Methods of Film


The BFS Recommends: Moonlight 5 comments

Moonlight Theatrical PosterFriday night, Jessica and I had a decision to make: were we going to see Lego Batman or Moonlight? We ended up choosing the latter, partially under the logic that plenty of people were going to see Lego Batman, and we might as well reward the theater for picking the less popular but more serious movie, which had just won an Oscar for Best Picture.

The logic behind the choice has come back to hit me harder than I thought it would: Moonlight is an important movie, one that we need now, more than ever.

This isn’t going to be so much a review of Moonlight (you can find an excellent review on Roger Ebert’s site), though I will say Moonlight may be one of the most perfect, character-driven dramas I have ever seen. Instead, it’s going to be a plea of sorts, an argument, for why you need to see it, sooner rather than later. Why the argument? I’ll get to that in just a moment.

As often happens with a movie as powerfully immersive as Moonlight, it lingered with me, and I found myself needing to bounce my thinking about it off of others. After talking it over with Jessica, I found the above-mentioned review. Even though I knew what I probably would find there, I scrolled down to the comment section and found this sad little post:

“Can anyone explain to me why this film is “important?” Because there are crack-hos and gay black people and drug dealers with hearts of gold? How am I not a complete human being if I don’t absolutely adore this mediocre trash and weep inconsolably whenever I think of poor little Little or Chevron or Black or whatever his real name is? My life was not “affirmed” by somehow surviving this torturous, dull, self-indulgent and amateurish melodrama. The emperor has no clothes!”

Yes, it’s a comment on the internet (Beware: here there be trolls). But it’s not an out and out troll comment (there’s at least some struggle to know what they’re missing), and more, I know that a movie that focuses on the coming of age of a gay black man in Miami is going to be tough content for some people. Let’s face it, we don’t see many movies like this, particularly one that has won major awards.

I’m actually a big believer in saying that not every movie and not every book is for everyone, no matter how good it might be. And you sometimes have to be in the right mood to handle an excellent movie or play (if you’re wanting comedy, you probably shouldn’t watch King Lear). But for someone to have apparently sat through the whole of Moonlight as this commenter did and have it pass clear above their heads is absolutely depressing.

Moonlight is about identity and trying to find it. About being crushed by others as you try to find it. And no matter how 100% awesome and sure of yourself you might be at this moment, every human struggles with identity. Everyone. So for someone to watch a movie that shows that struggle in a fellow human as perfectly and understandably as the film medium can allow, but still only focus on the externals of its characters? There is something wrong with that viewer.

Our society is increasingly focused on walls now—literal, political, or emotional—maybe more so than it has been at any other time in my thirty-eight years. Maybe the 80s and that part of the Cold War is on par or even worse, but it’s impossible to argue something hasn’t been going down the drain more and more the past couple years. And this problem isn’t due to one group or another, either. Take your pick of the current news: no matter where you look, it’s easy to see humans refusing to listen to each other, whether it’s conservatives ignoring/attacking those who don’t agree with them or this protest/attack on a conservative speaker at Middlebury College. We’d rather shout each other down, or win an argument or election than listen.

What beauty we are missing. I’ve never been to Miami; I’ve never had a parent struggle with addiction. I’m just a straight white guy that has lived his whole life in the Midwest, but I could feel and understand Chiron’s life, the protagonist of Moonlight. The movie is told in three parts, with Chiron in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Each section pivots on a key scene, with Chiron reacting to the ocean. The joy Chiron feels as he learns to swim as a child, with ocean waves washing over him and the camera, is palpable. The hope or love or longing he feels when an ocean breeze passes over him in adolescence is impossible not to register: it’s the most happy we’ve seen him since he learned to swim. And the look on his face when he returns to the ocean as a young adult (he has been living in Atlanta for some years)? It’s the look any human makes when they see something they have missed more than they could describe.

I’d want Chiron to understand me. I know he’d understand the look on my face when I saw my wife for the first time in weeks. It shouldn’t matter that he’s never been to Minnesota or lived as I have lived.

