Big Hero 6 and the pleasures of animated superhero movies
My favorite superhero film remains The Incredibles. No superhero film before it or since has so deftly balanced so thoroughly engaging a story with an unrelenting sense of fun. Oh, there have been contenders for its belt. Heath Ledger’s performance as he Joker in The Dark Knight is one of those pitch-perfect turns that elevates the entire movie by setting a tone that reverberates throughout the whole film, like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. As someone who has never hopped on the “Batman is the best superhero” bandwagon, The Dark Knight won me over by being the Joker’s movie.
This summer produced two films which announced their candidacies for my “favorite superhero movie” mantle: Captain American: The Winter Solider and Guardians of the Galaxy. Winter Soldier was a film blessedly devoid of plot excess, lean and thrilling. Superhero movies that trust in there lore- in this case, resting on Steve Rodgers’s lingering sadness over Bucky Barnes’s “death”- to drive the story without relying on excessive exposition are immensely satisfying. Make no mistake: Winter Soldier has more than its share of cheerful and goof moments, but it frequently ventures into shadows.
On the other hand, Guardians of the Galaxy was unabashedly goofy. In Chris Pratt it found the perfect star for this approach. Pratt has been one of the most charming actors on television for years. In Parks and Recreation, which boasts one TV’s most talented comic ensembles, he is frequently the standout performer. A lesser actor might have turned Peter Quill into a poor man’s Tony Stark, a repository of sass and snark and not much else. Pratt injects an sincere, just-a-bit sensitive core behind the smartassery. Pratt’s performance elevates the film much like Ledger’s elevated his, just in a different direction. Guardians of the Galaxy is a fun film, but without Pratt it could easily have teetered into a constant series of reminders that we weren’t supposed to take it too seriously. In an age dominated by sarcasm and irony, Pratt’s comic gift is how thoroughly he doesn’t break the fourth wall, and how convincingly he makes just about any setting feel like home.
But still, there was something missing in both those films that The Incredibles had, that special something that elevated The Incredibles to a higher tier: the ability to have fun with their material while still taking it seriously, and effortlessly changing gears between both tones without missing a bear. Having one overriding tone is not a flaw, but when sorting out my personal hierarchies, it can be a deciding factor. The Incredibles is no less interesting or engaging to me than The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, no less willing to have fun with its material than Guardians of the Galaxy. But it has more fun with its material than those first two films and none of the arms-length self-awareness of the latter. The Increidbles is as earnest in its convictions as the 1978 version of Superman or the 2002 version of Spider-Man, only with none of their corniness.
I felt some of that same energy watching Big Hero 6. It’s not as good as The Incredibles or even Winter Soldier. Butt is the first superhero film since The Incredibles to take its material seriously without a stone face, to radiate with the joy of simply being fun without being obligated to find the material silly. And that both The Incredibles and Big Hero 6 are animated plays a big part in this sort of appeal.
I love animation for its ability to make any world feel fully alive. A live action film can be undone with poor special effects. Our point of view, no matter how otherworldly the plot might be, is always going to be rooted in reality. Sam Raimi’s 2002 version of Spider-Man suffered mightily for this; at times Spidey looked so rubbery that it broke the trance. Animated movies can render lo-fi universes without worrying about this effect- the immersiveness of the world tied to the scope of the artist’s vision. A literally sketchy film like Don Hertzfeldt’s Rejected is no less convincing in depicting its strange little universe than a technological wonder like How to Train Your Dragon 2, because realism is not the goal with animation. On the flip side, a live action rendering of Dragon would likely be much more difficult to do convincingly (considering how much of the Dragon’s emotional core relies on humans and dragons communicating directly, something that feels perfectly normal in animation). And a live action version of Rejected wouldn’t be Rejected, so let’s not even go there.
I have long felt that animation is an ideal format for superhero movies. The easy immersion into any world of the artist’s choosing, that 1:1 translation of an artist’s vision to the audience’s eyes, is what has made animation such an effective medium for fantasy. With animation, there’s no such thing as suspension of disbelief, because reality does not apply.
But in the modern (let’s say beginning with Raimi’s Spider-Man) era of superhero movies, The Incredibles had long been the only animated offering.
And lord, what a good offering it was. Right from the opening, its fleshes out the core cast of characters and the rules of the world they live in with a breezy sense of humor that nonetheless sets the stage for a meaty plot. We likely wouldn’t accept a Superman movie that opened with Superman shaking a cat free from a tree and defeating an evil mime on his way to his wedding, and then getting sued after the fact. But in a world as stylized as Brad Bird’s creation, every tone he aimed for fit. The goofiness was exactly what we expected from a movie with a futuristic 1960s aesthetic. The serious moments are earned from the realistic, at times unnervingly sad and human family drama that builds these characters.
A live action movie forcing actors to navigate these narrative waters would have a difficult time avoiding tonal dissonance. When a live-action movie or show adopts an “everything goes” style of storytelling, we call it “cartoonish”. It tends to be strictly comedy, shows like 30 Rock and Malcolm in the Middle. Navigating across tones and genres is doable in live-action, but difficult, requiring a razor-sharp directorial focus and vision, and actors game for the challenge. Films like Fargo and Dr. Strangelove are classics for a reason. But when such a story is animated, the material is much easier to digest, and more easily applicable to simpler genre films.
Big Hero 6 doesn’t quite pack the narrative punch of The Incredibles. Brad Bird’s film was as much a drama about the relationships within its titular family as it was a superhero movie, which is what helped make it so good. But Big Hero 6 does benefit from the same narrative freedom granted to it by its medium. The first major action sequence in the movie is a delirious chase sequence through the streets of “San Fransokyo”* The film’s primary villain is a mysterious figure in a kabuki mask, who moves atop a massive swarm of completely mind-controlled microbots that act as a sort of sapient, free-flowing silly putty. It’s a wonderful bit of character design, and in a superhero film universe increasingly filled with indistinct and boring villains, it was terrific just to see one who looked so damn cool.**
The scene has a reckless silliness that reminded me of some of the best Pixar action scenes- the door chase in Monsters Inc., the paper chase in Ratatouille, and my favorite, the 100 Mile Dash scene in The Incredibles. Yes, they could all technically have been done in live action, but there’s a joy in seeing a sinister figure atop a flowing black mountain towering over a cityscape and experiencing absolutely no dissonance: for that image to be as organic to the world of the movie as the heroes who are being chased. To some degree, we are always aware the special effects are special effects. But in good animation, nothing feels like a special effect. Everything feels like a part of the film’s reality.
*I admit, much more could have been done with this setting. Ostensibly a hybrid of two of the most visually distinct cities in the world, in the movie it comes across as San Francisco with occasional superficial Japanese motifs. For example, the Golden Gate Bridge has pagodas.
**While the best villains have backstories as interesting as any hero, I like to employ what I call the T-1000 rule now and then: A villain consisting of nothing but menace and a great visual design can be spectacular when done right. Technically, this might better be called the Darth Vader rule, given that that describes Vader in the first Star Wars film to a T, but it stopped applying to him the moment he uttered the word “father”.
Big Hero 6 lacks a truly compelling story for its villain, but it ended up being so much fun that I could forgive it that. It incorporates many of the expected elements of both superhero and Disney movies (tragic first acts, cuddly sidekicks) but they are seamlessly integrated. The other people who make of the team of six (Go-Go, Honey Lemon, Wasabi, and Fred) are all surprisingly distinct, and given plenty of character despite the limited runtime. Baymax is a delightful character, aided by a gentle and powerful voice performance by Scott Adsit. The protagonist, Hiro, is relateable and likeable even when he’s going through (usually completely understandable) bad moods. Their interactions are the heart of the movie and yes, it’s the most Disney film to stick its hero with a cuddly sidekick, but this hero and this sidekick felt fresh and new. The film relies a lot of physical comedy. Not pure slapstick, but the sight of the giant puffball that is Baymax trying to move around the world when he was clearly designed not to leave a room. Again, animation enhances the appeal of these scenes significantly. Baymax is every bit as normal resident in this world as Hiro. It’s easier to appreciate his physical comedy as a character, and not as a prop or an effect.
The Iron Giant is probably the finest example of a movie using the unique advantages of combining human and non-human characters in the same universe. The way that film continually came up with ways to creatively use space to create scenes with the Giant (Brad Bird again; where have you gone, dude?) was inspired, effortlessly flowing from desperate comedy to poignant drama.
