The Essentials: December 2013 – Joel and Ethan Coen

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Editor’s Note: I had planned to finish up the Essentials feature for November today, with Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai’s film, 2046. However, upon re-watching the film in preparation of this column, it did not live up to the first viewing. I do not think that 2046 is one of Wong’s “essential” films, so I decided not to write a retrospective on it. It is easily the weakest (and most sprawling) of an informal trilogy from the director that began with Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love, which I have already written about in detail. Regardless, I hope you have enjoyed reading about one of my favourite filmmakers and check out those two films, as well as their masterwork Chungking Express.

Every month on The Balcony, I have explored one filmmaker through four of their best films in a featured called The Essentials. For each month, I alternate between an American director and a foreign filmmaker. In October, I focused on four of Sidney Lumet’s most essential films, and I just wrapped up a month on the films of Hong Kong’s cinematic treasure, Wong Kar-Wai.

In December, I will be focusing on not one, but two filmmakers. Together, Joel and Ethan Coen directed 16 films together; however, until 2004’s The Ladykillers, Joel received sole directing credit and Ethan was listed as producer. Their 16th picture, Inside Llewyn Davis, is set for a nationwide release in December and any serious Oscar prognosticator should expect at least a few nominations for it (early word suggests that it is an essential film indeed).

It is quite remarkable that the brothers Coen write, produce and direct a film as a team since each of their stories presents such a precise, singular vision. Joel and Ethan, two Jewish boys from Minnesota, grew up cinephiles and love to reinterpret classic genres that they love, from the western to the gangster picture, film noir to the musical comedy. Their films are full of indelible images, colourful dialogue, offbeat humour and, more often than not, the same collection of actors, such as John Turturro, Frances McDormand, John Goodman and George Clooney.

Joel and Ethan Coen often centre their films on folk heroes, from Jeff Bridges’ The Dude in The Big Lebowski to Frances McDormand’s gumption-filled cop, Marge Gunderson, in Fargo. They are two of the quintessential voices in American cinema and their works spread a wide terrain, from Hollywood to North Dakota to Mississippi to the Old West, often featuring memorable characters and deeply imbued national themes.

This December, I will be writing on four of Joel and Ethan Coen’s best films. I have seen them all, except for The Ladykillers and their forthcoming Inside Llewyn Davis, although choosing to explore just four seems unfair for such a terrific filmography.

  • December 6, 2013: Miller’s Crossing (1990)
  • December 13, 2013: Barton Fink (1991)
  • December 20, 2013: Film to be determined (either O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) or No Country for Old Men (2007))
  • December 27, 2013: A Serious Man (2009)

I apologize to any fans of The Big Lebowski for not covering that 1998 film. Although I do enjoy it, if you are a die-hard fan of that work, you can probably explain its triumphs better than I ever could.

Stay tuned!

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A Rant of Rhyme and Reason: 158 Million Reasons to Worry About Box Office Expectations

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This past weekend, the box office caught fire, so to speak. Catching Fire, the film adaptation that is a sequel to 2012’s The Hunger Games, broke box office records, with a $158.1 gross in the United States and Canada since opening on Thursday evening. Among them:

  • The biggest November opening of all time
  • The biggest opening weekend ever for a movie released outside of May or July
  • The most-attended opening weekend for any film in 2013 (Iron Man 3 made more money, but take off the 3D surcharges and Catching Fire sold more tickets)
  • The biggest opening weekend ever for a movie with a female protagonist

You would expect that the employees at Lions Gate Entertainment – a company that did not have a movie open to more than $42 million before last year – would be popping champagne and rolling in pools of money to celebrate. Instead, the company’s stock dropped 11 per cent at the New York Stock Exchange on Monday.

The reason: Even though the film broke records and will become the highest-grossing film in the company’s history when foreign totals are counted, the film missed the $175 million benchmark that some box office analysts had expected. So, ladies and gentleman, your film can shatter box office records, improve on the original’s tally and be the sixth highest opener in film history, but it is not considered a bona-fide success. Before July 2008, no film had ever reached $158 million in one weekend. 64 months later, that total is a disappointment.

