Monthly Archives: October 2012

Can’t Wait: Julia Dyer’s ‘The Playroom’


While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

This week’s edition is a little bit of cheating, as I saw The Playroom this weekend while I volunteered at the Citizen Jane Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri.  A period piece about a seventies family falling apart, the movie is highlighted by great, pained performances, especially from John Hawkes and his Deadwood costar Molly Parker as a feuding and drunken married couple (serves them right for going behind Seth Bullock’s back in a betrayal of epic proportions), and Olivia Harris as their eldest daughter; however, Dyer gets phenomenal work out of all the young actors.  A claustrophobic, one-house setting turns up the familial tension to uncomfortable levels.  It may not be a happy crowd pleaser, but it’s a well done film that the director, Julia Dyer, said will be available on Netflix, VOD, and other streaming services this February.  See it and help a talented independent filmmaker get the clout needed to continue her career; we need more people with a knack for working with actors in such a masterful way.

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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: A Formalist Essay on ‘Citizen Kane’


Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking.  As these can be longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

Formalist analysis is not something I have spent much time doing on this website.  I understand a large portion of it and I often care more about story, theme, and character.  I’ve often looked down on the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, probably to my own detriment.  Due this past Monday in my film class was a formalist analysis of a scene of my choice from Citizen Kane.  I knew I could do it and it would not have been a taxing thing on me, but I didn’t think doing so would expand my appreciation of the film to such a degree that I would now list it among a favorite — as opposed to simply being on the “greatest films I’ve ever seen” list.  Going shot by shot through this sequence opened my eyes, and I had a blast doing it.  In the future, I want to integrate more of this style in my posts.

SEQUENCE TAKEN FROM CITIZEN KANE (Welles, 1941.  USA)

 This sequence, which lasts three minutes and four seconds over 19 shots, covers the time in Charles Foster Kane’s life when he runs for governor of New York.  This is a time of immense optimism, which will be shattered by Kane’s own hubris and womanizing.  It largely focuses on a rousing speech given by Kane to a crowd of supporters.  Shot durations are listed in parentheses after each shot description.

Shot 1  There is a long shot of man speaking on ramshackle podium clearly built in haste.  He is elevated above the crowd, the focus of their attention.  The crowd members, many of whom appear to be of the blue-collar variety in plain jackets and hats, all look up at him, hanging on his every word.  A street light burns bright next to the speaker, a Kane supporter, which can be an indication that Kane is the bright hope for the state.  “Kane For Governor” signs are pasted all over the walls of what appear to be an alley where this rally is taking place; this indicates the Kane campaign is willing to go anywhere and everywhere to get their message to the people.  The camera, which is on a crane, mimics the feeling of a dolly-in on the speaker as he talks about Kane being a “fighting liberal,” among other things.

(16 seconds)

Shot 2  There is a cut from the middle of the speaker’s speech to a long shot of a huge poster of Kane’s face and Kane’s voice continues the sentiments of the street speaker.  The camera does a slight pan left and tilts downward to show Kane at a podium giving a fiery speech.  Various men in nice suits sit behind him in a slight arc, staring at him; he is clearly the most important man in the room and perhaps the world.

(11 seconds)

Shot 3  Cut to an extreme long shot of a matte shot to imply Kane is speaking to a massive gathered crowd in an auditorium.  This kind of shot would become a favorite of Stanley Kubrick in later years, as it is one-point perspective.  That is, the stage is perfectly centered in the shot, and it performs as the sole vanishing point.  This further enhances the sense that Kane is the only person who matters.  The camera pushes in as we…

(4 seconds)

Shot 4  Dissolve to a long shot of Kane, again directly centered, continuing his speech.  CAM pushes in as Kane gestures grandly, his hands spread wide.  The camera continues its dolly-in and eventually approaches from a slightly left-of-center (perhaps in relation to Kane being the “fighting liberal”?) perspective; as it gets closer, it tilts up, again displaying Kane’s power and importance.

