Sunday, October 22, 2017

Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase I

Hey kids did you know Thor: Ragnarok was coming out in November?  Well it is, and it got me reflecting on what a long way the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come.  There have been 16 films spread across three phases so far.  Although there were no shortage of comic book movies before 2008, the concept of a shared cinematic universe with eventual crossovers and larger continuing stories was at the time a risky gamble.  

Due to the success of the MCU, countless others are trying to create their own shared universes, and many of them are failing miserably.  Part of the issue is of course the fact that it helps to have an existing property you care about.  With Marvel if you care about Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor you’re willing to take a chance on Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant Man films.  There are too many shared cinematic universes that fail right out of the gate because either the films are terrible (Universal’s monster movies), or no one cares even about the basic story (Dark Tower).  Arguably the only people who seem to be doing this right is again Disney with the never ending wave of Star Wars films they’re dumping on the public.  Cinematic exhaustion can certainly set in and it can be a daunting task to invest so many hours of your life into some far reaching story that may or may not be worth it.

If you went to see Iron Man in 2008, then quickly went to check out The Incredible Hulk, you might be sitting pretty.  However if you’ve glanced bits and pieces of select films from the past 9 years it may seem a bit daunting to get started on the whole MCU.  Well I watched all of the first phase over the course of a week, and I’m going to break ‘em down for you here.  So feel free to take a cursory glance, refresh your memory, and consult this page as you progress through the series.

Iron Man (2008)

Full disclosure, Iron Man has always been my favorite super hero.  I started my comic collection with Iron Man and Captain America, and instantly became an Iron Man fanatic, and was pretty indifferent to Cap.  As the first few super hero movies came out and took their clumsy awkward baby steps I kept up hope that one day my guy would get his shot.  Many a nerdy hour was spent debating who would make the best Tony Stark, and when it was announced that Robert Downey Jr. we all collectively said “ah that makes sense”.  

Watching the film for the first time was something of a dream come true, and until Thanos shows up to murder everyone with an Infinity Gauntlet, I will probably never be more excited for a super hero film to come out.  So you can forgive some of my initial zeal for this movie in 2008.  I have re-watched it twice since then and I’ll say it holds up fine on it’s own, but as often happens with these series we have come to expect more.

Now there’s no easy way to say this, but Tony Stark is a douche.  Now I saw this right around the time I finished college, Obama was yet to be president, and I was in general a much dumber man.  What was supposed to come off as suave or “playboy” makes Tony look like a tool.  It is somewhat interesting to see just how much more politically correct we’ve become since then.  The other flaw I would argue with the film is the somewhat lackluster “boss fight”.  The Iron Man movies in general have done a poor job showcasing his best comic book villains, but after teasing with a potential bad guy we’re left with The Dude (Jeff Bridges) in a giant gray metal suit.  

Now few things could have been as exciting as the end credit sequence here.  Ever since I saw Masters of the Universe in the theater when I was 4, I’ve made it a point to sit through the credits.  This annoys the holy hell out of everyone I ever go to the theater with, but I have to thank the good people at Marvel for finally rewarding my usually unnecessary dedication.  I feel like the prospect of giant crossover films and expanded universes comes with a sigh and a bit of instant exhaustion, but in 2008 this was new, and it was awesome. The prospect of one day getting an Avengers movie was something to get excited about.  More on that later though.

Iron Man was walking away from explosions before it was cool

As a first chapter it does a damn good job.  It’s a safe gamble where we get invested in Iron Man, but admittedly this could have been it for the franchise, leaving The Incredible Hulk to be it’s own stand alone adventure.  There is always going to be a slight amount of grumbling whenever you deviate from the source material, but I have to say in the context of this film it makes so much sense for Tony Stark to fess up to being Iron Man and ditch the planned cover of it being his bodyguard like in the comics.  Some elements haven’t aged particularly well, but overall it got the ball rolling in great fashion.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Released just a couple months after Iron Man, the second Hulk film was also the second MCU chapter.  There was definitely some trepidation with this film.  Ang Lee’s much maligned Hulk was still fairly fresh in a lot of minds, and there was still the very real possibility that the CGI of 2008 wasn’t quite where it needed to be for a believable green monster.  The marketing for this team was so worried, they even put the post-credit sequence with Tony Stark and General Ross, not just in the actual picture, but it suddenly became the focus of all the TV commercials.  

After the crowd pleasing Iron Man, and the seemingly numerous warning signs going into this film it wasn’t hard to be apprehensive about this movie when it came out.  For this reason a lot of people in 2008 either skipped The Incredible Hulk or walked out thinking “meh it was no Iron Man”.  I think I had a similar reaction the first time I saw it, but considering I hadn’t watched a second of this film in 9 years, it was fairly fresh when I revisited it.  2017 me has to say this is one of the better Marvel movies.  Tim Roth does an excellent job, as does William Hurt, and the collateral damage of Hulk and Abomination is a far more entertaining final fight, but hadn’t quite gotten over the top in a Man of Steel or Avengers sort of way.

Can't stress how awesome Abomination is enough
Now this has something to do with the fact that the Hulk movie happened just a few years before, but although this is not considered a sequel we’re spared another boring origin story.  Origin stories can be fun when it’s a period film (ala Captain America), or when someone is learning new technology or building their powers (Iron Man).  For the most part it’s just telling us a story we already know.  How many times do we have to be reminded Spider Man was bit by a radioactive spider?  Does anyone need to be reminded that Batman’s parents were killed and the killer never caught?  In the opening credits we get a brief montage that successfully let’s us know science experiment = Hulk.  

