29 April 2009

58. Ordinary People

This is an interesting one. It is peculiar in a variety of ways, a messy script about a messy family and a messy situation.

The plot is this: a son is back from the hospital after having attempted suicide. This was his reaction to the death of his brother, who was clearly the favorite of their mother. The question of the movie is: can they hold it together and remain a family, or does their unit tear apart?

It is messy like this: the structure isn't solid. It's not bad, it just isn't as clear-cut as a lot of the other scripts on this list. The inciting incident happens early, at minute 8, and it's a weird one: the mother dumps french toast down the sink. That's it -- no fireworks, no yelling, blink-and-you-miss-it. But that's the point: these are ordinary people, and the things that affect their lives are small, deliberate, and cut to the bone. The mom decides she can't live with the pain of losing her favorite child, doesn't know how to deal with her other son and the silence and tip-toeing going on in the house, and this is her rebellion: I will not bend to another's problems.

It's also messy because it is about Love. Look at this, a line from a play within the movie: "I've never been out of love with you." And then the mother asks, in the car driving away: "Did we like it?" They are a unit -- they stand or fall together, and they all falling. And when they fall, it becomes heart-breaking: the mother yells on the golf course: what mother doesn't love her child? Her, she realizes, and has to leave the frame. And the father sits at the table at the end and says, "I don't love you anymore, and I don't know what to do without that." What else is there?

Since it is about a family, there is no real main character. More messiness. We think it is Hutton, but I'd argue that Sutherland is the real main character. He's the patriarch, for one, and he's the one who brings the movie to it's climax: the mother leaving. And throughout, he's the glue that tries to make it all stick together, from trying to find common ground in fights, to going to therapy himself.

Still, she leaves. Will she come back? This is ordinary life with ordinary people, so there's no way to tell. It's messy, a contrast to all those pretty, clean houses with those well-kept lawns.

59. It Happened One Night

Those old classical Hollywood comedies look so easy, so effortless that we quickly dismiss them. We shouldn't. While it might seem old-fashioned now, this film basically invented the romantic comedy road trip movie and did it better than pretty much any other in that genre. They "meet cute" on the bus, and instantly we see they are an odd couple. We're not stupid -- we know they are going to get together. How? By inches -- he's a newspaper man, so he decides to skip the bus she missed to get her story. In his gruff manner, he tries to show her the way of a middle-class man: how to dunk a donut, how to hitchhike. Especially in regards to hitchhiking, she can teach him a little something herself.

One thing that particularly sets this movie apart is it's social significance. Like the modern-day "Medicine for Melancholy", we realize with this movie that a love story doesn't need to eschew society. Here we see, in the first words spoken, an acknowledgment of the Great Depression: "Hunger strike, eh? How long has this been going on?" Colbert's father is oblivious, and she decides to free herself from her sheltered life. Like an Okie, she goes on the road, living like the other half in motor-lodges, traveling in crowded buses, pinching pennies and waking up hungry. So we like her.

Mostly what I would like to say is this: just because a movie is from the 30's and in black and white with old-fashioned acting doesn't mean you should change the channel. We can learn a lot from these old movies, maybe this above all: you can make a movie that means something and have it be entertaining at the same time. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

15 April 2009

60. L.A. Confidential

Spoiler warning: I will be discussing the use of twists in the following films: L.A. Confidential, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, Traffic. If you haven't seen these films and don't want them spoiled, don't read below.

Let's talk about twists. The more I go along, the more I realize how important a twist is, because it makes the audience do what we, as filmmakers, want them to more than anything else: keep guessing what is going to happen next. And when I use the word 'twist', I'm not necessarily talking just about big, rug-from-under-you, end of the movie twists like "Luke, I'm your Father", Bruce Willis is a ghost, and Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze. Those are all great and makes us reconsider almost everything we've seen (economically wonderful, considering it makes the viewer want to buy another ticket or pick up a DVD), but you can do smaller twists throughout the movie to give us a new perspective on a character or make us advance the plot in interesting ways.

I just finished Robert McKee's "Story", and he calls this phenomenon The Gap. It's essentially "the rift between expectation and result". To build a successful movie, give us a character we care about, and then put them in situations where the world, the other characters, or the circumstances of the story (the plot) react in different ways than they expect. That's The Gap, and every time it opens, we as audience are pleasantly surprised ("Oh yes!") or not pleasantly surprised ("Oh shit!"). This is the essence of entertainment. Thus, this happens in a big way in movies with twist endings, but in any quality, entertaining movie, it happens several times throughout the course of the narrative in little ways.

In George Saunders' essay "The Perfect Gerbil" from his book "The Braindead Megaphone", this aspect of storytelling is described as such:

When I was a kid I had one of these Hot Wheels devices designed to look like a little gas station. Inside the gas station were two spinning rubber wheels. One's little car would weakly approach the gas station, then be sent forth by the spinning rubber wheels to take another lap around the track or, more often, fly out and hit one's sister in the face.

A story can be thought of as a series of these little has stations. The main point is to get the reader around the track; that is, to the end of the story. Any other pleasures a story may offer (theme, character, moral uplift) are dependent upon this.

Off the top of my head, one recent movie that does this very well is "Traffic". Think about all the times in that film that characters act in ways that we totally don't expect: Del Toro busts drug-runners, only to have the federal police take over his investigation; Del Toro digs his own grave, ready to die, only to find it was just a test; Ferrer is given a breakfast, only to discover another breakfast has come and he has been poisoned; Collins Jr. is about to assassinate Ferrer, only to be assassinated himself; Douglas is set to give a big speech about the drug war, only to realize he can't do it because his own daughter is a drug addict and he'd be a hypocrite.

