While I crank out one last post for Noirvember, I’m going to cheat and link to prior recaps of neo-noir films.
Le Samourai: This parallel focus on procedure, for both Costello and the cops, sets the two on equal ground. This illustrates the second theme: Le Samourai is about war. Costello displays such care in establishing an alibi and concealing his identity, yet he does not discard his most distinguishing feature: the tan trenchcoat he wears when he leaves the nightclub. In fact he wears it fully buttoned up the entire time the police have him in custody, removing it only when he gets home. Why? …
To Live and Die in L.A.: When Chance goes undercover to lure Masters in, there’s some artful ambiguity as to whether or not Masters knows Chance is for real (“love your work”). That question hangs over every interaction in To Live and Die in L.A.: between Chance and Vukovich, or his jailhouse snitch (John Turturro), or the C.I. he’s sleeping with, or Masters himself. Is this other person the genuine article? If not, can I make use of them anyway?
Taking part in Noirvember, a retrospective on noir films that have influenced me. Click the Noirvember tag to see more.
Watching this movie in 2007, with Eric and Hannah Pope and Matt Tucker, resulted in one of the most memorable cinema experiences of my life: a packed theater simultaneously holding its breath. It happened in the scene where Lew Moss (Josh Brolin) wakes up in a hotel on the Mexican border and realizes that his nemeses must have some help in tracking him. He sifts through the satchel of money under his bed and finds an electronic tracking device. Then he hears something downstairs.
It’s so rare to find a room full of strangers who are as caught up in the movie watching experience as you are – who don’t defuse their anxiety with nervous giggles or cheap attempts at humor, but who let raw terror wash over them. This had a lot to do with the audience, no doubt: the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, MA, as snooty of an art house crowd as you’ll find in America. But it also owed a lot to the genius of the Coen Brothers in crafting a scene of such perfect, fragile tension.
Why does it work as well as it does? Four reasons.
(1) The reliance on auditory cues over visual. There’s the silenced gunshot from downstairs (not replayed here) that gets Moss’s attention. There’s the soft creak of footsteps. The lack of any musical score. Sound tends to be scarier than vision: it’s harder to focus on and there’s so much room for ambiguity. If you see something weird in the closet, you can always get closer and verify whether or not it’s your shirt. If you hear something scraping outside your bedroom, getting closer won’t help you figure it out.
(3) Also, unlike some anonymous Mexican gangsters, we like Lew Moss. He’s got a loving relationship. He’s generous enough to go back and give a dying man a drink of water. He’s demonstrated cleverness and pluck, two traits that audiences admire in underdogs. We want him to triumph over adversity.
(4) Reversal of expectations. The shadows of Chigurh’s feet pause outside Moss’s door, forming two columns. Here comes the blast – except not. Chigurh steps away, walks down the hall, and unscrews the light bulb. Now we’ve backed down from a climax, stepped up the stakes, and returned.
In addition to its superb construction of tension, there’s also the essence of noir – existentialist philosophy played out through action. In No Country for Old Men, this is personified through Anton Chigurh, an unstoppable hit man who contemptuously rejects the human attempt to impose order on a chaotic universe. “If the rule you followed brought you to this,” he asks of a man he’s about to kill, “of what use was the rule?”
Of course, in a notable and excellent deviation from the novel, it takes another character, Carla Jean Moss, to point out Chigurh’s own hypocrisy in this. By tying the fate of his victims to something like a coin toss, he’s making his own rules and thereby engaging in the deckchair shuffling that he declaims. “The coin don’t have no say!” Chigurh, heretofore unflappable in his deadly pursuit, pauses in reflection after hearing this. He then, as if to drive the point home, gets hit by a car.
I saw Mission Impossible 4: Spooky Operating Procedure with Sylvia over the holiday weekend. A slam-bang action flick, to use the Variety term, but a little breathless in the writing. And I use that in both the laudatory and pejorative senses: the action never lets up, but the speech gets a little nasally as a result.
Nonetheless it’s probably not my favorite M:I film. Every successive entry in the franchise makes me miss what I liked about the previous entry. I liked Brian de Palma’s velvety style; I liked John Woo’s balletic action; I liked J.J. Abrams’ efficient storytelling. Bird is more efficient at building tension without making it seem as ridiculous as Abrams does, and he can frame a fight scene without it becoming a clash of jumpy visual images. But he needed a better writer.
At first blush, writing a neo-noir crime thriller (like the sequel to Too Close to Miss) is nothing like writing a high-budget action flick. But the same principles of tension, danger and pacing apply, albeit on different scales. I was taking mental notes on things the writers might have done better; perhaps we can compare.
