Sunday, July 28, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.1: Martin Scorsese's Early Films

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

When Roger Ebert saw Martin Scorsese’s directorial debut, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (then titled I Call First) at the 1967 Chicago Film Festival, he hailed the arrival of a great new American director, one who would become one of the most influential in the world. Hardly anyone needs to point out that Ebert was dead-on, but it’s appropriate that Ebert was the first major American critic to hail the newcomer. Just as Ebert did for film criticism, Martin Scorsese has influenced just about every modern director worth his salt (which is why it’s sad that Ebert won’t be able to cover Scorsese’s new films). From Paul Thomas Anderson to Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee to Wes Anderson, much of modern cinema stems from Scorsese. And why shouldn’t it? How many other directors have remained as consistently fascinating? How many directors from Scorsese’s generation how maintained his boyish enthusiasm for cinema? For Scorsese, more than nearly any other director, film is part of his being.

Before he was one of the world’s greatest directors, however, Martin Scorsese was a kid from New York City. As an asthmatic boy, his parents took him to the movies frequently, where his love for the movies was born. After considering going into priesthood, Scorsese went to NYU, first earning a B.A. in English in the College of Arts and Science, then an M.F.A. in film at the Tisch School of the Arts. There, Scorsese had a chance to throw together his diverse influences- Cassavetes, the French New Wave, Elia Kazan, Italian neorealism, Federico Fellini- into one still developing yet distinctive sensibility.


Scorsese’s first student film, What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?, shows proof of his talent right from the get-go. The story, about a man who becomes so obsessed with a picture he bought that he can’t focus on writing or his new marriage, isn’t necessarily much more than something to hang his style on, but it’s quite a style. Much of the film is Scorsese’s chance to show us what he can do with editing- his use of jump cuts might be a bit show-offy, but his enthusiasm is infectious. Plus, the film shows that his gift for anxious, unpredictable rhythms was present from his first film. It doesn’t hurt that, like the early films of fellow Film School Brat Brian De Palma, the film has a wicked sense of humor, turning its protagonist’s anxiety into a wry joke. Grade: 77/B+

Scorsese took another step forward with his second short, It’s Not Just You, Murray!. The film, about a bootlegger whose beloved partner is schtupping his wife, shows Scorsese taking his French New Wave-influenced playfulness and running with it- breaking the fourth wall, letting Murray (Ira Rubin) direct the camera, and often hilarious use of montage (“Undertaking services?” *shoots a man* “We did our part”). The film is also notable for how Scorsese mixes his more naturalistic influences (Cassavetes-style handheld cameras in a bootlegger bust) with the more florid ones (a final scene that recalls Fellini’s 8 ½, a musical performance from Murray), and for the introduction of certain key themes- men who idealize women without understanding them, the emptiness of the American Dream, and the lower-class gangster milieu that would make up many of his greatest films. Grade: 82/A-

Scorsese’s most famous short film, and his greatest, is also his shortest. 1967’s The Big Shave is simple at its outset- a young man enters a bathroom looking exhausted. He shaves his stubble, applies another layer of shaving cream, and then dispassionately shaves away his skin as blood drips down over the sink and floor. The effect isn’t a terribly convincing one- the man’s skin remains intact- but the psychological effect is still best approximated as “HOLY SHIT”.

Much of the effectiveness comes from the juxtaposition of the violence and the ironic use of Bunny Berigan’s Gershwin-penned standard “I Can’t Get Started”, and Scorsese’s set-up of the bathroom as a clean, practically sterile environment, both of which show Stanley Kubrick’s influence. Scorsese’s smart mixture of close-ups on the man’s face and shots of the white bathroom sink getting drenched with blood is terrific too, giving us enough of a visceral reaction while also making us think the image is more gruesome than it actually is. The dark comedy of the piece is often interpreted as a reaction to the senselessness of the Vietnam War, which makes Berigan’s song of past triumphs falling short next to a failed love an appropriate soundtrack. Even if one doesn’t see the film as allegory, it still works as one of Scorsese’s first portrait of self-destruction. But mostly, it’s the first case of Scorsese finding an effective balance of graphic violence and the right song. Grade: 92/A

Grade: 63/B-

One of Scorsese’s short films, 1965’s Bring on the Dancing Girls, would serve as the seed for his first feature film. In 1967, Scorsese expanded on a simple portrait of a J.R. (Harvey Keitel in his first film role) hanging with his friends in New York City by adding a love subplot between J.R. and a girl (Zina Bethune) and J.R.’s torment after he learns she was once raped. Retitled I Call First, the film played at the Chicago Film Festival in 1967. One year later, exploitation distributor Joseph Brenner agreed to distribute the film if Scorsese added a sex scene.

The film doesn’t completely work as a whole- the quality of the film stock varies, it doesn’t have the narrative drive of Scorsese’s best work, and it feels like two similar but not entirely compatible films mashed together to create a feature. But while the pieces don’t quite fit together, they are quite impressive on their own. Scorsese is largely limited in the shots he can get, but his use of handheld cameras is smart, giving us a fly-on-the-wall feeling as we watch the very natural, Cassavetes-inspired improvised scenes between Keitel and his pals. There’s not much narrative in most of these segments, but it gives a terrific sense of the world J.R. (and, by proxy, Scorsese) comes from- insular, blue collar, full of macho posturing and Catholic imagery. It’s simple, but it’s rather effective, and it’s easy to see how John Cassavetes might have been impressed enough to take young Scorsese under his wing.

