Manifestly faulty Manifesto

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I had my reservations before purchasing a ticket for Manifesto, a film that seeks to manifest the great thinkers and philosophers of the modern age through the mouths of 13 archetypal characters. I mean, how can you go wrong with a 90-minute Learning Annex lecture?

Honestly, the selling point for me was Cate Blanchett playing all 13 roles.

As we waited for the film to begin, the Nashville Film Festival host (emcee?) gushed about his chills on seeing the film at Sundance. My first clue that I had bitten off more than I could chew.

He then laid his bet that Cate was a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination. Put your money down now and plan that dream vacation.

Then the lights went down, the film illuminated the screen, and 13 Shakespearean soliloquys rolled out. Except, these thinkers were not Shakespeare and even Shakespeare put his soliloquys within the context of a narrative; something completely lacking here.

There was so little context for any of these scenes that I have no idea, no memory of any of the speeches less than 24 hours later.

Although the Great Cate did manage to inhabit her many and varied characters—vapid news host, drunk punk rocker, deranged homeless man, etc.—dissolved in my brain as quickly as she spoke the words.

Many Cates

There was humour. We laughed at the odd comment—mostly non-sequiturs—and tittered like children when the gentile sacred mouth of Ms. Blanchett uttered words like “shit” and “fuck”, but I’d be surprised if anyone other than a philosophy major could name 10 of the 13 thinkers reflected.

This was less Art Film than Performance Art, and ironically, it may have suffered from the transformations by Blanchett, whose visual distraction allowed my ear to remain confused. Perhaps with a lesser performer, the words would have had a fighting chance.

Was Blanchett’s transformation enough for that Oscar nod? Unlikely, as the complete lack of over-arching narrative will keep it off most Academy lists.

This is truly a festival film, where manifestos and pointlessness not only thrive but are lauded for their unintelligibility by audiences afraid to not “get it.”

[How’s that for inverse snobbery?]

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In some ways, Manifesto is reminiscent of Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which was also a series of pointed commentaries on modern society, all performed by the same artist.

Where Tomlin went right was in presenting each commentary within a powerful story of a nuanced character with a unique perspective. Manifesto, sadly, chose a verbal sledgehammer over story, eliminating any opportunity for nuance no matter how well Blanchett performed the characters.

A damned shame, really, as she lived up to her billing. If only Academy voters could see it through all the rest.

Free Fire still too expensive

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It seems I am cursed to see the lesser works of great film artists. Such was the case last night as my friends and I discussed Ben Wheatley’s latest release.

My friends spent much of the evening telling me how much I should have seen High Rise and Kill List. Sadly, we saw Free Fire, a 90-minute exploration of how many bullets the human body can take…seriously, that is the movie.

In 1976 or so, IRA terrorists arrive at a derelict warehouse to buy guns, but things suddenly go wrong and a shootout ensues. The End.

Lots of shooting. Lots of bleeding. Lots of “witty” banter. For 90 minutes.

This is The Good, The Bad and The Ugly if all we saw was the Mexican stand-off.

It is every Quentin Tarantino film without the Shakespearean nuance for which Tarantino is known (*sarcasm*).

It is Bugs and Daffy arguing over whether it is rabbit season or duck season.

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And like a young child’s game of Cops & Robbers or Cowboys & Indians—or whatever other culturally and socially incentive games the kids get up to these days—no one really suffers for the ballistic barrage that enters their bodies. This might as well have been paint ball.

I am told Ben Wheatley (writer and director here) is a very creative artist, whose earlier works bordered on the metaphysical. Free Fire didn’t manage physics, let alone metaphysics.

The entire film was one beat repeated over and over and over again, much like this review.

Running out of shooters or bullets? Let’s simply insert a couple of new shooters. Wow, that was so much fun, let’s do it again.

The movie had a really good cast, including the likes of Brie Larson (The Room), Sharlto Copley (District Nine), Armie Hammer (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and Cillian Murphy (you know; the guy that was in that movie).

And there were a few funny one-liners (whatever they made, nobody wants to buy it anymore).

But let me save you $13 and simply suggest you watch the trailer 37 times.

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The only stars of the movie

Autopilot biography – Understanding De Palma

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I’m generally not a fan of autobiography. Similarly, I am not a fan of retrospective panels where the topic of the retrospective is the guest.

