Showing posts with label Movies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Movies. Show all posts

Friday, July 24, 2015

Mr. Holmes -- A Cinematic Treasure

We saw “Mr. Holmes” last night, a throwback to film-making as it should be, sans special effects other than great cinematography.  It is an example of how a film format can uniquely tell a story, which on stage or in print would simply not be as effective (although it is based on a novel, by Mitch Cullin, A Slight Trick of the Mind which I understand the movie closely follows thanks to the playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay).  It is the marriage of fine directing, a great script, and superb acting.  It uniquely tells a revisionist story of Sherlock Holmes.  

It is 1947 and Holmes, played by Ian McKellen, is now 93.  He wants to set the record straight.  He feels that Dr. Watson -- who is long gone from the scene -- has distorted his legacy, in particular a case he handled in 1919.  So there are flashbacks to those times.  Holmes is in a race against time as senility is setting in and he is desperate to piece together what really happened and rewrite the truth.

He travels to post WW II occupied Japan to secure a kind of “royal jelly” that is supposed to have properties to improve memory.  He then returns to his home on the Sussex coast to work on rewriting the case and there he bonds with a young boy, Roger (Milo Parker), the son of his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney).  Without going into the full plot, suffice it to say it is his relationship with Roger which haltingly, but ultimately unlocks his memory of the case.

But while Holmes has lost fragments of his life to memory loss and aging, his powers of observation remain keen: so much so that his brutally honest truths, he learns, have the power to hurt, and so the movie is a study of redemption as well.  He acquires a measure of humility.

The movie moves with the pace of the slow section of a symphony, not a criticism but an attribute given the subject matter.  Themes are developed and come back to you changed.  And speaking of music, the original soundtrack by Carter Burwell, always but unobtrusively in the background, is still another element that brings a distinctive dimension to the film. 

Bill Condon, the director has made the perfect film.  It is not going to appeal to a wide audience so see it if you can while it is in some theaters.  When it comes out in DVD, Ann and I hope to see it again, this time with subtitles to capture every bit of the dialogue.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Carver and Birdman

I don’t see many movies in the theater.  I’ll tape (well, DVR nowadays) an occasional classic on Turner Classic Movies, and see a Woody Allen film, or one of that genre, but I prefer live theatre and reading. However, I made an exception for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) as central to its story is Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a short story that resonated so much with me that I  decided several years ago to adapt it into play form along with a couple of other short stores, as part of a larger dramatic work, When We Talk About Carver. 

I had thought the time had come for this little known writer (to the general populace) to be acknowledged, celebrated as one of the finest short story writers of our time.  What better way to do it than by developing a dramatization of some of his works, centered on his masterpiece, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.   This was no small feat for me.  I love the theatre but adapting a short story to the structure of a drama is not for amateurs.  So I loaded up my bookshelves with guides to playwriting and installed some good software, Word.doc templates for dramatic structure and presentation.

Then, when it came to dramatizing the story, there was the conflict of deciding on which version to use, the one Carver originally wrote “The Beginners” and later edited by his editor at Esquire (and later Knopf), Gordon Lish, and then edited again by Lish, under the new title we now know the story. Lish’s version distills the story to the bare essentials, including the dialogue.  It was the better version to work with as part of the collection I envisioned.  The Carver estate had granted permission to do this but after a year of trying to place the work, and not having the right connections, it has languished.

So, given this background, I had to see Birdman as soon as it opened nearby.  Very little of the short story’s dialogue is actually used in the movie, but it anchors the film in many ways.  (It was nice to see the set though, a 1970’s kitchen, exactly the way I envisioned it.) The Carver short story is about love in all its manifestations, from spiritual love to obsessive, violent love, but is set in its time, alcoholism as the primary social lubricant, and in literary realism. Birdman is about love as well, updated for the 21st century, which now includes self-obsessive love strongly influenced by the power and effect of social media along with “magical surrealism” dominating the canvas of the story.

Fascinating for me, the film opens with a quote from Carver, one of the last poems he ever wrote as he was dying of cancer -- his epitaph -- “Late Fragment,” published in a collection A New Path to the Waterfall with an introduction by his wife, also a poet, Tess Gallagher.  .  One thinks of Carver only as a short story writer, but he wrote poetry as well.  As Gallagher put it “…Ray’s new poems blurred the boundaries between poem and story, just as his stories had often taken strength from dramatic and poetic strategies.”