Big Hero 6 still has a knack for physical comedy, though. A partially deflated Baymax is inherently hilarious, like an old basset hound rolling on its back, rolls of loose skin happily flopping everywhere. And his limited movement makes for some terrific tension in the early scenes that is easily combined with slapstick humor; for example at one point, Hiro and Baymax need to make a quick escape that’s impeded by Baymax’s inability to easily squeeze through a window. It’s a simple visual gag, but a funny one. It’s not quite the range of The Iron Giant, but the principles are the same: when you can easily integrate physically creative character, as animation allows you to do so easily, the possibilities for scenes that are just fun are endless, which for a superhero movie can be a priceless quality.
Big Hero 6 doesn’t quite have the deft control of its emotional range that makes for the upper echelon animated films. Its story is more broad strokes than the little details that make The Incredibles and The Iron Giant really special. But it has all the usual elements in place for a perfectly fun Disney film. And yet I enjoyed it more than that. Because superhero films that are built on earnest joy are unfortunately rare in this new golden age for the genre. And Big Hero 6 was the most pure fun I’ve had at the movies since Pacific Rim, another big action movie as goofy as it was sincere. I treasure movies like that, because they know that “fun” is not a synonym for “mindless”, that you have the most fun with any activity when you are invested in it. And both of the animated superhero films of this era have been so effortlessly fun without compromising their sincerity. I can only hope the third one comes out in less than ten years.
Jupiter and Venus and The Tree of Life (Movie Roulette #7)
I have always been been kind of obsessed with stars. At night we can see thousands of celestial objects, larger than our world and more distant than I can comprehend. It took Voyager 1 thirty-six years just to exit our solar system. The next closest star after the sun is 4 light years away. It would take Voyager 1 another 40,000 years to reach that distance. All of us share our existence within a system of staggering size and scope.
The human story is, as far as we know, unique in our universe. The story of the universe began roughly 13.8 billion years ago, and from that moment immeasurable narratives burst. Our ability to learn those narratives beyond Earth is contained by the limits of our technology. But even then, slivers slip through space and time and find their way here. When I heard in May that scientists had detected what they believed to be an echo from the Big Bang, I was moved to tears. Another story had found its way to the only audience we know exists. It had taken almost 14 billion years and the rise of humanity and technology to a level capable of detecting it, but the story had made it.
We tend to look at the human story and the story of the universe as separate. One is ours, and one is… out there. But that is a matter of perspective. If you could look through the cosmos, through time, through the history of the universe, why wouldn’t you turn your attentions to a single family on Earth? Is their story not just as worthy of our attentions as any other story to be found in the universe? Echoes of the Big Bang are just one snapshot of the history of existence. And in The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick looks at a family through that lens. They are happening alongside the rest of the universe, and gently, slowly, we realize that that is a sort of miracle in itself.
Despite his reputation for “tone poetry” and whispered philosophizing, I think of Terrence Malick as one of our least ponderous directors. He doesn’t sit around looking for meaning and symbolism in minutiae. He’s not forcing us to listen to his pontifications. He simply observes what his characters do. All of his films have a detached quality, a sense that things are only moving as fast as the characters are willing to. Filmmakers rarely exercise this sort of patience. He lets his characters’ stories unfold at their own speed, and he makes sure it looks damn pretty. His Badlands, in which a film a teenage couple who go on a killing spree, makes no attempt to to provide an explanation for its characters’ actions. It simply shows them. Days of Heaven takes a similar approach to a plot that could just as easily have been made into a soapy Texas epic, a la Giant. Instead murder and romance take a backseat to a movie that views a storm of locusts as its climactic centerpiece. Why? Well, why not? To an impartial observer, the locusts would probably have more effect on your life than the melodrama going on around you.
The Tree of Life opens on a scene of grief, as a woman and her husband learn that their son has died. We don’t learn how or why. The movie is not concerned with that. It witnesses their grief, like a bystander suddenly made aware that they are not alone by a cry of anguish. The following scenes are potentially confusing. Shots of the universe, of stars and nebulae and planets. Dinosaurs appear for a brief, strange interlude, only to be wiped out by an asteroid. We see shots of the microuniverse that surrounds us as well, cells and bacteria and blood flowing through veins. Yes, this might seem like the artiest of artsy asides by Malick. They confused me the first time I saw the film, even as I was awestruck by their beauty. When I saw the film again recently, I realized that awe was the point.
Consider how Malick treats the scale of all things. Nebulae, the massive interstellar clouds that give birth to stars, resemble cloaked figures here, almost humanoid. Planets are shown against stars, pinpricks in their appearance. Cells dividing and consuming one another appear like prehistoric sea creatures, seemingly huge and imposing. The scenes with dinosaurs are shot against the rivers and trees that seem recognizable later in the film. The sequence has a binding effect, tying all of history to the main story. A moment of personal grief resonates against the history of time. Whole histories of the world have come and gone several times over. Humanity is barely a blip on the scale of the universe. Think of Carl Sagan talking about the “Pale Blue Dot” photograph. There are so many stories to be told just on our planet, a planet that is so tiny compared to what surrounds it. Of all those stories, Malick has latched onto this one, this moment of human sadness. And he takes us back, back to the beginning, where we can learn where the sadness comes from.
The second act of The Tree of Life is a seemingly free-form depiction of the childhood of a boy named Jack O’Brien, the oldest son of the grieving parents. The parents in the first scene are Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. Young Jack’s story is inter-cut with moments from the adult Jack’s life as he grapples with own grief from his brother R.L.’s death, and from his broken relationship with his father. The movie is not really so formless. It’s only as fluid as actual memories. So many films show adult narrators describing their childhoods with perfect, plot-point by plot-point detail. That’s not how memories work. When telling stories we inevitably fill in gaps. Good writers fill gaps with humor, with prose, with other anecdotes. But Malick isn’t concerned with filling those gaps. The Tree of Life shows us memories as we actually remember them. We don’t remember a perfectly plotted childhood. We remember specific times we were scared, when we laughed, when mass wouldn’t seem to end and staring at how the light came through the stained glass window was a surprisingly good way to pass the time.
My most vivid memory of childhood is this one time I walked out of a grocery store with my mom and into the sunlight, and then back into the shade of another building. The sunlight felt so good that I ran back into it and basked for a few more seconds, my eyes closed and my arms outstretched. I don’t remember what else I did that day, or even exactly how old I was. But that feeling of that sunbeam against my skin in that moment has never left me. If I was writing a novel, I might use that moment of truth to color my fiction. If I was writing a memoir, I might ask my mom for some more detail, to see if she remembers it the same way, or at all. The Tree of Life isn’t concerned with making a plot out of those moments. It cares more about how sunlight feels on your face.
We don’t get a traditional plot out of these moments, but we get a vivid picture of a childhood, of a boy grappling with a strict, at times terrifying father. Mr. And Mrs. O’Brien are less fully formed characters than towering figures in Jack’s life. That’s accurate. To a child, parents can seem life the Old Testament God, all powerful and occasionally confounding and even frightening.
Chastain delivers the films opening words via voiceover: “The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”
It’s tempting to see this quote as a thesis. Whoever wrote the film’s Wikipedia page uses the quote to quite literally categorize Mr. O’Brien as “nature” and Mrs. O’Brien as “grace”. While this interpretation of the quote is a bit too obvious and literal for my taste, it is not entirely off-base. Mrs. O’Brien loves unconditionally and shows it. Mr. O’Brien loves his kids too, but expressing it always plays second fiddle to establishing his authority. He reacts to even slight defiance from his sons with absolute rage. The film seems to make a point that a man as square-jawed and intimidating as Brad Pitt needn’t be so desperate to assert dominance over kids a third his size. Mrs. O’Brien is shown at first as an angelic figure, the advocate for her children, a saint in Jack’s eyes (one memory shows her literally dancing in the air, floating as she does). But she cedes to her husband’s authority, leading to a moment where Jack, full of fire and venom, rages at her that she never stands up to their dad when it counts. She is hurt. The scene ends. The emotion has been registered, and it’s time for the observer that is Terrence Malick’s camera to turn its eye to something else.
