CineMathematics or CinemaThematics. Your choice

Friday, April 27, 2007

How Do I Love Thee, Nic Cage?

Nicolas Cage is one of the best actors around. He has starred in good movies, and he has starred in true shit. Yet somehow, he almost always comes away clean. And, surprisingly enough, he often does his best work in the worst movies. Which isn't to say that Next is a bad movie. It has a few moments that make the movie worth your time, and I may be the only person happy to see terroists with indistinguishable European accents, but it's a solid little film, elevated, of course, by Cage's performance.

Next, at least for a few minutes, has a major Kubrick fixation. When Cage's Cris Johnson reveals to Liz (Jessica Biel, bland as ever) that he can see into the future, he flips through a number of channels on the TV, telling her the first line on that channel. Somehow, he ends up resting on Dr. Strangelove, horribly appropriate considering the government wants him to find a renegade nuclear bomb. A massive chase follows (one of the few highlights of the film that doesn't stem from Cage being Cage), ending with Cage caught by the government. They want him to find what will happen with the nuke, and so give the film's best image.

The government, here represented by Julianne Moore, places Cage in a chair with the Clockwork Orange eyelid locks, and force him to watch . . . the news. The implication here is positively hilarious, and that's the sort of tone that Next brings to the table. If nothing else, Next is a black comedy about what can be in the world. There is something strangely funny about watching Nic Cage split into 3 to scope for bad guys.

Unfortunately for audiences, the biggest joke is on them. Next has possibly the most dissatisfying ending I have ever seen, but that makes me love it even more. After all, this is a film about manipulation. Since Johnson can see into the future, he can change it. Just as the government manipulates him to find the bomb, he manipulates everything around him, as we are shown many a time, often for a laugh. The terrorists, whom the government try so desperately to find, are actually following the government. All this toying must lead somewhere, but when it does, the audience feels cheated. It turns out we were the ones manipulated the whole time. From an outsider's perspective, it's very amusing. Unfortunately for Next, most people will not be able to remove themselves from the proceedings enough to get the joke.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Sundae Monday

This week, I'm looking at the works of the Game Over Project over at Acting out classic viedo games in (very realistic) stop motion using people for pixels? Count me in. I look forward to anything they have in the future. And you can be sure that when they do, you'll hear about it.

I would be remiss if I did not mention another Game Over. The main reason I found the videos above was searching for this one. It also happened to be part of The Animation Show, so enjoy.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

I'm Henry V, I Am, I Am

This is my contribution to the Shakespeare Blog-A-Thon over at Coffee, Coffee . . . and More Coffee. Since this day also happens to be one month away from what would be the 100th birthday of Laurence Olivier, I thought I'd kill two kings with one stone, so to speak.

Laurence Olivier's Henry V is a fascinating creature to behold. It was the first major successful adapation of the Bard, and it marks the first time Olivier worked behind the camera. It is directed with a sure hand, yet it never lets the viewer forget that they are watching a play. With nearly half the play cut out (partially for propaganda purposes and . . . brevity*), Olivier needed to craft a tale that still kept Shakespeare's spirit intact while appealing to the broader audience. The fact that he adapted it for political purposes shows just how close to Shakespeare's spirit Olivier kept it.

Before we go on about "butchering" a work for propaganda, we cannot forget that this has a long history, stretching from Virgil's The Aeneid through Dante's The Inferno and Shakespeare himself. The first thing that pops into my head is MacBeth tormented by the vision of future kings, including King James I of England, who has just ascended to the throne after Elizabeth I died. All the great writers pandered to the political climate of the time, so it is perfectly respectable for Olivier to hide the ironies behind Henry's conquest of France to raise patriotic spirits during WWII.

It is also necessary to look at the look of the film. Henry V was shot in glorious technicolor, yet it features extremely fake backdrops. Taken alone, it would merely show shoddy production values and a distracting nature. However, the film spends over half an hour in 16th Century England, reminding the viewers that Henry V was a play before it was anything else. That combined with the colors in a time when black and white was the norm (and much cheaper) show a man who wants to remind us of the fact that, though we are watching it on a screen, this is still a play.

This theme is reiterated in the repetition of specific shots. Near the beginning of the film, we watch the beginning of the play as if we were sitting in the upper levels of the Globe theater. Later, during one of Henry's more moving speeches, the camera pulls back and up until we are looking at him from the exact angle as we saw the beginning. When Henry makes his first appearance on stage, we look at him from backstage, seeing his back and some members of the audience. This sort of shot it echoed throughout the film, constantly reminding us of just what we are watching.