Although the thinking behind such efforts is who better to tell us the truth of past events than the person who lived them, I find that the idea rarely manifests into a reality. Too often, we are merely presented with a series of events or facts, rather than any real insights into whom these people are and how those events both fed into and were products of those individuals.

This turned out to be the case with the 2015 documentary De Palma, recently released on Netflix.

Over a span of 110 minutes, we hear every thought that famed film director Brian De Palma has about pretty much every movie he ever made, from his days as a film student up to his most recent contributions. And yet, despite all of this exposition, I feel like I am no closer to understanding De Palma than I was when the almost two-hour odyssey began.

For film buffs and film students, there is plenty to like about this documentary, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. De Palma discusses his many influences as a cinematographer and director, offering lovely homages to older films through examples of his own.

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And the film is a nice reflection on a period of time in American cinematography, when the likes of Scorsese, Lucas, and Spielberg were establishing their imprints on film. We get a taste of what it was like to always be on the cusp of the studios, and the struggle to live up to your artistic vision and hearing crickets chirp in empty theatres.

But I didn’t just want a taste. I wanted to understand the artist and his art.

A few years ago, at the Austin Film Festival, I sat in a session where Chris Carter discussed the genesis and ongoing development of The X Files, a series I quite enjoyed for its first few seasons. But rather than learn anything insightful or useful—which is the norm at Austin—I felt like I was sitting in a Comic-Con session, where a lot of the questions began: “Remember that episode where…”

I’m not belittling Comic-Con or fan worship. It has its place.

I just didn’t think that a screenwriters’ conference was that place.

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This is why I don’t like autobiographies, in general. Rare is the book or documentary where a subject is required to delve deep into their experiences, to explore how those experiences moulded them during moments of personal evolution.

Instead, the documentarians tend to be fanboys or -girls, who start every segment with the question: “Remember that movie where…”

[For context, think back to a Chris Farley character on Saturday Night Live.]

Ironically, in discussing the camera work on Carlito’s Way, De Palma kind of summarized my problem with the attempt to catalogue every film in his filmography:

“The thing you learn about the long take is that you can document the emotion happening on the screen in real time,” he explained. “And once you start cutting things up, you lose the emotional rhythm of things.”

This is my issue. There was no emotional center to this documentary. It was too technical or mechanical and lacked almost any sense of humanity and therefore artistry.

And I say almost, because De Palma finally touched on a subject that I wish the entire film had documented as he summed up his thoughts.

“The thing about making movies is every mistake you made is up there on the screen,” he said, almost wistfully. “Everything you didn’t solve, every short-cut you made you will look at it the rest of your life. So, it’s like a record of the things that you didn’t finish, basically.”

And more powerfully:

“People in your life can be threatened by your intense concentration, your complete immersion in what you’re doing,” he continued. “My true wife is my movie, not you.”

Ironically, I am left thinking the same thing at the end of De Palma. What might have been?

See also:

Variety review

VOX review

The Guardian review

The Last Laugh – review

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As I sat in Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, munching my popcorn and sipping my soda, I started to get the sneaking suspicion I had accidentally seated myself in a Synagogue, such was the nature of the audience who slowly closed in around me.

And as the theatre lights dimmed, I realized that they were here to see a documentary about the Holocaust, while I was here to see one about comedy. We were both in the right place.

For me, the central theme of The Last Laugh is the question: Is there any topic that is off-limits to comedy?

For the others, it was probably more a question of whether any humour could be found in something as horrific as the wholesale slaughter of 6 million Jews.

Through a series of interviews with comedians—most Jewish—and Holocaust survivors, centering on the thoughts of Renee Firestone, The Last Laugh pivots back and forth between heavy discussions about survival under unreal conditions and light-hearted attempts to understand the dark humours arising from those conditions as expressed by the generations of comedians that followed.

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As Mel Brooks pointed out, if he had tried to produce “The Inquisition” sequence of History of the World, Part I back in the late 1400s, he probably wouldn’t have fared as well in 1981. Likewise, other comedians pointed out that when The Producers was released in 1968, the concept of “Spring Time for Hitler” was scandalous, whereas people seeing the Broadway musical now are apt to sing along with the music.

For many, it was a matter of timing. How much time had passed since the original horror? For others, it was a bit more complicated, and it was generations more than years that needed to pass, citing examples where the children of Holocaust survivors—people who themselves did not experience and therefore release the horrors—were more apt to get upset about Holocaust jokes than their parents.

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Interestingly, Brooks himself was quick to note that the Holocaust was a line he could not cross himself, but that if someone else made a funny joke, he could laugh at it.

