Monday, March 28, 2011

Better than the book. There, I said it. Don't like it? Talk to the guy in the bearskin.

"Either o' you in need o'... medical attention?"
Ed Corbin in the greatest performance in film history
(Image courtesy Paramount Pictures & Tattered Banners)

Earlier this month I finally got around to seeing the Coen brothers' latest, True Grit.  Even I was surprised at how long this took me to do, despite having wanted to see it since long before opening day, which was Christmas.  But that often happens with me and big mainstream movies - it feels like I'll have a million chances to see it, while every week there are tempting little rarities beckoning from every repertory screening venue in New York City.  There are Icelandic silent comedies and Iranian science fiction musicals to see, dammit!  (I've actually never heard of an example of either, but if they turned up, I would pay to see them without hesitation.)

Regardless of why the buildup took so long, the payoff did not disappoint.  Sue me, but I liked it even better than Charles Portis's cult classic 1968 novel, which I'd made a point of reading beforehand and found very fine.  The Coens faithfully retain most of the virtues of Portis, but the addition of thick layers of visual and aural texture just enhances them.  The author’s telling of the story in the deadpan first-person voice of Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old girl on a hunt after her father's killer through wild Western territory, was an inspired choice, exquisitely carried out.  But Mattie's matter-of-factness meant that there wasn’t much dwelling on atmosphere.  The Coens, remarkably, retain a sense of Mattie’s voice and point of view without much resort to voiceover narration from the novel - largely through the medium of Hailee Steinfeld, the 15-year-old outta-nowhere star.  Steinfeld inhabits the unnervingly self-possessed Mattie with, well, unnerving self-possession; she rules most of the scenes she's in even when she's sharing them with a Jeff Bridges or a Matt Damon at their respective bests, just as her character continually bends jaded, leather-tough adults around her finger through sheer will.  The paradoxically tough-as-tree-bark gaze of her big, soft eyes in her baby-fat-rounded face is the sound of Mattie's voice translated into an image.

But on top of this, the movie adds the feel of the dust on our skin and in our hair, the bite of the prairie wind, the smell of men, old and not-so-old, rotting from the inside and covered in the detritus of their hardscrabble lives.  Much of the credit for this, of course, belongs to the brothers' typically painstaking visual and sound design.  But no small part has to go to their seldom-erring instinct for casting, which as usual goes beyond the leads.  Even in bit parts, the Coens scatter around perfect faces and voices that don't look and sound like "movie people."

Best of all is some guy named Ed Corbin, who totally looks like an  Ed Corbin, and, as the bearskin-sporting, self-described doctor with just one brief scene, may be the greatest thing to happen ever (EVER!) in a movie aside from the monkey guard in Toy Story 3.  In a movie that's practically an essay in the many possible variations on “thick-tongued, rumbly-chested Western drawl” that can come out of the male human face, he towers above them all.

True Grit the movie is also a lovely demonstration of the way that authors and their screen adaptors, so often placed at odds by commentators, can help each other out.  Much of Portis’s dry humor is enhanced when presented through the voices and faces of these actors, while the Coens' often overweening love of cartoon grotesquery is reined in by Portis’s hard-eyed reserve.  On the evidence of this and the even more breathtaking No Country for Old Men, maybe the Coens ought to stick to hard-bitten literary adaptations and leave off the gooney comedies.  I might start to love them again the way I did back in the days of Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink.

[UPDATE: Here's a short, entertaining L.A. Times piece about Ed Corbin and his appearance in the movie.]
(Image courtesy Simon & Schuster and Encyclopedia of Arkansas)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

78 cents per minute, and cheap at the price.

(Image courtesy Studio Ghibli and Carnegie Hall)

I have a sickness.  It's called cinephilia.  The more specific sub-strain currently afflicting me is Miyazakiphilia.  Last night I spent $21 to see two short films that totaled 27 minutes together.  And I don't regret it.  In fact, I'd do it again if I could.  Unfortunately, I can't.

Last week I noticed that Carnegie Hall, as part of the JapanNYC arts festival, was somehow showing two of the eight shorts that animation god Hayao Miyazaki has made for screening exclusively at his museum in suburban Tokyo devoted to the work of his production company Studio Ghibli.