And it really doesn’t.


On a Less Than Hoped for Series Four from Sherlock 1 comment

So the BBC production of Sherlock roared on the scene in 2010, delighting me with its modern take on the greatSherlock Cumberbatch/Freeman detective—surprisingly so, considering the Robert Downey, jr/Jude Law movie of 2009 should have made me feel tapped out on the character and concept… at least for awhile (tell Elementary how not interested in it I am, deservedly or not).

Cumberbatch has his own zany, manic take on the character, with enough indications of humanity brought out by Martin Freeman (and the rest of the cast) to make you want to spend time with him, to hope he might become something more than an often egomaniacal brainiac that turns to drugs to make his overpowered brain slow down for a time.

Which is why Series Four (Season Four, for us noobs across the pond), carried much hope for me. Other than a rather fun special in 2016, we’d all been waiting three years for things to pick up where they left off, with Moriarty maybe, possibly, not being dead as we all surmised.

More than that, in Series Three, Watson was challenging Sherlock’s destructive ways more than ever, backed up by an excellent addition to the cast, Watson’s fiancee (then wife), Mary Morstan. It was just the change the show, and Sherlock, needed. While there were still weird things going on in Series Three that worried me, Series Four was set up to take things in a good direction as a potential finale for the show.

Instead, it royally bollocksed it up.

Bollocks #1: Watson emotionally cheats on his wife, Mary. This might—might—have made sense in Series Three, when Watson first finds out about Mary’s secret past. But no, this is Series Four. The two have a child, and more, Watson forgave Mary all her secrets in Series Three, saying “the problems of your past are your business, the problems of your future are my privilege.” Sure, people can have moments of doubt even after saying something that romantic and loving (and Watson even said he was still angry after he said those words), but one of Watson’s main characteristics is loyalty. He sticks by Sherlock despite all his shenanigans and he shows the same loyalty and love to Mary. The show’s creators even seem to realize how much of a bollocks this is, as they couldn’t go so far as to have any physical cheating going on, just some texting after a woman on the bus takes a shine to Watson and gives him her number.

Infidelity does happen, sure, but it’s an all too common tactic used by lazy writers (particularly TV writers) to shake things up when needed: whether the shoe fits for a particular character or not… and it really does not fit for Watson.

Bollocks #2: Mary’s fate in episode one, “The Six Thatchers.” Good lord, talk about lame. An elite super spy/assassin, taken down by an office drudge—even if said drudge was smarter than she appeared. Extra cookie points for selflessly saving someone else, I guess, but it was a terrible send-off to a character that was a much needed addition to the show (more on this below). It’s made even worse when you consider all of “The Six Thatchers” is incidental to the main villain and plot of Series Four!

Bollocks #3: The main villain of Series 4, Eurus, is inadequately developed and doesn’t have enough screen time. She’s hanging about in little ways throughout Series 4, but she really only has screen time in the final episode. This would be okay if she was a villain of an episode, like Culverton Smith or Charles Magnussen, but she’s not. Compare with Moriarty, Sherlock’s other main nemesis: Moriarty was a factor and had plenty of screen time in Series 1 and 2, and the show plumbed the depths of the connection between the two more than adequately.

With Eurus, we have someone that was foundational to Sherlock and who he is—which the show took pains to note—and all we get is one episode to deal with her, which is mostly filled with nasty little puzzles, like a wannabe Saw. She’s also taken care of far too simply. She apparently has no remorse or conscience, but getting a hug from Sherlock is all that it takes to stop her extremely convoluted and drawn out methods of revenge? Not buying it. The show simply ran out of time to adequately deal with her and what she represented to both Sherlock and his older brother, Mycroft.

Bollocks #4: Sherlock’s emotions and treatment of others receives little recognition or closure. Series Three was aiming in a clear direction: Sherlock’s actions were self-destructive and pushing him away from those who were close to him. Even Molly Hooper—meek Molly Hooper who is hopelessly smitten with Sherlock—literally slaps him upside the head for wasting his gifts.

