At the upcoming Future of Story conference which will be streamed on Facebook, various storytellers of all walks will gather and discuss where we are at with stories. We all know they extend across national borders, cultures, gender, you name it. We're wired for them, never tire of listening to them. Some get old, yes. We sometimes don't make or take the time to hear or witness them. But what makes a good story varies so much and has such a symbiotic relationship with the storytelling elements, we keep returning to events like this. Or at least the ideas.
The players we know, for the most part, and all we need now is the script and the key co-principal. Next week is the Republican National Convention and we have our star, Donald Trump, though he is probably the most polarizing leading man a storyteller could think of. Who he picks as his running mate is up in the air and certainly under vast secrecy until The Big Reveal comes some time over the next six days.
Also at the end of the day, I think many are curious just to see how this thing goes over in Cleveland, an economically repressed city whose downtown with its old buildings and central square are a great stage for a huge event. How many protesters will there indeed be? What will Trump say in his speech? What will pundits think and say who attend? What will they say later in a few books waiting to be written, or are being written now?
We're entering Act Three of this presidential race and we're braced for the rabbit to be pulled out of the hat. The running mate has to be someone well known, can garner the votes Donald can't, and probably most importantly, share the spotlight with Donald momentarily before giving way. This is the stuff mysteries are made of, or classics, or both.
Upon reading this article on 1986 which was a parade of cinematic badness, this article missed the breakthrough movie that appeared mid-July. After Under the Cherry Moon, American Anthem (by the director of Purple Rain), Big Trouble in Little China (looked upon favorably now, reviled at the time), Stallone's Cobra, Shanghai Surprise, and the much-vaunted Howard the Duck, the first film to have posters a year in advance. Amidst all this, one film literally blew everything out of the water with critics and at the box office.
James Cameron's Aliens arrived seven years after Ridley Scott's Alien. I was fifteen, and that was the longest time between an original and sequel I'd ever known. The fact that it was so different from the original made the movie stand on its own. Cameron only had his name attached to The Terminator at the time. We wondered, who was this guy? How could he be so new and so good? Can directors really start right out of the gate like this? This was the first time I noticed structure in an action movie. We were never confused, and had an Oscar-nominated performance by Sigourney Weaver, playing off the marines and the little girl Newt. She also played off the Alien. This was by far the most complete film of the summer.
Ruthless People ran second. That comedy by the Zucker brothers, after Airplaine! and Top Secret, used Danny DeVito and Better Middler to their best and fullest as comic actors. These two movies worked; not much else did, save Ferris Bueller's Day Off, still quoted today by some. These three movies declared themselves, were honest, and stood their ground.
Now, can this happen today? In this climate of a barrage of summer movies with several opening weekly? I'm not so sure, though it takes dreck for something good to rise out of it.
This clip with Will Smith says so much, and continues what I tend to believe, that less is more. He puts it so nicely though, that stories give us something, help us lead better lives. As William Goldman, the subject of an upcoming documentary said, "We need stories. They help us get through the night." Smith takes it one step further.
The story within the story is the new documentary, De Palma. Brian De Palma is a person I've been fascinated with for twenty-nine years, and after that amount of time, something is indeed going on. A good friend said what makes this person so fascinating is he has greatness in him. I think I replied, and you don't know if his stories will work. Another friend added, "Or if!" He has, however, amassed quite the career arc, working his way into the Hollywood system, and then, after having enormous success, working outside of it. The man is now seventy-five, and when you see him, has razor-sharp intellect. So he's also a role model, been able to do what he set out to do all his life. We look up to him no matter what. That does help us lead better lives.
I praised the performances in The Nice Guys, which are first rate by the principles, and that extends across the board to all the supporting players. Especially with the kids. Shane Black, as a director, feels more sure-footed this time with his actors - how much to convey and suppress while suggesting what boils just beneath the emotional surface. For plotting, when a character appears out of nowhere, we still know why he/she is there, what they're after, and have a feeling how they might go about trying to achieve what they want.
I mentioned L.A. as a setting. There are the shootout locations where the director has worked before, and yet look at how he sets up the irony, perhaps deep-seated for some, in contrasting the car industry with...well, you'll see.
We all know the big superhero movie will clean up at the box office by now. This holds for one if not two weeks, and already Batman Vs. Superman seems like a thing of the past. It also doesn't seem difficult for Captain America: Civil War to stay number one. Some releases, like the new Melissa McCarthy comedy, The Boss, drops to tenth and might have done better in the summer, but then that depends on the market. Some sequels such as The Huntsman: Winter's War will fade away.
