Friday, June 30, 2006

The Stunted Growth of "Superman Returns" (2006)

Superman Returns (2006) is effrontery to everything quality cinema stands for. It satisfies all of Hollywood’s blockbuster criteria to a T, and it had the audience in my screening cheering. But my honest, gut reaction was boredom: I engaged in none of their thrills, none of their excitement and shared none of their enthusiasm. I am speaking against the crowd not as a curmudgeon-before-his-time, but as an audience member who has seen almost all of what Superman Returns has to offer before, and pessimistically wishes never to see it again.

Picking up somewhere in the middle of the Superman series, the movie opens with Superman (Brandon Routh) returning to Earth after several years of absence. Old flame Lois Lane (Kate Boswoth) is now in love with Richard White (James Marsen) and has a child, Jason White (Tristan Lake Leabu). Lex Luther (Kevin Spacey) has a plan to form a new continent out of crystals, drown North America, and defeat Superman. The outcome—he’s not called Superman for nothing.

Plot-wise, Superman Returns is a variation on a classic theme: guy wants girl, but a bunch of other guys keep getting in the way. The faults lie not in the basic structure, but in the details specific to the film. Most importantly, the film’s logic does not hold up to scrutiny. For example, if Kryptonite cripples Superman’s powers, then why doesn’t he drown after several minutes of being underwater? Too, if Lex Luther’s island is made of Kryptonite, then why is Superman able to carry it into space—shouldn’t he be powerless? These are only two of many questions that weren’t answered sufficiently during the film’s 154 minutes.

The script, written by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, is simply excessive (a facet that is, after all, inherent to all areas of multi-million dollar, superhero blockbusters). In terms of dialogue, it is both unnatural and unnecessary. For example: the scene in which Superman is drowning in the ocean and is saved by Lois Lane, David and Jason, needs no words. The dialogue is merely eventful, with phrases like “He’s over there!” and “I see him” as the trio flies their seaplane over the drowning hero. All of this: not needed. It could easily be accomplished with a cut from Lois and David looking out the window to Superman in the water; or—there are many ways, none of which require dialogue. At the moment, such pointless words serve only as vessels of bad acting. Instances such as this abound in Superman Returns, and the title of an article by the great German filmmaker F.W. Murnau, written at the end of the era of silent films, comes to mind: “The Ideal Picture Needs No Titles.” Transposed to modern times, it would read, “The Ideal Pictures Needs No Dialogue.” Or—at least “less” dialogue.

The film’s look—the cinematography, the directing, and the special effects—is so stunning that it has stunted its growth. Its beauty—which would otherwise be in quotes except that the movie does possess a glossy, artificial allure akin to Botox, facelifts and such—is sterile and cold. There is not a grain of physicality in the landscape: the buildings, even when on the verge of collapse during an earthquake, are not frightening. Partly the reason they are not so imposing is that we know Superman will be by to save the day. Largely, however, the reason is that the terrain lacks any intimacy: the danger is too aestheticized to feel real. What Superman Returns lacks is the simplicity of something like Vittorio De Seta’s Bandits of Orgosolo (1961), a film whose cinematic look resounds in physical imposition and destitution. De Seta (who also photographed the film) illustrates an intimacy with Sicily’s mountainous terrain that cannot be faked, and its authenticity cannot be completely explained in words (in which case it could be easily copied). Physicality is the key, and realism plays a big role, as well: when the shepherds carry injured sheep on their backs across the mountains, the weight on their shoulders and the rocks jutting through their soles is communicated to the audience, but I still have no physical empathy with the pedestrians of Superman Returns, nor with Superman himself. Superman Returns is a fantasy, whereas Bandits of Orgosolo embraces documentary realism—but perhaps the genres are not so disparate, after all, Superman Returns director Bryan Singer could learn a lot from Vittorio De Seta.

