Ragtime (1981)

s-l1600Today’s cinema adventure is “Ragtime,” a 1981 film based on the acclaimed novel by E.L. Doctorow. Featuring a mix of real-life historical figures and fictional characters, it’s a kaleidoscopic look at American culture through a nostalgic, turn-of-the-century filter; but it’s really about how we, as a people, react in the face of social inequality – perpetuated by a cultural hierarchy based on income, fame, class, and (most of all) race – and about how, despite the changes on the surface – things are really much the same roughly a century later.

When it was originally released, this movie was highly anticipated; after all, it was the screen adaptation of a monumentally successful book, featuring the return to the screen of no less than film legend James Cagney after 20 years of retirement.  It was directed by Milos Forman, still one of the industry’s heavy-hitters after his multi-Oscar-winning triumph of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and enacting its sprawling story of an affluent, white American family – swept into the tide of cultural change by their involvement with a black man whose struggle for justice escalates into violent insurrection – was an ensemble cast of then-up-and-coming talents (including Mary Steenburgen, Elizabeth McGovern, Brad Dourif, Mandy Patinkin, and even author Norman Mailer).  Alongside these were revered veterans (Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Moses Gunn, Donald O’Connor) and a number of yet-to-be stars (Debbie Allen, Jeff Daniels, Fran Drescher, Samuel L. Jackson) in small but unforgettable roles. It was nominated for 8 Oscars (though it ultimately won none of them) and received mostly positive reviews – but it was a disappointment at the all-important box office.  People were, perhaps, not ready for the harsh look in the mirror that faced them in the story of Coalhouse Walker’s doomed and desperate quest for justice.

I dare say that in 2018, they are even less ready for it.

As for myself, as a blossoming cinephile, I loved this movie when I saw it in my youth – though as a whole, looking at it objectively, I can see that its fragmented approach to a sprawling and complex story (a quality shared by the original book, by the way) might leave many viewers feeling detached and unsatisfied.  For me, even when I was young, I appreciated the opportunity to pick up on the things between the lines on my own; so many years later, watching it again, that subtext emerged for me as even richer and more profound than I could ever have imagined as a teen.

Now, this once-prominent movie seems almost forgotten.  More people probably remember the Broadway Musical that came later (which was excellent, but also financially unsuccessful – though that was perhaps more due to its elaborate and expensive-to-maintain production values).  This is surprising in some ways, especially considering that it was directed by the great Milos Forman, whose immigrant eye captured the spirit of America with the clarity of an outsider and permitted a more honest portrait of its cultural life than any native might have done.

But on another level, it’s not so surprising. America loves itself, and “Ragtime” uses the lure of quaint nostalgia to offer a devastating glimpse at the not-so-lovable things that exist in the core of its identity. It gives us hope, perhaps, by showing the infinitesimally slow evolution that takes place amidst the turmoil, but it does not give us easy moral answers, and it does not give us a happy ending. In the end, it’s a snapshot of who we are (not who we were, despite the Gilded Age setting), nothing more nor less, and it’s up to us to make of it what we will.  For Americans of any era – but perhaps especially of this one – that’s not a pleasant prospect, so it’s no wonder this great film molders on the shelves of obscurity.

The good news is that, upon revisiting this classic, I found my youthful memories of its richness all held true; I could still revel in its sets and costumes, its exquisite cinematography, the perfect musical score – complete with authentic-sounding songs – by Randy Newman, and its wonderful acting.  As for the latter, Steenburgen and Patinkin stood out for me, then and now; James Olson’s quiet turn as a the head of the story’s anonymous family, who struggles to do the right thing even as he clings to the comfortable privilege of his role in a deeply patriarchal society, is unexpectedly sympathetic; and the remarkable Howard Rollins Jr. is breathtaking in the role of Coalhouse – which should have made him a much bigger star than he was to become before his tragic death from AIDS a little over a decade later.  Perhaps the most surprising performance comes from the great Cagney; delivering far more than just a stunt cameo, he is marvelously subtle and layered in his all-too-brief role as New York police commissioner Rhinelander Waldo).

As I allowed myself to revel once more, after nearly 4 decades, in its luminous, analog glory, my reflections were flavored by both the maturity I’ve gained in the intervening years and the context of current affairs in which I live now.  There was an increased respect for the understatement in the performances, which allowed volumes of subtext to resonate all the louder for being unspoken, and a more sophisticated understanding of the social strictures that dictate every event which transpires in the story as surely as if it were preordained by the heavens.  There was also a sense of history repeating:  the tabloid scandal of Stanford White’s dalliance with Evelyn Nesbit; the escapist distractions of Harry Houdini; most of all, the struggle of women, immigrants,  and people of color to rise above the profoundly unequal station allowed them in a culture still built upon sexism, racism, classism, and (perhaps above all) white male dominion – all these things, woven into the narrative of “Ragtime,” evoked for me deep echoes within our modern culture.  The faces, the names, and the headlines may have changed, but the failure of American society to live up to the promise of its idealistic values remains at the core of daily life in our nation.

It’s a disheartening observation, the key to the very purpose of both Doctorow’s book and Forman’s film, and it is almost certainly more so in an era when the resurgence of white nationalism and rampant capitalism have exerted a vice grip upon the cultural consciousness.

Yet woven into this cynical portrait is a thread of hope.  Ever so slightly, in tiny increments, humanity moves forward; a man of color stands firm in his demand for respect, a young man searching for place and meaning feels the call to activism, a woman finds her voice and asserts her will – for better or for worse, all these things work their way through the engines of fate that drive “Ragtime,” and it’s no coincidence that the film’s final, emotional denouement involves a car full of diverse, ethnically mixed people driving away into a new and happier life.  They have freed themselves from the chains that have bound them, and in so doing they become avatars for all those who would see our nation move away from the systems of the past that have so long kept it from realizing its own dream of itself.

That image in itself is reason enough to revisit “Ragtime” in this difficult day and age, and to have hope that this still-important American film will never be completely forgotten.

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Black Panther (2018)

black-panther-posterToday’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade.

Created in 1966 by Marvel founder Stan Lee and artist/author Jack Kirby, Black Panther was the first black superhero in mainstream comics.  It’s took 50 years – and the rise of Marvel to the level of multi-media powerhouse – for him to make his big screen debut in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.”

Two years later, he has a movie of his own, and it’s a lot more than just another spin-off; it’s a watershed moment in the cultural narrative.

