Perfect Pacing — Independence Day

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: ‘Independence Day’ is a good movie.  There, I said it.  I have watched and read review after review on the Internet trying to tell me otherwise — that this film is too ridiculous, too over-the-top to be ever be truly good; that, at best, the film falls in the so-bad-it’s-good category.  But I’m not buying it.  I have seen this film countless times over the past sixteen years since it premiered in 1996, and my resolve remains unshaken. It is many things, but a poor film it is not.

That isn’t to say I don’t understand people’s common criticisms about this alien invasion flick, namely that it has key plot holes, token stereotypes, overly silly moments, and a corny theme of American patriotism.  All true, all true.  There’s no question that infecting an advanced alien spaceship with a ’90s computer virus, as they do in the film, is a little absurd.  There’s no question that the film’s inclusion of characters such as a stereotypically Jewish man who says stereotypically Jewish things is a little ethnically insensitive.  There’s no question that the U.S. president jumping into the cockpit of a jet and fighting the aliens head on is a little silly.  And there’s no question that the film’s indulgence and build up to the titular holiday — and the president’s speech that accompanies it — is a little blunt about the whole “America Rules” idea.

But here’s the thing.  Wasn’t it fun?  I know that’s a very basic question to ask, but didn’t you, whoever is out there reading this, have at least a little fun watching it?  Weren’t you entertained during the jet-on-spacecraft dogfights?  Didn’t the president’s speech, silly as it was, move you just a little?  I know it’s ridiculous and implausible (an argument can be made for “stupid” as well, provided one is cynical enough,) but can’t that argument be levied against nearly all science fiction?  By attacking ‘Independence Day’ as absurd, escapist trash, have we not mistaken the messenger for the message?

Those are questions that you, individually must answer, but I will attempt to sway you with one idea: pacing.

Pacing is the rhythm of film.  It is less about what happens in the story and more about when it happens.  It’s about how long we wait and whether or not that waiting means anything.  Good pacing builds to an effective climax, it allows time for characters to stop and breath if necessary, it lets the story go to different places if necessary; but it is always building to something important.  The road to catharsis must be well-paced.

In the context of an action film like ‘Independence Day’ pacing is about knowing when to pull the punches, and that often means not jumping into the action right away.  It is about letting time pass; not to waste it, but rather to build suspense and add gravity to the action.  Again, the key is the action has to really mean something.  By contrast, when action movies are crammed full of as many guns, explosions and chases as the filmmakers can manage, the beat is is buried under noise, and the audience is denied the plot’s theoretical impact.  Thankfully, ‘Independence Day’ is in fact a darn near-perfect example of pacing, and so, even with all of its silliness, the film still seems meaningful.

Allow me to demonstrate: the film opens with an enormous mothership flying toward earth and releasing smaller ships, which enter our atmosphere.  They position themselves over cities and then what happens?  Do they immediately try to destroy them?  No.  They do nothing, at first.  That’s brilliant — people stop, they take notice, they wonder what the hell is going on.  Some are optimistic and try to communicate with them, some flee, others continue to scratch their heads until one man figures out that these extraterrestrials are organized on a countdown, but to what exactly he doesn’t know.  Then, as the countdown completes, the ships finally unleash hell upon the world.  And it means something.  That’s the key: it really means something now because we got to know people first, to identify with their unique mix of fear, paranoia, delusion and simple curiosity.  We, too, wondered what would happen at the end of the countdown.  And it’s great that the filmmakers made us wait that long, it was great that they knew when to build anticipation, and this sort of thing continues on until the end when we have a truly satisfying final battle.  Why?  Because the movie was smart enough to make things matter, and the only way you do that is by letting the film rest appropriately, allowing for the times between action scenes to have real weight and importance.  Most of the film, by the way, isn’t action.  For a film that stretches over two hours in length, I don’t there is much more than a half hour of pure action in the film, which again plays to its strengths.  Again, it’s the moments between all the fighting and explosions that are true heart of this picture, and I, at least, found myself believing in it.

So there, I have attempted, best I can, to convince you all that ‘Independence Day’ is a good film.  Undoubtedly some of you will cling to your former beliefs, but I hope that at least a few might consider giving this one another view, perhaps appropriately on the Fourth of July.  If nothing else the score is pretty awesome.  I think we can all agree on that.

