Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Prestige: They Want to be Fooled

Part 4 in a series of essays on the films of director Christopher Nolan. Originally posted December 12th, 2008.

The Prestige is, on the surface, a story concerning rival magicians in Victorian London. But, at the heart of things, it is really a film about film-making.
As far as I'm concerned, the goal of any film is threefold. I call it the 3 Es: Engage, Entertain, and Enlighten. Before either of the later two can happen, the audience must first be engaged. This means giving them a point of reference; that is to say, introduce them to something familiar right off the bat: a character that is relatable, and a situation or conflict that is easily comprehended. Once the audience is engaged, it is the filmmaker's duty to then entertain them, by putting the established characters in humorous or nerve-racking situations. There is a certain flare for creating truly entertaining scenes that only a few select directors possess. There is a kind of showmanship quality to film-making. The final thing a film must do is enlighten the audience. That is, the film should come to a point that stimulates the mind of the viewer. This is not always achieved and is even more difficult to pull off than pure entertainment. This third aspect is what separates great films from those that are simply good. It helps the film stick in people's minds long after they have seen it.
The above three elements of the film viewing experience are directly comparable to the three stages of a magic trick, as discussed in The Prestige. These are The Pledge, The Turn, and The Prestige. The Turn is when the audience is shown something ordinary; a handkerchief or a small bird. This is much like the beginning of a film when the audience is engaged by something equally familiar. The second part is The Turn, when the ordinary thing is made to do something extraordinary, like disappear. "But," as Michael Caine's character says in the the film, "you wouldn't clap yet. It's not enough to make something disappear. You have to bring it back." This seemingly miraculous return of the vanished object is The Prestige, and it is the most important part of the trick. These latter two parts are similar to the way entertaining the audience can bring them to something enlightening; how a heart pounding chase scene can wind and twist and turn, and then deposit us at some great, profound truth.
Another convention of magic tricks that is shared in film-making is the suspension of disbelief. It is said in the film that the audience knows that it is only an illusion, but they don't want to know how it is accomplished. "They want to be fooled", as they say. This is equally true with the film viewing experience. Any individual of even average intelligence knows full well that what they are witnessing on screen is not entirely real, but they ignore that fact. They want something extraordinary. They want to see something aside from their familiar reality. They want to escape, and it is the job of both the magician and the filmmaker to render a believable fantasy for the viewing public.
Filmmakers are the magicians of their day. With both magic and cinema, people go to the theater to see something outside of their own, regular experience. They are, at first, presented with something against which they can compare their own lives. "I know what this is. I get this", they think to themselves. Then, through this relatable proxy, the audience is taken on a journey into previously unknown territory, where they witness things they had never imagined and certainly did not expect. Then, at the end of this voyage, and indeed because of it, we come to a profundity that we had not known, yet it is undeniably true. We leave the theater having gained a fuller experience. Or course we know it was all smoke and mirrors, but to dwell on this notion would ruin something very special.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The King's Oscar Speech

Every year gives us at least one film with its eye firmly on an Oscar statue, and 2010 is no exception. This time it appears to be The King's Speech, a film about King George VI's speech impediment. Cinematical examines its chances:
There are plenty of things in Speech to appeal to the Oscar voter. It's a period piece about the inner workings of the British monarchy, and, more importantly, about the vulnerability of those in power. Like I said, everyone loves an underdog who overcomes and thrives in his or her new milieu, but even more so when it's someone who is in a position of great power.
And WW2 is involved. But will Americans, even those who are Academy voters, care that much about some boring British monarch with a speech impediment? I already don't. And I would hardly call the goddamn King of England an "underdog". Maybe it's just wishful thinking on my part, but I doubt the greatness of Inception will be hard to forget, even come Oscar time. 
Colin Firth looks pretty bored already. Not a good sign.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Review: The Square

Boring, even when wet.
This sloppy Aussie noir could have been a really great film; it gets off to an excellent start, but becomes lazy and uneven as things plunge to a finish.
Produced by many of the same blokes who recently brought us Animal Kingdom, it is in fact directed by Nash Edgerton, whose brother Joel played a supporting role in both films and helped write The Square. Understandably, it feels very much of the same cinematic universe.
The main problem is our blandly stoic protagonist. This is the second Australian film I've seen in as many weeks with a boringly morose hero who's expressionless visage and blank attitude make it very difficult to empathize with him. His face remains frozen in the way pictured above for almost every minute of the film. Additionally, and I don't think this is too much of a spoiler, he doesn't appear to really learn anything by the end of the story, and his constant grimace does not help. He has no arc, he just does things, then the movie ends. If we cannot sympathize or at least be entertained by the protagonist, then nothing else matters; the hero is the face, of the movie and if the face is nearly comatose, then so are we.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Review: Animal Kingdom

The short version is that writer/director David Michod's feature debut is an Australian answer to Goodfellas.
The long version is that Animal Kingdom is a lyrical, operatic, and beautifully brutal film about the unraveling of a Melbourne crime family, anchored by some brilliantly visceral performances.
The Codys are a family of bank robbers, mostly made up of adult children who've grown up in this life and know nothing else. We find the Cody clan as they grapple to stay one step ahead of the cops; the law in Melbourne has been driven to shooting gangsters unprovoked in broad day light in a desperate effort to clean up the city.
The family, in these waning days, consists of plucky, calculating matriarch 'Smurf' (charismatic Aussie vet Jackie Weaver, giving what might be the year's best performance) and her four grown, near-feral sons, who snarl and sun themselves like a pride of lions. The boys are given to fits of confused, frustrated rage as they feel the ravenous heat closing in on them, and a crushing paranoia settles on their psyches, particular that of 'Pope' (played with unsettling vulnerability by Ben Mendelsohn), the eldest and perhaps most vile.
The film begins with the estranged Cody sister dying of a heroin overdose, leaving her teenage son, Josh, with no place to go but into the care of his diabolically loving grandmother. Josh, or 'J', is clearly a reflection of what Smurf's sons once were, as they are a foreshadowing of what J might become if he follows in their lawless footsteps.
Played with constant restraint by newcomer James Frecheville, J provides provides us with a guide through the world of the film, but also presents its two main flaws. The teenager narrates for the first act or so to fill in some narrative gaps, but I didn't really find this necessary. It doesn't give us any essential information, and his delivery is crushingly monotone to the point of distraction. This brings me to the film's second flaw - Frecheville's performance itself. I can appreciate that J is meant to be an awkward, introverted kid and all, but the actor and director take it too far, and he just comes off as nearly comatose, which is not what you want, especially in a character that was so obviously added to the script in order to be an audience surrogate.
The boring protagonist aside, Animal Kingdom is an excellent film and a promising debut from young Aussie auteur Michod; the unique zeitgeist he evokes, and his virtuosic mastery of mood, tension, narrative momentum, indicate a cinematic master in the making.