Thursday, December 23, 2010

True Grit (The Coen Brothers, 2010)

Joel and Ethan Coen are truly original film makers, and I think I finally nailed down the elusive "Coen Brothers style." They are able to use character and story to elevate their films to the level of real cinematic art, and at the same time carry off the kind of low brow comedy most "artistic" directors run from as if it were plague ridden carrion. By never turning their noses up at either, they are able to deftly and effectively mix the two in a way the presents them as parts of the same whole, which is a real truth.

In True Grit they have a character who is an excellent representation of the same kind of duality. Mattie Ross is a fourteen year old girl, who hires a U.S. Marshall as a bounty hunter to track down and bring in or kill the man who killed her father. It should be mentioned that the girls father wasn't involved in any kind of criminal activity. He was actually trying to convince his killer not to go and kill someone else. Mattie Ross is no fool, as we quickly come to understand through a few business exchanges she conducts to arrange for her father's body to be shipped back to their home, and then with a livery owner who had sold him some horses shortly before he was killed. Both scenes have some very funny moments, and they impress the idea that Mattie Ross may be a young girl but she is no fool. Then she begins pestering the local law enforcement to find out what progress they've made with tracking her father's killer. When she's basically told there isn't and won't be any progress because U.S. Marshall's are the only one's who have any jurisdiction there, a few questions lead her to the idea that Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn is the meanest bastard of the bunch, and Mattie's mind is made up at that moment to contract old Rooster to find her father's killer. 

This film differs from the 1969 version in that it's not really about Rooster Cogburn. It's about Mattie Ross and her relationship to Cogburn, and the events that follow her hiring him for the job. Hailee Steinfeld is pretty amazing as Mattie Ross. She's got some television credits on her resume' but this is her first feature film, and she steals her share of scenes from older more experienced actors. This is a strong character. She's not the usual child character thrown in as a plot device. The film's title, True Grit, is as much referring to her character as to Cogburn or anyone else in the film. The character is childish in only one respect, her extremely black and white view of right and wrong, and her bullish nature when it comes to getting what she thinks is right. At first, these come across as very adult qualities, but as the film progresses, it becomes clear that she may not have been fully aware of the price for that particular kind of childishness. When Matt Damon shows up as a Texas Ranger who informs her the man who killed her father is wanted in Texas for killing a Senator in Texas, there's a considerable bounty on his head and that he intends to take him back to Texas (I think the film takes place in Arkansas, but I'm not completely positive, and the only thing that really matters is that it isn't Texas), Mattie dresses him down handily. As far as she's concerned, there is only one right in the situation, the man will be caught, tried, convicted and hanged for killing her father, not for killing some Texas Senator. Not everyone is a fan of Matt Damon, I know. He's given one or two very good performances, over all he's passable and always likable. Steinfeld overpowers him in this scene. Part of this is due to the story, because her character is supposed to be able to verbally overpower him, but Steinfeld makes it real. There's none of the mugging which is common with child actors, no score to tell you that's supposed to be the case, and the way the scene is actually shot, looking up at Damon and down and Steinfeld, it's not the visual representation either. It's all her. She imbues Mattie with that exact duality in this scene because it's obvious that the girl's sense of right and wrong, her sense of injustice, is over riding her sense of the humanity of other human beings, which in essence is what a sense of right and wrong and morality is really all about. At this point in the film (very early on), it hasn't tipped it's hand though, and Damon's Ranger Leboeuf (which he pronounces "Lebeef") is a bit foppish and definitely concerned with the image related to being a Texas Ranger in that day and age. There are some great lines in that scene, and it's very funny. 

I have to confess that I am not someone who has had the kind of love and respect for Jeff Bridges that I've been reading so much about recently. I thought he was very good in The Fisher King, and of course, The Dude in The Big Lebowski is an iconicly awesome character that he brought to life with real  slacker charisma and charm, but for some reason, I just never really thought much of him. It's not that have actively disliked him, it's that I literally didn't think much of him. He's not someone who jumped to mind when I thought about great actors living and working today. His turn here as Cogburn has helped to change that. Because this character was originally portrayed by John Wayne, the comparisons are going to be inevitable. I don't really think it's fair to compare a living actor to a dead legend. Wayne is an icon of the magnitude that our entire culture is still characterized by in some parts of the world. I haven't seen the original film since I was ten or twelve years old, it's not so heavily etched into my mind to be unable to separate the two films and characters. Also, John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn was tailored specifically for him, and apparently this character is much more directly lifted from the original book. Bridges does a great job of portraying Cogburn as a man who is good at one thing only, tracking down and killing fugitives. It seems that when he's not doing that, he's a drunk and a bastard, though sometimes he's a drunk while he's chasing fugtives, which provides Bridges some great material to play. In watching Bridges play Cogburn, I realized that I've rarely thought of him because I'm usually too entertained or horrified (as in the opening of The Fisher King) to sit there thinking, "Wow, that Jeff Bridges is really great." I know a few people who have a violent distaste for Bridges, and that's too bad because they'll be missing a really great film and the kind of entry into the genre that helps to keep the Western alive. Much of that is due to Bridges. 

Barry Pepper and Josh Brolin have small roles in the film as well. Brolin plays Tom Chaney, the man responsible for the death of Mattie's father, and Pepper plays the leader of the gang Chaney's taken up with, "Lucky" Ned Pepper. Brolin's Chaney is a dim wit, without the kind of swagger most of his other roles have entailed, and he handles it deftly. His character is stupid, but also quick to anger, as Mattie Ross and Cogburn are, and that's generally a bad combination in film and in real life. He's also waste deep in self pity, which if he were slightly brighter might be a trait I'd dislike in him even more. But he comes across as literally too stupid to know better. In No Country for Old Men, Brolin's character definitely made some poor decisions, but I don't think I've ever seen Brolin play a character this utterly stupid before, and the sincerity he's able to express in that stupidity is impressive, even in the short time we see it. Barry Pepper, well, he's Barry Pepper, and he's characteristically great in his small role as well. There are a handful of actors I really wish were getting better roles more often, and he's one of them. It's possible that the reason I've never seen a bad Barry Pepper performance is that he's not getting enough work to have turned one out, but I doubt that. I always love this guy, no matter what I see him in, and I always completely buy him in whatever role he's playing. He's a relatively young actor, so hopefully at some point in the not too distant future, he'll get the kind of break out role which will afford him the ability to choose whatever projects he wants. 

Once again, the Coen Brothers turn to Roger Deakins as the Director of Cinematography. He's worked on a number of their previous films, and again, the results are gorgeous. Westerns are known for their wide open vistas, and there's some of that, but much of the film is also spent lingering on medium distance shots of Mattie and Cogburn, which gives the cinematography the same duality that the story has. On one side of the frame you have the gruff, roaring, unatmable Cogburn whose final idea of right and wrong comes down to who's standing and who's dead, and on the other side of the frame there's Mattie, whose obsession with seeing her own justice meeted out set the whole story in motion. It also serves to help establish both a sense of real isolation, as if they are out in the middle of a wilderness into which few people wander, and that in turn helps to create a considerable sense of realism in the film. And really, it's just beautiful. The colors are deep, rich, earthy and warm. I don't even have to look it up to know that this was shot on film. This is the kind of movie, with the kind of look that makes me hope that the film industry doesn't completely scrap film in favor of strictly digital photography for a very long time to come. Digital can look great and also be beautiful in it's own way, but this is something that I don't know I've seen recreated with digital photography yet. Most of the film takes place in the wilderness, and so far, film captures landscapes and natural settings more beautifully and more naturally than digital does. And it should be mentoined that Carter Burwell's score of authentically period music is gorgeous and understated, never placing itself before what the story and the visual presentation are. There are a few beautiful solo piano pieces which I intend to pick up. 

