Category Archives: Film/Book Analysis

Favorite Films: Part 4

I love small films —films that are more likely to stay true to the original intent of the writer and closer in execution to the director’s wider vision. Lower budget films have smaller box office expectations so they have greater freedom to explore themes, visual accents and unusual character portrayals. There are no fancy special effects or thundering musical scores. Only stories and characters. Much like real life. They are less contrived and less patronizing but not necessarily less creative or fantastical. After all, real life is filled with unbelievable drama. And the lack of formulas and big management involvement make these films tastefully textural and personal — flavorful ingredients much needed in the broadened global conformity that has enveloped Hollywood. Most of these films exist only because of the love an idea or for the pure love of the craft.

Dead Man (directed by Jim Jarmusch)

Directed by auteur filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, Dead Man is a bizarre yet encapsulating story of a regular man, caught in irregular times — a time of violence, lack of honor, and cold, hard industry. Thinly disguised as a western black comedy, this tale of a city accountant turned gunfighter is really a story about personal discovery and destiny. Life is simply what it is and it’s up to us personally to find out why we’re here on this earth. Starring Johnny Depp — one of the best silent actors of our generation — as the “every man” with no name, his character takes on the identity of poet William Blake, the visionary artist who’s famous for his literary devotion to beauty, innocence and integrity — things obliterated by the Westerner’s capitalistic invasion of native America. In his spiritual journey, Blake makes a new friend, an half-blood native called Nobody (Gary Farmer) who aids him in becoming the hero against all evil and, in so doing, finds his identity and frees his soul. Dead Man is an unusual physical and spiritual adventure, but one that is artistic and strangely entertaining. This little film is sure to stir the emotions of any viewer;  garnering deep admiration or alarming confusion (some of the scenes are quite shocking). Shot in gorgeous black and white, the cinematography is stunning, and to me, the film as a whole is a cold yet gorgeous presentation of the deeper themes at play; it’s poetry unlikely to be seen in front of audiences today.

The Wrestler (directed by Darren Aronofsky)

Darren Aronofsky’s beautiful yet tragic film, is a marvelous viewing experience. Watching it, I find myself gaining much respect for so called “professional wrestlers.” Used in an industry to profit from nationalistic pride and as an outlet for people’s inhibited individual expression, pro wrestlers share a strange seat in American culture and history. Like the gladiators of ancient Rome, these “live” performers of good versus evil, act more as a distraction from the bigger issues of life than as a cure for suppressed freedom or symbol of unified identity. But in Aronfsky’s film, we see the other side, the inside — where the actors in the show reveal their true personal selves; these are real men behind all the lights and cameras. In fact, they’re painfully real — they wear glasses, take drugs for their aches and pains, and get old, fat, and wrinkly. More importantly, each of them struggle, as we do, to survive and to find happiness in this game called life. In Aronofsky’s sincere exposé, we witness the hardships and sacrifices each man has made and how wrestling has damaged those who make this “sport” their vocation. Mickey Rourke — an actor no producer wanted save for director Aronofsky, who persistently fought for his inclusion — delivers the performance of his career; he’s soulful, physically believable and fully engaged. Rourke’s vulnerability enlists the audience’s empathy, as he struggles to find love —with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) a stripper by night and mother by day — and redemption, as he reaches out in hopes of repairing the damaged relationship with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Ward). But at this stage of his life, living off his past glory as the once famous Randy “The Ram” Robinson, our protagonist is doomed to fail. He’s simply unprepared for reality — a place more challenging and much crueler than the physical violence he’s subjected to inside of the ring.

