Monday, July 24, 2017

DUNKIRK IS GOOD, BUT SHOULD'VE BEEN GREAT


Christopher Nolan’s new movie DUNKIRK is a tense, immersive film that really puts you on the beach, on the sea, and in the air during the WWII rescue mission on the beaches of Dunkirk, France.  Hundreds of thousands of allied lives were saved by civilian boating efforts when British ships couldn't make it in, and this dramatic all-out effort helped galvanize England and started to turn the war in their favor. Nolan's telling of it all is getting very strong reviews and helping to confirm his status as one of today’s most successful filmmakers. And yet…

Why was I let down by so much of this affecting period piece? And why am I continually let down by most of Nolan’s efforts? Why hasn’t he been able to shed the same mistakes that he makes in movie after movie after movie? Don’t get me wrong, DUNKIRK is a good movie, but it should have been great. It’s a phenomenal story and all the elements are there to have made it one of the greatest war films ever. But it comes up short due to some basic flaws, and they are similar flaws that have marred most of Nolan's other efforts. 

A PROBLEM WITH WRITERLY SHTICK

Filmmaker Nolan came to fame with his mind-bending thriller MEMENTO back in 2000, and ever since then he’s written everything he’s directed outside of INSOMNIA (2002). In MEMENTO, as you’ll recall, the story was told backwards to underline the increasingly forgetful mind of Leonard (Guy Pearce) who suffered from short-term memory loss. The conceit also served to disorient his movie-going audience, and indeed, Nolan screwed with our expectations and ability to track what we were seeing. The twisting screenplay won a ton of awards and established Nolan as a new voice in the world of film.

Since then, however, the filmmaker seems to believe that such self-conscious conceits are one of his tropes to be employed continually. He’s written scripts that toyed with the audience, even cheated us, by withholding key information, all to amaze and confound us. It’s been a key part of his narrative in scripts like BATMAN BEGINS (2005) to THE PRESTIGE (2006), and such gimmicks kept me from embracing either fully. In BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan bent over backwards to make us believe that Ken Watanabe was Ra’s al Ghul when it was truly the identity of the character played Liam Neeson. This becomes the “A-ha!” moment in the third act, making it seem smarter than it was, when in fact, it’s such writerly shtick that is has the opposite effect. 

Such self-consciousness in writing makes Nolan look like he’s trying too hard to be a brilliant writer. He wants us to realize how boldly the rug was pulled out from under us. But it's become a bit, a trick in his bag that he defaults to all too frequently now. Frankly, what would’ve been smarter in that movie, would have been for Nolan to be more respectful of the decades old Batman foil of Ra's al Ghul and write him as he had been presented in dozens of comic book storylines. Instead, most of the villain's lore was never used and it seems to suggest that Nolan feels a sense of superiority to proven material.

In THE PRESTIGE, Nolan also keeps us in the dark, trying to stay ahead of his audience, and he uses some positively hoary tricks to do so. Why, his very opening shot in that film, of all the rolling black top hats in the wintry woods isn’t paid off until the very last shot of the film. A number of times they could be explained, as they would be in normal conversation within the story, but instead, Nolan withholds. He doesn't let us know fully just how those hats are connected to Tesla’s copycat machine employed by Robert Angiers (Hugh Jackman) to ensure the maximum impact possible at the end, but holding off that long feels like he's manipulating us too blatantly. 

Finally, in the last scene, when all is revealed, it seems almost too obvious, and even anti-climactic. We in the Cineplex had figured out what's going on all on our own. The revelation that the machine could clone humans as well as hats, meaning that Angiers could use it to clone himself and create a disappearing trick to would astound his Victiorian audiences, should have been more devastating to moviegoers than it ultimately is, and a lot of that has to do with Nolan's refusal to explain it early enough to be more meaningful.  Granted, refusing to reveal a narrative trick until the very end may be fitting given that Nolan’s story is about magicians, but it still feels like we've been kept in the dark far too long. The "A-ha" moment becomes one of "Oh, that's what I figured." 

Worse still, Nolan creates a major character in THE PRESTIGE who happens to be the right-hand man of Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), Angiers’ rival. The character appears in dozens of scenes and yet, is kept at arms’ length in the story and by Nolan’s camera. We get no real bead on him. Why? A character that significant should be getting lots of close-ups and dialogue, no? Why is Nolan so stingy with him. Simple. It’s because he happens to be Borden’s twin, albeit in disguise to keep that fact hidden from others in the story, and the character is, of course, played by Bale as well. But if you must shoot around a major character to hide a major story point, as well as an actor’s identity, then why do it? It's dishonest, really, and both the script and direction shouldn't have been so self-consciously cloying.  

Still, perhaps one could argue that such cinematic tricks work in a movie about, well, the world of magicians. Fair enough, but then why does Nolan utilize similar narrative tricks in his war film DUNKIRK? Isn’t the story of the rescue dramatic enough without having to jumble around its timeline? Nolan starts by telling three different story threads – one on the land, another on the sea, and the third in the air – and he brilliantly converges them all together for the story’s climax. But before that he undermines his story threads by having one major character, that of shell-shocked British soldier Cillian Murphy, pop up in different scenes that are out-of-order of what we've been watching. 

This character also is not the focus of any of the three main storylines, so why complicate an already complex narrative triptych by employing such a self-conscious narrative trick? It is quite damaging to the experience as it takes the audience out of the movie. We start to question what we're watching, and it forces us to reevaluate what we've seen with a third of the film left to play out. It’s all just too gimmicky a move and conveys on Nolan’s part a need to continually screw around with his narrative structure like he's still trying to discombobulate us like he did in MEMENTO. This story didn't need such a trope and it makes the genuine war drama start to feel crassly manipulative.


