs to be some minimum time period you need to wait before rebooting a franchise. More than a decade at least. Second, the first two of Raimi's Spider Man films were pretty good, and this needs to convince me that there is a reason why I shouldn't just watch those instead, and it didn't. I remember what happened last time Spidey tried to go all dark and edgy, and it wasn't pretty.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

From the Shit I'd Get if I Were Rich File

I'd buy one of these things for a wall in my house. Not sure what film I'd want. Something with great colors. Some Terry Malick, Zhang Yimou's Hero, Kingdom of Heaven, only epics are coming to my mind. Wong Kar-Wai maybe?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Transformers 3

Oh god. What can you say about Micheal Bay at this point? I don't think anyone who looks at movies with even a squint of a critical eye every really expects to go into one of his films and then walk out of it thinking they'd seen a good film. But at the same time, Bay has becoming something of an auteur when it comes to big budget Hollywood excess. There's a distinct style to a Micheal Bay film that lets you know exactly what you're getting into. You know it'll have a mindless plot, two dimensional if not offensive characters, and a whole lot of stuff blowing up. Its just a matter of whether or not they've piled enough money on it to make you feel like you're getting something for the ticket price.
This is just how it works. The only way around it is if Micheal Bay finally grew up, but after all these years, I'm not holding my breath. But at least there is a certain stretch of time where the movie seems fully aware of its nonsense. Its flirts with homophobia, racial stereotypes, and other eye-rollers, but at least Bay's juvenile obsession with the male gaze is cranked up to the point that it comes across more as a wink at the camera, and less an invitation to 13 year old boys everywhere to satisfy their raging hormones. And in the “at least they tried” category, we have Francis McDormand trotted out to say “look, we can have non-sexpot female characters too!”.
But unfortunately, the real offense is that anyone thought they could pass off this peanut gallery as a cast of believable human beings. Ken Jeong it completely wasted, Tyrese Gibson and Josh Duhamel show up just to remind you that there are humans in the movie, and John Turturro only manages to make the stupidity seem intentional (which, as mentioned above, does help slightly). But in my opinion, it's McDormand whose talent suffers the worst levels of disregard, playing a character who seemed to be included purely to set up a scene at the end in which she gives Shia Lebouf the dream job he's been looking for. So imagine my surprise when that never happened.
As for the new love interest, Rosie-Huntington Whiteley, I thought she was perfectly adequate as a walking plot device with tits. If it had still been Megan Fox, playing a character we at least have some slight relationship with, the role might have felt like it mattered, but here we are.
But at least Shia Lebouf is still around, and he's always been the secret weapon of the Transformers films. He's always been the only actor in these cinematic junkyards with the humor and charisma to actually make you give two shits about him. And that is still very much the case here. I enjoyed watching his neurotic habits and jealous insecurities. Even if none of it adds up to anything, it makes him more relateable, and as the main character, it makes him the lynchpin that keeps the entire film from collapsing.
But boy is that put to the test. There was a good portion of this film where it really seemed to get it. The opening space-race sequence didn't do the revised-history thing as well as recent movies like X-Men: First Class, but it was nicely paced and an interesting concept. The momentum continues into the present day sequences, where we see Shia Lebouf's search for a job and the, ahem, deceptive machinations of the Decepticons (thank you, tip your server, I'll be here all week) maintained my interest throughout the first third of the film. The film seemed to know exactly what it was and was executing, and following a series of backstabs and betrayals, it looked like we were in for a perfect setup to the final epic showdown.

