Thursday, December 30, 2010

Game Over (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Micmacs)

"Watch the movie ten minutes at a time, and you might think it's a masterpiece," wrote Pauline Kael about Terry Gilliam's Brazil. "That's the problem, though - it's the same ten minutes." I think more highly of Gilliam's signature film than Kael did. But her words couldn't be more appropriate for two of 2010's most elaborate fantasias -
Scott Pilgrim vs the World and
Micmacs. Both so ambitious, so visually dazzling, so deeply, deeply tedious.

Scott Pilgrim, Edgar Wright's follow-up to Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead (two of my favorite comedies of the Aughts), would be the British director's first foray on (North) American soil if the film weren't residing entirely in ComicBookLand. (Based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley.) There has been an endless supply of "comic book movies" over the years but Scott Pilgrim is a true original: a movie that conveys the look and feel of a comic book more seamlessly than Ang Lee's Hulk from a few years back. Frames break into "panels," action is repeatedly freeze-framed, sounds are visualized. ComicBookLand also shares territory with VideoGameVille, as we watch the title character do battle with his new girlfriend's "Seven Deadly Exes," gaining new "powers" and advancing to higher "levels" following each "round."

That's a lot of quotation marks for one paragraph, and it's a large part of the problem I had with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Wright creates a universe teeming with visual invention, always giving you something to look at. Its version of Toronto is composed entirely of artifice, and Wright, one of our most humanistic filmmakers, tries his damndest to give the movie heart. (Indeed, when two characters kiss, tiny hearts literally float across the screen.) Yet the film suffers from irony overload, not least of which due to its two leads. Michael Cera has eked out an inexplicable career from playing nerdy studs really into hip music and accepting of homosexual lifestyles while chasing the girl of his dreams; it's a good thing Wright fills the frame with delightful corner details, because Cera's Scott Pilgrim is a cipher at the center, bringing nothing to the party. (Jesse Eisenberg's star turn in The Social Network should finally lay to rest which of these two role-competing actors is going places.) As Ramona Flowers, the girl he fights for, Mary Elizabeth Winstead's perpetual deadpan is so thuddingly devoid of feeling she could be texting her lines rather than delivering them.

The supporting players fare better -- especially Alison Pill as the pint-sized, romantically spurned drummer for Scott's band. (Pill, so astonishing on season 2 of In Treatment, adds devastating comic timing to her repertoire here. She'd have made a better Ramona.) And most of the villain-players (Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Jason Schwartzman) give spirited performances. Passages of Scott Pilgrim are so exhilarating that it's odd how the movie as a whole left me feeling like an exhausted observer rather than an energized investor in the action. (Granted, an individual who gave up reading comic books in his pre-teens and gaming a few years later may not be the most reliable authority on a movie like this.) Scott Pilgrim vs. The World mounts the strongest challenge yet to Roger Ebert's assertion that "video games can never be art," yet ultimately it's a film in need of a joystick.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet, why are you so hard to like? Your movies (City of Lost Children, Amelie, A Very Long Engagement) are ravishing to look at. You fearlessly employ CGI within a classical filmmaking style. You have a knack for visual slapstick. You create worlds (even familiar ones such as Paris) that are like no other onscreen. Yet, Christ, you're annoying; and Micmacs is your most irritating concoction yet, a satire of the arms industry that packs all the wallop of Charlie Chaplin forgoing his parody of Hitler in favor of a lesser-ranking figure (The Great Untersturmfuhrer). It's also as maudlin as Chaplin at his worst.

Amelie should have taught Jeunet a lesson about the need for a strong lead character, yet Micmacs stars a void named Dany Boon as Bazil, a clerk at a video store who loses his job after being accidentally shot in the head. He survives, tracks down a pair of weapons manufacturers responsible for the bullet that maimed him, and enlists a ragtag band of junkyard dealers to wreak revenge on the CEOs. What follows is an extended variation on the sequence in Amelie where Audrey Tautou plays a series of pranks on a cruel produce vendor, and the escalating battle of wits in Micmacs would have more bite were the bad guys not so witless. Jeunet fills Paris with his customary oversaturated greens and richly textured blacks: the colors are entrancing, yet before long looking at them takes on the quality of a sugar high. By the end, when the director foolishly tries to shoehorn Real World Concerns into his fantasy theme park, you can't wait to come down.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Lively Times (True Grit and Easy A)

(Warning: Spoilers.)

