Who framed Tony Zhou?

If you were already thinking, “Huh, two blog posts within a week – this is like Christmas! Just without the presents, turkey and Ibsenesque family drama!”, you’re only half right – no turkey, I’m afraid. Also, this isn’t a regular post so much as a suggestion that if you’re into cinema, especially cinematography, and haven’t already checked out Tony Zhou’s Vimeo page, you’re missing something. Zhou is fantastic at analysing and discussing how certain filmmakers use framing and editing to achieve very specific effects – and he’s the kind of critic who always puts what he looks at first rather than his critical ego. I find it almost impossible to come away from watching one of his videos and not to run to my DVD shelves, pick out one of the films he’s just talked about and rewatch it, savouring each single frame.

Here are just two of his video essays, namely one on Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) and his brand of visual comedy…

… and here’s one on the late Satoshi Kon (Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika).

You’ll find Zhou here on Vimeo, and he’s also got a YouTube channel, for those who find Vimeo hit-and-miss in terms of download speeds.

Obsession, by Kubrick

Room 237 is a strange beast. The documentary consists entirely of people talking about their interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, set mostly to clips from the film itself as well as of other Kubrick movies – and by and large the theories they espouse seem to have a shaky grasp of the process of film analysis, charitably put. Some of the speakers make interesting points and they don’t go out of their way to tie their observations into a grand theory of What The Film Actually Is About, but the majority come across as the film studies equivalent of conspiracy theories mixed with a flair for fabulation. The Shining is about the Holocaust! It’s about the genocide of the Native Americans! It’s Kubrick’s coded admission that he faked the moon landing footage for NASA! The poster of the skier is actually a minotaur!*

... and what kind of creature roams the labyrinth?

What is strange about the film, but partly accounts for how intriguing it is: it doesn’t overtly comment on any of the theories. Apart from the film clips, there is no voice in the film other than that of the Kubrick enthusiasts – which has prompted some film critics to read Room 237 as endorsing the theories, or at least as doing that relativist pomo spiel of flattening out hierarchies, so that any interpretation is as valid as any other. While Room 237 is subtle in its criticism, though, it trusts that the juxtaposition of the enthusiastic theories and the images from the film speaks for itself. There is no need to criticise or mock the Overlook Hotel’s conspiracy theorists: while their tones are engaging, their takes on The Shining are so obviously Through The Looking Glass that it’s unlikely any moviegoers will come away from the documentary thinking that Kubrick had indeed airbrushed his likeness into the Colorado clouds.

Fill 'er up...

Having said that, I do wonder whether the average film audience will discern much of a difference between Room 237‘s theories and the analyses of poststructuralist, psychoanalytical or any other modern film criticism. As much as I enjoy Slavoj Zizek’s jazzy flights of fancy on film, I expect that to many they wouldn’t sound any less insane than the theories presented in Room 237. I do think there’s a difference, namely that most of the protagonists of Room 237 see The Shining as a puzzle to be solved, a spooky Rubik’s Cube of a movie, whereas critics at their best show how art – and yes, that includes the film adaptation of a Stephen King novel – can mean more, not less, through the act of interpretation. There’s a reductiveness to the theories: The Shining means this, and only this – and why doesn’t anyone believe me? This is where Room 237 is immensely effective: in hinting at the sadness that exists alongside the exuberance of obsession. Some people spend such a long time staring at the clouds that they start seeing Kubrick looking back at them, and at that point it may be more frightening to admit that the bearded guy isn’t actually in the clouds, he’s in your head.

Come and tricycle with us...

*There are at least two speakers who don’t quite belong in this line-up of craziness: the topography of the Overlook is indeed very strange considering Kubrick’s own obsession with details, and one speaker’s screening of   superimposing the film played back-to-front makes for an intriguing video installation, which is something that is categorically different from the outlandish theories.

