10 April 2011

Media Month: March 2011

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951): It hardly seems coincidental that the director of photography, Leo Tover, and the composer, Bernard Herrmann share a title card in the opening credits to The Day the Earth Stood Still. Both of those elements, together, help push Robert Wise’s Cold War allegory above much of the other science fiction fare from the 1950s. Tover delivers moody, saturated tones of light and dark, and Herrmann’s use of theramins and electric organs created the archetypal alien film score that would be emulated for years. The Day the Earth Stood Still was among the first — and remains among of the best — of those sci-fi message films, tackling the complicated issues of paranoia, international policy, war, security, destruction, and humankind’s decidedly prickly relationship with advances in technology. The film is clear in its politics (unapologetically pro-U.N.) and equally apparent in its religious overtones (Michael Rennie’s Klaatu, on a mission of save the people of Earth, assumes the name “Mr. Carpenter” at one point and experiences overt resurrection). But it’s Wise’s direction and synthesis of the elements that helps deliver a thrilling, suspenseful film. ★★★★½ (of five)

The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993): If I were asked to select films that demonstrate the importance of a director, one of those films would have to be Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. Here is a film, a period piece based on Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, that rises far above most others in its genre due to Scorsese’s choices and eye for cinematic majesty. The art direction (by Scorsese regular Dante Ferretti) is impeccable, the cinematography of Michael Bellhaus is wonderfully relaxed and picaresque, and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing keeps the film running smoothly. But important to mention too is that Scorsese and co-screenwriter Jay Cocks give themselves time to explore Wharton’s novel and don’t feel rushed to compression (The Age of Innocence would also figure into any list of good films adapted from novels). And the cast, from Daniel Day-Lewis to Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder, bring a simmering quality to the suppressed emotions of turn-of-the-century New York. Day-Lews in particular captures the torn quality of a man caught in a difficult situation, and fits right in among Scorsese’s many other protagonists. ★★★★½ (of five)

Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944): This twisty and mysterious noir has remained one of the genre’s most watched, thanks in no small part to Otto Preminger’s able direction and a screenplay that keeps the viewer guessing throughout. The titular Laura (Gene Tierney) is the stated victim in a murder investigation conducted by a hard-nosed NYPD detective (Dana Andrews). As his investigation continues he encounters Laura’s fiance (Vincent Price) and her wealthy, foppish menor, an influential newspaper column played by Clifton Webb in a steal-every-scene-you’re-in performance. But things are not as they seem, and far be it from me to disclose anything further to those unacquainted with the film. Part of the strength to Laura is that not only does it take risks involving story twists and rounding unforseen corners, but it does so with a sense of utmost confidence. And as anyone ever caught in a noirish web knows, confidence can be ensnarling. ★★★★ (of five)

Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986): The driving force of Oliver Stone’s Platoon is the unspoken phrase “war is hell.” It’s manifested well as visual and aural elements: the film’s great success is portraying what the Vietnam War was like from the perspective of the “grunts,” the men in the jungle who faced not only the stated enemies but their inner demons, their fellow troops, and skin-crawling residents of the jungle. The cinematography by Robert Richardson provides for a panoramic view of war, and wisely eclipses and obscures the Viet Cong from the audience, delivering a sense of constant confusion and forcing eyes to explore the screen. Less impressive, however, is that the film’s philosophical and political inclinations also boil down to “war is hell,” as brief and as shallow as that phrase is. Perhaps war films do not need to have a great, ambitious message — and I think there’s an argument to be made that they don’t — but Platoon could have knocked me over completely if its tatement didn’t seem subordinate to its technical achievements. ★★★★ (of five)

Gojira (Ishirô Honda, 1954): Despite its many flaws, the first Godzilla film still comes together — barely. The key, or glue you might call it, is the metaphoric potency that gives the film a startling sense of power; watching it almost sixty years after its initial release, and almost seventy years after the atomic bombs decimated two Japanese cities, the fear (and the failure of anyone to do anything to alleviate or cure that fear) weighs heavy on the viewer. This pre-personality Godzilla, stirred awake through nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean, is a fire-breathing killing machine, as apathetic to its victims as an insentient object, and scenes of the victims and destroyed objects are eerily reminiscent of post-Nagasaki documentary footage. Though the film possesses this undeniable urgency, the problems still abound; the scenes of destruction could use some editing, the cinematography is murky and dank (no doubt to conceal the seams on the rubber suit), and by relying on the single metaphor to carry the film, the actual screenplay doesn’t do much work. Still, there is an impressive score by Akira Ifukube, and if the scenes of the monster in action don’t quite deliver, there’s always the memorable, chilling sound of its scream. ★★★½ (of five)

Walk the Line (James Mangold, 2005): I’ve always been a bit of a biopic apologist, but in order to succeed, the film must avoid the trap of simply showcasing an individual’s life and instead have something insightful to demonstrate about its subject and the way the audience, or society at large, is reflected in her or him. James Mangold’s study of Johnny Cash provides moments of sheer delight — a penniless and desperate Cash auditioning for Sam Philips, a rousing recreation of the live show at Folsom Prison, the way Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) plays off of, and deeply frustrates, June Carter (a magnetic Reese Witherspoon) in their pre-marital days — but it avoids the difficult aspects of exploring its subject with much more than a cursory survey. The result is a typical Hollywood gloss of an infinitely more fascinating person, a film that adheres too rigidly to the five-act narrative structure. Great soundtrack, though. ★★★½ (of five)

Interiors (Woody Allen, 1978): After a string of successful comedies, Woody Allen branched into drama with Interiors, the story of three sisters and the disillusion of their parents’ marriage. The film has been criticized for being too “Bermanesque,” which I don’t necessarily think is a problem; in fact, I think it was a bold and noble move for Allen to channel a cinematic hero. The problem as I see it is that Allen loses himself in the material, and the resulting film — rigid, chilly, intriguing — is unfulfilling precisely because it has no voice of its own. The characters come across as rough drafts of the sort of upper crust, erudite, artistic personalities that Allen would write much better in the 1980s. Diane Keaton and Richard Jordan provide an exaggerated, though engaging, portrait of depressive writers struggling to balance family with art. ★★½ (of five)

The Lost World (Harry O. Hoyt, 1925): The tremendous history surrounding this film — an early experiment in feature-length stop-motion animation by the special effects guru who would later spearhead the animation in the vastly superior King Kong (1933) — makes The Lost World more of a necessity to view from the vantage point of history instead of entertainment. The truth is while The Lost World brings with it many silent cinema charms, it lacks any compelling storytelling aspect to balance the draw of the technical work. ★★ (of five)

