God’s Own Country (2017)

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When “Brokeback Mountain” arrived on the scene in 2005, it was almost unthinkable that a big-budget Hollywood film about a same-sex romance between two sheep herders could even get made, let alone go on to become a critically-lauded, multi-award-winning cultural phenomenon.  To be sure, it had its share of detractors, but the favor it gained within the mainstream was a clear sign that the tide was turning with regards to LGBTQ acceptance.

In those pre-marriage-equality days, its tragic tale of love thwarted by social intolerance was a somber testament of truth for the millions of queer people who had lived such lives through the generations that had come before – and make no mistake, it’s still a story that needs to be told.  Even so, there are many who felt that the film’s star-crossed lovers deserved a happier fate.

Now, twelve years later, they just might get a second chance – at least by proxy – in filmmaker Francis Lee’s quietly breathtaking debut feature, “God’s Own Country.”

Set in the bleak highlands of modern-day Yorkshire, it centers on Johnny Saxby, a young man who lives and works on his family’s struggling farm.  By night, he escapes from his grueling existence by drinking himself into a stupor at the village pub; occasionally, he finds temporary escape in anonymous sexual encounters with other men at the cattle auction or, presumably, from the surrounding area.  His routine is disrupted, however, when his father brings in Gheorghe, a Romanian immigrant worker, to help with the sheep during lambing season; though he is at first resentful and abusive of the new hired hand, a powerful attraction soon develops between the two men.

How things unfold from there is the main business of the movie, and it would be bad form to reveal how it eventually plays out; suffice to say that, despite the similarities in their subject matter, “God’s Own Country” is a very different experience from “Brokeback.”

It is, of course, patently unfair to define Lee’s heartfelt and highly personal film in relation to another movie, no matter how much the comparison begs to be made – but it’s hard to avoid pointing out at least one particularly telling detail.  In “Brokeback,” the two protagonists face homophobia from both without and within; but in the contemporary world of “God’s Own Country,” that homophobia is more of a phantom threat than a concrete one.  The people around Johnny seem to accept his sexuality; and although he himself struggles with internalized shame, it may have less to do with being gay than it does with a fear of intimacy.

It’s this that makes the movie as far removed from “Brokeback” in tone and attitude as it is in the time and place of its setting, and it makes all the difference.

Lee’s film is a patient, understated, and touching portrait of two men as they find the courage to break through barriers – not social, but personal – to reach each other.  It’s a struggle we’ve seen explored by heterosexual lovers in countless romantic dramas, but for gay couples on the screen the obstacles have historically been cultural or political.  Though such factors may lie at the root of Johnny and Gheorghe’s issues, there is no need for them to change the world to be together – only themselves.  In this way, their story is perhaps more closely related to Andrew Haigh’s excellent “Weekend” than it is to that other sheep wrangler movie.

Comparisons aside, “God’s Own Country” stands tall on its own considerable merits.  Inspired by his coming of age in Yorkshire (the movie was filmed in his own village, with the farm where he grew up only a short distance from the shooting location), Lee has written and crafted a lovingly detailed work, as rigorous in its painstaking authenticity as it is poetic in its cinematic expression.

There’s much to appreciate in Lee’s directorial approach.  He proves himself a master of visual storytelling, communicating some of the film’s most potent moments with little or no dialogue, and orchestrating a rich symbolic subtext with subtle visual cues throughout – like the muted reds and blues of Gheorghe’s knit sweater, which make it shine amidst the movie’s stark grey palette like a multi-hued beacon of hope.  He is equally shrewd in what he doesn’t show; he largely eschews the wide landscapes typical of such pastoral romances, instead keeping his camera – and the story – focused on the personal and intimate.

He also draws superb performances from his actors.  Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu make Johnny and Gheorghe, respectively, as genuine as they are endearing; their natural ease with their surroundings– Lee put them to work on a farm for several weeks before shooting – underscores and enhances not only the realism of their acting but of the movie itself.  Most importantly, they have a rare chemistry that wins the audience from their first meeting – and places their love scenes among the sexiest big-screen pairings in recent memory.

In the smaller (but crucial) roles of Johnny’s father and grandmother, Ian Hart and Gemma Jones give quiet, dignified eloquence to characters who, in a lesser film, might have been rendered as course and one-dimensional stereotypes.  Far from being antagonists, they provide a rich and fertile ground from which the film’s love story can grow.

It should be noted that “God’s Own Country” does contain some full-frontal nudity and relatively explicit sexual content.  This will doubtless be reason enough to entice many viewers within the film’s target audience, but there is so much more in this little gem of a British import to warrant seeking it out.

Though it may not attract much mainstream attention, “God’s Own Country” feels important.  When a movie about two men who fall in love with each other doesn’t feel the need to justify its own existence by advancing a social or political agenda, it’s proof that the turn of the tide signaled by “Brokeback,” not so very long ago, has carried us at last to an era in which a “gay movie” can simply be called “a movie.”

The fact that it’s also an excellent movie is a welcome bonus.

 

 

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Blade Runner (1982)

zgfn3sotgl60bay4ftdnzqcxyiqWhen Ridley Scott’s dystopian neo-noir sci-fi opus opened in 1982, it was overshadowed at the box office – along with a number of other worthy films – by the juggernaut that was Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.”  Consequently, it was deemed by the then-reigning Hollywood pundits to be a misfire, and critics seemed to echo that sentiment; though praised for its imaginative visual design – now regarded as influential and iconic – and its provocative thematic explorations, it was greeted with middling reviews that, taken together, marked it as an “interesting failure.”

This lukewarm reception came at the end of a tense and difficult production process in which Scott, who had been far down the list of preferred directors for this long-awaited adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” went severely over budget and seriously past due – eventually losing creative control of the final cut and being forced to bow to studio executives’ demands to cut the running time by nearly half and add a voice-over narration to clarify what they felt to be a confusing plot.

Despite its painful birthing process (and perhaps, in part, because of it), “Blade Runner” went on to become a cult favorite, with an ever-growing legion of fans, and to be re-evaluated by critics – even making appearances high on their lists of the best science fiction films of all time.  Ultimately, thanks to its growing reputation, Scott released a series of alternate versions, culminating in “The Final Cut,” released in 2007, which restored several minutes of previously deleted material and dispensed with the much-hated narration, and which stands today as the definitive edition of the film.

To those new to it, “Blade Runner” is essentially a police procedural set in a future Los Angeles.  The title refers to the name given to special officers whose job it is to track down and eliminate “replicants” – artificial humans created as an off-world labor force who are now outlawed on earth.  One such officer, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), is tasked with tracking down and killing a renegade group of these beings who have defied the ban to come in search of answers from their creator.  Constructed as a pulp-fiction detective story in the nostalgic vein of Raymond Chandler, the plot winds its morally ambiguous way through a shadowy underworld – replete with femmes fatale, corrupt officials, secret alliances, and deep conspiracies – towards a final showdown that forces Deckard (and the audience) to question what it means to be “human.”

Revisiting this seminal work over three decades later, those who grew up with it may find it challenging to separate its authentic merits from their fond memories; likewise, those new to its affected mix of high-concept style and gritty action may fail to recognize its impact on a genre whose subsequent development owes it so much.  There are also those, in both groups, who might find its slow-moving plot and relative lack of action sequences less appealing than the genre’s bigger, splashier counterparts.

Nevertheless, there are a number of good reasons why “Blade Runner” has had staying power.