I began this review by acknowledging that I am disagreeing with the majority audience I saw the film with. I’m perturbed by the existing dichotomy between critics and audiences, as though they are somehow separate. Critics are audience members, and the audience is a pool of critics. The separation is none. A critic may not speak for an entire audience, but neither does the critic speak for all critics. As regards Superman Returns, I was bored and unexcited. It was obvious what to expect: you could see it coming from a mile away and, after all, it is a Superman movie—of course he is going to save the day. Is there any other outcome that could be expected? Superman has too many strengths and not enough weaknesses for me to hold my breath for long enough to swallow any of it.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Recent Watching: Wassup Rockers (2005)

Larry Clark’s latest film, Wassup Rockers (2005), opens with a promising split-screen sequence: two shots of Jonathan (Jonathan Velasquez), a Hispanic teenager, taken from different angels, as he introduces himself. The left screen, like an attentive listener, is focused on his face while Jonathan talks directly to the camera. The right screen is taken from an askew angle, and the camera does not make eye contact with Jonathan. This shot is taken from a little further back than its counterpart, and his teenage torso is the focal point. There is a voyeuristic quality to the shot, and it idealizes the teenager’s young sexuality. This tension between accurately depicting youth culture (the left screen) and idealizing it (the right screen) is a great way the start off the movie. Sadly, the conflict ends halfway through the movie when idealization and fantasy overrule reality, and the storyline waxes ridiculous one too many times for Wassup Rockers to be believable.

The story focuses on Jonathan and his friends, all of them from the same neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles and who love to skateboard. The first half of the movie is rather whimsical, a series of vignettes about their daily lives: waking up, lifting weights, band practice, girlfriends, and plenty of skateboarding. These are actions without consequences, and the lack of heavy-handed drama is a welcome relief. At the same time, there is an element of grit that separates Wassup Rockers from the majority of teen fluff that circulates movie theaters: these skaters fall down when attempting tricks, they don’t blow their lid wondering if a girl likes them or not, and they don’t complain about their parents pressuring them into college. Freddie Prinz, Jr. is absolutely nowhere in sight.

When the group heads off to Beverly Hills for some skating, the film’s idyllic quality turns juvenile. Their adventures turn into a series of “crash moments” with different white people (who are really just variations on the same theme): cops (both un-hip and racist), girls (who think Hispanic boys are just so cute) and guys young and old (who want to beat/shoot the skaters on sight). These racial conflicts are of the shallowest variety, and the clichés aren’t handled with enough irony for them to be funny. Too, the situations begin to lose their veracity and often degenerate into absurdity—the epitome of which involves a drunk, rich white woman who, after Kiko (Francisco Pedrasa) flees from her bubbly bathtub, falls into the bathtub herself. The sequence ends with her reaching up to grab onto the chandelier to hoist her up, only the chandelier falls into the tub and she gets electrocuted. The joke is juvenile, and rather pointless. Her death carries no significance and only clouds the narrative: so is Kiko going to be wanted for murder? This narrative strand is never followed through, and it remains only one of several such divergences that are never cleared up.

The visual element of Wassup Rockers is an improvement over its narrative. Director Larry Clark is at times intimate (such a close-up of a girl’s goosepimpled arm), while often he exercises his skill through extended skating sequences. In one such sequence the boys perform tricks on a staircase. While a couple kids land safely, most of them fall and injure themselves. The spectacle is nothing so new or innovative—you can see bad skaters on any street corner—but it is precisely this unimpressive quality that is so attractive. Whereas most skating sequences seek to impress with flashy moves and slick camera movement, Clark opts for unembellished, minimal camera movement that more closely resembles something the boys would shoot themselves.