What's more interesting is the big pickup by STX, the long-rumoured Martin Scorsese movie The Irishman. Having read Charles Brandt's book on this it's based, this is rich material, and expansive for the great director with his cast of Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci. STX bought the international rights while Paramount retains domestic. Some might think, what is Adam Fogelson and co. at STX thinking? It's an easy sell, and more to the point, it's what people want to see. This has worldwide appeal out of the gate. As William Goldman said in his seminal book, "It's all in the casting." If made well, people will watch this movie for years if not decades. Also worthy of quoting, Fogelson says, "Only make a film you already know how to sell." Which ties back to what will sell, again and again, or what sells itself, or what the market demands, what people want, which ties to why they want it over and over again. If you wonder, ask why there were twenty-five-year celebrations of Goodfellas and forty-year-notations of Taxi Driver? I think you know.
Having just seen Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some!! and seeing some very articulate eighteen year-olds, I thought back to Roy Scheider's character in Sorcerer. Scheider was an interesting actor. He always came across as real, yet we didn't know his characters too well. We knew enough, saw how they reacted, when they didn't. There are times in Jaws and Marathon Man and The French Connection where he stops and thinks instead of immediately acting. We're curious what awakens inside him when he's thrust into the middle of a situation, sometimes when they develop right on the spot. How would we react? We're almost always in his shoes. He was the everyman, which ties back to my interview with John Badham, who with Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss cast these guys, in their late thirties and forties, as heroes. We identified with them, cheered for them, even if we didn't really know them. That's an accomplishment right there.
At this year's UW-Madison Writer's Institute, the first sentence of each winner was read. That's where the whole story, the central issue, the character's mission start, don't they? It creates the atmosphere, orients, and disorients, the reader. One speaker, Chris Chambers, said reading is interactive, and he is right. We're witnesses to a story, but not passive, and the greats make us feel as if we're looking over someone's shoulder as events and emotions unfold. Looking at a screen can be passive, with a static or moving camera. Last year's Time Out of Mind frequently had a moving camera yet never quite took off. That is, in a sense, okay, because it did create a world, though we couldn't interact with it. With reading we always interact. And it's on our own terms, or is it?
Emphasis on the Whenever. I purposely held off starting House of Cards Seasons three and four to coincide with what can only be described as a heated, unusual presidential race. After just over seven years in office, the misery index is the lowest it's been since before our current president took office. Unemployment has dropped, in real and under-employment terms. By various reports health insurance costs have tapered. Yet some people, out there, in the double-digits, are angry, and are drawn to candidates' rhetoric. In the aforementioned series, President Underwood is trying to wrap, tie, and seal things up, feeling the heat with over a year-and-a-half left in office. He feels pressure everywhere, and not the right emotional pressure from his wife, who of course has her own agenda. That's why we watch this first couple, these two people, at the top of the heap. They still have feelings and agendas, no matter how much of the show is accurate. It still galvanizes, linking reality with a strong and true-feeling viewing experience. You bet it matters.
Or should I say, the franchise blockbuster that opens when nothing else comes near it in terms of size and, what I gather, noise. I actually considered seeing Batman Vs. Superman, though I wondered how they would pull off two heroes fighting each other with Lex Luthor thrown in the mix. No one who has seen it, though, has commented on a part they liked or what relates to the story, let alone how they felt when they walked out of it. At 151 minutes, I hear the action, or activity, the screen filled with images, is much, but character, story, and anything related to a theme are largely absent. This is the tough tightrope to walk, and you wonder how many of these superhero movies will be remembered in five or ten years. Not many remember the first reboots of Planet of the Apes, but some people made money and ah, one might argue, that leveraged the making of other films. Maybe. But these big franchise pictures don't improve us much, in this time and in this landscape. How would or do I know? Remember Peter Drucker's quote, that what is not said is most important. If people don't talk about Man of Steel much today, there you are.
As in, that post-Oscar aura hangs in the air albeit briefly and people rush to the theater to see what won and why. Hopefully they see Spotlight, the little movie that could last year. It's also increasingly a slight lull in spring between the awards and the big summer blockbusters, which now open in March. Batman Vs. Superman opens a week from Friday, at the end of spring break for some, right before Easter. It'll do great, but what about all the shows streaming and instantly available that popped up the last two weeks? Ah, feature film producers might say, people want to get out of the house come spring time. Maybe. It depends on the content, and action films, since about '96, are still year-round. After all, in light of whatever, many went to see Deadpool.
