February 26, 2015

The World That I See: Reads and Listens (February Edition)

Common and John Legend perform "Glory" at the Oscars.

The major event this past week was the Oscars, though it already feels like they happened a long time ago. The impact of a Best Picture win isn’t the same as it once was, especially since there was little drama in the result. Most prognosticators expected Birdman to grab the top prize, and the acting awards were also predictable. The truth is that it’s hard to get too riled up about who “deserved” the win or gave the best speeches. It’s easy to think of ways for the show to re-invent itself to be more relevant to movie goers or not feel so safe. Even so, this may be a situation where little can change the prevailing trends. Awards campaigns play a huge role in determining the contenders, and the lengthy ceremony needs more than a few tweaks to change. Host Neil Patrick Harris is charming yet didn’t seem comfortable on stage. There were fun moments, particularly the rousing opening number. His one-liners mostly failed, however.

On a positive note, there were a few amazing moments that will stick with me. The performances of “Everything is Awesome” and “Glory” transcended the show for very different reasons. The first was a jubilant performance that captured the fun of the movie and brought together a wonderful group of artists. Mark Mothersbaugh, Questlove, and a hilarious Will Arnett as Batman were clearly having a blast on stage with Tegan and Sara. Arnett’s monotonous voice for the cry of “Darkness! No parents!” was pitch-perfect. Equally memorable was the moving work by Common and John Legend in the rousing hymn from Selma. It reduced many in the audience to tears and existed apart from the strange ceremony. What ties these two performances together is the way they didn’t feel self-serving. They showed the potential for something unique that was missing during much of the night.

Here are some interesting blogs and podcasts from the past month that deserve your attention:

This month included the 100th anniversary of Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s epic about the Civil War and Reconstruction. It’s a challenge to watch this film and not want to toss it in the garbage because of its racist content. On the other hand, Griffith masterfully used filmmaking devices that pushed the medium forward towards a new era. Godfrey Cheshire’s piece for Vulture about the film is a fascinating look at both the historical impact and the importance to the medium. Cheshire acknowledges the problems with Griffith’s depictions but doesn’t let it derail the most interesting aspects of the essay.

PBS is such a valuable commodity for children’s programming; our kids watch it every day. What’s often undervalued is the benefits it can provide for movie fans. I admit to taking the service for granted, which isn’t wise given constant funding concerns. Andrew Lapin’s “Why Cinephiles Need to Care about PBS before It’s Too Late” for The Dissolve points out the benefits yet shows how they’re being diminished. My local PBS affiliate sometimes skips episodes of The Independent Lens and POV for less interesting programming (in my opinion). Lapin shows how their impact is being lessened and why we need to seek them out right away.

Many writers mourned the loss of David Carr, a New York Times journalist who inspired so many young minds. He represented a different era for journalism in Andrew Rossi’s Page One: Inside the New York Times documentary and was known for honest essays about his past challenges. In “Personal Writing as Professional Empathy: On David Carr” at Movie Mezzanine, Alissa Wilkinson captures what made Carr so important. She uses his own words to make a convincing case for what we can learn from his approach to life. His work in covering movies also can provide important advice when writing about films.

There have been some huge losses in the movie world during the past year, including Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s hard to wrap our minds around a world that won’t include future work from them. A rarely discussed topic is the emotional depth that some artists mine to deliver such moving performances. This clip of Ethan Hawke on Charlie Rose seems so fitting to help explain the torment experienced by these guys. The idea that “it didn’t come for free” is the most simple and honest explanation that I’ve heard to try and understand the situation. Credit goes to Sheila O’Malley for posting this moving video on her great blog The Sheila Variations.

I’m still digging through the movies of 2014, so it’s refreshing when podcasts take their time and present their top 10 lists much later. Tyler and David at Battleship Pretension revealed their favorites last week, and their choices mostly avoided the obvious titles. The best part was hearing their lengthy discussions about the picks during an episode that lasted more than three hours.