The show’s main writers, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, remembered this well. They even brought in Molly to up the emotional stakes in the final episode of Series Four, but other than a short, visceral reaction from Sherlock, his harmful treatment of Molly receives no follow through.

As noted above, Mary was a terrific foil for both Sherlock and Watson (and how their friendship was going), but her rather pointless death didn’t even do anything for the show and its two main characters other than to be a cheap upping of the emotional stakes for an otherwise red herring of an episode. At one point, Sherlock notes that Mary’s sacrifice conferred a value upon his life that he hadn’t yet been able to calculate, but just like Molly Hooper, Mary Watson is cast aside so the show can spend more time on crazy, brilliant Sherlock antics.

What always set this show aside wasn’t just its production values—fun and frenetic as they always were—it was its relationships. Despite some weird moments in the first three series, the show paid good attention to those relationships and how Sherlock was endangering them. The pieces were there for Series Four to deal with those effectively (you can see them on the drawing board: how Eurus affected both Sherlock and Mycroft, Mycroft maybe starting a relationship, of all things, etc.), but it simply didn’t focus on them. Instead, it focused on the surface—convoluted plots, Sherlockian hijinks, and vicious villains—mistaking its production values for the real heart of the show.

The final episode ends with an odd fan-service type of superhero shot, with Watson and Sherlock racing out the door to solve another crime. It might have worked, albeit schlockily, if the show had adequately dealt with its emotional center. Instead, it left me feeling hollow—so close, and yet so far from what it could have been.


Movie Previews: AKA What You Know Going Into a Story

3d_glassesThey’re everywhere. They’re in commercials and they’re all over the internet. They keep the movie you’re about to watch from starting for 15-20 minutes (unless you’re smart and show up 15-20 minutes late, like a certain Viking and Celt enjoy doing). And sometimes, previews do what they’re supposed to do, getting you excited about an upcoming movie. Frequently, though, you can wonder who put the darn thing together.

Like those stupid trailers that basically tell you the whole plot of the movie. Even if a story isn’t ruined for you if you know how it ends (there are apparently people like this–though I didn’t know there were until I met the Celt), this is just about the laziest way possible to make a preview. Cliffs Notes for the win, right? Because everyone reads those things because they’re entertaining…

Oh, and this approach forgets that a preview is supposed to be a preview… not a synopsis. Like this trailer I unfortunately saw once for Nicholas Sparks’s Safe Haven. You of course know what you’re in for with Nicholas Sparks, but come on. I know how the whole thing is going to go! What makes this even more annoying is that plot-focused trailers take the focus off the acting and the, you know, other important things that make a movie good. Plot’s nice and all, but it’s not the only thing to a story (although I will admit that the Safe Haven trailer does show off some well done cinematography).

The other thing to hate in trailers these days (or maybe the past ten years?) is how frenetic they can be. Of course, this style of trailer is common because studios want to build tension and a desire to see the story (and my heart can kind of go out to the editors that have to put these things together), but almost all of them throw a billion shots together in an effort to build up some kind of tension. This has even carried over into the action shots in movies themselves, and the result is more often a seasick mess than an actual, tension-filled moment.

Hmmm, that’s been a lot of complaining… so what do you like, Mr. Big Frickin’ Swede? Well, you pulled it out of me: I’ll tell you after the break.

(more…)


BFS Reviews: How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

dragonOkay, so… I got a little excited two weeks ago when the Celt found a preview for How to Find Your Dragon 2. A little. I might have been a little un-Swedish. But here’s why.

Trying to tell a story that draws in adults and younger folk isn’t as easy as some think (both critics and creators). You can’t get too stupid (or adults AND kids will hate it), and you can’t get too cerebral or the kids (and let’s face it, many adults) will hate it. But How to Train Your Dragon finds this balance point and soars away with it.

