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December 30, 2012

Directors and their egos

Kathryn Bigelow on the set of Zero Dark Thirty Quentin Tarantino

The Times has an interview with Kathryn Bigelow that seems to want to be a character study of who she is, what her creative process is like, and what her body of work says about her as a person. But it almost completely fails: the interviewer concludes that she's incredibly self-effacing, generous in praising her crew, modest about her own formidable chops, and would rather let her work speak for itself than do much reflecting on her craft.

Case in point, after she goes on about her amazing production designer, editor, sound editor, and finally her cinematographer for Zero Dark Thirty:

Greig Fraser, her "tremendous" cinematographer, who pulled off shooting the raid sequence with night-vision technology after Ms. Bigelow decided that filming in the dark was the only way to capture that moment realistically.

At this point Mark Boal [the screenwriter], who had joined the lunch, interrupted.

"Kathryn, can you give yourself a little credit?" he said. "It was really risky — there was no precedent for that kind of technique — and you and Greig embarked on that risk together."

Ms. Bigelow said quietly, "That's true."

Contrast this with an interview the Times did about a week ago with Quentin Tarantino, which makes him sound so self-aggrandizing and egomaniacal that he would be repellent if we didn't already know, hey, that's QT.

In this bit, he's asked about how his actors seem to give wonderful performances in his movies. He responds:

I think it's a three-way thing. I write good characters for actors to play. I cast actors with integrity, as opposed to trying to just match whoever's hot with something going on ... And then I do know how to direct actors, how to modulate them, get the best out of them. And I understand my material. I know how to help them navigate it, and when they deliver something magnificent, I know enough to realize it's good and stay out of their way.

So the great performances actors deliver in Tarantino movies are attributable to: 1) Tarantino's writing, 2) Tarantino's casting, 3) Tarantino's direction, and 4) Tarantino's understanding of Tarantino's material.

I wonder if the movie industry and everybody would feel so positively about Kathryn Bigelow if she gave interviews like that. I don't necessarily think she's so highly regarded because she's modest and deflects praise so graciously, but these are traits that tend to be admired in women more than traits like, for instance, hogging all the credit.

Bigelow's got a good chance of winning another Best Director Oscar in 2013--Tarantino was also nominated when she won in 2010. I guess he'll probably get nominated again for Django Unchained, which is good, but not as good as Inglorious Basterds, or a bunch of his other movies. (It would be great if he won for writing, though.)

Basterds had great style, a few incredible scenes, and a phenomenal and glorious revenge sequence with the movie theater going up in celluloid flames and Shoshanna's laughing ghostly face. It was awesome. Plus the movie had Christoph Waltz, who is absolutely mesmerizing in everything he says and does.

Django is similar: stylish, a great revenge story, some really good scenes, Christoph Waltz. I hope all Tarantino's movies from now on will feature an exceptionally well-mannered German-Austrian professional killer for Christoph Waltz to play.

But the final showdown scenes (both of them) weren't as satisfying as any of Tarantino's other recent revenge scenes. Think about that burning movie theater in Basterds, or the girls making Kurt Russell cry in Death Proof, or every time The Bride killed one of her old partners in Kill Bill. Those sequences were a lot more creative and exciting than what we got in Django--we've all seen big final shootouts a million times in other movies, and this one didn't add much.

The best things about Django are the long scenes with Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio going through the charade of their evil business transaction, dripping with sinister charm. And the very end, where Django essentially blows up Tara. Slavery isn't something American movies have tackled well at all--before this, we pretty much had Gone With the Wind and Amistad. And in neither of those movies does a former slave get to mow down an entire plantation full of white people who uphold and profit from slavery in an extended sequence of righteous, bloody justice. So that counts for a lot.

I also like the beautiful montage sequence of our two heroes riding around in snow-covered western mountains, hunting bad guys and forming an unlikely partnership, with Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" on the soundtrack. It's always Super Sounds of the Seventies, even in a slavery revenge western.

December 19, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty: this is America

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

It already feels like the debate over Kathryn Bigelow's new movie Zero Dark Thirty has been going on forever, and it just opened in theaters today. I watched it last night and was totally knocked out. It's one of the best of the year: powerful, tense, complicated, heart-breaking--everything you want in a great movie. Plus, it shows how freaky Mark Strong looks with hair.

But the debate hasn't been about the movie itself; it seems to be about the access to classified information the filmmakers may or may not have had, and most of all, the morality and tactical utility of torture. Is the torture of our enemies ever OK? What constitutes torture? And does it work?

These are all the wrong questions, in my opinion, at least when talking about Zero Dark Thirty. The movie isn't asking any of these questions. Torture happened in our name, whether we like it or not. So did a lot of other things in our country's effort to avenge 9/11, kill bin Laden, and thwart terrorism: bribes, bombings, occupation of sovereign nations, many thousands of military and civilian deaths, and lots and lots and lots of public money spent on wars. These are all things our country did, and does.

The real question here, from the movie's perspective, is: was it worth it? After all that, did we get what we wanted? There isn't a clear answer in the movie, but those questions are a lot more interesting, and maybe scarier, than a rehashed debate over the effectiveness of torture. And for the record, no useful information is extracted during a torture scene in this movie. It's Jessica Chastain and her brain that find bin Laden, not waterboarding.

