The Jungle Book (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in
The Pride L.A.

Rudyard Kipling was a product of his era.  An Englishman born in Colonial India, he grew into a prolific author and poet whose canon was informed by his childhood experiences there.  Though his literary gifts were undeniable, and much of his work is still widely read more than a century later, he has come to be seen as a champion of British Imperialism.  The world view of white-privileged conquerors, with their assumption of racial superiority over the indigenous populations they subjugated, is deeply embedded in the fabric of all his stories- including the much-beloved children’s tales for which he is most remembered today.

Needless to say, in a modern world keenly aware of the issues surrounding race, this makes him a controversial figure.  He is regarded by many as an unapologetic racist whose writing, even at its finest, was little more than propaganda for the cause of white supremacy.  Others vehemently insist that he was a humanist working from within the system to illuminate both the noble and ignoble traits of all people and thus promote a more egalitarian mindset.  Arguments and evidence are plentiful in support of either side, as well as of the myriad viewpoints which lie somewhere between those two poles.

Of course, the majority of modern moviegoers are unaware of this literary debate, which is undoubtedly why two major studios have both developed family-friendly blockbusters based on the most well-known of Kipling’s stories: “The Jungle Book.”  The first of these, directed by Jon Favreau from a screenplay by Justin Marks, is the Disney studio’s latest effort to remount one of their animated classics as a live-action film for the 21st Century generation.

Their previous version- the final film personally overseen by Walt Disney himself- was released in 1967, and though it has become a cherished favorite to those who grew up with it, at the time it was heavily criticized for taking Kipling’s rather solemn original and turning it into a rollicking, jazz-infused comedic showcase for a star-studded cast of voice talent.

This time around, Marks and Favreau have doubled down on that same approach, while also expanding the basic story framework to include elements from the Kipling tale (or rather, tales- what we have come to know as “The Jungle Book” is actually derived from several short stories concerning the man-cub, Mowgli, and his adventures in the jungle with his animal mentors).  The result feels like a satisfactory blend, a best-of-both-worlds crowd-pleaser which captures the serious tone and allegorical flavor of Kipling while still delivering the good-natured hi-jinks expected from a studio known for its fun-for-all-ages romps.

It’s also a technical masterpiece.  The use of CGI and performance-capture technology has yielded a breathtaking visual experience, giving us a lush and majestic experience of the Indian wilderness as well as remarkably believable depictions of the animals which comprise most of the cast of characters.  This latter element also benefits from superb vocal portrayals by the likes of Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, Idris Elba, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong’o, and the always-welcome Bill Murray.  Perhaps most importantly, newcomer Neel Sethi gives an on-point performance as Mowgli, a remarkable accomplishment for a young actor whose work took place on a soundstage far removed from the world on display in the finished product.

Yet for all its excellence, this new “Jungle Book” feels somehow overdone.  There’s a “bigger-is-better” philosophy at play which detracts from its meticulously-constructed authenticity; a larger-than-life quality may be appropriate to the material, but is it really necessary, for instance, for King Louie to be the size of King Kong?  Although Marks’ screenplay does a good job of underlining the humanistic parallels with the animal kingdom, the sincerity of his intentions is steamrolled by heavy-handed execution, perhaps most tangibly in the manipulative orchestral swellings of John Debney’s score.  And on the subject of music, the inclusion of the best-known songs from the 1967 film not only seems perfunctory, but also jarringly incongruous within the realistic environment created to evoke the period and setting of the story.   .

These observations are, of course, likely to be immaterial to most of Disney’s target audience- perhaps rightly so.  After all, whatever his socio-political philosophies may have been, Kipling wrote his Mowgli stories to entertain, and “The Jungle Book” certainly succeeds in doing justice to that purpose.  Still, one can’t help but wonder how much richer it could have been made by a subtler hand, one that might have allowed for a bit of reflection on how to reconcile our modern sensibility with the more troubling issues contained in an iconic tale that, like it or not, is deeply ingrained into our cultural consciousness.  Perhaps we will find out in two years, when Warner Brothers releases their take on it.

Until then, this one will do well enough.

Midnight Special (2016)

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

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Movie “mash-ups” are a hallmark of our Postmodern era.  It is as if everything that has come before in cinema has been collectively smashed into pieces, and filmmakers freely pick up whatever shards they like and combine them to make something new.  It doesn’t matter if the pieces are recognizable, nor is it necessary to justify the appropriation by calling it an “homage.” This is, arguably, how it should be.  Each generation redefines the culture on their own terms, and it has always been standard practice for artists to “borrow” from those who have exerted a strong influence over their own work.  However, when they are not driven by a cohesive vision that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, far too many films fall short, no matter how sincere their creator’s intentions may be.  Unfortunately, “Midnight Special,” the newest feature from writer/director Jeff Nichols, is one of them.

Drawing heavily on the work of Steven Spielberg in his heyday, it combines several genres- chiefly science fiction and family drama- to tell the story of Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy with mysterious powers who has been kidnapped by his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), from the compound of a religious cult that believes he is their only hope to survive the imminent apocalypse.  With the help of an accomplice, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), the fugitives flee across the country in an attempt to reunite with the boy’s mother (Kirsten Dunst) and journey towards a mysterious destination to which Alton’s visions seem to be leading them- all the while trying to stay ahead of the cult’s operatives as well as a government task force, spearheaded by Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), that wants to find Alton for reasons of their own.

There are a lot of threads to follow in “Midnight Special.”  Nichols takes his time unraveling them for us, and doles out information sparingly as he goes.  In the first few minutes, he effectively introduces us to the main elements of his premise; from this point on, however, his film develops into a continuing series of complications, each one serving only to lead to the next, while offering only the merest scraps of information about the deeper mystery at the heart of the proceedings.  By the time we get to the big revelation- which is simply announced to us, somewhat anti-climactically- we have already been led through so many confusing turns that it’s difficult to still be invested in the outcome.

Of course, anyone familiar with Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” will sense from early on where the story is going.  “Midnight Special” has so many echoes of that classic (among others) that it is hard not to compare the two works.  To go into detail about the connections would spoil the current film, but it is worth noting that the things that make Spielberg’s movie so memorable are painfully absent here.  The sense of adventure is replaced by a feeling of impending doom; and although both movies center on families threatened and pulled apart by momentous events, “Close Encounters” nevertheless manages to be joyous and fun while “Midnight Special” struggles to stay just this side of despair.  It’s fair to say that they are different movies from different eras, but one still cannot help but think that Nichols movie takes itself far more seriously than needed.

It’s not the fault of the cast, who mostly deliver heartfelt performances.  Young Lieberher is engaging and likable while still managing to be suitably grave.  As his adult protectors, Shannon, Dunst, and Edgerton all play admirably against sentimentality, and if they come off as unrelentingly dour it seems more a function of the script and direction than the integrity of their work.  As the cult leader, the venerable Sam Shepard (whose presence underscores strong parallels with another vintage film, Daniel Petrie’s “Resurrection”) provides understated sorrow instead of predictable menace.  The standout performance, though, comes from Driver, whose turn as the government expert trying to unlock Alton’s secrets evokes the wonder and excitement so sorely missing from the rest of the film.  His screen time is all too brief.

“Midnight Special” is not a complete failure; it offers an intriguing exploration of the way that belief- whether in religion, science, or worldly concerns- can keep us blinded to truths that lay outside our understanding, and it avoids pandering to its audience with easy answers or familiar clichés.  In the end, though, there is little payoff for these ruminations, and the movie leaves us wondering far more about the details of its plot than the implications of its ideas.  It disappoints us more than it challenges us- and considering the sources from which it draws its inspiration, it is a strong disappointment, indeed.

The Revenant (2015)

 

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

With a title like “The Revenant,” one might expect the newest work by Alejandro G. Iñárritu to be a horror movie.  Indeed, though its name is meant only as a metaphoric reference to the central character’s experience, many viewers may find themselves horrified by much of its content and imagery.  This is not a criticism; rather, it’s a warning to viewers who might otherwise be unprepared for the level of intensity attempted- and achieved- by Iñárritu as he tells this story of determination and survival within the terrifying beauty of the natural world.

The screenplay, by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith, is based “in part” on a novel by Michael Punke, which was itself based on the real-life story of Hugh Glass.  An experienced frontiersman, he was part of an 1823 fur trading expedition in the northern reaches of the Louisiana Purchase; abandoned and left for dead by his comrades after sustaining severe injuries on the trail, he managed to crawl 200 miles to the nearest settlement- despite his grave condition, the harsh weather, and the danger from hostile Arikara war parties in the region.  The real Glass became something of a legend, to be sure; through the combined dramatic embellishments of Parke’s novel and the movie’s script, that legend is transformed into a classical revenge tragedy exploring the contrast between the savagery and nobility of man.

To go into any more detail about the plot would be difficult, not so much for fear of giving away the twists and turns of the story as for the sake of preserving the revelatory power of the film’s key moments.  Iñárritu uses a fluid camera to immerse his audience, creating an effect which is less like watching a series of events take place than it is like being in the midst of them as they arise and recede.  It’s disorienting and overwhelming; the vast scope of the wilderness setting, the camera’s restless focus, the hyper-reality of the natural light and the meticulously crafted soundscape- all these combine to form an atmosphere pregnant with surprises, both wondrous and terrible.  When those surprises come, the film commands a visceral response that rises beyond mere involvement in its narrative and connects you with that primal corner of your psyche that still sends prickles up your spine whenever you hear an animal howling in the darkness of night.  Iñárritu, far from rehearsing yet another big-screen tale that could easily have been lifted from a samurai epic or “spaghetti” western, seeks to provide his audience with a concrete experience of unthinkable occurrences.

It may have been the director’s audacious vision to bring such remarkable things to the screen, but an expert team was necessary to realize it.  The film’s roving camerawork, though carefully plotted by Iñárritu, was executed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also managed to give every shot a surreal and luminous beauty that haunts the memory long after the film is over.  Accompanying the stunning visuals is the ethereal score, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto (in collaboration with Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner), which contributes its own sense of stark detachment and otherworldly grace to the action.  In front of the lens, Leonardo DiCaprio gives a raw performance, possibly his best to date, as Glass; he communicates a profound range of humanity with a minimal amount of dialogue, in spite (or perhaps because) of the sheer physical ordeal of filming the role.  No less effective is Tom Hardy as the darker half of the story’s human conflict, creating an unforgettable portrait of a man who has become hardened into the personification of self-serving indifference.

“The Revenant” certainly feels unprecedented, but it does not completely escape its very “Hollywood” roots.  It retains many of the familiar tropes found throughout decades of frontier adventure movies, and it yields to the temptation of rewriting history in order to provide the kind of satisfying climactic showdown expected in such fare.  Nevertheless, Iñárritu, who is Mexican, brings an outsider’s perspective to this inherently American milieu and transcends its form to offer something beyond expectation.  Even as he charts the inexorable force of will that drives the drama, he confronts us with the breathtaking enormity of Nature and thereby forces us to contemplate our own irrelevance in the face of its awesome power.  He took well-documented pains to do so- going over budget and behind schedule in order to shoot his film in sequence with natural light, under grueling and dangerous conditions which sometimes endangered his cast and crew- but the payoff is visible in every extraordinary frame.  “The Revenant” shows us a kind of cold, profound beauty that is rarely seen in a mainstream American film, and that is a precious reward for those who have the stamina to endure it.

 

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Cloud Atlas (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Cloud Atlas, the epic 2012 adaptation of David Mitchell’s multi-narrative novel exploring the connections between individuals and their actions across time and space, written and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski in collaboration with longtime associate Tom Tykwer, and featuring an ensemble cast of stars in multiple roles.  Produced in Germany with funding from an assortment of production companies and government agencies, it was one of the most expensive independent films ever made (with a budget of $100 million); the difficulty in securing the necessary finances led to stalls in development and production, with the project being declared “dead” at several points, but the enthusiasm and determination of the cast and crew- particularly the dedication of its biggest star, Tom Hanks- helped provide the impetus to drive the project to fruition.  After a premiere at the Toronto Film Festival met with a ten-minute standing ovation, it was released to widely mixed reviews and disappointing box office receipts, ending up in the unusual position of being placed on lists of both the ten-best and ten-worst movies of the year; nevertheless, its creators have maintained their pride and belief in the work as a labor of love and a true expression of cinematic art.

The screenplay, written in close consultation with original novelist Mitchell, follows six interwoven stories, each set in different eras, in which common elements bind seemingly unrelated characters and developments together through the course of an overall narrative.  In 1849, Adam Ewing, a young lawyer on an ocean voyage to conduct a transaction for his father-in-law’s slave-trading business, keeps a journal of his experiences on the ship, detailing his battle against a mysterious disease which worsens despite the efforts of the ship’s doctor, as well as his unexpected friendship with a runaway slave who has stowed away in his cabin; in 1936, Robert Frobisher, a gifted young musician, writes letters to his lover Rufus Sixsmith from the estate of an aging composer, where he works as an amanuensis, transcribing his employer’s musical creations as he strives to compose his own masterpiece; in 1973, Luisa Rey, a young reporter, has a chance encounter with the now-elderly Sixsmith, leading to her dangerous pursuit of a story exposing corruption and fraud in the development of a new nuclear power plant; in 2012, Timothy Cavenaugh, an aging, down-on-his-luck London publisher, has a surprise bestseller on his hands when its author becomes front page news by murdering a disapproving critic- but when the writer’s thuggish family comes after a cut of the profits, he is duped by his own resentful brother into hiding out in a rest home, where a draconian staff holds him against his will until he joins with a band of other disgruntled residents to plan a daring escape; in 2144, Sonmi-451, a genetically-engineered “fabricant” created for life as a server in a Seoul restaurant, is freed from her slavish existence by a handsome and mysterious young stranger who wishes to recruit her into a rebellion against the oppressive, consumer-driven government, and after he reveals to her the dark secrets of the regime and its treatment of her kind, she agrees to speak out in an underground broadcast which will expose the truth and spread a message of love and equality for all people; and finally, in 2321, a century after a catastrophic event in which most of Earth’s population either perished or fled to colonies in outer space, a primitive tribesman named Zachry lives with intrusive visions of a ghoulish figure he refers to as “Old Georgie,” and when his village is visited by a “prescient” (a group of culturally-and-technically advanced remnants from the old society) who seeks their aid in reaching a deserted outpost from before “the fall,” he must decide whether to offer her his assistance or to abide by the prompting of his otherworldly counselor, who advises him to mistrust and betray her.  As these six different tales unfold, it becomes clear that the events of the past send ripples through time to shape the events of the future, and that each person is intertwined with every other who ever lived or will live in an ongoing destiny shaped by individual choices and actions, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem.