The Leftovers, S1E10 – The Prodigal Son Returns

You know you are in the country of ending seasons when the soundtrack starts to be inventive. This is why we hear Nina Simone’s Ne me quitte pas when Kevin, with Matt Jamison’s help, ties up loose ends in Cairo. There is something very spooky in the cleric’s practicality: “I have shovels in my trunk.” Another quitter is Christine, who leaves Tommy to find the baby in a public lavatory. Jill quits her former life by joining her mother and the smoky ranks of the GR.

leftovers-110p

These are powerful scenes, but they are all upstaged by the Guilty Remnants’ final project. Nora Durst gets up, brushes her teeth and goes down for breakfast, only to find her family united at the breakfast table again. But wait – no. These are the departeds’ hollow imitations with dead masks modelled after the stolen photos and dressed in their own clothes stolen by the GR. These are puppets that spark a tiny glimmer of hope that your beloved ones have returned, and then you realize how grotesque these fucking puppets look.

leftoversprodigal

So the season’s finale is a very good one for a long time. Kevin Garvey dreams one last dream, maybe the most disquieting one, involving a certain National Geographic, Patti, and his dad. There is a conversation between Kevin and Matt where Matt’s questions are as revealing as Kevin’s answers. It’s clear that just because you don’t believe, you can still feel entirely guilty. Or you can believe and still go wrong.

And then, of course, there is the meeting between Kevin and Wayne in the men’s lavatory of a roadside diner. With his guts hanging out and only minutes left to live, Wayne fears he might have been a fraud, and wants Kevin to wish for something. If Kevin gets his wish, Wayne has been a real healer, like a twisted djinn. We can only guess what Kevin wishes for, but Wayne seems convinced he can grant him that wish. Then Wayne crosses the bridge.

sihag4vtcgrcm7ma1sx3

Kevin and Matt return to a Mapleton in turmoil. People want to hurt the GR and to burn those grotesque puppets. Megan is badly beaten up and tied to a lamppost; people with guns run through the streets, mad with anger and grief. The GR headquarters are aflame, and the fire brigade and the police are not in a hurry to help them. Kevin looks on as a couple throw their son’s eerie avatar into the fire. Just imagine: you are angry enough to throw that puppet in the flames, but you still watch your beloved one’s likeness melt.

Then Laurie appears, her voice hoarse from disuse, and yells her daughter’s name because she is in the burning house. That scene and her rescue are over the top, and they didn’t involve me the way they could or should have. Nora’s goodbye letter is touching, but then the ending comes around and twists the plot in a weird direction. Nora is on her way out of Mapleton when she finds Wayne’s and Christine’s baby on the Garveys’ front porch. Kevin and Jill look on with their soot-covered faces. Is this what Kevin wished for?

The longer I think about it, the less I like it. Give a despairing woman a baby and she finds new meaning in her life? Really? I cannot believe that this is Kevin’s wish. This is an abysmal ending to an otherwise pretty decent final episode.

Leftovers_NoraFinale-300x189

There were plotlines I could never warm up to. Christine and Tommy are uninteresting and could be cut. Jill should be better written. All three roles need better acting. There is only one episode that really stinks, the one with the baby Jesus, mainly because the weak plot and the bad editing screw up things. There are scenes from the pilot that remain unexplained, for instance Tommy’s vision of someone jumping from a rooftop. I also would like to know why Garvey Sr. went loopy. But I guess it’s better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.

Oh, but the good things. I like the cast. Ann Dowd. Carrie Coon. Amy Brenneman. This series has a lot of strong women. Justin Theroux. Scott Glenn. Christopher Eccleston. The quiet, threatening presence of Dean (Michael Gaston), who thinks he is one of the good people. Aimee’s forward comments on the Garveys’ family life, played by Emily Meade. The GR are annoying and creepy and cruel on a good day, and they need to be kept in check, but apart from those whistles, they have always been interesting to watch. A special mention goes to Max Richter, who composed the score. If you’ve seen Waltz with Bashir, you know what he is capable of.

theleftovershouses

I am glad I watched the series, but it didn’t leave me gasping from one week to the next. I am not big on symbolism – when Kevin Garvey pours a gallon of water over himself, I don’t think of baptism -, but the series works without it, too.

