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September 25, 2004

Review: Cellular

After the credits began to roll, the first thing I remembered about Cellular was just how little I actually remembered about Cellular.

On one hand, I knew perfectly well that what I had just witnessed was exactly what the Execs in the Studios in Hollywood salivate over. The premise was “high concept”. The story was clear and straightforward. The characters’ motivations were defined. The action was relentless. Everything was perfect.

On another hand, although not necessarily the left or the right, I knew that the only thing perfect about Cellular was that it was perfectly formulaic. I could take the same elements that I praised, and use them to explain how much of a failure the movie was. The premise was a gimmick. The story was too simple. The characters were flat, one-dimensional, paper thin, trite. The action was boring, and useful only as, at best, a distraction, and, at worst, a prevention against finding something, if it existed, redeeming in the narrative.

What was going on?!

The logic of Seinfeld tells us that, ‘a George, divided against itself, cannot stand!’ And yet here I was. Standing! My film appreciation brain cells, or the small portion of my brain that still harbours original, “me-thought-up” opinions, was screaming that Cellular wasn’t even good enough to warrant a strong negative opinion because it was so piddling and forgettable. But the rest of my brain, that which hath been bleached by critics, public opinion, TV, and the endless rules and regulations of the screenwriting trade, was encouraging me to stab that small portion with a screwdriver, ala Pi, and join the Dark Side. Was I daft? Cellular was everything that is great about the movies!

I realize that I haven’t said anything about the movie so far. Allow me to suspend my runaway train of thought, and do so now.

A woman is kidnapped. She calls a guy. He helps her.

Back to the interesting stuff. I usually use the terms ‘movie’ and ‘film’ interchangeably. But, for some not so odd reason, I can’t bring myself to call Cellular a film. Some may view this as a sign that I’m just a prudish film snob (this may be true) who can’t enjoy a film as entertainment (this is not true). But, to counter, I ask: What is entertainment?

That was pretty philosophical, wasn’t it? But, in all seriousness this time, I ask this: What about Cellular is entertaining? Is it the element of the chase that sucks viewers in? (Yeah, I’m answering my own question with a question. Yeah, it’s not a good idea. Yeah, Socrates did it. No, I’m not comparing myself to Socrates. Yeah, I should move on.) Because the chase explanation is valid, and history certainly agrees. It was almost a genre of early cinema. And, when done well, could be captivating. However, even when well done, a chase is shallow unless there’s an attachment to the chasee, chaser, background situation, and consequences of the chase. In Cellular, there’s very little reason to care.

A woman’s life is at stake, but she’s a stranger. A man becomes a hero, but he too is a stranger. The situation, or reason for the chase, is unknown for at least half the film. And the consequences, although clear, are small and affect only a handful of people. And, for that to combine into an effective and enthralling movie, I have to care about that handful. If the fate of the world was at stake, I would automatically be involved. Since it isn’t, the characters have to involve me before I become involved in their fate. In Cellular, this would entail having more than one scene with the two main characters before flicking the unstoppable action to the ‘On’ position. Now that I think about it, maybe having a First Act that’s longer than five minutes would be a more general way of putting it. But would those early scenes “advance the plot”? Would they be “vital”? Nah, they were probably there in an early draft before being cut as “filler” by someone other than the screenwriter. Maybe Cellular isn’t all that structurally sound. I wonder what McKee would say. Probably something akin to: “Hook me into the story at the first page. The first sentence. The first word. And never let up.” Great advice, whatever the fuck it means.

To wrap things up, I’ll say that Cellular, without being good or bad, occupies a deep, lonely cellar in the big house of film. Not only is it a movie, but it is also a slight movie.

Depressingly, for all of us that have a hidden, outspoken, or other form of desire to write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, and sell a screenplay, it’s exactly the type of movie we’ll eventually have to pen.

Disclaimer: The preceding was written through the lens of a three-quarter empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s and, while honestly representing the views and opinions of the author at the time of authorship, may be inaccurate as to the opinion of the author in the morning through the broken lens of a headache and the taste of bitter, black coffee.

September 17, 2004

The Darkness of the Matinee

When we gaze at a painting, our eyes see exactly what the painter has created on the canvas. We see it for as long as we keep gazing. Our interpretation of the image may be different than someone else’s, and it will no doubt conjure up different memories, ideas, and feelings that depend on our own experiences, but the painting always stays the same. It never changes. The same is true of music, literature, and theater.