If all that seems confusing when encapsulated into a bare-bones one-paragraph synopsis, it is no less perplexing as it plays out in leisurely detail during a nearly-three-hour running time on the screen.  This is, however one of the strengths of Cloud Atlas; as the various plotlines slowly move around each other in a carefully orchestrated progression of intercut scenes, they offer a challenge that intrigues the viewer despite the seeming incoherence of the juxtaposed scenarios, rather like the experience of piecing together a puzzle without being able to see the picture it will eventually form.  It is difficult to become emotionally engaged in the characters or their adventures, at least at first, simply because for a good third of the film it is virtually impossible to tell what is going on or where it is all leading; but the intellectual challenge of piecing it all together from the plethora of tantalizing clues with which it baits us is sufficiently irresistible to hold our attention until, as the parallels and common elements become apparent, we find ourselves invested in the proceedings, almost without having noticed it happening.  The rhyme and reason of these initially dissevered narratives becomes clearer as the threads that bind them into one are revealed, and by the time we see the underlying premise at work- the interconnectedness of all human life and experience as revealed through the gradual passage of time- we are ready to let go of our academic need to understand precisely how it fits together and simply sit back to watch as they resolve into their respective conclusions, simultaneously converging into an emotional climax which unites them into the single story which, of course, they have been all along.

At least, this is the design of the Wachowsi/Tykwer team behind the film; however, in order for it to work according to that plan, the viewer must be willing and able to buy into the conceits upon which their movie is built.  This is asking a lot of modern mainstream audiences, who generally expect their movies to be grounded in concrete, tangible realism and follow a logical, linear storyline; and though there is a built-in appeal for fantasy and sci-fi fans, Cloud Atlas mixes in elements of other genres that may only serve to put off those who are hoping for a more straightforward piece of escapist adventure.  In addition, its philosophical leanings, serving not merely as underpinnings to the overall piece but as the very core of its purpose, are impossible to disregard for those whose taste runs towards more concrete matter.  In the end, though the film packs plenty of action, drama, and even comedy into its panoramic tale, these things take a backseat to its larger agenda of presenting an epic meditation on the unseen forces that drive our collective journey through history; there is a decidedly literary feel here- indeed, references and homages abound to authors from Melville to Ray Bradbury, and many of the situations and settings evoke memories of their best-known works- and though the directors have not slacked in their efforts to create a cinematic experience, Cloud Atlas achieves its ends largely through a cerebral process more akin to reading a book than to the visceral response associated with film.  This is an observation, not necessarily a criticism; nevertheless, audiences seeking thrills and excitement may find themselves less entertained than frustrated.

For those who relish the challenge of it, however, the scrambled-picture format of Cloud Atlas makes for an engaging exercise; deciphering the internal logic that transforms this mosaic of seeming non-sequiturs into a cohesive whole requires a close attention to detail and provides insurance against a flagging of interest before things become clear enough to capture our sympathies as well as our intellectual curiosity.  Tykwer and the Wachowskis have done a deft job of building their game of connect-the-dots, providing no shortage of clues- presented with varying degrees of subtlety- that keep us assured that something is going on here, even if we can’t tell what it is.  This, of course, binds us with the characters, most of whom also become gradually aware of these as-of-yet unexplained points of intersection, and by the time we have begun to see the layered pattern of connectivity within these conjoined tales, we are able to surrender to the momentum and let the movie carry us towards the emotional nexus of its finale.  Indeed, it is the structural mystery itself that gives the film its appeal; taken on their own, the various episodes would be far too weak to build an entire movie around- with the possible exception of the dystopian saga of Sonmi-451.  Tied together by the undercurrents of causality that are the filmmakers’ true focus, however, each segment assumes a higher level of integrity than is bestowed by its individual premise or plot developments, and Cloud Atlas ultimately becomes a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Besides the ambitious structural conceit, there are other aspects of the movie that may prove problematic for some viewers.  Part of the thematic core is reinforced by the choice of using the same company of actors in all the stories, playing different roles; the cast was told by their directors to think of themselves as playing a “genetic strain” rather than individual characters, and the result is a suggestion of spiritual continuity and progression throughout a series of lives- though the idea of reincarnation is not directly referenced in any other way, nor is the story dependent on a belief in that concept.  This multiplicity of casting, of course, gives the film’s stars a rare opportunity to show the range of their talents and yields the fun of seeing them in a wide variety of personas throughout- some of them across lines of age, gender, and ethnicity.   This latter element has been the source of some controversy, with objections being raised to the use, specifically, of white actors in “yellowface” to portray Asian characters.  This decision was made purely to maintain a crucial thematic concept, and indeed, Asian and black actors are also cast in white roles for the same reason; nevertheless, audiences sensitive to these kind of racial issues may find this uncomfortable.

Questions of perceived racism aside, this somewhat theatrical tactic, achieved with an extensive use of make-up and prosthetic effects in order to create vastly differing appearances for each of the characters’ various incarnations, may prove somewhat distracting- even jarring- to audiences not quite able to accept seeing these familiar faces passed off as anything other than their recognizable selves.  Some of the more obviously exaggerated permutations- Hanks as a Cockney gangster, for instance, or Hugo Weaving as a sadistic female nurse- are deployed for intentional comedic effect, but the inescapable cartoonishness of the disguises, in other cases, may elicit inappropriate chuckling.  To be sure, the use of actors in multiple roles is nothing new; it is part of a grand cinematic tradition most famously represented by the likes of Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers.  Again, though, contemporary audiences are unused to seeing it, and the sight of Hanks with enormous prosthetic buck teeth or Susan Sarandon as a heavily-tattooed tribal crone might demand too great a test of the willing suspension of disbelief for a good number of viewers.

The biggest obstacle that Cloud Atlas faces, though, in winning the hearts and minds of its audience, comes not from its unorthodox structural form or its casting, but from the very essence of its premise.  In positing a continuous thread of influence that runs through the course of human history, the film presents a thought-provoking- and relatively uncontroversial- idea that most reasonable viewers will have no problem accepting; but Tykwer and the Wachovskis, along with original author Mitchell, layer in the additional suggestion of an underlying consciousness of this phenomenon that manifests itself in an awareness within the characters themselves.  While it is not a stretch to portray individuals who feel a certain sense of destiny, Cloud Atlas goes further than this, making it clear that these moments of a priori recognition are the result of a force- whether supernatural, spiritual, or scientific- which exists beyond conscious perception.  To fully accept Cloud Atlas, the viewer must be open to embracing a certain “New Age” sensibility (for want of a better term) that encompasses notions of collective consciousness, the continuity of souls, and the workings of karma; though there is no overt discussion of these things by name- characters express their own beliefs and speculations in more-or-less generic, non-denominational terms- they are directly implied and, indeed, required as a condition of the film’s entire premise.  It is this factor that may most sharply determine whether a viewer can enjoy Cloud Atlas or not, and it’s a point that is not dependent on any affect the film may adopt.  There is no persuasion to be accomplished here; you either believe in this stuff or you don’t, and if you don’t, the payoff at the end of this ambitious epic will likely leave you cold.

That said, even for skeptical or cynical cinema enthusiasts, there is much to admire in Cloud Atlas.  The directors- who split the segments between themselves, with Tykwer handling the 1936, 1973, and 2012 stories and the Wachovski siblings helming those set in 1849, 2144, and 2321- have delivered a polished and cohesive whole while not only working separately but within styles appropriate for the different tones and settings of each of the six episodes; from period drama to seventies action to contemporary comic caper to futuristic action-adventure, they hit the right chords in their approach.  They deftly cut between the various threads in such a way as to emphasize the crucial parallels and reinforce their central conceit, as well as using the cross-cutting as a technique to build suspense and quicken the pace.  Most importantly, perhaps, they infuse their movie with the kind of epic visuals that linger in the memory- not just in the sci-fi segments, where dazzling design and effects create a distinctive and original vision of the future while evoking classics like Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in the less fantastical sequences as well.  Artful composition and imaginative camerawork are expertly employed throughout, allowing, after all, for that direct, visceral effect of a purely cinematic experience, and thereby creating a cumulative emotional response while the necessary intellectual constructs develop through the dialogue.  It is this mastery of filmmaking technique that gives Cloud Atlas its most universal appeal; even those with the most vehement rejection of its concept and message can appreciate the artistry that has been employed by its makers in their passion to bring it to the screen.

That same passion manifests itself in the work of the cast, an oddly-mixed yet complementary ensemble that includes no less than four Oscar-winners and an assortment of acclaimed up-and-comers.  The aforementioned Hanks heads the group, playing a “genetic strain” that makes perhaps the most profound journey- from avaricious killer to selfless hero- during the course of his six incarnations; of these roles, the most “Hanks-like” is that of a sympathetic nuclear physicist in the 1973 sequence, in which he gives voice to perhaps the most eloquent expression of the film’s central theme, but it is in his against-type turn as a visionary post-apocalyptic tribesman that he truly shines- though for some viewers, accepting the usually warm and civilized everyman actor in this gruff and primitive persona may be too much of a stretch.  Halle Berry is also prominently placed as Hanks’ feminine counterpart, of sorts, serving as muse and catalyst for the development of others as she continually works towards her own fulfillment; her best work comes in her showcase role as journalist Luisa Rey- though she has an undeniably intriguing presence as the white, Jewish-refugee wife of the aged composer in the 1936 story.  Jim Broadbent is, as always, spot-on in his multiple appearances, the quintessential character actor clearly relishing the opportunity to show off his range; though his star spot comes in arguably the weakest of the scenarios- the cutely comedic adventure of the rascally publisher and his escape from the old folks’ home- his honest and likable performance is more than enough to make it engaging and endow it with the weight necessary to make it suitable as a companion to the other, more serious tales.  Hugo Weaving is perhaps a bit wasted in his series of roles, for the most part representing the darkest side of humanity throughout the film, and therefore denied the opportunity to show the kind of variety displayed by his co-stars; but he is, nevertheless, a welcome participant, particularly in his delightfully droll drag appearance as the elder-abusing head nurse who terrorizes Broadbent.  Ben Whishaw and James D’Arcy are moving and believable as the doomed young musician and his future-nuclear-physicist lover, making their tragic love story as inspirational, resonant, and universal as it deserves to be.  The former is particularly heartbreaking, playing against sentimentality to embody the roguish dilettante and making this pivotal character all the more sympathetic for it; and the latter- the only cast member to play the same character in two separate segments- also stands out in his other featured role as the interrogator struggling to maintain his neutrality as he questions captured rebel Sonmi-451. Jim Sturgess, who plays a central role in both the 1849 shipboard drama and the tale of Sonmi, is appealingly sensitive- and handsome- as each; and Hugh Grant is virtually unrecognizable in most of his appearances here, but highly effective in all of them, reminding us that this former matinee-idol- a last-minute addition to the cast- has always been a formidable actor, as well. With less screen time than some of the others, the aforementioned Sarandon lends her venerable respectability to a handful of supporting parts, mostly representing the dignity and wisdom of the feminine aspect, and David Gyasi scores with the earnest nobility he brings to Autua, the runaway slave.  The performance that provides the heart and soul of Cloud Atlas, though, comes from Doona Bae as reluctant rebel Sonmi-451; with quiet, unassuming intelligence and a sense of wonder that mixes with a deep sadness in her core, she gives us a believable and touching transcendence from slave to saint, filling the center of the film’s most ambitious segment and making it into the most touching and memorable of the lot.

Aside from the direction and the performances, there are numerous other impressive contributions to Cloud Atlas; the costume and makeup design are outstanding, the cinematography luminous, the scenic elements- which include both magnificent natural locations and sumptuously realized interiors- rich and detailed, and the special effects stunning.  If there were a single element to be singled out, however, it would unquestionably be the remarkable score.  Composed by co-director Tykwer himself in collaboration with Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek (a long-standing team responsible for the music in most of Tykwer’s previous films, as well), it is a genuine masterpiece of movie music.  Emerging within the narrative itself as the “Cloud Atlas Suite” written by young Frobisher, it weaves the same dominant themes and motifs throughout the six stories in styles which complement the mood and setting of each; alternately haunting, sad, stirring, triumphant, eloquent, and simple, it registers both subliminally and overtly as the true backbone of the film’s emotional and conceptual raison d’être, and though it could easily have been pushed just a few notches up to become maudlin, manipulative, and bathetic, instead it strikes just the right balance of flourish and restraint every step of the way.  A textbook example of the proper use of scoring in the cinema, it is strong enough that it could likely tell the story without need for dialogue, and deserves to stand among the best works of other film-scoring giants from Erich Wolfgang Korngold to John Williams.