And so it must be asked: Why? Why take such painstaking efforts to keep reminding us that what we're watching is a play? Maybe he was just trying to keep his aesthetic true to the limitations Shakespeare had. Or maybe he was up to something far more dastardly.

Perhaps this was Olivier doubting the rhetoric he was putting forward. Though the explicit message behind the film is a patriotic one, the most overtly pro-England moments are undermined by reminders that what we are watching is fake. Forced to eliminate the doubt Shakespeare had in his king, Olivier responds by making his world a fake. This couldn't have been what Henry V was really like. Otherwise, that castle in the distance would at least look real. The unknowing viewer can take in a patriotic message and spit it out against the Germans. The careful viewer can see the contempt Olivier holds for the useless war Henry wages. I highly recommend you take a look at The Shamus' look at Kenneth Branagh's Henry V. The Shamus explores Shakespeare's words and his view on patriotism as filtered through Branagh's vision. I think that Olivier's version, though lacking in some of the Bard's most pointed verbal jabs, uses its visual style to put forth the same point of view that Shakespeare intended.

*I am terribly sorry for a horrible joke, but I couldn't resist

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Sundae Monday

This Monday is Patriot's Day in Massachusetts. It's mainly celebrated through the running of the Boston Marathon, but I'd be willing to bet that a few of you don't know anything about Patriot's Day. But then again, I'm guessing that based on the fact that George W. Bush wanted to make September 11 into Patriot's Day. And so, I give to you the history of Patriot's Day, in rhyming form.

That's right. No videos this week. Just literature.

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, ‘If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,—
One, if by land, and two, if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.’

Then he said, ‘Good-night!’ and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.

Meanwhile, his friend, through alley and street,
Wanders and watches with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.

Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry-chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,—
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town,
And the moonlight flowing over all.

Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night-encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, ‘All is well!’
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,—
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide, like a bridge of boats.

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse’s side,
Now gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle-girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry-tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns!

A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.

He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

It was twelve by the village clock,
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer’s dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.

It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, blank and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.

It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadows brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed.
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket-ball.

You know the rest. In the books you have read,
How the British Regulars fired and fled,—
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farm-yard wall,
Chasing the red-coats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,—
A cry of defiance and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door
And a word that shall echo forevermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

Oh, who am I kidding? Indie-Rock/Dance Music!!!

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Friday, April 13, 2007

The True Heir

There's been an idea going around. Someone, I'm not sure who, has been talking about how Pirates of the Caribbean is our generation's Raiders of the Lost Ark. My natural contrariness has not allowed me to believe this. Well, that and the fact that I didn't even like the first Pirates. But it wasn't until tonight that I found the true heir to the lofty throne of Indiana Jones.

National Treasure is the sort of movie we've been missing for a while. Of course, it was made in the wake of "The Da Vinci Code" (the book, not the movie), so it was hastily dismissed. However, there is a certain humanity in the film that is lacking in most enterprises of this sort.

This is most prevalent in a chase scene right after Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) steals the Declaration of Independence (it's really not worth explaining, but if you can go for the Holy Grail in a temple at the bottom of a canyon in Egypt, you should be able to go for this). The chase is centered on the fact that Gates' chief rival, Ian Howe (Sean Bean), has kidnapped Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), presumably with the Declaration. It is, of course, revealed later that the copy of the Declaration that Ian stole was a poster bought at the gift shop. This makes the chase that much more interesting in retrospect. In almost every movie of this sort, the people are never as important as the clue they have. People are kept alive solely for their ability to figure out the next clue. And yet here is a chase, not for the Declaration of Independence, but for Abigail.

Remember that the only reason Indiana Jones kept Marion around was because she had the the headpiece of the Staff of Ra. Ben Gates seems much more interested in the company he keeps than the information they have to give. This humanity extends even to Ian, who loses his closest friend in the last leg of this race. Ian is almost completely rational throughout most of the film. He seems simply driven by a lust for gold. But his hatred and greed reach a new level when seemingly confronted with a dead end. He has lost his friend, and the pain can be seen in Bean's performance, though nobody ever thought to look at it from his perspective.

National Treasure also seems to enjoy role reversals. Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) takes particular pleasure in the fact that for once in his life, he has the answer that Ben can't see. Ian, phenomenally rich at the start of the film, ends up poor and in jail while Ben goes from a moderate life to his own mansion. Probably the most obvious taste for reversals occurs, again, in the final major set piece. As decrepit stairs fall apart, we see Ben start to slip. He is saved by Abigail, but as soon as she pulls him up to safety, it is he who must save her.

