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Murder in Three Acts (1986)
Bicycle, not spacecraft
The strangest thing: when films are made of Christie structures, the first thing they worry about is the characterization of the detective: Poirot or Marple. Clearly, the filmmakers obsess over the potential for engagement within the constraints of the original text, but they focus on the character and not the mystery per se.
This is a mistake in my book. I know many viewers like to gravitate to characters. Somehow these folks relate situations to people. I have luckily escaped that fate, so I easily fall into Christie's real talent.
What she does is create remarkably complex situation puzzles where the notched wooden pieces slide in and out effortlessly. A feature is that once all the people are assembled, she retrospectively displays the way most things you have understood are reinterpreted in a different way and the result is more coherent -- more logical -- than the previous view of the world.
If you look at her books, she is not at all interested in characters. Excepting the detective, they are as cardboard as they come. The detectives are fleshed out in some detail, but only so we can understand the reasoning and discovery process. For her, Marple is intuitive, Poirot obsessively logical.
So in judging a Christie adaptation, I have to look at how well they created an edifice of history that makes sense -- and the the way she has her detective smoothly adjust it piecemeal to be more sensible in the last scene.
Well, adaptations usually preserve the last scene and have a detective with the appropriate name. But they get all hung up in character and ignore the subtle machinery of cause. It is as if a filmmaker thought the essence of Hamlet was in the flowery complexity of the character and the complex world that manipulates him.
That happens all the time with film Hamlets, and all the time -- as here -- with film Christies.
You can find better things to do with your time.
The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)
Film as Virus to Fight Us
Zombie films have always been about social analogy: AIDS, immigration, Islam!, climate change, AI revolt.
Regardless, it is always followed the western form of good guys, bad guys. Always. This one twists that from the very first moments which focuses on an appealing preadolescent girl in a hostile environment.
It helps to know — as I did not — that the disorder here is based on a real insect fungus.
— The girl actress is fragile, grabbing all our native sympathetic pulls. Why this works is because of many shameful assumptions we carry: slight, submissive but sunny girl of color. A cooperating captive where the captive dynamics align with our strongest demons.
— The Emma Atherton character as teacher is similar captive, unable to escape because of her emotional connection to what we know she thinks are the accidentally oppressed. The chemistry between these two is strong, evoking imagined backstories.
— The sound/score is amazingly effective.
— The surrounding chaos when attacked was well choreographed.
— The twist at the end grabbed me viscerally. The trick isn't new of course, using a film to reinforce an identity the viewer grasps, then subverting that alliance. What made this is so effective is that the genre has such strong momentum, and that the identity we had pulled from us was so fundamental. It isn't our membership in a tribe that is stolen, but our excuse for living at all.
What did not work for me:
— Amazingly, it was the Glen Close character. She has the job we find in uncinematic scifi films where she has to explain things. As a character, she seemed superfluous; so her role as explainer really is obvious and off-putting because she isn't in the story so much as between it and us.
— The sets. Here's the thing. Its been ten years — we assume — since the pandemic. I know that the tendency is to show desolation visually, with extreme degradation, but the most effective scenes for me were those with ordinary environments and no ordinary motion.
— The makeup. Someone decided to use the fungal notion but reference the old zombie tradition of rotting flesh. Can't have both.
— The one joke: "I already had a cat." When you pull something like this, you acknowledge that there is a viewer to get the joke, and that you are invested in being playful with him/her. The character is taken out of the story and redefined as an entertainer for your pleasure. It breaks the story when it has the intent of this one.
— The eating. If you decide to show a human fighting being devoured by beasts, then it should be as terrifying as the victim has it. This was almost a puppet show with carefully daubed chinblood shown afterward. I know it is a trope of the genre, like a Hong Kong martial arts fight where a single hit of a sword bloodlessly makes the bad guy fall dead instantly. But it works against the collective terror of the end.
Top of the Lake (2013)
This masterly series has several notable qualities. Most striking are the cinematic (meaning the camera-centric) anchors for the storytelling. But the most commented upon by others is the exploration of motherhood, supported by accomplished actresses doing their best work.
I'll comment instead on the portrayals of the symmetric lives of the male characters. Everything I have seen of Campion's work is driven by external pulls and the men do this work here. The world of the women here is sharp, effective, overflowing with energy because of the embodied world in which they live and the men embody the pulls in their worlds.
We have five primary men here. The most abstract is the young man who is a reclusive gamer, living with his mother. Though he hangs with a group of sexually weak braggarts who gather to talk about their paid encounters, he is different. By the end of the series, we know he is in love with an Asian prostitute who is (we presume) forced to be a surrogate.
He wants to marry her, possibly thinking she has his child; she takes her life because of some turmoil. We never learn exactly what forces have torn her, in fact we never see her at all. But this string — this boy — pulled taut is what moves everything into view. We only know of her life through him, living his life as a game. Brilliant; great talent in storytelling by omission.
His doppleganger is the adopted father, superficially calm but who follows a similar path with no agency. The presented contrast between these two men (crazy vs sedate) hides Campion's intent I think to convey the common tragic destiny of being male. Dissipative.
The most conventional character is the pathologist, drawn along the lines of the Shakespearean fool — the only one who is stable. He is assigned to examine the dead more or less the way we are as viewers. He alone can interact with our main character as an unhaunted being. (His complement is the predator from the previous story.)
We have the main male lead, Puss, extravagantly acted but among the men we see, the most scrutable. The most visible and the least interesting. Not worth examining by design.
