30 January 2010

48. The Bridge on the River Kwai

Like Scorsese and Spielberg movies, we marvel at David Lean because he's a masterful director. The dialogue free introduction introducing us to the dangerous setting, the simple exposition in a shot of a Japanese flag, the constant shifts in tone, the parallel narratives of explosives wired with a bridge matched with a vaudeville-style variety show, the proper casting and work with the actors (Holden, Guinness and Hayakawa are all fantastic), the blocking and staging that takes full advantage of Cinemascope, the tension built by train whistles and footsteps on planks of wood overhead.

But yes, of course, it's also well-written. It has classical Hollywood economy in setting up our three main characters (that itself is a mean feat): Holden digging graves, Guinness a stiff upper lip British officer, Hayakawa a crazy, corrupt taskmaster.

And then we get the task: build a bridge. And immediately we get the main conflict: Officers don't do manual labor. So it becomes a question of power: if Guinness works, he becomes like any other grunt. If he becomes like any other grunt, he can't order his men on his command and hiearchy is lost and they'll all become "slaves". "Without law there is no civilization," he says, and he believes in this order.

Holden escapes, the bridge must be built sooner than expected, Guinness is taken out and we get a great dramatic example of this power struggle: Saito wants Nicholson to cooperate, bribes him with Scotch and beef, camraderie about his homeland. Guinness then makes the bridge building a personal project, which turns Saito inside out with envy.

At the midpoint we get a new mission: bombing the bridge. Holden doesn't want to go but gets blackmailed. This is a GREAT midpoint, a perfect reversal and twist. And structurally it works well, too, because there isn't much more for us to watch with the bridge being built -- we need something else narratively, because otherwise we'd be basically watching paint dry.

All that's left is for the mission to be completed. And it is. But at what cost?

Coppola clearly stole a lot from his film for "Apocalypse Now". He took and deepened the idea of war being insanity, and he stole structural ideas and how to stage things in this SE Asian environment. In other words, he took this movie to it's logical extreme.

What's remarkable about this movie is how much the three main characters change, how we see them broaden beyond their original characterizations, how we get glimpses of them beyond their roles as soliders. Holden is shown, instead of being a jaded POW, to be a cowardly playboy imposter. Guinness, instead of a stand-up officer, is shown instead to be an obsessive egomaniac. And Saito is seen to be a scared company man, an unwilling officer who's bound by duty and country. Is it any wonder that they all have to die at the end, and that the last lines of dialogue are "Madness! Madness!"?

24 January 2010

9. Some Like It Hot

The prologue, like the best ones do, sets up everything. We see a hearse driving down the street, then a cop car starts chasing them. They begin shooting. Why? Instantly we're curious, involved. The funeral workers are actually gangsters -- they open a secret compartment in the ceiling stocked with guns and they start shooting back.

The cops spin out and the chase ends, but not before doing damage. The "casket" is leaking because it's filled with booze. And we get a beautiful joke in the title card: Chicago, 1929.

Here's what's great about this beginning: 1) It sets up the film's main concern, that of deception and disguises, "Things Aren't Always What They Seem". Everyone in the movie is either deceiving themselves or disguising themselves or both, just like the gangsters are doing with their bottles of booze. 2) It is exciting, filled with action, which immediately gets the audience involved. 3) It gives us the setting in a fun, unique and economical way. 4) It does all of this without any dialogue.

The theme is expanded and deepened in the next scene -- the "funeral home" is actually a rowdy speakeasy. A cop comes to shut it down: "Give me 5 minutes, then hit 'em with whatever you got." This is smart, because like the opening tracking shot in "Touch of Evil", by giving us a time limit with something, we as audience are immediately on the edge, tension is created, and we wonder the most important thing an audience member can wonder: what's going to happen next?

We meet our heros, two musicians, right before the raid starts. They immediately discuss two main concerns: money and women. By their back-and-forth dialogue, we get a sense of who they are and how they interact -- Curtis is a gambler, a risk taker, a horse-better. Lemmon is a bit of a nebbish, easy swayed. They see the raid coming, evade it. But because of it, they don't get paid and they have to hock their overcoats.

Now they are really destitute. They find out about a job, but it's only for women. Lemmon considers it, Curtis says no. A thousand times no. Two important things happen here: Curtis is shown as a serious womanizer, and he initially resists the idea of cross-dressing as crazy. Both of these establishments are key to making this movie work. If you want your characters to do something crazy, it has to be their absolute last option.

And it is, because they subsequently witness a massacre, and the only way to really get away from it is to disguise themselves as women and travel down to Florida -- it solves all their new immediate problems, as well as the old less pressing ones of being cold and broke.