Dead Poet’s Society (directed by Peter Weir)

In Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society we enter the world of elite education, where the future leaders of society are formed and made. Here, John Keating (Robin Williams) returns to his old-school stomping grounds as a literature teacher of young boys, each of whom are as confused as they are excited about becoming men. Under the subtle guidance and provocation by Keating, the boys  form their own mysterious  club — the “Dead Poets Society” — a secret place for personal exploration, comraderie and of course, poetry. Here, the boys discover freedom, individuality, and even love. But in their excitement, they battle against conformity and rigid doctrine that makes the very elite institution they reside in famous. Discipline is the order of the day, and the preaching and teaching style of Keating, who favors poets like William Shakespeare and Walt Whitman, are viewed as anarchist. Dangerous drama unfolds, but not without Keating’s impact as a teacher changing each and every one of these young men. Williams is incredible here; he invites, intrigues and inspires. In fact, his Keating is a huge personal inspiration for myself as a teacher. If we are each to live as real men, we must reach for things far greater than what has been given. We must live with courage. Dead Poet’s Society is a film that dares to exhibit its values to its audience, and that makes it a bold and powerful statement of art.

Glengarry Glen Ross (directed by James Foley)

James Foley’s film adaption of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is absolutely fabulous entertainment. Seldom does dialogue have such bite to it. Boasting a cast of superior talents (including Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon,  Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey and Jonathan Pryce) the characters explode on screen.  Despite grossing a measly $10 million dollars at the domestic box office, the film will sit in history as perhaps the best and harshest presentation of the life of a salesman. Playing the lead character Shelley Levene, Jack Lemmon is old, vulnerable and behind in his sales numbers. With the pressure to keep his job and support his chronically-ill daughter, he’s forced to lower his principles as a man, making attempts to charm the new manager Williamson (Kevin Spacey) and even consider bribery, for he is THAT desperate. As the story unfolds, the audience gets a true sense of the dissasociation that capitalism brings to daily existence. Revered or discarded based only on a “what have you done for us lately” attitude, it symbolizes the Darwin-esque society that we’ve come to accept. There’s no sympathy for any “loser” — circumstances be damned. “Good father? Fuck you, go home and play with your kids” says Blake (Alec Baldwin), the superstar salesman sent from “downtown” to add pressure to all the men in the suburban sales office, by noting emphatically that only the two strongest performers of the month will keep their jobs. The contrast created by the events surrounding the current top sales dog, Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) and the antics of Blake, as well as the dubious tactics exercised by all the other salesmen in the office, make Levine, who was once a very successful salesman himself, a sympathetic character. We forget that he too, was once a lying and deceitful trickster. The film is worth watching for the acting alone. Alec Baldwin’s cameo is legendary. Taking place mostly within the confines of a small, unspectacular office space, Glengarry Glen Ross, despite being a profanity-laced film, is one that delights the ears.

History of Violence (directed by David Cronenberg)

History of Violence is a tiny film taking place in a tiny town. But what figures in it are the deepest and most profound of questions; are we defined by our pre-determined makeup (our genes and upbringing)? Or are we able to re-define our lives by our conscious choices? If we come from a family of monsters are we not monsters? Or are we only monsters if we behave like one? In Cronenberg’s film, the central character Tom Stall (Viggo Mortenson), is a shy man with a unique secret, a hidden history of violence. Until a unique set of events occur in his home town, he’s living life happily, honorably and peacefully. The arrival of some colorful characters from his past changes everything. Sought out by the Eastern mob from Philadelphia, Tom’s hidden identity is ultimately revealed, turning his and his family’s life completely upside down. In a soulful yet fierce performance by Viggo Mortenson, Tom’s character is both sympathetic and frightening — he’s both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We’re not sure what to make of him or how he’ll respond to each challenge that surfaces. Surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, Cronenberg’s History of Violence sucks you into a world of scary men, and in this case, the scariest of them all turns out to be the one we’ve been living with all along. Do we root for him because he’s the protagonist? Does he not deserve the chance to prove himself, just as we hope to be given the opportunity to prove ourselves? The final scenes of the film reveal the piercing impact the events have on its characters. The look on the eyes of Tom Stall, the eyes of his adversary Ritchie (William Hurt) and that of his wife (Mario Bello) speak louder than any words can possibly say. This is the power of film regardless of its size.

Pantomime

Harold Lloyd, seen in his 1923 B/W classic “Safety Last” was a master pantomime actor/director who thrilled his audiences with his story scenarios and mind-blowing stunts (no green screen technology!)