I’ve heard that the Departure will never be explained. That’s just as well, but it’s also a risk. The series cannot rely on a denouément of the main event, so it must invent and re-invent things for those people who are still around – and it is, after all, a series about the ones left behind. The lack of a return to the main event is a freedom only sure-handed screenwriters can handle, and I don’t know how much they can rely on Perrotta’s book. For instance, what is in store for season two? More sadness and sense of loss? I doubt that this will work, so they have to think of something. Will the GR still exist? If not, is there another collective way of dealing with the Departure?

Well, why not? If the departure has taught me one thing, it’s that there is no closure. Fuck closure. There are ways of dealing with stuff, and ways of not dealing with stuff, and it’s no matter if it’s October 14 or March 9 or any other day. You change either way. Apparently, the latter way prevails, because parts of Mapleton are aflame. In a way, everybody is worse off than during the departure. I wanna know where they go from there.

The Leftovers, S1E9 – The Garveys at their Best

Don’t be fooled by the modern interior of the Garvey home: what looks like an alternate version of the pilot is really the few hours before the Departure. It’s October 13, the day before. Laurie Garvey speaks and Jill is a happy teenager. Tommy, however, confronts his biological father and is arrested. That’s news – Kevin and Tommy aren’t father and son. This episode goes some way towards understanding the Garveys and others. It also answers the question of Where were you when…?

ep09_garveys

In a nice twist, we learn that Laurie is a psychiatrist and has Patti as her first client this morning. Patti is afraid that something terrible is about to happen. Laurie is convinced it’s all about Patti’s abusive husband Neal, and she suggests that Patti dump her troubles in a paper bag with Neal’s name on it and put it on his front porch. Both things will happen.

But, to use Patti’s words, a bag of doo-doo won’t stop the world from ending. Something’s wrong. Kevin Garvey is after a deer that has wreaked havoc in a school room. (Note that the teacher is the woman with whom Nora Durst’s husband has an affair.) Chief of Police Garvey Sr wants to put the animal down, but his son convinces him that, for the moment, tranquilizer darts are the better solution.

a-job-interview-the-leftovers

Nora Durst applies for the job of campaign manager for Councilwoman Warburton, who wants to become Mayor of Mapleton. Judging from that episode alone, you would think it’s normal American TV fare, if it wasn’t for the sense of foreboding that gets heightened by Patti’s confession. There is also some suspense in the expectation about when and how some of the minor characters will turn up. Gladys is breeding dogs and will maybe sell one to Laurie. Matt’s wife is still alive and well. Other than that, an hour-long episode for a Mapleton that has its standard problems and hails the Chief of Police for Man of the Year is barely enough.

There is the moment when Kevin Sr tells Junior that he should stop worrying – this is it, and it does not get any better or different. That’s exactly the opposite what Dad will tell Junior when he hands him the National Geographic.

Some of the scenes feel rushed in. Matt, for instance, comes out of the doctor’s examination room, tells his wife he does not have cancer and that he wants to get drunk, and maybe she should drive. Kevin Jr goes on his runs, but indulges a smoke and then a breath mint. He is dissatisfied with his marriage, but we never cleary understand why.

kevingarveyrapturemoment

It’s the last few minutes that blow this mediocre episode out of the water. It’s October 14, and we get to see the major characters in the very moment when the departure takes place. Tommy and Jill’s moment is weak and badly handled. Nora Durst has her back turned on her family and swears and curses because her son has spilt juice over her cellphone, and then the room is far too quiet. Kevin Jr has a fling with the woman who runs over the wayward deer, and while they roll around in the motel bed, she disappears from right under him. No wonder Kevin is confused and damaged.