To begin with, there’s the incredible, immersive reality that Scott (along with production designer Laurence G. Paull and special effects supervisor Douglas Trumball) so painstakingly assembled to represent the Los Angeles of then-distant 2019.  Densely overpopulated with an ethnic blend of citizens (predominantly of Asian descent), lit by garish neon, and dominated by advertisements projected at massive scale in every available space, it’s a claustrophobic metropolis that is at once dazzlingly futuristic and depressingly familiar – the logical extension of corporate consumerism run wild and rampant urban decay left unchecked.  Though the causes for this state of affairs are never specifically addressed within the dialogue, the world of the film needs no words to express the volumes of social criticism inherent in its design.  It’s a magnificent example of one of science fiction’s primary functions – to serve as a warning against the worst tendencies of our own world – executed to perfection, and it has justly become a blueprint for world-building in countless films within the genre, ever since.

Then there’s the way it addresses the subject of artificial intelligence.  “Blade Runner” was certainly not the first movie to introduce the notion of an A.I. becoming sentient or developing emotion, but in its deeply philosophical treatment of the idea – and its portraits of its remarkable anti-hero, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and his sidekick/lover, Pris (Daryl Hannah) – it goes beyond the usual cautionary approach to address the ethical dilemmas presented by drawing a line between human and non-human life.  These characters are vicious, violent, cruel – but they are not unsympathetic, nor are they without justification.  Rather, their behavior is easily understood as the result of exploitation, mistreatment, and disregard by a system that presumes their lives have no inherent value.  That they rebel against their oppressors is not only understandable, it is unsurprising; and the fact that, in their suffering, they have developed a sense of loyalty to each other and empathy towards others (whether or not they are governed by it) places them in stark contrast to most of the “human” characters we see in the film.  This concept of the misunderstood creation at odds with its creator hearkens back, of course, to that ancestor of all modern sci-fi stories, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” but by placing it in the context of this grimly foreseeable future, “Blade Runner” reminds us that the questions it raises are perhaps more relevant than ever.

There are many other factors that contribute to the film’s lasting impact.  The commitment to its noir milieu is not only consistent, but brilliantly apt for a story set within this world of shadows (both actual and metaphorical), and the way this cinematic conceit is meshed with the stylish visual influences of the era in which it was conceived is, at times, breathtakingly artful.  Electronic composer Vangelis envelops the action (and the audience) with his lush, moody, and elegiac score, which evokes the epic scope of both the story’s setting and its philosophical ambitions.  Perhaps most importantly, the screenplay, by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, provides a solid base for the entire package; it weaves complex ideas and implications into a story which both expands upon the source material and remains essentially faithful to it, and it does so through dialogue which echoes the hard-boiled style of the cinematic movement to which it pays homage.

Of course there are also the performances.  Ford, fresh from his first appearance as Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and in between his second and third turns as Han Solo in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, was at the peak of his appeal and popularity when he stepped into the title role of Scott’s movie (thought he, like the director, was nowhere near the first choice for the project); though at first his cocky persona seems somehow out of joint with the dreary world portrayed here, it is this that makes him a perfect fit for a character whose experiences will awaken the humanity buried beneath his cynical exterior.  Deckard is the direct extension of every smart-ass gumshoe portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the classic film noir of the forties and fifties, and Ford – who rarely gets the credit he deserves for his acting skills – brings that same diamond-in-the-rough essence to the role.  His performance here may not be as iconic as the ones that cemented his status as one of his generation’s biggest stars, but it is just as engaging – and considering the complexity of Deckard’s emotional journey, maybe more impressive.

Sean Young, another star whose acting talents are often overlooked (particularly in the wake of the career-stifling reputation she earned – fairly or unfairly – in the years following her appearance here), is equally well-matched to her role.  More than just a love interest provided to add obligatory romance to the plot, Rachael turns out to be an important element in the film’s brooding meditation on the nature of sentience and humanity; revealed early on to be an advanced replicant herself, the attraction she shares with Deckard becomes central to the self-discovery that parallels his investigations, and much of what makes it believable comes from Young – ethereal yet grounded, distant yet warm, fragile yet confident, she provides a perfect complement to Ford’s energy and gives their pairing a resonance that reinforces its ultimate significance to the larger saga.  She deserves as much credit for the depth of her performance as she does for the stunning beauty she brings to the screen – particularly in her signature look, the forties high-fashion ensemble she wears in her early scenes, which has become emblematic of the film.

As Batty, the replicant ringleader bent on confronting the man who made him, Hauer – previously acclaimed in his native Netherlands – became an American movie star in his own right; his intelligence, intensity, and charisma burns from the screen, putting the audience on his character’s side from his first entrance despite the seemingly thoughtless brutality of his actions.  His climactic confrontation with Deckard, which ends in the sort of Messianic epiphany that might be a difficult sell for many actors, is electric – a powerfully moving star turn that gives “Blade Runner” its greatest weight and ensures its status as a work above the level of many more ambitious science fiction dramas than this one.

Another star-making performance comes from Hannah, whose portrayal of Pris – less advanced than her cohort Batty, but every bit as remarkable – conveys the perfect combination of little-girl-lost naïveté and subtly gleeful sadism, making her as appealing as she is lethal.  As the other two replicants on the lam, Brion James and Joanna Cassidy each have unforgettable scenes of their own.

William Sanderson is heartbreaking as the haplessly unwitting ally enlisted to aid and abet the fugitives in their quest for answers.  Joseph Turkel (as Eldon Tyrell, the powerful genius behind the creation of artificial humans) captures the aloof benevolence of the untouchable elite; a major player in two of the film’s key scenes, his performance makes them all the more memorable.

Though his role is a small one, Edward James Olmos also makes a deep impression as Gaff, the police lackey who serves as a watchdog for the chief (M. Emmett Walsh, also memorable, as always); speaking mostly in a hybrid street slang – derived from different Asian languages – and occupying his hands by making origami figures that provide mocking commentary of Deckard, his sinister presence exudes the hunger of a jackal waiting for its opportunity to pounce – yet he remains inscrutable enough for us to believe that he just might, in the end, turn out to be an unexpected ally.

Whether or not he does, of course, is one of the most enduring questions generated by “Blade Runner” – alongside the possibly related one of whether or not Deckard himself may unknowingly be a replicant.  The answers to those, and myriad others which arise within this unlikely jewel of eighties popular cinema, are ultimately left to the viewer.  This tantalizing ambiguity leaves us, like Batty and his cadre of artificial soul-seekers, with a powerful yearning that has proven strong enough to justify a sequel, 35 years later.

It’s also what has ultimately made Scott’s “interesting failure” an enduring legend that can stand alongside- and, in most cases, overshadow – many of the better-received films of its era.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Walking into the theater to see “Florence Foster Jenkins,” it’s a given that you are about to watch another tour-de-force by Meryl Streep.  I’ll waste no time in saying that she delivers on that expectation.  The story of a real-life society matron who realized her life-long dream of singing at Carnegie Hall despite a complete inability to carry a tune, this bio-pic is tailor-made for her talents; it can be no surprise that she gives arguably her most delightful performance in years.

What’s surprising is that nobody sharing the screen with her disappears behind her shadow.  On the contrary, her co-stars contribute just as much as she does to the movie’s overall charm, helping it to become much more than just a showcase for the talents of a beloved silver-screen diva.

To give full credit, it is necessary to recognize that this is not just a Meryl Streep vehicle, but the latest entry on the resumé of British filmmaker Stephen Frears, who first gained international recognition with his iconic 1985 gay romance, “My Beautiful Laundrette,” and who has helmed a number of prominent movies over the decades since- “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Grifters,” “The Queen,” and “Philomena,” to name only a few.

