Talking Movies

December 22, 2011

Thus Endeth the Winning Streak

I’ve already cast doubt on the wisdom of using Bane as the villain in The Dark Knight Rises, but I have strong presentiments of disaster that extend well beyond that.

I was alarmed after writing my piece to read Christopher Nolan talking about Bane to Empire and specifically extolling how he makes Batman physically vulnerable; and Scarecrow setting Bats on fire, Ras Al’Ghul dropping a log on him and Two-Face shooting him can go to ret-con hell. Nolan then went on to quite graphically describe Bane’s brutal fighting style before belatedly backtracking and talking about Bane’s great tactical mind hidden behind the monstrous physique. The scent of Knightfall is heavy in the air, and the sound of breaking spines emerge from crystal balls and runes everywhere. But I’ve come to feel that it’s inevitable that The Dark Knight Rises is going to be a disaster because Nolan is quite simply overdue one at this point.

Indeed in an article during the summer I wrote “Christopher Nolan is due a disaster at some point. Every director, writer, playwright, musician, artist will make a screw-up of epic proportions at some point.” I’ve quoted an old Charlie Brown line as my title because I’ve since traced back the origins of my belief in the inevitability of disaster in artistic careers to a Peanuts comic strip.  Charlie Brown’s baseball team had been on an unwonted winning streak, and as he stood on the base he knew this couldn’t possibly last – a massive disaster had to scupper them at some point to restore the cosmic balance. And they immediately lost, and he sighed “Thus endeth the winning streak.” But how does this apply to artists?

My favourite directors Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg have both suffered disastrous ends to great winning streaks. I think that The Dark Knight Rises is going to be that moment when the wheels come off the wagon spectacularly, and Christopher Nolan will stand up amidst the wreckage, look around, mutter “Thus endeth the winning streak”, and dream it all up again. And it’s not all superstition that somehow one can become overdrawn at the Bank of Inspiration – if we may call whatever that external well of ideas is that Jung dubbed the spiritus mundi, and which every writer knows the tingling feeling of tapping into; when the characters start to say things to each other that you, their creator, didn’t know they were going to…

There are obvious tangible reasons why great directors suddenly make a catastrophic hash of things. Continued success surrounds you with money, yes men, and a feeling of invincibility. Your judgement is temporarily euphorically suspended, as you breezily take risks you wouldn’t have taken before, and you become implacably convinced that whatever idea you come up with is pure gold because you’re a genius (rather than sifting thru a number of ideas to find which is the best one because you’re good but you need hard work and inspiration to hit pay-dirt) – and then WHACK! Box office disaster slaps you back to reality like a wet fish right in the kisser. Disaster is what makes next the winning streak possible. Forced back to smaller budgets and second-guessing yourself you sift thru ideas, regain your critical eye and return stronger than ever.

Spielberg screwed up with 1941 and returned with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Hitchcock bored everyone with The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man and roared back with Vertigo. Even Joel Schumacher rose from the ashes of Bat-disaster with Tigerland and Phone Booth. Who knows just how good Nolan’s comeback would be?

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December 6, 2011

Top 7 Joel Schumacher Movies

It’s easy to make fun of the director of Batman & Robin, and God knows I’ve done it myself, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Joel Schumacher. He doesn’t have a distinct visual style or trademark thematic concerns so he’ll never be acclaimed as an auteur, but as a journeyman director he reclaims the original meaning of that word as he’s a skilled practitioner of his craft whose name usually guarantees solid entertainment.

(7) The Phantom of the Opera
This was the last Schumacher film that did decent box-office, despite lukewarm reviews, and it’s a solid adaptation. Hilariously the then unknown cast has become retrospectively impressive as the disfigured Phantom Gerard Butler tries to win the ingénue singer Emmy Rossum away from the foppish Patrick Wilson. Lloyd Webber’s music is the star, but Schumacher stages the numbers well, especially in the underground lair.

(6) St Elmo’s Fire
Schumacher co-wrote and directed the definitive Brat Pack movie. Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy, and Judd Nelson, all give some of their best 1980s performances in a film about college graduates with great expectations struggling to live up to the promises of Reaganomics by self-actualising (and, pace Judd, becoming Republicans) while being buffeted by the unpredictable desires of their own hearts.

