Saturday, May 30, 2009

My Ten Favorite Books About Film

After reading Movie Man’s eloquent post at the Dancing Image on
his favorite film books from his most enviable collection and, as always, inspired by the wondrous power of books to transport one to other worlds (and that means books about films transport you to multiple worlds), I compiled a list and commentary on my favorite film books in my much smaller film book library.

1. The Life and Times of the Western Movie by Jay Hyams

In a mere 231 pages, Hyams covers the history of my favorite film genre from The Great Train Robbery to the early 80s. (The book ends by mourning the sunset of the Western genre in the early 80s, but the book needs an updated edition to cover the reemergence of the Western in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century.) Incredibly, the book covers a long list of Western classics, decade by decade, sometimes according to type: the revenge story; whites vs. Indians; the “action oater.” Meanwhile, it manages to include brief summaries and analytical commentary on each title. I’ve read this book cover to cover, and I go back to it more often than any other book in my collection.

2. John Wayne’s America by Garry Wills

The focus here is on the films that created John Wayne’s film persona and how it influenced American history and identity. (During the Vietnam War, the Marine Corps showed Sands of Iwo Jima as part of recruit training.) I’ve read at least five complete biographies of Wayne (my favorite is John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth by Michael Munn), but this is not an in-depth biography. The book is an eloquent analysis of Wayne’s developing character in many of his pivotal films. Its analysis of character relationships in Stagecoach is memorable.

3. Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties by Peter Biskind

I love 50s films – and this book is a great look at film genres that reflected the fears and politics of that whimsically nostalgic but deeply troubled decade. There’s wonderful analysis of 50s classics such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Searchers, and Giant.

4. Vertigo The Making of a Hitchcock Classic by Dan Auiler

This is a fun book about how a film is made. It covers the process from creating the story, writing the screenplay, scouting out locations, storyboarding, developing the look of the film, and filming. I especially love the detailed description of the whole shooting schedule, scene by scene, location by location - a big interest to me since I lived in San Francisco for a time and I’ve visited a number of the locations. It always fascinates me how scenes are shot out of sequence. In this case, despite non-chronological shooting of scenes, Scottie’s intricate character is so meticulously developed.

5. Flashback: A Brief History of Film by Louis Giannetti and Scott Eyman

This “brief” history is a comprehensive narrative of world film history from the birth of the medium to the present. It’s a textbook, but since college film textbooks seem more devoted to covering the terminology and techniques of the art form, this book is a desirable find. I like how it covers American film history by decade, followed by chapters that cover international film history; and within those decades, the book covers the films of the famous auteurs. I also like how it analyzes films that reflect the feelings and trends of the decade. The black-and-white photos invite you to seek out classic movies you’ve missed.

6. Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Making the Movie- introduction by Luc Sante

Even if you weren’t crazy about the movie, this book is a fantastic look at all major aspects of filmmaking. By means of interviews, the book covers direction, screenwriting, acting, cinematography, production design, set decoration, action direction, and hair and makeup. Especially impressive are the parts on production design and set decoration, which show how Scorsese went to great pains to create a life-size section of old New York City. The book includes exquisite production stills as well as the entire screenplay. What more could you want! This book transports you to the world of this film.

7. James Cameron’s Titanic - text by Ed W. Marsh

This opulent making-of companion to the hit film, featuring scads of beautiful production stills, became a New York Times bestseller in 1998. But it’s not just gorgeous photographs of Kate Winslet in all her costumes – and dramatic photographs of the sinking ship. The book provides a summary of the story and technical explanations of how they produced the ship in its many versions: models; 90%-scale construction of one side of the ship and a number of decks; and life-size interior sets, and how the filmmakers endeavored to recreate history as accurately as possible. This book is an awesome look at how a special effects blockbuster is made.

8. 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die edited by Steven Jay Schneider

The title is kind of grim, but this beautifully illustrated tome is a grand history of world film. Not just a list book, it covers 1001 noteworthy films in chronological fashion, starting with Le Voyage Dans La Lune and ending with There Will Be Blood, if you have the latest edition. It’s an instructive film history, covering films by decade, and including a concise but pithy analysis of each movie. You’ll find that many of the articles on the films reveal facts you never knew before. I find myself referring to it constantly – and its wonderful coverage of silent films inspired me to view more silents.

9. Hollywood: The Movie Lover’s Guide, The Ultimate Insider Tour of Movie L.A. by Richard Alleman

Not only a very useful guide book, this gem is full of film history and exquisite black-and-white photos that capture the look of Hollywood in the old days. It helped guide me to Bronson Quarry in the Hollywood hills – location of the tunnel in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the cave mouth where John Wayne picks up Natalie Wood at the end of The Searchers. It guides you to the old Paramount Gate, featured in Sunset Boulevard, as well as other locations in that film.