The love story occasionally suffers from a young director’s need to underline everything, particularly an overly earnest confrontation near the end and an image of the guilt-ridden J.R. cutting his lip on a crucifix, but it’s largely effective. The first meeting between Keitel and Bethune is very charming, as the overly-enthusiastic, boyish J.R. flirts with her by talking about westerns, trying to relate to her with his own nerdy obsessions. It’s a goofy bit, but here the earnestness works for the film, and it’s aided by Keitel’s assured performance (a near dead-on Scorsese impression) and the constant movement of Scorsese’s camera, which knows when to focus on the energetic Keitel and when to bring the two close together.

The film is also the first showcase for the emotional heart of nearly all of Scorsese’s films: guilt. J.R. loves and idealizes Bethune’s character, but he doesn’t understand her, and his old-fashioned Catholic upbringing limits their relationship. Scorsese shoots a love scene between them in tight, intimate close-ups only to break away as his Catholic guilt forces him to stop from having sex with her. He’s a “nice guy”, but he falls upon the Madonna/Whore complex, delineating the difference between a “girl” and a “broad” to his clearly uncomfortable girlfriend. When she does confess that she was raped, his idealization of her purity is poisoned, and his outrage is horrifying. Even when he tries to mend their relationship, it’s he who has to forgive her for her action. J.R. and Scorsese are clear analogues for most of the picture, but the conception of purity is auto-critical. Scorsese understands that J.R.’s view of women is his own problem, one borne of a culture that he both loves and finds extremely limiting.

The real draw to Who’s That Knocking, however, is Scorsese’s use of music. The added exploitation scene, a sex scene set to The Doors’ “The End”, might be gratuitous, but Scorsese stages it rather well, taking a potentially trashy sequence and making it a dreamy, beautifully shot sequence that dovetails with the film’s portrait of desire vs. guilt (its insertion in the middle of Keitel and Bethune’s conversation is awkward, though). Another bit, the imagined rape of Bethune set to the Dubs’ doo-wop classic “Don’t Ask Me to Be Lonely”, comments on J.R.’s longing while also showing the breakdown of his reason as multiple versions of the song play simultaneously, creating a jarring effect. And even the film’s biggest detractors have to admire the “El Watusi” sequence, which uses the relaxed build of Ray Barretto’s Latin song to give a hypnotic power to a party with J.R. and his friends. Scorsese pans across the party, using dissolves to give us smooth transitions and slow motion to exaggerate every motion as the party goes from relaxed to dangerous as one of the friends pulls out a gun. It’s the best example of macho posturing in a film that’s ultimately a dry-run for his first masterpiece, Mean Streets. On a more base level- it’s really, really fucking cool.

Grade: 56/B-

Who’s That Knocking didn’t start much of a storm for Scorsese, but it got him noticed. After a stint as an editor on Woodstock and a false start getting fired from directing The Honeymoon Killers for working too slow, Scorsese got a break directing 1972’s Boxcar Bertha for exploitation producer Roger Corman. The film is a fairly simple Bonnie and Clyde knock-off- a union worker (David Carradine), a rebellious young woman (Barbara Hershey) and others team together to rob from railroad owners- and Scorsese doesn’t make the film as personal as Jonathan Demme managed to on his own Corman productions. But while the film is exceedingly modest, it does show some of Scorsese’s technical flair, most notably whenever he deals with violence. Where many Corman productions use violence to thrill, Scorsese manages to make a handful of scenes viscerally upsetting, particularly a late-film death that evokes a certain famous Catholic icon (hint: it’s the most obvious one possible).

Boxcar Bertha taught Scorsese how to make a film quickly and efficiently, but more important is the lesson that came after he screened it for his mentor John Cassavetes. After hugging him close, Cassavetes told him “You just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit.” Cassavetes did note that the film was OK for what it was, but he implored Scorsese to tell a story that really mattered to him. One year later, Scorsese debuted Mean Streets, and a legend was born.

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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Man of Steel

Grade: 23/D+

Is it so much to ask for modern blockbusters to give a sense of wonder? Pacific Rim wasn’t a delight just because of the action scenes, but also because of the sense of fun and lightness throughout the film. Man of Steel deals with one of the great figures of wonder in the 20th century, Superman, but it has no time for moments of beauty or grace. Instead, director Zack Snyder wields the man of steel like a hammer, pummeling away at the senses until it’s hard to feel anything at all.

Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) was raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), but he is not of this earth. He is the son of Jor-El (Russell Crowe), a scientist on the planet Krypton, sent to earth after Jor realized the planet’s destruction was imminent. His adoptive father teaches him to hide his powers as a child, but knows that one day his son will change the world. That day comes when General Zod (Michael Shannon), a Kryptonian tyrant responsible for Jor-El’s death, comes to earth with plans for the rebuilding of the Kryptonian race and the destruction of humanity.

That’s a streamlined version of the unwieldy plot, which also features Superman staples such as girlfriend/reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), a codex/Genesis Champer that contains the genetics of the Kryptonian race, a World Engine that can rebuild it, a Phantom Drive that imprisons Zod and his cohorts, and more.

If it seems needlessly convoluted and boring, it’s because there’s far too much time expended on backstory, gadgets, and things going boom and not enough on the actual story of a man who embodies goodness acting as a guardian for his new home. The film spends a good twenty minutes on a prologue involving Crowe retrieving a macguffin while speaking portentously and riding a giant locust creature, followed by forty minutes of Clark Kent wandering the earth mixed with corny Malick-impersonating childhood flashbacks. By the time it actually gets going, it’s all about explaining away the earlier macguffin, followed by a pair of forty-minute battle sequences.