Going back to survivor Firestone, it was very interesting to see her perspectives on this question and the various attempts by comedians like Sara Silverman to touch the subject. For Firestone, none of the jokes seemed to come across as funny, but some she acknowledged were very close to the truth of the experience or how society now thought of it.

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Writer/director Ferne Pearlstein (centre) with survivors Elly Gross and Renee Firestone

And she could see in hindsight the humour of some of the camp activities as the prisoners (I am at a loss for a better word to describe those held captive) tried to maintain a grip on sanity within the camps, whether it was preparing imaginary dinner parties or performing musical revues.

Countering opinions also entered the fray as people debated the merits of the film Life is Beautiful, most of the comedians considering it terrible and an ironic whitewashing of the horror, or bringing in other recent events such as Jim Crow racism or the events of 9/11.

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Ultimately, while I’m not sure the question of off-limit topics was ever really answered, everyone who watched the documentary was affected by it.

Where your heart was broken by a recounted memory, it was shortly thereafter mended by quip.

Where your breath caught in your chest at a recalled horror, it quickly burst forth in a gush of laughter.

After 88 minutes riding waves of conflicting emotions, the audience was neither depressed, nor bemused, but likely to a person, they had asked questions they had never considered before. Can’t really ask more of a documentary.

Whither the losers

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History, we are told, is written by the victors. So, it also seems, are books about writing; although it is perhaps more accurate to say that books about writing only talk about winners.

Whether we’re talking about Star Wars, Unforgiven, Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz, almost any model of screenplay structure or character development or dialogue construction can be retrofitted to suit the film in question.

It’s like one of those mysterious illustrations that test whether you see two faces or a goblet. Once the secret is pointed out to you, it is virtually impossible to unsee.

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Faces or a vase? Old woman or young?

Now, I’m not suggesting that these films or scenes or characters within aren’t good examples of the methods and approaches being promoted. Rather, because they are good examples, I question how much you can learn from them.

If you know the film well, it can be virtually impossible to imagine it any other way. And that is what the lesson should be telling you.

What happens when you don’t follow the model?

What does bad writing look like and how can you fix it?

Without that last part, learning to write well becomes the typing equivalent of being given paint, brushes, canvas and the Mona Lisa. Now, go out there and launch the new Renaissance! (The Rerenaissance?)

A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to take a comedy writing workshop given by Steve Kaplan. Aside from providing our small group with a series of tools to not only analyze but also develop comedy—nicely captured in his wonderful book The Hidden Tools of Comedy—Steve walked us through examples of where these tools were used to great effect AND examples where they weren’t.

Alongside excerpts of Groundhog Day, we watched scenes from Alex & Emma. After considering the classic sitcom about nothing Seinfeld, we were inflicted with the show’s original and quite terrible pilot.

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Like with the positive examples, you see the failures when they are pointed out to you. But the nice thing about the failures is you can ask what could have been done differently to make the idea or scene work better.

(Note: Sometimes, the answer is nothing, because it was a weak idea or poorly written.)

You may not have committed the specific sin you’re studying, but it at least gives you the opportunity to use the tools you’ve just acquired and see if you can’t make that “Elvis on crushed velvet” look more like the Mona Lisa.

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And particularly for the relatively novice or untested writers, examining failures helps to keep from establishing an impossible bar of success. Rather, it suggests that whereas we always strive for greatness, mediocrity can make it to the screen, and more importantly, we do not need to (and never will) achieve gold with every piece we write.

Which is good, because for every Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek, there is a The Lone Ranger (all written in part by the wonderful and giving Terry Rossio).

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See also:

The Hidden Tools of Comedy (Steve Kaplan)

With Genius, the play’s the thing – a review

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Early last year, I saw a trailer for a biographical movie that recounted the love story between a novelist and his editor. For every bit that the novelist was a flamboyant, erratic larger-than-life character, his editor was a buttoned-down, controlled one. And yet, between the two of them, they produced works that sit among the sleeves of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, two of the editor’s other writers.

I was intrigued.

Last June, Genius had its theatrical release in North America, only to disappear almost as quickly. I had completely forgotten about the story, until this week, when the movie launched on Netflix.

Now, I know why it disappeared. Not because it is a bad movie, but rather because it was produced for the wrong medium.

The theatrical release Genius should have had was on a stage, not in a cinema. Although not written intentionally as such, Genius is a play.