Three Things Ghost Protocol Got Wrong That It’s Not Hard to Get Right
1. Where’s Poochie?
Homer: One, Poochie needs to be louder, angrier, and have access to a time machine. Two, whenever Poochie’s not onscreen, all the other characters should be asking “Where’s Poochie”? Three…
Myers: Great, great. Just leave them right there on the floor on your way out.
Tom Cruise’s character of Ethan Hunt has always been the star of the franchise. But somehow that’s never felt quite as staged as it did in this installment, where nobody can shut up about how awesome Hunt is and how tragic his circumstances are. Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) literally can’t shut up about how awesome it is to be working with Ethan Hunt. Agent Carter (Paula Patton) doesn’t have the same dialogue, but she favors Hunt with a lot of hurt stares, wondering at how he can deal with all that pain.
But it’s particularly galling with newcomer William Brandt (Jeremy Renner). Brandt is set up to be at least as interesting as Hunt: athletic, good sense of humor, driven, photographic memory. And it turns out (in a twist that the trailer reveals, so I don’t feel bad about spoiling it) that Brandt may secretly be a competent field agent as well. But after we discover the extent of Brandt’s talents, he spends the entire next scene … talking about Ethan Hunt.
How to Fix: Show, don’t tell. Ethan Hunt doesn’t do anything particularly impressive for the first twenty minutes of the movie, aside from one artfully choreographed fight scene. Demonstrate the man’s competence and make him admirable, rather than having characters stand around and admire him.
2. Make Your Villains Interesting
Who was the villain of MI4GP? A former Swiss something who was a Russian somebody who wanted to blow up the world. Why? His motives get revealed in a speech, which we watch on video, delivered to the most boring looking government body ever. He’s literally talking about nuking the planet and no one in his audience even blinks.
Compare that to MI2, where our introduction to the villain is through his wicked Tom Cruise impersonation (“that was the hardest part about having to portray you, grinning like an idiot every fifteen minutes”). Or to MI3; Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t look very engaged with the role, but at least he gets the best dialogue (“You can tell a lot about a person’s character by how they treat people they don’t have to treat well”). Compare that to Dr. No, or Die Hard, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, or The Dark Knight or any of the classic thrillers.
How to Fix: as I said, give your villain the best dialogue. Give him at least one scene to gloat, even if it’s a little unrealistic. Or give him some humanizing or admirable touch, even if it’s just thumbing his nose at social conventions (which we all want to do, deep down).
3. They’re Called Plot Twists, Not Plot Roundabouts
I’m going to spoil a bit of the Act 2 setpiece here, but hopefully most of you have seen the movie already. If not, you’ll still enjoy it even if you know the following.
In act 2, our heroes are stationed at the Burj Khalifa, Dubai, the tallest building in the world. They have to intercept a set of Russian nuclear launch codes before they pass from an assassin to one of the villain’s henchmen. Their plan is to send both the assassin and the henchman to the wrong rooms, with members of the team posing as each, to fake both the handoff and the payoff.
BUT, things get complicated when both the assassin and the henchman show up early. THEN, things get more complicated when Benji can’t hack the hotel’s servers, requiring Ethan to scale the outside of the hotel to break into the server room. AND THEN things get even more complicated when the mask-making machine breaks down, forcing the team to take the chance that the assassin and the henchman have never met each other. BUT THEN things get still more complicated when it turns out that the henchman is bringing a nuclear launch security expert with him, who can verify the codes onsite, preventing Hunt from handing off phony codes to the henchman. AND THEN …
All this in the space of ten minutes. Before the audience can even get a handle on what’s going on, the direction changes. The plot isn’t twisting at this point; it’s turning in a steady spiral. The result is dizziness, not breathlessness.
How to Fix: tension is a function of uncertainty and stakes. Uncertainty requires a baseline of certainty to spring off of: the audience has to think they know what’s likely before you can start changing likelihoods. Get them comfortable before you start tugging on the rug. The M:I series should be ripe for this. There’s lots of opportunity for teams to play with gadgets, monitor surveillance and form plans, developing a scenario to its natural conclusion. Then, just before the end, throw in a plot twist.
By calling out these three points, I don’t mean to imply that the writers of Mission Impossible 4: Haunted Three-Ring Binder are morons or that I’m some master auteur. I’m still learning. But part of the learning process means being an informed audience member and taking notes.
Anyone else seen MI4GP yet? What were your thoughts?
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, like so many cult films, does not hold up under repeat viewings. The editing is just bad, almost MST3K-worthy. The motorcycle chase that caps the first act is a perfect example. Banzai and the Red Lectroids he’s chasing are never onscreen at the same time. He ambles after them on a motorcycle and eventually ends up in the woods. Are these the same woods that the duck hunters are tromping through in search of a UFO? I guess.