Batman Begins

Several new podcasts have risen this year that deserve your attention. The first is Super Zero!, which explores the history of super movies from two very different perspectives. Matt Brown is the comics expert, while Alia Miller is the newbie. The duo has a great on-air chemistry as she asks the tough questions about genre landmarks like Batman Begins and Superman. My favorite episode thus far covered the original Batman, a movie that I loved as a kid. Matt and Alia delve into the surprisingly dark content from Tim Burton and other quirks from the movie that resurrected the genre.

Another podcast that’s just begun is Not at Odds, hosted by Jandy and Jon Hardesty. They’re married and bring a down-to-earth style to film discussions. The most recent episode covered their “Year of Positivity”, which aimed to avoid the first impulse to take a negative approach when considering movies. I haven’t gone as far as Jandy and Jon but am trying to use a similar way of thinking. Another one that I really enjoyed discussed the term “overrated” and why it’s problematic. The episodes last about 30 minutes and don’t waste time, and I appreciate the more focused approach to the medium.

This week also saw the final episode of Parks and Recreation, a series that I’ve admired more with each passing year. Few shows have such warmth among the characters without making the emotions seem forced. Alyssa Rosenberg’s excellent piece “The brilliant, confident liberalism of Parks and Recreation on her blog Act Four also identified the rarity in how the writers approached politics. She provides another reason for why I’ll miss Leslie Knope, Ron Swanson, and all the Pawnee gang. I’ll close with a quote from Alyssa that gives one of many reasons for why it succeeded:

And in keeping with the show’s confident liberalism, Leslie Knope’s enduring friendship with Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) wasn’t merely a way for Leslie to demonstrate that she was tolerant enough to have a libertarian in her life, or as proof that brown liquor and breakfast food are the only two truly non-partisan things in America. While the two characters had wildly different visions of the best way to make the world a better place, Parks and Recreation didn’t just respect Ron’s position as an expression of principle; it found real value in the ways he lived his life.

February 23, 2015

Blind Spots Series: Man with a Movie Camera

It’s rare to find a movie that feels unique; most are inspired by previous examples of their genre. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera isn’t the first documentary, but it remains a rare example of creative uses of the camera. Released in 1929, the Russian production depicts a day in the life in cities like Moscow, Kiev, and others. What makes it shine is the inventive ways that Vertov presents the action. An unnamed cameraman (Mikhail Kaufman) actively looks for new ways to capture the shots, but we’re observing that guy from another vantage point. Kaufman is credited as this film’s cinematographer, so he’s hardly just an actor playing a role. Ranked #8 on the most recent Sight & Sound poll in 2012, this incredible film’s reputation continues to grow with each passing decade.

On the surface, a black-and-white documentary without a story doesn’t sound that intriguing. The selling point is how Vertov presents the material. The opening shot uses trick photography to present what appears to be the miniature cameraman standing on top of a giant camera. Other shots employ split-screens and multiple images superimposed on the other to create something new. A trick shot appears to present the cameraman being run over by an incoming train. Afterwards, a reveal shows a safe opening beneath the ground. Titles at the start reveal Vertov’s ambitious plans for this film. There are no actors, artificial sets, or fictional scenario for this project. It’s like a variation on the rules of the Dogme 95 project many years later. Vertov was outspoken about his hatred of the fiction film, so this is hardly just an artistic experiment. He’s trying to prove where the real value comes from cinema.

A predominant theme is the act of seeing life through the visual medium. A late scene presents a crowd in a movie theater watching this film. There’s recognition that even a non-fiction look at real life is still being edited for audiences. They’ve arrived to watch entertainment, so even a filmmaker trying to show truth is still making something artificial. Vertov’s manifesto seems absolute, yet the trick photography reveals understanding of ways to manipulate our perspective. Anyone who creates a shot with a cameraman projected inside a beer glass is hardly a humorless ideologue. There’s playfulness to this project that keeps it light despite the high-minded goals. Vertov shows a world in motion and speeds up the action to convey that fact. It’s an upbeat and energetic life in the city. A key factor is the editing from Vertov and his wife Yelizaveta Svilova, which brings together the chaos into a coherent whole.

