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300 (Zack Snyder, 2007)

At Silver City with Steph, Chan, Andrew and Krystle. We had originally planned to see the IMAX version but it was sold-out so we had to "settle" for good ol' 35mm.

Trailers looked fantastic and I loved what Robert Rodriguez had done with Frank Miller's 300 spiritual predecessor, Sin City. Needless to say, I had high hopes.

Every scene in 300 is a beautiful mesh of – first and foremost – composition (thanks mostly to Frank Miller) and production design. Zack Snyder does an admirable job of infusing Miller’s stills with a beautiful sense of motion – most often of the slow variety. For a film that’s all style and no substance, you could certainly do worse than 300. That’s the good news. The bad news? It’s still all style and no substance.

Even in the realm of exciting and action-filled battles, 300 disappoints. I’d love to be able to say that it simply gets old, but truth be told, it’s never very exciting to start with. I was puzzled by how the battles which seemed most exciting (e.g. rhino attack, elephants, bombs) were only briefly shown, as if the budget for these scenes was cut halfway through post-production. All the fight scenes seem to blend together in a mish-mash of generic-looking enemies and Spartans with few identifying tactics or landmarks to make each battle distinct. The cinematography for the most part is also guilty of the same offense committed by many an action film cinematographer in our post Saving Private Ryan era: artificially creating a sense of chaos using a handheld shaky camera and shooting in close-ups. While Ryan popularized it by making good discerning usage of it, too many filmmakers since (Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring comes to mind) have tried and failed miserably to emulate it. All 300’s cinematography does is serve to replace a genuinely created sense of action created through exciting choreography and camera movements with an artificial and less satisfying (not to mention headache inducing and comprehension retarding) freneticism.

That said, 300’s most notable flaw seems to be that it lacks any sort of narrative drive, and not simply because we already know our valiant heroes are doomed to fail (if that’s all there was, we wouldn’t be able to watch our favourite films over and over). There is simply nothing here, to use my blog title, to keep our brains alive: no plot-driving action, no suspense, no three-dimensional character, and what little dialogue exists is either completely expositional or naively clichéd. A common grievance with action films is that they mash together a convoluted plot as a sorry excuse to string together a few highlight-reel scenes. I wish that could be said about 300, which makes no such token effort as it mercilessly cranks out one action sequence after another. Apart from their final heroic death, the order of any of the battles could be rearranged without taking away from the story because they all completely exist outside of it (which is to say that 70% of the movie exists outside of any narrative).

If the old adage is true, that conflict is the essence of narratives, then it’s pretty clear why 300 fails. The plot offers slim pickings as the majority of the film is taken up by random battles. And the only possible point of suspense: whether or not the Queen will be able to convince the council becomes a moot emotional point relative to the Spartans since the council’s decision will only affect the larger (more objective) mobilization of all of Greece and will not save the 300.

The Spartans themselves also pose a problem to the advancement of any sort of narrative. They are the most dedicated of soldiers, unwavering in their courage, loyalty to Leonidas, and cause. All this I can only assume was true, in which case, its undeniably admirable… and incredibly boring from a narrative and artistic point of view. Despite all its visual movement, the characters are faced with no moral/emotional conflicts and as such they might appear to be good or heroic, but from a storytelling perspective also causes them to seem inevtiably bland and undynamic.

Like a true Spartan warrior, Snyder’s film focuses on little else besides action, bodies, and battles, without time for moral/emotional conflicts or even self-gratifying revelling. I imagine Snyder himself tried to "immerse" himself in the time, place and mindset of the warriors. Unfortunately, it’s a role he should have left to his actors and focused more on his own role: making a compelling film.

  1. Why Jeffrey Overstreet won't see 300: Obviously not a review. Overstreet brings up an interesting point though which doesn't get aired very often. And I can certainly confirm his suspicions about the film lacking any real edifying meaning while flaunting sex and violence.
  2. Trailer & Teaser: I suppose it makes sense. Seeing as how the film is simply a pastiche of iconic images, it might not make a great narrative film but it sure does make for amazing trailers and teasers! I prefer the teaser to the trailer personally...