The sound editing is also terrible, with half the lines being lost in echoes and the other half being delivered in “comical” accents (Jamaican, Italian, Japanese). It doesn’t help that it’s a sci-fi movie, so there are a lot of unfamiliar terms being thrown around, e.g., “oscillation overthruster.” When Banzai mistakes Penny’s name for “Peggy” in the club scene, I thought it was a prescient in-joke.
For all this it’s not a bad movie. There’s an intricate world being depicted, a world in which a genius scientist travels the country in a tour bus with half a dozen other genius scientists, who also play in a band, who are also practiced gunfighters, who also have a comic book depicting their exploits and a nationwide fan club-cum-milita. It looks like a really fun world that you’d want to be a part of. Unfortunately, the producers never really invite us in.
If any movie could benefit from a remake, it’d be this. Edgar Wright could give it a go.
X-Men: First Class: Best X-Men movie since the first one. Stylish, engaging and yet still good fun.
In my oft-cited contribution to the Why We Overthink thousand-post milestone on OTI, I defended my snobbery by saying “mere enthusiasm is not enough to make something Good Art.” X-Men: First Class supports my claim. While the stylistic choices don’t break any new ground – mirror-image cinematography, aping Mad Men style – they are, at least, stylistic choices. It’s done better than in the first movie, where the villains are a giant dressed like a drifter, a naked blue woman, a leapfrogging jester and an old guy in Nouveau Fasciste, who live in a cave off the coast of, well, never mind.
Of course, it’s by Matthew Vaughn of Kick-Ass, so it’s not perfect. Every female with more than two lines prances around in her underwear within 10 seconds of her first appearance. The movie’s got its share of attractive guys. I could practically hear Meghan biting her lip as Michael Fassbender struts around Argentina in a tight polo shirt, and Nicholas Hoult (Hank McCoy / Beast) is probably a fan favorite. But they all keep their shirts on like they’re embarrassed, or rather Vaughn is embarrassed for them.
The dialogue has the usual comic book kitsch: James McAvoy repeats all the important stuff twice per sentence, and Jennifer Lawrence does the best she can with a bad hand. Kevin Bacon must have loved showing up to work every day and the enthusiasm shows on screen. January Jones delivers her lines on cue, and Oliver Platt and Michael Ironside play themselves.
Check out the podcast if you want to hear more (SPOILERS). I may also have an OTI post next week on the subject. For now: highly recommended.
I needed to kill 22 minutes while eating dinner last night, so I turned on The Office for the first time in years and watched “Threat Level Midnight.”
Quick question: has the entire cast been paired off by now? Jim and Pam I knew about, but Michael’s apparently made good on his crush with the HR lady, Ryan and Kelly are a thing, and even Ed Helms’s character and the much younger receptionist are an item. I know the tendency to prolong tension by forestalling obvious romantic connections is one of the worse things about sitcoms, but the alternative isn’t much more interesting.
That said, “Threat Level Midnight” is a work of genius.
While making a good show is hard, making a bad show is really hard. Deliberately bad, that is. Everyone can agree on that The Room or From Justin to Kelly are bad movies, but it takes effort to parse out just what makes the movies bad. Why is it bad that the mother says she has breast cancer and then the issue is abandoned? What’s a better way to shoot Johnny’s internal tension than by having him walk onto a roof, mutter denials to himself, and then greet another character in the same shot? And so on.
It also takes effort to parse out what makes a good movie good – why is the shootout at the ranch so tense, etc. But there’s a greater payoff there. With bad movies, the stunned laughter is usually enough of a diagnosis.
But the writers on “The Office” has always been very good at diagnosing what makes bad art bad and then replicating it with unapologetic sincerity. They did it with Michael Scott’s improv class. They did it with the Dunder Mifflin paper commercial (“You have a son and it’s me”). And now they’ve done it with Michael Scott’s masterpiece, ten years in the making – “Threat Level Midnight.”
What makes “TLM” genius isn’t just the parts of it that are bad (“have you ever banged an entire bachelorette party, ba-by?”). It’s the parts that are bad that still happen all the time in major Hollywood releases. Artificial means to draw out tension. Heroes who are brutal to innocent people for no good reason. Telegraphing the protagonist’s character development (he’s cool, he’s successful, he’s conflicted, women love him) instead of showing it through action. Forgetting what’s at stake and when (so if everyone knows where the bad guy is, when he’s going to strike, and what his plans are …).