It’s not that its story is anything unexpected; on the surface, the film largely adheres to familiar formula.  T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is heir to the throne of Wakanda, a fictional African nation which is secretly the world’s most technologically-advanced society.  Part of his role as ruler is to assume the mantle of Black Panther, a warrior-protector who defends the country with the help of superhuman powers bestowed through ancient tribal rituals.  His transition to the throne is challenged by Erik Killmonger (Michael P. Jordan), who seeks to use peaceful Wakanda’s superior resources to dominate the rest of the world.  It’s up to T’Challa and a handful of loyal supporters to defeat him and regain control over the country’s fate.

This hero-versus-villain scenario – though executed with the cleverness, style, and technical expertise that has become the well-established standard for these Marvel films – is typical fodder for blockbuster entertainment, which aims for thrills and not much more; but “Black Panther” has its eyes on a higher prize.

Thanks to the screenplay by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, “Black Panther” is the vehicle for a wide-ranging array of cultural messaging.  This is no safe, middle-of-the-road adventure; Coogler and Cole have made a barely-concealed political allegory in which Wakanda becomes a stand-in for (among other things) America itself.  Struggling between its self-preservationist isolationism and its role in the global community, it becomes a nation divided; its leadership, plagued by past failures and uncertain of future direction, is usurped by an outsider with an extreme ideology who seeks to subdue or silence any opposition to his agenda; and its citizens must choose between patriotic duty or resistance against the ominous course set by the new regime.  Add to this the fact that the resistance is largely driven by smart, empowered females, and the parallels are hard to miss.

More significant than the Trumpian overtones, yet profoundly complementary to them, are the ways in which “Black Panther” embraces and celebrates black culture.  It’s reflected in every aspect of the film, from the colorful costume and scenic designs, which incorporate heritage and history into its imagination of an Afro-centric futurism, to the exploration of social themes that not only recur throughout but form the very basis of the story’s central conflict.  T’Challa’s struggle is not just with an arch-villain; it’s a conflict between opposing ideas of social justice.  Do we right the wrongs of the past with education and leadership, or do the subjugated strike down their oppressors and change the world by force?  This is, of course, a superhero fantasy, so it’s no spoiler to say that the movie doesn’t end with an all-out race war; still, it’s significant to note that “Black Panther” does not oversimplify these questions, and that it takes pains to present all sides of the discussion in a sympathetic light.

That all of this comes through so clearly is a testament to the talents of the movie’s creators and cast.  Director Coogler navigates his way through the dense trappings of the sci-fi setting without ever losing track of the story’s heart and soul – or its big ideas.  Boseman brings the charisma and fire he displayed in Black Panther’s “Civil War” debut, and he deepens the character with a vulnerability that makes him a hero even more to be admired.  Jordan’s turn as Killmonger gives us a complex, human antagonist who earns our empathy, instead of the kind of caricatured “bad guy” that would turn the movie into a one-sided parade of tropes.

The rest of the cast is no less important, and no less impressive.  Lupita Nyong’o, as Nakia, is no mere love interest, but a force to be reckoned with.  Danai Gurira, as Okoye, general of Panther’s bodyguard, is a fierce and imposing presence whose wisdom is every bit as formidable as her physical prowess.  Letitia Wright, as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister and chief technical mastermind is impish and irreverent, providing a hip and youthful energy while establishing herself as a supremely capable and self-sufficient heroine in her own right.  This is a trio of proud, smart, compassionate women that could fully support a movie of their own.

Representing the older generation are Angela Bassett and Forest Whittaker, both regal and indomitable as T’Challa’s mother and advisor, respectively.  Martin Freeman reprises his “Civil War” role as CIA agent Ross, using his much-loved deadpan befuddlement to great effect; though essentially serving as a “token white” character, his likable persona serves as an important reminder that unity in the cause of justice is not defined by race.  Andy Serkis, the movie’s only other significant white actor, gives a gleefully colorful performance as the secondary villain, Ulysses Klaue.

All these stellar contributions blend together into the whole; no one element outshines any other, and “Black Panther” shines all the brighter for it.

As good as this film is, though, its importance does not lie in its quality.

The movie’s opening weekend ticket sales in North America outstripped anticipated figures; its global take for the weekend shattered myths about the overseas performance of movies featuring non-white actors.  It had the highest gross for a February opening in history, and the fifth highest of all time.  Black audiences turned up at theatres in droves, sometimes as part of school and church groups, often dressed in clothing celebrating their cultural heritage.  There has even been a campaign to register voters at theaters showing the film.

The impact of such a film – one that fills an oft-lamented gap for mainstream movies featuring people of color – should have been a no-brainer.  For a major studio release to be so unapologetically “black” is a major step forward that is long overdue.  To be sure, Marvel’s film comes in the wake of such surprise successes as “Moonlight” and “Get Out,” and feels connected to last summer’s “Wonder Woman,” which delivered a similar shock to the system, as well as Pixar’s Latino-themed “Coco.”

Even so, “Black Panther” feels like the crest of a wave.  The Hollywood industry, like any other business, is motivated by money; this movie has made a lot of that, already, and will certainly make much, much more.  The studios will receive that message, loud and clear, and if history is any indication, they will clamor to jump on the gravy train.

Hopefully, at long last, that will mean more movies about and by non-whites.

Whether or not it will also encourage a more inclusive atmosphere for other unrepresented groups – like Latino, Asian, or LGBT audiences – remains to be seen.

Dunkirk (2017)

big_startfilmru1365635Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

Christopher Nolan may be one of the most prominent of modern filmmakers, but he is surprisingly old-fashioned.

Consider his newest film, the highly-anticipated WWII drama, “Dunkirk.”  In tackling a war movie (one of the oldest cinematic genres imaginable), he relies mostly on tricks of the trade established since the silent era, eschewing dialogue in favor of visual storytelling and favoring practical effects over computerized ones.

Not only that, he continues to champion the use of film over digital cinematography.  “Dunkirk” is one of the rare contemporary films to be shot on widescreen film stock and presented in 70 MM format, delivering an experience that feels like one of those classic big screen extravaganzas of old.

Despite his tried-and-true approach, though, Nolan also brings his own contemporary perspective to the mix; this combination results in not only the most immersive, visually impressive war film in recent memory, but also the most thoughtful and challenging.

For those who need a brief history lesson, Dunkirk is a town on the French coast of the English Channel where hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers were trapped in the summer of 1940.  Surrounded by Nazi forces, these combined English, French, and Belgian troops awaited evacuation on the beach while being pummeled from air and sea.  Nolan’s film tells the story of their miraculous rescue from this dire situation.

Challenged with the task of capturing such an epic event in a way that brings it to his audience as concisely as possible, Nolan has chosen to split his movie into three interwoven stories.  In one, we follow a young English soldier on the beach as he struggles to survive; in another, a civilian boat captain answers the call for private vessels to assist in the evacuation and sets sail across the Channel with his son and a young deck hand; and in the third, British fighter pilots attempt to fend off attacks against the rescue ships and stranded troops by engaging Nazi planes in dogfights above the beach.