As technically amazing as it is, I found it hard to get inside the movie at first, because I wasn't feeling emotionally involved in the characters or the story. That all changed by the end, but the chilly, detached style of the movie and the characters is one of the filmmakers' strengths. Just like in The Hurt Locker, we see war and intelligence through the eyes of people who aren't ideologues or deciders. They're hunting terrorists or defusing bombs because it's their job, and they're good at it. It's a procedural about our national desire for revenge, as performed by the people who fight our wars and avenge our deaths for us. It's a view of who we are as a country that we don't often get to see, and it's not comforting. The Hurt Locker is about a guy happily doing the incredibly dangerous job he was born to do, but Zero Dark Thirty barely has any of that triumphant spirit. It all ends in tears.

This movie is going to win Best Picture, isn't it? That's gonna be one bleak clip montage.

Also, it generated my favorite movie poster of the year. The redacted one. So great.

December 13, 2012

Can we get some Coens?

Coen Brothers

That wan, listless feeling you're experiencing could be due to a number of things: not enough sleep, iron deficiency, or clinical depression. But it's probably related to the past two years we've been living on this planet without a new movie from the Coen Brothers. From 2007 through 2010, we had a new Coens movie every single blessed year, each one great in its own way (yes, I'm including Burn After Reading. It's funny, OK?) But True Grit came out back in December 2010, and life hasn't been the same since.

Thankfully, 2013 is the Year of the Glorious Coen Return! Two of their projects will arrive next year, returning sunshine and John Goodman to our land. In February, we'll get Inside Llewyn Davis, their movie about the folk scene set in the Village in early '60s New York, starring Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake (!), and the guy from Drive. It's said to be based on the life and career of Dave Van Ronk, aka The Mayor of MacDougal Street, an early folk figure who I think is famous but I only found out about just now.

Then there's Gambit, a movie about an art con that's been kicking around for over a decade. The Coens offered their services to rewrite an unfunny script in 2003, then it went through many potential directors (including Robert Altman and Alexander Payne) and actors before finally getting produced last year, starring Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, and Cameron Diaz as a Texas rodeo queen. Hopefully the Coen magic survived. It comes out, probably, in the Spring.

I feel better already.

December 12, 2012

The Hobbit: An Uncritiqueable Journey

The Hobbit

For a critic-proof movie, The Hobbit has had more than its share of problems from the very start. Guillermo del Toro backed out of directing, there have been labor disputes, animal deaths, and major skepticism about the 48 frames-per-second rate Peter Jackson used, which depending on your point of view either creates an immersive, magical viewing experience, or looks like a made-for-TV movie.

I walked into a screening last night with mid-to-low expectations, and had a great time. I found it a lot less ponderous and self-important than the last LOTR movie, the action scenes were raucous and fun, and the variety of bizarre life forms in Middle Earth are amazing and cool. The high frame rate makes it look a little like a telenovela, but a fantastical, other-worldly one--I got into it after a disorienting first few minutes.

I should point out that, in my view, The Hobbit was made for a target age of about 10. It's pretty much a children's movie; in some scenes, it's a children's musical. A children's musical that adults like, too. The mythology of the Tolkien books doesn't mean anything to me--I can hardly remember what the LOTR trilogy was actually about, other than lots of walking and throwing the ring into a volcano. The Hobbit is a good time, but not meaningful on any deeper level, which is OK by me but might be disappointing for Tolkien fans looking for melodrama and gravitas. This is a children's comedy adventure musical. That's a half-hour too long.

A Guillermo del Toro Hobbit might have been very different. The evil creatures would have probably be scarier and ickier, and some form of humanoid bug demons would likely have crept out of an oozing crevice at some point. Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth from 2006 was an excellent and scary fantasy, though since it's rated R, I guess it's not really a children's movie (except for children with cool/irresponsible parents.)

The director I really wish had made a Hobbit movie is Jim Henson. He would have had a blast with all those trolls, goblins, dwarves, elves, orcs, and hobbits, giving them all well-developed personalities and looks. Peter Jackson is good at combining comedy and the grotesque (Dead Alive is the funniest horror movie I've ever seen) but Jim Henson could have made something really inspired: funny, surreal, thrilling, and accessible to kids all at the same time.

I noticed that Jackson hung onto Tolkien's characterization of Dwarves that's uncomfortably similar to a stereotypical, derogatory version of Jews. Dwarves are greedy, they've got comically huge noses, and they've been driven from their homeland. Tolkien saw the Jewish-Dwarvish parallels in his book, but for 1930's England, his views probably weren't offensive. Dwarves are definitely "other", but they're worthy of being helped to win back their home. England's attitude toward Jews in that time seems pretty similar: help them establish a homeland that's located nowhere near England. I'm a little surprised Jackson didn't change this characterization at all, but I guess he can claim fidelity to the text.

Let's just be thankful that a real mess like The Lovely Bones is in the past and Peter Jackson is back to making Shakespearean actors wear absurd bulbous fake noses.

About December 2012

This page contains all entries posted to Amy's Robot in December 2012. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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