Movie Review: “Blow-Up” (Michelangelo Antonioni, UK/USA 1966)

Ranked #144 on 2012 Sight & Sound Critics Poll
Ranked #54 on 2012 Sight & Sound Directors Poll

There are many directors and many films that are extremely highly thought of that I’ve just never gotten around to seeing even though I’ve meant to, and Michelangelo Antonioni is at the top of that director list. I do have to admit to having a certain amount of trepidation because of the rather sharp divide in critical appraisal of his work, especially including Ingmar Bergman’s remark that while Blow-up and La Notte (Italy/France 1961) were masterpieces, nothing else of his work was worth watching.* While L’Avventura (Italy/France 1960) is his most highly acclaimed film, I decided to start with this film because its plot sounded more accessible for me and Il deserto roso (Italy/France 1964) because of its mention in Sidney Lumet’s indispensable Making Movies, where Lumet says that it opened his eyes to the potential of the use of color in film. Il deserto roso will still have to wait for another day, but I finally watched one of them at least.

This film consistently called to mind Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, UK 1960), the incredibly controversial and quite thoughtful film about a demented serial killer who attacks using a camera tripod. Like that film, it is set in ’60s London and steeped in the mod culture of the time and is a controversial examination of the art of filmmaking.

While it has lost some of its steam, it was once a popular statement to make films that were about the supposed dehumanizing or desensitizing effects of film, and Blow-up is probably the most famous example of that trend. However, many of those films feel dated, not just because of the fact that they are advancing the view that film is somehow dangerous in its ability to desensitize viewers and creators but because of the simplistic way in which they examine the issue and resolve the moral dilemmas. Peeping Tom is a standout for its willingness to take on the subject with all of its complications and take a nuanced, deep look at all of the issues. However, Blow-up is a representative of the opposite school of thought: it says, quite clearly, that basing everything on superficial visual qualities, like a photographer does, is dangerous because it leads to a complete loss of humanity. It’s not necessarily a worse position for a film to take, but it is a simpler one.

Antonioni builds his film on a rather odd plot: a photographer takes some pictures then eventually discovers that the pictures have evidence of a murder, but we don’t get anywhere with that mystery. Instead, the film just focuses on following around the photographer as we see how much his life is based simply on a search for beauty above all else. A woman asks him what an airplane propeller he has bought is for and he replies, “Nothing. It’s beautiful.” That’s his personality in a nutshell. Through this obsession with beauty above all else, we see his callous disregard for others through his nearly running over a pedestrian when parking his car, his blackmailing of several women into sex whom he then treated like they were worth less than dirt.

However, where the film stops short of being special is its repetitiveness, which is caused by the simplicity with which it makes its point. We get within 20 minutes that the guy is simply an unfeeling jerk because all he cares about is looks, but we spend another hour getting that beaten through our heads. It’s not poor filmmaking and it shows a commendable focus on the film’s points, but it’s rather dull and leaves the viewer thinking that the film just didn’t have that much to say.

Acting-wise, there’s little to say about the film, because only a couple of actors have anything at all to do. David Hemmings in the lead plays the beauty-obsessed jerk photographer, but he has little emotion of any kind to show throughout. He seems natural enough and doesn’t overplay the characters callousness, but there also isn’t much there for him to do. Vanessa Redgrave, meanwhile, plays a manipulative, duplicitous role as a woman who pretends to be seduced but is in reality using the photographer in the same way he has used others throughout, and is absolutely fantastic in a rather small role. Indeed, a film that is otherwise almost clinical in its detachment from the emotional springs to life every second she is on screen.

Visually, Antonioni and cinematographer Carlo di Palma present a film that is chock full of big, bold colors that emphasize what a surface-based world it is presenting. However, they also present us with a fairly unimaginative look otherwise. The angles, transitions, and lighting are so standard as to be all but unnoticeable, which is a bit odd for a film so about appearances. It’s as though they were just not willing to take the ideas in the plot to their logical visual conclusions, which is a shame.

Overall, this is a good film and one definitely worth watching, but it is far from perfect. It’s a bit repetitive, a bit simplistic, and a bit visually dull. That’s not enough to make it bad, but it’s enough that it isn’t really among the all-time masterpieces. With all due respect to Bergman, Citizen Kane is better.

*I would not necessarily listen to whatever Bergman says. Directors do often have very poor taste in films. Indeed, Bergman himself was a noted critic of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, USA 1941) and Alfred Hitchcock and fan of Steven Spielberg. It is a very poor critic indeed who is more impressed with Steven Spielberg than with Alfred Hitchcock.