No stranger to working with legendary talent, one of Frears’ great strengths as a director is his ability to enlist them in the service of his own sure-and-steady storytelling skills, allowing them to be actors instead of stars, and to enhance his work instead of dominating it.  It’s an approach geared towards the character-driven projects he prefers; his movies, though they often involve unorthodox situations or famous figures, are always ultimately about universally-shared human experience, and they benefit from the workmanlike performances though which he guides his players.
In this case, of course, the incomparable Meryl is front-and-center, as she should be.  Her Florence has all the hallmarks of a great Streep role.  She is a larger-than-life personality, almost cartoonish, but in Streep’s hands she is never anything less than completely, believably human.  She displays impeccable comedic abilities in one moment and slips seamlessly into heartbreaking pathos the next, without ever relying on clownish mugging or heavy-handed sentiment- and on top of it all, she does her own bad singing without sounding like she’s trying to sing badly.  In short, she gives the kind of performance that has put her in the echelon of such stars as Hepburn and Davis.

Even so, she is not the whole show.  The movie’s real surprise is certainly Hugh Grant.  Usually regarded more as a personality with a pretty face than as a high-caliber actor, he more than rises to the occasion here as Florence’s devoted (if not-quite-faithful) husband, who uses his connections in both the high and low strata of New York society to help her accomplish her improbable dream.  Carrying himself with the slightly-obsequious swagger of a ne’er-do-well cad, he undercuts that demeanor with a layered performance which never leaves you in doubt of his sincerity.  His aging-but-still-handsome features convey a depth of feeling which reveals “Florence Foster Jenkins” to be, at its core, a love story.

In the third key role, Simon Helberg (of “The Big Bang Theory”) portrays Florence’s reluctant accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, in a style which (in keeping with the film’s period setting) suggests the codified “sissy” characters of old Hollywood.  His homosexuality is never explicitly addressed, but the film derives some good-natured humor from his obvious orientation- which, rather than demeaning or marginalizing him, serves to place him, along with all such characters, in his rightful role as an integral part of society.  Queerness aside, Helberg gives us a marvelous serio-comic turn as a timid outsider who finds the strength of his own spirit through his dedication to his unlikely employer; he fully earns the right to share the screen with his two co-stars.

The rest of the cast, though their names and faces are less recognizable, are equally effective in portraying their roles.  In addition, the film benefits from breathtaking production design (by Alan MacDonald) and sumptuous costuming (by Consolata Boyle).  Finally, as is always the case for a strong film, the screenplay (by Nicholas Martin) is well-crafted, literate, and thoughtful, providing a strong foundation upon which the other artists can build their own great work.

“Florence Foster Jenkins” is not a deep or ground-breaking piece of cinema.  It’s a refined crowd-pleaser, a serio-comic slice of life designed to touch and delight its audiences.  That’s not a bad thing.  In a summer filled with noisy blockbusters, it’s refreshing to be treated to a movie with such quiet class- particularly when it has as much talent on display as this one.  After all, when a Meryl Streep performance is just the icing on top, you know that has to be one delicious cake.

Anomalisa (2015)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has completed only a small handful of features since his 1999 debut (“Being John Malkovich”), yet despite his relatively sparse output, his name and reputation loom large, particularly among those cinephiles whose tastes run toward the edgy and intellectual.  His narratives, which seem to flow from dream logic rather than dramatic structure, are more like psychological case studies disguised as heavily symbolic brain-teasers, inhabited by figures that feel less like individual characters and more like shattered fragments of a single personality.  His latest effort takes the form of an animated film, but though “Anomalisa” is markedly different in its execution, it is cut from the same unmistakable cloth.

Kaufman’s screenplay is adapted from his own “sound play” of the same title, and, for the second time (the first was for 2008’s “Synecdoche, New York”), he steps into the director’s chair, as well- though he shares it with co-producer Duke Johnson.  It focuses on Michael Stone, a successful self-help author who travels to a Cincinnati hotel in order to speak at a conference.  Though he is an expert on interpersonal relations, Michael is unable to distinguish people as individuals.  Everyone with whom he interacts possesses the same male face and voice- even the women- until he encounters Lisa, a young woman attending his seminar.  She is distinctively herself within the sea of homogeneous banality that surrounds him, and he begins to hope she can at last release him from the boredom and isolation he has felt for so long.

The above description may not read like the synopsis to an animated film, but “Anomalisa” is no ordinary animated film.  Shot in stop motion style, it utilizes puppets partly manufactured by 3-D printing, resulting in a somewhat unsettling effect that is simultaneously stylized and naturalistic.  It’s an effective style for the story being told; the world of the movie seems concrete enough to anchor it in reality, allowing us to forget the animated format as we are gradually drawn into the premise.  Much of the credit for this aspect of “Anomalisa” belongs to co-director Johnson, who supervised the creation of its technically stunning, intricately detailed animation.

The content of “Anomalisa,” while equally as creative as its visuals, is perhaps less innovative- at least to those familiar with Kaufman.  As with most of his work, it’s an observational fable that takes place within a Kafkaesque landscape of psychological dysfunction.  It challenges our ideas about the nature of identity and explores the effects of perception on our experience of the world around us.  It presents characters unable to make the emotional connections they desperately desire, who live in private bubbles of perspective and fumble blindly in their interactions with others.  And then there are the puppets; puppets have always figured prominently in Kaufman’s imagination, and here, they even take the place of live actors.  To say the film revisits Kaufman’s recurring themes is by no means a negative criticism, however.  On the contrary, those themes strike deep and resonant chords; they always yield new insights into our shared human experience, and the writer’s quirky imagination ensures that his work is always full of surprises.

Though the provocative ideas and visuals are the real stars here, credit also goes to the fine work of the voice cast.  David Thewlis (as Michael), Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Lisa), and Tom Noonan (as everyone else) eschew the usual exaggerated vocal styling of animation in favor of a nuanced, naturalistic approach.  Their effectiveness is likely due in large part to the fact that all three performed their roles in the original play, as well.  Composer Carter Burwell also carries over from the stage version (he actually produced it), contributing a delicate, moody score which perfectly serves the melancholy tone of the overall piece.

“Anomalisa” is certainly melancholy, even dark.  In addition to its complex and mature themes, it features profanity, full-frontal nudity, and even a somewhat explicit sex scene.  Needless to say, it is not for children, despite being an animated film.  Many adults might also have a hard time with it; its intellectualism, coupled with its stylistic conceit, creates an emotional distance that may leave some viewers cold.  This is a frequent issue with Kaufman’s introspective creations, but as always, those willing to stick with it will find that it has a lot of heart hiding under all its conceptual constructs.  There’s also a lot of humor in the mix.  Despite the philosophical weightiness of his material, Kaufman never takes himself too seriously; he somehow always manages to be both thought-provoking and entertaining, and it is this that makes him one of the most original voices in American film.  “Anomalisa” is a worthy entry to his canon, and like most of his work, it fully deserves to be called essential viewing.

45 Years (2015)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride LA

Roughly midway through “45 Years,” there is a discussion about the buildup of melted glacial ice due to climate change, and how it will eventually break through the geography that contains it to come cascading down the mountainside and obliterate everything in its path.  It’s an ominous scenario which provides a vivid metaphor for the process of emotional devastation charted by out British writer/director Andrew Haigh in this, his latest slice-of-life drama about the complexities of a relationship.

Adapted from the short story “In Another Country,” by David Constantine, “45 Years” follows an aging couple, Kate and Geoff (screen legends Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay), through the week before a party celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary.  As they go about the business of planning the event, Geoff receives a letter notifying him that a body has been found- that of his former girlfriend, who perished in a fall while they were hiking through the Alps together, 50 years ago.  Though Kate has known of this occurrence, the news triggers a resurgence of long-withheld memories in Geoff, and as they gradually come to light she begins to question everything she has assumed about her relationship with her husband, and to suspect that their long and seemingly happy marriage has been built upon a lie.