Whatever his difficulties with the higher ups at Marvel, Edward Norton is still a pretty good Banner.  I feel like some of the Hulk scenes are a little ridiculous.  Particularly when Betsy is trying to bond with him in the cave, wth?  I also am not fond of the fact that Hulk never seems to be a different person than Banner.  In the comics Hulk has his own thoughts, and most of them are about how much he hates Banner.  Other than a few yells, Hulk doesn’t even get any lines.  They could have done a better job “humanizing” him by letting Hulk have some sort of personality instead of the awkward rainy scenes with Liv Tyler.  

 Aside from the obvious highlights I might say my favorite moment came with Lou Ferrigno playing a security guard and getting a pizza from Banner.  I still sometimes wish they’d let some roided out human play Hulk, but they mostly do the Godzilla 1998 trick and keep Hulk mostly in shadow.  It looks light years better than Ang Lee’s version, but not quite as refined as the animation for Avengers, which made me question why not just get an actual person.  It’s water under the bridge and now I couldn’t imagine going any other way.

Cinematic gold right there

Overall though I felt The Incredible Hulk might be the better of the first two films.  I’d say neither one is perfect, but they got a lot of things right.  Considering it’s been 9 years and no new solo Hulk films are on the horizon, it makes the Leader tease in this film a little more frustrating.  Some research let me know the fate of The Leader in the comics.  Basically he woke up, Black Widow found him and he got put in a test tube to be studied in some top secret SHIELD lab.  Perhaps some day he’ll break out and be the awesome villain he was meant to be, a man can dream.  If any Marvel films can be considered underrated it might be this one, so I wouldn’t hesitate to revisit it, it’s better than you remember.

Iron Man 2 (2010)

The third chapter in Phase 1 was also the first sequel.  I first saw the film at a midnight screening and chugged a couple of tall boys of High Life in the parking lot.  So basically I remember being slightly buzzed and also having to use the bathroom for the entirety of this film.  Like many sequels this has the pre-requisite that it be bigger and louder than the original.  It does however offer a chance to make Tony Stark a little more relatable.  

Iron Man 2 is the film that really starts to line up pieces that will eventually be connected in The Avengers.  SHIELD is a little more prominent in here, and we also get our first appearance of Natasha Romanov (Scarlet Johansson), or Natalie Rusman, or Black Widow.  After a humorous tease in the first Iron Man, War Machine actually gets to do something here.  Once again though we’re given the old switcheroo with Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard’s Jim Rhodes.  

Running out of funny captions

The villains in Iron Man 2 are both excellent for very different reasons.  Sam Rockwell is an obnoxious wiener, but he’s supposed to be.  His Justin Hammer is so many steps behind Tony Stark that despite how irritating the character might be, it’s incredibly necessary.  I particularly like the scenes of Hammer with Christine Everheart (Leslie Bibb), especially if you know her and Sam Rockwell are real life partners.  Mickey Rourke acts his ass off as Whiplash/Ivan Vanko, turning a somewhat silly rogue from the comics into a formidable and compelling character.  I could vote for Rourke as the best actor from any of these Marvel movies, it’s just a slight shame that none of Iron Man’s other major villains got this kind of treatment.

This film might be a damn fine sequel but it is not without it’s own flaws.  It seems silly that after Black Widow hacks Vanko’s computer to free War Machine, she doesn’t bother shutting down all his drones.  Seems like that would be just some more fast typing because hacking is SUPER easy in these movies.  It plays into that movie trope that if you’re super smart at one thing you must be super smart at everything.  If she had shut down all his drones though we wouldn’t get to see Iron Man and War Machine blow shit up.  Although this film definitely ramps up the collateral damage it isn’t so over the top that it gets silly.  I also thoroughly enjoyed the late Gary Shandling as Senator Stern.

I do feel like Iron Man 2 could have been a bit better.  They touch on Tony’s growing alcoholism but other than a ridiculous party scene it doesn’t get particularly well addressed after that.  I know they were trying to incorporate elements from Armor Wars and Demon in a Bottle storylines, but it just seems like it could have been better fleshed out.  Perhaps the reason the Daredevil and Jessica Jones shows are so good is that the TV format allows for greater character development as opposed to big explosions and setting up the next film.  Downey’s Stark is a little less of a douche-bro here than in the first film, and it seems any time he wants to be a big shot he’s getting checked ever so slightly.  

Avengers Assemble! or get coffee

The question is how serious do you want your super hero movies, and how many bummer real life problems should they be dealing with?  One of the reasons the MCU films have been so enjoyable is because they are largely escapist entertainment.  DC decided to go all in on gritty and depressing, and no one likes any of those movies.  The one time they tried to go escapist was the Green Lantern debacle, so I don’t want to complain that Iron Man 2 didn’t make Tony hit rock bottom with his drinking.  The film is definitely worth seeing for Rourke, and arguably my favorite scene in any Marvel movie when Black Widow takes out all of Hammer Industries guards.  Marvel’s first sequel still holds up quite well.

Thor (2011)

Kids always have favorite super heroes.  When it came to Marvel, mine were Iron Man and Spider Man, my brother on the other hand was all about Captain America and Thor.  Thor seemed like a very far fetched film to ever happen, considering Asgard would be pretty much 100% CGI.  Thor also seemed like one of those characters that might not translate to film.  Kenneth Branaugh might have seemed like an odd choice for director, but the man can coax some good performances out of his cast.

For straight comic fans Thor is entertaining, but I think that the film is geared more towards fans of Game of Thrones and Harry Pottter.  It was hard not to think of white walkers when watching them fight frost giants, the actor who plays the Knight King (Richard Brake) in GoT actually appears in the second Thor movie, despite the resemblance here.  The drama is definitely toned down here, and nothing seems too perilous.  As for the first phase of movies, this might be the most fun of the films, and probably the most outright enjoyable until Guardians.  