“I’m a big fan of pantomime storytelling, being an animator.” — John Lasseter

Pantomime — the art or technique of conveying emotions, actions, and feelings by gestures without speech— is one of the oldest forms of entertainment in human history. For thousands of years, it has helped tell stories, build our imagination and make us laugh. It has made its home in family rooms and on Shakespearean stages. It has graced film and television since their inception. It’s the quintessence of visual storytelling.

“Pantomime is a big thing in the cultural calendar of my country…” — Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming (seen here with the late Natasha Richardson on the set of Cabaret) is an extraordinarily talented actor/singer/writer whose physical performances make him the star of any show or scene he’s in.

Unfortunately, with the dominance of quick access information, flashy action and snappy punchlines in entertainment today, this craft has lost a bit of its glamor and respect. Except on Broadway stages or standup comedy acts, directors and performers, both in live action and animation, are favoring stiffer choices complemented by dialogue heavy exposition and more extensive camera work (i.e. highly convoluted and often overlong action sequences). Times and tastes may have changed, but wordless performance still has its place in the craft of fine acting and storytelling. In fact, the best acting is often between the lines. Physical action, which constitutes both pose and movement, can sometimes convey ideas and emotions with even greater clarity and poignancy than any dialogue or close up shot. It would be a shame for any performer not to study the power of gesture.

Containing less than 1000 words of dialogue, Walt Disney’s iconic film “Bambi” is one of the quietest films in history. It’d be hard pressed for any modern day studio to create or even allow for the creation of a film told primarily through imagery, music and action, the original bread and butter of not just animated films but of all films.

To me, pantomime is a beautiful yet phenomenally difficult craft to learn; it requires very specific training and endless preparation. Not unlike animation, extensive exploration into character creation and intense imagination is required, as is patience, both on the part of the creators and the audience. It’s a form of acting that delivers ideas in a way that is both timeless and universal, a wordless language that represents 100,000 years of humanity in the making. It’s an illusion of life told through time, shape and space, and nothing else.

The following limited selection is my small tribute to the magical possibilities of pantomime in film:

Rowan Atkinson is perhaps the finest pantomime actor working today. Originally designed to help him fine tune and explore the depths of acting, his creation “Mr. Bean” has become a worldwide sensation. Watch carefully how he always firmly establishes his character of “Bean” prior to any action or interaction with his environment. Story action and character formation are deeply intertwined and Atkinson, who sports one of the highest IQ’s in Hollywood (178), knows that that’s how we build interest. Executed with superb timing, gesture and clarity, Atkinson’s Bean is always fabulously entertaining.

The best and most iconic of comic pantomimes is Charlie Chaplin.  In “Modern Times” Chaplin creates a masterpiece of comedy and pathos as well as a prescient commentary of the social malaise caused by Taylorism — the economic theory of industrial production and practice that dominates the workplace to this very day. Chaplin’s little Tramp is so carefully constructed from his “stache” down to the flaps of his oversized shoes, that just one look at him tells us who he’s supposed to represent — namely us, the little people. But it’s the Tramp’s never-say-die spirit, inventive adaptability and relentless sense of hope that makes him so likeable and his antics so funny. Despite the fact that his creation is over 100 years old now, Chaplin’s pantomimes are perfectly written, staged and acted and should continue to be studied by actors and animators today.

When people think of pantomime, they usually think only of comedy or full-bodied, high-action performance. Al Pacino may be known predominantly for some of the loudest and most powerful screen characters, but here in Mike Newell’s excellent film “Donnie Brasco” he delivers a most sincere and sophisticated performance. In this last scene from the movie, both the events that are to unfold and the deep feelings inside the character are told with action — highly subdued action. In my humble opinion, Pacino’s portrayal of the aging Lefty, a respectfully loyal but out-of-luck gangster is one of the best and most underrated performances of his career.

