Sunday, July 15, 2012

So Sue Me, I Like This Film: 'Management'

We may not admit it but we all have affection for certain films that everyone else has hated. Or just ignored. We may be loathe to acknowledge it, often for good reason, i.e., the film is godawful, but we carry a covert fondness for these films all the same. Here is my first entry in the series "So Sue Me, I Liked This Film" where I will discuss such movies. And try to, the best I can, rationalize why a generally reviled movie resonated with me. In many instances, I may not have necessarily loved such a film, just not hated it as much as the general public.

First in this entry is Management which stars Steve Zahn, Jennifer Aniston, Fred Ward, and Woody Harrelson. The film came (and went) in 2008 while registering nary a blip on anyone's radar. Including my own. Upon release, it was rounded off by most critics as being a particularly uneven and rambling entry in the forgettable line of Jennifer Aniston rom-coms. [It carries a 46% rating on and 50% on].

The film tells the story of a man-child (Zahn) who works in a rundown motel in small-town Arizona that is owned and operated by his parents. One day a city executive in the form of Jennifer Aniston shows up at the motel for a two night stay. And as cluelessly as those miniature dogs that lunge out at canines five times their size, Zahn's character reaches out to Aniston's character for...what? romance? friendship? a quick roll in the sack? Whatever that is, it is obvious he is clearly out of his league. But even then he persists. To extreme lengths and through many changes in his life. That's about the story of this film.

Trying to defend why you liked a film can sometimes be voodoo. You feel what you feel, in spite of all the intellectual and objective rationalizations in the world. But nevertheless, here is my attempt.

To be fair, Management is not all out horrid, quite the contrary it is a mixed bag of things that work beautifully and those that fail just as gloriously. Ironically, I like Management more because it never fully realizes its potential. I admire it for the promise it holds, like one does a nephew who one knows can do so much better. The film has a darkness, a palpable despair about it, but then at other times it goes inexplicably for broad slapstick. It has dialog that gets bone close to the truth, the kind that seldom hits the raw nerve in mainstream films. But then those brutally honest words get diluted by other dialog that is surprisingly off-tone.

I liked what Steve Zahn brings to this film. In his prior work, I have seen Zahn mostly fulfill comic relief duty in bit parts and I was unprepared for him to carry a film. He does. He brings an immediate adorability to this character; a man so purposefully good-hearted as to be immune to the cynicism and deviousness in his world. He is abjectly, and some might say blissfully, unaware of how he is perceived by others. One could justifiably call this character stupid, or child-like. But Zahn makes him, at all times, fully believable.  This is the kind of character that Paul Rudd has been trying to portray in many movies, most recently in Our Idiot Brother. But Zahn nails it here. Perhaps because he shares some of these traits in real life, I don't know. Also yes, I realize this is a Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy. And while there may not be universal agreement on many things in the film community, there is unanimous consensus that Jennifer Aniston romantic comedies equal crap. Well, here's your outlier. As in The Good Girl, Aniston brings a lived-in, real-world, somewhat exhausted sensibility to this role, something that has been missing from her other work. There is nothing cutesy, or glistening about her in Management. Aniston's best work may well be ahead of her when she simply stops being Aniston - as she demonstrated most recently in Horrible Bosses.

I liked that the architecture of this film is unpredictable. Truth be told, it is all over the place, a mess even. Oh how recklessly the plot veers, particularly in the second half of the film. Any five studio-executives in a conference room would not have been able to resist the urge to tamper with this film. But this movie is likely the result of a writer-director left to his own means. A person who wants to tell a story in his own voice will take these risks. I say, better to fail than not risk at all. I admire first time director (and writer) Stephen Belber for letting Management take the form that it does; if wildly careening, then so be it. And I look forward to his next film.

I liked how understated Steve Zahn's parents are in this film. Played by Fred Ward and Margo Martindale, they do not have substantial dialog. But the film finds that they have a lot to say. And they ultimately form the emotional backbone of the film.

I liked that this is the earliest film to provide proof that henceforth, any movie will be instantly improved by the presence of Woody Harrelson. Barely a year after No Country For Old Men, but long before The Messenger, long before Zombieland,  long before Rampart, and long before Game Change, there was Management. Harrelson has a small part in the film (in a role cartoonishly tailor-scripted for him) but he walks away with the movie.

