Saturday, March 27, 2010

Film Yap: Greenberg

Characters do not have to always be likable, but they ought to be intriguing. Ben Stiller’s Roger Greenberg is a very difficult case because he’s not exactly intriguing. He is incredibly selfish, cynical, and rude to everybody. There is nothing charming about him, but there is something.

Greenberg is asked by his brother to housesit his place in L.A. while he and his family are on vacation in Vietnam. Greenberg was recently dismissed from a mental asylum and now just wants to do nothing. He doesn’t want to be overwhelmed or be involved with anything complicated. He just wants to do…nothing. Nothing is an impossible task for he involves himself in the lives of his brother’s assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), his old friend (Rhys Ifan), and his former lover (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

His attempts at love and friendship are constantly plagued by his attitude and neurosises. More often than not, the relationships deserved to be tainted. Greenberg is beyond socially incompetent. He seems constantly annoyed by other people’s vulnerabilities and irrationally reacts to them. Stiller does an amazing job of displaying this character and never asking for sympathy. There is an element of pity felt towards the character, but it comes naturally in parallel with Florence’s extreme tolerance.

Instead of a familiar story of redemption, this is a story of relevancy. It’s very difficult to drive a story when the main character has no motivation or drives. Often the movie becomes too unbearable to be around him, but the supporting characters save the moments. Gerwig is truly great as a 25-year-old woman who is not highly ambitious but knows how to move forward. Unlike Greenberg she is able to actively pursue things that interest her even if it’s not always the best option. Despite this difference, this doesn’t make her as confident as Greenberg.

This is Noah Baumbach’s fifth feature film as a writer/director. He’s growing as a filmmaker who is taking more subtle risks. To have characters who are occasionally repulsive is not a task many are willing to try. This film rests in-between his other two in this fashion. Greenberg is never as compelling as Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale but is still more interesting than the ensemble in Margot at the Wedding. Even when there are weaker elements to his movies, Baumbach riddles his films with acute observations in human nature. One of the best scenes in Greenberg is the uncomfortable “date” between Greenberg and his former girlfriend Beth. In both cases Baumbach carefully establishes what they want from this encounter. It’s orchestrated so well because every action they make feels like real characters and not people in a movie.

Greenberg is definitely worth seeing, but it is not for everyone. The ending feels very satisfying and that removes some of the bitter elements of the movie.

Film Yap: Forward Into the Past

I like time travel movies for the same reason I like mysteries. They’re essentially a puzzle to construct and to partake in. The act of moving backwards or forwards in time means everything must be perfectly situated. Within this riddle there plenty of different options and rules to explore.

There is the idea of “whatever happened, happened;” a phrase coined by the show LOST. With this mythology, there is only one timeline. It’s impossible to go back in time and kill Hitler because it didn’t happen. It’s impossible to change the past, only the future. There is a Spanish film called Timecrimes that really follows this delicately. In this movie Héctor is just an innocent bystander who happens to find a time machine in his neighbor’s house. In an attempt to fix his day, he ends up causing all of the turmoil he’s trying to correct. This same thing is seen in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Before Harry goes back in time he looks across the pond and he thinks he sees the ghost of his father. Ultimately it is all the same timeline and it is him standing across the pond inspiring himself to cast the spell. Without spoiling anything La Jetée/Twelve Monkeys also follows this.

I find this tactic to be underwhelming. Once it’s established that nothing can be changed all of the stakes of the movie are diminished. It worked in Harry Potter because the time travel is such a small portion of the plot. I like it in movies when things can still be changed. The most popular example is the Back to the Future films. There Marty McFly goes to various portions of history and changes things. He is aware of the butterfly effect—the idea that if a butterfly flaps its wings in South America that inspires a chain of events to cause a hurricane across the country. So he’s aware of what could be changed, but since Marty is young and stupid he still ends up changing his present. The major aspect of this version of time travel that doesn’t make sense. The idea of the fading pictures randomly really only serves the plot, not logic.

One of the easiest ways to do time travel is not to go to the past. The original Planet of the Apes is a perfect example of this. It plays with the differences of culture and having the stranger in a strange land. As the series goes on it becomes more convoluted and plays with both aspects of time travel: can they or can’t they change things. I can’t speak much for the new Planet of the Apes movie because frankly I’m pretty sure that one doesn’t make sense. A better example of this is the first two Terminator movies, which fulfills both of them with ease. When dealing with time travel it’s too easy to focus on the plot and rush through characters, but the Terminator films really do a great job with balancing both. Sadly the next two movies really ruin the aspects that made the original set so strong.

I appear to be simplifying this genre by separating into these categories. What I really like about it is the possibly to continue exploring more aspects. The revamped Doctor Who series has shown the loneliness. Primer gave an amazing look at it with a complicated realistic slant. Also we have movies like Hot Tub Time Machine, which knows not to take it seriously and just have fun with the absurdity. It’s come to the point where it’s no longer nerdy to enjoy time travel movies. Right?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

MovieSet: Hot Tub Time Machine

Titles can draw you in and give you an immediate sense of tone. The cliché warns against covers, not titles so it’s acceptable to evaluate them. Hot Tub Time Machine is exactly how it sounds. It’s very silly and knows it.

John Cusack, Craig Robinson and Rob Corddry play friends who have become more estranged since their wild days of youth. The gang regroups after Corddry accidently tries to kill himself after using his car’s gas pedal like a drum pedal. Along with Clark Duke, Cusack’s nephew, they decide to return to their favorite ski resort from when they were kids. Disappointed that it’s practically abandoned, the four spend the night drinking heavily and ending up in 1986 thanks to a….hot tub time machine.

Unlike other films in this genre, all of the characters are well versed in time travel movies. They are constantly referencing movies like Back to the Future and Planet of the Apes in order to understand their situation. This is very fun when they try to predict when the grumpy bellhop (Crispin Glover) will lose his arm and how much that spacey hot tub technician (Chevy Chase) knows. The film isn’t interested in making a time travel mythology that makes a lot of sense. Almost every question in this movie can be answered by its title. “Why are they in their younger bodies?” “It’s a Hot Tub Time Machine.”

The movie is set mostly in the 80s and uses that tone to successfully create the atmosphere of an 80s comedy. Certain elements are very familiar and enjoyable like the preppy antagonists that think the heroes’ technology are from the Soviet Union. Cusack also had a good sense of humor considering all of the clever callbacks to the films that made him famous from this time.

Not every joke in the movie works. There are at least two instances when the gross-out humor is too much and some of that comes from Corddry being too over-the-top. With every joke that fails, there are two more that are really good. The chemistry between the four is really inspired. The way they bounce off each other believably establishes this long friendship through their comradery and annoyance with their actions. The first half hour is probably the strongest part of the movie because it’s just them goofing off before the plot really kicks off.

I say “kick off” but the plot is so light, it can almost evaporate. This is fine because the movie is consistently entertaining and never takes itself seriously. The motivations of the 80’s preppy guys are comically thin. There is no real threat of paradoxes or not being able to get back to the present. There is a major action that is too convenient in order to tie everything in the end; it’s jarring at first but, then again, to comment on the plot is almost nitpicking.

