Review: “Erin Brockovich” (Steven Soderbergh, USA 2000)

Erin Brockovich was one of two Steven Soderbergh films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 2001, the other being Traffic (Germany/USA 2000). At the time, Erin Brockovich was the film that got the most attention, largely centered on Julia Roberts for her Oscar victory, which, in the public’s mind, instantly changed her from a walking pair of boobs to a real actress. (Of course, in reality she has always been a decent but unremarkable performer. Neither characterization has really ever been accurate.) Since, Traffic has become one of the most praised films of recent history while Erin Brockovich has largely sunk from view as a film, leaving only the mythology of Erin Brockovich the person, an oft-abused mythology that nonetheless exists for a reason.

There is a reason that Traffic has come to be held in significantly higher esteem: It’s just plain better. However, Erin Brockovich was not another example of Soderbergh’s mid-career slump like The Limey (USA 1999) and Out of Sight (USA 1998) before it. It doesn’t have the daring and visual imagination of Traffic or even Ocean’s Eleven (USA 2001), but it’s a nicely focused film that tells its story clearly and succinctly. While it’s rather conventional visually, it uses its conventionality properly, and that’s enough to make it a good, if unremarkable, film.

The point of this film is the power of personal connections. Erin is effective at “talking people into things,” as Ed puts it, because she’s able to convince people that she cares about them and thus establish a personal connection with them. George is able to take care of Erin’s children without them acting up at all because of his connection with them. The creepy guy who finally gives the firm the smoking gun connecting PG&E’s corporate headquarters with the groundwater contamination gives the information to Erin not because he feels bad about having participated in the poisoning and cover-up (though one wonders why he would have held on to the documents if not for guilt over the cover-up and a hope to one day provide it to some sort of investigation like this one), but because he feels like he can talk to her. It doesn’t provide an entirely rosy picture of the idea of personal connections, showing that they have limitations when they are used as justification for related but not exactly the same relationships (Shown by Erin’s and George’s relationship, which breaks down because it is based on George’s connection to her children, not a connection between them.) and can cause difficulties in understanding limitations (Shown by Erin’s arguments with Ed about bringing on a new, very powerful attorney to aid with the case and Erin’s needing advice from Ed about how to handle the employee who hands over the smoking gun.), so it is more an exploration of the topic than it is promoting something about them.

Visually, Soderbergh and cinematographer Elliot Davis set their template early and then very rarely varies from it: The film is largely shot with bright lighting, often with a rather conspicuously amber-heavy color palette. That palette emphasizes the small town “midwestern” sort of atmosphere the film is attempting to create—the bright colors of the movie world, the greys of city skylines and concrete, and the dim colors of the rainy northwest and southeast are completely absent, replaced by ambers, yellows, and browns that befit a rural landscape. It’s not overpowering, but it’s present. Most scenes involve a camera pivoting, following characters as they move along. It gives the entire film an illusion of action, which is necessary for a film that’s as much about talking and reading as this one is. It’s not terribly original—in fact the same trick is used for most legal films, most notably in A Few Good Men (Rob Reiner, USA 1992)—but it’s still effective.

The acting in the film is a bit uneven. Julia Roberts got a lot of attention for her performance, but she was in fact rather limited. When she’s playing the manipulative woman who uses her body to get into the records office and knows she can talk Ed into a raise as soon as he agrees to take the case, she’s fine—grinning just enough that we know she’s doing this intentionally without it being enough for everyone else to know. However, when she tries to get more emotional, Soderbergh covers her up. She has a mini-breakdown in front of George about how she’s going to survive after getting fired, but it is perhaps the longest shot in the movie, with her not even centered on the frame so that our attention is not entirely on her face. Other times, he uses the back lighting that he uses so often in the film but turns it up to a ridiculous level so that she is not even really visible. There’s a reason Soderbergh is covering her up: She’s just not good at those things, and it’s clear when you pay attention to what little we do get out of her. Meanwhile, Albert Finney, playing a somewhat downtrodden attorney with a heart of gold, is mostly excellent. He’s a trifle too uncomfortable with his clients personally, but that also plays well as opposition to the overly-informal Erin, so it’s a small complaint. Otherwise, he is charming and does a remarkable job of showing that Ed really does have his heart in the same place Erin does but feels limited from showing it. The only other significant role is Aaron Eckhart as George, and he frankly has no role to play, so there’s not much to say about it, in spite of his screen time.

As is often the case with Soderbergh’s films, David Holmes’s score adds plenty to the film. It’s subtle but remarkably appropriate from beginning to end, adding a little extra emotion where it’s needed and heightening the tension of the investigation scenes.