Probably my favorite part of this film

The cast is pretty good throughout, and Chris Hemsworth was an excellent choice for the god of thunder.  Kat Dennings provides excellent comic relief without ever seeming to be annoying.  Natalie Portman is serviceable but I feel like she often just smiles at Thor and that’s supposed to be chemistry just like in Attack of the Clones.  I’d argue that The Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and Warriors Three are my favorite part of the film.  Anyone familiar with the characters from Walt Simonson’s run would be pleased with their depiction here.  Tom Hiddleston was a perfect choice as Loki, almost too good, because he seems to be the villain in about half of Marvel’s movies since.  

Like Incredible Hulk, I think Thor holds up a little better after a few years.  Perhaps I was looking at these two films like chores and was pleasantly surprised to find they were in fact quite good.  In hindsight it is fun to pick up some of the clues they drop throughout this first phase.  Hawkeye makes his first appearance while about to snipe Thor.  The scenes on Asgard might seem a little too Star Wars prequels in look, but the characters are infinitely more interesting.  Branagh the director has plenty of experience dealing with ensemble casts and he gets the best out of nearly everyone here.

Marvel is legally obligated to have their hero be shirtless at least once per movie

There are ridiculous plot holes in nearly all of these films.  For example the fact that Thor gets released from SHIELD custody because a scientist says he’s a doctor who’s got roid rage.  No if you attack multiple government agents and break into a quarantined site, you will probably be sent to some secret prison for decades.  I also feel like the film doesn’t have a very fleshed out conflict.  Thor gets banished, get’s his power back then fights his brother.    

As a character, Thor seems one of the few to get any sort of arc in these first films.  Tony Stark decides to stop selling weapons, but he’s still sexist and probably more arrogant if anything.  Captain America is more about his physical transformation, and Banner pretty much begins and ends the same.  Not to say Thor isn’t still gung-ho for battle and every bit the hard living man child he was at the start but the character does develop some depth.  He learns, he progresses, and it makes his transformation where he’s truly worthy of his power all the more satisfying.

Captain America - The First Avenger (2011)

I remember being very young, maybe first or second grade when my cousin showed me a Captain America movie.  He warned it wasn’t too good, but we eagerly watched that boring abomination where Red Skull had plastic surgery because the movie didn’t have the budget for makeup.  It was rough but in the early 90s we took whatever we could get regarding super hero movies.  With that in the past, and arguably an even worse couple of Cap movies from earlier the bar was set so incredibly low.

Good luck getting this image out of your mind

If Marvel decided to make Captain America the first film in their cinematic universe quite a few of us older nerds would have been definitely apprehensive.  There was also the debate as to whether or not he would retain his World War II origin story.  Since this was the fifth film in the MCU, we had enough faith that things would be handled well.  It also quickly became apparent that the origin story was essential to keep the same, so in many ways Captain America played it safer than any other entry in the series thus far.

So it can be somewhat tricky going into a movie where you essentially know all that’s going to happen and for that film to not be tiresomely predictable.  Thankfully Joe Johnston does a great job in hitting all the key plot points but developing the characters enough so that we genuinely give a shit about what we’re watching.  A lot of people were a little skeptical about Chris Evans after his very different turn in the Fantastic Four movies no one remembers.  It seems hard six years later picturing anyone else in the role, and he did a damn fine job of erasing any early doubts.

Many of the early films are more about a quick origin and then CGI explosions.  Now there is certainly a fair amount of the latter here, but enough time was taken with Steve Rogers the weakling to make us root for him.  Hugo Weaving is quite excellent as Red Skull.  As a change of pace we actually are introduced to him first this time around, which offers a pleasant contrast.

Now for the nitpicking which is necessary with nearly all of these films.  I like Hayley Atwell as Agent Carter in this film, but the scene where she randomly shoots at Cap’s brand new untested shield is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen in a movie.  This mind bogglingly idiotic moment was actually included in the trailer and should have probably resulted in Carter being given a court-martial, and probably a dishonorable discharge for shooting at the prize jewel of the super soldier project.  I’ve also been racking my brain trying to figure out how damn old Howard Stark is.  First time watching this I got a kick out of seeing Iron Man’s father appear as part of the secret weapon division and I feel like him inventing his shield was a cool way to tie it all in.  Doing some math, it seems like he had Tony when he was in his forties or even fifties and didn’t look too much older in that Stark expo footage in Iron Man 2 which takes place thirty years later.  Small gripe that I shouldn’t lose anymore sleep over but still it does stretch the timeline quite a bit.

I should also point out that I am VERY over the whole sepia filter for period pictures.  When the Coen brothers made O Brother Where Art Thou in 2000 it seemed like a novel concept.  Spielberg did his own gritty de-saturated palate thing for Saving Private Ryan, but at some point from then to now every film decided no film set in the past could be filmed with a normal color palate.  I suppose studios think people are far too stupid to comprehend that primary colors existed in the world before every movie was made in color.  This is a minor complaint but if you’re listening just stop it in the future, the past was in color just like today even if photography would have you believe otherwise.

Seriously would it kill you to have a primary color?

Most of the period details are quite well handled here as well, and I’m a particular fan of the war bonds montage.  I also appreciated the random appearance of Marjorie Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) in her scene making out with Cap.  A lot of the training footage is great as well, and the transformation sequence was done quite well including the ensuing chase with the Hydra agent.  Most of all I probably appreciated Rogers awkwardness around Carter, which made the ending all the better.  The essence of Captain America is that he does the right thing and is still an awkward nerd when all is said and done.