This movie doesn’t get everything right in terms of a buddy comedy like The Hangover did last year, but there is a lot of wit and likability. Especially from Cusack, Robinson, and Lizzy Caplan, who plays Cusack’s love interest. Wait don’t they have an almost 20 year age difference? It’s Hot Tub Time Machine.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Top Five Fallacies in Courtroom Dramas

Since I love a good legal thriller, especially the courtroom scenes, I’ve read lots of books and seen lots of movies in this subgenre. They’re dramatic! They’re great battles of wits! Hopefully, the truth will prevail! I was even on the high school mock trail team for a few years, which taught me a good deal about what is accurate and what is not in these scenes. Herewith are five things that drive me nuts about courtroom dramas. To keep things simple, I’ll stick with movies. That’s where these mistakes are the most glaring.

5. Stupid Witnesses

Since trials are so dramatic, it’s easier to conceive that the entire mystery shall be solved within the courtroom. Who wants middle ground? We want a witness to confess to the murder on the stand. The audience will loudly gasp; the lawyer will smirk. Everything is tied up.

In the real world this never happens. Yes, being on the witness stand is a very stressful ordeal but people these days know better than to proclaim you stabbed the guy. Especially if it’s Reese Witherspoon giving you the fifth degree.

4. Random Speeches

If I know anything about law, I know there is no protocol. It’s a very loose system where you can pretty much do whatever you want. Sorry, that’s an underground fight club. The legal system is the exact opposite, so then why do movies think that lawyers can just burst into dramatic, persuasive speeches in the middle of the trial? Tom Cruise, I don’t care if you just figured out Jack Nicholson’s motivations, you can’t give a speech about it. You really do have to ask questions. Same goes for you, Cousin Vinny.

3. “I’ll Allow It.”

So how do those speeches get through? Clearly the judge is bored. “Hey that lawyer just brought a reindeer into the courtroom. That’s extremely unprofessional.” “I’ll allow it.” WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT? Judges are called “Your honor” so please pretend to be honorable sometimes. Also it’s their fault for all of Liar Liar. The second Jim Carrey started his case; it should have been declared a mistrial because he appears to be on many illegal drugs. (Turns out that is just his acting style.)

2. Objections?

During my days on the mock trial team, I learned what questions are allowed. Namely, none of the ones in any legal thriller film. Every movie I’m muttering to myself “Hearsay.” “Asked and answered.” “Speculation.” “Leading.” “Leading.” “Leading!” The opposing lawyer never says these things because doing so would break up the narrative flow of the movie. Also, I don’t think they’re listening. The only time lawyers object in movies is when they’re evil or flabbergasted. If I ever get called for jury duty, I will to assume that is the case when I hear an objection.

1. Audiences

When I am a jury member I probably will be nervous; not because of my civic duty and any possible ramifications from my decision. That will be easy. I’ll be nervous due to the massive number of people in the audience. Sometimes it makes sense: I’ll buy the packed house in To Kill a Mockingbird because after all, it’s of the small town community. But a packed house for every single John Grisham adaptation? Don’t these people have jobs?!?

Also they’re really loud. They gasp obnoxiously and mummer to themselves a lot so often that lazy judge has to say, “Order in the court!” Then she’ll change her mind and allow it. This causes the idealistic lawyer to make a heartwarming speech. Then the witness will confess to all of their sins. The other lawyer, recognizing this whole thing could be thrown out, chooses not to because he finds this to be too ridiculous and decides not to object to get this trial over with.

Then I pass out from rage.

MovieSet: Top Ten Comic Book Adaptations

It comes as no surprise that comic book adaptations are all the rage right now. Many of the most popular franchises have made millions at the box office. Now the rights to every property are being purchased and made into a movie. This year we have The Losers, Jonah Hex, Iron Man 2, and, my most anticipated, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World still to come out this year. However what are the best? Which ones have held up the test of time? Just how brilliant is Tank Girl? All of these questions will be answered with this list of the Top Ten Comic Book Adaptations.

#10 – Hellboy II: The Golden Army

I find it refreshing to start a franchise that I know nothing about. I wasn’t alone in really enjoying the first Hellboy entry and Guillermo del Toro is to thank for that. His love and energy for this series really shines through in both movies. Both of the movies are really fun, but the second one stands out just a little bit more. They lost the unneeded FBI character and they focused more on the relationships within the team. The scene with Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) drunkenly singing “Can’t Smile Without You” is a real treat.

#9 - 300

All right, everybody. This is a comedy, okay? I usually don’t respond to Frank Miller’s madness, but this one I found to be a lot of fun because it recognizes its ridiculousness. It’s about 300 SPARTANS who attack the entire Persian army in an incredibly violent fashion. Intentionally hammy performances fit in well with concepts like having a giant pit and random rhinos.

#8 – Men in Black

I am not a Will Smith fan and this may be his only movie I completely like. The movie is often silly, but so many of the jokes completely work. There is a good measure of wit as Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are fighting big buggy aliens. The casting for those two were really inspired because they end up being able to play off each other really well. This had the potential to be a really great franchise if only they didn’t botch up the second film so poorly.

#7 – Spider-Man 2

Spider-Man has been a character that has been well liked but never extremely respected. Batman is the type of character who has the deep emotional issues while dealing with the gritty atmosphere. With this film Spider-Man jumped up to the proper ranks. This movie managed to be dark without compromising its central element of fun. The birth of Doctor Octopus is violent and even a bit disturbing and his presence leads to some of the better action scenes in the genre. This ranks up there as one of the best Raimi films.

#6 – Iron Man

Like Hellboy I knew nothing about Iron Man. He was never one of the most familiar names in Marvel’s lineup. However, they really took this project seriously. (Unlike Ghost Rider or Electra). The cast was amazing (Robert Downey Jr., Terence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges) and the movie had the right element of humor. It’s one of the rare examples when Tony Stark was as entertaining as his Iron Man counterpart.

#5 – American Splendor

This was the breakout movie for Paul Giamatti for me. He plays Harvey Pekar, a grumpy cartoonist who lives in Ohio. He decides to make a comic book series out of his own life. His books gain a bit of a cult following and he becomes an odd celebrity. The movie is shot in a fun style as it jumps from real footage to cartoons and back to the movie itself. It’s a story that I haven’t seen told and it’s really captivating.

#4 – Road to Perdition

Many people forget this one is a comic book adaptation and that’s too bad. This was a great graphic novel by the crime writer Max Allan Collins. Tom Hanks plays a gangster during the time of Al Capone. His son witnesses a murder and his boss (Paul Newman) orders a hit out on his son. Hanks defies the mob and goes on the run with his son. The violence and the suspense never takes away from the importance of family. It’s a surprisingly touching story.

#3 – X2

This was the first film that made me respect comic book films. The first X-Men film was fun, but this one really amped up the intelligence. Everything gelled perfectly as the characters served a purpose to a complex story. The subject matter was once again handled respectfully and wasn’t downplayed to the audience. All of the mutants used their powers in a way that made sense. Like in the abominable X3 the characters walk a mile through the fog before someone says something to Storm. None of that is here. The story is smart, the action is great, and there is true emotions connected to the characters.

