The “Classical Hollywood Style” of the 1930s and 40s is often referred to as if it were a monolith. The achievements of Hollywood auteurs from the era, whether Chaplin or Welles, Hawks or Hitchcock, are usually illustrated in terms of their divergence from this so-called “invisible style”. Less often discussed are the contributions individual directors (outside of D.W. Griffith) may have made to constructing the style.

The legacy of Frank Borzage, whose films have recently been on view in New York, Berkeley, California and elsewhere this summer, is perhaps an ideal battleground for some of these issues to be wrangled out. Borzage was certainly no “maverick” director like Chaplin or Welles; he earned the first and the fifth Academy Awards for Direction for his Seventh Heaven and Bad Girl, respectively. Rather, he was a crucial developer of the ways that talking picture melodramas might resemble and distiguish themselves from their silent film predecessors. He was one of the first successful importers of European movements like expressionism and the Kammerspiel into his films (surely it was no coincidence that for a brief while he shared a studio, Fox, and a leading lady, Janet Gaynor, with F.W. Murnau). A silent-era Borzage film, especially a collaboration with cinematographer Ernest Palmer and art director Harry Oliver, contains a far more sophisticated interplay between shadow and light than most other Hollywood releases of the era. The result: these films look years ahead of their time.

Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young in Man\'s Castle (1933)But it’s also interesting to take a look at Borzage flourishes that did not become assimilated into the “Classical Hollywood Style.” Take Man’s Castle, a beautiful film in spite of an apparant technical crudity even for a film made at the low-budget Columbia of 1933. I say “in spite of”, but is it in part because of certain now-crude-seeming characteristics that the film is such a masterpiece? Frederick Lamster, in his 1981 auteurist survey Souls Made Great Through Love and Adversity points out that after an early scene in which Spencer Tracy’s Bill has just dramatically revealed his shared bond of poverty with the homeless Trina (Loretta Young, who developed a real-life romance with Tracy during filming), the couple are visually separated from the street crowd by a scale-distorting back-projection. The technical effect would be unacceptable by the standards of realism demanded for Hollywood product only a few years later, but the emotional effect of showing the pair all the more isolated from the world around them adds resonance to the film’s romatic themes. I also noticed numerous instances in the film of what could be eyeline mismatch, but which also lent a dreamlike outlook to Borzage’s starry-eyed characters.

Films like 1937’s History is Made at Night and 1940’s the Mortal Storm might be examples of the “Classical Hollywood Style” at its pre-war epitome, but the films Borzage made after the war have been characterized as increasingly out-of-step. His 1948 Moonrise, which led to a ten-year absence from feature filmmaking, has been categorized with the films noirs of the time, but it doesn’t deal with the hardened criminals and cold-blooded schemers they do, nor does it utilize much of the gritty realism associated with the genre. Instead the film looks like a set-constructed exterior manifestation of the Dane Clark protagonist’s increasingly tortured mental state, the bucolic decaying into full-fledged paranoia exhibited through the use of entrapping camera angles and POV-shots. The result seems more at home compared to Night of the Hunter or certain RKO Val Lewton films of the mid-1940s, than lumped in with Hollywood’s increasingly “real” noir films of the time.

A wealth of recent web-based writing on Borzage has recently arisen along with the touring retrospective; Reverse Shot and Slant are two of the best places to find it. If you have your own thoughts on this underdiscussed filmmaker, the “Classical Hollywood Style”, or the relationship between the two, please add a comment below!

opening big:
Beerfest
How to Eat Fried Worms
Idlewild
Invincible

opening small:
The Quiet
Princesas
Queens
Surviving Eden

Here we are for another go-round. Remember that the first person to correctly identify all three caps in one of these here quizzes will win a fabulous grand prize. Still, despite this lure, try to avoid cheating. Heh.

Cap One:

G

Cap Two:

n

Clue No. 1 for Cap Two:

j

Cap Three:

R

Break a leg!