Based on A. Scott Berg’s 1978 National Book Award-winner Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, the film recounts a tempestuous period in the 1930s when the first frenzied pages of Thomas Wolfe’s (Jude Law) autobiographical O Lost found their way onto the desk of Scribner’s editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth). It then follows the bond that forms between the two men as they fight to tame Wolfe’s creative furies, eventually honing it into the retitled Look Homeward, Angel and his sophomore novel Of Time and the River.

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The loves they left behind: Laura Linney (top) and Nicole Kidman

The process was not without its victims, however, and as minor secondary plots, the film unveils the impact of the men’s singular focus on their loved ones: Perkins’ loving wife Louise (Laura Linney) and his five daughters, as well as Wolfe’s loving but jealous benefactor Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman).

As I watched the film—directed by Michael Grandage with screenplay by John Logan –I found it structurally constrained and yet exuberantly written. With the exception of links between plot sequences, every scene played out as intimate conversations with the characters largely speaking in poetry, especially Wolfe and Perkins. It was as though Logan was trying to capture the Joyce-like prose of Wolfe’s mania and cast it from the mouths of his characters.

After pausing the movie for a few moments about 40 minutes in, not completely sure what I thought of it, I came back to the film and immediately realized what was challenging me. This was a stage play that was unaware of its identity.

Once I had that in my mind, the movie proceeded to unfold beautifully and naturally.

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Defining the act of falling in love

As a writer and editor myself, I was enthralled by the ongoing debates over how best to describe the emotions of falling in love and that tortuous feeling of having the words you bled to write being torn asunder with the simple stroke of a red pencil.

I understand, however, that not everyone would be as appreciative or have such a personal connection to these scenes.

The movie was eviscerated by the critics I read, and rightly so if viewed as a movie.

“Hammily acted, overstylized and lacking in subtlety.” – The Guardian

“Dressed-up box full of second- and third-hand notions.” – The New York Times

The Independent reviewer apparently saw what I saw:

“The acting, along with John Logan’s script, belong to the theatre.”

Like many stages plays, there is essentially no build up, and we are immediately dumped into central relationship of Perkins and Wolfe, two artists straining to make the other see his vision for the project at hand. Thus, when Kidman’s Aline or Linney’s Louise show up in the story, we are given almost no backstory to help us understand their perspectives or reactions to the intellectual love affair that blossoms.

And to the subtlety comment, Logan inserted F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) at the nadir of his career as an omen to Wolfe about what lies ahead, and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) as an emblem of a man who possessed his life, much as Wolfe tried to do and failed.

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The fates: Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald & Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway

But perhaps the biggest tell for me that this was a stage play—and something that hits the subtlety debate—is the hat that Perkins wears throughout the entirety of the film. No matter where he is, no matter the time of day, no matter how he is otherwise dressed, Perkins wears his grey Fedora. It is what allows him to maintain his control on the world.

And because of its importance to Perkins—the true hero of this story—the hat is what brings power to the film’s close, in a scene that could otherwise be seen as cliché (and may yet be, by some).

The audience for Genius will be a narrow one, unfortunately. It has, however, piqued enough interest in me to look into the works of Thomas Wolfe, as well as A. Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins.

 

See also:

Colin Firth and Jude Law’s literary bromance needs an edit (The Guardian)

Michael Grandage should have stuck to his day job (The Independent)

‘Genius’ puts Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe in a literary bromance (New York Times)

Rogue One clearly satisfies (no spoilers)

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The latest in the Star Wars galaxy of offerings launched last night to rousing applause, and I was there, in the audience, wearing my 3D goggles.

What did I think of the movie? I’m not really sure that it matters.

Like so many movie franchises out there, if you have bought into the Star Wars series, you are going to see this movie and there is damned little that any number of reviewers could say to dissuade you from that. Personally, I have been invested in this cultural icon since it first launched almost 40 years ago.

So, what is the point of reviewing the movie? None, other than an effort to satisfy my own self-importance.

This was a good movie that opens slowly, offers little in the way of character development, fulfills all of the expected (demanded?) tropes of battles and mentors and silly robots, and essentially adds nothing to the canon of Hollywood history or the art of filmmaking. I don’t know that the movie ever had the opportunity to be great, but if it did, it certainly walked the other way.

That said, the audience applauded or cheered several times throughout the movie, and I think it is fair to say that pretty much everyone left the theatre satisfied with their experience.