#2 – A History of Violence

David Cronenberg has been a fascinating director for decades and this may be the film I’ll label as his best. Viggo Mortensen plays a family man whose dark past abruptly resurfaces when Ed Harris’s character comes into town. The film examines the ways we use violence in modern society and the duality of all human beings. The film is able to be entertaining and academic.

#1 – The Dark Knight

It’s almost a cliché, but this really deserves to in the number one slot. This movie elevated the possibilities for comic book films. It chooses to almost ignore the genre, but instead place the characters with the realm of a crime drama. The focus isn’t on the superpowers and the master plans, but instead on the unsettling relationship between Batman (Christian Bale) and The Joker (Heath Ledger). It is often said that these two complete each other, but that hasn’t been fully explored in this medium until this film. The film not only challenges this relationship, but all superheroes in general. Batman is constantly at odds against his own city and its people. He desperately wants to the city to be enforced by someone who isn’t a vigilante. The movie never falls back on familiar devices and tells this masterful story in its own unique structure. This is a triumph.

Film Yap: And the Nominees Were - 1929/1930

The 3rd Academy Awards has been the best set so far because they moved beyond their reactionary fascination with sound. I’m sure there were still a lot of movies during this time that were devoid of story, but at least they weren’t being applauded with awards. This is still not a perfect set. I disliked more of them than I liked, but they were more interesting at least. Also it’s always a nice feeling when the best movie wins the prize.

All Quiet on the Western Front – WINNER

This is the war film to compare all other war films to. It’s based off the Pultizer Prize winning novel and is an incredibly worthy adaptation. It is the tale of a group of German students who are recruited to fight in the First World War. There they learn that it is not a place of heroes. Innocence is broken down in an incredibly naturalistic way. The war scenes are impressive and they convey this subtle sense of futility. Even with some occasionally clunky dialog, this movie deserves its title as a masterpiece.

The Big House

This movie is not a masterpiece. It’s an attempt to be gritty, but ends up being stupid most of the time. Robert Montgomery—Yes, that Robert Montgomery—is recently admitted into the state prison. He is cellmates with Wallace Beery and the growingly annoying Chester Morris. A good atmosphere is created, but then destroyed once the movie grows stupid with each new plot point. The whole final act is too contrived to be fun.


This movie is an incredible bore. I’m typically interested in political dramas, but the plight of Bejamin Disraeli (George Arliss in an Oscar winning role) didn’t work for many reasons. The major problem is that Disraeli desperately wants to purchase the Suez Canal for England and nobody really understands why. There are no stakes throughout this entire movie. The importance of the canal is never explained. The duration of the film is composed of boring conversations about the canal or about a romance of two incredibly boring people. I just don’t get its appeal.

The Divorcee

I at least understand the appeal of this one, but that doesn’t make it good. It’s based off a popular novel and has a very showy performance by Norma Shearer who also won an Oscar respectfully. Shearer discovers her husband had an affair so she decides to have one of her own. Her husband, also played by Morris, treats his infidelity like it’s no big deal. However when she cheats on him, he completely freaks out. The rest of the movie is about the aftermath, but it’s concerning how little the movie judges Morris’ character for his actions. It becomes increasingly hard to sympathize with anyone in this scenario and that makes for a difficult movie.

The Love Parade

On the other hand, I loved everybody in this movie. It’s so refreshing to watch a romantic comedy and consciously root for the leads to get together. I rooted for them because they were so much fun together. Jeanette MacDonald played the Queen of Sylvania and she has become rather bored. Everybody keeps expecting her to get married and she’s not interested until she meets Maurice Chevalier who is a more musical Casanova. The jokes are funny and the movie has a great time playing with Pre-Code innuendos. This movie was directed by the comedy legend Ernst Lubitsch earlier in his career. I’m thrilled this won’t be the last one of his musicals to be nominated for Best Picture.

If you would like more detailed discussion over these five films, you can check out the third episode of my podcast And the Nominees Are. There I discuss all the Best Picture nominees with my friends Kenny Jones and Keith Jackson. In this episode we get further in depth about the highlights of All Quiet and pinpoint exactly how Chester Morris acts in every role. You can subscribe to us on iTunes and find us on the web at Also you can find us on Facebook and Twitter.

The next films will be Cimarron, East Lynne, The Front Page, Skippy and Trader Horn.

Film Yap: Transitioning From Television

The transition from television to film is not always the easiest for actors. When fame is achieved through television, it’s through a connection to a certain character. It’s hard to think of Jennifer Aniston as anything else besides Rachel Green since we’ve seen her play that part for about 100 hours. A lot of actors have made the distinction because they establish their range.

One of the most famous actors to make the transition is Tom Hanks. He started his career on the sitcom Bosom Buddies. It’s odd to picture the star of Philadelphia and Saving Private Ryan in a show about men who dresses up in drag in order to stay at a cheap motel. Initially he was cast in similar themed movies like Splash and Bachelor Party but once he received an Oscar nomination for Big he was able to get better roles. He’s one of the few actors right now who can seamlessly go from serious dramas to lighter comedies.

Alan Alda is not as prolific as Hanks, but has had a respectable career. He has been able to be in romantic comedies like Same Time, Next Year and then dramas like The Aviator. His best on-screen role is a bit of a combination as he plays the pretentious producer in Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Without that potential to break away from a certain genre, an actor could be pigeonholed. That’s not always a bad thing though. Dick van Dyke was hysterical in his show and then was able to use that charisma in larger ventures like Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

A lot of actors who get constant film work are the ones who rise up from sketch comedy shows. Ever since they left Saturday Night Live Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell have been able to star in their own movie just about every year. All of them (sometimes undeservingly) end up becoming box office successes. This allows them to be able to take part in their independent film ventures (Punch Drunk Love and Melinda and Melinda respectably). Jim Carrey had this career for most of the 90s and had a longer run than Chevy Chase and Dan Ackroyd but he can’t seem to make the box office numbers that he once used to.

One of the more surprising transitions has been from Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He was good on Third Rock From the Sun, but never note-worthy. Yet in the past few years, he’s grown to be one of the best actors of his age. His performances in Mysterious Skin, Brick, and 500 Days of Summer are shockingly powerful. It’s as if he if he’s a completely different actor.

Another actor who started off young on TV was Kristen Bell. Unlike Gordon-Levitt though her performance as Veronica Mars was heavily acclaimed. Sadly she hasn’t had that same sort of response with her roles in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Couples Retreat, and When In Rome. Still those movies have established her squarely as safe participant for major roles.

He isn’t a box office star or anywhere close, but I’ve been consistently impressed by Lee Pace. He was a featured character in the short-lived show Wonderfalls and the lead in the wonderful Pushing Daisies. Between shows he’s been in movies like The Fall, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and A Single Man. He has the potential to have a career like Edward Norton or Johnny Depp as a mainstream character actor. Unfortunately I don’t think the upcoming Marmaduke will start that type of career.

