NEW REVIEWS UP! - I don't know why, but I'm just feeling out of step with critical consensus this week. Spy Kids 2: Am I the only critic who didn't like this? The reviews have been so overwhelmingly positive, at least here in Toronto, that I'm beginning to wonder if I was shown some kind of custom-made print, an outtake reel of all the scenes that didn't work. It just doesn't sound like the same film. Happy Times: The latest - and last, apparently - of Zhang Yimou's "little films", and proof that "Fifth Generation" filmmakers can make interesting films even without Gong Li, a thousand extras and widescreen drenched in red. The Last Kiss: Spoiled mama's boys in middle-class Italy afraid of growing old. Surprisingly good despite all that. No matter where you live, you've met some guy like this, I'm sure.
(posted 09:42am EST | 08.09.02)
#0056 - THE MORE THE MERRIER - Cinemascoped is Adam Kempenaar's blog about movies. He's taking the same tack that I have - movies from outside the industry perspective - and it's pretty good. Give him a visit.
(posted 09:35am EST | 08.09.02)
#0055 - AT LEAST I'M NOT BEGBY - The wonderful world of online quizes rewarded me with this revelation:
Which Trainspotting Character Are You?
I don't know why I'm so comforted by this. I shouldn't be, should I?
(posted 09:31am EST | 08.09.02)
#0054 - PROJECTION REVISITED (#1) - David, a movieblog reader in England, writes in to confirm my high estimation of screening quality in London:
"I enjoyed your rant about poor quality film presentation. I work at the BBC in London as a Network Director, responsible for the transmission of BBC ONE and TWO, and spend much of my days fretting about sound levels, colour balance and the rubbish I'm supplied with. Post Production is a long and tortuous journey, fraught with peril at every turn! All our TX material is tech-reviewed before delivery but there is a limit to what can be fixed.
"I guess I'm also spoilt living in London and rarely encounter problems with focussing and framing. You would love the National Film Theatre (on the South Bank - maybe where you visited) as it can play anything produced in the history of film (bar IMAX), runs with no commercials or trails and each film comes with a information pamphlet. All 'arthouse' cinemas in town are excellent and the digital screenings at the Odeon Leicester Sqaure are, literally, awesome. In fact, the only times I've had cause to suffer were in New York last autumn. I went to see The Wings of Desire in small cafe/cinema and Breakfast at Tiffany's in Tribeca somewhere. Both popped in an out of focus and crackled terribly but the age of the print meant I couldn't complain too much. And the atmosphere and magic were well worth the inconvenience.
"Not really deplorable screening experiences. Sorry!"
(posted 09:26am EST | 08.09.02)
#0053 - EVERYWHERE A SIGN - "I think God did it." It's one of the first lines delivered by Rory Culkin at the beginning of M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, and it's said just before we see what "it" is - the huge crop circle carved out of his father, Mel Gibson's, cornfield. Like everything in Shyamalan's movie, it's significant, and it makes two things clear - God is a character, albeit an unseen one, in Signs, and the movie that follows is explicitly, undeniably about religion. It should also make a critic's job easier, giving them a hefty subject to hang their critique on.
Well, Roger Ebert doesn't think so, but Ebert has always been resistant to using religion to frame anything he reviews - if he had to critique The Ten Commandments, he'd probably prefer to talk about Yul Brynner as a symbol of impotence, or joke about labour conditions and compare Rameses to Nike. He admires Signs for what he percieves as a willful violation of suspense-film formula, applauding the way that Shyamalan had "ditched a payoff. He knows, as we all sense, that payoffs have grown boring." The crisis of faith that almost entirely defines Mel Gibson's character - Graham Hess, a former reverend - is tastefully, even squeamishly, dealt with in a short paragraph that mostly tries to guess what his denomination was. (Episcopalian is the general consensus, though the NY Times also suggests, rather fantastically, Greek Orthodox.)
