<body><script type="text/javascript"> function setAttributeOnload(object, attribute, val) { if(window.addEventListener) { window.addEventListener('load', function(){ object[attribute] = val; }, false); } else { window.attachEvent('onload', function(){ object[attribute] = val; }); } } </script> <div id="navbar-iframe-container"></div> <script type="text/javascript" src="https://apis.google.com/js/plusone.js"></script> <script type="text/javascript"> gapi.load("gapi.iframes:gapi.iframes.style.bubble", function() { if (gapi.iframes && gapi.iframes.getContext) { gapi.iframes.getContext().openChild({ url: 'https://www.blogger.com/navbar.g?targetBlogID\x3d8138691\x26blogName\x3dThe+Duck+Mafia\x26publishMode\x3dPUBLISH_MODE_BLOGSPOT\x26navbarType\x3dBLACK\x26layoutType\x3dCLASSIC\x26searchRoot\x3dhttp://duckmafia.blogspot.com/search\x26blogLocale\x3den_GB\x26v\x3d2\x26homepageUrl\x3dhttp://duckmafia.blogspot.com/\x26vt\x3d-4737369332786410374', where: document.getElementById("navbar-iframe-container"), id: "navbar-iframe" }); } }); </script>

October 25, 2004

The Violence of Sound

Ask some people and they’ll tell you that films are way too violent these days. They’ll point out the blood, the gore, the guts, and reflect nostalgically on the days when Alfred Hitchcock depicted murder through clever editing and restraint. “Nowadays,” they’ll say, “they just have to show everything.”

There’s some truth in this, films are more bloody and violent, but there is also too much credit given to the filmmakers of the past. Political and technical restrictions played a big part in their restraint. However, what is mentioned less often, and due less to these two factors, is the shift toward violence in sound. In the same example from Hitchcock, it’s the sound of the gun shot that moves it beyond a doubt that someone, indeed, has been killed. And just like it can be argued that we’ve become desensitized to violence that would have been shocking fifty years ago, so too we’ve become used to the violent barrage of sound in today’s films.

Take a film like Howard Hawk’s classic Film Noir The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and compare it to a newer, but still well received, detective film such as L.A. Confidential or, a favourite of mine, Carlito’s Way. The classical orchestral score of the first and its masterful use of silence provides an ideal set-up to the gun shots that punctuate the film. When a gun is shot, you jump! In the newer films, there is always something going on, both on the screen and on the audio track. As a result, a gun shot is about as shocking as an increase in the tempo of the background music, or someone yelling across a room to someone else. By complicating and cluttering the audio part of the films, the filmmakers have robbed it of its power. The most complicated aspect of The Big Sleep is its plot, and that is arguably its weakest point as well.

Films, like other forms of art, should have a rhythm and flow. The story needs to have high and low points, moments of intense action and moments of introspection. There need to be close ups and long shots, and long takes and short takes. So why should a film’s sound be different? Assaulting a viewer’s ears for ninety minutes is tiring, lazy and boring. As great as the bombastic parts of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are, they are balanced by the beautiful, slower, quiet parts. For every Black Dog and Whole Lotta Love, there’s a Stairway to Heaven.

Great filmmakers understand the importance and power of sound, and they use it to create rich, memorable works. Who can forget the last scenes of Bonnie Clyde, and the journey from poetry, through rain, to whispers, to yells, to the playful banjo picking, to a terrible explosion of gunfire, and finally to silence? Even Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan understands this, and includes an instance of muted noise, through the ears of a stunned soldier, as a break from its long, loud opening sequence. But the majority of modern films have moved to extreme, unrelenting audio violence.

Film theorist Rudolf Arnheim controversially predicted that sound would destroy film. That turned out not to be the case, and sound allowed filmmakers yet another avenue of expression to explore, but maybe he was onto something. Silence is powerful. It shouldn’t be thrown away simply because it’s possible to fill every inch of film with sound. But silence is also dangerous. It exposes the visual image. And too many filmmakers use sound as a shield, instead of as a tool. It’s a distraction, not a complement or extension. It’s noise, which is much easier to make than music.

October 18, 2004

Review: Team America: World Police

It’s rare to go into a film with certain expectations, be initially disappointed, and come out utterly impressed. It’s even rarer when there are puppets involved.

