Sunday, May 28, 2006

Musing Pictures: X-Men: THe Last Stand

More can be said for conviction than one might expect. The third film in the "X-Men" trillogy, "The Last Stand" delivers only some of what it promises.

Remembering the first X-Men film, which was made and released in pre-9/11 America, I recall finding it refreshingly slow -- an action film that was more about characters and concepts than the typical action film. Although it suffered in the same way that any first-in-a-series film suffers (it has to squeeze a lot of back-story in to two short hours), it gave me a good sense that an interesting, complex world had been created, and that subsequent films would make good use of that world.

The second X-Men film is the reason for the first line of this post. "X-Men United" was a film made by a team that believed what they were doing. Whereas the first X-Men film was a foray in to new, uncharted territory, the second X-Men film was approached with the confidence of people who knew what they were doing -- who knew what world they were in. It was a surprising film in that it came at a time when we still believed that sequels are never as good as their predecessors -- X-Men 2 is partially responsible for deconstructing that belief.

X-Men 3 concludes the story (although the parting shot leaves us wondering about what happens next, there are clearly no plans for yet another X-Men film, nor should there be.) Sadly, whereas the first X-Men film successfully built the world, and the second successfully textured that world's deep, painful dramas, this third X-Men film (directed by Brett Ratner, rather than Bryan Singer (who helmed the first two films, and whose work we'll be seeing soon, when "Superman Returns")) is back where the first one began -- unsure of itself, unsure of the rules, and unsure of the real root and heart of the story. A story's ending is like the end of a gymnastics routine -- it has to stick, and in order to stick, it has to be told with conviction. A storyteller who does not believe the ending of his story is in trouble from the start.

What does lack-of-conviction look like on screen? For the most part, it comes across in performances. When the incomparable Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen sound like they're acting, it's a good hint that someone (probably the director) isn't so sure what he wants, and as a result, the actors can't be sure of their characters anymore. But it also comes in inconsistencies, and this particular film, especially the ending of this particular film, happens to contain inconsistencies that are simiply inexplicable (and here I mean narrative inconsistencies, not the occasional mistakes of continuity that can creep in to a production).

I do not believe that "X-Men" went 'one film too far'. I just wish that the production's footing was more sure before the film was produced.


Saturday, May 27, 2006

Trailer Talk: World Trade Center

When I saw the trailer to Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" at the screening of "The DaVinci Code", I was struck by two things:

1) It makes the film look very commercial, the way that some of the "United 93" trailers made that film appear. "United 93", thankfully, turned out to be very tastefully, delicately, and powerfully constructed. "World Trade Center" might turn out to be an excellent film (Oliver Stone is no slouch), but I wonder about it... One of the things that made "United 93" work is that it is a very limited film -- it's about one aspect of the events of one particularly eventful day. The film is so dedicated to its story-within-a-larger-story that we never even see the towers fall (for me, and I imagine, for many people, the difinitive moment of that day's experience). "World Trade Center", by its title, and by the preview, focuses on those towers, and on the rescue personnel who went in to try to keep the worst from happening. Approaching this type of story, a question is begged: The events of September 11 were terrible to watch from a distance -- the story of the witness-from-the-living-room can be chilling and dramatic enough -- so why do we need to go inside (and if you look at the trailer, we do go inside the building, in to what appears to be its lobby, as it is coming down. Even in the trailer! The Naudet Brothers' documentary on 9/11 included footage from inside one tower as the other tower collapsed, and most of that footage was utter darkness. If Oliver Stone asked himself this question, then I suspect that the film will have an answer.

