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The Naughts: The Critics of the ’00s

The Naughts: The Critics of the ’00s (photo)

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Luckily, though, Bordwell and Thompson aren’t “Get Off My Lawn” types. And when Bordwell looks askance at, say, intensified continuity, he doesn’t just decry fast cutting or shaky-cams and call it a day (though he tends to have more respect for classical filmmaking). He gets into the economic, cultural and technological factors that might have turned intensified continuity into the new industry standard — for example, a studio wanting to amass a wide array of coverage in case they decide they don’t like the director’s approach and decide to re-cut the film, or the director’s inability to decide what’s truly important in a scene, or in the story as a whole.

He and Thompson treat cinema as a fluid, living thing, forever changing shape and direction. They’re fascinated even by developments they find counterproductive or troubling — and they’re plugged into what’s happening now. Thompson has written what is perhaps the definitive book on the cultural phenomenon that is “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. (It’s also detached and often skeptical, which makes it even more distinctive.) Bordwell adores animation and horror, keeps up with music videos and ads and is one of the most enthusiastic American boosters of Asian pop cinema (he’s Johnnie To’s biggest fan). He gets into the effect of TV, video games and online media, all of which reflect (and perhaps shape) filmmakers’ sense of how to tell a story, and the viewers’ ability to process information. And he has a knack for labeling phenomena in catchy, non-jargony ways; for three examples, check out Bordwell’s thumbnail descriptions of “network narratives” “broken timelines” and “companion films” here.

Bordwell and Thompson also grasp what ought to be a self-evident fact, but which often goes unremarked in contemporary film writing: cinema is an art form, art is made by artists, and artists generally don’t give one-sixteenth of a damn about making statements on such-and-such or reflecting the zeitgeist or carrying the torch for Godard or any of the other motives attributed to them by reviewers looking to lock art in a cage. Like athletes, musicians, tightrope walkers or any other sorts of performer (and yes, filmmaking is a performance), directors tend not to be slaves to theory. They’re motivated by a visceral appreciation of how movies move — and by respectful competitiveness. They see someone else’s film, admire a certain shot or cut or music cue or narrative device, then work it into their own film, which in turn is seen, absorbed and transformed by other filmmakers. When a lot of directors fall in love with a technique, what once was new becomes the norm.

12042009_RagingBull1.jpg

An example is the lengthy, elaborate Steadicam shot, which has become a familiar sight in auteur-driven films made during the last three decades and in TV dramas such as “E.R.” While all sorts of aesthetic, dramatic and even political rationales have been floated to explain the pervasiveness of super-long Steadicam shots, Bordwell implies that one-upsmanship might be the original culprit. As he writes in “The Way Hollywood Tells It,” “The crowd following Jake LaMotta from his dressing room, through the crowds and into the ring in ‘Raging Bull’ made [Brian De Palma] sit up. ‘I thought I was pretty good at doing those kind of shots, but when I saw that I said, ‘Whoa!’ And that’s when I started using these very complicated shots with the Steadicam.’ ”

That this type of writing is more apt to be described as “scholarship” than criticism says quite a bit about the impoverished state of criticism and the banishment of formal analysis to universities and elite film journals. What we tend to think about when we think about criticism — writing that’s mainly concerned with plot, characterization, themes, political allegory, race and gender politics, so-and-so’s Oscar hopes and the stupidity of every other critic — is not just as reductive as Thompson implied, it ignores the true source of cinema’s enchantment.

That’s a loss for critics as a writing class and a gain for Bordwell, Thompson and anyone else intrigued by the stuff that dreams are made of. The blurb-mongers and bomb-throwers huddle around this week’s releases, decrying this or that trend and arguing about whether so-and-so is a genius or a fraud, blathering like blind men trying to describe an elephant by manhandling its tail or trunk. Meanwhile, the cinematic taxonomists from Wisconsin are writing their own cinematic version of “The Origin of Species” in real time. Talk about a job worth doing.

This feature is part of the Naughts Project.

