Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Art of the Character Actor

So I'm watching Broken Arrow on one of many great HD channels that Dish Network provides (hey, it's my last week of vacation still...cut me some slack) and I was glad to see two of my favorite character actors sharing some dialogue with each other. Who might those actors be? No, it's not Howie Long and Delroy Lindo. It's Kurtwood Smith and Daniel von Bargen. Now you may be asking yourselves who these people are. You probably know both of them from their television work -- Smith as the dad on That 70's Show, and von Bargen as Kruger, George's boss, on some of the later seasons of Seinfeld -- but it is their work in movies a watched a ton when I was younger that makes me laugh whenever I see them in a movie I happen upon while watching television. Smith was the villain Boddinger in the brilliant Robocop and he was in Rambo III. Von Borgen was in one of my favorite horror movies back when I was in high school called Lord of Illusions which also starred Scott Bakula (!) as a private detective trying to track down an evil warlock or something or other...whatever it was, it was being played by von Borgen and I always remember that performance. These two truly are the epitome of character actors. One glance at their filmography on imdb and you see that these guys act in anything and everything. They obviously never have trouble finding work; which is good for me because that means I will see them randomly on television in some movie or making an appearance on a sitcom. Anyway, I'm bored and I saw those two actors and felt like I should make you all aware of their brilliance.

Oh...and whatever happened to Christian Slater?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

"There is no film. There is nothing, nowhere."

This is part of the Movies About Movies Blog-a-thon hosted by goatdogblog. You can read the rest of the entries here. There's some really good stuff there, check it out.

The words in the header are uttered by Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), the director of a movie in a movie by Federico Fellini, and they set the audience up for the films main theme: that through the darkness and uncertainty of not knowing what's to come, we can look to our memories and it is this nostalgia that can lift us up and break free the chains of reality we are immersed in everyday. For Guido there is "nothing, nowhere" at the particular time he speaks these words, but as the film progresses we see a man change; dwelling on past childhood memories, rites of passage, male fantasies, and the value of life itself, Guido doesn't just represent the obvious self-reflexivity of filmmaker Federico Fellini, but also the audience. Fellini is inviting us to partake in this explication of past memories like Guido does, and if we the audience give ourselves to genuine contemplative moments, then we too can change and that there is life to be lived. Something, everywhere. 8 1/2 is that rare film that is a masterful film about a film, but it has the ability to penetrate the screen and creep into our psyches and affect us like no other film can; but like all film hopes to do. That is the power of film, and the power of 8 1/2.

8 1/2 was the moment when director Federico Fellini was starting to hear the jeers from the ultra-serious Italian neo-realist crowd. Having his roots in neo-realism Fellini made a stark departure from the grounded realism and Truth many Italians and film critics found in films like The Bicycle Thief and the Fellini penned Rome, Open City. When Fellini broke free from the shackles and limitations of neo-realism (emotionally it's a great movement and there are some great films there, but it's pretty aesthetically dull) with his brilliant La Dolce Vita all bets were off. Then came 8 1/2 and most critics and lovers of neo-realism thought Fellini had completely lost his mind.

The film shows Fellini's own frustration with the film industry as is masterfully displayed in the famous opening dream sequence. Right away Fellini is telling the viewer that this is a self-reflexive film. We are introduced to Guido while he is being asphyxiated by some kind of gas and trying to kick out the windows of his car, when he suddenly appears outside floating above his car. Guido then floats through his world and eventually above a beach (which we are given the information for later in the film) only to be pulled down by one of his associates (a producer, no doubt representing reality and the decisions Guido must make) who have a string tied around his leg. As Guido struggles to break free from the rope the producer tugs harder and Guido falls, then he wakes up.

The effect of this opening sequence is twofold: from a strictly aesthetic standpoint it's some of the best visual work (all the dream sequences are filmed beautifully, they are also the most fantastical moments of the film) Fellini ever did, showing that he was done with the neo-realist approach to filmmaking. The other effect the opening scene has is the self-reflexive nature of the scene. Since Guido is Fellini it can safely be interpreted that this must have been how Fellini felt while not only making 8 1/2, but any movie after the extremely popular La Dolce Vita. Fellini is telling us that the life of filmmaker working with all these movie producers and people employed by the studios is the same as the opening scene. The obscurity vs. clarity polarity is obviously there with the asphyxiation scene (studios wanting something creative from you even if you have nothing to offer them, another theme of the film), but also the fact that Guido is able to soar in his dream just a little bit, but when he flies by his set (notice how it's for a science fiction film) towards the producers on the beach, they want him down; who surely believe that you can only allow a creative force (like Fellini) so much time in the day to dream things up. A frustration that pulsates throughout the film as the need for decisions and deadlines weigh heavy upon Guido the only thing he can do is think about his childhood while everything around him in the present (the film, relationships) crumble.