2) You need to see this trailer in theaters in order to understand what I mean by this point, because computer screens won't get it: They matched the weather. I don't know how the heck they did this, but they matched the weather. I was in the Boston area in September, 2001, and the weather on that particular day was pretty much identical between Boston and New York. One of the first things that struck me as I watched this preview was that the color of the air somehow matched my recollections. This was something that I noticed in "United 93" as well -- the color of the weather (call it color saturation, call it color-balance, call it what you want) matched my memories. And the absolutely fascinating thing is that between "United 93" and "World Trade Center", you have two very different approaches to the way that particular day looked, but both seem equally true-to-the-original. I think that the key to why this works lies in the way each film sets up what "outside, during the day" means. The outdoors of New York City of each film is an outdoors in relation to an indoors. The exteriors are contrasted with interiors. I suspect that the reason both "United 93" and this "World Trade Center" trailer seem to accurately mirror my memories of that day's weather (despite the differences between the films' "look") is that both films are very concscious of making the day look a certain way -- bright, sunny, cloudless... and each film approaches the exteriors by contrasting them with interiors, and by matching the visual style of the exteriors to the visual approach to the interiors. Okay, this is getting a little technical. In "United 93", there's a lot of grainy, over-exposed stuff, even on the interiors of buildings. The colors are muted, but the whites are harsh. When we see the outdoors in that film, they are even brighter -- it all looks as though someone pointed a camera without adjusting to the fact that it's such a bright, sunny day. And that makes it seem even brighter and sunnier. "World Trade Center", judging by the trailer, is shot in a bit of a more standard way, with cleaner, crisper film stock, and with a better balance of colors... so its approach to what that type of weather looks like involves emphasizing the blue of the sky, and emphasizing the effects of sunlight on different colors (making them more vibrant, more 'alive'). I can't know how much of this is true without speaking with the postproduction supervisors of both films (they would be the ones in charge of conveying color conversations from the director to the people who actually handle color correction and all of that.)

One more interesting note on the trailer comes from The Professor, and can be found here:


Musing Pictures: The DaVinci Code

There are many new films these days that begin with baggage. Some are sequels, entering theaters only to face a crowd of comparers -- an audience that is all too eager to go home, to tell friends "it was better than the first one". Some are re-makes, with the same problem: "It was better than the original" is the best they can hope for (and the least likely of possible outcomes).

"The DaVinci Code" comes with its own baggage, of course. Many moviegoers will be eager to compare it to the book, itself a sequel.

I have seen several reviews of "The DaVinci Code" that claim that it does stand on its own quite well (that it is not one of those films where if you didn't read the book, you won't understand the movie). Why is this assertion so necessary so often? There have been quite a few big hits lately that are literarily-inspired, from the Harry Potter films to the Lord of the Rings trillogy. Those films didn't require a familiarity with their source-material. Why do people keep expecting this?

Perhaps it's the sequence that does it.

People assume that sequels necessitate a familiarity with the film which they follow. You have to see film #1 before you see film #2. That is always the order of things: thing #1 has to come before thing #2. You have to see the original before you see the remake (or, at least, that used to be the way of it. How many people who saw Peter Jackson's "King Kong" made a point of seeing the Cooper/Schoedsack original?) It seems to be the same with books -- you have to read the book before you see the movie.

Interestingly, this idea wasn't originally a matter of understanding.

Of course, movies are made in such a way that they can stand on their own -- even sequels, nowadays, are structured so as to appeal to an audience that is broader than that of their preceding film. Movies based on books, too, are made so that you don't have to read the book. They have to be, especially in a culture that tends to watch movies more than read books.

So why do people seem to ask "will I understand it if I haven't read the book"?

I don't really know the answer to this. Certainly with the "Lord of the Rings" films, knowing the books meant knowing a richer backstory (but not necessarily a necessary one, as far as the films themselves are concerned). "The DaVinci Code", though, is a very dense film that stays very true to the book it is based on (at least, very little is added, even if one or two moments are taken away). But even with "The DaVinci Code", if it were a film that you could only understand if you had read the book, it would be failing as a film. And this is true of any book-based film. Movies are supposed to stand on their own.

A coda pertaining to the third installment in the new Star Wars trillogy: Here is an example of an intentional deviation from this unspoken "rule" of cinema. In the third installment of the new Star Wars trillogy (this would be the sixth Star Wars feature, then), there is an entire battle sequence with a robotic creature that seems to come out of nowhere. Apparently, this sequence is really the conclusion of an entire narrative that takes place between that film and the film before it -- a narrative that is explained in a short graphic novelette (a part of George Lucas' franchise, of course). Is it fair to put the end of this episode in to a film in such a prominent way without explaining the backstory (even in a rudimentary way) within that same film? some have suggested that in doing so, Lucas has developed a new form of movie -- one that takes advantage of the age of multimedia -- by incorporating multiple media sources and bridging one narrative across them. Imagine, then, a story that is told partially through a book, partially through a movie, partially through a radio show, and partially through a play, where you have to go through all of those media in the right order to get the story straight. It strikes me as an interesting idea at first, but also as a tiring one. What's the point, other than to make more money by selling more tickets for one story? It might be interesting to have a narrative presented in a book that will only conclude on screen, but only if I can get both for the price of one, and only if I can somehow get them at the same time, or in the same way. It forces too much work on the viewer/reader/listener to be a practical concept, as far as I can tell.