Classic Review: Gojira

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

When I reviewed the 1998 remake (or is it reboot?) I mentioned that I was a fairly devout Godzilla fan as a kid.  Still, I admit that I was only really a fan of the sequels.  I loved to watch Godzilla fight other monsters and comically destroy cities.  I didn’t see the original film until much later on and I was initially put off by it.  It was slower paced, there were no other giant monsters for Godzilla to fight, and the whole movie felt too grim.  I dismissed it for many years.  Having recently rewatched it, though, I see what a masterpiece it truly is.

It’s difficult now-a-days to treat giant monster movies seriously.  No one, it seems, not even those who make them, honestly wants to make great films for the genre.  They’re about action.  They’re about special effects.  They’re about how cool the monsters look. They don’t exist for story telling purposes*.  Most are glorified sporting matches, a football game with more monstrous contenders.

Not so with the 1954 Gojira (Godzilla was an American mistranslation that stuck.)  Here is a movie that is about ideas, not merely action.  The grimness that I found so off putting years earlier is quite intentional—this film is about war and nuclear annihilation, albeit through the imagery of a giant destructive dinosaur.

Japan, of course, had experienced the destruction of the atomic bomb less than a decade earlier, and so many scenes in the film allude to it.  A city on fire, countless buildings collapsing, hospitals overflowing with the injured and dying, the military fighting a losing battle against an unstoppable force, a secret weapon (the oxygen destroyer) that could end a war but might fall into the wrong hands.  The imagery is powerful, even overwhelming at times.  One scene shows school children singing a prayer, a desperate cry for salvation, the kind of thing that could very well have happened after Nagasaki or Hiroshima were bombed.  It may be one of the saddest moments ever filmed.

It’s easy to be caught up in moments like this in the film and forget that they were caused by a clumsy man in a rubber suit.  Admittedly, the special effects aren’t great.  At no point does Godzilla look real or believable; he looks like what he is: cheap foreign effects from fifty years ago, and still I find myself involved.  Maybe its because the film takes him so seriously.  A shot of Godzilla standing in the middle of a miniature city in flames should’ve seemed comical, and yet I found myself feeling disheartened over the destruction.  People aren’t supposed to die in vast quantities in a giant monster movie, cities aren’t supposed to be on fire.  This film dares you to care, plain and simple.
I had once said that giant monster movies could never rise above B-movie grade.  I think it’s time I retract that.  The reality in film is that any subject can be made into an A-film, if only it’s done with sincerity and strong ideas.  Too many films aim low and get low returns.  Gojira could’ve easily done that.  It could’ve just been another monster movie.  But instead it aimed higher; it wanted to symbolize something.  And that’s why, fifty-seven years after its release, people like me are still talking about it.

*Cloverfield may be an exception, but I never saw it.

Polishing The Silver Mirror

Here’s where the blog turns from a smattering of ideas and bursts of insight into something bigger.

The subtitle, as reads on the head of every page, is reflections on cinema and culture.  We cover a fair bit of popular cinema, but what about culture?  Specifically, whose?  Well, obviously American; but that’s general.  I’m a journalist in Indiana, and it’s time to make note of that.

The goal is to transform The Silver Mirror into an online magazine that serves as the nexus between filmmakers, cinemas, and cinephiles in four tiers: Indiana cities (largely Indianapolis), Indiana, America, and the World.

So what you’re going to see, dear reader, is far more than film reviews.  We’re going to interview local filmmakers, big and small.  We’re going to keep an eye on cinemas and the average filmgoer’s experience.  We’re going to attend festivals.  We’re going to help inspire filmmakers across the country with fresh footage of locations and events that deserve to be up on screen.  We’re going to continue analyzing trends in filmmaking and film criticism in the Elements of the Screen column.  The average film review is going to be much more in depth, probably doubling or tripling in length.  We’re going to conduct our own private film screenings and record our discussions for your reading pleasure.

We’re going to do a lot.

With that, I’d like to wish us a happy 200th post!

Captain America: The First Avenger

Summary: Deliciously pulpy and rich in character, ‘Captain America‘ makes for a fine adventure, a welcome addition to Marvel’s increasingly impressive roster.

Review: As Marvel’s comic book universe unfolds on the silver screen, unique talents step up to take on the challenges presented by each story.  For an adaptation of Marvel’s most old-fashioned hero, they did well to recruit Joe Johnston, the director of period adventure ‘The Rocketeer’ (which I reviewed).  Under his reign, ‘Captain America’ translates into a shamelessly idealistic and muscular picture, improving in every way upon ‘The Rocketeer’ and boasting action that puts Marvel Studios‘ other entries to shame.

