Saturday, September 21, 2019

Martin Scorsese on Spirituality and Movies

Actually when I was a little younger,there was another journey I wanted to make, It was a religious one. I wanted to be a priest. However, I soon realized that my real vocation, my real calling, was the movies. I don't really see a conflict between the church and movies - the sacred and the profane. Obviously there are many differences, but I also could see great similarities between a church and a movie house. Both are places for people to come together and share a common experience. and I believe there's spirituality in films even if it's not one which can supplant faith.

-Martin Scorsese from A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies

One of my favorite quotes ever made about movies. 

Friday, September 20, 2019

The Goldfinch (2019)

Donna Tartt's bestselling 2013 novel gets the full on Hollywood treatment with mixed results. A sprawling novel that deals with grief, addiction, camaraderie between young men, the power of art, and many other things is a lot to tackle for a feature film. The Goldfinch is by no means a bad movie, just a diffuse one that never quite hits its stride.

The story follows protagonist Theo Decker, played as a young teenager by Oakes Fegley and as a man in his mid 20s by Ansel Elgort, on a series of Dickensian adventures. While visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art Theo's Mom perishes in a terrorist attack. Then he's taken in by a wealthy New York family the Barbours headed by matriarch Nicole Kidman who takes an interest in Theo. When his estranged father (Luke Wilson) enters the picture the story shifts to Las Vegas where Theo forges a close friendship with Boris (Finn Wolfhard). Boris is from Ukraine and leads a chaotic life fueled by alcohol. After some further misadventures, Theo ends up back in New York and becomes a prominent dealer in antiques. At the center of the story of The Goldfinch painting, a 1654 work by Dutch master Carel Fabritius. 

A glaring dichotomy between the film and the novel are the richness of the characters. The film limits them to being no more than rough sketches who appear and then vanish. Even with the 150 minute running time the movie feels more like an assortment of scenes loosely connected to each other. One wonders if a mini-series would be a better way to flesh out the story. The emotional high points are never earned, there's too much plotting going on. 

Despite the narrative confusion, there are some memorable moments. Jeffrey Wright as Hobie, Theo's ward and mentor, brings a quiet dignity and compassion to his limited screen time. Kidman does the same as she proves to be an unlikely confidante to Theo. Finn Wolfhard and Aneurin Barnard as young and older Boris respectively, bring an energy to the film - by far the most compelling character in the story.

Elgort is being groomed to be an A-list star, he'll be the male lead in Spielberg's West Side Story to come out next year, is no more than a cipher. Theo is surrounded by so many characters, his motivations often get lost within all the competing narratives. He never gets a moment to reveal his motivations beyond the obvious. The last act takes place in Amsterdam and becomes a clunky heist film. Not much is resolved at the end because so many plot points are left floating in the ether. 

Roger Deakins did the cinematography so there are some stunning visuals - it's a nice film to look at. Yet the sense of setting, such a strong component of the novel, is absent. Tartt provided a realistic sense of 2000s New York and the intricacies of modern Amsterdam, the setting becomes a character. The Goldfinch will inevitably be a case study on the do's and don'ts of adaptation. Maybe there's a better film in here somewhere.


Wednesday, September 11, 2019

It: Chapter Two (2019)

I'm surprised I did not see anyone mention on social media the Peter Bogdanovich cameo in It: Chapter 2, playing (what else) a movie director. There's one other notable cameo and many references to the Stephen King universe. A blockbuster horror film playing it safe in some areas and taking chances in others creates a memorable experience that may or may not have lasting value, the continual stream of scares exhausts at a certain point, but the characters are likable. 

The two It movies can be viewed as a love letter to King's work and 1980s pop culture in general. Chapter Two also drives home the metaphor of the evil clown Pennywise existing as a stand in for past trauma. The best and worst of modern blockbusters are in conflict throughout the three hour sequel: an attractive cast, high production value, and memorable visuals contrasted with an excess of bloated sequences heavy on CGI. 

The first chapter from 2017 worked well upon first viewing, but seemed static and listless at times on re-watch. The best aspect Chapter One was the Losers' Club that drew upon Stand by Me and other 80s standbys such as The Goonies and The Lost BoysChapter Two is also the strongest in that regard, childhood friends coming back together. Each member of the adult cast delivers a decent performances and are given equal screen time. 

The story picks up 27 years after the events of the first film. The Losers' Club have gone their separate ways. Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is a fashion designer ensnared in an abusive relationship with her husband. Bill (James McAvoy) is a writer and Richie (Bill Hader) is a stand up comedian. Ben (Jay Ryan) is an architect, Eddie (James Ransone) remains a hypochondriac and works as a risk assessor. Mike (Isiah Mutafa) remained in Derry as the librarian, writing a secret history of the town.

The opening sequence reveals the evil clown Pennywise is back and terrorizing Derry. Set at a carnival, a common feature of 2019 horror utilized in Us and Stranger Things, the film begins with an assault on a gay couple by a gang of homophobic teens. The indifference of the adult world to violence is a recurring motif in both films. A string of murders follows prompting Mike to call the Losers' Club back together. Now in their late 30s, none of them have any memory of what happened 30 years ago, but once they return to Derry the fog starts to clear.

After a slightly awkward reunion at a Chinese Restaurant they decide Pennywise must be confronted and destroyed. What follows are several scenes in the middle act with each character confronting a trauma from their past. These sequences are hit and miss, sometimes falling into cliche territory. The attacks by Pennywise are psychological, but the jump scares and CGI never pulls off an authentic scare.