(22 seconds)

Shot 5  Cut to Kane’s son and wife, Emily, in a tight medium shot.  His son is standing, excitedly watching his father.  Emily appears both nervous and blasé about what’s happening before her eyes; she couldn’t care less about the speech, but she doesn’t want her son to be an embarrassment.  Emily tells the boy to sit, and he dutifully does, but his eyes remain wide with pride in his father.  In the background are a few visible bodies to imply Kane’s family is among a huge crowd, when in fact this is a small set.  Behind those headless bodies is emptiness, not more people; a trick of scale Welles uses multiple times through the rest of the sequence.

(6 seconds)

Shot 6  Cut to low angle of Kane, this time from the right-hand side of the stage.

(4 seconds)

Shot 7  Cut to a medium shot of Kane from the same side of the stage, but this time in a straight-on-to-slightly-high angle.  He gives a cocky but gregarious vibe, the type of politician that usually wins (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama).

(8 seconds)

Shot 8  Cut to high-angle shot of Emily and their son.  She looks on with dead eyes while he waves excitedly.

(2 seconds)

Shot 9  Cut to Kane sending a quick salute to his son (a faulty eyeline match because Kane should salute to the other side of the stage).

(4 seconds)

Shot 10  Cut to Jedediah, Kane’s business partner, lit brighter than the extras next to him (he is important and they are not) looking on at his friend quietly.

(7 seconds)

Shot 11  Cut to that same highish, to-the-right angle of Kane at the podium.  He walks to the side of the podium and the camera pans right to follow him.

(11 seconds)

Shot 12  Cut to Mr. Bernstein, another Kane friend and business partner, in the crowd (again with more light hitting him than the extras, and placed in the center to draw the viewer’s attention) clapping his appreciation and support for his boss and friend.  Again, like the shots of Kane’s wife and son and the one with Jedediah, there are actually few people in the shot, but with enough cutting and sound amplification of the audience’s applause, the speech appears to be happening in a much larger space than it really is: A Hollywood soundstage.

(3 seconds)

Shot 13  Cut to Kane’s son and Emily, again in a medium shot, and a much more straight-on angle than before, sitting and watching.  The boy asks if his “pop [is] governor yet,” and his mother reassures him, “not yet,” in a way that implies he will be.

(5 seconds)

Shot 14  Cut to Kane again at the podium.  His joke, “I would make my promises now if I weren’t too busy arranging to keep them,” makes the audience burst into confident laughter.

(9 seconds)

Shot 15  Cut to Jedediah clapping and laughing at the joke.

(4 seconds)

Shot 16  Cut to high-angle shot of Kane at the podium in a long shot and oriented to the right.  The pulling away of the camera implies Kane is being watched carefully while making threats to Boss Jim Gettys, his chief political foe.  The camera zooms on Kane as he promises to convict Gettys of his political crimes.

(23 seconds)

Shot 17  Cut to a man in trench coat watching from a faraway balcony at a matte shot of the crowd cheering Kane onstage, foreshadowing that Kane’s promises will not be kept.  The man puts on his hat and walks away while Kane’s speech ends and music begins to play amid loud cheers and applause from the crowd.

(8 seconds)

Shot 18  Low angle from the left of Kane shaking hands with his supporters.  They are clearly important, upper crust men, as shown by their top hats and tails.  The camera dollies left as Kane moves across the stage, shaking more hands as he goes.  The camera dollies back slightly as he descends the stairs from the stage to meet the press, and a flashbulb goes off.

(15 seconds)

Shot 19  Dissolve to a straight shot of Kane again in the center, walking toward the camera, which does a reverse dolly track through a crowded hall of supporters and well wishers.  His son rushes toward him and Kane takes him in his arms.  Emily meets the two of them as the camera stops tracking and another flashbulb goes off.

(17 seconds)

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Can’t Wait: ‘Stand Up Guys’


While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

Elmore Leonard’s influence, be it direct or otherwise, is always something I value in a movie.  Fast talking lowlifes, quippy small time crooks, and lounge bars are the cornerstones of Leonard’s work, and things that never fail to interest me.  And when Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, and Alan Arkin are playing elderly versions of those lowlifes, as they do in the upcoming Stand Up Guys, you can count at least one ticket punched.

