Daniel Carlson

About movies, mostly.

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Category: Film (page 1 of 14)

May We Always Go on Singing: Sunshine and Making Peace With the Past

For Musings, I take a look at Sunshine, a sweeping historical drama that stars Ralph Fiennes in three lead roles across three generations: grandfather, father, son.

Before rewatching the film for this piece, I’d only seen it once. I rented it on a whim in the fall of 2000, when I was a freshman at college. The video store down the street1 offered one free catalog rental every day in a different genre: comedy, drama, horror, family, etc. I went all the time, always on the lookout. I hadn’t heard of Sunshine or its writer-director, István Szabó, before then, and I’d only seen Ralph Fiennes a few years earlier in Quiz Show.2 But the film rocked me back and stayed with me, and I would find myself thinking of it regularly for years. I wanted to revisit it with older eyes, and I was happy to find it’s still beautiful, sad, operatic, and ultimately big-hearted.

May We Always Go on Singing: Sunshine and Making Peace With the Past


  1. Actual VHS tapes.

  2. I would see Schindler’s List later in 2000, and The English Patient sometime in the next year.

My Cinematic Year in Review, 2015

I don’t watch as many movies as I used to. It’s not that I love them any less: I still think film is one of our best and most powerful art forms, capable of saying so much more about us than we even realize or intend. But for the past couple years, I’ve felt less interested in staying current with new releases, and with the inevitable pop-cultural #hottakes that accompany them, and more focused on watching what I really want to watch. I went weeks in 2015 only watching one or two movies, and spent whole months just working through classics. In general, I didn’t catch up with most 2015 releases until the end of the year, and before mid-November, I’d seen almost no 2015 releases.

My tally of first-time viewings reflects the change. Beyond that, though, I also spent more time this year revisiting films I hadn’t seen in a while, seeing how they’ve changed in the intervening years, or seeing how I’ve changed. My new-to-me tallies for the past few years:

2011: 79 movies
2012: 69 movies
2013: 104 movies
2014: 79 movies
2015: 64 movies

I used to think I needed to hit a certain number, or a certain kind of number, but now I realize that the natural ebb and flow is more comfortable. Gorge and break, skim and stop; explore as a result of your own drive.

