Saturday, November 24, 2012

Movies, Good and Bad

One of the toxic tendencies of contemporary American culture is towards stereotyping: you’ve seen them, the goofy professor, the sanctimonious minister, the donut-addicted cop, the bumbling senior citizen, the gum-chewing waitress, the brushy redneck—I won’t go on. It is a province of the entertainment industry to suppress creative and original ideas, so many “artists” resort to trite characters and clichéd dialogue. The rare instances when we actually see originality and uniqueness in television or movie productions are short lived.

I’m thinking of “Picket Fences,” a wonderful quirky television series that introduced Jack Black to the public as a kid who followed stage productions of “Cats” and, in costume, subtly crept into the performance until he was noticed and ejected by the director. Another example of quirky excellence is the movie, “No Country for Old Men,” an artistic flash in the pan. Similarly, one of the most magnificent films of the last couple of decades was Kenneth Branagh’s monumental rendition of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” That project avoided triteness and stereotypes like the devil avoids holy water.

While there was a bit of toxicity such as nudity and drugs in the recent movie “Flight,” the characterization and direction were flawless. Denzel Washington proved once again that he is a master actor, a chameleon who becomes the personality he portrays. And the character of “Whip” could not have been an easy one for him: a coke snorting alcoholic pilot who works a miracle in landing a mechanically flawed passenger jet. Whip exhibits no integrity at all until the final scene of the movie and yet he is believable throughout.

This complex character is anything but a stereotype, thank goodness, and Director Robert Zemeckis exploits the ironic nature of the plot, narrative and action, often to the level of Alfred Hitchcock.  And, he exploits his digital know-how brilliantly. A cigarette smoking cancer patient, a little girl in the elevator, a little boy at a funeral tell a deep story of their own. Zemeckis attends to detail in directing or in “touching up” digitally.

Compare this excellent cinematic accomplishment to the almost completely clichéd “Lincoln” and you will see what I mean. Even though Zemeckis went to school to “Lincoln” director Spielberg, he has most assuredly surpassed his mentor. He knows that the finest art covers up art and such knowledge, as practiced in “Flight,” makes it a tour de force of great magnitude, while “Lincoln” strikes me as little more than a documentary with feigned sincerity.

Film makers should not forget that they are supposed to tell a story. Technological gimmickry is a good thing as long as it contributes to the narrative and does not distract from it by becoming an end in itself. “Inception” is an example of great effects but little story. “Matrix” is a little better but not much.

Then there is the example of films that try to tell too many stories. “Lincoln” did that, as did the latest “Batman” movie. Even thrillers like “Skyfall” and “The Expendables” pull themselves apart by losing the focus of one central narrative. I enjoy movies that tell manageable stories and that avoid triteness.

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