[Additional photos: “Die Hard” screen shots, from post “Seed-beds of Style,” Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1988; “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” DreamWorks/Paramount, 2009; “Raging Bull,” United Artists, 1980]

Bourne

Bourne to Run

10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Bourne Movies

Catch The Bourne Ultimatum this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

You know his name, as the Super Bowl teaser for the upcoming summer blockbuster Jason Bourne reminded us. In this era of franchise films, that seems to be more than enough to get another entry in the now 15-year-old series greenlit. And gosh darn it if we aren’t into it. Before you catch The Bourne Ultimatum on IFC, here are some surprising facts about the Bourne movies that you may not know. And unlike Jason Bourne, try not to forget them.


10. Matt Damon was a long shot to play Jason Bourne.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Coming off of Good Will Hunting and The Legend of Bagger Vance, early ’00s Matt Damon didn’t exactly scream “ripped killing machine.” In fact, Brad Pitt, Russell Crowe and even Sylvester Stallone were all offered the part before it fell into the hands of the Boston boy made good. It was his enthusiasm for director Doug Liman’s more frenetic vision that ultimately helped land him the part.


9. Love interest Marie was almost played by Sarah Polley.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Damon wasn’t the only casting surprise. Franka Potente, of Run Lola Run fame, wasn’t the filmmaker’s first choice for the role or Marie in The Bourne Identity. In fact, Liman wanted his Go star Sarah Polley for the part, but she turned it down in favor of making indie movies back in Canada. A quick rewrite changed the character from American Marie Purcell to European Marie Helena Kreutz, and the rest is movie history.


8. Director Doug Liman was obsessed with the Bourne books.

Universal Picutres

Universal Pictures

Liman had long been a fan of the Bourne book series. When Warner Bros.’ rights to the books lapsed in the late ’90s, Liman flew himself to author Robert Ludlum’s Montana home, mere days after earning his pilot’s license. The author was so impressed with his passion for the material, he sold the rights on the spot.


7. Liman’s father actually worked for the NSA.

Universal Picutres

Universal Pictures

Part of Liman’s fasciation with the Bourne series was that his own father played the same spy craft games portrayed in the books while working for the NSA. In fact, many of the Treadstone details were taken from his father’s own exploits, and Chris Cooper’s character, Alex Conklin, was based on Oliver Stone, whom Arthur Liman famously cross examined as chief counsel of the Iran-Contra hearings.


6. Tony Gilroy threw the novel’s story out while writing The Bourne Identity.

Universal Picutres

Universal Picutres

Despite being based on a hit book, screenwriter Tony Gilroy, coming off of The Devil’s Advocate, had no idea how to adapt it into a movie. He said the book was more concerned with people “running to airports” than character, and would need a complete rewrite. Director Doug Liman agreed, and Gilroy claims to have condensed the original novel into the first five minutes. Getting that out of the way, he then wrote his own story, based on a man who wakes up one day not remembering anything but how to kill.


5. Damon walked like a boxer to get into character.

Universal Picutres

Universal Picutres

Damon had never played a character like Bourne before, and was searching for a way to capture his physicality. Doug Liman told him to walk like a boxer to give Jason Bourne an edge. Damon took that to heart, training for six months in boxing, marital arts and firearms.


4. Damon broke an actor’s nose.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Damon’s training for the films is legendary, but mistakes still happen. While filming a scene for The Bourne Ultimatum, Damon hit actor Tim Griffin so hard, he shattered his nose. Apparently, the space the scene was filmed in was smaller than originally intended, throwing Damon off just enough to exert a real beat down.


3. James Bond visited The Bourne Legacy set.

Eon Productions

Eon Productions

Actor Daniel Craig stopped by the set of The Bourne Legacy to visit his wife, actress Rachel Weisz, who was starring in the movie. While having James Bond on a Bourne set must have been exciting, The Bourne Legacy was the only Bourne movie to not actually feature Jason Bourne, meaning our bets on who would kick whose ass would have to wait for another day.