With Wassup Rockers, Clark is attempting to re-envision Hispanic youth and skater culture from its current cinematic state. A similar (and more successful) undertaking was Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), which undertook the teenage Asian-American stereotype. Where Lin’s film succeeds is in it’s writing: the ensemble cast features distinctive characters and situations, whereas Clark’s characters are largely anonymous types. This is the ultimate irony of Wassup Rockers, that instead of realistically representing his characters, Clark has really only succeeded in not portraying them like everyone else.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Revolutionary Tapastry: Fassbinder and Fengler's The Niklashausen Journey (1970)

The Niklashausen Journey (1970), co-directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Fengler, is a dense political allegory that combines contemporary protests with the true story of Hans Bohm (Michael Konig), a shepherd who in the 15th century began a religious movement after claiming to have been visited by the Virgin Mary. Bohm’s movement picks up followers amongst the peasants, but ultimately it is suppressed by governing powers and Bohm is killed. Past and present collide in a way that is never reconciled: Hans Boehm and Johanna (Hanna Schygulla), his Virgin Mary, appear in full period costume while Fassbinder (playing the Black Monk who advises Bohm’s movement) wanders the landscape with his signature leather jacket and cigarette hanging from the corner of his lips; the police carry machine guns during the raid, and Gunther Kaufmann (playing the peasant leader) makes allusions to Fred Hampton, the leader of the Black Panthers who was murdered by Chicago police. The intersection of such distant times is draw parallels between counter-cultural movements: as Fassbinder says in the opening scene, he wishes to find success by understanding past failures.

A tapestry of cultural allusions, The Niklashausen Journey can be seen as part of a movement of politically-oriented cinema along with Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967) and La Chinoise (1967), Bernardo Bertolucci’s Partner (1968) and Vilgot Sjoman’s I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) and I Am Curious (Blue) (1968). These films funnel the anxieties in late-1960’s European youth through a variety of lenses: Bertolucci’s film uses Dostoyevsky’s The Double as its source, while Sjoman takes documentary approach to understand the sexual morays in Sweden, though it is with Godard that Fassbinder and Fengler share the most affinities. In Weekend, Godard channels society into a series of car crashes and other surreal disasters that occur on a couple’s weekend getaway, while in La Chinoise a group of students discuss Mao and plan a violent uprising. In both of these films, as in The Niklashausen Journey, violence is handled in a blunt, matter-of-fact manner that reflects a cultural desensitization and resignation. The battle between peasants and police in The Niklashausen Journey shares more in common with television news footage of Vietnam than with the dominant strain of war films that feature an orderly, staged battle sequence.

Co-directors Fassbinder and Fengler stage the film in a theatrical manner: the characters don’t move much, and often the scenes are long dialogues taking place in a single location. Dietrich Lohmann, however, Niklashausen’s cinematographer, navigates these scenes with the utmost mobility. His camera languidly pans back and forth across a field, as characters on opposite sides hold separate conversations; while tracking through a house, the camera zooms in and out, tilting up and down, taking in the full ambiance of the rich décor; or, more simply, the camera performs a long, slow zoom up a long, stone staircase while characters at the top carry on conversation. Rarely is camera movement savored so delectably, yet there is such energy in the delicate kinetics of Lohmann’s photography that the film does not feel slow or ill paced. Like Raoul Coutard’s photography for Godard’s La Chinoise, it is Lohmann’s artistry that makes the political content of the film accessible for audiences: when didacticism and idealism seem more than one can handle, it is this artistry that keeps us attune to the movie.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

"Murderers Are Among Us" (1946), the German Neorealist Masterpiece

Wolfgang Staudte’s Murderers Are Among Us (1946) is most famous for two qualities: it is the first film to be made in Germany after World War II, and it was shot on location in the remnants and rubble of Berlin. Neither of these facts is merely trivia: the landscape plays an important role in the film (both as setting and as a metaphor for the near-capitulation of humanity during the war), and its authenticity is unmistakable; as for being the first film after the war, that it chose to deal with the present condition of everyday people is remarkable—rarely are such issues dealt with in cinema in such a timely manner. (An interesting parallel is with Roberto Rossellini, who was shooting his Neorealist masterpiece Rome, Open City (1946) at the same time under similar circumstances in Italy. Both filmmakers were grappling with not only the issue of how to represent contemporary conditions in narrative, but also the issue of how to capture the natural landscape visually.)