Whiplash

Whiplash

January

Whiplash (2014): Writer-director Damien Chazelle focuses on the physical tools needed to bring music to life: the sticks, the horns, the stands, the folders, the sweat. It’s shot and cut within an inch of its life, and it almost shakes with energy.
Pillow Talk (1959): From a historical standpoint, it’s fascinating and uncomfortable to watch a closeted gay man play a character who at one point makes fun of closeted gay men. This comes with the territory, though. Watching older movies always means experiencing them through your own time, as well as the time in which they were made. (Another example: Pillow Talk came out five years before the Civil Rights Act was passed.) It’s easy to see why the movie was a hit, though. Rock Hudson is staggeringly charismatic, and Doris Day’s energy is perfect.
Black Sea (2015): On paper, it has the elements for pulpy, thrilling entertainment: a submarine, a band of rogues, and a hunt for forgotten Nazi gold. And indeed, the first two-thirds of the movie are tight and propulsive, as greed and fear drive the characters to play off each other in desperate ways. But the home stretch finds certain characters swapping personalities and motivations, and they cease to be people and instead become interchangeable devices for plot mechanics, after which it’s a bumpy ride to the finish line.
Rewatches:
— The Critic (selected episodes): The first season is better than the second — the animation is a little tighter, and the stories have a little more bite — but it’s still an enjoyable series to revisit. It’s also supremely weird to rewatch as an adult who has worked in a freelance capacity as a film critic for more than ten years. Jay’s struggles to reconcile his tastes with others’, and his general insecurity, are arrows that hit somewhat close to the center of the target.
— Singin’ in the Rain: The older I get, the fonder I grow of musicals. They’re such a pure cinematic form, blending fantasy and reality in ways that no other genre can. There’s so much beauty here, too, in what has to be one of the best musicals and one of the best movies ever made. The energy, the love story, the Hollywood satire, the music and movement: every bit of it is gorgeous.
— L.A. Confidential: It’s fitting that Curtis Hanson’s period piece about Hollywood crime is itself a throwback to big, brassy Hollywood movies. What really popped for me this time around was the score: bombastic, moody, driving, exactly the kind of thing you don’t get much these days. And even with so many good performances on screen, Guy Pearce’s always stands out. Ed Exley has to be power-hungry but also uneasy with himself, cocky but insecure; he imagines that he’s holding it together, even though he knows that people can probably see through his act. He has to carry himself with a certain confidence even as he knows he’s acting. There are wonderful layers to the character that Pearce brings out, and he’s so good and subtle that it’s easy to overlook him in favor of the equally impressive but flashier work of Kevin Spacey and Russell Crowe. Hanson never lets the energy falter, either, especially as the movie gathers speed and enters the home stretch.
— Casino: It takes a lot of work and skill to make something this big feel so breezy. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker cuts this thing within an inch of its life: the movements are rapid but never dislocating. What they are is a kind of purposeful disorientation, so that watching the movie starts to mimic the queasy feeling of being in an actual casino, surrounded by vice and unable to find the exit. Scorsese’s second collaboration with Nicholas Pileggi is probably bound to forever live in the shadow of their first one, Goodfellas, but Casino is still stunning all on its own. What makes the film so charged is the way Ace and Nicky are fated to come into conflict, driven to overreach by their own hubris (Ace picks fights with the local government, Nicky crosses the bosses).

Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow

February

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Rewatches:
— Moulin Rouge!
— Hairspray (2007): “Good Morning Baltimore” is in my head more than you would imagine.

The One I Love

The One I Love

March

Hairspray (1988): I came to this after seeing the musical, which made for some interesting dissonance. Although this is the original film, I find myself almost unwittingly thinking of it as an “alternate” story to the musical’s “true” one. I also just enjoyed the musical more, thanks largely to the cast. (Divine has presence, but still seemed too aware of the camera.)
The China Syndrome (1979): One of the standout thrillers reflecting the bleak 1970s back on itself, anchored by a typically memorable and multi-faceted performance from Jack Lemmon. He has to walk so many wires with his character here: smart enough to do his job, but also smart enough to realize when things are going bad; canny enough to reach out to the reporter (Jane Fonda), but also honest enough to try and flirt with her. He’s tangible in a way few actors are.
The One I Love (2014): It’s amazing the depth and distance that quality writing, directing, and acting can create in a movie that only has three characters.
Godzilla (2014) (half-finished): Laughably inept. As the lead, Aaron Taylor-Johnson seems unable to express any single recognizable emotion. His own father dies right in front of him, and he resorts to running his hands through his hair; five minutes later, it’s as if it never happened. A clumsy, overplotted blockbuster that uses effects as an excuse to string together boring plot points, with no consideration of acting, writing, or narrative thrust. I turned it off around the one-hour mark because I didn’t want to waste a second hour of my life on it.
The Two Faces of January (2014): I could probably watch Oscar Isaac do anything.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015): Never underestimate the power of evil to manipulate the desperate.
Rewatches:
— The Hunt for Red October
— Get Shorty: One of the more enjoyable movies about the movies, in part because its idea of “the movies” resides in a pleasant alternate universe that broke from ours sometime in the 1960s. Shlocky monster horror is mainstream, superheroes are unseen, and YA franchises don’t even exist.

