Monday, January 30, 2012

The horror! The horror! or The Devil Within Possessed Audience Members

Lately on the blogs, along with commentary about the 2011 movie year, I have read quite a few comments about the rude behavior of audience members and how it seems to be getting worse. On The SLIFR Movie Tree House conversations hosted by Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule a post by Jason Bellamy that refers to some disruption during a showing of The Tree of Life, and the comments section includes a number of comments by Craig about the behaviors of various moviegoing Philistines. On Twitter, Jason chalked up The Grey as his first viewing of 2012, but he unfortunately had to chalk up five rude texters.

Yes, the horrors perpetrated by audience members abound, and during my first viewing of 2012, I ran into one of my worst experiences with moviegoing demons, though I blame nobody but myself for my choice of film and time: the late showing of The Devil Within on opening night.

Well might you wonder what possessed me to do such a thing. First of all, a colleague had piqued my interest in the movie when he said he had read good things about it. Then, that Friday, I had to chaperone a school dance, my least favorite duty. My early shift over, I needed to see a movie as an antidote to loud music chosen by middle-schoolers, so I thought I’d take in a 9:30 show. Expecting the late show to be less frequented, I was surprised to find the ticket line packed, and as I entered the cinema in a steady stream of people, I found nearly every seat occupied in the huge stadium theater. Other horror movies I had seen last year had been very sparsely attended. “Is this supposed to be a good movie?” I asked someone entering next to me. “Yeah,” he said.

I found a seat up in the back. A couple of seats to my left, the 20-something woman in the row behind had her entire foot wedged in between two seat backs. Since said foot resided a few seats away, I opted for letting it alone. Then a couple came in and asked me to move down so that they could sit together, which I did, but this put my head right next to the big foot.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

"At once terrible and of a great beauty": The Grey

What I like most about Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, a raw, gory, gripping Arctic survival tale, is that it is a raw, gory, gripping Arctic survival tale. In my book, that alone makes it a film worth watching, but this Arctic tale offers more.

The Grey follows the typical survival story pattern: plane crashes in a snowy wasteland; non-survivors die; survivors huddle; some panic and want to give up; some seem determined to survive; one take-charge guy rallies the men (the sole stewardess has died) to survive against the cold, and the hungry and very aggressive wolves whose space has been violated.

What elevates The Grey above your typical Arctic survival tale is its central character: a man named John Ottway, played excellently by Liam Neeson, a guard/sniper hired to protect the wild-and-wooly Arctic oil refinery workers who love to drink and brawl. What makes Neeson’s character interesting is that he is a deeply troubled individual, suicidal, the son of a drunken but poetic Irish father (seen in flashback images that reminded me of The Tree of Life). Ottway is also very much in love with a woman (seen in flashback images, saying, “Don’t be afraid”), but there is some unnamed division between them (Is it death?) that has separated him from her and sent him to this faraway outpost.

Another factor that elevates The Grey, another reason that I like it, is that it’s not just an action movie. There is a lot of action involving the unrelentingly vicious wolves, but the film also takes time to be a thoughtful exploration of the meaning of life and death in the wilderness, reminiscent of James Dickey’s To the White Sea and just about everything that Cormac McCarthy has written.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Ninth Nomination

When I opened the Oscar Nominations live online at 8:38 EST on Tuesday morning, I was between classes, and I ran the rest of it as my A.P. English Literature students took their seats. At first, the colorful little rectangles stacked up symmetrically, four on one side of announcers Jennifer Lawrence and Tom Sherak, and four on the other.

(If you missed it, you can watch it now.)

Eight movies stacked up, and I had seen them all! Suddenly, up popped the ninth nomination: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. What a surprise! I didn’t even know it had been released in 2011; I thought its release had been delayed. It had only opened on Cape Cod on Friday. Well, this put a wrinkle in my viewing sweep! Being the obsessive-compulsive individual I am, I was determined to smooth things out.

So I taught my classes, including my challenging group of ADHD 8th graders who turn distractedness into an art form. After school, I directed a Drama Club rehearsal until 4:30, and then I went home, made dinner, bade farewell to wife and daughter, and made the 7:00 showing, ready to escape into a movie after a stressful day.

When I got home, I compared notes with my wife who had read the novel. She told me the book had left her cold, and she had found it frustratingly gimmicky. And that’s exactly how I had felt about the movie.