A PROBLEM WITH CHARACTERS

Nolan also has some real problems developing characters in DUNKIRK, easily the worst he's done in his film oeuvre. It's not surprising, however, as Nolan has had underdeveloped character issues many times before. He's also rewritten characters who are known far and wide in his adaptations that have left moviegoers equally confounded at what he was going for. 

For example, many fans of Batman found Nolan’s three films about The Dark Knight both laudable for their serious restoration of the property after the Joel Schumacher film debacles, but also disappointing in their treatment of such well-known characters. As mentioned, Nolan’s take on Ra’s al Ghul was far from the classic comic book foil, ranked #7 on the IGN’s list of their Top 100 Comic Book Villains list. Where was the conservationist, the father to Talia, the man who admired Batman's detective skills? 

And then there was the way Nolan presented the character of  Bane (Tom Hardy) in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. He barely resembled the known brute from the comics or the various WB animated series. In fact, Hardy's Bane was so far afield, he should've just been an original character. And in all three movies, Nolan put far too much emphasis on Batman’s fighting skills. He became a bully, really, a thug. Where was the ‘detective’ side which Batman is supposed to exceed at? The Caped Crusader has been described over the years as half ninja, half Sherlock Holmes, but you'd never know it from Nolan's adaptation. And why, oh why, would any director encourage Bale to use that god-awful growl to play the Caped Crusader? Batman isn’t a brute. He’s more Jekyll than Hyde, but Bale and Nolan seemed to equate guttural snarling with a man acting tough. How childish.

Nolan’s characters are often hit or miss, sometimes richly vivid and other times, seriously undercooked. Almost everyone who shows up in THE PRESTIGE is strongly conceived, but in INCEPTION, what character is Joseph Gordon-Levitt supposed to be playing? Basil Exposition (from the AUSTIN POWERS movies)? Other than that rotating hallway action scene, JGL’s character is there mostly to explain all the scientific gobbledy-gook to Ellen Page’s grad student. Often times, the more cast Nolan assembles onscreen, the more difficulty he has in making each of them truly specific. And in DUNKIRK, he has dozens and dozens of characters playing a large part in the story, and virtually none of them register as much more than one-dimensional archetypes. 

In fact, each of his main characters seem to be given exactly a single trait to convey. Mark Rylance’s civilian boat captain, racing to help rescue the stranded soldiers, is earnest. Kenneth Branagh’s naval commander is stalwart. James D’Arcy’s army colonel is worried. Tom Hardy’s pilot is intrepid. It also doesn’t help things that his face is covered by flight apparatus almost the entire film. (Nolan seems to think that Hardy's eyes are enough, just as that's all we could see of his face when he played Bane.) Even newcomer Harry Styles, who does a good job as a British grunt, is mostly called upon to be panicky. What, there wasn't time for him to sing a note or two to calm the waiting soldiers?

Nolan’s greatest failure in his creation of characters in DUNKIRK is that of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead in his film debut). Ostensibly the lead, he has little personality, given the amount of screen time he's given. Sure, the boyish soldier manages to cheat death repeatedly throughout, but after two plus hours spent with the guy, I couldn’t tell you anything truly significant about him. He seems merely serious all the time, but then the whole situation is such that and Tommy does nothing to counter it or enhance it. Maybe he’s supposed to be more symbol than character, but even an everyman needs some definitive traits. 

We that Nolan likes to utterly rewrite DC characters who’ve been known for decades and decades, but why didn’t he rely on any of the many known stories that are part of the Dunkirk history for his telling?  So many of the actual stories are nothing short of extraordinary, but you don't find them here. One British civilian even canoed all the way to the shores of France to do his part, but you don't see moments like that here. Instead, Nolan writes fictional characters, yet fails to give them much to define them. It's so frustrating, especially when one key character dies in the story and the most notable attribute he possesses is his argyle sweater vest. 

Perhaps a lot of character development ended up on the cutting room floor, but stronger characters would have helped make the film even more intense and it would have given the cast more to play with. Instead, they're sketchy and it keeps the characters at arms’ length. At times, the film feels almost dispassionate. And that's something a war film, particularly one about overcoming the most incredible of odds, should never feel like. 


A PROBLEM WITH TIME AND EXPOSITION

At the very beginning of DUNKIRK, some solemn white lettered titles appear on black screen to give us a sense of where we are in the story of WWII as the movie begins. One chapter is entitled “The Mole” and this story about the men stranded on the beaches will unfold over a week’s time. The second chapter is called “The Sea”, the one about Rylance and his sons coming to the rescue in their civilian boat, and this strand of the narrative takes place in a single day. The third one is called “The Air” and it takes place in a single hour. We don't know that at the time, but it seems to set it all up as parallel narratives. That is not true in the least, but you wouldn't know it from the way Nolan starts things off. 

That means from the very get-go, Nolan is playing tricks with time and exposition. Even worse, he doesn't tell some of the basics of what was going on with WWII at the time to give any of these three threads proper context. If you're familiar with the story of Dunkirk, you're okay, but even someone like me who knows more than the average Joe about it, was scratching his head as Nolan just dives in head first with little exposition. 