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TV Season Review: “Game of Thrones” Season One

The biggest problem with much high fantasy work is that it’s unoriginal. It often turns into nothing more than a blend of tropes borrowed from Tolkien and handed down through sources like Dungeons & Dragons, World of Warcraft, and other book series like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. This series, at least in its first season, is a prime example of that problem, as it so severely lacks in originality that it was unlikely to be worth watching from the outset. There are ways to survive such a problem–usually either by just being very, very good at what you’re doing (like Tolkien) or by using the tropes to do something fundamentally different (like Terry Pratchett), but this series was not able to do either, instead relying on its predictable tropes and heavy doses of violence and nudity to carry it.

The core story is emblematic of the problems that plague the series: it’s a medieval battle for power between an entitled brat of a king and the powerful lords who rule their states (for lack of a better word) under him. It’s a trope of the genre (For example, it is hardly different from the plot of World of Warcraft.), and it’s a trope that annoys me often because it ends up being an excuse to show lots and lots of battles with hardly any story. So far, the series has avoided that problem, but the battle scenes become increasingly common as the season progresses to the point that one has to expect them to go further in the future. Instead, the series has focused on setting up future fights by giving us glimpses of why all of these leading families can’t stand each other and setting up another contender to the crown who is rather separated from the fighting currently occurring.

However, this other contender, Daenerys Targaryen, also has a story that is nothing more than a series of fantasy tropes. Her brother claims to be the heir to the throne and sells her off to a powerful warrior tribe and they blather on about various ancient mysticism, including the now-extinct dragons, while she carries around mysterious scaly-looking eggs everywhere. And yet, the series expects us to be excited and amazed when the eggs hatch and turn out to be horrendous CGI dragons. When you’re following tropes so clearly and obviously, you cannot use the obvious revelation at the end of the trope as some sort of powerful, great moment, but this show tried to.

Meanwhile, the show is riddled with relatively inconsequential plots that are also nothing more than fantasy tropes. We have a headstrong, rebellious daughter of nobility who wants to live by the sword instead of the tea cup and is one of the few people in this world with any sense of morality who is then forced to pretend to be a boy in order to survive after her father’s execution. It’s not only an obvious and often told story, but it’s one that is used in fantasy in order to make it appeal to 13-year-old girls, a demographic that is unlikely to be of too much importance to a series with as much sex and violence as this one. We have a little person of noble birth who is treated as something less than a person by his family who of course turns out to be the smartest and most capable person in the family, as well as one of the few likable characters on the show. He of course can see everything that’s going wrong because of his outsider’s perspective and is quickly established as a hero for the viewers. The Spoiled Brat King is actually the product of an incestuous extramarital affair between the queen and her brother, so of course the nominal hero of the first season, Ned Stark, discovers her treachery and tries to save the kingdoms only to end up beheaded. Nothing here is original.

The one point of some originality is yet another plot thread involving Jon Snow, the bastard son of a noble father who attempts to establish himself of a higher standing by joining the mysterious guards of the Wall, a literal wall that separates the inhabited lands we otherwise see from some sort of great danger to the north. Snow’s story is a series of tropes otherwise, but the existence of the wall and the mysterious danger to the north is the most intriguing aspect of the series so far, because it’s odd and unique. However, the show obviously doesn’t know that, because it barely mentions the great danger and doesn’t give any kind of hints at what it is. It’s unfortunate, because it leaves the only unique aspect of the setting as nothing more than backdrop.

Hopefully, by this point everyone also sees another problem this show has: it has approximately nine million plot threads at once. I’m sure the reason is that it’s following a complex book series, but it’s annoying and confusing for the viewer having to try to remember so many plots at once and having to jump between them with seemingly no logic at all.

Visually, the show is unsurprisingly unimaginative. I often say this, but it’s true that the entire list of visually interesting television shows that I have ever seen is as follows: Breaking Bad. So, it’s difficult to hold it against the show that it’s unimaginative visually, but that would have been a way to make up for the unimaginative, predictable storytelling.

However, I do feel the need to point out that the dragons really were awful. It’s not just that they were CGI, it’s that they were really cheesy, bad CGI. CGI isn’t a good thing to use unless it’s absolutely necessary anyway, but if you’re going to use it, at least make sure you do a good job. The worst part is that there were plenty of obvious, sensible ways to make the dragons look better. They were crawling on top of Daenerys in the husk of a burned-out building, so why not just allow the ashen building to smoke enough to obscure the view a bit? (Of course, the real reason why not is because they wanted to show Emilia Clarke naked and the smoke might also obscure that, but let’s pretend there is some artistic thought here for a second.) It’s lazy direction that makes the CGI even worse than it had to be.