There are a few actors now who are taking advantage of their current television successes. Matthew Fox, of LOST fame, has been able to be in movies like We Are Marshall, Vantage Point, and Speed Racer. They are not award winning films but they are prominent roles and only one of them involves a plane crash.

Ever since Mad Men has wowed everyone who has seen a single episode, Jon Hamm has been one of the most requested actors. He will soon be in Shrek Forever After, Ben Affleck’s The Town and Zack Synder’s Sucker Punch. Hopefully will also catch on that Hamm is surprisingly hysterical and get him to headline a comedy.

So it’s not an impossible task as these actors have broken through. It has helped that television is a more respected medium, as the quality of shows have been especially strong recently. Also it helps that these actors are especially strong.

MovieSet: The Range of Liam Neeson

Liam Neeson has been established as awesome. You can’t refute it; it’s established. He’s awesome in a way that studios can’t understand. Typically the studios assume that we need someone young and hip headlining movies in order for people go to see the action movies. However when I hear people talk about the new Clash of the Titans movie, all I hear are people repeating Neeson’s dramatic—and silly line—“Release the Kracken.” That is awesome.

He has always been a go-to guy if the character needs to be instantly prestigious. His presence adds a sense of weight even if there’s nothing on page. In the opening scene of Gangs of New York, he plays a character that is considered noble and respected, even honored. He only has a few moments to convey this position and Neeson seems to do it naturally. This also applies to his roles in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and even just his voice in the Narnia films. I’d follow that lion. In the aforementioned Clash of the Titans he appears as a freakin’ god who, in the trailer, is glowing white. Very few can pull that off.

He doesn’t always just stand around looking amazing; he also beats people up in violent ways. Oh yes, Neeson is also convincing as an action star. One of the most liked actions movies of late was the film Taken. Taken isn’t strong on plot. It’s mostly just Neeson running around Paris for 90 minutes beating up anyone who comes in his way of saving his daughter. He is going to be in the anticipated A-Team adaptation starring as Col. Hannibal Smith. If that is successful he may have another franchise under his canon. He already made his mark in the extremely profitable Batman reboot as the ninja-esque Ra’s al Ghul.

That wasn’t his first time playing a morally ambiguous character. There is no traditional antagonist in the latest Hayao Miyzaki film, Ponyo, but throughout most of the movie the heroine is opposed to Neeson’s Fujimoto. In one of my favorite films of his, Darkman, he is supposed to be the superhero but is mostly on the verge of violent insanity. Neeson approaches the role by focusing on the character’s humanity much like he did with his acclaimed performance as Oskar Schindler. In his new film After.Life he calls upon these skills once more to play a mysterious (and perhaps malicious) funeral director who knows about the supernatural happenstances of Christina Ricci.

However, for me, my favorite roles of Neeson are when he’s playing a more vulnerable human being. Obviously Schindler’s List, but also his part in the ensemble comedy Love Actually or as the sex-scientist Alfred Kinsey in the titled biopic. It are these roles where I think he is able to show his range beyond the badass or the dark mentor. I would like to see him in more roles like this where he may even be allowed to tell a joke or two. I wouldn’t want to an actor this good to be typecast.

Film Yap: And the Nominees Were - 1928/1929

The second Academy Awards were a step forward and a step back. They got rid of the odd Best Artistic Achievement award and just focused on the Best Picture prize. However, this may be one of the worst batches of films in its history. The Jazz Singer came out the previous year and the allure of sound ruined quality for a lot of films. Well let’s just look at them…


This was considered to be edgy for its time, but today this is just a mess. Chester Morris plays Chick Williams, a gangster who was just released from prison. He is already plotting more schemes and relying on an alibi that doesn’t entirely work. There is a love triangle that doesn’t make sense and not one character worth rooting for. Also the story is constantly interrupted by musical numbers that are poorly filmed and don’t connect to the story.

In Old Arizona

The first western to be nominated for Best Picture is an entertaining one thanks mostly to Warner Baxter’s performance of The Cisco Kid. Like a more rugged Danny Ocean, The Cisco Kid is a criminal that has more charisma than anyone in justice. He robs people, but never shoots anyone to do so. He also gives his riches to his sweetheart back home. However she is not as loyal as he is. Her betrayal doesn’t seem natural or believable, but it doesn’t damper the rest of the movie.

The Broadway Melody – WINNER

This is a movie I watched as a kid and enjoyed, but doesn’t hold up well today. It’s a simple story of two sisters who are caught in a love triangle while trying to make it big on Broadway. It’s not a complicated plot and a bunch of the numbers are enjoyable. The major problem is that the male center of the love triangle is an abusive jerk. Also the final act is incredibly unsatisfying.

The Hollywood Revue of 1929

I hate this movie. Well, that’s not fair. It’s barely a movie. During this time, since cinema was brand-new, a lot of elements of theater came to the screen. This sometimes caused for awkward acting styles and boring camera staging. Also it caused things like this. This is literally just a revue of a lot of Hollywood players singing terrible songs or telling terrible jokes. This is before the age of talk shows where it’s less of a rarity to see celebrities, but if you’re going to parade them please make them be entertaining. The only salvageable moments in this is an amusing Lauriel & Hardy sketch and simply just watching Buster Keaton do anything.

The Patriot

I haven’t seen this film. Unfortunately this is the only Best Picture winner that is completely lost to the world and that appears to be a tragedy. Only a trailer survives. This was the last silent film to be nominated for Best Picture and paired up the great actor Emil Jannings and one of the greatest directors of all time Ernst Lubitsch. To make matters worse, the trailer makes this film look amazingly epic and special. Curses.

If you want to hear more discussion about these films you can hear my podcast where I talk about them with my friends Keith Jackson and Kenny Jones. Like these articles, we’ll eventually cover each and every year of the Academy Awards. It’s called And the Nominees Are. We are on iTunes and at

The next films will be All Quiet on the Western Front, The Big Parade, Disraeli, The Divorcee, and The Love Parade.

Film Yap: Broken Embraces

Broken Embraces is much like Shutter Island where the best and worst thing about it is that a brilliant director made it. If this wasn’t made by Pedro Almodóvar it may have been more acclaimed but it’s impossible not to compare this with his other greater films. (So instead of comparing this to his other films I compared this to a Scorsese film?) So it is no Talk to Her or All About My Mother, but it’s still worth checking out.

The film follows Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar) who used to be an acclaimed director before he became blind. Since then he has gone by the name Harry Caine where he spends his days imagining and writing. A man from his past returns insisting that he co-writes a script that is very autobiographical. Harry refuses, but his assistant presses him to tell the story about what happened. Harry tells the story of when he used to be Mateo and he was working on one of his films, a comedy. He hires Lena Rivas (Penélope Cruz) to play the actress and starts a love affair despite the fact that she is involved with a wealthy man who is obsessed with her.

All of the love stories are intriguing and is easy to root for certain characters, but the film slips when the real romance is aimed towards the art. In the last act of the film, it becomes more about what happened to Mateo’s film than what happened to other characters. Typically it is easy for me to invest in writers and directors, but the film never fully established Mateo as someone who is passionate about the craft. We always see him working and he is very good at directing and writing. There is a chance that his love for art is actually an extension of his love for others, but if that is the case then it’s still important for the audience to have feelings for the project.

