Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Directors on their Craft

A collection of quotes from directors on their particular field of work:

"A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later." - Stanley Kubrick

"Learning to make films is easy. Learning what to make films about is very hard." - George Lucas

"Making a film that's supposed to be fun to watch is really hard - that's the weird irony of it." - Steven Soderbergh

"We went into this with the utmost respect for the source material, but we recognized the need to change it." - Sam Wood

"A film director has to get a shot, no matter what he does. We're desperate people." - Elia Kazan

"A good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes." - Howard Hawks

"When I grow up, I still want to be a director." - Steven Spielberg

"We tend to do period stuff because it helps make it one step removed from boring everyday reality." - Ethan Coen

"I mean, the truth of the matter is, I like the failures as much as I like the successes. It's only the world that doesn't like the failures." - Sydney Pollack

"I mean look, I love movies, not just the ones I make. In fact, I don't like the ones I make very much." - Alexander Payne

"I don't try to guess what a million people will like. It's hard enough to know what I like."  - John Huston

"I've found that the more experts you have on a movie, the less control a director has." - John Frankenheimer

"I have ten commandments. The first nine are, thou shalt not bore. The tenth is, thou shalt have right of final cut." - Billy Wilder

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Too Many Ingredients

Things I Don't Understand, the new film from writer-director David Spaltro is like one of those entrées served a a chic eatery with too many ingredients. The dish is certainly interesting and there are some unique flavors, but you wish the chef would have simplified things, as it most surely would have been much more satisfying.

This is not to say that Things isn't an interesting and watchable film; any project with as many misfits as there are in this modern urban tale is worth your while. But the film is all over the place, rarely finding a center, as there are just too many subplots.

This is the second film for Spaltro, whose initial work Around, was quite enjoyable (read my review here.) That work, largely an autobiographical opus about a young man getting over his anxieties in his move to the big city of New York and making his way through film school, was endearing and quite honest. Now with Things, Spaltro has expanded his vision and his storytelling, giving us a group of characters that have problems everywhere they turn, be it their self-identity, getting a job, making enough money to pay the rent as well as getting laid. Did I mention they have problems?

The main character, Violet Kubelick (Molly Ryman) is writing a thesis about what it feels like to die; she interviews people that have had near-death experiences. One day she meets a very young woman named Sara (Grace Folsom) who has bone cancer as well as a lung condition that combined give her only months, perhaps weeks to live. Violet is a bit insecure when first meeting Sara and more than just a bit unsure of what to say to her. Sara does her best to make Violet feel at ease, but it takes time for Violet to make sense of this situation.

Violet lives with two roommates, one male, Remy (Hugo Dillon) and one female, Gabby (Meissa Hampton); he's a wannabe musician who refuses to get a real job, while she's an actress trying to get her new play produced. Together the three struggle to make enough money to keep the place they're living in, which just happens to be conveniently located above a bar, tended by Parker (Aaron Mathias), whom Violet wants to sleep with in the worst way.

This jumble of characters and story lines make for some interesting moments, but much of this is formulaic (Gabby's play is ridiculously New Age, Parker's got a secret he doesn't want to tell Violet, etc, etc.). It's when Spaltro deals with the relationship between Violet and Sara that is when this film really grabs our attention; it does that with sharp dialogue, fine acting and uncomplicated direction.

At one point, Violet lays down with Sara in her bed at the hospice at which she is a patient. Violet has become less anxious with her visits to Sara, as she realizes that this terminally ill patient has a better grasp on life's mysteries than most of her friends. Still Sara wonders why she has to be a victim and why she has to die so young. It's a beautifully written scene and it's the best in the film, no doubt as it's about the most heartfelt.

If the film had dealt with more honest emotions such as this, Things I Don't Understand could have really been a treasure. It's just not that insightful and as I tired of the mess these characters have to deal with, I grew a bit weary of the film; for me, this was 15-20 minutes too long.

