February 12, 2011

An Unexamined Battle Scene Is not Worth Viewing

The biggest problem with cinematic battle scenes today is that they don't have a perspective.

Gladiator is the film that most comes to mind. Also Braveheart, and the abysmal Troy and Alexander. In these movies, the primary purpose of the staged conflicts seems to be a Peckinpah-esque revelry in blood and guts, as well as an "isn't it cool how that guy killed the other guy" sensibility catering to the Grand Guignol set.

In other words, a lot of posing and yelling, but little substance. That contrasts greatly with the best cinematic battle scenes, which always have something to say.

Mind you, such commentary doesn't have to be anti-war. In fact, oftentimes, it isn't. Alexander Nevsky's frozen fight is exhilarating. So is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King's massive (and beautifully directed) orc-a-thon, which incites viewers to cheer against the forces of evil. And Kwaidan's otherworldly boat contest in which the Heike clan meets its doom is like some gorgeous scene from a Kuniyoshi print.

All of these movie battles provide superb direction, varying camera angles and beautiful cinematography. That's not to say that they encourage viewers to enjoy the splattering of blood; instead, they make you care, involving you in the decisions and the developments leading up to them.

Here is my list of the greatest battle scenes in film, in no particular order:

Alexander Nevsky: Still the top, owing to a combination of logistics and sheer cinematic skill
Ran: perhaps the greatest anti-war battle scenes ever depicted on film; confusing, sad and powerful
Chimes at Midnight: brutal, anti-war banging of maces in the mud--terrific Wellesian comment
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: CGI used in the best possible way
Kwaidan: like a painting, both gorgeous and disturbing
Kagemusha: you don't really see the fighting in the climactic battle, but you do see the results. Brilliantly anti-war; an assault on the waste of life
Red Cliff: nicely handled direction of a popular tale, with a bit of preternatural powers thrown in to support the good-versus-evil thrust

February 08, 2011

Do I Have to Watch the Oscars This Year?

I still have nightmares about that dreadful "dance" number en hommage to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen on the Academy Awards so many years ago.

Did we really need to see people in fancy dress fall all over themselves--literally--for the sake of "comedy"? And the movie wasn't that broad, was it?

It's the prospect of viewing travesties such as this that makes me wary of turning on the Oscars later this month. Another factor is the thought of seeing great films not get the attention they deserve. (That's right: I still haven't gotten over why Pan's Labyrinth didn't win Best Picture.)

Sure, there are delights to be noshed on, such as Akira Kurosawa's speech after winning an honorary Oscar more than 20 years ago. But I'm not sure it's worth getting through the dross to find the diamonds.

Heck, I liked The King's Speech a lot, but is it really a Best Picture-type of movie?

Then again, is Braveheart?

I'm just hoping there's no pseudo-period "dancing."

January 23, 2011

In Classical Music We Cineastes Trust

I'm starting once more unto the breach with The King's Speech, but this time from an angle that I forgot to cover in my previous post.

One of the biggest reasons Colin Firth's speech at the end of the film was so successful, in my opinion, was that it was tied to a bit of music from the old Ludwig van: specifically, the brooding second movement of his Seventh Symphony.

Of course, the segment was edited superbly, cut to convey a tenseness that helped drive the scene. But without that second movement, would it have been so great?

I don't think so. Which leads me to think about other films that have been so inextricably tied to masterpieces of classical music.

You've got to start, methinks, with Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II. That's kind of like cheating, though--Eisenstein brilliantly melded Prokofiev's sublime scores to his films, which were a perfect fit right off the bat.

But what about something like "Il Mio Tesoro" from Mozart's Don Giovanni being used in Kind Hearts and Coronets? I can't think of that film without thinking of the aria, which threads the flick like a serpent. Or the ominous use of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony in Carol Reed's Odd Man Out, which sets the tone as two of James Mason's cronies wait in a "friend's" living room before being betrayed?

These moments are just as important to the contexts of these films...and wouldn't have been so without the help of certain masterpieces of classical music.

We can always go back to 2001: a Space Odyssey, with its famous use of music by two Strausses. But again--that's kind of easy; those works, though not expressly created for the film, are now nearly impossible to think about without it. And composer's biographies are out, too--especially any Ken Russell bizarre-o-thon--owing to the natural link of the music to the movies.

I guess what I'm talking about are the more unheralded, but no less vital, choices. The use of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana in the opening of Raging Bull and the final scene of The Godfather, Part III, for example. Or the Ravel chamber music in Un Coeur en Hiver. Or the use of the prelude to Act I of Wagner's Lohengrin in The Great Dictator, where Chaplin plays with the world.

Were these pieces made for these films without actually being made for them? Did the directors have the same aesthetic sensibilities as the composers?

I wonder if they were all part of each other in previous lives.

January 16, 2011

Speaking the 'Speech,' Firth, Rush Shine

Even though I knew The King's Speech would be entertaining, it wasn't a movie I was jumping to see.

Part of the problem was the subject (not the king's, ha, ha, but the movie's), which seemed, to my mind, rather a strange, trivial focus. It was almost as if the filmmakers were homing in on minutiae, rather than the important elements of the period (such as World War II), while producing what appeared to be an Oscar-targeted picture featuring components generally regarded as being agreeable to voters (kings, an early 20th century setting, fine British actors, etc.).

What I didn't know--and I chalk this up to my own ignorance--was that the speech impediment so painfully navigated by Britain's King George VI (portrayed with literal tripping on the tongue by Colin Firth) played such a large role in the political and social climate of wartime England. This was evidenced by Firth's climactic, halting but well-paced radio speech at the end, which established a confidence in me that I supposed was mirrored in the confidence of British listeners at the time. That's not just cosmetic; it's a resonance that I expect served to inspire.

And oh, yeah: The good guys won that war.

Directed by Tom Hooper, the film suggests that the king's impediment wouldn't have been soothed without the help of one Lionel Logue, a not-at-all-board-approved speech specialist played by the Geoffrey Rush with deft charm and sensitivity. I was somewhat disappointed that there wasn't more time spent on the "unorthodox" methods employed by Logue on the King, and that the movie seems to emphasize their sessions less than their results. The chemistry between the two actors, however, is wonderful, beautifully conveying the awkwardness of a commoner-king relationship that is absent in the romantic pairing of the king's brother (Guy Pearce, good as usual) with the not-very-royal (or demure, for that matter) Wallis Simpson (a strong but underused Eve Best).

Speech, to its credit, conveys all of these politically charged developments without resorting to facile pageantry, though I can't call the film a masterpiece, despite the deceptive nature of its scope. It's just not innovative or risky enough, and certain scenes felt clipped, as if the viewer wasn't getting everything. Still, after watching it, I didn't ask myself, "What was the reason for seeing this," as I'd do after a typical Coen Brothers movie. The strength of Rush's and Firth's portrayals, among others, drives the film, and this helps it last in the memory. That's a far-reaching achievement, and come Oscar time, it may help this picture move to the forefront among voters.