Staudte's story (co-written with his father Fritz Staudte) concerns what awaits those who return home after the war, a problem faced by both civilians and soldiers. Murderers Are Among Us focuses on Susanne Wallner (Hildegard Knef), who is returning home to Berlin after spending several years in a concentration camp. Her apartment building is still standing, but all around her the city is in collapse. She discovers that in her absence another tenant has moved in: Dr. Hans Mertens (Ernst Wilhelm Borchert). Stricken with severe trauma from his days as a military doctor, Hans is unable to work. Susanne insists that they share the apartment together, and the two of them forge a bond and start to rebuild their lives together. Hans’ trauma is set off when he reunites with Ferdinand Brueckner (Arno Paulsen), his old commander from the war who has returned to his former prosperity and avoided the destitution felt by the rest of the country. As Hans thinks of how to seek retribution on Brueckner for ordering him to murder hundreds of innocent civilians one Christmas, Hans’ own murderous desires begin to surface, and the question arises of whether or not justice is possible for all the horrors that war wrought on society.

Stylistically, Murderers Are Among Us combines the chiaroscuro of 1920s expressionism with a more heightened sense of realism. The collaboration between director Staudte and cinematographers Friedl Behn-Grund and Eugen Klagemann is reminiscent of the pairing of director Orson Welles with cinematographer Gregg Toland for Citizen Kane (1941), resulting in images that are not only visually arresting, but also impact our understanding of the narrative. Staudte uses extreme low-angle shots to draw parallels between the dilapidated buildings and Hans, emphasizing their vertiginous anxieties. Both the buildings and Hans seem to be on the verge of collapse—one building does, in fact, collapse on camera. A title-card at the start of the film describes Berlin as a city that has already capitulated: the buildings that have yet to crumble suffer from the anxiety of still standing, knowing well that capitulation is eminent. What is the fate of a building half blown away by bombs except collapse? These same anxieties also permeate the low-angle shots of Hans who, drunk or sober, reels as though on the verge of falling onto the camera.

Though much of the movie is steeped in pessimism, the film ultimately is one of hope and optimism. Retribution is not achieved by the last shot, it is only dreamt of. A concluding montage foreshadows a just and lawful Germany, and an end to the toil of everyday living. Didactic, but well meaning, the film’s earnestness is balanced out by its frank detailing of post-war depravity.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Flashing Lights are Classic... The Big Clock

The Big Clock (1948), an adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s hardboiled gem directed by John Farrow, stars Ray Milland as George Stroud, an editor of a crime magazine that specializes in finding and exposing criminals that have eluded the police. Through a series of events as fantastic as they are entertaining, Stroud recognizes the “missing” murderer he is looking for is actually himself—and the new question is, Who is framing him, and why? As the clues pour in, and Earl Janoth (Stroud’s boss played by Charles Laughton) and his associate Steve Hagen (George Macready) keep pushing Stroud to finger the criminal, Stroud begins to suspect that their motivations aren’t entirely editorial. The plot is indicative of the Golden Age of mystery yarns: plots so rigorously convoluted they are admirable. The Big Sleep (1946) is famous for featuring a murder that even the author of its original novel, Raymond Chandler, could not figure out. But The Big Clock (as far as I can figure) makes sense—that said, there’s always someone’s mother, such as my own, who can find holes in any plot with such ease that it’s almost their sixth sense.

The trio of Milland, Laughton and Macready are remarkable together, and they are able to sustain an almost intolerable amount of tension, in large part due to the amount of restraint they bring to their roles. Instead of blowing gaskets and waxing hysteric, all three actors exert an unsettling sense of calm. Their anxiety does not emanate from sweaty brows, blundered speech and hasty decisions, but rather from their decisiveness in situations that would typically breed anything but. Elsa Lanchester, famous for playing The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), plays a painter who gives a fair amount of comic relief to the film (a staple of the hardboiled genre). Finally, Margaret O’Sullivan plays Milland’s wife, Georgette Stroud, a character that is somewhat under-utilized, but is important in highlighting the less-flattering characteristics of Milland.

