A Day Fo(u)r Movies: A Field Report
January 5th, 2011
It is not really a secret that I’m not much of a moviegoer. I like movies, and even like going to the movies, but it was never really part of my social fabric growing up, which made it more of a family activity (and thus something that I didn’t do often once the family was dispersed into various locales in the post-secondary years).
While I’ve written about a few movies over the course of the blog’s existence, it hasn’t happened very often. This is both because I haven’t seen very many movies while they’re in theatres, and because I don’t necessarily respond to movies the way I respond to TV shows. While I generally tend to lean away from highly evaluative discourses when looking at TV, perhaps objective to the point of stripping away my own opinion on occasion, with film I lean even further away from the subjective: usually I end up really wanting to have a discussion about a film instead of wanting to “review” it. And since there are various other locales to have conversations of that nature, this blog rarely ends up hosting them.
However, I figure that I tweeted enough about by moviegoing adventure yesterday that I should at least offers some reflections. Taking advantage of the $6 tickets available on Tuesdays, I figured it was time to get to the theatres for the first time since Inception in July – however, since I’m only on holiday vacation for so long, I was in a bit of a rush. As a result, I lined up a four-movie marathon: four movies in a single day is difficult to juggle at even the largest multiplexes, but I found the four films that made it work.
And so, some thoughts on Black Swan, Tangled, True Grit, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One after the jump (and some thoughts on what it was like to see them all in one day, as well).
So, before we get into quasi-spoiler territory, let’s deal with the marathon idea. This is the first time I can remember seeing even two movies in theatres in the same day, so this was definitely a new experience. While I was certainly tired last night, unable to finish this post at the time, I felt it was a compelling way to enjoy the moviegoing experience. I went four movies without an obnoxious audience member who ruined the experience, although there were technically obnoxious audience members present, and it’s always interesting to get a sense of what kind of people go see movies on “Cheap Tuesdays.” My early showing of Black Swan had an enormously high median age (which made me wonder what the senior citizens thought of their filmgoing experience), the mid-afternoon showing of Tangled was pretty much empty, True Grit was about as busy as one would expect given its success, and there were a shocking amount of people seeing the seventh Potter film so long after its release.
Without going into spoilers, though, my favorite thing about seeing four movies in the same day was being able to draw connections between them. Drawing lines between overprotective, overbearing Mother figures, horses, and snakes actually successfully bridges the gap from Black Swan through to Potter, and so there was something oddly appropriate about this particular grouping. I think each film was strong enough that it will stand on its own individually (in my memory, if not as a film, but more on that in a bit). A long experience, and a tiring one, but definitely something I’d be willing to repeat (if not any time soon).
“Why didn’t I cut my nails this morning?!”
Yes, that was my thought through various sections of Black Swan. I don’t want that to seem to be my only reaction, but it’s one example of the ways in which the film forces introspection – while The Wrestler largely used its notions of pain and discomfort in order to make us feel empathy for its protagonist, Black Swan‘s descent into horror forces it back on the audience. We’ve all cut our nails, and we’ve all scratched a rash more than we should have, and chances are we’ve all been fascinated with loose skin near our finger nails. And yet, before it might have been an annoyance: now, when I write those sentences, my skin crawls. That is the power of Black Swan.
While I think most would agree that the final act is the film’s strongest, I think the rest of the film measures up well. It is not nearly as transcendent, but I like the amount of time we spent exploring the horrors of Nina’s reality – even before the madness, this is not an easy life, and the simplicity of those opening sequences sells that extremely well. The starkness of those earlier portraits of this world of jealousy and the imperfect quest for perfection is the perfect setup for the final act, which finds that perfection amidst pure chaos. Clint Mansell’s use of Swan Lake is tremendous, mixed well with his original work and brought to a sterling conclusion in the finale, and the effects work which sells the ongoing transformation of sorts is subtle and yet wholly unnerving. There is a thrill to that final act which deserves every bit of praise we can offer it, a thrill that I haven’t had at the movies in a long time.
This film lives or dies on Natalie Portman. Barbara Hershey is tremendous, and Mila Kunis acquits herself well if not quite awards-worthy well, but Portman appears in every scene. Initially, I was surprised that such a dark and twisted film would have a Best Actress frontrunner, but everything about the film depends on her performance, and she sells the transformation and the initial vulnerability with grace and whatever the precise opposite of grace is. Some really tremendous stuff.