The movie isn’t trying to paint a depressing picture. There’s nothing here that suggests that the O’Briens live a particularly unusual or sad life. We do see Jack learning the wrong things from his father’s harsh lessons, taking out his confusions on his younger brother. We see a moment where he hurts his brother and immediately regrets it. He snaps out of his growing pains and back into reality. These are the types of moments that we remember in our own lives, from our childhoods. The times we wish hadn’t happened, that we would give anything to do differently, even years later. Mr. O’Brien says as much at the beginning of the film, as he mournfully regrets all the times he was needlessly harsh to his now dead son. Later on, we see a moment where an adult Jack calls Mr. O’Brien to apologize for an argument they had as adults, unseen in the movie. The movie isn’t trying to pinpoint the moment their relationship broke, or provide a cathartic moment of regret in the relationship between Jack and R.L. It’s a movie that hears a cry of grief at the beginning and traces the history of the source. It then settles in and starts to learn about these people. It takes a fleeting moment and humanizes everyone involved by showing them as they were, how they came to be. We don’t need every aspect of Jack’s relationship with his parents to be spelled out in melodramatic sequences to spoonfeed us their meaning. So much is said in a brief exchange when Jack tells his father “I’m more like you than her”.
The Tree of Life is particularly lovely, even by Terrence Malick’s standards. The spacescapes and microcosmos of the opening give way to scenes in small town Texas that are achingly beautiful without seeming to try. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is one of the great film artists of our time. You probably last saw his work on Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, which won him his first Oscar. If the Oscars knew a damn thing, Lubezki would have won an Oscar for this film too, as well his nominations for The New World, Children of Men and A Little Princess. His skill lies not in painting everything lushly, but in tailoring his work to the story at hand. In The New World, the story required smothering greens of the uncut 17th century American forests, of the senses being completely overwhelmed. In Children of Men, he filled the screen with sinister grays and always managed to find something interesting or menacing to linger on the edge of the frame. In The Tree of Life, Lubezki crafts memories in the little ways we remember details. The way light comes through a window, just a bit brighter than in reality, in child-eye view closeups that mimic how children study their surroundings, and in the dry earthinesss that seems embedded in every home in the neighborhood. “Hypnotic” is rarely the most exciting way to describe a film, but The Tree of Life induces a reverie in me. Its beauty is not just cosmetic, it is embedded in the movie’s soul, constantly reminding us what it feels like to remember something from years long ago.
The ending of The Tree of Life is one of Malick’s most audacious sequences, a vision of the afterlife, heaven, the end of time, whatever you wish to call it and perhaps all those things. Jack’s memories meld in one another as the dying sun consumes Earth, and he sees his mother as she was as he remembered her from his childhood, before he knew how to be cynical about her. He hears her finally, at long lost, accept his brother’s death, relinquishing her grief. Emotions are some of the most minute realities. They are deeply personal. But here Malick gives grief, love, acceptance, and forgiveness the scale they deserve. When we die, the emotions we evoke in those left behind are what remains of us. It’s why so many cultures place such significance on funerals. Funerals aren’t for the dead, but for the living. It’s how we begin the process of remembering the dead. What will happen when there is no one left to remember? The end of The Tree of Life seems to be Malick’s answer to that question. As the earth burns at the end of The Tree of Life, bits and pieces of everything still remain, unaltered from our memories, to finally provide closure for the scenes of pain that open the movie. This is a movie that quietly, gently, takes us across the entire span of existence before finding its final notes of love and acceptance at the end of time. In that sense it is Malick’s most human film, his meditation on the scale of individual existence. It’s easy to be cynical about the significance of any given person, of humanity itself, against the sheer size of the universe. But The Tree of Life considers the life of a boy in Texas to be as significant as any fleeting moment in a universe full of them. Its ending is the closest thing it has to a statement of its purpose. Despite criticism to the contrary, this is not a pretentious or pseudo-intellectual film. It is a spiritual one.
One last anecdote, and I’ll let you go. Recently I looked out my window in the wee hours of the morning. I noticed that Venus and Jupiter were incredibly close together, and for a moment I marveled at the novelty of it. And then I realized something: I wasn’t looking at two dots against the sky. I was on Earth, looking at Venus and then Jupiter behind it. The sky took on three dimensions, and I suddenly felt dwarfed by how small I was compared to what I was looking at. The scale astonished me. Here I was, one person staying up far, far too late, looking through our solar system, through hundreds of millions of miles of space, for the first time realizing with my naked eye how vast it actually was. The Tree of Life is like that. It isn’t simply gawking at the beauty of the stars and then dipping back to earth to tell the story of a family. It is in awe that they inhabit the same universe. It is about a family, yes, but the stage is all of space and time.
Movie Review Roulette #6: Jaws
Almost three months past due, here’s Jaws.
39 years later and it’s still arguably the greatest summer movie.
I don’t mean “summer blockbuster”, per se (although there’s an argument for that too). I mean the movie I most indelibly associate with the season of summer.
The most wintry of movies for me, for example, is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s far from the most snow-covered film, but its moodiness, and its willingness to bask in both the gray misery and gentle beauty of winter make it my favorite film to watch in the January cold.
Autumn for me means Halloween, and the ultimate Halloween movie is, well, Halloween. It’s not my favorite horror film, (it ranks behind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Suspiria, and 28 Days Later in my personal list) but it is the movie that brings to life the twinge of fear that comes with the chill in the October air.
Spring for me is liveliness and cheer. I will watch The Princess Bride any time of year, but it is best paired with the first warm evenings of April, when the snow has melted and you just want spend some time with a cheerful old friend.
And so it is with Jaws and the summer. Part of it might be regional bias. The film is set in the fictional town of Amity Island, clearly a stand-in for Martha’s Vineyard, where it was filmed. It is the most New England of summer movies. The locales will still feel familiar to anyone from coastal Massachusetts, where kinship to the ocean has never faded from the region’s seafaring days of yore. You can almost smell the salty air in this movie, the rusty musk of boats in harbor, or feel the ever present sand that tracks near any building close enough to the water.
And then there’s Quint. I hail from New Bedford, Massachusetts, the saltiest of New England sailing towns, and let me tell you dear reader, the only problem with Quint is that there is only one of him. I suppose that in a tourist haven like Amity Island, there might be more shark-crazy posers than actual fishers of very big fish. But Robert Shaw’s assuredness, the way you can tell that he knows more about the sea than he does his mother by his gait alone, is one of the crucial details this movie gets right.
I have spoken of Jaws so far as if it is a documentary about life in a coastal Massachusetts town, when you no doubt came here to read a take on a movie about a huge shark eating lots and lots of people. Trust me, I will get there. My dawdling on salt and sand is for a reason: salt and sand and crusty sailors are what separate Jaws from traditional monster fare. A lesser director could have taken this story, followed it beat for beat, and ended up with a forgettable b-movie.
It is well known that the mechanical shark constructed for the movie was a nightmare, so prone to malfunction that director Steven Spielberg made sure the audience saw as little of it as possible. While John Williams’ immortal score has rightly been celebrated for its function as a stand-in for the shark for much of the film, equally important is how Spielberg established a town where this story can to be told, and characters who live there. A monster movie can work just fine with without thinking about its setting as a place needing to be saved, or its characters as people with lives and motivations. But Jaws is a classic not just because of the shark, but because we actually care about the people chasing it.
Consider Roy Scheider’s performance as Brody, Amity Island’s police chief. Scheider had one of my favorite faces in acting, so easily shifting from quiet weariness to steeled anger, the weight of his burdens always just behind his eyes. He is not just a functional protagonist, serving his purpose in providing us someone to follow so the movie can move from point A to point B. He is a man who hates the water who gradually realizes that he has no choice but to face his fears to keep his town safe. It’s a subtle hero’s journey, conveyed as much through Scheider’s performance as the script.
Consider Richard Dreyfuss as Hooper. Again, this is a functional character in a typical monster movie: the scientist, there to spout exposition and geek out when he sees the shark in person. The film gives him just a bit more depth than that, at it makes all the difference. Hooper is a rebellious kid from a rich family, devoting his life to studying sharks much to the shame of his parents. Dreyfuss’s performance is winning and energetic where so many actors portraying similar characters wilt and die on screen as their purpose is served.
Jaws is an uncommonly quotable thriller. Scheider’s immortal delivery of “you’re gonna need a bigger boat” is a killer line of dialogue. But it also provides a terrific moment of contrast between two characters, as Brody’s sudden terror upon seeing the shark contrasts with Quint’s unaffected gaze.
And the USS Indianapolis scene, with its hypnotic monologue by Robert Shaw, is an exercise in patience in a genre that so often has none. It’s a masterfully filmed, written, and acted scene, generating tension without a single shot of the water, and elevating Quint from an archetype to a haunted, tragic character.