We Own the Night

We Own the Night

April

Life Itself (2014): The best moments were those that touched on Roger Ebert as a man at war with himself: aware of his limitations and vices, working to live with them.
Sinatra: All or Nothing at All (2015): This Alex Gibney doc doesn’t hit nearly as hard as his Going Clear did, but that’s the price you pay for access to estate materials. Nicely structured, though, weaving through Sinatra’s “farewell” concert and looping out to different parts of his life.
We Own the Night (2007): This was only my second James Gray film (after the stellar The Immigrant), and it was fantastic. It’s a solidly built drama about crime and family, and a blend of classic and modern style.
Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show (2014): The inadvertent comedy of the redundant title was the first sign that there wouldn’t be much worth exploring here. Far too pat.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014): They’re really determined to keep making these.
Marnie (1964): Sexually bizarre, but a great thriller. That applies to a lot of Hitchcock.
Strangers on a Train (1951): Told you.
Rewatches:
— Wag the Dog: A movie this dark was never going to be widely accepted. But its strength comes in part from its willingness to follow through on the awful conceit of its story: that people determined to fabricate a war to save a presidency wouldn’t hesitate to eliminate anyone who would threaten their operation.
— Jerry Maguire: Absolutely holds up.

Ex Machina

Ex Machina

May

Elizabethtown (2005): Better than its reputation; weaker than its predecessors.
Ex Machina (2015): Chilling, gripping science fiction with a genuine head on its shoulders. Oscar Isaac has now ascended to the level of treasured national resource.
We Bought a Zoo (2011): Doesn’t even feel like a Cameron Crowe movie. It’s weird and almost unsettling that the same guy who did Say Anything… did this.
The Rundown (2003)
Rewatches:
— Wet Hot American Summer: A+ for comedy, Beth.
— Best in Show: Guest’s second best.

An American in Paris

An American in Paris

June

An American in Paris (1951): Gene Kelly was superhuman. The plot’s not as memorable as some of his other musicals, but the ballet in the final act is every bit the masterpiece.
Rewatches:
Nightcrawler: Queasy and beautiful. Makes total sense that writer-director Dan Gilroy’s brother Tony did Michael Clayton. That’s an ideal double-bill.
High Fidelity: Cusack is the perfect hesitant shitheel.

Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation

Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation

July

The Way of the Gun (2000): A little overly “gritty” in that late-1990s kind of way, but still engaging.
Black Rock (2013): A great, grim, quick little thriller. It works in part because it starts so innocuously, and twists so suddenly into horror.
Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (2015): The ideal summer entertainment. Light, slick, funny, bracing.
Rewatches:
Mission: Impossible: Almost twenty years on, and still a tight, winning action movie. The set pieces feel almost small compared with where the series (and action cinema in general) has gone, but they’ve lost none of their punch.

The End of the Tour

The End of the Tour

August

Hard Boiled (1992): Worth it for some wonderfully choreographed action, especially in the climax.
The End of the Tour (2015): It’s hard to watch a movie like this if you’re a fan of its real-life subject, David Foster Wallace (which I am). Jason Segel does a good job at seeming like a real person, though — quiet, insecure — as opposed to a collection of tics meant to forecast tragedy. Yet that’s ultimately what makes the film so odd and, in its way, unfair. It’d be one thing to tell a fictional story about an aspiring writer worming his way into the life of his more talented idol, and Jesse Eisenberg makes for a perfect Salieri figure. But so much of the film feels predicated upon the viewer’s knowledge of true events, including Wallace’s suicide, that the film skips over characters, plots, and even consequences in the service of a general air of “inspiration” in its final moments. For instance, Eisenberg’s David Lipsky wants to write an article about Wallace, but we never find out if it runs; he wants to grow as a writer, but we never found it if he does; we also don’t even learn the circumstances that led him to publish his book about the days he spent with Wallace. In other words, it feels too falsely manipulative, unwilling to stay loyal to its nature as a story and too eager to trade on the viewer’s knowledge of what would eventually happen to Wallace.
Hurricane of Fun: The Making of Wet Hot (2015): A fun but aimless collection of behind-the-scenes footage. Less a documentary than a loose assemblage of clips.
The Drop (2014): Tom Hardy should always have a dog as a costar.
The Thin Blue Line (1988): Throws you into the deep end and then gets in with you.
Trouble in Paradise (1932): Lighter than air and sexy as hell. Witty, warm, exciting; almost everything you could want in a movie.
Rewatches:
Night Moves
Inside Man: One of Lee’s best.
That Thing You Do: A comfort-food mainstay.
Croupier
Edge of Tomorrow: I can’t stop watching this movie.