Overall, it’s a good film worth seeing, but nothing earth-shattering.

Movie Review: “Mirage” (Edward Dmytryk, USA 1965)

While Edward Dmytryk’s name is not well-known now, he was in his day a celebrity director. He was perhaps the single most prominent member of the “Hollywood Ten,” a group of writers and directors who refused to answer questions in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) about alleged involvement with the Communist Party. (It should be noted that Dmytryk did eventually testify, admit to brief membership in the party, and name members of many liberal-leaning groups.) After his run-in with HUAC, his return to filmmaking, which was done largely from England, saw him consistently confronting what had happened to him, and often doing so in very dark, depressing ways that fit in well with the general worldview of the then-popular film-noir genre. Mirage came a bit later and really is, while still dark and heavily influenced by his personal experiences, a different type of film: instead of a film-noir, Mirage is a truly Hitchcockian twisting thriller about the decline of, for lack of a better word, humanity in a profit-based, technologically advanced world.

The idea that “humanity” is gone because of technology and/or greed has existed for as long as humans have existed, and frankly it’s nothing more than golden age thinking. However, Mirage still makes its point about the dangers of a lack of humanity remarkably well. The basic plot advances the point, as do numerous remarks by characters claiming such things as that an elevator without an operator is a sign that “people are on their way out” and that a business owner sees people as nothing more than vehicles for bringing him commerce, not even giving them the recognition that a person gives to ants. It’s an excellent example of the kind of focus that many films lack.

To make his point, Dmytryk and his screenwriter employ an unusual narrative built around a protagonist who has a series of odd interpersonal exchanges, culminating with a man holding him at gunpoint in his apartment and questioning him about the whereabouts of something unnamed. After these exchanges, he begins to question his own sanity, then comes to a realization that he has actually lost his memory, though he somehow did not notice it. He knows he’s caught up in some sort of intrigue, but doesn’t know why or who the people around him are. There are numerous further realizations along the way, leading up to a thrilling finale with surprises throughout.

It’s structured much like the paranoid thrillers that would become so popular in the ‘70s, many of which were set in a world of spies and international intrigue, perhaps best exemplified by Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, USA 1975). The protagonist, David Stillwell–played by Gregory Peck, searches for information about who he is and why  someone seems to be going to great lengths to make him appear insane, but everyone he finds seems to be a part of this grand conspiracy. Stillwell is a bit too quick to decide that he knows some parts of what’s going on, but he’s not always right, which makes his quickness not just reasonable but probably an accurate depiction of what a person would feel. He lashes out against the few people who try to help him in a paranoid fog that must have felt familiar to Dmytryk after the HUAC incident.

None of the actors really has the opportunity to show much, which is probably a good thing considering the limitations that star Gregory Peck has shown in other roles. As a result, no one is particularly good; however, no one is particularly bad either. It’s a plot-based film with only one really fleshed-out character and he’s simply never in the position to show much emotion. Walter Matthau is the one sort of standout, playing a private detective trying to help out Gregory Peck. What’s really interesting is that Matthau, someone who always excelled at playing slick slimeball characters (hence his Oscar for The Fortune Cookie [Billy Wilder, USA 1966]), imbues the character with an endearing pathos that is eminently watchable and enjoyable. It’s interesting that, as a big star playing a relatively small role, Matthau really plays against type instead of doing what could have come to him easily.

Dmytryk and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald set a few scenes in total darkness with extreme light contrasts the like of which was not common even in film-noir of the time. Some of these scenes, like one of the earliest scenes in the complete darkness of a stairwell only lit by a small flashlight that’s often off frame, are intense for the feeling of the unknown that they bring out, heightening the suspense throughout the film. The rest of the time, we get a world of multiple shadows. Nearly every scene is lit so that each character is casting shadows in multiple directions, emphasizing the confusion of the plot and especially of the characters’ identities. It’s a beautiful method of adding to the film’s intrigue.

Quincy Jones’s score deserves a note, but not in a good way. While a fair amount of the film does not have score, which is an excellent choice that highlights how alone Stillwell is and the emptiness of his life without memory, the few romantic and emotional scenes are bogged down by an over-the-top, overly conventional score and the action sequences are similarly saddled with conventionality, albeit a conventionality that is not nakedly, gag-inducingly sentimental.

Overall, this was an excellent film. It may have been making a rather silly point, but it does it so phenomenally well that it’s easily forgivable. Perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to this film is that it’s a film Hitchcock could be jealous of. There aren’t many films that are clearly in his wheelhouse, made by someone else, and yet good enough for him to be jealous. Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Cluzot, France 1955) is famously one, as Hitchcock attempted to purchase the rights to the novel before Cluzot and the authors, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, subsequently wrote a new novel for Hitchcock that became Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1958). This film undoubtedly could be another.

