11 February 2009

63. Jaws

This is a very well-structured film.

We get an intense opening scene -- a shark kills a drunk hippie girl, and we see her yell and struggle and the tone of the piece is set.

We see our main character, Brody, and we get a sense of this small island town. But the girl's death is uncovered and we get a grisly glimpse -- this is the inciting incident.

The debate section involves Brody wanting to close the beaches and keep the people safe, but the Mayor wants to keep the beaches open for the 4th of July celebration. And we meet Quint, who gets a great introduction.

The subplot is Dreyfuss and his fussy, intellectual ways. And we have a bit of fun and games with Brody and Dreyfuss getting to know each other, getting drunk, having dinner together and going out on the boat while wasted.

At the midpoint, we have another shark attack, but this time it directly affects the main character and the Mayor's kids. So:

We change venues. We are now on the water. We finally we see the shark for real: The Bad Guy Is Closing In. More set pieces and problems -- the shark is too strong, the boat is falling apart -- and All Is Lost as the shark gets away.

Finally, the third act: the shark comes back stronger and angrier than ever, the subplot and main plot come together as Dreyfuss goes in the water and Quint dies, and the boat fully fails. Our main character overcomes his problem -- he is afraid of the water -- and he kills the shark. Man vs. Nature has a victor. The end.

And throughout it all, there are action scenes or set pieces every 10 to 15 minutes, which keep us on our toes at all points. We can't stop watching, because we never know what will happen next. This is all that a drama needs to do, and it does that in spades.

Other things beyond the writing: there are some surprisingly beautiful shots in this movie. The opening scene itself is gorgeous, with the young girl and young boy backlit by the rising sun. Also, Spielberg got some fine performances from Dreyfuss (as his doppelganger) and Shaw, who kills as Quint. Finally, Spielberg made a choice to show very little of the shark until near the end, which adds to the air of danger and scares us to the bone.

Top Twelve Of The Year, plus a bonus list

These are my favorite films from this past year. Everyone has their own way of determining which are "best", and my criteria is usually 1) recognizing that which I believe will last, 2) recognizing that which I feel got overlooked, 3) recognizing that which was so good that you can't help but comment.

These are those:

* Che. I bought into it. I appreciate that it was mostly about process, and therefore largely eschews the standard tropes of war films, as well as most of the controversial politics that have emerged from Che's life and likeness. Moreso, I think Soderbergh was interested in the parallels between building a revolution and working on a film set in a far off land. And finally, the whole sequence where Che gets captured is fascinating, as is the astonishing POV death scene.

* The Dark Knight. The first shot says everything: society is a calm, smooth surface until something unpredictable shatters it. And then all hell breaks loose. You've either seen this movie or you're dead, and it is remarkable. Deserves to be with the billion dollar boys for all of the reasons you already know.

* Dear Zachary. Melds the best things about two of the most influential documentaries ever: the investigative journalism/private detective work of "The Thin Blue Line"; the four-track, home recording vibe of a life overdocumented from "Tarnation". This is a movie so heartfelt and personal, so unobjective, that the filmmaker actually starts crying during voiceover narration. And it is totally justified. Find it, watch it, be awed by the plot twists, and get fucking mad.

* In Bruges. So underseen. The kind of movie you tell people about, they watch, then exclaim "Why didn't I hear about this movie?" Because the studio is stupid: they didn't realize that they had gold with a tightly structured screenplay, an exotic location, copious Catholic guilt to fuel it all, and great performances from Clemence Poesy, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes playing against type as a madman, and revelatory work by Colin Farrell, who is at turns tortured and damn funny.

* Indestructible. Ben Byer was a struggling actor and playwright who, in the course of feeling his body betray him, finally made a lasting piece of art. That he acknowledges this fact late in the movie makes his courage that much more remarkable, considering his courage becomes quickly apparent. This is a ramshackle documentary, but an utterly honest and touching one. It addresses some of the same topics about the intersection of art and death as "Synecdoche, New York", but, considering this story is a non-fiction one, it makes Kaufman's film look like the fussy, narcissistic, undisciplined exercise it is.

* Lakeview Terrace. The trailers would have you believe this was some dumb by-the-book thriller. It is so much more than that: an examination of systemic racism in LA that explores the topic in much more interesting, complex, subtle and entertaining ways than did "Crash". It echoes the Rodney King beatings and the riots in a respectful way, and gives us an adriot final shot for us to contemplate the past and the future of the problem.

* Man On Wire. Like "Harlan County, USA", this documentary uses narrative devices to tell a non-fiction story. In this case, the structure and suspense of a heist movie. And then we get the glory of a man on wire, suspended above the world like no one before or since, on a building that doesn't exist anymore (a fact the filmmaker gloriously neglects to mention, so that we bring our own emotions of 9/11 to the table). The complete joie de vivre exhibited by the subject, Petit, is a marvel to watch.

* Rachel Getting Married. A home movie about a wedding that never happened but that I would have loved to have attended. A certain subset of folks are going to be using this movie as a template for their own weddings, and it's probably a larger group than you realize.

* Slumdog Millionaire. Just like "Amelie", in that it marries classical Hollywood cinema structure and techniques with motifs and archtypes from another dominant world cinema, in this case India. The melding is so successful and we westerners learn so much about the other culture -- and their cinema -- in the process that we are thankful. And we get crackerjack entertainment and social commentary in the bargain.

* Standard Operating Procedure. Errol Morris is one of the best directors working. Not in documentaries, but period. Here he examines Abu Grhaib from an angle most would never consider -- that of the process of how those famous photographs came to be and how they were used to scapegoat those subjects -- and gives a more chilling view of our war than before.