“Less is More.”
I loved Toy Story 3, but it was unquestionably a big movie. The franchise is built around the idea of looking at our world from a toy’s perspective, at which point even a few rooms of a daycare can become a hierarchical system with various different elements and a grand sense of scale. To a toy, everything is big, and so the stories told start to seem large. It’s an ensemble piece, one which very much relies on our relationship with those characters and tells another “great adventure.”
What struck me about Tangled was how small this film is – while ostensibly a fairy tale, the “kingdom” it creates is extremely contained, and its journey is less a great escape and more a slightly complicated day trip. The nature of the story is that, for Rapunzel, any journey is an adventure, and the film plays with this in all the best ways. This is not to say that the film doesn’t have excitement on a grand scale, but when it does it feels larger thanks to the simplicity of what’s around it. The biggest “setpiece” is over fairly quickly, and its action beats avoid overstaying their welcome and allow the story to return to its relative simplicity.
The film reminds me of Shrek, although you’ll have to erase the bloated sequels from your memory. Shrek is equally small, in that its main cast on the journey is somewhat sparse, and has a similar notion of a princess with a secret joining a reluctant hero and his animal sidekick as its only real premise. However, the difference is that Tangled is committed to the classic Disney tradition, which means that it avoids the use of pop music in favor of traditional musical numbers – that this has been entirely absent from all marketing shouldn’t be shocking, but it was a pleasant “surprise” (I admittedly knew it was there, but not quite the role that it played). It’s all very traditional, but I think that contributes to the nostalgic charm which the film exudes: Menken and Slater don’t reinvent the wheel with their songs, but there’s something comforting about the way the songs are used to bring characters to life.
And that’s what sets Tangled apart for me – there’s a sense of life in this film which seems driven by simple elements of animated filmmaking instead of any attempt at being seen as irreverent or hip. It’s classic if not a classic, and I think the film would be worse if it had actively tried to make itself into the latter. There’s some tremendous voice acting in this film (with Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi and Donna Murphy knocking it out of the park), and some incredibly strong animation, and the result is a thoroughly enjoyable and yet decidedly small-scale cinematic achievement, and one that I’m glad found an audience. If the Animated Feature Oscar nods end up being Toy Story 3, How to Train Your Dragon, and Tangled, that’s one hell of a lineup.
“If you would like to pretend that’s a Supporting Performance, that would be alright.”
I will not proclaim to be an expert on either Westerns or Coen Brothers films – the fact of the matter is that True Grit is the first Western I’ve seen in a very long time, and this is the first Coen Brothers film I’ve seen in theatres. However, I enjoyed it quite a bit – this is a crowd-pleasing film, with an enormous amount of charm and humor, and yet it always maintains that delicate balance between charm and “reality.” The early scenes are pure delight, as Hailee Steinfeld absolutely takes control of the film with the most measured spitfire imaginable and Jeff Bridges has about as much fun with Cogburn’s drunkenness as one would imagine – throw in Matt Damon’s first introduction, some of the finest wordplay in the film, and you have a hell of an opening.
However, everything after Mattie crosses the river sits on the edge of chaos, and the way things “get real” is what sells the film. It never loses its ability to deliver a comic turn (the target practice comes to mind), and is even able to find comedy within the darkness (with Damon’s character, in particular), but when it turns more expressly heroic and violent in its final act it never feels like a sudden turn. Even in those early scenes the film never feels precocious (mainly because of Steinfeld’s tremendous performance), and its subtle qualities offer a nice counterbalance to the bursts of action. There’s elements of “small world” syndrome in Cogburn’s knowledge of nearly every person they encounter, but I like the idea that this wild uncharted territory becomes manageable in his presence, and he never has so much control that it seems overly planned. The conclusion is spontaneous even as it lines up with our expectations for how a story like this might end, and the way the final scenes are staged is just damn exciting – while not quite as transcendent as Black Swan‘s final act, I thought it was really strong filmmaking.
