Archive | July 2013

The eloquent visual language of “Pacific Rim”

I liked Pacific Rim for reasons that extend beyond “HAHA BASEBALL BAT SHIP!” It’s a really beautifully put-together film, and I want to talk about that a little. If you liked the film too, hopefully you might want to keep reading below the cut. Spoilers ahead!

One of the more tiring defenses of badly made blockbusters is “well, they’re not supposed to be great art, they’re supposed to be entertaining, gosh stop being such a Farty McArtpants and just enjoy yourself!”

And nay I say to that, that’s poppycock and foolishness. Man of Steel, Battleship, Tron Reborn: Fresh and TronnierPrince of Persia, (insert your favorite not-fun big budget movie here, since I’m just running with ones I’ve seen), and almost the entire filmography of Michael Bay sucked because they weren’t entertaining. It’s fine to be brainless and fun, but being not fun and claiming “I just want to have fun!” as your defense makes a film both stupid AND a liar, and we just don’t tolerate that in polite society.

“But isn’t entertainment subjective?” someone says.

Yes, yes it is. Just in the last two weeks, millions of Americans have glanced up at their theatre marquees and said, “yes, another round of Adam Sandler farting on Salma Hayek, please. If we’re lucky, a deer will piss on him this time!”

But back to “tentpole” films. I’m gonna use Man of Steel as my punching bag here, because it’s the most recent and freshest on my mind.

Being a piece of pure entertainment is no excuse for being shoddily cobbled together, and the quality of the basic elements of the language of cinema is one the the prime reasons Pacific Rim succeeds where other tentpole-type films have left me bored.

Why didn’t I find Man of Steel, among other films, entertaining? And why did I like Pacific Rim so damn much in comparison? Well, let’s list this sucker:

1. Visual Continuity

One of the most annoying aspects of Man of Steel was how Zack Snyder essentially used Superman’s ability to fly really fast as an excuse to not give a crap about giving the action scenes any cohesiveness. Without a sense of where the characters are, and why they are doing what they are doing, action quickly devolves into directionless, noisy movement.

As I have said before and will continue to say as long as The Avengers remains a good film, one of the key reasons The Avengers was so enjoyable was that its action climax was more concerned with giving each primary character something to do, and then following each of them coherently as they carried out their tasks, than it was with constantly filling the screen with noise and movement. It was a series of mini-fight scenes that, when sewn together, created this thrilling ballet of action.

Man of Steel repeatedly uses the gimmick of “baddie prepares to break something, Superman flies out of nowhere and tackles them”.

Time and time again.

Yes, there’s a larger overlying point to it (stopping the world engine from making earth a cold dark place), but at one point Superman tackles Zod and just… stands there for the next few minutes. Like, he tackles Zod, an extended sequence involving Lois Lane and the scientist dude aboard a sizable, crashing ship plays out, and then it cuts to Superman and he’s still standing there on the ground like what the hell are you doing dude.

Pacific Rim has an inherent advantage in this department because the number of pugilists fighting at any time is small (usually just a jaeger and a kaiju), and they’re always in close proximity.

But the movie is so damn generous with its cinematography and editing like wow, what a sweetie. I don’t have an official count on this, but on my second viewing of the film today, I spent much of the Hong Kong battle timing the length of individual shots. Again, very informal, but shot after shot came in at 10-15 seconds. For comparison, the average shot length of a jumpy film (think Bourne or Transformers) is about 3 seconds. The film didn’t simply cut away every time a character moved, and many shots were actually allowed to breathe, framing both characters and tracking their movements without cutting. This allows the action scenes to play out with a sense of flow and tremendous scope that constant cutting would have undermined. Getting to watch these giants fight requires a constant sense of visual scope, letting us frame them against their surroundings, and longer shots allow for that.

And the film’s cuts had a consistent sense of direction. If a jaeger’s hand leaves the frame on the right, we can assume the next shot will be it making contact with a kaiju’s face, coming in from the left side of the frame. This may seem simple, but modern action has largely dismissed the idea of visual continuity. Even good films, like the Dark Knight movies, suffered from confusing editing and shots cobbled together without much sense of direction or timing.