If you don't know who Miyazaki is, it's tough to explain succinctly why reading this announcement made me shriek like a four-year-old handed a new puppy and painfully clutch the arm of the nearest stranger (this interview piece in The Telegraph is a good start).  Within the world of Japan's animated cinema, and those in the rest of the world who pay attention to it, Miyazaki is the equivalent of, say, a Bob Dylan: an almost universally beloved popular figure who is also a singular, uncompromising, even eccentric artist who's innovated his own distinctive style and vision that remains inimitable while being hugely influential.  His child-friendly but not childish fantasies eat domestic box office records whole and also pick up awards from highbrow European film festivals and Hollywood's middlebrow Academy Awards alike.  And it's not as if his fans have a huge amount of work to choose from, or ever will - a painstaking creator with the financial success to set his own timetable, he's directed ten feature films total starting in 1979, and keeps announcing his retirement from directing and then taking it back.

And he's a stubborn old cuss who, as the Carnegie Hall program emphasized with sadistic relish, has never allowed any of his Ghibli Museum shorts to be shown outside that venue, and supposedly never will again - they must have drugged his drink, or kidnapped his grandchildren, or something.  However they did it, they had me there at "Miyazaki," and I probably would have paid $50 if I'd had to.

The evening began with a short introduction by American Ghibli executive Steve Alpert, who spoke simply and unsentimentally about the studio's reaction to the earthquake and tsunami disaster.  Miyazaki gathered the staff together and told them that the best thing they could do was keep making the work they did... besides, of course, fundraising and clothing drives and food drives, which they're also conducting, in addition to setting up DVD screenings for children stuck in shelters.  Then he gave some quick comments on cultural and other background to set up the shorts - which, given that most people will likely never have a chance to see them, I'll describe in more detail than I normally would.

(Image courtesy Studio Ghibli and Carnegie Hall)
The first, House Hunting (Yado-Sagashi), is a 12-minute story which sets a redheaded young girl off with a big, stuffed backpack, briefly hiking down the side of a deafening, crowded highway before setting off across the countryside, over streams and hills and through woods.  Along the way, she has glancing encounters with various nature spirits, each of which she greets cheerfully with an offering of an apple and a polite bow (in what I'm sure was an unintentional echo, the giant tadpole-like apparition in a stream reminded me of the much more dangerous water beast in the great Korean monster movie The Host, released the same year, 2006).  She eventually comes to an isolated cabin where she takes shelter from a rainstorm and shares her lunch with a scuttling host of wide-eyed, friendly bugs - not noticing the enormous black millipede-like creature (another spirit?) that zooms around out of sight, eventually exiting in apparent fright.  After a good night's rest in her sleeping bag, she awakes to the presence of a shuffling, vaguely Sasquatch-like spirit, and seems to realize that this is not her house to occupy after all.  Quickly packing up, she hikes back the way she came, although at one point the hairy occupant of the cabin tosses her a big sack of goodies over the trees, which she takes after leaving an offering for him.

Fans will instantly recognize in the narrative a lot of Miyazaki tradmarks - the intrepid prepubescent heroine, the skeptical view of technological civilization and the love of the natural world, the fascination with quasi-mythological mysticism, the superficially menacing creatures which would be typed as a threat in a Disney animation, but in fact turn out to be harmless.  Stylistically, though, it's pretty experimental.  The images are graphically simple and rendered in bright primary colors and deliberately rough-hewn animation.  The entire soundtrack - mostly sound effects with just a few brief phrases of dialogue - is created by two human voice performers, with the sound effects also represented in big onomatopoeic Japanese characters that fly, quiver and tumble across the screen.  The overall feeling of enthusiastic oral storytelling and naive, childlike play inspired butterflies of joy in my stomach, and I wasn't alone judging from the reactions around me.