The crazy thing about it is that this movie kind of snuck its way into the movie landscape. Unlike Pixar films that are fanfared and publicized well in advance (a very small teaser trailer for Brave was out at least a year before it hit the screens), I didn’t hear of this one until I saw a trailer a mere couple of months before it was released. And rather than try to give us the whole plot of the movie, the trailer did what the trailer released for its sequel did last week: evoke a feeling.

It’s essentially the moment seen in the poster in the upper right, but better. Dragons (and this dragon in particular) in the movie have up until now been unknown and powerful and dangerous–tapping into centuries of storytelling that have made dragons touchstones of mystery and magic. But, this moment posits, what if you could reach out and actually touch that mystery… and while you were doing that, what if that mystery decided it wanted to reach out to you as well?

Wow.

And this undercurrent is felt throughout the movie. Sure, there are some moments that are more kiddie or more obvious than I’d like (I wasn’t quite sure at first what to make of the voiceover used in the opening), but these shortcomings are buoyed by the undercurrent of magic and mystery, and completely erased by the strong story. We understand why Hiccup–the boy in the poster–reaches out to the dragon, but we also know what this is going to cost him personally. Dragons and humans just don’t mix, it’s been made clear, and there will be repercussions.

Another fine element of the film is that the adults are allowed to be smart. What a concept, I know, but one thing Roger Ebert frequently noted in the last couple of years (I am really going to miss reading that man’s reviews…) is how often adults are made to be stupid when kids or teens are the protagonists of a movie. But in How to Train your Dragon, Hiccup’s father has feelings that are clearly understood and valued just as much as Hiccup’s. He’s not one dimensional, either, changing in reaction to the events of the story: just as Hiccup is allowed to change. True, the adults can be silly at times, but so can the kids (and this movie knows when it needs to be silly and when it needs to be serious).

The movie doesn’t stop imploding typical Hollywood fare there, either. Its characters often aren’t… pretty. Stoick the Vast (Hiccup’s father) is a big, beefy Viking warrior in the classic sense. He doesn’t have slabs of muscle Hollywoodily stacked on top of more slabs of muscle. His arms are thick but not defined, and also clearly strong–not unlike some arms you’ll actually see in the real world. And his skin… his skin is a bit pale and freckled and ruddy, not unlike some other people you’ll see in the real world. How strange to see a bit of real proportion in a cartoon, eh?

So, this movie knows how to be real, knows when it needs to get serious, and knows when it needs to fly (something its upcoming sequel seems to be remembering as well). Not every movie knows how to do that, so it’s a real treat when one does–if you haven’t seen this one already, you should.


Dreams Can Come True: Taking Flight With How to Train Your Dragon 2

*takes a deep breath* Keep calm, Swede. Keep calm–you can do this.
“Wooooooot!”
I said keep calm!
“Sorry.” *sits* “Ohmygoshthisisfantabulisticallyawesome! Yeeeeess!”
You’re totally ruining your image, dude.
“I have a Viking avatar with glasses. I’m way past hip–though hopefully I’m somewhere near endearing. And even if I’m not… thisisthecoolestthingsinceever!”
Tsk. There’s just no helping some people. *walks off in disgust*

It’s pointless to resist. If you’re a fan of How to Train Your Dragon (and if you aren’t yet,why aren’t you?), you are or you will be excited by this trailer, released late last week by Dreamworks. One of the finest animated films I’ve ever seen is getting sequeled.

What’s exciting is not just the sequel treatment. Let’s face it, that doesn’t always work well. It’s what you can see in the trailer. It’s not one of those trailers that stupidly reveals everything about the story–it conveys the feeling of the film, and in doing so, the makers show they know what made the first film great. The flight scenes in the first movie still give me tingles and the trailer delivers that feeling in spades.

More, it seems the film makers are moving the story forward. The main character is older than he was in the first movie, so hopefully this means they’re not going to simply rehash what the first movie did (as much as I enjoy Toy Story 2 and 3, there are elements of rehashed themes in both). Sequels are harder to do than people think, and there is enough there to make me hope.

