Marie Antoinette and the Suspended Plot Point

We watched Sofia Coppola’s feature Marie Antoinette (2006) this weekend. Goodness knows what inspired the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola to make a film about how hard it is being the offspring of a great emperor.

Never Mind The Hairdo, Here’s the Queen of France

The costumes are doing the heavy lifting here, supported by some great hair and the easy charisma of Kirsten Dunst. The eclectic soundtrack certainly catches your attention, but also underlines that incongruous music programming isn’t as easy as Stanley Kubrick makes it look. (I bet Sofia Coppola met Kubrick when she was a girl, didn’t she? According to John Baxter’s biography he approached Francis Ford Coppola about funding A Clockwork Orange.)

But if there’s one big problem the film suffers from I’d call it The Suspended Plot Point.

Hold it … and resolve

If you play guitar or piano you’ll know the power of the suspended chord. That sus4 that hangs in the air begging to be resolved. The chord naturally makes you will it to move on, begging to turn into a triad. It’s a well used, simple musical trick. But if you play the same chord in the same song for fifty five minutes, even if the drums and the bass are still hammering along, people might be inclined to press skip.

Pretty vacant

For more or less the whole middle hour of Marie Antoinette, the story teeters on the issue of when and whether her husband Louis-Auguste will consummate their marriage and seed her with an heir to the throne of France. They aren’t doing it, and they continue not doing it for a long, long time. We get the same urgent encouragement from Marie Antoinette’s counsel, the same plaintive letters from her mother, the same pained expressions from the Countess of Noailles again and again and again, and still, nothing happens. The whole film rides on this plot point for a very long time, and while such a device doesn’t have to bring the whole film to a stop, here it does. Character development, sub plots, they all just feel like they go into a holding pattern while we repeat the gags and enjoy looking at shoes. Eventually Louis-Auguste gets a quick sex-ed lesson and things get going again, but that feels like it leaves half an hour of the film to get the rest of the story done.

Sometimes characters can feel like they’re stuck. It’s a part of life. But that doesn’t have to mean the audience needs to do the same.

Episode 17: Elvis the Baz Singer

We’re All Shook Up this episode by the frenetic gyrations of Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic Elvis, another example of style trumping substance. But it’s hardly the first Hollywood film about white people making money out of black music – that might be The Jazz Singer, famously the first talkie (except it isn’t…) from 1927. Has cinema or the world changed as much as we hope in the last 95 years?

Show Me, then Tell Me, then Tell Me Again

So I saw the trailer for the new DC picture Black Adam the other day. I don’t know much about the character, he’s played by Dwayne Johnson, he looks bad-assed, a bunch of things blow up. But one thing about the trailer really stuck in my mind as a potent symbol of contemporary cinematic story telling.

I don’t like rockets

Towards the end of the trailer, Black Adam is standing next to a Jeep, or a kind of SUV type car, you know the sort of thing, and some third party launches a rocket at it. So, here we go, Jeep, rocket, something’s going to blow up. But no! Black Adam catches the rocket. We see him catch it. He’s clearly holding it in his hand. He caught it. Well, that’s bad assed. Guy caught a rocket.

Then the guy who’s in the Jeep says, ‘Did he just catch that rocket?’ Slowly and clearly. Just in case any of us watching the trailer weren’t able to understand what the action of seeing a rocket launched through the air and then ending up in the hands of bad-ass-guy meant. Underlining it, you know. Or just pointing out the bleeding obvious, as we sometimes like to say. Pretty annoying.

THEN the woman sitting in the Jeep, the same Jeep, sitting next to the ‘I like to say things out loud’ guy, SHE says, ‘He just caught that rocket.’

Nnnnghghgh.

I think Black Adam is going to struggle at the box office if the final cut comes in at six hours long, but I don’t see how they can avoid it with this new screenwriting strategy of having two different people vocally describe every action as it happens.

                                   Page 705.
INT DAY DESERT BASE
Black Adam opens the door.
MAN
Did he just open that door?
WOMAN
He just opened that door.
Black Adam looks around the room.
MAN
He’s looking around the room.
WOMAN
Yeah, he seems to be looking around the room.