Ultimately, Cloud Atlas is one of those movies that defy criticism.  Technically superb as it may be, and whole-heartedly committed and enthusiastic as all its participants were in its making, it inevitably elicits a polarized response.  Cinema, like all art forms, is at its essence a conceptualized expression- whether of an idea, an emotion, or some mixture of both; the reaction of the observer, when all is said and done, is dependent upon how that observer feels about what has been expressed.  There are those who will simply not respond sympathetically to the message of Cloud Atlas, and there are others who will find it deeply profound and inspirational.  Much like the perennial Christmas classic, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, its a matter of personal taste; one could probably split the world neatly into two types of people: those who like it and those who don’t.  Of course, there will always be an overlapping group of those who can’t quite make up their mind, for whatever reason; for my own part, that’s where I found myself fitting in, at least initially.  As days went by, however, I kept thinking about this unusual, challenging film, and remembering moments that I had almost overlooked in the lengthy sweep of it; the more I thought, the more I admired it, and I am now eager for a second viewing, and perhaps more, in order to catch hold of the myriad threads of detail with which its tapestry is woven.  I suspect that multiple viewings are probably necessary to gain a full appreciation for Cloud Atlas, and I must say that I am now more than willing to test that theory.  As much as I have come to appreciate it, however, I have my doubts that this Wachowsi/Tykwer opus will ever approach the top of my list of favorites.  Though I confess my personal beliefs are very much in sync with the ones presented here, there is something about seeing them presented as a concrete truth that somehow diminishes them; perhaps it is because, by nature of the very act of creating a story to encapsulate them, a degree of necessary artifice exists which evokes a suggestion of insincerity.  To its credit, Cloud Atlas skillfully avoids being precious, preachy, or cloying, despite many moments which could easily go this way, and it is clear from beginning to end that its makers are adamant in the beliefs their film espouses; indeed, it’s hard to imagine a movie that feels more genuine in its dedication to a purpose.  Even so, there are many viewers- myself included- who simply prefer to be allowed to draw their own conclusions about such deeply personal matters, and while Cloud Atlas never makes a defining pronouncement about the nature of existence itself nor declares any principle as an ultimate truth, it certainly leaves no doubt which way you should look for these things.  Perhaps it’s less a movie than a devotional meditation, in the end; though it can be a beautiful experience for seekers and believers, everybody else is going to have a hard time seeing the point.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1371111/?ref_=sr_1

Argo (2012)

Argo (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Argo, the winner of the 2012 Academy Award for Best Picture, directed (and starring) Ben Affleck and offering a fictionalized chronicle of the real-life rescue of six American refugees from Tehran during the 1979-1980 Iranian hostage crisis.  With a screenplay by Chris Terrio (who also won an Oscar for his work) and a talented ensemble cast that includes veteran actors Alan Arkin and John Goodman, as well as acclaimed Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, it was an instant critical and financial success upon its release, revitalizing Affleck’s career and garnering much praise for its intelligent, character-driven approach to the story- though it has also received criticism for its use of embellishments and fabrications to increase the drama of its narrative, as well as for its selective arrangement of facts to maximize its pro-American sentiments.

Based on Tony Mendez’ personal memoir, The Master of Disguise, and Joshuah Bearman’s magazine account of the mission, “Escape from Tehran,” Argo begins with the 1979 storming of Tehran’s U.S. embassy by militants following the Iranian revolution which supplanted the American-backed Shah with radical Islamic cleric Ayatollah Khomeni as leader of the nation.  The embassy staff have barely enough time to shred their confidential papers before they are taken hostage by the angry throng, who seek to exchange them to the U.S. for the return of the former Shah, so that he can be tried and executed by the new revolutionary government.  Unbeknown to the militants, however, six Americans have managed to escape through a side door, and have found refuge in the Canadian embassy; as the world’s attention turns to the tense diplomatic standoff over the captive diplomats, the C.I.A. tries to develop a plan for the safe extraction of these secret fugitives before the Iranian militants can discover their existence.  Called in to consult, “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez hatches an unlikely plot by which the six can be safely flown out of the country under the very noses of the Iranian government; posing as a Canadian film producer, he will enter Iran under the pretext of scouting exotic locations for a new science fiction epic, then- with the aid of falsified passports provided by the Canadian government- the six refugees can depart with him, posing as his film crew.  With the help of a Hollywood contact- Oscar-winning makeup designer John Chambers- Mendez enlists a famous producer to help set up a production company for his phony epic, thereby establishing a convincing cover story through the Hollywood publicity machine, and with all the pieces in place, sets out for Tehran to enact his outrageous plan.  Before he can succeed, though, he must first convince the six terrified diplomats to cooperate with the scheme and turn them into a believable facsimile of a movie crew; to further complicate matters, the ever-changing political tides at home threaten to undermine C.I.A. support for the mission, and the Iranians- who are painstakingly restoring the shredded embassy records- are on the verge of discovering that there are six Americans still unaccounted for and at large somewhere within the city.  With time running out and no other option besides eventual capture and probable execution, there is no choice but to follow through with their desperate ruse and hope that their luck holds out.

In crafting a screenplay from these true-life events, Terrio has created, in essence, a caper film; the story is molded in the classic form of an adventure in which a diverse team of mismatched characters must work together to execute an elaborate scheme, wherein intricate planning and precise timing- and a healthy dose of good luck- are required to achieve success.   The premise is not far removed from such films as The Sting or Ocean’s 11, except that instead of a heist the players are attempting an escape.  Since the outcome is a matter of relatively well-known history, the challenge is to generate suspense as the action unfolds; in order to achieve this, the writer wisely chose to focus much of his attention on the personalities of the people involved, heightening the suspense with a personal dynamic that places much of the interest in seeing how these various characters manage to rise to the challenges they face.  This allows for a strong sense of ensemble among the actors and a layered tapestry of nuanced performances, bringing the plot to life with a richness that evokes the character-driven political dramas of the era in which Argo takes place.

The other tactic by which the movie creates suspense, while it is standard practice in the dramatization of true events, could be considered a bit of a cheat; Terrio has fabricated a number of circumstances within the narrative that did not occur in real life.  The six American escapees were never in imminent danger of detection by the Iranian militants, nor was there any suspicion or investigation of the Canadian embassy while they were lodged there; the C.I.A. never withdrew support for the rescue mission, and the Carter administration approved the plan well before the eleventh-hour climax portrayed in the film; and when the time came for the clandestine travelers to make their escape, they walked easily onto the plane and flew out of the country without so much as a second glance by the security at the airport.  Using artistic license is certainly an accepted method- even an expected one- for creating a more eventful and exciting film narrative, and it serves well in Argo, though historical purists may quibble; more questionable are the deliberate omissions and slanted characterizations that diminish the real-life role played by the Canadians in the operation, cast the British and other governments in an unsympathetic light, and depict the Iranians in a manner which reinforces an already problematic cultural bias.  Nevertheless, setting aside questions of fairness or historical accuracy in what is, after all, a movie “based on” a true story (as opposed to a recreation of actual events), Terrio’s screenplay is a superb piece of Hollywood myth-making, building a gripping and compelling story out of its concern for character instead of the intricacies of the plot, and doing it with a great deal of intelligence and- both surprisingly and refreshingly- a great deal of humor.

As for Affleck’s direction of the piece, he picks up the obvious connection of Argo to seventies cinema and uses it as the basis for his mise-en-scène; though modern day technical trickery has been used to achieve certain ends (such as the transformation of the Istanbul filming locations into the city of Tehran and the dilapidated state of the iconic “Hollywood” sign- another historical inaccuracy, since the landmark was actually restored a full year before the events depicted in Argo), the visual milieu of his movie is constructed with a deliberate eye towards capturing the time and place in which it takes place.  There are no ostentatious displays of effects wizardry, no high-def action sequences designed to dazzle and distract; Argo is made to look and feel like a product of seventies sensibility, with influences drawn from such films as All the President’s Men and an authentically grainy look to Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography- achieved by shooting on film, cutting the images down by half, then blowing them up 200%.  Affleck heavily utilizes authentic archival footage from the real historical events, both within the film (as TV newscasts) and as a guide for recreating the environment; the costumes (by Jacqueline West) are superbly realized recreations of late-seventies fashion, executed with authenticity rather than caricature (though in some instances- such as the scene in which a bogus cast, decked out in a ludicrous, disco-influenced wardrobe of campy science fiction designs, assembles for a read-through of the fictional film- the line between caricature and authenticity is non-existent); and all the trappings of the film’s environment- the architecture of the carefully chosen locations, the sensibility of the décor, even the artistic style of the various corporate logos and advertising which are almost omnipresent in the background- contribute tremendously towards transporting us back to this not-too-distant time in our cultural history.

Affleck’s work in coordinating all these technical asepects is impressive enough in itself, but his handling of Argo is also polished from the perspective of cinematic storytelling.  He keeps the movie moving at a pace which is tight but never hurried, superbly utilizing cross-edited footage to move different elements of the story simultaneously; he captures the claustrophobic experience of the American refugees with tight close-ups and jerky hand-held shots, he suggests the bustle of governmental bureaucracy with scenes of offices in constant motion and characters endlessly walking down long corridors (bristling with purpose, of course), and he evokes the loneliness of his protagonist’s chosen career with artfully composed scenes of his isolation in the midst of crowds, sumptuous rooms, and exotic locations.  It’s a strong, workmanlike effort, undoubtedly the young director’s best work to date, and though it is not exactly visionary or groundbreaking in nature, it is exactly fit to the material he is presenting; his omission as a nominee for the Best Director Oscar is certainly an oddity, particularly considering that he won the honor at many of the other awards ceremonies and that his film eventually took the Best Picture prize- though such a seeming paradox is not unheard of, as Oscar trivia buffs will quickly point out.  Honors and awards aside, Argo is a career-changing work for Affleck, and will doubtless provide the momentum for future projects which will (hopefully) stretch his artistic boundaries even further.

The cast, a crack ensemble of skilled professionals ranging from old hands to promising newcomers, does an excellent job across the board; there is a singleness of vision in the performances that allows each individual player to shine without any one of them seeming to stand out above the others.  The most screen time, of course, belongs to Affleck, and though his self-casting as the half-latino Mendez has generated some raised eyebrows from those who feel a more culturally appropriate choice would have been better, he makes for a likable hero, a man whose personal issues provide the impetus to redeem himself through his professional duties.  Bryan Cranston is memorable as Mendez’ superior, fleshing out what amounts to a stock character with rich personality, and Victor Garber is the picture of genteel compassion as Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who harbors the fugitive Americans and- historically, at any rate, if not within the context of Argo­– was the primary engineer of the plan to get them to safety.  As the harried refugees, a sextet of actors- Tate Donovan, Clea Duvall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, and Kerry Bishé- creates distinctive portraits of each one despite a shortage of screen time, with McNairy given the most prominent of these roles as a skeptical holdout to the plan who ends up playing a crucial part in its success.  A number of familiar faces also turn up in smaller parts, but the film’s biggest stars, in the two most colorful roles, are the great Alan Arkin and John Goodman, as the two Hollywood players who make Mendez’ subterfuge possible.  In a movie that casts the movie industry itself in a heroic role, it is only fitting that its representatives should be larger than life, and both of these fine actors fit the bill.  Goodman is characteristically robust and colorful as makeup designer John Chambers, but Arkin is particularly effective as fictional producer Lester Seigel (in real life the producer of the bogus movie was impersonated by an associate of Chambers’ named Robert Sidell), letting us see the pull of a deeper purpose in his choice to become involved with the mission.

Argo is a movie that is hard to fault, in terms of execution.  It features top-notch work all around and tells a story which is important to American cultural identity and has clear implications within the current political situation (in regards to the still-strained relationship with Iran).  It addresses, by implication, the consequences of former American policies in the Middle East, and it offers a chance to cheer for heroic deeds that transcend the ever-shifting needs of politics.  For my own part, I can admire the work done here by Affleck and company, but I can’t help but wish it had been done without the omissions and exaggerations that create a false impression of the roles of various participants in the saga- both national and individual.  Drama, traditionally, has always played fast and loose with facts in the interest of telling a good story, but this particular story may be a bit too close to home for such tactics to be entirely appropriate, and as a result, no matter how effective Argo is as entertainment, it smacks, vaguely, of propaganda.  Though it is an exemplary piece of intelligent popular filmmaking,  Affleck’s movie panders more than a little to its audience in the way that it manages to avoid taking either a liberal or conservative stance on its subject, adopting populist attitudes and embracing clichéd assumptions, and presenting America in a way that allows us to recognize its flaws while still feeling good about it.  As a result, it narrowly misses the mark of true greatness and instead settles firmly on the ground of romanticized dream factory escapism.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that; far too few big film projects achieve that ideal with as much success and integrity as Argo.  Clearly, given its tally of major industry awards, it’s a movie that strikes all the right chords, and even if it does so by means of manipulation, that is, after all, what filmmakers do.  Nevertheless, of the six (out of nine) nominees for the Best Picture Oscar of 2012 that I have thus far seen, Argo would have been my last choice for the winner.  It’s a very good movie, solid, polished, and safe; but if you expect to be blown away- as the accumulated hype may by now have led you to- you are likely to wonder what all the fuss was about.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1024648/?ref_=sr_1

Flesh Gordon (1974)

Flesh Gordon (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Flesh Gordon, a 1974 semi-“porno” feature spoofing the classic sci-fi movie serials of Hollywood’s golden age, directed by Michael Benveniste and Howard Ziehm and starring… well, probably no one you’ve ever heard of.  Rooted in the irreverently hedonistic sensibility of the so-called “sexual revolution” of the seventies, it lampoons the old-fashioned conventions of the original Flash Gordon adventures by sexualizing all of the story elements and adding lots of gratuitous nudity and sex.  Campy, juvenile, and amateurish, it nevertheless has a certain goofy charm that helped to make it a favorite on the midnight movie circuit and something of a cult classic.  It is also notable for its cheap-but-well-executed special effects, which were orchestrated by several future industry legends (most notably specialty make-up pioneer Rick Baker) and were sufficiently impressive to put the film into consideration for an Oscar nomination for Visual Effects- though ultimately the Academy opted to skip the category that year due to a shortage of suitable contenders.