Throughout the movie we are constantly shown something that is set up to go a certain way, and it is then shown to go another way that is both surprising and yet logical and seemingly inevitable. And that's what you have to accomplish if you want to play with the big boys.

One of the big boys of the 90's was the movie of this post, "L.A. Confidential". This script does many stellar things, including: gives a great, old-fashioned tone and setting establishing prologue; follows three leads (!) with a distinct set of other supporting characters; gives us a sense of a period (and a glamorous one, at that), but a period in flux; shows us a world from low-to-high class, equally comfortable in each; gives us a twisty plot that we always, somehow, seem to understand. And, like I wrote before, it twists on us, always and always without fail.

The two big ones are great: Cromwell kills Spacey as he's drinking coffee, and Pearce accuses Lana Turner of being a whore. They work because they are set up properly -- Cromwell is never seen (and never plays) as a villain, and the scene is constructed like any regular expositional scene we've seen in movies before, where one character tells another a recap of the plot. Not this time. And the Lana Turner scene works because we've spent a good chunk of time learning about this wonderfully sordid idea of high-class, movie-star look-a-like hookers. And Pearce plays it offhandedly: of course she's a hooker, she's hanging out with Johnny Stampanano! Again, no.

So those are the big ones, but think about the other ones too: Cromwell killing DeVito, using his catch-word; Pearce letting Cromwell go before killing him; Crowe hitting Basinger, thus becoming what he hates the most; Crowe playing "bad cop" by throwing the DA out the window; Crowe saying "Senator" to a politician leaving the hookers house.

In every case, certain expectations are set up, and they are knocked down. If you're a filmmaker, this is what you have to do. "L.A. Confidential" does, and that, along with many other reasons, is why it is on this list.

02 April 2009

61. Silence of the Lambs

A masterpiece. We'll examine the writing first, and then move on to the rest of the piece.

The structure is solid. In the first five minutes or so, we're given everything: our main character, Clarice, is shown to be a go-getter, struggling to make a name for herself in a male-dominated world, the FBI. The plot moves forward when she is given a job, a task -- interview a serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, and try to figure out what he knows about another serial killer, Buffalo Bill. What's amazing about this set-up is that it is done with little dialogue; instead, we are shown through the camera and the cutting. Watch as Clarice struggles up a hill in our first shot, symbolizing her struggles. We sense her determination in climbing through an obstacle course. We are given exposition about her occupation by her superiors hat that reads "FBI". We are shown the male-domination of her chosen occupation by following her to an elevator and surrounding her with tall men. And we get to know about Buffalo Bill through newspaper clippings on a wall. Finally, a hard/match cut introduces us to Lecter's reputation as a monster, and then we descend down stairs into hell (blazed in red lights), the editing slower know, the camera in Clarice's POV as the tension increases and we meet Lecter.

And, of course, Lecter is given a great introduction and a long scene of juicy dialogue to chew on. After a paucity of dialogue, we are given a filmed conversation. Following that, we are given a short montage, changing the pace again.

"I'll help you catch him, Clarice." This question ends the first act, and then we go into the subplot at about 30 minutes in -- Buffalo Bill and his ruse, patterned after Ted Bundy's.

We get a new victim and a continuation of themes -- the importance of her father in her life, the misogyny of law enforcement, her determination to help the victims, with whom she identifies. The autopsy ends in a mystery, along with the revelation of the kidnapping gives haste to make a deal with Lecter. This happens when it should -- at one hour in. A change of location, which often accompanies the midpoint, is given when Lecter is moved.

"Some people will say we're in love." Lecter knows what the audience is just starting to discover: that, along with the horror, thriller, and crime drama elements of the film, it is also a very twisted love story, consummated finally but nothing more than a brush of fingers.

Again, where it should happen (at minute 70), we get what we've gotten in dribbles before: a complete backstory and motivation from our main character, which also explains the title. Once Lecter gets this, he is done with her and can move on with his task: escaping. We see this is a gory set piece, where Lecter does something clever and engages in a switcheroo, which audiences love and which fully embodies the Dark Night of the Soul, an 85th minute event. This event, along with Clarice continuing her investigation, start act 3. 2nd acts usually end with a question, and because this movie is so masterful, we actually get two: will Lecter get away with his escape? and will Clarice catch Buffalo Bill?

At 90 minutes in, she goes to Ohio to investigate. She visits a victim and is given the bad news -- they found the guy and she's 400 miles away. In beautiful cross-cutting, we get another switcheroo and realize they got the wrong guy, and that Clarice is at the real killer's house. And she is completely alone.

A final set-piece, this one mirroring her meeting of Lecter -- a descent into hell. Her motivation for this is layered: she knows there's a victim downstairs, she's eager to prove herself in a man's world after getting treated poorly for so long, she wants to finish the job she's started, because she's a pro.

And she does. And we get an epilogue to cool off.

The movie is structured with genuine craft and control. The writing is absolutely solid. What's more remarkable, though, is the directing, the cinematography, the editing, and the acting. Demme is fond of formal composition, where a character is framed perfectly and symmetrically, and he employed POV cameras and characters talking directly into the camera. This allows us into Clarice's plight and lets us empathize with her. It also, in her dealings with Lecter, shows us her connection with him. Watch the scene where she tells Lecter about the lambs: He asks, she starts telling him, and the camera goes through the bars so that the connection between the characters is complete. From then on, the scene plays in extreme close-ups of their faces, as they are closer to each other than each have been to any other human in a long time. We get match cuts to connect dots, the aforementioned cross-cutting of the climax, expert pacing taking us from long conversations to montages, and the release of a long crane shot for the finale.

And don't get me started on the acting...both leads won Oscars, and if you can find other actors that year (or many others) who deserved it more in tackling such potentially pulp material while being as intense, charming, likeable and determined, I'd love to hear it...