To make matters worse, Nolan entitles two of his stories accurately with the proper terms sea and air. The land story doesn’t get named accordingly. Instead, he calls that one “The Mole.” The name refers to a pier there in Dunkirk, but unless you pay close attention in the hour after that, you might not realize that. Instead, moviegoers might be looking for a traitor in the story as that is what mole means to most of us. So why be inconsistent in the third title, let alone use a term that has a meaning that belies what is going on here? It’s such miscalculations like this, occurring in the very first seconds, that worried me. All Nolan needed to do was set it up with some historical grounding and call it "The Land", "The Sea", and "The Air." Is Nolan again trying to be way too hard to be clever? Sorry, but there is no cleverness in deliberate confusion like that. 

What’s especially confounding as well is that the film is only 107 minutes long. The standard film length is two hours, as we all know, so why not take advantage of that? Nolan should've expanded his story to include more character development and details from the real history of Dunkirk.  At the very least, he could have used titles to give us longer and a more thorough set-up. Usually, Nolan has exactly the opposite problem. He loves to indulge his stories with epic lengths. BATMAN BEGINS was 2 hours and 20 minutes, THE DARK KNIGHT clocked in at 2 hours and 30 minutes, and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES came in at a whopping 2 hours and 44 minutes. Here, he has a legitimate epic and he shortchanges it. 

DUNKIRK does have so much to laud. It’s cinematography, production design, sound design, and editing are all top-notch. But this film is feels too remote at times and fails to create characters that are three-dimensional. Indeed, it is tight, taut and suspenseful.  It showcases the valor of the allied effort and the utter craziness of war. And its editing and fractured storyline certainly conveys the  discombobulation that the soldiers felt as they rushed to be rescued.   And in a summer of a lot of sequels and reboots, this stands out as adult fare that is worthy and wholly admirable. But DUNKIRK should have been more devastating than it is, and with stronger characters, less screenwriting shtick, and a better overall sense of what was going on within the specifics of WWII at that time, this could have been one for the ages. It’s still a must-see film, and one sure to be remembered in many ways come awards time later in 2017. Christopher Nolan's DUNKIRK is a very good film. But it should have been a masterpiece.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT


The line between screaming and laughing can be razor thin. Both instinctual reactions in humans are similar, as they are spontaneous and impulsive. In horror movies, the line between the two is just as close, often predicated on how well a scare is executed. A moment designed to make one jump can instead turn to guffaws if not done right. It’s a problem in too many horror movies where amateurish acting, writing, or directing can turn even the most horrific bloodletting into B movie howls of laughter. Two movies out this weekend play in the field of the supernatural and beg examination of how well they pull off the eerie vs. the silly. One suffers from too many unintentional laughs while the other achieves a melancholic tone that is truly unsettling.

WISH UPON is a better than average horror entry, which is veiled praise as so many frighteners that open in theaters and VOD are cheesy duds, but its shortcomings keep it from even the upper tier of middling horror like THE PURGE or INSIDIOUS franchises. WISH UPON simply makes too many faux pas and earns too many stray giggles to be qualified as a success. It rushes its dread, it leaves its actors flailing, and it traffics in far too many tried-and-true clichés that have become so overused in horror that they’ve stopped being frightening. In fact, they’ve become far too easy elicitors of unintentional sniggering.


The movie starts with Johanna Shannon (Elisabeth Rohm), a stressed and bedraggled mother, going through the motions as she parents her young daughter Clare. Not long after, the little girl discovers her mom hanging from a noose in the attic, and then the narrative flash-forwards years later when the grown girl is now in high school. The clichés start with teen Clare (Joey King) standing out as a beautiful girl who just happens to be from the wrong side of the tracks. How many times have we seen this trope, from the SCREAM series to just about every John Hughes movie, for that matter? 

Still, this film acts as if she’s a novel creation. Boys don’t pay attention to this cutie, even though she’s got big, blue eyes and full lips tailor-made for staring at through study hall. She’s artsy and smart-alecky, and her enemy is Darcie (Josephine Langford), the most popular girl in school and the ultimate mean girl which has now become one of the most overdone defaults in movies. We're barely five minutes into this one and already the predictable is piling up hard and heavy.

In fact, Darcie is such a bad egg that she casually tosses her Venti drink right at the homecoming mural Clare has worked on for weeks. Of course, no teen ever reports such malfeasance to teachers in these kinds of movies, let alone are their ever hall monitors present to patrol the bullies, so evil Darcie gets away with it. Still, the audience knows that Darcie will soon get hers as the class bitch always does in these sorts of things.
Joey King as Clare in WISH UPON.
Indeed, the forlorn Clare will get a golden opportunity to wreak revenge sooner than later when her junk collector dad (Ryan Phillipe) brings home a mysterious Chinese music box he found in someone's trash. Thankfully, Clare knows  Chinese because she's studying that foreign language in school, and even if that plot point is a bit on-the-nose, at least she's able to figure out some of the Chinese inscriptions on the box. She discovers that it says the holder will be granted seven wishes. Even better, classmate Ryan (Ki Hong Lee) has a cousin Gina (Alice Lee) who can translate the more complex Old-World text, which will turn out to be warnings that unfortunately for Clare, will come a reel or two too late.

And soon enough, Clare is wishing on that box, expressing her desire for Darcie to rot. Before you can say “the game is afoot”, Darcie contracts gangrene and goes to the emergency room to lose a few toes. From there, Clare starts to realize her power, and the wishes come fast and furious. She wishes for a better home and suddenly, she inherits the estate of her rich, old uncle. Then she wills the box to grant her the attentions of the hunkiest boy at school and sure enough, he's all over her. It all seems too good to be true, but then the family pooch ends up dying mysteriously and it goes downhill from there. (BTW...it's a sign of lazy screenwriting to use the family pet as an early, easy victim. Haven’t any of these spookmeisters ever read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat?)

