Top Ten Hollywood Films

While it is true that Hollywood is a tight box that suffocates individual vision, it also allows for the expense and crew that can make for a distraction worth watching.

10. The Poseidon Adventure (Neame, 1972) You’re going the wrong way!

9. The Fifth Element (Besson, 1997) Multipass.

8. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg, 1977) Goofy Golf!

7. Groundhog Day (Ramis, 1993) Stay…stay.

6. Jaws (Spielberg, 1975) Just eats and sleeps and makes little baby sharks.

5. Rocky (Stallone, 1976) Women weaken legs!

4. The Sound of Music (Wise,1965) Nothing comes from nothing.

3. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (Hughes, 1987) You’re going the wrong way! 2. The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939) Surrender Dorothy

1. Cast Away (Zemeckis, 2000) I know you.


Kubrick and Weir: The Laudatory Human Condition

Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick has been praised as a great filmmaker and artist, one who probes the shades of humanity in such great films as Lolita, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon. Screenshot (994)Bob Weir, not as highly praised, is certainly recognized for “chasing the music” as he says, on his 50-year journey as rhythm guitarist with The Grateful Dead.  Screenshot (1020)And so I was intrigued to watch documentaries on each man this weekend to perhaps gain an insight or two through understanding their trials and tribulations.

It was not to be.Screenshot (1031)Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2007) offers brief moments of filmic analysis amidst a tidal wave of laudatory praise, Steven Spielberg gushing, “He was a conceptual illustrator of the human condition”. Screenshot (1009)And so despite a 50-year career, we are left with the trite summation that Mr. Kubrick worked terribly hard and loved his family, little else.

The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir (2013) is worse. While some fellow musicians offer comments on Bob Weir’s work, the documentary is almost solely guided by bland recollections by Weir – “Here’s my Jerry Bobbblehead” – occasionally, boyishly and evasively hinting toward his notorious off-stage reputation. Screenshot (1027)His band mates are only briefly interviewed, likewise alluding, saying little else. Screenshot (1017)It’s a shame that both of these these documentaries offered so little, not that they should focus on personal scandal, but that they veered so very far from the very same human condition that these men had endeavored to understand and instead settled on empty praise.Screenshot (1004)

An Ominous Sound for an Ominous Future

Fripp & Eno started it with The Heavenly Music Corporation, not ambient music but ominous and terrifying sonic explorations, lovely too. (Click preceding link to listen.)fripp_pussybI heard the sound again, years later, at a Grateful Dead show in Miami in 1988; it was like being inside a jet engine, all-encompassing, so very loud.

GratefulDeadSpaceAnd then, in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2006), a new version, low and distant, perhaps over-produced, arrived on screen. (Click preceding link to listen.)waroftheworldtripodIt arose again in the trailer for Chris Nolan’s Inception (2010), promising aural profundity; regrettably, the sound was brief and the movie was not.inceptionsoundThe sound became more realized in Gravity (2013), providing the soundscape for the impending doom of debris.gravity-debrisIt has now returned to the frontier of music, more than My Bloody Valentine’s sonic wall, in Sigur Ros’ latest work, Kveikur (2013).sigurros_kveikurLouder and deeper, back-filled by drums and wailing voices, the sound builds, just falling short of the next plateau. 20140703_052932As this sound continues in its evolution, getting deeper and fuller, it might even be a synchronistic backdrop for our promised apocalypse.

The Devolution of Steven Spielberg

Let’s cut to the chase. Steven Spielberg makes movies; he doesn’t direct films. While ranked near the top of Forbes’ Most Influential Celebrities, he isn’t even listed on The Guardian’s Top 40 Directors. Mr. Spielberg is certainly good at entertainment and suspense; there is no disputing that. Jaws has stood the test of time for a reason. JawsAs well, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report and much of the Indiana Jones franchise are full of excitement. Indiana JonesHowever spectacle is not any substitute for vision or style, a talent exhibited by many of Mr. Spielberg’s contemporaries such as Martin Scorsese, Joel and Ethan Cohen, Paul Thomas Anderson and Terence Malick. Tree-of-Life-DinosaurInstead of bludgeoning the audience with a message, as Mr. Spielberg tends, these directors develop subtle details of text, background or character. Quite simply, they convey a personal vision. It is a risky business which at times invites censure – look at the current mixed reception to Mr. Anderson’s The Master for evidence – but a film is made for itself, no matter what a producer might demand. masterMr. Spielberg is known for delivering his movies to the market, which is all well and good, especially for the studio…until he gets that itch and decides to fight the indifferent shrug that he knows posterity will award him. These attempts at style include The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, Amistad and now his latest, Lincoln. lincoln1Instead of moments of artistry, the audience is assaulted: images of discarded limbs, Lincoln’s hand on everyone’s shoulder and achingly long dramatic pauses attempting to establish tension for things we already know. (Spoiler alert: The 13th amendment passes, the North wins the War, and Lincoln dies.) The end result is a movie (not a film) that is obscenely the end, despite Daniel Day Lewis’ best efforts, the movie is tedious because Lincoln is not offered as a man, but a god – a patient one at that! – in a man’s clothing. In other words, Mr. Spielberg has forgotten that the magic of movie-making is in not showing the shark (the icon) until the last act. jaws3Instead he has us staring at the shark all movie long, until it’s no longer a thing to be afraid of – or admire – but another drawn-out moment, attempting to bully us into feeling a prescribed emotion. It gets to be so bad that, instead of wondering what might happen next, we’re wondering when the movie will finally end. clockworkPerhaps Mr. Spielberg can be convinced to do a Jaws prequel. As much as he might resist, we know his audience – and producers – would love know exactly what made that shark so mad.