One Hour With You

One Hour With You

September

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): I didn’t see the clothed emperor so many of my colleagues did here. It’s got plenty of energy, sure, but the characters are so empty (especially Max) that the story is meaningless, and the resulting product is essentially an exercise in impressive stuntwork.
Exporting Raymond (2010): There’s a good idea in here somewhere, but the problem is that the film’s subject, Phil Rosenthal, is also its director. As such, the central story (investigating what happens when an American TV show is remade for a foreign audience) is a little shapeless.
One Hour With You (1932): Maurice Chevalier getting away with everything he could in the final days before the Code.
Twilight (1998): The plot turns are telegraphed almost in neon, but it’s still alluring to see Newman, Garner, and Hackman in their latter days.
Rewatches:
Awful Nice: Not as strong as I remember it being from a SXSW screening a couple years back, but not bad.
Junebug
Mulholland Dr.: I love this movie.

Laura

Laura

October

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931): Another pre-Code Chevalier from Lubitsch, and cute enough, though not as winning as One Hour With You.
Lost Highway (1997): David Lynch scares the hell out of me, and I love it. (See also.)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946): A surprisingly twisty noir — it feels like it has seven acts — with great work from John Garfield and the stunning Lana Turner. Bonus: Hume Cronyn almost walks away with the show.
On the Town (1949): Effervescent, beautiful, crackling. One of my favorite viewing experiences of the year.
Laura (1944): “Have you ever been in love?” “A doll in Washington Heights once got a fox fur out of me.” That’s when I knew I’d found something.
Anchors Aweigh (1945): The first Sinatra-Kelly pairing (which would prompt their reunion in On the Town), and while it’s a little flabby, it’s still gorgeous to look at. Kathryn Grayson is about as exciting as a wet sock, and her period-style warbling doesn’t age well, but Sinatra and Kelly are still great.
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953): Fantastic and slick in that 1950s Hollywood way. You can practically smell American empire through the frame.
The Amityville Horror (1979): Could be summarized: “Strange things happen and then everybody gets away just fine.” Weirdly anticlimactic.
Rewatches:
The Departed: DiCaprio is so good here, so on edge, that he walks away with the movie.
The Prestige: One of Nolan’s absolute best, if not the peak.