Will Stand Up Guys be any good?  Who knows?  It’s slated for a January release, which is never a good sign for a film’s quality prospects.  However, that cast, including the aforementioned legends, also features Julianna Margulies and Mark Margolis (Tio!), which is exciting.  Pacino in particular looks like he’s stretching some of those early-career restraint muscles which have gone dormant for decades.  All three of Pacino, Walken, and Arkin have a jaded, beaten, and good-humored take on those Leonard scuzzy criminals, which is alone worth $10 to get out of the January cold.

 

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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’


Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking.  As these can be longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

I think I’ll go to sleep and dream about piles of gold gettin’ bigger and bigger and bigger…” – Fred C. Dobbs, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Tunnel vision rarely does a person good.  In director John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the down-on-his-luck and single-minded Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) chases wealth at all costs.  His growing desperation and greed lead him down a dark path, one that ends in violence, insanity, and death.

Beating a Huston-Bogart collaboration is hard to do.  The two did arguably their finest work together, including this film, The Maltese Falcon, and The African Queen, among others.

Huston’s taught script forms the backbone of a crackerjack story, but it is Bogart and costars Tim Holt and Walter Huston (the director’s father) who drive home the themes.

Bogart in particular plays a character unlike any other in his oeuvre, a shaggy, miserable, and altogether desperate human being without many redeeming qualities.  Gone from his performance is the breezy romanticism of his star making turn as Rick Blaine in Casablanca, and Treasure benefits all the more for it.  Never mind the jaded seen-it-all-ism of Sam Spade; Dobbs has had it all done to him and he’s perpetually on the lookout for an escape from his troubles, however weaselly they may be.

Holt’s practical Curtin likes the money, but does not succumb to greed and violence like his friend.  At times, he even appears to enjoy the work.  This is not a life to hate; it may not be perfect, but he makes a lot of money doing something he doesn’t find so bad.  Dobbs would be well served to take a look at his buddy.

Walter Huston’s Howard has reached the point of his life when he’s done railing against injustice.  He could not care less about the money, but a chance for adventure?  He needs something to live for, and finding action meets that need.  The joy on Howard’s face at life itself gnaws at Dobbs, triggering his jealousy and desire to grab everything for himself.

John Huston’s abilities as a writer-director were already prodigious by the time he made Treasure.  His debut film, The Maltese Falcon, is rightly considered one of the finest film noirs ever made, but it rarely finds itself in the open air.  That film’s hotel rooms and offices create a sense of claustrophobia that makes a viewer worry about the key players’ safety.  After The Maltese Falcon, he spent time making documentaries on the battlefields of World War II, which points toward the opening up of his style in Treasure, a moment that solidifies him as a great.

For a film made in 1948, that openness is striking.  Location shooting, natural light, and local flavor are everywhere in the movie.  While still utilizing multiple sets, Huston’s incorporation of real life elements shows an aesthetic that indicates the direction Hollywood would soon take with their trend of epics in the 1950s and ‘60s.

But those are just wonderfully rendered trappings.  The film would be nothing without displaying Dobbs’s greed, that sniveling selfishness wholly absent from Bogart’s other work.  The story works because of these characters and their slowly deteriorating relationships; a microcosm of human nature’s worst elements.

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Can’t Wait: Terrence Malick’s ‘To The Wonder’


While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

[Oh hey, let’s make fun of the dork who forgot to schedule yesterday’s post.  Anyway, here’s the “Can’t Wait” I owe you.]

I’ve been slow to appreciate Terrence Malick’s work.  Last spring I saw the trailer for The Tree of Life and couldn’t stop thinking about it.  It looked so mysterious and abstract that I felt it necessary to study his filmography.  I watched his four previous movies — Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World — and only truly enjoyed The Thin Red Line.  The voiceover use bordering on excess and the lingering shots of nature were intriguing if difficult to connect to.  Then last week I was able to see Tree of Life on a big screen — the first time I saw it was on a small TV in the afternoon, much like the rest of his movies (not exactly a prime viewing situation) — and everything clicked in that greater medium.  When immersed, the poetry of the voiceovers doesn’t feel abstract; it enhances the beautiful imagery washing over the screen.