This is probably the most traditional, straightforward and mainstream variety of film the Coens have made. The source material seems to have lent itself to their style quite well though, because it's still very much a Coen Brothers film in it's tone and it's content. It just lacks some of the more surreal or exagerated aspects of their other films. I'd basically suggest this film to anyone. Coen Brothers fans aren't going to be disappointed because it has the strong characters and story we've come to expect from them, but it's not as absurd or bizarre as some of the films they've made which have turned mainstream audiences off. All in all, it's not the caliber of work that Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing or O' Brother Where Art Thou are, but it's still one of the best movies I've seen this year. Probably the best things I can say about it is that I can recommend it to anyone and it's definitely the kind of film I'll be able to watch repeatedly. It'll be the kind of film which will become an old stand by. When I can't decide what else to watch, True Grit will never be a bad choice.  

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

Darren Aronofsky's latest leaves me with one lingering question I can't seem to answer. Did I just see an independent arthouse movie wrapped in the trappings of a seventies exploitation grindhouse flick or did I just see a seventies exploitation grindhouse flick wrapped in the trappings of and independent arthouse movie? I honestly can't be one hundred percent sure. Either way, what I did see grabbed hold of me in the first ten minutes, then suddenly two hours had passed and I was smiling gleefully as the credits began to roll.

Black Swan is going to be the kind of movie that cinephiles in their late teens and early twenties are going to be suggesting to each other in twenty or thirty years. Though it seems to be doing good business right now, if the comments I heard from the audience as they were walking out are any indication (and sometimes they aren't), this is not going to be a film the general public is going to be giving standing ovations. Most of those comments seem to relate to the trailer having portrayed the film as something very different than what it is. Honestly, I haven't seen a trailer for this yet, so I can't comment on the veracity of that claim. When it was first anounced that Darren Aronofsky was going to be making a movie with Natalie Portman in the lead, I was basically on board to see it. As it hit the festival circuit and was given a limited release, the little I read about it did nothing to suggest I should plan on skipping it. I'm really glad I didn't. 

The film follows Portman's Nina Sayers, just given the chance to play the lead role of The Swan Queen in her ballet companies performance of Swan Lake. It slowly becomes a film about the obsession for perfection, and in that, a question of whether or not a rival dancer is trying to steal Nina's place in the production or is Nina just cracking under the pressure. That's the really simple explanation, because I don't want to give too much of this away up front. This film will definitely play better when you know less about what you're actually seeing. That short synopsis might make this sound like a very straight forward story about revenge, competition, anger and so on, but it's really not. It's mostly a story about the lengths human beings go to in order to try and reach creative perfection. With one possible exception, each of the characters in this film are pushing the boundaries of what most of us would consider "normal" and sometimes even "healthy" in both the phsyical and psychological senses. 

I'm not a ballet aficianado by any stretch of the imagination. I probably learned more about ballet watching this film than my entire collected understanding represented when I walked into the theater. What the film definitely suggests is that ballet is a labor of love and an extremely competitive, cut throat world. The sheer physicality and physique necessary to perform with even just enough prowess to create the illusion necessary for a film is daunting. The physical condition of the actors, and every dancer in the film (the actors actually do the majority of their own dance work), is impressive. This film had to have been a labor of love for the actors, just as dancing is for real dancers. The chances are it's going to pay off as well because I'd be willing to agree with the predictions that Natalie Portman is a shoe in for a best actress nod at the Oscars. She may not actually win, but it will be an act of fraud if she isn't nominated. Her performance is the reason the film engulfs the viewer so deeply and so quickly. She's phenomenal in a role that in some ways is similar to others she's played before, but in others, something completely and utterly different for her. It's impressive in it's own right. This is the first film I can think of which is completely dependent on Portman for it to be able to stand up, and it doesn't just stand up, it pirouettes, jumps,  and runs like a psych patient who just escaped "the quiet room." 

Vincent Cassel turns in another great performance as well. This film now puts Cassel in the rare category of actors whose films I will go to see because he's in it. Not only have every single one of his performances been great, but I have yet to see him in anything I really just felt was a waste of my time. Eastern Promises was a superb film, Brotherhood of the Wolf was an absolute blast to watch, the Oceans films were at least fun and The Crimon Rivers was a well done straight forward thriller. He just never turns in a bad performance and he seems to have great instincts for the projects he chooses. 

And Barbara Hershey puts in another knock out performance as Nina's truly bizarre mother. There are echoes of Carrie in the relationship, but Hershey nevers takes the role over the top in the way Piper Laurie did in Carrie. Her more quietly weird smothering is almost more unsettling because it's obvious she cares very deeply for her daughter, and at the same time, it's disturbing to see the way that is expressed. It could have become more caricature than character, but Hershey gives another in a career full of great performances. 

Then there's Mila Kunis. Most of us probably know her from That 70's Show. At some point I saw the American Psycho sequel she starred in, American Psycho II: All American Girl. The script had originally been written as it's own complete, stand alone film, with absolutely no connection to American Psycho, and you could tell. It was as bad, painfully bad. But, when I saw her in Moving Mcallister, her performance stood out as the best amongst the cast in an otherwise decent but forgettable road trip romance. I was wary of her inclusion with the rest of this cast. But she does a damn good job with the role she's given. She has a fair amount of screen time, but not really an abundance of dialog. She has a few key scenes with Portman that she nails perfectly and with even that little amount to really do, there's a very strong sense of who the character is and what she's really all about. It's good to see Kunis can step into a project very different from what she's been known for and still be able to carry herself in a way that she should be proud of. 

The visual style for the film is interesting. Early on in the film, it has a very recognizable hand held documentary style, but as it progresses, it changes, becoming more and more claustrophobic. Even the ballet scenes start to become more and more intimate and personal, pulling in on Portman's expressions and eschewing the spectacle and beauty of the ballet itself in favor of continuing to ratchet up the emotional connection to her character and the tension involved in the story. It works extremely well and comes across as an amalgamation of the visual styles Aronofsky and his long time cinematographer Mathew Libatique have used up to this point. It lacks the editing tricks used in Requiem for a Dream, but it retains some of the freneticism of Pi, the intimacy of The Wrestler and even the grandeur of The Fountain once or twice. The visual style is completely connected to the emotional and psychological state of the lead character, Nina, and it works perfectly. As her emotional and psychological state shifts throughout the film, the camera portrays that shift without ever becoming a hack's trick to impress the audience at the expense of the overall film. 

As I alluded to at the beginning, it's hard to classify exactly what this film is. It is an arthouse independent film in some ways, because it is a deeply personal, but still very unusual story whose financing and production were completed outside of the Hollywood studio system. At the same time, it's a weird little character examination/psychological thriller. And still at times in the film, it plays more like those really rare examples of actually well done and great grindhouse films of the seventies. It manages to put all of that together and never seem as if it doesn't actually know what it's trying to be. The credit for that has to go to Aronofsky, because in the hands of a lesser film maker, this could have been either a really rote, cliche'd film or it absolutely would have been a complete mess which was all over the place and boderline incoherent. He also manages to avoid the kind of exposition trap that makes so many movies, dull, slow and for me, annoying. There is constantly information being given to the audience through nothing but what they are seeing on the screen. Other directors would have a character going back and then somehow explaining what the audience has just seen. He never does that in this film. There is an abundance of information given to the audience just through the visual image they are presented with, and it helps to give the film a sense of breakneck pacing when in almost any other directors hands, it would have become a collection of talking heads that slowed it down and dulled the overall impact.