You’ll see shit like that in Taken. You’ll see it in every Nic Cage movie and most Jason Statham movies. And yet Hollywood keeps producing it, since it’s so hard to figure out what exactly makes a bad movie bad.
I checked the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven off my Netflix queue this weekend. It’s an interesting movie, but I can see why it didn’t captivate hearts and minds the way the producers must have hoped. It’s certainly not shot like an epic. Much of the cinematography has that dim, bird’s-eye perspective that can only come from CGI. And there are no transition shots to speak of. People arrive at places – Messina, Jerusalem, Ibelin – and start doing things. How much time passes: a week, a month, an afternoon? We can never tell. It doesn’t help that Orlando Bloom is the least compelling protagonist: the Big Lebowski of the Crusades, wandering from crime scene to crime scene, never doing so much as done to.
This got me thinking about director’s cuts in general. I can’t think of any film I’ve seen where the director’s cut transforms the product from mediocre to fair, or from good to great. I’m told there’s a director’s cut of Blade Runner that transforms it from campy to deep, and if someone could let me know which of the thirteen versions it is I’ll check it out. Apocalypse Now Redux is a substantially worse film, adding several elements to Martin Sheen’s character that contradict his other scenes and tacking on a bizarre conversation with a Frenchman who hasn’t heard that it’s no longer French Indochina. There’s various extended editions of Lord of the Rings, if you thought they weren’t long enough to begin with, and there’s a director’s cut of Dune that elevates the movie from Gibberish to merely Bad.
(I’m being a little fatuous; I’ve left Brazil off the list, for instance. If there are any other examples you can think of, please list them in the comments)
Anne Rice went on an infamous rant six years ago about how she “fought a great battle to achieve a status where [she] did not have to put up with editors making demands on [her].” That’s the last I ever heard of her, though I’m sure that’s coincidence; also I’m not very familiar with the GothMantic genre. Regardless, very few successful authors – and almost no good ones – consider themselves imprisoned, or demanded of, by their editors. Open to the Acknowledgments page and count the words of praise lavished on them. An editor is, at the very least, another pair of eyes: at best, a seasoned hand for pacing, perspective and tone. A good editor makes a good story better. But the best editor can’t make a muddle into a masterpiece. That, I suspect, is why most director’s cuts fail to grab me. If the movie had been that good in the first place, it wouldn’t need a second chance.
In The Heat of the Night: I knew going in that this was Sidney Poitier’s movie (and it is, and no dispute there). But I had no idea it would also be Rod Steiger’s movie, too.
Steiger turns in such a natural performance that you’d swear he was a Mississippi native. He approaches every crisis with a sullen fatigue born of humidity and small-town politics. Director Norman Jewison’s added touch of having Steiger chew on gum throughout is perfect: it tempts us to compare him to a farm animal.
By being relaxed and natural, Steiger contrasts brightly with Poitier. Poitier moves through every scene with the poise of a ballet dancer (or a fencer, more aptly), holding tight reserves of anger. He’s walking through Sparta, MS, like a kabuki performer because he knows his life is in very real danger. Compare this to Steiger, who’s in the seat of his power, and the choice to make him look lazy and tired becomes genius.
I’d have known this if I did about five minutes of research on the movie beforehand. I chose to stay in the dark, though, so I could go into the movie fresh. And it paid off. In The Heat of the Night is more than just an important movie in the American canon – it’s also a really good murder mystery. It cranks the tension, it throws twists upon twists and it makes every character distinct. There are a hundred movies released every year which aren’t gripping dramas on the institutions of race and class butting head-on in the American South that can’t manage that kind of taut storytelling.
TL;DR: In The Heat of the Night is just as good as everyone says it is.
On the spectrum of absurdity, there’s a line somewhere. For each of us this line is personal. Before that line, our reaction to the absurd is a laugh. Past that line, our reaction is a gasp.
Dark comedy works because it pushes that line, inch by inch.
In The Loop not only matches Dr. Strangelove for both the shade of its darkness and the hilarity of its comedy. It may rival Kubrick as well.
In The Loop begins with the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications, the savage Malcolm Tucker, overhearing a radio interview in which Minister for International Development Simon Foster states that war in the Middle East is “unforeseeable.” No, no, no, says Tucker – in unprintable language – this simply will not do. However, Foster’s comment is seized on by the visiting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karen Clarke, who wants to keep the U.S. (and the U.K.) out of a Middle Eastern war. She tries to prod Foster into taking a stronger stand. Waffling, he mumbles something to reporters about how sometimes, on the road to peace, one has to “climb the mountain of conflict.”
And we’re off and running.