When we watch a film, however, the process of viewing becomes uniquely subjective. Because film relies on the ability of our brain to create motion from a series of still images, known as the Phi Phenomenon, it is different from the other art forms. For example, when the alien ship descends on Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind it does so only in our minds! To go back to painting, it would be akin to walking through an art gallery and constructing a narrative based on the progression of paintings that adorn the walls. Film is our imagination at work. Without us, a film wouldn’t exist as anything other than a series of photographs. It’s strangely fascinating then to think about how our minds operate and how involved we are in the films we watch, because while it’s amazing to know that we can create a UFO landing, isn’t it also scary to think that we can create wars and commit crimes?

When we watch a film in the theater, we spend up to half the time in total darkness. What a weird kind of entertainment. We spend nine dollars to see a two hour film during which we see actual images for maybe seventy minutes and see nothing for the other fifty. And we don’t notice! We don’t notice because our brains are still functioning, still creating motion, still creating film, and our eyes still see images which are no longer there. Does this mean, perhaps, that up to fifty percent of a film is entirely subjective? And I’m not talking about interpretation, but about what we actual “see” on the screen! If so, then, although our brains all work in a similar way, I could have seen a much different film than everyone else, even in the same theater audience. No wonder we can sometimes argue about films without ever getting anywhere! We’re not arguing about the same thing.

Imagine reading a book with only half the sentences on a page. Imagine having to fill in the rest of the sentences for it to make sense. What if Shakespeare only wrote the First, Third, and Fourth Acts of his plays? Would it make sense? I don’t know, but probably not. But that’s what cinema is. It’s an incomplete work of art, in a sense. And every time you sit down and watch a film, you are not simply a spectator. You become a filmmaker.

September 10, 2004

Review: Code 46

Code 46, a low key romantic science fiction, that surprisingly stars Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton, is one of the two best films I’ve seen this year (the other being Oldboy). That, by the way, is the short review in case you don’t want to read any more and wish to save yourself from the nauseating praise to follow.

The director is Michael Winterbottom, a Brit, whose chameleon-like portfolio already includes a drama, a romance, a comedy, a western, and a realist road movie. And that’s just in a span of four years! Well, he can safely add another successful genre to that list. And, to steal a chant from the GOP, I’ll add: “Four more years!”

The plot of the Code 46 revolves around a thing called a “papelle”, a document that allows a person to travel around the film’s future Earth. Morton’s character Maria works for a company that manufactures papelles and, as we learn quickly, has been engaged in smuggling them out of her workplace and illegally distributing them to people who don’t qualify as legal recipients. Enter Robbins’ William, a detective with a wife a child, hired by the company to find the employee responsible for the crime.

There’s more, but it’s all less significant than the [purposely] unlikely romance that blossoms between William and Maria and which becomes the focus of the film. And the plot breaks downs near the middle of the film anyway. In a sense, Code 46 is the Lost in Translation that Sofia Coppola didn’t make. It has a similar central relationship between two very different but spiritually linked people, the same slow pace, and the same hypnotic quality. But whereas I found Lost in Translation boring, uneventful, tedious, and, the film’s greatest undoing, shallow, Code 46 is the opposite. To be cynical for two sentences, Lost In Translation had a scene of Bill Murray singing karaoke during which the film wanted me to think about Bill Murray singing karaoke. In Code 46, there’s a scene of the two main characters in a nightclub, dancing, during which the film gives me time to think about the many ideas presented so far.

For example, take Winterbottom’s presentation of the future. It’s not drastically different from our own. But just enough to be slightly alien. In most science fiction flicks, the cars and buildings are futuristic but everything else is the same as it is now. Language, morals, ethics, religion, and manners do not change. Code 46 reverses that. William drives a regular car, but speaks a form of English that’s been influenced by other languages to the point that it’s littered with foreign phrases. It’s akin to the English and Russian meld in A Clockwork Orange. Along with the law in the film’s title, whose function is to prevent two people with closely related DNA from having a child, the idea of injecting oneself with viruses in order to boost, or deaden, certain feelings or abilities, and a myriad of other half-ideas liberally sprinkled throughout, Code 46 always has something for the viewer to ponder.

Some critics have accused the film of being devoid of emotion, of lacking any sort of warmth (the same criticisms I have of ‘Hero’). But that’s exactly the point of Code 46. What’s love if it has to be regulated by computers and machines, watched over by hospitals and strictly guarded by the law? There’s no room for emotion when everything is bleached by science and reason. There’s no room for love. And Code 46 illustrates this wonderfully, by forcing us to experience this futuristic, diluted romance. By pointing out the film’s fault, critics are pointing out its theme.