It really is a shame I didn't care for this film as much as I thought I would, as I did enjoy Around. In some ways, Things displays a film making maturity for Spaltro, as a good portion of his writing is nicely done, while his direction is subtly handled. He doesn't go for weird camera angles or any visual tricks, settling for simple two shots and closeups to let the actors tell the story. He's quite good directing his performers and a few of them deserve special mention. I like the energy of Dillon, who brings a nice sense of humor to what could have been a stereotypical "loser" role. Also, I admire the performance of Ryman, who also starred in Around; she has a natural quality to her and is believable at every moment. I think Spaltro has discovered someone who could become a star, as audiences identify with her frankness on screen as well as her "girl next door" good looks. My one criticism of her is that she tends to roll her eyes whenever she delivers an ironic line; once is enough, but three or four times is a bit much. Still, she has to carry the film and is up to the task.

My favorite perfomance here is by Folsom, who makes for a nice counterpoint to Ryman. She has an endearing charm about her and it's hard not to root for her character. She delivers her self-effacing lines with great humor and ease and it's in her scenes that we really care about the overall message of this film.

So a mixed review for me for Things I Don't Understand, as this is slightly disappointing film, despite some funny and touching moments. Here's hoping that for his next film, Spaltro will keep combine his ingredients with a bit more simplicity.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Noirish Western

Pursued (1947) directed by Raoul Walsh, is a largely forgotten film in this underrated director's body of work. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white by the great cinematographer James Wong Howe (sorry about the colorized photo, but I couldn't find a b&w image), this is an introspective, moody Western with obvious film noir overtones. It's a film you're not likely to forget after one viewing; two viewings display the texture of the film to an even greater degree.

The story concerns one Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) who is seen in the opening sequence riding across the open spaces of New Mexico to a small cabin in which he was rescued as an orphan by a widow named Mrs. Callum. Jeb watched his father and mother be gunned down in this cabin, but was able to hide under some floorboards so as not to be seen; he can't recall what exactly happened years ago (the film is told as one long flashback) except for a pair of jangling spurs.

Mrs. Callum took the boy in to live with her and her two children Thor (Teresa Wright plays the adult Thor) and Adam (portrayed by John Rodney as an adult). The three of them have a typical childhood on the ranch, getting into small fistfights and quarrels much like any set of siblings, but the difference here is that Jeb, while treated as a member of the family, is not a blood relative, so by the time Thor and Jeb reach early adulthood, she professes her love for him and asks her to marry him; this is certainly a semi-incestuous relationship that was a bit daring for the late 1940s.

A side plot concerns a harsh man named Grant (a beautifully subtle performance by Dean Jagger), who seeks revenge against every member of the Rand family, for reasons I won't give away here. Thus Jeb is constantly on the run in this film, trying to escape the henchmen of Grant, who are all too willing to obey his orders to kill Jeb.

But Jeb is also in a constant feud with Adam, who believes that Jeb has prospered from Adam's work on the ranch when Jeb was fighting in the Spanish-American War (interestingly these two decided which one would join the army via a coin toss; Jeb lost. This notion of chance is certainly a common theme in film noir). Adam also sees how Thor and Jeb are attracted to each other and despises him for wanting to take Thor away from his mother and he.

This is a hypnotic, introspective Western that has many themes that turn up in Walsh's best films, especially High Sierra (1941) and White Heat (1949). Like both those works, this is a portrait of a man who is constantly on the run. Jeb is not a gangster or evil man as are Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) in High Sierra or Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) in White Heat, yet he share similar feelings of loneliness and despair. There's also the angle of an unusual love affair in this story as in those films; this one turns out better for Jeb and Thor than they do for the other couples.

Walsh's direction alternates between long shots amidst canyons and wide-open vistas and tight shots amidst the claustrophobia of a cave or a small room in a house. The remarkable work turned in by cameraman Howe is quite something; many scenes are at night and are barely lit - one mesmerizing image is of Wright walking across a pitch black room with only a candle to light the scene. The blacks are deep blacks and the whites - when they appear - are bright white, making this a real black and white film- gray is rarely a part of this film's visual storyboard.

Pursued was preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive in association with Republic Pictures. Among those who funded this project was none other than Martin Scorsese. The film, except for a few brief scenes early on, looks marvelous as we see b&w photography take on a Gothic, paranoid, film noirish look that instantly deepens our empathy for the characters in this slightly perverse tale.

Pursued takes us to a world in which one man deals with his present troubles, all the while trying to figure out the mystery of his past. Along the way, some characters battle him, while others try to help him to varying degrees, but ultimately, it's one man against the world, a universal theme so dazzingly portrayed by Walsh and Howe.