The Illusionist, starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Jessica Biel, seems to be winning a few loyal fans. I haven’t seen it myself, but in my lookout for the standouts of 2006, I was wondering if I should check it out. Sounds like a good old-fashioned type of story. If you’ve seen it, what do you think? So far, regular Cinemarati visitor Ned Depew recommends it, and I think he’ll have more to say.

borat

Borat Takes On New York

Fuck Snakes on a Plane, this is the best movie title of the year. Or, at least it was. Looks like the suits are going for the more easily remembered but far less memorable Borat. Still, I’m as eager to see this as I was Harold and Kumar’s All Mighty Night Long Journey to White Castle and the Heart of the American Dream. Check out the movie’s official site. The trailer is worth the price of admission all by itself.

opening wide:
Snakes on a Plane [discussion thread here]
Accepted
Material Girls

opening limited:
The Illusionist
10th and Wolf
Trust the Man
Factotum
My First Wedding
Fakers
Nearing Grace

Miami Vice 80sMiami Vice 2006

I will acknowledge that Michael Mann’s updated Miami Vice film has problems (which I’ll get to in a moment), but for all the issues brought up in its middling reviews, none of that overrides the fact that while watching the film, I couldn’t take my eyes off the damn thing. It’s really much better than it has any right to be; in filming an updated TV show from the 80s — starring actors who have no chemistry with each other — it’s a wonder Mann was able to pull anything decent out of this at all. On a purely sensory level, the director hooks you with his opening shot, sans credits, of a gritty club scene in which the DJ is blasting the Jay-Z/Linkin Park mash-up “Numb/Encore”. This song (which rocks, by the way) has figured heavily in the Miami Vice advertising, and here it takes on extra meaning: the film itself is a mash-up of sorts, imposing a dark, post-9/11 sensibility on its 80s cop-show plot. It’s an encore for Crockett and Tubbs, in which their personalities have been numbed by the new world order; strangely, it seems like the perfect time to remake an 80s cultural touchstone, just to illustrate how much the world has changed since then. (Walter Chaw goes into terrific detail about this in his review.) Mann’s Vice remake isn’t simply dire and plodding, though; it’s propulsive (and appropriately brutal) in its action, gorgeous in its digital photography, and surprisingly swift for a film that runs over the two-hour mark.

In fact, the only thing keeping this film from resembling a modern classic is the human element — put simply, it ain’t there. The common denominator here is Colin Farrell; not only is his moustache difficult to take seriously, but he apparently checked into rehab after filming wrapped, and it shows. Farrell sleepwalks and mumbles through his scenes, even though his Crockett is pivotal to the central relationships we’re supposed to care about: his partnership with Jamie Foxx’s Tubbs and his romance with Gong Li’s drug trafficker. Foxx, especially, is trying his hardest to add energy to their scenes, but his co-star isn’t giving him much to play with; the only time I felt something for a character was when Tubbs’ wife was kidnapped and Foxx was allowed to play the drama without leaning on anyone else.

Still, Vice is, fortunately, the kind of film in which the form is the substance more than the content, so character development is almost unnecessary. It’s more sensory experience and timely metaphor than gripping story, and it craps over most of the other so-called “action” movies of the summer. It’s the most artful a film with a lame plot and boring characters could possibly be, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Snakes on a Plane

Okay, you knew this topic had to happen today. Have at it!

Today, the LV in LVJeff stands for Las Vegas, for that’s where I am, in a hotel off the strip, trying to get a start on enjoying a vacation weekend. With my internet access, I decide to check out the news and see that, once again, one of my all-time favorite bands, Steely Dan, has decided to send a letter to Hollywood. Last time, they urged Owen Wilson to repent for starring in a movie that used the name “Dupree,” as they claimed the character was ripped off from their song, “Cousin Dupree.” Hm, wasn’t quite sure about that — the song’s a humorous take on incestual urges, after all (Wilson would later gamely write back claiming that he’d never heard of this “Mr. Steely Dan” and that he needed to get back to working on his next movie, “Hey Nineteen”). But if I had any wondering of the level of irony in that first letter, this second letter will surely clarify things or confound me further. Here, they offer to help Wes Anderson with his career:

You began, spectacularly enough, with the excellent “Bottle Rocket”, a film we consider to be your finest work to date. No doubt others would agree that the striking originality of your premise and vision was most effective in this seminal work. Subsequent films - “Rushmore”, “The Royal Tenenbaums”, “The Life Aquatic” - have been good fun but somewhat disappointing - perhaps increasingly so. These follow-ups have all concerned themselves with the theme we like to call “the enervated family of origin”©, from which spring diverse subplots also largely concerned with the failure to fulfill early promise. Again, each film increasingly relies on eccentric visual detail, period wardrobe, idiosyncratic and overwrought set design, and music supervision that leans heavily on somewhat obscure 60’s “British Invasion” tracks a-jangle with twelve-string guitars, harpsichords and mandolins. The company of players, while excellent, retains pretty much the same tone and function from film to film. Indeed, you must be aware that your career as an auteur is mirrored in the lives of your beloved characters as they struggle in vain to duplicate early glories.