But it’s misleading to pass off Code 46 as just a depressing tale of a Dystopian future. It is that, but it’s also one of the most romantic films I’ve seen in a long time. When William and Maria finally shatter the restraints of society and, in an incredible piece of acting by Morton, emotion makes its unabashed entrance into the film, it’s anything but depressing. The scene, like the experience, doesn’t last forever but its impact is felt on the events that follow. Smartly, there are consequences for both characters and, in a great final shot, Maria weighs these consequences against the act and silently declares: “It was worth it.”

September 08, 2004

The Art of Watching (pt.2)

In the last post, I stated that people see films they believe will be good in theatres, films they don’t have anything against on DVD, and all others on television. This is “when” on a scale of one year, or in some cases a few years. But what about “when” on both a smaller and larger scale?

2. When?

One of my favourite films is Fellini’s 8 ½. I’ve seen it on two occasions. I’ve loved it both times. But I haven’t seen the same film twice. What am I going on about?

It’s noon. Outside, it’s a beautiful spring day. The sun is shining. Inside, it’s warm. The blinds are open. There’s a slight breeze. It’s quiet.

That’s the first viewing. That’s what motivated my interpretation and experience of the film. It was a film of celebration. I remember specific scenes, like one of schoolboys watching a woman dance on the beach. And the film’s ending, in which the main character engages in a procession with clowns, acrobats, dancers, and everyone important in his life, was calm, playful and life affirming. I’m sure it was.

Past midnight. Although it’s not raining anymore, it was a few minutes ago. The moon is hidden by clouds. Darkness. A train faintly rattles by.

That’s the second viewing. And what a difference! Scenes that I was sure took place during the day, now seemed to take place at night. Damn it, most of the film seemed to take place at night. And the definite day scenes, such as the woman dancing on beach, seemed synthetic and unremarkable. Instead, I clearly remembered an audition sequence in a darkened theatre and lush shots of night time in the city. And the ending, it was tragic. There wasn’t any joy. This was depressing, like a funeral procession.

My perception and understanding of the film were coloured by the setting in which I watched it. I could have seen it only twelve hours apart and probably had the same reaction. So, which interpretation of the ending was right? Which scenes actually took place during the day and which during the night? And what time is the best time to watch the film?

For 8 ½ there isn’t an answer, as far as I’m concerned. It’s great at any time. But other films should perhaps come with a small instruction booklet. The Blair Witch Project for example, as laughable as it can be during the day, is a whole different experience when watched at night (in the forest!). Indiana Jones or Conan the Barbarian are fantastic day movies. The Flight of the Phoenix, which takes place in the desert under the scorching sun, is better if you’re sweating along with the characters. At night it’s decidedly more boring. But these are all my opinions which, if I think back a few sentences, means that an instruction booklet should come personalized for each and every one of us.

Unfortunately, there are very few actual hints to tell us when we should watch a film. For the most part, I like watching when it’s dark outside (which I think is the popular position, since theatres are dark even at noon). And the only time I’ll voluntarily watch a film when the sun’s still out is when I know that most of it takes place during the day. (In case you’re wondering what the hell I’m blabbing on about, I lost any reasonable linking thought a while ago. Now I’m just improvising.)

Applying “when” on a much larger scale comes down to the question of at what age a particular film should be viewed. And, just to be clear, I don’t mean in terms of “suitable” content or anything about a Ratings system. I mean the perfect age to fully understand and enjoy a work of cinema. Now, since I’m too young and confused to say anything wise and informative on the topic, I offer two passages from Roger Ebert:

“I saw 'Ikiru' first in 1960 or 1961. I went to the movie because it was playing in a campus film series and only cost a quarter. I sat enveloped in the story of Watanabe for 2 1/2 hours, and wrote about it in a class where the essay topic was Plato's statement, 'the unexamined life is not worth living.' Over the years I have seen 'Ikiru' every five years or so, and each time it has moved me, and made me think. And the older I get, the less Watanabe seems like a pathetic old man, and the more he seems like every one of us.”

“As Benjamin and Elaine escaped in that bus at the end of ‘The Graduate,’ I cheered, the first time I saw the movie.…Today, looking at 'The Graduate,' I see Benjamin not as an admirable rebel, but as a self-centered creep whose put-downs of adults are tiresome.”