This is a rather dismal reaction to a monumental success and it speaks to some major issues with Hollywood today. Studios are routinely criticized today for playing it safe, putting all of their resources behind franchises and properties that are familiar to ticket buyers, to increase the chance of a financial sure thing. However, the only times that studios are given real credit for a box office hit is when either one of these properties delivers a much higher opening than anticipated (like the first Hunger Games) or when a film not expected to break out at the box office does.

Six weeks before Catching Fire broke the November opening weekend record, Gravity broke the October opening weekend record. That was labeled a financial triumph because up until the film opened, box office analysts predicted a $35 million opening. It made $55.8 million in its first three days. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was a surefire blockbuster from day one; however, opening at a level slightly above its predecessor, even if it’s the sixth highest in history, does not receive the same enthusiasm.

This is the state of the movie business in North America: your film can make $158 million in three days – a total only 13 other films have made this year in their total box office – and it is not designated a success. It does not matter that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will outgross (at least, in North America) every Harry Potter and Twilight installment. It does not matter that the amount of money it will make worldwide could feed hundreds of thousands of children. If a film cannot explode beyond expectations, it is not worth fawning over. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire met its expectations. That was not good enough.

How is the film business supposed to react to such unrealistic expectations? When a studio cannot be pleased with a record-breaking opening, it is just another indicator that the studios care for little else than big box office receipts. It doesn’t matter that Catching Fire broke records. It matters instead that the film did not break ALL the records. Lions Gate should be thrilled that they produced a film that did not just make them hundreds of millions in mere days but that satisfied audiences (such as this critic). They are also behind summer hits like Now You See Me and Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, so the studio is in no need to panic. (Oh, and Catching Fire surpassed Now You See Me’s total gross after just two days in theatres.)

Right now would be a great time to buy shares of Lions Gate. The company will reap huge profits, especially given a growing middle-class audience in foreign markets. Catching Fire is also guaranteed to make more money in total than the original, when you bring in worldwide grosses to the mix. Take in the grosses from all other markets this weekend, and the film generated $307.7 million worldwide – 45 per cent stronger than the first film’s international opening.

It is disheartening that a studio cannot even celebrate a monumental success for what it is. Perhaps every studio that passed on adapting Collins’ series should drop their stock too, since they would be doing far better with this title in their collection. The notion that $158 million isn’t good enough is as scary as the economic situation depicted in the film. The movie, for the uninitiated, is about a competition where 24 characters fight each other to the death. More and more, the plot looks like a fair representation of a cutthroat studio system, where only the best of the best can be the victor.

Review Monday: 11/25/13 (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Nebraska, The Book Thief)

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (B+) is one of the best young adult novel adaptations in years. It is more riveting and prescient than any of the Harry Potter films, and doesn’t need to emphasize a love triangle (although one exists) to woo in audiences. There is emotional weight in every scene from this second installment of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy; in nearly every way, it is superior to the first film from director Gary Ross, which was solid but a bit too restrained to tackle such bloody subject matter.

With director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) behind the lens and a script from Oscar-winners Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy, the thrill ride begins long before the contestants enter the arena. The dueling conversations between the intrepid Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and the manipulative President Snow (Donald Sutherland) are just as riveting as the close calls of violence from the second half. Forget anyone who labels this as merely a Battle Royale with cheese.

When we first get a glimpse of Lawrence’s virile and now iconic heroine, Katniss is crouching in the woods, searching for game to feed her family. She looks commanding, but a few minutes later while on the hunt with buddy Gale (Liam Hemsworth), she sees something that startles her. It is all in her mind. Throughout Catching Fire, as Katniss goes through an emotional withdrawal, there is a deeper understanding of how the teen-on-teen violence actually cuts into the core of the victors. There is not much to savor for winning The Hunger Games. (For the uninitiated, the Games are a competition held in Panem each year between one girl and one boy from 12 districts, where the 24 opponents must fight to the death until a sole survivor remains.)

Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) won the 74th annual Hunger Games together to avoid a stalemate. Panem’s president is convinced that the winning maneuver between the two kids from District 12 was an act of defiance against the Capitol. Katniss, and the mockingjay insignia she wears, has inspired rebellion in the poor districts. If two teens could stand up and thwart the rules of the game, there is a greater chance that more people from places with a shattered economy can fight the garishly dressed leaders at the top. Here, the film’s social commentary shines.

Instead of meeting solemn faces during a tour of the districts, Katniss and Peeta see riots. Security guards execute people who give them the victors a mockingjay salute. (Here, the film seems more in tune with the dismal reality of people under a totalitarian rule and in a despaired economy.) President Snow counter-moves, announcing that the 75th Hunger Games will feature two representatives, one male and one female, from each district who have already won a Hunger Games tournament. This brings Katniss and Peeta back into the battlefield to wage war on 22 other victors.

Catching Fire is just as exciting as Collins’ best-selling trilogy of books. There is an urgency and intensity to the storytelling, with so much at stake and in peril. Again at the helm of this superb entertainment is Jennifer Lawrence, who brings gravitas and depth to the fiery heroine. The rest of the cast, including Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson and Jeffrey Wright, comes up a winner – except, strangely enough, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman doesn’t have much of a personality as gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee, and he looks even more limp in the role given how invested the rest of the cast is in the dystopian drama.

Director Lawrence moves away from Gary Ross’s documentary realism that both grounded the drama and jarred the action in the first film. He instead puts an emphasis on the epic qualities (and inequalities) that make Collins’ trilogy such a brisk, intense read. However, what catapults Catching Fire ahead of its predecessor is not just the performances, but also the urgency of the storytelling. Beaufoy and Arndt understand the similarities between Collins’ dystopia and a world still reaping the remains of a fragile economy.

The scenes of thwarted rebellion toward the start have a tint of Occupy Wall St. to them, and appropriately, the moments of chaos within the districts are more brutal and raw than the sequences of violence during the Hunger Games competition. The screenwriters understand that the real fight is happening outside of the arena, while they keep the pace brisk by cutting down the love triangle that padded the first half of the book. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a supremely entertaining and deeply satisfying thriller, a film that raises the stakes, as well as the social commentary that punctuated Collins’ novel.

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As usual, some of my film reviews are now up on entertainment website We Got This Covered. This past week, I got to see Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (B+), a heartfelt and hilarious ode to the heartland, and The Book Thief (C), a bland adaptation of a terrific bestseller. You can check out those reviews by clicking the film titles above.

The Essentials: In the Mood for Love (2000)

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“On your own, you are free to do lots of things. Everything changes when you marry. It must be decided together.” – Chow (Tony Leung)

In the Mood for Love is a ravishing, scintillating film about desire that does not ever reach an apex where either the male or female acts on their sexual impulses. In this regard, it is a patient film and an anti-climactic one – any new viewer not used to Wong’s themes and languid pacing may walk away disappointed. At the same time, there probably has not been a sexier film to come out this century, even without any big moment of public (or private) affection between the leads (played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung).

It is the indirect second chapter in a trilogy about love and longing that began with Days of Being Wild, which I discussed last week, and concludes with 2046, which I will examine next Friday. Maggie Cheung’s character from Days of Being Wild is named Su Li-zhen, the same name as her character in this film. Tony Leung appears in the last scene of Days of Being Wild, as his character was originally supposed to be the protagonist in a follow-up to Wong’s 1990 film. Ironically, he appears in what film scholars later categorized as a second chapter.