As written by co-director Benveniste, the plot follows the story of the classic Flash Gordon serial so closely that the filmmakers had to include a disclaimer before the credits, expressly stating that the movie was meant as a parody and “homage,” in order to avoid a lawsuit from Universal Pictures, copyright holders of the original.  As the film opens, the titular hero is traveling by plane, summoned by his scientist father to help in the effort to stop a mysterious attack from outer space; the earth, it seems, is being bombarded by a “sex ray,” which causes widespread havoc by causing people to break into spontaneous orgies, and young Flesh is so far immune to its effects.  Unfortunately, the plane is hit mid-flight by a blast from this deadly extra-terrestrial aphrodisiac; its pilots abandon the cockpit in order to join the sexual frenzy in the passengers’ cabin, and the unmanned aircraft begins to plummet from the sky.  Flesh manages to rescue Dale Ardor, a young female passenger with whom he struck up an acquaintance before the ray hit (compelling her to rip off her clothes, of course), and the two parachute to safety on the ground below.  There, they find themselves at the secluded home of Dr. Flexi Jerkoff, an eccentric scientist who has traced the source of the sex ray to the planet Porno, and has built a spaceship- decidedly phallic in design- in which he plans to go there.  Flesh and Dale, naturally, decide to join him, and the three new comrades set out on their journey through space.  It doesn’t take long to arrive- this is super science, after all- and they soon find themselves in the palace of Emperor Wang the Perverted, who plans to dominate the universe through its libido; the deviant despot conscripts Jerkoff into his service, declares Dale as his new bride, and sends Flesh off to be castrated.  However, Amora, the Queen of Magic, has become smitten with the young hero; planning to make him her consort, she abducts him from the palace, with Wang’s men in pursuit.  Though Amora’s vessel is shot down, Flesh escapes intact; Jerkoff, meanwhile, has managed to flee from the palace, as well.  The two adventurers reunite, and, joining forces with Porno’s rightful ruler, Prince Precious, they undertake to rescue Dale, destroy the sex ray, and overthrow the evil Wang once and for all.  To do so, they must defeat a tribe of evil lesbian Amazons, outwit Wang’s spies, and defeat the Great God Porno, a giant satyr-like beast awakened from his long slumber by the evil Emperor himself.

It’s probably unnecessary for me to have provided even such limited detail in the above synopsis; like most so-called adult movies, the plot of Flesh Gordon is really immaterial.  It exists merely to provide a framework for the various titillations and parodies which are, of course, the only reason for the film to exist.  As far as titillation goes, though virtually every scene features some degree of nudity, and there are a number of scenes in which people are seen having sex, the truth is that Flesh Gordon is really pretty tame, even by 1974 standards.  Part of the reason for this is that, although the film originally included numerous scenes of explicit, hardcore sex, both straight and gay, the filming of such material was illegal in Los Angeles at the time it was made (hard as that may be to believe now); to prevent their prosecution for pandering, the filmmakers were forced to surrender all such footage the L.A. vice squad, and Flesh Gordon was released without explicit pornographic content.  This was undoubtedly seen as a setback by its makers, but in the long run it was better for the movie; if it had been full-fledged porn, it would not have been as widely seen- or perhaps, at least, not by the same audiences- and would likely not have achieved the popularity it eventually enjoyed.  In the more “soft-core” form it was forced to take, it managed to become as much a lampoon of “skin flicks” (as they were euphemistically called in those days) as it was of the corny space operas of old.

This brings us to the satirical side of the film.  Though Flesh Gordon is loaded with crude sexual innuendo and sophomoric jokes, it somehow manages to be endearingly cute.  Sure, the humor is as juvenile as the nudity and sex are gratuitous, but this in itself is part of the charm.  Benveniste’s script does not pretend to be anything other than a collection of cheap laughs; it is free of the kind of hip, self-aware cleverness that mars so many similar attempts at this kind of send-up.  The comedy is so obvious and so gleefully raunchy, so painfully and ludicrously obvious, and just so plain silly, that it is impossible for any but the most snobbish viewers to be unamused; you roll your eyes and shake your head, but you chuckle as you do so.  One of the main reasons for this is the movie’s underground feel; the cheap sets, the grainy 16 mm look of the photography, and the hopelessly amateur acting, all give the impression of watching some weekend garage-filmmaking project undertaken by naughty teenagers while their parents are out of town.  The two directors clearly have limited knowledge of how to make a movie, with poor staging, sloppy editing, and muddled storytelling that sometimes obscures the intended focus of scenes and prevents us from getting an adequate view of would-be sight gags.  It’s somewhat frustrating, at times, but it has the effect of making much of the movie’s funniest material play like throwaway gags, the kind of parenthetical comic detail that contributes to the underlying wackiness that pervades the piece as a whole.  At times, the film’s raw quality is similar to the early work of John Waters- certainly the sex and nudity has the same glamorless, unattractive sensibility as one finds in Waters’ films from this same era- but with more of an attempt at emulating the polish of mainstream Hollywood.  It’s an attempt that falls far short of the mark, but, of course, that’s part of the joke.

Despite the low budget and the obvious inexperience of its directors, however, Flesh Gordon manages to impress with its special effects.  Certainly, these are not the high-tech visual feats of magic one could expect from an A-list studio production, but cheap though they may be, there is a sense of artistry on display here that lifts the movie above the level of low-grade exploitation cinema.  Under the supervision of Walter R. Cichy (one of the film’s three producers, along with Ziehm and Bill Osco), the designers and artists involved- many of whom, as mentioned, were established or soon-to-be established industry professionals- manage to infuse their bargain-basement work with the kind of imagination and tongue-in-cheek humor that makes the cheapness seem like a choice.  With an obvious nod to the spaceship-on-strings style of classic sci-fi history, the movie delivers deliciously cheesy visual delights to go with its inane dialogue and corny story; shaky walls, cannibalized props and sets, and primitive in-camera trickery create the appropriately campy environment, populated by such ridiculous creatures as “Penisauruses” and the aforementioned Great God Porno (voiced, sans credit, by the then-young-and-unknown Craig T. Nelson) which are brought to life by surprisingly deft stop-motion animation.  In addition, the thrift-store pastiche of costumes and the over-the-top execution of the makeup give the whole thing a Halloween party tackiness that somehow puts the perfect finishing touch on the whole package.

As for the cast, the only name of note is Candy Samples, a former pin-up and porn actress who earlier had worked with Russ Meyer, who makes a cameo as Queen Nelly, the eye-patched (and breast-patched) ruler of the Amazon lesbian tribe.  For the most part, the performances are as banal as one might expect, with Jason Williams and Suzanne Fields, as Flesh and Dale, respectively, barely able to muster the sense of excited urgency that is, pretty much, all that is required of them- well, except for their bodies, of course, both of which are suitably sexy in that pre-personal-trainer (and pre-silicon) early seventies way.  As Dr. Jerkoff, Joseph Hudgens (in his only credited film role) manages to combine likable earnestness with a Vaudevillian sensibility that, for some reason, conjures memories of Groucho Marx, and Lance Larsen exhibits signs of personality as the deposed Prince Precious, a leotard-clad Robin-Hood-like figure, mercifully keeping his mincing to a minimum as he allows the character’s name to do most of the work in conveying his sexual preferences.  The acting highlight, as far as it goes, is the performance of William Dennis Hunt as Emperor Wang, sporting outrageous Fu Manchu makeup as he chews the scenery with appropriate relish, laughing maniacally as he incites his mostly naked subjects to copulate and calling his minions “dildoes.” To be sure, none of these performances are Oscar-worthy, but they work well enough for a film which gets most of its charm from being deliberately bad.  There’s something about bad actors doing their best- even when it’s terrible- that is much less painful than good actors purposely trying to be bad; in this case, it complements the style of the film and, somehow makes it all the more satisfying.

Don’t get me wrong here; though it might seem I’ve raved about Flesh Gordon, it’s hardly some sort of visionary masterpiece.  It’s pure schlock, in fact, and shoddily made schlock, at that.   What makes it entertaining is its sheer unpretentiousness.  Benveniste and Ziehm were simply trying to make a cheap, funny, sexy movie that would appeal to youthful audiences; the vehicle they chose was designed to poke fun at the old-fashioned entertainment of an older generation, and whether by accident or canny exploitation, they managed to ride a wave of nostalgia that was rising in popular culture at the time.  These factors may have helped to give their movie a bit more push than it otherwise deserved, but what made it become a sort of mini-phenomenon was the fact that, for all its ridicule of the serials that inspired it, it exhibits a clear love for that source material.  Despite its effort to reinvent Flash Gordon as a blue movie, Flesh Gordon is undeniably sweet, amusingly naive, and more than a little geeky.  It’s these qualities that make it worth sitting through, not just once but over and over, despite the lousy acting and bad jokes; personally, I would rather watch Flesh Gordon a hundred times than have to watch the abysmal 1980 remake of Flash Gordon even once more.  Though this movie makes fun, it also celebrates the original; in truth, it’s really pretty true in spirit to those old melodramatic space operas, because they, too, were designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator by exploring the public’s sensationalistic urges for action, fantasy and, yes, even sex.  After all, the costumes worn in those 1930s movies were pretty sexy, for their time; by 1974, they might have had to eliminate costumes all together in order to get the same effect, but the principle is still the same.  Obviously, Flesh Gordon is not for die-hard prudes; but you are likely to see racier stuff on late-night cable TV than you will in this movie, so anyone else is encouraged to check it out, at least once.  It’s likely to be one of the more unique cinema adventures you’ve had, and besides, do you really want to miss a movie where the only way to defeat the villain is to use the “pasties of power?”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068595/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

 

Django Unchained (2012)

Django Unchained (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 epic revenge-fantasy western, a movie that generated (and continues to generate) much controversy over its handling of the still-raw issue of slavery in the American past.  The tale of a freed slave who joins forces with a white bounty hunter to rescue his still-captive wife from a Mississippi plantation, it’s a characteristically violent entry to the Tarantino canon, paying homage to the exploitation films of old and using a mashed-up blend of genres to address complex social issues in a way that flies in the face of contemporary ideas about political correctness.  Unsurprisingly, it has drawn both passionate praise and passionate objection, primarily focused on its depiction of racism and its over-the-top violence.

Tarantino’s screenplay, like most of his others, brings together explicit influences from numerous pieces of cinematic history, most notably the spaghetti westerns and “blaxploitation ” films of the ’60s and ’70s- with a liberal sprinkling of the prime-time television shows from the same era.  Most specifically, he takes inspiration (and the theme song) from a particular 1966 spaghetti western called Django, directed by Sergio Corbucci, a bloody tale of revenge which was considered at the time to be the most violent western ever made.  Though its plot has no resemblance to Tarantino’s story, nor does it involve issues of racism or slavery, the spirit of this original film is nevertheless a tangible part of Django Unchained– a title which also references Hercules Unchained, another Italian epic about a mythic hero who breaks the bonds of slavery to rescue the woman he loves.  Alongside these pulpy pop-culture sources, though, Tarantino draws from the Nordic legend of Brünhilde and Siegfried, adding a deeper mythic connection to the story and rooting its true thematic purpose to an archetypal level that transcends the racial subject matter on its surface.  Set in 1858, the film opens as a pair of slave traders march their chained captives- barefoot- through the Texas desert at night.  They are intercepted by a horse-drawn wagon driven by a courtly German, a traveling dentist named Dr. King Schultz, who has traced a particular slave to them.  After questioning the man he seeks, whose name is Django, Schultz offers to buy him, but the traders, uncomfortable with the German’s attitude and wary of the manner of his approach, refuse to sell; they order Schultz to leave and threaten to shoot him if he does not comply, at which point their visitor draws his gun and fires, killing one trader and trapping the other under the body of his fallen horse.  He gives the wounded survivor money for Django, takes the keys to unchain his purchase, and leaves the rest of the chain gang to free itself and deal with their former captor as they see fit.  Schultz, as he informs Django, is a bounty hunter, who tracks wanted criminals and kills them for the reward money; he is very good at his job, and he has sought out his new companion because the men he is now tracking were former foremen at a plantation upon which Django was once a slave, and he needs someone who can positively identify them.  He tells Django- whom he treats as an equal- that in exchange for helping find the wanted men, he will receive his freedom and a share of the reward.  As the two men travel in search of the fugitives,  Django reveals that he and his wife had both been slaves on his former plantation, but after they had tried to run away together, their owner had them sold to separate buyers as punishment; he plans to use his share of the bounty to pay for her freedom, but Schultz fears that a black man, legally free or not, will be at high risk if he returns to the heart of the slave empire alone.  The German makes a proposition- if Django (who clearly has a knack for the work) will partner with him as a bounty hunter for the winter, the two will find and liberate his wife together.  Django agrees, and the pair begins a series of adventures that will culminate in a deadly confrontation with one of the most notoriously cruel slave owners in the country.