Let's say one thing up front, along with the warning that this post is one big spoiler: M. Night Shyamalan's Signs is about religion, is concerned with faith, and for better or worse revolves around one man's crisis of faith and ends with its restoration. That much is plain when we see the shadow of a crucifix on the wall of Gibson's home, what Steven Greydanus of the Decent Film Guide has no problem recognizing as "the empty, God-shaped hole in Graham's heart." Greydanus is also quick to see that "the movie's religious and philosophical motifs are wedded to paranormal thriller elements that are impossible to take seriously on their own terms." In this post - my "review of the reviewers" - what's most interesting of all is the degree to which mainstream reviewers of Signs confront or sidestep the issue of faith, in anticipation of what I foresee as a series of features and think-pieces on "faith in film", with Signs as the hook to hang it all on. It's interesting that very few are as delicately averse to the subject as Ebert.
A.O. Scott of the Times and David Sterritt of the Christian Science Monitor are less afraid of the film's religious context, and Scott manages to sum up the real crisis of the film - no, it isn't the alien invasion, folks - in a single sentence: "There are people with faith, in other words ... and people without it." Like quite a few reviewers, Scott finds the film a bit empty, and uses the idea of faith to construct a devastating dismissal in his final paragraph:
"But Mr. Shyamalan never gives us anything to believe in, other than his own power to solve problems of his own posing, and his command of a narrative logic as as circular - and as empty - as those bare patches out in the cornfield."
Sterritt sees Signs through a famous but generally underrated film by Alfred Hitchcock, the director Shyamalan is most often compared to, and uses it to set up a coy opening to his review: "An unseen spirit hovers over Signs ... It's the spirit of The Birds, which arrived 40 years ago and still looks fresh today." He compares the two films and finds Signs wanting, not only as a suspense film, but as a film explicitly about the crisis of faith that foregrounds any public discussion of religion:
"It's encouraging to see Hollywood tackle themes of faith and religion, but here, too, Shyamalan is timid, reducing them to fuzzy New Age cliches. Add wooden acting, stilted dialogue, and a faux-arty style, and you have a thudding disappointment."
Kenneth Turan in the LA Times gets off a well-aimed shot at Shyamalan's reputation early on in his review, ignoring the Spielberg and Hitchcock comparisons and comparing the director instead to "low budget horror artist Larry Fessenden (Habit, Wendigo) ... He uses big stars because they're available, but his passion is for putting his own spin on traditional, even old-fashioned material." With his own particular thesis in hand, Turan doesn't spend any time analyzing religious themes in Signs, having found them immaterial to his view of Shyamalan's work:
"Once the actual action kicks in, Signs is on stronger ground, holding our attention so well that there's no time to think about things in the plot that don't make a whole lot of sense. It's also true that the bromides about faith the film thinks are profound don't end up playing that way."
David Edelstein's Slate review is the most explicitly religious one I could find in the mainstream media, and Edelstein explicitly states that he's writing "not as an atheist but as a person of faith - a faith I feel empowers me to label Shyamalan a charlatan." He sees Signs as in the tradition of sci-fi invasion epics that "come swaddled in religion, with epilogues crediting God for sending everything from microscopic germs to atomic bombs to vanquish the alien threat." Edelstein finds this idea ridiculous, even insulting to a mature comprehension of God:
"The miracles of Signs are baby-food miracles, more cannily orchestrated than the phantom baseball-playing daddies of Field of Dreams but just as brain-dead. If there is a God, He doesn't work in such facile, B-movie ways."
(I personally find Edelstein's phrasing - "If there is a God..." - to be a bit of the careful qualifying that people - religious or not - are too often forced to employ when writing in the liberal, "secular" media. If Edelstein really is a person of faith, he'd find that "if" not only unnecessary but unthinkable.)
Andrew O'Hehir in Salon is aggressively unwilling to be charitable to Shyamalan, starting out his review with lulling but qualified praise, admitting up front that the director is a great craftsman of suspense, the author of "tremendous mood pieces that build an intensely creepy atmosphere, winding the audience up to a pitch of near hysterical suspense..." but here's where O'Hehir turns praise into damnation "...and then squander it all in promiscuous geysers of setimentality and random New Age brain fog." It gets nastier: "Two things come to mind: One, Shyamalan is a clever craftsman trying to conceal the fact that he has nothing to say. Two, he's scared of God."