2. The Bourne Identity was nearly a bomb (in the box office sense).

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

As reshoots began to pile up, and an all-out war between the studio and director Doug Liman spilled into the press, expectations were that The Bourne Identity was going to flop. Matt Damon told GQ that, “the word on Bourne was that it was supposed to be a turkey…It’s very rare that a movie comes out a year late, has four rounds of reshoots, and it’s good.”


1. Matt Damon wasn’t the first actor to play Bourne.

Warner Brothers Television

Warner Brothers Television

Aired on ABC in 1988, the TV movie adaptation of The Bourne Identity, while not exactly critically acclaimed, was a more faithful version of Ludlum’s book. Richard Chamberlain, of The Thorn Birds fame, played a much less ass-kicking spy, while “Charlie’s Angel” Jaclyn Smith played love interest Marie. If you like your Bourne movies heavy with poorly lit ’80s melodrama, this might just be the adaptation for you. Otherwise, you should catch The Bourne Ultimatum when it airs this month on IFC.

The Naughts: The Television Show of the ’00s

The Naughts: The Television Show of the ’00s (photo)

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“It’s not TV, it’s HBO” goes the tagline, and in the ’00s, TV was “The Sopranos,” a series that not only defined a channel but, more fundamentally, a decade’s worth of living-room drama.

When David Chase’s series about the titular New Jersey crime family debuted in 1999, it came equipped with a conceit that seemed, dare I say, a tad too cute — a mob boss balancing his two “families,” and buckling under the stress of it all? Yet cute was something the program almost never wound up flirting with, instead carving out a position as both a key member of America’s controversial modern gangster-fiction canon alongside “The Godfather,” “Scarface” and “Goodfellas,” as well as the prime example of the small-screen’s potential to be an artistic venue equal to that of the cinema.

Ten years ago, no self-respecting critic would have made such a case, but bada bing, at the close of this decade, “The Sopranos”‘ influence is now so clear, and so monumental, that it can lay claim to having spearheaded an entire medium’s golden age.

This isn’t to claim that “The Sopranos” is the best show of the decade; in my humble opinion, David Simon’s “The Wire” definitively owns that title. But Chase’s mob show is unquestionably the one that set us down our current bountiful path, proving from the outset — when it garnered record pay-cable ratings, which further skyrocketed in later seasons — that marrying film-quality writing, acting and directing with serialized storytelling that allowed for truly in-depth characterizations and plotting was a recipe for immense critical and popular success.

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The Naughts: The Buddy Pair of the ’00s

The Naughts: The Buddy Pair of the ’00s (photo)

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Nobody in the film business has had as good a decade as the folks at Pixar Animation Studios. They released seven films in ten years, all of them box office hits, all of them critical successes. Four of them won Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature (and the past summer’s “Up” stands a good chance to make it five).

Because of the studio’s incredible run of creativity, Pixar filmmakers are often asked to explain the secret of the company’s success. In an interview with Movie City News‘ David Poland, “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E” director Andrew Stanton cited a meeting the company’s brain trust held shortly after the release of “Toy Story” to assess exactly what went right that time so that they could be sure to repeat that formula in the future. As Stanton explained it, “We felt that it was a weird, perfect symbiotic combination of there [being] one visionary and it was John [Lasseter]… but conversely, John was incredibly open to [asking] ‘What does everybody think?’ and created about the most egalitarian atmosphere that you could with a system that needs a dictator.”

In other words, Pixar movies are the product of a singular artistic vision supported and refined through teamwork. And without coincidence, most Pixar films are testaments to the power of the team. They’re stories of singular characters learning to work in a group and to improve themselves through collaboration with others. Typically, a self-obsessed main character encounters a situation they can’t conquer alone; only by learning the value of friendship and cooperation can ultimate success and happiness be achieved. “Up”‘s grumpy Carl Fredricksen fulfills his dream only when he learns to appreciate the companionship of Russell. In “The Incredibles,” Mr. Incredible resurrects his moribund superhero career and family life when he stops going on secret adventures and starts including his loved ones on his masked escapades. In essence, Pixar makes movies that validate the way that Pixar makes movies.

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