Movie Endings: The Good and Much Worse

(Warning: This entire blog is a spoiler alert.)

Movie endings are sadly predictable. No matter the genre – Drama, Comedy, Romance or Action/Thriller – the tendency is toward that moment of understanding, that smile of recognition that we’re all in this together, as seen in so many films such as Casablanca, Dumb and Dumber, When Harry Met Sally and Avatar. But there are those few that stand out – for better and much worse. At the head of the Much Worse would have to be Super 8  (Abrams, 2011), a misguided combination of E.T.  and Close Encounters. Absolutely everything is resolved at the end: all characters touch and understand each other.They also all understand the alien which has terrorized their town and watch in loving awe as he departs to his distant world. (No, I am not exaggerating.) The Grey (Carnahan, 2011) is a close and terrible second. After watching the wolves terrorize and kill everyone else in his group lost in the woods, the audience tenses in anticipation as Liam Neeson finally straps all that broken glass to his knuckles to battle the mother of all wolves…and the film cuts to the credits. And not only that, the film actually cuts back to the scene, after the epic battle, both Neeson and the mother of all wolves dying in the snow. Other disastrously bad endings include Melancholia (Von Trier, 2011) – a giant planet crushes all life on Earth – A.I.  (Spielberg, 2001) you think it’s finally over, and a title card appears “2,000 Years Later” – and Angel Heart (Parker, 1987) – when Mickey Rourke finally realizes that he’s the murderer he’s been chasing all along. (Not a few films have fallen into this self-made trap.) It’s not easy ending well, but there are certainly a chosen few worth mentioning. It is truly heart-wrenching to watch the final shot in Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948) when the boy forgives his father for trying to steal and takes his hand. And it’s hard not to choke up in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (Hughes, 1987) when Neal (Steve Martin) discovers Del (John Candy) alone at the train station and takes him home for Thanksgiving. The Deer Hunter (Cimino, 1978), too, has a gut-wrenching conclusion when the cast gathers for a funeral and sings God Bless America, despite the hell they have been put through with the Vietnam War. Another film that oddly stands out for me is Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (Hough, 1974). An obvious derivative of Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967), the film chronicles a pair of wild thieves who, when they seem to have finally outrun the law, are suddenly crushed by a freight train. The end. One of the greatest Hollywood endings almost never happened.  Being There (Ashby, 1978) is the story of Chance (Peter Sellers) who has lived in isolation as a simpleton only to be thrown into the world and become an adviser to the President and perhaps will be a leader himself. The final image is of Chance walking on water. We don’t know if this is because he is Chosen or he just doesn’t know any better, but it is a riveting moment. The producers hated the idea and told Hal Ashby to re-cut the film, which he promised to do…and instead actually delivered the film personally – with the ending intact – to the theaters for opening night. It was only after the positive audience response to this ending that the producers relented. This story itself has to be one of the best endings I have ever heard.

The Edge: Of Good Writing

Screenwriting is a most inconsistent proposition. While there are many films that have great scenes and characters, the work is often lacking in its overall story. Paul Thomas Anderson‘s films, including The Master, fall into this category as does the work of many modern screenwriters/filmmakers, such as Gaspar Noe, Terence Malick, Pedro Almodavar, Jim Jarmusch, and that other Anderson, Wes.  I posted recently on Andrei Tarkovsky’s film The Sacrifice, and his struggle with story-telling.  This too is an issue for many of the great auteurs: Francois Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni and, even my favorite, Werner Herzog; it’s the image, the motion, the atmosphere first and everything else after that. This is not say that the story arc of Hollywood should be subscribed to in any way. There is nothing so painfully innocuous as to be dragged along through the introduction, conflict, rising action, climax, denouement and all the pain-in-the-ass red herrings in the films of Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, Jimmy Cameron or Clint Eastwood.But there is a middle ground out there, something between the poetic image and the Hollywood ride. It’s as hit and miss as the rest, although there are diamonds in the rough. One film that comes to mind is Greg Motolla’s Superbad (written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg); as stupid as this movie can be, the story is true, the characters honest. Another surprising film is Lee Tamahori’s The Edge, written by David Mamet. This film is typical Hollywood, “Jaws with claws” as it was dubbed; however it is well-written. The story structure is effective – except for a weird denouement/climax #2 – and the arc is clear. The characters are engaging, even as types, and interact in an interesting way with both each other and their environment. The message is loud – We must face our demons! – but it’s a good film. And the bear is great. Really.