The warning on the box finally gets translated and it tells that a blood sacrifice will be taken by the fates for granting the positive wishes that come true. Thus, those around Clare start to bite the dust each time she makes another selfish wish to better her life. It’s not a bad twist, and such moral debate fills in the scenes between the scares, but unfortunately WISH UPON squanders its chances to be truly provocative or mine territory that feels fresh and vital.  

King with Hi Kong Lee and Gina Lee in WISH UPON. 
Deaths start piling up around Clare, not surprisingly, and the film seems mostly interested in how garish the offerings are. Worse yet is that none of the deceased matter too terribly much because there's little character development of any of them. Barbara Marshall’s script doesn’t flesh out the victims much beyond making them cliched ‘types.’ And if she's mostly interested in their deaths, why isn't the bloodletting more clever?  

WISH UPON clearly wants its set pieces to resemble the intricate ones in the FINAL DESTINATION horror franchise, but there isn’t a fraction of their surprise here. Instead, we get the hoary old uncontrollable garbage disposal dooming a victim, or a slippery bathtub that becomes a deathtrap to a clumsy bather.

And because these scenes are all so obvious and even familiar, we laugh. We know what’s coming and we get way ahead of the film. Director Leonetti even rushes some of these scenes, as if he knew they were written too transparently and he doesn’t want to belabor them. He ends up cutting away way too fast and it gives his edits an abrupt, almost comical bluntness. These deaths should be terrifying or at least involving. Instead, we moan at how dumb the neighbor character is to blithely dig into the garbage disposal with her hand and then let her errant braid get caught in it so it breaks her neck. Disposable indeed.

And Leonetti lets most of his actors overdo their parts too. The strident pitch of most of the performances makes things even campier. King tries mightily to manage a sustained sense of panic throughout, but her character is just too slow on the uptake. We start to dislike her, not because she grows more and more immoral, but because it takes her forever to figure out what's going on. 

Leonetti even casts some actors here to give this venture some borrowed cool from better properties. Sherilynn Fenn of TWIN PEAKS plays the the woman with the betraying braid, and has about six lines, and Shannon Purser of STRANGER THINGS plays one of Clare’s more sensible friends, but that's basically the only trait her character shows. So how cool is it to have these people in your cast when they’re not even given much to do?

Shannon Purser with King in WISH UPON.
WISH UPON fulfills that middling sort of horror that is sufficient for 90 minutes of mindless entertainment, if that's all you want from frighteners, but it isn't the kind of movie that will stick with you. For as much attention as that magical box is given, I wish that the filmmakers had thought a little more outside of the box to give horror fans something fresher, scarier, and more worthy.

The other supernatural film making its debut this weekend is A GHOST STORY, written and directed by David Lowery, and it is one very special film. Don’t be misled by its title as this is hardly your garden variety ghost story. In fact, this arthouse effort is the farthest thing from your typical frightener. It’s a film about loneliness and unresolved lives. And it just so happens that the main character here is a ghost, and in that, a ghost that is a man wearing a sheet with two eye holes cut out.  

In this modern age of CGI, when ghosts can be rendered so skillfully that they can be as ethereal as the floating transparencies in 2017’s PERSONAL SHOPPER, or as vividly comic as the baddies in the GHOSTBUSTERS reboot last year, Lowery chose to go "old school" with his approach. It’s the most basic of Halloween costumes and yet, it doesn't seem silly here. In fact, the simplicity of this approach lends the ghost an accessibility it might not have had otherwise. 

Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck in A GHOST STORY.
The movie establishes its simple humanity with that choice, as well as how the story unfolds from the get-go. The narrative here is all about little moments of life, not big Herculean events. The main characters are a young married couple played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. They're known as C and M here, respectively, and we observe intimate scenes of their time together. They live modestly, in a meager one-story house in a Texas suburb. He’s a struggling musician and tinkers through the day and night on the piano that came with the house, writing songs for her that she doesn’t seem to fully appreciate. Their marriage appears to be somewhat strained, and one night a bang on the piano spurs them to investigate and even contemplate their life together. Then, C dies tragically in a car crash not far from home, and it sends M on a journey of self-discovery. She tries to reconcile herself with her lost partner, as well as what she wants from life in the aftermath. 

When she identifies her husband’s body at the hospital, the camera stays on the slab in the morgue for an eternity of time. Finally, after minutes of stillness onscreen, the figure under the sheet sits up. And thus, the character of C is now a ghost, personified by the sheet and accented with eye holes. The main thrust of the narrative starts here as a study in loss and loneliness. The ghost personifies both as he returns home and can only watch M as she goes through her life in the house without him. 

The film starts to become  truly profound here. It's audacious to ask an audience to identify with such an inert character, but he ultimately becomes something akin to a silent film clown like Chaplin or Keaton. C is now tethered geographically to his house and unable to move on from it. His life as a ghost becomes utterly mundane in its way, as he can only wander from room to room, and await for things to happen to M to add meaning to his passive existence. He watches her sleep, he observes her coming and going, he wishes he could retrieve the note she stuffed into the wall to read it, but he cannot. It's a terribly sad void that C is now a prisoner in. His tiny home becomes his prison cell, or maybe worse, his tomb.



