Stoker (2013)

I’ve frequently maintained that the best films stay with you. I don’t mean ‘best’ in terms of quality, necessarily — though that helps — but the best films in terms of those that actually meaningfully contribute to what we call cinema. The best films keep projecting into our temporal lobes long after the credits have rolled; they haunt us, they taunt us, they call to us to watch again, to peel back the layers of their meaning, to look beneath their skin just as they have weaved their way under ours.

A few years ago I taught a course at the University of Sydney that examined the transition from celluloid to digital. It was a wonderful course, and inspired me in many ways for the studio teaching and research I’m currently undertaking. One of the films we watched was Park Chan-wook’s Night Fishing. What a weird little film. Shot entirely on an iPhone 4, the film combines night-vision, fishing, camping, mythology, ghost stories, grief — it’s a masterful little thing. It was perfect for that course, too, because it reiterated that it doesn’t matter what tool you use to create cinema; cinema can be created with anything.

I’d been meaning to catch more of Park’s work, particularly Oldboy and the Vengeance trilogy, but they remain on the Shelf of Shame. After seeing a screengrab from Stoker in a talk on Friday though, I was immediately inspired to get the bluray. This film deserves the highest quality, as it is stunningly beautiful. Also, with this kind of movie, you need your blacks to be really black.

Briefly, and trying not to spoil anything, Stoker is a bottled drama starring Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker, Nicole Kidman as her mother Evelyn, and Matthew Goode as India’s Uncle Charlie. India and Evelyn are recovering from the death of India’s father, Richard, as Uncle Charlie moves back into their lives after a long absence. Long story short, some stuff happens.

stoke-rabs

The Hitchcockian overtones and influences are readily apparent — the Uncle Charlie/India relationship is pilfered from Shadow of a Doubt, and the tension that slowly builds throughout the film is reminiscent of [insert name of any Hitchcock film here]. But what’s neat about this film is how that tension is woven in with the beautiful imagery. Further, their are even hints of the mobile image (as in mobile phone) that I remember from Night Fishing. In one scene, India and Charlie are playing a duet on the piano. This is a weird moment for a lot of reasons, but the weirdness is reinforced by this tracking shot, about shin-height, that snakes its way between the furniture right up behind them. The tracking shot recalls The Shining, but the movement isn’t entirely smooth. Much like the visual composition of the rest of the film, this shot is not entirely stable. You wouldn’t say its unstable, but there’s definitely something not right. Take any shot of Uncle Charlie, for example. We’re never given the full picture, something is always in the way. It doesn’t hurt, too, that Goode’s performance oozes Anthony Perkins in Psycho.

stoke-rabs2

Stoker is one of those perfect examples of a film where everything congeals into one single vision. Camera, editing, music, performance, narrative all just happen; there’s really no separating them. There is no distinction to be made here between the analogue and the digital (for what it’s worth, it was shot on 35mm). This is a stream of information, a torrent of meaning, that brings the audience wholly into the narrative in an effortless way. This may not be a quality film (it is), but it certainly is one of the best.

Awaiting Awakens

george-lucas

It’s been hard for me to focus today.

Technically it’s a work day — the place I work for doesn’t close down for the Christmas break until December 23. For better or worse, though, the primary element of my role — teaching — wrapped up at the end of October. Grading assessments brought me up to mid-November, but then it’s been working through a random assortment of things I’d been putting off for the rest of the year. Largely research and getting on top of reading for supervisions.

Which means I’ve had a lot of thinking time. Probably too much.

Today is December 16. Midnight tomorrow (12am December 17) sees me enter a cinema, don some 3D glasses and strap in for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Those who know me know that I’ve been a fan of Star Wars forever. I wore out the Special Edition VHS tapes as a kid, then bought up each new iteration as it was released (warts, badly-composited womp rats, NOOOOOOOOOO’s, and all). I’ve written elsewhere about how Star Wars was an escape, and it was. It helped me through a lot. It was that escape, that fantasy, that security blanket, that everyone needs and deserves.