The everyday glories of nature are also central to the 15-minute Mon Mon the Water Spider (Mizugomu Monmon), inspired by an actual species that apparently fascinates Miyazaki - an arachnid that lives underwater but breathes air which it collects from the surface in big (to the spider) bubbles.  We watch our hero Mon Mon's routine of gathering air and building bubble nests while trying to avoid being eaten by the many bigger carnivores in his pond.  Then he notices a cute female water strider zipping gracefully along the surface, in contrast to his scuttling, furtive existence, and is smitten.  He pines hopelessly and watches from a distance, eventually saving her from being eaten (by an awesomely scary-cool clawed crustacean of some sort).  Confused and frightened, she flees unceremoniously.  But she returns for a climactic brief encounter wherein he hangs onto her two front legs for a thrilling, dancelike zoom around the surface of the pond at top speeds.  After almost being eaten by a big fish, they inevitably part, returning to their separate worlds to the melancholy awwwing of the audience.

The second movie is a striking stylistic contrast to the first, marked by a startling re-creation of the story's natural environment so realistically detailed that it looks like an animated episode of Planet Earth.  The only "cartoon" stylization is in some of the details of the two main characters - a little too much in the case of the water strider: the pink bow on her head is an atypically clumsy stumble into cloying territory. But that's a tiny nitpick in a piece so beautiful and charming, and so full of remarkable sights that it would be worth watching multiple times in a row just to catch all of them.

When the lights came up after the pair's parting, there was an audible groan of frustration from the audience - we felt like Mon Mon being torn away from our water strider and forced to scuttle back down to our bubble nests in the depths.  At that moment, I was almost ready to say it would be better to see none of these shorts than just a tantalizing two.  Would it have killed him to let us have four?  But as my Great Uncle Lester used to say, look a gift horse in the mouth and you might get your nose bitten off.  So I'll keep my nose and my pleasant memories of an experience even most worshippers at the altar of Miyazaki never get to have.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Good, The Bad, and The More-or-Less Good Enough

(image courtesy of IFC Films and
“Life is about chasing and being chased,” says a character in The Good, The Bad, The Weird.  Which is the closest director/co-writer/co-producer Kim Jee-woon comes to a philosophy here, unless it’s “I want to make a movie that’s going to be huge in Korea and probably sell okay in the U.S., too.”

Which he did – it became the second highest-grossing movie of 2008 in its homeland and got the usual limited specialty release here last year.  For one reason or another, I didn’t see it until the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinema did a Kim retrospective about a month ago, another manifestation of their commendable habit of showcasing Korean cinema.

Whether or not you think Kim is worthy of his own series at a leading arthouse theater probably depends on whether or not you think the commercial mass entertainment of other cultures is worth paying attention to even in those cases where it’s not transcendent art.  I come down firmly on the side of “Yes,” as will be clear to anyone who bothers to follow this blog for a while (anyone?  anyone?) – so I was happy enough to plunk down my cash at the box office for the latest bit of gorgeous if only partly satisfying fluff from this filmmaker.  (But I do have to chuckle a bit at the marketing chutzpah of calling the series "Severely Damaged," when Kim is scarcely the grittiest or most trauma-fascinated of his country's filmmakers.)

Easily my favorite Kim product is The Foul King (2000), a rambunctious but melancholy comedy about masked wrestling as an antidote to workplace humiliation and other disappointments of adult life.  It’s the only one of his movies I’ve seen that has some sincerity and individual personality.  Otherwise, his career looks like a magpie’s nest of shiny tidbits collected from various genres, movies and moviemakers.  In A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) he did his lanky-black-haired-female-ghost movie with a twist ending.  With A Bittersweet Life (2005) he did his mob-killer-who-has-a-change-of-heart thriller/melodrama.  Both are well-executed, absorbing, extremely easy on the eyes and kind of forgettable.  None of that changes with The Good, The Bad, The Weird.

Its first reference point is obvious right from the title, lifted, like the lead characters and the basic story, from Sergio Leone’s so-definitive-I-shouldn’t-even-have-to-name-it spaghetti Western.  You’ve got your psychotically murderous gunman, you’ve got your taciturn, relatively more moral gunman and you’ve got your amoral , jabbering goofball gunman, and they’re all alternately competing and cooperating in a quest for buried treasure in a war-wracked desert setting, although in this case it’s Japanese-occupied 1930s Manchuria, rather than the Civil War-era American Southwest as played by Spain.

