Ladies and Gentlemen…

Posted on

Shot of a rocket on a Launchpad goes here. T-20 days and counting.


Week 15: Alice In Wonderland (2010)

Posted on Updated on

Alice in Wonderland
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Mia Wasikowska and Stephen Fry
Written by Linda Woolverton and Lewis Carroll
Cinematography by Dariusz Wolski
Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures
Running time 109 minutes

Before Viewing

I’ve been a fan of Tim Burton’s for a long time. I still remember being amused by Beetlejuice, seeing something in it that I see in all of his films. Tim Burton, to me, is a successful filmmaker because he uses his imagination to show us things that don’t exist. He, more than any other filmmaker, pulls from his imagination to create visuals that just boggle the mind sometimes- but they work, because they fit into his overall vision.

Interestingly enough, my favorite Burton movie is Ed Wood, his most conventional film (but even that one has many of his quirky trademarks). This was the first Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration that I saw (Edward Scissorhands was their first), and I really think it goes along way to show just how talented Depp is (yes, Jack Sparrow is funny, but Ed Wood was outrageously so). I also really enjoyed their work together on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Although Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is one of my favorite movies of all time  and I had mixed feelings when I heard there was a new version coming out, I felt this ‘reimagining’ of the book was great. They are a talented duo. When I heard about Alice in Wonderland, I knew it was a movie I’d want to see, especially since I’ve read the book and enjoyed the Disney film (and like the Disneyland ride).

My Thoughts After Viewing

To start off, let me just begin by saying that I saw the movie in 3D. I’ve always been intrigued by 3D technology, going back to when I was a kid and the local independent station was going to show an old 50s 3D movie on TV (unfortunately, we didn’t live by a 7-11, and so I didn’t have the glasses). I do want to talk about 3D, but after I talk about the movie.

I had a good time at the movie. I went with my 7 year old daughter, who’s pretty astute herself (she’s going to be doing this type of writing for a living one day, watch!). We went to enjoy the movie, and we did. I was worried it might be a bit intense for her (there is a eyeball popping and a Jabberwocky decapitation), but she did well. I think back to the movies I saw as a kid (like Clash of the Titans, with boobs, blood, and body parts as well), and maybe there’s just a certain age where kids are ready to accept it. It really wasn’t that bad. She handled it quite well.

Once again, Tim Burton takes us places that don’t exist (save for in his mind), and does it quite well. Interestingly enough, Wonderland looks exactly like Tim Burton’s vision of it, and we accept it. It looks lush, green, and mysterious but never threatening. He also gives us things to see that could come right out of Disneyland, and I think this level of recognition works, especially with younger ones. I think the thing that works best is that the movie is really like a sequel to the original rather than a remake. Since Alice is almost an adult, we’re a bit more comfortable when she’s in Wonderland- she’s not a little girl lost, but someone with a mission. When we find out what that mission is, it works better for us because I don’t think we want to see a little girl with such a grown-up responsibility. We can accept a grown up Alice as an adventurer and warrior .

The acting was great all the way around. I was pleased to see that Johnny Depp was restrained in his portrayal of the Mad Hatter. He’s not over-the-top mad (which would have been a mistake), but had a rather sad air of tragic madness about him due to an event rather than just being that way. He’s just such a versatile actor. Helena Bonham Carter was the same as the Red Queen. Her voice is just perfect- she sounds like what the Red Queen should sound like- somewhat spoiled, somewhat of a baby, and extremely British. The CGI work in it on the characters was great, save for one- I thought Helena Bonham Carter’s big-headed Red Queen looked good, the CGI-created animals looked great (especially the Cheshire Cat), but I thought Crispin Glover’s Knave of Hearts looked odd. He was supposed to look very thin and card-like, but he just succeeded in looking fake. That broke the illusion for me a few times when he was on-screen.

Speaking of illusion, this was the first live-action movie I had the opportunity to see in 3D. I was very pleased to see that Burton didn’t overuse it, or use it in a gimmicky manner. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could have watched the film in 2D and not felt like I had missed a thing. I know that 3D is the next new big thing in cinema, and filmmakers would be wise to study its use in this film. Too much 3D can be overkill- just enough enhances the moviegoing experience, but it doesn’t really bring anything to the narrative aspect of the film- it’s just fun!

Final Verdict

It was a good movie, worth seeing in 3D if you can, but not a dealbreaker if you can’t. It’s a fine addition to Burton’s body of work.