2001: A Space Odyssey! In theaters! Again!

Had to document it before I forget. Last Saturday, got to see Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey for the second time in my life on 35mm at the Bytowne (how lucky am I?!).

Krystle came with me and was - luckily - the catalyst for going again. She still had yet to see a Kubrick film and I told her, well, if you're going to see 2001 at all, this is the way it was meant to be seen: on a huge screen, in a darkened theater, Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra blaring at you!

Had to drop off the road bike for maintenance at Pecco's beforehand and ended up running late. We parked and ran to buy our tickets and fortunately made it inside just as the overture was finishing up. Since it's played over a completely black screen, we couldn't see a thing. Knowing that perhaps the greatest film opening in history was about to come on, I tried to hurry us into some seats in the front once we could see. Well, we made it to the front but couldn't find seats in time so we ended up crouching in the aisles for the intro. Ah, even those circumstances weren't able to ruin my love of that opening!

Dawn of Man: Wow, so many more details you can see on 35mm as compared to a 27-inch television screen. Beautiful. Without even trying to be pretentious, I can 100% honestly say that I don't remember the still shots in this section passing by so quickly. What a difference a few years make I guess. When I first watched it I think I started getting antsy after about the third "nature" shot which seemed to last an eternity. This time around, there was never enough time to appreciate each one. I think I've now seen this movie 6 times.

Sure you watch movies without speaking to other people, but there's something incredibly special about watching a trance-like film such as 2001 with a group of other people in the dark. In my mind, that is part of the magic of watching these types of films, that a couple hundred people can be completely silent while the also silent images of Frank hurtling through space or HAL terminating the life support systems are projected.

I love this film. What a trip indeed.

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Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967)

Watched it at home with Krystle as part of our weekly movie watching.

I had never seen anything by Jean-Pierre Melville and of his films, Le Samouraï had always been at the top of the to-watch list. Even before becoming a serious cinephile I had been intrigued by the film, having heard its name cited along with Melville’s as major sources of inspiration by directors like John Woo and Quentin Tarantino.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï tanatalizes with the promise of cinematic greatness right from its opening shot: hitman Jef Costello (Alain Delon) lies in bed passively while a pensive quotation fades in overtop of the beautifully composed image, infusing us with the promise of a handsome-looking film with an equally handsome star (or is it vice versa?). Melville’s use of the long, still, single-take and “Book of Bushido” quote immediately lends the film an air of intellectual and artistic gravity.

John Woo has described the film as “nearly perfect”, and if Woo is referring to its directorial execution he is nearly right, it is perfect. Most of the fun in watching Le Samouraï lies in the novelty of having to interpret just about everything for yourself without the aid of clumsy expositionary dialogue, including and most notably, Costello’s state of mind thanks to Delon’s constantly impassive face which brings with it more than a hint of Robert Bresson. This decidedly cool, quiet and somber vision which Melville imposes on the film from its outset never wavers, period. The professionalism of Costello is perfectly reflected in that of his own directorial style. As Roger Ebert points out in his review, “there is nothing absolutely original in Le Samouraï except for the handling of the material”, but this in itself is so miraculous, so unique to the genre, that it definitively sets the film apart from any of its peers within the film noir/gangster genre.

The danger however with any novelty is that eventually, it grows old. And unfortunately for directors, the lifespan of their tricks are invariably and considerably shorter than the runtime of the feature films they choose to implement them in.

Le Samouraï‘s style belies that of an “art” film whose sole purpose is to plumb the depths of Jef Costello`s soul. To his credit, Melville is able to maintain this jig for a considerable length of time. But as the film wears on (specifically, past the extended police station scene) it becomes clearer by-the-scene that its controlled style is no more than a veneer. Style without substance. But whereas this bromide has traditionally been associated with kineticism (of the “hip” MVT music video kind), Melville’s appropriations are of the opposite sort.