And yes, that score by John Williams is one of the most important in movie history. Spielberg knew that what we imagine can be far more frightening than what we see. John Williams filled that gap with the simplest but most haunting of scores. Its effect reminds me of John Carpenter’s theme for Halloween, both cases of musical minimalism hinting at terrors in the deep recesses of our imaginations.
Jaws was far from the first blockbuster to succeed by scaring audiences out of their wits. But it’s rare that it does so in broad daylight, in the heat of the summer, out on the water. There’s something primordially frightening about the ocean, something inherently eerie about small coastal towns that try just a bit too hard to be perfect. HP Lovecraft knew this. Spielberg’s take on this very New England brand of scares is less cosmic than Lovecraft’s but the source of the fright is the same, exemplified in the movie’s nightmarish, nighttime opening (where a skinny dipping young woman becomes the shark’s first victim) : there’s something lurking in the water. Have fun swimming.
The sad, tangled world of Holy Motors
Every movie inhabits its own universe, and we as the viewers can only follow the rules that we are provided. A film like Holy Motors easily lends itself, then, to long treatises devoted to trying to solve it like a puzzle.
And it is impossible not to be at least initially overcome with the film’s startling premise: A man is assigned to go through the day as nine different characters in nine situations, which range from making out with a contortionist in spandex, to eating flowers and kidnapping supermodels, to lying on his deathbed as his niece mourns him.
Is he being filmed? That doesn’t appear to be the case. The man, known only as Monsieur Oscar (Denis Levant) is driven from scenario to scenario by his stoic limo driver, Celine (Édith Scob). She picks him up from his home (which seems to be where he lives with his wife and kids) and gives him a folder. It contains the day’s assignments.
Each scene unfolds with its own sense of frenzied logic. At first, Oscar is dressed as an old beggar woman worrying that she has lost the ability to die. He soon switches into a spandex mo-cap suit and simulating a sex-scene with another actor. He doesn’t question the roles. In between scenes he climbs into his limo (which is decked out with a full changing room, makeup, minibar, and a bucket of guns) changes clothes and puts on his makeup and gets in character.
As I watched Oscar slip in and out of character time and time again, I was aware that this was not a film about an actor in a traditional sense. Holy Motors might best be described as a fantasy, and Oscar is killed at least twice (perhaps three, depending on how you keep count) only to dust himself off and take off his costume once more. Regardless, it was impossible for me to simply regard each assignment as self-contained, with no connection from scene to scene. That was not consistent with the film’s logic, either. Celine expresses mother-hen concern for Oscar, fretting that he hasn’t eaten enough during the day. Oscar runs into other people on assignments, sometimes within assignments. There is a strange logic to the film that it doesn’t care to explain fully, and doesn’t need to. What we see is enough for me to respond to the undercurrent of sadness that, the day after finishing the film, lingers with me.
I’m not a fan of parsing films for “meaning”. One of my favorite quotes from Roger Ebert sums up my view nicely: “If you have to ask what something symbolizes, it doesn’t.” So does a movie that consists of Denis Lavant running around eating flowers in one scene and leading an accordion band in another just nine examples of entertaining solipsism?
I don’t think so. Yes, Holy Motors has a lot of fun with the questions about the structure of its universe. Oscar dies multiple times, and murders at least two people, both of whom look suspiciously like him. On two occasions when he should have been dead, Celine runs out to rescue him, but performs no life-saving procedures beyond leading him back to the limo so he can pour himself a glass of whiskey. The basic logic of the film is as “anything goes” as it gets.
But that doesn’t preclude it from having any underlying mystery about the humanity of the characters. There are stories being weaved here that I couldn’t dismiss so easily. Consider the chilling sequence where Oscar plays a man picking his daughter up from a party. Their dialogue is cheerful at first. He asks her if she had a good time. She says she did. She talks about the boys who wanted to talk to her.
Then he gets a phone call from a friend of hers that reveals that she was lying. She was leaving the party early. She hid in the bathroom the whole time. She says she feels unpopular and unattractive. Suddenly he isn’t so sweet. He berates his daughter for not being more outgoing. He drops her off and tells her that she is to be punished by having to live with being herself. In a film that features shootings, neck-stabbings and finger biting, this was the most brutal scene. And it wouldn’t have been so troubling l if it was simply a believable but one-off episode. Is the girl someone else on an assignment?
Maybe. In another scene, Oscar plays out a moving death sequence as a dying old man, being cared for by his niece. They exchange tearful goodbyes as he prepares to pass on. Then Oscar climbs out of bed and asks for her real name. She is also a performer. They bid each other farewell. Was the assignment with the father and his daughter like this one, an elaborately staged dramatic scene? Or was the run-in with another performer an accident? If it’s the latter, than the scene (the father/daughter one) takes on a much heavier, even sinister tone. Even if Oscar plays these parts for minutes at a time, the larger story of that assignment is one of deeply unhappy people. The possibility of that larger story being canon somewhere in this film’s sprawling universe troubled me. And I think that was the desired effect.
Even at its most absurd, Holy Motors, specks of light of the character behind Oscar’s characters pokes through. The film’s most memorable sequence sees him playing a madman running through a Parisian cemetery, eating flowers as he sprints about and scares away visitors. He stumbles into a photoshoot, and the photographer is intrigued (he switches from saying “BEAUTY! BEAUTY! BEAUTY! as he shoots photos of the model to an increasingly ecstatic “Weird! Weird! WEIRD!” when he spots Oscar).
Yes, Oscar proceeds to bite off the photographer’s assistant’s fingers and kidnap the model (played by Eva Mendes), the scene ending with Oscar lying naked on her lap, like a recreation of the Pieta one might find in a grad school living art installment. There’s not much logic to be derived from this scene, other than that Eva Mendes’s model never once breaks out of her photoshoot expression (a real pro) and that there is something kind of haunting about the whole thing. If it wanted to be truly random, it could have been. Making the man reckless and violent and, well, prone to flower and finger eating gives the scene a narrative. And having that narrative conclude by having the man kidnap someone to have someone to lie down on ends up doing the one thing I didn’t expect from the scene: it humanizes this particular, truly strange person.
There are other scenes that are permeated with great sadness. The aforementioned “death scene” between a man and his niece takes on a sweet tone that is still gently bitter. These two people live the same lives by pretending to be others, and can only exchange names briefly before moving on. Theirs is a strange method for people to connect, but no less valid, and there is something wistful about how Oscar asks the woman’s real name before continuing on his journey.
The film’s functional climax is a whirlwind of a sequence that co-stars Kylie Minogue as a person whom Oscar seems to recognize from years before. She says they have twenty minutes to talk, to catch up on twenty years. I won’t spoil how those minutes unfold, beyond saying they are the film’s high point as a narrative and as a tragedy (insofar as the word “tragedy” can apply in this world). Is this scene an assignment for them both? If it is, does it even matter? Where is the line between performance and reality drawn? We don’t know, and that is the point. Even if this is a scene within a scene (within a scene?), the film has so convincingly tangled its many strings of logic into a knot that the ache these characters feel for one another is overwhelming. Like the one empty rifle in a firing squad, not knowing can have a more powerful effect than knowing for sure.
Holy Motors is a story about people whose stories it doesn’t want us to know completely. But there are glimpses of something more, that show that this wasn’t all an exercise in being for the sake of being. This is a movie of possibility, but the consequences of most of those possibilities are stories of great sadness, from wistful goodbyes to tragic deaths, to the simple melancholy that comes with endlessly worrying for an old friend who can’t seem to care for themselves. The movie is less a sketch show than a series of moments of staring out the passenger side window, trying to construct the stories of passersby. One glimpse can be all you need to never stop asking questions.
I have often complained about the lack of momentum in action films. Scenes that consist of incomprehensible movement and clanging metal and explosions that we know pose no risk to the heroes bore me quickly. Give me action that moves forward. Give me heroes who know what they want and where it lies, and give me an array of entertaining obstacles that lie in their path. Good action films are balancing acts within balancing acts, like a knife-juggling tightrope walker. A good action movie needs to be thrilling, which is no easy feat, and then give us a reason to be invested in the thrills.