The movie is called Girls and Suitcases, but is clearly an homage to Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Instead of Carmen Maura as the lead, it’s Penélope Cruz. Despite being centered on Mateo/Harry, it feels like Cruz’s film because she’s so darn good in it. She has to play several variations of Lena depending on whom she is interacting with. It’s a great performance and I wish America would figure out a better way to utilize her talents. She’s able to focus on so many nuances and is able to make it look effortless. There is an amazing scene where art and reality blends and she has to recite her own lines from her own life in a new context. At that point in the story the audience desperately wants to watch both Lenas at once and it’s so satisfying.

The story isn’t too complex, but it’s full of really great moments. The payoffs aren’t from the reveals, but from spending times with the characters. Mateo Blanco/Harry Caine is a very complex character and there could easily be more stories following him. A return to him in five or ten more years in his life could be a really interesting perspective.

The bonus features are not great, but are each a lot of fun. There are deleted scenes that stand well on their own. One of them works well with another bonus feature where it is more extensions of Girls and Suitcases. There are also cool featurettes where the work of Almodóvar and Cruz is highlighted intelligently through raw footage and interviews. My only compliant is pure greed: I want more.

Movie: 4 Yaps

Extras: 3 Yaps

Film Yap: And the Nominees Were - 1927/1928

There’s something special about the Oscars. They’re an imperfect system, but they give a true sense of history. It’s a way to honor films and to give a sense about what was important during that time. It’s fun to root for films and try to outguess the Academy. With all of its flaws, I still love the Oscars. My friends Keith Jackson and Kenny Jones are right there with me. So we decided to embark on a difficult project: We are going to go back and watch every single Best Picture nominee starting in 1927.

After we finish a set we recorded our discussions as a free podcast that will soon be available on iTunes. To coincide with tonight’s presentation I thought I’d talk about the first grouping.

Now the first year of the Oscars was weird in several reasons. There was no ceremony and just five judges decided the winners. Also they had two categories for the same award. There was Best Unique and Artistic Production and Best Picture. It’s still unclear on why this was done, but it was quickly abandoned in its next year. So these were the nominees from 1927/1928:

Best Picture

The Racket

All the films in this year were silent and this was an interesting time for cinema. Some directors were able to embrace this unique storytelling device and others weren’t. This is sadly one of the latter as this crime drama is overwrought with title cards and overreliance on the original play. Despite some fun moments, this movie doesn’t work because the conflict between the cop and the robber doesn’t make sense.

Seventh Heaven

This movie is more of the cliché Oscar movie. There is an unconventional romance juxtaposed with a tragic war. A lot of the emotional weight works because the lead actress, Janet Gaynor, is just wonderful. Certain moments feel dated, but the impressive production techniques keep you in it.

Wings – WINNER

This one still has a hint of popularity today. It is because its flying sequences are still amazing. The story is too simple; two guys in the same city become fighter pilots while being involved with a silly love triangle. The war scenes are great, but the melodrama is too hokey. I’ll never be able to forget the jaw-dropingly bizarre “bubbles” sequence.

Best Unique and Artistic Production


This is such an odd, but enjoyable movie. It’s a documentary of sorts, but it’s edited to make it more of a fictional storyline. It follows a small family in the jungle who have to deal with the wild animals to disrupt their life. The movie is entertaining but can’t be taken seriously with the over-the-top title cards and “dialog” from one of the monkeys.

The Crowd

King Vidor made this one and he really was one of the best directors during the silent era. His camera movements and shots are comparable to ones from today. Unfortunately this all that is worth seeing from this movie. The Crowd follows a jerk that wants more out of the world and whines when he doesn’t get it. The film wants you to sympathize with him, but I found it difficult.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans - WINNER

This movie is a masterpiece. If I can only recommend one silent film, it would have to be this one. There are almost no title cards. Instead the movie is able to move the story forward naturally and intelligently. It is about a nameless husband who is considering murdering his wife for the new woman in town. What follows is a passionate story of lust and love. The leads are incredible, including (once again) the brilliant Janet Gaynor. It’s heartbreaking and perhaps perfect.

To hear more of discussion of these films, you can check out our podcast. It’s entitled And the Nominees Are. The first three episodes will be uploaded to iTunes this week and then the rest will come out on a staggered schedule. You can learn more about the podcast at As of Sunday, the website is bare but as the week goes on there will be a lot more information on it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

And the Nominees Are...

I adore podcasts. I discovered them when I first got an iPod because there was this entire section of iTunes that was free. I love free! Then I discovered that not only were they free, but they were brilliant. Years later I’m not hooked on tons of podcasts like Filmspotting, The Hollywood Saloon, Battleship Pretension, God Loved Jacob, KCRW’s The Treatment, Nowhere in Mulberry, SModcast, This American Life and many more.

It comes as no surprise that I wanted to make my own. Along with my friends Keith Jackson and Kenny Jones (of The Reel Deal fame) we decided to make a podcast where we take on a difficult assignment. It's called And the Nominees Are. We are reviewing every single Best Picture nominee starting in 1927. Oh yeah.

That’s over 400 movies to review and it’s also a project that will not end until Hollywood decides to stop giving themselves awards. So never.

Our first three episodes are now online and I think they’re amusing. You may not have seen (or heard of) most of the movies we’re talking about but hopefully we approach them in a way that is inviting. You may not have seen a movie with Chester Morris, but now you’ll know how to make fun of him!

You find us on iTunes (Remember, for free!) and on Facebook and even on Twitter. We also have a website that is currently under construction. Soon it will be awesome and booming with a schedule of our upcoming shows. Please let us know how we’re doing and leave us a review on iTunes.

The next episodes will be up as soon as we can get to them. It usually takes us about two weeks to watch the five films and then to record our thoughts on them. Once we work out a proper schedule it’ll be up on our website.

I hope you like it!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Film Yap: Underappreciated Scorsese

Next week I’m giving a speech about Martin Scorsese. For part of my research I’ve gone back and rewatched his films throughout the past few months. One thing I’ve noticed is how there is almost something interesting in each of his films. Sure some of his films are duds (New York New York, Casino, Bringing Out the Dead), but they are always trying for something. There are a lot of his films that are just as great as the Taxi Drivers and the Raging Bulls, but haven’t received the proper treatment. Such as…

Who’s That Knocking at My Door?

If you like a director, it’s always a good idea to go back and see their first film. It’s a good way to learn a lot about them as artists. In the case of Scorsese you can see what he can accomplish with little to no money. This is the surprisingly compelling story of J.R. (Harvey Keitel in his first major role) who meets a girl in New York. This world will be later explored in Mean Streets, but there are some very innovative scenes with a new way to edit scenes. Cold violence, juxtaposed music and experimental camera movements; three of the reasons we are subconsciously drawn to his films.