And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

And that is the theme of this movie – wanting to be beloved on earth.  All the characters are struggling in their own way to find approbation and love. Aren't we all?

The plot in a nutshell involves a has-been superhero (The Birdman) film actor, Riggan Thomson (played brilliantly by Michael Keaton), who seeks “legitimacy” on the Broadway stage by adapting Carver’s short story, and then producing, directing and starring in it.  He is haunted by his alter ego, Birdman (this is where the surrealistic element emerges), who declares him as still having superpowers (he is seen levitating in a yoga pose in the first frame).  His struggle with his past self and what he envisions as his future artistic self is what propels this frenetic film from its beginning to its end.  Also in the cast is his sympathetic former wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), their daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) a  recovering addict, and the co-stars in the play, one of which he was recently involved with, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and Lesley (Naomi Watts) a girlfriend of a well-known Broadway method actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Riggan’s only friend and business manager, Jake (Zach Galifianakis) persuades Riggan to hire Mike at the last minute for the other male character part in the play.  Mike and Riggan come to blows and yet the show goes on. All the ingredients are here for love relationships in all their variations, good and bad, not unlike the heart of the Carver story.  I’m trying to avoid spoilers here. 

I mentioned that the Carver quote is the central theme of the movie.  There is one exchange between Riggan and his daughter Sam where this resounds loudly.  I remember tapping my wife Ann on the shoulder as Sam was in the middle of delivering her monologue. After that climatic moment, Riggan is on track to shred his “unexpected virtue of ignorance”:

Riggan:  "This is my chance to finally do some work that actually means something."

Sam: "That means something to who? You had a career, Dad, before the third comic book movie, before people started to forget who was inside that bird costume. You are doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is going to be where they have their cake and coffee when it's over. Nobody gives a shit but you! And let's face it, Dad; you are not doing this for the sake of art. You are doing this because you want to feel relevant again. Well guess what? There is an entire world out there where people fight to be relevant every single day and you act like it doesn't exist. This is happening in a place that you ignore, a place that, by the way, has already forgotten about you. I mean, who the fuck are you? You hate bloggers. You mock Twitter. You don't even have a Facebook page. You're the one who doesn't exist. You're doing this because you're scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don't matter and, you know what, you're right. You don't! It's not important, okay? You're not important! Get used to it."

Where did Riggan get the idea of adapting a Carver short story?  It’s revealed that when he was a young actor, Carver was in the audience and wrote a note to him on a cocktail napkin to say that he admired the performance.  Decades later he still carries the napkin, presents it as his trump card to the New York Times critic who says she’s going to pan the play as she doesn’t admire movie actors who try to cross the line into legitimate theatre. 

And so still another theme unfolds in the film.  Movie actors are celebrities, have fame but do they have the right stuff?  How does live theatre stack up against film? There is no contest as each art form functions on a different plane.  Carver’s short story could make great theatre, but Birdman needs to soar on film, and what a film it is.  Ironically, as Riggan is the writer, producer, and director of the Carver play in the film, Birdman was co-written, produced, and directed by one person as well, Alejandro González Iñárritu.  The only thing he did not do as the main character in the film, was to become a character. 

The movie has the feeling of being filmed as one long continuous take.  It is two hours of breathtaking cinematography perfectly accompanied by music selections, mostly the pulsating drums of Antonio Sánchez who even makes a brief passing appearance in the film.  One can imagine those beating in Riggan’s head.   Nothing is out of bounds for this film and only film could capture the gestalt, the play within the film, the character’s intense relationships, Riggan’s journey, and the alternative universe of the Birdman which, no pun intended, gives this film breathtaking wings. It is also a love poem to the New York City theatre district, something that reverberates with me.

This film is revolutionary and expect to hear it nominated for a host of Academy Awards, best picture, screenplay, directing, not to mention best actor as Michael Keaton gives a once-in-a-lifetime performance, best supporting actor (Edward Norton was outstanding as a foil to Riggan), best supporting actress, Emma Stone (who can forget her mesmerizing eyes as well), best cinematography, best original soundtrack, and I could go on and on.

