Friday, July 29, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: Hayao Miyazaki (Castle in the Sky)

Tech-savvy warlords battle each other in the air while humble farmers toil on the ground.  Workers tell tales about huge buildings in the clouds, though most are too afraid to travel outside their village.  The villagers rely on a rare crystal whose power can be easily misused for violent purposes.  A young, adventure loving princess is one of the few who can harness the power of the crystal, but that doesn’t stop a number of warring factions from attempting to use the mineral for their own selfish needs.  One such villain plans to use the crystal to activate a series of long-dormant, hulking robot beasts that are rumored to live in a castle in the sky.

If the plot of Castle in the Sky (1986) sounds a little familiar, it’s because the film is only a slight variation on Hayao Miyazaki’s previous movie, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984).  Once again there is a collision between a peaceful, old-fashioned village and a series of warring, high-tech societies.  Once again there is an environmental theme, which is once again expressed through a heroic princess who is the only one can utilize nature’s power to a righteous end.  Once again there are arrogant, power-hungry warlords who want to use a natural power to devious ends.  And once again those villains want to seize their power by activating ancient, destructive beasts.

Miyazaki’s third feature is largely a remake of his second, albeit with some noticeable cosmetic changes.  But Castle in the Sky does mark a genuine improvement over Nausicaa (and Miyazaki’s first film, 1979’s Castle of Cagliostro) in the sense that there are no completely extraneous characters.  Every major figure in the film has something to do, and even if the heroine and her male sidekick/chaste romantic interest have scarcely more personality than Princess Nausicaa, at least they each have a complete character arc.  And some of the supporting characters are genuinely eccentric.  A family of shy, bumbling sky pirates, led into combat by their domineering, clown-haired matriarch, keep the film lively even as the plot goes through the “fantasy 101” motions.  Even the most ill-defined of the film’s major characters, a villainous army general, has a clear function in the plot, so it doesn’t seem like a waste of the film’s generous running time to feature him in scenes the way that it did with, say,  the master swordsman in Nausicaa.

Castle in the Sky does have a few of the impressively large action set pieces that we’ve come to expect from Miyazaki.  The master animator boldly opens the film deep in the middle of the action, with the princess being chased through a giant air ship by the sky pirates, as if this was a late chapter in an ongoing serial and not the beginning of a children’s film.  A massacre that occurs when one of the aforementioned robots is unleashed is genuinely intense and brutal, with Miyazaki grippingly building the intensity by continuously increasing the scope and scale of the destruction until the screen is virtually filled with blood-red fire.  But overall Castle in the Sky, like Nausicaa, is too convoluted, lumbering, and lengthy to be consistently thrilling.  The ambitious, wide-canvas style that Miyazaki is quickly turning into his signature style does give Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky a truly epic feel, but its easy to miss the fleet-footedness and insouciant wit of Castle of Cagliostro, which remains Miyazaki’s most enjoyable film to this point.

UP NEXT  My Neighbor Totoro

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: The Mystery of Picasso

Year of Release  1956
Country  France
Length  75 min.
Director  Henri-Georges Clouzot
Cinematographer  Claude Renoir
Editor  Henri Colpi
Original Score  Georges Auric
Cast  Pablo Picasso

Beauty  A documentary in which Pablo Picasso creates twenty one-of-a-kind drawings, paintings, and collages obviously meets the basic beauty requirements for a masterpiece.  The Mystery of Picasso’s novel yet low-key approach to presenting those pieces of art  – Picasso creates each of his works on a special transparent canvas that fills the screen, allowing the viewer to watch the artist’s inspiration in action – is what makes it so spellbinding and delightful.  While there understandably isn’t anything on the level of, say, Guernica in this batch of artworks, each piece is nonetheless gorgeous and distinctive.  It’s a pleasure to watch a vague germ of an idea transform into something completely different by the time Picasso is satisfied with it (or tired of it).

Strangeness  Supposedly all of the pieces created for The Mystery of Picasso were burned immediately after filming, so that they would only exist for the movie.  If there is any truth to this bit of trivia, then the film is unique and special simply for containing these artworks by one of the world’s great masters.  Even if the pieces are out there in somebody’s private collection, as some scholars allege, the film still holds value for demonstrating in minute detail Picasso’s process.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  By essentially turning the screen into Picasso’s canvas, Henri-Georges Clouzot allows viewers the greatest possible opportunity to see a master at work.  The first few drawings are shown developing literally stroke-for-stroke, while the latter pieces employ smartly timed jump cuts to trace the evolution of some of the more ambitious pieces.  Clouzot also changes the film’s aspect ratio as Picasso moves onto larger works, bringing a welcome dramatic flair to this stylistically modest documentary.  The process of creation has perhaps never been as viscerally realized as it is in Clouzot’s film.