Laurie Garvey’s moment is the strongest by far. She has guessed, maybe even feared, for some time that she is pregnant, but has kept it a secret. She is at her obstetrician’s when she sees the outlines of her kid on the ultrasound screen. It’s enough that we only see Laurie’s face. We hear the heartbeat. Then nothing.

the.leftovers.laurie

Episode nine is something of a near miss. Those characters that were able to thrive on strong writing kept on being interesting, but two of the weaker ones, Tommy and Jill, had such a weak scene that it feels like a missed opportunity to add something interesting to their storylines. The ending takes a risk: it could have been the season’s beginning or its ending, but it takes guts to place it at the end of the penultimate episode. There is one more episode to go, and I wonder what’s in store there. I expect we get to see the GR’s big event, and maybe Wayne will meet his fate. Let’s see.

If there’s one thing that the best of the Marvel movie adaptations have in spades, it’s personality. Compare the dour cinematic worlds of Batman and Superman to that of The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy, and the latter are simply much more fan to hang out with. It’s also what Guardians gets most right: almost from the start, we have a cocky, enjoyable Han Solo-alike to take us into a world of wonders and CGI, and differently than in Lucas’ bloated prequel trilogy we look past the pixels and shader effects and see characters. Rocket Raccoon, that rarest of things – a fully realised CGI character not motion-captured by Andy Serkis! -, pretty much repeats that trick; another hero from the mold of Han Solo, though arguably shorter and more furry, and one that is cynical where Peter “Star-Lord” Quill is excited for pretty much everything. Add Groot, Gamora and Drax, and you’ve got yourself the quintessential Marvel team. Batman may have his cool toys and Michael Caine, but I know who I’d rather hang out with.

Shiny...

There’s an element of laziness in the film, though. It is entertaining, it’s charming, but there’s a generic quality to Guardians‘ setup, which is the main reason why in spite of dancing baby Groot and “Hooked on a Feeling” The Avengers still works better for me. In Whedon’s movie, the characters don’t get along at the beginning but realise they need to form a messy, dysfunctional surrogate family to have a chance against the Big Bad; Guardians pretty much repeats this blow-by-blow. What it lacks, though, is strong motivations why Star-Lord’s motley crew are antagonistic to each other at the beginning. There are reasons, but they’re all underwritten and don’t really come from the characters: sure, Drax blames Gamora because she was working with the main villain when he killed Drax’ family, and Quill is seen simply as a paycheck by bounty hunters Rocket and Groot, but essentially the characters don’t get along at first because that’s what the plot structure needs. In comparison, the conflicts between the Avengers come from who the characters have been established to be: Tony Stark, arrogant millionaire playboy with a house full of toys won’t take orders from stick-in-the-mud WW2 relic Captain America, Thor is a god-of-sorts who isn’t all that into those teensy humans anyway, unless they look like Natalie Portman, and he’s mostly in it to get back at his brother Loki, and Bruce Banner thinks his life could be a hell of a lot better if people didn’t keep wanting the big green guy to come out and play. Oh, and that’s before we get to Nick Fury, who puts all of these in a room, barely united by their knowledge that Fury is not a man to trust.

The Avengers had charm too, but it did more heavy lifting to make sure that personality wasn’t the only thing it had going. Guardians has more, too, but it’s mostly of the “Ooh, look at that… shiny!” sort – arguably it takes us to visually more interesting places than Whedon’s first Marvel outing. But it’s a bit like the Cantina scene from Star Wars, two hours of weird creatures, exotic planets. It’s colourful and fun, and it works in a way that Batman’s Gotham hasn’t worked since the days of Tim Burton, when it really just worked intermittently.

A Kree, an elf and a companion walk into a bar...