My expectations for Team America: World Police were simple. I wanted a barbed political comedy. I wanted satire. I wanted a film that took one sided pot shots. I was completely under the impression that I was getting a film intended to influence, or at least released to coincide with, the upcoming American Presidential election. Was I alone in anticipating a Michael Moore film with puppets?

Instead, I got Michael Moore as a puppet in a film that took the median between left and right (or close to it) and, to my dismay, just wasn’t very politically funny. Fortunately, about ten minutes into the film, when a Team America member is gunned down by a turban-wearing terrorist in Paris beneath an impotent Eiffel Tower while asking another Team member to marry him, I let my expectations go and started to enjoy Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s hilarious, multilayered comedy on its own terms. Because what it lacked in jabs at Bush, the film made up for in its other approaches to comedy.

For anyone unfamiliar with the film’s premise it’s: A parody of brainless action films done with puppets. That’s it. There’s a plot with terrorists and Kim Jong Il, but it’s merely functional.

Parody is the film’s first layer. Most of laughs are derived from just how well the filmmakers manage to mimic a real Michael Bay action movie. From swelling music at times when characters spill their guts (and really spill their guts), to slow motion deaths and exploding heads, to simplistic character motivations, traumatic childhood experiences, and romantic chitchat at the most inopportune moments, to the pre-climactic montage, to cornball dialogue, it’s all here. And it’s done in a way that doesn’t deviate much from the sources it’s parodying. I could imagine Ben Affleck looking Kate Beckinsale in the eyes and sweetly professing, “I promise I will… never die.” Michael Bay probably would have made this film, had Parker and Stone not made fun of it first.

Politics, arguably, makes up the film’s second layer. And the aim is at everything in sight (except for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which must be a non-issue anyway because neither Bush nor Kerry mentioned it at their debates). Team America is shown as arrogant, blunt, and inconsiderate. One member proudly proclaims, “Cairo… that’s in Egypt.” There’s also a great scene in which the Team America chopper descends onto a marketplace in Cairo, before blowing up most of Egypt’s well known attractions.

The terrorists are, well, terrorists. They range from Middle Eastern, to Somali, to Chechen, to North Korean. Then there are the actors. Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Matt Damon, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, and others all make appearances. The Penn puppet even mentions his visit to Iraq, where children cheerfully played with gumdrop candy in rivers of chocolate. One by one, the members of the Film Actors Guild suffer horrible deaths at the hands of Team America after declaring their allegiance to the terrorists. It seems like, for some reason, Parker and Stone have the most venom toward them. Michael Moore is called a “socialist weasel”. The film ends with a naughty monologue given in front of a crowd of world leaders that, while played for laughs, isn’t all that dumb.

The third layer of laughs is puppet slapstick. There’s a sex scene that had to be trimmed in order to avoid the dreaded NC17, and plenty of swearing because puppets that swear are funny. And, even though it sounds childish, it made me chuckle whenever two puppets swore at each other. Also funny are gimpy puppet legs that are fairly useless. And vomiting. I’m serious! On a more mature note, watching a well made puppet car chase is exhilarating.

The final layer of Team America is its references to other films. It seems like this is in fashion, but it works for this film because it actually is a parody. I spotted quite a few, and probably missed about the same, but the most unexpected was a nice throwback to Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider.

If you’re wondering whether to see Team America, you should. It’s funny, crude, maybe a guilty pleasure, and, most of all, even if it doesn’t always hit the mark, there’s always something different going on. You’re bound to find something to laugh at.

October 10, 2004

Before Sunset: Neorealism for Lovers

Italian Neorealism was born during the Second World War. Studios had been destroyed. Film stock was hard to come by. Pessimism was abundant.

One of the founders of the movement, Cesare Zavattini, commented that the perfect Neorealist film would follow a worker over the course of one day. Even though most Neorealist films did not reach that extreme, they were influenced by it. Cuts were minimal. Takes were long. Filming was on location. Stories were simple and dealt with the plight of the poor, often in a melodramatic fashion. Themes leaned heavily toward Socialism. Endings were either ambiguous or sombre. Roles were played by untrained actors. Dialogue and action were often improvised.