In a way, Haigh’s latest film serves as a companion piece to his previous feature, “Weekend,” Both are, at their core, about a relationship threatened by the emotional baggage of past experiences; in one, the ability of the couple to open up to each other allows them a hope of breaking through the boundaries between them, while in the other a lack of openness results in a gulf which may ultimately be impassable.  Though the former film features two young gay men at the possible beginning of their relationship, and the latter is about a mature heterosexual couple at the possible ending of theirs, they could essentially be bookends of the same story, each serving as a mirror in which we can find food for thought about the way we deal with our own baggage.

Once again,” Haigh’s screenplay relies heavily on naturalistic dialogue, allowing him to direct his actors towards emotional honesty and coax from them the nuanced performances required to reveal the layers between the lines.  It was this meticulously-crafted realism that brought acclaim to “Weekend,” and in “45 Years” it is perhaps even more tangible.  One reason for this, of course, is that here he is blessed with two of the most gifted film performers of their generation, both clearly still at the top of their form.

Courtenay, evoking memories of the young, passionate intellectuals he portrayed in the British social realism cinema of the early sixties, is superbly opaque as Geoff.  The qualities of those youthful characters are here transposed into an older iteration, so that the “angry young man” has evolved into a grumpy old one, and the aloof emotional distance now disguises itself behind the distracted dottiness of the aged; we never doubt the honesty of the feelings he expresses, but we are never sure how many others he obscures behind that benevolent mask, nor can we tell if he is hiding them even from himself.

As much as Courtenay is guarded, Rampling wears her heart on her sleeve.  With the likable but inscrutable Geoff as her husband, it is Kate’s perspective we must share, and the actress uses all her long-renowned intelligence and bravery to show it to us with absolute clarity.  Taking us on a downward progression, from the easy confidence of a woman in complete control to the insecurity of one uncertain of everything upon which she has built her life, it is up to her to provide the movie’s emotional center.  She is more than up to the task; her luminous performance is no less clear for its sublime subtlety than her beauty is diminished by the lines which grace her iconic face.

As great as both stars are individually, “45 Years” works because together they are incandescent.  The relationship they portray feels so heartbreakingly real that at times one almost forgets the film is not a documentary- and it is here that credit must come back around to Andrew Haigh, who has not only provided the collaborative freedom to cultivate the brilliance of his stars, but used a sure hand behind the camera to merge subdued realism with visual poetry in a way that asserts itself as pure cinema without ever being flagrant.  It is a rare movie that allows its major revelations to take place without a single line of dialogue to underscore the moment; “45 Years” is self-assured enough to do so, and Haigh is a strong enough director to pull it off.

Sing Street (2016)

SingStreet

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

 

Movie musicals are a rarity these days.  Every so often a Broadway blockbuster will find its way to the big screen, but an original musical, with a new script and songs, comes along about as often as a light traffic day on the 405.  The last one of any significance came nearly a decade ago in the form of Once, a bittersweet, tuneful romance from Irish writer-director John Carney that went on to be adapted into a Broadway show in its own right.  Now Carney has returned to the genre with a new effort, the semi-autobiographical Sing Street.

Set in Dublin of the mid-eighties, it focuses on Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a teenager whose middle-class family has fallen on hard times.  No longer able to afford his private education, they send him to a public boys’ school where discipline is strict, teachers are indifferent, and bullies rule the schoolyard.  It’s a bleak environment, but he finds a ray of light in the form of  Ruphina (Lucy Boynton), an aloof girl who frequently stands on a stoop across the street.  To impress her, he tells her he is in a rock band; her interest is piqued, and Connor starts recruiting schoolmates to make the lie a reality.  What starts as an attempt to get a girlfriend soon develops into a journey of self-discovery- and, just maybe, a way out of the dead-end life for which he seems destined.

Sing Street, on the surface, seems like an implausible mix.  Carney, evoking the gritty social realism that British cinema has been mastering since the “kitchen sink” dramas of the early sixties, places his story in an economically depressed urban landscape and populates it with characters who have more or less given up hope of anything better, yet he uses this grim setting as the backdrop for an escapist flight of rock-and-roll fancy which seems straight out of the Hollywood dream factory.  It shouldn’t work- but it does.

It’s just this odd juxtaposition of moods, in fact, that gives his film its magic.  Carney tempers the desperation with humor and grounds the giddiness with melancholy.  He treats his characters with compassion- even when they serve as antagonists to our hero- and never allows the fantasy to lose its connection to the underlying reality.  As for the romance (deftly played by the two young co-stars), instead of adolescent wish-fulfillment we are reminded, to paraphrase a line from the film, that to be in love is to be happy and sad at the same time.  It’s this delicate balance of “happy/sad” that permeates Sing Street, and serves as the lynch pin that helps it maintain its own delicate balance, right up to the sublimely satisfying ending.

The cast -mostly comprised of unknowns- brings an infectious energy to the mix, performing with the kind of authenticity that makes you forget they are acting.  Although the charismatic Walsh-Peelo definitely deserves singular praise for largely carrying the movie, he is equally matched by the lovely Boyle, and all of their young co-stars perform at the same level.  Special mention should also go to Jack Reynor as Brendan, Connor’s older brother and unlikely mentor; he gives a heartbreakingly endearing performance which, in many ways, provides the emotional center of the movie.

Finally, there’s the music.  Composed by Carney (with Gary Clarke and Adam Levine), a series of period-flavored songs brilliantly charts each new development in the fictional band’s style (as they progress though various phases of eighties pop), as well as Connor’s growing maturity.  They work as integral parts of the story, but they also stand on their own merits- catchy, heartfelt, and imaginative, they make the band’s onscreen success all the more believable.  These original tunes are the heart and soul of Sing Street, but a number of familiar eighties hits are sprinkled throughout as well, just for good measure.

It’s worth noting that the generation which lived through the era depicted will find that Carney’s film strikes a particularly resonant chord.  The clothes, the hairstyles, the videos- all are skillfully and lovingly recreated here, and it gives the movie a decidedly nostalgic flavor.  That doesn’t mean it won’t also feel fresh enough for younger audiences.  Ultimately, what makes Sing Street so appealing is that, at its core, it’s about the promise of the future- no matter how hopeless the present may seem.  That’s certainly a message that has a place in the world today, and it might just make even the most cynical of movie-goers walk out of the theater with a little more lightness in their step.

The Mummy (1932)

The Mummy 1932 (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Mummy, Karl Freund’s 1932 horror classic about an ancient Egyptian priest, returned to life by the power of a sacred spell after his tomb is discovered by archaeologists, and his efforts to reunite with the reincarnated soul of the woman he loved thousands of years before. One of the three iconic monster movies- with Dracula and Frankenstein– made by genre-champion Universal Studios during its golden age of the early thirties- it was the only one not derived from a pre-existing literary source, instead being developed in a deliberate effort to capitalize on the then-current craze for Egyptology and the sensationalistic popularity of the “Curse of King Tut,” of which rumors had been circulating since the discovery of the young Pharaoh’s tomb, ten years before, and the seemingly mysterious deaths of several of those who participated in its excavation. It was also intended to capitalize on the newfound stardom of Boris Karloff, who had been a virtual unknown barely a year before, but thanks to his success as the monster in Frankenstein was now so popular that he could be billed in the movie’s ads by his surname alone (“KARLOFF is THE MUMMY“) and still guarantee the film’s status as a box office hit.