This was great. Spotlight took home Best Picture and Original Screenplay. It must have been a tough movie to make, and there aren't many like it anymore. Journalists are hard to portray and the movie built and sustained suspense while uncovering layers of the job and scandals along the way. The Revenant was a filmmaking masterpiece and took home Oscars for Director Alejandro G. Inarritu, Actor Leonardo DiCaprio with his first, and Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, When Mad Max: Fury Road won six Oscars early on, it looked like it was going to dominate, but like The Aviator eleven years ago, the biggest statues went to stalwart Oscar fare instead of an action movie. Max Director George Miller and co. were well recognized, though, for the best action movie of the year which, we must allow, lies in a genre like comedy. Both go unrecognized and underappreciated and remain so hard to make well.
The Actress Oscars went to newcomers Brie Larson in Room and Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl. I have not seen either, and both have resonated with audiences and critics steadily in the films' releases. Mark Rylance won Best Supporting Actor for Bridge of Spies in an amazing in a performance that conveyed so much while he shared the screen with one of our most venerable stars Tom Hanks.
As for the show itself, Chris Rock was solid and started it all with a lecture the Hollywood establishment needed to hear. It became a theme throughout the evening and the cameras often showed African American audience members and had several black presenters. This needed to happen, now how about more roles on the screen.
A final note: the show is still too long. As pertinent as the moments are, we can move it along better. At two hours and forty minutes there were still several awards left to give. That's when you know things are slow.
I've been watching the rise of Stephanie Zacharek over the years and enjoying her reviews and columns more and more. Her recent column on what the Oscars say about us as Americans is infinitely more interesting than all the posts about who will win. She echoes what Roger Ebert said about movies more as reflections of society than agents of change. Then Zacharek wrote about who will win at tonight's Oscars and who should. Very succinct; she doesn't waste our time. Some movies do waste our time and we quickly forget them. On recently seeing Trumbo about an important era in twentieth century America, it's important, but the film itself doesn't matter too much on its own. It can, however, spur people to read more broadly about that era and what happened, and what transpires today with our civil liberties. A movie did that once for me in college, but Oliver Stone's JFK mattered so much as a story and stunning achievement in filmmaking. It inspired then and still does today, and it lost Best Picture to The Silence of the Lambs, a good thriller, yes, with great scenes, but not transcendent. Or, the latter movie is for some. That's where the medium, in the course of about two hours, affects us for years or longer after we've seen them. There you are.
So it's true: movies can affect change and be reflections of society. At the very least they can bring an issue into the public, shall we say, spotlight. Last Friday Deadline reported that the Vatican has launched a special commission on investigating what the movie Spotlight showed. I read Vincent Bugliosi's book Divinity of Doubt and remember the series of stories running in newspapers. This is, however, proof that movies matter.
On a lesser note, James Surowiecki's book The Wisdom of Crowds is still unread on my shelf. His title proves right, too. Though I'm a pretty big fan of Quentin Tarantino and his craftsmanship, I didn't plan on seeing The Hateful Eight as it seemed a retread of the edgy picture he's made the last two outings. Not many saw the film, it's out of the U.S. top ten, and two people who did see it remarked on how violent it was. What about the filmmaking? Surprises? The director can be indulgent (his Grindhouse movie) but he is a master. Then comes the wisdom of all the people who vote with their feet and wallets.
Many watch the Super Bowl for the ads. That's partly why I tune in, and the last three years have been amazed how much the networks end up promoting their own TV shows because they didn't sell the ad space. Secondly, you notice who shells out a reported $5 million a minute: Hyundai, Audi, Coca-cola, Pepsi, and a few blockbusters coming out this summer. These are mini-stories meant to entice our appetite, but I don't know how many are waiting with baited breath for the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie or the sequel to Independence Day (I cannot completely remember original's ending). Then there was the cross-promotion, I think, where Jeff Goldblum played a piano while being raised up the side of a building. The ad for Apartments.com was fairly entertaining with a few camera angles, but there wasn't a story. Is it just me, or were many forgettable this year? Ah, but that may sound harsh because it's hard. Then again, for that kind of money, let's dig a little deeper in our creativity and not just in our pockets.