Random Notes

  • Telephone cords were used to kill in quite a few movies, especially films-noir. Cordless telephones must have saved many lives, based on what I see in movies.
  • Willard is one of the most terrifying villains I’ve ever seen. A character who responds to someone else holding a comrade hostage by killing the hostage without even thinking about it and nearly kills another one by accident, responding by saying, “So?” when that character complains about almost getting shot. Particularly for an earlier age, when violence of the type we see now was not allowed, it’s a terrifying characterization.
  • Is “physio-chemist” an actual word? I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before. Clearly it would mean someone who is a doctor of both chemistry and physics, as many nuclear scientists would have been, but I’m not sure it’s an actual word.
  • One character is greatly respected because he refused to be connected to political causes “except for world peace.” He is “courted by liberals and conservatives alike.” Difficult to imagine at this point, right?

Movie Review: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (Peter Jackson, USA/New Zealand 2012)

I decided that, based on the timing, I would open this blog with a review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It is, after all, the biggest film of 2012 and an adaptation of one of my favorite novels. Therefore, in spite of having severe trepidation about the film, I felt I had to write about it and thought it would be a good way to start the blog off.

Note: This review will be longer than most of mine will be in the future. Normally, I like to write somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 words. This review will be considerably longer, because I have some things to say about the technology and changes from the source material that I would normally not say.

One may ask why I was initially uneasy about the film. Well, the first reason is that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations really went off the rails as they went along: The first isn’t a spectacular piece of filmmaking, but it’s certainly decent, and I loved it because of my love of the novels. However, the last two were pretty bad. The second reason is Peter Jackson’s decision to adapt a relatively simple story that should have taken 3-4 hours to tell as well and as fully as a film can tell it into not just one long film but three of them—it’s going to take as long to watch The Hobbit as it would to read it! That’s a sign that Jackson had no idea how to adapt it. The third reason is Jackson’s obsession with using technological gimmicks, like the high frame rate and 3D, to sell the film. Those things are useful to sell the film, but they don’t improve filmmaking and frankly I don’t think they even add to the film viewing experience. Jackson’s touting of those things at every opportunity suggested that he was using the technology as a crutch, the way George Lucas has long done with his Star Wars films, rather than as a method of storytelling. All of those things bode poorly for the film. Still, it was The Hobbit.

I did watch the film in its supposed best format: 3D High Frame Rate. Those technological gimmicks were not interesting, really. As is often the case with 3D films, Jackson went out of his way to do things like have chases that aim directly at the camera just to “pop” for 3D, which is a technique that does little. Even if you enjoy watching that (I don’t, but whatever floats your boat.), it is so predictable that by half an hour in you know every swoop that’s coming, which just results in tedium. The 3D, like always, added nothing. The high frame rate, meanwhile, did have some noticeable effects. The picture was extraordinarily sharp and all movements very fluid, sometimes too fluid. Some critics have likened the over-fast movement to watching Benny Hill, but the truth is that there are only a few moments where it feels unnaturally fast and most of them are small enough that they are not distracting. There are a few bad moments, mostly during the dwarves’ gathering of the plates in Bilbo’s home, but overall it’s not enough to worry about one way or the other. Also, a note for anyone who wonders: I am nearsighted and prone to motion sickness, but had no trouble from this. It’s nothing more than a single anecdote, so it pretty much doesn’t mean anything, but I thought I should share that fact anyway.

For fellow Tolkien fans, allow me to point out that the film is absolutely not a faithful adaptation of the book. The characters are often unrecognizable: unsurprisingly, Thorin has become much kinder and more subdued than the novel’s version and Gandalf’s egotism and temper have been replaced by a nondescript wise old man. There are characters and plot threads here that were in The Lord of the Rings or never present at all, including a rather large-seeming plot that involves Radagast the Brown, a wizard whom I believe is only mentioned briefly in one of the later books. (I should note that it seemed this story might in fact be meant to be a reference to the story that makes up the bulk of The Lord of the Rings, but I’m not entirely sure on that point.) It doesn’t matter when considering how good the film is, as it must stand or fall on its own merits, but I nonetheless note that there were many unwelcome changes. For example, one of my favorite elements in The Hobbit is the way Gandalf’s character develops in Bilbo’s eyes. Bilbo initially sees him as some weird old kook who sometimes visits the Shire and puts on fireworks displays, and then slowly discovers more about how important and powerful Gandalf is throughout the novel. It’s an excellent way of showing us how small Bilbo’s worldview was at the beginning and how he begins to grasp the larger world of Middle-Earth. However, here, Bilbo knows that Gandalf is a wizard, just not really what a wizard is. We also get (admittedly away from Bilbo) scenes that tell us just how powerful and important Gandalf is, most notably a meeting of the White Council at Rivendell that Elrond describes as a meeting among those who “guard over Middle-Earth.” I realize that the audience is going to know about Gandalf already from the earlier films, but it’s still a shame to lose such an effective dramatic device.