 There’s no room to breathe, and yet there’s no kineticism. The plot is overloaded, and yet the actual central story is neglected- by the end of the film, Superman, Lane, White, and most of the other supporting characters are still vaguely defined. Adams, Crowe, Cavill and company are all up to task, but the film hasn’t actually given most of them a chance to show any personality. To put it in perspective, imagine a film about Christ (considering how much the film labors over the Christ-figure comparisons) that focuses on the inner-workings of heaven, a few moments of the kid’s difficult childhood, Jesus wandering around the desert, and then the crucifixion. No time for relationships, messages, or messy humanity. Does the story mean anything anymore?

It might be more bearable if the action scenes were at least thrilling, but here too Man of Steel falls frustratingly short. Snyder has a gift for composition, but while his set-pieces are more coherent and spatially aware than those of Michael Bay, he remains inept at constructing a cinematic rhythm. You can’t have forty minutes of punching, throwing, and crushing without it all feeling like the same relentless hammering over and over again. The scale is impressive, and Snyder’s attempts to capture chaos are successful, but it’s hard to care or feel much aside from sheer exhaustion.

Worse, Snyder makes half-assed attempts at political relevance- genocide, environmental disaster, and drones are all brought up- without capturing the weight of any of these. It’s particularly distressing in the final battles, which shamelessly evoke 9/11 imagery in the queasiest way possible. It might work if Snyder gave any actual consideration for human life, but he’s mostly just excited to cruise forward with his “did you say MORE?” aesthetic.

When the film does come to a key moral decision in the climax, the problem is less that it goes against Superman’s character and more that he doesn’t have a character, and that the handwringing feels disingenuous following the wanton destruction. This is not a smart film, nor a moral one. It doesn’t have the weight of the Nolan Dark Knight movies, so the heaviness feels less tragic and more turgid. Perhaps it’s not fair to yearn for a Superman movie with the lightness and fun of Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, even if I believe that tone suits Superman. Maybe a weightier Superman movie could have worked under different circumstances. But I miss being awed that a man could fly.
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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Overlooked Gems #57: Heartbeats/Imaginary Lovers

Grade: 84/A-

Every generation has a large group of talented filmmakers, and each has their own designated wunderkind. The Greatest Generation had Orson Welles, the Baby Boomers had Steven Spielberg, Generation X has Paul Thomas Anderson, and  now Generation Y has Quebec’s Xavier Dolan. While most Generation Y filmmakers are largely still playing around in film school, Dolan has already released three acclaimed films at only 24 years old. His debut, I Killed My Mother, only just found U.S. release a few months before his third, Laurence Anyways. But his second film, Imaginary Lovers (generically renamed Heartbeats in the U.S.), is available on Netflix Instant, and with it the discovery of a major talent.

Best friends Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) meet Nicolas (Niels Schneider) at a dinner party, and the three grow close. Francis and Marie fall for Nicolas, who remains oblivious to their feelings. Over the course of several weeks, Francis and Marie compete for Nicolas’ affection, leading to bitterness and outright hostility.

It’s familiar territory, to be sure, but the immediacy and potency of the feelings is unmistakable. Francis and Marie are likable, but their hopeless romanticism blinds them to each other’s desires and needs. What makes their behavior and unrequited love especially heartbreaking is Nicolas’ clear self-absorption and shallowness. This isn’t a tale of true lovers battling, but of the powerful pull of first-sight love and lust over someone they hardly even know, friendship be damned. There’s a reason Imaginary Lovers is a much more appropriate title.

The real pull to this powerfully wrought but somewhat thin story, however, is Dolan’s filmmaking. Worldly filmgoers will recognize tricks borrowed from Wong Kar-wai (sensual slow-motion and gorgeous photography while pop music plays in the background), but Dolan’s handling of these elements are far too assured for him to be dismissed as a twentysomething Wong-imitator. The film has a few playful touches as well, including interviews with a group of unrelated jilted lovers who are a bit wiser about love than Francis and Marie. Dolan will no doubt further develop his own unique sensibility, but for now, it’s just a pleasure to see a filmmaker who’s both bracingly honest and deeply romantic.

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Monday, July 22, 2013

Only God Forgives

Grade: 24/D+

Nicolas Winding Refn’s work often threatens to go off the rails, and unfortunately it does in Only God Forgives. His first film after his 2011 masterpiece Drive (not to mention a run of strong films including Valhalla Rising, Bronson, and the latter two Pusher films) shares the brutality of his earlier work, but little of power. It’s as well made and gorgeous-looking as any of his films, but it’s strangely empty. It features a number of striking sequences, but none of them cohere to form anything as transcendent as the best of his work. It’s sure to be the year’s most fascinating failure.

Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs a kickboxing club in Bangkok as a front for his family’s drug business. When his older brother Billy is executed for the murder and rape of a 16-year-old girl, Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) comes from America, demanding revenge. Julian is aware of his brother’s sins, however, and refuses, forcing Crystal to take action. Meanwhile, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a police officer known as the “Angel of Vengeance” and a man with a role in Billy’s death, takes his sick brand of justice (arm dismemberment by sword) to Crystal’s men, and Julian, whose relationship with his mother is not altogether very healthy, is moved to act.

At the very least, Refn should be applauded for not going further into the mainstream after the modest success of Drive. If anything, he’s gone as far out on a (severed) limb as possible, cranking up the violence to levels that might make one agree with his knowing, self-ascribed “pornographer” label. Only God Forgives is nightmarish, all right, with its artful, deep red lighting, its relentless brutality, and it’s almost total lack of humanity at its core.

It’s admirable, to a large extent, and certainly artful, but it’s also extraordinarily difficult to connect to. It’s almost as if he took elements of all of his previous works- the relentless foreboding of Valhalla Rising, the excessiveness of Bronson, the minimalism of Drive- and cranked them up to the level of portentous self-parody. Beautifully made as much of it is, it’s hard not to go “oh, come on” at some of the sadism on display here (wait for the ice pick). Refn tries to humanize Chang a bit with the character’s love of karaoke pop songs and his relationship with his daughter, but the latter is fairly rote, and the former plays like a hollow echo of the memorable musical interludes in Drive. And while all of Refn’s films are vicious, the violence has never before seemed so schematic.

