Thursday, December 4, 2008
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Sunday, November 2, 2008
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Sunday, October 19, 2008
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Sunday, September 7, 2008
Brace yourself! Manhattan might MIGHT be more about the city than Woody Allen. Pinch me!
I enjoy visual onslaughts – and Manhattan is no exception. Two years earlier, Annie Hall (Allen) covered similar narrative territory, but Manhattan structures itself differently. Notably the film offers a linear narrative, but most striking is the choice to use black and white exclusively. No, Manhattan cannot compare to The Matrix or Lord of the Rings for all their visual escapades, but Manhattan offers as much spectacle through subtle nuance as either of those recent blockbusters.
Woody Allen plays television writer Isaac Davies, almost a carbon copy of Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer. It’s hard to feel bad for Isaac though. Isaac, divorced from a young and very attractive Meryl Streep (Jill) and now rides a relationship merry-go-round featuring both a precocious albeit mature 17 year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) and an older more culturally sophisticated Annie Hal…sorry, Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton). In short, if you like Woody Allen being Woody Allen, then Manhattan is for you. If you don’t, then skip it.
Endless comparisons have probably been made between this film and Annie Hall. One of the few negatives of Annie Hall might be in its structure. The non-linear narrative may confuse and distract filmgoers. However, its structure allows a more generalized feeling to surface. Manhattan is Annie Hall, streamlined.
With the writing and narrative components so closely related to Annie Hall, what sets Manhattan apart from its cinematic spouse is the visual element. The black and white choice is significant requiring a vastly different approach from all aspects of the filmmaking process. The costumer designer (Albert Wolsky), cinematographer (Gordon Willis), and production designer (Mel Bourne) and others must work in concert to create the look for the film. In a black and white film, the foremost concern is contrast. A blue and green sweater might look good, but offers little in terms of color contrast. Noticing a simple layering effect requires vastly different and perhaps an unconventional color palette to the naked eye. Some of the best scenes of the film involve Woody Allen dressed in a tuxedo begging the question: Does any other costume design look better in black and white?
A few scenes remind me of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). Sometimes these scenes manifest themselves in single shots. One scene early in the film displays one floor of Isaac’s first apartment. Two light sources balance the shot: one illuminating the spiral staircase and the other as a fill or back light for Tracy sitting on a couch. The stationary camera allows the viewer to absorb the entirety of the shot. Recall the scene from Kane when Charles Kane (Orson Welles) finishes Jedediah’s (Joseph Cotton) newspaper article. Think of the depth of the scene: Kane typing in the foreground with Jedediah pleading to his longtime friend, and all in focus. It does not seem unreasonable to see other filmmakers taking a different approach in using tighter angles and shots. Sometimes the simple choice (possibly an easier one?) is the best one.
The camera positions the active portion of the scene deep into the frame. The other option would be to follow Isaac with a handheld camera through the apartment and settle in a stationary position framing Tracy and Isaac together. This illustrates the central point in Manhattan – the influence of locale. With Annie Hall, the reasoning for the title is obvious because the film focuses on Alvy’s relationship with the character. Manhattan’s title leaves room for speculation. Again, scenes featuring Isaac and Mary place them deep in the shot and once again allowing eyes to stray to nearby delis and skyscrapers. But I’m not sure I learned how Isaac and therefore Allen feel about the city. Obviously, they like it. Tell me why? Still, the film opens with a voice-over from Isaac campaigning for New York as the greatest city in the world suggesting that the film is more about the city than Woody Allen. Pinch me again!
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Sunday, August 17, 2008
Heist films of the past several years (namely the Ocean's series) revel in the caper itself. What kind of a crew do we need? The film goes on to explore the eccentricities of its several protagonists. What equipment do we need? Surely, some simple explosives and repelling devices are obvious. Then there is always some surprise device that heavily tilts the scales one way or the other. "The Bank Job" is a heist movie, but don't make the mistake of thinking it's just another clone. The film explores relatively unexplored territory for the "heist" movie: the fallout of the caper.
Sunday, August 10, 2008
Mad Men is one of those shows that makes you feel cool simply by sitting in front of the television. But it's a different kind of cool - a more nostalgic and retro kind of cool. In short, Mad Men really makes you wish you were alive in such a time.
Monday, July 28, 2008
Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight could be the most recommendable movie...ever. No, it doesn't cater to the lowest common denominator and no, it doesn't play safe by not pushing envelopes. The film is incredibly dark in tone, color, and theme. The explosions, while not big enough for say, Jerry Bruckheimer, feel bigger. But it is Knight's tension that serves the film best. The Dark Knight is so recommendable because it's just that good.
It's everything one could ever want in a film. The story is rock-solid and the twists are believable. The love triangle between Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) provide drama beyond the bombastic. Perhaps most importantly, Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker is, barring something miraculous in film acting, the best performance of year and in a long time. More on this later.
It has been a year since the events of Batman Begins (Nolan's prequel). Batman, Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Dent team up to fight crime in Gotham City. Mostly, it's the seemingly omnipresent nature of Batman that sends criminals scurrying to their respective safe houses. In battle for Gotham City, it's the bottom of the ninth and the criminals need a big bat to tie the score. The big bat comes in the form of The Joker - more like a Bunyan-sized club! What he brings to the table that his colleagues do not is the utter disregard for the consequences. The Joker rallies the criminals and weaves a "plan" so intricate that it forces the good guys against each other and eventually scars Batman's unblemished legacy.