Nothing in this film would work if we could not identify with Cap himself, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, brought to life by Chris Evans refreshingly playing against type.  We thankfully don’t have to endure yet another rendition of the Campbellian Hero’s Journey, as Steve Rogers’ heroism isn’t founded on mythic notions of destiny, but pure selflessness.  In a twist on the usual themes, the villain, played with great spirit by Hugo Weaving, views himself as the mythic hero, the Chosen One of the gods who alone has access to their power.  “What makes you so special?” He sneers at Rogers during a confrontation.  “Nothin’,” Steve answers, “I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.”  So while we see the dark side of Rogers’ gifts in his villainous counterpart, what draws us to him isn’t a played out struggle to resist the heady draught of power, but his steadfast humility, that he retains his social awkwardness and innocent patriotism despite his new powers and authority.  It’s an enthusiastic affirmation of a simple, but oft-ignored, fact of life: There really are good people.  In the interest of drama, many filmmakers cloud this fact, assured that the more demons given to their characters, the better.  It isn’t — what matters is truth, regardless of content.

The action works out against a rich backdrop of pulp iconography — the European theater of World War II, secret factories constructing impossible weapons, Norwegian churches hiding ancient relics, supply trains and eight-story tanks and a humongous Flying Wing.  There are fist fights, gun fights, flamethrowers, lasers, alien energies, deformed villains, mad scientists, masked stormtroopers, motorcycles, and an invincible shield colored like a flag.  The film’s Americana is obvious, and of course the more deeply ingrained the viewer’s appreciation for that particular nation, the more likely they are to appreciate the film from that perspective.  Nevertheless, ‘Captain America’ is somehow less jingoistic than other modern action pictures such as ‘Transformers’, ‘Air Force One’ and ‘Independence Day’, all of which promote the myth of American superiority to an embarrassing extent.

The glorious thing about ‘Captain America’ is that it somehow tells a good standalone story, ties directly into Marvel’s grand plan for ‘The Avengers’, is stunningly retro and yet quite modern in its presentation.  Its weakness is that it moves so fast that it requires repeat viewings to catch all the character and background detail so easily missed on a first pass.  A more suspenseful build-up to the climax would have been beneficial, underscoring the impressive action sequences like a rest between the notes.  A longer stay with Cap and the Howling Commandos would have been most welcome.  Nevertheless, these are good problems to have, symptoms of a well crafted film.

‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ stands alongside ‘Iron Man’ as the best of Marvel Studios’ pictures to date.  Though DC Comics and Warner Bros. have the benefit of Christopher Nolan‘s ‘Batman’ films, Marvel has proven to me that they are unashamed of their material and are more than capable of delivering quality adaptations to the screen.  These are films which today’s kids and geeky adults like myself will hail as classics in twenty years’ time.  Thanks to Joe Johnston and company for yet another.

Classic Review: Eyes Wide Shut

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A Kafkaesque, terrifying exposé of sexual hypocrisy that stands with the best of Kubrick’s work.

Fair warning:  Because of the film’s disturbing subject, I will be handling mature sexual topics.  Be advised.

Review:  Stanley Kubrick’s acclaimed filmography is largely composed of intelligent, penetrating meditations on human nature.  Perhaps the most prominent subject is hypocrisy.  ‘The Shining’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ explored our hypocrisy of violence; famously and controversially, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ extended this critique to sexual violence in a disturbingly graphic fashion.  ‘Dr. Strangelove’ satirically blamed its nuclear holocaust on sexually dysfunctional leaders; ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ again attacks the American elite by way of a bizarre conspiracy of cloak-and-dagger sexual politics, and in the process levels a pointed accusation at humanity in general.  We like to think we’re above the basic instincts of our species, but Kubrick would have us know that we’re walking about with our eyes wide shut.  We are sexual creatures, and we’d better be honest about it.

Kubrick’s cinematic swan song is appropriately meta, to great effect.  The first step is to present audiences with an erotic thriller headlined by two attractive, bankable stars in a well-known relationship.  This draws folks in to see their fantasies realized in a carefully controlled environment.  The next step is to pull the rug out from under their feet, by refusing to show the leads having Hollywood sex with each other, and by forcing the viewer to share the protagonist’s confusion and frustration up to the last moment.  Just as ‘The Shining’ carefully condemns its gorehound audience, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ reminds viewers of their mental promiscuity and love of Hollywood exploitation.  The film’s loveless eroticism serves to put off viewers who are uninterested in this critique.  Instead of a sanitized, pleasant experience, the film’s orgy centerpiece is a flat-out terrifying, Kafkaesque nightmare — to me, it was scarier than ‘The Shining’ — so when the protagonist flees home to his wife, we’re right there with him.