Fifty years later, American director Richard Linklater channelled the ghost of Neorealist past to create what some believe to be the most romantic film ever made, Before Sunrise. By discarding most of the Neorealist story conventions, and choosing Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as his leads, but retaining most of the Neorealist filmmaking principles, Linklater crafted a truly memorable film the story of which can be summed up in a sentence: Jesse, an American, and Celine, A Frenchwoman, meet on a train and spend one night together in Vienna.

Sixty years after Neorealism, and nine years after Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine are back in another Linklater film. This time they’re older, they’re in Paris, and they only have until 7:30. We haven’t seen them for nine years, and they haven’t seen each other. The actors are nine years older. The film is called Before Sunset and the result is an even fuller experiment in Neorealism.

True to Zavattini’s doctrine, and in the footsteps of classics such as The Bicycle Thief, Before Sunset takes place over less than one day (although the story could be argued to take place over more than nine years.) The characters aren’t from the lower brackets of society, but Celine’s character is an environmental activist and takes some pointed left-handed jabs at a several targets. However, the film avoids the preachiness of some Neorealist films, such as Rosselini’s Open City, because the dialogue is so natural that it belongs to the character rather than the screenwriters. There’s also a lot more of it in Linklater’s film than in the Italian Neorealist films, in which lines were dubbed in after filming. Before Sunset is even closer to the melodrama of Neorealism than Before Sunset. Starting with the clunky opening flashback, the mention of Jesse’s failing marriage, and ending with the question of whether Jesse and Celine will end up together there is plenty of room for cheap emotion. Fortunately it’s never overbearing.

Technically, Before Sunset employs most of the Neorealist canon. The film was shot where it takes place, in Paris. There are long, unbroken shots that follow Jesse and Celine through small Parisian streets and parks. There is improvisation by the two leads, which is commendable, but less commendable than in an Italian Neorealist film because Linklater didn’t have to worry about running out of supplies! In a nice touch, Paris is even shown to be quite gritty. Graffiti makes an appearance, and in Celine’s flat the paint and walls are chipped. Not quite the same as a war ravaged city, but Jesse does tell a story about a plot to blow up Notre Dame during World War Two (although with a romantic twist.)

Many people view Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow as an ode to, among other things, cinema history. It’s possible to watch the film and identity references to Film Noir, Fritz Lang, and King Kong. But that’s a gimmick. Before Sunset isn’t gimmicky. It understands cinema history, and uses it not as a parlour game, but to create a great motion picture. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow apes various styles, directors, and films. Before Sunset takes Neorealism and builds on it.

October 03, 2004

Tomorrow's Dynamite

I’ll surrender at the beginning, the very beginning, and confess that maybe Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Napoleon Dynamite don’t have as much in common as I’m about to try convince you that they do. But, by the oath of Thor, I’ll be damned if, seeing them one after the other, it didn’t appear just so!

Let’s take, for example, the story of Sky Captain. It’s simplistic. It’s corny, clichéd, and taken straight from a pulp magazine or second rate Sci-Fi yarn (albeit on purpose). And, taken by itself, it’s absolutely, inexcusably, unexciting. There’s a dead a villain, which results in an the enemy that’s about as evil and cunning as a tornado or Mount St. Helens The main character, Sky Captain himself, is without a past, without a motive (other than being heroic like a, err… hero) and tends to spend more time underwater than in the sky. His love interest, a reporter with beautiful blonde locks and an unhealthy relationship with constantly checking the number of shots left in her much too much overexposed camera, is just that; a love interest. What a crock. And the damn scenery kept changing, too!

So, now you probably think I’m going to start defending Napoleon Dynamite as a beacon of filmdom, the little guy’s response to the overbearing, suffocating impact of Hollywood and its Studios and rules on the art of filmmaking. I’m not. First of all, because Sky Captain was the product of a little guy, too. But, most importantly, because the story of Napoleon Dynamite is about as good as the story of Sky Captain. High school underdogs triumph in love and politics. The Mexican immigrant becomes school president. The nerd finds true love and friendship. Another nerd finds true love. You get the point. What we have in both films is a case of style attempting to elevate substance.

(Yes, this I where I’ll start applauding Napoleon Dynamite over Sky Captain. But not because it's better.)

Forget the vast difference in the size of the budget and the amount of resources available to Kerry Conran and Jared Hess. Let’s [unfairly] level the playing field, for a paragraph or two, and look at the problem faced by each director/screenwriter. It’s the same scenario. How do I make a good movie from a bad, unoriginal premise?

