Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Triumph of Wes Anderson, or Sympathy for John McCain

Slate's got a nice little slideshow up about the rise and fall of Wes Anderson: his fantastic debut, his two masterpieces, his two lesser but still wonderful films, and then (the primary subject) the ubiquity of his imitators. You can check out the slideshow yourself here:

On the way, though, something wonderful happened, for me at least. One of the slideshow videos is a set of faux John McCain ads made in the style of three directors Woo, K. Smith, and Anderson. You can check out the Anderson clip at minute 2:21 of the video - and I do highly recommend it.

Something weird happened to me while watching the Anderson parody: I came to feel enormous empathy for John McCain. Here's what Slate has to say "Tweaking the surface pleasures of Anderson's work, the ad unwittingly (or, who knows, maybe intentionally) highlights the director's drift toward a cinema of extravagant artifice and the diminishing returns it offers."

First, I think the "extravagant artifice" of "diminishing returns" was certainly intentional - this video clearly takes some shots at Wes Anderson surface-obsessed quirkmaster. But I had a completely different reaction. Watching a John McCain semi-lookalike glumly acknowledge that he has no chance in the matter, then gamely stroll through a classic Anderson sequence, complete with pitch perfect Bowie and track suits, gave me the first twinge of sympathy I've had for McCain in years. This was a man who had real principles, who abandoned them to try to win an unwinnable election against the most gifted politician in half a century, and went to his inevitable defeat. For abandoning those principles and engaging in pathetic pandering I hated him. But when this actor deadpans that he probably won't win, then walks off to his failure, I finally felt sympathy for the man.

And that, as far as I'm concerned, is the bottom line with Wes Anderson's style: it works. Say what you want about The Darjeeling Limited and the Life Aquatic, Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite and the American Express ad (and granted, none of them reach the peaks of Rushmore or Tenenbaums), all of them have something going for them. That's because Anderson's style - the quirk, the colors, the props, the perfectly integrated pop music, and the heartfelt but off-kilter emotions - just plain works. In fact, it works so well that an obvious parody backfired to the point that I felt real sympathy for a man I've intensely disliked for years now.

Of course, the incongruity of the actual "I'm John McCain and I approve this message" bit snaps me out of it to a certain extent. It serves as a reminder that the Anderson aesthetic - the distillation of real emotional pain into whimsical scenes that retain emotional heft - is deeply in contrast to the look and sound of a real political campaign. Which, I think, just makes my point stronger: cutting through all that bullshit and making McCain a truly sympathetic figure is a seriously tough task. Faux-Anderson, though, was up to the job.

Just for fun: A Mike Gravel Campaign Ad

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Are You Not Entertained?

Every good cinephile remembers the 2001 Academy Awards as a disaster. Chameleonic actor Russell Crowe won the best actor award for monosyllabic he-man Maximus, a blatant makeup award for his failure to win in 1999's The Insider. The daring, provocative film Traffic, made by genius auteur Steven Soderbergh, failed to win best picture, as Crowe's Gladiator took that honor as well en route to winning the night.

The only problem with all this is that it's wrong. Soderbegh sucks, and Traffic is probably his worst film. And Gladiator, well, Gladiator is epic filmmaking done right. Please, head on over to Film for the Soul for the latest entry in Counting Down the Zeroes, that website's extensive look at 00s cinema. You'll find me singing Gladiator's praises:

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Film Ignorance #31: City Lights

Film: City Lights
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, other, less important people
Year: 1931
Reason for Ignorance: Saw clips in film class, never finished it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

The American Film Institute just named City Lights the greatest romantic comedy of all time. I'm pretty sure that's a mistake for two reasons. First of all, it's nowhere near as good as the best screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s. It also doesn't stack up well against Woody Allen's best romantic comedies of the 70s and 80s.

My second objection is that it's just not a romantic comedy. Granted, I'm the very last person to police categories and genres. But this movie is in fact two intertwined tales. One of them is a classic, tragic romance involving Chaplin's Little Tramp and a blind flower girl who thinks he's a rich suitor. The other story is a slapstick comedy involving the Little Tramp and a suicidal millionaire who considers Charlie his best friend while drunk, then kicks the tramp out on the street every time he sobers up.

