Daniel Carlson

About movies, mostly.

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Category: Film (page 1 of 14)

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.

Scattered Thoughts About Bodies on Film

• It’s excessive and inappropriate to spend time in a review or essay gushing over the physical attributes of a movie star. That is, it’s one thing to acknowledge their appearance — or even their beauty — and another to make panting comments that edge against lasciviousness.

• Yet we go to the movies precisely because the people on the screen are so good-looking. Put characters actors aside for a minute and think about mainstream, meat-and-potatoes actors and actresses from Hollywood’s inception to today. These are attractive people, chosen because they’re attractive. We want them to be capable performers, yes, but we also want them to be beautiful because we want to look at them. We want to be able to spend two hours staring at something we find attractive, and movies let us do that free of judgment.

• Honest film criticism would, by necessity, need to reckon with this on a regular basis. And not just in the (rightly) expected ways that examine the methods by which fluctuating, hypocritical standards of beauty enforce rigid rules for young women, either. Rather, criticism would need to talk about bodies as forms, shapes, vessels, machines — as part of the artistic and aesthetic experience of the film. When someone moves across the frame with lithe grace; when two faces touch; when a hand strays to an ankle; when a man or woman is photographed to appear stunning. This is part of why we’re watching the movie, and to ignore it, or to pretend otherwise, would be dishonest.

• Perhaps we avoid such discussions in criticism not out of a sense of propriety (i.e., embarrassment at the topic itself) but out of uncertainty (i.e., we don’t know whether such observations would cheapen the film, or the act of writing about it). Additionally, the rise of television recaps and weekly attempts at reviews1 has popularized a critical emphasis on pure narrative and sociological reflections, sometimes at the expense of examining the filmmaking itself — the technique, the mechanics, and the bodies in motion.

• There must be, as in so many things, a middle path: a way to talk about physical beauty as artistic expression, not the target of juvenile lust. Further, it has to be possible to talk about attraction and desire — things that have powered the world since its creation, things that have started wars and brought life and art into being — with a frankness and candor that respects them for what they are. These forms on the screen are part of the picture.


  1. No weekly TV reviews can ever be fully realized or effective, since the work itself is being broadcast and discussed episodically.

Small Stakes

I recently rewatched The Hunt for Red October, which turns 25 this year. This is one of those action movies I can revisit again and again without diminishing returns, but only partly because it’s a relic from my childhood. 1 Rather, it remains such a compelling film because it maintains steady, calm focus on the human stakes at hand. International espionage and acts of war are discussed, but those are head-fakes. The real story here is about two men on separate but overlapping missions, and how they go about doing them. No cities are destroyed, no worlds are blown apart. There aren’t even that many deaths. The worry of a nuclear strike isn’t real, either: the U.S. officials consider it a possibility, but Ramius is a defector, not a madman. It is, compared with the blockbusters of today, a small film. And that’s the key to its appeal.

Modern blockbusters are usually about the world being in peril, at which point various superheroes or powers are allied to bring civilization back from annihilation. The Marvel movies are opening this up to the entire universe. But The Hunt for Red October is small-stakes action storytelling, which is to say it’s about the people, not the pyrotechnics. “Small” might be misleading here, since this is still an action movie fueled by memories of the Cold War that had just ended; I just mean “smaller than would come to be the norm.” When the world is constantly in danger on the big screen, then we as audiences grow numb to outsized narratives. But when the action is rooted in personal relationships and allowed to play out on a regional level, then we’re able to get our hands around it. It’s no accident that director John McTiernan helmed Die Hard in 1988 and Red October two years later, and that both action films not only stand the test of time 2, but that they’re also all about relationships. Die Hard means nothing if we don’t see John McClane struggling to reconnect with, and ultimately save, his wife. Similarly, Red October means nothing if we don’t have Ramius mourning his wife and reckoning with his life’s meaning, or Jack Ryan doing his best to keep the peace. By staying small, by sticking with these people and making the story matter to them, the filmmaker creates something that works for everyone.


