Archive for January, 2009

Film: Errol Morris: Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on January 18, 2009 by baker

Errol Morris is not a terrific storyteller, really. He’s a marvelous interviewer, eliciting stunning frankness through his Interrotron, and his collaborations with cinematographers Robert Richardson and Peter Donahue are intoxicated with light and motion, paring action to its sparsest visual expression. His editing is patient, and that may be his downfall – as a storyteller, anyway. Like Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter; Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, and most clearly The Fog of War, he cuts Standard Operating Procedure to the meditative rhythms of introspection rather than driving narration, slowing what might have been speedier plotting – in the choppy hands of more literary filmmakers – to the near halt of interrupted memory.

For a few years, since seeing The Thin Blue Line, I found this both spellbinding and tedious beyond reason, in the way that, say, watching the earthly progress of a rising tide might be. Especially in that film, where I felt Morris was trying to convince me of his subject’s innocence of murder, his method seemed beside the point, slow for the sake of lingering on details that have no functional, legal meaning: the slosh of a milk shake, the blast of gunsmoke. The artfulness was not beyond me, but for what reason? It seemed counterproductive, and worse, his storytelling was slack as a result.

I have since continued to feel this way, watching The Fog of War, or Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (Mr. Death seems to have married this inclination perfectly with the man himself, Fred Leuchter, whose introspection seems at best halting and fixated), but lately it’s affected me differently. A recent review of The Fog of War struck me less for its protracted narrative than for its fluid commingling of first person recollection and immediate visual breakdown of those very spoken thoughts. His images, and the rhythms he employs to piece them together into a story, seem more intuitive and moody than they are necessary, almost as though they are a copout, a way to avoid showing talking heads for two hours. Except that he does show talking heads, talking a lot – and his images evoke extraordinary mood.

Standard Operating Procedure is in every way a standard operating Morris film. We have seen the same methods, used to even greater emotional and narrative capacity in the past. Nevermind that this time his subject is a prominent contemporary moral conundrum – the prisoner abuse documented by photographs at Abu Graib – Morris is doing nothing new. In fact, he may be slipping. His interviews are more numerous than usual, more lackadaisical in tone, and go on and on and on when the dramatic arc of the film might be considered complete. Yet when he got around to it, I was mesmerized by his filmmaking. Danny Elfman’s pulsing Danny Elfman score at last seems loaded with the gothic horror weight Tim Burton always hoped it carried (but that Tim Burton’s films never supported), and it’s generously ladled out over recre after recre, as prisoners are beaten, humiliated, tortured, and violated by a largely unseen pack of U.S. Army personnel. Only they are seen, repeatedly, in the photographs they took of themselves in the act, as well as their interviews, and in the interviews of each other. This marriage of retrospect and instant analysis now, in Morris’ career, has graceful flow, of the lofty, smoky bent of a man morally attuned to judging the actions of his subjects from a distance – and inasmuch as one is morally willing to allow him that judgment, pulling it off. I let him, because I agreed with him. But judgment aside, his craft is absolutely impeccable. It’s so pleasurably precise, in fact, that I cared less when his storytelling slowed to a predictable shuffle, and then stuttered to a whimsical close with an observation about the birds returning to the walls of the prison every evening. Which isn’t even the end of the film, but the last moment that has stayed with me.

I feel roughly the same about Morris’ filmmaking style as I do about David Lynch’s. For everything I love about both – their immaculate visual craftsmanship, their wonderfully wayward editing choices, their monomaniacally personal approach to subject matter – when it’s time to fill in the plot gaps and make a narrative whole out of the cinematic experience they’ve conjured out of spit and imagination, I just get a little bored. The kind of boredom I feel watching most narrative-driven films, the kind that creeps in when the mechanics of storytelling are less interesting than the mysterious impetus to ensure the story is adequately told.