It might be a bit easier to swallow if there was much of anyone to care about, even as a point of morbid fascination as in Bronson or Valhalla Rising. But Refn’s minimal use of dialogue feels more like a crutch than a boon here, and the sparseness of character that benefited One-Eye in Valhalla and Driver in Drive mostly seems vague here. Gosling is often fascinating when he’s asked to do very little, but he’s basically been asked to play the embodiment of numb, thoughtless violence here. He’s OK at what he’s doing, but why is it being done? It completely negates the vibrant energy that’s at the center of most of Refn’s films.

 To make matters worse, the Angel/God (Chang) vs. Devil (Crystal) dichotomy, not to mention the Oedipus complex at the film’s center, is utterly moronic, and any humor Refn might have intended is negated by the overwhelming heaviness of the film’s tone. Only God Forgives isn’t without its virtues- it looks gorgeous, Thomas is fun as a total gorgon of a mother, and Clint Mansell’s provides another wonderful electronic score- but it’s hard for them to shine brightly amidst all the stupidity. This is one of the worst films of the year, though I’m strangely glad I saw it. Much as I feel this thing whiffed, it had the mark of someone swinging for the fences. Let’s just hope Refn got that nonsense out of his system.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Director Spotlight #14.13: Orson Welles' F for Fake

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the great cinematic magician Orson Welles.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 96/A

Orson Welles was a cinematic magician, a trickster who used the form of cinema to make people believe they were seeing something they weren’t. Welles did it subtly through camera placement in Citizen Kane, and more ostentatiously through editing in The Lady from Shanghai. But Welles’ most overt bit of cinematic trickery was F for Fake, an essay film “about trickery…about fraud…about lies”. F for Fake was not Welles’ final film (Filming Othello came five years later), but it was his last completed major work, and one of his greatest. In F for Fake, Welles’ formal mastery is at its fullest, a cinematic bag of tricks used to bring in one of his most personal messages.

After an introduction in which Welles promises that “during the next hour, everything you will hear from us is really true”, the film begins as the tale of Elmyr de Hory. de Hory gained notoriety in the 1960s and 70s as one of the world’s greatest art forgers. Among de Hory’s guests is his biographer, Clifford Irving, who has his own part in the story: as the man who fabricated an autobiography of Howard Hughes. Welles also weaves in the tale of his own fakery- as the director of the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast that sent many into a panic. The film finishes with a final tale of fakery, following Welles’ lover Oja Kodar as she tells the tale of her grandfather’s forgery of Pablo Picasso’s paintings…much to the consternation of the real Picasso.

Welles was always an overt formalist, and to some degree F for Fake is his showiest film. Welles is trying to make the audience as aware of the editing as possible, right up to the point where his Moviola breaks down and we actually see him patching everything up. The exuberance of the editing here, zippy but unhurried, discursive yet purposeful, is absolutely marvelous.. Welles combines the playfulness of his own work with that of the French New Wave. From the very beginning, there’s a puckish wit that permeates the film, with Welles performing first a handful of magic tricks, then by tricking us through a quick cut that transports him from a train station in Paris to a studio. Welles practically tells us that he’s fucking with us, but in this case it’s kind of fun to be fucked with.

Much of the material involving de Hory and Irving’s fakery is rather funny- Welles admits that he knows what famous paintings in art galleries are really de Hory’s forgeries, but claims that his lawyers advise him against saying what they are. But Welles’ tales of fakery are not meant to poke fun at de Hory and Irving. To some degree, Welles sympathizes with them. De Hory was a painter of considerable talent, but he could not feed himself unless he forged. Now he throws extravagant parties, but he’s a fake rich man too, used by art dealers who get rich off of his films. When one also considers the arrogance of the experts who can’t actually tell de Hory’s forgeries from the real thing, not to mention de Hory’s own vast knowledge, Welles’ admiration grows clearer. As Welles says, the value of art is based on the opinions of the experts, but they’re constantly fooled by de Hory. “Who’s the expert? Who’s the faker?”

Irving, meanwhile, had his career ruined by fabricating the truth about Howard Hughes. But aren’t most of the tales about Hughes lies or exaggerations? Few really knew what Hughes was like in the final days of his life, but the stories of a man with long hair and fingernails, peeing into jars and wearing Kleenex boxes for shoes are too fascinating too fully dismiss. To some degree, Irving only came up with the best and most believable fake story about Hughes. Sure, he’s a scoundrel, but he’s a rather ingenious scoundrel.

Welles can relate to the two all too well. He himself is a faker: Welles started his acting career as a teenage boy in Ireland who claimed to be a famous Broadway actor, and he went on to create the most original radio program in history by making his War of the Worlds sound so much like a real news broadcast that it caused some people to panic. And then there’s the greatest accusation of Welles’ fakery: the writing of Citizen Kane. Years earlier, Pauline Kael wrote the book Raising Kane, which asserted that Welles’ masterpiece was really the genius of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and cinematographer Gregg Toland, and that Welles didn’t write a word of the film. Kael’s book has been wildly discredited since, but it was damaging for Welles’ reputation. Francois Truffaut considered F for Fake a rebuke to Kael. It is that, but it’s also much more.