  1. The film hit theaters a few months before I turned 8; I probably saw it for the first time around age 12.

  2. Die Hard is maybe the best American action film of the modern era. More than 25 years later, no one has topped it.

Closing the Distance

When I was in India researching “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” we went to this huge, ice cream picture palace to see a Bollywood movie. Here we were, with 2,000 Indians watching a film in Hindi, and there was the lowest possible comedy and then incredible drama and tragedy, and then (they) break out in songs. And it was three-and-a-half hours! We thought we had suddenly learnt Hindi, because we understood everything! We thought it was incredible. How involved the audience were. How uncool they were — how their coolness had been ripped aside, and how they were united in this singular sharing of the story. The thrill of thinking, “Could we ever do that in the West? Could we ever get past that cerebral cool and perceived cool?” — Baz Luhrmann

Musicals have been on my mind lately. I revisited Singin’ in the Rain several weeks ago, and in the past few days I’ve rewatched the 2007 edition of Hairspray and selected moments from Moulin Rouge!. What continues to stand out is the paradoxical tension in the way musicals do increasingly fantastical things as a means of removing emotional artifice from the narrative. Those moments that are the least realistic, that is, least representative of the world we live in — the moments when men and women actually slip into song, or dance, or rearrange reality entirely — are precisely those moments where the characters in question are being most honest with themselves, with each other, and with the viewer. The songs are what allow the characters to say how they really feel, and they almost always do this in exposed, even flowery language.

I wrote about some of this a few years ago, in a piece on Moulin Rouge!:

Against the wall and unable to think, [Christian] begins to recite Elton John’s “Your Song,” and the easy devotion of the lyrics fit his character perfectly. But it’s when he lets loose and begins to sing that the scene takes on new life and dimension. There are better songs out there than this one, but what matters in the moment is the honesty of the relationship that’s blooming. Luhrmann makes giant, candy-colored, often surreal-looking films, but he never fakes emotion. Ever. That genuineness comes shining through as Christian sings to Satine, sailing her out onto a cloud and capturing her heart. He returns to her later that night and unleashes a medley of pop songs covering everyone from The Beatles to Kiss to U2 to David Bowie. It’s an amalgam that would be almost laughable if there weren’t so much heart behind it; it’s like Luhrmann is having Christian assemble the ultimate mix tape. […]

Luhrmann manages to inhabit a space that allows for large-scale filmmaking that still relies on honest emotion, and that’s not an easy thing to do. The film lives for two hours in the tension between losing control and having the courage just to try, just as the narrative itself discovers that every love story is underpinned with loss. By turns comic and tragic, funny and sad, the movie is ultimately concerned with trying to capture as many disparate aspects of love and life as it can, leading to a finale that’s as uplifting and heartbreaking as any Luhrmann could have hoped to create, and he hasn’t topped the film since. “Moulin Rouge!” is a moving tribute to that notion of love constant beyond death, of forgiveness for wrongdoing, and of the belief that the cost of losing love is always worth the risk of searching for it.

In film, as in so many things, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. And Moulin Rouge! says its piece well. Luhrmann stuffs the frame with ideas, and as ostentatious as he is, he’s also willing to not call attention to certain images or details, content instead to let the viewer find them or to just let their existence color the experience on a subliminal level. (A nice touch: when Christian’s rendition of “Your Song” transitions to a fantasy, his jacket changes to one lined with sequins to catch the moonlight. He’s never still long enough for it to be really noticeable — it’s more of an atmospheric touch than anything.) Yet the statement works in a different way for the medium: musicals are often saying big, broad, poetic things, and they’re doing it through theatrical devices specifically designed to make the performer and viewer more vulnerable. There is no hiding here. It’s the opposite of almost every other film form, in which characters often struggle to remain independent or stoic as they experience life and love. This is a genre that practically bleeds through the projector. To watch someone sing and dance with all their heart is to witness something pure, and gentle, and honest in that we don’t often see on screen. Giving yourself over to a work of art that does this means allowing yourself to be as vulnerable as the characters, and that’s increasingly a difficult thing to do.