In the Mood for Love bears many similarities with Days of Being Wild: it takes place in early 1960s Hong Kong, about a blossoming romance that never reaches a state of bloom, and features various clocks, scenes of gloomy, rainy weather, and an expressive colour scheme. Su and Mr. Chow (Leung) both move into a cramped tenement building on the same day. They are next-door neighbours who often bump into each other by the noodle stall outside their apartment, where they walk, drifting and alone, to pick up dinner before their spouse returns home from work.

He is a journalist who writes martial arts serials as a hobby. She is a secretary for a shipping company. His wife and her husband are often working overseas. Chow and Su find each other’s company reassuring, but the two of them are suspicious that their partners are having affairs. Slowly, the two of them start finding an attraction to each other, as well as a pertinence not to descend to the levels of their absent spouses. Although their relationship is discreet, Chow and Su know that in a conservative 1960s Hong Kong, friends and neighbours may misconstrue the boundaries of their relationship. They decide to meet each other in secret, ensuring they do not arouse suspicion.

With this drama, Wong reteams with cinematographer Christopher Doyle (working with Ping Bin Lee) and set and costume designer William Chang, creating a scalding atmosphere. This friendship-turned-romance of repressed desires aches even more since the costumes and lighting are so bright and colourful. The emotions of the characters displace themselves on apartment wallpaper, in cigarette smoke and with the tempests of rain that douse an empty Hong Kong. Nearly every frame of the film is colourful, pressing the lack of sexual consummation even more into the audience’s face.

Wong cramps the action by using tight framing, focusing on the hips swaying – the on-the-floor pose of the camera in many interior scenes is reminiscent of Ozu – and lingers on the close encounters between Chow and Su with slow-motion. The slow-motion makes the characters float through the scenes, contributing to the film’s (and Wong’s signature) dream-like beauty.

The colours and designs on Su’s neck-sleeved dresses – she wears a new one in each scene to emphasize the passage of time – are also a reflection of her psychological state. In the first scene, where she is married and happy, they have an elegant rose design. When her husband abandons her and she suspects an affair, her dress colours become more neutral – blacks, whites, greens. As she slowly falls for Chow, the dresses take on warmer colours, like strawberry reds. When her emotions are conflicted near the end, the colour scheme of her costume is quite vibrant and filled with mixed colours. Her tight dresses and his fashionable suits are important, as a representation of their inability to break free from societal conventions. They are dressed elegantly, but they are unable to undress inelegantly.

Like Wong’s other films, In the Mood for Love relies on popular music to set the tone of the characters and their moods; here, the mournful cello of Yumeji’s Theme, and the soulful whirlwind of Nat King Cole wafts above the solace and repressed seduction. Just as the pacing of Days of Being Wild reflected the characters’ frivolous nature, In the Mood for Love is lush and languid. Unattached to his or her own spouse, there is a reluctance between Su and Chow to retreat into romance. Instead of initiating a relationship, the two end up playing the role of each other’s partner: Chow sits with her and role plays the moment where she eventually confronts her husband about her affair; Su makes him a pot full of sesame syrup upon hearing that he is ill.

In the Mood for Love may frustrate audiences used to see an emotionally cathartic finale to a ‘will-they-or-won’t-they’ scenario. In the last scene, Chow visits an abandoned Cambodian temple and whispers his feelings (unheard by the audience) into a crevice before sealing it with mud, a reference to a legend Chow talks about earlier. It is a tragic and anti-climactic, but very fitting ending.

In the Mood for Love is on the instant shortlist of the best films ever made about an unfulfilled romance, like a quieter, more tantalizing version of Brief Encounter. Casting a spell through dreamy imagery, terrific performances and an evocative musical score, it remains a milestone of the director’s oeuvre and one of the most beloved, yet stylistically and thematically irreplaceable, films of this century.