Seriously so awesome

Overall though Captain America does everything it’s supposed to.  Now the post-credit sequence which was a subtle work of art in the first couple of films here simply turns into a trailer for the Avengers movie.  Separate nit-picking, I got to give Steve Rogers credit for remembering the details of a random Brooklyn Dodgers game that he went to.  These are mostly minor grievances, but there is so much to like about the film, so let’s end this on a positive note.  Red Skull looks awesome, and is awesome.  He’s evil and easily the best villain to yet appear in a Marvel film, sorry Loki.  

The Avengers (2012)

Here we finally arrive at the film we waited four years or a lifetime for depending on how you want to look at it.  I did discuss this film when it originally came out for those who care to scour the archives, but revisiting it again gave me a fresh perspective, especially in light of it’s sequel and several other entries in the MCU.  So with that “holy shit it’s an Avengers movie” hype past we can discuss this somewhat honestly.

So certain films that come pre-packaged with extraordinary hype have an uphill battle when they’re released.  Sometimes they deliver (ala The Dark Knight) but often they stumble under the extraordinary weight of their lofty expectations.  I left the theater after seeing The Avengers thinking it was a decent enough film but dropped the ball in a few key spots.  I should also point out that I am very much a Joss Whedon fan and that only added to my initial pre-judgement of “This will be the greatest thing ever.”  Which perhaps wasn’t fair to the film to give it a fair go without my own projections coloring my opinion of things.

Let’s get into the good first before I ruin the movie for people who still enjoy it.  Mark Ruffalo had an uphill battle stepping in as film’s third Bruce Banner.  We did already have to get used to the Jim Rhodes/War Machine switch between the first two Iron Man films, but as any fan of Genesis or Van Halen will tell you, third time is rarely the charm.  He does a good job, and the scenes with Hulk are among the best in the film, too bad we’ll probably never see him in a solo Hulk film.  His “puny God” scene with Loki is arguably the best moment in any Marvel film and I must have watched a gif of that 1000 times.  A close second is his fast punch of Thor.  

Yeah that's the stuff

I also shouldn’t have to disclaim spoilers after five years, but the end credit sequence with Thanos was pretty much the greatest thing ever, and five years later I’m still being teased on the eventual Infinity War film.  There is also something to be said about the whole seeing the gang all together.  A hell of a lot of set up went in to this pay off, and I still get a slight chill seeing all of the Avengers fighting random alien robots that may or may not be Kree or Skrulls.  I have mixed feelings about Loki in this film.  Tom Hiddleston is great again, and he makes an excellent antagonist but after Thor I felt they could have gone for a new villain.

So before I start hating I want to say that the film itself is good, it’s not great, but the following few paragraphs might make it seem like I hated it which is untrue.  For starters every character with the possible exception of Hulk and Black Widow are awful in this film.  Everyone whines and bickers for the entire film and it actually starts to ruin the good will we had from these characters in their own solo film.

Considering Hawkeye was played by an Academy Award nominated actor, it seems like his character is completely wasted here.  Say what you will about Hawkeye in the comics but Joss Whedon seems to have no idea what to do with him.  After one scene of him being all emo, Loki uses some Jedi mind trick and he is a bad guy until suddenly he isn’t.  Jeremy Renner and his character deserved better especially considering he had the least amount of screen time in the previous films.

There’s also that scene early on where Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America all meet and we’re supposed to buy that all three are equally powerful.  With all due respect to Cap, he would have been massacred if they all weren’t pulling their punches (or hammers).  Tony Stark is great as a cocky super smart super hero but here he just comes across as some annoying frat bro whose hell bent on proving he’s smarter and better than everyone.  The last thing I’ll say about the characters is since when can Bruce Banner Hulk out at will and suddenly knows whose on his side?

DC seemed hellbent and determined to double down on destroying major metropolitan areas, but until Avengers Marvel largely avoided it.  This film has them doing 500 9/11’s damage to such an absurd point that it’s hard to take it seriously very quickly.  The final battle in many super hero films seems like a pointless foregone conclusion, and here we’re fighting random aliens that are nearly impossible to care about.  I also had a problem with the whole blow up the mothership and then that’ll stop everyone else, seems a cop out.  

There are a few other nitpicking things about the film, particularly how the hell they let Thor leave with Loki, or rather how the hell Thor even gets out of Asgard after the end of his own movie.  The Agents of Shield show quickly showed that death is meaningless in the MCU, which retroactively nullifies Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) death.  This would be a further problem in future Marvel movies, but no matter how likable the character might have been he needed to be Joss Whedoned.

The fact that this movie made all the money also forever opened the doors to endless producers trying to create their own cinematic universes.  I’ve discussed earlier how ill advised some of these are, but if you’re looking for where it all came from point the finger here.  If I were grading these films nearly all of them would fall into the range of B- to A-.  All are good, above average but the films are largely play it safe popcorn entertainment.  If you’re expecting an outright masterpiece we might have to keep waiting, but there are certainly worse ways to waste your time.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The First Four Films of Terrence Malick

Well it’s November 2nd.  The Cubs and Indians are preparing to play game 7 of the World Series and I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the world ends sometime during the 9th inning.  With that said, I appreciate you spending some of your last moments on earth reading my blog.  Like every blog entry ever I meant to get this written sooner, but life has a way of inevitably delaying everything I aim to do.

I’ll start by giving a little backstory as to why now seemed like a good time to revisit the films of Terrence Malick.  To start we have to go back a few months.  A few times a year random flash sales pop up where the typically expensive Criterion Collection is 50% off.  The previous sale I purchased Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, and Wim Wender’s Road Trilogy (Alice in the Cities, False Movement, King of the Road).  Right around this time A New World was being released.  I figured since money was a little tight, I’d wait until the next sale and stock up on Malick’s films.  As of now, Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World are part of the Criterion Collection, and amazingly enough I owned none of these films on DVD or Blu-Ray.  So fast forward to a couple weeks ago, when a sale on Criterion was announced, and I stocked up.  I got the idea immediately after to actually watch these four movies and offer my collective thoughts.