Week 14: Gates of Heaven (1978)

Posted on Updated on

Gates of Heaven
Directed by Errol Morris
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Running time 82 minutes

Before Viewing

As I have stated before, I am a fan of documentaries. I like to hear people tell stories about their lives and their experiences. I like to see actual events documented on film or through photographs. One of the perks of living in this information age is the fact that we now get to see history as it unfolds. We can analyze it, learn from it, and even be comforted or tormented by it. A good documentary both informs and entertains, and the subject stays with us a long time after viewing.

I heard about Gates of Heaven from Ebert’s ‘Great Movies’ essays, and I found it interesting that he said the reaction to this film is pretty divided. He claims it’s one of the best films *ever* made, but he says people come up to him after he presents it and asks him if it’s a joke. They wonder if the filmmaker, Errol Morris,  is actually making fun of the people who are the subject of this documentary, his first film. The movie is about pet cemetaries, and certainly that could be a setup for some kind of dark, morbid comedy. As Morris is an Academy Award-winning documentarian, I decided to give it a try.

My Thoughts After Viewing

When I turn my back I don’t know you, not truly, but I can turn my back on my little dog and I know that he’s not going to jump on me or bite me. But human beings can’t be that way.

This quote, spoken by one of the principal figures in the film, pretty much sums up the point of the film. The movie is less about the actual cemetaries and more about how people deal with the loss of loved ones and with mortality- it’s just that the subject of their grief are their pets. The film is about love and devotion, about compassion, and even about greed.

The film itself is presented in a very minimalist style. Although we are introduced to many people though the course of the film, there are no title cards that give us names. We only know a character’s name if they provide it or if something in the shot reveals it, like a placard on a desk. However, we know the subject’s connection to the story based on what comes out of their mouths, and this is the strength of the film- the people who Morris interviews, especially in the first half of the film, are good storytellers.

The film is broken into two parts. The first half, which begins with a wonderful establishing shot of a man sitting under a tree, recounts the story of Floyd McClure, a self-described ‘compassionate’ man who decided one day, after his beloved dog died, that the community needed a place where people could lay their pets to rest in dignity. Floyd recounts the ugliness of the rendering plants where he grew up, equating them with Hell itself. In a brilliant movie, Morris Floyd’s testimony with the owner of a rendering plant who joyfully talks about his business. The rendering plant owner doesn’t understand why people hate his line of work, even at one point almost gleefully telling the camera about the secret understanding he has with the local zoo concerning the disposal of dead zoo animals. It’s funny to watch Mr. Rendering Plant trying to put a positive spin on his industry, and this contrasts nicely with Floyd’s somber tone. Floyd thinks it’s disgraceful to treat a pet, even a lifeless one, the way the rendering plants do. To Morris’ credit, he doesn’t play favorites or side with either point of view. There a no shots of dead animals being taken into the rendering plant, or of the actual rendering equipment itself. This is not an expose on the rendering business- it’s simply two men sharing their point of view, with great results.

The rest of this segment consists of interviews with some of Floyd’s former employees and investors, and through them we learn that although Floyd had a vision, he wasn’t much of a businessman (0ne friend reveals that he lost about $30,000 as an investor). It’s obvious that everyone involved thought that the pet cemetary would be a great idea, but it failed because they never thought of it as a business- it was a labor of love. We learn that the animals had to be dug up and moved, and the segment ends with a shot of Floyd sitting under a tree in his wheelchair- probably heartbroken knowing that the cemetary failed, yet still content in the fact that he did something that mattered to those pet owners.

The second half of the film centers on Bubbling Wells Pet Memorial Park, a successful pet cemetary run by the Harberts Family. Cal, the patriarch, is a very down-to-earth fellow, but he’s also a very astute businessman. It’s clear that he understands how people are affected by the loss of their pets and why such a facility would be so important to them. He’s assisted by his sons Danny and Phillip. Phillip seems to have inherited his father’s business knowledge (before he came to work at the cemetary, he was a successful insurance salesman). When interviewed in his office, he’s surrounded by plaques and other reminders of his success. He understands the business of grief. His brother Danny is the polar opposite- he seems emotional and sad, at one point playing his guitar outside on a hill overlooking the cemetary. However, he has a better grasp of the emotional side of the job (much better than Phillip does) and sees things much more clearly. Bubbling Wells works because the family knows what people want- areas in the cemetary have marketable names that are also comforting, like ‘The Garden of Companionship’ and the staff is there for them in their time of need. In one scene, Cal is presiding over a burial, comforting the grieving pet owners. He’s not slimy, though, coming across as someone taking advantage of people suffering a loss- he’s very sincere. Floyd was also sincere, but he was no business man; The Harberts understand that it’s not enough to be caring- to be successful, you have to use your head as well as your heart.