The scene where the two remaining jaegers are descending into the ocean to destroy the kaiju rift is a splendid example of classical framing and editing. The jaegers are shown  descending into a massive underwater trench from above, and the film cuts to a shot from the same direction, overhead, showing them from even higher altitude, making them look downright tiny in the vast ocean.

The next shots show the jaegers descending further into the trench. The camera switches to a dutch angle (where the camera in on the floor, looking up at the subject’s face). Usually this shot is framed to make the subject appear powerful or intimidating. But its use here is actually practical; the next shot is another dutch angle from farther down the trench that the jaegers are about to leap into. The shot then descends into the trench without cutting, and then one jaeger’s feets slam onto the ocean floor, then the next. It’s a delightful little bit of cinematography, letting us travel down with the jaegers on this pivotal, climactic journey. That sense of care and craft with the camera and in the editing room can make little moments all the more engaging, and the big moments significantly more exciting.

2. Quality exposition

Exposition is a necessary evil in genre films. The world the characters inhabit is essential to the audience’s understanding of events, and certain rules need to be established and aspects of the world explained. It’s one of the reasons superhero films inevitably devote large sums of time (often to the tune of the entire first movie of a series) explaining the origin of the protagonist’s powers.

There’s a reason so many films rely on the combo of a protagonist who is unfamiliar with the film’s world and a friend they latch on to to explain said world. It’s a clean and easy way of explaining things in a way that doesn’t feel like the movie is just giving us a verbal rundown of how things work. By making the protagonist an outsider to the film’s world, or at least by having an outsider in the mix (think Ariadne in Inception) the movie can explain its rules to us while keeping us engaged.

The problem is, this ends up taking up a lot of valuable screen time. And Pacific Rim is just gonna have none of that. It frontloads the exposition into the film’s opening act, giving us a clear understanding of the nature of kaiju attacks, the rise and fall of the jaeger system, and the stakes that the film is riding on. It also gives us the backstory of its first protagonist, Raleigh, setting his character into motion so that a second protagonist (Mako) can provide the emotional ark of the film, in conjunction with Raleigh, since the characters are neurally and emotionally linked. The film can jump right into the link they intrinsically share, and we understand why it’s so important, because the movie frontloaded its explanation of “drift compatibility” and isn’t it nice that this movie is moving so quickly and efficiently?

3. “Evacuate the city”

Three little words, so much meaning in comparison to Man of Steel.

Edit: I mistakenly used the phrase “dutch angle” when I should have said “low-angle shot”. A dutch angle is a tilted shot that causes subject of the shot to be angled oddly. A low-angle shot is when the camera is placed low, looking up at the subject. A low-angle shot can also be a dutch angle, but I don’t think the examples I used in Pacific Rim qualify.

 

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On plots and stories and other sundry items

Any standard discussion of any work of story-based art will inevitably turn to the plot. Sentiments like “good action but bad plot!” are a common reaction to major blockbusters.

That’s silly. Plots cannot be good or bad. Plots are. They exist. Whether or not they work is dependent on how they’re incorporated into the story.

Plots are an ingredient. They’re… flour, I guess? Flour is a good one. Movies are cakes and plots are the flour. They are there and part of the cake, essential to its construction, but pretty much never the element that makes or breaks the cake. Sometimes, if you’re bold enough, you can make a very avant-garde, gluten-free cake without flour! But for the most part, your cake will have flour and that’s not just fine, it’s pretty much standard storytelling.

But flour is just… flour. Assuming you’ve kept the moths out, it’s hard to have “bad flour”. And movies pretty much don’t have bad plots, just bad storytelling. I didn’t like “Man of Steel”. I didn’t dislike “Man of Steel” because its plot was bad, I disliked “Man of Steel” because it took an element of the plot (action climax!) and botched it with wretched excess that made the whole ordeal mind-numbing. It took a basic plot element that can be done well (romance) and failed to do it well at all. I disliked it because seriously, the Jesus allegory was embarrassingly overwrought.

“Man of Steel” wasn’t bad because of its plot, but because the ingredients that make a full-blooded story didn’t work.