10. The Thin Red Line by Michel Chion for the British Film Institute Classics

This booklet clears up any aspects of Terrence Malick’s provocative film that may have eluded you. Along with sharp production stills, it provides a summary of the action as well as a thought-provoking analysis of Malick’s signature themes and imagery. As soon as I finished reading the booklet, I watched the film again, my attention drawn to details pointed out by Chion that I had missed in many previous viewings.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Action-Science-Fiction-Special-Effects Blockbusters, and a Challenge

Not surprisingly, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is a very silly movie that prolongs the silliness a little too long. Surprisingly, it is a genuinely funny film, featuring a number of comic performances well deserving of laughter, as well as humor that relies on clever, not crude, dialogue. Ben Stiller, much better when he’s not directing himself, is congenial as Larry Daley, the ex-museum guard. He does a clever routine with Jonah Hill, who plays a bored museum guard reprimanding Larry for “intent to touch” a museum exhibit. But the biggest laughs are produced by the actors portraying the various characters Larry encounters as he tries to avert a disastrous awakening of all the exhibits at D.C.’s expansive Smithsonian Archives. As a spunky Amelia Earhart, spouting anachronistic idioms, Amy Adams is delightfully endearing and full of pert energy that’s fun to watch. While Bill Hader plays a goofily inept George Armstrong Custer who has no clue how to plan an effective attack, Hank Azaria, as the evil but lisping Egyptian Pharaoh Kahmunrah, pulls off a number of wonderfully funny verbal routines.

The Egyptian tablet that brings Archives exhibits and National Gallery artwork to life is merely an excuse for the filmmakers to geek out on a CGI cast of thousands: bobble-headed Einstein dolls; a giant octopus; penguins; kangaroos; squirrels; pterodactyls; Lincoln up from his Memorial; flying machines down from the ceiling of the Air and Space Museum; an army of hawk-headed Egyptian phantoms; Rodin’s The Thinker; and American Gothic, that saves Larry by providing a pitchfork to throw at Kahmunrah’s henchmen. But, here’s a surprise for you. Even though there are more CGI entities in this film than you can count, the effects never smother the film’s comedy or innocent exuberance.

And, surprisingly, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian includes the best scene featured in any film I’ve seen so far this year. (Spoiler Alert). When Larry and Amelia are chased through the National Gallery by nasty Egyptian spearmen, they lead their pursuers into the famous photograph of the V-J Day kiss at Times Square, which turns into a black-and-white world within a world populated by a whole throng of Times Square celebrants.

I had fun with this movie. I had fun with the humor; Amy Adams’s gee-whiz Amelia Earhart; the eye-grabbing variety of the CGI animals and artwork; and the wonderful scene mentioned in the paragraph above. When it comes to summer blockbusters, I much prefer the action-science-fiction-special-effects blockbuster over the comedy-special-effects extravaganza. But the most recent film of the former genre, Terminator Salvation, wasn’t, in my opinion, the gripping film that other writers have called it. And strangely enough, considering the vast popularity of The Terminator films, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian was the winner at the box office on opening weekend.

Over at Cinema Viewfinder I engaged in a debate over whether or
not Terminator Salvation is a relentlessly gripping experience after reading Tony Dayoub's well-written, enthusiastic review. Meanwhile, the Film Doctor's thoughtful commentary was more mixed.

For me the film was not that engrossing experience I would wish from a film of this kind. Anyway, the discussion got me thinking about those action-science-fiction-special-effects blockbusters, the best of which are thoroughly engrossing entertainments. I suppose it all got started with Star Wars (1977), which set the requisite criteria for this distinctive genre: science fiction, big action, big special effects, big excitement, big music.(If you argue that Jaws is science fiction - bascially a monster movie - then it all got started in 1975.)

So, here’s the deal. You get to pick the best film meeting the criteria listed above from the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, and our current decade so far, whatever this decade is called. (Make that part of the challenge. What the fuck do we call this decade? I thought there was a name everybody was using and I had missed it somehow, so I Googled “What do we call this decade?” and I found endless debate.)

Here are my picks –

1970s - Star Wars (1977) Although Alien provides stiff competition, Star Wars has the right combination of big action, special effects, excitement, and music. Sometimes I think the music is the clincher here.

1980s - Aliens (1986) In this decade of sequels, science fiction, superheroes, and emerging CGI, James Cameron’s stiffest competition is himself.