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask) (Woody Allen, 1972): Once-controversial questions about human sexuality are isolated and ridiculed in seven vignettes under the direction of Woody Allen. A Medieval fool tries to seduce a queen with an aphrodisiac, a mad scientist conducts strange sex experiments, Jack Barry hosts “What’s My Perversion?” — all ambitious in their attempted anesthetization of sex and fetishes, but in the end also painfully unfunny. Most famous perhaps is the final vignette, which illustrates a “mission control”-like center inside a man’s brain that prepares, puts into action, and calls the shots as the man struggles to have sex. Tony Randall plays The Operator in sterling deadpan; Allen himself plays a sperm who’s afraid of looming death — no surprise. This vignette is rightly remembered as the closest the film comes to actual comedy. ★★ (of five)

The Greatest Story Ever Told (George Stevens, 1965): This bloodless and passionless (I don’t use those terms ironically) rendering of the Gospels fails to fully capture the aspects that make Christ — purely from a narrative and character standpoint, with all religiosity aside — such an engaging and powerful individual. Part of the problem is definitely Max von Sydow’s robotic interpretation of Christ, but the entire film is stagey, stodgy, and disjointed. Perhaps it is best known today for the cavalcade of celebrity cameos (most famously John Wayne’s appearance as a centurion with a single line of dialogue). Charlton Heston appears as John the Baptist, but for some reason outfitted as if he was a caveman. He plays the camp card infinitely well, though. When confronted by a soldier who says “I have orders to bring you Herod,” Heston seems primed for Planet of the Apes as he calls back, “I have orders to bring you to God ... heathen.” ★½ (of five)

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11 March 2011

Media Month: February 2011

Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931): From early high school English classes through the entirety of my adulthood life, the “Universal Horror” film I’ve seen the most is unsurprisingly James Whale’s Frankenstein. Admittedly, it’s not a film I’ve always professed an open fondness for, but it’s a classic of its genre and its era that’s always been easy to appreciate and grows on one with time. The impressive art direction and production design set the mold for other standard “horror” films. If Whale doesn’t capture the exact scientific and philosophical dimensions of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, he does capture the conflicting emotions that surround dichotomies — life and death, homicide and self-defense, innocence and guilt, organic and artificial lifegiving, release and responsibility, etc. — and manages to turn one classic into new one. ★★★★½ (of five)

My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936): The infinitely charming William Powell is Godfrey, a “forgotten man” living with other neglected men near the city dump. He’s picked up by Irene (Carole Lombard), the younger daughter in a wealthy and obnoxious family, to be their new butler. (“Can you butle?” “Butle?” “Yes, we’re fresh out of butlers.”) The film is often referred to as an early screwball comedy, but it’s screwball in premise only; it’s better to consider this film a sly, stylish, and impeccably escapist Depression-era comedy of errors that jabs at the ineptitude and misplaced melancholy of the well-to-do. I won’t reveal the film’s pivot point, but knowing what you likely know about comedies of errors and mistaken identities, you can probably guess who has a surprise in store for the rest of the characters. ★★★★ (of five)

Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946): “I hate you so much that I would destroy myself to take you down with me”—if there’s a better line that encapsulates the essence noir, delivered with more firepower than Rita Hayworth brings to Gilda, I’ve yet to hear it. The screenplay, by Jo Eisinger and Marion Parsonnet, crackles with snappy dialogue, and it establishes a strong triangulated conflict between Hayworth’s Gilda, her ex-husband, Johnny (Glenn Ford), and his employer, Ballin (George Macready), Gilda’s new husband. The production values, including Rudolph Maté’s cinematography and the numerous costumes, are particularly noteworthy for their style. Hayworth is absolutely stunning in Gilda and brings to the film a disarming amount of eroticism and sex appeal. But what makes the role one for the ages is not just that she looks nice but that she plays dirty. ★★★★½ (of five)

The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1948): Welles’ noir is another in the long line of director vs. studio skirmishes that marked the early part of his career. This time the feud was with Columbia Pictures, which meddled with the film’s final editing and tinged most of this love-and-deception story with damning averageness. Still, the film maintains what seems to be Welles’ frenzied, energetic imprint on the scenes themselves. And the film has its list of high points as well. Surely it must be one of the first depictions of a rendezvous in an aquarium, where there are startling juxtapositions of ugliness and beauty (Rita Hayworth contrasted with a moray eel, anyone?). The cinematography is also a typical Wellesian adventure, with oblique angles and impressive crane shots and moody lighting. The first forty minutes or so are routinely melodramatic, but in the film’s second half, the viewer can see what truly interested Welles about the project — the breakdown of language (the overlapping dialogue is a particularly nice touch) and the literal hall of mirrors that comes with romantic and relationship betrayal. The final moments are almost worth the wait alone, as Welles dives into one of the most avant-garde cinematic sequences to come out of a Hollywood studio before 1970. ★★★½ (of five)

The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980): Director David Lynch entered the mainstream with this tale of “John” Merrick, an Englishman with such severe deformities that worked in a carnival sideshow as the “Elephant Man.” Merrick, played with extreme poignancy by John Hurt, is rescued from the sideshow by Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) and exposed to the harsh realities of bourgeois society. The film is shot in stunning black and white and has impressive production design and makeup. As is par for the course with Lynch, there are a few wanderings down the rabbit hole in this story, but a surprising amount of the tension and examination stays surface level. The Lynchian motif of macabre-vs.-mundane circles back on itself as the film considers what it means to be exploited and whether a tolerance of exploitation shifts according to the perpetrator (and is Lynch a perpetrator of exploitation as well?), and as it considers how an outcast will always be an outcast, no matter how welcoming society seems. Perhaps it’s the fact that the experimental Lynchian elements are restrained that I’m led to wish he’d indulged his bizarreness a little more and let the simmering elements boil over. ★★★★ (of five)

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper, 1991): This documentary is a helpful, if at times irksomely self-mythologizing, secondary text to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece Apocalypse Now. Bahr and Hickenlooper weave together interviews of the film’s central figures with Eleanor Coppoala’s filmed diary during the process of shooting Apocalypse Now. There isn’t a lot of thematic ground covered in Hearts of Darkness that can’t be deduced from a careful reading of Apocalypse Now, but the documentary functions on its own as a look into the turbulence of the creative process, particularly of those who become focused to the point of madness on achieving a certain artistic vision. The documentary’s glimpses of how Apocalypse Now could have been are more satisfying and thought-provoking than what was re-edited into the original for Coppola’s 2001 experiment, Apocalypse Now Redux. ★★★★ (of five)