Although these two stories do end up intersecting at the end of the film, they're completely separate for the majority of the movie. In other words, this can't be a romantic comedy, because the comedy isn't romantic, and the romance is tragic. It's a comedy and a romance, side by side.

And it is a very funny comedy and a very sad romance. The suicidal millionaire who constantly befriends and then disowns Chaplin leads to a number of very funny moments, particularly whenever the Tramp has to prevent his suicide attempts. And the romance between the Tramp, who pretends to be a rich man, and the blind flower girl is quite moving.

Although I liked this movie a lot, I think it's pretty overrated; it's certainly not one of the greatest films ever made, and doesn't even stack up to a more sophisticated Chaplin film like Modern Times. And I can identify why it's received such critical acclaim: the final shot. The final shot of City Lights is one of five or ten most famous closeups in the entire history of cinema. Film luminaries from Fellini to Woody Allen to P.T. Anderson have closed some of their best movies with an homage to that shot. Without it, this is just an excellent Chaplin movie; with it, this "comedy romance in pantomime" has become a cinematic standard.

Bonus Game: What closeups can you think of that are as famous or more famous than this one? I think the "more famous" category is probably empty. But possibly as famous:

1.Gloria Swanson's "I'm ready for my closeup" closeup in Sunset Boulevard

2.Orson Welles is introduced in The Third Man

3.John Wayne is horrified by captive white women in The Searchers (I would also accept: John Wayne is introduced in Stagecoach)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Film Ignorance #30: To Be or Not to Be

Film: To Be or Not to Be
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Stars: Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Robert Stack
Year: 1942
Reason for Ignorance: Never heard of it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

Based on this and Ninotchka, I believe I understood the Ernst Lubitsch formula: take a serious subject with world historical implications, in which many people have or will die, and then turn it into a ludicrous comedy. In Ninotchka, Soviet famine and the threat of Stalinist liquidation became the subject for a sophisticated, ingenuous romantic comedy. In To Be or Not to Be, Germany's occupation of Poland, the Polish resistance, and the threat of concentration camps are the basis of an absurd and very, very funny farce.

The star of To Be or Not to Be is Jack Benny, a radio comedian who would occasionally do movies. He is not a suave or sophisticated comic player along the lines of Grant, nor does he offer the rugged charms of Gable, or the folksiness of Stewart. He is a radio comedian, at least one brow lower than all of those that I just mentioned, but very, very funny. Think Bob Hope, and you'll be in the right ballpark.

After seeing the ultra-sophisticated Ninotchka, I wasn't quite expecting slapstick farce of To Be or Not to Be. But it's damn funny. Benny and Lombard are a husband and wife team starring in Hamlet in pre-war Poland. Lombard doesn't take her vows too seriously, so she starts romancing a young Air Force flyer (Robert Stack, in a pre-Unsolved Mysteries role). Stack gets up for a little rendezvous with Lombard every time Benny starts hamming his way through "To be or not to be." This enrages Benny, but World War II breaks out and there's nothing to be done about it.

After the war, Benny, Lombard, and Stack get involved again, both romantically and in a plot to murder double agent Professor Siletsky before he can meet with the German commander, Col. "Concentration Camp" Ehrhart. From there, the movie throws every gag imaginable at you, and most of them work. An actor playing Hitler says "Heil myself." Benny does a bad, hammy impression of Ehrhardt for Siletsky, then gives Siletsky the same treatment for Ehrhardt. Lombard also has to seduce them both, and keeps getting caught in sticky situations. And over and over again, no matter who he's impersonating, Benny asks everyone if they've heard of him. The running joke is that no one has ever heard of him, but finally Ehrhardt has head of him, and dismisses him as a ham.

This is really a movie that shouldn't have worked. For starters, it's an absurd farce about the Polish resistance trying to assassinate a Nazi double agent; form and content started off at odds with one another. Benny can't really act, and was clearly just a radio ham doing ridiculous impersonations on screen. But the role (like all of those Woody Allen writes for himself) takes advantage of the fact that the comedian has zero range, is a complete buffoon, but knows his way around a one-liner. By playing that thinly veiled version of himself/his showbiz persona, Benny makes this cockeyed creation seem sublime. Ninotchka it ain't, but there aren't many movies that are funnier.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Film Ignorance # 29: The Kid

Film: The Kid
Rating: A Good Movie
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan
Year: 1921
Reason for Ignorance: Not the hugest Chaplin fan

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

Charlie Chaplin was never one for subtlety. The first scene of The Kid is a woman leaving a charity hospital with a child. As the nurse and doctor watch her leave with a mixture of pity and disapproval, a title card appears: "The Woman - whose sin was motherhood."