The one that amazed me was the police chief. Though this is a fourth generation detective story, it is a detective story nonetheless. So by the end we need someone who sees, who reasons and who embodies the rules.
In every other film with police, this boss role is either a blunt dummy who can't see the truth, or a kind mentor working to protect his (always his) protégé. In this story, he is the only loser to the wheel of fortune whose mechanics he also has to explain. He loses family, lover, child and most likely his job. Everyone else advances in some way.
Disney within Disney
I was expecting a standard, manufactured Disney Princess item. What I encountered was a powerful embodiment of myth in a young woman, with the notable exceptions of the coconut pirate and glittery crab sequences. These were conceived and directed by others. I suppose many commenters will speak to the different appealing techniques used here. I'll just speak to the visual narrative nesting because I've been tracking this from Lassiter's early work.
The simplest example of this nesting is when two-d hand drawn animation is embedded in the three-d world. I believe that over time, a law of proportional abstraction has developed. When this works, we may see a film that has an inner film of some kind that is more abstract. The cinematic effect is to set the 'distance' between us and the main film. That is, we have a sort of quantum imagination where the simplifications we negotiate with a filmmaker are recorded in what he/she shows us as simplifications the movie's characters make with inner 'films. Showing us those inner films is a part of the filmmaker-viewer agreement. We do have that here with the depiction of Te Fiti and especially Te Ka, with the visions Moana has, rendered in decades old conventions.
But something new is here: the story starts with literal story panels in animated tapa cloths that tell the outer story about the gods, demigod and the natural laws we will live in. That inner story is rendered in lovely, textured three-d using the now standard conventions of super-reality to register as real. But inside THAT story is the same two-d conventions in the demigod's living tattoos. While the 3-d flow moves through the future, the two-d panels not only remind us of the past and the world's dynamics but directly interact with the characters.
The refreshing novelty here is that the tattoo/tapas cloth effect is used for the reverse purpose. The common distance is maintained, but in this case there are not three layers (our world, the movie, the movie within) but two: our world as the same as Moana's and the 'movie' world as the myth, the tattoo and mystical/god world. I think this is why the movie, the main movie with her life played out in it, seemed so close to me emotionally.
Masters of cinematic engineering. See this: 3 of three.
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
This film hit a sweet spot for me.
It merges essential Shintoism, magic and origami in a story about storytelling, four subjects of deep interest for me. This is orgasmic level engagement, this mix. I need to see it again in 3D to see if it improves. This would have been the very rare modern film actually photographed in 3D.
Some other elements could have distracted: the very western idea of a quest gives enough script to fill the time. The style of animation has bodies and motion more realistic than faces; in another context this would matter but here we are in a paper world. The use of traditional Japanese villains and characters from myths requires knowledge even I lacked. The style of animation requires a relatively stationary camera which seems inadequate, even in a Japanese context.
The writing is superb, surpassing Pixar and achieving a level completely unexpected. This is true in lines: "blink now;" in the way things unfold unexpectedly and in the nesting of stories. Oh, the overlapping nesting! We have stories within that tell enclosing stories. We have recalled and invented stories cogenerating. The main combat is between/among stories. Memory and stories are bound in an unusual way. So many events unfold in novel ways.
This is all the more impressive when you consider the inflexible manner of production. You cannot iterate and reshoot like you can with computers or eve actors. What you see is largely what they started with years before even they saw it. If just for the writing, see this movie.
The effects were interestingly different, and by themselves would perhaps have underwhelmed. But the story context by the time things got active added enough. Effects early in the movie have magically folded characters animated by the stories within the story and these were amazing.
I am not seeing many films these days, so it is profound luck that my 3 and 5 year olds took me into this.
And... the credits roll over the George Harrison song that very few understand in its role in the White Album. Here it isn't just used with this knowledge, it is rendered so by a woman I never heard of.
Star Trek: Beyond (2016)
Rubber bands break
Star Trek in any incarnation confounds me; I cannot understand the appeal without getting depressed about the low level of cinematic and narrative challenge some audiences require.
But these days I am interested in smoke, water and the special effects that have devolved from them. We find them in a great many special effects movies these days. Here we have two instances that I've considered in some depth.
The first is something described as a swarm of thousands of spacecraft. They are supposed to share some sort of 'collective intelligence' guided by our super villain. Let's skip over the corny idea that this intelligence is shared over frequency that can be disrupted by broadcasting old rock. What interests me is the visual conventions chosen.
This isn't a swarm in the usual sense of the word; it is a directed formation of medium sized craft. I'm not sure why they need pilots unless there is a fighting mode that is not centrally computed that we did not see. Nor is it clear why the bad guy barks orders as if it matters that they hear. And why build this armada if there are no ships that ever come, and the super weapon is supposed to be superior?
Skip over all that as well. What they chose was to use a basic spring model where each ship is connected to its neighbors by an invisible elastic band with delayed force and a minimum distance. This is often used to crudely and cheaply emulate bird flocks.
Then they simply designated certain ships as agents to pull their comrades, allowing for a tentacle-like menacing and cutting effect. The editing was good, so you got some rush of motion just from the shifting camera, but the effect was profoundly simple. in sophistication, it matched the rubber masks typical of the franchise.
The second effect was of the first few seconds of a presumed biological weapon powerful enough to eradicate planets. We didn't see much here but the effect was the typical animated smoke, nothing at all like what we've seen, for example in Prometheus or the fireflies in Guardians. It couldn't have been for lack of money, talent or excellent examples, and that is the depressing thing.