However, while I really liked the movie, let it be said that Hailee Steinfeld being campaigned in Supporting is absolute bullshit. While I would certainly agree that Bridges takes over the traditional “hero” role by the end of the film, to say that Steinfeld isn’t a Lead Actress is simply ludicrous. Here’s hoping the Academy, as they did with Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider, ignores the campaigning and the precursors and puts her where she belongs, even if she has a greater chance of winning in Supporting. Let Oscar history remember her role for what it was, and not what a FYC campaign decided it should be.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One
“‘Tis a fine collection of scenes, but sure ’tis no movie.”
I quite enjoyed my two and a half hours with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One. It’s adapting one of the worst stretches in the series, a fetchquest which even considering its purposefully aimless quality seems particularly aimless, and I was pleased with the result. The visuals were spectacular, the performances from the three leads were their best of the series (as one would expect as they age into the roles), and Yates really captured the way the characters struggle with the weight of being unable to make the difference they want to make. From a purely atmospheric point of view, I think this nicely captures the sort of stasis which Rowling was trying to evoke in the first half of the novel, and right down to the film’s emotional climax it delivers on the moments Rowling created while even adding a few more of its own (that beautiful dancing sequence, for example) for good measure.
However, this is not a movie. It makes no efforts to be a movie. It is an entire movie of stage-setting which comes after an entire movie of stage-setting, a prologue which never once tries to suggest that it is anything more than a prologue. The “fan” part of me doesn’t particularly care about this: I know this story, and thus knew what I was getting into, and was able to focus on what was well-executed. However, taken as a standalone film, this is not a standalone film. Period. To argue differently requires filling in the narrative gaps from their own memory, the very same behavior which helped people slog their way through that part of the novel. For Steve Kloves to make no attempt to change this for the adaptation is perhaps brave, maybe even a bit admirable, but it terrifies me what this might mean for future adaptations: are we such slaves to Rowling’s vision that nothing could be done to try to hide the fact that, in a world where you were to try to make the final book into a single movie, you would cut out 90% of what appears in this “movie?”
This sounds hyper-critical, but I liked this movie, and avoided falling asleep or feeling “bored” despite being the fourth film in my day-long marathon. Sure, there were some adaptation quibbles (like, for example, the choice to entirely vilify Umbridge, which I thought an unfortunate oversimplification), but at the end of the day this was an enjoyable moviegoing experience. I just didn’t get any sense of satisfaction when the film came to a close, or even any sense of anticipation beyond foreknowledge of what’s about to happen and a severe case of the “When are they going to get to the fireworks factories,” and I think the film has to be held accountable for that.
- And yes, I am way too proud of myself for opening and closing the Potter section with Simpsons references. Thanks for asking.
- I went to True Grit with my brother, and Harry Potter with my parents, and I loved that my brother and my mother reacted to snake-related sequences in nearly identical fashions. Not a fan of the snakes, my family (I had a similar response in True Grit, but knew the result of the Potter scene and thus didn’t quite respond in the same way).
- You could definitely see some of the CGI elements in Harry Potter (many of which involved the snake) which had been rendered in order to benefit from the 3D conversion. I was ultimately glad that they dropped the idea, as the film certainly didn’t need 3D to work, but there’s definitely some fingerprints left over.
- In case you were wondering about snacks (which I’m sure you were), I had a Large Popcorn and some smuggled-in Glosette Raisins during Tangled, and grabbed Dinner at McDonald’s between it and True Grit. I’m sadly too picky to entirely live out of the movie theatre in regards to food, but that would certainly be taking this kind of marathon to the next level.
- In terms of obnoxious moviegoers, they come in different forms: the snarky gay twenty-something behind me was so snarky during the previews/promos that he managed to out himself in the process (I’m not just stereotyping), but stayed mostly quiet during the movie and I sort of liked having the potential laughter/OMGWTF response to certain scenes in the movie vocalized on occasion. Similarly, there were some boisterous kids behind me at Tangled, but their parents shushed their talking and left their overpowering, infectious laughter at the action on screen intact. The family who couldn’t decide the best time to go get popcorn behind us at True Grit were perhaps the most “disruptive,” but it wasn’t an ongoing argument, so those few brief moments did little to affect overall experience. And Harry Potter was a pretty lively crowd without ever transcending into obnoxious, with some good response to on-screen events but no activity related to off-screen happenings.