M

M

November

The Haunting (1963): Nothing but smart editing and sound design, yet it’s more terrifying than most modern thrillers.
M (1931): Eerie, unnerving, fantastic.
Spy (2015): Melissa McCarthy has settled into a nice groove: she knows what she wants to do, and what she’s good at doing.
The Watcher in the Woods (1980): My wife grew up watching this, and it is bonkers. It starts out as a ghost story but then says “Maybe aliens?”
Carol (2015): Todd Haynes is a methodical filmmaker with a modest output — he’s only made six features in 24 years — and that sense of care and focus are evident here. Carol is a quiet film about repression and fear, relying on glances, body language, and the hope of the unknown to communicate its characters’ longing for love.
Steve Jobs (2015): Aaron Sorkin’s script is effervescent, but the film as a whole doesn’t quite hang together.
Spotlight (2015): Tom McCarthy’s another filmmaker who traditionally focuses on small, interpersonal moments, which makes him a good fit for the journalistic grind of Spotlight. It’s such a solid, strong film that its real skill and power won’t be recognized for a few years.
Trainwreck (2015): Judd Apatow’s films now seem hidebound to follow a formula he stumbled across a decade back: lots of improvised riffs, some stray plots that go nowhere, and running times that are about 30 minutes overweight. (When a potentially breezy rom-com like Trainwreck clocks in at just over two hours, something’s gotta go.) There’s still a good deal to enjoy here, though, especially Bill Hader’s chemistry with Amy Schumer. I was a little late to the party, watching the film a few months after it came out, but even so I was struck by how tone-deaf and immature some critics’ reactions were to the film re: what they viewed as its conservative or regressive bias. Schumer’s character, by the end, decides to grow up a little: she cuts back on the boozing and opts to risk heartbreak for a real relationship. This is a pretty common arc, especially for an Apatow movie, which are all about people deciding to get their acts together. It’s not inherently conservative1 or retrograde for a character to have an awakening of sorts and pursue change in the name of a higher good; that’s most drama. It doesn’t become oppressive just because the protagonist is a woman.
Results (2015): A shaggy, warm, engaging romantic dramedy. The low budget and run-and-gun attitude shine through in the best way.
Rewatches:
— Bull Durham: A perfect film.
— Magnolia
— It Should Happen to You

Brooklyn

Brooklyn

December

Joy (2015): A soupy mess. Jennifer Lawrence, charismatic as she may be, doesn’t have the age or range to play a grown woman with the kind of history David O. Russell wants her to have. Russell’s determination to keep making the same film over and over — a cranked-up version of 1970s histrionics — is old now. I pine for the days of Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees.
The Hateful Eight (2015): A brutal, riveting drawing-room horror story. The first 90 minutes are the tightest, most suspenseful filmmaking Tarantino’s done; the second 90, when all hell breaks loose, is just as rewarding.
Best of Enemies (2015): A well-meaning but small-feeling doc about the rivalry between Vidal and Buckley. Two titans seem weirdly shrunk.
The Big Short (2015): One of the best American movies of the year. Punchy and full-throated, like an angry civics lesson from a history teacher too tired to pretend the world’s worth saving.
Inside Out (2015): A flat-out masterpiece. The characters and story are perfect, and the emotionally nuanced message — about the necessity of sadness and grief, and the way all memories are made of a mix of feelings — is one of Pixar’s most powerful.
Sicario (2015): Great photography. Bad everything else.
The Revenant (2015): See above.
Trumbo (2015): See above.
The Good Dinosaur (2015): See above.
Brooklyn (2015): A wonderful film. Too often the end of the year brings dramas that traffic in the worst of the human condition, and while those stories are worth telling, they can induce a Pavlovian response. More than halfway into Brooklyn, I kept expecting someone to get raped, or have a medically risky abortion, or run over a friend with their car, or contract polio, or who knows what. But this isn’t that film. Rather, it’s a beautiful drama that digs into the life of a young woman who emigrates from Ireland to the U.S. in the 1950s. By focusing on these “small” stakes, the film feels universal in its observations of family. Bonus: my favorite ending scene/shot of the year.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015): It took 35 years, but somebody finally made an entertaining Star Wars movie again.
The Martian (2015): Entertaining, meat-and-potatoes adventure. The book is a mess, but that makes it perfect fodder for a movie adaptation. There’s no style or insight to be shed in the process of translating it to the screen.
Rewatches:
— Sunshine: Not the Danny Boyle film, but the 1999 drama by Istvan Szabo. I rented it from the video store in the fall of 2000, on a whim, and it stayed with me. I revisited it for the first time since then, and I found it even more moving.
The Godfather: What’s left to say? The American dream as operatic tragedy.
White Christmas: My father and sister loved this movie when I was young, but it took me years to appreciate it.
Star Wars: I was born in 1982, and am therefore of the generation that still refers to the first film simply as “Star Wars.”
The Empire Strikes Back: The best, most beautiful, most impressive film in the series.