But, look, Mr. Anderson, we’re not trying to be critical – dammit - we just want to help.

Continuing with the letter, they offer to pen a title song for his new movie. Not for free, mind you. (And if we go by their title songwriting track record, which consists solely of FM for as far as I can tell, Wes will find he has one cool track to dig to (”No static at all!”), while his movie may fade into utter obscurity.)

Here’s one Steely Dan fan who hopes these memos become a series. Better keep it real. Or whatever.

Oh, my:

Stephen Metcalf and Dana Stevens are two of the worst writers on the face of the planet. They are dull, incompetent, lifeless, and narcissistic. Nathan Lee and Michael Agger are scarcely less so, although Agger manages a self-effacing blandness that in the context of Slate emits the fumes of a virtue. Neither individually nor in aggregate do these canned soup hacks do anything to dispel the post-Edelstein doldrums of your film “coverage.”

Metcalf, the most brazenly untalented and unsubtle in this quartet of sixteenth-wits, writes like an ape that has just discovered a bone will suffice as a murder weapon. Yet no jump cut could ever propel that lackey into the cosmos.

The dyspeptic hipster Lee (who doesn’t write so much as he postures) and the doddering Dana Stevens aren’t far behind.

May I quote my all-time favorite Dana-ism? Terrence Malick “hasn’t given a real press interview in more than 30 years.”

So much more…

The grand prize awaiting the first person to identify all three caps is growing moldy on my shelf. C’mon you brainiacs, one of youmust to be able to parse all three of these here caps.

EDITED TO NOTE: Oh yeah, almost forgot. For those who like to use this contest as an opportunity to put together a psychological portrait of yers truly, all three of these caps are taken from dvd’s that I borrowed from a friend. One of the films I like a lot, one of them I pretty much despise and the third I’m kinda in the middle about.

Cap One:

d

Cap Two:

e

Cap Three:

f

World Trade CenterThis week, the Cinemarati take on World Trade Center, Oliver Stone’s representation of the September 11 disaster. Moving experience or manipulative tripe? Here’s where the ‘Rati stand:

——————————

Lynn Lee:
What struck me most about this movie was just what a grinding pain it was to sit through. What I haven’t decided - and I’m not being ironic - is whether that’s its principal flaw or its principal strength. This is, after all, a film about two men pinned under rubble, almost completely unable to move. Dramatically, this makes for an inert middle stretch. Emotionally, it’s forced to resort to fairly rote tugs on the heartstrings - conversations about their families, flashbacks and actual cuts to the families, etc.

And yet, however hackneyed the methods, the sentiment didn’t ring entirely hollow. How these men reacted, and how their families reacted, to their situation seemed believable to me; you don’t expect people in their predicament to behave in any particularly original way. The story wasn’t about their heroics (we never see them do anything heroic, unless you count their struggle to survive); it was about their waiting and enduring - because they had no choice. And to the extent that Stone et al. were trying to evoke the torture of waiting without hope or certainty of release, I think they succeeded. Maria Bello, I thought, was especially good.

That said, I couldn’t help but notice the stark contrast between the real emotions on the faces of New Yorkers in the actual footage of 9/11, and the attempts to recapture that by the actors and extras in this movie. It’s pretty jarring, actually. I also find it telling that for me the most genuinely moving moment in the movie didn’t involve Cage or Pena at all, but an anonymous woman lamenting the fact that the last thing she’d said to her son before he went off to his last day of work in the Towers was to scold him for something. This is something we’ve all seen and heard (and possibly felt) a million times before, and yet for me it rang more emotionally true than all of Cage’s and Pena’s memories of their wives, or vice versa. (more…)

Oh, too rich. Film critic Eric Snider went to a Paramount junket for World Trade Center, and all he got was banned by the studio (and other studios!) from future junkets and screenings. Why? He told the truth about junkets in a piece called “I Was a Junket Whore”:

Between the hotel (two nights!), the stipend, the plane ticket and the cab fare, Paramount spent close to $1,100 on me, not including things like the breakfast and lunch that were produced for the benefit of all the whores. For Paramount to have spent its money wisely, my story about Stone and the movie, wherever it’s published, will have to convince readers to spend $1,100 on the film. Is my article going to influence 150 people to see the movie who would not have done so otherwise? I highly doubt it. The point of the article won’t be to tell people to go watch the movie — that’s what advertisements are for — and besides, there will be a not-especially-positive review of the film appearing in the same issue, which may counteract it.