A film like Snowpiercer, then, is some kind of small miracle. Burdened with telling a story that JJ Abrams might consider too high-concept, Bong Joon-hu moves the film forward with absolute resolution. It contains the single most thrilling action set piece I’ve seen since Clive Owen looked for a baby in the midst of a firefight in Children of Men. It has at least three more fight scenes that put just about anything you’ll see this year to shame. All the while, its curiosities never cease. Like the best sci-fi, its setting is one of the most fascinating characters. The Rattling Ark- a massive train whose route takes it around the globe, completing one revolution per year- provides the setting for a barrage of fight scenes that might be the closest quarters combat in the movies to date. Think Elle Driver battling Beatrix Kiddo in an RV in Kill Bill Vol. 2 only there are thirty of them each and you might get the idea.
I enjoy when films set up their stories with minimal clutter and then set off to play. One of my favorite aspects of Pacific Rim is how neatly it builds its world. In just a few minutes it lays out the rules. Kaiju have arrived. Jaegers fight them. Here’s Raleigh Beckett. Have fun.
Snowpiercer has a different type of efficiency. It lays out the rules via opening credit narration (17 years before the film is set, the world froze; all of humanity now lives on a trans-world train powered by perpetual motion). Its opening scenes show us that this condensed version of humanity retains all the disparity between rich and poor of the pre-Apocalypse world. The poor here eat brown blocks of gel and dream of what the world looked like before it was encased in ice. The rich enjoy steak and sushi and drug-fueled nightclub raves.
In back cars of the train, deadly raids and brutal torture are commonplace. This is the world the film’s protagonist, Curtis (Chris Evans), entered as a teenager and came of age in. The teens in the cast, like Jamie Bell’s Edgar and Ah-sung Ko’s Yona, have no memory of any other life.
The oppressed people of the rear of the train have grown beyond weary of their lives. Time has come to fight back, and take control of the train. The revolt is led in spirit by a pseudo-prophetic rail-thin stack of leather named Gilliam, played by John Hurt (who still embodies a lifetime of hardship with a glance better than anyone). In practice, it is lead by Curtis.
Snowpiercer contains more characters of note than most action films bother with. More surprisingly, we actually care about them.
Casting is essential in this genre, more than it gets credit for. The right actor can invest you in their character with a glance, a word, or in the case of Luke Pasqualano, a wordless, utterly cool entrance into a fight scene.
The film is uniformly well-cast. Octavia Spencer can make you cry by reading off an Altoids tin. That she gets to bash bad guys with a lead pipe feels like an embarrassment of riches. Jamie Bell seems like he is always going to be playing teenagers, even as he nears his thirties. But well, he plays good teenagers. He’s at his best when open-faced and earnest. That was true when he was actually 15 and it holds today. He stole the show in Nicholas Nickleby and he nearly does the same here as Edgar, the teenager who hero-worships Curtis.
Chris Evans has had a hell of a year. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the best Marvel superhero film yet. Here he is given material that might overwhelm a typical, stone-faced action hero. He gets a harrowing monologue that explains his perpetual grimace. Curtis’s backstory nips any potential fan-theories that he is actually Steve Rogers in the bud.
He shows amazing versatility, as an actor and an action star. His earnest convictions elevated the Captain America films, and here he is just as convincing at portraying lean, efficient brutality,
Curtis is not the film’s only protagonist. Song Kang-ho, so memorable as a down-on-his-luck dad in The Host, here plays Namgoong Minsoo, a brilliant, drug-addicted engineer who built the doors that divide the cars of the train; the closest thing humanity now has to borders. The rebels need him and his daughter Yona to open the doors to carry out their mission. He initially complies for free drugs but as the film progresses it becomes clear that he has significantly deeper motives. He might be the only character in the film who believes in a future in any meaningful sense.
For the bulk of the film, the closest character to a primary antagonist is Mason, a spokesperson for the train’s government, played by Tilda Swinton. Swinton plays Mason as a sort of religious cultist Maggie Thatcher. She feels relocated from the cast of Brazil, which is never a criticism in a sci-fi film. She howls about the rear-car denizens knowing their place and frets about finishing her speech too early as her bodyguards torture a man by freezing his arm solid. And yet she’s not an utter heel, present to give us someone simply to root against. Mason is a devotee of a system and is unprepared to see it falling apart around her, failing to keep her at a safe remove from the people she has been keeping in their “preordained place”.
I can’t shake just how good the action in this film is. Yes, you might think: it’s a good movie, and it is an action movie. Therefore it has good action scenes.
But there is something truly giddy about action that is particularly suited to its environment. The entire film takes place in a train, of course, but every car of the train serves its own purpose, from the rear cars that house the poor, to the middle cars that handle utilities, to the very front where the engine (and it engineer, Wilford, who is treated as a mysterious, godlike figure). Setting up the plot by giving the heroes a series of stages to overcome is as old as storytelling itself, of course, but it feels more organic when the stages represent the known inhabitable world. Here each stage has a life of its own, with claustrophobia as the only constant.
Bong Joon-hu shows a choreographer’s eye for action. The fights are thrilling without descending into indistinguishable chaos. There is a scene early in the film that stretches a four-second sequence into one of the most astonishingly choreographed action scenes I’ve ever watched. It’s a gleeful exercise in taking the audience’s pulse a few beats faster with every cut, from the sudden chaos of the buildup to an astonishing decision that Curtis makes that instantly makes my list of favorite movie moments.
Snowpiercer’s story eventually does end up being too much to explain in real time, leading to one of my more commonplace cinematic annoyances: the villain’s grand plot explanation. But it works here, for the same reason parlor scenes work in mystery novels: if the story is told right, the audience will be adding up the pieces all along, and the big explanation becomes a moment of interaction with the story. For all of Snowpiercer’s thrills, it’s just as curious about the world it inhabits. By the end of the film, we want answers and resolution, not just a climactic showdown.
Snowpiercer is a film of many pleasures. Movies that elicit as much excitement as they do fascination are rare. This is a film I want to revisit just to gawk at its sights again. Sometimes I watch a film and wonder if the filmmaker gave more than a moment’s thought about the world the movie inhabits. Snowpiercer wants you to pay attention to the action, yes, but don’t forget to look out the train’s window. You never know what you might miss.
Movie Review Roulette #5: The Princess Bride, in 5 quotes
Sorry for taking so long with this (especially you, Nicole). The Princess Bride is one of the most quotable of films. Its wonderful dialogue needs to take the center stage of any look back at it. So I give you my review of one of my favorite films, inspired by its own words.
Is this a kissing book? You bet your bedridden ass, kid. This is a kissing movie based on a kissing book and by god, there will be kissing. And the romance is one of the reasons this movie holds up so well. For all its tomfoolery and silliness, The Princess Bride never gives in to the temptation to be a full-blown farce. This could have worked as a Mel Brooks-style celebration of vulgarity or even a Shrek-style sendup of the fantasy genre. But underneath the humor, The Princess Bride never views its story as a joke, least of all the love story.
The romance between Westley and Buttercup is delivered with the starry-eyed earnestness of Robin Hood courting Maid Marion. It would be easy to dismiss as maudlin, but instead it’s a confection, a welcome dose of sweetness that reminds us that the movie has enough self-awareness to both tease its material and embrace it with open arms.
I love when movies are unpredictable and challenging. But predictability needn’t be a pejorative. At times, we simply want and need to be entertained, and great entertainments are an art form unto their own. Sometimes, we just need a movie to give us what we want. When I see films that bore me to tears with mindless sequences of movement passing for action, thrusting characters on screen and expecting me to care about them without once giving me a reason to, I think of The Princess Bride.
Here is a movie that gives us, not just what we want, but what we didn’t expect to want and yet quickly grow to love. It’s like a surprise birthday party planned by a friend who knows you better than anyone else. Of course we expect sword fights, revenge, and stormed castles. But what we really love are this take on those things. This story could have been told any number of ways while attempting to cater to the masses and featuring none of this movie’s charm. The story wants to please. The characters and the dialogue, however, aren’t content to stop there. They want to be remembered.
The best comedy is well aware about how much life can suck. Some days you’re just going out on a voyage to make some quick dough and boom, the most feared pirate in the world captures you. Great comedy often ventures into dark places just to find the light again, because comedy is rooted in truth, the truth isn’t always good, and good always feels that much better when been through worked hard times to get it.