Years ago, when John Waters raised eyebrows by releasing the original, non-musical Hairspray with a PG rating, the notorious Pope-of-Trash explained: "It was the only shock left." In comparison, Joel and Ethan Coen haven't been even remotely as controversial, yet their new True Grit has also been hailed as a near family-friendly (PG-13) departure from their frequently bloody, darkly comic fare. More importantly, as Sheila O'Malley notes, the Coens "find a new way to shock: by being more faithful to the book than the original film version of True Grit ever was; by exalting the Western genre unapologetically; by not being ironic, not even a little bit."

I'll have to take Sheila's word for the Charles Portis novel, never having read it; and I remember little about Henry Hathaway's 1969 screen version beyond John Wayne shooting the bad guys with horse reins between his teeth, despite having seen the film a handful of times. But I have seen every film the Coen brothers have made, and I came out of their True Grit thinking that by embracing the genre they found a powerful way to critique it. And while they've left the irony at the door -- treating the story with affection rather than looking down their noses at it -- they are certainly as playful as ever: You don't create an image of what initially looks like a bear riding a horse without some intention to make mischief.

That scene and others give True Grit a free-associative, episodic quality reminiscent of The Outlaw Josey Wales. Like Eastwood's film, the Coens' features a Confederate veteran of the Civil War out of his element in the postwar era: When we first meet Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn (actually, it's the second time; the first time he's an offscreen voice in an outhouse), he's being hounded in a court of law by an attorney whose shady client lost most of his kin at the receiving end of Rooster's rifle. Cogburn may be a U.S. Marshall but his badge appears essentially worthless, as the attorney catches him in one lie after another. ("Maybe I did move the body!" he growls, not long after assuring he didn't.) Nevertheless, Cogburn's reputation as the "meanest" Marshal in town (not, it is emphasized, the best) impresses young Mattie Ross enough to hire him to track down the man who killed her father and bring him to justice -- i.e., the kind of public hanging she witnesses near the beginning of the film.

All Westerns are, in one way or another, about the end of a freer yet trigger-happy way of life and the dawn of a more "civilized" society that codifies its own brutality. Missing the point of the prosecutor's query, Mattie sees Cogburn's lack of ethics as her ticket to overriding the law's red-taped indifference to capturing Tom Chaney (her father's kiler). The casual racism of that time is also on display when the Native American in the trio to be hanged is the only one not allowed to have any last words, a bag cavalierly put over his head as he starts to speak; or later, when Rooster and Mattie happen upon a pair of Indian children abusing a mule, and Cogburn repeatedly kicks them out of his way. (We get the sense that he'd have done it anyway.) Somewhere in between the precocious adolescent girl and the aging gun-for-hire is LaBoeuf (pronounced "La Beef"), a thirtyish Texas Ranger with faintly ridiculous airs (and jingle-jangling spurs) yet a determination to track down Chaney for a different crime -- the shooting of a Lone Star senator. LaBoeuf and Mattie share the language of educated people, but he and Cogburn are experienced enough have a mutual understanding of the hazard of their quest.

That Mattie doesn't fully grasp the danger she puts herself in -- first hiring a man of questionable character, then insisting she tag along for the ride -- makes True Grit a coming-of-age tale, one where the heroine does not emerge completely unscathed. Superbly played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld (who masters the tricky dialogue with the savvy of a Deadwood alum), Mattie is simultaneously intelligent and rash, amusing in her immodesty regarding the former and appealing in her refusal to make excuses for the latter. Oddly, her true opposite number is neither Rooster nor LaBoeuf (and certainly not Josh Brolin's mentally-addled Chaney or Dakin Matthews's exasperated horse trader whom she wears down into returning her father's money); it's gang-leader Lucky Ned Pepper (played, coincidentally, by Barry Pepper), who kidnaps Mattie and threatens to kill her, only to end with almost a mutual understanding for each other's objectives. Their scene together is practically the only time where a conversation with Mattie doesn't turn into a contest of one-upmanship.