Dexter (Seasons 1-3; 2006-09; Showtime): The television adaption of Jeff Lindsay’s novels about a blood splatter analyst with the Miami Police Department who’s also a serial killer himself is an addicting, satisfying romp through abnormal psychology. Dexter Morgan operates under a code of his deceased father, who taught him to let loose his inner darkness on the city’s worst of the worst. What I admire most about this show, now in its fifth season, is its tremendous sense of plotting—the writing crew certainly knows how to craft stories that span over multiple episodes and hook the audience. On an episode-to-episode basis, the writing can be a little too campy for its own good. (The voiceover, which I initially couldn’t stand, has grown on me out of exposure and exhaustion; I simply can’t think of any other way to give the audience that much access to Dexter’s inner monologues.) And of course I greatly admire Michael C. Hall, who perfectly straddles the line of civil and creepy. ★★★★ (of five)

Community (Season 1; 2009; NBC): One of the more inventive current network television shows begins rather formulaically but eventually finds its own voice by the end of the first season with meta-humor, parody, and a whole-hearted embrace of the quirky. That’s a good thing, too, because sustaining an entire television series on the odd characters and relationships that take form in a community college environment would have likely proved impossible. Instead, Community becomes a send-up of American entertainment that occasionally verges on absurdity. (One character, a student who possibly has Asperger syndrome and relates to the world through TV and film, becomes central to a GoodFellas spoof and is given the opportunity to say the line “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be in a Mafia movie” in voice-over while the screen freeze-frames on his face.) Why the show isn’t receiving more critics’ and industry accolades is beyond me. ★★★★ (of five)

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28 February 2011

Recapping the Oscars

Well, that was ... something.

The show was disappointing — belligerently unfunny and lacking all affability — and largely, so were the results. Time and time again, the winners proved themselves to be the central element of the showing, excepting presenter Kirk Douglas, who brought more energy and verve and genuineness than almost anyone else at the ceremony. What began inauspiciously (hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway doing the full 1990s Billy Crystal by “appearing” in the nominated films) ended just as inauspiciously, with Steven Spielberg at the microphone holding the envelope and providing a caveat for the ages: just as many great films lose Best Picture as win it.

Some of the highs and lows:

• Early in the night I tweeted, “Most of those who complained the Oscar season was boring have started off 0-2.” And that’s pretty much the way the rest of the night went. I correctly predicted 16 out of 24, exactly two-thirds, which is my worst Oscar prognostication in three years. (In 2010 I guessed 18 right, and in 2009 I guessed 17 right.) I missed Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Documentary, Makeup, Original Score, Original Song, and Short Animated Film. If I hadn’t changed my prediction from Inside Job to Restrepo at the last minute, it would have been the first time I correctly predicted all of the above-the-line categories. Oh well—there’s always next year.

• My preferences overlapped with the Academy at a three-year-time low also, with only 6 out of 24, including: Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Original Score, Visual Effects, and Documentary. (Although I professed a ballot preference for Exit Through the Gift Shop, I’m not sad at all that the magnificent film Inside Job won for Best Documentary.)

• This was one of the most evenly split Oscars in a long time. No film took home more than four awards, including the Best Picture winner. Tied with The King’s Speech was Inception, with four technical awards, followed by The Social Network with three, and Alice in Wonderland (!), The Fighter, and Toy Story 3 with two. I like it when the Oscars spread the love, but Alice in Wonderland is my pick for worst film of the year, so there’s definitely a limit to acceptable love-spreading.

• I mentioned how the winners drove the show forward. Some of the better acceptance speeches included Aaron Sorkin, David Seidler (the best speech of the night), the director of the short film God of Love, the director of Inside Job, and Colin Firth.

• The show itself, if I may speak more analytically to its failures, was tonally off almost from the get-go. Much of what the Academy tried to do in the theater didn’t transfer well to televisions at home. Some segments went on far too long; some seemed so fleeting it made one wonder why they tried it at all. Although the failure for the humor lies with the show’s writers, James Franco deserves to be knocked around for acting like he couldn’t wait to go home. (In some respects, he acted like this before the show even began.) Anne Hathaway had white-knuckle charm even as she plowed, self-knowingly, through one bad joke after another. The show reached such an abysmal low that when Billy Crystal himself appeared on stage, not many people seemed to want him to leave.

• With The King’s Speech as Best Picture winner, I should say the Oscars have awarded better and the Oscars have awarded worse. I like the film quite a lot, though I’m not sure it’s one for the ages. Perhaps, though. We simply never know.

For more of what I liked and didn’t like, keep an eye out for my Best of 2010 list, which should arrive in a couple months. Until the next awards season, it’s back to film criticism.

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27 February 2011

If I Had a Ballot

“I still think awards are stupid. But they’d be less stupid if they gave them to the right people.” — Ron Swanson, Parks & Recreation

Here are my Oscar predictions and preferences. If my previous track record is any guide, I’m wrong on about twenty percent of these — and hopefully a few preferences become realities.

Best Short Film & Documentary Short Subject
I haven’t seen enough of these to cast a ballot with confidence.
Will Win Short Film: God of Love
Should Win Short Film: N/A
Will Win Documentary Short: Strangers No More
Should Win Documentary Short: N/A

Best Animated Short Film
I have a soft spot for this category, which is (perhaps) my favorite of the below-the-line Oscars. I loved Madagascar, Carnet de Voyage, which is a beautiful and striking and lovingly animated short film. I also enjoyed Pixar’s Day & Night, a poignant examination of differences, and The Gruffalo, a British adaptation of a children’s book that features many celebrity voices. The latter two are probably where the contest is, and the winner typically is the longest of the shorts, which would be The Gruffalo. Yet, it seems a little thin so Day & Night might swoop in.
Will Win: The Gruffalo
Should Win: Madagascar, Carnet de Voyage

Best Visual Effects
Although the visual effects field was expanded from three to five, most of the nominees this year are exactly the kind of tired, regurgitated effects that fulfill more-is-more Academy preferences instead of useful, resourceful, compelling CGI. Inception — with its reality-defying dreamscapes — will take home the gold and, of this weak field, rightfully so.
Will & Should Win: Inception

Best Sound Mixing
Nothing in the Academy bylaws dictates that voters understand the differences between Sound Mixing and Sound Editing — or even what they are — which is why the winners in these categories tend to be loud, blockbuster films or better-loved films. Never mind how theater-vs.-home experiences alter the perception of sound. Inception is the likely winner, but each time I’ve seen The Social Network, I’ve marveled at how its soundscape balances all the elements and allows Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue to remain crystal clear.
Will Win: Inception
Should Win: The Social Network