First, some thoughts on Nolan's style. In terms of visual spectacle, The Dark Knight dwarfs anything seen in Batman Begins. But this makes logical sense - the criminals didn't need to resort to drastic tactics because nobody pushed them far enough. Batman did, and now the criminals push back. If the film industry had a performance-enhancing drugs problem, I suggest The Dark Knight's production facilities and accountants start shredding papers. The action pieces are bigger. The stunts more daring and the action more suspenseful. After all, "this city deserves a better class of criminal."
Batman Begins featured a more murky color palette: varying shades of brown. For the most part, the criminals were the dirty scum of drug trafficers and petty thieves. A good chunk of the plot took us to The Narrows, the slums of Gotham City.Once again, the change in color palette makes sense. The criminals are not only destructive, but elusive. Batman has become savvier and better equipped. It's as if things have upgraded. Nathan Crowley (production design) and Wally Pfister (cinematography) create a sleeker look for Knight. With the sharp decline in crime, the metropolis has been able to rebuild itself. This can be seen in the opening shot of the film - a long movement toward a shiny skyscraper. The colors are cleaner as well, transitioning from the dirty browns of Begins to blue, grey, and black with Knight. And everything appears darker. Even the daytime scenes appear to be overcast and dreary - not good for the psychology of Gotham's citizens. Even Batman himself is streamlined. His outfit is less spacesuit-clunky and more aerodynamic and agile - after all he does fight crime!
I can say all I want about Nolan's directing, or the script (penned by Nolan and his brother Jonathan), or the plot. This film belongs to The Joker and consequently, Heath Ledger. To continue with a baseball analogy, Nolan, Bale, Michael Caine, and others all reached base, but you cannot win a game without scoring and Ledger's performance provides the runs. Tim Burton, the director of the first two modern incarnations of the caped crusader, seems to be criticized for concentrating too much on the villain and not enough on the title character. After seeing Knight, one understands why.
Nolan already explored the origin story with the prequel. Batman's story has been told and now the real fun begins. There is no need to mention why Bruce Wayne dons this particular costume and why he combats the criminals. Time to focus on The Joker.
Here's the kicker - we hardly learn anything about him! He gives his victims different anecdotes about his past, but nothing more. He calls himself an agent of chaos. While we may not learn anything about him or why he chooses to do what he does, there are things we know. He is ruthless (does killing someone by jamming their head into a pencil, not the other way 'round count?). His craft is merely anarchy. Even when he comes into a pile of money, he burns it. Juts goes to show you, if you really really want something, you're going to get it, barter system or no barter system.
Ledger's performance is breathtaking! I'll admit that I was beyond skeptical when it was announced that Ledger was to play the smiling villain. He'd never shown me any bravado. Let's face it, The Joker's a strange character. Before Knight, his best performance was for Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005). But it was a calmer delivery, more internal. However, Ledger has completely lost himself in this role. I have seen it twice and my attempts to see "through" the makeup and the voice were folly. He walks with a slight hunch - clearly no regard for posture. His speech is direct and to-the-point, always more clever than funny. His voice ranges from a high-pitched squeal to an overbearing dictatorial quality.
Recently, I have become more impressed with subtle performances rather than the flamboyant. This performance successfully straddles the line. He falls down a lot and laughs loudly, but also uses voice inflection and facial expression in a nuanced manner. I know that some evaluations of this performance may dock him for hiding behind makeup and a satanic tailor, but try to find Heath in there. I challenge even the FBI to find traces of Ledger.
One final note on Ledger's Joker. I felt a tad uncomfortable watching him on screen. I speak now of Ledger himself. The rumors are that this role contributed in some way to his death - and believe me, its not hard to see why. To see the cause of death on-screen is unsettling. But mostly, it's depression I feel. To see this performance and know that there will be no more - it's a drastic loss for the film community and cinematic history. Our saving grace is that he lives forever on celluloid!
Lost in the Joker shuffle, is how stellar the entire cast performs. Most notable is Gary Oldman as Lt. (and then Commish) Gordon. We've seen him hijack the president's airplane and dispatch Dementors with the best of them. Again, subtlety wins the day. There is so much restraint and control exhibited here. Sometimes people are wooden and carry no emotion and this is how Oldman realizes Gordon.
Finally, to the violence itself. I won't try to excavate this film's place in the post9/11 world. No, I want to look at how Nolan handles the terrorism in his Batman franchise. Both film's rely on Gotham to destroy itself. Certainly, Neeson's character and The Joker offer their support but their hands are not pushing a big red button, or striking the match, or pulling the trigger. Batman Begins features the poisonous toxin to help Gotham "tear itself apart through fear." And The Joker plays sociological mind games with Gotham's citizens. Save yourself, but destroy your own karma...or...keep your karma, but perish? Bullets no longer win the day. Use a weapon (such as fear) to control. Annihilating the enemy is tough - it's not exactly desirable. Get them to do the work for you - resourceful! All you need is a charismatic leader. If you're looking for it, ask yourself how many times you took your eyes off The Joker during this movie.
Even though the Joker ultimately fails in his bid to wipe out Gotham City, he leaves his mark. No, not a single card from the deck but a blemish on Batman. The Joker forces Batman to a brand of justice that necessarily has consequences, ones that call Batman's integrity in jeopardy. Yes, he keeps us safe, but at what cost? What is an acceptable body count? Are five lives worth those of millions? Batman, is truly left in the dark. Nolan explains that this knight is not dark for his costume and his time card results, but for his questionable nature.