But who knows? Perhaps there will come a visionary mediamaker at some point who will be able to combine all of these different modes of narrative expression in to a coherent, multimedia narrative? I'm sure people are striving towards that end already, so it's probably a matter of time before it happens.

Meanwhile, movies based on books will still be made so that you don't have to read the book to understand the movie.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Musing Pictures: A Scanner Darkly

I got a chance to see this, Richard Linklater's latest, in what is probably close to the best setting for it -- on a college campus. I say this is close to the best setting because I imagine it as much more of a dorm-room film, something a bunch of sophomores would excitedly watch in groups of five or six at three in the morning.

I like it when Philip K. Dick's narratives get translated to the screen ("Blade Runner" and "Minority Report" are, admittedly, the only two I've seen thus far, but I have vague memories of catching parts of "Total Recall" on TV a while back...) but I guess what I like is the noir-ish ambiguity of the future that defines "Blade Runner" and "Minority Report"... If "A Scanner Darkly" had been made in that sort of way, perhaps it would have impressed me more... As it was, though, it came across as sort of a middle-aged-hipster-meets-The-Future type of movie... sort of an answer to the question "What if the guys from 'Dazed and Confused' grew up in the future?" with weird politics and a twist ending that might have been fascinating had it been closer to the point of the film...

What was the point of the film? I can't quite tell. It might have had a pro-drug sort of message, or, at least, an anti-drug, pro-druggie message, or, perhaps an anti-drug, anti-druggie, pro-experimenting-with-drugs message, or... see, it sort of loses itself in itself. After the screening, several students commented to me that just watching the film (rendered in a weird, quasi-animation type of styling (much like Linklater's "Waking Life")) gave them the sense that they should wait an hour before driving home.

I've seen movies about drugs in the future, and I've seen them better -- 'THX1138' is, interestingly, the first to come to mind. Interestingly, both films have the drugs being provided by an overwhelmingly powerful entity that intends to weild those drugs as a method of controlling and profiting off of a large part of the population...

Another recent film, 'V for Vendetta' (which I hated, but which had elements that I loved) takes this sort of tack, but approaches it in an extraordinarily different (but frighteningly similar) way, to good effect (perhaps that's the next film I'll write about?)

Ultimately, 'A Scanner Darkly' didn't settle. Perhaps this was its purpose? The undercover police force in the film goes around in pattern-shifting suits, so no officer can be identified, even by other members of the force. It's both hard to watch and fascinating (and sometimes, it's so captivating as to trump the significance of whatever the character in the suit is saying). Is that unsettlingness the point? I don't think so -- in a film where nothing is settling, somehow, even unsettlingness itself never quite solidifies as a central theme or concept, and I'm not sure why. Although "Dazed and Confused" was very similar, it got to its point much more clearly, as I recall. Perhaps there has to be clarity in order for non-clarity to be apparent, and quiet for dis-quiet. Perhaps that is at the center of what's missing. There's lots of talk about a good, clean, happy world going berserk in the film, but all we see is a film gone berserk, and it's not set far enough in the future for me to believe that between now and then there was a time of relative peacefulness and harmony. If it were set a thousand years from now, rather than maybe twenty, perhaps I might have found it compelling (and with all of that new, weird technology, perhaps I would have found my disbelief more easily suspended).


Monday, May 08, 2006

Musing Pictures: United 93

Yes, yes, I know, I know, it's too early to make a film about the events of September 11... or, at least, that's what I keep hearing.

I know that people aren't forgetting that, in fact, there was plenty of filmmaking going on about that difficult day very quickly after the events themselves took place. There was even "9/11", a striking, moving documentary about the whole ordeal that was completed by March, 2002, and broadcast on national television on the one-year anniversary of the attacks (http:// It was nominated for five Emmy awards (and won two of them). And how many documentaries have there been about it since then? A few hundred? A thousand?

