Tag Archives: Film

McConaughey, Through the Wormhole


Per Deadline, Matthew McConaughey, whose surging career has led him to such recent critically acclaimed films as Magic MikeThe Lincoln Lawyer, and Killer Joe (although he mostly played second fiddle to Clarence Carter in that) is in negotiations to lead Christopher Nolan’s upcoming science fiction movie, Interstellar.

If he were to accept the role, that might be one of the only pieces of information we get about the film until a trailer hits, given Nolan’s borderline compulsive propensity for secrecy.

But the premise of the suddenly-not-half-assing-his-way-through-romantic-comedies McConaughey toplining a wormhole adventure story is an exciting one.  With Nolan’s pedigree and the space trappings, the 2001: A Space Odyssey comparisons will likely abound, but hopefully the Inception director will subvert our expectations and reveal his real plans: Melba Toast in Space.

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Schoolwork Repurposed: German Film Essays


The lags in productivity on this blog are almost always caused by school work.  This semester, though, I am enrolled in my final two film studies classes to complete my minor (and graduate in May, thankfully).  So when I have to write things for these classes, Contemporary German Cinema and Latin American History at the Movies, I’ll simply post them here for your perusal/approval.  This is my midterm take-home essay exam for German Cinema.  The prompt was as follows:

Owen Evans points to the popularity, among international audiences, of German films that “represent the totalitarian past” and argues that such films might “comprise a specific genre that proves very attractive to cinema goers: the German totalitarian thriller, we could perhaps calls it” (New Directions 58-59). Using Downfall and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days as sources of evidence and examples, create your own description of “the German totalitarian thriller.”  What are its characteristics?  Is that label too reductive, or does it get at important psychological components of these films?  Feel free to draw upon the class texts as well as the movies.

Is there such a thing as a “German totalitarian thriller,” as suggested by Owen Evans in New Directions in German Cinema?  The answer to that is not definite.  Rather, the most confident reply one could have to that question is, “Partially.”  Films like Downfall and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days feature elements inherent in thrillers of all stripes—seemingly constant peril awaiting the characters at every turn, central characters who represent a semblance of “the common (wo)man,” a strong focus on the psychological impacts of the characters’ predicaments, among others—but these two movies lack the fictional plot thrust, the action-adventure qualities common in more traditional thrillers in the Alfred Hitchcock mold.  These examples are character studies not quite masquerading as thrillers, given the features listed above, but still they fail to reach thriller status all the same.

To enter that Hitchcock mold, one must first understand the fundamentally artificial idea that is suspense.  This is not to say being artificial or contrived is necessarily bad, but simply put, it must be created.  To paraphrase Hitchcock himself, suspense is the audience knowing a bomb is hidden, ticking away underneath a table while the characters onscreen remain oblivious.  The suspense lies in the waiting, the moments of not knowing how the characters in whom the audience has conceivably placed their empathy will get out of the situation.

Both Downfall and Sophie Scholl run into a severe problem here: History.  Even (especially?) foreign audiences know that Hitler spent his last days hiding in a bunker before ultimately committing suicide.  Perhaps a little more obscure, but still widely available knowledge is the fact that Sophie Scholl and other members of the White Rose resistance movement were captured and put to death as traitors to the German state.  Without the element of surprise—“What will happen to them?”—provided by fictional plots, suspense in the traditional sense is nearly impossible to achieve in these films.

What make these movies “thrilling” are their introspective looks at the ways these characters deal with the situations in which they find themselves.