Tarantino makes movies that are a critic’s dream, in the sense that they are- for better or for worse- an unapologetic expression of love for the medium of cinema in all its forms. He borrows elements from all genres, disregarding accepted notions of worthiness or quality, and puts them together in an eclectic mishmash of style that is distinctly his own.  He is as much an auteur as Kubrick, as great a showman as DeMille, and as much a master of exploitation as Russ Meyer, and, without discrimination between these differing aspects of the medium, he blends them into one audacious approach that invites comparison to another great maverick filmmaker, Orson Welles.  It may be premature to place him in such company, but his impact on the art form has been substantial and significant, legitimizing styles and forms from outside the mainstream that were previously dismissed as irrelevant or inferior, confronting difficult or taboo subject matter in a way which challenges and provokes his audiences, and breaking the established rules and conventions of cinematic storytelling even as he uses them like a master.  In short, his movies elicit strong reactions and give us a lot to think, talk, and argue about.  Django Unchained, with its pulp-fiction storyline constructed squarely around the inherently divisive subject of racism, is unquestionably his most provocative effort to date- and that’s saying a lot.

So much has already been written and said about Tarantino and his work; I’ve discussed him in my earlier review of Death Proof (a vastly inferior movie to Django Unchained) and I don’t feel it necessary to repeat myself here.  A description and analysis of his signature style is available in a vast number of other places.  In discussing Django Unchained, it is far more relevant to address the elephant in the room; by making a movie about slavery in which a black hero avenges himself on the white people who have perpetrated unspeakable cruelty upon him and his kind, the filmmaker throws aside any semblance of a protective veil and confronts his audience squarely with the difficult issue of race- or, perhaps more accurately, of attitudes towards race, both within the setting of the film and in contemporary society.  Here is a white filmmaker, using a traditionally white milieu (the Western, with all its mythic reverberations in the ethical and psychological landscape of American culture) to tell a story about white guilt and black revenge; this in itself invites debate about everything from Tarantino’s suitability to address the topic to his motivations and methods of doing so, as well as invoking questions of social responsibility in the approach he has chosen to take.  The film has been accused of racism against both blacks and whites, criticized for its perceived advocation of violence, and even described as an incitement to race war; it has been lambasted for both exaggerating and trivializing the horrors of slavery and for making this abhorrent institution the basis for a piece of slick pop culture escapism.  It has also been acclaimed for daring to address the subject of America’s heritage of slavery without equivocation, apology, politics, or preaching.  In other words, like all great art, it serves as a mirror; the interpretations and reactions of its audience are reflections of their own viewpoints.  Like an ink blot, it shows us the content of our own psyche.

This is not to say that Tarantino has put nothing of himself into the film; obviously, it is an extremely personal statement for him, one which expresses his own character and personality and clearly- in my interpretation- reflects his utter disdain for the entire concept of racism.  Django Unchained assumes at its core the inherent wrongness of racist thinking.  Without exception, those who embrace the idea of slavery are depicted as monsters, and though racism is the central condition of the movie’s world, it is ultimately a symptom of the overall inhumanity that pervades the social order.  Though it is a film which deals with race, the conflict here is not between black and white, but between ignorance and enlightenment.  Furthermore, it reflects a populist sensibility in its suggested equation of the proponents of slavery to the economic elite, who maintain their wealth and power by means of a legally-sanctioned hierarchy of enforced dominance; this is underlined by the fact that one of the film’s most loathsome villains is in fact a black man, completely indoctrinated into a system that dehumanizes himself and the rest of his race by the personal status he holds within it.  Conversely, the white Schultz, despite his mercenary profession, is clearly a fierce opponent of racial inequality and injustice (he refers to slavery as “malarkey” at one point), risking his own life and livelihood to strike a blow for freedom whenever the opportunity arises; and despite the title character’s assertion that his new vocation is appealing because he gets to “kill white people” and be paid for it, his true purpose is to seek justice for himself and the woman he loves.  Django and Schultz are champions of the oppressed and downtrodden, and neither their compassion nor their wrath are conditional upon race.  The story here is classic western fare, really; a wronged man seeking frontier justice against those who have done him harm, except instead of the archetypal white cowboy he is a freed black slave.  Though some may find this new twist to the old formula to be somehow disrespectful or inappropriate, the real shame, in my view, is that it took until 2012 for a mainstream Hollywood film to attempt it.  It’s a natural fit, and the inescapable sociological questions that it conjures, however difficult or painful they may be to those who would avoid them, are long overdue for confrontation.

Django Unchained is not, however, the first mainstream Hollywood film to address the issue of racism in a controversially irreverent manner; it’s not even the first western to do so.  In 1974, Mel Brooks similarly outraged and shocked the movie-going public with Blazing Saddles, a raucous and raunchy lowbrow farce that attacked the issue head-on, openly mocking racial stereotypes and exposing the inherent racism of Hollywood’s traditional myth of the Great American West.  Brooks’ film created controversy with its deliberately excessive use of “the ‘N’ word” (which I will not use in this forum, to avoid opening myself up to the same kind of controversy), intended to detoxify it through over-exposure and to turn it against itself by using it as an instrument of comedy.  It’s ironic that Tarantino’s film, 38 years later, has fallen under criticism for breaking the exact same taboo, using the epithet so much that it becomes a mere banality.  Ironic, but not surprising, considering that Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written well over a century ago, still falls regularly under criticism for the same reason despite its anti-racist message.  Django Unchained is not Huckleberry Finn, nor is it Blazing Saddles, for that matter, though these works form an artistic heritage from which it is definitely descended.  Like them, it addresses a serious social issue- perhaps, ultimately, the most serious one affecting American culture- with a considerable amount of humor.  To be sure, it’s a grim sort of humor, to say the least; but it is irresistible, and the way he connects it with horrific imagery is one of the most significant devices he uses to give Django Unchained its unique power.  Nevertheless (though some have suggested it), Tarantino’s film is not a comedy- not even a dark one.  Like all of his work, it defies exact classification; though it follows the formula of a melodrama, it’s infused with elements of so many other genres, and marked by such a ferocious and unrelenting pattern of escalating tension and ultra-violent release, that the most accurate description is probably just to call it a Tarantino film and leave it at that.

Like the other movies that fit into that exclusive category, Django Unchained is not for every taste; those sensitive viewers who are easily disturbed by profanity and excessive violence- including violence towards animals- will likely be out of their depth here, and those for whom the issue of race relations is an uncomfortable topic are almost certain to find themselves offended.  For the rest of us, however, it’s a film that offers a wealth of cinematic riches.  Gorgeous cinematography by Robert Richardson evokes the visual qualities of Tarantino’s beloved filmic influences while asserting its own distinct flavor; imaginative, detailed costume design by Sharen Davis adds its own subtle commentary and playfully- but meticulously- incorporates iconic inspirations that help to establish the purposefully derivative pop-culture tone; the eclectic, carefully chosen mix of musical selections, which includes everything from segments of scoring lifted out of other films to ’70s pop standards to modern rap, continues Tarantino’s tradition of deliberate anachronism on his soundtracks, a technique which helps contemporary audiences to connect to the material and provides its own kind of commentary through the associations it creates; and, of course, there are the performances.

Tarantino’s writing, like Woody Allen’s, requires his actors to convincingly speak in his own voice, another hallmark of his canon; his dialogue, laced with intricate wordplay and possessed of his own distinctive syntax and structure, at once creates vivid individual characterizations and unifies his work with a singular verbal style, and challenges his actors to strike a perfect balance of stylization and reality.  The cast of Django Unchained meets this challenge triumphantly, with solid and unforgettable performances from all.  Jamie Foxx makes a perfect western hero, a seamless blend of Clint Eastwood and Isaac Hayes that bridges the gap between genres and helps the film to successfully accomplish the same feat; Leonardo DiCaprio is well-cast against type as the dissipated and off-handedly sadistic slave master into whose empire the heroes must venture to achieve their quest; and Kerry Washington, playing the object of that quest with quiet dignity, shines in her relatively silent presence amidst all the bombastic rhetoric spewed around her.  There are a number of familiar faces in smaller roles, ranging from TV icon Don Johnson (complete with white jacket) in a featured turn to screen veteran Bruce Dern in an unbilled cameo; even Franco Nero, the original “Django” from the aforementioned 1966 classic, turns up to participate in the most blatant of the film’s many in-jokes.  All these players contribute to Tarantino’s vision, both with their talented work and by virtue of the associations they bring with them.

The standouts, though, are the mesmerizing performances of Tarantino stalwarts Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson.  As Schultz, the former glitters with wit and intelligence without once letting us lose sight of his serious subtext; he gives us a man of scrupulous honor, grim determination, and unparalleled capability, as charming as he is deadly and as noble as he is practical.  He makes his character a ray of dazzling light in a very dark world, and brings the ethics of contemporary reason into the film’s primitive setting like an inexorable wave of progress bent on sweeping away the stubborn ignorance of the past.  In direct opposition to this paladin-like force of justice is Jackson, as the “old retainer” of DiCaprio’s household; a re-invention of the well-worn “Uncle Tom” figure, he fumes with what one of my friends called “misdirected rage,” diverting his considerable intelligence and power towards the protection of his master’s world- in which he enjoys his own high status- at the expense of his own people.  Wily, cantankerous, and proud, he is the true villain of the piece, having gone beyond mere acquiescence to an oppressive and inhumane system to become a ferocious guardian of it; in his complete lack of compassion, and in his unrepentant commitment to upholding the brutal status quo, he becomes arguably more reprehensible than the master he adores, and Jackson- though he finds the human truth of this twisted soul and plays it with utter conviction- makes no attempt to sugarcoat or shy away from the ugliness of this character.  It’s a delicious performance, perhaps the finest of the actor’s career, and its lack of sentiment drives home the movie’s indictment of compromise in the face of racial inequality by peeling off the benign mask of a stereotype and revealing the tragic betrayal of humanity that it represents.

The true star of Django Unchained, however, is Quentin Tarantino himself, and I’m not referring to his signature cameo appearance late in the film; no matter how big the names in his cast, it is his own name above the title which provides the biggest draw, making him part of an elite club of filmmakers whose reputation and celebrity in itself is enough to ensure substantial box office sales.  He has earned this status by his ability to make films that provide visceral, audience-pleasing thrills while still stimulating the intellect and stretching the boundaries of the art form.  Django Unchained is no exception; he keeps us riveted with a story which compels us at an almost primal level, confronts us with situations which force us to think about difficult issues, and dazzles us with his technical and aesthetic mastery of the medium.  He provokes us by finding visual poetry in horrific violence, creates profoundly resonant imagery with the elegant simplicity of his composition, and combines lowbrow content with highbrow concept to manipulate our emotions and bring us to a catharsis that satisfies on every level at once.  Perhaps most important (and ultimately, perhaps, most controversial); he invites us to laugh at things which would normally disturb us, helping us to distance ourselves from the issues at hand and simultaneously letting us share in his own perspective on the absurdity of human behavior; like his penchant for building tension through dialogue and his heightened, over-the-top stylistic choices, his use of macabre and ironic humor as a tool for audience alienation betrays an unmistakably theatrical sensibility, yet thanks to his gift for the medium of film, what he creates with these elements is pure cinema.

I could, of course, go on and on about Django Unchained, dissecting its details, tracing its themes, identifying its influences, and analyzing its effect; as I said, we love to write about Tarantino films.  In the end, it’s up to individual viewers to determine the merits of his latest piece of “dangerous art” for themselves.  As I mentioned above, it’s a movie that gives us back what we bring into it; Tarantino himself has discussed, in interviews, his love for “subtextual criticism,” the discussion and analysis of facets of a film that were not, in fact, intended by its creator, but which are present, nonetheless, by virtue of their having been perceived by the viewer.  It’s no surprise, therefore, that he builds his work in a way that encourages these kind of individualized reactions, and it’s highly likely he would acknowledge the validity of any point of view towards Django Unchained, no matter how far it veers from his own intentions in making it.  For myself, I’ve expressed my take on the issues at hand, and I’ve probably made my admiration for the movie itself pretty clear.  If I were to make comparative value judgments, I would probably place it pretty high on my list of Tarantino’s films, slightly above the youthful bravado of Pulp Fiction, about equal with the devilish boldness of Inglorious Basterds, and slightly below my personal favorite, the sublimely elegant two-part (so far) Kill Bill saga; but such distinctions are unimportant, really, when one considers his entire body of work as a series of variations on his recurring themes.  One arrangement of the melody may please you more than another, but it’s a pretty good tune all the way through, regardless.  For those who would avoid Django Unchained out of objections to any of its content or its handling thereof, there is probably nothing I can say to change your mind; but in addressing at least one of these concerns- the idea that Tarantino’s ultra-violent fantasy of revenge is itself a call to violence- I think it is important to remember that film, like all art, presents a metaphor for reality.  Though Django exacts a high payment in blood from his oppressors, and the filmmaker takes great pleasure in making us enjoy his lethal victories and cheer him on as the body count gets higher and higher, he- and the scourge of his vengeance- are not meant to be emulated in a literal sense, but rather to be seen as a symbolic cleansing of antiquated, ethnocentric fallacies, once and for all, from our culture.  We must be as ruthless and unforgiving in our quest to eradicate racism in our thinking as Django and Schultz are to eliminate the racists who stand against them.  That’s what the ink blot shows me, anyway.  You may see something different; but whatever it is, it’s a pretty sure bet that you will never forget it.  Django Unchained is that kind of movie; it stamps itself on your mind immediately, and refuses to fade away.  For that reason alone, there’s no arguing that, whether you love it or hate it, it’s destined to be a classic.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1853728/?ref_=sr_1

 

John Carter (2012)

John Carter (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: John Carter, the 2012 sci-fi/action blockbuster based on the first book of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seminal series of adventures about a former Civil War soldier who is mysteriously transported to Mars (known as “Barsoom” by its inhabitants), where he becomes a hero in the planet’s struggle against domination by an immortal race of super-beings. A lavish production from Disney Studios, it marks the first “live action” feature to be helmed by Andrew Stanton, the acclaimed director responsible for Pixar’s Finding Nemo and WALL-E, although the extensive use of CG technology blurs that definition somewhat; the studio’s certainty that the project was a sure-fire hit is evidenced by the fact that they spent a whopping $250 million dollars to make it. Unfortunately, with such a price tag, the film was required to gross near-record sums in order to simply break even; thanks to a lukewarm critical response and even less enthusiastic audience reception, it instead became one of the most notorious box office flops of all time, leading to recriminations and resignations within the studio and a massive financial loss on the quarterly report. It’s a shame, really, that the movie has now become known as a notorious bomb- an assessment that is not entirely accurate, for overseas returns were substantially better than in the U.S., and home video release ensures that, in the long term at least, it will ultimately recoup its losses and turn a decent profit- because John Carter is not at all a bad film, for what it is, and will likely prove, in time, to gain an appreciative following.