The film is also filled with insight from pet owners who have felt it necessary to provide a burial for their pets. One woman rationalizes it by stating:

There’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?

Others provide unintentional humor. I could see why some people might think that Morris was making fun of these people, but it’s clear that these people are speaking from the heart. Nothing is rehearsed here. That’s the beauty of these interviews, and of course it might lead to some funny moments. I didn’t see anything mean-spiritied in using these clips- in fact, it’s a testament to Morris’ skill as a documentarian that he could get these individuals to share what was on their minds. I think people might be thrown off because some of the things they say might border on the absurd, and since the ‘mockumentary’ format has be come so popular (think ‘The Office’), modern viewers might get the feeling that someone is pulling thier leg. However, I though it was clear everything was genuine. Nothing feels rehearsed. There’s no prompting off-camera by Morris. People are just allowed to talk, and they do. The centerpiece of these interviews is provided between the segments, and fills in as kind of a comic relief: a woman by the name of Florence Rassumssen, who was probably interviewed due to her proximity to the cemetary, instead shares with us everything and anything about her life and whatever comes to her mind. She’s one of those people who like to talk and do so at the drop of a hat. She can’t help but make you smile with her honesty, and I’m sure she’ll remind you of someone you know.

On the whole, the film is interesting, but I have a feeling that it might not be as accessible to audiences today, especially younger viewers. It’s a very static film, filled with talking heads. What they say is wonderful, but in a lot of cases, there’s not a lot going on visually. There’s not a lot of movement in front of the camera (although some of the shots are framed expertly). There is some minimal use of newspapers, some shots of the land and of some work being done, and a short sequence where we are shown a few of the pet headstones, but for the most part, it’s simply shots of the interviewee talking. It’s a total contrast from some other documentaries I’ve seen recently, but those were newer (perhaps they had a different generation in mind when they made them). I’m afraid some people might simply find the film boring, especially if they don’t have an ear for dialogue. That’s too bad, too, because they’d miss some great insights on loss and mortality as well as some genuinely funny moments. Personally, I felt the first part was better than the second. Floyd’s story (intercut with the conversation with Mr. Rendering Plant) seemed to be more in the spirit of what I like to see from a documentary- people thinking back to an event or point in time and sharing what it meant to them.

Final Verdict

If you enjoy documentaries because you like to hear what people say, this one’s for you. Just be warned that it’s what people say, rather than what they do, that make this film.

Week 13: Seconds (1966)

Posted on

Directed by John Frankenheimer
Starring Rock Hudson, Salome Jens, and John Randolph
Written by David Ely and Lewis John Carlino
Cinematography by James Wong Howe
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Running time 107 minutes

Before Viewing

I was once reading an article on Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys when I came across an interesting tidbit. One day, back in the 60s (probably during their post- ‘Good Vibrations psychedelic phase’), feeling a bit schizophrenic, under pressure to finish an album, and under the influence of some, er, chemicals, he went to see the new John Frankenheimer film Seconds. He was a bit late, so when he sat down in his chair, the first thing he heard from the film up on the screen was ‘Come in, Mr. Wilson.’ A bit spooked, what he saw on-screen during the next hour and a half was so intense that it altered his state of mind (as well as freaked him out so badly he didn’t go to see a movie in the theatres again until E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial came out in 1982). Seconds made him so paranoid that he was convinced a rival music producer had the studio make the film to mess with his mind.

I’ve seen Frankenheimer’s other paranoid classic, The Manchurian Candidate, and really enjoyed it. With this and poor Brian Wilson’s story in mind, I thought it might be a great film to check out.

My Thoughts After Viewing

Seconds is a film that takes place in the same universe that the classic Twilight Zone used to inhabit. Being a huge Twilight Zone fan, I saw this as a good thing!  In fact, Seconds feels like a movie length Twilight Zone episode. In the film, Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a middle-aged banker, is bored- bored with his life, his wife, everything. He’s not passionate about anything. During one sequence, his wife tries to initiate some romance, and it dies quickly because he doesn’t reciprocate. In a lot of ways, it’s like he’s dead already. He starts to get late night phone calls from a friend who he thought died years ago, only to find out that it wasn’t the case- his friend has assumed another identity, and he invites Hamilton to do the same. The film actually starts with Hamilton getting a mysterious message delivered to him on a train, and we are able to put two and two together- this phone call and that message are a way out for Hamilton, a way to leave his dreary existence.