But the resemblance to the genre Kim is supposedly saluting largely ends with this setup – the execution owes a lot more to Hong Kong’s acrobatic crime-action movies and the post-Tarantino style of facetious violence blended with obsessive quoting of classic and cult cinema.  Kim, as usual, buffs the jerry-rigged, awkwardly welded contraption into exquisite eye candy – the first half glows with the Jolly-Rancher-colored beauty that even routine Korean filmmakers are able to produce with apparent ease (when the story retreats to the desert in the second half, the inevitable preponderance of browns and yellows is a disappointment).

It’s too bad his visual skills drop off when he needs to go beyond shooting pretty pictures – insert here the standard complaint about how young action directors nowadays can’t hold their damned cameras still for just a few seconds, produce a smooth tracking shot, or edit together a fight scene coherently.  The mayhem has lots of imaginative and funny choreography (one of my favorite bits is when the Weird wades into a shootout in a protective but none-too-convenient metal diving helmet).  But it’s often frustratingly obscured by a shakey image and fast cutting, to the point that I felt a twitchy urge to wave my right hand in front of my eyes as if there were cobwebs obscuring my view.

The biggest thing Good, Bad, Weird has going for it is actor Song Kang-ho – but that’s true of a lot of movies with Song, who specializes in making “Everyman” roles more interesting than just about everyone else onscreen.  His character might nominally be “the Weird,” but he’s still the closest thing to a regular guy among the trio, and the beefy-faced star easily makes him the focus of the viewer’s sympathies despite the fact that he’s more or less a scumbag.  Not to give all the credit to Song.  The character is the strongest element in the screenplay by the director and Kim Min-suk - stumbling into and out of dangerous situations, perpetually befuddled but somehow always convinced of his own craftiness, always ready to shoot himself in the foot with a motormouthed commentary (his Korean chauvinism is a bit of a running joke).

Byung Hun-lee also makes an impression as “The Bad,”, turning his Johnny Depp-worthy cheekbones and doe eyes to paradoxically chilly effect as a gleefully sadistic gang leader with a quasi-erotic love of knives.  It’s a one-note performance, but a striking one, with Byung barely recognizable from his previous part with Kim as the stone-faced, sad-eyed protagonist of Bittersweet Life.  His badass image is amusingly contemporary –sleek and skinny, with a spotlessly stylish rock star/cowboy wardrobe, neo-mullet and twice-pierced left ear, he’d be laughed out of any real group of desert bandits before he’d had a chance to even reach for his gun.  I mean, just look at this picture.

Who knew they had fitness clubs in 1930s Manchuria?  (Image courtesy IFC Films and k13greenfaery's Photobucket album)
But this is the movies, and pretty, amusing absurdities are what we go to the movies for, most of the time.  This movie being full of them, it does the trick until it wears out its welcome in the final act – in particular, a would-be-climactic chase/stampede/shootout on horse, motorcycle, jeep, and foot feels an hour long, though it’s probably not much more than ten minutes.  And at the risk of having someone say something similar about this review, I’ll end it here.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Seriously, look at those brow furrows. You could plant alfalfa in those things.

Is there any new way left to film a boxing scene, or even tell a boxing story? On the evidence of Oscar-winning sleeper hit The Fighter, not really. Based on Lowell, Massachusetts native son Micky Ward’s more-or-less unlikely 1990s climb up the junior welterweight ranks, it’s the old Rocky formula with a little more emotional complication and a little more dirt under the fingernails. The fight sequences are shot on video instead of film, and that’s about as aesthetically edgy as it gets. Raging Bull, at 31 years old, still seems more cutting-edge, partly because it doesn’t grant redemption or absolution to its screwup protagonist or the screwups around him. Also partly because David O. Russell is no Martin Scorsese (but who is? Not even Scorsese, anymore.)

So I can’t get as excited about Fighter as a lot of people do, but there are still plenty of details that make it compelling and moderately moving. The strongest card is Christian Bale's Academy-anointed performance as Dicky Eklund, the title character’s crack-addicted, bull-in-a-china-shop, ex-boxer half-brother. (Or is Dicky the title character?! Discuss!) There’s plenty to say, most of it good, about Bale’s work here. But I’ve been chewing on one issue highlighted by his performance, and equally by Mark Wahlberg’s very different performance as Ward.