So, in an attempt to bring some order back to this post, I’ll try my hand at a conclusion. Some films work better during the day. Some are better when viewed at night. There’s no rule. It’s all subjective. And our ideas and opinions about films, and everything else, change as we get older. As a result, was reading all this a waste of your concentration? Maybe. Or maybe you just read it at the wrong time.

September 05, 2004

The Art of Watching (pt.1)

Before television, video stores, and internet; VHS and DVD; HDTV and Surround Sound; people saw films in the Theater. They saw films in large groups, at exact times, in big rooms, on big screens, in the dark. There were no other options. Viewing was rigid. And films reflected it.

No longer is watching a film so straightforward.

1. Where?

“Hey, listen. You wanna go see ‘Troy’ tonight?

“Nah. I heard it sucks. I’ll wait ‘til it’s out on DVD.”

It’s a common slice of conversation. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. Maybe someone’s said it to you. Maybe you’ve even said it yourself. I have. And it’s interesting.

There’s now a choice of where you’ll see a film that wasn’t available fifty years ago. You can still see something in theatres. But you can also wait a few months and rent it on cassette or disc. Or, you can wait a few months longer than that, and see it on cable. It’s up to you. You know you’ll probably see it anyway, so the real question is where.

Part of your answer most likely depends on how badly you want to see the movie in the first place. There’s a direct relationship between how good you believe a film will be, and where and when you’ll see it. If you’ve heard good opinions, like the actors, read sparkling reviews, are hooked on the premise, and enjoy the advertisements, chances are you’ll drive out to the nearest theater and pay $10 to see it the old fashioned way as soon as you can. If you know you want to see the film, but maybe the critics haven’t been kind to it, or you don’t like one of the leads, you’ll probably wait until it hits the video store and then pay $4 to see it in your home. If you hate the idea, don’t particularly enjoy the genre, and have heard some bad things from your friends, you may catch the film anyway, on television, for free, a few years after it has left theatres. And, hell, you may even like it!

So, you should see great films in the theatre, average films on DVD, and bad films on TV.

Not quite. What about that latest flick you saw on HBO? (Band of Brothers perhaps) It was pretty good, wasn’t it?

Just because it was made for television doesn’t mean it’s worse than Baby Geniuses 2: Superbabies. Then why was it on HBO and not in theatres, you ask? There are many reasons. But, to generalize and count out any financial ones, it was on TV because the material was better suited for TV. Smaller stories for smaller screens. But smaller doesn’t mean worse. Spielberg made a movie for TV called Duel that is better than some, if not most, of the movies he’s made for The Screen. In fact, Duel is still more entertaining to watch on TV than Saving Private Ryan or Jaws, both of which would trump Duel on the big screen. I’m rambling, but that’s alright.

Lawrence of Arabia, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars are all good films. They’re bombastic, extravagant, and are about big, world changing events. Viewed on TV, they lose some of their appeal. Gandalf and Darth Vader are larger-than-life characters. They should be twenty feet tall. Compressed to twenty inches, they just aren’t as impressive.

Taxi Driver and As Good As It Gets are good films, too. Do they gain anything from being on the big screen? In my opinion, not really. I even think they’re better to watch on the small screen because it’s easier to listen to the dialogue and relate to the characters. You can always go back and watch parts again, too. Plus, Melvin Udall is just as sarcastic at twenty inches as at twenty feet. And Travis Bickle is just as tragic.

That's why as a film viewer you have a choice as to where to see a film that’s more important than you think. In a simple, incorrect conclusion: Films that impress and immerse are better on the big screen. Films that articulate and connect are better on the small screen. So, in terms of being entertained and getting the most out a film, it may just be better to hold off seeing Garden State until it’s on DVD. And to see Vanity Fair in theatres instead.

September 03, 2004

Review: Oldboy

Asian cinema is prospering. It’s producing some of the finest motion pictures in the world. And few are better than South Korean director Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy.

The film is about Oh Dae-su, a family man and occasional drunk who, while making a call from a telephone booth, is mysteriously abducted. Upon regaining consciousness, he finds himself imprisoned in a hotel room. Confusion is too mild a word for what he’s feeling. Then, his wife is found murdered. His blood is at the scene. To his whole world, he appears to have vanished to evade capture. His life is gone. But he’s still alive. Somewhere. In a room. He’s fed and clothed. And taken care of.

Fifteen years pass.

