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.
The summer's biggest flops are that movies that either come in below our expectations, such as Magic Mike XXL starring only Channing Tatum and without Matthew McCopnaughey and Steven Soderbergh behind the camera, or confound us no matter how hard they try to inspire, such as Tomorrowland, which whisked us away but told a confusing, groundless story that didn't stick to a theme before hitting us over the head with a green message. The last movie to have this kind of green message was James Cameron's Avatar, but it wove its theme into the story. Brad Bird's film with George Clooney also had no memorable lines and imported resolution cliches toward the climax. A fistfight wasn't what you expected from a movie about the future.
It's also easy to pile on major misfires, but also time to look at why these stories didn't stick. Pixels was previewed for months, and as I attended middle and high school in the '80s, I could've, should've been in the marketing cross-hairs. Friends and I still weren't inspired. It looked like what it was: big budgeted, star-studded skits with videogames, which only go so far. The original Tron had characters and a premise that was duplicated by the uber-successful Matrix films. This thing looked like a huge skin deep skit. I (and many others) have yet to see Aloha or The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the latter of which had an awesome trailer; it looked inspired, which is more than a few listed above.
We all do it: sometimes you look back. Thirty years ago was the summer movies showed me the breadth and scope they can assume. After the much-heralded The Goonies opened well (I was fourteen, had barely outgrown it), Back to the Future opened in early July and blew everything away at the box office. That movie took you back thirty years from there. But there were other big movies that summer, and not just at the box office. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome took us back to the outback, showed the father side of a martyr, and how an action movie can be creative, mix genres, and stay tightly to its theme and structure.
I also think of John Boorman's The Emerald Forest. Here was a movie of monumental, sustaining cultural and political importance. The film's major character was played by Powers Boothe, who had seldom had so much screen time. It was also the first time a movie took me away to a faraway land and was subtle: the shot of the two construction workers stopping and talking at the edge of the forest before sauntering away, and the camera pans slowly to the right, showing the natives silently standing among the trees and leaves. The movie's not perfect, but it suggested and beckoned so much else in the world beyond the screen. Not many like it today.
2015 may go down as the first summer where cable television series made an impact on the mainstream box office. Tentpoles such as Pixels, advertised for months, or sequels such as Ted 2, came and went. You didn't hear anything about the story, nor talk to one person who saw them. Forgettable is what they were. Yet True Detective, The Walking Dead, and others had people talking at work. We finally had the sleeper hit of the summer if not the year with Straight Outta Compton. It apparently is a personal story, appealing to African American, white, musical audiences. That covers a lot of ground, but it's also personal.
I've been reading Sharon Waxman's excellent book Rebels on the Backlot. It's about six directors who clashed/worked with the major studios in the '90s. They made such unique hits as Three Kings, Being John Malkovich, and Fight Club, all of which came out in 1999. These people had visions, stuck to their stories and butted heads with just about every studio suit mentioned in the book. And many of them made money and are still working today. A sequel to this book could easily be in order. What's missing today are those unique stories that really went out on limbs, yet didn't sink. The studios knew talent when they saw it, or in the case of Malkovich, it just went below the radar during a merger. Filmmakers should be so lucky in this teaser-trailer-buzzfeed-Youtube era.
I just reviewed Shaun the Sheep and cannot say enough good things about it. One might ask why this of all movies matter. Easy: it makes us laugh, shows how simple, witty humor can maintain innocence yet be grownup, and reinvent the story of taking a character, or set of characters, we know and dropping them into familiar territory. Yet in this movie, that never gets old because the journey comes into contact with several facets of modern day and never dwells. A situation is introduced, we get a laugh, and move on.
I also just saw that on opening day director Josh Trank is blaming the studio for the result of Fantastic Four. The last Fantastic Four with a completely different cast was one of the most shallow, witless cinematic ventures of the last ten years. With this cast including Miles Teller and Kate Mara who have been in solid fare the last few years, they're probably not to blame. Instead, perhaps the studio and director should see above and Ant-Man to see what's possible. Both films create their own worlds, are true to themselves, have observations about human nature, and incorporate the world we live in into an organic story. They matter, whereas the current Fantastic Four sounds like it doesn't to anyone except investors.
Sometimes the box office cracks me up. Ant-Man barely held on, but did hold on, to first place, passing the $100 million mark in the U.S. and proving it won't go away easily. That's because it has a story built on principles, characters with history if a little too simple, and a mix of genres. Before we trumpet this thing too much, the tenth-place movie is the latest Terminator petering out at $85 million domestically. I haven't talked with one person who's seen it and urged me to see it. There you go.
At the movies last week, though, I saw the three best previews all summer. The new Star Wars with it's panning shot across what looks like the Tatooine comes upon a crashed Star Destroyer, an awesome sight on a few levels, for its sheer physical magnificence, evoking wonder, and on the storytelling level of crossing familiar with unfamiliar. Then came the shots of lightsabers, symbolizing the force, passed from one character to another. Then the final shot of Chewbacca and Han Solo. We sense the magic will be back, if not for breaking tremendously new ground (the black stormtroopers don't spark much awe), at least building from and sticking to its roots.
The new Mission Impossible looks solid with exotic locales and everyone having fun. We'll see it, and laud the studio for holding off on its release until July 31 when the dust has cleared. The last preview was huge: Guy Ritchie returning to what he does best with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The two-male banter, the espionage, the improvisation amidst order of operations looks to be the sleeper hit of August. I didn't quite recognize Armie Hammer at first, but this director, I suspect, will get a good performance out of him as David Fincher did in The Social Network.
These three previews on the big screen were almost worth the price of admission.
Consider this article on SSN about creating compelling characters. The Minions has splashed into theaters, clearing the $100 million mark in its opening weekend. They're not quite compelling, and the filmmakers know this. Neither are the villains, so events, jokes, and reactions, which reveal character, are hurled at us at 180 mph over barely an 85-minute movie, if you include the credits. On the other hand, I hand a feeling about Ant-Man. Seeing Michael Douglas in the ageing role, Paul Rudd as the hero; these actors don't choose their scripts lightly. They know themselves too well, and the reviews say this Marvel adaptation, of the many over the last seven years or so (Iron Man came out seven years ago if you can believe it) has the best character development of any, if memory serves. That's saying something. A team of writers, with Edgar Wright getting first credit and Paul Rudd last for the screenplay, no doubt worked through the story multiple times. You have to, don't you?
Yes, the new Terminator has had mixed reviews, but I'll probably see it because it goes back to its roots. Many friends and I skipped the last Terminator movie because it looked like a quickly made if expensive grab at franchise territory plus no Arnie. This time he's back, and we have what looks like a decent actress playing Sarah Connor. This will do, even if it doesn't have Cameron behind the camera, which brings up his career: he is so smart at navigating what projects he takes on, we can't help but admire the man, whose last film came out five-and-a-half years ago, doesn't resonate with us as much as his others, but it struck a chord at the time. That's the enduring power of films, if not the cultural value of people who make them.