Unfortunately, it was at this point that the movie stopped, tred water for 45 minutes, showed Chicago being completely conquered in about 5 seconds, and then brought out Optimus Prime to essentially say, “All those people you just saw get killed? We decided to let all that happen so you guys wouldn't take us for granted.” (This is before he murders a dude not two seconds after the same dude saved his life. Optimus Prime is kinda a dick.) Somewhere in this purgatorial second act, the writers throw several half-baked, relevant-to-our-time themes in a blender and pour the sticky mess all over the middle reels. We get the the whole America under siege thing via a pointless Washington D.C. scene in which Megatron destroys the Lincoln Monument and sits on it like a throne. And of course, we get a parade of corrupt and incompetent government officials and corrupt corporate executives screaming shit like “Its hostile takeover time, Sam!"
Mercifully, a point comes where something blows up, and Micheal Bay promptly forgets about all of this. This is where the movie finally gets around to the cool shit. However meaningless the sound and fury, the final 45 minutes or so of Transformers 3 contains some truly spectacular sequences. The massive battle in downtown Chicago is enormous, and the location is mined for maximum potential. The too close, too fast camera work of the previous films is gone, replaced with beautiful long shots of buildings and the towering mechanical beasts ripping them apart. The in-battle gags are more interesting too, such as collapsing building scene (even if its a blatant Uncharted 2 ripoff) or the goofy, almost Verbinski-esque scene with Shia tethered to a ticking bomb.
And who knew Micheal Bay would be the one to finally show that 3D can work in a live action movie? (Avatar doesn't count). The 3D in the film is often subtle, but it never caused me any problems and in a few cases it looked absolutely spectacular. More importantly, the use of 3D seems to have pushed Bay to experiment with tracking shots and how he use the camera to move through space. There are several wonderful moments of the camera zooming through the battlefield environment, the most impressive of which is base jumping sequence. The event was filmed completely live, performed by actual professional base jumpers with 3D cameras rigged to their helmets. Its a movie jam packed with CGI, its this real stunt that stands out as the most memorable part of the film by far.
At this point, everyone probably knows what they're going to get with a Micheal Bay film, and Transformers 3 meets those expectations. And for whatever its worth, it is probably one of his better movies. If you're reading this and you just want to see something mindless or to geek out on the action scenes, by all means, check out the film, and if it isn't too expensive, try it in 3D. If you've seen a lot of Micheal Bay movies and found them tolerable, you might get something out of it as well. If you're a normal person or you have taste, sit tight. Only one week left till Harry Potter.

Props where props are due: the robot sex thing is a reference to Jay Pinkerton's review of The Lion, The Which, and the Wardrobe.

UPDATE: Apparently that review isn't there was good stuff though. A classic. Famous stuff. We all remember it. He tore that movie to shreds and peppered it with pictures of lions having sex. Hence my robot thing. Cause fuck the Transformers franchise. 

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Something To Do With Something Else: 4th of July

A few years ago Aaron and I went to watch a 4th of July fireworks show. We sat on his car in a park in Heyworth before the show, listening to some playlist of patriotic music they had coming from a speaker system. One of the songs that played was Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA." I remarked to Aaron, "Why are they playing this? Isn't this a protest song against the Vietnam War?". At the time I wasn't a Springsteen fan, but I had a vague memory that Ronald Reagan had tried to use the song during his re-election campaign, causing a stir because he obviously misinterpreted the song's meaning and prompting Springsteen to ask him to stop using it. It seemed to me at the time that the organizers of the event had made the same mistake.

For all I know, I could've been right. They may have had no idea what the song was about but included it based on its chorus and general mood. But now that I am a hardcore fan of The Boss, I know that the song is in no way inappropriate at a 4th of July event.

It is true that the song isn't as upbeat as a casual listen might cause you to believe. Despite the bombastic style of the music, the first verse shows what place Springsteen is coming from:

"Born down in a dead man's town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that's been beat too much
'Til you spend half your life just covering up"

In the following verses he draws on his personal experiences in working class New Jersey to write about the struggles of Vietnam veterans due to the war and the economic hardships of the late 70's and early 80's. Springsteen laments how men were forced into a war only to be thrown into poverty on their return home.