However, there’s definitely one thing that Gotham City has that Marvel’s stable of superheroes is still missing, and that’s strong villains. The Avengers works well enough because Tom Hiddleston brings tons of personality to the table, and it helps that he’s connected (semi-literally) to the quasi-family at the story’s centre. Otherwise, though? Thor 2‘s evil space elf, any of the Iron Man villains, or Red Skull from Captain America? Good actors wasted on boring, perfunctory character conflicts. The interesting conflicts in the Marvel films are those between the good guys, but as soon as they unite to beat up the Big Bad, the films turn into CGI setpieces to fill the remaining fifteen minutes, with little to differentiate between them other than the make-up on the villain. Lee Pace’s Ronan is no different; there may be potential in the character, but in the film we mainly see a replaceable bad guy. Similarly, his henchwoman Nebula looks otherworldly and cool and is played competently by Karen Gillan, but she’s not what people will remember. Guardians is all about “I am Groot!” and awesome mixtapes, about cocky outlaws and cynical raccoons, but practically all of the Marvel films could have done with a Penguin, a Lex Luthor or a Joker. Captain America 2 came the closest to introducing an interesting conflict into the proceedings – and one of the reasons why its villains worked better than Red Skull or Malekith, and why Loki is probably the best bad guy of the whole bunch, is that these are closely connected to our heroes.

With Joss Whedon’s influence hanging over the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the writers may want to look at Whedon’s TV series and his Big Bads – both the ones that worked and the ones that didn’t. Usually it’s the ones that are, or were, or could be part of the family that worked best, as characters and as villains. Marvel has yet to do justice to their antagonists; they’ve got the actors, from Jeff Bridges to Christopher Eccleston, but they haven’t yet cracked the nut of conflict outside their bands of heroes. When they do, when their films have both personality and interesting conflicts that drive the stories? Then they might truly ring in an Age of Marvels. Hopefully one that still has a place for dancing baby tree creatures.

The Leftovers, S1E8 – Cairo

This episode is all about Patti. The screen lights up when Ann Dowd is in the frame, and everything else in Cairo takes a backseat. It starts with intercutting scenes of Kevin setting the table for a nice dinner, and Patti placing clothes on the floor of the otherwise empty church floor. We’re not told what her ritual means, but nothing good or simple can come from it. I thought that these were clothes from the raid, but let’s see.

loep3patti-thumb-550x309-104066

Kevin’s dinner is for Jill and Aimee, and with Nora as their guest. What should be a nice evening quickly turns into Jill’s inquisition about why Nora would carry a gun, but, oh surprise, Nora’s handbag is devoid of all firearms. There is also the plotline about Megan beating up Father Matt, then apologizing to him. He knows that Megan’s Mom died the day before the departure, so “her grief was hijacked.” Jill falls out with Aimee and breaks into Nora’s home and finds the gun, realizing that life probably won’t get any better, and Kevin finds his missing shirts hanging from the trees near a hut in the woods, but the real center this time is Patti.

FqaT3rW

The evening ends with Garvey’s dream that turns out to be real. It’s morning, he is in the woods near Cairo, NY, with Dean awaiting his Kevin’s orders. Turns out that the dog in Kevin’s backyard is from a bet he made with Dean: if Kevin can civilize the dog, Dean gets a dollar, if not, Dean gets to shoot the animal. If you think this is bad, think about this: Patti is in a nearby hut, tied to a chair. This is real. This has happened, and it’s still happening. Kevin, as his evil alter ego, has beaten and abducted her, much to Dean’s delight, and to his own horror. The chief of police hides the leader of the Guilty Remnant in a cabin, against her will, and against his own will, too, if you can believe it.

It’s spellbinding how Patti seems to have a few tricks up her sleeve. Somehow, she’s still in charge because if he sets her free, she will report him to the real authorities: “You will have to finish what you started here, my friend.” She drives a wedge between Kevin and Dean and is so successful that Dean tries to suffocate her, but paradoxically, Kevin saves her life. Which makes Dean leave, disappointed in Kevin’s lack of decisive leadership.

Fm0f3Rh

So now it’s only the abductor, Mapleton Chief of Police and undiagnosed schizophrenic Kevin Garvey Jr, and the abductee, Patti, leader of the Guilty Remnant, who is holding the upper hand, in a cabin in the woods. What a set-up. Patti has the right words for it: “It’s a pickle. Can’t let me go, won’t let me die.” Then she explains the philosophy of the GR: shed everything that’s unnecessary and focus on the vanishing, pure and simple. It’s beautiful and sickening at the same time, not least because it makes Garvey realize that the GR have killed Gladys. Which means that Laurie might have been part of the lynch mob as well. When Patti starts quoting from a W. B. Yeats poem, you know that things won’t end well. Kevin’s decision to cut Patti loose is somehow inevitable – there isn’t anything else he could have done.