The King of Comedy

This actually serves as the best companion piece to Taxi Driver. Once again DeNiro plays a probable sociopath who should not be in contact with humanity. This time he wants to work in show business. DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin stalks Jerry Lewis who is playing a Carson-esque late night host. Pupkin is not interested in actually going through the steps to become famous; he wants it immediately. His reality is always in question. In the age of reality TV, this was brilliantly ahead of its time.

After Hours

It took me way too long to see this one. This is the only straight-up comedy Scorsese has ever made and it’s great. It’s really one of the best on-screen farces I’ve ever seen. On a whim, a word processor (Griffin Dunne) decides to go downtown to meet a girl. One thing leads to another and he ends up being trapped in the city jumping from one crazy place to another. It’s very funny and very clever on how all of the madness ties together for poor Dunne. It has a great supporting cast composed of Rosanna Arquette, John Heard, Catherine O’Hara, and even Cheech & Chong. Of all of his films, this is the one I wish was talked about more.

New York Stories – Life Lessons

In the late 80s there was an anthology film called New York Stories. Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, and Scorsese each made a short film about the city they love. With such talent involved, it’s shocking only of these films was memorable. Written by the great novelist Richard Price, “Life Lessons” is about a painter (Nick Nolte) and his muse/assistant (Rosanna Arquette). They used to be lovers and she wants to move on, but he’s not as willing. This is one of the best films I’ve seen about art and what it means to be an artist, not just with paintings. Watching someone paint could be incredibly dull but once again Scorsese brings in a strong life to the visual style as if we were right there painting a possible masterpiece. Worth looking for.


Breaking away from his usual Catholic observations, Scorsese went ahead and made a movie about the 14th Dalai Lama. The visual style is beautiful with the wide array of colors and landscape. As much as I love The Last Temptation of Christ, it makes you wonder about what he could have accomplished if he had a budget. I found this movie to be fascinating especially considering how little I knew about this spirituality and the political struggles during this time. At the very least, it’s worth watching to understand the parallels with John Locke in the show LOST.

The Key to Reserva

This actually started out as an advertisement for a winery. Now it’s a beloved cult short film among film buffs. It’s a pseudo-documentary about Martin Scorsese finding a missing three pages of a lost Hitchcock script. He’s in comedic conflict on how to shoot the pages because he wants to shoot them like Hitchcock would back then. Halfway through the short, we get to see the filmed scene and it’s amazing. Not only does it capture Hitchcock but it sneaks in about a dozen references as well. It’s very clever and very funny. Also it’s still available for free online!

There are of course many many more Scorsese films worth checking out. He has been working consistently since the late 60s and shows no sign of slowing down creatively. He embraces the world of cinema unlike another other director, with a true love for the medium. If you want to hear me blabber on about him some more, I’ll be at the E.B. and Bertha C. Ball Center in Muncie, Indiana on Thursday at 10AM. Tickets are free, but you have to RSVP at 765-285-8975.

I am such a whore.

Film Yap: Our Family Wedding

I’m not entirely convinced that Our Family Wedding is a movie. Yes, it’s in theatres but did it mean to be? It looks a lot like a bad soon-to-be canceled sitcom and there were a lot of moments where I think they were pausing for laugh tracks. SPOILER: There were no laugh tracks.

The plot is a very odd one. A couple that is devoid of personality and chemistry are engaged. One is played by America Ferrera and the other is played by Lance Gross. That’s right! One is Mexican and the other is African-American. Don’t jump the gun. They go home to inform their families about their engagement, but it turns out their families are unlikeable and racist. Now the conflict starts. Their respected fathers (Forest Whitaker and Carlos Mencia) already hate each other before this announcement was made. See Mencia towed Whitaker’s car when it was in a no-parking zone. They argued and said racist things. Hilarity forgot to ensue.

So for some sort of power struggle the two families keep interfering with the wedding. They fight over the cake and the traditions, but mostly they fight over the fact that one family is black and the other is Mexican. When Guess Who Came to Dinner? came out is was well received but there was still questions of its social relevancy. With this movie it is already feels dated. It is difficult to root or tolerate characters that are this boring and insensitive.

Aside from that all of the humor falls flat. The dads are constantly trying to be the last to sit down in an embarrassing competition. There is a powerfully random softball game that is mishandled. I don’t know a whole lot about sports, but I know you don’t pitch to your own team and you don’t slide into first. Then, of course, we have the rampaging goat that gets doped up on Viagra. None of these moments flow well into the story and pathetically feel like “Here’s a comedy set-piece. Please laugh!”

So much of this movie feels incomplete. Scenes are abruptly cut off before the main conflict arises. For example in a painful scene where Mencia accidently destroys Whitaker’s bathroom, the audience was waiting for something to come of this. Whitaker to come in and get angry or something. Instead they cut away before anything is fixed and never mention it again. Sometimes scenes don’t have any relevancy. Sometimes I have no idea what day it is. This may just be one of the worst edited films I’ve seen in my life.

There’s further confusion as the movie seems to push an anti-romance agenda and then riddles the film with sayings even Hallmark would reject. The movie feels like a complete mess, but there really isn’t anything worth salvaging.

1 Yap.

Words Words Words: Writing For Somebody

A few weeks ago I watched something fascinating. The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson has always been the unsung hero of the late night game. Equipped with a low budget, Ferguson dramatically breaks the norm each and every night. Last week he did something that got a lot of attention. There was no audience.

His guest was the brilliant Stephen Fry and aside from the crew, they were the only ones in the studio. There was no traditional monologue, but only an introduction to this experiment. He said people like Larry King and Charlie Rose are able to do this and he wanted to try it. What follows was simply a free form conversation covering a variety of topics from Twitter to America. Fry is always entertaining because he is wise and articulate while still being funny. So is Ferguson actually. He plays the buffoon card a lot, but he is also a very intelligent individual.

Now this is where the episode intrigued me. All performers and writers are conscious of their audience. I know others will read this article so I am trying to convey my thoughts in a manner that they will understand. It’s more than being considerate; it’s being responsible. On a typical episode, Ferguson is constantly interacting with the audience. He plays off the jokes that are working and always wants to make them laugh. This isn’t just for him, but for them. The audience arrives each night to see him.

On the episode with Fry, he wasn’t the usual performer. He wasn’t playing the manic kooky host. He was calm and very interested in what Fry was saying. There were still jokes in the conversation because the two of them are naturally funny people. They were there to entertain each other and themselves. If the audience is there to see Ferguson, isn’t this the Ferguson they would want to see? This purer and more honest Ferguson?

It is silly to suggest that Ferguson the Performer and Ferguson the Man are two different people. Both of these personas still have the audience of him. The show he has is the show he wants. This is how he wants to do the monologue—what appears to be entirely improvised. This is how he wants to perform the interviews—without pre-scheduled questions designed by publicists. There is honesty in his program.

All writing has an element of truth in it because we write to satisfy ourselves first. That night we saw something that he really wanted to do. As with most experiments, it had the chance to backfire and bomb. Instead it was a great moment of television.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Film Yap: Planet 51

I will give the movie this: the initial premise of Planet 51 is clever. The story is about an American astronaut who lands on a planet 20 billion miles away and is treated as a typical alien invader. This is also the extent of the cleverness of the movie.