Adapted by Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon from Burroughs’ novel, A Princess of Mars, John Carter concerns a struggle for power between two Martian city-states- Helium, a peace-loving capitol of science, art, and learning, and Zodanga, the “walking city,” a warlike and totalitarian kingdom bent on absolute rule of the planet. The battle has raged for generations, but now, with the aid of a powerful new weapon that has been bestowed upon their leader, the ruthless Seb Than, by a mysterious alien race, the tide is turning in favor of the Zodangans. Meanwhile, on the planet Earth (where it is the late 19th Century), a former Confederate officer named John Carter searches for his fortune in the frontier of the American West; while fleeing an Apache war party, he inadvertently discovers a legendary cave of gold, in which mysterious carvings and glyphs seem to come from an ancient and forgotten civilization- and where an altercation with a mysterious robed figure results in Carter’s sudden and seemingly inexplicable transport to a vast, unfamiliar plain located (as he will later discover) on Mars. After adjusting to the effects of the differing gravity- which, due to his Earth-born bone density, gives him superhuman strength and the ability to leap hundreds of yards in single bound- he soon finds himself captured by a tribe of four-armed, green-skinned humanoids, called Tharks, led by a chieftain named Tars Tarkas. This is only the beginning of his adventure, however, as his fate brings him into the heart of the conflict over the destiny of the Red Planet, in which he must help the Princess of Helium to discover the source of Seb Than’s mysterious new power before she is forced to marry the Zodangan warlord and doom her people to eternal domination.

There’s not much point in offering a more detailed synopsis of John Carter’s convoluted plot than the one above; like the novel from which it is derived, it is a piece of melodramatic pulp fiction in which the story is merely an excuse for the action, romance and imaginative fantasy that keeps an audience coming back for more. Burroughs’ novel was originally published in serialized form of course, in All-Story magazine, beginning in 1912. It was by no means the first episodic science fiction story, but the way it combined elements of other popular genres- sword-and-sorcery adventure, westerns, romance- was a unique and ultimately influential feature that makes A Princess of Mars the direct forerunner of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Star Trek, and Star Wars, to name only an obvious few. This particular sub-genre, known as “planetary romance,” has proven more enduringly successful than science fiction proper (in its strictest sense, that is), and continues to inventively manifest itself through, among other things, the vast wealth of comic book literature (and its related media) that has developed into an increasingly massive force in the entertainment industry. In other words, for anyone out there who is a fan of The Avengers, it all started here. With this in mind, it is only fitting that the saga of Burroughs’ planet-hopping hero should be given, at long last, the kind of lavish, top-shelf Hollywood treatment that has been afforded to so many of its offspring, and though many critics complained of the film’s sprawling, sometimes incoherent storyline and questioned its emphasis on action and spectacle over character and logic, these things are in fact part of the essence of this particular style of fiction; Burroughs was out to thrill his readers with imaginative and impossible scenes of otherworldly escapism, not to stimulate their higher cognitive functions. More accurately, perhaps, he was out to make money by doing it, and the fact that he succeeded- to the point of building an empire that pre-dated Walt Disney, Gene Roddenberry, or George Lucas by decades- is a fact made clear simply by looking up the origin history of Tarzana, California.

The world of a hundred years ago, however, was obviously a different one than we live in today; decades of technological advances- including probes and landing craft on Mars that have yet to discover the existence of mobile cities or multi-limbed green giants- have made us much less naive about the notion of interplanetary adventure, at least this close to home. Part of the commercial failure of John Carter must be ascribed to this; the premise of Burroughs’ story, though always far-fetched, of course, seems particularly dated in the 21st Century, with its swashbuckling warriors and princesses in distress evoking memories of our own antiquated fictional heritage rather than visions of otherworldly experience. Though such elements are present in more contemporary sagas like Star Wars, they are easier to swallow by virtue of a distance in time and place- not to mention a heightened sense of metaphor- which is carefully established from the outset. Not so with John Carter, which takes place in a recognizable part of our own history and asks us to believe in a conceit that feels old-fashioned and far too familiar to be taken seriously.

However, its familiarity is not due to its being derivative or formulaic, in the usual sense; rather, it results from the fact that a century of imitators has made Burroughs’ original seem old hat. Even those who have never read (or even heard of) A Princess of Mars and its sequels will know exactly what to expect in the story of John Carter, because they’ve seen it all before; and though the reason is that this, in fact, is the original blueprint for all those space-adventure-clichés, it makes little practical difference for those who are looking for something new and exciting to occupy two hours’ worth of their attention. This is, in essence, little removed from the cheesy space-opera serials of the ’30s, except by the feature-length format and the gargantuan budget which allows for breathtakingly realistic special effects instead of miniature spacecraft on wires; it is pure escapist nonsense, boy’s adventure at its most rambunctious, designed to stir excitement and elicit fantasies- and, hopefully, to sell the next installment. Except, thanks to the perceived failure of the undertaking, there is not likely to be a next installment.

As I said before, however, John Carter is not a bad movie; though it suffers somewhat from the need to pack too much story into a commercially viable running time, thereby eliminating the opportunity for anything more than perfunctory character development, and lacks the kind of mythological scope that gives such emotional resonance to the Star Wars films, it is nevertheless an obvious labor of love. Corny as it is, it has an infectiously earnest sensibility that makes it hard to dislike- at least, for those approaching it with reasonable expectations. It strikes well the difficult balance in tone that keeps it from becoming too campy- like the painful 1980 adaptation of Flash Gordon, with which it shares numerous parallels- without taking itself too seriously. That’s the key to enjoying John Carter; remembering that it was never intended to be the kind of “important” sci-fi epic that has now become the standard of the genre, with serious undertones of sociopolitical allegory or philosophical subtext, allows us to simply surrender to its lightweight melodrama without faulting it for not being something it was never intended to be. This is not brainy, Asimovian science fiction designed to stimulate the intellect, but pure, testosterone-driven wish-fulfillment at its most adolescent.

Indeed, there is a lot to enjoy in this unapologetically overblown spectacle, once you accept it as it is. Burroughs’ Martian civilization is given the kind of intricately detailed, fully realized treatment that only big studio money can buy. The cities, with their spacious, retro-futuristic architecture, full of bridges and balustrades, palatial throne rooms, and majestic plazas, are executed with imaginative grandeur; the various alien technology, from great, bird-like airships to pseudo-scientifically-powered cosmic map rooms, as well as all the creatures- besides the Tarks, there are giant fanged apes, massive dinosaurian beasts that serve as mounts, and an oddly lovable amphibian-esque dog that becomes Carter’s loyal pet and protector- are brought to life by state-of-the art screen wizardry in a slick style that combines the iconic illustrative work of artists like Frank Frazetta with a modern-flavored Steampunk sensibility, resulting in a visual design that reimagines the classic Victorian milieu of the original with a firmly contemporary twist. These elements are imposed upon location settings in Utah- where, in fact, the author created his saga over a century ago- which are used to great effect in creating the arid, desolate Martian landscape, with its harsh deserts and monumental geography, making for an utterly convincing otherworldly environment. Of course, it’s no surprise that the film would be visually stunning, given the monumental budget and the participation of Disney’s all-star design and technical staff; as always with such effects-heavy blockbusters, the real test of quality lies in the less showy creative aspects of direction, writing, and acting.

As for the first of these, Andrew Stanton is a proven master of visual storytelling, and he uses his skills here to forge a clear path through the oft-confusing details of the plot, setting up early the crucial points and maintaining a strong through-line as he takes us through the meandering, episodic developments that make up the narrative. He keeps the pace quick with rapid edits and a roving camera, and composes his shots succinctly to convey a maximum of information without lengthy exposition. This is particularly helpful in keeping the audience on track, given the multiple storylines in play here- which brings us to the second foundational element of the film, its screenplay. It has already been mentioned that the novel’s sprawling narrative has been compressed too tightly into the relatively short running time of John Carter; the story might have been better served by being split over two movies, as has become the trend, for better or worse, with other big fantasy epics in recent years. Given the probable demise of this would-be franchise, it’s fortunate that Stanton and his co-writers did not choose that path, but if any one thing could have made John Carter a more satisfying film, it would have been the chance to invest more time in getting to know its characters. Pulpy as the material may be, a more in-depth exploration of the people that inhabit it- both human and non-human- might have gone a long way towards winning the emotional involvement of the audience in its action. Instead, we are presented with short, lightning-quick character sketches that give us the pertinent information about what makes each one tick, and then we’re off and running, knowing everything we need to know about them in order to understand their place- and easily predict their actions- in the story, long before it reaches its climax. As a result, the entire saga often feels as if it were a mere pageant, populated by one-dimensional ciphers who are mainly present to model the costumes and lend scale to the sets; since the story’s heart necessarily lies in its human element, such streamlined writing places a substantial burden on the director and cast to fill in the blanks and provide a greater depth of characterization than is apparent in the dialogue. Stanton, whose previous directorial outings have featured casts of animated characters (each of which are brought to life not only by actors, but a whole team of artists skilled in adding layers of nuance to every movement and expression), may have been at a loss here; his ensemble of performers seem to have been left to their own devices in filling out the inner lives of their roles.

Which leads us to that third crucial pillar of good filmmaking, the acting. The cast of John Carter is, if nothing else, a marvelous-looking bunch; Taylor Kitsch, in the title role, spends most of the film without his shirt, displaying the kind of chiseled body that was presumably much rarer in the 19th Century than it is today- after all, this was a time before the advent of personal trainers and nutritional supplements. Likewise, his co-star, the beautiful Lynn Collins, is costumed in a manner which strategically showcases her considerable physical assets, and most of the other human cast is similarly dressed- or rather, undressed- throughout. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; sex appeal is a big part of what makes these kinds of epic adventures so exciting to their target audience- the young teenager in all of us. In order to elevate these larger-than-life characters above the level of mere pin-ups, however, there must be something under the pretty exterior that will keep us interested, and though both the film’s stars make a noticeable and admirable effort, neither manages to give us much beyond the immediate requirements of any given moment. Their performances are all surface, convincing but never compelling, and though they carry themselves suitably enough for the stature of their roles, there is a decidedly contemporary flavor to their personae; they seem more like a pair of fitness models at a photo shoot than a hardened soldier and an enlightened princess. In the supporting roles, James Purefoy shows some charisma and character as a loyal second-tier hero and would-be sidekick to Carter, but his role is far too brief for him to make more than a fleeting impression; the gifted Ciarán Hinds, as the Princess’ father, is utterly wasted, as is Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston as a cavalry officer who inadvertently becomes Carter’s companion for the discovery of the cave in which his destiny lies; and the film’s primary villains, Mark Strong and Dominic West, are saddled with two of the least interesting characters in the film- the former disaffected and aloof, the latter merely a mindless brute- and are therefore unable to make either into the kind of formidable antagonist needed in such a swashbuckling tale as this. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most engaging and memorable performances come from the actors lending their voices and movements (through motion capture technology) to the principal Thark characters (Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Hayden Church), who provide us with a hero, heroine, and villain, respectively, that we can truly care about. This may be because of the higher caliber of their acting (Dafoe, as Tars Tarkas, reportedly accepted the role because he relished the challenge of giving a performance dressed in pajamas while walking on stilts, and, arguably the film’s most prestigious star, he brings no dishonor to his reputation here), but it is surely not just coincidence that these roles are essentially animated characters- the kind with which director Stanton is clearly more within his comfort zone.