‘Eyes Wide Shut’ defends monogamy, doubtless to the surprise of many self-appointed moral guardians, provided they could settle down for a few minutes to hear it out.  The carefully constructed sexual mythology of human society, and American culture in particular, squeezes the love and life out of monogamous relationships.  For reasons of class and religion, people lie about their most powerful undercurrent, and this results in mutually destructive hypocrisies.  The narrative hangs on two upscale parties held at mansions, the first masking its abusive sexual commerce in hollow pleasantries, the second reveling in open displays cloaked in ritual and threat — the point being, in a dream logic sense, they are the same event.  The multilayered narrative repeats images and themes in a lyrical way, uncovering the uncomfortable truth of each episode.  In the end, the couple has to come to terms with their desires to heal.  To experience true sexual union, stripping to the skin is not enough — they have to strip down to the heart.  Leave it to Kubrick to transform exploitative nudity into an artful statement of the human condition!

Kubrick is often labelled “cold”, but in truth he’s simply objective, standing apart from traditional Aristotelian storytelling because he refuses to digest a given film’s ideas into cheap, predictable, marketable patterns.  This is a film with a happy ending and a clear moral conclusion, but we have to go on an unusual journey to find it.  It was misunderstood in its theatrical release, but like most of Kubrick’s work from ‘2001’ on it has gradually won over critics and cinephiles.  For this reason, I call it a classic — a truly adult film.

A Serious Man

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A beautiful, complex cinematic fable that forcefully challenges the viewer to examine his or her worldview.

Review:  Life is complicated.  There’s no easy answers.  It’s difficult to separate cause, effect, and random chance.  We all need lenses with which to interpret the world, but there’s so many of them to choose from.  Cinema, as a lie that supposedly tells the truth, often presents us with a clear worldview that purports to explain every happening within its narrative.  What happens when you remove this objectivity and leave the audience and the protagonist adrift in a tumultuous sea of competing perspectives, leading the audience back to their uncomfortable, uncertain lives?  You get ‘A Serious Man’, a complicated faux-Talmudic fable and Rorschach test as only the Coen brothers can tell it.

From the opening scene, detached from the rest of the story entirely, to the staunchly ambiguous ending, ‘A Serious Man’ manages to keep us struggling in those murky depths for its entire running time.  We’ve never sure whose story is true, or how to process the tragic events and mysterious circumstances that occur outside of the protagonist’s control.  ‘A Serious Man’ isn’t a nihilistic movie, per se; it just challenges us with the horrifying possibility that it might be.  The important thing is to make a choice.

Because of its unpredictable, confrontational approach, ‘A Serious Man’ is highly suspenseful, arguably to the same degree as their previous film ‘No Country For Old Men’, for suspiciously similar reasons.  If a narrative is unsurprising, it is probably unfulfilling.  The chaotic nature of a plot, whether introspective like ‘A Serious Man’ or athletic and violent like ‘No Country For Old Men’, stems from its tent-pole philosophy of faith vs. meaninglessness.  A screenwriter is expected to satisfy burning questions:  Who is who, what happens next, why does it happen, how does it end, and others.  When a screenwriter provides us with just enough information to draw logical conclusions, but an equal dose of counter evidence, we are left on a high tension wire between truth and falsehood, the greatest suspense of all.

In this way, the Coens communicate directly with us, like a wise man spinning an instructive fable.  The intent of such stories is to provoke a proper ethical response to real-life situations.  We are likewise instructed, here, to believe in something.  To remain uncommitted is a great error.  Time and chance happen to us all, but if we see the world through a focused lens, we can take a measure of control.  If you don’t believe, you can’t act.

‘A Serious Man’ is a gorgeous movie.  Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, well, impeccable.  The score plays sorrowful and menacing under Carter Burwell’s hand, and the soundtrack composed of Jefferson Airplane and Hebrew chant is a singular, evocative earworm that keeps the fable running through your head long after the movie cuts to black.