Through these separate plotlines, Nolan raises the individual stakes within each story while building the tension that drives the larger narrative, providing a cumulative payoff when they finally come together for the climactic sequence they all share.

It’s this structure where Nolan most notably breaks from traditional style.  Although the interwoven narrative is not, in itself, an unusual device, the director adds an extra layer by playing tricks with the passage of time.  Without giving anything away, it’s safe to say that there are frequent moments when it’s difficult to tell where each storyline is in relation to the others – or to the over-arching action.  The result is a disorientation which contributes to the overall sense of being in the midst of battle.  It’s a challenging conceit, and although Nolan plainly sets up the rules early in the film, some viewers are bound to find it confusing.

Like any “auteur” filmmaker, Nolan’s entire of body of work explores recurring themes and repeated elements which make them distinctly and unmistakably his own.  He has always been preoccupied with time in his movies, so it’s no surprise that he brings this obsession into “Dunkirk.”

The trouble with auteurs, however, is that appreciation of their work becomes a matter of taste which affects their entire canon.  If one doesn’t like Nolan’s trademark blend of mind-bending narrative style and coldly philosophical thematic underpinnings, one is likely to find all of his movies unsatisfying.  For that reason, “Dunkirk” will almost certainly frustrate those who are unimpressed with its director’s creative quirks.

That said, for those who are attuned to Nolan’s vision, “Dunkirk” is a truly magnificent film – possibly his best work to date – which embraces the form of the traditional war picture while simultaneously re-inventing it.  It’s full of tropes, but the complexity with which Nolan infuses them makes them feel fresh, allowing him to use them as comfortable touchstones as he takes us on an intense journey through the harrowing and hellish landscape of war.

That journey would certainly not be possible without the sheer scope and size of his imagery (captured by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema); but equally important is Hans Zimmer’s remarkable electronic score, which blends the thundering, sternum-shaking noises of combat so seamlessly into the ever-ascending music that it creates a kind of aural cocoon in which inner and outer realities merge.  This, combined with the expert editing by Lee Smith, allows Nolan to deliver a movie which avoids overt manipulation and sentimentality yet offers sublime moments of accumulated empathy that may require a tissue or two from some viewers.

As for the cast, it’s a true ensemble, in which established stars (Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy) serve side by side with lesser-known faces.  The entire company deserves equal praise, but for reasons of space I will limit myself to singling out One Direction’s Harry Styles, in his first screen role as one of the soldiers awaiting rescue, who belies any notion of stunt-casting with an ego-free performance that stands on its own merit alongside those of his on-screen cohorts.

It must be mentioned that “Dunkirk” has received some criticism for its lack of diversity.  While the majority of personnel involved in the real-life evacuation were undoubtedly white men, there were also men of color on that beach, none of whom appear onscreen.  In addition, though the film does feature a few fleeting glimpses of women, they are more or less relegated to the background.  It’s necessary to take note of such oversights as part of the important ongoing conversation about “whitewashing” in the film industry,

Still, in terms of judging the film for what it shows us (and not what it doesn’t), “Dunkirk” is powerful cinematic art.  Though not overtly an “anti-war” film, it shows us the chaos of war alongside both the best and worst of what it brings out in humanity, without sentimentality or judgment.  It focuses on survival over heroism, yet reveals that compassion leads to heroic acts.   Perhaps most impressively, it avoids political commentary while inspiring us to find hope in the face of overwhelming oppression and defeat.

That alone makes “Dunkirk” a profoundly suitable war movie for these troubled times.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

kubo-and-the-two-strings-poster-the-ice-fields

 

Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Pride L.A.

There is a popular perception that animated movies are pure kid-stuff, designed to lure families to the box office and to generate lucrative marketing tie-ins.  After all, animation pioneer Walt Disney used this formula as the foundation for a financial empire that continues to dominate the entertainment industry today.  Of course, Disney’s films (at least the early ones) were also artistic triumphs, and there have since been numerous others that rival them in stature.  Nevertheless, even the most open-minded critics often tend to join the general public in considering “cartoons” as belonging to a separate-and-unequal category from live-action filmmaking, and often overlook them in any discussion of serious cinema.

This intellectual bias may often be warranted; but occasionally, a film like “Kubo and the Two Strings” comes along to challenge it.  Set in Ancient Japan, it’s the story of a boy who lives with his strangely afflicted mother in a cave by the sea.  Every night, she tells him half-remembered tales of his long-lost Samurai father; every day he spins them into adventurous yarns to entertain the nearby villagers- aided by magic which allows him to manipulate pieces of paper with the music from his shamisen. He is careful, though, to heed his mother’s warning and return home before nightfall, in order to avoid the watchful eye of his grandfather, the Moon King, who wishes to steal him away to his kingdom in the sky.  One day, however, Kubo lingers too long at a village festival, and suddenly finds himself caught up in an adventure of his own- aided by a monkey and a man-sized beetle, with his two terrifying aunts, the Daughters of the Moon, pursuing him every step of the way.

This deceptively simple setup provides the basis for a magnificent visual journey, full of magic, which blurs the lines of reality and challenges us to jump seamlessly between different levels of existence.  This is no small feat, and the fact that we never question it is a testament to the brilliance of its technical execution- the bulk of which was performed using the same basic techniques that took King Kong to the top of the Empire State Building over 80 years ago.  Though some assistance was provided by modern CG technology, most of what we see on the screen was achieved by posing models, one frame at a time, in front of a camera.  This painstaking effort certainly pays off; Kubo’s story comes to life with such palpable reality that the viewer might almost forget to be dazzled by it.

What’s impressive about “Kubo and the Two Strings,” though, is that its story more than lives up to the technical wizardry surrounding it.  Though it evokes the traditional folk tales of Japan, “Kubo” is entirely original, its screenplay written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler from a story by Shannon Tindle.  Even so, as guided by director Travis Knight, it maintains a strong sense of mythological authenticity as it delivers its own version of the classic hero’s journey; the mystical elements which comprise much of the story’s framework are presented as factual conditions of the plot, yet the deeply resonant symbolism they possess- a quality downplayed by most such films aimed at contemporary American audiences- is given equal weight.  Similarly, while the film doesn’t avoid sentimentality, it never manufactures it to generate an unearned emotional response; rather, it allows the story and its characters to provide it, in appropriate doses, when it arises naturally.  As a result, “Kubo” manages to amuse, frighten, touch, and surprise its viewers- whatever age they might be- all the way through to its lovely, delicate, and bravely bittersweet ending.