1990s - Jurassic Park (1993) In a decade in which CGI was becoming king, there’s lots of competition, but with those dinosaurs, and Spielberg’s skill for suspense at its best, this is the one for me.

Your name for our current decade here - War of the Worlds (2005) Here it’s the tripods, the music, a couple of very gripping scenes, the very dark and threatening atmosphere, and Tom Cruise’s fervent portrayal of a father’s desperate endeavor to save his children. AVP: Alien vs. Predator is a noteworthy second place.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Terminator Stagnation

The thing that struck me most about Terminator Salvation is that Bryce Dallas Howard has alarmingly beautiful eyes. Now, I’m not saying her eyes are dazzling. I’m saying they’re beautiful but there’s something alarmingly weird about them, almost like she’s wearing slightly frosted contact lenses. But her alarmingly beautiful eyes are perfect for my favorite moment in the film when she is tending to the wounded Marcus Wright and she looks down in very wide-eyed shock to see that there’s something not right about him – he’s a cyborg! It also struck me that Howard is a developing actress who needs better editing (from Conrad Buff IV – who edited Titanic) or better direction (from McG – who should work on editing his film instead of his name). I noticed quite a few moments when her character is left hanging like a deer in the headlights. There are awkward intervals of silence that need to be filled with another line of dialogue or just need to be cut; you can almost notice Howard coming out of character. (Well, yeah, Bryce Dallas should stay in character, but a good editor knows how to edit.) Anyway, it seemed kind of sloppy for a film that is so swiftly edited in the action scenes that the viewer is left dizzy.

Another thing that struck me about Terminator Salvation is that it is more of a compendium of elements from and tributes to the three previous Terminator films than it is a fresh vision of a whole new world: the post-apocalyptic world of the War with the Machines. In fact, the flashforwards to that human vs. cyborg civil war rendered by means of models and sound stage sets in Terminator and T2: Judgment Day are more gripping and otherworldly than the depiction of the John Connor-led human resistance movement in this latest installment. Here the CGI falls short of accomplishing what this viewer expected – a fully evoked depiction of that world and conflict suggested by those inviting flashforwards. There are no set-piece total-war battles between humans and machines. There is nothing as touchingly grim as the image in T2: Judgment Day of children in a resistance shelter watching television, their faces reflecting the glow of what turns out to be a campfire inside the TV set. We get limply delivered quotations from the other films but nothing that really sucks you into a new little world.

A third thing that struck me is that I grinned delightedly when Skynet’s new flesh-covered cyborg makes its nude debut looking like a cross between the Hulk and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Apropos of Arnold’s heritage, there is a German phrase I use, and often utter beneath my breath in the theater, to designate the point in a slowly evolving film when things really get going: Jetzt gehts los – which roughly means “Now it’s going.” But this is rather late in the film for things to geht los.

Thus, I knew what this film is missing. It’s missing the drama and suspense of what is the backbone of the other three films: the persistent pursuit of an inexorable killing machine, (the Terminator, T-1000, or T-X), hunting vulnerable humans (Sarah, little John, Kate), protected by an equally formidable guardian (Kyle Reese or buffed-up Sarah Connor or Arnold’s Terminator). Add to that a smattering of wooden but well-timed one-liners: “I’ll drive.” That’s my favorite.

Christian Bale always has presence, but I fear his voice is forever locked in Batman mode, and there isn’t enough for him to do in this film. Sam Worthington as the cyborg Marcus Wright has the more compelling character with his human or machine inner conflict, and here he’s the one who really saves the day.

Devoid of Arnold and panoramic battle scenes, I needed culmination. But there is no culmination here. The helicopters flying off into the sunrise promise endless sequels. Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) needs to grow up before he can go back in time to protect and impregnate Sarah Connor. Also, did you notice that Kate Connor of the alarmingly beautiful eyes is pregnant? Ah, I predict that it’s not John Connor but John Connor, Jr. who is the key to salvation. But Terminator Salvation doesn’t leave me hankering to see how it all works out.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The 5 Scariest Things About Angels & Demons (from least scary to scariest)

5. Tom Hanks must have the same hair stylist as Nicolas Cage.

4. The writers think it’s suspenseful when Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) solves puzzles involving obscure symbols and historical arcana that merely leave the viewer stunned by information overload.

3. Opportunities for actresses are so bad that one of them, Ayelet Zurer, was forced to take on the role of a character whose sole purpose is to listen to Robert Langdon solve puzzles involving obscure symbols and historical aracana that merely leave the viewer stunned by information overload.

2. Ron Howard thinks it's suspenseful when members of Rome's police force and the Vatican's Swiss Guards race across the city to try to prevent a murder we know has already happened.

