Movie Review: The Mechanic (2011) D+

The Mechanic is one of those movies with Jason Statham. And that says a lot about any movie. You know it’s not slapstick, you know it’s not romance, you know it’s not drama, you know it’s not mystery…

Of course not because there is only one type of role Jason Statham can play: the indestructible vindictive badass assassin that will chase you to the edges of the world if you double cross him. Yes, The Mechanic is that type of movie – another action flick packed with explosions, bang bang, strangling, hand-to-hand combat… All the regulars.

Statham plays Arthur Bishop, the “mechanic,” which in the movie is a term used to label a person who fixes problems. Simply put, he’s a hitman. Bishop is clean and almost invisible. His execution methods are different and effective. When done right, his assassinations look like accidents and suicides.

When Bishop is hired to assassin a colleague (Donald Sutherland), his integrity remains intact. He carries on with the “fixing” and is left to instruct the dead friend’s son, Steve McKenna (Ben Foster), who becomes a protégé. Judging by the gasps and cringing, one of audience’s favorite scenes was when Ben wrestled with an antagonistic “mechanic” named Burke, a bulky fella standing at least two feet taller than slim Steve. That scene, which happened approximately halfway in the picture, was also one of my top picks. The concept wasn’t the cause of such amazement but the execution. The hand-to-hand fight was masterfully orchestrated; I still have an imprint on my brain of Burke throwing Steve headfirst into a display cabinet. Awesome.

This popcorn flick, produced by the Remake Division of Hollywood Inc., is a reissue of a 1972 film, with Charles Bronson starring in the title role. Although both movies have major differences, the structure of the plot remains essentially the same. Unlike most remakes, however, I think this 2011 version felt more organic than the original movie, which had some incongruent, dismissible moments.  For example, the 1972 film had a scene of a girl slitting both her wrists to test if Steve loved her. He didn’t. I vividly remember that scene, which was as long as it was dull; and it had no payoff because, after dismissed, the girl never showed up again and that storyline went down the drain as fast as it surged. But this remake seems to have all the parts connected, albeit not always satisfying.

In 1972, Bronson played a better mechanic – suave and elegant – but his performance was undermined by a poor screenplay. Statham played the role while impersonating all other characters he’s ever played, also with the same hairdo, but perhaps with more meticulousness and less recklessness. In fact, in both movies, the mechanic is a stylish man that appreciates fine wines and listens to classical music. This contradiction in their personalities is at first interesting but hardly enough to sustain the film. The meandering plot gets lost and confused on its own  twists and turns.

The ending ended too fast. When the villain is identified, he’s vanquished in a split second. Naturally, there’s mayhem and havoc as it happens but a buildup with a stronger resolution was expected. In addition, at the very end there was a deviation from the original film that felt, well, contrived but acceptable because this time around it was Jason Statham. The Mechanic flows like an ephemeral summer flick – not worthy of much consideration during this award season but still watchable if you have nothing to do on a Wednesday afternoon.

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Ignoring Cinematography Conventions in “The King’s Speech”

In the artistic world, “rules” can be broken and “laws” can be bent. Guidelines taught in school are subjective and flexible. Always seeking innovation, the industry and seasoned professionals occasionally ignore them to create something new.

When I was watching The King’s Speech a few weeks ago and again yesterday, one thing that really struck me was the cinematography. Composition guidelines – namely Lead Room - were blatantly ignored, yet the result wasn’t terrible.

This is a conversation between Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and Lionel (Geoffrey Rush):

Notice how in both cases the lead room (open space) is behind the actors. This mightn’t look terrible, but it’s hardly the norm.

Observe these two other frames:

Geoffrey Rush in The King's SpeechColin Firth in The King's SpeechToo much wall! The composition in the first frame is actually motivated because Lionel’s wife is behind him while he does some paperwork at his desk. But the composition in this second frame has no reason to be.

What amazes me is that the Rule of Thirds is still there but reversed. Needless to say, it was deliberate. Who ever chose that composition knew the norm, which emphasizes the importance of learning convention first and deviting from it later.

I’m curious to know what people think. Does this “new” style satisfy or annoy? Would you implement it in your own films?

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WEBSITE WEEKLY UPDATE: 01/29/2011

Newest lesson:

Our new update will introduce young writers to the basics of screenplay formatting as per used in the American film industry. Script excerpts included are from Pulp Fiction and Independence Day. The Casablanca screenplay is available in its entirety for your pleasure and enlightenment.

Note: Although students often like to jump head, bear in mind that before learning format you must first know how to tell stories. If you are new to screenwriting, check out our Screenwriting Page for an index of useful lessons.

Best,

Gabriel M.