M is struggling too and we watch private moments where she becomes lost in her guilt or remorse. Sometimes she spins out of control into moments of desperation. One of those occurs when she sits down on the kitchen floor to dig into a pie. The camera stays on M forever as she consumes bite after bite, filling herself with mouthfuls of the dessert to perhaps fill the emptiness she's feeling. It's a tour de force scene by Mara as M chows down until she's sick, all the while being observed by the helpless ghost. 

The scene is excessive in its use of time - it felt like 5 minutes, easy, though I didn't clock it -  and it edges close to being a stunt, but what the scene is going for is to put the audience within her desperation and trap us in that scene with her. The dinky home is her prison now too. The camera work here by Andrew Doz Palermo is extraordinary, as it is throughout. Interestingly, Lowery had Palermo shoot the film in a tight, aspect ratio of 1:33:1 to make it all feel all the more claustrophobic. The frame is as prohibitive as the house. We’re boxed in, just like its residents. 


As mundane as things can get in the minutiae of their small world, the story never bores. Despite long takes that spend minutes upon minutes in stillness, a lot still happens within the context of the characters' loneliness. Eventually, we start to see M come to life again and open herself up to new directions. She takes on a new lover, and even beds him in the house, much to the chagrin of the ghost. But while C seethes, M finds purpose again. It leads to her to move on from him and move out of the house. 

The rest of the story stays with the ghost as he experiences new tenants, as well as ginormous physical changes to his surroundings. The house ends up being leveled by a bulldozer to make way for a corporate office complex. And sadly, even as the ginormous high-rise is constructed around him, the ghost of C still cannot leave. He doesn't know how. 

Lowery is clever to have a pretentious guest (Will Oldham) at a house party thrown by new tenants pontificate about the world and how change is inevitable. He goes on and on about everyone being a mere speck in the universe, and how time repeats itself and the world recycles. It sets us up for the ghost’s remaining journey as he lives a long, long time tethered to that land - through time, through the future, through reincarnation, and through a retracing of steps that brings back C and M to go through their life together all over again. The sad-sack ghost must not only watch all that he’s known crumble and/or die, but then he has to watch it all over again. It's as devastating as most screen deaths are in conventional horror.

There are a few ghost-like moments in the film that would be at home in most frighteners. A glass of milk is levitated, and dishes are thrown about when the ghost throws a temper tantrum. But the most disturbing moments come in those points of the story where we realize just how long and tedious this ghost’s existence is. He's stuck in limbo but it feels more like hell. 

Filmmaker David Lowery with Mara at Sundance this year.
The ghost is truly a compelling character even if he says nary a word or barely gestures in his sheet-covered state. Sometimes some droll, dark humor comes into play, like when C's ghost makes contact with another ghost he discovers in the window of a nearby home. They communicate with each other through stiff gestures and funny subtitles that explain what they're saying to each other. And through all of this, we feel Affleck’s droll, affecting presence. He may be under a sheet the whole time, but we feel him in there. It's a strange performance, granted, but an extraordinary one nonetheless. 

A GHOST STORY is a film that painstakingly makes every moment matter, even if they go on and on and on. Some of it is too self-conscious but most of it is utterly riveting. The skill and care of Lowery is evident throughout and his direction will stand as one of the year’s finest efforts. (The extraordinarily moving score by Daniel Hart should be remembered come awards time too.) This may be a story about a ghost, but it’s not a horror film. Still, I will be haunted by this one a lot longer than that WISH UPON music box.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

THE LONG AND SHORT OF SOME OF THIS SUMMER'S BIGGEST NARRATIVES


Legendary producer Robert Evans told a famous story in his biography The Kid Stays in the Picture about Francis Ford Coppola’s first cut of THE GODFATHER. He had finished his edit and showed it to the head of Paramount whereupon Evans blew his stack. “You shot a saga, and you turned in a trailer,” fumed the young mogul. “Now give me a movie!” Coppola insists in the current issue of Vanity Fair that he was delivering what the studio and Evans had demanded of him, a reasonable two-hour movie, but no matter, the director returned to the editing room to make more of it. What he returned with became the classic we all know and love today, a film that was just named the greatest of all-time in the current edition of Empire magazine. I wholeheartedly agree.

Some movies simply need to be longer. They have more story to tell, or they need the proper amount of time to build a mood, follow that trajectory, and fulfill its promise. I’m not sure that every Marvel movie, including the new reboot SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, needs to clock in continually over the two-hour mark, but an epic crime story like THE GODFATHER most definitely needed to do just that. Some movies this summer, Marvel aside, have the exact opposite problem – they are way too brief. One of those films that comes up short, ironically, is directed by Coppola’s daughter Sofia. It’s THE BEGUILED, the remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 classic, and it’s the first of four pictures out this July where length is an issue that The Establishing Shot is addressing today.

THE BEGUILED
I’m not sure why THE BEGUILED was remade, especially when the original was so terrific. Coppola has talked during the press junket for the film about wanting to direct a movie driven more by dialogue, especially when so many of her others have been more visually driven. Think about THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, MARIE ANTOINETTE and THE BLING RING and you'll likely remember the searing visuals more than a line or passage of dialogue. Still, THE BEGUILED didn’t need to be the one where she attempted something different. And frankly, as great as many of its parts are, her remake stumbles due to its lack of proper time management. The film is a scant 90 minutes, 15 minutes less than the 1971 original. And as the narrative just gets over the 30-minute mark, Coppola starts rushing her story's beats. Was timing an issue to her?  Did she think we'd be bored? One wonders what was left on the cutting room floor. Or, to paraphrase what Evans told Sofia’s father, where is the movie?