Of course, there are many other factors contributing to the film’s success.  Its visual design is a marvelous blend of stylization and historical detail, effectively transporting us to the story’s time and place from the very first frames- with the aid of a majestic and immersive score by Dario Marianelli.   As for the voice cast (led by Art Parkinson as the title character and including the likes of Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, and Ralph Fiennes), it must be mentioned that “Kubo” has drawn some heat for using mostly white actors.  Conroversy aside, those actors deserve credit for their fine work, which plays a big part in making “Kubo” into the special experience it is.

It’s a bit early to start making lists of the year’s best films, but when the time comes, I think it’s a safe bet that “Kubo and the Two Strings” will be on a few of them- anti-animation prejudices notwithstanding.  It fully deserves that honor.  It’s a multi-layered, visually stunning work which tells a powerful story without pandering to its viewers- and a film like that, animated or not, is very rare 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

Days of Heaven (1978)

Days of Heaven (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Days of Heaven, the 1978 second feature by director Terrence Malick, featuring a young Richard Gere alongside Brooke Adams and actor/playwright Sam Shepard in an elegiac tale of two migrant workers who scheme to con a dying farmer out of his fortune on the early-20th-century Texas panhandle.  Universally lauded for its visual beauty, it was nevertheless snubbed at the time of its release by critics who found it shallow and unengaging; in the years since, however, it has come to be recognized as one of the best films of the seventies, perhaps partly due to a two-decade hiatus taken by its director following its completion, during which time a sense of nostalgic retrospect- coupled with wide exposure on art-house cinema screens, cable TV, and home video- prompted a re-evaluation of its merits.

Set in 1916, Days of Heaven unfolds mostly through its visuals and the overdubbed commentary of Linda, the younger sister of its lead male character.  The movie opens in Chicago, where Bill, a short-tempered steel mill laborer, accidentally kills his foreman in an on-the-job fight.  Fleeing the scene, the young man collects his sister and his girlfriend, Abby, and the trio jumps a train with dozens of other poor laborers seeking opportunities in the wide-open spaces of the American Midwest.  Their journey takes them to the expansive plains of the Texas panhandle, where they find work as harvesters alongside other migrants on a large wheat plantation owned by a shy and sickly young farmer.  To avoid talk among the other workers, the unmarried young couple pose as brother and sister, and for awhile the little makeshift family finds a sort of idyllic peace in their simple existence here, despite the grueling and dangerous work required of them, and despite a growing interest in Abby from the lonely young farmer.  When Bill accidentally overhears a conversation in which a visiting doctor informs the farmer that an unspecified illness leaves him only a few months to live, the ambitious and opportunistic young laborer begins to concoct a scheme by which he and his companions might trick the dying man into leaving them his considerable fortune.  He encourages Abby to accept the farmer’s advances; she does so, reluctantly at first, but gradually warms to him as their relationship progresses.  All goes according to plan- the farmer marries Abby, and moves her into his house along with her supposed siblings- but as time passes and his health remains stable, the delicate balance of this romantic triangle grows ever more precarious.  With Abby’s feelings becoming more and more conflicted, and the suspicions of the farmer’s trusted foreman threatening to expose the plot, Bill’s jealousy and impatience grow, and he begins to contemplate other means of removing their gullible benefactor from the picture.

Director Malick, who earned a degree in philosophy before turning to filmmaking, had made an impressive debut with Badlands, a 1973 drama starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a young couple on a crime spree; produced independently, it garnered such acclaim at the New York Film Festival that Warner Brothers bought the distribution rights for three times the amount it cost to make.  For his follow-up project, Malick teamed with producer Bert Schneider, who negotiated a deal with Paramount Studios in which he and the director would be given complete artistic control over the project; the studio paid for the film, with Schneider agreeing to cover any amount spent beyond the allotted budget.  Malick, meanwhile, developed his vision for Days of Heaven with acclaimed Spanish-born cinematographer Nestor Almendros, drawing inspiration from paintings by Andrew Wyeth (specifically “Christina’s World”) and Edward Hopper (“The House by the Railroad,” an iconic image upon which the farm house in the film was based) and planning a narrative presented more through imagery than dialogue.   Filming took place in Alberta, Canada, despite the Texas setting, and thanks to Malick’s and Almendros’ wish to shoot mostly during the so-called “magic hours” (the 20-or-so minutes around sunrise and sunset) in order to capitalize on the special quality of light present at these times, it was a painstakingly slow and frustrating process for the actors and crew.  Things were made worse by Malick’s unorthodox shooting schedule, in which he would frequently diverge from the loosely organized daily plan according to his own whims and changing ideas; this caused expensive delays, as did the director’s choice partway through production to jettison his scripted dialogue and allow the actors to craft the story through guided improvisation.  In the end, the project went severely over budget- Schneider had to mortgage his house in order to live up to his deal with the studio- and took so long to complete that key participants (including Almendros) had to leave in order to fulfill other commitments.  To further exacerbate matters, Malick then took two full years to piece together the movie from the miles of footage he had shot; a full year after filming wrapped, he had to call his actors to Los Angeles in order to shoot assorted pick-up shots, famously including close-ups of Sam Shepard taken under a freeway overpass and an underwater take of Richard Gere’s submerging face captured in a large aquarium in Sissy Spacek’s living room.  When Days of Heaven was finally finished and released, the lavish praise it received for its visuals was undermined by the mixed critical reactions to its content, and though it turned a small profit at the box office, it was widely considered a financial failure.

Nevertheless, all the painstaking work undertaken by its director, maddening as his process may have been to his colleagues and his studio, resulted in a film of breathtaking beauty, and though its simple story is seen as if through a prism, detached from the reality of its circumstances and affecting our emotions only obliquely as we take in the wonder of the pretty pageant displayed before us, it nevertheless has a cumulative power that strikes deeply resonant chords within us.  It’s not a deep tale, and its inescapable conclusion is obvious to us even as its premise develops, but that is part of the movie’s haunting charm.  Our intellect is not the target, but rather our senses, and through them that deeper level of understanding where we can appreciate the profound beauty of sadness.  For sadness is the overpowering emotion in Days of Heaven, creeping around the edges of every scene, even those full of joy; it comes from the implicit knowledge that everything is temporary, that the world is in a constant state of change- a theme underlined by the importance of the seasons in the life of the farm, the ominous juxtaposition of industrial age machinery in the pastoral life of its workers, the certainty that the security of regular wages will come to an end with the harvest, and the specter of death that haunts the doomed farmer.  It is exuded in Linda’s narration, filled with wistful nostalgia and philosophical observation rather than direct reminiscence, and it is inherent in the entire situation presented by the film’s central plot- a timeless and oft-repeated saga of the heart being subjugated for worldly gain, of people yearning and struggling for a life better than the one they know, in which brief happiness is attained and lost by all involved.  Days of Heaven, ultimately, is a meditation on the transience of all worldly things, almost biblical in its message; indeed, the title itself is a scriptural reference, and biblical connections are conjured by a number of elements, not the least of which is a plague of locusts that settles on the farm during the film’s climax.  It is not, however, a preachy polemic warning us of the wages of sin, but rather an invitation to embrace life in all its pleasure and its pain, to appreciate the good moments as they come and weather the bad ones with the knowledge that they, too, shall pass; most of all, it is an evocation of things past, a commentary on the repetitive and universal patterns of human behavior, and a chance to mourn our own losses and celebrate our own memories.