(5) The Lost Boys
Schumacher coaxed a star-making performance from Kiefer Sutherland as the villain while creating an influential version of vampires: forget Anne Rice’s philosophical angst, these are eternally teenage bad boys, bloodily partying to rock music. The great Edward Hermann’s dignity is hilariously abused by the kids who suspect he’s a vampire master. Jason Patric’s hero is anaemic opposite Kiefer, but there Anne Rice’s Louis/Lestat template is observed.

(4) Tigerland
Schumacher ‘discovered’ Colin Farrell by directing him in this incendiary first lead performance as rebellious Texan Bozz, causing discontent at a training camp for Vietnam. Part of Schumacher’s atonement for Batman & Robin, this was a defiant move to truly gritty drama, even down to the rough shooting style, and it worked – Farrell’s charisma making a fairly archetypal arc about the assumption of responsibility seem emotive and fresh.

(3) Flatliners
“Today’s a good day to die…” Schumacher’s second film with Kiefer confirmed his striking ability to foster young talent (Julia Roberts, Hope Davis and Oliver Platt) who would quickly go on to even bigger things. Medical students experiment with stopping their hearts to allow brief excursions into the afterlife, only to find they’ve unexpectedly brought back their own worst demons. Schumacher creates creeping dread with numerous nail-biting sequences.

(2) Phone Booth
Schumacher’s second film with Farrell deployed considerable visual flair, not least in its extensive split-screens, to make its titular fixed location properly cinematic. Farrell’s sleazy arrogant agent is reduced to a gibbering wreck while pinned down by Kiefer’s insidious, and verbally taunting, sniper. Part glorious high concept executed well, and part cheeky reversal of Kiefer’s 24 comeback, this was Schumacher announcing his return to the glossy mainstream.

(1) The Client
The pre-eminent John Grisham adaptation is powered by Susan Sarandon’s charm and doggedness, the latter so underpinned by integrity that even antagonist Tommy Lee Jones eventually respects it. Sarandon may have won an Oscar for Dead Man Walking but (along with Thelma & Louise) this is the film for which she’ll be fondly remembered. Schumacher also drew a great performance from Brad Renfro as her young client, and mixed nicely orchestrated suspense with a wonderfully warm humanity.

December 3, 2011

The Movies Aren’t Dead, they just smell funny: Part III

Mark Harris’ GQ article ‘The Day the Movies Died’ rightly notes that the standard which journeymen film-makers operate at has collapsed, but I want to add studio tactics, lazy CGI, and a hype machine eating itself as elements working against cinema, in addition to his recurring and important culprit – marketers.

Harris quotes a studio executive as lamenting, “We don’t tell stories anymore.” Well, Hollywood does tell stories, the problem is (as noted in a previous piece) all the screenwriting is apparently done by deeply jaded supercomputers which have been programmed with all the right story structure software but just can’t find it in their diodes to generate any surprises. The Dark Knight astounded because of its sense of creeping unease that this really could go anywhere. Could the Joker really blow up two boats full of people? Yes, after what he’d done up to that point, sitting in the cinema you were sick with suspense that Nolan would go that far in letting this supervillain off the leash. I praised Win Win for the same quality, that you couldn’t easily predict what was going to happen next and therefore got nervous for the characters’ fates in a way you usually don’t, and indeed noted that the delightfully ramshackle Troll Hunter also had a surprisingly clear three-act structure, in retrospect. The point with all of these films is that they’re so successful in dazzling the audience with their content that no one is looking at the structure while they’re watching it. Which is at it should be, Billy Wilder after all having said plot points were more effective the better a job you made of hiding them. Nolan and McCarthy are serious writer/directors and there will always be enough such ‘auteurs’ to make a crop of quality films every year. The problem is that mediocre films can’t cloak their structure with content, and so you notice just how clichéd they are. Harris brilliantly isolates The Bounty Hunter and Prince of Persia as ‘the new okay’, the film that is just about worth the ticket price but won’t linger in your memory.