But it’s Patti’s suicide that got to me. I never liked her – who would? But there was something to her that made me look and listen. Ann Down has a commanding presence. While watching, I was surprised, even somewhat overwhelmed by her death. Afterwards, I found it confusing: what does her death prove? How does it help the GR and their cause? Is everything prepared to an extent that even Patti doesn’t have to be there? What the frack have the GR planned?

IMG_0099

Megan and Laurie receive a trailer-load of something wrapped in plastic that the GR place in the church among the empty clothes. Those packets look too light to be bodies, but what the hell are they, and what are they for?

This episode had me glued to the screen as long as Patti was there. The rest was unspectacular, and Tommy and Christine were not greatly missed. Jill joining the GR did not have a great impact because Jill is simply underwritten and badly cast. I am eager to learn what Kevin will do in his large, empty house now that Jill and Aimee have gone and even the dog has been cut loose and vanished in the night. Maybe his episodes will increase. But most of all, the series will have to make up for losing Ann Down. We’ll see.

 

Serial captivity

One of my favourite films, and most definitely one of my favourite cinematic comfort foods, is John Sturges’ 1963 POW classic, The Great Escape. It’s one of the films I remember watching with the rest of my family at an early age, and one of the few that (at least in my increasingly unreliable memory) we all enjoyed. There’s something about the methodical heroics of the prisoners working on an escape plan, in a situation where passivity means safety but also surrender, that still very much appeals to me.

GreatEscape5

Could such a story work in a weekly format? That was my main question when a while ago I got the ’70s BBC series Colditz as a present. Wouldn’t it get boring to watch the same characters trying to escape in more or less ingenious ways, knowing that most of them would have to end up where they started off, prisoners of the Wehrmacht or the Luftwaffe?

Colditz is dated in a number of ways: much of it has that flat, badly lit look that BBC drama of the time had. The acting, while generally good, is also very much recognisable as the sort of acting TV drama had at the time. There are none of the action setpieces that The Great Escape had. In short, I didn’t get started on the series with particularly high expectations, in part exactly because of my liking for Sturges’ film.

What I didn’t expect was that these apparent limitations of the series were also some of its greatest strengths. The Great Escape is an exciting movie, but it’s very much an action movie. There is drama in the film, and it’s effective too, but it’s designed as escapism (no pun intended). The grind of being behind bars day in, day out is depicted, but a series is better at doing justice to the repetition, the routine and even monotony that comes with the situation.

Colditz

Colditz‘ strengths go beyond this, though. It forgoes many of the clichés; its Germans aren’t Nazi bogeymen, they’re permitted to be three-dimensional characters with actual personalities. The English characters, too, grow beyond their first impression – and as much as I like The Great Escape, the film works with archetypes and charming performances rather than with nuanced characterisation. The writers draw interesting ideas and situations out of a very limited premise. Could Colditz have remained interesting for more than two seasons and two dozen episodes? Perhaps not, but for its run it remained engaging, and it definitely left me wanting more. About ten years ago there was a remake, reboot or whatever re- is the rage these days, but I don’t see what could be substantially improved about the series. For all its ’70s BBC lighting and what may seem like slightly wooden acting these days, Colditz has stood the test of time and stands up well – as well as Dickie Attenborough, Gordon Jackson and Steve McQueen digging their way out of Stalag Luft III.

P.S.: It seems that this YouTube channel has all the episodes available. I don’t know about the legality of this, but they’ve been online for a year, so it seems the BBC is okay with this. The individual episodes are mostly stand-alones, and I can very much recommend “Tweedledum”, one of the strongest in the first season.