Intrigued, Hamilton goes to the address, and finds out that for only $30,000, he can become a new person. The Company, as it is generically known, offers wealthy men a chance to escape.  The Company will arrange for an unfortunate fatal ‘accident’ and provide a cadaver that cannot be identified so that people will think it is the client as well as provide outstanding reconstructive surgery and a new identity. Once convinced (and not so subtly threatened), Hamilton becomes Tony Wilson, an artist living in Malibu. He’s given a nice beach home, he has a personal servant, he’s now younger and handsome…. but still not convinced he did the right thing. He seems uneasy during the whole transition.

On the beach, he meets Nora (Salome Jens), a woman he finds interesting. Wanting to break out of his funk, he invites himself to an event she mentions she’s going to, and it turns out to be a good ol’ fashioned Bacchanalia, complete with wine making, drunkeness, music and public nudity. At first Wilson is bothered and wants to leave, but he ends up in the giant vat with a naked Nora (and 40 other hippies) and has a breakthrough- this is now his life, and it can FUN. He’s joyous to the point of madness, it seems.

Everything seems to be going fine until Wilson gets drunk at a party and starts rambling about his old and new life, and we see that everything isn’t as simple as it seems to be. The influnce of The Company extends far, and we discover that everyone involved in Wilson’s new life has ties to The Company, either as a representative or as a client. Wilson deciedes he doesn’t want to play along anymore, that he wants to control his own life and make his own choices, and he makes some decisions that will pit him against The Company. He goes back to The Company and requests a new identity, but in a very effective, very terrifyinig climax, we see that The Company has other plans for him

This movie is a textbook example of how filmmaking techniques can build the mood of a film. It all starts with the immortal Saul Bass’s opening title sequence. It’s one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen, and right off the bat it makes the viewer uneasy. The distorted closeups of the human face create something both recognizable yet foreign, and the music heightens the tension (I’m convinced if Brian Wilson had been in his seat when the movie first started, he would have run from the theatre screaming). During the first sequence, while Arthur Hamilton is being tailed in the train station by the courier, the camerawork is disjointed and bizarre but effective. The camera appears to be attached to the courier, and so it glides in a odd manner. When shown from the front, part of his face is cut off, creating an unsettling effect. Later on, during what appears to be a drug-induced dream and during the aforementioned wine orgy, the camerawork is such that we become paranoid along with the character on the screen. It’s a brilliant way to use the camera and, if anything, makes the film an interactive experience. I’m sure seeingIt was one of the last major releases done in black and white, and I think it was the right call. If anything, the lack of color creates that Twilight Zone mental association.

I will say that this is the first Rock Hudson film that I’ve ever seen, and I thought he did a great job as Tony Wilson. Once he’s made the change in lifestyle, you get the sense that he’s not happy, and that’s a credit to Hudson. He’s not a man in love with the idea that he can do it all over again, but rather he’s a man with a very, very strong sense of buyer’s remorse. I would say that I would have liked a little more insight into why we was unhappy with his new life, but maybe Tony Wilson/Arthur Hamilton was just a miserable person. After all, there are people in the world like that. Nonetheless, you feel for Hudson’s character- you’re happy when he has his breakthough, and you are terrified for him when you discover what is going to become of him. In fact, everyone in this film does a great job. All the elements come together to make one of the creepiest films I have ever enjoyed.

Final Verdict.

If you love a suspenseful, paranoid, and thrilling story, you should check this out, especially if you enjoyed The Manchurian Candidate. Students of film will also learn alot seeing how camera placement and technique can assist in constructing the overall mood of the movie.

Week 12: Cloverfield (2008)

Posted on

Directed by Matt Reeves
Starring Michael Stahl-David, T.J. Miller, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, Odette Yustman
Produced by J.J. Abrams & Bryan Burk
Written by Drew Goddard
Cinematography by Michael Bonvillian
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Running time 85 minutes

Before Viewing

As a kid, I remember a movie program on the local independent station called “The World Beyond’. This program carried all the B-Monster movies from the 50s and 60s like The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. However, if I was really lucky, they would show a Godzilla movie. I loved seeing the badly dubbed monster movies on ‘The World Beyond’ (unless they were really creepy, like Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster). I enjoyed seeing Godzilla wreak havoc on poor Tokyo, and then later seeing him act almost like a protector of the humans against other monsters. I even found a book at my local library that went into detail about Godzilla and his origins.