One of the most memorable scenes in the film, and perhaps the one most indicative of Welles’ purpose here, is a beautiful monologue about the Chartes Cathedral about an hour into the film. It’s a gorgeous testament to man’s creativity, but it’s also without an author- anonymous. The truth is, one day the authors might die and be forgotten, but the works stand. “Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much”. Welles is half truthful, half saddened there. True, Citizen Kane and the rest of his films stand as great works of art, no matter how much others might deny his authorship or how much they’ve been meddled with. At the same time, though, the author laments.

“And now, at last, we come to Oja”. Welles has teased Oja’s involvement throughout the film, the interwoven takes of fakery and fraud have built steadily to the point that there better be a wallop of a climax. Oh, but of course there is. In his TV pilot The Fountain of Youth, Welles had experimented with mixing narration, still photographs, and film to tell a story, but it reaches its natural conclusion here. We learn that Pablo Picasso was enchanted by a lovely Croatian woman just outside his door- Oja- and that he agreed to let her have 22 large portraits he painted of her. Picasso isn’t available, though, and Welles didn’t have a camera at this event, so a mixture of re-enactment (Oja) and still photographs (Picasso) will have to do. Welles edits it perfectly, implying Picasso’s vision through angle and the use of window blinds opening and closing over his eyes. The edit is both smart on a visual level and a thematic one, speaking to the inherent voyeurism of film.

But the tale grows more complicated, as Oja sells 22 paintings to a museum and profits off of Picasso’s work. A furious Picasso flew over the sea to find 22 forgeries, all by Oja’s grandfather, the Da Vinci of art forgers (“one of his Da Vinci’s is so famous I don’t dare to name it”). Welles and Kodar start a charming little play here, with Kodar as Picasso, cloaked in shadow, and Welles as Grandpa Kodar, shown in a low shot implying lack of power. Picasso rages, but Kodar has destroyed the originals and given the world something beautiful just before his death: a new Picasso period. It’s an incredible story.

And it’s fake. Welles has given us a handful of clues that something fishy is coming near the end of the film. While most of the de Hory/Irving/Welles material is ostensibly true, Welles mixes in some fake material as well- namely, a fake newsreel called News on the March (from Citizen Kane) and a fake recording of Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. The fact that we’ve been watching re-enactments for the final twenty minutes ought to have tipped us off, but we’ve been promised an hour of the truth. It’s impossible for me to communicate the delight I felt at Welles’ delivery of this line: “That hour, ladies and gentlemen, is over. For the past seventeen minutes, I’ve been lying my head off”. Welles has faked yet another story, but it’s a damn good yarn, isn’t it? And isn’t art, as Welles opines, “a lie that makes us realize the truth?” In that regard, Welles did it better than anyone else. And with one last illusion- the disappearance of Kodar’s fake grandfather- Welles wishes us all, “true and false, a very pleasant good evening” before the blinds shut on Welles’ final masterpiece.

Or, at least, his final masterpiece until we finally see The Other Side of the Wind (please). I’d like to thank you all for reading. Welles might not have had the career he deserved, but he made more than his share of indelible works with the one he got. There’s not a dud in his filmography- even the one I didn’t care for (Macbeth) has a lot going for it. And now, some superlatives.

1.     Citizen Kane (100/A)
2.     Touch of Evil (98/A)
3.     The Magnificent Ambersons (98/A)
4.     Chimes at Midnight (96/A)
5.     F for Fake (96/A)
6.     The Trial (90/A-)
7.     Othello (89/A-)
8.     The Lady from Shanghai (86/A-)
9.     Mr. Arkadin (76/B+)
10. Filming Othello (66/B)
11. The Stranger (65/B)
12. The Immortal Story (60/B-)
13. Macbeth (53/C+)

Best Actor: Orson Welles (Citizen Kane)
Runner-up: Orson Welles (Touch of Evil)

Best non-Welles Lead: Anthony Perkins (The Trial)
Runner-up: Tim Holt (The Magnificent Ambersons)

Best Actress: Janet Leigh (Touch of Evil)
Runner-up: Rita Hayworth (The Lady from Shanghai)

Best Supporting Actor: Joseph Cotten (Citizen Kane)
Runner-up: Joseph Cotten (The Magnificent Ambersons)

Best Supporting Actress: Agnes Moorehead (The Magnificent Ambersons)
Runner-up: Marlene Dietrich (Touch of Evil)

Best Screenplay: Citizen Kane
Runner-up: The Magnificent Ambersons

Best Director: Citizen Kane
Runner-up: Touch of Evil

Best Scene: Rosebud revealed (Citizen Kane)
Runner-up: Time Bomb (Touch of Evil)

Thanks to everyone who was so patient with this edition of Director Spotlight- grad school really took up a lot of my free time. That’s why I’m starting the next one as soon as possible. I don’t know what my schedule is going to be like, so I’d like to make sure I start the Director Spotlight on Martin Scorsese before The Wolf of Wall Street hits theaters.
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Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable #9: Pacific Rim

Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in the Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable.

Max’s Grade: 86/A-
Loren’s Grade: B+ (he doesn’t use the same idiotic 100-point scale I use)

Max O’Connell: We've  been eagerly awaiting Pacific Rim, not in small part because we’re big fans of Del Toro. I have a personal connection because I’ve been a Godzilla fan since I was about 3. It was my first movie love, so seeing Del Toro effectively do a Godzilla movie just made me happy.

Loren Greenblatt: When I was 4, I saw Jurassic Park, and during the showing, I stood up on my chair and said, “I wanna do that!” I decided I wanted to make movies. I feel that there are kids walking out of a theatre showing Pacific Rim who are making the same decision. This movie is an absolute joy.