So: they are now women, and they are now on a train. They meet Sugar Cane. The character shift a little bit, and the previously randy Curtis has to curtail the now-overwhelmed Lemmon, who is horny and wants to get with Sugar or anyone. Again, they re-establish the fact that these are men and can hardly be contained. Just because they're cross-dressing doesn't mean they're gay.

There's a set-up where Sugar tells Curtis everything she wants in a man, which is paid off several scenes later when they arrive in Florida and he reveals himself as a Shell Oil magnate, a Cary Grant clone. And he does something smart: he is rude to her, plays hard to get, makes her seduce him.

Curtis' ruse is uncovered by Lemmon, and another deception occurs: Curtis must come upstairs, beating both Monroe and Lemmon and cover himself in bubbles in the tub so he can act like Josephine to Monroe.

The rest of the plot plays out like clockwork, perfectly constructed. Curtis makes Monroe seduce him, Lemmon gets engaged to Joe E. Brown and does his maracas bit, Spats comes back and discovers their disguises, there's a chase and musical numbers with Monroe and at the end, our main men have to give up their disguises and become who they are to get what they want.

And we get one of the great closing lines in movies, which you either know or don't know. If you know it, you're smiling right now, and if you don't, you shouldn't have it spoiled by me.

Note: I'll be teaching this film as part of Facets Film School starting next month. More information at: http://www.facets.org/pages/filmschool.php.

10 January 2010

49. Schindler's List

This past year has allowed me to look at Spielberg in a new light. In the past, I had a knee-jerk reaction to his films, thinking I was clever for not liking them because they were popular. I was wrong.

As I mentioned in previous blogs about his films (and, correspondingly, about Martin Scorsese's films), they are almost always written exceedingly well, but the writing is almost always beside the point. This makes sense -- one of the many traits of a strong, legendary director is the ability to pick good material, a script that he can personalize and make his own. Going further, that director takes the script, casts it impeccably, and then discovers visual means of manipulating emotions, of telling the story economically, of getting the point of the story across. Spielberg does so in spades here.

This is a big story and one that can be endlessly dissected, so let's just look at a few examples relating to the above. The rumor has it that the "Ghetto Liquidation" sequence was only about a page of description in the script, but Spielberg turned it into a sequence, a set-piece, a filmed testimony of oral history by living witnesses. It consists of countless characters with little arcs, myriad locations, special effects, visual beauty and well-crafted editing to hold it all together. This is a prime example of the power of this story told visually (there are very few words throughout, and most don't matter) by the director, not through the writing.

Another example of the power of the filmmaker over that of the writer. Fiennes wants his tub scrubbed. The concentration camp kid can't get the soap scum out. Fiennes thinks about what Schindler said and he lets the kid go. We see the kid walking away. We see Fiennes back in his bathroom: "I pardon you," he says to himself, wondering if there is power in that. We see the kid again, being shot at (is it a warning shot?), we see Fiennes again. And then, we see Kingsley walking past the kid's dead body. The power in that sequence is that of a master storyteller using editing, acting, camera angles and movement (notice the dolly shot used as punctuation at the end) to show the horror of a psychotic man acting inside the guise of war. It's written well, yes, but that's not where the power comes from.

That said, there are several things to admire in the writing. While Fiennes is a sociopath and a distinct villain, Schindler is shown in shades of grey. He's a complex man, not a pure hero and thus we are able to identify with him. He drinks, he cheats, he gambles, he's greedy. In short, he's a human, and characterizing him as such is powerful because we come away with this: a mere man, not a hero, was able to save these lives.

I also like the slow reveal of information about his factories. Throughout, we think he's simply a war profiteer. Even though he's helping, it's really because he's got a bottom line and the secondary notion is to rescue Jews. Then we see a room stocked with pots and pans to the ceiling, and we see Kingsley tell him he's broke and Schindler remark "I should be very unhappy if this factory makes one usable shell" that the extent of his con game with the Nazis is revealed. It wouldn't have the same impact if we had known this from the get-go.

However, what I most appreciate about the writing here, particularly, is that the script is structured in a traditional Classical Hollywood style, yet it also contains many small, almost self-contained set piece that could basically be stand-alone short films. The above example is one. The hinge bit is another. The one-armed machinist who thanks Schindler and is later killed shoveling snow is another. The "gas chamber bed-time story", followed by the Hungarians arriving, is another.

Like the best Hollywood work, this is economical storytelling above all else. It allows us into many lives, into many aspects of Nazi sadism, into a more complete picture of the horror of this war.

There's much more to say about this remarkable movie, but the last thing I want to mention is this: this has to be one of the best lit movie I've seen in my entire life. Unbelievable cinematography, always beautiful, and always in service of the story.