As an adult, I’ve become a fan of the show Lost. I enjoy the mystery, wonder and suspense the show provides, and a lot of that can be attributed to executive producer J.J. Abrams. When I heard that he was producing what was supposed to be a good ol’ fashioned monster movie (which was untitled at first, then known as o1-18-08, then revealed as Cloverfield), I was intrigued. I heard good things when it came out, but I waited to see it on DVD because I heard that the point-of-view nature of the filming of the movie could lead to motion sickness there in the theater. Rather than suffer through that, I decided to wait and see it in my own home theater.

My Thoughts After Viewing

It was really refreshing to see a movie take a chance and succeed. The point of view camera technique, which easily could have been a gimmick, actually turned out to be very effective. It works because at no point does the movie try to be anything more than a record of what occurs during one night in New York. If you can suspend your sense of disbelief that someone would keep a camera rolling while a monster is attacking the city, the film makes perfect sense. Fortunately, the filmmakers and actors are believable enough that you never get the sense that it’s nothing more than someone’s home movie- albeit a wonderous one at that.

The story is pretty simple- the movie starts with a zebra strip screen stating the what we will be seeing is part of a government file called ‘Cloverfield’. It then cuts to what appears to be a tender moment between a couple (Rob and Beth) talking about spending a day together. It then jumps to the cameraman talking to another girl about a party. At first, it appeared as if the cameraman was seeing two different girls, but then it becomes clear that the person filming is Rob’s brother Jason, and he’s using his brother’s camera. What has happened is that Rob never took the tape out, and so Jason is recording over old footage. However, the earlier footage on the tape that we see definitely plays a role in telling the story. Rob is going off to a new job in Japan, and so Jason and his girlfriend Lily are throwing him a surprise going-away party. While setting up for the party, Jason dishes the camera off to Hud, Rob’s best friend. Hud (no doubt a nod to the term H.U.D., which stands for Heads Up Display) becomes our narrator for the night’s events. When Beth shows up to the party with a date in tow, it becomes clear that Rob and Beth weren’t a couple but rather friends who spent the night together. They fight and Beth leaves a distraught Rob, who has feelings for Beth but doesn’t tell her. When Rob is on the fire escape getting consoled by Jason and Hud, something almost like an earthquake shocks the building, and everyone rushes up to the roof. Thus, the monster movie begins.

Before I go on, remember that all this back story was established using the first person point of view from the ‘camcorder’.  I was impressed how this segment of the movie was done very effectively. It could have been very easy for the filmmakers to jump right into the monster segment of the film, but by building up the human drama first, it allows us to care about the characters later. For example, Hud’s clumsy attempts to pick up Marlena, a partygoer who really doesn’t even want to be there, seem to exist for comic relief, but it also allows us to get a feel for both characters. Rob’s fight with Beth sets a number of plot points in motion, but it’s not that obvious to us at first.

With the characters and situations firmly established, it’s time to meet the monster. While on the rooftop investigating the quake, we  see a massive explosion off in the distance. The characters rush down to street level to avoid debris, and while down there, we see one of the film’s iconic shots- a large object crashes off a building in the distance and rolls to a stop in the street right in front of our camera. A closer look shows that it’s the head of the Statue of Liberty! Something has ripped it off and hurled it into the city. We see buildings then start to collapse, and a cloud of dust rolls in, very similar to what we saw during 9/11. Now, some reviewers were critical of the movie for using imagery that evoked memories of 9/11 (I remember the same thing happening to Spielberg’s War of the Worlds). The rolling cloud of dust, papers flying through the air- some reviewer felt it was cheap. However, I disagree. A lot of that footage that we saw was shot by news crews that were on the scene or by amateurs- none of it was certainly staged, and that’s the same feeling that comes from this film. It’s effective because it’s what we know. Like it or not, the images of 9/11 will always be a part of our collective psyche, and it goes a long way in telling this story.

The rest of the movie deals with Rob’s quest to rescue Beth. She went back to her apartment because of the fight, and Rob knows she’s there trapped. He feels guilty because he feels that it’s his fault. It’s in the part of the city where the monster is wreaking havoc, so naturally we’re subjected to a lot of close calls. However, we also get some great shots of the monster as it’s bumbling through the city and as the army is fighting back. We also get a glimpse at some terrifying parasites that live on the monster and have no qualms on feeding on humans. Characters that we get to know are lost along the way, and I liked how Cloverfield never devolves into an action movie- it really stays focused on being a movie about guilt, endurance, love, and survival. Characters that we like die. There’s no traditional monster movie climax. Granted, some people might feel cheated by that, but I thought that in this case, it stayed true to the ‘documentary’ nature of what we are supposed to be seeing. We’re not supposed to be watching a movie made for our entertainment. What we are supposed to be watching is a simple recording made of that night because, like Hud says, ‘… people are gonna want to know… how it all went down.’