“The Princess Bride” embraces its more mature material, which often playfully dances just off the edge of good taste. There is some PG-level violence, but far more memorable are Westley’s threats of violence towards Humperdinck are so beautifully gruesome that “to the pain” conjures the exact same imagine in everyone’s mind, even though we never actually see what it means. Westley is tortured until he is (mostly) dead, but the procedure itself is bloodless. Still, he screams in agony. So loud, the entire kingdom can hear him, and Inigo Montoya can identify his scream entirely from the purity of its anguish (“My heart made that sound when the Six-Fingered Man killed my father; the Man in Black makes it now”). It’s that kind of movie. It digs up some dark material for its story and then mines every last bit for potential jokes.
I dislike the word “witty” as it is typically used to describe films. It’s usually used to describe speed of dialogue more than humor. Wit is far more than that; it’s the speed of critical thought and the execution of a perfect verbal delivery of that thought. The battle of wits scene is both a beautiful parody of this concept, and in being that, a demonstration of wit as well. Vezzini is nowhere near as intelligent as he makes himself out to be, something both Inigo and Westley figure out rather quickly.
And yet what he lacks in critical thinking skills, he makes up for in his ability to overstate those skills hilariously. Westley playing along, clearly three steps ahead of his adversary? Another beautiful example of the script’s wit and Cary Elwe’s wonderfully deadpan performance. It would have been funny for this scene to be a genuine battle of wits. For it to take a farcical approach was braver, and funnier, and significantly more memorable. More than that, it shows what fun the movie is having scene after scene. Nothing in this scene is dictated by the requirements of the plot. There’s an almost episodic quality to the film that adds greatly to its sense of fun. It’s like (director) Rob Reiner sized up every scene on its own terms and thought “what kind of fun can we have with this?”
If The Princess Bride was all parody, it would not be as beloved as it is. One of the reasons I love it so much is that it is a rare film that captures that sense of losing myself in my imagination as a child. Films rarely achieve that sensation. Hayao Miyazaki does it effortlessly. Guillermo Del Toro as well. Films like Hellboy, Pacific Rim, and the fantasy sequences of Pan’s Labyrinth pulse with childlike exuberance at the limitless possibilities for fun in the worlds they inhabit.
The Princess Bride is aware of the tropes of its genre, but it resists openly mocking it. Its humor is derived more from its characters being odd types for this sort of earnest old-fashioned material than from outright satire. The only character from old Hollywood central casting is Buttercup. Everyone else is their own brand of strange. But when the story calls for it, the film lovingly embraces its roots in old Hollywood classics like The Adventures of Robin Hood. Yes, Westley will stop Buttercup from killing herself by lamenting the potential damage to her breasts. But when time comes for kissing and swordfights, he can turn full Errol Flynn without missing a beat. And when castles need to be stormed, it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be the most fun you’ve ever had.
This is perhaps The Princess Bride’s most enduring and beloved line, and really, it sort of exemplifies everything this movie does so well. On its own, it’s a platitude of revenge. Depending on the situation, it can be funny, or moving, or thrilling. The movie is all of these things and then some. It’s usually dangerous for a movie to try to be most things at once, lest they end up playing themselves into a death waltz.
But The Princess Bride manages it with nary a moment of tonal dissonance. Why? Because of characters like Inigo. As I said before, the humor in the movie isn’t Shrek-style parody. Its plot is straight out of an old Hollywood fantasy. Its characters come from almost everywhere else, and are well-defined, their motives clear and personalities vivid. And none perhaps are quite as defined and vivid as Inigo, a man who has devoted his life to one purpose, who through the course of the movie stumbles multiple times on his way to achieving it, before finally emerging victorious.
The Princess Bride is a sandbox, and every corner of it was sculpted into something delightful. Yes, the main plot is in the center, but in the far corners, you spot an impressive clergyman here, a cowardly gatekeeper there. There’s room in this sandbox for all sorts of stories, and swordfights, and kissing. Hey, want to include a subplot about a Spaniard seeking revenge for his dead father? Let’s put that in there, but don’t just throw it in. Sculpt it. Craft it. Make it just right. Every little detail has got to shine. There’s no room for throwaway dialgoue and pointless scenes in this movie. Every moment, from the first glance to the last kiss, needs to be remembered.
It’s easy to chalk up the enduring appeal of The Princess Bride to nostalgia. But nostalgia cuts out the bad memories and leaves us only with the good. We latch on to that good to return to another time and place we want to remember well. But we return to The Princess Bride for another reason altogether.
There’s a special feeling that comes when something is just just right. A perfectly prepared meal, maybe, or when the balance of the temperature perfect matches the weight and warmth of your blankets (my personal fave). That is The Princess Bride.
“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”.
Words Unspoken: Studio Ghibli and Visual Storytelling Part 1
Hey all! Here is part one of my online, written out version of my Anime Boston Panel. Two more parts are forthcoming. There will be extra content in these posts that wasn’t in my panel because I’ve had three weeks to think about them. Consider these a director’s cut.
Part 1: Light and Whisper of the Heart
Describing the basics of the visual language of movies can take a long time and be very boring and who wants that, so here’s a quote from Martin Scorsese talking about light:
“Light is at the core of who we are and how we understand ourselves.”
All right, so why did I throw that little nugget in there?
Knowing the context of that quote helps. Last year, Martin Scorsese gave a speech at the Kennedy Center about the language of cinema. The alphabet of that language, Scorsese argues, consists of lighting and movement. Now, I have a lot to say about the movement in Whisper of the Heart, but for this discussion I’ll focus on light.
Scorsese went on to talk about how crucial light is to creation stories. Consider the first three lines of the Bible:
1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
From a storytelling perspective, light is hope against despair. It is possibility in the face of confusion. It is that inkling of inspiration flying free from the tendrils of doubt.
You also need light to see a damn thing. You may as well use it creatively.
Now, let’s watch the first few minutes of this movie. Watch the whole thing you really feel like it (and you should as it is an amazing movie) but for the purposes of this post I’m going to stop right when Shizuku exits the grocery store.
I love this opening. It’s a warm blanket and cup of cocoa of an opening.
What makes it so cozy, though? And more importantly, how does this opening begin telling this movie’s story? The answers actually go hand in hand.
Remember what I was saying about light before? Yoshifumi Kondo’s use of light in this sequence is telling right from the outset.
It’s easy to sit here and tell you that these shots are warm and comforting and just hope you believe me. But it’s important beforehand to consider how cities can take on characteristics of their own in a film.
For example, consider this first shot of the skyline in Dark City, the 1998 sci-fi film by Alexis Troyas (and my personal favorite sci-fi movie).
You can barely see a damn thing haha it’s called Dark City I get it now!
The skyline in Dark City is imposing and obscure and impossible to see because that’s the role it plays in this movie. This is a city that changes itself every night, a city that is unpredictable and even deadly. You can’t rest on your feet in this city. It’s scary, mysterious, and the opening shots tell us that right away.
Let’s look then at another famous skyline:
For the purposes of The Wizard of Oz, the Emerald City skyline needs to serve the opposite function as the Dark City skyline. It is bright and towering and a beacon of hope for our already optimistic crew. It shimmers in the distance, resembling not so much a city as a mythical rock formation, bursting with magic and possibility. It’s literally at the end of their damn trail this movie isn’t trying to be subtle here.
Skylines set the tone for their movies at both ends of the pole here. So where does Whisper of the Heart fall? Somewhere much closer to Wizard of Oz, I think. Let’s look again at that image of East Tokyo.
At first glance, there’s not much more here than an establishing shot. But there’s a watercolor quality to this image, and coupled with the music it’s a very inviting cityscape. This is not ominous. It’s more akin to The Wizard of Oz, bright colors, a sense of warmth, even a bit of mystery; while the Emerald City looks more like a beacon, a landmark than a city, this snapshot of East Tokyo invites us to peer in deeper and to learn more.
As the opening progresses, the portrait of this neighborhood only grows more inviting:
This is the first ground-level shot of the neighborhood, and isn’t it just cozy? Brightly lit storefronts and cars in the foreground, a meandering road leading up to the neighborhoods on the hilltops, speckled with multi-colored lights of their own. Turn off the storefronts, remove the cars, darken the hill, and you’d have a shot ready-made for a ghost story. Instead, Kondo goes out of his way to make us feel at home here:
See what I mean? Here we get another shot overlooking the city. However, instead of the detached, birds-eye view from the opening shot, we get a view from someone’s back porch! Hell, there’s even a sleeping cat perched there, the light from the house reminding us that we are home, no longer wandering (or… flying?). The colors of the skyline are more defined than the watercolor splotches of the opening. Again, the key here is tone: a city and its skyline can help define the tone of a scene. Uncertainty makes us paranoid. This shot, coupled with the ones before it, create about as human-feeling a city as you’ll find.