1. Because of the phenomenal success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, there will be more films, most likely starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard, based on novels written by Dan Brown.

Another scary thing: the preview for Julie & Julia with Meryl Streep as Julia Child.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Star Trek Goes Boldly

Star Trek gets going quickly with a gripping sequence in which a vast Romulan ship that looks like a cross between a squid and a metallic porcupine threatens a Starfleet ship captained by George Kirk, father of James T. Kirk. Fast cuts and frames filled with detail pump up the excitement, as the Starfleet crew members, including George’s wife in the process of delivering her son, abandon ship, and George buys time for the refugees by piloting his ship on a collision course – just as you would expect Jim Kirk’s dad to do.

After an over-loud, brash musical fanfare accompanying a gigantic main title hewn out of metal floating in space, the film jumps ahead to a scene in which James T., as a long-haired bad boy, takes a car on a high-speed joy ride, eludes police, and sends the vehicle flying off a cliff. This is James T. Kirk who, in the plot’s next leap forward, is a rude, brawling, randy womanizer who is encouraged by Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) to channel his hot dog drive toward Starfleet Academy. Once James T. (Chris Pine) is in that familiar uniform, he quickly meets Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) and gets involved in a mission to stop that massive Romulan squid/porcupine from demolishing Earth.

Star Trek is a no-nonsense sci-fi action film that entertains successfully and is the best film spawned by the famous T.V. series because it includes cleverly evoked portrayals of the famous characters in their youths without wasting time for inordinate veneration of the T.V. show’s iconic elements. Kirk is just a young hotshot vying for greatness. Spock is just a conflicted half-breed Vulcan looking for his place in the world. The Enterprise is just a big ship that elicits a terse "Wow!" The transporter is just a quirky piece of machinery. The Romulans, led by their smoldering leader Nero (Eric Bana), are just bad guys. But all this combines to make Star Trek one of the most entertaining films of the year because it resists ponderous adherence to or fawning over source material.

You’ll have to forgive the film a few head-scratching conundrums such as that inscrutable red liquid (what was that?) and the always mind-blowing sci-fi paradox when a guy goes back in time and meets himself. (Now how does that work?) And if you’re a faithful fan, you’ll have to chill when the film kills off a character and destroys a planet that are supposed to appear in “later” episodes – though that might be set-up for a sequel in which all discrepancies are mended by a little time-travel repair work.

Watching Star Trek with its light tone and fast pacing, I found myself thinking of 1930s adventure films, especially Gunga Din (1939) with its triad of quarreling but loyal comrades who boldly set out on impossible adventures. In Star Trek, as in Gunga Din, you’ve got your charming characters, your snappy action, your rapid dialogue, your comic relief, your daring adventures – and it’s all packaged and edited expeditiously, never allowing the story to get bogged down by excess, pretension, or self-awareness. It comes off as a big film – but it is a big film with all the fat trimmed away – and it makes me wonder what J.J. Abrams could have done with bloated behemoths like the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean or Spielberg’s latest, pathetic Indiana Jones film.

So I’m not left worrying about what the hell ancient Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is doing in the future while he’s lingering with a younger version of himself in the past, or that Scottie (Simon Pegg) isn’t portrayed as the anal worry-wart he is in the episodes, or that the transporter beams spiraled instead of pixellated. I’m left feeling exhilarated by a smartly edited adventure film and hoping that the rest of this year’s summer blockbusters are just as tightly constructed – though having seen some of the previews I have a feeling they’re not.

Monday, May 4, 2009

One-sentence Reviews: Obsessed and Wolverine - Movie-Goer’s Journal – Part V

Inspired by Fox’s written-in-ten-minutes stream of consciousness tirade over Wolverine, which went by the reasoning that some films only deserve ten minutes of our time, I decided that in the future I would devote no more than a sentence to review bummer movies that leave me at a loss for words.

In Obsessed, a film I viewed along with clusters of chatty teenage girls tending toddlers (babysitting? their own?), the silly, formulaic Fatal Attraction plot is just an excuse for setting up a ridiculous combat in which a fierce housewife (Beyoncé Knowles) protects her hubbie (Idris Elba) from being seduced by a white chick, by kicking said white chick’s butt (belonging to Ali Carter) all over the threatened household.

Watching X-Men Origins: Wolverine, with its many Watchmen parallels, its empty action, Wolverine’s silly and poorly animated leap from motorcycle to helicopter, and the bloated boxing mutant who looks like Ben Stiller doing his boob-jiggling song at the end of Dodgeball, made me pledge never to see another superhero movie.