The debate obviously raged internally as to how to organize this article.  Would I offer full scale Kubrick sized reviews, or perhaps invoke my Vincente Minnelli piece from a few years ago and discuss these movies individually in a shorter capacity?  I suppose you can read on to see just what approach I took, but I opted for a third option, channeling an old essay I wrote in film school about Spike Lee’s first five films.  Mainly we’re going to talk about everything and how they relate in theme, style, perception, etc.  So I would highly recommend watching all of these films because there will be spoilers, but considering the most contemporary of these films is already 11 years old, you’ve have plenty of time.  Although one can argue the films of Terrence Malick are immune to spoilers.

Now for those long time readers I’m sure you are all well aware that I love Tree of Life, like more than just about any film.  This film blew me away like nothing I’ve ever seen in theaters, and I thoroughly challenge any film made in the 21st century to top it.  Despite how revelatory the film was, there were roots of it’s brilliance scattered throughout his previous films.  Much in the same way Godard seemed to incorporate everything he knew about cinema into Weekend, or Altman’s penultimate improvisational epic Nashville was the sum of all it’s previous parts, Tree of Life represented Malick putting all his successful early ideas into one sententious masterpiece.  As groundbreaking as Tree was, the elements of that film were present pretty much from his first feature.

Badlands was one of the films I was most excited to revisit for this project.  I hadn’t seen it start to finish in roughly 15 years and frankly wasn’t overly impressed by it.  My problem with the film the first time around was probably one of context.  The film presented itself as a lovers on the run tale, and it seemed like a much more boring version of other better known tales (Gun Crazy, Bonnie and Clyde, Thieves Like Us, etc.)  Watching it as some sort of sensationalized tale of a violent rampage and a story of doomed young love was the wrong way to approach this film.  Taken as the first chapter in cinematic universe of Malick it suddenly fits beautifully.  The film wasn’t sensationalized, it wasn’t meant to be some fast paced tale of doomed love, and these weren’t some sexy villains breaking the rules.

There are some common threads that pop up even in this first film.  For starters there’s the narration, which would be a common thread throughout Malick’s work.  Using narration to explain the plot is typically seen as a crutch for most storytellers, but Malick uses it in much the same way a novelist might.  It adds depth, Holly (Sissy Spacek) uses it to internalize her thoughts, saying things that couldn’t be filmed or spoken in a film.  This narrative technique would be exploited further in his later films, particularly in Days of Heaven.  He would eventually use multiple narrators in his later films, but the first two both use the narration of young women who seem largely along for the ride to add the depth.  On Days of Heaven, Linda Manz apparently recorded multiple hours of improvised narration, where Malick simply told her to say whatever came into her mind about the visuals she was watching.  Both offer narration that compliments the narrative but doesn’t explain what’s happening.  It isn’t a crutch for him, simply another cinematic device.

I would argue Malick is one of the few filmmakers who seems to be a complete filmmaker.  He uses every technique he can to illustrate his story.  His camera is often mobile,  free to roam wherever it feels best.  Multiple scenes are filmed with and without dialogue, and much to annoyance of his actors he often cuts out lengthy dialogue scenes and reduces them to a wordless single shot. 

The cinematography often gets the most attention in his film, and Malick’s in depth knowledge of cameras, lenses, and film stock is well documented.  His preferred use of natural lighting is often infuriating to the more experienced cinematographers, but damn it if he doesn’t always seem to be right in the end.  His preference for shooting typically leads to an absurd amount of film being used.  Editing his films can be seen as a monumental task, and it’s why in the case of certain films (like Days of Heaven) it took nearly two years.  Part of the idea is that despite some well worked out scripts, the man isn’t closed to new ideas.  Shooting scripts can go out the window if the lighting is just right.  If someone has a better idea on how to do a scene, he’s usually open to listen.  This gives the films something of a freedom, and it comes across when you watch them.  It also leads to many people expecting conventional narratives to be frustrated.

Both Badlands and Days of Heaven are fairly straightforward.  They are both 94 minutes long, and have an intimate quality to them.  Badlands is largely just about two people, and Days of Heaven expands to a quartet.  The landscape is important to these films, going as far as to lend the title to his first film.  It’s important to note that Malick is from Texas and this love of wide open spaces seems to be almost born in him.  He came from money, which often helps explain a fascination with people from the wrong side of the tracks.  Rather than get too in depth about his biography I find it necessary to mention two additional items.  First, he is a certifiable genius, the man is probably smarter than you.  Second, he was a philosopher, even teaching it at MIT.  Knowing a little about his background helps to illuminate some of his ideas towards cinema.

What many people thought would be Saving Private Ryan-Pacific, Thin Red Line turned into a philosophical exploration of the psychological aspects of war.  Much of the carnage is filmed with long shots, with many a shifting internal monologue, flashback, and muted soundtrack.  There are multiple moments where the film could venture into conventional war movie territory, but it never seems to linger for long.  It was based on James Jones’ book of the same name, and the author probably wouldn’t have recognized Malick’s interpretation had he lived to see it.  I was a fan of the film from the first time I saw it, and on an emotional level it probably remains Malick’s most powerful.  It was simply a miracle that it was made.  During the two decades separating Days of Heaven from The Thin Red Line many a rumor and legend began to arise about what Terrence Malick was up to.  He moved to Paris, continued writing, but from there the details are incredibly vague.  There was no shortage of A-list actors who wanted to be a part of The Thin Red Line, and although the cameos might seem slightly distracting, he makes sure to feature them early and often.  This film helped bring things full circle considering John Travolta was the first choice to appear in Days of Heaven

The one constant in Malick’s films is art director Jack Fisk.  He got his start at the Roger Corman school of low budget movies before getting his break on Badlands.  Fisk is something of the unsung hero in Malick’s work.  It’s amazing to see the progression from three story tree house in Badlands to the fort in The New World.  He was known for an impressive attention to detail, filling Spacek’s room with tons of character detail, earmarked books, and clothes in every drawer.   These things might be geared more towards helping actors get in character, but it creates a sense of lived in space.  As the scope of these films got larger obviously Fisk’s work got bigger.  The attention to detail and obsessive quest for authenticity in The New World was a common theme throughout the cast and crew. 