Beyond the style, Vertov finds emotional resonance in capturing various stages of life. A happy couple signs their marriage license, and a sad one prepares for divorce moments later. There’s a brief shot of a birth and washing the baby immediately afterwards. The camera observes intimate moments that connect emotionally because they’re universal. The hustle and bustle of the daily commute feels similar to what we experience in our cars today. Trains and buses depart constantly and represent the backbone of the working society. It’s a communist world, and large pictures of Lenin remind us of this fact. Even so, there’s little difference in this community from our own. Vertov shows locations that are specific to Russia, but it doesn’t feel like a travelogue of a foreign land.

There are many versions of the score for Man with a Movie Camera, and each one definitely influences the experience. I watched Michael Nyman’s 2002 soundtrack from the performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The upbeat music brings power to the shots of the city in motion. The sped-up rhythms of the people and transportation create a dance between humans and technology. Nyman’s string-heavy score is hardly subtle yet brings energy as the pace increases. There’s so much activity on the screen, so there’s no way to process everything on a first viewing. It’s the type of film that’s tailor-made to play on a large screen with a live orchestra. Watching it at home feels like a second-rate experience. Even so, Vertov’s work retains its power and creates a truly unique look at filmmaking and life itself.

February 21, 2015

Investigating Michael Mann: Miami Vice

Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx star in Michael Mann's Miami Vice.
Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx star as Crockett and Tubbs in Michael Mann's Miami Vice

Two years after the creative and financial success of Collateral, Michael Mann’s next step was a movie remake of the famous 1980s TV series Miami Vice. This was hardly a typical Hollywood cash grab, however. The main characters are named Crockett and Tubbs, and they’re undercover cops with a boss named Castillo. That’s where many of the similarities end. The film version is much closer to the gritty world of Mann’s films than the glitzy fashions that people remember from the show. It’s also different because Mann was closely involved in the original series as an executive producer. He understands what made the show tick and retains certain elements that still work today. It’s the type of intriguing experiment that you rarely see from a big-budget production.

Despite having solid box-office success, audiences (and some critics) weren’t sure what to make of the 2006 movie. It’s dazzling and includes plenty of action, yet there’s a distance to the material that’s hard to crack. There’s little sense that the cops will make any real progress in stopping the drug trade. The violence is visceral yet feels more futile because the criminal enterprises are so large. The dangers of their efforts are extreme, and there’s a consistent melancholy to the project. No matter how successful Crockett and Tubbs are in stopping the dealers, there are always others to take their place. The cops are experts at selling the fa├žade, but each move creates new and risky challenges.

The Director's Cut of Miami Vice opens with a powerboat race.
The Director's Cut of Miami Vice opens with a thrilling powerboat race. 

Full Speed Ahead!

The Director’s Cut begins with an underwater shot that conveys an eerie stillness. After a few quiet moments, the camera lifts above the surface and reveals a powerboat race. This sequence is different than the theatrical version, which began in at a night club. This adjustment creates an image that reminds us of the iconic series. Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are hurtling forward towards their destiny, and it’s an apt metaphor for how they handle police work. Crockett in particular acts by instinct and moves before considering the consequences. This opening also gives us time to acclimate to this chaotic world; the fast pace won’t stop anytime soon.

The action moves quickly to a night club for the scene that opened the Theatrical Cut. The incredible cinematography from Dion Beebe (Collateral) stands out immediately during this frenetic sequence. The booming sound of “Numb/Encore” from Jay-Z (and unfortunately Linkin Park) blares through the club while the cops set up a sting. This scene deftly reveals aspects of the two leads’ personalities. Crockett smoothly hits on the bartender, while the serious Tubbs tries to save an abused girl. It feels like we’ve been dropped into the middle of the story, but Mann ensures we can follow the action. Crockett and Tubbs are revealed as pros working in dangerous territory, and that efficiency connects to team members Trudy (Naomi Harris), Zito (Justin Theroux), Switek (Domenick Lombardozzi), and Gina (Elizabeth Rodriguez). There’s nothing easy about this job; no one can slip up for a second.