In Wong Kar-Wei’s visually sumptuous masterpiece “In The Mood For Love” Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung (who won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his contribution) deliver some of the most beautiful silent performances ever to grace the screen.  The story is one told with minimal dialogue, elegant framing and the most subtle of gestures and glances. Perfectly supported by Christopher Doyle’s gorgeous cinematography and Shigeru Umebayashi’s hypnotic score, the film is achingly beautiful in theme,  movement and performance. It’s one of my favorite films of all time.

A great tribute to the silent era, The Artist (2011) is a tastefully clever and heartwarming story of love and destiny. Starring Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller and the ever-charming Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, the movie displays all the joys and wonders of what silent acting can do to enchant the minds and hearts of viewers, even today.

“I like actors that are good with pantomime and that can transmit a lot by their presence and attitude more than through their dialogue.” — Guillermo del Toro

Shot Analysis: A Jungle Book Sequence Part 4

We continue our Jungle Book analysis of Baloo’s meeting with Mowlgi. To see the previous scene breakdowns, go to Parts 1, 2 and 3.

Scene 10: A lesson in Rhythm and Weight Transfer

I love this scene by Frank Thomas. It’s got everything that makes animation so unique and appealing. Frank begins the shot with a wonderful moment of anticipation; Baloo’s body is curved and bent over as he build’s himself up before the action. Despite the twinned action, it feels natural and appropriate as his body does as much of the talking as his words do:

As he pops into action, you can feel both the weight and energy transfer elegantly from one hip to the other as the head weaves and guides the action, all in perfect application of the lead and follow principle. Watch the flow of change in the overall shapes as we view this in slow-motion:

I especially love the play with the hands where Baloo circulates them in tight loops, winding himself up and building energy as he hops up and down boxer-like before opening up and outwards into broader action. Notice the extension of the arm in between the circular movements and that wide opening gesture which lends great texture and variety to the overall scene, as can be seen here as we focus specifically on his paws:

scene 11: A lesson in story-telling poses

This section with Mowgli is perhaps the most entertaining bit of this sequence because it’s got so much character. And it’s told primarily with a fantastic selection poses — poses that tell you everything about the state of the man-cub. Enthusiastic and not to be outdone, he’s jumping up and down like popcorn in a kettle, all the while holding on to that serious face and displaying overdone athleticism. It’s so perfectly like a little boy wanting to be a man (or a big bear in this case) before he’s ready. The poses are playful, dynamic and show great compression and expansion (hint: look carefully at the relationships between the solids and flexibles in the body) — all the while maintaining a consistent character attitude as evidenced by the hunched shoulders and determined expression:

Scene 12: A lesson in Framing and Choreography

In this scene, we pull back out to a long shot to get a full sense of the relative position of the two characters. The size differential is important here, as you can see Mowgli “framed” under the arm of Baloo.

As the big bear circles around, you get a great sense of grounding the scene to its environment. The characters shift back and forth, side to side and across the frame. Watch how Baloo dictates the direction of movement as he pushes into the boy before circling around him. This gives dimension to the shot as Mowgli is forced to back up and adjust his footing away from the bear and the two end up overlapping each other in 2D space. At the end you’ll notice that the characters have switched sides in the frame, setting things up perfectly for the shot to come.

Stay tuned for Part 5, as we conclude our analysis of this excellent animated sequence by Frank and Ollie.

Shot Analysis: Jungle Book Sequence Part 3

We continue our analysis of The Jungle Book meeting between Baloo and Mowgli in scenes 6-9 of the sequence.

Scene 6: A lesson in phrasing of action

When we think of Frank Thomas’ work, we’re always talking about personality. His animations always seem to make the best choices when it comes to characters expressing the truth of who they are. It looks instinctive, but unlike his partner Ollie Johnston, Frank’s work consists of more extensively planned construction. The rough and scratchy nature of his rough animation drawings are a testament to his dutiful exploration for form, feeling and movement:

Having studied Frank’s work for many years, I’ve always noticed how tricky it was to find exactly where all his keys were given that his work progresses so wonderfully — things move sequentially yet overlap beautifully in phrases and layers of action. Take for instance the paths and timing of the limbs here:

Everything is beautifully balanced, the acting is nuanced and everything feels real and convincing. All this, while each body part, such as each limb seen above, moves in perfect time and order. Great work always looks easy and seamless. It takes great care and attention just to appreciate the effort involved, never mind actually doing it. Great artists follow all the phases of creative work with complete professionalism.