Best Sound Editing
Ditto here what I noted in Mixing. These categories are so different it’s rare (in my opinion) that the same film should earn both awards. Inception will be a worthier winner here than in Mixing, but still not the best sound editing job of the year. For that, turn to the subtle, atmospheric, naturalistic sounds and snaps of the western landscape in True Grit. The Coens’ sound team, nominated in both categories for work on No Country For Old Men, is among the best sound crews in the business.
Will Win: Inception
Should Win: True Grit

Best Original Song
It was a bad year for original songs in films. My prediction, written by Alan Menken, feels a little derivative of his earlier work. I enjoyed A.R. Rahman’s song the most.
Will Win: “I See the Light” from Tangled
Should Win: “If I Rise” from 127 Hours

Best Original Score
Alexandre Desplat, the hardest working composer in the film business, is a good bet here. A great dark horse would be John Powell’s high-spirited, Celtic-infused melodies and evocations of friendship that back How to Train Your Dragon. The best score is the unorthodox fusion of electronica and classicism in The Social Network.
Will Win: Alexandre Desplat, The King’s Speech
Should Win: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, The Social Network

Best Makeup
To be honest, I haven’t seen any of these nominees and I haven’t lost any sleep because of that. The more-is-more theory of Oscar voting would predict a win for The Wolfman. The maybe-ostentatious-crap-was-nominated-but-we’re-not-that-desperate theory of Oscar voting (cf. Transformers) says Barney’s Version might prevail.
Will Win: Barney’s Version
Should Win: N/A

Best Editing
Without Inception editor Lee Smith in this category, it’s a safe bet to call it for Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, who serve the rhythms of Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire Social Network screenplay.
Will Win & Should Win: Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, The Social Network

Best Costume Design
Colleen Atwood’s complex yet gaudy duds for Alice in Wonderland might prevail here, but I suspect this will another boat lifted by the rising tide of The King’s Speech. A better choice would be the thematic threads of I Am Love.
Will Win: Jenny Beaven, The King’s Speech
Should Win: Antonella Cannarozzi, I Am Love

Best Cinematography
Nine-time nominee and long-time Coen collaborator Roger Deakins will likely strike gold this year for the impressive work on True Grit, which, in addition to rewarding Deakins, also fulfills the postcard replica standard the Academy often brings to this category. Matthew Libatique’s richly textured and fluid work on Black Swan is practically a ballet in and of itself, though.
Will Win: Roger Deakins, True Grit
Should Win: Matthew Libatique, Black Swan

Best Art Direction
I suspect this will be another of the technical categories that The King’s Speech brings along with its Best Picture win. It wouldn’t be my vote, but its art direction is still better than any of the travesties nominated in this category last year.
Will Win: The King’s Speech
Should Win: Inception

Best Foreign Language Film
How does one predict a category that requires a voter to see all the nominees? Well, it’s difficult unless you’re on the ground talking to actual Academy members. If the last few years have been any guide, a fallback option is to predict the film most likely to be the safe median of five. I’ve only seen Dogtooth, so I’m not in a position to say which film should win.
Will Win: In a Better World
Should Win: Check back in a few months.

Best Documentary
This much can be said: 2010 was an impressive year for documentaries. One could have easily doubled the size of this category. I’ve seen four of the five nominees — Waste Land is my blind spot — and each is impressive. The Academy typically aims big with this award (“Best” often means “Most Important” by their standards) but what that means is unclear. Could it be the politically savvy Inside Job? The intense and harrowing Restrepo? The tongue-in-cheek art criticism of Exit Through the Gift Shop? Another in a come-from-behind? For weeks most Oscar bloggers have had Inside Job as the prediction; at the last minute there’s been quick switching to Waste Land. I’m switching too, but guessing a different film.
Will Win: Restrepo
Should Win: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Best Animated Film
It’s almost enough to make you wonder when Pixar is going to give someone else a chance. Toy Story 3 takes this in a cake-walk, although The Illusionist would be a very, very worthy alternate.
Will & Should Win: Toy Story 3

Best Original Screenplay
Usually this is the stronger of the two screenplay categories, but I tip my hat to the adapted field this year. Three of the five original screenplay nominees have critical problems. David Seidler is a careful writer, but Mike Leigh’s Another Year is another of the director’s stellar examinations of the human condition.
Will Win: David Seidler, The King’s Speech
Should Win: Mike Leigh, Another Year

Best Adapted Screenplay
It’s unlikely anyone can topple Aaron Sorkin’s crackling screenplay for The Social Network, more likely than ever to score a win here.
Will & Should Win: Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network

Best Supporting Actress
I just don’t know what to make of this category. At some point or another, four of the nominees — Melissa Leo, Helena Bonham Carter, Amy Adams, and Hailee Steinfeld — seem as if they could be possible victors. The wave of support for The King’s Speech might even truly lift Carter’s boat if Leo and Adams split and Steinfeld doesn’t emerge strong. Hell, at this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if they called Jacki Weaver’s name.
Will Win: Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Should Win: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Best Supporting Actor
That Christian Bale is poised to win this category for an unremarkable scenery-chewing performance in a mediocre film is a source of great consternation for me. Perhaps the only thing more frustrating is the omission of Andrew Garfield. I’m holding out for a Geoffrey Rush upset, which seems quite possible. He’s my number two vote, anyway.
Will Win: Christian Bale, The Fighter
Should Win: John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone

Best Actress
There’s little doubt that Natalie Portman does the most acting in this category (i.e., clearest on-screen acting), but does that alone earn one an Oscar? While Black Swan sends all its arrows in her direction, and she suffers them well, there’s little to no lining behind her to buoy her performance above a spectacular freak-out. It’s not my number-one choice, at least; for that the contest is more fierce between Michelle Williams for Blue Valentine and Nicole Kidman for Rabbit Hole.
Will Win: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Should Win: Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole

Best Actor
Colin Firth will soon join the ranks of the people who should have won the previous year and will win go on to win not as a conciliatory gesture but for genuine, powerful acting. What’s still up for debate is my personal vote: Firth and Jesse Eisenberg gave two incredibly resonant performances: one a man physically struggling to speak, the other desperately yearning to be heard. In many respects they’re the opposite of each. Firth brings life to an almost instantly likable character with a difficult impediment, while Eisenberg brings a measure of likability to an impediment-free twentysomething. Comparing the two side-by-side might be a future project of mine. I literally had to flip a coin and leave it to fate to decide.
Will & Should Win: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech

Best Director
Tom Hooper snagged the Director’s Guild Award, which is basically a silver bullet when it comes to this category. There’s always a 10% chance it’ll go to someone else, and of those who are stepping out on a limb, many are predicting David Fincher might be lucky. That’s an awfully big “might,” even if it’s more artistically appealing. I’m no Oscar historian, but I do know a think or two about the award’s history, and splits are quite unlikely. When a film has a show of love as strong as The King’s Speech has among the Academy, it’s dangerous to pick otherwise. Still, my fingers are crossed. Also, for all of Black Swan’s problems (screenplay-related), Darren Aronofsky would be deserving as well.
Will Win: Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
Should Win: David Fincher, The Social Network