This set-up reveals the cops’ investigative skills, and most films would waste time on resolving this operation. It means little to the real story beyond introducing the team, however. A frantic phone call from Alonzo (John Hawkes) begins the main plot and unleashes the torrent of new information. Mann doesn’t slow down the exposition and forces us to stay with him. These characters wouldn’t take a break to explain the details, so why should he? Crockett understands the dire circumstances and immediately springs into action. Aryan drug traders brutally kill FBI undercover agents, and their actions signal a leak in Agent Fujima’s (Ciarin Hinds) operation. The contrast between the Miami cops and the by-the-books Fujima is immediately evident. Crockett and Tubbs are diving into the case, but they also care about a guy like Alonzo. The straight-arrow Fujima works in an office and views the crime world from afar.

Gong Li and Colin Farrell take a holiday to Havana, Cuba.
Crockett joins Isabella (Gong Li) for a quick holiday to Havana, Cuba. 

Playing a Character

One of Miami Vice’s best scenes is the first meeting of Crockett and Tubbs with Jose Yero (John Ortiz). It takes place in Haiti, which feels like enemy territory since the cops have no allies or support. Making statements like “business auditions for us”, the guys sell the idea that they’re hardened criminals. It’s a tense sequence because Yero has a suspicious nature. He doesn’t trust the American outsiders and tries various ways to expose them as liars. The scene is believable because of how little everyone really says. Crockett doesn’t overplay the conflict when it escalates and looks calm while holding a grenade. What’s interesting about this conversation is how they sell the lies. Tubbs’ intensity matches his approach to police work, while Crockett’s laid-back attitude remains. They’ve made only subtle changes and can sell the skills they already possess. Like Yero says later, “they’re too good at what they do.

It’s also interesting to note the way that Yero is selling more than the truth. He’s posing as the head of the organization when he’s really the security guy. Yero clearly wants to control the operation, so it isn’t a stretch to convey that power. The real leader is Jesus Montoya (Luis Tozar), and the first meeting with him is less intense but strange. His comments are generic (“I extend my best wishes to your families”) and feel rehearsed, though subtle threats lurk beneath the surface. The revelation that Crockett’s girlfriend Trudy received $500 in flowers during their trip supports that warning. These guys don’t mess around. Even if they aren’t exposed as cops, Crockett and Tubbs are facing serious danger from this enterprise.

The idea of playing a role is intriguing in the context of Crockett’s burgeoning romance with Isabella (Gong Li), who handles the high-level business for Montoya. The attraction is real and goes beyond their drug world personas. Their date in Havana is an escape and breaks down most of the emotional barriers. When Isabella talks about her family, she’s revealing a softness that’s barely seen. Crockett is playing a criminal, but his comments about his father are genuine. This relationship also subverts the typical male and female roles that we see in movies. Isabella is older and in control of how far it goes. It’s unfortunate when she becomes the more typical damsel in distress at the end, but that doesn’t signify the power during most of the romance. It’s also a different situation where Crockett gains little information through Isabella. Their love mostly rests apart from the crime, at least for a time.

Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs pursue the enemy in Miami Vice.
The digital photography of Dion Beebe shines during the nighttime scenes in Miami. 

All-Out War

Miami Vice succeeds by using a simple three-act structure: the opening sets the scene and sends Crockett and Tubbs undercover, the middle adds complexity and the love story, and the finale presents the conflict between the cops and Yero’s forces. Each step raises the stakes and creates more intrigue for what’s to come. There are memorable sequences from the start, so you aren't waiting for something to happen. When Yero kidnaps Trudy to enforce his will, it's a natural progression. We’ve already seen how the enemies killed Alonzo’s girl, so the threat is real. Mann excels in showing the frantic race against time to locate Trudy. Miami nighttime backdrop is gorgeous and addss a visceral thrill to the chase. Few directors are skilled enough to pull this off with experienced movie watchers. We’ve seen this type of scene play out hundreds of times, but it feels different. Trudy is found and apparently safe, yet a suspicion remains that something terrible is about to happen.

Immediately following Trudy’s rescue, the cross-cutting between Yero and the trailer signifies the explosion that’s coming. We know it’s going to happen, yet the shock remains when Trudy’s flattened to the ground. There were so many ways to screw up this moment, and Mann sidesteps the pitfalls. Foxx plays Tubbs’ quiet anger and concern just right as Trudy clings to life in the hospital. Despite the sharp execution, the plot does push Trudy into a familiar trope of the woman as a victim. She is a strong character who told Tubbs “you worry about you” when the flowers arrived. Even so, the need to raise the emotional stakes by putting her in jeopardy does follow a familiar pattern in movies.