As an aside, I just have to say that the effects are amazing. Watching the extras on the DVD really hit home on just how far green-screen technology has evolved. I thought a lot of the segments were shot on location and then effects added in, but many of the New York street scenes were done in studio. Green screen technology is all about layering and blending effectively, and this film was extremely successful in those regards. Seeing the monster destroying virtual New York looks nothing like the monster movies of my youth, where a puppet King Kong lept across the models of the World Trade Center in the 1976 remake. Don’t get me wrong- those films have a charm all of their own, but I’m just amazed by the level of realism we are now seeing from CGI. Sure, computers can be used to create things that don’t exist in the real world, like the monster and its parasites, but we can forgive them if they don’t look real, because they’re not. It’s when computers render and show things we see every day and do it in a way that we don’t question how real they look that you know the technology has finally arrived. The film doesn’t overwhelm us with visuals, but what it does it create a world real enough for us to buy the premise.

Final Verdict

If you, like me, grew up on these big monster movies, you’ll probably like this one. I would especially recommend it to study how to effectively integrate green-screen technology in a film. You won’t be disappointed.

Week 11: The Kid Stays In The Picture (2002)

Posted on

The Kid Stays In The Picture
Directed by Nanette Burstein & Brett Morgen
Produced by Robert Evans
Written by Nanette Burstein & Brett Morgen
Narrated by Robert Evans
Distributed by Focus Features
Running time 93 minutes

Before Viewing 

I’ve always been a fan of documentaries. I love when filmmakers use their cameras and talent to document reality and show us things that we might not normally see (note: I’m not a fan of the glut of reality shows that litter our airwaves, however, because I feel they manufacture events, not document reality). Some of the most fascinating, touching, inspiring, and downright frightening things that I have ever seen on film have come from such documentaries like Woodstock, Harlan County, USA, Coney Island, The Civil War, Dogtown and Z-Boys and Gimme Shelter. Two of my favorite movies from this past decade are documentaries, in fact. I try to catch as many as I can because a personal goal of mine would be to make one some day (just gotta find a topic!). Thus, I watch as many as I can in order to learn more about the art and craft of documentary filmmaking.

I’m always on the lookout for new documentaries, eventually this one, The Kid Stays In The Picture, caught my eye. The film is the story of Paramount movie studio head/producer Robert Evans, as told in his own words. Evans was responsible for some of Paramount’s biggest hits in the late 60s-70s (Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather) and took them from the ninth ranked movie studio all the way to number one. Being a fan of movies from that era as well as of this type of filmmaking, I decided to check it out.

My Thoughts After Viewing 

The main aspect that works so successfully in The Kid Stays In The Picture is the fact that the story is being told by Evans himself. What they did was take the audiobook track from Evans’ autobiography of the same name and built the documentary around THAT. It’s great because Evans is highly entertaining. He’s funny, self-depreciating, brutally honest, and seemingly humble by the time the documentary ends. When you hear the audio, you know that the person who is telling the story is the one who actually lived it, making it all more realistic. Some might argue that this makes the point of view of the documentary suspect and even a bit one-sided, but I think that’s OK. It all depends on what you insist on from a documentary. Some people demand a detached air of objectivity, but I think documentaries like Harlan County U.S.A. show that you can pick a side, as long as you let the images and the subject matter on the screen speak for itself. Here, Evans is speaking for himself, and I appreciated the fact that he didn’t seem boastful or full of himself. Sure, he is a confident individual with goals that he set and achieved, but I never felt like he was gloating about his success- rather, that he felt that he poured himself into his work and got results. I also appreciated how candid he was in talking about his shortcomings and failures, especially in regards to his marriage and divorce to Ali McGraw. He blames himself, and he’s very blunt about it. He doesn’t fault his wife for running off with Steve McQueen because he wasn’t there for her.