"But those are documentaries!" some might say, arguing that this somehow gives them more credibility. Take a look at one of the Emmys that "9/11" took home -- "Outstanding Sound Mixing for Non-Fiction Programming (Single or Multi-Camera)" It's an incredible mix, but let that be a reminder to all of us that even when we're watching a documentary, what we hear is rarely a "document" of the sounds of what we're seeing. In some ways, it can be the best kind of historical fiction.

But I digress. There is a new film out now, "United 93", directed by Paul Greengrass (yes, the guy behind "The Bourne Supremacy") and it doesn't pretend to be a "document" of the events themselves...

So, perhaps, here's a point of comparison: Documentaries try to portray truth as-it-is, or as-it-was -- 'show the historical film, show the "experts" talking about the historical film (although, to its credit, "9/11" has no "experts"), present all the visual materials as "evidence" of something, and then make your point.'

The fear about "United 93" is the fear about any fiction that attempts to tell history as narrative: In the conversion from history to narrative, certain details are lost, and certain interpretations that do not exist in the threads of fate make their way in to the storytelling. This happens to be true about documentaries, but for some reason, this doesn't bother people as much.

Now, yes, I do feel that it is too soon for certain treatments of the 9/11 attacks -- a "Towering Inferno" or "Poseidon Adventure" type of approach (i.e. '70s disaster film with an ensemble cast and a happy ending except for the death of someone we like) would be awfully disrespectful (yes, the date and its events have attained a certain secular sacredness, it seems), but "United 93" stays very clear of all of that.

In some ways, "United 93" acheives something that documentaries can not acheive (some might say that they can, on rare occasions, but I have yet to see it). It tells the history as fiction, allowing the viewer to enter the scene as one enters a story -- without concern for one's own well-being, because stories aren't real -- the monsters can't hurt us. When we see a documentary, we know that we are seeing something real (even if it isn't), whereas when we see a fictional narrative film (especially a Hollywood film, and especially in the theater), we know that we are seeing something that is ultimately fake (even if it isn't).

Much of the cast of "United 93" is composed of people playing themselves. Air traffic controllers, military leaders and mid-level bureaucrats in the film are often not actors, not even re-enactors, but the actual people who were involved in the actual events on which the film is based. In a documentary, they would be talking to us directly, through the screen. We can not feel what they felt -- even if the scene is re-enacted in a documentary. On the other hand, if these were all actors in the scene, re-enacting the experiences of people not-themselves, we might feel empathy for the characters as we watch, but the "this is fiction" safety net is always there for us to fall back on if we need it. Fascinatingly, since we are in a movie theater, and since we know this to be a Hollywood film, we let ourselves deep in to its fiction, only to discover that the fictionality of it is very thin -- thinner than even a very carefully researched re-enactment, because many of the re-enactors act from first-hand experience. It becomes a much more emotionally dangerous film because it is almost participation -- certainly it is closer to participation than a documentary could provide.

So, is it too soon for this film to happen?

Imagine if a film were made before 1950 about the Holocaust with survivors or liberators or what have you honestly and genuinely returning to the "scene" of the crime, re-creating it for the rest of the world to see, understand and remember. Imagine how much more powerful it would be than even the best documentaries or the most careful, sensitive re-creations. I am thinking now to the future -- fifty years or so, let's say. Sure, there will be plenty of folks who remember the events of September 11, 2001, but how many of them will remember well enough to act their reactions out, to demonstrate the shock of it? Will there ever be actors who can "fake" it well enough for anyone to understand? Despite all the films about Pearl Harbor, do any of us who do not remember that day have even the foggiest idea of how shocking it was?

I can't speak for every piece of fictionalization that will be coming out about the 9/11 attacks over the course of the next few years, but I can say that "United 93" could not have waited a moment longer. It is a closer account of the events than just about any documentary (perhaps with the exception of the Naudet Brothers' film), and it is a more involving and more directly emotional account than I expect any films could be many years from now, because the people who made it, who are in it, were in it.

And of course, none of this has anything to do with the goings-on on the airplane itself, which, of course, is somewhere near the center of the film... Perhaps I'll leave that for another conversation.