Tradition  Clouzot actually wasn’t the first to film Picasso’s works in action.  A Belgian film called Visit to Picasso (1949), which I haven’t seen, features the artist painting images on glass plates from the viewpoint of the camera.  That said, it’s hard to come up with any contemporary equivalents of Clouzot’s documentary.  Stan Brakhage’s shorts in which he painted directly onto film strips seem like The Mystery of Picasso’s closest relatives.

Repeatability  Art history students and aspiring painters could probably learn a lot from rewatching Clouzot’s film.  Or perhaps not; despite the film’s introductory voiceover suggesting that we only need to watch Picasso’s brushstrokes to understand what he’s thinking, the artist’s seemingly improvisatory technique isn’t really any easier to grasp by the end of the film.  The brief interludes where Picasso takes a break and has brief discussions with Clouzot don’t really shed any light on the artist’s process, and mostly serve to disrupt the film’s flow.

Viewer Engagement  It may not ultimately give viewers any real insight into what made its titular artist tick, but The Mystery of Picasso is a highly enjoyable and lovely film that offers a rare and fascinating glimpse of a great artist at work.

Morality  Part of the point of The Mystery of Picasso seems to be that half of Picasso’s genius was in simply putting in the work.  The emphasis on process, and the (sometimes stroke-by-stroke) evolution of the works of art onscreen suggests reasonably that Picasso was not magically imbued with talent, but that he became a great artist by constantly trying new things and pursuing each of his ideas to their logical end.  Unfortunately, Clouzot’s film occasionally seems divided against itself, with Georges Auric’s incongruously pompous musical score frequently aiming for a tone that suggests that the work being shown on screen is some sort of transmission from the gods.  The film would’ve been better off if Clouzot didn’t take his occasional awkward half-measures toward attempting to explain Picasso’s talent, and simply let the works of art speak for themselves.

The Mystery of Picasso fails the Masterpiece Test

UP NEXT  A more ambitious and biographical look at an artist, Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season Four, Discs Two, Three & Four)

Episodes covered:  Tar Baby, Insurgents, Hurt, Cut Throat, String Theory, Back in the Hole, A Thousand Deaths, Judas Priest, Ain’t That a Shame

It is a mark of The Shield’s unpredictable plotting that season four’s major storyline’s reach their dramatic climax not in the season finale (“Ain’t That a Shame”), but in the extended-length tenth episode “Back in the Hole.”  At times, the series’ messy, cases-piling-on-top-of-each-other style of storytelling can be frustrating, as certain plot elements seem to get short thrift or disappear altogether in favor of unnecessarily repetitive character arcs or insignificant standalone cases.  But the busy layering of plots also gives the series a lifelike pacing that contrasts nicely with its amped-up action movie tone, and allows the storylines to organically reach the dramatic high points that make “Back in the Hole” The Shield’s best episode to this point.

The payoff was particularly strong for season four’s two most prominent new characters, Monica Rawling and Antwan Mitchell.  It is a testament to Glenn Close and Anthony Anderson’s fully lived-in performances that these new faces were able to suggest enough personal history to make their ferociously intense interrogation sequence in “Back in the Hole” feel like the culmination of four seasons of character-building rather than ten episodes of plotting.  The writers spent the middle part of the season turning Antwan into a disappointingly typical villain (particularly in the final scene of “Tar Baby,” where his moustache-twirling murder of a young girl informant didn’t jibe with the much more ambiguous community leader we’d been introduced to at the beginning of the season), but the full complexity of the character immediately clicks into place during his interrogation.  As Rawling picks away at Antwan’s psychological defenses, reminding him of his years as a powerless abused child, tears well up in the gang leader’s eyes, and suddenly this charismatic cypher feels like a real, complicated human being.

Though Rawling’s grilling of Antwan is ruthless, it is clear that her desire to put him behind bars is based on a sincere and passionate desire for justice.  It is impressive that Close and the writers never turned Rawling into a villain, even though she was essentially the Dick Cheney figure in this season’s blunt Iraq war metaphor.  Her zero-tolerance, morally inflexible tactics represent a different type of corruption than the ass-covering, bending-the-rules modus operandi of the rest of The Shield’s ethically ambiguous characters, and the show was able to get a lot of mileage out of the collision of her well-meaning brand of injustice and the other characters’ more self-serving forms of moral turpitude. 