And with Malick’s late-career surge of productivity, he has showcased To The Wonder on the film festival circuit the last couple months to gain a distributor.  It may not have received the warmest of reactions, and I have only the vaguest of understandings as to what kind of thematic or plot ground the film covers, but if I have the opportunity to see another Malick on a big screen, I’m going to do it.  Now, someone pick it up and release it.

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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’


Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking.  As these can be longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

Pan’s Labyrinth is, in a way, a schizophrenic film.  It is a story about the power of fantasy, wonder, and mystery, and also a depiction of the harsh realities of fascism and war.  It is not entirely successful in both measures; or, perhaps, it would be more successful if they served each other in a way other than pure juxtaposition.  If Guillermo del Toro had doubled down on one or the other, the film would not feel so disjointed.  Instead, he indecisively keeps a foot firmly planted in each, and the startling violence of the “reality” is weakened.  This is because del Toro fails the “give the audience only what they need” test.  The overt precision of the violence – the Captain’s brutal and uncaring murder of a hunter and his son, Mercedes’ slashing of the Captain’s mouth, etc. – has no mystery to it; a viewer sees exactly the effects of the violence, or rather they see del Toro’s vision for what the effects should be.  This leaves them without the option of filling in the blanks with their own nightmarish imagery (see Howard Hawks’s Red River, when John Wayne’s character murders a Native American beneath dark water; an act the audience cannot explicitly see).  Now, shocking and extreme violence has its place in the proper context (Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Refn’s Drive), but in a film that also places so much emphasis on mystery, trickery, and sleight-of-hand in its fantastical moments, Pan’s Labyrinth would be better served to employ some of those slyer elements into its harsher, more “realistic” segments.

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Theater Etiquette


Sorry to interrupt the regular “Can’t Wait” column, but this is a frustrating topic that needs to be addressed.  

My face when people suck in the theater.

Last night, I drove to an art house in Columbia, Missouri, to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.  I go to school in Kirksville, so it’s a three-hour round trip.  To see a movie I’d eagerly anticipated for years, by my favorite working director this side of Martin Scorsese.  The film did not disappoint.  It is wholly different from any movie I’ve seen; it’s a difficult, meandering story about fathers and sons both biological and surrogate, how control ebbs in flows in relational systems, and the desire to have one’s cake and eat it, too.  But no matter how good the movie is, my viewing experience was marred by a bad audience.

I have never understood paying money to see a movie and then not paying attention to a second of it.  That is what half the theater did during the Master showing.  Two elderly women in particular spent the first two-thirds of the (two and a half hourlong) film talking at near-normal volume about anything that came to mind: The people in their lives, their need to get up (which they did multiple times each), and even laundry at one point.  They also decided to play Mystery Science Theatre 3000 during multiple points in the film, and laughed in a self-satisfied way at moments that were not at all meant to be humorous; seriously, ladies, a mentally disturbed man lashing out in violence is a powerful moment of terror, not a knee slapper.  So, not only did they refuse to attempt to connect with the movie, they willfully made it difficult for the rest of the filmgoers.  After everyone grew more and more tense, finally a much nicer guy behind me asked them in as calm a voice as he could muster to, “Please stop talking” (Emphasis added to show the gritted teeth).

But these two prematurely aged 13-year-olds were not the only people being bothersome.  The theater had a humorous, The Good The Bad And The Ugly-inspired “turn off your phones” video before the movie, and a shitload of good that did for the girl ahead of me.  Her stupid iPhone “Marimba” tone sounded during a pivotal scene.  She, and seemingly everyone else in the theater, felt the need to get out of their seat and run to the bathroom at least once during the runtime.

I guess what I want to say is, knock it off.  Despite the protests of those breaking the rules, courtesy is not a difficult thing.  Especially in a movie theater, all you have to do is sit there with your mouth shut and pay attention for a couple hours.  Doing so may actually help you understand what’s happening onscreen instead of providing you reason to complain about being “so confused,” like the genius ahead of me who made two or three trips to the bathroom.

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