The same goes for any film you dislike. Let’s say you didn’t care for “Pacific Rim”. I’m telling you now: your dislike was not because of the plot. If you disliked it, it was because of storytelling elements aside from the plot didn’t work for you. “Pacific Rim” is not a movie whose quality is determined by its plot; its plot is an excuse to incorporate the elements that determine how good it is (huge-scale action and characters who partake in it).

But let’s say you liked Pacific Rim.  Again, not because of the plot. The plot could have been given to 10 directors with orders not to change a thing and you’d probably end up with 10 wildly different movies. If you liked Del Toro’s, it was probably for the reasons I did: the movie had an irresistible sense of fun, exciting action scenes, and likeable characters. Note, none of these things are plot. No one praises the flour, all on its own, in a good cake. They praise the sweetness and the texture and the frosting.

The same goes for any film, but for now we’ll stick with action. “Fast and Furious 6” was a silly, gleeful romp of a movie. Its plot could have been made into a terrible movie without changing a thing, if the action scenes were done poorly, if the performances weren’t enjoyable, if the general tone of the movie wasn’t so self-aware and playful. “Man of Steel” didn’t need a plot overhaul to be a good movie, any more than a bad cake can be rescued by changing the brand of flour if it’s being made by an incompetent baker.

Even classically plot-oriented stories, like murder mysteries, aren’t made good or bad by their plots. They are made good or bad by what the storytellers do with those plots. Agatha Christie books follow a template that she had down pat: she made them enjoyable through her skill in creating new environments and supporting characters to make these plots feel fresh and, most of all, through the charm of her primary characters, Miss Marple and Inspector Poirot.

I quote Roger Ebert a lot, but he was a quotable man. And he had one philosophy that affected my view on films more than anything else he wrote: “It’s not what it’s about, but how it’s about it.”

Plots are what the movie is about. Everything else we see is how the movie is about it.

This weekend’s box office referendum: Why “Pacific Rim” will surprise

If you’ve been paying attention to the movie-related headlines this week, the web is abuzz with anticipation over Pacific Rim. The talk, however, is not just about the film (which has earned solid reviews from critics so far), but its impending performance at the Box Office.

Leading the charge has been Variety, whose multiple proclamations of financial doom have the movie’s advocates worrying.Variety, of course, sites traditional tracking methods, which have had a rough year, and failed to predict the successes of films like The Great Gatsby and World War Z.

TheWrap.com said Pacific Rim might be on its way to joining The Lone Ranger and White House Down in a string of major Hollywood flops this summer.

On the other side of the coin, Forbes.com has jumped into the fray, arguing that traditional tracking is flawed and that Pacific Rim should exceed expectations.

But one of the most compelling arguments I’ve seen, with the least conjecture and most data, comes from The Motley Fool’s Tim Beyers. Beyers points to Google Trends data to argue that Pacific Rim won’t just avoid being a flop, but that it will end up being quite successful.

Google has made waves in the box-office prognostication game with their assertion that they can predict the weekend winners with 94% accuracy. While they didn’t disclose their data or exact findings, Beyers points out Google Trends has been an excellent predictor of box office success this year. In his article, he uses Google Trends data to point out why he predicted Despicable Me 2 would be a blockbuster and The Lone Ranger would bust. He also uses said data to dismiss Variety’s comparison of Pacific Rim to last year’s mega-flop Battleship.

In the spirit of Beyer’s excellent use of this data, I figured I’d take a look at some of this year’s box office battles, and try to get a gauge on how Pacific Rim will fare this weekend.

For starters, I figured it’d be worth looking at data for specific competing films, looking at the days preceeding their opening weekends, so we can see how flops fared compared to surprise successes.

A couple of notes:

First, Google Trends works by giving the peak search day for any item a value of 100 and giving every other day a number representing its percentage compared to that. If there are multiple terms, then the single highest day for one of them is 100. It’s a nice, quick, easy way to compare search data.

Second, WordPress.com won’t let me embed Google Trends, so I have links for you instead.

For starters, here’s notable flop White House Down compared to that weekend’s surprise smash hit, The Heat.

Four days before their release date of June 28, The Heat was logging 3.7 times as much Google traffic as White House Down. On June 27th, it was still trending upwards. Interesting, right? Well, it’s just one example.