There are many good films out there which deal with the nature of the creative obsession with perfection. Few of them are as boldly entertaining as this one and with the possible exception of Synecdode, New York by Charlie Kaufmann, none have been as boldly weird, bizarre and unusual. 

The only real problem with Black Swan is that I'm not completely sure what audience is going to embrace it. Horror fans are probably not going to really go for a film about a ballerina who may or may not be losing her grip on reality. The arthouse audience will possibly be turned off by it's more lurid elements and the people who think they're going to get another film with as straight ahead a visual style as The Fountain or Requiem for a Dream are going to be disappointed by it's much more subtle visual technique. All in all, it was a great movie, that even at 17 million dollars and without big, expensive, sensational special effects, I really think should be seen on a big screen not only because the story and performances are great, but the visual style is so much a part of the actual storytelling, instead of a trick pony thrown in to get the audiences attention.  

Friday, December 17, 2010

Kevin Smith and the Future of Film

Kevin Smith, whether you like him or not, is running full speed into the future in a way no other film maker, no other studio, no one else involved in the film industry is. Personally, I have no real opinion on the man himself. There are a few of his films I absolutely love, a few I'm ambivalent about, and a few I feel are a complete waste of time. What is most interesting about Kevin Smith right now is that he may be mapping out the future of independent film making and a way for writers, directors, and creative people of every variety to be able to create the things they want to and bring it to the audience directly.

Most people don't know about it, unfortunately, and I don't think it's conspiracy theory to say you don't know about it because the majority of the media have to be frightened of what he is doing. He's making them obsolete in the way the "internet optimists" have been predicting for years.

He's going directly to the audience, in a way that no one else has even attempted to. It's terrible to say it, but the truth is there is going to be a section of the media that is going to shoot holes in his latest project Red State, less because of the film than because they dislike Smith himself. It is the unfortunate nature of the way film as a business and the media related to film is going. 

Kevin Smith has managed to find an audience. He has his audience, and they will go and see his film. They will give him the benefit of the doubt, even after Cop Out. His twitter feed is huge, over one million. And Kevin Smith has figured out exactly what the film studios and the film media are terrified of. He doesn't need them. A number of different websites, some of which I enjoy and follow were quite up in arms when Kevin Smith made the suggestion that he might finance Red State through fan contributions. It was interesting in a bizarre way to see the number of writers who were losing their minds over the idea that a film maker might turn to his fan base, the people for whom the film is meant, are going to consume it and who are asking for it in order to finance it. To me, I don't find it either offensive or strange. It's another way for a film maker to find financing and that gives them the kind of freedom to create that they haven't had in the studio system. At this point, on some of those sites, with some of those writers, it doesn't even matter that Smith never ended up using fan contributions, he found independent financing. And by all accounts, he's gone and created something that is completely different from anything he's done before. 

It really began with An Evening with Kevin Smith where he proved that not only could he be entertaining, but that he had a big enough audience, dedicated specifically to what he's doing to be profitable. Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy had brought him a cult following, and enough critical acclaim to continue to make movies. Dogma is also well loved among his fans, and has a wider cult following of it's own. An Evening with Kevin Smith reall proved that following would follow him beyond the movie theater. 

Sure, Kevin Smith has had his fair share of press, good and bad. When Clerks and Chasing Amy were released, he was consistently praised for one to watch among the new generation of film makers. Dogma  created a good deal of controversy, which didn't hurt the movies box office, and which helped to keep his name in the loop of film news publications and websites. For a number of years his films weren't as successful, and he's made a few movies which have been almost universally panned. Clerks 2 brought some of the old magic back. Fans were happy to see their favorite characters again, and the critical community was at least not brutal toward the film, overall it was recieved as a film which was entertaining, but not much more. Then came the Kevin Smith vs. Southwest Airlines debacle, and Smith became the butt of a joke the size of the entire internet. And unfortunately Cop Out was released this summer, and therefore hasn't been completely forgotten yet. I didn't see it, because the only thing about it that was at all interesting to me about it was that Kevin Smith was directing Bruce Willis. Tracey Morgan is pretty funny on 30 Rock, but on the whole, I'm not really a fan. Cop Out was universally trashed. There doesn't seem to be a human being whose seen the film and liked it. 

But what most people, even people interested in film and who follow film news don't know is that Kevin Smith has an entire podcasting network, putting out seven shows a week, with a podcasting theater in L.A. in which they record with a live audience. That podcasting network also reaches a large audience, with four of the seven different shows having reached number one on iTunes at some point. The Internet media have been covering Red State to some degree, but for Smith he doesn't have to do any promotion at this point. He's made a horror film of some kind for four million dollars. He can more or less guarantee that eight to twelve million people will come to see his movie, regardless of whether or not he does any promotion other than those podcasts and his Twitter feed. The film has been accepted to Sundance and whether or not the film makes it to theaters has yet to be decided, but even if it's released directly to DVD, Blu Ray and digital download, it's going to be profitable. 

That is a position of power film makers aren't supposed to be able to occupy. They are supposed to need the studios to get their films financed, distributed, and probably most importantly, for marketing. Smith has found a way to circumvent that entire system. There's an argument to be that Smith, his crew, producers and financiers might be better off from a financial standpoint by not even attempting to secure distribution from a major studio, and going directly to DVD, Blu Ray and digital download. If they can't see it in theaters, his audience is going to purchase the film in one form or another, and without having to recoup the money studios spend on marketing for the home theater audience, and not having to pay the studios for distribution and marketing contracts, all of the profit would be going directly to the film makers and their direct financiers.

Considering that Red State has been accepted to Sundance already and will be showing with Smith's intent to sell the film for distribution rights, it's interesting to consider whether or not it's even in any of the studios interests to pick it up. If they pick it up, and the film succeeds, sure they make a profit in the short term. But they've also proven that Kevin Smith's audience is going to come out and pay the money to see the movie, even when it's not a typical "Kevin Smith" movie. Smith is in pre-production on his next film, Hit Somebody, which he's describing as an ode to youth, wrapped in a hockey movie. If Red State is successful enough, why would Smith even bother going back to trying to sell the film's distribution rights? He could very well just go about trying to distribute the film directly to the home entertainment audience, essentially taking his audience and those ticket sales with him. 

The other long term question for the studios in a case like this is, "How do we continue to market films to an audience, without creating the kind of audience for the film maker that has latched on to Kevin Smith?" Because really, Smith might just be the first to have figured this out in the film world. In the music industry, Trent Reznor, Radiohead, and a number of very big musical acts are starting to figure out how little they need a major record label to promote and distribute their music in the digital age. Smith is just porting those ideas into the film industry. The film going audience is changing as well. We're probably more savy and sophisticated in our understanding of the film business than any that has come before. We have the ability to follow a film from script form, when it's being shopped around to different studios, all the way through to it's arrival in theaters. We know more about that process than any generation before us. And given the choice between seeing a film in the theater, knowing that there's been a number of creative compromises because the studio believes they can only make their money back (again an inflated price specifically because of marketing) or seeing the film on DVD, Blu Ray or digital download as the film makers intended it, without the added price hike for the studio's marketing and corporate structure, we're going to choose to put the money directly in the film makers pocket when we can. 