Episode 16: Popcorn Counter: Monsters

Don’t believe what your parents told you, monsters are definitely real. After watching Godzilla and Jurassic World, we talk at the Popcorn Counter about a few of our favourite monster pictures, explain why we’re wary of swimming in three feet of water and lament the end of the broadcast television late night scare movie.

Father of the Bride (1991)

We sometimes struggle to find family films to please everyone in our house. My children really dislike violence on screen, and it’s only when watching older films through their eyes that I realise how very violent many of the films I watched as a boy were. Roger Rabbit? They dissolve the cartoon characters in acid like a scene from Breaking Bad. Star Wars? Luke returns home to find the charred, smoking corpses of his family littered across the ground. Raiders of the Lost Ark? The face melting, the guy chopped up into pieces by the aeroplane propeller, it’s endless. Oof, there’s so much terrible violence that it’s astonishing now to recall that it was all considered perfectly acceptable family entertainment at the time.

All good family fun

So last Saturday night we gravitated, as we have a few times before, to one of mainstream cinema’s true safe houses: a Steve Martin film. Has he not been the poster boy for wholesomeness for most of his career? Here is actor who seems to have been far more careful about his choices than most, and as a result his name on a poster feels like a code word for … well, I’m going to say cosy. I could say safe and unchallenging, but I think that would be unkind, and rather missing the point.

Wholesome, wholesome, wholesome

Father of Bride was our pick. It’s a sweet 1991 remake of a Spencer Tracy picture from 1950, and it retains a lot of that 1950s white-bread fantasy-land feel. (There’s a new HBO re-remake this year that apparently gives the story a bit more of a 21st century update, but I haven’t seen it.) The script was written by Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers, previously responsible for Private Benjamin (I wonder how that movie looks these days?).

Have you ever played Resident Evil?

For all the middle-class-wealthy-white-people-problems that haven’t aged spectacularly well (very rich family goes to visit even richer very rich family, oh how we feel their pain…) there is some tremendous, laugh out loud physical comedy in this film, with one scene that stands out above all others.  Steve Martin is snooping through his prospective son-in-law’s parents’ house when he gets caught by the parents’ dogs, climbs out through a window and ends up in the pool.  It’s perfectly paced, with some wonderful, understated clowning.  But what makes it stand out in 2022 is that at no point does Martin do what far too many movie protagonists do currently: talk to himself.  It seems like no-one could write a script now that wouldn’t have the character nosing through the prescription drugs in the bathroom cabinet and mumbling to himself, ‘Hmm, what drugs are they taking?’ before then moving on to the desk and saying, ‘Ah ha!  A cheque book!  I wonder what his bank balance is?’ and then turning to the door and telling himself, ‘Oh, no, the dogs!’  

I’ve said this before, but many people I talk to think that screenwriting is dialogue writing.  Really it’s almost the opposite.  You know you’ve written the scene well when there’s no need for dialogue at all.

Episode 15: The Jurassic Error

We’ve been to see Jurassic World Dominion for this episode, the sixth movie in a franchise that now feels a little like it dates back 65 million years. There’s a lot of stuff on fire in this film, but can it hold a candle to 1954’s Godzilla, the original Jurassic monster movie that stamped out the template for resurrected dinosaur flicks with its enormous, three toed foot?

Introducing Characters

One of the ideas that came up while we were discussing Jurassic World Dominion this week was the importance of introducing characters. It’s always worth going back to good films and exploring how the most memorable characters made their entrances, and my usual, go-to example is Terminator 2.

First impressions

The first time we see Sarah Connor, she’s doing chin ups in her cell in a secure psychiatric unit. In just a few seconds, we’ve got the idea that she is tough, focused, dangerous, worth being frightened of, and possibly deranged. And these characteristics inform the way she behaves and the choices she makes for the rest of the movie. We know who she is.

Easy riders

Similarly, when John Connor first appears he’s hacking an ATM and riding away with his buddy on a motorbike. We’ve only just met him, but we already know he’s deliquent and off the rails, or at least lacking a moral compass, and he’s resourceful and good with technology. And he can rev a motorbike with attitude. Once again, after just a few seconds we’re already developing an idea of who he is, and although our understanding deepens, these characteristics stay true to him for the rest of the film.