Ah, thanks Charlie, I get it now: this is a single mother, alone in the world, oppressed by society's mores and forced to travel the cruel world bearing the burden of her sin.

Charlie's not sure you got it, though, because the next shot is just a few seconds of a statue of Jesus weighed down by the cross. "See, she must bear the burden of her sin! She's like Jesus! Get it?"

Ah yes, we get it Charlie, we get it. But he's still not sure, so the next scene is The Woman sitting on a park bench, holding the child. In case you hadn't noticed it yet, this woman is alone and has nowhere to go. And what is the title card that appears to make sense of this shot of a lonely woman, sitting by herself, alone, with no one else: "Alone." Thanks.

Once the little tramp himself shows up, the picture picks up a great deal. The Woman tries to leave her child with a rich family, but the baby is accidentally kidnapped by a pair of car thieves, who leave the baby near where the tramp lives. Once The Tramp picks up the baby, he's stuck with him; a cop prevents him from putting him back down on the ground. And so Chaplin is left to raise a little boy, who quickly grows up to the tender age of five.

This movie is very funny, stringing together a series of hilarious vignettes that would have been all or most of a Chaplin film just a few years earlier. The kid breaking windows for the tramp to fix them, a cop catching on to their racket, the tramp flirting with the cop's wife after fixing her windows (if you know what I mean), the kid beating a local bully, the tramp beating the bully's enormous brother with the aid of a brick, and other sequences are very funny. And Chaplin, directing his first feature, has done his best to provide a story that holds all of the gags together, a story that mixes his trademark sentimentality with his trademark social conscience.

Unfortunately, not everything quite comes together. Although the movie is only an hour long, it actually runs out of plot elements and throws in a pointless and unnecessary dream sequence near the end - just, I guess, to make it "feature" length. And the ending is rushed and a bit forced, lacking the pathos that Chaplin would develop in his later 20s and 30s film.

The Kid's historical importance is incalculable: as Chaplin's first feature film, it was a risky studio endeavor that paved the way for Chaplin and his many successors and contemporaries (from Keaton to Fields) to make feature-length comedies with enormous creative control. As a film, it's merely pretty good. I enjoyed it very much, but it's a long way from mature Chaplin, and even at 60 minutes, feels a bit too long.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Did Comics Just Go Mainstream?

No, I'm not referring to The Watchmen movie about the hit theaters, although I am a. Mildly excited about the film, despite the fact that 300 was a Linkbig waste of time
b. Pretty sure the Watchmen film had something to do with it.

No, what I'm referring to is the fact that The New York Times will now publish a graphic novels best seller list weekly!

Amusingly, their post, which I had not read when I started my own (I started writing just based on the headline) begins "Comics have finally joined the mainstream."

Certain minds, great or not, do think alike. Comics of course haven't finally joined the mainstream; it would be more precise to say that comics have rejoined the mainstream, or that modern comics have finally joined the mainstream. Obama, for example, is a fan of Spider-Man from way back, for four decades or so, comics were for kids, but most certainly mainstream. It is only for the last 30 years, when comics have mostly been for adults, that comics have been out of the mainstream.

Hopefully that's no longer the case. I was hoping, with the success of The Dark Knight and the insane sales of the Watchmen before the movie even came out, that comics might be inching their way to respectability. But if Time naming Watchmen one of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century didn't make comics mainstream, a poorly reviewed movie doesn't seem likely to do so either.

This, however could. First of all, the New York Times is now a place where people can read about comics, every week. Although it's only about comics sales, and not the weekly comics reviews which would make an even bigger difference, it's a big step.