What if someone like Christopher Nolan were to start accepting a model like this? Right now, Nolan can do basically anything he wants, even at a major studio. He's got two of the most successful films of the decade under his belt, but if at some point in the future he were to decide he didn't want to have to deal with the studio system and wanted more of the actual profit for himself and his creative team, it's possible that he could make something like this work as well. Now, Nolan isn't a public person in the way Smith is. But, Nolan knows how to find create interesting marketing strategies, and could probably use new media in a way most of the studios haven't even begun to think of. It's not in the realm of the impossible for Nolan to be the kind of film maker to create shorts for internet distribution, giving backstory or some other kind of interesting bits and pieces related to whatever current project he has. And he's a talented enough film maker to get just about any he might want to come along with him. So the studios could possibly start losing all kinds of other talent to these smaller, more personal outfits which are the result of the studios creating stars, and audiences for those stars that are going to follow them to whatever project they may be working on next.

Say what you want about Kevin Smith, but he's becoming a renaissance man of the digital age by getting his hands into everything he can, and spreading his audience across as many platforms as he can. By doing so, he's creating a new model for which other film makers and artists in other mediums to follow which could make the kind of megacorporate monoliths which have dominated the creative world for the last century. Even if it doesn't end up working out on that grand a scale, what Smith is doing is exciting from the standpoint of being able to afford film makers who may not have otherwise been able to make the films they want an avenue to do so. The technology, from the availabiltiy of relatively affordable camera equipment to editing software to marketing and distribution are changing the landscape of the film industry in an exciting way, and it's good to see someone trying to take advantage of these opportunities and creating innovations we've been being told would come for decades.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)

I've purposely shied away from reviewing classic films. What else could really be said about a film that has been around for generations and has become not just a favorite, but has earned a piece of the history of American film making in such a way that it's become a tradition, in and of itself. I find myself inadequate when charged with such a task.

But I've decided to write a review for It's a Wonderful Life, maybe against my better judgement. I've got a few reasons for doing so. The first is simple, it's one of my favorite films. Looking at the list of reviews I've written, the films that list covers and specifically those which I've written favorably about, it might seem somewhat surprising for me to proclaim this sentimental, optimistic, "Capra-corn" kind of film as one of my two or three favorite films. Most people don't associate this film with the kind of dark, cynical, subversively penetrating themes and concepts I tend to favor and gravitate toward. Considering how syrupy and schmaltzy it's considered now, it's interesting to note that at the time of it's release it was widely considered too dark for the holiday season. It wasn't a flop at the box office, but it certainly didn't perform in such a way as to suggest the place it would come to occupy in our holiday culture. 

Another reason for me to write something about this film is that it's one of those rare films which presents the opportunity to write about a thing related to art as a whole that I think important. It's a film I have a kind of relationship with that has evolved through the years. This isn't a high minded concept. Each of us has at least one thing, probably a few films, albums, songs or books, which have been around through different phases of our lives, from childhood to adulthood and onward, and about which our understanding on the emotional, intellectual and yes, probably even the spiritual levels has evolved into something different, not necessarily better or worse, but deeper, more whole and concrete. In this case it's a film I loved as a little boy, and which I love no less as an adult, but that I love very differently, because I not only see it through adult eyes, but because it speaks to me on a completely different level than it did the little boy who saw it so many years around Christmas time. 

And It's a Wonderful Life is a quintessentially American film. I enjoy foreign films, and a stroll through the archives of this blog will be enough proof for anyone seeking it that I have no prejudice toward them. At the same time, being an American, I have a special place in my heart for films which present the dominating characteristics of American life with any attempt at a real degree of narrative honesty. I think It's a Wonderful Life does that, not only presenting those qualities we most enjoying seeing represented in film, but some of those we least enjoy seeing. In that way, it's actually an extremely well balanced and fair minded variety of fictional narrative. 

I'm not going to go into a long plot synopsis. I'm going to assume the overwhelming majority of people with enough interest to be reading a review, in a blog, by someone without "professional credentials" has enough of an interest in film to have seen It's a Wonderful Life. If not, go watch it, as soon as is humanly possible. Reading further will probably only color you're own experience with the film to a degree which is unnecessary. Go. Now. 

In those early years, the first few viewings of It's a Wonderful Life, I think the little boy I was reacted to the aspect of the story that is very much a fantasy adventure. I've always had an appreciation for fantasy and science fiction, and being a kid who had no religious training and parents who were of the most lapsed variety of Catholic, films with different religious themes or narrative aspects really didn't seem any different than those with dragons, witches, knights or aliens. There is an adventurous aspect to the film. As much as George Bailey may resent life in the little town of Bedford Falls, it seemed pretty exciting to me. There was definitely more going on in George's life than there seemed to be in my own or the lives of the people I knew. He was falling saving his brother from drowning in icy water, and saving Mr. Gower the neighborhood pharmacist from drunkenly poisoning a sick boy, having girls chasing after him, fighting the powerfully despicable Mr. Potter, constantly saving that old Savings and Loan, marrying the beautiful woman who loved him, meeting angels, getting to see what life would be like without his birth, and finally getting to reap the rewards of all that frustration and desperation being set aside in favor of something bigger than himself. In many ways, it's a relatively typical heroes narrative. But George Bailey was the quintessential everyday person. He's not some brawny tough guy easily tossing a beating to the evil doers. In fact, through ninety percent of the film, the closest thing it has to a real villain, Mr. Potter, is handing him the proverbial beating. George is very slowly losing the fight, which is only important because that actually means the town of Bedford Falls is losing, because that's actually what George has been fighting for through the entire film. He sets aside all of his own aspirations and his own goals for the town, his family, and the Savings and Loan that serves them. In a rare moment of real truth in a Hollywood film, Mr. Potter never recieves the justice we so richly think he deserves. Even after his final dastardly act, the only one which is lawfully criminal, he's never found out. George never actually achieves the victory the first three acts of the film portray him as fighting for. One of the things which made the film so appealing to me as a child was that George Bailey was living an adventure in a place that wasn't very far away or exotic. It was just another small town, like every small town boy dreams of escaping. And any small town boy, like I was, with a knack for needling figures in positions of authority, gets used to losing the battles he's been waging. 

I also think It's a Wonderful Life is a film so well made and put together, that it's actually hard not to like it. It's narrative is so compelling, it's hard not to be drawn in. The characters are so well drawn and the performances are so good that you want to root for these people, not just George Bailey, but his wife, family and the people of Bedford Falls. Mr. Potter is such a cantankerous old bastard that you can't help but dislike him and hope that George does eventually stick it to him. Children are probably most susceptible to good film making because they're coming to the experience with very few preconceived notions. They have no poltical point of view, no cultural references to offend, and for the most part, It's a Wonderful Life upholds all of the kinds of ideas we're taught are good when we're children, so it supports the things we're already being taught and are hearing regularly from adults, at least on the surface. 