The other scene I want to talk about is the origin of the moment where Guido probably decided he wanted to make movies. There is a flashback to Guido's childhood triggered by the password "Asa Nisi Masa" which Fellini explains in an interview is a game him and his friends used to play where they would add the suffix -si or -sa to the first letter of something they wanted to turn into a coded word. In the film one of Guido's friends tells him a story that if they don't utter those words at night before they sleep a picture on the wall will come to life. The correlation of making pictures move and making movies is brilliant and one of the best scenes of the film. If you break down the word further like Fellini explains it then you find a kind of password like Welles' "Rosebud". "Asa Nisi Masa" becomes anima meaning soul or force, but also some of the repressed female characteristics that can be found in men. This is portrayed in the brilliantly wild and funny Harem scene where Guido has all of the women from his life waiting on him hand and foot. It's as if he has them bottled up in his psyche, they are a major part of who he is.

The film excels on the deep interpretive level, no doubt, but it is also just a joy to savor all of its beautifully imagery and the amazing musical score by Nino Rota. It's a film that can lift your spirits by the sheer brilliance of which it was made, yes there are a lot of underlying themes, but more than anything its a film about filmmaking that excels in everything a film should be; which is important since everything we're watching is about what we're watching. The art of the film about a film is often lost on many filmmakers today who are too interested in the easy satire or in-jokes (Fellini was funny too, he kept a sign on the camera throughout 8 1/2 that read: "remember this is a comedy.") of Hollywood, but with 8 1/2 Fellini is interested in something much deeper.

No other film about filmmaking has as much depth as 8 1/2. Here is a man who is seeking all kind of cure methods while he's ruining relationships, meandering on the set and delaying the film (the scene where he is being forced to talk about what the movie is about is hilarious), a man who would rather contemplate on the past then do anything about the future of his film. And this is the point of the film and what makes it the best film about filmmaking. When Fellini was asked what he wanted with 8 1/2 he said he wanted to depict the "three levels upon which our minds live: past, present, and conditional." As a film professor I had once pointed out, notice how Fellini isnot the future, but instead the possible, the potential, the fantasy (think about the end of La Dolce Vita, it's not what his life will be like if he leaves the beach with his dream girl, it's all about the potential, the could of the situation is deafened by the breakers that drown out her voice).

Fellini's major films are more surreal, expressionist, postmodern. Some fault him for this, calling it willfully exhibitionist and aesthete. So the quote I threw in the title of this post makes the film sound nihilistic and teeming with the postmodern nonchalantness and irresponsibility that many of Fellini's detractors accuse him of. That is often the mistake with postmodern art, be it film or literature or whatever, the knock on it is that postmodern art is too nihilistic and doesn't care about the future. This assessment couldn't be more wrong, because the people who do postmodern art correctly understand what it truly represents: that through an explication of our past we can change how we are in the here and now. The future is always in question with postmodern art, much like it is with Guido and his film. He can't answer questions about the future of his film because he doesn't know what the future holds. Why let the future rule your life when you don't even have control of what's happening in the present? And this is what's at the heart of 8 1/2 and postmodern film and literature: how can we change the now to a better now. Yes, the film is exhibitionist (as is evident in the wonderful screen test scene where the theater acts as a confessional), but it's never exclusive; the invitation is there for us to be contemplate on life like Guido in the movie theater watching screen tests.

The above quote in the header suggests that there is something beyond the screen that is more important. 8 1/2 is a perfect example of how a film can use its techniques and moments within its story to evoke past memories -- nostalgia that makes us feel good about the present, the here and now. By exploring our past histories we can uncover newfound truths about ourselves we never knew; opening up parts of our anima, our soul or driving force, we never thought were possible. And isn't that the most wonderful and ultimate goal for all film, to move us and provide us with those moments of reflection?

As mentioned earlier 8 1/2 is the greatest film about filmmaking ever made; I also find it to be the greatest film ever made. It resonates with me the more I watch it. It's one of those rare films that excels at both being about as aesthetically perfect as a film can be and having a powerful and poignant narrative that never grows tiresome. This is the power of the film: like a good epistle or contemplative prayer by the great Thomas Merton, I can return to 8 1/2 numerous times because both its aesthetics and its narrative put me in a deep state of the contemplative. And isn't that the goal of most films? To resonate with us so deeply and on such a personal level that it becomes almost a religious text for us; opening up new worlds of personal discovery and epiphanies that help us learn from our past so that we can become better people today.

