Monday, April 30, 2012

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

One of Sesame Street’s lasting qualities is how its band of puppets channels the spectrum of human personality. Each character has one or two unique behavioral characteristics—and problems to overcome—with which audiences can identify. You have Big Bird’s small ego and casual lack of awareness, Cookie Monster’s compulsive impulsiveness, Oscar’s general crankiness, and so many more. Indeed, we love these characters for their flaws, which are simply stated and yet completely, even painfully relatable. Their deficiencies are the characters’ defining qualities, which in part explains why a character representing pure, unfiltered love was both a surprising yet also inevitable addition to Sesame’s Street’s puppet troop. With a shrill voice and voracious drive to give hugs and kisses, Elmo would become a force that redefined and ultimately transcended Sesame Street. Indeed, the omnipresence of Elmo represented more than simply love, but also the commercial desire to exploit it. Maybe this explains the fiercely divisive response to the character, whose exaltation for children typically translates to irritation for adults.

Constance Marks’ documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is only tangentially concerned with Elmo’s commercially ubiquitous existence. Instead of using the character as a basis, it chronicles the life of the man who brought Elmo to life. The film argues that the love that Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash experienced through his life is the defining quality of Elmo that would inspire and enrapture the imaginations of children the world over. Marks uses pictures and old camera footage to draw an evocative picture of Clash’s life, from his modest upbringing outside Baltimore, to his dedication to creating and operating puppets. Clash achieved success at a young age due in part to good fortune, but mostly from his commitment to the craft of puppetry and the love and support of his family. It’s standard stuff as movie narratives go, but that is about a man whose fame and influence is known to the world only as Elmo makes it unique. Moreover, to see Clash, his family, and colleagues reflect on his unique fame is richly compelling, mostly because these reflections come across as wholly genuine.

Being Elmo is also worthwhile for the story it tells about the world of puppetry in entertainment. It offers a distinctive perspective on the zeitgeist of Jim Henson and the muppet empire to which he gave voice. The anecdotes and behind-the-scenes perspective on this world are captivating, particularly Clash’s relationship with Kermit Love, who designed many of the puppets we know and love today. Love is a magnetic personality; the kind of quiet, but zany fellow who was likely blissfully unaware of his own genius. Another highlight is a brief, but poignant interlude at Jim Henson’s funeral, where Clash and other esteemed Muppet/Sesame Street veterans perform a song in character and on stage. Being Elmo contains a number of these small vignettes fashioning a “legends-in-action” aura that lends nice contrast to the central profile of Clash.

Being Elmo’s achievements may be limited by the focus of its premise, but it is nevertheless a fascinating portrait of a person whose influence stretches across nations and generations but whose face is unknown to nearly all. Even those who resist Elmo may find themselves warming up to puppet after learning about the character's benevolent creator. Its message may be too deliberate, but, like the show that has given us Elmo and countless other memorable characters, Being Elmo inspires because of the simplicity and earnestness with which it delivers that message. (Constance Marks, 2011) ***

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Critical Distance: Mission Impossible—Ghost Protocol

As commercial cinema goes, animation and live action are seen as divergent modes of filmmaking sharing the mutual goal of aesthetic cohesiveness; they only achieve it by different means. While Avatar and The Adventures of Tintin achieve a melding of live-action and animation techniques, other examples suggest that the sensibilities of animation and live action are more disparate and incompatible. If the static shots and deadened rhythms of the big-budget fantasy films John Carter and the first two Chronicles of Narnia entries are any indication, the qualities of animation may not so easily translate to live action. These films were directed by animation veterans—Andrew Stanton and Andrew Adamson, respectively—whose authorial voices evaporated under the conditions of live-action filmmaking.

Given the standing casualties, it would be reasonable to expect that Brad Bird, the venerable and considerably gifted director of Pixar greats Ratatouille and The Incredibles, would encounter similar difficulties working in live action as did Adamson and Stanton. Bird's first project in the non-animated realm would pose a more considerable test than those of his predecessors, both of whom were essentially handed the reins of a new film franchise. If the translation from animation to live action weren't already revealed as problematic by the previous examples, the challenge of making a fourth entry in the moribund Mission: Impossible franchise would be potentially as significant. Yet, despite these (and forgive me for saying) impossible conditions, Bird makes Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol work. It succeeds not only as the resurrection of a franchise but also as an exercise in the rarified practice of artful action filmmaking. Whether the story makes a bit of sense is hard for me to say, as I certainly can't recount it very well. More importantly, this fourth Mission: Impossible makes visual sense.

Click here to read the full article at Slant Magazine's The House Next Door

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Descendants

There is an old-fashioned, Cary Grant-esque movie star quality about George Clooney. He exudes quiet confidence, intelligence, and social awareness, each which contribute to his magnetic personality, on screen and off. Clooney is also a somewhat accomplished director whose aesthetic lands somewhere in between the Coen brothers and Steven Soderbergh. With all these qualities, it’s easy to see how Clooney has risen to become a premiere figure in today’s moviemaking world. Yet while I admire the actor/director’s various talents, I have also felt an odd distance from his work. For example, he was effective as the grizzled CIA agent in Syriana, and still I never connected with the performance. Even his subdued work in Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton lacked the necessary texture to elevate the film to the heights I felt it should have achieved. I realize it is a peculiar position; to like an actor’s performances despite that they often leave me cold; to applaud a director’s films without ever really bonding with them.