Malick’s success at realizing his vision- laborious and, perhaps, badly organized as it was- cannot be denied, nor can credit be denied him for making a film of such unique and delicate beauty; it would be wrong, however, to ignore the tremendous contribution of cinematographer Nestor Almendros on the artistic success of Days of Heaven.  He worked extensively with Malick from the beginning of the process, having been chosen by the director for his earlier efforts (particularly The Wild Child, a 1970 effort by French master François Truffaut, with whom Almendros had a long-standing professional relationship); the two men were much in tune with each other’s sensibilities, and Almendros was impressed by Malick’s knowledge and understanding of cinematography, both technically and aesthetically.  Their collaboration and the loosely-structured, improvisational process they used in creating the all-important look of the film may have led to dissatisfaction and frustration among the rest of the crew (there were claims that the two men “didn’t know what they were doing”), but it resulted in a truly stunning visual experience that still ranks as one of the most gorgeous films ever shot.  Malick’s vision works because of the power of the imagery which Almendros helped him to realize, deliberately drawn from the painters which first inspired the film- not only the aforementioned Wyeth and Hopper, but Johannes Vermeer and other old masters, whose distinctive visual style is referenced throughout in the play of light and shadow- and the techniques of silent filmmaking, with its penchant for the ethereal qualities of natural lighting and its reliance on the importance of wordless storytelling; indeed, these infusions are a perfect fit with the period and setting of Days of Heaven, enhancing its sense of time and place trapped in a bottle, and giving it a magical, shimmering quality that pervades even its earthy and most brutal moments.  The achievement is more remarkable because not only was Almendros, as a foreign national, not allowed to operate the camera himself (due to union regulations), he was also beginning to lose his eyesight at the time, and had to prepare the shots in advance with the cameraman by taking polaroids of the set-ups and studying them through his glasses. It is important to note, in the interest of giving full credit where it is due, that another legendary cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, was brought in to complete the shooting process when Almendros had to leave; the two worked together for a week ahead of time, and Wexler made every effort to duplicate the style that his predecessor had set for the film.  Unfortunately, though over half the footage in the completed movie was shot by Wexler (according to his own letter to critic Roger Ebert), he received credit only for “Additional Photography,” rendering him ineligible to share the Academy Award ultimately received for the cinematography in Days of Heaven.  This oversight resulted in some degree of controversy within the industry, but it has been widely acknowledged by all involved parties that both men played an important role in bringing Malick’s opus to the screen, and the work that they did stands among the best in either of their careers.

Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World," the painting that primarily inspired Malick to make "Days of Heaven."

Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World,” the painting that primarily inspired Malick to make Days of Heaven

Edward Hopper's "House by the Railroad," another important visual influence on Days of Heaven

Edward Hopper’s “House by the Railroad,” another important visual influence on Days of Heaven

The magic of Days of Heaven is also bolstered immeasurably by Ennio Morricone’s ethereal score, borrowing from Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Aquarium” (from Carnival of the Animals), which is played over the film’s main tiles, and carrying its mood and motifs into the original music he provides for the narrative.  The remarkably authentic period atmosphere is made possible largely through the costumes designed by Patricia Norris, which she made with old fabric and used clothing items, giving everything a faded look of well-worn realism; also important here are the authentic period vehicles- everything from early automobiles to monolithic farm equipment to a bi-plane carrying a troupe of traveling entertainers- and, most prominently, the farm house, designed and constructed by Jack Fisk, which dominates the landscape of the film, both physically and psychologically, built from plywood and fully dressed with period detail inside and out.  This latter piece was used to film both exterior and interior scenes (a rare occurrence; standard practice, especially at the time, would be to shoot the interiors on a set in a soundstage) and leaves a lingering impression on the memory well after the film has faded to its final close.  It is, in its way, as iconic a structure as the house from Hitchcock’s Psycho (also based, coincidentally, on a painting by Hopper), and gives Days of Heaven a concrete center, a simple, serviceable image rich with multiple layers of symbolic meaning.  Finally, the cast cannot be overlooked.  Though Malick sought to evoke memories of the silent era, there is no bombastic posturing here, no emotional histrionics; instead, his players complement his elegantly simple plot with performances of equal simplicity, avoiding bravura displays and offering instead a low-key naturalism which implies volumes through its very restraint- likely a result of the improvisational nature of Malick’s shooting process.  All four principals give unforgettable performances; Brooke Adams provides a heartbreaking balance of pragmatism and romance as Abby, Linda Manz is hard-shelled but touching as the worldly-wise-before-her-time Linda, Sam Shepard mixes melancholy and earnestness into an appealing package as the unnamed farmer, and Richard Gere uses his almost impossible physical beauty as a powerful tool both to express a genuinely good nature and to mask the darkness brooding inside it in his portrait of the charismatic Bill.  Mention should also go to Robert Wilke, the craggy-faced character actor who manages to touch us deeply in his brief screen time as the farmer’s loyal foreman and surrogate father figure.