As far as the visuals go, this isn’t your typical talking-head type of documentary. No one is paraded before the camera to talk about Evans, nor does Evans appear on camera to talk about himself (though he does appear briefly in a re-creation type of scene). What the directors did so successfully is combine vintage photographs along with film clips of Evans’ successes, behind the scenes footage from those same movies, and some contemporary shots of  some of the locations in the film (Evan’s palatial home is showcased from the get-go). I appreciated this fresh approach to this story. Since they were using the audiobook recording, I suppose it made it very easy to go though the records and archives of Paramount Pictures as well as Evans’ own collection and find photos that matched up to the words. This reminds me of the way that they make animated films (I’ve seen enough Disney behind-the-scenes feature to know they record the dialogue first, then design the animation around that). It makes such perfect sense to use this approach in telling Evans’ story because the resources are all there. The cinematography, especially in regards to the colors, was very vibrant. What I liked most was how they took the photographs and made them three-dimensional. Basically, what they did was take elements of a photography and layer it, creating a false sense of depth. It’s a technique I’ve seen more and more recently in documentaries (Stacy Peralta’s excellent Riding Giants comes to mind), and I think it’s a good technique because it creates interest in what you see on the screen, especially when used to create pseudo-rack-focusing. Again, some might argue that by manipulating the image you are messing with the true documentary process, but I think those elements in the photos tell the story, not the photo as an entity. It’s a bold move, and I applaud it. I’ve done it myself in some projects I’ve worked on, and although it can be time-consuming, it also can be very satisfying on-screen.

Music is used through the film to evoke a feeling for the time. In fact, there was one sequence in particular that jumped out to me. It’s a sequence where a bunch of newspaper clipping speed across the screen, quickly intercut with images of Evans and his movie projects while The Commodore’s Machine Gun is playing. The whole scene is extremely reminiscent of a scene during P.T. Anderson’s masterpiece Boogie Nights. To me, the scene plays like an homage, and it’s just as effective in showing how Evans’ life is taking off, just like it was used to show the same thing for Dirk Diggler.

The only fault I see in the film is that there are some areas on Evan’s life that get mentioned but are glossed over, and some of those  are big things. Evans’ brother is mentioned early in the movie as being a business partner, then never mentioned again. His marriage to Ali McGraw is showcased, but no mention is made of his other six wives (yes, six!). One thing I felt was really glossed over was his involvement in the Cotton Club Murder Trial, where for a time there he was seemingly considered a suspect. I mean, a murder trial demands a bit more attention than what was given. However, in the end, this is Evans telling us his story, not someone digging around to expose Evans and his dirty laundry. Evans is pinning stuff up on the clothesline himself. I appreciated seeing his life in the Hollywood studio system from his point-of-view.

Final Verdict

If you like documentaries as much as I do and you want to see a fresh, exciting new approach to the format, you really should check this one out. If you’re also interested in the Hollywood studio system, this film provides some great insight. Even if you don’t like documentaries, the subject is interesting enough to draw you in.

Week 10: Breathless (1960)

Posted on Updated on

Breathless (À bout de souffle)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Written by Jean-Luc Godard & François Truffaut
Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo & Jean Seberg
Cinematography Raoul Coutard
Distributed by Films Around the World, Inc.
Running time 87 minutes

Before Viewing

Having viewed my first Jean-Luc Godard film a few weeks ago, I was eager to tackle another one as soon as possible. There’s just something so cool and creative about the films of the French New Wave that just really speak to me. I learn more from them than from any textbook on film. This time around, I decided to start with Breathless, Godard’s debut film. I first learned about this film from Ebert’s ‘Great Movies’ series, and I read about the intricacies of the performances by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg as well as some of the editing innovations that came from the film. I was curious to see how Godard had grown as a director between this film and the later film of his that I had seen, especially since 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her supposedly kicked off his experimental phase. Considering that this film was considered a revelation as far as Sixties filmmaking goes, how ‘conventional’ would his debut be?

My Thoughts After Viewing

Breathless is the story of Michel, a wanna-be tough guy who, in a moment of panic, murders a patrolman. When we first see him, he’s dressed in a suit, looking for a car to steal. He’s doing his best to look like Bogart, and indeed we even see him repeat a gesture throughout the film that Bogart apparently did – he runs his thumb slowly over his lips. It reminds me of a Catholic gesture, actually, and just goes to show the almost religious reverence that Michel has for Bogart. He steals a car, ditches a girl who helps him with the theft, and goes out on the open road. As he talks to no one in particular, it almost felt like a documentary (indeed, most of the film is shot with a handheld camera, which helps in that regards). At one point, as he’s talking, he even looks directly at the camera, breaking the 4th wall. Surprisingly enough, it doesn’t feel out of place. He gets chased by the police and in desperation shoots a patrolman with a gun he found in the car. Earlier in the sequence, he was playing ‘tough guy’ with the gun, but we never really get the sense that he was tough enough to use it- until he actually does. For the rest of the film, he is on the run.