Harris is very funny in noting just how disastrous a decline a system has to be in for films like those two flops to become the new benchmark of competence. He blames marketers who thought from the poster, and the existing brand, backwards to making the film, rather than from a good story forwards. But I think his characterisation of such mid-range movies as the greatest victim of Hollywood’s “collective inattention/indifference to the basic virtues of story development” is unjust. Prince of Persia is a good brand for a computer game, but offers nothing new for cinema audiences. The Bounty Hunter’s poster and tagline might have presaged a good movie, if someone had written it. There is a trend in Hollywood of pleasing the top brass by writing ‘stories’ that hit every mark they’re supposed to, but the craft has overtaken the art, these aren’t stories that need to be told, the writer is merely assembling a product, not channelling inspiration. Joel Schumacher for me represents the height from which journeymen have fallen. Movies like Flatliners or The Client set the bar far higher than any workaday studio production today. They don’t dazzle with content in the way I’ve discussed, but the structure doesn’t obtrude because they’re tremendously entertaining films. We need journeymen today to aspire to that level of basic competency in entertaining with a nice but not spectacular concept neatly done. I know that Joel Schumacher is not of beloved of most people as he is of me (I actually feel bad at not trying to pass him off as an auteur), but the man who made solid entertainments like Lost Boys and Phone Booth seems to be exactly the sort of person we’re lacking right now, stuck as we are with Brett Ratner as this generation’s equivalent.

I think the decline in the aims of screenwriting and journeymen directing is part of a deep malaise of ‘it’ll do’ that has fallen over Hollywood. We now have CGI being as obnoxiously fake as 1950s back-projection, but for worse reasons. There were actual technical difficulties, as well as laziness, involved with avoiding location shooting back then. Now, every time a TV show uses an obvious CGI backdrop for an outdoor dialogue scene (Bones) or an hysterically fake moving background for car scenes (24) it’s because they can’t be bothered going outside when they can just shoot it in a green room and expect the audience to put up with it. The laziness of omnipresent CGI can be demonstrated by some great practical magic in The Adjustment Bureau.

BORIS: So, we need to move from a bathroom in a building to the field of Yankee Stadium in one continuous tracking shot thru a door.
JOHNSON: Well, we’ll just CGI it right?
BORIS: Move from a bathroom into a green screen room and then pan around, and add in the Stadium later? I like it.
GODUNOV: Or, we could just build a bathroom set on the field of Yankee Stadium and shoot it without any CGI at all.
BORIS: Oh. (beat) How very… practical…

People don’t think about options anymore, they just use CGI. I’ve noted this before when wondering why the Hulk can’t be played by an actor anymore using Lord of the Rings-style perspective tricks to make someone like The Rock truly loom over people. CGI always has to be used, because that’s what’s done. Scripts have to be written according to a flow chart, because that’s what’s done. And, I think one of the biggest problems we’re faced with because of the rise of the marketer’s love of brand, and the concomitant franchise movie, is the Hollywood hype machine which now fundamentally distorts the way in which writers pen, and audiences view, sequels. Every sequel now has to be bigger and better and feature higher stakes, because that’s what’s done. The result is bloated messes like Pirates 2. In the Golden Age of Hollywood people might just make a sequel if they had a good idea and wanted to have fun with the same characters again, or if they didn’t have any good ideas they might instead just round up the same guys for another original movie. I interpret Fast Five as pretty much a return to that older approach. Fast Five’s trailer has clearly given up on the idea that these films are getting bigger and better. Vin Diesel promises us that they’ll get caught or killed one day, but not today, situating the film as just another chapter in the continuing adventures of some petrol-head loveable rogues. If it can return us to a slightly less hysterical and creatively self-defeating approach to franchises then the successful but utterly inconsequential Fast Five may well prove to be the saviour of modern cinema. I may be embellishing that…

In conclusion (at long last) The Movies Aren’t Dead. Shame arrives in January. I’ve seen it and Steve McQueen’s second film as director, again with Talking Movies’ favourite Michael Fassbender as his leading man, is a devastating piece of work that shows what’s possible aesthetically and emotionally if you can free yourself from the self-defeating commercial strictures currently strangling cinema.

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