I enjoyed elements of Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about the odyssey of Oskar Schell, an anti-social, highly intellectual child, possibly with Asperger syndrome, who searches the boroughs of New York City for the lock that will fit a key left by Oskar’s father who has been killed in the 9/11 disaster.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Movie History: Red Tails (2012) and Jackie Chan's 1911 (2011)

Will cocky, ever-so-cheerful-in-battle African American fighter pilots prove to the racist white officers in the Pentagon that they will be brave under fire as they escort B-17 bombers on their mission? Oh, yes they will. (Historically, I don’t know where the white officers were coming from, saying in a report in the early 1900s that African Americans were essentially cowards. Hadn’t black soldiers already fought bravely and died in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War?)

With this central conflict, the World War II historical action movie Red Tails (whose title refers to the red tails painted on the planes the African Americans flew) is very much a made-for-television affair. But the film’s tangential plotlines and its visual scope turn it into an epic historical film that is too lengthy for its own good.

Along with ample scenes showing that yes, indeed, the African American aces under the command of Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard) and Major Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) are not afraid to shoot down Jerries led by the stereotypically venomous and scar-faced Kraut “Pretty Boy” (Lars van Riesen), the film spends time on the highly improbable love story between Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo) and a gorgeous Italian woman (Daniela Ruah). It even turns prison camp movie when “Junior” (Tristan Wilds) ends up in a German P.O.W. camp where he impresses white American inmates by helping their escape effort in the role of “scrounger.” Later, he distracts a guard from shooting an escapee who sticks his head out of the tunnel in a scene that borrows unimaginatively from The Great Escape

Throughout, Red Tails makes up for its hackneyed central plot by providing lots to look at. The pilots live and work in a vast Italian airfield that is vividly rendered in sprawling long shots, and there are no limits to the action enhanced by CGI as the daredevil “Lightning” shoots up a train, then a battleship, then an entire German airfield. In the film’s climactic battle, a dizzying visual overload of flying images, the brave pilots defend B-17 bombers in an attack by German jet planes that whiz past in a blur. This is the first depiction of propeller-driven fighter planes pitted against World War II jets that I’ve seen! In a slip-up, however, “Lightning” shoots down a German jet and says, “That puts an end to Pretty Boy,” but how the hell did he identify the German pilot in his much faster jet?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

"It's gotta have horses."

The following reflection is not about War Horse.

This is a thought that came to me when I went to a site listing upcoming 2012 movies and, to my disappointment, the prospects looked bleak. I’m a big fan of science fiction, so I’m looking forward to Prometheus, but I’m also a big fan of Westerns (which are relegated to HBO these days), historical epics, and period pieces. I like a film that transports you to another time and place. So, looking at the list of upcoming films, and thinking of the movies I had seen in 2011 and the scarcity of great period films, I remembered a discussion about movies that had led to the question, “What must a film have in order to be a great film?” and I had responded, “It’s gotta have horses.”

When answering the above question, I wasn't expressing a love of horses, and I wasn't just thinking about Westerns and historical epics. When I thought of films that I consider great, they all seemed to have horses (or at least one horse) in them.

Asked to apply my criterion to specific films, I had mentioned three of my favorite films, which I also consider great films: Lawrence of Arabia, The Searchers, and Ben-Hur (1959). (Some might argue that the last film is not a great film, but to each his own.)

Then, the suggestion was made that my criterion was too restrictive. It seemed to point mostly to Westerns and period pieces. “Not so,” I said. If you think The Godfather is a great film, don’t worry. It meets the criterion. If you think Vertigo is a great film, think about the wooden horse in the mission museum. Citizen Kane? Don’t forget the horse-drawn wagon that splashes mud on Kane just before he meets Susan Alexander. The Graduate? Monkeys! Damn, no horse.

Applying this criterion to more recent movies, I’m happy to see that it includes The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, There Will Be Blood, and The New World. The Tree of Life, my pick for the best film of 2011, has horses on the cowboy bedspread in the boys’ room, but that might be stretching the rule. With all those images, there must be another horse in the film! But Melancholia, #2 on my list of the best films of 2011, definitely has horses that are key to its story and imagery. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, my pick for the best summer release - horses!

So here’s the deal. Think of great films that you love – perhaps the first five that come to mind. Do they meet the horse criterion? Or, if you don’t want to do it that way, provide your own response to the question, “What must a film have in order to be a great film?” and keep your answer limited to one specific requirement.