What I found to be the most interesting role reversal came from a knowledge of film history. When Ian is finally nabbed outside of the Old North Church, he looks across the street to see Ben waiting in the shadowy doorway of an apartment. Thoughts of Harry Lime came rushing back to me, and I realized the greatest switch possible. With Ian, the criminal willing to do anything to survive, in Holly's shoes, and goody two shoes in the place of Harry. In The Third Man, Harry was ahead of every step Holly took. He knew exactly where to be at any given time. Ian is the same way, able to effectively follow Ben from Washington D.C. to Philadelphia to New York. Ben is able to solve every clue; he is book smart in a way that Ian never could. But he isn't street smart like Ian. He needs Riley to cover him in this regard. And so the tables turn at the end of the film. Ben is finally able to look on at Ian with the street smarts he needs. He has the knowledge, and he is still the good man. He doesn't need to lower himself to the level of a Harry Lime to feel the smug supremacy Harry felt when Holly first saw him. In a sense, the image of Ben in the doorway seems hopeful for humanity. We don't really need to be like Harry Lime to have his charm and street smarts.

National Treasure has a lot going for it. It is much more intelligent than most people give it credit for, and it is still extremely entertaining. It has great set pieces, thoroughly enjoys its movie-ness, and has a wonderfully charismatic leading man (I'm still convinced Nic Cage is one of the best actors of this generation, especially when starring in films like this). If that doesn't sound like Raiders of the Lost Ark, then I don't know what does. So forget Pirates of the Caribbean. National Treasure is where the pure entertainment lies.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Sundae Monday

Apparently this weekend was an orgy of blogging, what with Grindhouse finally in theaters and The Sopranos back on the air. But what about religion? I'm still eating Matzoh, even when I went over to my girlfriend's place for an Easter Egg Hunt (It was simply cruel of her to eat Chinese food while I had matzoh with cream cheese). And so for this holy weekend, I present a double offering, one for each religion.

The Christians can have Rabbit, a wonderfully stylized animated moral tale about greed.

And for the Jews in the house, well, you'll get the joke. I particularly like the Maltese Falcon score thrown in.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Great Cinematic Speeches - The Godfather

It's one of those films that's buried deep into the American subconscience. I cannot think of a film that is referenced as much as this one, or one that has so many pieces that could be referenced. It's practically a rite of passage. You are not a man until you have seen The Godfather. And everyone has seen it, which is more than can be said about Casablanca or Citizen Kane, the other two in the Elite Three of American Cinema. I exclude others like 2001 or Vertigo because those aren't nearly as popular as those three. But The Godfather has something for everyone. For those looking for allegory, it's not hidden from them. For those looking for a great story, it's there. For those who are there for the bloodshed, this one is not lacking.

I got a chance to see The Godfather on the big screen last night, and it blew me away like it never had done before. Some shots that I never noticed before announced their beauty so simply that it knocked me off my feet. Like the simple shot of Tom Hagen walking down an alley in a Hollywood backlot before first meeting Jack Woltz. It could have been a simple throwaway shot, but it echoes with the past and future of cinema while showing how Tom Hagen has much less influence when he's in L.A.

There are a number of quotable lines, most notably, "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse." But the film scholars note a different one. The first words of the film. "I believe in America." These words are spoken by Bonasera, a man pleading for Don Vito Corleone to give him "justice," when he really wants vengeance. This speech sets up the entire dynamic of the film, showing just how America works. America will not give Bonasera justice, so he comes to Don Corleone. Bonasera, like most of the other characters in the film, misuses the word justice. He envisions a Utopia in America, but that Utopia should only apply to him.

One of the fasinating aspects of the speech is how it sets up a duality to be later established with the complaints of Jack Woltz. Jack also complains about a beautiful woman who was defiled by an arrogant man. Jack has the power to get his own justice, yet the Corleone family stops him. The difference here is whose justice the Corleone family looks out for. The Corleones have an interest in Jack Woltz's affairs because the guilty party here is Vito's godson. The Corleones set up their own type of favoritism to counter that of America.

The speech also sets up the fall of Michael by showing a man who desperately tried to avoid becoming involved in the mob. Bonasera eventually falls before the power of the mob, just as Michael must. Also, the speech is given in a single shot. During that shot, we get our first look at Vito. Our first glimpse is of Vito's back, just as our first look at Michael is of his back. The link here shows that Vito is Michael's future, that Michael will fall and be the eventual Godfather.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Sundae Monday

I wrote a piece on All About Eve for Mystery Man on Film's Screenwriting Blog-A-Thon, but my computer decided that my piece was too good for this world. Suffice it to say this is only a taste of the writerly goodness you can find over at Mystery Man on Film.

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