But mostly here is what I liked about Management: that for a smalltime generic romantic comedy, the movie reaches for some rather big issues. About finding one's place in life. About deciding how much of your parents you want to be in your own life. About eventually embracing what the world expects of you. And while appreciating the comfort that comes from that, also realizing the price one pays for willfully forgetting one's dreams, as outlandish and untenable as they might be. I liked that we seldom see characters in films that are so obviously, unquestionably, hopelessly in love with someone. Un-condition-ally. Like a dog. Like a stalker. Through no control of their own. This is creepy territory for a film to be in, something that can alienate mainstream audiences. But any movie that is trying to speak to the struggle between everyday practicality and moony romanticism is doing something right. Its hardly a consistent success though. To be sure, Management fails with many of the big issues it wants to comment on - sometimes because it lacks the subtlety to pull it off, and sometimes the skill. But I liked that the film at least asked these questions.

If this film were even a modest hit perhaps I would not like it as much as I do. But as unrecognized and uncelebrated as it is, I have affection for it. Like one does for that nephew, warts and all.

Management is available on Netflix Instant. 

On Opening Credits

[Note: An original version of this post appeared on]

I like everything about going to the cinemas. All the little rituals. 

I like to listen to those waiting in the ticket line debate about what film they should be watching. I like grabbing my little tub of "Dibs" at the concession stand. I like slipping the ticket stub into my back pocket after the other half's been torn out. I like scoping out the best seats in the movie hall the minute I enter it. I like it when (sometimes) a theatre employee comes to the front of the hall and makes an announcement that always ends with: "Enjoy the Movie". I like, make that love, previews - sometimes even more than the actual film I am about to see (although I have my beef with movie trailers these days, but that is for another post). I like when the movie begins and the Universal, or Columbia, or Twentieth Century Fox intro rolls across the screen with its familiar music; this makes me more than a little giddy. And I like movie credits. 

For me, any filmmaker who truly loves movies has to invest in how their film declares its title. How can any filmmaker who breathes and lives movies not indulge in one of the few vestiges that remains in the structure of film today: the opening credits. 

One of the easiest ways for me to judge a film, often the quickest too, is to see how the opening credits have been done. 

That is why I frown upon films that altogether do away with opening credits. I can understand the refusal to indulge in a full run through every person who contributed to the film; that can wait until the end credits. But there is endless ingenuity to be exercised in the appearance of the name of the film on the screen: the when, the where and the how

Of course the history of movies is also associated with the history of opening credits. Consider the opening credits of the James Bond movies (as Bond turns to the camera and shoots from his gun at the audience) the style for which has carried the blueprint for the evolution of the Bond series itself. Or the famous animated opening credits for the Pink Panther films. Or that indelible rolling script from the opening of the Star Wars films. Who can forget the glorious opening credits for 2001, A Space Odyssey, forever associated with Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathushtra. But I am going to set aside the obvious, iconic opening credits. And consider them within the context of more recent films, including some favorites.

Shame did opening credits beautifully, with a single shot of Michael Fassbender lying in bed under blue sheets. I have forgotten many individual scenes from Sophia Coppola's Lost In Translation, but not the opening credits that scrolled across a sleeping Scarlett Johannson's barely covered derriere. 

It is not just the actual visual of the title credits, or the movement, or the aesthetic that matters. It is also the timing of when the filmmaker chooses to announce the name of the film during its narrative. Some movies start with opening credits off the bat, and I respect that. Others have fun with it. My personal favorite in this regard is 127 Hours, which provides the best example of when to place the opening credits for a film. The movie finds the perfect moment during the evolution of its story to announce the title; it occurs literally when the first second of the 127 hours in question ticks in. In doing so it immediately establishes the wit that Danny Boyle has invested in the movie. 

See how it is done for one of the best films of 2011. The movie starts with a single unbroken shot of a man and woman on either side of the screen, speaking to an unseen court official as the wife explains why she is seeking divorce from the husband. The court official dismisses them, noting that the reason for the proposed separation is trivial. The two walk away from either side of the screen, and the title flashes: A Separation. This immediately made me smile and settle down in my seat knowing that I was in the hands of a filmmaker who knew what he was doing. 

How disappointing that someone as gifted, technically at least, as Christopher Nolan, makes the choice, repeatedly, to do away entirely with opening credits. He probably considers opening credits too obvious a cinematic conceit, and I can understand that. But by doing so, he is also sending the message that his films are somehow above it all. So no opening title credits for Batman Returns, none for Inception either. And I am willing to bet there won't be any in the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises installment. For me, this suggests a filmmaker exercising some manner of arrogance. 

Same thing with Woody Allen, who famously has used the same white Windsor font against a black background for the opening credits of each of his films since 1980. When it comes to credits, you can see his refusal to bend to fashion or showiness or contemporary trends as refreshing, revolutionary even. He is making the argument, you could say, that the meat of the film, all the creativity, is in the content of the movie itself. But nah, I find it lazy. I can imagine Allen telling himself; phew, that's one less thing I have to worry about. As much as I appreciate Allen as a filmmaker, that is one down for him in my books.