As an adult, it's come to mean much more to me. As someone who has at times felt he's gotten a second chance at life or at the least a chance to re-evaluate the ideas and perceptions previously driving his life, it speaks to me on a very different level. George Bailey isn't a perfect man, at all. At times he's impetuous, rash, resentful, and indecisive. The trajectory of the narrative, George's life as the film represents it, is overwhelmed by the circumstances in George's life which are in many ways beyond his control. His father's death leaves the future of the Savings and Loan his father and uncle built in question. George's decision to forego his trip to Europe and then his college education in order to stay in Bedford Fall's and see to it the Savings and Loan survives and continues is more a decision in reaction to his own disgust at Mr. Potter's words during the board meeting than it is a decision to stay and keep the business going because he beleives it will be good for the town. More than anyone else (with the possible exception of his wife Mary) Potter keeps George in Bedford Falls. Most adults would agree it's not the best basis on which to make a decision, especially one with the ramifications related to foregoing a college education, but at the same time, most people understand exactly what it is to make that decision, and how it happens. I see this scene, and the others like it in the film, and I know what it's like to make those decisions, and to live with the consequences they bring, the frustration and resentment, and to eventually be able to look at them as part of a much larger whole that isn't at all frustrating and instead as something to be more grateful for, to be happy with and proud of. 

Anyone who's ever been involved in a long term relationship with someone they love, also understands the compromises involved, and that at times, those compromises sting more than others, even when every bit of faith in the future you can muster says it's worth it. The clash of one's more specific ambition with the more general and vague love for another person and the life the two of you have is something we rarely see portrayed with any real honesty. Here it's presented with more honesty than most films of it's time or ours. It's a singular part of a much larger struggle for George. He loves his wife and his children, obviously. But he can't help but still feel some disappointment and some regret for not having gone and chased the dreams he'd grown up with. Being stuck in the same small town he'd grown up in, fighting the same battles his father had fought, very literally, without the chance to find out what heights his talents may have taken him to eats at him through the first three acts of the film. But at the same time, it's just as clear that he is very happy with his wife, and their life, and he loves her and his family deeply. This kind of internal conflict, which is so very common to life in middle America isn't often played very fairly. Most film makers weight the argument in one direction or the other from the beginning and use the rest of the film to make the case for the side of the argument they've chosen. Capra doesn't. Throughout the film, we feel empathy for George not being able to go out and chase those dreams, but at the same time, we're happy to see Mary with him, the support she provides him and the way they interact (for the most part). It's an ambivalence which is hard to strike in any narrative, and Capra presents it beautifully. The film may be in black and white, but most of it's narrative isn't presenting us with a black and white reading of events. There's a whole lot of grey. 

One of the other major things I appreciate as an adult is that the first three quarters of the film are much darker than most people tend to credit it. Because it ends on a much brighter, lighter note, and actually earns that ending, most people tend to forget exactly how much has transpired before. George Bailey has almost constantly had his options cut away from him through circumstances that are beyond his control or through the selfishness of the people around him. His younger brother leaves him in the lurch on more than one occasion, his less than adept Uncle sets in motion the films final act by losing eight thousand dollars out of little more than the petty desire to brag and a flaky mind, and so on and so forth. He's constantly beset with either moral dilemmas or financial troubles which he's only been lead to because he is George Bailey, the good man we want him to be. As with Mr. Gower in the early part of the film, George seems to be life's punching bag, specifically because he is trying to do the right thing. George's life may be wonderful, but even it's being wonderful almost in spite of his being a good man, it's still a hard life, full of hard questions, hard decisions and two very long, hard fights. His fight with Potter, and the harder fight to win, the fight with himself, his frustration and his disappointment.

George's on going attempt to keep Mr. Potter from gaining complete control of the town is the kind of thing we've seen thousands of times in movies before. The difference between this film and so many others, is that the fight isn't that grand and dramatic. Sure, some of the scenes and the dialog are relatively dramatic, but in towns across the country, this same fight was being waged. It's something so much a part of the American character that we're still waging those exact same battles today. Distrust of a concentration of power and wealth are at the heart of the nation's founding and have worked themselves into the way we see ourselves and our world so deeply that the battle George wages with Mr. Potter throughout the film is familiar, understandable and sympathetic no matter what time period it is when one first sees the film. The questions related to the profit motive versus the greater good have probably been around since nomadic groups of hunter/gatherers traded amongst each other, though they are especially acute in a society based on a capitalist economy. We still have these same arguments today, the most currently public being centered on the internet itself. Are we going to allow a small group of major corporations have control of content or is it going to continue to be a much more open, user based medium? We still haven't decided, but in it's essence, it's the exact same fight George Bailey was putting up against Mr. Potter. It's the kind of argument we Americans have been having amongst ourselves since the country was founded.

Possibly the thing I most enjoy about It's a Wonderful Life now is that each of these episodes plays itself out, with George being consumed by them in a singular way. As an audience, we're seeing them and understanding them as part of a larger narrative, but George isn't. For him, each one is immediate and urgent, and only vaguely related to the rest, until the last act of the film of course, when George gets the opportunity to find out exactly what would have become of Bedford Falls and the people he cares about if he hadn't been there to fight through each specific incident to create the larger whole. George never became a rich man through the creation of Bailey Park, but he provided an opportunity for dreams more humble than his own to be achieved. As he stumbles through the town which became Pottersville in his absence, it is a little comical to see the nightclubs and bars as representations of everything antithetical to the kind of small town community George was able to help continue. It's certainly a little puritanical, and it reminds me that the distrust with which rural and suburban communities view cities has a long history for us as well. But it's the cut throat nature of the entire sequence which is most striking. The convivial tone George brought to the majority of his interactions with the rest of the people in the town is gone. These people are largely strangers to one another, and he who falls among them gets kicked, not helped to his feet. It presents a strong argument that more than George's ability to help these people own homes, stay free of Potters tyranically selfish nature, it was his friendly and giving spirit which was most important for the town, and so long as there was one man continuously willing to sacrifice for the better of the whole, it effected the nature of the entire town. It suggests that so long as George was there to be willing to give, each of the others to whom he gave, had a little more to give to the next person. Not necessarily materially, but in terms of human kindness and compassion. 

The interesting thing about that suggestion is that it's just as much a part of the American tradition and character to be venal and petty, selfish and apathetic. It only took George's absence for all of these things to change and for Bedford Falls to become the den of sin and cruelty that is Pottersville. George gave up his ambitions up in favor of those whose ambitions were more humble than his own, but even George's ambitions were humble in comparison to those of Potter, and without George around to be a counter weight, the same kind of selfishness and cruelty colored the entire town, just as his own good nature had effected the town in his reality. 

All in all, this is a great film. It came to it's classic status many years after it was finally released because the copyright lapsed, making it a cheap and easy film for television stations to run, and run it they did. Once it started being regularly shown on television in the seventies, it started to be recognized as the brillaint film making it is. Another interesting thing to note is that Frank Darabont, director of The Shawshank Redemption is an avid admirer of It's a Wonderful Life's director, Frank Capra, and Shawshank went through a similar cycle of not really being all that popular at the box office, being nominated for a number of Academy Awards and not finding it's real audience, one that is nearly rabid in their love for the film, until it started being repeatedly shown on cable television. Now, the two films are considered among classics of American cinema. 

On a trivia note: in the early part of the film, when George is approaching Ernie's cab, where Burt stands reading a paper, the headline which is only visible very quickly reads, "Mr. Smith Wins Washington." The film that Capra and Jimmy Stewart had last worked on together before Wonderful Life was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Monday, December 13, 2010

Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009)

Nicolas Winding Refn is a film maker to watch. Of his films that I've seen, The Pusher Trilogy, Bronson (link to my review), and now Valhalla Rising (links to the search results for Google's shopping option), he has proven to have the rare ability to craft films that have the qualities of being both meditative and unpretentiously entertaining. His films have been, in many ways, the other side of the Christopher Nolan coin. Where Christopher Nolan's films have been primarily entertainment, with the kind of serious, meditative undertone, Refn's films have been primarily meditative and serious, without snobbishly turning up his nose at the kind of entertainment "serious" film critics and aficionado's tend to lambaste. 