Best Picture
If you love film and care about the outcome of the Oscars at least one percent, you do so likely because of the possibility that a winning film might be seen by people who might not otherwise have watched it at all. If you love Black Swan, or The Fighter, or The Kids Are All Right, or any of the other films nominated, you want as many people to see your beloved film — reward the artist, enrich the mind, encourage more work, champion your darling of the year. For me, of the ten nominees, that film is The Social Network, which is likely to lose this evening. That’s okay; it’ll join a long list of great films that turned up short of the big prize. And although the blogosphere has circled the wagons and painted The King’s Speech as a usurper to the crown, I have nothing against the film and in fact actually like it quite a bit. It just doesn’t resonate for me as a great film. Oscar could do better; Oscar has done worse.
Will Win: The King’s Speech
Should Win: The Social Network
Preferential Ballot: The Social Network, Toy Story 3, The King’s Speech, True Grit, Winter’s Bone, Black Swan, Inception, 127 Hours, The Kids Are All Right, The Fighter

In the coming months, I’ll slip back into this blog post and edit these categories somewhat after I catch up with some of the films I’ve missed. I saw many more Oscar nominees this year than I anticipated, what with having a new job and a new baby at home. And hopefully in a few months I’ll be ready to post my Best Of 2010 list.

Until then, I’ll be live-tweeting the Oscars at my Twitter account, @ScreenSavour, so if you’re online there, come follow along. Monday I’ll have a wrap-up and the obligatory “now-let’s-get-back-to-watching-movies” sigh of relief.

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15 February 2011

Apocalypse Now (1979)

d. Francis Ford Coppola / USA / 153m.

At the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, where Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now made its world premiere, the director said something during a press conference that is as an important a place as any to begin discussion of the film:
My film is not about Vietnam; it is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.
Coppola has been rightly derided for the arrogance and pretension of such a statement, of equating a frenzied production of a movie to an actual calamitous war, but in many respects it’s an intriguing proposition to consider. What is the relationship, if any, between the chaos of a film’s production and the subsequent chaos captured on film? Must a filmmaker and the crew experience the truly harrowing highs and lows in order to create the most realistic — most expressionistic — depictions of fear, anxiety, and turmoil? Is a war film likelier to resonate with the audience if making the film is also a battle or a journey through the darkest corridors of the soul?

That metaphoric drumbeat — “war is hell, war is hell, this film was war, this film was hell” — plays almost ad nauseam in Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper’s documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), which pieces together after-the-fact interviews with cast and crew and footage shot on location by Coppola’s wife, Eleanor. The Coppolas are very insistent on the point that their journey in making the film was as much of a journey into the darkest corners of the soul as the film’s protagonist, Willard (Martin Sheen), a fraught Army captain sent on a mission upriver into Cambodia to assassinate Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), an AWOL colonel. In fact, the Coppolas are so insistent on the point that it begins to get under one’s skin after a while, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable to the discussion of the film’s success.

I can’t speak to what it must have been like for Coppola and his crew to film in the jungles of the Philippines, their stand-in for Vietnam. Principal photography took 238 days. Filming was sidetracked by a typhoon, the Philippine government, and mental and physical problems among the actors and crew. The leading man was fired; the replacement had a heart attack. The script was incomplete, with Coppola toiling away into the night doing rewrites and many of the actors simply improvising their lines. Drugs were rampant. The studio was nervous, money ran out, and Coppola invested his personal Godfather fortunes into the film. Nor can I speak to whether it’s an authentic hell, as I didn’t fight in Vietnam and have never participated in a war. Everything I know about the film’s behind-the-scenes story suggests it was the nightmare it’s been portrayed to be. What I can speak to — the only thing I can speak to — is the sort of film Apocalypse Now became: a milestone of American cinema and one of the best films about war.

The film is not subtle; carnivals of horror rarely are. Coppola, in revising an early script from John Milius, doesn’t paint with a small brush. Tigers jump out of the jungle. A helicopter attack led by the aptly named Kilgore (Robert Duvall) is set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” permanently altering the popular impression of the composition for a generation. A carabao is ritualistically slaughtered and spliced to juxtapose the film’s ultimate kill. Humanity is laid bare in the film’s spectrum. This film’s Kurtz, in similarity to the Kurtz of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (the film’s source material), is baldly presented as a corrupted ideal — the ravaging power of colonialism, the futility of American-led containment through ground war, a bull trying to “do good” in a china shop. Even the title itself invokes the tense duality of awe and catastrophe lingering on the precipice or, perhaps worse, occurring in the very moment.

These expressionistic elements, however, are the origins of the film’s tremendous strength, and what has been frequently cited as the film’s weaknesses — the episodic structure the journey upriver, the stark and mysterious third act, the anticlimactic final moments where explanation is supplanted by stillness — are instead better viewed as existential rejoinders to the shocking and inexplicable elements of war, the way the world begins to fall apart and what once made sense becomes maddening. Apocalypse Now is a collection of strange and haunting moments, emotions, sounds, and visuals held together by alarm, a sensation that closely mirrors the unexpected aspects of war. Whether this is an accident or, as Rob Humanick puts it, a cunning use of “what are obviously troubled elements to subversive and ingenious ends,” is ultimately beside the point. Many war films collapse under the weight of cliche or cleanliness, and while Apocalypse Now doesn’t prove a war film must have a turbulent production in order to capture war’s splintering effect, it does suggest that a successful rendering of war must provide a new (unseen, unheard, unfelt) and disquieting experience.

In order to stand apart from its peers, a war film must present something that feels fundamentally new. Cinema will never be able to capture the true reality of war — as Samuel Fuller once suggested, there would need to be a sniper in the theater actually shooting audience members in order to capture that — but it can come close by magnetizing the audience either through extraordinary realism or unsettling surrealism. Apocalypse Now falls into the latter and succeeds through its frenzied aural and visual elements. The soundscape, crafted by a team that took home that year’s Oscar, has a hallucinatory effect that weaves rock music and synthesized battle noises and spirals deep into the ear. The cinematography of the great Vittorio Storaro is fluid, revealing, and expertly handled. The camera often moves with the same creeping slowness of the patrol boat gliding downriver. In fact, throughout the film’s first half there always seems to be something moving: whether it is a single soldier moving across the bottom of the screen or a black helicopter moving across the top, a smoldering fire caught in the right side of the frame or smoke billowing in the left. In the famous helicopter attack sequence, the frame is often crowded and layered, the eye pulled in numerous directions, each shot revealing previously unseen from the prior viewing.