Scene 6 -9: A lesson in Choice of Action and Contrast

The following moments are some of the most perfectly executed expressions of the characters. Baloo, in his age-old wisdom and steady demeanor contrast greatly with the youthful and irritated Mowgli.

In this “fight” that Mowgli attempts to start, we see an immobile Baloo, clearly impervious to the wild and frenzied efforts of the man-cub to hurt him. The choice of poses and action deliver that reality with crystal clarity and with comic effect:

The futility of Mowgli’s action is further emphasized by Baloo’s reaction, which is, at first, surprise (at the launched offensive in the first place especially considering it’s by someone so much smaller), followed by bemusement (his little chuckle during the flurry of kicks and punches), then ending with judgement/assessment:

But Mowgli’s sorry state of affairs doesn’t keep Baloo down for long. In fact, it motivates him — which takes some doing considering we’re talking about a very lackadaisical and easy going bear — as he springs into an philanthropic action. The poses Frank uses to express the sudden assertiveness, while still showing Mowgli’s defiance are both powerful and clear. Geometric stability contrasts with circular action, just as the large bear contrasts with the small child:

Notice the wonderful display of control and weight transfer here:

We finish with the perfect expression that’s reflective of the events that have just occurred and yet consistent with the character’s personality (still defiant, but now listening):

Stay tuned for Part 4 of our analysis.

Shot Analysis: Jungle Book Sequence Part 2

As a continuation of our analysis of The Jungle Book, we now look at scenes 4 and 5 from the first meeting of Mowgli and Baloo.

Scene #4:  A lesson in creativity and contrast

Seen at 50% speed we can see both the poses and movement with greater clarity. Here, the consistency of his physical mannerisms aligns with that seen in the earlier shots of Baloo, allowing Ollie to emphasize the easy going charm of his character. The familiar yet creative use of squash and stretch of the nose gives him the pliability that is visually enjoyable to witness.

Notice the wonderful change of shapes and gestures here, as he first moves up to “absorb” the irritation caused by Mowgli’s swipe, followed by a wonderful pattern of distortion and wiggling of the nose as he moves into position:

After he says “boy”, he goes into a playful antic before expanding outwards with a two-handed clap which he coils back into a position of control that emphasizes his comical bewilderment of the entire situation. Here, with his hands clasped together and head leaned back, the unified pose is reminiscent of an elder or professor in the joyful discovery of an opportunity to pontificate and share with his younger audience. The execution is both imaginative and empathetic .

At the end of this shot, Ollie’s choice to “shake him up” gives the overall scene a contrasting end, as Baloo tries to switch out of his bewildered state, yet is still caught in amazement as noted by the zombie-like expression as he mechanically transitions his attention back to Mowgli and back to reality. The choice of action is marvelously creative and unique:

Scene #5: A lesson in acting and overlap

Now, we begin our transition to the work of the marvelous Frank Thomas. In this shot, Thomas’ turns our attention towards Mowgli who in turn sways his attention away from Baloo and towards himself. The “child-likeness” captured here is spot-on — the feeling of being observed and judged and subsequently expressing displeasure from the experience is something we’ve all been through.

We start off with a brilliant pose typical of a child’s bored look after hearing an “authority” figure lecture.

Notice the wonderful path of action of the head as it leads the action, reflecting his bored attitude as he physically turns away. The clear Lead and Follow action and subsequent overlapping action give the movement depth, clarity and weight.

After a quick dart of the eyes, we see the snapping action of his head in an assured display of repudiation.

The ending pose is one that is closed off and reserved — a man-cub determined to be left alone to his own isolated misery. The combined body language and facial expression confirms the sadness Mowgli feels and lends sympathy to his character (which prompts the enthusiastic action from the big bear in the following shot).

Stay tuned for Part 3!