The Native American actors went through their own mini-boot camp to learn how to move and speak like a tribe in the early 17th century.  This helped create a sense of community not unlike the one for the soldiers in The Thin Red Line.  The fact that Malick seems completely unconcerned with financial returns on his movies, allows this sort of unusual luxury.  Each of his films seem like a self contained world yet part of a bigger picture.  What helps unite these films isn’t just the presence of Fisk or narration, but violence.  Badlands was a personal project for Malick that he had pretty much fully formed in his mind by the time he enrolled in the American Film Institute.  It was based loosely on the Charles Starkweather killings in the late 50s.  The film ends with a note in the credits about how it is a work of fiction, and comparing the true crime story to the finished film will naturally reveal some key differences.

Days of Heaven isn’t really a violent film by nature, but it is book-ended by a couple of murders.  It’s easy to think of that film as this really pretty picture that employed two absolutely incredible cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler.  The Thin Red Line by contrast is violent by nature but despite many explosions and attacks it’s far from gory.  It’s interesting to compare the first two films and their depiction of violence with the last two.  In Badlands the killing is just a chain reaction.  One bad decision just leads to another, and you get a feeling that Kit (Martin Sheen) starts to enjoy it.  He is concerned with his own legacy, even building a little rock monument to show where he was captured.  Bill (Richard Gere) is as much of a victim as a perpetrator, pushed into violence to survive in Days.

The killing is more a matter of course for The Thin Red Line.  The film does show the psychological aspects of fighting a war in a way that isn’t really shown in the much more personal violence of the first two films.  It’s somehow more humanistic despite the often faceless nature of war and war films.  These two threads get woven together beautifully in The New World.  The violence is part of surviving in a new and hostile place, but the personal attachment Smith (Colin Farrell) has to the natives makes it seem all the more tragic.  Despite the aloofness of Smith, the rest of the whites seem more in tune with history’s version of early settlers.  They are convinced they’re right, and have that classic European delusion of bringing civilization to these “savages”.  When the natives attack it’s more in the interest of their self preservation, and the white people seem much more on the defensive.  Violence seems an unavoidable by product of the world in Malick’s eyes through all these films, just in different contexts.  This is where the philosopher seems to really shine through in these movies.  The idea of violence would somewhat exhaust itself after The New World, as nature itself appears to be the violent force in Tree of Life.

I would point out I was quite happy when Criterion announced they were releasing The New World.  For starters I hadn’t seen the film since it was originally in theaters.  I liked it but found it at times a bit slow.  Hearing that there was an extended cut of the film was something quite exciting, but I never put fourth enough of an effort to track this version down.  The new release features both the theatrical cut and the 172 minute extended cut, as well as a third original version.  I watched the 172 minute version and it simply adds some texture to the original story.  I followed this up with the 150 minute original cut, which admittedly was playing the in the background while writing this blog.  Considering so many of Malick’s work is in the details these contrasting versions don’t alter the story too much, simply adding a few extra layers. 

I feel The New World is arguably his most important script.  The story was apparently written around the time of Days of Heaven, but for numerous reasons was put on the back burner for decades.  I noticed that when Smith is commenting on the natives never uttering the word “forgiveness”, Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) asks to be forgiven by her father later.  Something I noticed in theaters that was backed up by the extended versions is also the fact that the name Pocahontas is never actually uttered.  The first time she is ever even addressed by a name it is when she’s christened Rebecca.  It’s a subtle little detail, but one that I feel rewards the diligent. 

Overall these first four films are far from a warm up to something greater, even if you’ll excuse me in saying Tree of Life is superior to all of them.  I wouldn’t argue with anyone who would say one of these four films was Malick’s best.  Arguably the best thing about his often rambling philosophical style is that it resonates with people on a personal level.  Badlands is a perfect film, and an incredibly impressive debut.  It works because of it’s two leads, Martin Sheen’s charisma and Sissy Spacek’s ambivalence.  Malick himself appears as a traveling salesman, and would also appear briefly in Days of Heaven as a steel worker before entering his self imposed seclusion. 

Days of Heaven is a good film but one that misses the mark ever so slightly.  I’ve never been a big fan of Linda Manz narration, despite being in the minority with this.  Malick always had a bit of a fascination with accents, and there’s no doubt he was enamored with Manz’s, but I find it a little overdone.  The visual aspects of the film deserve all the praise you can give a movie, and despite the cinematic inexperience of the actors the performances are pretty solid.  Part of the problem with the film is in it’s legend.  Being the last Malick film for 20 years a lot of people over analyzed the hell out of this film, and what was something of a simple period picture became so much more.  It was more a testament to what could have been with his seemingly abandoned career.  As we’ve gotten more Malick, especially recently that promise seems largely fulfilled.  Days of Heaven almost seems like a sophomore slump, a good film that doesn’t quite hold up to it’s predecessor and it’s long awaited successor.