Multiply that $1,100 by the 20 or so junket whores at the Seattle event, then by however many stops there were on this tour, then factor in all the additional expenses — Stone’s hotel room, the interview suites, the publicist’s suite, black SUVs to take the talent to and from the airport, etc., etc. — repeating that for every city — and you start to get an idea of how expensive it is to promote a film.

You also get a sense of what an insane waste of money it is. Ginger and the other publicists aren’t to blame, of course; they’re gracious and pleasant and wonderful. It’s the whole system, where dropping $50 million or more on promotion and advertising alone is considered normal. But if the goal of the studio is for the film to make a profit, then it’s absurd to spend so much promotional money on things that, in the end, won’t actually increase ticket sales very much. TV commercials, online ads, posters, soundtracks, sure. All that makes sense. Those things directly influence consumers. The puffy interview stories that will appear as the result of this junket might bring in a few more audience members, but surely not enough to justify the extravagance.

That’s only a taste. Check out the whole thing.

Oh, and also: Snider takes on junketeers in “Bad, bad journalism: Tim Nasson, Wild About Movies”:

Not a single one of the quotes he attributes to the celebrities involved is an actual quote.

This is by far the more serious charge. What he has done is to paraphrase the people and put quotation marks around it. He doesn’t change the IDEA of what the people said; he just rewrites it in his own words.

Now, the top three rules of journalism, even entertainment journalism, are Don’t Plagiarize, Don’t Make Stuff Up and Don’t Put Quotation Marks Around Something Unless It’s the Person’s ACTUAL EXACT WORDS.

So how do I know he’s misquoting everyone? Because I was in the same interviews he was, and I had a tape recorder. (I thought he had one, too, but either my memory is mistaken or he chose not to use his recording.)

I wrote to Nasson to give him a chance to fix things. I thought maybe he had the tape and could refer to it now that he’d been called out on his lazy quoting methods. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, said I didn’t know what his background was, maybe it was an honest misunderstanding of journalism protocol, etc., etc.

How does Nasson respond? He lies.

Oh, I suppose we’ve got far more consequential things to be worried about regarding the state of journalism these days than whether Olive Stone really said that about Alexander, but when lies pass by as acceptable while the truth is cause for being booted from this publicity machine, well, that’s just messed up.

opening big:
World Trade Center
Pulse
Step Up
Zoom

opening little:
Conversations with Other Women
Half Nelson
House of Sand
Lunacy
Poster Boy
The Trouble with Men and Women

Yoikes! Two of the four major releases this weekend did not screen for critics: Pulse and Zoom. You have been warned.

Little Miss Sunshine

I should have hated “Little Miss Sunshine.” Lord knows I was expecting to hate it. I have little tolerance for self-consciously quirky movies - that is, movies that try too hard to be “offbeat” or present offbeat characters for no other reason than to subvert our expectations - and this looked like a perfect example of the type. Take one intensely annoying self-help speaker and would-be writer (Greg Kinnear), one worn-down wife/mother (Toni Collette, of course), one sullen, silent, disaffected teenager (Paul Dano), one dirty old man (Alan Arkin), a suicidal gay Proust scholar (Steve Carell), and a little girl who wants to be a beauty queen (Abigail Breslin), throw them in a ramshackle yellow VW bus headed for California, add a dash of corpse-robbing humor here, a satire of child beauty pageants there (talk about easy targets), hit “blend,” and what’ve you got? Why, the indie movie of my nightmares, of course!

Curiously, though, I really enjoyed “Sunshine.” I laughed a lot, and despite its contrivances and the ever-increasing absurdity of the mishaps that pile up along the way, neither the comedy nor the pathos ever felt forced. As I’ve said elsewhere, this is largely because the acting is so excellent across the board - I already have this film down as a strong candidate for best ensemble acting of the year. As scripted, this is an artificially dysfunctional family that shouldn’t feel like a family at all. As acted, against all odds, it really does. What should have been a gallery of types somehow becomes an organic unit, albeit a restless, tenuously bound one that may only last the length of the trip (and maybe not even that). I give most of the credit to the cast. Sharper social satire has been and will be written, but it’s hard to imagine a sharper collective performance that treads so delicately between hilarity and despair.

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