Conran, the wily scientific type, would answer: “We’ll make it look good. We’ll reference the pulp fiction we’re emulating. We’ll reference cinema history. We’ll bring a dead actor to life to play a role. We’ll push technology until it enables us to elevate our film above its possible level.” It may sound like someone’s trying to pull some fabric over out eyes, but it’s important to remember that cinema, as an art, was made possible by technology. Technology always came first.

Hess, the artsy fartsy Bohemian, would answer: “It don’t matter what the story is, baby. It’s all in the details. It ain’t what you tell, but how you tell it. We’ll make out characters groovier. We won’t make the same mistakes the squares did. We gotta be true. No swelling string section here, man.” Yeah, sure, you say. That’s what every movie tries to do. When there’s a problem with the story, fix the story. And it usually doesn’t work.

It’s not surprising then that reaction to both films has been wildly mixed. It’s also not surprising that both films have gotten a fair share of excellent reviews, and have been praised as great films. It’s possible to watch Sky Captain and be awed by the fantastic images. Imagine playing with software like Bryce, and being both skilled at it and able to create jaw dropping landscapes in mere seconds. It’s also possible to watch Napoleon Dynamite and hate it. Nothing happens. The main character is unlikeable and annoying. It’s not even funny.

As for me, I think Napoleon Dynamite is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. The characters, Napoleon included, are endearing. The comedy, subtle but not cerebral, is hilarious. And the unabashedly happy ending is a great. Sky Captain left me bored and tired. The constant cutting between only Long Shots and Close Ups was disorienting. And, in a few honest words, I just didn’t care.

So, now to end this much too long-winded, regrettable opinion piece, I’ll say this: Take a painter, give him half an idea, and he’ll paint you Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Take a writer, give him the same half idea, and he’ll write you Napoleon Dynamite.

Watching the two films just might give you a pretty good idea of which one you are. It did for me.

October 01, 2004

Review: Infernal Affairs

Although it’s over two years old, this Hong Kong cop flick has had the double fortune (or misfortune) of both grabbing a limited North American release and becoming the latest import to be primed for a North American remake. I’m looking forward to the new version, not the least because of the choice to put Martin Scorsese behind the camera, while dreading it at the same time, not the least because of the choice to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as a tough guy. Nevertheless, the original, despite most of the attention being on the remake, is a damn good film.

The premise is this: Two men, a cop working undercover as a gang member and a gang member working as a cop, are assigned the task of sniffing each other out. Each side knows they harbour a mole. Each mole is so good at what he does that he evades suspicion. And, just to make things even more interesting, and to blur the line between right and wrong, and hero and villain, the two moles know each other.

The bulk of this is communicated before the title appears on the screen. In my last review, I criticized Cellular for moving along at breakneck speed through its various twists and turns. In this review, I want to praise Infernal Affairs for doing the same thing. The difference between the two films is that one relies solely on pace. In Cellular, if you blink you don’t miss anything other than an action sequence. In Infernal Affairs, the action sequences reveal the story. Blink and you’re lost. It’s a very engaging experience, and one that is satisfying whenever a new piece of information is given because the filmmakers trust you to fit the information into the frame of the story yourself. In one great sequence, a drug raid, the film challenges you to understand certain clues before the characters do. What a great way to pull the viewer in.

However, Infernal Affairs also develops several major themes. Perhaps the most interesting of which is the idea of who, or what, creates and controls our identity. Are we who we make ourselves, what others make of us, or what our environment makes of us? Take, for example, the cop whose identity as an undercover agent is known to only one man. If the man dies, does the cop cease to be an undercover agent and becomes just another gang member? Even the film’s villain, a subjective term, is shown to be in conflict with himself. His actions are clear but his motives are often left up to the interpretation of the viewer. A pivotal scene near the film’s conclusion, in which he kills another character, is a good example. His reason for pulling the trigger is what makes him either good or bad. And since he isn’t sure if he’s the good guy or the bad guy, how can we be? The filmmakers wisely leave it that way.

The film’s only major weakness is a sentimentality that creeps in, intrudingly, at some awkward moments, such as when a short, black and white, montage is provided after the death of a major character (the music doesn’t help either). Other than that, Infernal Affairs is an exciting film. Not much more to say. An action film that requires you to pay attention is a bit too rare these days. Don’t pass up the chance to see one.