The trouble appears to be a conflict of storytelling elements. It’s as if the director and cinematographer were told they were making an art film while the writers and editor believed they were making just another genre piece. Alain Delon’s Costello acts and is treated by the camera like a character directly lifted from a Bresson (i.e. art) film. And at a glance, the two directors’ usage of actors with impassive faces appear similar in look, their effects are dramatically different. Whereas Bresson would often hold shots for many seconds beyond what was required by the plot, Melville's hurriedly cut away as soon as the point is established. They are never held for that extra second or two that is paramount in allowing a shot to pass from being strictly functional into the realm of “art”.

The script compounds this sense of functionality by rooting all of Costello’s scenes firmly within the context of the overall plot and orienting them around the actions of his character. We are subjected to many stationary shots of Delon’s emotionless face: in the car as he tries the different keys, in the police lineup, the interrogation room etc. But none of these lend themselves to any psychological introspection given the easily inferred practicality associated with each of them: not wanting to draw attention to himself. And unfortunately for Melville’s artistic ambitions, Occam's razor applies even in the realm of film-watching. Is this not why Antonioni’s most psychologically probing works only came once he had “removed the bicycle from neo-realism” by re-casting his characters as rich socialites, removed from any practical considerations? Melville too has learned to remove any hints of sentimentality, but he has forgotten to replace it with anything else of substance. How appropriate is it that a little research reveals the film’s opening passage from the “Book of Bushido” as a fabricated quote and novel by Melville himself? Le Samouraï emulates all the style of the art film but little of its substance.

The lone moment in the film where it breaks free of its superficialities – if only for a brief moment – occurs as Costello flees his apartment after finding it bugged. The brief glance he gives to his bird (which alerted him to the bug) before leaving lasts but a second or two, but goes further towards humanizing his character than any of the more prolonged interactions he has with either his girlfriend or the lounge pianist (as Rosenbaum so brilliantly states: “Neither character can be said to interact with Costello in any way except iconographically; Melville can only cut away sheepishly from intimate moments between both couples, asking us to fill in the ill-defined blanks.”) That he only hesitates ever so slightly before leaving without it further underlines his character’s cold and calculated professionalism. It is a magnificently effective and efficient moment that is unfortunately neither preceded nor proceeded by any similar ones.

  1. Jonathan Rosenbaum's review: Refreshing to find a serious critic who isn't completely ga-ga over this film. Fantastic and succinct insights.
  2. Roger Ebert's review

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McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)

At home with Krystle as part of our weekly movie watching.

Despite my general dislike for Altman - Gosford Park is a masterpiece, Nashville bored me and The Player was ok but nothing to get excited about - it was the one and only Pauline Kael who made this film a must see for me. An interviewer once joked that given Kael's strong opinions on film, who in their right mind would ever dare disagree with her? Kael laughed and replied that in reality she wasn't all that bad, but then in her typical fashion went on to say that she wasn't sure if she could ever be friends with anyone who didn't love McCabe & Mrs. Miller. And that was that.

A lot of love and devotion has gone into every aspect of the production of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller: the costumes, the cinematography with its beautiful soft filters, the construction of the Presbyterian Church town etc. All too often accolades for production value of period pieces are mistaken for refinement or simple beauty when they should be given for the degree to which they allow the viewer to truly inhabit the time and place being depicted.

The look of M&M versus traditional Westerns is about as close as that of Blade Runner and traditional slick science fiction, which is to say, not at all. It certainly isn’t beautiful by any traditional standards: the picture is too dark and soft, and the characters themselves seem to always be bundled up in strictly functional – and as such, unflattering – clothing. The men are greasy and unkempt while even the harlots in the whorehouse are, well, nothing special to look at. But M&M does not merely look different, but brilliantly – if not “beautifully” – so. It’s hard to describe how effectively this is all done. Hollywood is certainly full of many able craftsmen whom are able to reproduce depressingly blue overcast skies or muddy streets, but these intangibles are captured to such a degree here that we not only see but experience these unrefined elements weighing on and trying us as they do the characters in the film.

