[2001] A Beautiful Mind

115135696_1300x1733Myth supersedes man.

It is impossible to tell in two hours the mess of a man who simultaneously gave language to a fundamental human condition and who also couldn’t, at times, distinguish between real and not real. Thankfully, for the applied economics work that he described so succinctly and eloquently, he did not kill anyone in its stead. Because John Nash held both of these extremes inside of his brain simultaneously, if not incongruously, his story is intrinsically interesting because of the questions it generates: how did he keep himself together enough to give us his famous theory? What challenges did he face and how did he overcome them? Which characters influenced him and how did they evolve to meet him where he was? What don’t we see? Instead of a round look at the person who was, A Beautiful Mind chooses to highlight Nash’s best self, tempering it with periods of prolonged strife. The narrative is clean if not flawed.

In her biography, Sylvia Nasar does not shy away from John Nash the man; in his adaptation, Ron Howard does, and creates John Nash the character, the John Nash that now, outside mathematics and economics enthusiasts, a plurality of audience members know. This is not a problem. As an audience, each person has to decide what to believe, which is the basis of myth. But: a movie like A Beautiful Mind does help us attempt to answer the question of what is more worthwhile from a biography like this, pure truth, as we might expect from the Oscar, or pure entertainment, which we might expect from E!

The distinction between the two is not necessarily evenly distributed. Picture this: there is not a straight line between pure documentary and pure entertainment and the best films hit some sort of apex of some sort of normal distribution. Or, at least, they are supposed to. Empirically, if this is the case, there should be some objective, measurable data to determine “BEST.” Didactically, there is no data besides financial returns and those tend to correspond to popularity, not necessarily quality, and there is no way to marry the two without editorializing the results. So: how should we, as individual readers, and, potentially as a voting bloc, judge the man John Nash as we (or they) evaluate the myth John Nash? Let’s look at a few examples.

Continue reading “[2001] A Beautiful Mind”

[1935/2012] Les Misérables

Film without music is a bizarre experience. It is theoretically possible to edit out non-story musical moments from any film – all that is required is the audio stems and a big mute button. The experience would be cold, mildly alluring, and tremendously disjointed. Film scores, often referred to as “the background music,” are clever editing tools to guide an audience through complex story concepts; musical themes signal to the audience that this character has that relationship with this event. Repeat these musical motifs and there exists a complementary story line and tools to tell it. The themes, tone, and timbre of a film are all usually told through a musical story. There is sufficient cause to praise scores within and without the context of their respective films and there is sufficient reason to know of these composers: John Williams, Howard Shore come to mind. Schindler’s List and The Lord of The Rings are treated as masterful because of the treatment of tone via music.

There is instead a different take with movie musicals – in which the music is the purpose – and the dialogue serves as transitory at best. This is also different from operatic performance, in which the transitory dialogue is the music. The music is almost always cloyingly nice or dramatically silly. There is room for comedic musicals and overdramatic musicals on purpose. Musicals are marketed as universal and inoffensive – even ones that deal in subjects whose accompanying music sanitizes horror or deleterious violence. And parents will take their children to see them because enjoying music is a universal human trait, innate to children and there is no need to explain what music is to a toddler or pre-teen. Their purpose is to entertain, and they almost uniformly do. There is no objective rub with film or stage musicals.

Les Misérables has been seen and not read for over a century, the first of whose adaptations appeared on screen in film’s first foray, J. Stuart Blackton’s 1909 take. Victor Hugo’s marvelous epic tale is historically rigorous, characteristically clear, and obviously adaptable to be acted, directed, and enjoyed. For 118 years, until 1980, Les Misérables was a film trafficked in dialogue, in characterization, in setting, and in continuity. But in 1980, music, now almost ubiquitous songs like “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Master of the House” define the story and frame it as an experience whose story is meant to sell the songs. And it has been wildly successful. Les Misérables’ 2012 adaptation was nominated for Best Picture, the film that best represented the world’s pulse for the year. It, however, was not the first version of this film to do so: 1935’s fifth adaptation (of now 17 overall) was filmed and nominated first. Despite the media narrative, 1935’s version is a better, more succinct and narratively sound version of Hugo’s original. It does not have songs (which were written in the late 1970s) and barely a score. But this film captures Hugo’s existential despair better than 2012’s cartoonish take. 

The success of 1935’s Les Misérables has roots in the limited technological ability of the time, so director Richard Boleslawski’s version required the earnestness and commanding presence of Fredric March’s Jean Valjean and Charles Laughton’s Inspector Javert to carry it; Tom Hooper’s 2012’s Hugh Jackman/Russel Crowe combination provided a vessel for the dialogue and lyrics, but ultimately half-commanded the screen, which emphasized theatrics and framing over keen acting performance. The strength of the music carried the later film, but its ultimate sterility fundamentally violates Hugo’s tale of despair and sacrifice. It is a chore to watch all 160 minutes of Hooper’s film. Also, and not to be understated, Russell Crowe cannot sing, nor realistically would Javert have any narrative reason to.

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[1944] Going My Way

In the modern era of CGI-to-reduce-cost-and-expand-purview a reader can appreciate the concept and withdraw from the premise itself; some filmmakers have become so adept at this new-ish style of blockbusting that the best way to create some kind of predictive modeling for success is to examine the allotments of a film’s budget by bucket – acting, tech, staffing, other, etc. – and plot perhaps comparable returns by genre. In this data-heavy approach many a fortune has been and will continue to be made by those who understand the underlying assumptions behind this premise. Before computer scientists called Odysseus to determine the fate of the Known Universe, a certain ebb and flow concerning how an audience viewed a film pre-digital is that the content sold the premise, and the acting usually sold the concept. There were no data to be dug.