As LaBoeuf, Matt Damon has the task of making us forget Glen Campbell in the 1969 film, made easier by the fact that we're all too willing to go along. Damon shows some disturbing new dimensions of his own persona as well: he's introduced watching Mattie in her bedroom, admitting that he considered offering her a kiss while she slept; a few scenes later, he viciously spanks Mattie as punishment for refusing to go away. Later, after a near-fatal encounter with Lucky Ned's gang, he attains a wounded dignity. (Damon is quite touching with the line, "I am considerably diminished.") As Cogburn, Jeff Bridges has the impossible assignment of filling John Wayne's Oscar-winning boots. Wisely, he doesn't try. Bridges portrays Rooster with so many rough edges that it's inevitable that he hurt those who get close to him. Unlike Wayne, he sinks into the harsh landscape rather than rising above it.

His performance is almost too self-effacing, given what the unscrupulous Rooster ultimately does for Mattie at the end. Bridges, though, makes the character's selflessness persuasive, aided by Roger Deakins's unspeakably beautiful cinematography in an already much-discussed race against time under the stars that rivals the note-passing scene in The Ghost Writer as the scene of the year. (Take David Thomson's dubious suggestion to listen to the film with your eyes closed and you'll be missing plenty.) It's an astonishing sequence from a pair of filmmakers whose considerable pleasures have nonetheless always tended be more intellectually tantalizing than soul-stirring.

I thought last year's Brothers Coen effort, A Serious Man, was a masterpiece, a one-of-a-kind half-satirical, half-real-world balancing act; True Grit, while less complex, continues the Coens's progression into addressing art at eye-level, not to mention furthering a hot streak following a creative crisis in the early aughts where they teetered on the verge of becoming irrelevant (e.g., The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty). That they're ascended to the top shelf of contemporary American filmmakers is because, as Steven Santos wrote last year, they "use film to search and probe the world around them and especially themselves." This is evident in a pointed, touching coda in their latest film, when one of two famous outlaws -- now years away from their legendary past -- wistfully tells a middle-aged Mattie about a mutual acquaintance, "We shared some lively times." (The other, less respectful towards her, receives a hilarious upbraiding.) True Grit isn't the best movie the Coen brothers have yet made. But it's the first I'd call magical.

Emma Stone gives such a buoyant performance in the now-on-DVD Easy A that she's destined to give Rosalind Russell and Irene Dunne and Carole Lombard a run for their money in roles like....Wait, this isn't 1935? Alas: before Stone gets pigeonholed in dreary romcom leads and superhero love interests, don't miss her livewire star turn in this smarter-than-average teen comedy as Olive, a smarter-than-average teen whose inevitable lack of popularity takes a turn for the notorious when a bogus rumor that she's an easy lay spreads among the tongue-wagging troglodytes at her high school. The twist in Will Gluck's movie is that Olive embraces the slut stereotype, dressing the part with a "scarlet A" emblazoned on her sleeves (if she wore sleeves).

Easy A updates Hawthorne as imaginatively as Clueless modernized Austen: at one point Olive, with motives at once selfless and avaricious, permits the bullied young men of the school to use her reputation to bolster their manly bona fides in exchange for monetary gifts. Lessons are learned, of course -- but not enough to punish the audience for enjoying a well-played ruse. As an actress, Emma Stone seemed to arrive almost fully formed in memorable supporting parts in Superbad, The House Bunny, and Zombieland. It was Judd Apatow who persuaded the naturally blonde Stone to become a screen redhead, just one quality among many that makes her stand out.

Clashing with everybody from sexually terrified teen evangelicals to macho meatheads, Stone makes Olive at least three steps ahead of everybody -- except for her parents. Played by the wonderfully in-sync Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, Olive's folks calm every crisis through witty gamesmanship. (Putting on a DVD during family movie night, Tucci deadpans, "We can now cross 'See The Bucket List' off our bucket list.") Rather than depicting parents as out-of-touch embarrassments, Easy A is the rare teen comedy that shows a commonality between generations, and an even rarer one to suggest that the younger can actually learn something from the older to get through life.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Steven, You Can't Be Serious: My Problem with Spielberg's "Maturation" as a Filmmaker

For the Steven Spielberg Blogathon, brought to you by Adam Zanzie & Ryan Kelly, Dec. 18-28.