By the Numbers

Total films seen: 642
Documentaries: 6
Animated films: 2
Foreign (non-U.S.) films: 13
Movies released in 2015: 26
Movies released before 2015: 38
Movies released before 2000: 22
Movies released before 1950: 8
Of the ten highest grossers of the year (as of Dec. 31), I saw: 3

Favorites (in no particular order): Brooklyn, Laura, On the Town, Trouble in Paradise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Drop, The Rundown, The Big Short, Carol, Spotlight, Ex Machina


  1. Whatever this even means to the different critics hurling it at the film like it’s the biggest rock they can find.

  2. To keep things easy, these numbers only cover films that were new to me, not rewatches.

  3. Ugh. What a terribly low number.

I’ll Help You Be Popular: It Should Happen to You and the Thirst for Fame

For Musings, I take a look at It Should Happen to You, a bittersweet dramedy from 1954 that pretty much predicted Kim Kardashian:

I’ll Help You Be Popular: It Should Happen to You and the Thirst for Fame

The Hollywood from Another World: Bowfinger, Get Shorty, and Living in the Movies

My latest piece for Musings is about movies set in Hollywood, and how everything gets weirder from there.

The Hollywood from Another World: Bowfinger, Get Shorty, and Living in the Movies

Magnolia, Getting Older, and Historical Context

When Paul Thomas Anderson sat down for an interview with Marc Maron in January, he said of his 1999 film Magnolia that, if he were making it today, it would be a great deal shorter. The film runs just over three hours, and though Anderson didn’t disown the film at all, he did talk about what drove him to make it the way he did. His father — actor, announcer, and radio personality Ernie Anderson — died in February 1997, a few months before the release of Anderson’s Boogie Nights, and Anderson spoke to Maron about the degree to which Magnolia was a way for him to process his grief. It’s very much a film of and about mourning: Anderson, not yet 30, was wrestling with the death of his father, and the film that came out of that is wounded, frenetic, and restless with emotion. There’s very little release in the film. Rather, initial set-ups will build to emotional intensity and hold it, often cutting between multiple story lines caught at similarly fraught moments, scored to swirling music that never lets up. It’s raw, is what it is: uncomfortable, yearning, rocking back and forth. It’s the work of a young man working through something big. It’s no surprise that he’d tell that story differently now. More than fifteen years have passed, and Anderson’s evolved both as a filmmaker and as a person. But that’s precisely why Magnolia is so important the way it is.

Art is many things, but among them it’s a snapshot of the artist at that moment in time. Here is how they decide to tell the story; here is what they value; here is what they revere or disdain. Of course Anderson at 45 wouldn’t make the same Magnolia as Anderson at 30. That’s the whole point. It’s a work by a gifted artist at that instant in their life. A year on either side, and the final product would be different. Magnolia is the howl over a hospital bed, the thump of the first clod of dirt hitting the coffin lid, the sweat on the pallbearer’s palms. It’s a reckoning, and it’s made from inside the pain. A film made with the benefit of distance provided by time wouldn’t necessarily be bad (Anderson hasn’t made a bad film yet), but it would necessarily be different. The monologue about regret still has blood on the page:

The film runs thick with the themes of parent-child relationships, forgiveness, loneliness, and reconciliation. There are two elderly, cancer-ridden fathers who have destroyed their relationships with their children; a third abusive father who exploits his son; a has-been pining after an unrequited love; a divorced cop struggling to do what’s right; and adult children, stunted by abuse, who have to learn how to live. When Anderson talked to Maron, he said there are parts of the film, possibly entire plots, he’d do away with now, and the film does indeed sprawl. But that sprawl is part of what makes the film rewarding. It’s a movie made by a guy trying to feel everything at once, then trying to understand it and get it down on paper. It’s obsessed with coincidence and chance, with the intersection of mercy and grace, with the way we can make mistake after mistake but still find the opportunity to make up for it. The performances are uniformly stellar, the individual stories land with weight and power, and the film still has the power to stir in the viewer the same awe and fear it evoked all those years ago. Watching it fifteen years later, you’re struck not by how long it is, but by how short; not by how much is in it, but by the shadows of the world just outside the frame.