Terrence Malick, after Days of Heaven, spent twenty years as a virtual recluse from the movie industry, finally returning in 1998 with The Thin Red Line, a WWII drama which sharply divided critics who found it either a masterpiece or a pretentious sham.  The same response, by and large, has been generated by his subsequent films.  For many, myself included, the jury remains out on whether he is in fact a genius or a charlatan; but regardless of any assessment of his later work, Days of Heaven– especially taken in combination with his earlier Badlands- is more than enough to ensure his status as a true cinematic master.  The way it uses imagery to convey its story, as well as its underlying subtext and the thematic elements which drive it, is a rare and remarkable achievement in utilizing the full power of cinema as a visual medium, and the magnificent beauty of that imagery is still unsurpassed over thirty years later.  Those seeking a passionate romance, with all the typical heart-tugging excesses of standard Hollywood fare, are likely to find it a cold and distant experience, like watching fish behind the glass of an aquarium- a comparison that is, upon reflection, more apt (and less critical) than it might seem.  Malick’s triangulated tale of tragic love is more compassionate for being less sentimental, more deeply moving in its preoccupation with the surface than any number of films that strive to explore the inner experiences of its characters; though it has all the makings of a melodrama, it is a tale without heroes, heroines, or villains, and its characters all contain elements of each, making it impossible to take sides or to judge their actions.  Through the director’s well-considered lens he shows us life, plain and simple, using his art as a means to reveal beauty rather than to manipulate emotion.  As a result, though we may feel somewhat removed from the events and characters, they have the unmistakable ring of truth, and our reactions to them are as honest as they come; for this reason, I count Days of Heaven as one of my personal favorite films, and despite my ambivalent feelings towards its director, consider him one of the greatest filmmakers of his time.  I don’t like to make hyperbolic proclamations like that, so coming from me, you can consider it a pretty strong recommendation.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077405/?ref_=sr_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

Les Miserables (2012)

Les Miserables (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Les Misérables, the 2012 film adaptation of the hit stage musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, based in turn on the classic 1862 Victor Hugo novel of the same name.  Affectionately referred to as “Les Miz” by many of its legion of fans, the show had one of the longest runs in both London and Broadway history, as well as hundreds of international and touring productions, and continues to be a major draw in theaters around the world to this day; needless to say, the blockbuster film version, in development (off-and-on) for nearly 25 years, had a sizable built-in audience awaiting its debut on Christmas Day.  Directed by Tom Hooper, who was at the helm of 2010’s Oscar-winner, The King’s Speech, and produced with heavy involvement from the show’s original creators, including producer Cameron Mackintosh, it has opened to mostly positive reviews, already scored multiple nominations and wins among the various year-end film awards, and been greeted -if the crowded audience I saw it with was any clear indication- with wildly enthusiastic response from the public.

Adapted for the screen by William Nicholson, the floridly romantic score by Boublil and Schönberg (with English lyrics translated by Herbert Kretzmer) makes it to the screen remarkably intact, a rarity in Hollywood transpositions of stage musicals, with very few passages removed and a minimum of strategic re-ordering; consequently, as with the original production, almost the entire story is told through singing, with only a smattering of spoken dialogue.  The epic tale begins, as does the novel, in 1815 France, a country that has reverted to despotic monarchy only a few short years after its bloody revolution deposed the reigning aristocracy.  We are introduced to two men: Jean Valjean, a hardened convict who is being paroled after spending 19 years on a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family; and Javert, the strict and stalwart policeman who oversees their labor.  Upon Valjean’s release, his status as a paroled felon prevents him from finding work or shelter, and the cruelty and humiliation he suffers reinforce his hatred and mistrust of humanity, until an act of kindness by an elderly bishop inspires him to transform his life and dedicate himself to God.  He knows he cannot live under the draconian terms of his parole, however, and so he tears up his papers, vowing to begin a new life.  The story then shifts 8 years into the future, when Valjean has established himself under a new identity as a successful factory owner and is now the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, a small seaport city.  One of his workers, a young woman named Fantine, is dismissed by the foreman when it is discovered that she is an unwed mother; with no job, she is unable to send support for her child- a little girl named Cosette who is in the care of a tavern-keeper and his wife in a nearby town- and she soon discovers her only avenue is to join the ranks of the town’s prostitutes.  Meanwhile, Valjean is made uneasy by the arrival of the town’s new police inspector- none other than Javert himself, whose suspicions are aroused by the mayor’s familiar appearance.  When Fantine, now gravely ill, is arrested in an altercation with an abusive “customer,” Valjean intervenes, and promises his dying former employee that he will take care of the child she leaves behind; but when he learns that another man has been mistaken for him and arrested in his name, he knows he cannot secure his own freedom at the expense of an innocent soul.  He reveals his identity to the court, then evades Javert in order to rescue little Cosette from her cruel guardians and flee with her to Paris, where he disappears into yet another life- this time as a loving and protective father.  Another 9 years go by; Valjean and the now-grown Cosette live in comfortable but secluded anonymity, and Javert now patrols the streets of Paris, where poverty and social injustice have bred a new generation of revolutionaries- a band of students under the leadership of the charismatic Enjolras.  One of their number, Marius, becomes smitten with Cosette when they see each other in the street; but their budding romance is interrupted by fate, as her former foster parents, the scheming Thénardiers (now also living in Paris, with their real daughter, Eponine), have recognized Valjean, prompting the longtime fugitive to plan an escape to England with his beloved ward.  On the eve of their departure, the student rebellion begins, throwing Paris into turmoil and bringing the destinies of the characters together for a climactic confrontation that will determine all of their fates forever.

In the original stage version of the musical, numerous liberties were taken with Hugo’s original novel, in the interest of simplifying the complex narrative and restructuring it for the needs of theatrical presentation; even so, through clever staging and production design, the epic sweep of the original was captured and maintained in a way that helped to redefine and reassert the musical theater art form for a new generation.  In re-expanding the story from the confines of the stage to the endless possibilities of the cinematic format, screenwriter Nicholson and director Hooper have returned to the source material for inspiration in filling in the background details, which successfully fleshes out the saga with the epic stature it deserves, but they have faithfully maintained the plot structure of Boublil and Schönberg’s version.  Part of this may be because of the involvement of Mackintosh, whose insistence on keeping the integrity of the show has been a factor throughout its history, and also because any significant changes would doubtless awaken the wrath of the musical’s sizable army of devoted followers, thereby alienating the lion’s share of their target audience.  Whatever the reason behind it, the decision to present the musical largely as written has resulted, perhaps ironically, in a brave and groundbreaking piece of filmmaking; since the decline of the film musical as a viable box office draw in the late 1960s, and particularly since the undeniably brilliant screen version of Cabaret directed by Bob Fosse in 1972, Hollywood has had a fear of allowing the conceits of the genre to be manifested onscreen.  To put it simply, the idea of characters breaking out into song and dance in order to express themselves fell from fashion with the rise of a jaded generation raised on contemporary realism; the “hokiness” of musicals was rejected by an audience that associated it with the values of their parents’ era, and filmmakers have since been reluctant to put them on the big screen without justifying the song-and-dance elements by the use of some stylized approach- usually separating them from the narrative by treating them as fantasy or by presenting them as staged performances within the world of the film.  There have been few movie musicals over the course of the last two or three decades, and with few exceptions they have largely been lackluster efforts which have failed to score with either critics or audiences.  In recent years, however, the popularity of the Broadway musical has undergone a sort of revival in the popular imagination, and the comparative success of such stage-to-film transitions as Hairspray and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has given tentative indication that audience acceptance for such fare is growing in movie houses, as well.  With Les Misérables, Hollywood takes the bold step of returning to the traditional approach, at last permitting the musical score to be performed, without qualification or apology, as the primary medium through which the story is told.  Unlike Hairspray, with its kitshy camp sensibilty, or Sweeney Todd, with its dark, cartoonish stylization, Les Misérables is grounded in a gritty period realism, and yet its characters express not only their inner monologues through song, they converse, confront and comfort each other through it as well.  In today’s cinema, such a basic, play-as-written approach to such material seems a novel concept, and it is precisely for this reason that it breaks free of its theatrical roots and comes to life as pure cinema.