Easy, boy

But turning to Jurassic World Dominion, what does Owen Grady’s first appearance tell us? He’s riding a horse after some dinosaurs, lassoes one of them and pats it on the head. Is he chasing them? Saving them? It looks like he’s a … dinosaur hunter? A dino-cowboy who’s breeding them for meat, maybe? Part of the mounted dino-police? We can see he’s good with a lasso – but we never see him do any rope tricks for the rest of the movie. We know he can ride a horse – but we never see him do that again, either (unless you count the iron horse he guns through Malta later in the picture). What seeds has this scene sown for the rest of the movie? Not many.

The red button or the green one?

In much the same way, Claire Dearing first appears in an animal liberation scene, where she’s releasing illegally housed dinosaurs with a couple of other characters. She’s creeping around with a flashlight and recklessly saving sick creatures. So we know she’s … compassionate? But this compassion doesn’t inform how she behaves for the rest of the film. She doesn’t free any of the captured dinosaurs she finds in Malta, in fact she doesn’t save any other dinosaurs at all, she spends most of her energy hitting them with scaffolding poles or tasering one of them in the eye.

Maybe if Claire’s first appearance showed her doing a little parkour, and demonstrated that she was handy with a taser, we’d spend that scene forming a picture of her that would carry through to the rest of the film, and perhaps anticipate some of the fun that happens later. Let Owen Grady chase a dinosaur on a motorbike in his opening scene, let us watch him do something clever with a tranquiliser dart, then we’d know what his relevant skills are and could look forward to him either using them or struggling with them later. These opening scenes are such a gift to the audience, it’s a shame to waste them.

Gojira (1954)

I was sent to review Gojira when it was rereleased in the UK in 2005, by film site FilmExposed.com. I’m looking forward to seeing it again for the pod next week, but in the meantime I thought I’d dig out my old review, below:

….

‘What you see is not a movie. It is utterly bizarre.’ So cries the television journalist in Godzilla, just before the steel tower he is broadcasting from is crushed. His words echo across the story of this most famous of monster movies. Forget what you have heard. Forget what you might have seen on late night television. Especially forget the terrible Matthew Broderick picture. This is the original, 1954 Godzilla, released in its uncut form for the first time in UK cinemas. And it’s about a lot more than a man in a rubber suit.

The film opens with a hydrogen bomb test at sea. As boats disappear and then buildings are destroyed on the nearby Odo Island, scientists arrive to investigate the phenomena. Slowly they realise that the tests have awakened a massive, radioactive dinosaur, which proceeds to terrorise Tokyo until a weapon powerful enough to destroy it can be found.

It is true that the 1950s special effects can seem corny by modern standards, but the tone and subject matter make it impossible to dismiss Godzilla as cheesy light entertainment. Shimura, better known as Kambei Shimada in Seven Samurai (incidentally made in the same year, and by the same studio – Toho), brings subtlety and gravitas to the film in his role as palaeontologist Dr Yamane. And the scenes of devastation following Godzilla’s attack are heart-breaking, most notably when doctors take a Geiger counter to a small child and watch as the needle leaps off the scale. Even the music is a terrifying mixture of old and new – Godzilla’s footsteps played out on huge drums, while strange distorted horns scream over the top.

Additionally, the model making is superb – the sheer scale and detail of the miniature Tokyo made and then destroyed for the film is astonishing. And the electric fence built to protect the coastline is astounding, resembling a massive Futurist sculpture.

A lot has been made of how Godzilla reflects Japanese experience of atomic warfare: the monster is a huge destructive force that devastates indiscriminately. The film was released a mere nine years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while the wounds were still painful and the radioactivity still present. When characters talk of evacuating Tokyo, one of them comments, ‘Not again!’. And the scenes of the whole city ablaze after Godzilla’s attack would have been shockingly familiar to a nation that could vividly remember its fire-bombing by Allied forces.

And yet Godzilla remains powerfully metaphorical fifty years on. If it were made today, Godzilla would maybe stand for climate change – a different chaos released by mankind’s technological folly. And the images of collapsing skyscrapers would be considered so reminiscent of September 11 that most studios would baulk at shooting the picture at all.

How many films have spawned 21 sequels? The iconic, giant lizard has become a collective Caliban for generations of moviegoers. And now, even after half a century, on the big screen Godzilla remains a force of nature.

JR