Perhaps my bewildered stance regarding George Clooney’s work has brought me to The Descendants with a cautiously optimistic sensibility. Maybe I was primed for another admiring stance despite my deepest wishes to like it. After all, I am huge fan of Alexander Payne, whose Sideways is a recent favorite of mine. But even this couldn’t prepare me for how astonished I was over Clooney’s masterful performance in The Descendants. His portrayal of an absent father and husband with essentially a good heart is a thing of subdued beauty. Tonally, Clooney here is not far off from his past attempts at understatement. But in this role, something clicks. He plays Matt King, a successful lawyer who also happens to be the proprietor of thousands of acres of land on Hawaii. How much of his life is really his own making, however, is a question the film explores. It proffers a crisis scenario that sees King's wife beset by a terrible boating accident that puts her in a coma and subsequently exposes the unacknowledged unhappiness beneath the sheen of their life. Clooney’s deadpan voiceover provides an angry confessional for the character of King, who otherwise hasn't a clue how to interact with his friends, loved ones, and fellow Hawaiians. And yet, it is apparent that even he doesn’t believe the deep cynicism of his own words.

The Descendants is as hilarious as it is bleak—depressing but also life affirming. It is all of these at once, often at the same moment in a given scene. That it is such a whirlwind of a movie is a credit to Alexander Payne and George Clooney, as well as the entire cast. The characters each have the trademark quirks of an Alexander Payne film, but they also individually have mystery and humanity that is revealed in unexpected places. As significant is the film's portrait of the Hawaii, which has never been depicted quite like this by the movies. It is a real, breathing place and the actors inhabit it so believably that it becomes much more than setting or atmosphere.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

On first glance, the American film adaption of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo appears an ideal vehicle for director David Fincher. Over a two-decade career, Fincher has explored and re-explored many of the ingredients found in Larson’s novel. Centering on a unique pairing of protagonists who together investigate the mystery of an unsolved murder committed 40 years prior, the story also proffers other Fincher staples, such as a sociopathic villain and long scenes of intense research and investigation. The film naturally latches on to these elements and spins them into richly textured inquiry into the retrospective reconstruction of the past. Fincher has navigated these waters before, but never as gracefully. He uses the Agatha Christie-esque plot as a foundation for an experiment in mood and atmosphere, proving that he is miles ahead of his contemporaries in terms of film craft. In his execution, Fincher effectively emulates Hitchcock, squeezing tension and dread from a simple progression of elegantly crafted compositions.

Larsson’s compelling groundwork sees Daniel Craig’s everyman journalist driving the story at the start, while the victimized, off-putting character of Lisbeth Salander assumes a more passive role. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is involving purely on the level of aesthetics, but Fincher’s visualization of Lisbeth’s journey from passive victim to active protagonist is the film’s most significant achievement. Over the two and a half hour run time, Fincher and Rooney Mara craft a full-bodied portrayal of feminine sexualization and strength that defies stereotype and resists broad representation.

Despite earning mostly positive reviews, a prevailing notion that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo amounts to little more than a stylistic exercise has begun to crystallize in the wake of its release. Even some of its adamant defenders have noted that the film fails to truly distinguish itself from other Fincher works. (That it is also the second film adaptation of a recently published novel only compounds this emerging legacy.) Indeed, Fincher’s Girl fits within an established framework. But look closer and there is a more nuanced movie about vision, technology, and embodiment than its glossy surface and derivative genre trappings would lead to believe. (David Fincher, 2011) ***½

Monday, April 2, 2012


Few directors are as gifted at managing cinematic space as Roman Polanski. No matter the material, every frame of a Polanski film is layered with dimension. Recently, the director came to prominence again with Ghost Writer, a slow-cooking but mesmerizing film enmeshing politics with paranoia that particularly benefits from a meticulous approach to composition and atmosphere. His latest film, Carnage, is a different kind venture stylistically but maintains the same level of craftsmanship. It eschews the open spaces of Ghost Writer and encloses you in a Manhattan apartment with four adults teeming with angst. The two couples are brought together by a playground incident involving their children, and what starts as a slightly uncomfortable interplay of class posturing quickly morphs into a hotbed of unchecked emotion.

Carnage can rightly be described as an actor’s showcase; all four actors give terrific performances. Moreover, the one-act structure and sense of intimacy with the actors/performances are evidence of its origins in theater, which is oft referred as the ultimate actor’s medium. And while Polanski’s understated visual approach may at first appear ordinary, its genius gradually emerges such that the slightest of details reflect and inform the wariness of the guarded individuals. Even something as simple as a vase of flowers resting on the coffee table becomes an aching expression of the pervading suffocation that befalls the characters via their intensifying codified reprisals. (The film also has a keen claustrophobic disposition, as Ali Arikan pointedly observes.) But arguably Carnage’s most twisted play on existential irony is how it reverses the Waiting For Godot scenario and portrays characters that cannot bring themselves to walk away. The final shot is a clever visual punchline (one of many in Polanksi’s filmography) that doubles as a metaphor for the universality of misery that the simplest of conflicts expose. (Roman Polanski, 2011) ***