There was a time -- and I can pinpoint it to a three-year period: 1981-1984 -- when news of a Steven Spielberg film left me a-tingle with excitement. Those days, unless you subscribed to Variety, the earliest you would hear about a new movie would be in the Sunday paper before its Friday release. In the case of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was word-of-mouth -- a rave review from a neighbor -- that spurred my folks and me to check it out. I had been too young for Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) -- catching up to them on videocassette later -- so Raiders was my first Spielberg theatrical experience, and my eleven-year-old self thrilled to it. I wasn't yet cognizant of why the movie excited me (acting, cinematography, editing, and other elements all rolled into the most fluid visual style by a filmmaker since Hitchcock); I just knew that I had seen something special, and I wanted to see it over and over again.

The following summer came a film with an even greater seismic impact, at once more universal and more intimate, by the name of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The critical reception was laudatory, yet to see it with an enthralled, rapturous audience (two, three, four times) was as close as I've ever had to a religious experience. Two years after that came Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which would be critically regarded as Spielberg's Black Mass. I was shocked by the backlash against the movie (as well as the Spielberg-produced Gremlins, which I had also enjoyed). "The wizards have grown very powerful indeed," one critic intoned ominously at the end of an overheated essay on how Spielberg and Lucas had ruined movies (a theme echoed endlessly since then). The movie's reputation has not improved over time. But I can assure you that seeing Temple of Doom in a theater (two, three, four times) was as communal an experience as anything Spielberg had directed beforehand. Audiences responded to it in a way you rarely see anymore. In his entertaining and informing Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer, Tom Shone makes a persuasive counterpoint to the widely accepted notion that the 1980s were the dregs of American cinema. To have seen Raiders, E.T., and (for some of us) Temple of Doom, with a loud, appreciative audience on a long, wide screen, Shone argues, was a privilege to fill young movie buffs of today with envy.

It's fun to see the excitement that Steven Spielberg's older movies have generated in the Zanzies, Kellys, and Coles of the blogosphere; I wish I could share their enthusiasm for his newer ones. Nowadays, my Pavlovian response to an upcoming Spielberg movie is usually indifference, occasionally dread. His 2011 release, War Horse, produces nothing more than mild curiosity; his already ballyhooed Lincoln considerably less. Speeches are what Abraham Lincoln is primarily known for, and as the scenes with Gen. Marshall in Saving Private Ryan and John Quincy Adams in Amistad testify, speeches are not Spielberg's strong suit. Give the guy an intricately complicated action scene and he's in his element; give him a talking head and the narrative does more than stop dead -- it practically backs up.

Certainly, Lincoln will afford Spielberg the opportunity to stage some impressive Civil War carnage, prompting his admirers to uncover Meaningful Themes when all I may see is a filmmaker invested in his technique. I often enjoy the spirited subtextual readings that much of Spielberg's work generates (and which this blogathon has already amply provided). Yet when watching much of his output over the last several years, I can't help but get the feeling that sometimes his fans are working harder than he is.

There are many things I still like about Spielberg. To begin with the obvious, his visual acuity is peerless, inspiring the oft-repeated quote by Hitchcock that the director of Jaws was the first filmmaker "who doesn't see the Proscenium Arch." What Hitch meant was Spielberg represented a wave of American directors influenced by movies themselves rather than the stage. (One reason Jaws was so groundbreakingly effective was because the shark never appeared when or where you expected it; its director had broken "the rules.") In addition to an ecstatic eye, he has (or had) a marvelous sense of humor, a flair for tossed-off sight gags that hit you, bounce off the theater's walls and ping you again (a space alien on a drinking binge, a T-Rex looming in a rearview mirror, a sadistic Nazi transforming an apparent torture device into a coat hanger).