They Have to Take You In: Junebug and the Perils of Homecomings

For Musings: a look at Junebug, redemption, and the South:

They Have to Take You In: Junebug and the Perils of Homecomings

The House Always Wins: Croupier and the Thrill of the Invisible Heist

My latest piece for Musings is about Croupier. I feel lucky to have actually caught this in the theater when it was released. It was my introduction to Clive Owen, and for years after, I thought first of Croupier whenever I saw him. He’s fantastic in it.

The House Always Wins: Croupier and the Thrill of the Invisible Heist

Every Man Is an Island: Perspective and Noir in Night Moves

My latest piece for Musings is about Night Moves, a fantastic neo-noir from 1975 that dives deep into the moral uncertainty of the era.

Every Man Is an Island: Perspective and Noir in Night Moves

The Mystery Dance: Zero Effect and Bill Pullman’s Finest Hour

At Oscilloscope’s Musings, I talk about Zero Effect, a sharp-edged mystery-dramedy from 1998 that deserves a wider audience.

The Mystery Dance: Zero Effect and Bill Pullman’s Finest Hour

We Admitted We Were Powerless: Addiction and Recovery in Clean and Sober

My first piece for Oscilloscope’s Musings is about a standout scene in Clean and Sober, one of those great little dramas that can be too easily forgotten. (Good news: you can rent it for a couple bucks.)

We Admitted We Were Powerless: Addiction and Recovery in Clean and Sober

What Does the Future of Film Criticism Look Like?

Over at Movie Mezzanine, I worked through the life cycles of film criticism, the death of The Dissolve, and how TV might save movies. (True story.)

The Bright But Uncertain Future of Film Criticism

Action as Narrative

Watching The Rundown recently, I was struck by how efficient and enjoyable the action scenes were. After a minute, I realized it was because each of the action scenes also functioned as a narrative one: that is, the story moved forward with the action, and it was different when the action stopped. This is a fundamental requirement for scenes like this, but so many modern action movies ignore it.

If you can pull any scene out of a movie and not change the narrative, or if you can drop a scene in a different part of a movie, that scene needs to go. Every scene is a miniature arc, and it moves the story forward. This is easy to grasp when thinking about regular old dramatic scenes of, say, two people talking, or going out to dinner, or driving somewhere, or negotiating for something, or really anything. But the rule1 holds for special genres like action or musicals, too. When the romantic lead bursts into song, he’s going to use those verses to come to a conclusion: he should pursue his lover, or quit his job, or do whatever the story is offering him. Before the song, he’s uncertain; when it’s done, he knows what to do. That’s progress.

Action movies, done right, work the same way. No matter how spectacular or extravagant the action, it has to push the story along. Die Hard is, as always, a good example. When John McClane squares off against his first terrorist, it’s not just a fight scene, but a move forward for the script. When the scene is over, McClane knows more about who he’s up against, he starts to plan counterattacks, he makes decisions about what to do next, etc. If you removed the fight, and went right from “terrorist stalks McClane” to “McClane, now inexplicably bloodied, walks through the building,” you’d have a gap. The action scene fits.