“The Big Clock” that the title refers to is a large tower in the middle of Stroud’s building:an Orwellian object that represents time, order, and logicality, it shows the exact time of every country in the world. It is the prized monolith of Earl Janoth, a man who likewise sees himself as a purveyor of dominion over his employees. Metaphorically, it belongs in the series of cinematic images of “Big Brother” and other panoptic structures. But culturally it belongs among the great, antiquated cinematic images of modernity along with Metropolis (1927). Inside the clock, a spiral staircase leads to a platform with revolving cylinders and walls filled with rows and columns of flashing lights. While neither of which seem to have any mechanic function, they seem to be indicative (especially the blinking lights) of the movies’ preoccupation with futuristic technology. Nothing about the story suggests that it is to take place in the future, yet at the core of the story is this structure that is absolutely foreign to the present. The structure’s unfamiliarity is unrelenting, and it is the impossibility of familiarity that makes it so sinister. When Ray Milland is at the top of the clock, crouched behind a console as Henry Morgan (more familiarly credited as Harry Morgan of “Dragnet”) slowly ascends the stairs with his gun drawn, the clock’s design lends an atmosphere of desolation and hopelessness. Its disconnection from the offices that we work in is a source of anxiety that we draw on, and it feeds our connection with Ray Milland’s character. It is this attention to detail, along with impeccable acting, writing (by both Fearing and screenwriter Jonathan Latimer) and directing by Farrow that makes The Big Clock such a strong film, one that stands alongside Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire (1942) as an example of the hardboiled film that does not degenerate over time into satire and caricature.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Concentric Ambiguities: Walter Ungerer's The Animal (1976)

The woods are lovely, dark and deep in Walter Ungerer’s The Animal (1976), a mystery story about a couple that inhabits an isolated cabin in the Vermont wilderness during winter. Ungerer uses nature’s ambiance to full advantage, portraying it as beautiful and scenic, but also as an elusive labyrinth: this tension been attraction and repulsion lends a subtle, unsettling quality to the film. The story is minimal, shifting between the daily activities of the couple, and two mysteries that preoccupy them. The first is a set of animal tracks that lead away from the house and to the woods, and the second is a pair of children who never speak and approach only the wife when she is alone. These children seem reminiscent of the twin sisters that reappear throughout Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), made four years later, but Ungerer doesn’t divulge whether they are real or just apparitions in the wife’s mind. Before either mystery is solved, the woman disappears while cross-country skiing. Search parties go out, days pass, but in an echo of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), the woman never reappears. The Animal can be seen as a series of concentric ambiguities: mysteries that begin but are never answered. Ungerer heads in the opposite path of the conventional mystery film, which posits a problem that is solved within ninety minutes; providing answers is part these films’ pleasures, and an even greater pleasure is figuring out the mystery on one’s own before the end of the movie. The Animal functions on an entirely different plane: we are left thinking about the mysteries, wondering how much they had to do with the story in the first place. Is the woman’s disappearance related to the animal tracks that so preoccupied the man, or was it merely a red herring that distracted us from detecting a deeper rift in their relationship? Ungerer demands that we not only question the nature of these mysteries and their importance to the story, but also their importance to the characters because it is the secrets that they keep—those not revealed—that continue to ruminate long after the movie has ended.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Crimson Kimono

Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1959) is a lesser- known film during the filmmaker’s most active period, and one that can hold its own alongside the best of his output such as Pickup on South Street (1953), Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). The film centers around two detectives, Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) and Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) investigating the murder of stripping sensation Sugar Torch. Historically speaking, it is most famous for being filmed on location in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo—a rarity for its time—and the footage’s journalistic grit still emanates strongly. It is this attention to detail that most concerns Fuller, whose attitude towards the plot can only be described as ambivalent: often it seems as though the director is saying (while chomping on a cigar), “We all know the story, so let’s just get on with it.” This fast-paced, elliptical style of filmmaking was clearly an influence on the French New Wave films such as Breathless (1960) and Shoot the Piano Player (1960), films that echo Fuller’s fondness for eschewing logicality and patience for tabloid-like sensationalism. The Crimson Kimono pulses like a hot item coming over the wire, straight to the press with no time wasted on any after thoughts.