It’s interesting to know that John Carter probably holds the record for the longest development period in cinema history. It was 1931 when Bob Clampett- later to become known for his genius work with Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes series- approached Edgar Rice Burroughs to purchase the rights to A Princess of Mars and the rest of the Barsoom novels; he planned to make an animated adaptation, knowing that a live action version would be impossible at the time, and he did manage to produce several reels of test footage before the studio (MGM) pulled the plug with fears that stories of an Earthman’s exploits on Mars would be too ridiculous for most American audiences. There were later efforts to produce a screen version throughout the next 80 years, but various creative conflicts and financial concerns sank the project, each time. Finally, when Disney considered the title (for the second time, having intended to produce it in the 1980s as a vehicle for Tom Cruise), Stanton- a fan of the books since childhood- fought hard to get it approved, with himself as the creative force behind it. Based on his previous track record, Disney okayed it- a decision they likely came to regret. By all reports, Stanton’s inexperience with live action production proved an obstacle which may have inflated the film’s already-massive budget, and his rejection of studio ideas about marketing and publicity might very well have been the deciding factor in making John Carter one of the biggest flops in Disney’s long history. There is a theory- which I more or less agree with- that the most significant reason for the movie’s failure was the decision to change the title (already altered from the book’s original name) from John Carter of Mars to John Carter. Stanton said he preferred this because the movie was an “origin story” that told how the character became John Carter of Mars, and studio executives reportedly changed it due to a study which showed that films with the word “Mars” had all suffered some degree of financial failure- including their own Mars Needs Moms. Whatever the reason, and whoever was responsible, it was ultimately this change, coupled with the vague and unexciting marketing campaign that accompanied the movie’s first release, that sealed the doom of Stanton’s lifelong dream project; though earlier generations may have needed no reminders about who John Carter was, in today’s market, where many have never even heard of his creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, let along the hero himself, it was vital to give audiences more of a clue about what the film was about. Without such a clue, they stayed home and saved their money for the then-upcoming release of The Avengers.

It’s unfortunate that in writing about John Carter, I have to focus so much attention on its supposed financial failure (again, it was not really a flop, just not the mega-hit the studio had hoped for), but sadly, it is a significant part of the public’s perception about the movie, and it must be addressed; as years go by, its box-office receipts will become less and less important to commentators, and perhaps it can be discussed on the basis of quality alone. I hope so. Despite my quibbles about the script and the acting, I enjoyed John Carter, rather more than I had expected. Indeed, I tried very hard not to like it; but by about the halfway point I gave in to its goofy, old-fashioned charms, and by the end I was- dare I say it- glad the movie had been made. It deserved to be made. After a hundred years in which filmmakers have “pillaged” Burroughs’ stories for their own derivative efforts (the reason cited by director Robert Zemeckis when he turned down this project, specifically in reference to George Lucas and Star Wars), it’s fitting that the granddaddy of all those swashbuckling outer space fantasies should at last get the Hollywood treatment that has long avoided it. Fanatical followers of the novels (and they still are legion, even a hundred years later) may wish it had done better justice to the original, and many other audiences may wish it had made more of an effort to contemporize or sophisticate the material, but there are many, too, who will enjoy it just the way it is. Indeed, there are many who already have enjoyed it, myself included, and the seemingly passionate dislike the movie has generated from some (and some who have not even seen it, I might add) makes me once again question the value of judging a piece of art on the basis of personal expectation rather than on its actual merits; if we are too busy complaining about a movie’s not being what we want it to be, how can we enjoy it for what it actually is? Of course, there is also an unavoidable debate about the wisdom of spending enough to feed a small country for a decade on an inflated piece of escapist fluff like this one, but that is a question of ethical economics better left for discussion in another forum; in the long run, the fact that John Carter of Barsoom is at last represented in cinematic form, whether or not he is all he could have been, is a good thing, and though I have yet to discover if the movie proves more rewarding on multiple viewings (which I suspect it will), I am certainly looking forward to doing so.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0401729/?licb=0.42602754768506235

The Long, Long Trailer (1954)

The Long, Long Trailer (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Long, Long Trailer, the 1954 big-screen showcase for the talents of America’s then-favorite TV couple, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, directed by Vincente Minnelli and casting the two stars as a pair of newlyweds on a cross-country honeymoon in a super-sized luxury trailer home.  Designed as a vehicle for the tried-and-true antics that fueled the duo’s highly popular comedy series, I Love Lucy, it was considered a risky project by its production studio, MGM, who were skeptical that audiences would pay to see Ball and Arnaz in a movie theater when they could watch the pair, for free, in the comfort of their own living room; Arnaz reportedly made a $25,000 bet with the studio heads that the film would out-gross their highest-earning comedy to date (1950’s Father of the Bride).  Moviegoers responded well to the opportunity to see the couple’s wacky hi-jinks against the expanded backdrop of location-filmed American scenery, turning the film into one of the year’s biggest hits and winning the bet for the confident Arnaz.  Though the movie is ultimately a side note in the success story of these two American entertainment icons, it nevertheless has remained popular among their fans and offers a rare opportunity to see their beloved matrimonial shtick transported out of the studio-bound confines of their classic television show.

Based on a 1951 novel by Clinton Twiss, the screenplay (by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich) tailors its plot for the needs of the Ball/Arnaz team’s familiar joint persona.  Framed as a flashback, it tells the story of “Nicky” and “Tacy” (noticeably only a few letters off from “Ricky” and “Lucy”); he is a civil engineer whose job requires his travel to various projects around the country, and she, seeking a way to keep them from being separated during the early days of their marriage, hits upon the idea that they should purchase a travel trailer in which they can set up housekeeping wherever his work takes them.  Though he is skeptical, she convinces him with the notion that a trailer will cost them far less than a house and allow them to save more money for their future.  With their new, enormous, top-of-the-line trailer (plus the new, more powerful car they have had to buy in order to tow it), the couple sets out on their honeymoon- a leisurely road trip across the Sierra Nevadas to Nicky’s next job assignment.  Things start out pleasantly enough, though their trailer park wedding night doesn’t go exactly as planned; but as the trip goes on, the mishaps begin to pile up and take their toll on the relationship.  A rainstorm leads to a night spent stuck in a mudbank, Tacy’s attempts at directing Nicky’s steering results in major damage to her aunt and uncle’s house, and her effort to cook dinner in the moving trailer ends in disaster.  The final straw comes when her growing collections of preserved fruit and souvenir rocks become so heavy that the trailer is dangerously overweight, placing the newlyweds in serious danger as they attempt to drive up a steep and winding mountain road- a trip which, even if they manage to survive, may well mean the end of their marriage.

The Long, Long Trailer is hardly the kind of film that warrants an in-depth analysis, though if one wanted to use it as a springboard for discussion about sociological and cultural characteristics of post-war American life, it would likely provide plenty of fodder.  Indeed, watching it today, it seems like a perfect snapshot, glossy and idealized, of the particular mindset of mid-fifties middle class America, personified by a young (well, young-ish) couple on the road to a shining new tomorrow, blessed with a new affluence, possessed of a can-do attitude, and excited about the endless possibilities that wait to be explored right here at home.  Of course, the entire premise of the comedy hinges on the fact that this romanticized fantasy is not quite in tune with reality- the adventure of building a new world on the domestic front is fraught with unforeseen difficulties and offers its own challenges to the character and spirit of those who undertake it.  All of which sounds deeper than it needs to sound, for in The Long, Long Trailer, social commentary is as heavy and unnecessary a burden as Tacy’s rock collection.

What this movie is about, nostalgic retrospect aside, is laughs; the American-Dream-on-wheels premise is entirely geared towards providing a mine of zany situations for the then-reigning royal couple of comedy to exploit.  Though the names are different (barely), the characters are, in essence, the same as their TV roles; Desi is the modestly successful, good-natured-but-hot-tempered immigrant husband (here, inexplicably, not Cuban but Italian), and Lucy is the well-intentioned manipulative housewife whose hair-brained schemes inevitably lead to hilarious complications.  The movie depends entirely on their comfortable chemistry together, their combative-but-affectionate dynamic, and Lucy’s consummate skill as a comedienne.  It is this last element that carries the film, of course; though they made a great team, and although he certainly holds his own during his moments in the spotlight, Desi was always the foil for Lucy’s comedic persona, a relationship upon which their act was utterly dependent.  The biggest laughs in the film come when she unleashes her flair for physical comedy- the classic sequence in which she tries to prepare a meal in the trailer while it is on the road is the movie’s highlight- but these moments work so well because she sets us up for them; she makes Tacy (which is short, by the way, for Anastasia- I know, it’s a stretch, but go with it) as endearing to us as to the hapless Nicky, and thanks to her rubber-faced expressions, we feel like co-conspirators with her, because we can read every thought and plan even as she hatches it herself.  It’s comedy genius, and to over-analyze it is pointless- it works because it works.  Lucy and Desi knew their audience, and they knew what that audience wanted; they weren’t about to take the chance of messing with a successful formula, especially when that formula was at the height of its popularity.  There is even a musical number, though not the kind of elaborate, slapstick-laced showstopper often featured on I Love Lucy, but simply a pleasant little duet performed as an interlude while the stars are driving into Yosemite National Park.  To be sure, the stakes feel a little higher in The Long, Long Trailer than they do on the TV series; there, no matter how big the disaster that results from Lucy’s schemes, we know it will never really threaten the blissful marriage at the center of the show, but here there is at least a more palpable illusion that they could end up apart- though, of course, on an intellectual level, we know that’s not very likely.  After all, this is a comedy, and even if it pokes a little bit of situational fun at the perfect domestic dream of the mid-fifties, it also embraces and reinforces that ideal; you can be sure, by the final frames, Ricky and Lucy… I mean, Nicky and Tacy will be locked once more in a tender and loving embrace.

Although The Long, Long Trailer is mostly an on-the-road installment of the Lucy-and-Desi Show, this is not its only appeal.  There are a few interesting cameos from other familiar personalities of the era; Marjorie Main of Ma and Pa Kettle fame makes an appearance, as does an uncredited Howard McNear (better known as “Floyd the Barber”) and a prominently-billed Keenan Wynn (who has less than 30 seconds of screen-time- and no scripted lines- as a traffic cop).  Vincente Minnelli, one of Hollywood’s seasoned veterans at turning out crowd-pleasers, wisely keeps the main focus on his stars, but frames them in a gorgeous visual environment; fans of mid-century roadside Americana will adore this film, which sometimes looks like a travelogue produced by the U.S. Tourism Bureau and sometimes a montage of picture-postcards, interlaced with stylish tableaux of glamorous settings that look like vintage magazine ads, brought to life.  Minnelli (and his stars) were smart enough to utilize the advantages of the big screen, giving audiences a scope they couldn’t get from I Love Lucy, so there is an extensive use of breathtaking location footage, most notably in the aforementioned Yosemite scenes, but also in the hair-raising climax when the couple drives their trailer up the mountain (Mt. Whitney, to be exact).  The realism of this latter sequence aids considerably in its effectiveness, and captures the universal anxiety shared by anyone who has ever attempted to navigate one of the winding, narrow roads that lace the mountainous regions of America- or, for that, matter, the world.  The road trip experience, naturally, must include a good deal of focus on the vehicles used, especially the title “character” (for it is, truly, a character in the plot), which is a beautiful, canary yellow, 36-foot 1953 “New Moon.”  Those who care about such things will doubtless be delighted by the extensive depiction of this remarkable piece of mid-century design, in all its improbable luxury, as they will also be by the car which tows it, an equally beautiful 1953 Mercury Monterey convertible.  Of course, the costumes also add to the movie’s nostalgic appeal, with both Lucy’s and Desi’s outfits representing the epitome of mid-fifties fashion- not high–fashion, mind you, but modest, popular, middle-class clothes that conjure images from the countless grainy home movies taken by couples and families during the era.  In essence, The Long, Long Trailer is a love letter to its time, a nostalgic walk down memory lane for those old enough to remember it first-hand and a wide-open window through which younger viewers can catch a glimpse of an America before affordable plane travel and utilitarian super-highways made the delights of the road trip into a thing of the past.

It’s somewhat tempting, today, to watch The Long, Long Trailer with a sense of irony.  The feeling of gee-whiz wonder and self-discovery that permeated the cultural psyche of the fifties has long since fallen under the wheels of progress, transformed by the turbulent decade which followed into a quaint and kitschy joke; it’s almost impossible to believe in the naïveté we see displayed here, and the knowledge that Lucy and Desi, like so many of the “perfect” couples of the Eisenhower era, would later end their real-life marriage in an acrimonious divorce casts a somewhat cynical pall over the proceedings, and makes the inevitable happy ending seem like just another carefully packaged lie- which, of course, it was.  The whole of the movie is sentimentalized dream-factory nonsense, but that’s not a negative criticism in this case; it was never meant to be anything else, and it’s easy to forget, from a modern perspective, that the audiences of the day were no more fooled by the pretty-picture images of society presented by their popular entertainment than we are by those we are fed today.  Indeed, much of Lucy and Desi’s appeal for their many fans came because they (or at least, their characters) were a couple whose efforts to fit into a cultural ideal never seemed to go quite as planned; at the end of every misadventure, no matter what affectations they may have tried on or pie-in-the-sky dream they may have chased, what was left was simply them as they were, imperfect perhaps, but together- and that was all that mattered.  Though they themselves were icons of their era, forever associated with the now-archaic ideals and attitudes it held dear, their message transcended it; they were champions of love and companionship, acting out the universal experience of living together despite difficulties and differences- not an easy task in any era- and making us laugh at our own relationships by reflecting them back to us in exaggerated form.  To put it more simply, The Long, Long Trailer might seem like a movie we can watch with an aloof detachment, making arch commentary or snarky observations based in our modern-day sophistication- but it’s not.  It doesn’t take long to forget our superior stance and get caught up in the somehow endearing ridiculousness of Nicky and Tacy’s great experiment, and we end up laughing exactly as we were intended to laugh by the film’s creators- not with the hip, contemporary irony we may have expected.  Don’t mistake me here; I’m not saying that The Long, Long Trailer is anyone’s idea of great cinema, and I’m fairly certain that nobody involved in it thought of it that way, either.  It is, however, a fine example of slick Hollywood entertainment, designed to exploit the popularity of its stars and the mood of the time, and the fact that it still works as more than a mere curiosity piece is a testament to the considerable talent behind it.  Lucy and Desi made their true mark in television; their pioneering work there changed the medium forever, in countless ways, and their big screen projects were really little more than a footnote in their legend.  Even so, The Long, Long Trailer is a charming and worthwhile way to spend 90 minutes, and even the most jaded viewers are likely to be won over by it.  Of course, you might not be able to keep from wondering exactly when Fred and Ethel are going to show up, or when Nicky is going to break out the conga drums, but even if those things never materialize, you won’t miss them- at least not too much.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047191/

Brave (2012)

Brave (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Brave, the 2012 animated feature from the Disney/Pixar powerhouse, directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, and based on Chapman’s original story about a medieval Scottish princess who, unhappy with her proscribed role as a courtly lady, resorts to magic in order to “change her fate.”  Intended as the Pixar Studios first foray into the realm of fairy tales, it features a highly contemporary viewpoint on traditional gender roles and offers a heroine who takes action to determine her own destiny, as well as reinforcing the importance of maintaining family bonds and assuming responsibility for one’s actions.  It also features a lush, technically dazzling visual style, geared towards its original 3D theatrical presentation, and an array of stellar voice talent.  Not as successful as many of the studio’s previous efforts, it nevertheless has garnered much praise and received several award nominations as best animated film of the year.