"I got in a little hometown jam
And so they put a rifle in my hands
Sent me off to Vietnam
To go and kill the yellow man


Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says "Son if it was up to me"
I go down to see the V.A. man
He said "Son don't you understand"

In the final verse, Spingsteen remembers a friend he lost in the war, and ends by expressing the hopelessness and helplessness of blue collar america.

"I had a buddy at Khe Sahn
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They're still there, he's all gone
He had a little girl in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I'm ten years down the road
Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go"

Throughout the song is the chorus, a four times repetition of the desperate scream "Born in the USA!!" to a roaring rock anthem.

That men like George Will or whichever Reagan aide got him to call the song "a message of hope" misinterpreted the song in such a way to make them seem like exactly the sort of people the song is aimed at, the powerful men who glory in war and trumpet supposedly patriotic themes about a national pride that comes so easily to wealthy men such as they. Who, much as the song's anthemic style buries its themes of working class pain and loss, let their love of these things blind them to the suffering of the people who want to feel that same pride in their country, but who find it so hard to do when its let them down so much; when it had forced them to fight a war that robbed them of their loved ones and abandoned those who made it back. The Boss's scream of the titualar line in the chorus is a mockery of the jingoistic cries of the powerful, a challenge to their view of America, and a demand that they live up to their obligations to their fellow countrymen.

What's more patriotic than that?

Happy 4th of July

P.S. On a somewhat related note, everyone should check out the beautiful story he tells in this live recording of "The River" from the Live 1975-85 album.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Dark Road to Perfection

If Black Swan, the latest troubled nocturne from that cinematic pied-piper Daron Aronofski proves anything, it’s that he hasn’t lost his seemingly effortless ability to lead an audience by the nose, directly into the nightmare his characters have built for themselves. As gripping as it is unsettling and as triumphant as it is terrifying, Black Swan is one of the years best films.

The plot will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the Powell-Pressburger classic, The Red Shoes. Both films are about ballet companies whose story parallels that of the ballet they are performing, and both are about the obsessive pursuit of artistic perfection. The influence of The Red Shoes on Black Swan is clear, particularly in the stunning, surrealistic dance sequences, which Matthew Libatique’s handheld camerawork takes to new psychological depths. The film opens with one of these sequences, which are probably best described by one of the film’s characters, “fast and visceral”.

Aronofski has a way of trapping an audience, of keeping them hooked on what he is showing them, no matter how horrifying it might be. This is an incredibly claustrophobic film (and I plan to spend a good deal of time examining it’s camerawork. The film is an essay on effective use of the close up) which by the end of it made me feel trapped in the main character’s head, fully immersed in her madness. But it never lost me, and never made me want to look away. Just when the tension neared the breaking point, something was thrown in, a clever quip or a hilariously creepy subway rider, to provide a welcome release. For a while anyway, because as soon as you thought you were settled in, Aaronofski pulls out another of his little tricks to keep you on edge (did that picture move? And whose face was that?).

And of course nobody could write about this film without mentioning the towering performance by Natalie Portman, by far the best of her career. She puts to shame nearly every actor who’s ever tried to go mad onscreen, losing her mind in a way that is never unconvincing and what’s more, actually kind of understandable. This isn’t one of those movies that asks you to just accept that its main character is losing their mind. In each scene, Portman’s performance is perfectly calibrated to it’s place the overall arc of her character, and you watch as the pressures, her troubled mother, vindictive rivals, and the constant overbearing need for perfection weigh on her increasingly fragile mind.

The various conflicts within Nina and the story of Swan Lake itself eventually come together in a way that, though you will probably see it coming, still manages to be incredibly satisfying. And I think there’s enough surprises in the way its all executed to stay interesting. The climax comes as Nina undergoes her inevitable transformation and the choice she must make to do it. The movie ends as the ballet ends, and in this reviewer’s opinion, it is, if I may, Perfect.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Counter Terrorism gets a replay button

Hollywood, pay attention, because Source Code could save you. In an era where studio’s pour millions of dollars into big budget franchise films based on board games or fucking Magic 8 balls, but quiver with fear at prospect of doing anything original, Source Code is the kind of film that Hollywood would do well to try to make more of. On the one hand, it’s incredibly cheap. It has a modest budget of 32 million dollars, and even with a completely terrible trailer (no offense to whoever made it, it’s not like they had an easy task) it’s already well on its way to making a profit. But on the other hand, it’s a completely original film that both bends the mind and pleases the crowd.