8 1/2 contains the power of a film that is, on the surface, a self-reflexive exercise by Fellini who threw everything on the screen for this movie, even having some fun with film criticism as the critic in the movie is the catalyst for the death of the film; but beneath its surface lies an invitation for the audience to think about our own pasts, think about how we treat the ones we love, and how to be an original thinker in a world that wants you tied to a string so at any given moment they can pull you down from your moment of reverie. It was about five years ago that I accepted this invitation when I sat down and watched 8 1/2 for the first time. Watch it by yourselves first, then watch it with friends -- freeze framing certain scenes and discussing the power that lies in each frame; this is a film of tremendous power and poignancy, a film filled with beautifully lighting and cinematography, a film that has some pretty funny satirical comments on the movie making business, and more than anything it's just an entertaining, wonderful film experience, unlike anything you have likely seen or will ever see after. It's the greatest film about filmmaking, yes, but it's also the greatest film of all time.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Pineapple Express

David Gordon Green is one of the best filmmakers working today who some have even compared to the visual poet and master Terrence Malick. Would you have ever guessed that him and his friends that met at North Carolina Film School (his DP Tim Orr and the actor Danny McBride) wold collaborate with the Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen on a pot comedy? Yeah, it's a little surreal, but when I saw the red-band trailer for this movie months ago, I knew that these two camps couldn't miss if they were to collaborate. Pineapple Express is a perfect example of a visual poet adding his touches to a commercial Judd Apatow produced "bro-romance" . It's a film filled with surprises and the usual pot-fueled comedy routines, but it is all done with such visual beauty, a fresh take on things like car chases and people sitting around smoking pot, and it all ends with a subtle joke that seems to have been missed by many.


Jim Emerson on his scanners blog hit the nail right on the head with his analysis of the film. Check it out after you see the movie.  The reason I bring it up is because I am surprised by how many critics missed the joke of the film. The film itself is about as simple as you can get, and that's mainly because the joke of the movie is that this is exactly the type of movie that these two stoners would conjure up on their stained couches.

The story is about Dale Denton (Rogen) a process server who witnesses a murder. He leaves a joint behind and that's how Ted (the always brilliant Gary Cole) can trace the weed back to Dale's supplier Saul Silver who is the only person who has the particular type of weed that Dale was smoking (called pineapple express). This all leads to a horribly convoluted buddy chase movie in the vein of 70's movies like What's Up Doc? or anything by Cheech and Chong. But really the fact the story is so convoluted is irrelevant, because well, that's point. When the film stops being a pot movie and turns into a full blown action film from the 80's -- that's your sign to stop taking the film at face value.

Now it's not irreverent or obviously winking at the camera like the old Abrahms and Zucker Brothers movies, but if you understand what is being done in the final moments of the film, it makes the movie so much more enjoyable. Sitting there in the theater I couldn't stop laughing as Green and Apatow (and screenwriter Rogen) riffed on the conventional car chase ("just kick it with your foot, isn't that what they do in the movies?" "But how do you drive with only one foot?") or other exchanges like the morning after the big final showdown with all the drug dealers. They sit around eating a greasy breakfast and discussing how awesome everything was and who did what and how great it was when they did this...and you get the point.

Let's talk about that ending: for me it was one of the greatest things I have seen in a comedy in a long time. Better than the Michael Bay-parodied Hot Fuzz, the end of Pineapple Express is an olio of ever 1980's and early 90's action film I grew up watching. In this final scene, which takes place in an abandon barn complete with multiple levels and secret doors, I was reminded of the first two Lethal Weapon films (someone gets shot as they stand on a metal grate and then fall over and get their leg caught in a chain and swing from side to side, but sadly James Franco doesn't tell anyone to "go spit"), Double Impact or any Jean-Claude Van Damme movie for that matter (Seth Rogen and Gary Cole have an incredibly long fight scene plus there are barrels! If you've seen those movies, you know what I mean), any thing made by John Woo, I saw some Predator, some Commando, anything with Segal or Chuck Norris, any straight to video movie with ninjas or Billy Blanks, and I could go on...

The point is that these are all references that Rogen and Apatow and Green wanted to install into their film because this is how they think these two characters Dale and Saul would expereicne something like this. There is no reveal at the end of the movie that lets you know it was all a hazy brainstorm while they sat on the couch and smoked Saul's innovative "cross doobie" or that they were just dreaming this thing up all along in some passed out reverie. That's what makes the joke so great, because there is no way that one can watch this film with a straight face. I was surprised to hear Michael Philips and Richard Roeper the other night talking about how they were disappointed in the film and how ugly and violent it was at the end, and how it didn't match the tone. I was surprised they missed the joke, especially Roeper seeing how later in the show he recommended the brutally violent and gratuitous Hell Ride. I think they wanted the film to be something it was never intended to be, and Philips got it right when he said that the filmmakers are not at all interested in the commercial appeal of the film. It's all an in-joke, and I for one found it hilarious.