Eye in the Sky (2015)
My notion of noir is the communication in a film story that the audience is the writer of the world, a world designed to satisfy our urges. Innocent victims are manipulated through coincidence and love. Since Welles, we've seen a great many variations and deep penetration in our film vocabulary. It is rare, for instance to not end a romantic comedy without a public, happy resolution of the love story in front of an audience, often involving an on screen camera.
Here we have what is now a mature version: the cameras are on screen cameras and the audience/writers are one community of characters while the manipulated innocents are another. I believe this was initiated by "The Conversation," and refined in a spate of NSA-centric summer action things.
Here we have the typical formulation with the twist that we argue amounts ourselves about what to do. There are three layers.
The 'bottom' are the Africans. Within this group are indigenous and imported provocateurs who work to establish a story by force. At the 'top' is us in our role of manipulator, both as film audience with defined tastes and urges and as enabling citizenry of the machines in the stories.
In the middle is a very clever concoction of traditional noir vision and manipulation with debate about what to do. Our on screen folks (including the powerful Rickman) unfold a metastory about what has value in on screen action. This really is very well constructed, placing the center of tension not in the situation 'on the ground' (which indeed is tense) but in our own souls about what we countenance.
My unhappiness is the familiar one: I never feel so much a misogynist, jingoist, racist or hedonist as in films designed to creatively amplify those experiences behind the cover of critical distance. In this case, they pull the power of the moral ambiguity from my own mind where it should be eating me into the safe playground of film fiction. Seeing the familiar Rickman and here very actressy Mirren works against me, even me who has been close to people like those here. We are given the protection that fiction allows.
That said, I can recommend this straight up as an engaging film as well as near mastery of construction.
Extended Myth, Extensible Missus
The last 40 minutes of this is a shift from epic to soap opera. Future viewers would be best advised to stop watching once the flood hits and the villains (but one) have been destroyed. Until that point, we have the sort of reverse noir that Aranofsky has been perfecting. There is a magical being in this story, but he is not in the story. He manipulates random characters — everyone we see and know about just as the traditional noir audience would. That audience? We are placed directly in the film as the villains, or at least those with urges damaging enough to require purging. There is some very deep understanding of film narrative here, until that flood.
But the wonder in watching doesn't stop there. The way sci-fi and fantasy usually works is that you take some representation of the world, the current world, and extend or add things until it becomes engaging and suits your narrative requirements. We have a well established vocabulary for being presented with these extensions and additions. We enter sci-fi movies with ease because of these conventions, and we do so noting them because they are likely to be salient.
Hey, what if you didn't extend the current, real world? What if instead you *started* with a fantasy world and extended *that?* And you didn't extend it in the way that original world differs from ours? What if there were a question about whether it did in the first place? So, we start with a Bible story that no one fully believes is literally true. No one, because the weight of its truth would crush us.
Instead, a common belief is that God never was purely an angry, disappointed creator, or that he once was but changed somehow to be a 'loving' God. It is the most frightening episode in the Bible and the hardest to map to. So we start with that, a story about a good believer who follows the rules, but otherwise is a token in a grand game of making and unmaking.
Now, we extend it using many of our cinematic shortcuts. Dangerous territory is denoted by scored earth and stacked skulls. Why? Because that illustrates. Offense against the Earth is denoted by parched, abandoned mines. Evil in men is reduced to the evil we can see in one man, their leader. In such reductions, there is no complex hierarchy or collective leadership, just a shorthand in one actor.
We need superhuman beings on screen, so why not create them? Actually, these are extended from a Biblical reference in a similarly cinematic way as animated stones, or more precisely angels doomed as animated stones.
Turning agency around is this filmmaker's quest. Here he tries with two elements of conventional noir. I think he succeeds in the first half.
The Good Dinosaur (2015)
Background as Foreground
I follow certain filmmakers in a way unlike any other relationship. If they have worked well for me at least once, they become a permanent part of my life, not friends or family because I give nothing back. When they try and fail, it becomes something of a failure of mine to learn from.
Pixar is in this class of 'filmmakers' because there I see a certain consistent set of ambitions and values. Creative, polished story is what most people see, but what interests me is the deep exploration of what it means to tell stories visually, cinematically.
These men and women aggressively expand the cinematic vocabulary. Sometimes it is local, in some minute orchestration of character movement; I am not skilled enough to see and understand where these are new. But I can see and understand how they push the way we can communicate about *space* and the movement of the eye in it.
In this, they have two concerns. I've remarked elsewhere on the most visible one: how they understand the third dimension and where we place the camera. They can expand this because the camera is no longer physical. They've gone so far as to design whole story worlds to allow for stretching this.
The other experimental area is more subtle and perhaps more influential in the long run. It used to be that the environment in films was that we lived in, and incidentally captured by the camera. Except in very rare cases, like some of the work of Welles and Kurosawa, it is static, dead, not able to participate in the communication. In cartoons, the background was ever more so.
But CGI breaks that boundary as well. I saw the problems they had with trying to innovate with conscious snow interacting with conscious hair in Brave. They had all sorts of other difficulties with this film, many of them not relevant to the experiment in conscious background but it has to be considered a success.