MO: Basic plot: in the near future a bunch of giant monsters, called Kaiju (named for the Japanese film genre that gave us Godzilla) from another dimension come through a crack in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and start attacking. After trying more traditional methods, humanity builds a bunch of giant, human piloted robots called Jaegers, which is German for “hunter,” to fight the Kaiju. But twenty years into the program, the war is  taking a turn for the worse and the Jaeger program is being shut down in favor of building a wall. This turns out to be a bad idea, and the leader of the program, the awesomely-named Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba of Luther fame) brings in a former Jaeger pilot Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) to be a final member of the human resistance.

LG: This isn't the kind of film we normally get in America, certainly not in live-action and at this budget level. The closest equivalent we have in recent cinema are Micheal Bay's awful Transformers movies. All these films are primarily concerned with giant monsters smashing up cities. The difference between Bay's films and Pacific Rim is that Guillermo Del Toro understands that an action movie’s success doesn’t depend on explosions, but on us caring about the people in those explosions. It’s not enough that we have a person piloting the Jaeger- we have two, because according to the film’s pseudoscience, one pilot isn’t enough to handle the neural load that comes with having your mind and movements connected to a giant robot. A jaeger requires two pilots liked through their memories. It's not one chosen person against the world, suddenly it becomes about teamwork, can these people overcome tension between them to work together. It's probably no coincidence that these Jaeger pilots tend to be family members, it makes thematic sense and it ups the stakes. Like we see In the film’s prologue, where Raleigh and his brother take Gipsy Danger, an American Jaeger, on an ill fated mission that end's the brother's death.

MO: He quits, and five years later, Pentecost brings him back. Raleigh gets to pick whichever co-pilot he wants, but the only one he really forms a connection with is Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi of Babel), who has her own past trauma with the Kaiju.

LG: After the first couple of giant monster battles, which really are quite wonderful, the film settles down and goes to the Jaeger complex in Hong Kong, dubbed The Shatterdome, and it turns into a bit of a drama about human cooperation in the face of outrageous adversity. I like that this is a reasonably multicultural group saving the world- we get a Russian team, a Chinese team, an Australian team, a British black guy running the program, and a final team made up of one American and one Japanese woman. It’s not just a bunch of Americans saving the world (but mostly New York) from certain doom. It’s a very universal-minded movie.

MO: There was a piece in The Dissolve this week by Tasha Robinson that argued that the film’s success was partly based in the fact that it doesn’t invoke 9/11, and that it tries to make it more universal.

LG: Not that it can't be done in a film like this. The original Godzilla very liberally quotes WWII imagery, like the destruction of Hiroshima and the firebombing of Tokyo, that would have been very fresh in the minds of Japanese audiences and arguably more traumatic. But we've been getting a lot of 9/11 imagery this Summer and I'm glad that Del Toro didn't resort to it here, and Robinson is right, the lack of that imagery with its coddled, American context fits in to Del Toro's universalist mindset. It's one of the key things this film gets from being directed by a non-American. Unlike similar films, we don't have a jingoistic military fighting against a dehumanized group of “others,” this is a film about humanity saving humanity.

MO: I also love that while the main appeal of the film is the brawny “giant robots fight sea monsters” angle, two of the most compelling and helpful people in the group are a pair of scientists.

LG: Charlie Day from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is sort of their version of Jeff Goldblum. He’s an excitable, he has Kaiju tattoos and fancies himself a rock-star scientist but he’s very nerdy and silly.

MO: He’s kind of the Guillermo Del Toro stand-in. He’s made entirely of boyish enthusiasm, and Day is very good in this role, credibly spitting out the pseudoscientific dialogue in a rapid-fire pace while still serving as a pretty great source of comic relief. And on the other hand, we have Burn Gorman as the other scientist, Herman, who’s much more button-down. It’s kind of a battle between an intuitive, experimental scientist and one who believes almost solely in testing numbers. So we’ve talked a little bit about how we actually care about the characters in the explosions…but what about those explosions?

LG: Oh my god, those explosions are wonderful! Shooting and framing these kinds of battles is very difficult. It’s difficult when you have these large things fighting each other to capture everything and still convey a sense of scale. If you’re too close, you can’t see anything. If you’re too far away, we don’t get the size. Michael Bay showed us how not to do it. Del Toro finds a very nice middle-ground where it feels almost like these are giant sporting events. And the creatures are a lot of fun- every Kaiju is a little different, they come in different sizes and have different abilities. The Jaegers themselves are full of these wonderful gadgets, some have three arms, some have swords, etc. All this keeps the fights from being repetitive There’s always something else going on, and we feel like the stakes are being raised with each battle, which is essential.

MO: There’s a sense of levels to everything, which was a problem with, say, the Chicago sequence in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which is just an hour of carnage. We don’t feel exhausted at the end here because there is a gradual build. Part of that is the size of the machines and monsters, part is Del Toro’s natural gifts with pacing. I’ve heard some people complain that the fights are all staged in the rain at night, which I guess I can understand, but they all look great. He’s able to use some frenetic editing when it’s called for, but we have a sense of where everything is, we can tell what’s going on…for almost every fight, I know exactly where every character is in relation to each other, whether it’s established through photography or through cross-cutting. That sounds simple, but so many blockbusters forget basics of spatial dynamics. And that’s what makes everything so exciting, not just the robots with swords. Though, come on, my inner 9-year-old was about to have a joyful heart attack at that sword. But then there’s the look of this: the way it’s composed, the way colors blend together in an impressionistic blur. It’s a beautiful film.