With Valhalla Rising (links to Netflix Watch Instantly), he's taken that ability to the next level. Where Bronson and The Pusher Trilogy presented those qualities in stark relief, contrasting each other in different moments of each film, Valhalla Rising mixes them together much more organically, and in eliminating the contrast creates an unusually powerful narrative for a film whose content deals so directly with brutal violence, and the nature of people who perpetrate it. The result is a film which takes the best of Terrence Malick's lyricism and the most brutally compelling scenes in Ridley Scott's Gladiator. In it's own strange way, it's in the same spiritual family as Apocalypse Now.

The film begins with a man in chains, surrounded by dour looking Norse warriors. It quickly becomes obvious that these Norse are either using prisoners for entertainment by watching them kill each other or it's their form of a system of justice. This particular man is also extremely adept at killing other slaves and prisoners.

This cold blooded killer quickly escapes and kills his captors, and with a boy named Ayre who had been a slave, finds a group of Vikings, who are headed for Jerusalem to reclaim the Holy Land. They don't end up in the Holy Land though, they end up more or less lost, landing in some unkown place. All is not what it seems, and the rest of the film follows our slave warrior, at this point dubbed "One Eye," through a compelling and engaging journey. The film is broken into three acts, differentiated specifically by title cards, whose titles are interesting if only for the kind of allegory they suggest.

Refn has used Mads Mikkelson in two of the Pusher films, and again here as the protagonist One Eye. American audiences would probably most quickly recognize him as Le Chiffre, the villain from Casino Royale and unfortunately that horrendous, skull crushingly bad remake of Clash of the Titans (link to my review of that steaming turd). It's unfortunate that he's only been given the kind of extremely stereotypical roles common to American blockbusters, because he's a talented actor, with real range and depth, and he's got one of the most interesting faces in contemporary film. Did I mention that One Eye, his character is mute? Through the entire film, the character never says one word. Even with just one eye, his eyes stil say thousands of words. 

The film is beautifully shot, and this adds to the overall lyricism, in combination with the structure of the narrative. There isn't an indoor shot in the entire film, and the wide expanses that surround the actors also add to the feeling of seclusion and in doing so, heighten the feeling that the characters are under threat. The vistas captured by the lense are beautiful and breathtaking. Refn has quite an eye for talent. Having given Tom Hardy the lead role in Bronson, he introduced the world to the kind of searing talent we can expect to be around for a very long time. Cinematographer Morten Soborg has worked on a number of Danish films, including two of Refn's Pusher films, and we should expect to start seeing him getting work here in the States very soon. 

This is a bloody good film. I should have known better than to expect a more straight forward actioner from Refn, and I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that it reaches for something much deeper than that, and on the whole, succeeds. 

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Party's Over

Out in sunny California, the movie industry just held one of it's yearly conventions. Not a fan-boy, geektasitc convention with people in costumes (unless that is you count studio executives trying to pass for human beings), but an actual industry convention. Blu-Con is the industries largest Blu-Ray convention, and in the past few years has been the place where some interesting details about the strategies the studios have been trying to implement have first been announced. This year has been a rough one for the film industry. Ticket sales are down, way down. What's essentially been happening is that they've been having to rely on tentpole properties for the entire studio to produce a profit. In other words, the big movies are making more money (some in part because of 3D, some in part because they actually are popular) and selling more tickets, but everything else that's not a big huge success, is selling fewer tickets. If the trend continues, we're headed to having only movies that end up making billions of dollars, and huge flops, that don't even make the original investment back, much less the advertising budgets that are tacked on after production is finished.

On top of that, Blu-Ray and the digital download market aren't expanding as quickly as they'd hoped. Most consumer surveys are showing that price is the real sticking point. What's coming out of these surveys is that movie goers obviously prefer Blu-Ray, but the cost is prohibitive. In a slumping economy with millions of people unemployed, and millions more worried that they might not be employed next week or next month, this isn't really a shocking revelation. Blu-Ray accounts for about ten percent of the home video (cinema? what do we even call it now) market right now. Digital download (of the legal variety) accounts for about five. Obviously, there's no good way to track the percentage of people downloading illegally. That leaves eighty-five percent still dominated by DVD. The price of Blu-Ray players is starting to drop significantly, but in some circles, there's a discussion suggesting that the industries previous hype for Hi-Def, combined with it's current hype for 3D are essentially shooting it in the foot. How many people are going to make the jump to a Blu-Ray player if they're not sure that it's going to play 3D as well? Most of the 3D players will play straight Blu-Ray, but the marketing for the 3D players hasn't been focusing too much on that so far. On top of that, there are still many people who haven't made the jump to Hi-Def televisions yet. All of that adds up to this: why make the jump to Hi-Def televisions and Blu-Ray players if they're just going to have to buy a whole new system in five years anyway? They're shooting themselves in the foot on this one.

Yet another problem they're facing is the popularity of Netflix. Netflix streaming currently accounts for twenty percent of all the evening internet usage in the country. I don't know if I have to tell you this, but that is unheard of. The internet has only been a part of American life for a short period of time, but not since AOL has any company accounted for that large an amount of usage over any period of time. And AOL was an access provider, Netflix is strictly content.  Right now, there's a 28 day delay between the time a film is released on DVD and the time it's avaialable on Netflix, be it watch instantly or DVD by mail.

The L.A. Times has a good story covering some of this and detailing what a panel of heavy hitter studio heads had to say about the situation. The basic thrust of the story is that Netflix is pissing the studio's off by being more popular than any of the ideas they've come up with, and with revenue's down, they're trying to figure out how and when to either chare Netflix more for the content licensed to them or the studio's are going to try and come up with their own variety of digital streaming that will create direct revenue for them.

Studios have historically made money through what are called release windows. They release a film to theaters, and there's a window of time during which people are actually going to go and see a film. That window of time has been shrinking. The studio's believe this is due to the shorter periods of time they've had to turn to on the DVD release window. They shortened the period of time between theater and DVD releiase specifically because of the digital piracy problem. If they held a title from DVD release too long, more people were downloading it illegally. The DVD release window became a strong revenue stream very quickly after DVD was released commercially. DVD quickly outstripped VHS in both adoption and in revenues. People made the switch to DVD from VHS relatively quickly, and they were buying more DVD's than the had VHS. And, what are referred to as "catalog titles," older films which are still available for purchase, have been a good source of revenue as well. A DVD costs roughly three dollars for a studio to produce and ship (most of which is actually shipping). If they don't have to run a promotional campaign for it, every dollar above that is profit, either for them or the retailer. If you're paying nine dollars for a discounted "catalog title," the studio and the retailer are making money - the retailer makes an average of a dollar to a dollar and fifty cents. The difference is all mark up from the studios. The next window studios were able to establish revenue through was the television release window. They get paid every time one of their films is shown on television.

Netflix, eats into all of that. If I only have to wait a month to see a film I missed in the theaters, I'm much less likely to go pick it up on DVD or find a rental organization that has it on the day of it's release. I'm certainly not going to buy a catalog title before checking to see if it's available from Netflix. And, I've only watched two things on television for the past three months, the news and The Walking Dead on AMC. Netflix is the reason for that.