Charged by Universal studio chief Carl Laemmle, Jr. with the task of finding a suitable story for an Egypt-themed thriller, story editor Richard Shayer came up empty-handed; drawing inspiration from the real-life history of Alessandro di Cagliostro, an 18th-Century occultist and charlatan who claimed- among other things- to have used arcane mystical practices to prolong his life for centuries, he teamed with writer Nina Wilcox Putnam to write a story treatment entitled Cagliostro. Laemmle was pleased with the essence of their narrative, but still determined to make his Egyptian picture, he brought in Dracula and Frankenstein screenwriter John L. Balderston to transform the idea into a script that suited his needs. The Italian magician became an Ancient Egyptian priest, and the rest of the details fell into place. The movie begins in 1921, at the base camp for the British Museum’s archaeological expedition in Egypt. Renowned Egyptologist Sir Joseph Whemple and his young assistant, Ralph Norton, have discovered the 3000-year-old Mummy of a High Priest named Imhotep, buried in an unmarked tomb with a mysterious box inscribed with a curse which promises destruction to any who open it. Whemple has called in his old friend, psychiatrist and occult expert Dr. Muller, as a consultant; the doctor recommends that both mummy and box be returned to the earth and forgotten, but while the older men debate the issue outside, the younger Norton cannot contain his curiosity, and he opens the box. There, he finds an ancient scroll, and as he begins to read out the hieroglyphs it contains, the mummy of Imhotep awakens. The sight of the ancient corpse come to life drives the young archaeologist instantly mad, and the mummy leaves him crumpled on the floor, hysterical, as it takes the scroll and wanders slowly out into the desert night. Ten years later, the disappearance of these artifacts is still a mystery, and a new British expedition, in which Whemple’s son Frank (who has followed in his father’s footsteps) is involved, is having scant luck finding anything of note in their digging- until Ardath Bey, an Egyptian scholar with an odd, aloof manner, arrives unexpectedly and leads them to the undiscovered tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. The British soon have the Princess and her relics on display at the Cairo Museum, reaping the scientific rewards of their find- but the mysterious Bey has his own purposes. He is, in fact, Imhotep himself, and he has spent the decade since his resurrection planning to use the stolen scroll to restore life to the Princess- his former love- so that they may at last be reunited. Using spells and incantations in the museum after hours, he summons the reincarnated soul of Anck-es-en-Amon- now inhabiting the body of young, beautiful Helen Grosvenor (coincidentally, a patient of Dr. Muller’s)- to come to his side. Muller, however, immediately surmises the truth behind the girl’s strange attraction to Bey, and with the help of young Frank Whemple, attempts to thwart the ancient priest’s dark purpose by taking her under his protection. Imhotep’s mastery of the scroll, however, makes him a powerful adversary, and with it he exerts his will to break down the mortals’ defenses, despite Muller’s vast knowledge and understanding of these archaic forces- and despite the love that is blossoming between Frank Whemple and the object of his millennia-old obsession.

I’ve said it before in relation to other horror films from this classic era, and perhaps it seems an obvious point hardly worth mentioning at all, but for today’s audiences- conditioned as we are to the oceans of gore and unspeakable violence that permeates the genre and so familiar with its standard conventions of plot and character that they have achieved for us the level of cliché- The Mummy offers little in the way of genuine thrills or chills. The script is laden with clunky exposition, the necessary conditions of the plot are unconvincingly established and accepted by rote, and the most directly terrifying moments are portrayed either by sound effects or reaction shots as they take place offscreen. Its plot is formulaic, borrowing more than a little from Dracula– unsurprisingly, perhaps, considering that this film is a product of the same studio, written by the same screenwriter, and directed by the previous movie’s cinematographer- with its scenario of an ancient horror using arcane powers to lure a young and vital female to the doom of an unholy union. Even so, The Mummy can scarcely be dismissed as an irrelevant or inferior work; indeed, dated though it may seem to the casual viewer today, it was and continues to be a vastly influential film, helping to define the genre at least as much as the others in the Universal canon and casting its dusty shadow over every archaeological fantasy film to follow, right on down to Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies and beyond. It is every bit the equal of Frankenstein and Dracula in terms of artistry and surpasses them in technical prowess, setting new standards in makeup and special effects. More importantly, in terms of lasting effect, its then-novel conceit of a resuscitated mummy has become an iconic pop culture trope, joining the ranks of such legendary monsters- with lengthier pedigrees- as vampires and werewolves as inspiration for imaginative tales and Halloween costumes the world over.This last item will no doubt be the source of most interest for the casual modern movie viewer, a chance to see the original incarnation of a much-loved and imitated celluloid spook that has terrorized everyone from Abbot and Costello to Scooby-Doo and his gang. Painstakingly executed by make-up pioneer Jack Pierce (who also crafted Karloff’s frightening countenance for his star-making role in Frankenstein), the mummified Imhotep was created in an excruciating 8-hour process involving clay, cotton, spirit gum, and linen. Karloff went before the cameras for another 5 hours, and then spent 2 hours having the make-up removed; the actor- who famously complained to Pierce that in all his attention to intricate detail, he had nevertheless forgotten to include a fly- later called it the most “trying ordeal” of his life. He had only to endure it once, however; Imhotep is seen in his fully-wrapped mummy regalia for only few minutes, during the opening sequence in which he is studied and inadvertently revived, and the character spends the rest of the film in the simpler- but no less effective- make-up required to give him the desiccated, shriveled look one might expect from a man who has spent three millennia beneath the desert sands. This brief appearance may disappoint those hoping for a whole movie’s worth of moaning, shambling, bandage-wrapped menace- a device not introduced until several years later, when the studio re-introduced the character for a series of inferior, unrelated pseudo-sequels- but it offers a classic look for this particular ghoul that has never been supplanted or surpassed, and it was enough to electrify audiences in 1932; indeed, the chilling moment when Karloff slowly opens his eyes for the first time remains one of the most singularly ominous few seconds in the history of the horror genre.

It is Karloff’s performance, too, that gives The Mummy its classic stature, for without his elegant presence in the title role the film would be little more than a stylish-but-hollow melodrama; though his character is less directly menacing than Dracula and less brutal than the creature of Frankenstein, Karloff nevertheless infuses him with a palpably terrifying power, exuding the absolute confidence of invincibility with every underplayed line. Always a master of physical performance, his brittle, slow and deliberate movement gives us not only a sense of Imhotep’s antiquity, but emphasizes a soft and careful gentility that contrasts the destructive intent that hides beneath his staid persona. It’s a difficult task to convincingly portray the ability to enslave and destroy with the power of a mere thought, but Karloff does so. More crucial than that, however, is his gift for revealing the tender soul that dwells inside the monster; though he makes clear the treacherous nature of Imhotep, and leaves no doubt of his callous disregard for the suffering of mere mortals, so too does he show, with utmost sincerity and simplicity, the deep and desperate pangs of love that have driven him across centuries and motivated him to defy the gods themselves in order to recapture the woman he has lost. Karloff gives us a villain who is, at his most private core, an almost touchingly naive romantic- something to which we can all relate, at some level- and therefore one we can feel sorry for, particularly in light of the vaguely smug sense of anglo-centricism, a product of the less-culturally-sensitive era in which the film was produced, projected by the protagonists. It’s a masterful performance, and one that takes its place alongside the other classic characterizations that made this gifted actor into a screen legend well-known and respected even today, when so many of his fellows from the early days of cinema have long faded into obscurity.

Sharing the screen with Karloff are a handful of other capable performers of the time, an A-list selection of actors who help, in their own ways, to make The Mummy stand the test of time. Most notable, of course, is Edward Van Sloan, the horror stalwart who here completes his triumvirate of monster-fighters (having previously portrayed the title character’s mentor in Frankenstein and the intrepid vampire-hunter, Van Helsing, in Dracula) as Dr. Muller; wise, intense, and steely at the core, he cements his own legend with a solid and believable performance that may not be as showy or compelling as those offered by some who have followed his footsteps in similar roles, but nonetheless sets the standard for this indispensable archetype of the genre. The most memorable supporting player, however, is perhaps Bramwell Fletcher, as the unfortunate and overly-enthusiastic archaeologists’ assistant who unwittingly speaks the words which return Imhotep to the world of the living; as the central figure in the film’s most famous sequence, he is burned into popular consciousness by virtue of the chilling, hysterical laughter into which he descends as the sight of the reanimated relic turns his mind to permanent jelly.