There are few scenes from Mann’s career that reach the heights of the final shootout in Miami Vice. The Director’s Cut inserts Nonpoint’s cover of “In the Air Tonight” right before the battle, and it creates the right mood. The tense buildup while Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley) looks for the shooters is almost too much to bear. Once the bullets start flying, the pure chaos is stunning. The matter-of-fact way that Tubbs splatters Yero with a single shot signals how the game has changed. Questions of morality are gone; this conflict is personal. The revelation to Isabella of Crockett’s real job further complicates the situation. The battle is over, but the emotional climax comes several minutes later. He’s accomplished little to stop the drug trade, yet Crockett does right by her. It was too good to last. Their achievements were limited and the struggle continues, but it’s hardly a failed endeavor. The action is the juice.

February 19, 2015

Treasures from the Disney Vault: The Vanishing Prairie (1954)

The Vanishing Prairie, released in 1954

A lesser-known part of Disney’s history is its nature documentaries, which mostly appeared during the 1950s. Called the True-Life Adventures, the 14 films received eight Oscars and created today's landscape. For the “Treasures from the Disney Vault” special, TCM selected The Vanishing Prairie to exemplify this type of movie. This 1954 release won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and was the series' ninth release. In the introduction, Leonard Maltin explains how it was a tough sell for Walt Disney to make these pictures. Creating propaganda films during the war revealed the possibilities of documentaries and pushed Walt into this realm. Disney has continued this tradition recently with Disneynature films like Chimpanzee and the upcoming Monkey Kingdom.

The Vanishing Prairie begins on an animated map of North America as a paint brush reveals the different natural features of the country, particularly grassland in the middle. Narrator Winston Hiller gives a matter-of-fact description of the natural features and sets the stage. His delivery resembles a guy like Peter Coyote, who’s distinctive but fails to distract from the action. The tone may feel slow to modern audiences accustomed to fast-paced narratives. One reason is less wonder today in the close views of animals; we’re spoiled by cable networks and sophisticated zoos. Even so, it’s hard not to find solace in getting an intimate view of hundreds of birds migrating towards the Arctic tundra.

A key factor in selling the charms of the prairie is Paul Smith’s music, which sells the idea that everything is a magical event. Ducks walking in slow motion? That’s amazing! There’s an operatic feeling to the presentation, especially when animals graze as a group. It feels like they’re dancing to the music, aided by the frequent use of slow motion. The choices are designed to evoke strong emotions. Ominous music plays when a rattlesnake arrives, while a happy tune shows the cuddly prairie dogs. There’s a danger in making the natural world feel too sentimental, and more cynical viewers won’t enjoy the simplified connections to school and recess designed to engage kids.

Prairie dogs in The Vanishing Prairie, released by Disney.
Prairie dogs are everywhere in this film and epitomize the cute side of The Vanishing Prairie.

The challenge with The Vanishing Prairie is how much the animals are viewed through an anthropomorphic lens. Hiller calls the ducks “mother” and “father” and makes countless quips like this one: “I declare these husbands, always leaving things for someone else to pick up.” This approach makes total sense, yet it feels like too much by the end. The constant references to mothers taking care of their babies cheapen the striking images. There’s a remarkable moment where a buffalo must immediately act to save her suffocating baby after its birth. This scene works on its own and doesn’t need an obvious reference to our lives. This style is still used frequently today, so it isn’t confined to Disney in the ‘50s. March of the Penguins earned huge crowds in 2005 by employing similar tactics.

Despite those problematic moments, there’s enough memorable footage to make it worthwhile. Long shots of the buffalo as dots in the distance are gorgeous and sell the beauty of the prairie. Watching the pronghorn antelope sprint across the plain is thrilling; the camera can barely keep up with them. There are also tense moments of hunting, especially with the mountain lion. The matter-of-fact look at hunting a deer is respectful and shows the importance of the circle of life. Another incredible shot reveals a fawn hiding within the brush while a lion walks across the log above it. These scenes don’t pander and offer interesting details about how both predator and prey thrive in the wild.