LG: And there’s a sense of humor in the fights when there needs to be. Del Toro is great with those cartoonish moments in the middle of his fights, like the Wile E. Coyote shot in Blade II. Not to spoil anything, but there's a wonderful moment involving a Newton’s Cradle (the clicking metallic balls that go back and forth when you hit one) and another involving a football stadium. I almost feel like we’re underselling it by saying that the fights are staged competently. It's almost a commentary on how badly many action scenes are shot that we are too often impressed with 'competently shot, ' but this goes beyond that. There’s a lot going on in these fights to make them work. There's a lot things going on with the mismatching of the abilities of the different Kaiju and Jaegers and then on the inside of the machines- Raleigh and Mako need to link their memories in order to pilot them. And Mako has a similar past trauma, so there’s a lot of tension in whether or not she’ll be able to hack it. It’s a little bit of a Top Gun set-up.

MO: It sort of is, though that’s subverted. This is kind of a regular thing with fighter-pilot movies, where the cocky fighter-pilot gets someone killed, but by the end he saves the day, so it’s no big deal. Del Toro’s not interested in celebrating the macho hero. It’s actually though shared experiences and understanding each other that these people can fight together.

LG: I also love how detailed this film is. This isn’t a film bound by realism, it isn’t trying to be a realistic Godzilla movie. But it does imagine what it might be like if a society had to deal with these attacks for twenty plus years. In the beginning of the film, we see the government deciding to abandon the Jaeger program and build a giant wall. Now I’m not going to read into it too much, but I do think there’s some sly humor here. We have a Mexican director making a thing about a wall to keeps aliens out. It’s a cute, clever little jab at how ineffectual that strategy is and at how alien invasion movies tend to use their aliens as stand-ins for “foreigners”.

MO: Oh, that’s clever. I didn’t notice that.

LG: And the only scene we see this in is in Alaska, a very Republican state. Again, don’t read into it, it’s just a joke. But it is the kind of detail that sets this film apart. Any other movie would probably not even think of something like this, let alone would it find the time to show the wall being built or give a sense of what it’s like building it. But Del Toro does. We see how dangerous it is and it does a wonderful job of showing the cost of living under this kind of a constant threat. In one short scene, we get the sense that economies have tumbled, and that society has had to rebuild itself in new and strange ways. But it isn’t a movie that wallows in despair. Instead, it finds new questions to answer and new details to dazzle us. I don’t know that too many people wondered what happens to giant monsters after they die, but we get a pretty good answer here. We get cites built around their skeletons, which is awesome, and we get to learn what the government does with the Kaiju organs and brains for experiments, not to mention what a black market dealer like Hannibal Chau (played wonderfully by Ron Perlman) does with them. They explain, at least in a very general way, how the new Jaegers work differently from old ones, and how some are analog where others are digital and some are nuclear powered.  It’s all gobbledygook, but it’s done with such care that we believe it. It’s real gobbledygook. The same thing goes for the Kaiju who have a well thought out biology.There’s no detail of this world that Del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham didn’t think of.

MO: I like that we get a sense of how the Kaijus do work. Del Toro believes that monsters are beautiful creatures, and they are here. But we also get a complicated view of monsters. (Spoilers) Where past Del Toro films viewed monsters as animals rather than evil creatures, here they’re perhaps evil, but they’re not just dumb animals. There’s a method to their destruction that’s perhaps not too complicated, but there’s an intelligence there. It’s something that could have been explored more, but we get enough here. If we got a sequel, we’d probably see more. There’s a little bit more to the monsters than usual.

LG: It’s kind of ridiculous to assume that creatures this large, with equally large brains, are stupid. Yes, I know that brain's don't necessarily work that way, but this is sci-fi logic.

MO: We also get a sense of being in the Jaeger experience. When Mako and Raleigh first mind-link (it’s called drifting here), there’s a wonderful blur of colors as we see some of their past experiences in a blue light that reminded me of Minority Report. It highlights how important it is to share past experiences with each other, and it’s beautiful just to behold. And I also love what happens when Mako can’t handle her past trauma, which her first mind-link makes her re-experience. It turns out that her family was killed in a Kaiju attack when she was a little girl, and we her get lost in that memory. It’s a little bit like Del Toro’s recreation of a past experience in Hellboy, and it’s a lot like how Christopher Walken sees the past in David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, which Del Toro is a huge fan of. We’re placed inside a memory, and Raleigh can observe, but he can’t change it, and he can’t convince Mako that it isn’t real. This is problematic because she’s connected to the Jaeger, and when she gets scared, the giant killer machine responds to her emotions. This was my favorite scene in the film- I was genuinely terrified not only by what she might do, but by the memory itself, which is like the “raptors in the kitchen” scene in Jurassic Park blown up to gigantic scale. And there’s a beautiful image of her carrying a little red shoe that’s wonderful. (End spoilers)

LG: The thing about this film is that it does outdo at least one aspect of the Godzilla series. You’ve seen more of those movies than I have, but I've never cared about the humans in those movies except for in the original. Especially if it’s the 1998 version. I don’t go to these movies for humans doing human things. I go for monsters smashing things. And it’s very interesting that in this, I do care about the human people doing human things. It really makes the movie. Some of the human drama is a bit clichéd, which is often true of Del Toro’s American films, but he does it so earnestly that it doesn’t really matter.

MO: Yeah, the fact that we get an Independence Day speech from Idris Elba or a hoary father-son story from the Australian characters might be clichéd, but it’s a fun cliché, damn it! It’s handled rather well. I was initially a little let down that the actual emotional arc with our protagonist, Raleigh, and our other lead, Mako, is solved about halfway or two-thirds of the way through when they are able to establish a mind-link. It’s a bit messy, structurally, I’ll admit. But at the same time, it kind of seems like they’re leads in name only. It’s more of an ensemble piece, because the other characters’ arcs take over after that. We get to see the Australian father-son duo (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky, both great) work out their relationship.