Much of the authenticity of the film’s conceit, though, hinges on the performance of Zita Johann, the exotic and beautiful actress with the difficult task of portraying Helen, a young woman rooted simultaneously in both the modern and the ancient world; she exudes warmth and intelligence even as she is convincingly mesmerized by her ancient lover’s mystical powers. and she successfully conveys both the sophisticated candor of a contemporary woman and the haughty formality of an Ancient Egyptian princess. She was no doubt aided with the latter by a deeply-held personal belief in reincarnation; indeed, she protested vehemently when a lengthy flashback sequence, portraying her character’s journey through the centuries in a series of lives during different historical periods, was cut from the film in an effort to reduce its running time- though sadly, her efforts to have the scenes reinstated were unsuccessful and the footage has been long-since lost. Even so, her contribution to The Mummy is a performance worthy of being matched with the great Karloff, from an actress whose screen career- abandoned after only five films for a life in the theater, working with then-husband John Houseman and his cohort Orson Welles- was all too brief.

The third corner of the movie’s bizarre love triangle is David Manners, a popular and respected stage-actor-turned-movie-star who had played essentially the same role in Dracula, a year earlier; while the character is not particularly compelling and is mostly required to perform the obligatory acts of passionate (if ineffectual) heroism inherent to the film’s formula, this handsome, likable actor gives him much more personality than many of the others who have played his equivalent in countless creature features. Manners, though primarily known for his twin roles in these iconic horror films, also appeared with Katharine Hepburn in her screen debut (A Bill of Divorcement) as well as several other important leading ladies of the time; he was a star in the making, well-liked by colleagues who spoke very highly of his professionalism and supportive attitude- but, like his female co-star in The Mummy, he retired young from Hollywood, saying it was “a false place.” He moved to a ranch in Victorville, California with his life partner, writer Bill Mercer, and returned to a successful stage career; at one point in the 1940s, he worked in Maxwell Anderson’s play Truckline Cafe with fledgling actor Marlon Brando, who later said he owed Manners his “entire career.”

The fine cast and artful production values of The Mummy were supervised by director Karl Freund; a legendary cinematographer from Germany, where he had photographed such visually stunning masterworks as The Last Laugh and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, he had emigrated to Hollywood a few years earlier. Hired to lens Dracula, he had been left in charge of many of the scenes in that film due to director Tod Browning’s frequent absences from the set; consequently, Universal officially gave him the job of directing this follow-up. It proved a wise choice, for Freund approaches the story with a photographer’s eye; wisely recognizing the weakness of the narrative, he relies on mood and atmosphere to carry his film, using an elegant visual style- replete with exotic locales, majestic sets, sumptuous costumes, and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (executed by Charles Stumar, no doubt under close supervision from Freund himself)- to give us imagery that transcends the plot and transports and unsettles our imagination almost independently of the script. Freund would go on to direct a handful of other films, and photograph many others, but his greatest success would come much later in his career, when he was hired by Desi Arnaz to supervise the photography on the series I Love Lucy; he developed a use of lighting that would allow multiple cameras to shoot the same scene simultaneously, eliminating the need for cutting the action to change angles and thereby allowing for an uninterrupted performance to be filmed in front of a live audience. It was a ground-breaking technique that changed the future of television sitcoms forever, and Freund received much well-deserved acclaim and respect for it, giving him a sizable feather in the cap of an already-illustrious career.

It would be overstating the case to say that The Mummy is a great film, in the sense of other early talkies such as The Public Enemy or All Quiet on the Western Front; it was, and remains, a piece of glossy pulp cinema, a sensationalistic crowd-pleaser aimed primarily at providing scares and making money. It did both in 1932, making it a successful film, whether or not it was a great one. Just because it is, essentially, schlock entertainment, however, doesn’t mean it is not also a fine example of the filmmaking art as it was at the time; indeed, the primal, timeless nature of its subject matter- and even its relatively lowbrow intent- means that it is more easily accessible to modern audiences, playing better today than many of the more prestigious “art” pictures of its day. If nothing else, it’s a treat to look at, but more than that, there is something intangibly resonant about it; perhaps it is its theme of undying love opposed by the inexorable march of time and the irresistible winds of fate, or its evocation of ancient memories buried deep within our psyches through its exploration of reincarnation and arcane magic, but The Mummy, creaky and corny as it may be to our modern sensibilities, still has the power to move us. There are lots of good reasons why this golden-age potboiler remains a classic, worthy of watching for those who have never seen it and of repeated returns for those who have; but the best of these reasons, and the one which makes The Mummy a truly essential piece of cinema, is Boris Karloff. The man had a rare ability to find the monster within us all, and show it to us with the dignity, honesty, and pathos it deserves; he did so many times- and did it well- throughout his long career, even in films far inferior to this and his other early classics. To see him here is to understand why, so many generations later, and despite his association with depraved, monstrous characters, he is still one of those rare actors who can genuinely be called “beloved.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0023245/?ref_=fn_al_tt_2

The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Great Gatsby 2013 (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Great Gatsby, director Baz Luhrmann’s appropriately extravagant 2013 screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic “Great American Novel” about an enigmatic millionaire at the center of New York’s Jazz Age social whirl and the intrigues and entanglements which surround him at his Long Island estate.  The fifth film to be based upon the classic book and arguably the most ambitious, it takes special pains to recreate the giddy, opulent atmosphere of the “roaring twenties,” as well as making a direct connection to the contemporary party culture through its interpolation of modern pop music, and striving to translate the story’s introspective style into a strong visual narrative.  Buoyed by the box office appeal of its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Luhrmann’s reputation for making wildly eccentric- and hugely successful- films that combine high art with pop culture (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge), it has met with considerable box office enthusiasm.  Reactions, however, have been dramatically mixed, from critics and the public alike, ranging from enthusiastic praise to vehement antipathy.

The screenplay, by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, frames Fitzgerald’s plot as a flashback, told by the depressed and alcoholic Nick Carraway- the novel’s narrator- as he receives treatment in a sanitarium.  In the summer of 1922, the young war veteran moves to New York to work in the booming stock market.  He rents a small cottage in an affluent Long Island community, near his cousin, Daisy, and her wealthy husband, Tom Buchanan; a far more intriguing neighbor, however, is the mysterious Jay Gatsby, whose palatial mansion next door to Nick is the site of spectacular parties at which New York’s “glitterati” cavort each weekend, and whose origins are the subject of many wild and conflicting rumors.  As the summer progresses, Nick becomes entwined in the affairs and intrigues of the wealthy social whirl that surrounds him; he is “fixed-up” by Daisy with professional golfer Jordan Baker, he is made an unwilling confidante and accomplice in Tom’s infidelities with working-class housewife Myrtle Wilson, and he eventually receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s parties.  There, surrounded by the free-spirited excesses of the Jazz Age- flappers, movie stars, musicians, gangsters, politicians, and businessmen, all mingling together in a seemingly endless sea of illegal liquor- he finally meets his infamous neighbor.  Gatsby- who is surprisingly young, handsome, and courteous- is a man possessed of a singular and intangible charisma, to which the idealistic Nick is immediately drawn; the millionaire courts his friendship, taking care to establish his own integrity.  In time, Gatsby reveals that five years previously, as a soldier preparing to depart for the war, he had a brief romance with Nick’s cousin Daisy, and though he promised to return and marry her, he kept himself apart while amassing his fortune; unwilling to wait indefinitely, and presented with a proposal from the rich and handsome Tom, she married, and now her former lover hopes to win her back- with Nick’s help.  Though he has mixed feelings about the morality of the situation, Nick agrees to facilitate a reunion between the pair, and their passion is rekindled- but Gatsby’s noble optimism may not be enough to overturn the jealously guarded status quo of the privileged elite, and the surfacing secrets of his past may shatter the spectacular dream he has so carefully built upon them.