As I’ve gotten (a little) older, I’ve become more invested in how this pop culture behemoth has taken over the popular consciousness. While I would never ever consider authoring anything academic about the franchise (though I have mentioned it on occasion, only as an example), it’s been really great to see that excitement about these films that are so special to me has not waned in some 40 odd years.

I’m not particularly concerned about the new film. I have a lot of time for JJ Abrams as a person and a director, which might shock some of my students. I have next to no expectations, beyond my wish for a good time. You’d think I’d expect more, given my extended fanship, but honestly I am a little over the whingers. Han Shot First, fan theories, despecialized editions, the list goes on. A great deal of George Lucas’s pain over the last thirty years comes down to fans thinking they own the franchise when, honestly, they don’t. They never have.

Now, let’s be clear: I think a lot of the changes Lucas has made over the years have resulted in poorer films. But jumping up and down won’t change anything. Sadly, said jumping up and down has resulted in an entire social network: Tumblr. I like Tumblr, it’s a fun place to be, but it can also be exhausting.

Tangent time: in the last 24 hours I’ve listened to the entire run of the podcast Limetown. It’s a fictional story in the style of investigative/story-based podcasts like This American Life and Serial (though there is speculation Limetown was produced before the latter was release). It’s a short and engaging story (six episodes of about 25 mins each) in the vein of Fringe or The Twilight Zone, and makes exceptional use of the format in order to develop characters and tension. After some discussion with the good friend who put me on to the show, I decided to investigate a little further into some of the unresolved story threads. Reddit didn’t let me down. Hundreds of seemingly unimportant references and words are ripped to shreds by fans who have listened to each episode ten or more times. While there is a tendency to label uber-fans as obsessives or ‘weird’ (per Jenkins), I can’t help but admire their dedication to this thing that they’ve found that they love. Some of the discussions, though, led to some fans defending an idea that was entirely based on speculation. Fans of podcasts are generally a genial bunch, so it never got nasty, but there were moments where, with other cultural artefacts, it’s gotten very ugly.

Again, it comes down to ownership. I see no harm in throwing theories out there, speculating on what might happen, or collectively bemoaning adjustments to a beloved franchise, but adoration/love/fandom does not equal ownership. Limetown and Star Wars do not belong to us. They are the genuine artistic creations of a series of individuals who should be praised for having the skills and the guts to put it together and put it out into the world.

It was gratifying to read that George Lucas had received a standing ovation at the premiere of The Force Awakens earlier in the week. And in the latest episode of Imaginary Worlds, Eric Molinsky dissects the Han Shot First debate, couching it in not dissimilar terms to those I’ve used above. One quote really stuck with me, and in many ways inspired this epic rant of mine:

“We shouldn’t be too proud of this technological terror we’ve constructed, and by that I mean Twitter. Because at a certain point filmmakers need to have leeway to make bold creative choices so the franchise can breathe and grow and not be just a big nostalgia trip.”

I had a lot of feels about Jurassic World. But, in hindsight, kudos to the rights-holders for giving Colin Trevorrow the go-ahead to introduce new characters and stories (and, sadly, dinosaurs) into this world we know and love. Jurassic World was a failed experiment, but without failure there would be no success. I think The Force Awakens will prove that such revivals, reawakenings, and reboots, can be successful.

Whiplash (2014)

"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'Good job'."

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘Good job’.”

Richard Brody didn’t like Whiplash (2014).

That’s fine. Critics, of all people, are certainly entitled to their opinion. And Richard Brody is by no means an unqualified critic. What Brody’s done here, though, is fundamentally misunderstand the thrust of the film he’s critiquing. It’s a trap that a great many critics fall into: thinking the film is about one thing, when it’s actually about something else, or a bunch of other things.

‘The movie’s very idea of jazz,’ writes Brody, ‘is a grotesque and ludicrous caricature.’ It certainly would be, if this was a film about jazz, rather than a jazz film.