He also is enormously underrated with actors, and not just the child variety. Correct me if I'm wrong, but to the best of my knowledge no actor in a Steven Spielberg film has ever won an Academy Award. There have been fine, widely acclaimed performances over the years (Liam Neeson in Schindler's List, Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan). Yet few directors have gotten better work out of Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Jeremy Davies, Martin Sheen, even Oprah Winfrey. Unlike Lucas, Spielberg hasn't lost sight of what actors bring to the screen. In an unassuming manner, he has a knack for sussing out dimensions in performers that you've never seen before and may never see after.

Moreover, as much as I've been underwhelmed by Spielberg's quest to be taken seriously by tackling Serious Issues (working against his gifts, as Pauline Kael noted on more than one occasion), there is one theme that he gravitates toward naturally, without any strain: fear of abandonment. This is the throughline in his body of work, sometimes from the point-of-view of a parent (Melinda Dillon in Close Encounters, Tom Cruise in Minority Report, the villagers in Temple of Doom), often from the perspective of the child (Empire of the Sun, A.I.). Both the alien and Elliott in E.T. are lost children left to their own devices -- the former by happenstance, the latter on account of his father's departure and mother's resulting distraction and depression. I never even realized that E.T. was about divorce until I got older, so subtle is Spielberg's working through a topic obviously close to his heart. The melodramatic third act of the film (really just the passage where E.T. "dies") is the only time when his sure-handedness slips a bit, but at no time is the story less than deeply felt.

So it breaks my heart that I can no longer watch E.T., not after Spielberg's "tinkering" for the re-release that turned the palpable and lovably staggering title creature into a sinewy CGI hologram. Watching the alien leapfrog away from Keys in the famous opening chase sequence held all the appeal of seeing a favorite grind-it-out ballplayer suddenly swinging for the fences with a new steroids-laden physique: You lose a vital connection to what you're watching, because you're made aware that it isn't real. Ditto Spielberg's last picture, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in which the filmmakers promised a return to the thrilling stuntwork of the earlier films and instead saturated us with special effects everywhere we looked. I hated the movie when it came out; its contempt for both audience and narrative. Seeing Crystal Skull again last week (on USA Network, which decided to torture its viewership with no commercial interruptions), it seemed less contemptible, merely pathetic. I'd like to think that the promise of yet another Indiana Jones movie is Spielberg's intent to redeem the previous outing. More likely, it's the latest instance of a filmmaker who doesn't know when to quit.

It's been equally dismaying to watch Spielberg's lean, mean sense of timing degenerate into the bloat of a director who no longer knows when to end his movies. Think of Jaws ("I used to hate the water," "I can't imagine why"), Raiders (a deux-ex-machina climax that actually works), E.T. (a rainbow that actually works), or the original ending of Close Encounters (Dreyfuss enters the spaceship without our seeing what's inside), and you see a director taking advantage of his uncanny instincts. The clear-eyed, sure-footed mastery of Spielberg's direction of Schindler's List is marred by the tin-eared "I could have done more" scene (as one critic told me via email, a mark of his insecurity). The spry airiness of Catch Me If You Can (unusual for a late-Spielberg work) is eventually weighed down by an endless denuouement geared unnecessarily to reassure us that Abignale is redeemable. And don't get me started on the check-my-watch climactic slogs of A.I. and Minority Report, designed by Spielberg to suggest dark interpretations without having the stones to actually embrace the darkness.

Years ago, John Powers (I think) dispelled the common criticism that Steven Spielberg was too much of a sentimental softy, pointing out that in practically all his films (from Duel and The Sugarland Express on), his characters get worked over by all kinds of physical and psychological ordeals. (Odie Henderson at The House Next Door once put it more succinctly: "Spielberg likes to kill people.") What Spielberg lacks, Powers suggested, was intellectual toughness, an ability to perceive complexity and convey it through his art. This is a quality that many Old Hollywood filmmakers who could "see the Proscenium Arch" did have (including Hitchcock himself, for all his high style); it's also a quality of directors, then and now, who are well read.