I do like food metaphors.  If I were to compare ‘A Serious Man’ to food or beverage, I’d call it alcohol, and something strong, at that.  An acquired taste that can cause strange reactions and possibly headaches.  It’s damn delicious, though.  Very good year.

NR: Beyond The Flickering Frame

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

I really appreciate J.J. Abrams’ approach to meta-narrative; that is, cinema lives beyond a film’s running time, or should, anyway.  Abrams approaches filmmaking as mythmaking, which is a noble idea, but very hard to execute properly.  He possesses a very old school love for mystery, expectation, wonder and surprise, an affection that it is difficult to sustain in the Information Age.  His next foray, ‘Super 8’, is an intriguing blend of 70s era Spielberg — with support from the man himself — and his own sensibilities.  Collider recently posted a collection of subliminal clues to its story, discovered in the Super Bowl teaser, a brisk 30 second spot that I have embedded below.  Behold!

The proverbial old man by the fire has only begun to relate the myth, and I’m already hooked.  The teaser promises a powerful collision of wonder and horror, an apocalyptic tale with a child’s eye view, and that’s something we haven’t seen in cinema for far too long, it seems.  Spielberg has sailed on from his signature childlike fantasy films into more dangerous waters, and he has no clear successor.  Even Abrams, despite showing an affinity for that sort of material, gravitates to stories with more violence and less poetry.  If anything prevents ‘Super 8’ from successfully emulating Golden Age Spielberg, it will be that tendency.

What’s important about this excellent teaser for ‘Super 8’ is what it doesn’t show.  I have always maintained that, especially in fantasy films, what is most effective is what filmmakers stop just short of showing.  In ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, Spielberg did not show the Mothership’s interior until a Special Edition rerelease gave him the opportunity.  He immediately regretted spoiling the heavenly mystery that the original ending created, and this blissful ignorance got restored in the Director’s Cut.  Abrams would do well to show similar restraint in the final cut of ‘Super 8’.  Proper advertising, however, creates a sense of great expectancy that needs great satisfaction.  The payoff must equal the setup.  So far, the trailers have created a distinct tone for ‘Super 8′, but wisely they left much of the plot out of sight.

What separates Abrams’ mythic strategy from predictable, tell-all advertising that plagues most films is that it expresses a real confidence in the movie.  If the filmmaker believes they have something great, a story that really surprises and thrills, they will treat marketing as an artistic prelude.  Consider the gradual reveal of Nolan’s passion project ‘Inception’ through these three trailers:

Striking images.  Bone-rattling sounds.  Terrifying.  It cast a spell on me.  The next brings on action and hints of the story’s meaning, with some deliberate misrepresentation of the plot:

The last trailer reorients audiences from the previous two, which had strong psychological horror overtones, further digesting the premise into a highly emotional action movie:

Progressively, the trailers expand on the movie’s key themes, but demand resolution.  ‘Inception’, even before we sit down for the main event, is already being told.  In the film itself, the story resolves, but does not firmly end.  It leaves us with questions, so we can go on experiencing the story after we’ve left the theater.  This is similar to ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’; Spielberg resolves the conflict, but leaves us with wonder.  The adventure continues in our hearts.

‘Super 8’ has a similar marketing campaign.  The first theatrical teaser gives us, like the first for ‘Inception’, strong horror elements: An absurdly violent, apparently deliberate trainwreck, releasing an unseen alien monster, juxtaposed with a rapid zoom out from grainy Super 8 footage containing subliminal images.

The next, embedded at this article’s beginning, expands on the horror hook with gorgeous American nostalgia, primal familial emotions, and apocalyptic destruction in ’70s suburbia.  Present in both, doing most of the heavy lifting, are two strains of Midwest mythos: UFO cover-up conspiracies, and amateur filmmaking.  The Super 8 camera, I’d venture to say, is symbolically Hollywood’s lost childhood.  Many great filmmakers used it to hone their skills as children.  As digital devices take its place, its symbolic power only increases, an effect certainly related to Abrams’ film.  J.J. is using it as a deliberate homage to Spielberg, whose films have defined cinema for a generation.  So, while ‘Super 8’ may seem an incongruous title for a film about aliens and paranoid conspiracy, it’s obvious that the camera and the kids behind it are the film’s heart and soul.

If ‘Super 8’ has a great story, as I am ready to believe, then it had better include that final, crucial magic trick; the hint at things to come.  Not a sequel, not a television series, not a comic book; a story that lives forever, unstained by cash grabs, beyond the flickering frame.