Belmondo doesn’t fit the role of a suave, debonair charming Frenchman on the run. He’s tall, somewhat lanky, and although always seemingly dressed in sports coats and ties, never looks neat. I see this as a positive, though, because it doesn’t make Michel any different from you or me. He’s just a guy who make a big mistake and is trying to get away with it. He goes back to Paris (and Godard gives us those traditional shots of Paris that he would later abandon in 2 or 3 Things) and he tracks down Patricia, an American living in Paris with whom he has been with a few times. She has ambitions of her own, and at first seems somewhat resistant to hook up with Michel. Eventually, though, he makes his way to her apartment, and there is a 25 minute sequence where the two talk, act flirtatious, debate, and eventually make love. It’s a long sequence filled with some memorable lines, and you get the sense that Michel really likes Patricia, but your not sure the feelings are mutual (even though they end up in bed together). What we do know for sure is that Patricia wants to be a journalist, and one of the film’s more interesting scenes has her at a press conference at the airport, interviewing a writer (director Jean-Pierre Melville) full of quotable lines. It’s an interesting contrast in character- she has ambition, he has none. She’s out trying to become someone, he’s mugging people in bathrooms for cash. 

Eventually, we see that the police know that Michel was the killer, and their grip begins to tighten on him, until eventually they’re only minutes apart. Patricia becomes his accomplice on the run, and here we see a precursor to films like Bonnie and Clyde and Natural Born Killers, where a couple on the run seem to be enjoying the thrill of the chase. Although the two don’t commit any violent crimes together, you can see that Patricia finds it all exciting. That’s why it’s somewhat puzzling initially when Patricia makes a bold move one morning, but she explains herself- she did it out of love. Or rather, to see if she really was in love. The look on her face when he explains this to Michel is one of serenity- she knows that ultimately, following her heart was the right thing to do. Interestingly enough, Michel accepts it. He’s tired of being on the run and has no qualms about a final showdown with the police. Once again, someone else’s gun ends up in his hands, and once again, someone dies.

Along with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Breathless is considered one of the first movies that founded the French New Wave. not surprisingly, Godard and Truffaut were friends and both wrote for Cahiers du cinéma, a French film magazine that many feel gave birth to the French New Wave. The main innovation this film is known for is its use of jump cuts (cuts from one scene to another without transitions). Where Breathless is different that most traditional films is that these jump cuts occur without any attempt at continuity or smoothness, if you will. Visually, it’s jarring the first time you see it, but you quickly get used to it. In fact, it becomes quite interesting to see the action jump around, because they’re not massive jumps in time or location- in some instances, they seem like mere seconds have been removed (which indeed they have). Apparently, while editing the film, Godard was told that the film needed to be shortened to make it more theatre-friendly. Rather than take out entire sequences, Godard decided to take out incidental movements, segments of scenes were unimportant things were going on, and so forth. For example, there are scenes where people are walking in the background, only to disappear because of the cut. But really, does it matter if we see them move on and off-screen if the important stuff is happening in the foreground. Do we need to see every step Michel takes down a street? At the time, it was a bold move that Godard made, kind of a precursor to today’s action film sequences where extra information is cut out for sake of speed. In some ways, it pulls you along into the action and makes you both observant and aware of what’s on-screen.

All in all, although I enjoyed Breathless, it didn’t capture me the same way that 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. I didn’t find it to be as groundbreaking as 2 or 3 Things. It’s like cars. Sure, a Model T was revolutionary for its time and held everyone in awe when it came out, but a class Mustang is much more interesting. Breathless was a good film, but I thought 2 or 3 Things was a great film. Interestingly enough, in terms of story Breathless is much more traditional and cohesive, but visually I prefer 2 or 3 Things. Of course Breathless has its place in the history of cinema, but as for me, I found Godard’s later (and less well-known) film to be more exciting.

The Final Verdict

Any student of film should see this movie, but I’m not sure how accessable it would be to someone who didn’t  have a scholarly interest in movies or someone who was a casual viewer. Some of the things in the film that were innovative back then are pretty standard now, and I think you’d need an appreciation as to its place in cinematic history in order to understand the importance of the film. I enjoyed watching it and certainly plan to view more Goddard films.