It's almost impossible to conventionally review this film (which I am not trying to do), but it all works if you find the references funny. It also works if you just like stoner comedies; the character of Red (Danny McBride) is bound to get some laughs, as well as Gary Cole asking "has anyone seen my big knife" as he holds a giant machete. But the finest joke is the fact that David Gordon Green directed this film, and the way he has cinematogrpaher Tim Orr shoots the final action scene (he shoots it in a style that is a straight throwback to 80's action movies, everything from the two main characters splitting up so they can have their own final showdowns with the villains they match up with, to the scene where someone rolls on the ground shooting a bunch of people and said shot people keep shooting their guns in the air.) is one of the best jokes in movies this summer, and one of the best comedies that Apatow and Rogen have collaborated on.

Oh yeah, and James Franco steals the movie...every scene belongs to him.

In Bruges

Man I love being surprised by movies.  Sometimes a movie just looks terrible, but then enough people start discussing how good the film is, and well, it's only a matter of time before you break down and watch the movie.  This is the case with In Bruges, a film that was marketed horribly with its awful trailers making the film look like just another Pulp Fiction wannabe (is that even possible 10+ years later?) -- Things to in Denver When You're Dead and 2 Days in the Valley sprang to mind when I saw the trailer, and if you remember those films, then you can see why I was less than enthusiastic about giving the film a shot.  Boy was I wrong.  In Bruges is a great film full of surprises; a film that is one of those rare experiences where you feel as if you don't know what's going to happen next.  It's vulgar and violent, beautifully juxtaposed by the main character of the film, the city of Bruges, with its historic architecture and beautiful art galleries.  It's a near brilliant film with a few odd detours that derail the films momentum, but it is brilliant if not for the sole reason that I was surprised how good the film was.

The film written and directed by the playwright Martin McDonagh (his first feature) is not so much quirky as it is distinct; a unique blend of vulgarity and contemplative moments about heaven and hell.  It stars Colin Farrell and the always great Brendan Gleeson as two hit men who are told to take two weeks off in the historic Belgium city Bruges.  The reason for the sabbatical is because of Ray (Farrell), who was asked to kill a priest, but when he shot the priest he accidentally shot a little kid praying (sounds implausible, but the way McDonagh sets you up for this scene is masterful).  This bit of collateral damage is made all the sadder when Ray sees a small piece of paper that has what the kid was praying about -- this moment is rare in that it evokes both poignancy and laughter, something that McDonagh and especially his actors pull off extremely well throughout out the film.

While in Bruges the characters are established.  You have Ray the young and brash hitman, suffering from his mistake on his last hit, and bored to tears in Bruges, where all he wants to do is drink and hang around a film set that has set up shop in the city.  Ken (Gleeson) is the veteran who is interested in getting Ray to put the incident of the kid behind him and focus more on sight-seeing and what the historic city has to offer.  One of the best scenes between these two in the city is when they are in an art gallery.  The images of the art contrasted with the face of Farrell (who has great facial expressions throughout) are wonderful and are a perfect example of the uniqueness of the film.

While in Bruges things happen (odd things involving racist dwarves and crazy canadians) that are hit and miss, but the heart of the story is what happens between Ken and Ray and how Ken so badly wants to help Ray get over his mistake and move on.  There is a scene of tremendous, surprising power on a park bench when Ray is trying to talk to Ken about what happened that day.  It's a great scene and shows that when Farrell is comfortable (usually when he can just be himself and talk in his native tongue) he can be a great actor.   I wouldn't dare reveal how the film unfolds (which is half the fun of the movie) but things happen and information is gathered, all resulting in the appearance of Ralph Fiennes as Harry who is their boss.  Fiennes is wonderful, having a lot of fun overacting and doing his best Ben Kingsley impersonation (I'm thinking of the Sexy Beast Kingsley, not the Gandhi Kingsley).  All of this culminates in a final 30 minutes that is just absolutely brilliant with visual nods to films like Touch of Evil and The Third Man and some truly inspired dialogue (especially how the dialogue reveals these three hitmen as having ethics and how they adhere to these ethics).

In Bruges is a film for anyone despite the way the trailer advertises it; it's a film for anyone who loves movies.  As mentioned earlier the movie does get sidetracked with a drug induced conversation between Ken and Ray, a movie star dwarf, and some hookers.  This scene tries a little too hard I think to be "edgy" or whatever, and it just falls flat.  It just doesn't belong in this movie, there was really no need for it considering the first half of the film was vulgar and un-PC enough.  However, it's a rare kind of film that Roger Ebert described as good a debut as Mamet's House of Games, and I think that's a good comparison.  With it's vulgar dialogue, sudden bursts of bloody (McDonaugh likes to use the color red) violence, it's beautiful on location cinematography, and its wonderful acting it's one of the better and most surprising movies of 2008.