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Danny Elfman (#110 of 4)

Summer of ‘90: Men at Work: Grasping at the Last Strands of ‘80s Nostalgia

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Summer of ’90: Men at Work: Grasping at the Last Strands of ’80s Nostalgia

Triumph Releasing Corporation

Summer of ’90: Men at Work: Grasping at the Last Strands of ’80s Nostalgia

Men at Work is patient zero for the plague of Charlie Sheen movies that infected the 1990s. One tends to forget that Sheen had steady work in that decade, turning out cocky fare like The Chase and Terminal Velocity. And while Men at Work isn’t the first film to use the actor in his then-typical role of a wiseass hot-shot lothario, the casual laziness that would infect his ’90s output has its origins in writer-director Emilio Estevez’s crime comedy. As Carl Taylor, Sheen can’t be bothered to do anything but exist on screen as he wades through his brother’s mercilessly overstuffed plot.

Estevez’s second feature is a major step down from his 1986 debut, Wisdom. For that film, Estevez was flanked by a massively talented crew: It was edited by Michael Kahn, scored by Danny Elfman, and produced by legendary Oscar-winning director Robert Wise, whom Estevez sought out for advice and guidance. Despite all that firepower, Wisdom is shocking in its ineptitude, a crime thriller saddled with far too many useless details and tangents. The more problematic Men at Work suffers from the same screenplay overcompensations, to the point where one wishes Estevez sought out Wise’s contemporary, Billy Wilder, for advice instead. Wilder would have burned the script for Men at Work.

Summer of ‘89: Batman

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Summer of ‘89: <em>Batman</em>
Summer of ‘89: <em>Batman</em>

Returning to Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman in light of Christopher Nolan’s recent, remarkably successful Batman trilogy turns out to be quite a fascinating experience—though, surprisingly, as much for their convergences in vision as for their divergences. Certainly, the stylistic differences are almost blindingly obvious: Burton the playfully macabre merry prankster, Nolan the deeply serious philosopher. And yet, both visions unmistakably flow from the same unsettling bedrocks: a world drowning in moral rot, one in which a self-appointed hero who takes the form of a human bat is, at heart, as deeply disturbed as the more overtly screwed-up villains he takes it upon himself to defeat. It’s just that these two artists view these characters and this physical and emotional world through different lenses.

The contrast is immediately apparent in the music. In stark contrast to James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer’s loudly generic bombast for the Nolan films, Burton opens his Batman with the operatic strains of Danny Elfman’s full-orchestra heroism, slyly suggesting the unabashedly heroic way Batman sees himself. After its opening-credit sequence, during which Roger Pratt’s camera roams around what is eventually revealed to be a metal Bat-Signal, Burton establishes his vision of Gotham City: an unabashedly surreal environment that owes more to the dystopian sci-fi visions of Metropolis and Blade Runner than to any of the notions of noir-ish realism that underpins Nolan’s films. Then there are the differing acting styles, with Burton’s actors generally eschewing the internal brooding that Nolan’s performers exhibit in favor of archetypal broadness. This style doesn’t just extend to Jack Nicholson’s galvanizing hamminess as the Joker, but also trickles down to its supporting players (William Hootkins’s wearily deep-voiced Lt. Eckhardt, Robert Wuhl’s enthusiastically pushy journalist, and so on).

Toronto International Film Festival 2011: Restless and This Is Not a Film

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Toronto International Film Festival 2011: <em>Restless</em> and <em>This Is Not a Film</em>
Toronto International Film Festival 2011: <em>Restless</em> and <em>This Is Not a Film</em>

Restless: “Been to any good funerals lately?” Youth, beauty, and death have long been Gus Van Sant’s recurring motifs, but in this terminally whimsical tale of romance between morbid cuties, the elements don’t so much flow together into a stirring whole as coagulate into fatuous prettiness. A dreamy orphan (Henry Hopper, channeling Papa Dennis’s brooding ’50s period) and an ailing gamine (Mia Wasikowska, taking the obligatory spin in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl carousel) are the teens flirting with the Reaper, meeting cute at a funeral and cementing their love by visiting morgues, drawing critters at the cemetery, and laying down on chalk outlines. Along for the ride is the affable ghost of a WWII Japanese kamikaze pilot (Ryô Kase), always ready to drop earnest bromides (“Death is easy. Love is hard”) while on the soundtrack Danny Elfman unloads music box after music box of goo. Working with a warm if pasteurized visual palette, Van Sant gives free rein to his Romantic side, lending the characters an anachronistically intense yearning that hints that they’re in limbo not just between spiritual states, but between centuries. The results are not without drifting specks of poetry, but mostly suggest a fuzzy remake of Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer starring the cast of Twilight.

The Conversations: Errol Morris

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The Conversations: Errol Morris
The Conversations: Errol Morris

Jason Bellamy: Ten years from now, if not sooner, when people refer to Standard Operating Procedure, they’ll call it Errol Morris’ film about Abu Ghraib. But anyone who has seen the film, and certainly anyone who has heard Morris discuss it, knows that the prisoner abuse scandal that unfolded at the notorious Baghdad prison wasn’t the subject of the documentarian’s investigation. For Morris, the scandal is coincidental context. What Standard Operating Procedure is actually about is the elusiveness of unambiguous truth in photojournalism. Morris uses the digital snapshots of prisoner harassment at Abu Ghraib to illustrate that while a picture never lies, it seldom tells the truth. To look at a photo of a hooded man, standing on a box with wires wrapped around his fingers, is to see just that, yet instinctively we give images additional meaning; we fill in the areas outside of the frame. In the context of Abu Ghraib we look at that aforementioned photo and call it a depiction of torture or harassment or effective interrogation or standard operating procedure, etc. Any one of these might be true. A few of them might be true. Or maybe none of those interpretations is true. In the end, all we really have is an image of a hooded man, standing on a box with wires wrapped around his fingers. That’s where unambiguous truth ends.

I mention all of this as setup to our conversation about the films of Errol Morris because I think it’s fascinating that a documentary filmmaker would call attention to the unavoidable deceptiveness of his medium. Though most moviegoers are savvy enough to realize that documentaries seldom deal in Absolute Truth, the documentary genre is one that relies on the presentation of at least near-truth. As a “documentary,” Standard Operating Procedure is akin to 60 Minutes; without that label, it would be akin to A Few Good Men. Fictional films can still be truthful, of course, but their truth has a different weight. In a fiction film the “based on a true story” assertion is a decoration, an accessory. It’s like a tattoo. In a documentary, truth is the spine holding everything in place. Thus, you’d think that no documentary filmmaker would want to chop away at the very element that keeps the genre upright. Then again, not many documentary filmmakers are so specifically expressive with their images as Morris. I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that Morris’ documentaries are more unambiguously truthful than anyone else’s, but few filmmakers are so skillful at slicing away the periphery to narrow in on the subject at hand. I can’t think of any filmmaker who so adeptly and obsessively focuses our attention to precisely what’s on screen.