The Rundown knows this and acts accordingly. When Beck (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) fights a group of rebels in the Amazon rainforest, he’s not just filling screen time, but saving his life and forging a new alliance in the process. When he and his cohorts find an ancient treasure and cause a cave-in, they emerge from the accident with the treasure in hand. If they didn’t, there’d be no reason for the cave-in. Everything has a reason for being, which is part of what makes the film so enjoyable.2

A lot of modern action movies forget this, and they string together action scenes that are designed to smother the viewer but that don’t have much reason for being. There’s a car chase scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier that doesn’t change the story but merely prolongs the inevitable. The 2009 Star Trek comes to mind, too: quite a few of its action scenes could be taken out with no change on the story. When Kirk and Scotty beam aboard the Enterprise late in the film, Scotty winds up in a tube filled with water, and Kirk has to race to free him. Take that out, and they still make it to the ship, and they still get apprehended by security. It doesn’t do anything but pad the run time. Related to this, a lot of modern action movies (especially Marvel’s) often operate in bad faith by assuming that, if you’re watching, then you inherently care about all these characters and know their backstories and are just excited to see them do stuff. But The Rundown is its own, self-contained world, so it has to do the work of introducing characters to the viewer and then keeping the viewer invested through drama. This, again, is 101-level stuff, but it gets overlooked so often in today’s tentpole market that it’s almost startling to see a movie that does it right.

Action is narrative. When an action movie bears this in mind, the action feels exciting and propulsive. When it doesn’t, the action feels cursory and forgettable. Story is above all.


  1. All rules can be broken if they’re broken the right way. Malick communicates in tone poems, but they still cohere in their own way.

  2. It’s also got a nice energy and a sense of genuine adventure, as well as a solid cast topped by The Rock (eminently charming) and Seann William Scott (perennially underrated).

It’s Not Too Late for You to Become a Person of Substance

Over at Movie Mezzanine, I take a look at the films of Cameron Crowe, and I talk (in part) about how his movies are also his mission statements.

Birth of the Uncool: The Mind and Movies of Cameron Crowe

(Thanks to The Dissolve for the link.)

Stray Thought on Superhero Recognizability

Cinematically, we seem to be running past the point of recognizable superheroes, i.e., those characters with a large enough pop culture profile and a long enough media history to make them broadly marketable. Superman first appeared in 1938, and Batman followed in 1939; both of them soon expanded from comic books into radio, TV, and movies. Captain America and Wonder Woman came in 1941. But Spider-Man, Ant-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers — these are products of the 1960s, and they’ve seen varying degrees of success in their attempts to enter the cultural mainstream. Their stories and supporting characters are less well known, which makes them potentially much more confusing and alienating for what we’ll call the average moviegoer: someone with a passing acquaintance with these characters, but not someone who reads (or grew up reading) the various comic books that detailed all these characters’ cosmic adventures. When the Joker shows up in The Dark Knight, we’re able to call back to Jack Nicholson, Cesar Romero, even the voice of Mark Hamill; when an interdimensional being uses telekinesis to build Egypt’s pyramids in a post-credits stinger, we have no idea what is happening. I wonder if there’s a point past which the audience won’t be able to keep up with the studios. Maybe it makes sense, in a way, to keep “rebooting” the popular superhero franchises every 10-15 years. They’ve got the momentum.

Pop Culture Vocabulary

I’m always fascinated when certain concepts from movies or television break free from their sources and become part of the pop culture lexicon. This is different from popular quotes or characters. What I’m talking about are those instances where things themselves become shorthand for ideas. Examples I’ve been able to come up with:

• Mr. Mom (n.): Now-dated slang for a father lending a hand in what were stereotypically motherly tasks.
• MacGyver (v.): To rig up a needlessly complicated device or mechanism.
• Daisy Dukes (n.): Short shorts existed long before The Dukes of Hazzard, but this became a catch-all phrase.
• Gaslight (v.): To cruelly destroy someone’s memory or perception.

What’s important is that these phrases hint at their origin but aren’t dependent upon it, becoming broader in application over time. For instance, gaslighting doesn’t mean to drive one’s wife insane as part of a complicated heist, but rather, to generally manipulate someone’s perception of reality. These phrases become larger than the works that inspired them. Seinfeld wound up popularizing some, too (like “close talker”), but just as often those were catch phrases that lived and died with the show.

There have to be more than these few I’ve listed. I just need to start remembering them.