The plot concerns Merida, daughter of Fergus, the King of Dunbroch, a fierce warrior known as “the Bear King,” who carries the scars of his many battles and sports a wooden leg as a reminder of his encounter with Mor’du, a giant and seemingly demonic bear who haunts the surrounding forest.  Though the princess is a tomboy and a free spirit, encouraged by her doting father in her enthusiasm for adventurous pursuits (such as horseback riding, swordplay, and archery), her mother, Queen Elinor, maintains a tight control over her, preparing her daily with lessons in the more feminine activities that will someday be required of her as a great lady- elocution, music, embroidery, and the duties involved in the charge of a royal household.  Merida is displeased with the prospect of such a sequestered future, a fact which continually puts her at odds with her mother; their conflict comes to a head when the king’s three most prominent lords bring their sons to Dunbroch for a competition of skill to determine which of them will get the hand of the young princess.  Merida, refusing to bow to tradition, takes the field and defeats all three contestants, declaring herself the winner and claiming the right to be her own consort; Elinor, furious, reprimands her severely, causing the girl to run angrily into the woods.  There, she follows a trail of will-o-the-wisps to a hidden cottage inhabited by an old witch.  At first the crone insists she is merely a wood carver, but when Merida offers a priceless royal pendant as payment, she agrees to help the princess with a spell that will “change” her mother.  Returning to the castle with an enchanted cake, Merida presents it to Elinor as a peace offering; when the queen takes a bite, however, its effects are not quite what her daughter had anticipated.  The spell transforms Elinor into a large black bear- placing her in mortal danger from Fergus, whose previous experience with Mor’du has made him an avowed bear-killer.  Merida, horrified that her scheme has led to such a turn, must now serve as her mother’s protector as they go in search of a way to reverse the spell before its effects become permanent; their quest leads them to Mor’du’s hidden lair, where they discover secrets that link the monstrous bear’s fate with their own.  During their adventure, mother and daughter gain new appreciation for each other’s strengths and reforge the emotional bond that was broken between them- but they still must race against time- and the pursuit of the ferocious Mor’du- to break the witch’s spell before Elinor slips away forever, trapped in the body and mind of a bear.

Aimed at entertaining young audiences and stimulating their imagination as well as fostering healthy ideas about identity and self-esteem, Brave is unmistakably the product of the titans at Pixar, who have proven time and again their particular genius for producing works of cinematic art that also meet the needs of the popular marketplace; in addition, it marks the studio’s most technically advanced and visually complex effort to date, made with a completely re-written animation program (the first upgrade of the studio’s software in 25 years) and released not only in 3D but with Dolby’s new Atmos sound format.  It’s unquestionably a stunning treat for eyes and ears of any age, possessing a level of sensory realism previously unseen in animated filmmaking, yet still maintaining the whimsical and stylized design touches that mark it as a cartoon fantasy.  As always, the Pixar team has used their expensive toy box to create a truly polished and exceptional visual gem, rich with the kind of subtleties that elevate their work above and beyond that of more pedestrian artists whose attention to detail rarely reaches past the requirements of the plot.

Another aspect of the movie that meets Pixar’s usual high standards is the exceptional voice casting; utilizing a fine group of talented and prominent actors, but without the “stunt casting” of big stars solely for the sake of having their name in the credits, the characters of Brave are given as much dimension in their vocal personalities as the graphic artists and animator a have given them in their physical presence.  Merida is voiced by the charming and vivacious Kelli Macdonald, known for her work in such diverse fare as the films Trainspotting, Gosford Park, and No Country for Old Men, as well as for her role in the critically acclaimed HBO series, Boardwalk Empire.  Elinor gets her voice from the redoubtable Emma Thompson (another familiar screen veteran known for everything from her Shakespearean roles opposite former husband Kenneth Branagh and her Oscar-winning turn in Howard’s End to her more recent family-friendly success as Nanny McPhee), who bestows the maternal queen with warmth, wit, and intelligence; we sorely feel her absence when the character is magicked into a non-verbal bear.  King Fergus is played by Billy Connolly, perhaps Hollywood’s most quintessential Scot since Sean Connery, and Julie Walters lends her inimitable blend of dottiness and wisdom to the all-too-brief role of the witch.  Rounding out the main cast are Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, and Craig Ferguson, as the trio of comical lords who bring their equally comical sons to vie for Merida’s hand.  As a side note, no less than four of these cast members- Macdonald, Thompson, Walters, and Coltrane- are alumni of the Harry Potter franchise, perhaps insuring a bit of extra box office appeal for a sizable segment of devoted young audience members and representing, on second thought, a little bit of “stunt casting,” after all.

Still, in spite of all the stellar work that is obvious onscreen and on the soundtrack, ensuring that Brave measures up to the high standard of professional excellence that is the hallmark of Pixar, it is a movie that doesn’t quite manage to pull off the studio’s usual magic.  As conceived by Brenda Chapman, it is a new story in the familiar vein of traditional fairy tales, but with a completely original plot and a decidedly different focus; instead of offering the archetypal princess, whose happy ending is usually dependent on the love of a handsome prince, she built her fantasy adventure around a strong-willed, independent girl whose ambition is simply to win the freedom to be herself.  Rather than reinforcing old stereotypes, the tale of Merida presents a new kind of role model for young girls, one that encourages individuality and self-determination, while still embracing the importance of family relationships.  Along the way, key issues of communication and responsibility are explored, as well as the notion of learning from the stories and legends of the past; indeed, Brave includes a fairly lengthy checklist of subjects on its agenda, all of which are geared towards the conceit of reinventing the old-fashioned fairy tale format as a vehicle for teaching a modern lesson about self-empowerment and progressive thinking.  While there is an undeniably laudable sentiment behind an effort to create an appealing fable which promotes contemporary values instead of reiterating centuries-old moral imperatives, one can’t help feeling that the whole thing seems more than a little forced.

Chapman, who had developed the project from the beginning, was initially named the film’s sole director- the first woman to be hold this position on a Pixar film- but was replaced by Mark Andrews halfway through production due to “creative differences.”. Whenever two or more visions clash in the creation of an artwork, either the conflict yields a hybrid solution that somehow transcends the original ideas, or- more often- a compromise that fails to live up to the potential of either; though Chapman’s contributions to the screenplay remained, as well as enough of her influence to warrant a co-directing credit on the final cut, and she has stated that her original intent comes through clearly in the film, one can’t help but wonder what Brave would have been like if she had been allowed to finish it as she planned.  In her original conception, for instance, the story would have taken place in the harsh highland winter, with a stark backdrop of snow for most of the film; such a bleak setting might have gone a long way towards providing, at least psychologically, a more authentic feeling of life in the Middle Ages for a young non-conformist.

It’s pointless, however, to speculate on what the movie might have been like, and in any case, the true flaw here lies in a screenplay- authored by both directors alongside Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi- which takes pains to present as softened, politically correct a portrait of medieval life as possible.  Not only are we given a highly contemporized version of family dynamics and an incomplete picture of the ironclad mandate to maintain social tradition, we are presented with a sanitized picture of the realities of the era; battle and warfare are just another comical aspect of the rambunctious male personality, with little hint of their horrific consequences, and the standard archetypal figures of myth and legend are repurposed through the prism of modern perspective.  There are no villains here- the stern parents are merely a little old-fashioned and need only a magical nudge to come around to a more permissive attitude, and even the witch is, more or less, a benevolent old soul.  The closest thing to an evil character is Mor’du, the demonic bear who is more an agent of dumb, blind chaos than an adversarial personality, and even he, ultimately, proves merely to be a misunderstood and unfortunate victim of circumstance- even if it is a circumstance of his own misguided creation.  More disappointing than this lack of a clear antagonist, though, is the story’s deflection of its central conflict into a cute-and-cuddly adventure quest in which mother and daughter work through their differences during their joint effort to solve a secondary problem. Of course, it’s all metaphor, but even so, it contains the suggestion that, once the women have things worked out between themselves, the opinions of the king or his lords will be of little consequence- a decidedly feminist undercurrent, when you think about it, which also has the somewhat dubious implication that it was the women themselves who perpetuated the social assignation of gender roles and the menfolk just went along with it.

Though arguments about believability or historical accuracy might seem inherently ridiculous when discussing a fantasy about magic cakes and ursine transmogrification, the setting for Brave makes the very premise of its story highly unlikely, at best.  Though history offers proof that there were, from time to time, remarkable women who defied cultural custom and strictures to become powerful and exceptional figures, the atmosphere and attitude here does little to suggest even a softened version of the harsh reality that would await such a girl at the inception of her dream to be different.  Today’s world deems an inclination to follow a different path to be an acceptable “lifestyle choice,” but in the 12th-or-so Century world that provides the background for Brave, the consequences for such a display of social heresy would be dire, indeed- as someone like, say, Joan of Arc would certainly testify.  To be sure, a story instilling modern ideas of tolerance and diversity is certainly possible in such a period tale as this, but when the magnitude of the cultural obstacles to be faced is diminished to the point of irrelevance, reducing the conflict to a simple disagreement between parent and child, the promotion of noble ideals comes at a high cost.  Teaching positive values to a future generation is a worthy undertaking, but reinventing history in order to do so is something akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Perhaps I’m being over-analytical.  I don’t mean to suggest that a movie aimed at family audiences should feature pestilence, rapes and beheadings.  Brave is not, after all, Game of Thrones, nor does it try to be; but it did seem to me, in watching this painfully correct girl-power fable, that in its effort to emphasize positive, nurturing attitudes it might be guilty of inadvertently perpetuating some not-so-positive ones.  This is the danger, for me, of presenting historical inaccuracies- and I’m not talking about using artistic license to fictionalize real events or mistakenly using the wrong heraldry to decorate a particular king’s armor, but the deliberate imposition of anachronistic attitudes and perspectives onto a place and time where they simply did not exist.  Even in a children’s story; to sanitize the past for modern consumption is a dangerous luxury, for in removing the unpleasant parts we risk creating a false sense of who we are today, and worse, we lessen awareness of those whose struggles got us this far- the real-life role models who might provide inspiration for those who must continue to work towards making a better world for future generations.  At the very least, such well-intentioned bowdlerization of our history creates complacency about our present, but at the worst it can foster a sense of entitlement and a lack of preparedness for the future- for as the saying goes, those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.

All that said, Brave is by no means a bad movie.  As discussed above, it is gorgeous to look at and its story is executed with the utmost professionalism and talent; and though the plot as a whole may fail to be as compelling as one might wish, the movie is filled with delightful set pieces (such as the archery tournament) and characterizations (Merida’s brothers, a trio of troublemaking toddlers whose antics prove an invaluable aid to the princess’ endeavors on more than one occasion) which make for a highly enjoyable 90 minutes.  There is no reason kids would not have a good time with this outing, particularly those who hunger for the kind of fairy tale magic associated with Pixar’s production partner, the venerable Disney Studios itself.  This, as noted, is the first time Pixar has tackled a Disney-style fantasy, their other films having all been modern-day stories; perhaps the reason, in fact, that Brave falls a bit short of the mark is that it is, ultimately, better suited to the Disney treatment than to Pixar’s.  The studio’s sensibilities, smart, hip, and irreverent, seem mismatched to this period tale; indeed, Disney’s Tangled, a recent attempt to bring their own traditions of classic princess fantasy into Pixar territory with computer animation and a contemporary mindset, was a more appealing package than this one is.  Both Disney and Pixar at their best, whether together or separately, make films that entertain young and old audiences alike; a family can truly enjoy the experience together.  With Brave, while the young folk may be delighted, their parents might be checking their watches a little more frequently than with previous Pixar films; they might well wonder what has happened to the disarming imagination of Toy Story, the transcendent surrealism of Up, or the masterful visual storytelling of the sublime Wall-E, surely one of the best examples of animated cinema- or any kind of cinema, for that matter- to be released within the last quarter-century.  Given Pixar’s remarkable creativity and impressive track record, I wouldn’t be too worried- the magic will almost certainly be back.  In the meantime, mediocre Pixar is still light years better than most any other “family-oriented” fodder being thrust into the marketplace to vie for your kids’ attention and the contents of your wallet.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1217209/