I don't mean to suggest that Spielberg is a dummy. He's obviously read a number of books -- not least of which Alice Walker's The Color Purple and J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun. I'm unsure though, based on his wobbly screen adaptations, how much he understood them; or if he did grasp their nuances but was reluctant to parse them. "All those people gamboling in the broiling southern sun," David Denby observed about The Color Purple, "was (Spielberg) crazy?" I could say the same about the internment camp sequence in Empire of the Sun, with enough jaunty Great Escape-like shenanigans to unravel the stark authenticity (and poetic lyricism) of the film's remarkable opening passages. As Hitchcock indicated, Spielberg's primary influences are other movies. Spielberg is a unique enough stylist to avoid obvious homages; you don't think of anybody else's movies while watching his. Yet he lacks the life experience to fully convey the reality that his higher-minded movies intend to replicate.

Never was this more apparent (for me, at least) than in Saving Private Ryan. Combining his love of war movies with the kind of populist scholarship all too comfortably down his wheelhouse (D-Day wannabe Stephen Ambrose), Spielberg set out to make the ultimate war movie and damn well made sure we all knew it. (Kael again: "I felt as if Spielberg were bucking for awards, to the point where his people seemed outraged when they didn't win them. As if they deserved honors for their serious intentions.") Even if one acknowledges the virtuosity of the Omaha Beach sequence (and Tom Carson, as I recall, made a persuasive argument that it lacks a sense of the time spent by soldiers pinned down on that beachhead, conveyed by actual war veteran Samuel Fuller in The Big Red One), it's difficult to avoid that the sequence surrounded by three terrible scenes: the opening with the old man shuffling to the WWII graveyard (prompting me to mutter, "Uh-oh"); the Lincoln speech recited by Gen. Marshall to provide moral support for his questionable plan; and the Rockwellesque depiction of the Ryan family farm. This last image, in particular, raises the question of how sacrificing one's self for Private Ryan has meaning if what they're defending is an idealized depiction of Americana. For a film so vocal (and graphic) about its own gritty authenticity, Saving Private Ryan has no qualms about reinforcing hoary cliches and devices.

In his "message movies," Spielberg often seems deeply confused about what he's trying to tell us versus what he's actually showing us, sometimes in the same scene. Back in the un-message-y Jaws, he subversively undermined American machismo by killing off the blowhard Quint; it's the reluctant seaman Brody, and the intellectual Hooper, who survive. Fast forward to Saving Private Ryan and its transformation of the bookish, sensitive Cpl. Upham into a cold-blooded killer. Putting aside for a moment the tortured machinations that bring Upham face-to-face with "Steamboat Willie," the Nazi soldier he persuades Capt. Miller to release earlier in the movie (and who kills Miller later), it's hard to tell what Spielberg means for us to take from Upham's apotheosis. He seems to be aiming for something along the lines of Michael Corleone's turning point in The Godfather -- that the real tragedy isn't the person who gets killed but the person who does the killing. If that's the case, however, then why should it matter who shoots Miller? I've never experienced combat, but it's my impression that many more soldiers die from the tragic happenstance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time than the cheap cause-and-effect on display in Saving Private Ryan (i.e., "This time, it's personal.") That it does matter in the movie is nothing less than a dubious rebuke of Upham's earlier decency, that he's not really a man until he pulls the trigger.

I'll venture even further away from the accusation that Spielberg's too sentimental; at his worst, he's downright cynical. War of the Worlds is a bludgeoning allegory for 9/11, the former showing the human response to calamity at its worst when the real thing revealed in numerous instances people at their very best. Crystal Skull and The Lost World are the works of a master bored with his own mastery. It's inevitable that Spielberg will continue making popular entertainments to provide collateral for his more artistic endeavors. But as far back as his creative crisis in the late-80s and early-90s (the boring Always, the embarrassing Hook, the clever yet exhausted Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), it's been obvious that Spielberg is long past the escapist entertainment of his youth.