And I’ll have to admit, I was perhaps pre-disposed to be more pleased than most. Aside from having a nice healthy admiration for Duncan Jones last (also highly original and cool) sci-fi film, Moon, I also happen to be a proud lifelong Illinois resident and the story takes place almost entirely in locations I’m quite familiar with. The film opens with a montage of Chicago and the surrounding country that effectively shows off the beauty of my home state, and there’s something powerful about that familiarity. Maybe people in L.A. or New York have become jaded about it by now, I don’t know. But for me, I was a little shocked at how much pleasure I got from the fact that I was so familiar with the film’s locations. Even just the recognition of the little things, like the bathroom or the upholstery on the train excited me in a way few films do.

But Duncan Jones didn’t make this movie just for us here in the Land of Lincoln, and everyone else is going to need something more than an accurate depiction Chicago Metra trains. I expect that they’ll be pleased, although fans of Moon should be warned that this is a different sort of sci-fi. Moon was a Sci-fi film in the mold of Kubrick’s 2001 or Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the kinds of sci-fi films that use the genre as a means to explore big ideas about humanity, rather than as an opportunity for spectacle or fantasy.Source Code has some of the former in it (as to how much, I’ll need a second viewing), but it seems clear that it was intended to be the latter. This is a commercial, popcorn Sci-fi, the kind of movie that asks you to accept its premise and be lenient on the details.

The film opens with Captain Colter Stevens finding himself on a train with no idea how he got there. He looks into a mirror and sees another man’s face looking back at him. He is utterly confused but it doesn’t matter because the train explodes and he wakes up in a strange metal pod, talking to a woman who is telling him he has to go into the “source code” which will allow him to relive the last 8 minutes of a man’s life in order to find out who is responsible for the bomb, so that they can prevent a second attack.

There will be those people whose brains will get all twisted up over the fact that none of the technology makes sense, but it doesn’t need to. In fact, what makes the narrative so effective is the film’s less-is-more approach to exposition. You start out knowing nothing, and the film pulls you along from there by effectively doling out new revelations at a slow and steady pace. The film quickly establishes a narrative structure that alternates between Stevens in the source code (the Train) and Stevens in the pod. The story unfolds like a puzzle coming together, with each new repetition offering a new piece that ups the stakes or alters your perspective.

Jake Gyllenhaal is very entertaining. He plays him as a somewhat impulsive and foolish guy, who nonetheless has a big heart and a likeable personality. The two female leads, Vera Farmiga and Michelle Monaghan do a good job with characters who are underdeveloped and not given a lot to do. Michelle Monaghan has an especially difficult job, since half her lines are repeated from earlier scenes. She comes across as sincere and likeable, and while more nuance would be better, it worked well enough for me.

The reaction to this film thus far has been highly positive, if a 90% on RottonTomatoes is any indication, but I’ve also seen a bit of a backlash on the internetzes and from some of the podcast critics (Filmspotting and Slashfilmcast, to be specific) about the end of the film. There is one final twist in at the end of the film, and there are some who are of the mind that if the film ended before this was revealed, it would be a better film. That might be true. But I think it works either way. I didn’t expect much more than an entertaining mind-bender done with some intelligence, and that’s what I got. I don’t think a small, original film by a director with art-house credentials has to be dripping in deeper themes any more than a straightforward popcorn movie needs to be a 200 million dollar production based on a popular franchise. Source Code occupies a far too vacant middle ground, and it’s high time Hollywood gave it some company.