Here's the great thing about immersing oneself in storytelling: you never know where it'll come from. The Economist's article about Disney is the story of the firm post-Eisener. Since 2005, Bob Iger has used cash to acquire Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm, which brought along Industrial Light & Magic, the top special effects house in the business. This is a broad reach indeed, but at the heart of all these savvy business moves for a firm many were uncertain in 2005 as to how it would grow, is storytelling. Disney as a firm understands this. Business may not be so bad for our character indeed.
I even see a story while watching the AFC Championship game, where in the 3rd quarter it seems to be about which defense will relent first, or which offense will get a big play to put the burden squarely on the other team. The score, now 17-12, doesn't matter much. It's about strength of character, which ties back to story.
1. Sicario. This film transcended the medium start to finish.
2. Spotlight. A near-perfect film, this is the journalism movie we've been waiting for with solid performances, writing, and editing across the board.
3. The Hunting Ground. The year's best documentary that built an overwhelming sense of urgency while juggling stories and emotions.
4. The Revenant. Atmosphere and storytelling in their purest forms. Alejandro G. Inarritu continues to assemble a distinct body of work while constantly branching out. He also knows how to keep you guessing.
5. Merchants of Doubt. An investigative piece that never steps wrong and lets us decide on certain facts while turning ideas and figures inside out.
An honorable mention would go to Mad Max: Fury Road. Easily the year's best action movie, George Miller, at seventy, employed many facets of the genre to heights unseen in years.
The new year usually starts with a bright outlook. This one is a little tougher. Vilmos Zsigmond, the great cinematographer who seemed kind, gentle, and loyal when I saw him on a panel at the Seattle International Film Festival. He worked with various directors, many of the greats including Steven Spielberg, where Vilmos won the Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, He also shot The Deer Hunter, Blow Out, and many others. The camera, whether its location was the focal point of the shot, always seemed to be in the right place. In the documentary Visions of Light he spoke of showing how color entered the frame when you first see the steel mill in Deer Hunter. We sensed the place and presence centering around these characters.
His greatness gradually emerged over the years, and he worked into his eighties, being nominated for his work on The Black Dahlia at the age of seventy-five. Artists like him inspire. We always look forward to their work. His shots are much missed already.
Spike Lee's Chi-Raq has had good reviews, and Lee claims he was bullied into almost not making the film by Rahm Emmanuel. Lee was and remains important on the filmmaking and other landscapes, and claims more people have died in Chicago since 2003 than Americans in Iraq and Afghansitan combined. This is why I like the guy: he makes points others don't. Here comes the however: I cannot bring myself to sit down and watch this movie. Reviews and synopses and Lee himself in press conferences will cover the messages just fine. His last movie, the remake of Oldboy, was one of the worst of the last few years. This movie has to be better. So we're glad Chi-Raq was made, and we'll wait for video. I hope teens and twentysomethings see it though mostly because movies by him and like this don't come along too often.
Or call it stealing. Or borrowing. People mock Brian De Palma, then talk incessantly about the opening of the latest James Bond film ("Five minutes in one shot!" one colleague proudly said the other day) and it is done as if Brian had the camera or was directing his DP. It's also the best opening of a Bond film in a long, long time. Everything feels right including Craig's emotionally distant Bond--he's anticipating what's coming next, we see it, know it with him, and await. Nothing like drawing the audience in, which is why we go to the movies.
I recently found myself thinking of Arnold Schwarzenegger's action movies from the 1980s which my friends and I, sometimes dutifully, sat through on the big screen. I re-watched Total Recall this summer and noticed how strong the female leads were with Arnold and all those special effects and planet sets filling the screen. I've also been wondering if Commando is as good as my friend and I thought it was. Even those that came and went, such as Raw Deal, made money, and the big fella didn't fall out of our graces. This piece by Jessica Ritchey captured what we liked about those movies, that there was more than meets the eye in this age where women in action movies feel like their straining to fill big shoes. They are, and they were better shoes. Why she and I and a few people I know have all been thinking about this sub-genre from that era at about the same time, though, is a mystery. Those movies (smirk).