Come to think of it, except for the protagonist, I’m the only person (to my knowledge) that has completed a dramatization of Carver’s story.  And it’s good.  Maybe it will take” wings” yet. Nonetheless, this is not a movie to be missed.  And if Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is never produced as a play, read the story, and then think about the movie.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Game Change a Game Changer

Last night we went to a Game Change dinner with friends to view the much talked about film that is based on the best-selling book by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. The film focuses on just one part of the story, the selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate and the subsequent campaign which revealed how woefully under-vetted Palin was.

As a movie, it is terrific, with great acting, starring Julianne Moore, who plays Sarah Palin so accurately (not as a Tina Fey caricature -- but rather so realistically that one would be hard pressed to tell the difference between Moore's portrayal and Sarah Palin herself), Ed Harris as John McCain and Woody Harrelson as his campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt, The supporting acting was also first-rate, particularly Sarah Paulson as Nicolle Wallace the senior advisor for the McCain campaign who had to suffer as Palin's "handler." Jay Roach, the director, kept things moving at a lively pace so there was never a dull moment, an interesting film to add to his prior credits such as the Austin Powers films! The characters are so believable, Moore, Harris, and Harrelson being almost exact facsimiles of the people they portray.

So, how much is the film (and therefore the book) a facsimile of the truth? Much of the "truth" relies on the recollections of Steve Schmidt the chief strategist of the McCain/Palin 2008 presidential campaign, but Danny Strong, the screenwriter, also independently interviewed scores of people to corroborate the facts. One has to admire Schmidt for fessing up, the truth being Palin was selected for her gender and pizzazz. If she thinks North and South Korea is the same country or Britain's head of state is the Queen instead of the Prime Minister so be it. To Schmidt's credit, his regret at having gotten the Palin ball rolling led to his disclosures, particularly after Palin's Going Rogue was published, basically freeing him to talk.

An excellent follow up to seeing the film is the C-Span panel discussion on the film adaptation,consisting of the book's authors, Heilemann and Halperin, Roach, the director and executive producer, Steve Schmidt, and Danny Strong, screenwriter and co-executive producer. Particularly interesting is Roach's comments on the selection of Moore, Harris, and Harrelson, the perfect serendipity of it all. One of Roach's favorite scenes in the film is Moore as Palin watching a YouTube clip of SNL's Tina Fey portraying Sarah Palin, commenting that he's hoping Palin will see Game Change, watching Moore portraying her watching Fey's portrayal. An infinity of mirrors, befitting her media star status.

For me, the film just underscores the ludicrousness of Presidential/VP candidate selection and election campaigning that seem to rely upon the gullibility of the American electorate and their susceptibility to mass persuasion. And this is not just to finger point at the GOP as the same kind of machinations undoubtedly go on in the Democratic camp. But the GOP primaries have been especially transparent in this regard, a stain on the democratic process.

When Palin was picked nearly four years ago, I wrote: "If, indeed, the VP selection is the most critical decision of a Presidential wannabe, McCain demonstrates how seriously deficient his judgment may be. Given his age and his prior health problems, I think we, the voters, have to consider Governor Palin’s credentials as if she is running for the Presidency.....No doubt Sarah Palin is a bright, hard-working person – she certainly seems to come across as such in the media, but to possibly cast her in the role of the President of the United States seems to be just downright irresponsible by Senator McCain and as politically calculated, and demonstrating bad judgment, as some of his television ads." Game Change just reinforces what I believed at that moment.

The film concludes with the not so prophetic remark of Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, "she'll be forgotten in a couple of days." But we all know the rest of the story. And the film, Game Change is a game changer in that it's probably all true, quite unlike much of politics itself.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Watson/HAL, Come Here

How prescient, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 1968 film written by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick who was also the film's director. Clarke is one of my favorite Sci-Fi writers along with Isaac Asimov with whom I did some work on a series of reprints of science fiction classics.

I remember seeing the film when it opened, thinking "2001" an eternity from now. Man had not yet landed on the moon, there were no personal computers, cell phones, color TVs were just becoming mainstream, and "twitter" was merely a light silly laugh.