Add to this mix Liza Weld, a young assistant to Secretary Clarke, whose paper laying out the pros and cons of an invasion (abbreviated to “PWIP-PIP”) becomes a smoking gun on the coffee table. Add to this Toby Wright, Simon Foster’s adviser, whose craven ambition and crush on Liza lead him to several boorish choices. Add to this the Assistant Secretary of State Linton Barwick, whose bland confidence steamrolls over Clarke’s objections. Add to this James Gandolfini and Steve Coogan in hilarious cameos. Add to this a live hand grenade, a douchebag staffer with a squash racket, a Scottish press officer with a penchant for Trainspotting-level brutality, and the world’s most awkward UN conference. And a teetering stone wall.
In The Loop blends half a dozen plotlines, over a dozen major speaking roles and several key MacGuffins into a 110-minute runtime. It bounces between London, Northampshire, Washington and New York City. Characters are openly savage to each other, whether in the bland sarcasm of the States or the frothing profanity of the Kingdom, despite being nominal coworkers. And yet you never lose track of what’s at stake. You never get confused as to who means what to whom. And you never stop laughing.
Dr. Strangelove is the perfect dark comedy because it suggests that the world could be brought to an end because of two poor decisions – Attack Plan R and the Doomsday Device – and the institutional miscues that protect them. And because it was hilarious. Where In The Loop matches it, and just maybe exceeds it, is in suggesting that the world can be brought to war because of a series of poor decisions. With In The Loop, there is no inept Captain Mandrake, nor any stern President Muffley, trying to save the world from chaos. Everyone is equally mercenary. There is no President Bartlett waiting to save us.
In The Loop is not a story of heroes defeated by their own flaws. There are no heroes. In the grim darkness of our not-too-distant past, there is only war.
Bob Adriano: In the meeting with the Foreign Office, the committee was accidentally and briefly alluded to. Linton Barwick: Which committee? Bob Adriano: The … the war committee, sir. Linton Barwick: All right, Karen is not to know about this, huh? She is an excitable, yapping she-dog. Get a hold of those minutes. I have to correct the record. Bob Adriano: We can do that? Linton Barwick: Yes, we can. Those minutes are an aide-memoire for us. They should not be a reductive record of what happened to have been said, but they should be more a full record of what was intended to have been said. I think that’s the more accurate version, don’t you?
I had the day off work on Friday, so I saw three movies.
Scott Pilgrim vs the World: The most fun I’ve had at the theater since Iron Man. The opening credits are better than most movies and the soundtrack is cooler than your best haircut. The pacing struggles a little in the first reel: it takes more than a few minutes to establish any sort of tension. But once everyone’s moved into place – Scott Pilgrim, his ambitious band, his awesome new girlfriend, his naive former girlfriend and the League of Evil Exes – the story takes off. The action is fun and intense, the throwaway gags will leave you howling, and there’s a mature story of how a boy becomes a man, too. Plus, did I mention the soundtrack? Awesome in every particular. See it in theaters.
Salt: Action-packed but joyless. I came in late, just in time to see Angelina Jolie getting beat up in a North Korean prison. She’s released in a prisoner exchange and returns to a desk job at the CIA, where she exchanges one or two japes with her boss, Liev Schreiber. And that’s it as far as humor goes. I know I complained about how grim Inception was, but Inception is a Jackie Chan movie in comparison. Everyone’s mean, everyone’s serious, everything’s dark and the stakes are high. The plot’s ridiculous but the action stacks up to a Bourne movie. Jolie looks too skinny to be an action star in the first act but appears a little more healthy by acts two and three. Maybe the shooting schedule ran long.
Here’s a short list of laughable plot elements:
The method in which Salt’s bona fides are called into question obviates the need for her to have been captured by North Koreans. So why did that happen? Did I miss something crucial in the first three minutes?
Really? No one thought to check that he was really dead?
The Expendables: imagine you and your male friends rent a house on the water for a weekend. One night, between beers five and nine, you rattle off a list of everything that was awesome about action movies in the 80s. Someone writes that list down. The next day, someone films that list for forty million dollars. That’s The Expendables.
The Expendables has a convincing attitude instead of a plot. People do things, and reasons are given, but everything exists in that fuzzy realm of action movie logic. And I mean everything. When we realize that UFC veteran Randy Couture is a good guy and WWE veteran Steve Austin is a bad guy, we know that the movie will end with them fighting at least once. It just has to. When the team of mercenaries shows up to take out the bad guy’s island fortress, Stallone syncs everyone’s watches and lets them know they only have “twenty minutes.” Why? Why not fifteen or thirty? Because there has to be a scene where one guy falls behind and everyone debates – briefly – whether to go back for him or not.