This stylistic device is balanced in the film’s final third by the heavy shadows that eclipse much of Brando’s Kurtz. Although the result of Brando’s vanity and general refusal to be photographed in light (which would have revealed the weight he’d gained), the simplifying but focused effect plays well against the film’s earlier, densely composed moments. For all the trouble Brando caused Coppola during the filming, his presence on screen in Apocalypse Now is arresting, and what he says — part poeticism, part nonsense, all in all captivating — gains potency as he remains the cynosure of Willard and the audience.

Coppola’s interviews in Hearts of Darkness reveal that, more than anything, he feared the film emerging as a form of unadulterated pretentiousness. For a film that succeeded so monumentally in its first incarnation — and without his, or anyone’s, guiding interpretation — he’s remained strangely fickle about its elements, even going so far as to re-edit and re-release the film in 2001 as Apocalypse Now Redux, with a restoration of its previously excised, and increasingly sought after, footage. That fickleness often manifests itself as defensiveness, and one begins to sense that Coppola will never be satisfied with the product and will never see the film the same way the rest of the world does. Perhaps that’s related to his emotional, financial, and psychological investment in the film, perhaps not: regardless, the film is a towering achievement. Few attempt something so ambitious, and even fewer succeed. When it ends, with the patrol boat back on the river and the empty silence without ending credits, the film severs itself from the viewer, but it lingers — and lingers, and lingers — and, whether appreciated or not, is not easily forgotten.

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05 February 2011

Media Month: January 2011

Welcome to Media Month January 2011, the first of what I hope will be many installments of essays that review my media consumption in the preceding month. Due to a number of factors — career, family, writing of fiction and poetry, etc. — my schedule rarely permits me to post with frequency, but that desire to comment on cinema remains as strong as ever. With the Media Month format, hopefully I’ll retain a bit of a presence in this small corner of the film blogosphere.

January is a notorious dumping month for new cinema in theaters, so I spend most of my Januarys catching up with Oscar-nominated films and films from the previous year in attempt to have my best-of list completed by March (if possible) and be able to cast an “ideal” ballot for the Academy Awards. This January has been no different, and I’ll hold off on assessing 2010 films until I’m ready to disclose my list and my ballot. What has been different this January is balancing film-viewing activities with relocating to a new college for an English faculty position, raising a two-month-old son, and acclimating myself to a new community. What follows seems like a small amount of films, but with all the 2010 releases I’m leaving out of discussion, I feel like I’ve been submerged in cinema.

There isn’t much of a rhyme and reason to the films I chose to watch this past month, except for a few primary factors. I tended to favor films I could watch with my wife (our two-month-old son is keeping us from going out on dates, so we’re watching more movies together at home), and I tried to catch certain selections that were slated to leave the Netflix streaming service. Unexpectedly, most of the films I watch were from the 1990s, a rather curious decade whose popular offerings seem to be aging in discordant ways.

Take, for example, Boogie Nights (1997). Paul Thomas Anderson’s examination of the soaring highs and nightmarish lows of the porn industry echoes with the influences of panoramic and pop directors like Altman, Scorsese, and Tarantino without managing to come within striking distance of any of them. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Robert Elswit and impressively acted by a large ensemble including a startlingly good Burt Reynolds, the weak thread in the fabric of Anderson’s quilt is his own screenplay that spreads the wealth too thin. Although numerous characters possess interesting qualities, few reach the level of development that would allow for complete audience identification, so the film relies on the essence of the performances (always a good thing) and pre-existing generalities (always a bad thing) to carry through many of the story arcs. Couple this with the fact that Anderson — pining to reach the level of visceral cinematic violence proffered by Scorsese and Tarantino — regularly resorts to tactics that feel cartoonish in comparison and Boogie Nights turns from full of potential into potential unfulfilled.

Or consider Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998), another wonderfully acted film with notable production values that falls just short of surpassing the trappings of typical historical melodrama. Were it not for the sometimes patchy editing, Elizabeth would ring as a success driven by Cate Blanchett’s magnetic, shrewd performance as the monarch in the early days of her reign, when neighboring royalty wanted either her hand or her head and the Catholic Church rallied its bishops in ardent opposition to her policies. Whereas the film stutters on some technical issues, it absolutely needs Blanchett to be at her best in order to be even watchable — and on that count, it succeeds. The supporting cast varies in terms of quality, from a weak Joseph Fiennes to a loopy Vincent Cassell, from an over-utilized Richard Attenborough to an under-utilized and perfectly cunning Geoffrey Rush.

Queen Elizabeth’s life seems suited to dissection through a sliced, reworked biographical depiction of her. On the other end of the spectrum is Charles Chaplin. “If you want to understand me, watch my movies,” he opines in the unrelentingly frustrating biopic Chaplin (1992). It’s impeccable advice to be sure — even Chaplin’s weakest films provide more sparks of life than Richard Attenborough’s film, gnarled through clunky direction that attempts to capture as much of the icon as possible, misses numerous opportunities to explore the emotional complexities of what it meant to be arguably one of the most famous men on the entire planet. A scene at a bar where Chaplin is harassed by a World War I veteran for making films instead of fighting loses its power when stacked against droll love conflicts and Chaplin’s tawdry love life. Each of Chaplin’s major films are relegated to mere minutes inside this film, which again misses an opportunity to dig deep and explore the psyche and passion of the comedian who produced politically aware films such as Modern Times and The Great Dictator. Robert Downey Jr. earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal, which includes both stupendous miming and not-so-stupdenous work as off-stage Chaplin. The recently late John Barry’s lovely score, mixing melodrama with an evocation of silent comedy, was also nominated, and arguably should have won.

Revisiting a pair of Michael Mann films from the 1990s — Heat (1995) and The Insider (1999) — revealed films that were less rich than I had previously considered. The primary selling point of Heat continues to be the famed pairing of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, a cop and a criminal respectively. There is some admirable work done within the film, including some nicely choreographed and pulse-raising action sequences balanced with steely and spare moments that would qualify for Raising Tension 101. There’s an admirable stab at illustrating the conflict of profession versus domesticity as well, as the film’s men stand in contrast to the film’s women. But if Mann is able to masterfully control the moment, he’s less able to control the mammoth quality of the film in totem. This ebb and flow doesn’t quite (pardon the egregious pun) generate the heat that is necessary for complete success. The Insider, however, has better rhythm but inferior structure. In that film, there are actually two insiders: Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a dismissed tobacco company executive, and Lowell Bergman (Pacino), a CBS News producer. Wigand blows the whistle that Big Tobacco was well aware of the addictive power and danger of cigarettes while Bergman finesses Wigand into a story for 60 Minutes. The resulting fallout tears apart Wigand’s personal life, which is the emotional heart of the film, and sends Bergman into a rage against the system after the corporate chiefs nix Wigand’s story. The performances remain strong, but the central flaw arrives through narrative unevenness and the resulting emotional disconnect. Mann and his co-writer, Eric Roth, tell the story chronologically and swing too far from Wigand toward Bergman in the second half. While the behind-the-scenes look at CBS News makes for some thrills under Mann’s steady direction, Bergman’s story doesn’t carry the heft of Wigand’s.