The basic story and point of the film is quite simple. It’s a film about needing a sense of belonging and home. To make that point, it concocts a story about a wandering, homeless band of dwarves who uproot a homey hobbit from his comforts in order to try to gain the sense of home and belonging that he already has by taking back control of the mountain they once ruled that is now under a dragon’s yoke.

Where the book takes an episodic approach, sending Bilbo and the dwarves through one encounter after another as they journey across Middle-Earth, this film provides an episodic adventure that is also filled with numerous flashbacks, simultaneous stories, and one overriding arc that comes to a head at the end of the film. The structure gives a clear impression that Middle-Earth is a full world, with things happening throughout with regularity. However, it is also rather confusing, bouncing around to different characters and situations repeatedly. It also takes some attention away from the overall story of Bilbo Baggins—whose story is, after all, the real story the novel is telling.

Jackson ends up telling a muddled story. While there is some logic to creating an ever-present following danger like the orcs following the dwarves along their path to up the stakes, it’s also unnecessary and does not advance the film’s larger point about home and belonging. Meanwhile, he does not emphasize Gollum’s loneliness, which would undoubtedly advance the central point even though it would add nothing to the plot. Gollum is a fascinating mixture of terrifying and pathetic, but he’s driven to that point not just by the Ring but also by his position as a completely solitary outcast—a point which fits in so well with the theme that this film spent a lot of time driving home that it could not have been lost on Jackson. It’s a shame that they didn’t emphasize this angle more, especially since the sequence between Bilbo and Gollum is the best part of the film already—a truly suspenseful and compelling sequence that by itself could make up for a lot of ills.

Visually, we know by now what Peter Jackson brings to the table, which is not too much. His shots are essentially by-the-book epic filmmaking, to the point that one can almost imagine David Lean standing by telling Jackson what the shots “should” be, filled with long shots of wide vistas that are meant to show us the splendor and sheer size of the spectacle involved. Unfortunately, where this technique once showed us the grandeur of the set design (an admittedly uninteresting proposition most of the time), it is now just showing us how well Jackson and his special effects team can computer generate. While the CGI here is considerably better than most films, it’s still noticeably present and it’s still CGI. The saving grace of The Fellowship of the Ring was Jackson’s use of real elements and photographic effects over CGI, but he seems to have changed his mind now. That unwelcome philosophical change is essentially the only change in Jackson’s visual approach, meaning that the film lacks anything interesting visually.

The acting throughout the film is decent but unspectacular. Martin Freeman stars, filling the extraordinarily large shoes of the great Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins. Freeman has made a career of being in successful, big budget work while still getting little attention himself (The Office, Sherlock, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [Garth Jennings, UK/USA 2005]), but this film may change that. While he doesn’t get to stretch his acting muscles much in a film that doesn’t much care about characters, he is fantastically charismatic, presenting a Bilbo every bit as instantly likable as Holm’s. Ian McKellan, meanwhile, may simply be too old or too ill (either of which is certainly an unfortunate development) for Gandalf at this point. He seems pained even when speaking normally and he moves uncomfortably. The strength of the powerful wizard Gandalf is undermined by these strains. The only other person to get noteworthy screen time is Richard Armitage as Thorin. He really has almost nothing to do, but he isn’t bad. Jackson gives Thorin a great hero’s entrance, to the point that Armitage does not have to provide his own strong presence, but he’s capable of providing it nonetheless.

Howard Shore’s score deserves mention. Where he often falls into overdramatic, overly-conventional scores, here he writes a strong score almost throughout. There are some melodramatic moments, but they are relatively few and they keep a unique style that Shore has often lacked. Incidentally, while the dwarves’ second song was relatively useless and really should have been cut, it is a beautiful and stirring song.

Overall, this was not a good film. It wasn’t awful. It certainly doesn’t even compete with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov, USA 2012) and Rock of Ages (Adam Shankman, USA 2012) for the worst film of the year, but it was pretty bad. It was also an extreme disappointment. Even for someone who is as big a fan of the novel as I am, it was really a waste of three hours.