O'Hehir is obviously from the critical school that finds blatant directorial manipulation of an audience - considered by some the hallmark of a really great director - to be essentially distasteful, especially when it seems the entire purpose of a film, without any depth or substance to engage you or cover up the huge, whirring gears of the plot. Signs is "flatulent" and "labored", and "the resolution of both the alien incursion and Graham's crisis of faith feels more like a cheap trick than the product of a genuine belief in anything at all."
Anthony Lane's New Yorker review shys away from religion in favor of skewering the alien invasion with Lane's virtually patented brand of sarcasm: "Graham lost his faith when his wife died; has his chance to retrieve it now come? And do we care, given that a tall, thin bogeyman the color of creamed spinach is hanging out in his living room, and that nobody has yet given it a cup of coffee?" Lane might consider Shyamalan's religious feints and jabs a mere dumbshow, but he's dead on when he makes fun of the alien invaders that somehow make a lie of the reputation for masterfully ambiguous suspense that Shyamalan has earned.
Even after we've seen the haunch of one of the invaders disappear into the rows of corn, there's still a lot of wiggle room for Shyamalan to escape what turns into a dreary literalization. The invaders are real, and that's the biggest let-down of all. Never mind that Shyamalan is unable to conclusively prove or disprove the existence of God or the language of signs with which he communicates with us - greater minds than his have been unable to do the same. What's disappointing is that he wasn't able to bring off showing us a spiritual crisis without the intervention of alien invaders.
We seem to have moved away from the world of Spielberg's Close Encounters - the alien as God lite, a guilt-free, non-fattening God substitute - but Shyamalan obviously felt that only the actual physical threat of horrid, flesh-eating humanoids and not just the fearful idea of them would shock a man like Gibson back to God. For me, he managed to convey something almost profound - a sense of the "fear of God" that the secular and lapsed find so frightening - when a shaken newsanchor, on one of the news channels that are the besieged family's only connection to the outside world, looks into the camera and stammers "God be with us all". The film had, at this point, reached a peak of suspense that deflated when it was obvious that Gibson, his family and neighbours, weren't just seeing things. That the alien menace was, ultimately, so easily defeated was only a hint of how little Signs delivered on its promise.
(posted 12:23am EST | 08.06.02)
#0052 - PROJECTION - This article in a local free weekly about the state of movie projection here in Toronto will, in all likelihood, apply to any other city where megaplexes have replaced movie theatres and underpaid 18-year olds run the projectors when they're not hauling golden topping from the storeroom and calling the suppliers to re-fill the bulk candy dispenser. The state of film projection here in the economic capitol of Labattslavia has been dismal for as long as I can remember, so what's amazing about this article isn't its despairing tone but the fact that it's the only thing written on the subject I've read in years.
The problem is simple - since union projectionists are rare, there's no one sitting in the projection booth monitoring your screening, and so when the film pulls out of focus, or the frameline migrates to the center of the screen, or the aspect ratio is set wrong, or a reel is loaded in backwards (all of these things have happened to me in recent memory) it's not like the problem gets fixed without someone in the theatre getting all pro-active about it. (That person, I have to admit, is usually me. Which would be fine, except that audiences seem to have been pummelled into accepting this dismal state of affairs as normal, such as the crowd that hissed at me to calm down, preferring to watch a film with a black bar in the center of the screen, and the actors' feet at the top half of the frame, their heads at the bottom. Who did I think I was - Steven Spielberg? Shut up and enjoy your supersized popcorn.)
"...You are required to get out of your seat, find an usher, then wait while he/she locates the manager, who will get on his/her walkie-talkie and figure out where the projectionist is. If you're lucky, the projectionist will know how to fix the problem, and you'll only miss a few minutes the film. If you're unlucky, the problem will remain, recur, or send you home with half a movie rattling around in your brain."
It doesn't help that the megaplex owners don't seem to think that projection is an issue, or that actually watching a movie is the central part of the moviegoing experience. Joanne Fraser, spokesperson for Famous Players, responded to the writer's questions with an exasperated dismissal, stating that someone who complains about lousy is projection is "somebody who doesn't know anything about how projection operates. I mean, you put (the film) on the platter, you set it up, you push a button, it rolls through." Simple as pie. Now shut up and enjoy your 32 ounce beverage, ingrate.