And to watch the first movie again (like The Celt and I did this afternoon) because we can’t wait for whenever the heck this thing is going to come out.


There’s Too Many Non-Hobbitses in My Hobbit Movie(s)

hobbitJRR Tolkien is one of my favorite authors. The Lord of the Rings is full of the stuff of life: themes and values worth thinking about, running right along great characters and a fantastic story. The Hobbit is also great fun in a more lighthearted way, with a delightful focus on how Bilbo grows and changes over his journey.

I also enjoy the three Lord of the Rings movies. They’re a little off from the excellent approach of the books (more and more as the three movies progress, actually), with elves that are more arrogant jerks than intriguingly alien, and with lords of countries that are villainous, rather than shown in shades of grey. As is almost universally the case (though not always), the books are better. Still, the three movies are engaging, doing so by maintaining their focus on a small group of characters that we grow to understand and care about.

I wish I could say the same for The Hobbit movies. And that’s the problem right there, the plural. I was reminded of this when I saw the preview for the second of the three movies (you can check the trailer link here). The three Lord of the Rings movies somehow managed to cover the content in three large books, doing a fairly good job of paring things down while staying true to the source material. With The Hobbit, Hollywood has decided they’re going to take one book and make it three! Whee! Yet another trilogy!

To be honest, I could understand if they had two movies to cover the storyline of the book, because a lot of things do happen. But they’re doing these three movies by tacking on a lot of stuff found in Tolkien’s side writings and appendices, trying to make a united whole that goes over the course of three films. The problem with that is these side writings are good fun if you’re interested in Tolkien, but terrible if you’re trying to make a focused narrative: there is a reason they’re in appendices and side writings. Tolkien was notorious for following side plots and writing about random things (The Hobbit grew out of a random note he put on a student’s paper that he was grading!), but he knew pretty well that you couldn’t have all that stuff crammed into a good book. And when he didn’t, his editor wasn’t scared to say this isn’t going to work.

I wish someone had said this to Peter Jackson and the rest working on The Hobbit movies. You can tell there’s a good story in the first movie. It’s the one that’s like the book, just following Bilbo, the dwarves, and Gandalf on their way to The Lonely Mountain. But this great story loses focus on this small group of characters (that we could grow to understand and care about) to keep throwing in stuff about other things going on in Middle-Earth at the time.

I was doing my best to hold judgement on this trilogy process until all three movies came out, but there isn’t any real need. You can see from the trailer that the second is going to be like the first. We’re going to have some sideplot with Legolas, even though he has little to add to the narrative of The Hobbit, and then he’s going to have lots of moralistic discussions with some woman that has equally little to do with the real plot (if he just had a cameo like Frodo does in the first movie, that would be fine). And every time the storyline with the dwarves and Bilbo gets going, we’re going to sidestep over to Gandalf and Radagast doing some… other unconnected stuff.

Peter Jackson is clearly able to have focus–we can see it in his Lord of the Rings movies. But he’s just taking on too much to handle with this script. An over-bloated script will be an over-bloated script, no matter what you do with it. If this was in a writer’s workshop, everyone would be saying, “you have some interesting things in here, but there’s too much going on all at once. Try to trim out some of these side tangents, or at least figure out which story you want to focus on.”

Whether it’s the Hollywood movie machine, Peter Jackson, or some wicked combination of all, these three movies are going to try to do too much and satisfy no one.

Oh, and I’m not even going to get into the random action bits that don’t need to be action bits. The barrel ride scene could be full of fun, beautiful, and peaceful visuals (remember the majestic lighting of the signal fires in Return of the King?), but it’s going to be a chase scene. Yes, a chase scene. Does this even make sense? What were they thinking, and how do you even swing a sword in a barrel without it tipping you over completely? … oh, I started. *ahem* I had better stop.

But I’ll dream and wish for a DVD cut of The Hobbit that only follows Bilbo’s journey. Hey, Swedish-sized hobbits can dream.