The story isn't particularly novel in having the environment be the protagonist, but it is novel in the emotional texture they were able to impart to that environment. The characters' texture and form have been reduced and that of the environment increased. There was never in reality water this full of life, vegetation with this much unified presence. They moved the old story-focused director out and moved in a texture animator and incidentally gave him a story to tell.
It is not typical of Pixar that the filmmaker is allowed to make a statement, but here we have him creating a character that enters the story and announces his intentions. He is part of the environment, appearing first as a tree and stepping out to be a multi horned creature that 'collects' pets that each play a role. This is one of the most sophisticated in jokes I recall, directly related to the focus on the background as foreground.
Mahi va gorbeh (2013)
Wandering, not Wondering
Gosh I live in such rich disappointment. When I encounter someone who naturally understands cinema and who has the potential to affect me, I want him/her to. I want love to follow beauty.
This is an extraordinary film, unique in my experience. It happens in what we think of as real time with no edits. The camera is always on, following someone at eye height. The flow is continuous, yet we encounter many of the same events in this continuum but slightly different each time, never in a way that changes things. Tarkovsky did something like this.
We shift from dialog, often shouted to encounter points far away, to inner narration to 'direct to us' narration.
The first encounter provides an extra loop from the offscreen past that overlaps, and this happens again in the middle, giving us the feeling of a fabric we cannot escape. The setting is a sparse wood, adding to the abstract tone. I was so completely captured, so completely in the control of this filmmaker, that I was prepared to encounter something beyond. Oh how I wanted this. It never came, and in fact the last five minutes are botched. We know something is going to happen but we oddly move from implication to the explicit, followed by an 8 1/2 inspired musical punctuation.
This also was a disappointment though hardly rare. Few filmmakers know how to leave us. This is a young filmmaker, and I will want to see what he learns about life; I fear he may not have much opportunity.
Which brings me to the extra dimension for me. I am an embarrassingly typical US viewer, though I am confident I understand ancient Persian history well. The primary cast here is young Iranians, university students on an outing. Such students play a different role in society than their counterparts in the West, but the major mismatches are much more profound.
That society is no more flawed, even ridiculous than ours, but it is far easier to see from the outside, and loop it back to myself. Small loves of course and small lives as well. Dread that conveys, and human-maintained desperation, not in the least self-aware. It is an added dimension for me, but not enough to save this film.
I almost wish for something less ambitious but which matters. But in all honesty I vacillate.
Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (2016)
What is written writes itself
Can't say enough good things about this.
Let's start with what it is not. It is not rewarding long form filmmaking. It is TeeVee, and despite the rush of talent into TeeVee series, and their ability to engage, this will never be the sort of thing that we go to for lucid dream walking. The techniques I will be lauding here have been used for decades in films that matter, let's say for example by Ruiz. But never in the mainstream like this.
But this thrills me because it makes explicit folding the default for popular entertainment. Oh, it is masked by energy and OCD. And too much is 'explained' by way of drugs, mind palaces and so on. But this is mainstream, big time popular stuff and its primary structure is that of folding.
We have a Victorian character set in modern times who is transported back to the referenced context. This is done by drugs, by an unrelated inner space of visualized 'working out.' We have the reality, two realities in fact conflated with the stories written in each reality, sometimes shifting control. We have the fold that Conan Doyle put in, the one about Mycroft and Holmes directing each other.
And then there is the staging where reality and the account of reality are merged.
And we get it. We like it. Ten years ago, we were still in Mary Tyler Moore territory. A mass audience wouldn't follow these shifts in abstraction, these skips among parallel realities and creating spaces. I wish it were not served as a device to keep the attention of dopes that can't pay attention. But it is sophisticated abstract reasoning nonetheless, and we didn't have that, even remotely when I was a kid.
Not Thirsty Enough
Having seen and been unhealthily engaged in 'Thirst' I acquired this.
It reminded me of a similar disappointment. One of my most trusted filmmakers is Kar Wai Wong, someone who has expanded my electric cage. His first non-English film 'Blueberry Night' was every bit as ambitious as, say, 'Chun King Express," but had none of the adventure. None of the crazy veers past the guard rail. I suppose it was because at home, his crew understood intuitive shifting as you go. His borrowed US crew had no idea, so he just had to plow through the seafood to the nauseous end.
This is less of a failure. Many of the themes, urges and cinematic devices from 'Thirst' are here.
The actress seems to understand, but she's just too much of a person where she needs to be a simple container of undirected, temporarily knotted desires.
The Charlie in this one isn't much different than Hitchcock's Uncle Charlie, more mad, but as much in control. Too much control for what I think Chan-wook Park had in mind. But he had a script, and not the room to intuitively embellish. Does simply using US assets kill non-character oriented improvisation?
No Lust, Too Cautionary
I've written before about the tendency in film to couple a love story with some radical political turmoil. The reason is simply that love is not inherently cinematic. Sex is and female attractiveness can be, but I'm talking here about the dimensions of love and in particular that dangerous love that swallows all else, bringing certain ruin.
We have many examples of this, including Ang Lee's amazing 'Lust, Caution.' I mention that film because it worked; it drew me in, made me re-experience my own love and terrified me. This is one thing a film can do, entangle experiences. When one is in control of a master storyteller, but out of control of the viewer, and the personal engagements of the viewer are also out of control, you get a mix of reliving a part of your life knowing *someone* is in control.
I also mention is because it is much the same story as in this film, involving the same events. But Lust works. This doesn't. Part of the problem is the director of course. We know the story works; it is based on a well understood cinematic dynamic. We've seen these actors be effective before. In this comment, I would like to focus on one error. It isn't the only one; the main problem is that the director is meek. The thing of interest to me is the attempt to build on noir.