Many critics have sung the praises of Coppola’s adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s Southern Gothic novel (originally titled A Painted Devil), and indeed, there is much technical finesse in every scene. Coppola is superb at setting a mood and the look of her film here is hauntingly hazy. The story takes place in Virginia during the Civil War, and she filmed at a historic plantation house in Louisiana to conjure the time-period with a lush authenticity of drooping trees, overgrown foliage, and dilapidated elegance. 

Her cinematographer Phillipe Le Sorde makes everything gorgeous with his soft lensing, giving the whole show a painterly feel. Stacey Battat’s ladies’ costumes done are as a series of soft pastels that are both Old School and yet attractive by today’s feminine ideals. And Anne Ross’ production design expresses bygone gentility that was already in retreat in the middle of the war between brother and brother. Everything feels as authentic as a mint julip served in century’s old crystal. 

Coppola’s only failing is in how she times out her story and the mood that shifts with that haste. Any thriller or horror tale is  dependent upon setting up its premise and then taking the time to properly turn the screws for maximum tension. If the set-up for such key story beats are rushed, what’s supposed to be dramatic can quickly become unbelievable and play as silly. We must be given the time to buy into the spectacular story we’re being told. This film fails to do that after the first 30 minutes, and Coppola rushes one key scene after another. Characters become caricatured, performances seem overly done, and the film starts earning unintentional guffaw after guffaw. This is a drama, a battle of wills, a metaphor for two cultures at odds with each other, and it isn’t the kind of material that needs camp or parody. But that’s what happens with Coppola’s rushed pace to the finish line.

The group of seven Southerners at a girls’ school who turn from passive to murderous should play as tragedy, especially given the background of such a bloody war. Coppola’s cast, headed by Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning, start off seriously enough as their sheltered ladies take in the wounded Union soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell). They fear the war and Yankees as well, but their maternal instincts take over and they attend his wounds and keep him alive. It doesn’t hurt that McBurney turns out to be kind and gentle, or the fact that he’s very handsome. And when they clean him up and shave away his ratty beard, they reveal an alluring figure that all start to regard as their leading man.

Kidman’s Martha Farnsworth, the proprietor of the school, and Dunst as teacher Miss Morrow, are borderline spinsters, standing a little too firmly on propriety, but McBurney melts them too. When Farnsworth sponge bathes the semi-conscious interloper, she caresses every inch of his body except for his genitals and it’s all so overwhelming, Farnsworth gets a bad case of “the vapors.” The scene, which is easily the best in the film, takes its time, elongating and even luxuriating over Farrell’s trim body. Kidman gives the scene a tense sexiness, and some of it elicits laughs, but they’re good giggles as we see her truly warming to her guest.  

From there though, Coppola rushes the leisurely pace needed to become the slow burn of a Gothic potboiler, and in doing so, she loses the grips over her tension and her characters’ believability. Farrell starts slow and cool, but in the next scenes, he becomes a blatant flirt and his overheated pitch would make a car salesman blush. McBurney starts making absurdly overt advances on Farnsworth and Morrow, even going so far as telling the teacher that he loves her and wants to run away with her. Shouldn’t he be slyer? More insinuating? Wouldn’t his character let her fill in all the blanks rather than him playing it so on-the-nose? That’s the tone that Coppola sets up in that first half hour, but she starts betraying after that.

The audience starts teetering and never stops laughing as McBurney becomes a parodied wolf at the door. The oversexed vibe reaches its zenith when the ladies decide to throw a big fancy dinner for him and they all get gussied up like it’s prom. Coppola shows all the women in the house, even the youngest ones, trying their best to be attractive and it earns huge laughs. She even includes a bit where one girl pulls on the corset strings to make another girl fit into her corset a la Scarlett O’Hara, but the girl is reed thin. Plus, she’s probably 10 years old, so does that make any sense? It’s a cliché of the Southern vamp, true, but the instigator here is a child. It’s unseemly.

This film needed to be a very slow burn, letting McBurney’s cunning wrangling seduce us as well. Instead, he’s conveys  subtly as well as Donald Trump did in Billy Bush’s van. Coppola clearly has chosen to side with the wronged women here, but the loyalties in the audience need to be more challenging. She even shortchanges the scene when Morrow catches McBurney in bed with flirty teen Alicia (Fanning, playing it a bit too ripe throughout). The audience gets no sense of how he came to her room, conversed with her and started foreplay. The audience should see the skill with which McBurney talks the underage girl into sex. It’s Morrow who should be gob smacked, not all of us. It comes up so fast, out of nowhere, that we’re left laughing at it like it’s a “Three’s Company” bit where Jack tries to explain to Mr. Roper why he’s in the shower with Chrissie.

From there, the drama should continue to be devastating with Morrow pushing McBurney down the stairs and his leg being so damaged from the fall that Farnsworth decides to saw it off. Yet, Coppola doesn’t show the surgery. Morrow, responsible for inadvertently putting McBurney in such an awful situation, even must help Farnsworth with the removal, and we see none of it. Dunst’s potential best scene is nowhere to be found in this outing. Instead, Coppola cuts to the aftermath the following morning with McBurney throwing an over-the-top hissy fit upon the discovery of his lost appendage. A surgery scene could have been an unbearable echo of that sponge bathing scene, but Coppola misses inherent irony like that.

From there, it’s a dash to the film’s conclusion. Even if Coppola was going for something resembling horror, terror needs be built with proper time and dread. None of that is here. And if she was going for a comedy of manners, then where is the complexity of characters debating what to do in this battle of sexes? They all get onboard the train to become murderous mighty quick, even the young’un’s. Coppola needed to take more time to build to this tragic loss of innocence, and showcase the real education the girls get in that quaint old house. Instead, so much of it feels expedient, as if the filmmaker didn't trust herself with the material. If Evans oversaw this one, he’d be yelling at another Coppola to show him a movie.  