And here is the first shot of our protagonist, Shizuku. The film has finally established its where enough to begin to show us the who that live within. Again, note the lighting; we can only tell it’s nighttime because of the shots that came before.
Shizuku is walking out of a grocery store, a location that is often used to symbolize all that is sterile and nightmarish about quiet suburban life. In The Hurt Locker, a grocery store is more frightening to Jeremy Renner than defusing IEDs in Iraq.
Whisper of the Heart isn’t interested in portraying suburban unrest, however. For the purposes of this story, this little corner of the city needs to feel warm and comforting. It needs to be the light at the beginning of the tunnel. The significant lyric within the song playing over the scene is not the “country roads” at all; it’s where they lead, and where Shiziku is headed: home.
So why are light, comfort, and “home” so important to this opening? Whisper of the Heart’s drama hinges almost entirely on uncertainty. Not just any uncertainty, but the uncertainty of adolescence. Shizuku worries that she might not get into a good high school. It might not matter, because all she wants to do is write, and she worries she might never be good enough at that. The boy she thinks is her adversary turns out to be pretty cool. She likes him. A lot. Except he plans on leaving Japan for an long apprenticeship in Italy. These are all find and dandy plot points, but they don’t resonate unless it’s clear that they are genuinely shaking Shizuku’s world. And the best way to tell a story of teenage drama and make it resonate is to start at a place familiar and comforting, so that we understand how much each aspect of the story poses such a genuine challenge to Shizuku. It would be easy to turn this plot into a comedy. But when romance and school and anxiety are what you are venturing into from a place of unpreparedness, they can seem as dramatic and profound as anything.
And that it why it’s crucial for Whisper of the Heart to establish a sense of “Home” in its opening scene. And that is why the lighting is key. We aren’t just meeting Shizuku here; we are visiting her home. We start high above her city, narrow our view down to the street until we find Shizuku, and then she leads us to the place she is beginning from: her apartment, where she lives with her parents and sister.
There was no plot-related need for Yoshifumi Kondo to take this roundabout way of introducing us to Shizuku. He could have started at her school, or in the library, anywhere he saw fit. Instead, he introduces us to her home first. This is a film about a teenage girl realizing that she is going to have to find her place in the world, that growing up can be a terrifying thing, even when (and perhaps because) it so often consists simply of waiting through the unknown. And that carries far more weight if the place from which we launch is well-established. Once we feel at home, we don’t want to leave. Whisper of the Heart is about that feelings that arise when we realize that staying forever is not an option.
(I will work on parts 2 and 3 soon, but this one post has been holding up my blog forever, and I’m desperate to write a few more non-Ghibli posts this week)
(also: all uncredited images were captured by me)
Movie Review Roulette #3: Three Colors: Red
Few things fascinate me more than human connectivity. We take friends and loved ones for granted. It’s easy to view friendship and simply something we do because we have to with the people we have around.
Perhaps we think that way because the alternative can feel cosmically overwhelming. Think of the people who matter most to you. Imagine, then, how many things could have happened in both your lifetimes that could have prevented your meeting. Look at the details of human lives, and little events take on a cosmic significance.
For example: I almost died when I was born. My lungs burst. I only survived because a specialist from another hospital stopped by on his way to his vacation home in Cape Cod. Everyone who knows me only knows me because of that doctor. Who knows what the path that lead him into my hospital room looked like? Threads weaving in and out. It’s a humbling thought.
It’s so easy to see our lives as linear that we forget how much chance factors in. It can be terrifying to think about, sort of like how the vastness of space can be too much to comprehend. But it can also be beautiful, like life imagined as a tapestry.
That’s the approach Krzysztof Kieslowski took with his magnificent Three Colors: Red, the last film in his legendary Three Colors trilogy. If we are guilty of viewing our own lives as linear, films are doubly guilty of this. But Three Colors: Red is disinterested in plot markers and heroic narratives. It is about the cords that connect us to other people.
Three Colors: Red shares a bond in my heart with my favorite film of recent years, Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. The Tree of Life attempted to tell the story of the universe by focusing on the lives of a single family. Red searches for how one person fits into the narrative of humanity. It quickly finds that just one person fits into so many stories that it can be overwhelming for us, and perhaps to them if they stop to look.
The person at its heart is Clementine, played by Irene Jacob. Clementine is a model. She’s recently landed a notable job for a chewing gum ad campaign. Her face is going to be on billboards around Geneva. Things are going well.
But her boyfriend is distant. She calls him, tells him she misses him, that she loves him. He responds with irritation.
We wait for any of this to develop into a plot. None comes. This isn’t a movie about arcs. It’s a movie about the rhythms and melodies of lives.
While driving, she hits a dog. She finds the owner, who seems he couldn’t care less. She leaves his house, is upset, and goes back to confront him. She catches him listening in to his neighbors’ phone calls. She is appalled.
Tellingly, she still listens to his explanation.
His interest in his neighbors’ calls isn’t perverted voyeurism, but a fascination with the facades of humanity. One of his neighbors is a drug lord. Another has been carrying on an affair with a mistress. The judge hasn’t the heart to tell the man’s wife. It would destroy the family, and besides, the man’s little daughter knows already.
He is a man without facades, because he doesn’t have a public face. He doesn’t leave his home. He’s the sort of man who wouldn’t comprehend why someone might be upset that he doesn’t care much for his dog. He listens to others phone calls because that’s the closest thing he has to conversations.
The judge, develops a friendship with Clementine. I’ve seen criticisms of the film that find their friendship to be a stretch. But I buy it. It never pushes into romantic territory. It is a different sort of electricity, rooted in empathy. Clementine feels unmoored from humanity. In the judge, she sees someone truly adrift. In Clementine, the judge sees someone he might have loved when he was a young man, who as an old man he simply appreciates as someone to talk to.
The film has a third character, seemingly unrelated. It’s a young man, a judge-to-be in law school. He is in love with a woman who reads weather reports over the phone. Clementine calls her at the beginning of the film. The Judge listens in on their private conversations, exchanging sweet nothings over the phone.
We wonder why he’s in the film at all, until we realize that he is a) essentially the judge as a young man, living the judge’s past and b) would likely get along very well with Clementine.
Why is he in the film? Well, why not? We don’t know the people we care about until we meet them, but we were both living our lives fully until that point. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see the exact paths that led to two people meeting? So rarely do we get the chance to see that sort of story play out.
Kieslowski cares as about the threads that make a quilt before they’re sewn in. Freed from the constraints of a linear plot, Red simply observes and lets us wonder. It’s a fascinating subversion of typical film plots, where the audience needs to be convinced of a match of two characters We want the young judge to meet Clementine. Neither knows the other exists. Their presence in the same film seems partially whimsical and mostly arbitrary. Seems.
Red is one of the most poetic and enchanting films I have seen. Its final scene is both cheeky and beautiful, tying together all the threads of the film and the entire Three Colors trilogy. We all weave in and out of so many lives. If only we stopped to look at the patterns we create more often.
Quick and dirty Oscar Nomination predictions
These are in 7 hours, aren’t they? Damn.
All right, so I’ve been a bit behind in my tracking the races this year, but I’m going to give this my best shot.
12 Years a Slave
Wolf of Wall Street
Inside Llewyn Davis
Gah, this category should be easy with the expanded field, no? But the whole “there could be anywhere from 5-10 nominees” thing makes this trickier. That the Academy was kind enough to mention that under current rules, there never would have been a 10-nominee year helps a little. Considering that there have been nine nominees the last two years (with the current rules) at least helps us gauge that 9 seems to be the high end. That said, I’m looking at 8 nominees this year. The first three are the only real locks, with Captain Phillips close behind. My one caveat with Captain Phillips is that it seems like the sort of film that garners lots of admiration without much fervent love. Being ranked first on ballots is the single biggest factor to getting nominated, and even a small group of passionate fans can carry a movie a long way (as The Tree of Life and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close can attest).