Noir is simple: a random guy is manipulated by forces beyond his control, and those forces, by a few conventions, are merged with our identities as viewers. It has some indicators. It starts with the hero in a very bad spot, then establishes itself as a narrated story, with the hero as narrator. There are a few cinematic ticks as well and we get these early enough to get the message.
The basic problem, I think, is that these two cinematic traditions do not naturally mix. They grew over 60 - 70 years, each of them. Each has shortcuts to an implied contract between viewer and filmmaker.
What Lust did was place the viewer in the story. We suffer as the characters do, carrying angst against the unknown. What noir does is place the viewer outside the story as manipulator of fate, together with the filmmaker. Both can disturb, engage, reward but the machinery is different.
I'll Follow You Down (2013)
I think I would like to warn you off of this one.
The opportunity that time travel stories offers is the ability to retroactively change what you have seen.
In normal stories, this is one of the most effective devices we have, a way for the author to toy with the very act of comprehending the world. It can be cast as a game between author and viewer as they cocreate the story and tease each other. Time machine movies make that explicit. Con and deceptive movies also do this, make the game an explicit part of the contract.
But for it to work, the force of what changes has to be strong enough to be accepted by the viewer, provide enough energy to drive the reinvention of what we have already accepted. Chris Nolan is a master of this; I'll trust him explicitly, investing more in what he offers as the setup than in anyone else. Many time travel movies get this.
Looper, Primer and Predestination are movies that don't exploit this, presenting puzzles that are intriguing but use travel of the old fashioned kind, the H G Welles kind the we simply watch. But this film depends on the reinvention; the characters talk about it for an hour.
A man is a genius college professor. He has a greater genius son, also a professor, who figures out time travel. Alas, it involves coils, a cabinet and a flash of light. He gets incidentally killed on his first trip back. Those that are left are unhappy with their lives. His son is the greatest genius of the bunch and reinvents the machine to go back to change things, but only a few things.
The last five minutes is what this genius comes up with, when he goes back in time to meet his newly arrived Dad. If you are like me, someone who expects some narrative magic, who wants that thrill you get on first watching The Sting or Sixth Sense, you will be disappointed and a bit angry.
Much else in this film is done well. The score in particular is good.
You'll get hints of the disappointment. A lone genius poring over an equation-laden chalkboard looking for that one insignificant error, as if it were the point of the movie, Poirot-style. Some poorly researched mumbo jumbo about relativity and quantum mechanics as if they were the solution to a next generation of understanding rather than barriers. A final revelation that produces absolute confidence. Simple interpersonal dynamics, the kind you can sketch on a timeline without missing anything essential. (That timeline is actually a prop in the story.)
And then we get the end, the action our genius among genies has calculated with similar precision.
But it makes no sense. I usually don't need or even want sense in a film, but you need it here if you expect us to reweave things. And we don't get it.
Lawrence Olivier was an actor who delivered rewards, but acting is not storytelling and sometimes the opposite is the case. He made a well regarded Hamlet and approached it as expected; he inhabited the character and let *that* being drive what was presented. If only he understood the confounding dynamic structure the author erected to allow us to have at each instant several beings inhabiting that soul. The beauty of the play is in how their layers, folds and governance stay always ahead of our ability to cleanly see the world's edges.
Suchet has similar power over the detective he has played now for some time. He has inhabited the character and extended him far beyond what the author envisioned. Some of it is quite impressive and affords the intensity Suchet (or any actor) desires. But it fights the structure Christie mastered. It is a matter of personal discovery for me that I crave both Christie and Shakespeare.
The former is about abstract purity, logical clarity where emotion is color only. Shakespeare uses urge as his primary quality, where urges can be spiky or smoky, weaving and stinking. He conveys reason without logic, sense without cleanliness.
Christie's villains are simply wicked. The story is a matter of presenting logical impossibilities and having our detective sort them so that they are physically possible. These are logic puzzles. The characters have emotions, color and even motive as a second order. Her attention was all in the form; she could have no suspect be the murderer, or all. The narrator could be, or the murdered themselves. The more physically impossible, and the more unlikely the solution, the better. Like Holmes, Poirot would be far more interested in resolution than justice.
Most editions of this story have a diagram of the coach, showing who could see what and where anyone could move. Facts as they appeared and were reshaped were all done so in this physical context. The Sidney Lumet 1974 version preserved all this while adding enough color to satisfy viewers who did not want to engage with the story, helping to sort the pieces.
This version has none of that detective folding, where we work with the detective. The impossibilities of the murder are largely omitted. The culpability of the porter is necessary here but ignored. On the other hand, we have three fine locomotives. I don't know where they got that remarkable train, but it would be a great addition to any competent story.
And of course we have Suchet, who seems to be far ahead of all the other production assets in defining what the story is and what it is about. I am not a fan of the notion that each character has/is one primary urge and the bumping of these urges is what drama is about. No, that doesn't work for me. But it is interesting to see the control he has, dragging all else behind to suit.
The big surprise for me: Jessica Chastain! What a presence, something between Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore and every bit as powerful.
Suchet could take lessons; power is in what you give away to make your world work.
A Two: has some interesting elements.
This promises two things.
