Monday, February 2, 2009

The Screening Process: Recent Thoughts About Television and Film, part 2 -- The Silver Screen

A few nagging tidbits about television and film have plagued my thoughts lately, so I've decided to purge them here for your enjoyment!

* When I see commercials for films obviously intended "for your consideration," or that boast an inherent artsy quality meant for a higher class of storytelling, I usually ignore my secret desire for great plots and dynamic characters and immediately dub the thing a piece of movie-making masturbation. Something was different about Gran Torino. Clint Eastwood's recent films have been remarkably award-worthy, and thus too hoity toity according to my narrow-minded view of cinema, but the way ol' Dirty Harry wore his age on his sleeve . . . in contrast to the inevitable blockbuster about an old Brad Pitt getting younger, I felt I had to see it. I saved the treat for my birthday in December and, yes, it was a gift in storytelling I couldn't have anticipated. As the common movie-goer that anticipates his next comic book adaptation like the old English waited for Shakespeare's next play, I felt I finally had an Oscar contender I could cheer.

Then, bupkis. Not a single Academy Award nomination.

I'll put this as plainly as I can: no other movie I have ever seen has so effortlessly blended themes about death and dying, family, religion, racism, urban development, and gang violence in such a convicted yet non-preachy, entertainingly compelling way. The film is as relevant as they come, and in equal parts as funny and tragic. That Hollywood has preferred an epic piece of self-aggrandizing trite like Benjamin Button is a truly curious case, and in effect proves why I've hardly ever seen the flicks that ultimately win best picture. I wonder, did Hollywood look at Clint Eastwood's character in Gran Torino, an aging anti-hero afraid of the change happening in his own backyard, and see its own reflection? In horror, did it quickly embrace the aging man-child, shrouded in a science fiction premise oozing with its own pastel melodrama, only to dub it a more preferred biography? The question is its own answer.

Academy Awards . . . Four words for you. Get. Off. My. Lawn.

* My girlfriend and I saw a sneak preview of Crique du Freak last weekend, a film slated for October release and inspired by a novel with the same name, the first in a young adult series about vampires. As you can see from the book's Wikipedia entry, which is admittedly the most I know of the whole thing, the author and the series' hero share the same name. In a book series about becoming a vampire. Yeah.

I've been to a few movie sneak previews before; I got to see Get Smart a month before its release, and The Mummy 3, which I'm less proud of. As a white twenty-something male, I'm often asked to stick around and participate in a focus group about the film, which definitely changes the way you watch a flick, especially if you're a critical geek always ready to find something wrong with the world like me. Sometimes I wonder if I'm more than what the group leaders asked for, because I always have too much opinion in contrast to the amount of time they give each participant. So, my blog gets the run-off. That is what they're for, right?

In short, Cirque du Freak, as a single film but also the beginning of an inevitable series now that Harry Potter is nearing its end, is definitely a 'tween Twilight primer (though Twilight kind of serves as a 'tween Twilight primer, too) that, indicative of its intended adolescent audience, suffers from an identity crisis. On one hand, you'd think that the title (and I reckon the marketing for this film, which will probably boast an ensemble cast) would imply that the film is about a group of circus freaks. Well, the real story is about two factions of vampires that differ on the whole killing-their-victims issue . . . and while my inner summarist would love to wrap it all up with, "A bunch of circus freaks get caught in the middle of a vampire war," even that doesn't cut it. The circus is basically just a title and a fleeting thought in the film, the background to contrast how cool the two leads really are.

Make no mistake: this is a shame when awesome comedians like Orlando Jones and Kristen Schaal fill these roles and are essentially wasted, to say nothing of fanboy favorite Ken Watanabe and recent Punisher Ray Stevenson. Their time on-screen pales to the two leads, two relative unknowns (at least to me) now destined for super stardom by way of today's young audience and their love of vampires and Superbad-esque underdogs.

Which brings me to the ultimate problem: Cirque du Freak is obviously intended for 13-16 year-olds, and I wonder how many of them can even pronounce that title. That's a minor gripe compared to the film's rollercoaster pace and context. While most of the freaks suffer from seemingly natural anomalies, the few that don't are mere special effects fodder, like "Regenerative Girl," who offers her body parts to our half-vampire hero since she can painlessly grow them back. Mr. Tiny, the antagonist and catalyst for everything, has the power to stop time, an ability he demonstrates as an eleventh hour wild card, and which comes with no explanation. You're talking to a comic book geek that can stretch his imagination with the best of them, but . . . what? Is he the personification of destiny? One in an ancient race of time controllers? An alien with connections to the sun? Throw me a bone here.

Finally, the "bad kid," one half of the best friend duo that ends up becoming mortal enemies, drops the "s" word inside of the film's first 20 minutes. I'm no advocate for censorship, but I know PG-13 movies are only allocated a few "s" words, and in the film's first act when sympathy for the characters is critical, I thought the use was wasted in both regards. I shared this with my focus group, and the moderator asked, "Any parents here have a problem with that?" Of course, none of them did. This drives me nuts, but I'll avoid the soap box only to say: Parents deal with their kids everyday, granted, but I deal 120 kids daily, under twelve-years-old to boot, and I feel compelled to speak on their behalf from time to time. If you're going to market to them, model good storytelling and appropriate swearing. Drop the "s" bomb when a character stubs their toe an hour deep, not when the bad guy makes an introductory quip. Besides, we already know he's bad because he's wearing a black T-shirt!

Did I start this review with "in short?" Well, scratch that. Bottom line: Avoid Cirque du Freak. It'll make you feel like a freak if you're into good stories.

* Something that needs to die in modern film-making, for both the big and little screens: Narration. I hate Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy, but I'd tolerate them if they weren't driven by condescending narration. Now, the women that love these shows don't think that this narration, which usually only afflicts the very beginning and very end of each episode, is condescending, because it provides emotional insight, but that's the problem: narration allows for little to no intuitive viewing. The formula becomes, "The actors show you how they feel. Now, the narrator tells you how they feel, in case you couldn't figure it out. Also, here's the theme or moral of the episode, too, in case you couldn't hear that over your bon-bon chewing, you oppressed soccer mom, you." In short, narration implies that the viewer is too stupid to jump to any conclusions, or, worse, that she might jump to an unintended conclusion, and in the case of these two shows, it sugar-coats the device with a snide, self-righteous, presumably empowering tone. All while taking the viewer's power away.

Television dramas for women aren't the only problem; I'll just as quickly point the finger toward my beloved superhero movies, too. Spider-man is the godfather of angst-ridden narration, from the first minute Stan Lee birthed the troubled teen turned wall crawler to the last film. Tobey Maguire's perpetually-trapped-in-puberty whine was more of a soundtrack than the soundtrack, and for all three movies only said one thing: "Can you tell I'm suffering? I'm Spider-man, and it isn't easy. I'm suffering." Frank Miller's recent The Spirit had an opposite, yet the same, effect. "I'm a tough guy. Did I tell you I'm a tough guy?" Strip that flick of Miller's out-loud pulp love, best left to the page anyway, and the film goes up half a star, guaranteed. More so, replace the spans of consumed by narration with action or story . . .

Oh, what do I know? I'm just the consumer -- by no means the consummate artists responsible for Hollywood blockbusters like Paul Blart, Mall Cop. Incidentally, did you know that Gran Torino is still in the top five at the box office? You deserve it for that one, Clint. You can't buy a nice new car with a statue anyway.

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