How about the surprise success of World War Z, which came out the week before?

Well, let’s have a look.

As you can see, the graph shift because World War Z’s searched skyrocketed during its opening weekend. But we can still compare the pre-release numbers. Three days before its release, World War Z was logging a 27 (again, compared to its peak of 100 on the Saturday of its opening weekend, when movies tend to peak). On this new graph, three days before their release The Heat was logging a 12, and White House Down  a 5. Compared to these actual hits, White House Down was barely registering a peep on Google. And remember, these numbers are from before these films’ releases; it was after the weekends were over that World War Z and The Heat were declared surprise smashes.

How does this translate into actual box office predictions?

World War Z surprised pundits with a hefty $66 million haul. The Heat opened strong at $39 million. White House Down flopped with a $24 million opening weekend. As a quick and dirty measure, Google Trends is looking pretty good so far.

Now, here’s what happens when I plug Pacific Rim into this chart.

The most recent data for all trends is from July 9, three days before Pacific Rim’s July 12 release date. As of July 9, Pacific Rim was at 24 (once more with feeling, with World War Z’s weekend peak being 100). In other words, it’s very close to where World War Z was at this point before its release, well ahead of The Heat and stratospherically higher than White House Down.

So what about that string of flops?

Well, here’s how Pacific Rim compares to White House Down and The Lone Ranger, whose $24 million and $29 million openings are in the ballpark of Variety’s projections.

Now, the new 100 here is… well, look at that. The unreleased Pacific Rim surpassed the maximum Google traffic for the other two films three days before its release, even considering the dramatic surge of Google traffic for movies on their opening weekends. Looking at the “three days before release” numbers, it’s not even close. If Google Trends is any indication, there’s simply no reason to expect that Pacific Rim will open with numbers close to White House Down or The Lone Ranger.

The point of this exercise is simple: What we have this weekend is a conflict of methods, each predicting results at total odds with each other. Traditional tracking has Pacific Rim poised to be a flop. Google Trends’ data, which has shown to be surprisingly accurate as a predictor of box office success, is projecting a big first weekend for Pacific Rim. If the movie flops, then it’ll be a victory for traditional tracking, a sign that they still have their finger on the pulse of moviegoers at least to an extent.

But if Pacific Rim succeeds, it’s the single biggest blow of the year to old-fashioned tracking. More than that, if Google Trends is correct, it means that all anyone needs to be a successful box-office guru is an internet connection.

(featured image source)

Can we stop talking about Armond White and start talking about what a horrible critic Rex Reed is? Armond White is a troll, yes, but once you learn to take his opinions with extra salt, his sins are largely contained to the oddness of his film opinions.

But Rex Reed still has a job as a film critic despite continually proving to be terrible at the job, and a terrible person to boot.

Want a rundown?

  • He made cruel remarks about Melissa McCarthy’s weight and defended them as simply criticizing the comedy she makes. He didn’t say which part of calling her a “female hippo” was criticizing her comedic chops.
  • In a profile of Hugh Dancy (from a few years ago) he gave himself a sidebar to insult and degrade people with Asperger syndrome.
  • He was the main proponent of the lie that Marisa Tomei’s Oscar was mistakenly awarded to her, a lie that followed Tomei for years.
  • He’s a terrible film critic as well. In his review of “The Cabin in the Woods”, he straight up got the movie wrong. Not his opinions; he literally described scenes that did not actually happen. I personally didn’t like “The Cabin in the Woods”, but every review of every film has to be at least factually accurate.
  • He then used said review as a soapbox to insult anyone who dared like the movie. Again, I didn’t like the movie myself, but insulting people who do is wildly immature and unprofessional.
  • Recently, he gave a scathing review to “V/H/S 2”, a four part horror anthology. He walked out on the movie after 20 minutes. This would be acceptable if he, doing his job as a critic, made half an effort describe his experience beyond simply dismissing the horror elements of the movie off-hand. However, his review clocks in at 136 words, and he only casually mentions that he walked out early at the very end. It’s a lazy, dreadful piece of writing.

As someone who really does care about film criticism, it’s genuinely disheartening to see someone like Rex Reed calling himself a critic, and getting paid to do so.