Film: Jon Favreau: Iron Man (2008)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on January 18, 2009 by baker

I concede, I have never seen Swingers. I’ve also never seen The Princess Bride, or The Grifters, and I really don’t remember Beautiful Girls. Missing a part of Rob Reiner’s ouevre – or Stephen Frears’, or the late Ted Demme’s – doesn’t seem to preclude me from catching enough references to pop culture to enjoy my social life, or from fully grasping the cavernous depths of When Harry Met Sally… or…whatever else Frears and Demme did (IMDB, currently decked out in fantastic Sex and the City garb, reminds me that they also did the respectable High Fidelity and the Boogie Nights wannabe Blow, respectively. What an adorable pink trim below the Flatiron Building beside the IMDB logo!).

I suspect the same holds true of Jon Favreau and his magnificent attention to Robert Downey, Jr’s outfit in Iron Man, which isn’t afraid to combine graphic contemporary war violence with the multilayered comic iconography of its star. Oh, and there’s Gywneth Paltrow too. No, really. She’s in this, but you might miss her behind the glare coming off Jeff Bridges’ bald pate. If you care. You might. Some do. I’m told. There’s nothing really wrong with this film, in the sense of causing offense, or failing to satisfy the thematic demands it establishes, or in not providing the necessary scene coverage so that you think the characters have suddenly, inexplicably moved from shot to reverse shot, causing a catastrophic rupture in your suspension of disbelief (unless you couldn’t care less, or if it’s raining on your wedding day), although it might come as a surprise how quickly Downey’s character goes through his Crisis, and how early on in the film. Or not.

No, Iron Man does exactly what it says it will, giving Downey a bright shiny red flying suit of impenetrable non-iron alloy packed with concealed weapons with which to kill bad weapons-smuggling Afghanis (weapons supplied by Tony Stark – Iron Man’s businessman alter ego – the implications of which frontload the movie with a curiously unsustained moral dilemma. Why not pursue that? In this dangerously hi-tek day and age of militant WMD-wielding cavemen, there’s no foreseeable end to the mileage Iron Man might have gotten from extended rape-like exploitation). There’s an energetic sex scene, plus the unbearable sexual tension between Paltrow and Downey, which, who knows, they could consummate onscreen. Suit optional. Thrusters recommended. Oh, and Peter Billingsley’s in this, and Terrence Howard. I don’t really remember either, but in fairness to the movie, I’d been working all day on a prison shoot in Georgia and entered into the movie exhausted and profoundly distracted by the nearby crunching of popcorn. Or the sipping of soda. Whichever.

A friend of a friend – not exactly a friend of mine, more like a second friend – observed that using RoDo, J in a film like Zodiac is cheap, essentially capitalizing on his iconic stature to lend prepackaged dynamic weight to his part. That you’re getting Robert Downey, Jr, as opposed to a performance in a role. I argued against this stance vigorously at the time, certainly over drinks in a bar-type atmosphere somewhere in Manhattan with other people I probably knew vicariously through friends, but now I think I missed her point. She denied it, but she CLEARLY HATES RODO, J. She hates his quirky mannerisms, his way of investing subpar lines of dialogue with legitimacy and fantastic lines with angel dust, and his near androgynous appeal as a screen presence. She HATES all this. Or she hates the star system. Honest to good sweet Jesus, if I find out she went to Sex and the City, or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Secret Realm of the Hidden Power of the Platinum Cock Ring, or Lord help me, shopped for designer footwear, I will track her down and defend RoDo’s honor with a swift beat. I swear. That kind of lazy pretension has no place in mass culture, and only serves to underscore the hateful, exclusive nature of High Art. In a movie like Iron Man, he binds us in a warm woolen comforter of familiarity, pacifying our deep-seated personal fears and anxieties, and lulling our sore strained minds into a preternatural calm, like Ambien, like weed, like a warm spring breeze in the park on a Saturday.

I can’t say how loyal Favreau is to the comic book source material, but I only recently got into the comics world. I just finished Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics”, a vastly entertaining and insightful analysis of the ways narrative operates in the frame-based visual media. I would bet my next income tax return that Favreau’s read it, loved it, digested its every observation, and distilled them into his filmmaking craft. I might not know for sure until I saw Swingers. Somebody lend me the DVD. Or VHS. I know you’ve got it.