But more importantly - and here's where a best seller list is better than reviews - publishers can now slap "New York Times Best Seller!" on any comic that hits the list. That's huge for the general public, browsing a bookstore display where one nerdy employee has, under the employee picks, stuck a volume of Criminal between to Hundred Years of Solitude and Middlesex. Now the comic will not only have the employee's gushing description, but the seal of sales of approval the NYT brings - people are buying and reading this book, enough that the premier newspaper in the world noticed.

Furthermore, several of the industry giants - Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Robert Kirkman, Brian Bendis, Ed Brubaker, etc - have already been honored in this very first list. Now every new project by those authors - and every older product, even - can also have a sticker slapped on it that says "By the New York Times Bestselling author." That'll help even more.

Anyone else excited about this? Anyone considering giving comics a try now?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Film Ignorance #28: The Apartment

Film: The Apartment
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray
Year: 1960
Reason for Ignorance: Never got around to it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

Not only could Billy Wilder do no wrong, he could do no wrong in any genre he put his mind to. He was one of the greatest noir filmmakers of all time, and one of the greatest romantic comedy filmmakers of all time - one of the least comprehensible developments I can imagine. In all of Hollywood history, only Howard Hawks showed a greater ability to do more genres with such skill (Hawks films would be in my top 10 for the gangster, romantic comedy, screwball comedy, noir, and western genres, without ever having to use the same film twice).

So it is with some consternation that I tell you that The Apartment is brilliant, and I have no idea what genre it represents. It doesn't seem that romantic, it's certainly not very screwball, it's probably not a comedy at all, but I wouldn't want to call it a melodrama or just plain drama. What it really is is the premise for a crappy sitcom that's been turned into a damn fine movie.

C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) is a young corporate insurance employee. He's a good worker, but surrounded by thousands of other good workers, so his future wouldn't be bright - except for the fact that he's got an inside track on promotion. He keeps his apartment furnished with cheese crackers and liquor, and allows four of the company's executives to use it whenever one of them wishes to spend a little time with his girlfriend before going home to his wife. This means that Baxter gets great recommendations to the company's top HR guy.

Unfortunately, the HR guy Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) knows something is up, and will only give Baxter the promotion if he gets a piece of the apartment action. That's fine with Baxter, who finally gets up the nerve to ask out the object of his desire, the elevator girl Ms. Kubelik (MacLaine). She says yes, but eventually can't make it, because she winds up, you guessed it, at Baxter's apartment with Sheldrake.

That's the sitcom element here, but the dramatic irony isn't pitched for dumb laughs. It's actually heartwrenching stuff; the lovable Baxter pines after the unobtainable Ms. Kubelik, while the vulnerable Ms. Kubelik carries on a thankless affair with Sheldrake, who promises to divorce his wife and marry her in one of the least plausible lies ever. From there, the plot twists and turns; I won't spoil the fun, but Wilder's gift for dialogue and plotting is on full display.

Each of the the actors fits snugly into their role, as if they were meant to play them. Lemmon, a Wilder favorite, is charming in his classic persona: an affable, nervous fellow, a sort of low-key pre-Woody Allen, who overthinks things, lets himself get walked on, but through it all produces a string of pretty funny jokes. And MacMurray, another Wilder favorite, brings his full charm to exactly the sort of smarmy, so charming that he must be insincere role that Pierce Brosnan currently specializes in. Brosnan is great, but MacMurray is the all-time king; amidst the career deterioration that included Flubber, Son of Flubber, The Shaggy Dog, and My Three Sons, this movie stands out as a triumph.

But this is Shirley MacLaine's movie. I'm not sure I've ever seen an actress so at home with herself. Ms. Kubelik is an acting challenge: to most of the company she's the unobtainable ice queen, to Baxter she's a charming and almost obtainable girl next door, and for Sheldrake she's an emotional wreck, strung along by a career player because she's talked herself into believing in him. MacLaine embodies all of these aspects of this complex woman; she's both achingly available and achingly unobtainable. In her elevator outfit she's a forbidden treat ogled by the entire company, with Sheldrake she's a vulnerable woman, but with Baxter she's just herself. She comes to life when asked to do the least - to just sit, and talk, and be with him. The whole movie, in fact, could be described that way: it confounds genres and offers a complex resolution because, for all its high concept premise, it's about real people trying to make their way through the world, through love. There are relatively few movies that can say the same.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.