Her is just that sort of film, and while I’d be wary about it in a 5-nominee year, I think it’s going to make the cut with the potential for more than 5. The last three movies are all films I’d write off as long shots in a 5-nominee race, but that I think will garner the first-place votes needed to make the cut. There are contenders other than these eight, and if the Academy had stuck with 10 guaranteed nominees like it experimented with briefly, I’d slot in Dallas Buyers Club and two of The Butler, August: Osage County or Saving Mr. Banks. But as is, DBC‘s performances seem to be the main source of its buzz, and August has been too underwhelmingly recieved. I’m worried that I’m underestimating Saving Mr. Banks and The Butler and I considered sliding one or the other as a 9th place finisher, but I’m predicting 8 nominees and I’m not going to cop out now.
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
David O’Russell, American Hustle
Spike Jonze, Her
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
Top three seem pretty secure to me, with Cuaron as the tentative favorite in the category (although I’m always, always wary about a Best Director favorite whose film is not the favorite to win Best Picture, but that’s a story for next month). McQueen is about as much a lock for a nod. American Hustle should do very well across the board, so there’s no reason not to expect O’Russell to join the party. After that, if Her is the screenplay favorite and a best picture contender, I’m comfortable putting Jonze in here. But I’m a bit tentative about he and Scorsese, and I consider them both to be a coin flip with Paul Greengrass for Captain Phillips.
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyer’s Club
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
The top three are pretty solid. Bruce Dern is just about there as well. After that, well, I was pulling my hair about between Leonardo Di Caprio for Wolf of Wall Street, Forrest Whitaker for The Butler and Robert Redford for All is Lost. Then, naturally, I used this spot for my annual attempt at a surprise prediction (it’s only worked once, when I predicted Fernando Meirelles’s nomination for directing City of God ten years ago, but traditions are traditions). But seriously, I think people are underestimating Isaac’s chances. It’s one of the most admired performances of the year in a film that most voters will be considering strongly in other categories. Only Ejiofor has won more critics awards in this category. Don’t be shocked if he makes it.
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Judi Dench, Philomena
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
These are the five clear favorites. Amy Adams might nudge Streep, I think, but I’m not going to bet on it. That’s really all there is to it for now. Blanchett is the favorite to win, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Bullock pulls ahead down the road. We’ll see then.
All right, I’m pretty tired now and need to sleep early to get to the nominations, so here are the rest of my predix without analysis. Sorry about that.
Best Supporting Actor
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyer’s Club
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Daniel Bruhl, Rush
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Best Supporting Actress
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
June Squibb, Nebraska
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
Oprah Winfrey, The Butler
Best Animated Feature (Because I care about this one inordinately)
The Wind Rises
Despicable Me 2
Ernest and Celine
Best Cinematography (Because I also care about this one inordinately)
12 Years a Slave
Inside Llewyn Davis
Movie review roulette #2: A Streetcar Named Desire
Hey all! After playing this game a while ago- with 5 Centimeters Per Second getting the call– I’m rolling out this little game as a full-time feature on my blog.
Here’s how it goes:
I have a running list of 15 of my favorite films.
I run the list through a list randomizer, and write a piece on the film that comes out on top.
I add a new film to the list of 15, and do another one every week. Since it’s Sunday early, early morning where I am, I think this can be a weekend feature, something to keep my movie writing gears from getting rusty.
Anyway, the last time I did one of these, the next selected film was A Streetcar Named Desire.
So, if you’re still reading this wall of text after all this time, here are some thoughts on that brilliant film.
Marlon Brando’s scream of “HEY STELLA!” is one of the most iconic moments of his career. But it’s Kim Hunter’s wordless acting in the scene that drives it home, and sets the tone for film that made it through the Hays Code censors with much of its power intact. Stella’s face is the essence of carnality. Her gaze, seen at an extreme dutch angle as she descends a staircase and knocks him to his knees from afar, fill the screen with the sort of electricity that you can’t predict or force out of a performer. Stella and Stanley have little in common, but their mutual lust for one another is overpowering.
Getting that across without drawing the wrath of the Hays Code censors (who enforced the guidelines for content in movies, set in 1930) and the Legion of Decency (who rated movies on their morality, and could submarine a movie if they declared it indecent) was a herculean struggle in 1951. But telling a story dripping with sweat, lust, and sexual mind games was essential in adapting Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1947 play. And the best way around those ready to chop scenes and words they deemed offensive was to let expressions, faces, and atmosphere do the talking. And lord, did Kim Hunter, Marlon Brando, and Vivien Leigh deliver.
The lack of staginess to this production of one of the greatest American plays is perhaps a bit ironic. The director, Elia Kazan, directed the play’s original Broadway run. Virtually the entire cast, save Vivien Leigh, were in his original Broadway cast. Leigh was no stranger to the role of Blanche DuBois, having played the part in London’s West End production of the play.
Then again, perhaps the seeming ease with which these actors disappear into their roles makes perfect sense. As Leigh herself put it, “I had nine months in the theatre of Blanche DuBois. Now she’s in command of me.”
Much (too much) is made of the contrast in the acting styles of Brando and Leigh. Brando, of course, was at the forefront of bringing naturalistic, “method” style acting to Hollywood. Leigh’s more melodramatic style felt like a holdover from the 1930s golden age of Hollywood when she rose to stardom.
Far more important than their stylistic differences is how their particular styles perfectly fit their characters, and how those differences both feel organic to this film’s world. Brando was, indeed, ahead of his time. He was part of a burgeoning revolution among leading men, with Montgomery Clift rising to stardom that same year and James Dean soon after. These young actors delivered coiled, inward performances that were almost unbearably raw for audiences at the time. Brando’s Stanley Kowalski was as frightening and primal as he was believable. Hollywood simply hadn’t seen anything quite like this performance before. It was just Brando’s second film, but it was a role he had been perfecting for years on the stage.
Blanche is a perfect contrast to Stanley. She carries herself as an old-fashioned Southern Lady, and it’s impossible not to see Leigh channeling her most famous character, Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind. But Scarlett too stands in contrast with Blanche. Scarlett had little use for the society’s mores and expectations of her. She placed survival first and didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought. Blanche desperately hides her past, tries to be liked, as a means of survival. But she is an outcast, and if not fragile, then trembling towards fragility. She lost her job as a high school teacher after having sex with a 17-year old student. She was widowed when she caught her husband having sex with another man, and he committed suicide. Society is quick to ignore any feelings of empathy for a person so lost, so close to breaking down, so trapped in her past. Such a performance demands a ghostly quality that Leigh brings, with a performance that never dials down the internal volume and never ought to.
From a creative standpoint, perhaps the most limiting form of censorship of the Hays Code days had nothing to do with sex, violence or language. The rule that carried the most weight stipulated that “heroes” and “villains” had to be clearly delineated, and the villains had to lose at the end of the film. In addition to helping shape the structure of films in ways that sustain to this day, filmmakers had a hell of a time coming up with ways to tell stories that didn’t lend themselves well to dichotomies.
A Streetcar Named Desire was just that type of story. This isn’t a story of good vs. evil, but of one person on the edge of a breakdown and another who doesn’t give a damn if she breaks or not, so long as he always gets his way. Brando plays plays Stanley with such assured and naturalistic authority that he becomes disarmingly human. His performance demonstrates the difference between coiled aggression and bombast in a performance.
Like so many great plays, A Streetcar Named Desire derives much of its power from characters playing off of each other in real time. Blanche, Stanley and Stella are dry flint nestled on a bed of hay. Replicating that energy is the single biggest challenge that film adaptation of a stage production faces. Stage-to-screen productions seem like they ought to succeed with relative ease, but so often they fall flat. You can’t just film a performance for the stage and expect it to work as a movie, in the same sense that outside of a concert setting, a live performance of a song is typically less riveting a listen than the recorded version. We’re not watching Brando, Leigh, Hunter and Malden live. Kazan needed to replicate the power of their stage performances cinematically.
Scenes like the one I mentioned at the beginning, tracking Hunter’s face as descends a staircase to her husband, radiating lust the whole time, is the sort of scene that shows the advantages movies have over the stage. We can see Stella in isolation, and Kim Hunter was able to find a moment of acting to the camera , one that would likely have been lost on a live audience, that is astonishing in its resonance.
Kazan also rarely uses stagey cinematography. A play creates its own world before our eyes. Take away the stage, and the director needs to make the world anew. As a lover of theatre, I do wonder sometimes what it would have been like to see A Streetcar Named Desire on stage, with this remarkable cast. In making the play into a film, Kazan made no attempt to make it feel like a play. And because of that, I get a sense that the film retains far more of the original play’s impact.