The worst offenders are some contemporary Indian films, which use the opening credits as an exercise in marketing. Endless names are flashed, sometimes one at a time, of financial institutions, of personal gurus, of family members of the filmmakers, of music executives, of television/radio channels that advertised the film, and on and on...until you want to scream for the movie to just begin already. Or even worse when a starlet, unrelated with the rest of the film, is summoned to shimmy over a musical number as the opening credits roll by. This is beyond creative bankruptcy; it is mortgaging away upfront whatever little artistic credibility the filmmaker might have had. 

Compare that to someone like Jason Reitman, who in each of the four major films he has directed, has earned his stripes when it comes to opening credits. Each movie has used the credits as a way of establishing the tone of the film with intelligence. For the opening credits in Thank For Smoking, Reitman finds an almost impossibly perfect song, which, married to the movement of the credits, renders the bone dry sensibility of the film.

Or consider the overly sweet, quirky sensibility of the Juno opening credits that play as Ellen Page walks through an animated montage. You know right there what you have signed up for with the rest of the film. 

Or behold the annoyingly brilliant opening credits sequence for Up In The Air, which if released in and of itself, would alone have been worth the price of admission. 

And then finally there is Young Adult where Reitman projects the opening credits as the camera pans over the moving mechanics of a lo-tech cassette tape spooling in a player. Is this representative of the lead character moving back to an earlier, less sophisticated phase in her life? Or is it her regressive behavior through the movie that is denoted by the (in)significance of a cassette in a digital world.

Most people have an opinion about the director Lars Von Trier, that equal parts auteur and provocateur. But to see the first ten minutes of Melancholia, wordless and filled with jaw-droppingly, heart-breakingly beautiful images scored against Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, is to know a filmmaker who has rendered a preamble whose brilliance is nearly immune to criticism. It’s a piece of bravura filmmaking that reiterates that as much as he tempts us to, we cannot dismiss the talent of Von Trier. 

I am not a fan of David Fincher's remake of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but have to concede to the the beauty of its opening credits. Going as far back as Se(7)en, Fincher has been particularly adroit with the use of ingenious design for the opening credits of his films. 

And how about the title credits for the film Certified Copy. At the very start of the film, the credits appear over a static single unbroken shot of an empty podium at a crowded hall. One hears the background chatter of those gathered to listen to the speaker as the credits roll. This excitement in the air, is independent of how the speaker will actually fare with the audience. It is after the film is over that one realizes how complimentary the opening credits have been to the central theme of the film; it does not really matter if what you are seeing is the original or a copy. Should not the only thing that matters be one’s enjoyment of what one is seeing, regardless of whether it is the original piece or a facsimile thereof? 

Speaking of static opening shots in French films, see also how the single take in the film Cache (incidentally also starring the invaluable Juliette Binoche), kick-starts the primary conceit of the movie. You watch what appears to be a photograph of a house as the opening credits begin to roll. And you are several minutes into the credits, before you see somebody on a bicycle zip by. And you realize with a start, by jove, this is not a static picture, but this house is being filmed. As the film progresses, it  is revealed that the family living in this house is being sent mysterious tapes showing their house being filmed over extended periods of time. First from the outside. And then, from inside the house. Altogether unsettling, isn’t it? Here the filmmaker, Michael Haneke has, with clever cunning, folded the central crux of the film into the opening credits. 

I complained about Woody Allen and his identical opening credits for the films he has made over the last thirty years, but see what he has done in Midnight In Paris. The first five minutes of the movie are unhurried shots of Paris tableaus, the obvious touristy locales as well as parts of the city that are seldom seen. One waits for the story to begin, for one of his neurotic characters to start speaking. But instead one gentle Parisian view after another unfolds unhurriedly on the screen. You even start to fear if perhaps the movie is a joke, and the entire film has been cobbled together only with wordless, plotless images of Paris. But then you find yourself somehow settling into the space that has been created. It is a brave choice, but it works. When the lead characters do eventually appear and start talking we are happy to see them, but we are also smiling at the immersion we have just been through. Here is Allen gently granting the audience familiarity with the city in which his story is set. 

Really, what better way to very quickly assess the quality of a film you have just sat down to watch than through its opening credits. Works for me every time.There are so many examples of brilliant opening credits. I'd say my personal recent favorite would have to be Melancholia but am curious to hear of others that have struck a chord with readers.