What mostly keeps us from engaging with works on this level is the fear of being seen as vulnerable, or being marked as soft. It’s not a requirement to like a musical just because it’s a musical, of course, just like there’s no guarantee a musical is automatically going to be good just by the merit of its genre. But honestly reckoning with something that requires such a high degree of vulnerability from the viewer is hard to do when most of us are used to dealing with things through at least several different layers of ironic posturing. As Christy Wampole wrote in the New York Times in 2012:

As a function of fear and pre-emptive shame, ironic living bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat. If life has become merely a clutter of kitsch objects, an endless series of sarcastic jokes and pop references, a competition to see who can care the least (or, at minimum, a performance of such a competition), it seems we’ve made a collective misstep. Could this be the cause of our emptiness and existential malaise? Or a symptom? […]

What would it take to overcome the cultural pull of irony? Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.

If we find ourselves less willing in general to be honest, to risk being sad or happy in a genuine way — to risk being moved by a work of art, or risk being let down by one — how much harder will it be to give ourselves over to those works that are designed to be especially vulnerable and revealing? If there’s nothing more honest than someone singing their heart out, how do we keep ourselves from losing the strength to watch? Romance, musical, family drama: any genre that revolves around (or even touches on) the need for emotional frailty will come to seem foreign, difficult, frightening. Keeping ourselves at a distance from the work is a great way of protecting ourselves, but a lousy way of enjoying something, and of living. Closing that distance is necessary.

That’s the danger of the “cerebral cool” or “perceived cool” that Luhrmann fought when creating Moulin Rouge!, and which continues today. It wasn’t just a musical, but one about love, and one that used existing pop songs in awkward and endearing fashion to get its point across. Contrast it with something like the 2012 film version of the musical Les Miserables, which is somehow cooler and less resonant. The best I can figure is that that version of Les Miserables feels like it’s trying to impress me, whereas other musicals feel like they’re unafraid to tell a sweeping story and be a little corny. They put a little more on the line, and it comes through on some deep level I can’t explain. But I know that I don’t want to give it up, or become immune to it.

Stray Thought on Joss Whedon’s Avengers Films

Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies are destined to be the least like his other works because corporate interests prevent him from killing any of the main characters. Every Whedon creation is high on the body count among the central cast: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly (along with its big-screen follow-up, Serenity) never shied away from making the kinds of changes that most other series would consider too drastic. Whedon’s work is, largely, about how people learn to cope with tragedy, and how they come to understand that the only thing they can control in a traumatic situation is their own reaction. However, he’s not able to make such sweeping changes within the Marvel universe, since the direction of the property is ultimately out of his hands. The first Avengers film wound up killing a supporting player only for that actor and character to be revived on the television spinoff Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a year later. Whedon’s Avengers films, then, are bound to be the least connected to his other works simply because they’re forbidden from exploring the emotional territory that Whedon’s come to value most. Financially, they’re his biggest marks on the entertainment world, but narratively, they’re his least personal.

I never feel that movies need people who are sympathetic, but they need characters who are fascinating and charismatic, or you’ll have people feeling shut out of a movie.
David Cronenberg

Why Do We Still Believe Trailers?

A few years back, faux trailers were a fad; specifically, faux trailers that were edited to make the movies in question appear radically different than they actually were. One of the more popular ones was “Scary Mary,” which was a recut ad designed to make Mary Poppins look like a horror movie:

There was also one that made The Shining look like a coming-of-age dramedy:

Around the same time, people were making joke versions of the trailer for Brokeback Mountain, including this one that retooled Back to the Future as a story of forbidden love:

The gag here is, of course, just how easy it is to make a trailer diverge wildly from the movie it’s advertising, with nothing more than the right song selections and some choice edits. These recut trailers pull the curtain down and show us the men and women pulling the switches: look how it easy is to make Doc and Marty fall in love, or Jack Torrance care for his family. Trailers can lie so easily. Why, then do we still believe them?

Trailers are as popular as ever among viewers and marketers. (Blockbuster films are built around campaigns involving nested series of trailers, sneak peeks, and even teases for trailers.) Even when they all start to run together, and even when they’re clearly selling a different product than the actual film, they remain big business. Yet the existence of the jokey recut trailers would seem to suggest that people know trailers are misleading, or at least, that they know trailers have the potential to be misleading. How can we laugh at their disingenuousness in one moment and breathlessly watch them, eyes wide, in the next?