And there is my problem with the series, as much as the movie: satisfied.

[Hereafter, I will talk more about specifics within the movie, so you may wish to stop reading now. I will avoid spoilers, speaking more in generalities out of respect for movie-goers.]

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Ep IV and V changed movies forever. Everything else was merely adequate.

Movies have evolved extensively since the launch of A New Hope in 1977, especially in the area of special effects. With franchises like Alien and Star Trek getting complete reboots, comic book universes unfolding in myriad interwoven ways, and standalones like Interstellar and Inception dazzling the eye, it is becoming increasingly difficult for individual movies to stand out from the crowd, to chart new ground.

If for no other reason, this is why I raved about the recently released Arrival (my review), which stands apart not through its special effects, but rather the execution of its central theme. There is great intelligence behind a beautiful film.

When A New Hope arrived on the scene, it changed the game of movie-making by bringing the scale of a biblical epic to hokey old Westerns and WWI dog fight movies. If Jaws initiated the summer blockbuster craze, A New Hope solidified the idea. And if that’s where it stopped, this crazed then-teenager would have been quite satisfied.

But then came The Empire Strikes Back, which somehow managed to make A New Hope look hokey and dated, although I still contend that the first movie had a better, more complete story. For a young movie goer, The Empire Strikes Back was like riding in a bullet train only to have someone throw on after-burners; it was a whole new level of acceleration that pinned me to my seat.

That feeling has never been duplicated by a Star Wars movie since.

[In fairness, there is one interesting technical achievement in Rogue One, but to describe it would be to spoil a couple of moments in this film.]

Hollywood, instead, has caught up and moved past the franchise. And perhaps even more broadly, entertainment has surpassed even Hollywood in the form of immersive video games, which I do not play.

For its part, the Star Wars universe struggles to achieve the bar, if it really even tries. And each successive movie feels like it was designed with a check list of tropes George Lucas did not invent, but that he executed perfectly in the early films.

Thus, for a Star Wars film, Rogue One is completely adequate.

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Adequate to their task, offering little more

Character development has largely been dispensed with. As the movie opens, we are presented with a seminal moment in the life of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the central character of this movie, and then we catapult ahead 10+ years to find her in imprisoned, where our adventure begins. And with the exception of the odd note dropped into the dialogue, we have no idea what happened in those lost years.

The same is true for almost all of the other characters. Each offers the briefest allusions to why they have arrived in this place at this time, but there is little to hold onto as the story careens forward. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) has done some bad things in the name of the Rebellion. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) clings to his belief in the Force like a child clutching a blanket, while his partner Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) scoffs good-naturedly, mourning his lost faith.

And I have to say that I have no idea why rebel renegade Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) is even in this movie. If his subplot had been written around, the story would not have suffered one iota. Like so many other movie franchises these days, I will put this choice down to something in the cartoon, novel or comic book series.

Perhaps this reveals something about me, but much as I did with Prometheus, I found the robot character to be the most evolved. In Rogue One, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) stole the show, having the best lines of dialogue and routinely offering broader perspective on the chaotic stumblings of the inferior humans around him.

And as with the original movies, the villains proved the most exciting element of the story.

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Mendelson’s Krennic brings life and depth to this movie

Somehow, the writers and director managed to make Darth Vader even more imposing than he was in any of the other movies. This was something between the uncontrolled fury of Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith and Lord Vader’s iron control in The Empire Strikes Back. Here, Vader was a cold-hearted menace who toyed with his food as time allowed, but was also happy to get his light saber dirty.

And then we have Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelson), the man charged with the construction of the Death Star and who, but for an inability to tap into the Force, might have made a delicious challenger to Darth Vader. If they do more parallel timeline movies in the future, I would love to see the evolution of this character.

Aside from these few characters, however, the movie was merely passable as a Star Wars film. The plot was straightforward, if a little padded in places, with well-choreographed battles and requisite deaths (no spoilers).

And there must be at least 837 easter eggs in this movie, tiny moments that tie in to the other movies in the series, and as my friend Danny tells me, into the cartoons, as well. While a younger me might have been enthralled by these inserts, the present day me found them distracting, particularly as they almost always served no purpose to the plot and jerked me out of the story as I realized, “Hey, those are the guys from…” (no spoilers).

But as I said at the beginning, none of this likely matters to you if you are a Star Wars fan. You will see this movie, enjoying some parts and complaining about others. It is just what Star Wars has become…and I find that a little sad.