Looking too deeply into single scenes: Princess Mononoke edition

When you see a movie way, way, way too many times, you start to pick apart its logic in a way that’s probably unfair to the director, but that’s kind of inevitable. You start to view the movie like a member of your family: you’re hyper-aware of its imperfections in a way that no one who isn’t related can understand, but you still love them.

And sometimes, those imperfections make you love them all the more.

So, I’ve seen Princess Mononoke 21 times. It’s pretty much infused in my blood. And, well, I still think it’s pretty much perfect. I adore it to little adorable pieces.

But after the 21st viewing, the scene when San attacks Irontown began to bug me for reasons I cannot explain.

image

(the scene responsible for this awesome gif, which was made by toto-ro)

Quick rundown of the scene: Ashitaka is visiting Irontown and chatting with Lady Eboshi. San attacks said town, intending to kill Lady Eboshi, but does a piss poor job of it and finds herself surrounded. Ashitaka saves San with his mega-super-arm. Then the rest of the movie happens.

Anyway, my problem (if you can call it that) with the scene is this:

  • Either San is attacking the town for the first time, which might explain why her attack is so poorly planned and reckless (without Ashitaka there, she’d have died) in which case Ashitaka’s timing being there is remarkably convenient.
  • Or she has previous experience attacking the town (which makes sense, given the implication that she an Eboshi have a history of conflict), in which case her utter recklessness is a little hard to believe. And, of course, Ashitaka’s timing is still remarkably convenient.

In other words, this scene provides us with two scenarios that don’t really work, but that if overlooked allow the film to rather easily set up both its primary relationship (San and Ashitaka) and its primary antagonistic storyline (San and Lady Eboshi), which would be somewhat difficult to accomplish otherwise because the film doesn’t have a straightforward protagonist vs. antagonist plot. Ashitaka is at odds with neither San nor Eboshi, and this scene allows him to establish that by furthering the animosity between Eboshi and San and allowing him to choose neither side. Just like that, a hugely important aspect of the movie’s plot is taken care of, and the actual story can take hold again.

So I now have an added layer of accepting this scene is a necessary bit of plot patchwork that allows the film to flow more smoothly without relying on exposition, which at the end of the day, I’m really quite cool with. It makes me appreciate the intricacy of Miyazaki’s storytelling. After all, nobody’s perfect, but true loves don’t come around every day.

(Featured image source)

In anticipation of “Pacific Rim”, some of Guillermo Del Toro’s best moments

I’m on a giddy edge about Pacific Rim. Some movies just hit every single aspect of childhood fears and nostalgia and combine into a potent cocktail of anticipation. Pacific Rim is that type of movie for me. Just the image of a towering monster silhouette against the night sky is one of the most primal fears of my childhood, and the sight of a massive, Idris Elba-controlled robot battling in it hand-to-hand combat just fills me with ridiculous levels of glee (and I haven’t seen the damn film yet).

It should go without saying that I’m also a big fan of Guillermo Del Toro. The man hasn’t steered me wrong yet. So with three days to go until “Pacific Rim” comes out, here are some of my favorite moments from Guillermo Del Toro’s filmography.

The Angel of Death from Hellboy 2

In addition to being just a damn enjoyable pair of comic book adaptations, Del Toro always flexed his visual muscles with the Hellboy movies. There are some truly gorgeously designed scenes throughout this film, but none quite as strikingly beautiful as this one. The Angel of Death’s design is just splendid, full of Miyazaki-esque details (I can’t get over the eyes on its wings), and the set is gothic and gorgeous. As art direction and makeup go, this film is just a delight to watch, but this scene might be the greatest among equals.

Blade II: The Reapers

Blade II was an unexpectedly good film, a ridiculous romp that embraced its inherent silliness with gleeful abandon. The Reapers remain one of my favorite Del Toro visual creations

Pan’s Labyrinth: Pick ’em

Pan’s Labyrinth is easily Del Toro’s most celebrated film, largely on the basis of its extraordinary visual creativity. Yes, the bulk of the film is actually a straightforward war drama about a little girl dealing with her mother’s marriage to a sadistic general. But the film’s celebrated fantasy sequences hold up to this day as triumphs of visual creativity.

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