• Maybe we like being targeted by marketing. Marketers know what we like, too. Trailers are designed to be alluring, tasty, and filling in an empty way, like fatty snacks that hit our tastebuds just so. There’s a reason we can’t stop eating junk food, and there’s a reason we can’t stop watching trailers.

• I also think we like suspending disbelief. A movie is long, and complicated, and potentially disappointing. It ebbs and flows, and it takes more effort on our part to get and stay engaged. A trailer, though, is a two-and-a-half-minute ride that’s almost guaranteed to trigger reactions within us, and it allows us to believe that the movie experience will be as exciting and fulfilling as the ad we’re consuming.

• And I think it’s that we’re used to them, and that we’re also used to holding contradictory beliefs that sometimes influence each other in ways we’re not fully aware of at the time. We know trailers are deceptive and misleading, but we also know they’re crafted to be entertaining, and we want to be entertained. We want so much to transform the feeling of “that was a good trailer” into “that movie looks good” that we do it without thinking. We can know, deep down, that trailers are lies, and we’ll still eagerly watch them in hopes of copping a buzz of excitement for something new. We know we’re being sold a bill of goods, but we’re still happy to buy. We’re weird.

Scattered Thoughts on Bad Marketing

• A movie is never its marketing, but it’s often worth looking at how movies are sold and what makes some of them successful while others struggle to find an audience.

• Edge of Tomorrow is a crisp, fun, entertaining action-spectacle that’s essentially Aliens crossed with Groundhog Day: a soldier named Cage (Tom Cruise) is tossed in with the front lines to fend off an alien invasion, and he dies in combat only to wake up at the beginning of the day to do it all over again. Every death “resets” the day, so Cage’s mission is to figure out how to beat the aliens, save the world, and stop the cycle. In addition to all that sci-fi action, there’s a decent amount of humor, or at least comic relief: little jokes and asides allow for breathing room, and they let the audience laugh and release a little of the tension that’s been building during the more action-driven scenes. In other words, it’s got good pacing, and a brain.

• Almost none of that is evident from the film’s first full trailer:

The follow-up trailer isn’t much better:

They deal in their way with the story’s central gimmick, but they’re almost incomprehensible. They don’t do anything to distinguish the movie from other blockbusters, nor do they give the first clue to the film’s verve or voice. Place it next to something like the ad for Guardians of the Galaxy, which used its own pop soundtrack for atmosphere, and you see how forgettable it is.

• Standard caveat here that all trailers are lies designed by marketers.

• Audiences are bought more often than they’re earned, and there’s a clear disconnect here between the movie and the way it’s being presented to potential audiences. Even the title was a point of contention. Star Emily Blunt said that she was a fan of All You Need Is Kill, the title of the comic that inspired the film, but even more curiously, Warner Bros. seemed to attempt to retitle the film for home video. The film’s tagline of “Live. Die. Repeat.” — which is used prominently in the trailers — takes center stage on the Blu-ray/DVD cover, while iTunes and Amazon both list its title as Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow:

edge

edge-am

• The movie’s name didn’t change, though. When the title finally displays (at the end of the movie), it’s still just Edge of Tomorrow.

• This is an amazingly insecure and weird move on the part of the studio. It assumes that audiences stayed away because the found the title generic (which it is), and not, more accurately, because they didn’t know what kind of movie they’d be getting. There’s nothing in the ads to stylistically or tonally distinguish Edge of Tomorrow from the overwrought, almost hilariously serious promotions for the films that were released just before it, like Godzilla or X-Men: Days of Future Past, or shortly afterward, like Transformers: Age of Extinction or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It’s pitched and sold as one more in a line of summer shoot-em-ups, when it’s actually much more more fun and interesting than that. The trailer makes it feel like a somber march up Omaha Beach, when the film itself is robust, interesting, funny, exciting, and genuinely engaging. Getting scared and changing the movie’s title isn’t going to suddenly cause people to rediscover it. Rather, it causes confusion and makes the movie feel that much more like an uncertain proposition. How good can it really be, we’ll wonder, if even the studio is trying to hide it from us?