The title The Vanishing Prairie implies a greater focus on what we’re losing in our natural world. It mentions some examples, including decreases for the whooping crane and buffalo. Even so, the attention stays on the wildlife and not a more serious message. There’s considerable time spent with the prairie dogs and their underground cities. There are impressive shots from within those tunnels while predators try to grab them. One conflict between a coyote and small prairie dog is ridiculous and resembles a Chaplin comedy. It’s easy to see why the prairie dogs received so much attention. The film’s climax is a brutal lightning storm, which creates a fire and floods the prairie. These moments reveal the imposing side of nature as the wall of fire moves towards the unsuspecting animals. This type of sequence delivers more than a cute little documentary and explains its continued resonance.

February 15, 2015

The Skeleton Twins: Wiig and Hader Take Center Stage

Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader star as Maggie and Milo in The Skeleton Twins, directed by Chris Johnson.

Depicting attempted suicide on screen is a real challenge; it’s easy to lose the message. If the moment is too horrific, there’s a risk to lose the audience. On the other hand, making light could turn the scene into a mere device and betray the characters. A major factor is our investment in the story based on where the attempt occurs inside the film. Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins opens with a depressed Milo Dean (Bill Hader) writing a suicide note and preparing to slice his wrists in the bathtub. We know nothing about the guy, so it’s tough but less harrowing. The next scene reveals Milo’s sister Maggie (Kristin Wiig) preparing to kill herself with pills. It’s quite a coincidence of timing, but it also builds a connection between the twins that will only grow during the movie.

The title refers to a much happier moment from their childhood (revealed in flashback), and the past haunts Milo and Maggie. They haven’t spoken in 10 years, and their relationship hearkens to struggles from long ago. When their dad committed suicide, he placed their lives on a sour trajectory that continues well into their 30s. The twins were 14 at the time, and they’ve never recovered. Milo also reunites with his high-school teacher Rich (Ty Burrell) with whom he had an affair at 15. The adage that “the past isn’t through with us” rings true. The script from Johnson and Mark Heyman (Black Swan) shows the many ways Milo and Maggie are still coping with difficulties from long ago. Maggie’s husband Lance (Luke Wilson) is a nice guy with a stable life, yet his presence isn’t enough to bring solace. Instead, she’s actively sabotaging the relationship with lies and affairs.

It’s difficult to watch Maggie’s self-destructive behavior, even while recognizing that Lance is not the right match. He’s friendly and laid-back, yet there’s little spark between them. Even so, having an affair with a hot scuba instructor is not the right approach. Kristin Wiig’s likability makes it easy to root for Maggie; we sense that she’s a good person stuck in a terrible pattern. The same is true of Milo, who can’t seem to find real love. His dreams of being a famous actor in Hollywood haven’t gone well and are likely fruitless. Bill Hader injects a real longing into Milo that makes it easy to connect with him. The twins need each other to survive, yet there are so many emotional barriers.

The camera frequently pulls close to the characters' tormented faces in shots like this one.

The Skeleton Twins was a festival hit and nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year. The positive reception makes sense, especially with the raw emotions from Wiig and Hader. Reed Morano’s camera stays close to the actors’ inexpressive faces for extended shots. There’s little joy in the film’s washed-out look, which sells the ever-present sadness. Looking beyond the strong performances, the story feels less deep after some reflection. Milo and Maggie need each other to overcome their past, and that theme is everywhere. The final save in the pool makes it expressly clear. The low-key approach works for the material and suits the actors, but the resolution is pretty conventional.

The scenes that truly resonate are the rare moments where Milo and Maggie just enjoy the other’s company. An improvised sequence at a dentist’s office just lets the actors goof around. The chemistry between Wiig and Hader from years of working together makes the relationship feel effortless. Lip-syncing to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” stands out because it’s such a rare scene. The pure joy (and Luke Wilson’s priceless reaction) sticks with you a lot more than the turmoil. It’s no surprise that it appeared on many lists of favorite scenes from 2014. This brief respite hints at possible happiness between the twins that’s barely seen in the film. Wiig and Hader do a lot with the material, and their work resonates more than the plot in the long run.