To be sure, it takes a little adjusting for audiences unused to the genre, and even for those familiar with it.  The spectacular opening sequence, in which scores of rough-edged prisoners drag the enormous wrecked hull of a sunken ship while they sing of the cruelty and hopelessness of their existence, thrusts us immediately into the film’s operatic milieu, without fanfare or warning; it’s a jarring, alien experience, at first, but the utter conviction with which it is performed and presented soon carry us into acceptance, and by the time the story comes to its final fruition 150-odd minutes later the cumulative power of the score rewards us with an emotional catharsis rarely achieved by standard, non-musical methods.  That is, it rewards those who are able to surrender to it; there are undeniably viewers who simply don’t like musicals, and no amount of discussion about the aesthetics or traditions of the genre is likely to persuade them to open their minds to Les Misérables.  Make no mistake, this is a hardcore musical, and anyone who has trouble suspending their disbelief in a world where thieves, prostitutes and soldiers sing in unison would be well-advised to steer clear.  At the risk of seeming confrontational, I might also say they would be well-advised not to try and spoil it for the rest of us.

Of course, there are also those who, as die-hard fans of the musical, will be coming into the theater with their own high standards and expectations about the piece; “Les Miz” aficionados generally have their favorite recordings of the show, with every vocal and instrumental nuance memorized by heart, or perhaps envision a “dream cast” in which their favorite performers from the various productions might somehow be united into one perfect rendition if the show.  These viewers are likely to be disappointed in what they see (and hear) here, as, indeed, they would be bound to be with any version of the piece short of the one they have in their imagination.  In fact, it’s probably fair to say that anyone who is a stickler for “legit” singing will probably have difficulty accepting the vocal performances in Les Misérables; though its cast is composed primarily of actors who are trained and experienced singers, the film’s highly unusual approach to capturing their vocals has yielded a different sound than might be anticipated.  In order to focus on the immediacy and spontaneity of the scenes- particularly since virtually the entire film is sung- the decision was made to forego the usual technique of pre-recording all the songs and lip-syncing to a playback on the set during filming.  Instead, the actors sang everything live on camera, with a piano providing accompaniment through concealed earpieces and the full orchestral underscore being added in post-production.  The result of this approach is a raw, improvisational quality- decidedly different from the meticulously phrased, measured delivery found on most musical theater recordings- that gives the songs an unpredictable, electric vitality; it is not the first time such a tactic has been employed, but it is certainly the most extensive use of it to date, and though it may not satisfy the ears of purists, it creates a hitherto unseen level of honesty in the performances, with each actor given the opportunity to fully express emotional reality in the moment without being hindered by a forced layer of artificiality.  This is not to say that the vocals are in any way inadequate- on the contrary, the cast of Les Misérables is more than capable of the meeting the demands of the material- but rather that they do not adhere to expectations; there is understatement where there is usually bombast and vice versa, and tempos are stretched or tightened according to interpretive need (all dictated, incidentally, by the actors themselves), giving the familiar score a freshness and an urgency that would have been impossible had the performers merely attempted to recreate the sound of those who have gone before.

To execute these performances, Hooper has assembled an ensemble of prestigious actors that, though they may not constitute a typical “Les Miz dream cast,” certainly lay claim to their iconic roles and bring them to life with a clear and infectious relish.  Heading this gallery of versatile “A-listers” is Hugh Jackman as Valjean, finally given the chance to bring to the screen the skills that made him a star on the musical stage before his days as an action-adventure star.  Those who know him only as Wolverine may well be surprised by his magnificent performance here; his renditions of Valjean’s signature songs display his prodigious musical talent and his clear, soaring tenor voice while bringing a depth and emotional immediacy that make them completely his own, and he charts this archetypal character’s journey from hardened thug to selfless benefactor with a brave and powerful range, finding surprising nuances of strength and vulnerability that continually remind us of his humanity.  As Javert, Russell Crowe is perhaps less noticeably effective, due to his stoic, seemingly emotionless presence as this ultimate champion of the letter of the law; his singing is metered and free of all but the sparsest of ornamentation, and he avoids playing into potentially passionate moments with the rigorous restraint of an ascetic.  For some, this approach to the character may seem like a missed opportunity, but in fact it is a remarkably honest interpretation, faithful to Hugo’s original portrayal, of a character whose life is devoted to a code which permits no room for personal choice; Javert does his duty, nothing more, and Crowe is to be commended for resisting the temptation to add showy flourishes.  Anne Hathaway, as the tragic Fantine, delivers the film’s standout performance, a heartbreaking portrait of a young woman driven to desperation by the cruel oppression of her time, and her stunning performance of the musical’s best-known song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” is destined to go down in cinema history as one of those great, unforgettable scenes that shows up in montages paying tribute to classic moments from the movies.  As the Thénardiers, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide double-edged comic relief in roles that could probably be described as the “Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter” characters- which may sound like a bit of a dig, but in fact it is a testament to their skill at portraying these kinds of audaciously unpleasant types.  They seem absolutely right as this pair of opportunistic reprobates, and it is hard to imagine anyone else playing them.  As Marius, the immensely gifted Eddie Redmayne truly shines, taking this crucial character and making him a likable, genuine young man with a passionate soul, and not just another handsome romantic juvenile; his own belief in his “love at first sight” is so sincere, we are swept up in it easily- and not just because we accept the convention as a necessary part of the story-, and later in the film, his rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, a mournful elegy to his fallen companions and an expression of his own post-traumatic-shock demons, is riveting and heart-rendingly real.  As Cosette, Amanda Seyfried is likewise believably dimensional, rising above the level of mere ingénue, and though her character gives her less chance to stand out, she invests it with so much charm and life that it seems she has a much bigger role than she really does.  Samantha Barks, one of the two principal cast members to have previously played their role onstage, gives a sweet and sad performance as Eponine, capturing the simultaneous joy and despair of her own signature number, “On My Own,” without the affectation that its heart-tugging mixture of despair and joy might inspire in a lesser performer.  Broadway actor Aaron Tveit makes a compelling Enjolras, brandishing a powerfully eloquent singing voice and a piercing intensity that perfectly embodies the enigmatic young revolutionary and makes him utterly convincing as a figure that might inspire other young men to follow him to their deaths; young Daniel Huttlestone (the other “Les Miz” stage veteran) easily wins our affections as the scrappy Gavroche, giving us just enough of the “precocious urchin” persona to make him familiar without adding the sentimentality that would turn him into a cliche; similarly, Isabelle Allen plays the young Cosette without cloying cuteness, delivering her song, “Castle on a Cloud,” with endearing honesty and refreshing simplicity.  Indeed, every member of the cast, from the cadre of student rebels to the gaggle of gossipy factory women, does stellar work and provides a memorable contribution to the whole, making Les Misérables feel like a true ensemble effort. Lastly, in a fitting touch that adds a certain intangible resonance to the proceedings, Colm Wilkinson, the Irish folk-singer-turned-actor who became an international star when he originated the role of Valjean in both the London and Broadway productions, makes a cameo appearance, giving an all-too-brief, transcendent performance as the Bishop of Digne, whose act of kindness sets Valjean on the path to redemption.  It’s also worth a mention that many of the film’s extras and “chorus” members are also alumni of stage productions of the show, including original Eponine Frances Ruffelle, who plays a fairly sizable role as a prostitute.  Their involvement is a testament to the powerful spell of the show, which engenders a lasting bond and loyalty among those who have participated in it and consider themselves all to be part of a family- a family which has every reason to be proud of its newest members, who have joined their ranks through this film.