And, just as abruptly as he was abducted, he’s released. Free, Oh Dae-su vows to take revenge on those responsible, and more importantly to find out the reason, for his imprisonment.

But Oldboy isn’t a typical revenge story. It’s much deeper than that. In fact, we learn that Oh Dae-su is driven far more by the second part of his vow than by the first. He has the chance to take revenge several times but doesn’t, because it would mean never knowing The Reason. And that’s what he’s really after, like a child persistently asking its parents, “why does it rain?”, “what happens to the sun at night?” or “why do people die?” Oh Dae-su wants to know: “Why was my life stolen?”

To transpose this to a different culture, one that I know much better, Oldboy is like the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden. Oh Dae-su thirsts for a bite of the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. But is some knowledge better left unknown? Is some knowledge a crushing burden to bear?

That’s what the first viewing of Oldboy is. It’s a quest for knowledge, for the truth, and for a reason. Like in a mystery, the plot unfolds one step at a time until, at the end, everything is revealed. And it’s devastating. So much so, that it’s hard to even imagine watching some of the film’s scenes placed into the context that the ending provides.

Yet that’s exactly what happens upon a repeat viewing. It’s a different film. The revenge and search for reason, so prominent before, become overpowered by tragedy. It’s almost painful to watch, knowing the outcome, as Oh Dae-su hurls himself toward the inevitable. Suddenly, opportunities for salvation become visible. But Oh Dae-su is blind to them all. His purpose propels him forward. Dae-su, like Oedipus, to use another Western example, is a victim of his Fate.

Lauded at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and lost out to only Fahrenheit 911 for the Golden Palm, Oldboy begs to be seen. Unfortunately, it won’t be hitting U.S. theatres any time soon. At least not in its original form.

In some dark, damp cave a mysterious yet powerful and influential movie mogul has had the bright idea of authorizing an American remake of the film. So, Chan-wook Park’s masterpiece will be deconstructed and reconstructed under the watchful eye of Justin Lin, the director of the ultra-gimmicky Better Luck Tomorrow (a teen flick with an all Asian-American cast!). I guess the rationale is that if one Asian can make a great film, allowing another to work from the same concept is a sure thing.

My advice: See Oldboy. See it now. See it any way you can.

UPDATE: In a recent television interview, Quentin Tarantino discussed Oldboy and plainly said that original film will, indeed, be coming to North American theaters. Whether it will be re-edited or not remains to be seen.

September 01, 2004

A Hero is Born

In early August, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) protested the decision, by a silent theater in California, to screen D.W. Griffith’s landmark and controversial film Birth of a Nation. The protest was successful. The screening was cancelled.

(see 'Guardian' article)

For Birth of a Nation, this isn’t anything new. The film, first released in 1915, has been a lightning rod before. Debates have raged since its release about whether its technical innovations could, or should, be separated from its racist content. Recently, there have been attempts to censor the film to make it less offensive. Undeniably, it demonizes blacks and glorifies the Ku Klux Klan. Undeniably, it is a revolutionary piece of filmmaking that will forever hold a place in cinema history. My opinion on the subject is close to that of popular critic Roger Ebert who says, “If we are to see this film, we must see it all, and deal with it all.” In California, the decision was not to see it.

(see Ebert's Article)

How appropriate then, that a mere few weeks later the film that tops the American Box Office is another technically excellent film with a reprehensible message. This time, it’s a Chinese import. A colourful, vivid work of director Yimou Zhang that stars Jet Li and Ziyi Zhang. A film being hailed as a perfect by a plethora of criitcs. A fantastic, wonderful, and very pretty celebration of fascism. The English title is Hero. And it’s a film that only Mussolini should love.

At the centre of the story is Nameless, a master of martial arts whose goal is the assassination of a powerful warlord. This provides the story’s Frame, as Nameless recites various stories in order to move close enough to his target to deliver his fatal blow. But the film turns ugly at the end. And, without spoiling things too much, Nameless comes to the understanding that the life, values and opinions of any individual are always less important than the well being and optimum effectiveness of the State. In other words, “Mussolini is always right.”

(see Fascinating Fascism)

Hero damns us all. And, in that way, it is different than Birth of a Nation. Its message is egalitarian. We are all worthless. Equally worthless.

So, is it strange that there were no protestors at the theaters showing Hero? Not really.

Should there have been protestors, and should the screening have been stopped? No.

Should the screening of Birth of a Nation have been stopped? No.