A Rant of Rhyme and Reason: Fade to Black for Syd Field (1935-2013)

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This past Sunday, I concluded a six-month preparation process for my feature-length screenplay. Since the beginning of May, I read books for research and film screenplays for reference, took hundreds of pages of notes and compiled this information into character biographies, plot points and setting details. This journey to sit down and spend many hours pursuing the epitome of any serious film enthusiast’s interest – a feature-length screenplay – was initially guided by a man whose books about writing a screenplay made him a towering figure in the American film community.

His name is Syd Field. On Sunday, the same day that I finished the preparation for my screenplay, Field died from hemolytic anemia at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 77.

Nearly everyone who has considered writing a screenplay owes something to Field. He is a writing teacher who made a career out of teaching impressionable film lovers how to come up with compelling stories, characters and fulfill a three-act “paradigm.” His approach to the script has taught writers like Judd Apatow, Frank Darabont, James Cameron and Tina Fey, and his eight guides to the written filmic word (including his famed Screenplay, from 1979) have been used in more than 400 colleges and universities around the world.

Despite his legacy, aspiring writers (included me) routinely criticized Field for his strict rules. He emphasized sticking to a rigid story structure, above everything else. The firmness of his rules stated that certain aspects of the story must happen on such-and-such a page, without any leeway. His strict rules turned me off from this hobby when I read The Screen-writer’s Handbook, which I considered to be more of a manual than a guide.

The directness of how he lays out what kinds of actions, scenes and character reveals should be on which page intimidated me astoundingly. It cannot be that every screenplay follows this exact formula. Many do not. Whereas most writers look at their work as art, Field saw it as a craft with rules that the writer could not afford to break.

If we must abide strictly to Field’s demands, of pacing our initial incident on page 15, our first plot point on the 27th to 29th page, etc., where does the fun in telling the stories go? Some films begin right from the initial incident (the event that spurs the character to action) or are told out of chronological order. Some films omit the major events and show them off-screen to great effect. Today, moviegoers and critics are likely to praise films that eschew the regular conventions of character and story structure.

In addition, why should a writer trust a man who was never able to sell any of his own screenplays? The most common (and easiest) complaint lobbed at Field was that if someone wants to succeed in the film business, they would be better off following the instructions of a true scribe like William Goldman or Robert McKee instead of a failed writer.

However, cracking open The Screen-writer’s Handbook after Field’s recent death, I am drawn to the intelligence and insight that guide the paradigm he preaches. He does not just spit out a workmanlike structure to turn all writers into hacks, as his detractors would claim, but gleans the ‘paradigm’ model from the large number of scripts he read.

Field’s guides shows how good, clean writing should be set up. You can put as much preparation as you can into creating interesting characters, but if their lives don’t change with the general rhythm of a story (with an initial incident, two major plot points and a midpoint), it is likely that you will lose the audience. It may be a challenge to adhere with Field’s paradigm, but it is a greater challenge to ignore it entirely.

All films rely on a structure, and the stories from the best ones are so absorbing and ingenious that we do not see the gears in the story turning. Unconvincing plot points, underdeveloped characters, and forced exposition and dialogue are common criticisms for any poor film – and that extends from screenwriters refusing to use the rules Field set. A good story becomes a great story due to the structure; hence, structure is key to strong storytelling.

Anyone with an interest in writing films may feel burdened by Field’s rules. However, in a market filled with good and bad storytellers, the ones who abide closest to the lessons Field teaches are, undeniably, in better hands. Those who ridicule Field’s formula as a step toward leading film students to an uninspired work do not realize the importance of conventions. Writers need to perfect the structure before going to work on a story. The rules are rigid for a reason: almost all good films follow them.

Field’s story could come in the form of a two-hour film. He began as a rocky, failed writer with several unpublished scripts, found his way in the middle reading thousands of scripts submitted to a production company he worked for and found a calling as an instructor, lecturer and author, and finally, an ending where hundreds of great writers toast him for inspiring a strict adherence to both the craft and the art of the written word.

He taught us that writing was a craft that we could learn and master over time. So, let us raise a toast to Syd, one of the most influential and misunderstood film gurus of our generation.