Lighter fare from the decade, like My Blue Heaven (Herbert Ross, 1990), provides entertainment but nothing much else. A riff on the story of Henry Hill — he of Goodfellas fame — starring Steve Martin as a mobster gone into Witness Protection and the FBI agent (Rick Moranis) charged to protect him, My Blue Heaven scores some easy laughs without breaking new ground. Within days its comic elements fade from memory. Worse for the wear is Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), which today seems more like an impeccably assembled time capsule of late ’80s excess than a gripping drama about power, greed, and the cutthroat atmosphere of lower Manhattan’s business sector. But as a time capsule candidate reflecting the antic, brutal, out-of-the-chaos-comes-cohesion filmmaking abilities of Stone, Wall Street doesn’t pass any test. Michael Douglas, an Academy Award-winner for best actor in a weak year, chews the scenery but not much else. The film is as stiff as over-gelled hair or a starched collar. For a better look at the naked elements of human nature, turn to Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages (2007), in which Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney portray siblings caught in the inadequacies of life as they put their ailing father into a nursing home.

What should come as no surprise to the regular readers of this blog is that my heart lies with older offerings, and I was pleased to be able to see Leo McCarey’s great Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) for the first time. The film has earned a reputation for having one of the most hard-nosed endings in the history of Hollywood, a moment so achingly beautiful and sad that one would never expect a major studio offering today to end in such a way. (“It would make a stone cry,” Orson Welles reportedly said.) And it is true that McCarey doesn’t turn away from the hard reality that elderly parents are often ignored or pushed aside by their children, no matter how well-intentioned those children can be. The film has magnificent pacing and a screenplay steeped in universal emotion, and it remains as relevant and powerful today in a beautiful restoration by the Criterion Collection. Rome Open City (1944), the first of Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist war trilogy, is also available on Criterion and worth the time. Famously shot on the tightest of budgets and with whatever film stock Rossellini could find mere months after the Allies liberated Rome from its Nazi-occupation, the film is a strong profile of ordinary Italians who are struggling externally and internally when caught between their occupiers and the Resistance. Rome Open City encapsulates a similar, yet different, feeling of emotion exhaustion, although most of its unflinching characteristics are borne out expressively, on screen. It is a fine, early example of its neorealist genre and of its country’s cinema during the 1940s.

McCarey and Rossellini aside (and one other film, which will appear with its own review soon), the foray into film this last month was not as completely satisfying as a foray into episodic television. I watch the first few seasons of Parks & Recreation (NBC) and Modern Family (ABC), which are available through Netflix and the premium subscription to Hulu. Both shows follow the single-camera, laugh-track-free, documentary-esque format made popular by a spate of recent network television successes like Arrested Development and The Office. (30 Rock, while eschewing documentary format, nevertheless embraces the single-camera format.) In fact, those shows are particularly helpful guides, as Modern Family bears resemblance to Arrested Development and Parks & Recreation bears resemblance to The Office. Each takes its predecessor a step further — Modern Family weaves three core nuclear units into a larger tapestry, creating a larger ensemble than Development; Parks & Recreation, once it settled into a groove and found its voice in the full-run second season, took the often surreal and highly comic office environment and spliced in governmental satire and created characters that seem more robust and complete than the Americanized version of The Office, which lost steam after its third season. For someone who usually doesn’t watch much television except in DVD and instant-streaming formats, these two shows proved to be exceptionally bright spots to counteract winter doldrums.

I don’t quite have the time to explore the literary offerings I consumed during January, but let me give some recommendations of books I read that I enjoyed: The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing (edited by Kevin Young, an eclectic mix classic and contemporary verse exploring the innumerable facets of grief); Beowulf (the Old English epic translated by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney); Gideon’s Trumpet (a chronicle of the landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright with in-depth at how the court functions, written in superbly clear prose by Anthony Lewis); and 1 Henry VI (Shakespeare’s classic examination of power-hungry factions that cause the state more harm than good, largely considered to be literature’s first “pre-quel”).

Coming up: an ideal 2011 Oscar ballot, the best films of 2009 (only a year late!), and a standalone review of Apocalypse Now because I have too many thoughts on it to be constrained to the Media Month feature. Until then: what was the best film, new or otherwise, you saw during January?



Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937): ★★★★½
Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945): ★★★★
The Insider (Michael Mann, 1999): ★★★★
My Blue Heaven (Herbert Ross, 1990): ★★★½
Heat (Michael Mann, 1995): ★★★½
Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997): ★★★½
Elizabeth (Shekhar Kapur, 1998): ★★★½
The Savages (Tamara Jenkins, 2007): ★★★½
Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987): ★★★
Chaplin (Richard Attenborough, 1992): ★★

Parks & Recreation (NBC, Seasons 1 & 2): ★★★★½
Modern Family (ABC, Season 1): ★★★★½

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31 December 2010

Screen Savour in 2011

It goes without saying this blog has been quiet for some time now. It will come back to life for 2011.

The incarnation will not be the same. Time is simply not as abundant enough for me as it once was — I'm now a full-time college faculty member, a husband, a new father, a dog-walker, a writer, a reader, an avid NPR listener, etc. I love film, but writing about it requires a great deal of time, energy, focus, and revision to meet the standards I want for myself.

What I'll introduce for Screen Savour in 2011 is what I'm calling Media Months. Because I can't write here daily (or, realistically, even weekly), I'm going to write one essay throughout each month tracking the art I see. I will write primarily about film and literature, but I will also discuss television, music, theater, museums, photography, and any other artistic venture that draws my attention through the month. Each Media Month article will appear at the end of the month and will include mini-reviews, ratings, analysis, and musings. I'll also finally finish my Buster Keaton series, give my personal picks come Oscar time, hopefully write about Fritz Lang's sound era, and maybe try another film series if I'm feeling particularly ambitious (the Marx Brothers, perhaps?).

Let's hope it works. I'm winging it, and we'll see what happens.

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03 April 2010

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

d. Buster Keaton & Charles Reisner / USA / 71m.