* Wall-E. Pixar makes classical Hollywood cinema that takes bold risks, and they get away with it because, as Andrew Stanton says, they focus on "story, story, story." Puts a new twist on the apocalypse scenario, gives great satire about where we're headed as a culture, and it doesn't hurt that Wall-E is utterly fucking adorable, a great hero. This movie is a masterpiece and it will last.

* The Wrestler. A simple story, well-told, which gives us a new glimpse into a world we only think we know: professional wrestling. Performance of a lifetime by Rooney, with a great, enigmatic ending that echoes the fate of another 80's rocking New Jersey anti-hero: Tony Soprano.

Bonus list!

I went to several film festival this year. Here are some fine performances in films I saw during my festival rounds:

* Ben Gazzara in "Looking For Palladin". From his thin frame and crusty cigarette voice, Ben Gazzara almost certainly is in his last days. But he gave a fine performance in his small movie, playing an aged actor in South America who just wants to be left alone. His work here is so thorough, so lived-in, that when he finally gets the space he continually requests, he's earned it.

* Dana Delaney in "Route 30". I can't get the image of Delaney's chain-smoking, hard-drinking, rumspringa-remembering Amish lady dancing and deancing to Scott Joplin out of my head. She gives life to a character that could have been an easy cliche.

* Wesley Murphy in "Boys of Summerville". Wesley Murphy's first scene is him smearing cake all over his naked body due to his despair over losing his girlfriend. He owns this little film from his first frame, and never lets go, never fails to get a chuckle from his moustache or his accent or trying-to-be-tough mannerisms every time he comes back up on the screen.

* Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig in "Nights and Weekends". Art imitates life as a couple's relationship dissolves, then doesn't, then finally does. Gerwig is her usual neurotic self, but in a much deeper way, letting us more into her loneliness and hurt. And Swanberg does his watchful, playful thing until the very end, when finally he can't stop crying.

04 February 2009

64. Terms of Endearment

I couldn't get into this one.

There's something about 80's films that makes them age poorly. They become horribly dated in an unpleasant way. They reek of Reagan.

In terms of the writing, I have some misgivings. I think one of the biggest problems is that the film spans a long stretch of time -- about 30 years, I'd guess -- and that span of time is inelegantly handled. We start with Winger as a baby, which is fine, and then we go right into her father dying, then right into her getting married. Minutes after that, we're about 5 years later and Winger and her husband are moving to Iowa. We know this is years later because in the previous scene, she's pregnant; now, she's got a kid. And no explanation is giving, and we're left to piece it together. That means we as audience actually sit there wondering "is that their kid?" These kinds of things take us out of the movie.

Another example is MacLaine and Nicholson. He's a rogue, a charmer, a skirt-chaser. He insults her while asking her out -- to the White House, no less. She says no. Several scenes later, after a bad birthday dinner with her various admirers, she goes back over to his house to feel young again and asks him if the date is still on. He's confused. She clears it up: "a few years ago you asked if I'd like to go have lunch with you." That's how we know it is years later. Again, inelegant.

Probably the biggest problem in relation to this time span is how it affects the relationship between MacClaine and Winger. MacClaine is a self-centered, narcissistic, lonely woman at the beginning of the film, and her daughter has a rare joie de vivre that MacClaine seems to try to squash at all points. By the end of the film, they have clearly reconciled and have come to appreciate each other -- we see them on the phone talking about their love lives, MacClaine offers to take the kids -- but I never got a sense of when or how they came to appreciate each other. The scenes skip from one to another and all of a sudden they are friends. I don't need some big emotional breakdown, but I need something more than what we are given to see how they meet in the middle with their largely differing personalities.

I'm sure this film is lauded often because it changes tone often. However, save for Nicholson's scenes, I never thought of it as a particularly funny film. There are some fine dramatic scenes -- Winger in the supermarket, for example; Winger confronting her husband on the chair about his adultery -- but the two tones don't come together as well as I think was intended.

Now, it terms of content, I didn't like MacClaine, and I had problems with the adultery. MacClaine comes off as a really bad parent at the beginning, and I never got a sense of how she overcame that, both in the story sense as well as to us as the audience. I never felt for her, never empathized with any plight she was in. Her character arc was supposed to be her going from being cold to warm, but I never bought it. And in terms of the adultery, I really disliked Daniels' character for cheating on his wife, who we can agree is a nice woman who just wanted to do right by her man and make their marriage work. But all that goodwill goes out the window when she herself enters into an affair -- and does so with a weepy, wussy banker. On top of that, when her husband admits his mistakes in full on her deathbed, she refuses to do the same. Unforgivable.

Beyond the writing, I had other problems with the film. One, the music was awful. The maudlin piano and flute score is so overblown, and it does little to link the disparate scenes together. Two, Debra Winger is technically a good actress, but I personally don't like her -- her voice and face are unpleasant to me, and she tries to toe lines that I'm not sure she's able to. For example, I found her confrontation scenes lacking in life or passion: when she confronts her husband's mistress I felt the drama of the scene, but not her embodiment of that drama. In other words, she was able to be quirky and free-spirited, but she couldn't do the heavy lifting of the drama. Same goes for her death-bed scene with her kid.

All of this adds up to the fact that I felt nothing watching this movie. I know this is a notorious "weeper", but when Winger dies at the end, I felt nothing. Nicholson walks away with the kid, and the blue-background credits pop up (see what I mean about the 80's dating things?), and all I could do is shrug.