One is a lightweight system to connect an App with a movie. You download the free App and launch it. It listens to the film and synchronizes some images and a little video from time to time. This is a fantastic idea, but in this case the experience wasn't expanded. The main effect is that the movie is purportedly about an app with the same name that takes over your phone and life, potentially very spooky, like having Ringu in your VHS player.
The other promise is a new twist on the charmed evil object merged with the trope of an AI system capable of gathering from anywhere and reaching everywhere. We've seen too many from the AI side already, many of them so uninformed they cannot register. They may as well use genies.
That's something of what goes on here. In fact we have three horror notions merged.
The app in some instances has to be placed on the phone but in others not. It seems to be connected to everything that is online, but the appearance and behavior is unsophisticated.
It also is magical, turning on a radio that it knows will bounce into a pool; driving a truck into a car. Making a phone explode. Reading minds.
We also have the technologist conspirators, a supposedly bright student and a medical doctor who have placed this app here and there and also control it to some extent. There is no discernible logic to what we see, though. (The app kills the student.)
A typical high tech NSA conspiracy plot can use these without much question: the organization is evil and the tech is often out of control. Simple.
Some deaths occur to keep the app undisclosed. The app appears to spy on the student's old girlfriends. It is used to try to control prosthetics for the heroine's crippled brother
One episode seems purely evil, revealing a completely unrelated gay encounter between student and professor. You've got to be pretty soft in the head to not let these key matters get in the way.
No redeeming content, despite the downloadable second screen experience.
Maiko wa redî (2014)
The story itself is about adapting from a not ideal Japanese state to the purest state, a Geisha. In Japan, the rural north is considered to consist of country bumpkins, something like in the US we associate with the South. A Geisha's training includes many arts but primarily speaking, and doing so in the pure, accent-free native Kyoto dialect.
A girl raised by her grandparents speaks the northern dialect and is otherwise ungraceful. She wants to enter training in a Kyoto teahouse as a Maiko, an apprentice Geisha. (She later learns she is the daughter of a favored Geisha.)
While the story is about merging the natural talent, grace and beauty of this girl into the perfect Japanese ideal, the form of the story is anything but. Excepting perhaps Denmark, Japan has the most distinct cinematic traditions and when a film deviates from these or borrows from elsewhere it is remarkable. 'Tampopo' was intriguing because of how it adopted French adaptations of US gangster films.
This tries a similar but more radical experiment. I cannot say how it plays in Japan, but boy it sure did not work for me.
The story is roughly "My Fair Lady" both in form — it is a musical — and in the way this girl is sponsored and trained by a linguistic professor for his own ends. The musical form, however, is not from the Broadway tradition but from Bollywood, including an end dance sequence with all the players dancing in concert together with standard Bollywood sequined costumes and many characters from diverse films, like Snow White.
It its a bold experiment. I saw it on an transcontinental Delta flight, often a dumping ground for failed but quirky international films. I'd be really interested in how was received natively, but from here all the seams are unsewn.
Some interesting elements.
Luke rewrites Matthew
This is a replacement comment for the one written on opening night. I've had a chance to see it again, this time in 3D, and of course think about it.
The big picture here is that the creative team made a modern film in the sense that it is folded, meaning it is about itself and how it presents other films. There are hundreds of examples of this of course, but this is the biggest movie in history, so something important is going on. In thousands of comments here, I've remarked on this new development, where more and more films have introspective dynamics. We are changing how we think, managing thoughts on at least two levels: the story and the story about the story, or how the story is presented. There is real power in this, because such introspection is a half step away from seeing yourself while being yourself, and that is half a step away from what might be called living the force.
An example: the story in this film had to recycle elements from the previous ones (actually just the first two). What is our heroine about but literally scavenging elements from the prior films? Throughout, the term 'scavenger' is used as an insult but Rey carries it proudly. She clearly knows something about herself we don't.
Our first scene with her matters. We have been transported with captured Poe into the hanger bay of a star destroyer, which Poe finds impressive. Immediately after, we have Rey rappelling into an identical bay from the last Star Wars saga. She will later fly through this and other parts of that wreckage.
About the handling of space. Other than story details, this had to have been much chewed over, because since the original films, our conventions of what a camera is have changed. The original two films were themselves intended to be retro in how they handled the camera. In 1977, the techniques attributed to Hitchcock and Welles were common, where the camera was no longer passive. It became our representative in the film, subtly indicating what we would do if we were there, or what role we would play. The camera could be curious, for instance, show revulsion or fascination. Lucas chose to have the camera be as it was in the 40's. This is one reason dePalma and Coppola thought the movie stunk. But that and the practical effects worked for us, indeed became part of what we loved.
Now flash forward to a time where no action movie can be made without the active camera, the camera as our representative. What balance does Abrams find, but to have two film philosophies interwoven. In all the 'character' scenes, the effects are mostly practical and the camera is retro. In all the action scenes, the effects are mostly GCI and the camera is the modern one. The difference is striking because Lucas used a 1930 Howard Hughes dogfight movie as his template for the space battles. Here we still have spacecraft moving as if they were biplanes moving fast, but the weaves among them and among the camera are modern. (This was pioneered by Pixar, and their direct influence is obvious in the 3D version.)
One final observation on the story reflecting the film itself. When Lucas and Kurtz invented the characters for the first film, they paid a lot of attention to archetypes. Most commonly cited is the work of Joseph Campbell but they more deeply studied the most popular of these, the Jesus story. (They didn't mention this for obvious reasons.) Think of Mark as history and each of the following gospels as episodes that added to the story.