BEATRIZ AT DINNER
Another film that clocks in way too short is BEATRIZ AT DINNER. The whole thing is only an hour and 22 minutes, and that’s including its final credits scroll. It feels too thin, too light, especially given such a short playing time, even though it’s being marketed as the first film for the “Trump era.” Indeed, the villain character in the piece bares more than a passing resemblance to our 45th president. But this isn't an editorial cartoon going in for a quick hit job. It's a movie and it needs to be longer. 

The story concerns Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a gentle, kindhearted masseuse who’s invited to stay for a dinner party at a rich client’s mansion after she gives her a fantastic massage. Client Kathy (Connie Britton) loves what Beatriz does for her lower back and how she also helped heal her daughter years back when she was battling a serious illness. Thus, she believes that Beatriz is more friend than hired help and thinks she’ll fit it with her upper-class friends. Unfortunately, the rest of those at the party, including Kathy’s hubby Grant (David Warshofsky), don’t regard Beatriz with the same openness. They gaze upon her as an anomaly at best, a servant at worst. 

Even though Beatriz is a trained healer, an animal rescuer, and a spiritualist, all the rich guests rounding out the party can only see an immigrant woman, dressed in plain top and jeans, standing a foot shorter than most everyone else at the party. (Shockingly, no one ever remarks how stunning Beatriz is, easily the most beautiful of the women.) Beatriz even has a refined and regal bearing but all that is lost on real estate tycoon Doug Strutt (John Lithgow). 

He’s the Trumpian figure, even given a name that echoes the blunt cockiness of Trump. Strutt is so bigoted that the first words he speaks to Beatriz request her to freshen his drink. From there, he rides her about her heritage and whether she’s in the country legally. No one defends her, and snotty guests Alex (Jay Duplass) and his wife Shannon (Chloe Sevigny) chortle at Strutt’s interrogation like the kiss-ass business lackeys they are.

Lithgow always makes his villains charming, and here, he imbues Strutt with an easy-going, lofty arrogance. Even when he brazenly brags about his bank account or slurs minorities, he throws away his boasts, presenting a figure that fascinates Beatriz. She thinks she can change him, show him the error of his ways, but as the dinner continues, she realizes her work is cut out for her. Delicious tension builds with the promise of fireworks that will ruin the party. Writer Mike White and director Miguel Artera manage to draw out the steam rising in Beatriz with great aplomb.

Soon, she confronts him about his history of running roughshod over beleaguered communities with his hotels, and tells of how hers in Mexico fell directly victim to such an enterprise there. The straw that breaks her camel’s back is when Strutt passes around his smartphone showing off pictures of him posing with a rhino he cruelly killed for sport. This clash of cultures is palpable and seems to promise a thorough comeuppance for these vile one-percenters at the hands of the crafty Beatriz. But it never comes. Instead, it wastes its burn by failing to deliver legit verbal fireworks. Beatriz essentially gives up with 20 minutes left in the narrative.

This film has another timing problem in that oodles of its screen minutes are spent simply resting on Beatriz’s disapproving face. Why do so if she’s just going to accept she can’t win and say very little? I was hoping for a darkly comic Aaron Sorkin-esque tirade but it never materializes. White can take the piss out of any stuffed shirt as his Jack Black character did throughout SCHOOL OF ROCK, so why is he making Beatriz so mute here? One would expect Beatriz to at least triumph in exposing a weakness of Strutt and bring him down a few pegs, but the best we get is a fantasy scene where she stabs him in the neck. Fake news.

Mike White is a great writer, having penned articulate and witty works like FREAKS AND GEEKS and CHUCK & BUCK. So why is he so quiet here? Things turn positively funereal in the last reel, with Beatriz mourning the loss of decency and righteousness in the world, and she just drifts away. This should be a comedy of manners. And even with its truncated running time, so much of it feels padded. Trim 30 minutes out of it and you might have a smart, cynical short. But here, despite deft work by Hayek, Lithgow and Britton, this dinner feels like one puny and unfulfilling appetizer.


THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION
Occasionally, The Establishing Shot delves into the small screen, and there is a BBC made-for-television movie that is now available OnDemand that is not only a must-see, but it demonstrates just how to make the absolute most of time. It’s a new version of Agatha Christie’s famed short story THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION and every second of its 120-minute length crackles with tension and mystery. 

This material has been done many times before, most notably in a superb 1957 production starring Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich. This take, written by Sarah Phelps and directed by Julian Jarrold, is closer to the original short story, which few realize is a mere 15-pages. And what they’ve done with that short is to blow out the little details in Christie’s writing to make it weightier and more substantial. Phelps remains loyal to the author’s intentions but adds her own twists and turns that enrich the material, so much so that the Christie estate gave this production its full cooperation and endorsement.

The story, as in all five previously done versions on the big or small screen, concerns Leonard Vole, a penniless Londoner who catches the eye of the wealthy Emily French and quickly becomes her boy-toy. When she ends up murdered, he becomes the prime suspect, especially when it’s discovered that French left the entirety of her estate to him. He’s arrested for murder. Meanwhile, Vole’s solicitor John Mayhew discovers he has a wife named Romaine, and not only is she unable to vouch for his alibi, but the vindictive woman has an axe to grind due to her husband’s infidelity. She ends up becoming the star witness for the prosecution and the namesake of the title.