Yet Clarke and Asimov saw the future and with "Watson's" performance on Jeopardy, that future has arrived. It was Asimov who once said: "I do not fear computers. I fear the lack of them." But should we?

As "rational" human beings we have been perplexed by Watson's answer to the question under the category of US Cities, coming up with "Toronto???" instead of Chicago (which the two all-star Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter Jeopardy challengers knew). How could it come up with a city in Canada?

David Ferrucci, the manager of the Watson project at IBM Research, comes up with the rational explanation:

First, the category names on Jeopardy! are tricky. The answers often do not exactly fit the category. Watson, in his training phase, learned that categories only weakly suggest the kind of answer that is expected, and, therefore, the machine downgrades their significance. The way the language was parsed provided an advantage for the humans and a disadvantage for Watson, as well. “What US city” wasn’t in the question. If it had been, Watson would have given US cities much more weight as it searched for the answer. Adding to the confusion for Watson, there are cities named Toronto in the United States and the Toronto in Canada has an American League baseball team. It probably picked up those facts from the written material it has digested. Also, the machine didn’t find much evidence to connect either city’s airport to World War II. (Chicago was a very close second on Watson’s list of possible answers.) So this is just one of those situations that’s a snap for a reasonably knowledgeable human but a true brain teaser for the machine

While getting the answer wrong, Watson playfully bet $947, knowing it had a large lead and losing that amount it would still likely win.

But I hearken back to the movie and Watson's prototype, HAL 9000, and his "interview" with the BBC:

BBC Interviewer: HAL, you have an enormous responsibility on this mission, in many ways perhaps the greatest responsibility of any single mission element. You're the brain and central nervous system of the ship, and your responsibilities include watching over the men in hibernation. Does this ever cause you any lack of confidence?
HAL: Let me put it this way, Mr. Amor. The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.

And yet after killing the crew, Dave only remaining, HAL admits: Look, Dave, I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill and think things over. I know I've made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I've still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you. He made "poor decisions" and has "enthusiasm?" But no computer "has ever made a mistake or distorted information."

Putting on my Sci-Fi hat, I would like to think that Watson's "Toronto???" might be a very human "in-your-face-I've-got-you-beat" answer. As further evidence, Watson's meager $947 bet.

HAL: Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave? Stop, Dave. I'm afraid. I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I'm a…fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you'd like to hear it, I can sing it for you.
Dave: Yes, I'd like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.
HAL: It's called "Daisy". [sings while slowing down] Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do. I'm half crazy, all for the love of you. It won't be a stylish marriage. I can't afford a carriage. But you'll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two

But I agree with Ken Jennings: "I for one welcome our new computer overlords,” provided we keep the upper hand! "Daisy, Daisy...."

Monday, August 11, 2008

Starting Out in the Evening

One of the nice things about Netflix is the extent of their DVD movie library. If the movie is on DVD, you are nearly assured of being able to get it. Consequently, a treasure trove of independent and classic films is available.

Yesterday we saw a recent “indie” Starting Out in the Evening. The Wikipedia entry provides a good summary of the film and references for further reading:

It is about a forgotten writer in his twilight years, brilliantly played by Frank Langella, and a young graduate student who seeks him out to write her graduate thesis on him. It is also about the writer’s daughter and her lover. During the film, the characters are changed by one another.

It is also about the passing of time, the ravages of aging, and the substitution of contemporary culture for a more contemplative one of an earlier era. Self help and celebrity books now dominate the best seller lists while serious literature and criticism and the writers of the same are slowly disappearing. At one point the writer played by Langella offers the young student some works by Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson to read, only to find she has forgetfully left them behind. He sadly returns them to his bookshelf.

But, the main point of this entry is to praise the young director of the movie, Andrew Wagner, and his sensitive and profound narration that can be enjoyed with the movie. It is well worth running the entire move again with the director’s narration to fully appreciate the stunning achievement of the director and the four main actors in transforming this adaptation of a novel by Brian Morton to film in only eighteen days and on a budget of only $500k.

I am looking forward to future Andrew Wagner productions. Long live the independent film!