After seeing The Martian win the box office again for the fifth week, with Goosebumps holding strong in second, one wonders why three other big releases bombed this weekend, and that's not counting Rock The Casbah with the usually reliable Bill Murray (Some swear they'll see him in anything). I noted how safe the box office champ played it though the story was balanced between one man's journey and the deliberations at NASA; it stands on its own, is original if not sticking to a formula. The movie is simply done well, and marks quite the return to form for Ridley Scott. I don't think our memories are that short; people will remember the two space movies I mention. People also like and admire ambition on some level, and Our Brand is Crisis doesn't have it. Sandra Bullock can do this part all too easily, and the independent director David Gordon Green, who has one of most curious of careers these days, mostly hits his mark, but has to be wary out of his comfort zone. This box office lull could also just be the dead zone before James Bond and other holiday hits roll in next weekend and beyond. Hence the lackadaisical output and attendance.
This was a little unexpected: Robert Zemeckis, the second most successful director of all time and adept at various genres with solid themes in his work, has a major flop. The Walk looked well made, awe-inspiring, and unseen by me as it appeared all spectacle. We know how it turns out thanks to the 2008 documentary which won the Academy Award. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gave the French accent a college try, and he was set for a solid fall starring in Oliver Stone's movie about Edward Snowden. Then the latter got pushed back to May. But first, why did The Walk sputter so badly, even with an IMAX release? My guess is people, like me, read the reviews and saw that the first ninety minutes were the movie drawing attention to itself before a harrowing last thirty minutes. The whole story is probably done very well since Zemeckis has made some dandies. Even his failures (Back to the Future Part II) at least moved, didn't falter on ideas and took unexpected turns. I think this needed more, beyond spectacle and stunts, and whatever that more was wasn't conveyed in the previews.
Also out of the box office top ten is Black Mass, that much-marketed movie that was EVERYWHERE in big cities. Those who didn't read the book loved it, and the book gave them some scenes on a gold platter. It was bereft of ideas with no sense of history, community, or developing personas. That's where movies like that have to reach us. Seeing Goodfellas twenty-five years to the month after it came out, you see the consistencies: the beats between interactions, the visual consistencies, the mix of humor and brutality. That story evolves, becomes something more, then leaves room for humanity and, dare we say it, humor. That's why there are many celebrations of that movie and not Dances With Wolves, which was fine the one time I saw it. Then I haven't felt the urge to watch it again.
I've been meaning to write about openings for a while. Having re-watched the first half of Leon (Or The Professional) by Luc Besson, the opening introductions and scenes take just under nine minutes and establish so much. The rest of the movie gets worse with age.
The idea of how to drop characters definitely re-awakened with the viewing of Black Mass where Whitey Bulger's wife and son are dropped so coldly by the screenplay we wonder why they were in the movie in the first place. They served no dramatic impact. No effect on anyone else. Then Sicario, which knew its story and purpose so well, a chief supporting character played by Josh Brolin has an unmemorable exit but we don't feel cheated or wonder. The filmmakers know how we feel about him and his place in the story and his relation to, well, everyone and everything else in the movie. That's the big difference between a movie that panders and doesn't add up and one that invades your sub-conscience.
The fall of 1995 will always have a cinematic place in my mind. I had just returned from two years in Asia, the second of which was spent teaching in South Korea. After seeing edited films including a two-hour version of Pulp Fiction instead of two hours and thirty-four minutes, I was hungry. The independent film movement was well under way. As I'd give any mainstream movie a shot, a friend and I saw Showgirls, directed by Paul Verhoeven who had done Robocop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct. I had yet to see The 4th Man, which got him international attention in 1983.
So we went to see Verhoeven's latest with many other guys and a few elderly couples. The theater was packed on a Saturday afternoon. About ten minutes in the script by Joe Ezterhas, then the highest paid screenwriter in history, went from bad to worse. The direction, the characters, everything was so obvious, trite, and insipid, I left after an hour against my friend's wishes. I walked out, nodded with a smirk to the smiling people behind concessions, and entered The Usual Suspects, which I'd seen a few weeks earlier and was still thinking about. I joined about five others in the theater and watched about forty minutes. It was early in the story with characters getting to know one another with their distinct personalities revealing themselves. The first thing that occurred to me was that I walked out of a forty million-dollar movie and into a vastly superior six million-dollar movie.
I walked back into the movie we paid matinee price to see. "Did it get any better?" I asked my friend.
"Man, this is the worst thing ever," he said.
Sometimes we give talent leeway, and we have to hold the talented accountable, which can be ultimately good for them. Or, sometimes, we have to see what a proven artist is up to, what he/she is working on these days, and boy can they stumble. More remembrances of that great season to come.