August 21, 2006

Ready to Retire

When I was in Winnipeg last week I had a chance to sit down with my collaborators and screen a draft of our latest film, Retired. (Yes, we've come to our senses and returned to the traditional spelling. Not sure what we were thinking.) And the film looks fabulous. I mean, it's beautiful. Given the fact that the single location is a tire warehouse, you'd expect it to be drab and colourless with those awful overhead warehouse fluorescents. But it's visually very interesting. There's a depth of colour and texture and atmosphere that I hadn't anticipated.

Director Bevan Klassen came up with some interesting choices, (suggested, at least in part, by the evocative writing, of course). Cinematographer Steven Morrisson really stood on his head this time out, and his work will be done justice in glorious 35mm on the big screen come festival time.

Winnipeg's own Christine Fellows is hard at work on the score, which should be completed in the next couple of weeks. The cut I saw had temp music, bits and pieces, experiments in sound which hint at the final score to come. Haunting cello and her signature piano sound. I can't wait to hear what she comes up with. Should be wonderful.

I've spent a fair amount of time with our producer and director lamenting the state of narrative film represented in Canadian festivals in recent years, which seem to celebrate the edgy and audacious over those that actually endeavour to tell a story. It remains to be seen how this film will be received, but it is more edgy and dark than our last film. In a way. I'd call it a black comedy, if it wasn't so disturbing. It feels festival friendly.

Someone recently asked me if it this film was autobiographical. My knee-jerk reaction was to say, no, not this time. But then they asked me how I'd come up with the title, and I said, "Well, when I was fifteen I worked at the local service station, primarily in the tire shop. And my boss was this very affable man who had little catch-phrases for everything. He knew and loved his customers, kind of like this guy Doug in the film, and if he knew his customer needed new tires he'd ask them if they were ready to retire..."

I may have to adopt Hemingway's retort to a reporter who asked him if a particular story was autobiographical. He said, "Isn't everything?"

August 02, 2006

Dog Days of Summer

Well, summer is about half over and what have we learned so far? Besides that there might be something to this whole global warming thing after all.

The summer blockbusters keep on marching out in lockstep every weekend. Some do as they're expected to do and others don't. Some are good, and some are not so good. None are horrible, out-right bad or laughable. None are great. At least none I've seen. The worst you can say about most films in this corporatized Hollywood age is that they're bland. Not much to love, not much to hate. Hard to feel anything about movies lately. I still get a swell of emotion as the house lights go down, just before the string of crass candy and automobile commercials come up, then a short surge of anticipation during the previews, but the feature presentation leaves me feeling... not much.

I tried to be optimistic about Superman Returns, I really did. I wanted to like it. I wanted it to be a modern myth, a film I would see again and again as time went by, something I might show my son one day, in the event that I have a son one day. But now, six weeks later, virtually nothing from that film has stuck with me. Kevin Spacey was lame as Lex Luthor, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The usual plot involving a hard-to-come-by piece of Kryptonite, and a dubious usage of crystal Lex borrows from The Fortress of Solitude after walking through the front door unchallenged. Brandon Routh was passable as Christopher Reeve, which, I guess makes him a decent Superman. I dared to hope for something more; I hoped for a new Superman, someone... I don't know, heroic.

It took the better part of two decades, dozens of writers, hundreds of drafts of screenplays, a bevy of A-list talent and $260 million to get a new Superman movie into the megaplexes. I don't think it's even made back it's staggering budget yet. Time will tell if we see more of Superman in the future. There's a plot point in the film that anticipates another sequel, but I'm not sure there's an audience for it.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, on the other hand, was a lot of fun. Remarkable set-pieces. Epic storytelling. Myth. Adventure. Action. And more special effects per minute of screen time than... well, than the last one. The villain, Davy Jones, was a pleasure to watch for every squirming, slithering, gurgling second he was on screen. And, of course, Johnny Depp, reprising his role as Captain Jack Sparrow, was fantastic. The plot, this time around, has Captain Jack trying to save his own soul from eternal servitude on Davy Jones' crew of the undead by finding the key to Davy Jones' Locker. It's part two of a trilogy, so if you're one of the three people in North America who hasn't seen it yet, don't expect things to tie up tidily before the credits roll. You'll have to wait until next summer for that.

About the only thing Miami Vice has in common with the tv series of the same name is that it takes place in a highly-stylized Miami. And that it's about vice cops fighting drug lords. And the character names. Just because you loved the series doesn't mean you'll love the show. I liked the series, and I liked the movie. Director Michael Mann - who executive produced the series - uses high-definition digital technology as an end in itself, and not simply, like many filmmakers, as a way to reduce budget. Budget isn't a problem for Michael Mann. Certainly not in this film, with it's ocean-going speed boats, state-of-the-art aircraft, high-tech weaponry and drug kingpin castles. Like his previous film, Collateral, Mann uses the digital pallet to create a gritty realism and raw beauty. And he makes it look so, so gorgeous. No one shoots night exteriors like Michael Mann. At several points in the film I found myself gasping, as lightning lit up the murky heavens over the neon Miami skyline.

A. O. Scott, of the New York Times, captures my feelings exactly:

'With “Miami Vice” he clearly had money to burn, and the flames are beautiful to behold. Mixing pop savvy with startling formal ambition, Mr. Mann transforms what is essentially a long, fairly predictable cop-show episode into a dazzling (and sometimes daft) Wagnerian spectacle. He fuses music, pulsating color and high drama into something that is occasionally nonsensical and frequently sublime. “Miami Vice” is an action picture for people who dig experimental art films, and vice versa.'
If I had one complaint, it was that Colin Farrell is outclassed by the picture. He tries to cover his Irish brogue with a sort of deep south/cajun drawl that just doesn't cut it. I keep wondering when his acting will step up to meet his reputation. He's too young to be phoning it in.
I haven't seen Clerks II yet. I mean to, and I'll definitely rent it if I don't catch it before it disappears from theatres. Now, there's smart filmmaking. Clerks II made money before it opened. The box office take is gravy, $22 million worth, so far. I love Kevin Smith more for who he is and what he does than for the films he makes. Say what you will about the man, he does have a rare vision, and makes films that he himself is genuinely amused by. Which strikes me as honest and authentic.
What's up next? Little Miss Sunshine. It took Sundance by storm earlier this year, and Steve Carell currently has my endorsement for the funniest man in show business.
So, um, what started out as a rather bleak commentary on the state of summertime film-going has become almost... I don't know. Jubilant? Nah, that's probably pushing it.