Of course the local IATSE projectionist's union takes exception to this attitude, with good reason, and not just because the major theater chains have been slowly choking their union to death for years. Running a cinema projector is more complicated than pushing a button, just as making a movie is about more than simply pointing a camera at a collection of overpaid narcissists. I'd like to take the side of the projectionists' union - the clear underdog here - except that I've been suffering at their hands for many years now.
To start with, there's "edge focusing", the preferred technique of Toronto projectionists, amply in evidence at the rep theatres and during the Film Festival, the only times and places where you can be certain of a union projectionist being in the booth. I've watched in despair as, during the first minute or so of a film, the focus is racked in and out on the opening titles, finally settling on a pin-sharp focus ... on the edges of the screen. I may not be Steven Spielberg, but I do know enough about movies to tell you that the action generally takes place in or around the middle of the screen. Edge-focussing is easier to do, though, since the film tends to remain in focus more consistently at the edge, where the film runs more tightly throught the gate, than at the center where it has to be monitored for changes brought on by heat and motion, the constant variables of the physical process of projection. Too much work, apparently, for the average unionized projectionist - no wonder no one's risen to defend their embattled union.
My best friend - a cinematographer of no small reputation - once complained to the manager at a rep theatre when it was apparent after two reel changes that the film he was watching - a recent Chinese romantic epic by, I think, either Zhang Yimou of Chen Kaige - was going to be screened throughout with an astigmatic softness. The projectionist was summoned from the booth, and insisted that the film was shot that way "because they used those cheap Chinese lenses."
At another theatre showing Raging Bull he (appropriately, perhaps, considering the film) ended up in a fistfight with the projectionist, who took exception to his complaints about the focus, preferring obviously to fight than go upstairs and tweak the focusing knob. At a festival premiere of a film he'd shot, he walked out of the theatre when it was obvious that the projectionist was using an insufficiently-powered bulb, in addition to regarding focus and framing as necessary to the experience of watching a film. He met the director on the street, circling the block in the opposite direction, and they greeted each other each way with a shrug and a sigh. No one else saw fit to complain.
My friend obviously takes projection seriously, but he's been worn down over the years by indifferent screening conditions. I've come to the conclusion that, if digital projection has any one compelling reason to replace film projection, it's the possibility that it might eliminate the "human element" that, through either deliberate negligence or poor attitudes, conspires to make every movie screening I attend a crap shoot. I'm not an optimist, though; even if digital projection can match the quality - the luminescence and detail of a clean, fresh print shown in optimal conditions - I'm sure that human error, deliberate or not, will find a way to make movie screenings a let-down, especially under market conditions where audience apathy and lowered expectations ensure that's it's cheaper to do things badly than well.
My friend, in any case, has been living in London for several years now, where movie screenings are still a reliable, even adult experience. I'll never forget going into a big theatre near Picadilly, or a small art house near Holland Park, or a silent-film screening in an arts complex next to the Thames, and feeling like I'd stepped back in time. There was a bar in the lobby where you could buy a real drink, and a smoking section cordoned off at the back - so unlike the food court/videogame parlours that we call multiplexes - and when the lights came down and the film began, it was in pin-sharp focus. It had been so long since I'd seen a film in clear, sharp focus that I almost cried.
In any case, I have a DVD player now, hooked up to the stereo, and when widescreen flat-panel televisions come down in price I'll get one of those, and maybe even a home theatre sound system. It's not the late, lamented University theatre showing Fantasia or 2001 on its ten-storey screen, but the University was gutted over a decade ago, and despite the hours every week I spend in movie theatres, I have nothing but sympathy for my wife, who prefers to watch movies at home. I'd love to think that something - customer revolt, new technology - might at least make the actual movie-watching part of seeing movies worthwhile, but some dark, pessimistic part of me has cut my losses and given up hope.
(If you have any deplorable screening experiences to share with movieblog, please feel free to contact me and I'll feature them here in an upcoming - and ongoing - discussion of the sorry state of movie projection today.)
(posted 12:47am EST | 08.04.02)