Fitzgerald’s novel, a labor of love for the struggling author whose earlier successes were behind him and who was actively striving to create a lasting and definitive work, was a commercial and critical disappointment when it was published in 1925; it was seen as a shallow and inferior book by a formerly great writer, and by the time Fitzgerald died fifteen years later, it was largely forgotten, except by those who saw it as a quaint and nostalgic period piece, and its creator went to his grave believing himself and his magnum opus to be failures.  In the disillusionment of the post WWII era, however, the book’s theme of naive optimism crushed by cynical reality began to take on a new resonance, and The Great Gatsby rose to prominence as one of the quintessential American novels, eventually being ranked by literary critics and scholars as one of the most important books of all time and becoming standard curriculum in high school English classes the world over.  In the nine decades since its publication, it has become increasingly noted for its timelessness; it possesses a quality of universal relevance, for within the highly specific time and place of its setting it tells a story that touches on experiences of human life that exist in any era.  Consequently, like most great novels, it has repeatedly found its way in front of the camera, and though it’s hard to accurately gauge the relative success of these cinematic incarnations- the original silent version from 1926 is now considered a lost film, and the 1949 remake with Alan Ladd is largely unavailable due to copyright issues- the consensus seems to be that the results have been more or less disappointing.  Anyone familiar with the book itself will find this unsurprising; much of the story’s depth and power comes not from the events of its plot but from the private observations of its narrator, Nick Carraway, through which Fitzgerald’s voice infuses Gatsby’s tragic tale with meaning and significance, as well as providing acute insights on human nature, complex ethical and philosophical ideas, and a fairly sizable portion of social and cultural commentary.  Besides the obvious and uninspired use of voice-over narration, this crucial element of The Great Gatsby has proven virtually impossible to translate to the visual medium of cinema without sacrificing most of its potency- until now.

With Baz Luhrmann behind the camera, this previously insurmountable obstacle becomes instead a means by which to transform a literary masterwork into a breathlessly cinematic experience; rather than taking the expected course of offering a dramatization of the outward events of the plot, thereby rendering extraneous the all-important narration, he has constructed his film as a visualization of Nick’s memories and impressions, thus filtering the story of Gatsby’s idealistic quest through his eyes, and making the movie- like the book- a reflection of his internal reality rather than an objective record of events.  In doing so, the director frees himself from the understated simplicity of the novel- one of its most admired strengths- and allows for a limitless influx of the over-the-top theatricality which has defined his career.  The narration has been restored to its rightful place as the key component to experiencing the story, and Luhrmann employs the tactics of modern filmmaking to bring it into sharp focus, translating literary conceits into clear, striking imagery without regard for maintaining an illusion of realism.  It’s a bold approach, and a canny one, for while the book’s sedate detachment is a springboard for the reader’s imagination into the passion and drama beneath the surface, such a technique is better suited for the page than for the silver screen; by making the kind of florid, outrageous choices for which he is famous, Luhrmann uses aural and visual stimulation to bring about a heightened emotional state in a more directly visceral way.  The end result is the same, but the style which brings it to us is, appropriately enough, purely cinematic.

To describe the world Luhrmann conjures for The Great Gatsby in detail would be an overwhelming task, but anyone familiar with his elegantly excessive sensibilities can easily imagine the result of bringing them into a recreation of the Jazz Age, an era of such noisy and self-indulgent flourish that even the most flamboyant exaggeration cannot be said to go too far.  The screen is filled with a maelstrom of period fashion and design, meticulously realized and embellished with all the high-tech magic of a 21st-Century production.  The filmmaker seeks to over-saturate us, not simply in order to magnify our emotional response but to simulate, as much as possible, the giddy energy of the period’s amplified lifestyle, making it clear that every speeding car, frantic dancer, and crowded speakeasy is a pointed and obvious metaphor for the reckless mindset of the age. The camera zooms and twirls through crowds of dancing, reveling party people, piecing together its imagery with a mosaic of rapid cuts and juxtaposed images and making the film’s first two thirds feel like an ongoing bacchanalia; even when the scene changes- to luxurious estates, sumptuous rooms, bustling offices, and (in all their CG-rendered glory) the glittering streets and skylines of New York City- there is a constant sense of urgent movement, providing an appropriate and irresistible feeling of pushing forward to whatever spectacular experience comes next.  In this way, Luhrmann manages to capture the heady, progressive character of the twenties, with all its lax morality and blasé sophistication, in a much more tangible way than most previous films about the period, which often fall prey to a tendency towards the stiff and pretentious- or worse yet, to the quaint and precious- in an attempt to tell the story through imitating the stylistic means of the time itself.  Far from undertaking a recreation of twenties-era filmmaking, he instead pulls out all the stops available in the modern age, not only with the aforementioned computer-enhanced scenery and hi-tech camera fluidity, but by using audaciously contemporary conceptual imagery to bring some of the novel’s more abstract literary conceits (the famous “green light,” the ever-watching eyes of the oculist’s billboard, the utilitarian hellscape of the “City of Ashes”) to life in ways that would be impossible- even unimaginable- in the early days of cinema.  He even goes so far as to make his movie as a 3D blockbuster- and like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, The Great Gatsby is an example of how this state-of-the-art technology can be elevated from the level of a mere gimmick to an effective artistic embellishment by a true master of the craft.

All this visual opulence has given The Great Gatsby a decidedly dream-like quality, reminding us that what we are watching are the larger-than-life memories of the tale’s narrator, romanticized and heightened by his emotional state; suitably enough, after the parties have ended and the sordid truths have begun to emerge, and the story moves towards its denouement, the golden-hued, luminescent reality of Gatsby’s world takes on the semblance of a nightmare- still the glowing dreamscape, but now tinged with dread, foreboding, and sadness, it is a world in which the shimmering lights taunt us and the fixtures of luxury seem cold and comfortless.  For some, this change in the movie’s thrust, from the fast and furious to the slow and sorrowful, seems to make for an anticlimax in which the promise of the first 90-or-so minutes diffuses into a limping, unsatisfying conclusion; this, of course, is precisely the point of The Great Gatsby– the world it depicts is full of people going nowhere fast, riding a whirlwind of careless abandon towards the assumed certainty of an ever-brighter tomorrow, but we know (as Fitzgerald may have, in some way, foreseen) that their overconfident fantasy will come abruptly crashing down with the stock market just a few short years later.  Gatsby himself is their champion, a uniquely American figure who reinvents himself in the image he wishes to present, believing that wishing can ultimately make it so, and never permits doubt to enter into his thinking or his plans; anything is possible for him, so he thinks, if he wants it badly enough.  It’s a seductive idea, and one which all of us, to some degree, would love to believe in; Gatsby’s failure, then, becomes our own, and Luhrmann’s film does not allow us to deny it within ourselves by distracting us with the continual flash of the previous scenes.  In the end, all of Luhrmann’s razzle-dazzle falls away to reveal a stark and sobering human truth, conveying the purpose of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece by providing a full sensory experience which allows it to hit us not just on an intellectual level, but right where we live.