Where, then, should he go from here? Prior to its interminable coda, Catch Me If You Can is a wonderful one-off for Spielberg, a departure from most of his familiar trappings without coming off impersonal. (As always, a child's estrangement from his parents was his point-of-entry into the story.) I also was surprised by Munich, a movie I had avoided in its theatrical run out of certainty that it would be Spielbergian Oscar-Bait at its worst. What I ended up seeing was a filmmaker returning to conveying information visually rather than through speechifying (e.g., the brilliant cross-cutting of images of the murdered Israeli wrestling team members with photographs of the terrorists flipped into a pile); one who, rather than fulfilling his preconceived notions of the Arab-Israeli conflict, followed the narrative with open eyes and seemed surprised by what he found. Munich isn't flawless, but it's a movie whose messiness is appropriate to the subject. Like Schindler's List, it's a great movie not because it's a Serious Movie, but because Spielberg delves deeply into his Jewish heritage, into something that matters to him. Too often after E.T., he's lost his once vital connection with an audience, no longer "phoning home" but phoning it in. And Spielberg's capable of so much more: Would he only take the advice left at the end of Munich and go home more often.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Oceans Away (The Pacific)

Comparing the title sequence of The Pacific, the 2010 HBO miniseries (new to DVD) chronicling the struggle between the United States and Japan in World War II, to that of its European Theater-based older sibling Band of Brothers (2001) speaks volumes about how each production approaches its subject. All ten episodes of Band of Brothers kicked off with a compelling juxtaposition: talking-head interviews of actual veterans depicted in the series; along with an opening-credits sequence (featuring a gorgeous score by the late Michael Kamen) showing the stable of actors who portray these vets (from scenes edited together in the step-printed style of Wong Kar-Wai). Stirring without being jingoistic, mournful without being sentimental, the Band of Brothers title sequence is an act of great humility all the more surprising coming from the Spielberg-Hanks dual monarchy that three years earlier brought us Saving Private Ryan: it tells us that the dramatic recreation of these events, no matter how "authentic," pales in comparison to what these men actually went through.

With a score by Hans Zimmer (less memorable than Kamen's, but refreshingly "BWAHM"-less), The Pacific begins each of its ten episodes with a subtle yet crucially different tack -- charcoal drawings of characters and scenes from the series transforming into actual screen footage. The folks behind this sequence obviously put into it a lot of thought and care. No doubt they'd be shocked to learn that their blending of images -- especially the "explosions" of charcoal on the page -- made me grimace at the start of each episode. To be fair, The Pacific lacks an advantage that Band of Brothers possessed ten years ago: most of the real-life veterans depicted in the series have passed away, making similar talking-head interviews impossible. Nevertheless, what's irksome about the title sequence for The Pacific is how it trumpets the act of creation. It suggests, rather presumptuously, that its fiction is the reality.

The Pacific suffers from narrative problems as well. Based on the respective memoirs of vets Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge, the dramatic arc covers most of the significant action in the Pacific Theater between 1942-1945 (Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Okinawa) but makes a fatal error in terms of perspective. Leckie (played by James Badge Dale) and Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) are two of the central characters, with the POV of a third, John Basilone (Jon Seda), shoehorned in at haphazard intervals. All three were in the 1st Division Marine Corps, but in different regiments, and their paths crossed in a vague manner that could be called Band of Passing Acquaintances. Hanks and Spielberg probably thought that following diverging paths would reflect the island-hopping American strategy in the Pacific Theater and widen the narrative scope (in contrast to Band of Brothers's relatively straightforward throughline from boot camp to the "Bird's Nest"). It takes a Robert Altman to pull off this sort of thing without the seams showing, however; and the gear shifts in The Pacific are frequently jarring. Moreover, nobody seemed to realize that depicting all the events from only three sets of eyes narrows the scope of the experience.

I always loathed the late Stephen Ambrose for his romanticizing of The Second World War. A non-veteran (born in 1936) who reached a high degree of literary stature (albeit marked by controversy), Ambrose came across like the kind of starry-eyed D-Day wannabe the hardened vets in his books invariably razzed. (His rather dubious testament to the realism of Saving Private Ryan was also employed to make the film above reproach.) Yet he had a fiction author's knack for character, incident and anecdote, and the series adaptation of his Band of Brothers used these finer qualities to push back the encroaching sentiment. Band was far from flawless. A couple of episodes lurched toward a unifying theme instead of embodying it (namely the third, "Carentan"), and some of the actors looked so alike in their matching crew cuts and uniforms it took awhile to sort them out. Yet the series grew stronger, more resonant as it went along, gradually expanding from the POV of a central protagonist, Dick Winters, to varying perspectives of the Easy Company experience in Europe. Appropriately, their stories were told not in any one singular style, but a variety of techniques ranging from voiceover ("The Breaking Point") to flashback narrative ("Why We Fight").