The film is never offensive, but is incredibly boring and underdeveloped. It makes sense that Planet 51 ought to be thematically similar, but it’s almost unnerving how it is exactly the same as Earth. The only differences are they have green skin, antennae, and floating cars. Animation provides the opportunity to create a whole new magical world. If a character travels to a new planet, majority of the film should be parading the new creative differences on that planet. Instead the planet looks like America did during the 1950s. They do everything the same including speaking English.

The movie also suffers from the syndrome of too many themes. In this movie I think it wants us to be ourselves and be more than ourselves and to embrace the unknown and to be tolerant and to hate NASA. It’s very complex. This comes from Chuck the astronaut (voiced incompetently by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) befriending a young native named Lem. He has a crush on Neera but is too shy. He also wants to become an astronomer one day. Justin Long does a solid job about making Lem likable, but he’s too dull to root for. He complains that once Chuck arrives he just “wants his life to go back to normal.” His life really isn’t that different with Chuck. I think he’s just complaining because that’s what other people do in his situations.

Also Chuck shouldn’t be helped. He only has 73 hours to return to his ship. It’s unclear why he only had a weekend to investigate a planet, but I digress. The problem is that he’s way too obnoxious. He’s constantly showing off how awesome he is. He’s screaming various pop culture references that don’t make any sense like telling a group of elderly aliens to find him on Facebook. Meh. The movie goes to great lengths to show how incompetent he is and constantly suggests that astronauts are untrained button pushers. I’m pretty sure if they send you up in space, you are a heavily educated scientist but I could be wrong. His robot sidekick is amusing though. Sure it is an accidental rip-off of WALL-E and sounds like the Pixar lamp, but the idea of a NASA probe only being interested in rocks is amusing.

The film moves in a predictable pace and it is hard to decipher if kids will even like this. They’re not going to understand the numerous Star Wars jokes and the homages to 1950s B-movies. There are no joke set-pieces to really get behind or even fun action scenes. The movie is instantly forgettable, like a reverse Polaroid.

The extras reflect this. There are a few featurettes where key voice actors talk about the plot. There is an ironic feature called “The World of Planet 51” where they just move the camera around various animated locations. There isn’t anyone talking about how they designed these places or what were the creative decisions. It is just a quasi-tour juxtaposed with a song. At least that was better than the irritating game.

Movie: 1 Yap

Extras: 2 Yaps

MovieSet: The Ghost Writer

It has become increasingly difficult to adapt a mystery as a big budget movie. It is probably because the books they are adapted don’t call for that much money. Most of the time mysteries are about puzzle solving with motivations towards justice. Explosions aren’t necessary in that task, but can serve as amusing plot points. At the end of the day, with mysteries, the things that stick with you are the intelligence. If that is properly captured on film, then the film succeeded.

Roman Polanski adapted Robert Harris’s novel, The Ghost, with the right mentality. The film is focused on what the characters and situations are actually capable of. This creates honest paranoia and stakes. There are no Bourne-esque chase scenes or elaborate gun fights. This is not a criticism, but a compliment. Those elements work for Bourne and Bond because they are more than human. Most thrillers aren’t about those types of people. The last film I’ve seen to do this properly was a French film called Tell No One, also based off an American mystery novel.

The Ghost Writer is about an unnamed writer (Ewan McGregor) who is called to serve as a replacement writer for Adam Lang’s (Pierce Brosnan) memoirs. Lang used to be Prime Minister of Great Brittan and is not subtly Tony Blair. Bravo for not casting Michael Sheen in this role. The original ghost for Lang’s memoirs drowned. The publisher is anxious to get the book out because scandals are making Lang more infamous than ever. There is something about the memoirs that are having a lot of people nervous including Lang’s personal secretary (Kim Cattrall) and his wife (the wonderful Olivia Williams).

The conspiracy unravels in a naturally peculiar pace, but Polanski does a great job at establishing a certain tone throughout the whole film. There is uneasiness to go from several shots overlooking the distant, shifting sand to shots where people feel a little too close to the camera. Ordinary places become prisons and nobody is saying what they are truly thinking.

The writer knows he is supposed to stay within the shadows, but his own curiosity and morality makes him want to pursue this story. He often states that he is not political so he has a certain objectivity that others do not. This is McGregor at his best playing a very witty man who is not a superhero. (Isn’t it refreshing to have an on-screen writer actually write good stuff?) He is allowed to be scared and uncertain. One of his best scenes is a conversation with the always-fantastic Tom Wilkinson. The clues have led him to this house and he knows there is significance, but he is not sure what it is. So he just carefully balances the line without revealing too much.

The film is very satisfying, but it is easy to pick out the clues that sustain believability. They never succumb to Scooby-Doo level—Jinkees, look at these footprints—but the way the final twist is revealed is a bit groan-worthy. Aside from that moment, the film treats the audience with a degree of intelligence that has become rare in films. These types of films allow for performances and screenplays with depth. It is for those reasons this is the type of thriller that will be remembered and recommended ten years from now instead of dying in the $2 bin.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Film Yap: The Boring Art of Tim Burton

Last weekend I decided I was going to talk about Tim Burton and how I don’t think his vision is very unique. I was thinking of the different elements to discuss when burst my bubble. Usually they are one of my favorite sources of creative videos, but I don’t appreciate it when they take my topic. I’ve embedded the video below and unfortunately it is quite funny and spot-on.

The video brings up my biggest problem with Burton: his “creative” vision has become stale and predictable. I was never one among my generation to really connect to his quirky dark tone. What I find interesting is that for such a unique cinematic niche, he has rarely worked on original screenplays.

Most of the times, the adaptations are from well-known works. Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd, Planet of the Apes, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, and now Alice in Wonderland are all stories that have had plenty of adaptations. The only one of those that seems justified would be Sweeney Todd because that never had a proper film version. (That said, the original Broadway cast of Todd was filmed and it’s really worth renting. Angela Lansbury >>> Helena Bonham Carter.) So with the other examples, there really ought to be more of a reason to make another film. Those original sources already have a strong tone to them so when Burton adapts them he feels like more of a journeyman director instead of a provocative auteur.

The filmmakers I respect are the ones that are always striving to test themselves as storytellers. The projects Burton chooses lately are not challenging and then the final products appear to be too easy. The last film of his I’ve responded to was Big Fish, a film that does not look like the clichéd Burton flick. Yes, it was based off a book but it wasn’t mainstream of even good. This was perfect because there was opportunity to put his own touch on the source and improved it. There was more heart in this project and that made it memorable.

His earlier films had that spark and energy to make something that hasn’t been done before. Even with his Batman films, he was taking risks and involving elements of German Expressionism. Now he approaches the material too comfortably. It has been announced that his next film will be a retelling of Sleeping Beauty from Maleficent’s point of view. Great.

Someone needs to go all Lars von Trier on Burton. von Trier set these ridiculous rules from his Dogme 95 manifesto to filmmakers to encourage them to step outside their boundaries. I’m not even saying that they have to be harsh demands. I want to see Burton make a movie for under five million dollars. I want him to work outside his acting troupe. I want him to craft an original story again. I just want something interesting!