Mark (without the later ending) is about a preacher of parables with no special birth and no resurrection. Matthew in the next episode adds a virgin birth, influence from Persia and Egypt (then considered magical) and rising from the dead. Where Mark had him in the Nazarene desert, Matthew brought him into cosmic battle.
The third episode written as 'history' emphasized Jesus role in building an order of followers, whose collective adherence to (lets call it) the force will sweep over the planet and redeem it. The devil appears here with his own order, the 'first order' chronologically created.
One might assume that the name Luke Skywalker was random, or that it mirrored Lucas' name. But this is not the case, and this is something Kasdan understood. All he did was give us the Jesus story filtered through Kurosawa.
Why mention this? Because Kasdan is again on the case and what he does is metaphorically overlay Luke on Matthew, giving us both.
Cinematic Inner Minds
17 years on. Not a bad time to evaluate a film for merit. Supposing it doesn't work — this one doesn't — we have a chance to reflect on its place in history. Yes we have the beloved Robin Williams in his least lovable mode: physical slapstick and Asbergers brilliance. We have Elfman at his least attractive self as well, before he assembled the creative team that makes catchy honking jingles in his name.
We have no change from the quantum states of film scientist: evil or goofy or the guy that-saves-the-world. We have John Hughes and his brand of injury slapstick just as it was becoming unfunny. The CGI creature was not technically impressive; it had been half a decade since Cameron's liquid metal.
But we do have one element that is really interesting. If you have not seen this recently, we have a genius scientist/inventor of the Tony Stark variety — someone who can both 'invent' chemically and construct robot gismos. One of these is a humanized floating globe robot, who seems to be primarily a companion. The way this is written, the robot is physically real and combats the bad guys.
But she occupies other interesting spaces as well. She is (has been created as?) a love interest. She (using an ordinary Windows machine) is capable of creating a holographic projection of a perfect female to 'love' our professor. The romance plot turns on her loving him so much that she heals his romance with the real girl, a tepid soul. (The voice is Jodi Benson who will be known in countless households as the Disney Princess Prime.)
Much, much more interesting is the role of the floating orb as the inner voice of our Asbergers Autist. What she actually says is uninteresting; how she says it is fascinating. When something important is to be communicated, she pops up a screen that has a short scene or image from an old movie (from the Disney archive).
As it happens, this is not for the professor to see. He often isn't looking. It is for us to see, a direct connection with the audience, but presented so that we understand it as the image in the shared mind at that moment. It is a pretty remarkable device, having memories of film illustrate what is in someone's mind. It is perhaps the fundamental challenge of film. Books can take you in the mind and soul. Films can show you things that indirectly have to do so.
Robin Williams had nothing to do with writing this or elaborating it as he often did. But now that he is gone, it is tempting to redo these scenes and composite in the film sequences that were likely in his hyperactive mind, as far from Asbergers as one can get without destruction.
The Nation's Road
When I write about folding, rarely do I mention this sort. There are two threads here, designed to reinforce each other.
One thread is a story about a modern Indian woman, someone who might fit into an American movie well enough. In standard noir form, she finds herself in challenging situations. This unrolls expertly. Though the basic story is just the chase of a woman by dangerous men, we get enough new circumstance to engage. The signature scene, the apparent payoff is at the end where she gets some revenge, calmly reflected on.
Another thread is intended for the Indian audience and is a bit hard for this American to enter. India is Hindu in the way Israel and Pakistan base their national identity on a religious one. There are many such nations, all with a burden of medieval practice.
The dynamic of noir is that the unlikely events occur as if the viewer were in the film, manipulating as if they were gods in the displayed world. Some filmmakers work with this to create dissonance between who we think we are and what we like to experience.
In this case, the audience is Hindu. The situation this woman is put in by those Hindus is witness to an honor killing, thereby becoming a victim. A family kills their daughter for falling in love with someone from a different sub caste. The offense is so severe that brutality as extreme as possible is warranted. Local police support this.
For me as an American, the noir dynamic is uncomplicated: do I like to see a woman in distress gain control of the thugs around her? For Indians, the noir dynamic is deeper and far more disturbing: This is who you are in some deep way, these rural dangers in designer clothes, these people obsessed with a religious identity that acts, these zealots who anchor your identity.
I can see it, but because my story sails on different waters, I am not sunk. For native viewers, the tragedy is that this woman survives.
Tian jiang xiong shi (2015)
Government Clerks Somewhere
This is the second of the big budget films I have seen recently that are funded by the Beijing government, have an overt propaganda message, revisit a key historic event that shaped the current nation, have a framing with modern young people discovering and appreciating the lesson and have a huge production budget.
It is also the second that lacks any life, rather like the Chinese cities I have visited: lots of motion, noise and people but not much soul.
I literally was able to watch this side by side with the new Mad Max, because the guy next to me on the plane was watching that film. I was reminded that the effects in that (and Iron Man 3, which I also recently saw) had personality in roughly the same way that Hitchock's camera can be said to have introduced personality.
Things flow in those films in ways that subtly excite. When we have masses of something, the mass seems heavy, full of urge and power. We don't just see spectacle, we understand it. Here, we have a few grand vistas, many large elaborate environments and many huge armies, often in battle. There is scant choreography of the marvelous kind that Yimou Zhang gives us. It is instead just massive staging with a conventional camera — the sort of thing that Mel Gibson gave with his Scottish movie. It was forgivable then. Not now.