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Movie Review: “The King’s Speech” (2010) A

I was determined to watch The King’s Speech because I wanted to see the performance of one of my favorite actors, Geoffrey Rush. But it was the skills of a less known but equally talented actor that captivated me. His name is Colin Firth. The part of a stammering monarch was demanding to say the least. But Firth was flawless in his portrait.

The conflict is beautiful in its simplicity yet, in the story, frustrating in its implications. If an ordinary man has stuttering, he can still live a fine life without much upset. But that’s not true for the son of King George V (Michael Gambon). The film, based on the story of the Duke of York (Colin Firth), opens with the life-changing event that made the Prince seek help. The Prince was due to give the closing speech at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1925.

The King's Speech Microphone POV

A crowd awaits the Prince's speech.

But his stammering overcame him, and the fiasco led the Prince to a few doctors, who tried to rid his speech defects but to no avail. It was Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian-born speech therapist, with his controversial techniques and uncommon methodology who produced the most favorable results.

Helena Bonham Carter, who played the Price’s wife, was sublime. I always find it reassuring to see her in a non-Tim Burton picture; a reminder of the range of her talent. Actually, the entire cast was amazing. Guy Pearce played the Prince’s irresponsible brother. Michael Gambo was their father, King George V.

When I watched The Queen in 2006, I was infatuated with Helen Mirren, who, I thought, carried the entire film in the palm of her hand. She was exquisite and delightful to see. In The King’s Speech, Colin Firth doesn’t quite do the same. Perhaps his impairment diminishes empathy, I’m not sure.

But Geoffrey Rush makes up for it. His peculiar character, through his effective techniques and piercing demeanor, is able to earn respect from the king to be. In my opinion, their extraordinary friendship is the highlight of the film and definitely its most appealing feature.

Colin Firth Geoffrey Rush George VI

The Prince (Firth) and his Therapist (Rush) do vocal training.

The Academy Awards nominations were announced yesterday. The King’s Speech has received 12, although I doubt it will be the big winner of 2011. Firth and Rush each deserve an statuette. But it might be outperformed in all other categories, except perhaps Art Direction and Costume.

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WEBSITE WEEKLY UPDATE: 01/23/2011

Two major updates this week:

This article has been thoroughly updated with more explanations and examples, now containing a clip from The Silence of the Lambs (1991) which illustrates the technique being used.

I’ve included a Film Scholar’s Insight analyzing a quote by one of the most successful producers from the ’80s and ’90s. Don Simpson, whose filmography includes Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, and Bad Boys, once said: “We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. Our obligation is to make money.”

Thanks to Sean P. for requesting clarification on Cross Cutting.
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Does “Vampires Suck” Really Suck?

Just so you know, if I had had a choice, I would have not watched Vampires Suck (2010). Not in a million years. But I was with my girlfriend’s friends and they CHOSE to rent it. I emphasize the word “chose” because my conclusion at the end of this post is based on the idea that the vast majority of people aren’t forced to watch movies. Watching films, especially selecting them, is a mindful act.

Why did they choose Vampires Suck I don’t know. Perhaps because it is a spoof of one of the biggest franchises of the decade. Or maybe just to see 40 seconds of a group of guys with 6-pack abs on denim shorts dancing “It’s Raining Men.” But regardless of the reason, it was a mindful act.

The same holds true for the thousands who went to the theaters when it was released. According to Wikipedia, the film opened at #1 with $4,016,858. Its budget was 20 million and it’s gross revenue was 80 million.

I don’t have to tell you how cheesy, implausible, and stupid 99% of the movie is. Every seven seconds, someone in the audience had to comment, “That’s so dumb.” Yet my girlfriend’s friends all knew what to expect when they chose that movie. And I’m sure the reaction wasn’t much different in the theaters.   Although the crowd may laugh together, deep inside they all agree it is not a master piece.

An editor friend of mine, who didn’t bother to watch it, was venting, “Why!? Why would any one make a movie like that. It is a disservice to mankind and especially  the filmmaking community!” I couldn’t avoid thinking, “Is it really?”

I myself don’t see anyone losing anything. The filmmakers made money and the audience watched what they wanted. It’s a win-win situation. That little spoof, for bad or worse, gave employment to dozens of artists and craftsmen. It put the leading actress, Jenn Proske, on the map, and she will forever be indebted to this movie, like many of her co-stars.

As I see it, Vampires Suck doesn’t suck; it is a piece of entertainment that opens doors to the young workers of the industry. Although it won’t have a lasting impact on mankind or cinema history, I’m sure many of the crew and cast members will start a career of their own because this flick gave them a first chance. Does it make sense?

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WEBSITE WEEKLY UPDATE: 01/15/2011

By popular demand, I’m releasing my first page on Composition, which surveys lead room, the rule of thirds, and dynamic and static compositions. More coming soon…

To request a topic or lesson, use this form. Thank you.