What on earth is a jazz film? Damn fine question. The notion came to me in one of the earlier scenes in Damien Chazelle’s film. Miles Teller’s Andrew leaves the Conservatory, heading home after thinking he’s failed to make the cut for the concert band. Amid the standard cutting of Andrew walking the streets between his school and his home, random shots show street lamps, illuminated windows, signage, traffic. This isn’t a standard contextualising montage between scenes – these are random shots interspersed with the character-centric frames.

This random approach to cinematography and editing persists throughout the film – take the phenomenal final shots which obscure the subjects’ faces, and not the parts a cinematographer would normally mask.

So while perhaps Chazelle is not glorifying jazz, the learning of music, or education more broadly, he is certainly contributing a jazz sensibility to the craft of cinema.

Billy Crystal is quoted as saying ‘That’s the thing about jazz; it’s free-flowing, it comes from your soul.’ This idea works for Whiplash: not only is the flow of images free, but they all feel as though they came from some deep place.

This is particularly appropriate given that this is not a film about music, or education, or history, or culture. This is a film about the systematic manipulation and mangled reconstruction of one soul by another.

Whiplash is a staggering film, that I’ll struggle to get over. It’s a stellar character piece, and I feel that the claustrophobic intimacy of its dark story will haunt cinema for some years to come.

The 10th Victim (1965)

Don't worry, Marcello, I'm just as confused as you are.

Don’t worry, Marcello, I’m just as confused as you are.

I found The 10th Victim on Letterboxd. I’m not sure exactly how it emerged in my field of view, but probably some crazy collision of Blade Runner, The Hunger Games, and 8 1/2. Regardless, I ordered the Bluray, then settled in for an evening of messed-up Italian future-noir.

It took me a few runs at it, but I made it through. It’s not the easiest watch. Petri treads the line between noir, drama, and utter camp, and sometimes his editing lets him down as far as pacing goes. That said, his cinematographer does an amazing job to frame a very specifically production-designed future. The little touches like the yellow backlit back door on the Hunt Club, and the transparent phone box, and Marcello’s fantastic clear-topped car — these top off a perfectly-realised future-world more accurately than any leather-clad Jennifer Lawrence.

The influence of this film is clear: from Ursula’s bra-guns that no doubt inspired Austin Powers’ fembots, to the competition itself, which finds echoes in The Hunger Games and Maze Runner. Overall it’s worth a look, if only for Mastroianni’s calm and deliberate persona.

[cross-posted from Letterboxd]

A day of catching up

Not exactly emptying the Netflix queue, or making a dent in the Letterboxd watchlist, but still productive, I think. I also half-watched Mad Max: The Road Warrior and A Year In Champagne, which I’ll try to knock over by the end of the week.

Primer (2004)

I’m still not entirely sure what to make of this film. I didn’t quite get it. But I really think that’s exactly the point. The dialogue is so obscure, so layered, so full of scientific jargon, but not at all in a deliberate, dramatic-concealment kind of way. If two dudes stumbled across time travel in a garage, I pretty much think this is how things would turn out. Give or take. I’ll let you know when I watch the film earlier tomorrow.

Seven Days in May (1964)

I expected something of a Cold War countdown, similar to Fail Safe, or its comic attache, Dr Strangelove. Instead I got a tensely-wound political thriller, quite simply detailed despite its tentacle-like story threads. Lancaster and March hold this up — and I say this in spite of the presence of Martin Balsam and Edmond O’Brien in supporting roles.

What struck me most of all today (and you may be sensing a pattern today) is the cinematography. The framing in some of the scenes of this film is phenomenal. Some of the editing, on the other hand (I speak for the sequence where Douglas watches Lancaster’s speech) is akin to proper ’70s paranoia films (I’m looking at you, Parallax View).

But this had me hanging, which is an achievement for films of this ilk. [cross-posted from Letterboxd]

Pandora’s Promise (2013)

Just to top off a day of science and paranoia, I finished up with this rather optimistic view of what nuclear power might offer a world aching for a clean and safe source of energy. I enjoyed this, despite its sometimes feeling a little like a Kickstarter promo video. [cross-posted from Letterboxd]

Spared no expense on everything but story

This is not the most unbelievable thing about Jurassic World. At least mosasaurs actually existed.