With such a collection of fine performances on display, it is only right that the film should deliver an equally impressive production to showcase them; thanks to the efforts of Tom Hooper and his creative staff, it does better than that.  Les Misérables goes beyond the perfunctory spectacle provided by its painstaking recreation of 19th Century France and endeavors to re-invent the classic film musical in terms of contemporary cinematic approach.  Hooper does not rely on traditional methods of capturing the show for the screen, but utilizes the language of modern filmmaking to bring the experience into the 21st Century, complete with CG enhancements, rapid editing, and extensive use of steadi-cam photography.  To be sure, there are times when the constant visual motion of the film threatens to overwhelm, and one can’t help but feel that certain moments- particularly in the numerous “arias,” mostly shot in tight close-up to capture the intimacy of the experience- might have been better served with the occasional use of a wider angle lens; certainly, in some of the bigger musical sequences, for example the musical montage, “One Day More,” a more expansive perspective feels needed in order to give full reign to the magnitude of the forces in play.  There is a trade-off to be made here, though; after all, film is an entirely different medium than theater, and it is fitting that a movie should provide an experience impossible to receive from a stage performance.  There is little point to constructing a motion picture that endeavors only to recreate what has already been seen on stage, beyond preserving it for archival purposes, though this is precisely the approach that has been taken with many stage-to-screen transfers; the best cinematic transpositions of theatrical pieces come when a director re-imagines the material without attempting to make the camera lens a mere substitute for a proscenium arch.  Hooper has made his epic with this clearly in mind, and his eye for exploring the visual possibilities of the art form, from the repeated use of overhead perspective to the vastness of the crowded streets of Paris to the closer-than-close revelation of every subtle shift of expression in the performers’ faces.  In particular, he exploits the advantage of realism in the depiction of the crushing conditions of 19th Century poverty, an important factor of the story that can, on stage, only be suggested (or worse, glossed over), as well the contrasting Empire-era opulence of the salons and gardens of the wealthy. Set against the impressive splendor of the production design by Eve Stewart, clothed in the sumptuous authenticity of Paco Delgado’s costumes, and captured with the larger-than-life digital graininess of Danny Cohen’s pseudo-cinema-verité photography, Les Misérables meets and exceeds any reasonable standard for visual style, and- from a technical standpoint, at least, regardless of how picky audiences may respond to the interpretation of the content- provides a total movie-going experience worthy of its beloved source material.

Once again, it seems, I am in the position of having to make full disclosure of the fact that I am, in fact, a fan.  Though I have personally had an ambivalent relationship with the musical theater genre (as opposed to outright film musicals, of which I am an unrepentant enthusiast), Les Misérables is a piece which captured me from the very first time I heard it, and I have seen several stage productions over the years (including the original Broadway run);though its pop-opera format might seem, for some, to cheapen the translucent sincerity of Hugo’s masterful novel, its message of humanism and social awareness shines through in a way that never fails to leave me deeply moved and inspired.  Though this long-awaited film version is not, nor could it ever have been, a perfect rendition, and though I will admit to finding myself overly critical of details and choices throughout as I watched it (on opening day, of course), in the final analysis I have only praise to give it.  The deciding factor for me lies in the simple fact that, at the end, not only was I personally affected by the emotional upheaval to which it carried me- despite my every-lyric-by-heart familiarity with the show- but my companion, a skeptical died-in-the-wool disparager of musicals, was also moved to a prodigious outpouring of tears, as was, indeed, every member of the packed audience.  Make no mistake about it, Les Misérables is a tear-jerker of the highest order, and the enormity of its scope only serves to intensify its effectiveness as such.  If such fare is normally unappealing to you, or if you are one of those aforementioned musical non-lovers, you might want to skip this one, no matter how many awards it may end up getting.  You might want to, but my advice is: don’t.  Go and see it.  Give it a chance.  Like my companion, you may find yourself unexpectedly opened up and transported to a new level of appreciation for the possibilities of the genre.  It’s not a guarantee, but Les Misérables has the power to affect such a softening of the heart, and this movie largely succeeds in capturing the qualities that give it that power.  Those qualities, ultimately, rest in the soul of the story, and not in its spectacle; Les Misérables is not about revolution, nor romance, nor social injustice, nor even the desire for a better life- an oft-repeated theme within its narrative, and one from which it admittedly derives a great deal of its humanistic appeal.  It’s about the redemption which comes from the simple Christian ethic of self-sacrifice, of caring more for another than for oneself; this principal is embodied in the story of Jean Valjean, which remains the central focus throughout the interwoven subplots and ultimately yields the final epiphany towards which the entire saga builds.  When it comes, the catharsis which results from our sharing of it is powerful and cleansing, and no matter what quibbles you may or may not have about this or that detail of the film’s interpretation of the musical, they seem inconsequential in the face of that experience.  In that sense, Les Misérables completely succeeds in its purpose, and at the end of the day (if you’ll pardon the expression) you can’t expect more than that.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1707386/