One thing that can be said for this show is that the acting was quite good. The actors generally did not have to show much complex emotion or depth. Sean Bean was essentially the lone exception as someone who had to show widely varying emotions and at times had to show a complex mix, and he turned out to be surprisingly capable. However, nearly everyone else acquitted himself or herself quite well with what little s/he had to do. Even 14-year-old Maisie Williams performed perfectly well. Lena Headey and Michelle Fairley have some weak moments when they really overplay their parts, but it’s difficult to hold that against someone in a high fantasy world.

Overall, this is a show worth missing. I’m not a crazy fantasy fan, but anyone who looks at the “What I’m Reading Now” box can tell I read more than my share of it, and I’m an inveterate RPG-er. That background makes this show seem remarkably stale, as it repeats every trope in the fantasy book without doing anything new, and it doesn’t do them so well that it makes up for its own lack of originality.

I’m out on this show after one season.

Movie Review: “Smashed” (James Ponsoldt, USA 2012)

Back in 1962, comic mastermind Blake Edwards made a rare foray into serious territory by making a 117-minute commercial for Alcoholics Anonymous in the film Days of Wine and Roses (USA). However, in spite of making a film that was essentially an infomercial, Edwards was able to make something compelling. How? He knew to draw interesting, lovable characters. He knew to cast real-life alcoholic and truly brilliant actor Jack Lemmon (Who was also known mostly for comedy.) alongside the always-beautiful and charismatic Lee Remick in the lead roles. He knew to make the film about more than Joe Clay’s struggle for sobriety making the film far more universal than an AA commercial has any right to be.

Immediately upon reading a plot summary for Smashed, Days of Wine and Roses leaps to mind: it’s a film about two alcoholics whose relationship becomes strained when the wife decides to get sober. Not only was the plot nearly identical, but like the earlier film it stars a supremely talented male actor and a gorgeous and charismatic female actor who has shown some ability in limited roles before. Ponsoldt and co-writer Susan Burke clearly built the film on top of the frame of Days of Wine and Roses, which just left the question of whether they understood what makes that earlier film work or were instead just making another AA commercial.

It turns out, the answer is that they were just making an AA commercial.

I often complain about films trying to make too many points, and this film did not fall victim to that problem. It instead chose to try to make no points at all. It told a narrative about an alcoholic couple and didn’t bother to broaden out its themes at all, instead preferring to load up on AA talking points in a way that was preachy, dull, and unwelcome. If you want to know about how great AA really is, I suggest something else, and if you just want to hear the “good side” of AA, go ahead and go back to Days of Wine and Roses instead.

As it is, Ponsoldt and Burke keep a tightly-constructed narrative and build one character–Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s lead–well, though they do not really bother to provide any other characterization, including for her husband. They don’t lose focus and leave their main plot often (essentially just for a couple of bizarre scenes between Winstead and Nick Offerman), and that plot never gets overcomplicated or too cheesily simple, and they deserve some credit for avoiding the histrionics that sometimes accompany similar plots. It’s satisfying as far as an empty narrative goes, but there’s a pretty low limit to how far an empty narrative can go.

As a result of the lack of characterization, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is really the only actor who gets anything to work with, and she turns in an excellent performance. She displays a wide range of emotions convincingly, and makes a character who could easily come across as ridiculous work through the sheer force of her performance. There is nothing more one could ask of her. The great Aaron Paul is wasted playing a watered-down, uninteresting version of Jesse Pinkman, while Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman turn in credible small performances that seem well outside of their usual comfort zones. No one is bad, but they don’t have the space to do anything interesting.

Visually, Ponsoldt and cinematographer Tobias Datum don’t do much to draw attention. The film doesn’t use color, lighting, or anything else to make its points or emphasize emotions but rather just presents itself simply. The lack of any care about the visual or any imagination to the visual is unfortunate, because it pushes the film down into made-for-television territory. It’s not incompetent, but you can get everything from the film by listening to it with no picture.

Overall, it’s not a film worth watching, which is a shame because it wastes an excellent cast and a great lead performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead. If you’re a really big AA booster, you will probably find much to enjoy about this film, but for everyone else it’s really a clunker.