The Thin Red Line was the first Malick film I ever saw, and I really didn’t know much about the director or his long hiatus.  Perhaps for this reason I didn’t go in to the film with the same level of anticipation all the people who worshiped Days of Heaven had.  Since I watched it in my formative years as a film fan, I was obliged to compare it to other war films.  I loved it right away, mainly for how subjective the film was.  I could recognize even as a novice that the goal was to show more of the emotional toll of war than the physical or even mental.  Seeing it several times since it reveals new depths each time.  It would have seemed silly to consider it a better film than Saving Private Ryan, which it’s for better or worse always going to be linked with, but the more I’ve seen each the more I have to lean towards Malick.  Repeated viewings are kind to this film, and not to detract from Spielberg’s masterpiece, that film wins you over immediately.  There’s a bit of work that is required in The Thin Red Line, but it’s so worth it.

Having seen all three version of The New World I have to say it is a great film.  At times the film seems to wander aimlessly, and even the theatrical version feels a bit long.  There are a few head scratching moments, and there is a sense that things could have been trimmed without losing much of the ambience and plot.  Colin Farrell isn’t bad, but he does just seem to be more of a prop than an actor here.  He’s just sort of wandering aimlessly the whole time, but what do I know?  Without nitpicking, I feel like I should point out that filmmakers of a certain quality are judged by different standards.  With technical aspects all universally excellent, their work seems to be measured against each other, and although these four films are all masterpieces in their own right, they aren’t necessarily equal in quality.

Perhaps the ultimate compliment to an auteur is that these films all have a similar visual look despite being shot by 5 different cinematographers.  Emmanuel Lubezki (who has won the past three best cinematography Oscars) seems to have made a good impression on Malick.  After The New World, they worked together on his next three features.  Watching these first four films reminds me of the era when a Terrence Malick film was a once a decade experience.  He has started to make up for lost time, and his future films will probably fail to be as heavily scrutinized and poured over as these first four were, but the plus side is more movies.   So thank you for reading through my scatterbrain thoughts on one of America’s greatest directors.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Breathless (1960) - Jean-Luc Godard

There have been more film movements over the past century than I would care to calculate.  Some are vaguely defined, some were stylistic, some were political, some geographical, but few did more to reshape the concept of cinema quite like the French New Wave.  Godard’s debut feature, Breathless still remains the movement’s most definitive and most influential film.

The film’s reputation has been so exalted and canonized over the past several decades that it seems completely intertwined with film history.  I believe it helps clearly separate cinema into two distinct eras, the pre-Godard and the post.  The rules of cinema were open for debate, the subject matter could be anything, the methods of production were flexible, and things were never quite the same afterward. 

As indebted as this film is in history it’s legend began during production.  Godard who was a pretty well established film critic from Cahiers du Cinema, knew the power of the press when it came to making or breaking a movie.  He made sure to have various journalists visit the set and write about his unorthodox filming methods and had himself proclaimed as some sort of mad genius long before the public even got a glimpse of the film.  It was a calculated move that paid off and helped to ensure the film’s success as well as Godard’s desire to be included as a true cinematic auteur.

Now before I shit all over the film, I’d like to point out a few of the things that completely deserve praise and exaltation.  For starters, there is a certain sense of joy in this film that is noticeably absent from Godard’s later films.  He seems to legitimately be enjoying the process of making a film.  Godard had numerous false starts getting his first feature financed, and he was the last of the 5 seminal directors of the Cahiers group to begin his first feature (although Jacques Rivette’s Paris Nous Appartient ran out of financing, and wasn‘t finished until after Breathless premiered).  Godard was in fact so excited to get to make a film he didn’t really stop to figure out what the hell he was going to do.

The story was originally suggested by friend and fellow filmmaker Francois Truffaut.  It was based on a real life incident involving a man who shot a motorcycle cop in 1952 before being turned in by his American girlfriend.  In reality the criminal was apprehended, Godard saw a much more Hollywood style dramatic ending in mind for his version.  As he would do countless times in the future when given a synopsis, Godard changed a good amount of the details and the finished product barely resembled either the real life incident or the much more conventional script treatment Truffaut submitted.

The opening sequence is still quite exceptional, and I am under the impression that many critics and film fans base their praise of the film on these first 10 minutes or so.  The beginning has no formal credits, much like Welles’ Citizen Kane, but does have a dedication to Monogram Pictures which firmly sets the tone for the low-budget film noir homage the picture would become.  With a handheld camera, the film feels deeply personal.  Everything was shot on location, and the jump cuts are jarring but not disorienting.  Godard is drawing attention to the artifice of cinema in a very deliberate way.  The cuts are noticeable, but thanks to a unified sound track, they are easily followed.  The movie was shot without direct sound, so everything from dialogue to street sounds were done in post production.  This underlying sonic element helps to keep the film from derailing into amateurish territory.  Godard filmed several moments, including the chase from alternating angels, and when editing Michel pointing the gun at the police officer, the reverse shot is oriented to be pointing back at Michel.  Rather than sloppy editing, this is more of a deliberate attempt to break up the rules of continuity.  In the case of the gun, it makes it seem like Michel needs to shoot the officer in order to keep himself from being shot.

One criticism of the film is the fact that it is extremely amateurish.  No doubt Godard would find himself on the short list of greatest directors ever, but he had no clue what he was doing on this film.  He would write dialogue the day of the shoot, hand it to his actors and shout out the lines.  Since there was no direct sound, he knew everything would be dubbed after the fact.  It was infuriating for his actors who were barely able to tolerate what they saw as a madman without a clue. 

The final film was well over the two hour mark when initially completed.  Godard’s producer Georges de Beauregard insisted on delivering a 90 minute film to the theaters.  When discussing what to cut, Godard consulted with his friend and mentor, the director Jean Pierre Melville who appears as the celebrity Patricia (Jean Seberg) interviews for her paper.  Melville suggested cutting everything that was unnecessary to the central plot, that of the criminal Michel (Jean Paul Belmondo), Patricia, and his flight from the law.   This meant Melville suggested cutting his own scene, but Godard had another idea.  Rather than chop up entire scenes, he decided to remove fragments of each scene.  The idea was to trim whatever felt lagging or slowed the film down, regardless of whether it was an entire scene or merely a couple of shots.  This tightened up some of the scenes and helps explain the practical reason why there are so many jump cuts. 