Though my own response to Luhrmann’s vision of Fitzgerald’s novel may have been highly positive, it should be noted that others have not been quite so appreciative as I.  As mentioned above, reactions to The Great Gatsby have been wildly mixed, unsurprisingly for a film by this particular director.  Baz Luhrmann is one of those filmmakers whose personal style is not only unique and unmistakable, but also aesthetically controversial; as a rule, audiences (and critics) either love or hate his work, with very little middle ground.  With a sensibility that might best be described as low-rent Bohemian glamour, he is unapologetically operatic, deliberately provocative, and audaciously eclectic; he challenges our expectations and preconceptions by imposing contemporary attitudes onto whatever material he happens to be exploring, whether it be the Renaissance poetry of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or the Parisian post-impressionist fantasia of Moulin Rouge.  His most controversial tactic by far is his prominent use of anachronism in his artistic choices, and Gatsby is no exception.  By far the biggest sore spot for most of the film’s detractors is its use of modern-day pop music- rap, hip-hop, “indie” rock- in the film’s soundtrack, a jarring device which directly opposes the visual (if heightened) authenticity of the 1922 world he has so painstakingly orchestrated.  To be sure, it seems, on first analysis, to be a blatant ploy designed to capture the attention of the youth demographic so coveted by studio executives wishing to maximize their profits; but as the movie progresses, it becomes plain that Luhrmann, who seamlessly interweaves the contemporary material into the genuine period jazz which accompanies the action, has a more pointed artistic agenda here.  The juxtaposition of this familiar “now” sound with the equally familiar (and, for many, dated) sound of the era’s music makes an unmistakable and instantaneous connection between the fast-living partiers which surround Gatsby and the modern-day club culture of which many of the movie’s audiences are presumably a part.  With this over-the-top stroke, Luhrmann succeeds in bringing home the point that, though separated by several generations and countless shifts in cultural interest, the people on the screen are, in essence, the same as the people seated in the theater.  Though it may be difficult for many to overcome their disapproval of Luhrmann’s choice, it is undeniable that it’s an effective tool, and in truth, there is a sense that the strains of Florence + the Machine, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé are a sort of reverse echo from the future, an otherworldly intrusion that we are meant to hear but to which the characters onscreen are oblivious.  Seen this way- and given the fact that Luhrmann has remained diligently faithful to Fitzgerald in both plot and thematic substance, as well as providing a remarkably detailed and authentic recreation of the time and place of the novel’s setting, The Great Gatsby is probably the director’s least anachronistic film.

Without question, the star of this Gatsby is its Australian director; but acknowledgement must be made to his fine cast, charged with putting faces to these iconic characters, who manage to rise admirably to the task- one which is made no less difficult by Luhrmann’s sensibilities, which insist on maintaining Fitzgerald’s already-elevated language in a deliberately heightened style.  Front and center, of course, is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in the title role; he is well-suited to play Gatsby, handsome and confident, but with an innate sensitivity that seems almost to be deliberately- and ultimately, unsuccessfully- concealed.  He makes this archetypal American dreamer into a flesh-and-blood individual, whose shining veneer is full of cracks that allow glimpses of the flawed psyche that lies beneath; we get a real sense, from almost his first appearance, that this pretty package contains damaged goods, but his charm and his sincerity- even when he is most obviously putting on a not-very-convincing front and telling the most outrageous untruths- are so engaging that we, like Nick, are naturally drawn in, and we like him despite our ever-growing certainty that he is not what he seems to be.  The more we learn, the more we sympathize with him and long for the success of his grand, romantic undertaking, and though this is partly due to Fitzgerald’s skill in creating the character (and Luhrmann’s skill at translating it into film), DiCaprio deserves full credit for successfully bringing what is clearly a deep understanding of this complex figure to his work here.  In the difficult role of Nick, who is in many ways an outsider to the story, but upon whom so much depends, Tobey Maguire also does stellar work.  Taking clear inspiration from the notion of his character as a stand-in for Fitzgerald himself (a conceit made obvious by the film’s framing device), he gives us a young man with all the manic emotional intensity of a burgeoning alcoholic, indulging in outrageous behavior and introspective intimacy yet always seeming aloof and distant, concealing a surging ocean of depth and feeling behind a faintly bemused, stoic expression.  Thanks to Luhrmann’s stylistic window, we are allowed to see past this placid exterior to the poetic soul which fuels the narrative, and when his pent-up passions finally explode forth, Maguire’s roaring performance elevates Nick to his deserved status as the true hero of the tale, rather than the parenthetical necessity so often presented in previous attempts to dramatize The Great Gatsby.  Joel Edgerton, stuck with the difficult role of Tom Buchanan, is able to bring out the humanity of this elitist, misogynistic racist, though to make such a pointedly hateful man sympathetic is beyond his- or, perhaps, any actor’s- abilities; Elizabeth Debicki fares better as Jordan Baker, presenting the quintessentially chic, sophisticated, and disaffected flapper in a long, lean package that manages to be likable despite the character’s inherent coldness; and Isla Fisher, though her Myrtle Wilson suffers from having a bare minimum of screen time and therefore pales in (the perhaps unfair) comparison to Karen Black’s standout performance of the same role in Jack Clayton’s 1974 film version, shows us both the appealing sparkle and the desperate longing of this tragic girl who is forced, by both the men in her life, to hide her light under a squalid, ashy bushel.  The film’s best performance, though, comes from Carey Mulligan, as Daisy; vilified by so many commentators as a vapid and shallow representative of self-absorbed materialism, the focus of Gatsby’s obsession becomes, thanks to the intelligence of this gifted actress, a real woman, torn apart by the conflicting impulses of her heart and the ingrained conditioning of her social role.  Though Fitzgerald’s portrait of Daisy leaves her inner experience a mystery, Mulligan lets us in, and shows us the pain, the fear, and the heartbreak that goes on as she struggles towards making her choice, and plainly shows us that it is a difficult and heartbreaking choice for her; because of this sensitivity and humanity, we can see why Gatsby should want her so badly- the unspoken depth she reveals validates his obsession, and rescues his character from shallowness, as well- and transforms this much-maligned character from a cruel and thoughtless child into as much a tragic victim of the status quo as her would-be paramour.  It’s a truly luminous performance, yet subtle enough in detail to go unnoticed and unappreciated by many; full recognition is deserved, however, and this remarkable English performer certainly gets it from me.

Ultimately, of course, The Great Gatsby is a movie that is destined to divide; like all revered books, its source novel evokes deeply personal responses in its readers, and it is inherently impossible for an adaptation in any form to satisfy all of them.  Coupled with Luhrmann’s love-it-or-hate-it style of cinema, it is inevitable that many audiences would be left cold- or, just as likely, be actively outraged- by this film’s approach.  It is unlikely that anything I could say would sway those who dislike it, but for viewers with an open mind and a love for outside-the-box filmmaking, this is a movie that deserves a chance; as a fan of the book, I expected to be disappointed, but instead I found Luhrmann’s version not only exceptionally true to Fitzgerald’s original, but loaded with the kind of passion and insight that thrills me and reminds me why I love movies so much.  Is it eclectic and sometimes jarring to accepted sensibilities?  Absolutely, and that’s one of the reasons it worked so well for me.  Most of all, though, it is the work of a bold and consummate artist who was driven- by his own love of the material- to create a lavish and definitive representation of this resonant literary touchstone, and though I can understand why some may take exception to a few of his personal touches, for me it is beyond question that he has succeeded, far beyond reasonable expectation.  Baz Luhrmann has managed, after 87 years, to finally give us a film that conveys why The Great Gatsby is, truly, great.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1343092/?ref_=fn_al_tt_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

 

 

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.

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