The studios have been laying the groundwork for a premium VOD (Video On Demand) service which will make movies available to consumers a month or two after their theater release, but before release to DVD. It would basicaly establish a new release window, and therefore a new revenue stream. They've been talking about a price point of twenty to thirty dollars. That seems a little extreme for what basically amounts to a rental, no matter how much earlier it is than DVD. But, there are ways that a service like this, at this price point could make sense. The best example I've so far heard is with something like the Harry Potter franchise. If the studios were to make those films available to a limited audience during or before their theatrical release, they'd be able to add some revenue as Harry Potter fanclubs across the country would be getting together to watch the films. Peter Jackson's upcoming The Hobbit would be a good candidate for something like this as well, and it would help get the early word out on the film. If the studio and the film maker feel they actually have a good film on their hands, it could help start to build word of mouth that's worth more than any amount of promotion. 

The other way a service of this kind could work would be in tandem with the new theatrical release strategies the studios have been using. All of the big films, things they've put a lot of production and advertising money into have been getting nationwide releases. But, most of the smaller films that haven't had huge production budgets or that they've picked up for distribution at film festivals etc. that they haven't put production money into, but aren't willing to spend the money for a nationwide promotional campaign on, have been getting targeted, limited release first. They'll go to major cities, with a modest, but not stingy promotional budget. If the film does well enough during that limited release, they expand it. It may just begin with less limited release or go directly to a nationwide release, depending on how it performs. The kind of premium VOD service the studios are suggesting would be excellent for films like these. A good example would be Buried, which was released a few months ago. It garnered a strong word of mouth, was adored by the internet film press, and was put into limited release, and because it didn't perform as well as it's marketing budget required in limited release, it never made it nationwide. I'm two hours away from the nearest theater that will play most of these films. We've got an arthouse theater here in Richmond, but honestly, it's a little too "uppity" for me. Right now, they're showing The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, and I'll probably go see that, but for the most part, they're showing "respectable" movies. The other film they're playing is 127 Hours, which is supposed to be excellent, but is also playing at the local multiplex. They sure as hell weren't playing Adam Greene's Frozen when that as in limited release. I don't expect to see the new Christmas horror movie about an evil Santa called Rare Imports: A Christmas Tale there either. I think I know enough people who would be interested in seeing these films before they get to DVD to make a VOD service for those worth our money. If four or five of us were to throw together five or six dollars each, we could watch them in one of our living rooms, and since we're not getting the full theater experience, we still don't have to pay the full ten dollar ticket price. Something like this could work. It could even be a way for studios to draw some revenue from films they just don't know what else to do with. Trick'R Treat sat on a shelf for two years, while word of mouth dwindled from a roar in the horror community to a "what ever happened to that?" When it finally got a DVD release, the studio didn't even have to do much in the way of promotion, because it was done for them by internet sites excitedly touting their "cred" by reposting reviews and articles they'd written on the film two years before. I'd have paid to see it through an On Demand kind of service, and then I'd probably have bought the DVD as well. On the other hand, The Poughkeepsie Tapes has been sitting on a shelf for about four years now, with no release date in sight, a rash of new "found footage" films that it's definitely better than making boatloads of money, and having had the same positive reaction from the internet film community. People probably won't pay twenty or thirty dollars to see it, but making an exclusive offering to a relatively small number of people who've already demonstrated an interest in it or films like it, could generate enough interest to give it a respectable run in limited release. 

Probably the most interesting bit in the L.A Times article is Universal studio cheiftain Craig Kornblau proclaiming, "We want to advantage methods that are more profitable." That's a no brainer, so here's where it actually gets tricky and Kornblau demonstrates an attitude I wrote about earlier in a piece called "Blockbusted," Kornblau went on to say, "We don't have an obligation to give consumers what they want when they want it." The thing is, he's wrong. If you're actually interested in capitalism, that's exactly what you have to do, otherwise, the consumer is going to find another way to get what they want. It might be illegal digital downloads, which studios can spend huge sums of money to fight, but are never going to really eradicate, especially with the number of free information activists out there who are going to be constantly coming up with new ways to undermine whatever efforts the studios use to cut down on it. Even if it's not that, there are new methods of financing film making cropping up all of the time. The film makers are able to go directly to the source more and more often. The fans are playing a part in financing films in a more direct way than they ever have before. The studios didn't have to give consumers what they wanted, when they wanted it in the past. Now they do. The entire reason the film industry is in the shape it's in is because they are still holding on to an ideal, a way of doing things and a perspective on profit that is no longer a reality. 

The age of the studio executive is over. If the film studio's are going to continue to exist in any form that resembles what they are now, they are going to have to deal with the reality of a changing industry and market place that is opening up in a way few people could possibly have foreseen. With all of the new distribution methods available, there are going to be so many different hands involved with it that the studios are never going to be able to cover all of that ground with the model and methods they have today. It's going to mean that studios are not going to be able to make big tent pole franchise films, and make L.A. Confidential at the same time. The only thing wrong with that is that there are going to be films like L.A. Confidential might not find the kind of audience it has. It's going to be completely different than it is now. There are going to be new, smaller companies that are going to be in the business of producing films specifically for these new kinds of distribution. They are going to be the companies producing Up in the Air, and Juno. Those films are not going to star George Clooney and Ellen Page, but they're going to get made, and they're going to get distributed, and some of them are going to be damned good. A lot of them are going to be navel gazing crap with bad scripts, bad acting and even worse direction, but they're going to get made, the same way studios are making more crap movies than good ones every year. The difference is, those movies are going to cost thirty thousand dollars to produce and distribute, instead of thirty million dollars (which is about the average cost of a Hollywood film these days). And studios are going to have to come to the realization that they are going to have to do what they do well, and leave the rest of it alone. 

They're only going to be able to pay actors and directors millions of dollars if they have a track record of being able to put asses in seats, and they're going to have to start cutting the number of multimillion dollar executives they have on staff if they're going to be able to five or six successful Hollywood productions put out each year. Things are already starting to go that way, which is why they are employing a new strategy of only releasing the really big, expensive pictures nationwide. But soon, there are going to be companies who have reached some level of success with the other forms of distribution they've been using, and they're going to be able to finance the kinds of limited releases that the studios are scaling back to. At that point, the studios are going to have to start asking themselves whether or not it's worth it to continue to release a seven million dollar film in a limited number of theaters when they are competing with a film that was made for five hundred thousand, and needs to make that much less in order to be profitable. And that's just for the kinds of movies that the audience feels are worth going to see in a theater. At some point, the only things people are going to go see in a theater and pay a full ticket price for are going to be the big Hollywood spectacle films, comedies and the occasional horror film. They go to the theaters to see the huge, expensive spectacles, because it's best to see those on the big screen, with the sound systems more expensive than most people can possibly afford to have at home, and they go to see comedies and horror films in theaters because a big part of what makes those work is the theater experience of being able to see those films with a crowd of people. 

The future of American cinema is going to look vastly different than it's past. We all know this. What exactly it's going to look like, none of us can completely be sure. But there is one thing we can be sure of, if Americas film industry doesn't start changing more rapidly than it's been willing to so far, and start actually trying to develop some real innovation in the distribution of film, it's not going to be around for the 50th anniversary of Avatar. There's a great article taking a really humorous look at this over at

Monday, December 06, 2010

The Beauty Of Martyrs

I just sat through Martyrs, a French language horror film in the new tradition which is being established right before our eyes.