To begin with, inspirational true-life sports stories have been a dime a dozen in cinema for a long time, of course, so much so that we (by which I mean “I”) rarely stop to think about the weird relationship between a usually recent real-life event that is already staged for public consumption and often well-documented in visual media, and the slightly removed and somewhat more staged movie based on it. This gets rather surreal in Russell’s film, as one subplot focuses on an HBO documentary crew that followed Dicky Eklund around town for a while sometime in the early ‘90s – so on a few occasions we watch re-staged faux clips from the doc, with Bale presumably mimicking Eklund in scenes that surely still exist with the real Eklund in them. I look forward to the movie about the making of The Fighter wherein, say, Ryan Gosling plays Christian Bale playing Dicky in restaged scenes from the making-of DVD extras.

This all comes to a head, in an understated fashion, right after the close of the movie proper, with a fleeting clip of the real Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund chumming around in a bar somewhere. But for me, there’s a sudden, odd split here – Dicky seems more or less like the guy we’ve been watching for the whole movie, while Micky doesn’t. That’s because Bale as Eklund operates with a quintessential, Method-style total immersion. Wahlberg, on the other hand, plays Mark Wahlberg – or, rather, one of the standard Mark Wahlbergs we tend to get onscreen. (This is not to knock him – he does it very skillfully, as usual, and to strong effect, but more on that below.)

Bale transforms every visible and audible aspect of himself, from body language, accent and pitch of voice down to his weight (he lost a lot of it to simulate a crackhead’s emaciation). I’d bet money he watched the videos of Eklund over and over and practiced in front of a mirror and with a tape recorder to get the jittery, wired-to-explode quality that his model exudes even in the tiny bit of him we see at the end – the certain something that makes you say instantly upon meeting him, “Seems like a good guy, but what is up with him? Maybe I should keep half an eye on him anyway.”

Opposite him, Wahlberg deploys his trademark low-key, bruised machismo. There’s the firm set of his square jaw and the boyish swagger, contrasted with the diffident head movements and furrow of the brow that indicate the world puzzles him and often seems determined to hurt him – the surface toughness with a vulnerable softness underneath. He even gets to break out the working-class MA accent that he usually hides but that often peeps through. This is the guy American moviegoers are familiar with by now as someone you’d want on your side in a fight, but also want to comfort and protect (which might well include cuddling in bed, if you’re oriented that way). It instantly marks out Ward to The Fighter’s audience as the hero, the audience identification figure, in contrast to Eklund, who has his own endearing qualities but from whom you shrink back to a safe distance, maybe the better to shout at him in exasperation. It's a smart double act - Wahlberg lays down a steady bass line that keeps the song on track and moving forward, allowing Bale to weave flashy riffs around him.

The interesting thing is, in the real-life closing clip, the more grounded and successful Ward exhibits many of the same physical and vocal mannerisms as his ex-jailbird sibling, to a degree that startled me (although I find that to be less so in some of the other clips I checked out on YouTube out of curiosity). But Bale dives straight into those traits and uses them to obliterate the actor audiences are familiar with; Wahlberg takes a detour around them to give us a clear view – “Hi, everyone, still me.” Does that mean Bale is a better actor? Possibly, depending on what you mean by “better.” But possibly not – Markie Mark has the right tools to get the job done, and he does it. It’s a fine example of the use of a star persona to shape audience expectations and identification, even if it isn’t the kind of showoffy acting best calculated to get one a nude statuette.

[Here's a lengthy, interesting interview with director Russell, Bale, Wahlberg and others of the principal cast, if you want to see people who know what they're really talking about address some of what I'm rambling about above.]

It's true... EVERYONE.

Even the people who say they don't because everyone does and they don't want to like something everyone likes. The problem with doing that is YOU CAN'T NOT LIKE MOVIES BECAUSE EVERYONE LIKES MOVIES. See the logical contradiction?

Your cat. Your dog. People who live deep in the rain forest and have never seen an electrical outlet before will like movies, right away, if you show them one.

Dumb ones, smart ones, big ones, little ones, old ones, new ones, good ones, bad ones, strange ones, regular ones, theirs, ours. Everyone likes movies.

(This picture, which is real... no, seriously, it is... courtesy of University Press of the Pacific and this Amazon page.)