I think Chinese young people are every bit as sophisticated as young people elsewhere. While they are sadly as susceptible to nationalism as the rest of us, they can see when the message is blunted by government clerks.
"Yes, the West is simply bent on subjugating us, and are stronger, but they are far from home. We have heart, determination and guile. We can make friends with them while they are here, but in a couple thousand years they will be hard to recall and our young people will still be here."
That, told noisily.
But it has Jackie Chan! My heavens, Jackie at what 60? Still doing the better-fighter-than-you performances. The battles themselves are choreographed dully, but he seems to bring his own people and gives us the familiar product.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
I'm surprised that Downey has held out this long. At some point, you have enough money and want to return to your art. He says this is his last, and I believe him. What we have in this case is him on his way out, dictating terms. And we have a pretty good movie as a result, far better that the earlier ones and leagues better than the usual Marvel.
He booted out the director and got the guy he worked with on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. That film found a distance between noir detective movies and self-satire that was novel, delicious. It is carried over to here. No one but kiddies can take these movies seriously, so the game is to find that space in between the world you show and the world of the viewer.
Usually it has to be reflectively comic. Guardians used that effectively. What we have here is more subtle, letting the genre itself be the joke. It isn't just that the villain is an actor; the idea permeates the whole world.
He booted out the writer and got the hot new guy, someone who understands snappy situations and narrative distance. He'll probably burn out, but here he matters.
He changed the formula from girl-in-distress to give Pepper some kickass scenes. And finally, he fired ILM and got WETA. So we now have some sense of spatial imagination and adventure where before we had dull bombast.
This adds up to a great deal of fun for me. Sure, there are a lot of things that don't make sense and are pretty dull, but they are in different places and ways than with the usual Marvel product. You can't eliminate these, but shifting them is novel, competent, self-aware and appreciated.
If he leaves the franchise, he will have done so with some honor, and some demonstration that he knows what he is doing. Bless you Mr. Downey.
42 One Dream Rush (2010)
Film is a remarkable medium. The broad class of storytelling and related emotional invocation is similarly broad. Watching these affirms my commitment to something else: long form cinema.
These are short form, about a minute or so. Some are by well known filmmakers, including some I truly admire. Others involved seem to be popular figures in the art scene. The provenance of the project seems to have been a liquor distributor, the target the Beijing Film Festival, and the theme dreaming.
Some are simple depictions of dreaming. Others try to register some evocative, usually disturbing dream. And yet others treat their project as if it were art as it seems to be defined today.
I will leave it to others whether that latter class is worth your attention. What intrigues me is which of these work because they used the power of cinema and narrative to work for me.
Films that work do so by making a story that entangles with the stories I host internally. They entangle one another in ways (usually more than one) where I cannot escape being changed.
When you have a sixty second film you need to do more than merely capture attention. You cannot slide us into a world, you have to shiv into the one I carry, ideally through an unguarded invagination.
The depressing thing is that not one of these did this for me. Quite possibly seeing them all at once makes this difficult but I think the opposite is the case. After a couple, you open yourself to the rhythm; you prepare yourself to carry the unresolved. You rest into concentrated vision.
Only one of these drew me back time and again and surprised me because it is the least cinematic in the traditional sense. And the most open in the narrative sense.
Do not read further until you see it.
It is by Rinko Kikuchi and features her face. She opens it enough and we have enough time to join it on our own terms. We map our own story onto it because she gives us absolutely none.
And then after we have voyaged with her in our story, she expertly takes control and a tear appears. You simply cannot avoid crying. For me it was a gasp and tears. It isn't her. It is my own revealed grief evoked.
You need to see this. The others might be interesting in some context, but not cinema, not narrative.
Ryan McGinley has an arresting segment.
This should be classified in the "visitor" genre where an outsider shows up and changes lives. Using my definition of noir it is reverse noir.
As is common, this is someone from outer space who gets puzzled by our obsession with religion. It has to be this kind of outsider because no place on the planet seems to have escaped.
This element of the film is unrewarding. The shots are of the cheapest kind, targeting plain fakes. He could have easily gone deeper but then it wouldn't be a funny dancing movie.
The happy surprise here is the appealing actress. She is between Audrey Hepburn in the early days and the character Amelie. I have viewed deeply in Hindi films, and she may work a lot.
Zhi qu wei hu shan (2014)
The Japanese Win?
About a 2D viewing.
This is very clearly produced under Party sponsorship to celebrate the soldiers who won the country. The contrast with US WWII films is striking. We require tough heroes, where here there is something more noble.
Two remarkable things...
The film has an odd framing device that one can only imagine was dreamed up by a Party official. A modern Chinese youngster is off to Silicon Valley as a sort of genius. He watches on an iPhone an old movie of this event, apparently staged by the Peking Opera.
In between, we have this film. At the end, we discover that he owes his existence to this and by implication his education and opportunity.
The time is set right after the collapse of the Japanese occupation. Warlords have seized the armaments and sustenance and for the People's Republic to succeed, ragtag groups must prevail. (No mention of the official government.)
The strange thing is that though produced by Chinese, it is thoroughly Japanese. Kurosawan to be precise.
The filmmaker remarks on this in a fun way: the movie is over, having presented the 'real' story. Then our young modern kid imagines an alternative ending, and it is thoroughly Indiana Jones.
Incidentally, the stunts and effects are pretty ordinary except for a sequence with a tiger. This was amazing. Had to be real.