This is not the most unbelievable thing about Jurassic World. At least mosasaurs actually existed.

There are lots of things you can do with collaborators. Build a house, manage some kind of project that synergises all the paradigms, play sports. There are even things you can do with collaborators in film production: set up lights, operate cameras, run cables, produce. I am of the very strong opinion, though, that there is one thing you can’t do as a team: write a script. And if you need an absolute case-in-point as to why this is now indisputable fact: go watch Jurassic World.

I had very low expectations of this film going in, but there was still a part of me that really wanted to get swept up and then blown away. I wanted to rekindle some of that magic from that moment in Jurassic Park where Alan Grant turns Ellie Satler’s head so she can gawp at the brachiosaurs. The thing with Jurassic Park, though, is that they were restrained by technology. Time and time again, this restriction has led to some of the most innovative — and believeable — filmmaking. The combination of early CGI with models, miniatures, and animatronics, had the audience holding their breath with every T-Rex footstep. The other Spielbergian touch that really worked in the original is the idea of hiding the monster. This is something he started with Jaws (for budgetary reasons), but which ended up being so very effective. If you hide the monster, you can build the script and the characters around that suspense, such that when you do reveal the demon in full, it becomes a focal point: the final conflict, which ultimately leads to resolution.

This sense of wonder mingled with deft suspense, this ability to suspend disbelief, this logical story progression, was entirely absent from Jurassic World. Instead we get Male (Chris Pratt) off-handedly flirting with Female (Bryce Dallas Howard) while the genetically-modified hybrid dinosaur runs amok in an inexplicably fully-functioning dinosaur theme park. If the story were that simple, the film may have worked (or had a fighting chance). Instead, you’ve also got Kid 1 and Kid 2 embroiled in the chaos, military contractors led by Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) wanting to use dinosaurs to overthrow ISIS or whatever, oh, and Male (Pratt) has actually been training velociraptors to do tricks for park visitors. Also there’s 21st century Denis Nedry (played by New Girl guy) and his coworkers in Mission Control at NASA watching everyone die on big screens. Also this film is apparently a subtle dig at consumer culture and the film industry.

My biggest problem with Jurassic World isn’t the sheer amount of groundless, physics-defying CGI (at one point a velociraptor glides across the ground as though animated by me with my crappy After Effects skills). My biggest problem with Jurassic World is that all these characters I’ve mentioned are supposed to be human beings. They’re meant to have backstories and lives and motivations, and all of these things are meant to be apparent to us as soon as we meet them, because we know we won’t have enough time with all of them across the length of the film. My biggest problem with Jurassic World is that it fails so spectacularly at what Jurassic Park did so well: tell a story with a sizeable ensemble cast, and get you seeing what they see, feeling what they feel, wanting what they want. And so much of that empathy is down to the script. Shoehorning expositional shortcuts into dialogue is not the way to create empathy with characters: showing us how a character we’ve prejudged based on appearance reacts in an extraordinary situation is. To be fair, there are moments in Jurassic World like this, but they’re so few and far between that these actual character development/storytelling ‘bits’ are lost in a sea of hokiness.

These characters were profiled by committee, and their stories were written by different people in different rooms, and there was no meeting between that process and filming. The clunkiness of the script is even further exacerbated when your film does not have any acts: the audience is left with no time to breathe, and there is no logical escalation of action. Storytelling was farmed off here, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it writ so clearly on the screen. Almost every line of dialogue in the first half of the film made me cringe. I think I only stopped cringing in the second half because the final build-up of action was distracting (and my shoulders were sore).

The biggest hurdle that Jurassic World faces is that it’s part of a franchise that began with one of the most beloved films of the 1990s. It doesn’t hurt that the original film is one of the finest action-adventure films in cinematic history, with believeable characters, with pacing, and with some of the most innovative visual effects ever put on screen. Jurassic World fails for the very reasons that it attempts to satirise: it ignores its audience, giving them what it thinks they want, rather than attempting to engage them on a meaningful level.

Suffice to say this new franchise will likely not, uh, uh, find a way.