Godard’s numerous film references and homage’s were also relatively new at the time.  Truffaut did make a small reference to cinema in The 400 Blows, but it was mostly a knowing bit of encouragement to his buddy Rivette’s yet incomplete Paris Nous Appartient.  Aside from the beginning dedication, Belmondo is constantly mimicking Bogart’s look, which is juxtaposed rather deliberately with a poster of his last film The Harder They Fall.  The film audio we hear in the film is from Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool, and several other posters and references pop up.  Melville’s presence is in itself an homage, as Godard was a very big fan of his Bob Le Flambeur, which was an early influence on Breathless.  For better or worse countless followers would show their love of cinema and throw in knowing winks to their idols and influences.

Melville being as pretentious as he can
Much of the dialogue is pretty ridiculous.  Patricia is perhaps fashioned after a classic femme fatale but she just seems painfully apathetic.  Most of Michel’s comments towards her seem to be about her promiscuity, a fact that he doesn’t even attempt to conceal about himself.  Her denunciation of him is announced so casually.  Both characters aren’t particularly likeable, but the actors playing them are so it certainly supports Fellini and Woody Allen’s ideas that casting was more than half the battle when making a film.

This scene might be boring but those abs aren't
The film is not a flawless masterpiece however.  The debt future filmmakers owe to Godard and this film is nearly impossible to calculate, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the film itself is great.  The plot is standard enough low budget noir fare, but the lack of focus is apparent throughout.  Virtually a third of the film’s running time is just Michel and Patricia hanging out in her room talking and smoking cigarettes.  The scene works in a small way because of the screen charisma of it’s two leads, but the conversation is just the somewhat slightly immature and insecure ramblings of a director who is noticeably speaking through his actors. 

There is a wonderful spontaneity to the film that is part of it’s charm.  Shot on location with a skeleton crew, many of the street scenes were filmed with a small lightweight camera by Coutard sitting in a wheelchair being pushed by Godard.  Some police actually did show up when they filmed Michel’s death scene, and Belmondo deliberately timed his collapse to be right before landing in oncoming traffic.  Godard was obsessed with filming everything with available light, which led to some creative fixes for night scenes.  There was only one lab they could get film sensitive enough to shoot at night without added lighting, but it only ran in roughly 30 second reels, which led to Godard and Coutard hand splicing the film together.  Coutard would prove to be a willing partner, and their frequent collaborations in the future proved they did work extremely well together.  Godard’s main reasoning for shooting with natural light was the freedom it provided.  Godard hated the mechanical aspects of filming, and made sure he could be free to just film and make it up as he went along.

Godard and Coutard trailing their actors
I’m not sure how much of Godard’s spontaneous ingenuity was just plain laziness.  I mentioned earlier how Godard wrote the dialogue each day before filming, but much of the film was shot in the same haphazard way.  He wanted no producers on the set and kept the bare minimum of crew by union laws.  Godard also loved to not work.  Many days shooting would last on average 3 hours, where he would film a couple of random scenes and then dismiss for the day.  Much of the cast and crew found it incredibly unprofessional, and based on the style Belmondo for one thought that the film would be an incomprehensible mess that would never be released.  Jean Seberg, who made her acting debut following a well publicized talent search for Otto Preminger, found the conditions appalling.  Preminger may have tormented his actress, but he at least knew what he was doing on set. 

Godard rarely gave his actors any direction, preferring vague comments that had little to do with the film.  His instructions for Coutard were similarly cryptic, which is partially because Godard had no idea what he even wanted.  He spent so long just wanting to make a movie, he didn’t necessarily plan out how to do it.  Thanks in part to Coutard and the near documentary aspects of the location photography the film is still filled with highlights, but the rambling indecision of it’s auteur is apparent, especially on multiple viewings.  Godard’s main ambition seemed to be to make sure everything was in focus and the film at least looked professional, the rest could be figured out later.

Breathless despite it’s flaws and apparent sloppiness is still among the 5 or 10 most important films ever made.  Not only did it help break the French New Wave to an international audience, it inspired legions of film fanatics to make their own film.  Never was its influence more apparent than in the next decade’s American films.  The “film school” directors of 70s were all heavily indebted to the French New Wave, probably none more so than Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. 

Breathless can be compared to Birth of a Nation in terms of it’s importance, but the flaws of that film bare little resemblance to the ones here.  Griffith was an accomplished pro who was at the top of his craft, but also a bit of a racist.  Feel free to read my last blog post for elaboration.  Godard did have some extreme right-wing sympathies during this period in his life, and many accused his early films of being outright fascist.  Breathless however can hardly be called fascist or racist by a modern audience.  Oddly enough he was criticized by many of his peers for not being overtly political with this film.  Anyone familiar with some of Godard’s later work, particularly anything from about 1966 on would know that he more than made up for the absence of his political convictions early on.
Patricia mimicking Michel mimicking Bogart
Godard has a tendency to take himself far too seriously in his later work.  His recent films almost feel like grueling homework to sit through, so there is some solace in the entertaining aspects of this film.  The plot is fairly straightforward if a bit rambling, which is something to note compared to how incomprehensible some of his later work would get.  This would remain his most universally liked and praised film.  Although different Godard fans would all have their own personal favorite, it’s hard to argue that Breathless isn’t the best place to start.  I still think it’s a great film, just a far from perfect one.  It will forever be the defining moment of the New Wave, and the moment where cinema would never be the same.