While season four’s new major characters provided a riveting counterpoint to the established players, the development of many of the show’s longer running storylines had a mixed success rate.  It was interesting to see the Strike Team working separately and at odds at the beginning of the season, especially during the stretch where Shane was essentially functioning as the dark mirror version of Vic (just as ethically compromised but with less competence).  But the writers quickly dropped the storyline about Antwan blackmailing Shane into killing Vic in favor of the more familiar and less tense storyline of the Strike Team coming together to get Shane out of his mess.  The fact that the old team wound up working together for most of the season despite technically being assigned to different precincts undercut the power of their tenuous reconciliation at the end of the season, and also made the introduction of Shane’s vice squad partner Army seem borderline pointless.  Here’s hoping that if Army  returns in season five, the writers find something for Michael Pena to do, because he was largely wasted as Shane’s lackey.

The Strike Team has always been The Shield’s most problematic partnership, and over the years they’ve largely proven less interesting than the Barn’s other teams.  Dutch and Claudette’s season-long investigation of a series of convenience store crimes wasn’t terribly compelling in and of itself, but it did provide a stable framework for exploiting the tension that had been growing in their partnership since late in season three.  The payoff in “Ain’t That a Shame,” which found Dutch turning down a promotion in favor of sticking by Claudette, even though her morally uncompromising ways make the partners the outcasts of the Barn, was truly the culmination of four years of smart character-building.

Danny and Julian were very much in the background of season four, and mostly functioned as representatives of opposing viewpoints about Rawling’s property seizure policies.  It was perfectly in character for Danny, who has always shown a reactionary streak, to support Rawling’s no-nonsense style.  Julian’s turn from na├»ve support to principled opposition of the property seizures was equally organic, and the definitive turning point – the police raid on an in-session church that was harboring drug paraphernalia in “Insurgents” – was one of the season’s most gripping moments.  Fortunately, Danny and Julian share a certain respectful bond that transcends politics, as seen in the quietly moving moment when Julian is the only cop who shows up to tend to a recovering-from-a-shooting Danny in “Ain’t That a Shame.”  While it might have been nice to see more of Michael Jace this season, it was something of a relief to see the writers lay off of his ongoing struggle with his sexuality, which had become tiresome and one-note in season three.

Another somewhat tedious element of the previous season of The Shield was the Aceveda rape storyline, which the writers ingeniously wound up justifying by making it an integral part of the political complications that ultimately undercut Rawling’s investigation of Antwan by allowing the One-Niners leader to make a deal with the DEA.  I’m not sure that the show needed so many scenes of Aceveda enacting rape fantasies with a high-class hooker – the scenes felt equally like excuses to give Benito Martinez something to do and desperate grabs for controversy – but the payoff in “Back in the Hole,” which found Aceveda basically reenacting a version of his rape where he was the one in charge, was powerfully executed.  Better yet, the councilman’s decision to move on from his humiliation at all costs led to some interesting plot complications in the final three episodes of the season, where Aceveda basically hired Antwan to kill his rapist in exchange for a deal with the DEA. 

The political complications that ensued – with Rawling and Vic racing to capture a Salvadoran drug dealer before Antwan could testify against him – featured the series’ most intricate and exciting plotting since its two part season one finale.  But really the fourth season took the sophisticated action movie feel of those two hours and maintained it for an entire season, making this the most consistently satisfying season so far.  There is still the sense that the writers are consciously avoiding pushing the series’ overarching storylines too far ahead – I’m not sure that Terry Crowley has even been mentioned since season two, and the Armenian Money Train thing seems to have definitively ended in season three – but by focusing explicitly on the ways that the Barn’s policies fail the community of Farmington, season four got to the heart of the show’s themes in a way that previous season’s only did sporadically.  And with Rawling’s Internal Affairs guy digging up some definitive dirt on the Strike Team at the end of “Ain’t That a Shame,” it’s only a matter of time before Vic starts to real feel the results of his past actions.

Quick Thoughts:

-  The storyline involving Dutch dating Vic’s ex-wife seemed promising when it started, but did not pay off.

-  I also wish that the Barn’s overly forceful raid of the church would’ve led to greater consequences.  We saw that the media had picked up a damning freeze frame of a smiling Vic tackling a churchgoing One-Niner, but the outrage surrounding this incident was never really explored and mostly felt like an abstraction.

-  While there were some plot elements that didn’t fully pay off, it was nice to at least see the show drastically downplaying the standalone cases this season, with most of the police work relating in some way to the asset-forfeiture storyline.

-  I recommend checking out the documentary on disc four.  It provides a lot of interesting insights into Glenn Close's working methods, and details the surprisingly complicated evolution of a memorably profane line of dialogue in "Back in the Hole."