01 January 2010

50. The Sixth Sense

This is a bit of a Sylvester Stallone situation in the sense that, because M. Night Shymalan sucks so bad now, it's actually hard to remember why he was ever thought of as a wunderkind beforehand. Then you go back and watch the movie with a critical eye and realize that those labels only come about because of talent, or at least lightning striking once.

This is a good screenplay. Here's one mark of a pro: there's lots of exposition in dialogue, but its always buried in something else so we don't see it. In the very first scene, it's buried in Olivia Williams reading her husband's award to him, which tells us everything we need to know both about him and his strained relationship with her. Another example: Willis comes to Osment's house and plays a game: step closer if I'm right, step away if I'm wrong. Because it's in the context of a "game", we get to learn lots about Cole without feeling forcefed. Smart.

There are other things to admire as well: many good movies teach you some little facts, and this one gives the audience a window into Philadelphia history and free association writing; there are effective uses of ice breaking comic relief ("cheese dick" comes to mind, although that plays like an adlib); it is also structured tightly, with a prologue that ends up being more important than we realize, a classic "task" in the first act set-up, a big trailer-moment revelation at the midpoint ("I see dead people"), another task for the 2nd part of the 2nd act (the Mischa Barton bits, which show whether or not Osment can use his powers for good and not become another Damien "Omen" child), and then a short and satisfying 3rd act that wraps it all up, with Osment in full control of his powers ("The Sword and the Stone" is surely no thematic accident) and a twist.

About that twist. There are film grammar reasons is works, mostly in that they used a big star with screen presence who doesn't have to say anything in a scene and we still sense that he does, but it also works due to the writing because Shymalan uses and inverts a standard movie trope: the overworked man who neglects his family. We buy that this is yet another guy in a movie who is working too hard and too obsessed with his job because he failed at it in the past, and we buy that because we've seen it in other cliche-ridden movies with a big emotional scene at the end where he realizes the true value of his life: his family. Shymalan takes that and uses it, and when the actual truth is revealed, it's shocking enough and enough of an inversion to go down in history as one of the biggest movie twists ever.

So that's the writing. A few other things I want to discuss: first is Tak Fujimoto's cinematography. The lighting in the film is wonderful and effective, but I was mostly impressed with the long, slow dolly shots that, similar to a Woody Allen film, encompass entire scenes. These work because they build tension (they're often seen when Willis is with his wife), but they also work because they're constantly moving and are dynamic enough for the layperson not to notice. They also effectively employ handheld tracking shots (the trick cabinet shots being a particularly fun one), much like Fujimoto has done with Jonathan Demme. This is no accident: as much as Shymalan was being hailed as the next Spielberg (I think mostly because of his control of tone and his great directing of a child actor), I think he looked to Demme, and "Silence of the Lambs" in particular, for ways to visually convey scenes and themes.

There are also many things to admire in the directing. For one, Willis has hardly ever been better. He's restrained, he's hang-dog, we believe him. And it isn't easy to work with a child actor and to treat them like an equal, to not subtly coach them. Those scenes between him and Osment make or break the movie, and they work. Osment too, was cast well and never let the tone slip. This is a tough role for a kid to play, but he was given good material and a sure hand to work with in Shymalan.

There's also something that's hard to articulate and harder to achieve, and I call it "switching gears" and it's something that good directors always are able to do well. It's when a scene starts out as seemingly one genre and moves into another effortlessly. A good example would be the "why am I so funny scene?" with Joe Pesci in "Goodfellas". It starts out seemingly innocuous, with Pesci telling a joke and everyone enjoying themselves. Then it turns into menace in a second. Then back to joking and then to menace again when the manager comes over and the threat of violence is realized. If movies are about manipulating emotion (as I'm increasingly inclined to believe), then a director's role is to do her best possible job at visually conveying to the audience how they should feel at any particular moment (you could make the argument that this heavy-handed and close-ended approach is a particularly Hollywood thing, and I wouldn't argue with you -- but I wouldn't say that's a bad thing either). An example from this picture would be the prologue scene wherein we're set-up to believe that Willis and Williams are drunk and are going to fuck to celebrate his award, and instead we get a broken window and an insane old patient of Willis'. The tone changes in an instant and in the same scene, we're in a different genre. That's hard to do, and it's done more than once in this well-directed movie.

Finally (and I'm only pointing this out because I'm paying more attention to it), the costume design is great. Collette always wear lower-class clothes and big sweaters, Osment always wears a tie, and if all that red around the mise-en-scene and all those narrative clues didn't clue you in to the twist, here's another thing to consider: Willis wears the same suit the entire movie.