Monday, March 1, 2010

MovieSet: The Last Station

A lesser film once stated that it was not a love story, but a story about love. That film lied but that sentence surprisingly applies well to The Last Station. This is surprisingly considering the film appears to be about Tolstoy, but it turns out Tolstoy was all about love.

Leo Tolstoy is remembered now as an acclaimed author, but during his day he was a full-blown celebrity. There were literally cameramen perched outside his estate at any given moment. (John Irving and Ian McEwan don’t get that sort of coverage today…) Everyone wanted to know what Tolstoy was saying at every given moment. In the movie, Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) had a best friend under house arrest named Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti.) Chertkov was fearful of Tolstoy’s wife’s influence. So he hires Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) to be Tolstoy’s personal secretary but also to record all of the interactions going on inside the house.

During this time there is a movement brewing. From his work and sayings, people are trying to be Tolstoyan. This is a humanistic movement to attempt to be morally and socially perfect, I believe. Two of the major elements of this philosophy are the principles of not having private property or sexual relations. That’s where the conflict of this tale comes in. Always with love as the motivation, people are wanting to have both of those things. The Countess (Helen Mirren) is worried that her husband is drifting too far away and will give up his copyrights to the public. Valentin is developing an affair with one of the housemaids. Everyone has strong affection towards respected others, but that affection creates contradictions.

The real main character of this tale is Valentin. This world is seen through his fresh and naive eyes. It is always humorous to see him interact with his idol, but I just wish there were more of them. There are many hints about Tolstoy’s opposition to his own movement, but he is still going through with it. This was a really fascinating component, but briefly touched upon. The main focus really is between the Countess and Tolstoy. Mirren plays the role with deliberate strides. There is no such thing as perfection so Mirren highlights the best and the worst in the character. She can convincingly break plates (a pre-requisite for any Oscar nomination) but can also be compelling in just listening to what’s going on around her. Despite her manic and often destructive personality, she is able to show why she is the perfect match for Tolstoy.

The parallel story of young love is just as effective. This sort of story is often misconstrued. There has to be a love there beyond just the first love in order for the audience to be invested. Instead of just focusing on Valentine’s sexual awakening, the film does a good job establishing their connection as people and not just lovers. Their banter as they chop wood (Not an innuendo) is one of the highlights of the film.

The film has a strong focus and that is why it succeeds over other period pieces and biopics. This isn’t the definitive story of Leo Tolstoy or the Duchess, but a new story about love. Love towards lovers; love towards friends; love towards humanity; love towards symbols. It’s a powerful emotion that makes for some good cinema.

Film Yap: Writing About Auteurs

Back when Francois Truffaut was a film critic, he and more future French New Wavers developed the theory of auteurs. This was the belief that the director is a true author of a film. Every frame of the movie was hand crafted by the auteur that it is truly their film. Despite stating that films are more collaborative than the theory allows, it is almost universally accepted. There is a debate that arises from the theory, however. Can a film still be from an auteur if he/she did not write the screenplay?

The screenplay really is the backbone of a movie. A lot of people who are writer/directors are considered auteurs like Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino of recent fame. Those are the strongest examples of auteurs because they have created their own visual and writing style. Their movies flow because they know how to adapt their own work when they’re dealing with their unique stances on dialog. Obviously beyond the words said, they can control the themes that drive the story.

Through a director who is an auteur does not pick a script randomly out of a hat. Those who are considered to have a very specific type of film usually aren’t credited as screenwriters. Alfred Hitchcock is the obvious example. His popularity is so strong that certain thrillers are even called Hitchcockian. Even though he is not physically writing the scripts, he knows what he wants to talk about. When an auteur is interested in a script, there is something there that sparks him consciously or unconsciously. Jason Reitman recently spoke in an interview that he didn’t even recognize that all of his films tend to focus on the importance of family. He may not be as noticeable as an auteur as Hitchcock or Martin Scorsese, but he approaches the material in similar fashions. This argument goes beyond the script as well. The director may not have personally painted the set, but he knew who to hire to create the set that he wants.

Often times established auteurs work with the same people. Brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins has worked with The Coen Brothers on majority of their films. Thelma Schoonmaker has edited each one of Scorsese’s films since the 80s. Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger went forward to create a company called the Archers, which regularly had the same cast and crew in order to create the vision they wanted.

It can also be argued that the roles can be reversed. In some cases the writer can be the auteur and the director is the means to carry that style. There are screenwriters like Charlie Kaufman and Aaron Sorkin who draw audiences on their names alone. A scene can be played and its writer can be instantly recognized. Kevin Smith is a name recently that has dialog and characters that can be recognized with his traits. He often admits his shortcomings as a director because his true vision lies on the written page. Although I am still looking forward to Cop Out, I do not believe it is a “Kevin Smith movie” in the same vein as Clerks II or Zack and Miri Make a Porno since he is only directing, not writing.

Not everyone can be Robert Rodriguez in El Mariachi: a lone man as his entire crew. More people working on a movie don’t mean a vision is compromised. Sometimes it is strengthened. With the right collaborators, the auteur has the potential to create something really special like a Raging Bull, Vertigo or even a Chasing Amy.

MovieSet: The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke’s films seem to be anti-mysteries and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Instead of focusing on the whodunit, Haneke explores the repercussions from the crimes. This has been seen on a personal level in Cache, but in his latest film the ramifications become on a global scale.

On the eve of the First World War, there is a small German village where mysterious acts are occurring. A carefully placed tripwire hurt the doctor and his horse; people keep dying; buildings are burned. There is an attempt to discover who committed these crimes, but they are not aggressive with their search. Instead there is uneasiness and fear. Through fear comes punishment. The punishment is always from the imperfect adults towards their children.

The audience of this film almost becomes victims themselves. We know what that generation will grow up to become. Despite this being a period piece, it plays off like a more detailed parable that still applies today. The schoolmaster is telling this story through narration and (one can assume) personal bias. While these terrible acts are going on, this is also the story about how he met and fell in love with his fiancée.

The story is told through beautiful black and white cinematography. Few filmmakers have really gone back to this potential. A film without color shouldn’t divide an audience no more than a photograph should. It is simply an artistic decision. Haneke has spoken that he has used this technique to subliminally distance the viewer from the story. I don’t know how much he succeeded since he still inspired emotion from me.

The style of this film also reminded me of Ingmar Bergman’s canon. Both sets deal with morality through occasionally cruel actions. I felt a strong comparison to Bergman in my two favorite scenes in the movie. There is a scene when a young boy is walking atop the railing of a high bridge. The schoolmaster stops him and asks why this happened. The boy replies by saying he was testing God. If he fell, he knew God was angry with him. This was a profound scene to me because through the eyes of the child if there is no punishment then the actions must be just.

The other scene revolves around a girl teaching her younger brother about death. Such a complex topic is being handled very adequately. She never patronizes him and there lies the major point of the movie. The children are our next generation. The way we treat them will become the way they will run things. The White Ribbon is a film that asks us to examine our own responsibility and our own ethical code. It is not an easy film at times, but it is an important one.