It’s difficult to begin a discussion of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. anywhere but the film’s famous shot, perhaps one of the most famous in all of cinema. The front facade of a house has broken free of its moorings during a cyclone on a Mississippi River port and falls onto Keaton, who’s saved only by the fact that he’s standing in the exact location of the second-story window’s course. It glides right over him, leaving him standing bewildered. The shot is brilliantly executed (more on that in a moment) and it never grows old to watch, but the reason to begin with it happens to be something else entirely. I like the shot in the larger context of Keaton scholarship because it symbolizes his approach to filmmaking: chaos and mayhem swirl around the stone-faced comedian, trying only to keep his footing in the world around him.

The idea behind Steamboat Bill, Jr. came from Charles Reisner, who had worked with Charles Chaplin on The Kid and The Gold Rush. (Producer Joseph Schenck hired Reisner as Keaton’s co-director.) It’s one of Keaton’s most domesticated plots, as it is not merely Willie’s pursuit for the girl and the approval of her family but also the pursuit for approval from his father, Bill Sr. (Ernest Torrence). It is the unseen mother’s idea that the two be reunited after Willie graduates from college, but with his striped-blazer, heavy suitcase, tiny mustache, and beret, Willie is nothing like his steamboat captain father. The mere sight of Willie sends the father into histrionics (implicitly suggesting the father do away with the preppy Willie, the first mate advises: “No jury would convict you”).

The father’s first order of business is to make Willie presentable, buying him a new hat and shaving the “barnacle on his lip,” and then teach him the ways of his steamboat, a rickety vessel named the Stonewall Jackson. Bill Sr. has been feuding with another steamboat entrepreneur, John James King (Tom McGuire, looking eerily similar to an elderly Robert Frost), who — because this is the world of silent movies — has a young and attractive daughter (Marion Byron) that the protagonist finds remarkably lovely.

The first part of the film runs on the standard Keatonian formulae: extracting humor from the moments when he can’t live up to society’s (or his father’s) expectations for masculinity; struggling to understand the complexities of riverboats; and his inability to shed the preppy air he’s acquired while away at university. There is nothing particularly barbarous about the humor here, and little requiring Keaton’s comic ingenuity. Instead, the appeal of the first half is subtle and what deserves closer inspection is Keaton’s directorial choices.

Keaton’s ability to successfully utilize spatial dimensions becomes apparent in the cyclone that closes the film, but he provides some sly reminders of spatial construction through his direction and framing. Willie arrives by train, promising he’d wear a white carnation in his lapel. What follows is some misdirection humor, where almost all the men aboard the train are wearing white carnations in their lapels, but the real reason the father cannot find Willie amongst the travelers is that Willie has gotten off at the wrong side of the depot, literally on the wrong side of the tracks for the whole scene. These unknown moments continue into the film, such as Willie’s visit to the barbershop, where we realize that the co-ed who he loves has been sitting the adjacent barber’s chair the entire time.

The spatial construction is nowhere near as nuanced as The General, which makes great use of small sets contrasted against larger environments, or The Navigator, where the boat must become a continually surprising and providing set. It might initially seem ironic that the steamboat plays such a minor role in the course of the film, but the decision is quite cunning. When Keaton does make use of the boat in this film, he occasionally retreads his previous work in The Navigator. By keeping the steamboat out of the film’s major plot points, he manages to avoid derivation, although the first half of the film is still plagued by a comparatively slow build-up.

The film takes a turn and improves above its ordinary beginnings following the arrest of Bill Sr. for attacking King in anger, and shortly after he’s put in jail, the cyclone arrives. Keaton wanted to end the film with a flood, but due to tragic floods in the United States shortly before and the prohibitive costs, Keaton substituted in the cyclone. It is the superior choice for numerous reasons, primarily because it reinforces what Roger Ebert calls “a universal stillness that comes of things functioning well, of having achieved occult harmony.” Keaton and his crew destroy an entire town. There are strong winds that prevent walking, creating a strange but metaphoric conflation of stillness and movement. There are flying boxes, collapsing walls, and swinging fence doors. He becomes caught in a bed that blows around the town. He latches onto a tree that is uprooted by the wind and blown into the river while he hangs onto the trunk. It is natural having its way with the short man who does everything he can to avoid being swept away.

The famous falling-wall shot wasn’t entirely new to Keaton, but it had never been attempted on that scale. He’d done a variation on it in his short film One Week, and the stunt actually repeats itself in different versions through the rest of the cyclone in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (More than once he opens a door and walks through while the entire wall collapses.) “The clearance of that window,” Keaton said later, “was exactly three inches over my head and past each shoulder. And the front of the building—I’m not kidding—weighed two tons. It had to be built heavy and rigid in order not to bend or twist in the wind.” Walter Kerr, in The Silent Clowns, notes that Keaton’s entire crew besought him not to go forward with the stunt. Reisner wouldn’t direct the scene and left the set. The story editor almost quit. The cameraman who eventually ran the film for the film ended up looking the other way in fear. Keaton, however, had it perfect in one take. Kerr:
It is stunning in a special way, Keaton’s way. It is not, for instance, frightening, as a similar shot of [Harold] Lloyd’s might have been frightening. When Lloyd stunted, he meant to terrify; and he increased the audience’s agitation by letting us see how agitated he was in the situation. Nothing of the sort here. Buster is placid. The wall falls impassively. When it has fallen, wall and Buster have arrived at an entirely equitable relationship. There is nothing to scream about.
At the end of it all, Willie encounters sort of the ultimate test of masculinity of a Keaton film, where not only the girl-in-distress requires rescuing but his own father and her father need saving as well. (And the ending, where a priest is saved from the river, is pure Keatonian magic.)

Synchronized sound came to Hollywood in 1927, but Keaton’s producer, Joseph Schenck, was not worried. “Talking pictures will never displace the silent drama from its supremacy. There will always be silent pictures,” he predicted, which we know now is certainly untrue. Steamboat Bill, Jr. was Keaton’s first film released after the popularization of sound, and fortunately it remained silent. (Sound would not have been available to Schenck’s independent studio, but nevertheless: sound would have distracted the spectacular cyclone sequence.) What would not remain for Keaton was independence. After the completion of Steamboat Bill, Jr., Schenck informed Keaton that he would close shop. Keaton, working as an independent auteur with Schenck’s financing for the last eight years, would have to find a new home and enter what would become a troubling stage in his career. Steamboat Bill, Jr. then marks the quasi-end to Keaton’s independence and filmmaking, and though not conceived to be such, it is a proper capstone. It’d be a masterpiece were it not for its slightly unoriginal first half, but the second half nudges it up in the ranks.

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