I'm going to bet the majority of people who might read this are people who haven't seen this little French serving of complete insanity. With that in mind, I'm not going to say much about the film, except that I loved it. It's been a really good while since I've seen something which was able to hit me in the soft spots with as much ferocity, accuracy and consistency.

So, in order to give those of you who might see the film a chance to go in blind and untainted, I'm going to talk a little bit about how I see the film, and why it's gotten the reaction it has from both mainstream critics and the horror community. For once, they're equally torn. They love it, hate it or are completely flummoxed by it. This is probably the thing which made me most interested in seeing it. Beyond the fact that I'm a horror obsessed geek, I tend to find the films I enjoy the most are the ones which create the most bitter divide in the audience. It means you've felt something strongly or you just don't exactly know what to feel or how to think about it. When a film can draw such strong opinions of pro and con, and still at the same time have people more or less saying, "yes, it's something different and new, but I don't know that I like the different and new that it is", this is a good sign.

Let's start with the blatantly obvious. This is not a film for everyone. In fact, this is probably a film for a relatively small audience. It's showing at last years Cannes Film Festival served it well because it did create this buzz and this controversy among the critical community, but it also is probably drawing some unfair and unnecessary criticism because there are people seeing this film who were never meant to see it in the first place. It's not meant for the faux art house crowd. Of course, they're calling it misogynistic. If a woman isn't worshiped or presented in what they interpret as the most positive light, they tend to whip out the misogyny card. This is not to say there aren't some extremely misogynistic films out there, because there are. At the same time if you can't give women the respect to present them as you would any other human beings, with examples which are really cool, awesome characters and also really horrible, disgusting characters, you're selling them short by presenting them as being something more or less than human. I know some really incredible women who are inspirational to me. I know some really disgusting women who are inspirations in much the opposite way. There is nothing of them I want to see in myself. I say faux art house because in the last fifteen or twenty years what we've begun to be spoon fed as "art films" aren't really art films or even independent films. Most of them are just films major studios have used some small arm too spend less money to produce, but still provide enough money to make sure the costumes are pretty and the equipment is top notch. There was once a tradition of art house films which were dangerous, hard, and challenging. If you appreciated those kinds of films, you will probably appreciate Martyrs at least for it's aspirations and it's pure technical prowess in storytelling and narrative, if not as a whole.

I understand perfectly why there's a wide section of the horror community which is not at all thrilled by Martyrs. The simple answer is that it's not a simple film. It is violent and gory, which your average gore hound usually eats up. But, it's a little too complicated to be a splatter flick. It's a little too cerebral to be your usual kind of hack and splash horror film. It's at least aspiring to be something a little more intelligent. Don't get me wrong, I can absolutely enjoy a big dumb gore fest as much as any pure gore hound. Sometimes, it's great to be able to just turn my brain off and enjoy some big, loud, bloody excuse for incredibly silly and completely unbelievable puppet shows. In many ways, that's how you have to look at some horror flicks. There really is nothing else going on. It's all right there on the screen, there's nothing more to think about or consider. They are very purposefully saying nothing. They're no underlying theme or idea. They are just there to gross you out, make you jump a few times and take you on a roller coaster ride from the safety of your non-moving seat. If you're looking further than that, you just are incapable of getting it. This is not the movie for the pure of heart gore hound.

Also there's a whole spate of reaction to the film which cover the current "jingo" for simpletons. Misogyny is one. Torture porn is another. Lesbian chic, yet another. Pretentious and religiose round out the use of contemporary go to descriptions for people too lazy to actually come up with something more meaningful and more nuanced. Sorry guys, but you're as intellectually lazy as the mainstream movie folks you all seem to really like to skewer. At least the majority of those people will admit to not even wanting to have to think about their movies. I understand this reaction though, and it's something that happens when many films are capable of skirting that line of presenting the superficial, popcorn, pure entertainment variety of film with some really strong ideas, themes and questions. To some degree this has to do with the fact that Martyrs is a horror film. The critical community pretty much sees the horror film as the unwanted orphan dropped off on the film communities door step. It's there, and yes, sometimes something good comes out of it, but the thing is, we really don't like to admit we raised it and it's part of the family. To another degree, I think as an audience we've dropped our expectations so low that when something does come along that does have something more going on, we don't necessarily catch it if it's not slapping us in the head with a frying pan. If they're preaching to us, we can't stand it, but we've been inundated by big dumb movies for so long, we forget to look for something smart going on under the immediately accessible surface. I don't think the critics are immune to this, especially considering that as a community they seem to really enjoy finding something to look down their nose at. I can't really hold it against them either. In movieland, there's a whole hell of a lot to look down your nose at. At the same time they can laud heaps of praise on films which are too dumb to understand the meaning of nuance and subtlety (you remember Crash, don't you?).

Beyond the fact that Martyrs is a horror film film though, it deals with some really uncomfortable ideas, themes and questions. Suffering is actually a central theme and there are some really interesting questions the films suggests about it. The misogyny call is particularly dubious in the instance of this film because it suggests woman are more capable of surviving and transcending suffering than anyone else, "especially young women" is actually a line from the movie. I can't go into it more without spoiling it. It also suggests something about extremism in it's own way. The fact that this film has gotten stamped with the "torture porn" label by some critics is something I almost think is good. If it were to be watched in comparison to some of the other films which have been slapped with this unfortunate label, most especially Hostel (the film which inspired the term), I think a pretty interesting set of ideas would start to emerge about what these films are actually saying. Both of them, in their own way deal with a kind of extreme dedication to an idea or ideology. The kind of dedication which suggests that for these people, they either don't care about right and wrong or possibly even more frightening, believe that the dedication to this ideology or idea puts them above considerations of right and wrong. I think that much like the films of the late sixties and early seventies, some of today's films have some weird, inexplicable process of cultural osmosis going on and the questions and the horrors we're dealing with in the real world are coming out in some of our horror films.

The thing is, Martys is not for everyone. Not at all. Had it not gained some level of notoriety in the way of controversy and becoming somewhat notorious, it would have been passed around the horror community and argued over by those of us who are passionate about horror films. The rest of the world would have been more or less unaware of it's existence, kind of like Cannibal Holocaust. I am specifically at odds with the fact that there is a remake of Cannibal Holocaust in the works because the rest of the world doesn't need to know about it. It's in no one's best interest, except possibly the studio hoping to incite controversy with it. Martyrs is a film which would have and probably still will find a very loyal cult following. People who are capable of loving and admiring both it's ferocity, it's grace and it's thematic aspirations would have told friends about it, who'd have told friends about it and so on. Occasionally, some poor schlep whom it was never intended for would have been forced to sit through it by some well meaning friend who thought they would enjoy it, and there would be people out there who'd seen it and just reviled it, and that would help it's strange cult status. It's the kind of film meant for people who can appreciate the full range of what film can be and who love film for that reason. The pure gore hounds can't handle it because it's probably just a little too high brow, even for it's guts and gore. The people who like to fancy themselves "aficionados" or guardians of films cultural importance aren't going to like it because it's rough, dirty, disturbing, gory and most especially, deeply subversive. This is one of those rare little films for people who can appreciate all of those things equally without being chained to any single one of them as more important than the other to either the medium itself or the culture. It's kind of movie for people who love movies in equal part because of their splendor and their sickness.