Downfall does not have much plot, per se, as most of the typical rise-and-fall story structure happens before the start of the film.  From the film’s beginning, the audience—and most Nazi members—knows Hitler is finished; the Allies are practically knocking on the bunker door.  What follows is a character study in self delusion.  Seeing Hitler not only appear almost fatherly to Traudl, his secretary, but have moments of weakness is engrossing.  It’s an intimate look at someone who has reached mythical status in the eyes of so many.  In its own way, its sense of discovery, of tearing away the artificial, terrorizing cloud that surrounds the man is thrilling.  But it is not suspenseful.  It has no way to be.  There is no way for Hitler to get out of the situation—furthermore, nobody would want him to avoid his fate—and the first moments of the film show an elderly version of the empathetic Traudl reflecting on her time serving the Fuhrer, so the audience knows she survived the downfall of the film’s title.  Because of the historical restraints, there can be no gripping, “What will happen next?” moments like the attempted-assassination-by-airplane in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest or the classic sewer showdown in Andrew Davis’s The Fugitive.  The only scenes to approximate a similar “pulse pounding” nature in Downfall all exist in the quieter moments, when Hitler allows himself time to think critically, to contemplate his inevitable defeat.  The wait for him to snap back into howling denial is frightening, to be sure, but it exists as an internal character trait, not a plot-driven moment; for the context of the film, this is better than an external event, but it still avoids what makes a thriller, well, a thriller.

Sophie Scholl succeeds to a larger degree than Downfall in fulfilling the requirements of a thriller, but those are quickly spent in the film’s inciting incident: The anti-Nazi flyer distribution at a college that leads to the arrest of Sophie and her brother.  Once the siblings have placed what would be a sufficient amount of flyers at strategic spots in the university’s main hall, they are left with a couple stacks of leftovers.  The decision to go back and push the remaining papers from a balcony is the film’s only true “thriller” moment, an instance of cinematic contrivance: A plot device included to heighten the drama.  From there, the film falls into a similar character study style as Downfall, in which director Marc Rothemund shows Sophie’s youthful courage—some might say stupidity—in standing up for her beliefs against the totalitarian regime in which Evans situates his argument.  It peels away layers of the Nazi ideology through Sophie’s arguments with her captors, and that is more important than artificially stimulating the audience with thriller trappings anyway.  But again, it lacks what is classically understood as filmic suspense.

For there to be a true “German totalitarian thriller,” filmmakers would need to worry less about historical figures, biopics, and the like, and focus on the themes and lessons present during the reign of the Third Reich.  These rhetorical screenwriters and directors should conjure their own characters, fill them with their own personal obsessions—much like in any imaginary story—and plug those people into the Nazi era, free to do whatever they want with those characters.  That way, the storytellers can concentrate on crafting a yarn, inviting the audience to participate in the more “fun” aspects of filmmaking by scaring them, making them laugh, and awing them with the exploits of someone they do not know.  This would provide the taste and texture of the more staid productions mentioned in this essay, but without the restrictions of adhering to the truth of history.  Historically accurate films like Downfall and Sophie Scholl cannot accomplish that because they are not free to play with true-life figures the way a filmmaker would with a created character.

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Read My Friend’s Project, 365 Movies in a Year


My friend Josh is probably the only person in the world with whom I can talk movies for hours.  The passion he and I share for cinema — something most people would call an unhealthy (or worse, boring) obsession — has led to plenty of great, sometimes drunken conversations about all manner of film topics (an example of our measured, reasonable dialogues: Josh: “I don’t think David Fincher is very good.” Me: “Well, I think you’re an asshole.”).  We have developed a mutual desire to push each other to be better filmgoers and appreciators.  After a year or more of suggesting he start writing regularly about them due to his deep knowledge (at least, it’s vastly superior to mine) of movies and film history, he vowed to watch a movie a day this year and write about each.  He launched his blog, 365 Movies in a Year, today, with a post for each movie so far.  So go read it, comment, and start a discussion.  It’s always fun to learn what bounces around this self-proclaimed “pop culture sponge”‘s head.

On a side note, I know I haven’t been around here for a while.  For that, I’m sorry.  But hey, I had to quit my job due to my upcoming semester’s class schedule (hello, one more straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back student loan).  That job, along with my nerd school, family strife, and a couple fiction side projects all coalesced into a break from this place the last couple months.  It may not be a regular column again until I graduate in May, but I hope to pound out at least a few more “I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School” entries in the coming months.  If you want to see more, remember that guilt is always a great motivator, and complain about how I’m depriving you.

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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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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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