Responding to Alan Sepinwall's glowing review of a Pacific episode (one of many), a commenter stated that Band of Brothers "had the benefit of showing the European Theater from multiple perspectives: Platoon Lt., Company Captain, Medic, First Sergeant, wide-eyed naive Private, and more worldly battle-tested Private." In contrast, The Pacific "is little more than looking at the Pacific Theater through a telescope, and the only image I see is a Marine Private with mud and dirt on his face." This hits on the fundamental monotony of the series. Leckie, Sledge, and Basilone are allotted their own personalities, and react to their war experiences in different ways; but even with distinctive filmmakers at the helm (including Carl Franklin, director of the great One False Move), nearly every episode hits the same beats, is told in the same style, looks exactly the same way. The pair of stand-outs -- incidentally, the two episodes that conclude the series -- delve deeply into, respectively, the harrowing atrocities (and struggle to retain humanity) at Okinawa, and the culture shock of American vets returning to their lives back home. These end The Pacific on an involving note that almost compensates for the earlier hackneyed remoteness.

It was also shrewd, in the homestretch of the series, to leave out iconic images from the war (the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, the bombing of Hiroshima). Unfortunately, The Pacific lacks enough character, incident or anecdote to take those images' place. Band of Brothers gave us the amazing Damian Lewis, the shambling charm of Ron Livingston, and at least a dozen more names and/or faces I won't soon forget. I'm still not sure what to make of James Badge Dale, whose performance as Leckie leads the first five or six episodes of The Pacific. I first saw Badge Dale on AMC's Rubicon, originally thought he was the worst lead for a TV show ever, then grew gradually impressed by his curly-gray-haired unconventionality before the conspiracy-series exposed itself as a long slow road to nothing. His style and temperament fit the iconoclastic Leckie, who becomes a war hero despite his better instincts; yet Badge Dale's regressiveness is all too fitting for the inert third and fourth episodes (Leckie falling in love in Australia, then committed to a mental hospital), and neither actor nor series fully recover. As the more emblematically heroic Basilone, who earns the Medal of Honor at Guadalcanal, then is sent to the States to promote buying war bonds before getting the itch to return to combat, Jon Seda gets by but can't fill the hole at the show's center with limited resourcefulness and even more limited screen time.

Although Leckie is the focal character at the start of The Pacific, with a smattering of Basilone, it's Sledge who comes to the forefront by the end. The tall, lanky Joseph Mazzello (who appeared as one of Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard nerd horde in The Social Network) has the most expressive face of all the performers, and his Sledge has the most compelling trajectory of any character -- from naive cherry to scarily efficient mortar carrier. ("The Marines taught me how to kill Japs," he snaps to a civilian in the final episode. "I got pretty good at it.") It also helps that Mazzello is teamed with the remarkable Rami Malek, whose PFC Merriell "Snafu" Shelton is a skinny, hollow-eyed sadist with surprising reserves of loyalty. Inflecting in a soft Cajun drawl, Malek makes Snafu unpredictable for someone who talks and moves at such a leisurely pace. In between prying gold out of the fillings of dead Japanese soldiers and casually dropping pebbles in the cavity of another Japanese soldier whose head has been blown off (the most haunting image of the entire series), Snafu appears borderline psychotic. But Malek, working with Mazzello, makes his condition understandable. Culminating in an unforgettable scene in a village hut with a crying baby, they create an unforgettable duet that reveals the tenuous line between humanity and barbarism.

With twice the budget of Band of Brothers, The Pacific looks great. On a purely visual level, it harkens back to that time. Still, over ten episodes, you expect more than one memorable supporting character and a handful of arresting images. It's probably not an indication of staying power when you watch the closing credits of the last episode of a miniseries, with each character appearing onscreen, and for over ninety percent of them you ask, "Who's that guy?" The production values are all there in The Pacific; it's the people who are missing.