LG: He’s a cocky alpha-male shithead, and the father admits that he loves him but doesn’t know whether he needs “a hug or a kick in the ass”. Them learning to work with others and admit their love for each other is a cliché, but it’s rather effective.

MO: I was even more involved in the relationship between Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as the diametrically-opposed scientists who find a way to blend their approaches- hard science with intuition- which ends up playing a major part in saving the day. I love where Idris Elba’s character winds up going, which ends up playing to Del Toro’s pet theme of self-sacrifice. There is more going on in terms of character than people gave it credit. It’s kind of like Jurassic Park: not as rich with character as some of its creators’ past blockbusters, but it’s more complicated than it looks on the surface.

LG: The characters in Jurassic Park weren’t incredibly deep, but there is more going on intellectually than people gave it credit.

MO: Del Toro did cut out about an hour of character material. He said that we can’t pretend this is Ibsen with monsters and giant robots. We get sketches, and that’s all we really need.

LG: I think it's kind of amazing that the movie finds time to do as much as it does and does it in only 2 hours. That’s short for most blockbusters these days, which are bloated all the way to 2 ½ hours. It’s OK to have a long one when it’s deserved, but it’s getting automatic. This doesn’t stick around too long. It gets in, does what it’s doing, and gets out. It’s very lean, and it moves well.

MO: It moved so well, and it’s made with such boyish enthusiasm that it made me not care about the few problems I did have with it, whether it’s the structural problems with the protagonists, or the quasi-romance between Raleigh and Mako. It’s cute in the beginning, especially in a fight scene they have that determines how perfect they are for each other for a mind-link. It’s adorable.

LG: And (spoilers) the movie doesn’t force a romance on these characters. It could go there at some point, but at this point at the end of the world, it’s about them working together, not learning to fall in bed together.

MO: And that helps Mako stand out as more than just a guy-accessory, which is what Del Toro wanted to do. And it does serve the film’s central theme of teamwork by not having them fall in bed together. But my issue is that the romance is built up, and at the end, it looks like they’re going to have that moment to admit their love and kiss, but it doesn’t really go there. It felt to me like Del Toro was a little too afraid of making her a guy accessory that he kind of defeated what was left of their emotional arc.

LG: But their relationship at that point has transcended “will they or won’t they”. They’re co-combatants, they’re siblings in arms, and they’re literally in each other’s minds. Remember that this film associates the co-pilot relationship with family roles. I'm not saying that they can't go there in a future movie, but not going there in this film is a very deliberate statement on Del Toro's part.

MO: I agree that it works intellectually and thematically. It serves the film’s key theme of learning to work together and trust each other. But by the end it sacrifices a bit of an emotional peak. (end spoilers)

LG: But we squeeze a lot more emotion out of this movie than I thought was possible.

MO: Yeah, this is really just a minor qualm. The film did make me forget most of my complaints. All but one really. There’s one teeny-tiny one that we can’t overlook. Almost every performance in this film is wonderful- Perlman is fun, Day and Gorman make a great comic-relief/heart of the film, Elba gives the gravitas, Kikuchi is great. Charlie Hunnam…

LG:…he’s…not the worst actor in the world. I haven’t seen him in anything else before, but he's not great here. He’s particularly deadly when asked to narrate.

MO: The exposition in the beginning of the film works rather well, considering that they have to get a lot of information out at once, because it’s played with a bunch of monsters attacking the world. The only problem is his narration, which is deadening. And it’s not just because he’s a British actor doing a terrible, terrible American accent. That’s not the issue. He has no charm or charisma in this thing. The best thing I can say about this performance is that he’s not Sam Worthington. He’s boring, but he doesn’t look sleepy the whole time.

LG: He’s much better than Sam Worthington, but we all are.

MO: We needed a light up in the smile kind of guy. Chris Pine was busy with Star Trek Into Darkness, but if we could just get a guy with that kind of charm we’d be fine. Some of my friends complained that it’s not the most interesting character anyway, which is true. Almost by default, he’s the least interesting character.

LG: I love Pine, but I don't think his brand of cockiness would fit here. The film almost needs a quieter character to contrast all the loudness of everything else. We need stoic and haunted isn’t up to the task. It’s very unusual for Del Toro to cast someone so bland in the lead. I know he’s wanted to work with Hunnam for a while, but it doesn’t work.

MO: I’ve seen him in a few other things. I only saw the pilot of Sons of Anarchy, which I thought he was fine in, but again, not the most interesting character in the show. And I remember liking him in Cold Mountain, but it’s been years since I’ve seen it. I don’t know what happened. He didn’t work here.

LG: But that’s about the worst thing I can say about this movie. Hopefully, maybe, by the skin of their teeth, we’ll get enough to see a sequel.

MO: I think this thing is going to be a success, I think there will be a word-of-mouth for it that might make it stick around. A lot of people are walking out of this thing thrilled.

LG: Kids are going to love this.

MO: They will, and I think there is more to chew on than people are giving it credit. It’s not as rich as, say, Hellboy II or obviously Pan’s Labyrinth, but it’s not intellectually bankrupt.  Most of all, though, it’s an absolute blast. I had a reaction of pure childlike joy.

LG: In a summer of heavy blockbusters trying to be dark and serious, this is a movie that really wants to entertain to the fullest extent possible. It's a mega-budget film without cynicism or pretension and that’s becoming increasingly rare. Now, I’m of two minds when grading this film. If I were reviewing this on its own in the context of the Roundtable, I’d give it an A because it’s a top-notch summer blockbuster. In the context of his other films, I’d give it a B. I’ll split the difference and give it a high B+.

MO: I’m giving it a pretty unreserved A-. It’s the most joyful experience I’ve had in a theatre in I don’t know how long.

LG: Go see this fucking thing!

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