It's a shame that none of this devotion is translated to the treatment of the actual storytelling elements of the film.

At a tribute for the recently deceased Altman, his son Rick described him as “not so much a lover of truth as a hater of lies.” A more succinct summary of his approach in telling M&M there never was. Its ending and numerous threads within the film seem devoted to countering the conventions of the traditional western, and even Altman himself described it as an “anti-western”. That’s all great and original, but the next question is, to what effect?

The film seems to exist for no other reason than to be iconoclastic. It may be called “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”, but Altman isn’t able to resist his auteur-ish callings and ends up dividing his time equally between the eponymous couple and his typical menagerie of characters. The difference here is that unlike say Gosford Park or Nashville, M&M is not your typical ensemble piece. The pros of the ensemble film are by definition mutually exclusive to those of the protagonist-driven film, and yet Altman tries to have his cake and eat it too. This results in an overall weakening effect on both. The relationship between McCabe & Mrs. Miller seems, well, non-existent to tell you the truth. Some critics may choose to use the word ‘subtle’, but I certainly don’t see it. The quantum leap transition in the dynamics of their relationship from screwball to repressed longing is so sudden and seemingly forced that it's almost laughable.

No filmmaker in history from past to present has yet come up with a technique to quickly yet subtly depict a blossoming relationship, and thank goodness for that. This is of course why masters like Ozu and Hou are still relevant to this day. Altman knows these rules (having learnt that from the master himself, Renoir). And having said that, one has to wonder what he was thinking in trying to tell such a subtle love story – of sorts – while splitting equal screen time with scenes that are so emotionally and tonally different in their utter nihilism: Shelly Duvall stabbing her client, her husband being killed, the entire thread involving the young cowboy, the hitman etc. And it’s the inclusion of all these nihilistic elements that is troubling to me, not simply because they disrupt any sort of continuity that might have existed in the McCabe & Mrs. Miller thread, but because of their seeming existence for no other reason than to cynically oppose the traditional image of the Western.

The interesting thing about this stance is how “unfair” it is. Altman isn’t attempting to “say” anything morally reprehensible in the film by making an anti-western. One might even make the argument that he’s doing a service by setting the record straight about the “real” west. But this is film and art, not a historical document, and M&M is certainly not a documentary.

This brings up an interesting issue regarding morality and art. Moral arguments are not “fair” insofar as they say that there is really nothing wrong with a film whose only purpose is to entertain and bring joy (trite and excessive manipulation aside) but a film whose only intent is mean-spirited nihilism is bad. Despite its relative lack of any excessive profanity, sex, or violence, M&M seems to fit the latter. A few moments aside, it seems to not simply document but revel in Altman’s immorally revised West. Unlike some of his other ensemble pieces where his technique of the floating camera allows him to subtly get away with tangentially showing immoral things without any subconscious moral retribution on that part of the viewer – and thus giving the impression of documenting rather than propagandizing – M&M is completely unmasked because of its aforementioned split focus on Beatty and Christie’s characters. There is no logical preceding action to things like Shelley Duvall’s stabbing of the patron, her old husband being killed and most reprehensibly, the young cowboy being shot in cold blood etc. They feel expressly invented and we cut to them for the explicit reason of seeing their actions so that we might be left with a revisionist idea of the west. In reality, I found them to be more masochistic than informative, more mind-numbing than thought-provoking.

This nihilism is made ever more clear by the ending which is only redeemed by Altman’s fantastic visual storytelling. The unconventionality of the film up to that point adds to the suspense of every sequence. Unlike a regular Western where – deep down inside – we know that good will triumph over evil, in M&M our expectations are circumvented at every bend that it seems anything really could be possible.

M&M may still look and feel like a maverick film by one of the most well-known maverick filmmakers, but it seems to me that when one finds themselves as the lone dissenter for the sake of being different rather than for the love of truth, “curmudgeon” becomes the more appropriate word.

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