And thus the appeal to 1944’s Best Picture winner, Going My Way. Continue reading “[1944] Going My Way”

[1950] All About Eve

I mean, but really All About Marilyn.

In her on-screen debut, Marilyn Monroe stole one scene for about fifteen seconds in a minor speaking role, surrounded by the film’s starring cast, and then commanded Hollywood’s attention for the next dozen years. Her medium, All About Eve, 1950’s Best Picture winner, commands a certain respect amongst film élite as a tour de force (nominated for 14 awards – including an as-of-yet unmatched 4 female acting awards). Bette Davis is superb here; George Saunders is sublime; Anne Baxter is adequate – but that may be part of her charm; Marilyn Monroe is radiant. Film and politics have enshrined Ms. Monroe as simply legendary for a few reasons: whether it be modern filmmaking dulls the senses as it attempts to jam technology down its readers’ eye-sockets and ear canals, in essence leveling the playing field, or whether it’s just that no other actor has graced the screen with such a furious radiance that Marilyn’s legacy simply multiplies ad infinitum and only grows with time.

All About Eve, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, is not all about Eve Harrington, but rather about her meteoric rise to fame and her inevitable downfall. It’s about the prescience of the next big thing and about the lives and histories and themes of the people an ambitious actor must crush to achieve. It’s about the different paths different actors (people, really) can take to accomplish a goal. It’s about not really understanding the method, but the ready-fire-aim approach. And it’s about coming to grips with one’s individual place within a group. Really, though Monroe’s Miss Casswell is immune to these issues. No amount of ambition will hold someone like her back. Continue reading “[1950] All About Eve”

[1961] The Guns of Navarone

Ok – so it’s been months since I’ve posted. Here we go.

Nineteen sixty-one saw the release and nomination of two post-World War II epic dramas. One, Judgement at Nuremberg, focused on a singular moral dilemma during the Nazi trials held at Nuremberg after the Paris Peace Conferences. This film capitalized on a particular formula – the courtroom drama – to display deep character analysis while holding other aspects like plot, setting and time static. It’s a clever and logical ordeal: Judgement at Nuremberg did not invent this process, nor did it define it. Movies like All The President’s Men and My Cousin Vinny have taken a modern approach to the concept – with wildly different motives and results, but the premise remains the same. The other, The Guns of Navarone, instead morphs the epic war film into a rag-tag collective film. Think Ocean’s ElevenZero Dark Thirty….on quaaludes.

It’s an interesting mash-up of two storytelling modes and this merger is necessarily clunky: the backdrop is World War II, but the Nazi officers’ attitudes seem relatively nonchalant and the conflict seems rather subdued. Set in the Aegean Sea, this conflict has seemingly nothing to do with the Nazi agenda insofar as the plot needed a malleable enemy. This movie is really about the connections between the cast – an emblazoned Gregory Peck as Captain Keith Mallory, an expert mountaineer, a moody and gloomy Anthony Quinn as Andrea Stavarou and smart-mouthed David Niven as Corporal Miller. Among this cast is a further rag-tag group of “doomed” men (and later…women!), sent to the island of Keros to disable radar-enabled anti-ship guns so that the Allied forces can sneak in and rescue a few thousand stranded men. That’s the plot for two-and-a-half hours.

Now, think about the simplicity of this concept: Nazis with no agenda, a black-and-white conflict with minor and almost inconsequential consequences, a cast of characters whose skills are almost irrelevant and a hackneyed moral climate….so the character palate better match that of Judgement at Nuremberg. I won’t ruin a major – the only – real conflict in this film, but I will say that since the audience knows in advance that the overall conflict will be successful, shouldn’t it have hurt to include actual, subtle drama amongst the cast besides some hurt feelings. On a scale of zero to GladiatorThe Guns of Navarone is a Sesame Street. Continue reading “[1961] The Guns of Navarone”

[1997] L.A. Confidential

God, if we could only track the lives of the characters we love through the lens of the actors who play them.

The narrative appeal is endless, if not ludicrous, for the thought that Marlon Brando’s actual life led him from the ‘coulda-been’ Terry Malone in On The Waterfront to boss-extraodinaire Veto Corleone in The Godfather; imagine that Jimmy Stewart kept playing self-flagellating characters throughout his actual life.

It’s a fun thought: we – as movie goers – would like to think that the piece we’re viewing picks up at a certain point, gives us a poignant glimpse and simply continues after the main conflict fades to end. We can then disengage from the surreality of the screen and return to our lives, whose experiences do build upon one another.

This is not how noir film works. Instead of a slice of the big fictional pie, noir rips through an entirety of a story in wildly emotional acts, leaving every stone unturned and not a single character the same, often not alive and occasionally better off dead. L.A. Confidential is no exception to this high concept and pays grand homage to noir film of decades past. As the apotheosis of the highly stylized neo-noir genre, L.A. Confidential is, in 2013, darkly comical in its treatment of actors-as-characters. I can’t hardly see James Cromwell, affable farmer in Babe, as a twisted captain or even more so Guy Pearce, pointillist in his proceedings as a lieutenant, as a man lost and never found in Memento. 

This is both a function of the genre and an externality of brash originality of this movie. These characters – Cromwell’s Dudley Smith, Russell Crowe’s Bud White, Pearce’s Ed Exley, Kevin Spacey’s Jack Vincennes….Danny DeVito’s Sid Hudgens – are dynamic, interwoven foils of their also highly stylized city. Curtis Hanson directs his cast as he would paint a puzzle. He recognizes the central and peripheral themes of James Ellroy novel as the ridged pieces and the actors as the box from which the puzzle can be finished. Continue reading “[1997] L.A. Confidential”