Best,

Gabriel

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An Old Typewriter – Lessons from Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin

A Golden Globe nominee, The Social Network screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is being featured on one of this month’s issues of The Hollywood Reporter. Sorkin, who gain some notoriety from the Hollywood spotlight  back in 1992 when A Few Good Men hit the big screen, is working on The Politician, which he plans to be his directing debut. Following are two insights on his life and technique:

Index Cards – A Screenwriting Approach

“[Sorking] likes to use those cards, tacked to a large corkboard, to keep track of the key elements. Social Network‘s pivotal moments are still up there, with notes that read, “Mark and Erica in bar,” “Mark walks back to dormitory,” and “Mark begins drinking, blogging, hacking.” (The Hollywood Reporter, January 2011)

I find it particularly fascinating to see such a crafty writer working with such a rudimentary technique. The truth is, index cards are not a secret. In fact, they are incredibly popular, but I’ve met people that neglect them. If you have a foolproof method for writing screenplays, by all means, ignore this. But for those that struggle, index cards could be a nice improvement.

Not only are they a convenient way to outline and organize ideas, index cards are also easy to store. Your main ideas can be visible in a board. But your vague thoughts could be stacked together and wrapped with a rubber band. While some people like to lay them out on the floor or a table, Sorking uses a corkboard.

The principle behind index cards is that the writer can see all the major beats of a movie at a glance. How is this better than a bullet-point outline? Well, with index cards you can rearrange the order hassle-free. Furthermore, you have the back of each card for additional notes and vague ideas. Give it a try.

An Old Typewriter – Exploring Horizons for Self-Fufillment

During one of the most agonizing moments of his life,  Sorkin, then a struggling actor, had to work among other stuff, handing leaflets dressed as a moose. Referencing a specific episode when his friends were away and his TV was broken, Sorkin says, “It was one of those Friday nights where it feels like everybody’s been invited to a party and you haven’t.”

It was in this situation that Sorkin shifted his thoughts to an old typewriter a friend had entrusted him with. With rusty fingers, Sorking wrote a play. He said it was the first time he wrote for pleasure. That uneventful night, in which poor Sorkin was ditched by all his friends, turned out to give him the key to unlock the gates to show business.

Could you imagine where Sorkin would be today if his friend hadn’t entrusted him with his typewriter? Or if Sorkin’s TV wasn’t broken? It is indeed intriguing to think that there was a chance Sorkin could still be handing leaflets dressed as a moose.

I think the lesson here is to be open-minded and mindful of the doors life open to you. Our lives are filled with “old typewriters.” They are a blessing in disguise. Although Sorkin wanted to act, it was writing that made him famous and rich. Don’t be narrow. Consider other possibilities and explore further horizons.

Are you open to an “old typewriter” as well?

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WEBSITE WEEKLY UPDATE: 01/06/11

Two updates last week:

Our page on Mise-en-Scène is the most visited page in our website, so I thought I should include a clarification on the term.

Our page on Shot Sizes is also one of the most visited pages. It has been in our Top 5 for a while, so I thought I would add a historical note and a piece of filmmaking advice.

Enjoy!

Best,

Gabriel

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What do all great filmmakers have in common?

Mastery of the Craft

Well, besides passion for the medium, they have sheer knowledge of all the elements present in a film production. They apply both form and content to create a succinct, intriguing, and relevant message in their films. They are storytellers in every sense of the word. They understand structure, character development, exposition, and foreshadowing. They are able to create unique villains and fearless heroes like no one else can. They are attuned to people’s emotions and their surroundings. They comprehend history and use it to straighten their plots. They can write compelling dialogue. They aren’t afraid of cutting trivialities from every scene of their films. They have the uncanny ability to foresee what people desire, what stirs them…

A Boatload of People Skills

In addition to mastering his or her craft, a filmmaker must be sociable and charismatic. Working on show business, they are always dealing with people. Most of their awaking hours are spent begging, haggling, ordering, explaining, pitching, justifying, analyzing… thus “people skills” are essential. Even so more on set, during principal photography, when the minute/money ratio in an all time high. Especially on set, the filmmaker must be a pacifier; a peacemaker who makes sure everyone works in harmony to their full potential.

Perseverance Above All

Great filmmakers aren’t afraid of the challenge. Before they became “great,” they all knew the obstacles that were ahead of them. They struggled, and they persevered. From not knowing anything about camerawork or storytelling to having to move away to a distant city, the challenges they have are often daunting, but they don’t give up. As they become “great,” obstacles multiply, but their tenacity persists.

Thanks to Ashley B. for the question.
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