The final showdown worked better than I expected, taking the story into more of a fairy tale direction. The production design goes into the realm of fantasy and culminates in a battle of wills. It's not a physical or technological fight and that felt refreshing and in the spirit of the source material (vastly superior to the low rent TV version from 1990). A moving epilogue that will draw comparisons to The Shawshank Redemption ended the film on a nice touch.

A drawback in Chapter Two is the overuse of Pennywise. Bill Skarsgard was frightening enough in the first film, but the character descends into parody here. There's an effective scene with Skarsgard appearing without makeup that did provide some dimension to the mythology of the clown. Tim Curry's performance as Pennywise in the TV Movie played him more as a wisecracking psychopath, here the clown is more in the realm of a classic monster.

I won't complain about the three hour running time, a story on this scale warrants it in the age of the Netflix binge. The cast keeps the film grounded in humanity.

Andy Muschietti directed both films and effectively brought a competent adaptation to the big screen. His style avoided pretension and kept the story moving along, well versed in Spielberg and King in channeling the hope and terror of growing up in America

*** (out of 4)

Friday, September 6, 2019

Beatles vs Stones: At the Movies

During a memorable sequence in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time in Hollywood an alternate version of The Rolling Stones song "Out of Time" plays at exactly the right time. The song captures the vibe of an era coming to an end, something the characters in the film are starting to come to terms with. It's worth noting The Beatles are noticeably absent from the Hollywood soundtrack. There could be a number of possible reasons: the cost of buying the rights, Tarantino and music supervisor Mary Ramos did not see the right moment for a Beatles song, or maybe, as I would argue, Stones music is simply more conducive to movies. 

Here are some possible reasons why:

1) Stones music is more frenetic, more into the darkness, making it better suited to modern cinema.
2) Beatles music is too sacrosanct and personal to be effective in a movie.
3) Stones music better captures the transition from the 1960s to 1970s.
4) Beatles are still viewed as symbolizing the 'innocent" side of the 60s.

There are notable examples Beatles music being used in clever ways, but usually in the form of cover versions. Fiona Apple's dreamy version of "Across the Universe" in Pleasantville brings the movie to a surreal conclusion. There's Robert De Niro wistfully reflecting in Once Upon A Time In America as a muzak version of "Yesterday" plays in the background. The Mutato Muzika Orchestra did a sublime version of "Hey Jude" over the opening credits of Wes Anderson's droll 2001 film The Royal TenenbaumsThe solo work of the band has tended to work better in film. When "Imagine" plays at the end of The Killing Fields it's unbelievably resonant.

Yesterday from earlier this year serves as a test case of Beatles music failing to carry a movie. The premise of Yesterday imagined an alternate reality where the Beatles never became famous. When a fledgling musician from our timeline introduces their music to the world, which he passes of as his own (until a change of heart), he's propelled to super-stardom. But in 2019 Beatles' music plays as middle of the road indie-folk rock, attracting crowds united by their consumerism and passion for what's popular. Without any context, there's something hollow about the music.

From the beginning cinema and the Stones were well suited for each other. Performance (1970) starring Mick Jagger as a decadent rock star featured "Memo From Turner", not a Stones song per se, but one with Jagger on vocals and some suggestive lyrics by he and Keith Richards. Martin Scorsese's breakout film Mean Streets used their music even more effectively. When Harvey Keitel enters the film "Tell Me" channels his ecstatic state of mind as he enters the club. "Jumpin Jack Flash" served as an appropriate introduction to De Niro's Johnny Boy. 

The Rolling Stones would be at the center of Scorsese's cycle of mob films running from Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed. "Gimme Shelter" would be used in all three of them to potent effect. The apocalyptic lyrics with sexual undertones play well during the high points as the characters free fall to their fates. The use of "Monkey Man", "Let it Loose," and "Can't You Hear Me Knockin" enhance the dark themes of these films and the internal conflicts of the characters. 

Other directors have used The Rolling Stones to great effect. Stanley Kubrick ended Full Metal Jacket with "Paint it Black" as the sardonic end to his Vietnam War film. The Big Chill used "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (a song even more culturally loaded these days) to drive home a poignant moment. Wes Anderson has drawn from some of the quirkier cuts from their catalog to suit his distinct style. 

No doubt future films set in the 1960s and 1970s will continue to turn to The Rolling Stones. Part of the reason is also Mick Jagger's vocal style - employed more as an instrument to accompany the band instead of leading it. Never polished or melodic, Jagger's singing is always direct and on point. When The Beatles harmonized they made a beautiful sound, but the Stones had attitude. 

That's not to say The Beatles are a wash when it comes to movies. Go the Fab Four themselves: Do a triple feature of A Hard Day's Night, Help, and Yellow Submarine and you'll get great examples of using their music on film. Beatles' music tends to work best when it's inside their universe. For deeper cuts track down Magical Mystery Tour and Let It Be (criminally not available in any format). 

People are so close to Beatles song, placing one in the middle of a movie borders on sacrilegious. Playing "Revolution" over a Nike commercial and the outrage it created was completely understandable. Placing "Start Me Up" over a Microsoft commercial appeared hip and cutting edge. 

The never ending Beatles vs Stones debate will go on indefinitely, but in terms of movies the Stones have a the advantage.