This was shown in England in two one-hour parts on BBC One for the 2016 Christmas holiday, but it’s so sublime it could easily have been released in the theater. This period piece’s production values are exquisite and rival any Cineplex entry this season or last. And the acting is equally as impressive. The tony cast includes Billy Howle as Vole, Andrea Riseborough as his wife, Kim Cattrall as French, Monica Dolan as French’s maid Janet, and best of all, veteran character actor Toby Jones as Mayhew.

This movie manages its time superbly, not wasting one second in its telling. The story never feels rushed, even with a couple of jaw-dropping twists in the last 10 minutes, nor does it feel padded. Every detail that Phelps and Jarrold show us here are utterly crucial to the mystery. It’s a superior Christie production and one that can easily stand shoulder to shoulder with 1974’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS as well as the aforementioned 1957 film production.

Every bit, every shot, every piece shown, matters to the story. Everything is a shrewd clue, whether we realize it or not, from Mayhew’s consistent cough and why that’s important to his rise to power in the story, to just how Felix Wiedmann’s camera lingers on Riseborough’s face, even after her lines are read. Clearly, Jarrold had his editors Adam Bosner and Dave Thrasher do so to showcase her large, expressive eyes and their ability to speaks volumes without uttering a word. And when Wiedmann fills his frame with sunlight during the last 10 minutes taking place at a beachfront resort, its impact is as violent and shocking as the revelations that are brought to light in that setting as well.

If there is any rhyme or reason to this year’s Emmy Awards, THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION should be a frontrunner for top accolades in the TV-movie category. Jones and Riseborough certainly will earn nods as they give two of the year’s best performances. Count on THE CROWN to dominate the drama series categories, but look for this British import to make a dent in the American awards program as well. Indeed, if there is any justice, this WITNESS will persuade its jury of Emmy voters.


TWIN PEAKS
Finally, we come to Showtime’s reboot of the cult classic television series TWIN PEAKS. David Lynch and Mark Frost have been given carte blanche to bring their mystery/soap back to life for a third season some 25 years after ABC cancelled the two-year phenomenon. These filmmakers have been given 18 hours to tell their tale this time, and thus far, the eight hours already aired have been as fascinating as anything ever shown on series television. It may have even eclipsed the first-run series back in 1990-1992 in its talk value and fan determination to pour over what it all means online.

Granted, the new series is confounding some people as well, just like the first one did two decades ago. This is not a straight-forward narrative in the way we’ve come to expect TV to tell its tales. Instead, it’s complex, enigmatic, and even more than a little experimental. Lynch is a maverick who doesn’t like playing by the rules, and here, he may have achieved the ultimate expression of his artistry. Lynch calls it his 18-hour film, and he may be correct. It certainly doesn’t feel like a TV show, even one as elevated as premium cable generally offers.

There are no typical arcs in any given hour the way we are used to seeing in episodic television. Nor do characters get treated the way they do as most series regulars are on the main four networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX). A ton of new characters have been introduced this season, but whether they will return, or even mean very much, remains in question. Will they tie into the central murder mystery? We have yet to see. And Lynch has brought many of the original series’ beloved cast back, but they’ve barely figured in the narrative. Truly, they’re more like glorified cameos. Is Lynch making fun of our expectations of the reunion? And where is fan favorite Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn)? The blogosphere has created a whole world of memes based on that one question.

Most amazing or frustrating, depending upon your POV, is Lynch’s treatment of series lead Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). Instead of returning the dogged and idiosyncratic G-man to solve a new crime in the small Washington state town, Lynch and Frost decided to have the spirit of “Killer Bob” still inside him, where it was at the end of season two, and that inception has turned Coop into a murderous, drug-dealing thug for the past two decades. This “Bad Cooper” is something to see, echoing the long hair of the late, great Frank Silva who played "Bob" so effectively in the first series, and watching MacLachlan portray a venal shit is a genuine treat.

But then, he gets to play other Coopers as well. There’s another doppelganger named Dougie, a ne’er-do-well real estate hack in Vegas who cheats on his wife and racks up gambling debts. The real Cooper has been cosmically shot into his body and now is coming out slowly but surely. Everyone around Dougie thinks he’s just acting strange and it has given McLachlan showcase episodes worthy of awards attention. Still, we’re all left to wonder just when the fully restored “Good Cooper” will return and kick the procedural into high gear. Knowing Lynch, he may or may not make Cooper whole again. Some love that possibility, others can't stop bitching about it online. But those who know and love Lynch, no this is all part of the filmmaker's appeal.

And what are we to make of all that occurred in the already iconic eighth episode? Did that atom bomb test in 1945 release a new devastating strain of violence in the new world order? Was that cockroach/frog hybrid a monster that crawled out of the nuclear fall-out or merely a metaphor for the ungodly monsters created by man’s discovery that he could level the planet? And what did that filthy ghost hobo mean by repeatedly asking, “Got a light?” Are he and his filthy cronies supposed to be urchins of the devil, or man’s manifestation of lost morals? And what is the deal with all that skull crushing? No matter, it was disturbing as hell.


I hope we find out the answers and that this TWIN PEAKS uses its time remaining to be both Lynchian as well as cleverly procedural. We shall see, but no matter what, I’ll be watching. It feels like landmark television, which is really saying something in this new golden age. Let’s hope that Lynch and company make the most of the 10 hours they have left. That’s what I’m longing for - time well spent. With time enough to appreciate every moment of the story. 

"Got a light?"