Cloud Atlas (2012)

Cloud Atlas (poster)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Sinister (2012)

Sinister (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Sinister, the 2012 horror feature by director Scott Derrickson, about a true-crime writer whose research into the unsolved murder of an entire family uncovers links to a decades-long series of similar killings and connections to an ancient malevolent force.  Combining a standard cinematic narrative with elements of the now-prevalent “found footage” format employed by the horror genre, it relies heavily on mood and atmosphere, eschewing overt violence and gore for the terrors of a stimulated imagination and the deliberate build of suspense through tried-and-true methods of filmic storytelling.  Benefitting from intelligent writing and a strong and experienced cast headed by Ethan Hawke, it received mostly positive response from critics and was even named by some as the best horror film of the year.

Inspired by a nightmare in which he discovered a home movie documenting the hanging death of an entire family, Derrickson built a screenplay, co-written with C. Robert Cargill, in which this situation serves as the premise for a tale of real-life obsession and supernatural evil.  It begins as crime author Ellison Oswalt, moves with his family into a house located in a small rural town where a family has been brutally murdered the year before- except for a young daughter, who disappeared without a trace.  Hoping to recapture the success of his first bestseller after a string of subsequent failures, Ellison plans to research the sensational case up close; unbeknownst to his wife and children, he has gone so far as to purchase the very house in which the killings took place.  While exploring the attic, he discovers a box containing an old projector and several reels of Super 8 home movies; obviously curious, he takes them into the office he has set up in a spare bedroom and begins to watch.  When he begins with the most recently-dated film, he finds- to  his horror- that it shows the murder of the house’s former occupants, although any shots of the murderer have been edited out; even more disturbingly, the remaining films, dated over the course of six decades, contain a visual record of other, similar murders- each one the ritualized slaughter of an entire family by different, equally horrifying methods- and in each one, upon close inspection, can be found a glimpse of an ominous, dark-eyed figure watching the gruesome proceedings.  Though at first he considers bringing the films to the police, Ellison’s ambition to regain his fame and fortune wins out; he decides to pursue the investigation by himself, hoping to solve the case on his own and use it as the basis for his triumphant return to the bestseller lists.  With the help of a star-struck deputy sheriff and a local expert on the occult, he begins to piece together a pattern linking the various filmed murders, but the mystery only deepens- as does his obsession with it, leading him to heavy drinking and driving a wedge of alienation between himself and his family, who have begun to be affected by the sinister aura of the house.  It soon becomes apparent that Ellison’s ego-driven quest for answers has uncovered an ancient and diabolical secret, and that he may unwittingly be placing himself and his loved ones at risk by continuing to pursue the truth.

Derrickson’s efforts to create a truly frightening film went beyond the development of the screenplay itself, and involved a heavy focus on the creation of the central villain, whose wordless presence gives Sinister the bulk of its creepy power.  After abandoning his original conception of an evil “Willy Wonka” figure, luring children into his murderous trap, and transforming the character into an legendary Sumerian spirit rather than a demonic entity (to avoid rooting the film in a specific religious setting), he researched over half a million online images and drew inspiration from the visual style of “black metal” music- which is extensively used in the soundtrack- in order to achieve the look and persona of “Bughuul,” fondly known as “Mr. Boogie” by the children who fall under his spell.  The filmmaker’s instinct to get it right was a wise one- many otherwise effective horror films have been sunk by the presence of an unconvincing or laughable monster, but Sinister succeeds in dispensing chills largely because of the primal fear effortlessly elicited by its elegantly simple, utterly terrifying boogeyman. Made all the more disturbing by his ephemeral presence on the fringes of consciousness and reality, he appears only fleetingly onscreen, yet he leaves haunting, indelible images in the mind and makes us search for another look at him even as we dread the prospect of it.  Though the plot of the movie is driven, like so many other films in the genre, by characters making mind-numbingly stupid choices (why do horror characters never reach for a light-switch when they enter a darkened room?) and implausibilities that stretch the willing suspension of disbelief dangerously close to its limit, we forgive these clichés of the formula because of the palpable aura of inevitable doom conjured by our brief encounters with this otherworldly phantom.  From the first moment we see him, we know where things are going, and we are drawn into the journey towards that horrific culmination with the same illogical, obsessive fascination as the characters onscreen.

Not that Sinister is devoid of strengths besides the portrayal of its Sumerian specter; although the perfunctory and predictable pitfalls of the genre- cheap and sudden shocks, the usual reliance on creepshow staples such as evil children and menacing animals, the aforementioned brainless behavior of the potential victims- are undeniably present here, Derrickson and Cargill have infused their screenplay with enough intelligence to bring a sort of sense to these elements.  Their clever use of modern technology to facilitate the story not only allows for the visceral immediacy of the supposed “actual footage” upon which the premise hangs, but also for streamlining the narrative; the pursuit of information requires no more than a few keystrokes on a laptop, eliminating the need for lengthy expository scenes at the local library.  In addition, the rooting of the story in a tech-savvy modern world helps to heighten the contrast with the antiquated force of evil within it, and- more importantly, perhaps- serves to compound the isolation of our protagonist, whose vulnerability increases the as he retreats deeper into his self-created solitary confinement.  In addition, Sinister re-imagines the stock characters of the genre to a sufficient degree that they almost seem original.  The town sheriff is not a pompous buffoon, but a smart and authoritative figure with refreshing candor and obvious wisdom, and our confidence in Ellison is undermined almost from the outset, simply through the hostility and lack of respect he bestows upon this man; likewise, the deputy who later assists in Ellison’s research, though he seems, at first, to be the slack-jawed yokel we’ve seen so many times before, soon proves to be a sharp and savvy investigator, who might be a valuable ally if the ostensible hero were not blinded by his own sense of intellectual superiority; finally, Ellison’s wife and children, though ultimately relegated to the position of a plot condition, are not the clichéd ciphers so often seen in these roles- the kids, though troubled (understandably and believably so), are possessed of genuine and endearing personalities, and his wife (played by the lovely and substantial Juliet Rylance) is strong, supportive- within reason- and eloquent enough to deliver the film’s keystone monologue about her husband losing sight of his life’s true purpose in the pursuit of fortune and glory.

It is this last point that underscores what truly elevates Sinister above the level of schlock horror and gives it the weight and substance that allows it to be more than just a spooky campfire story.  In Ellison’s self-destructive determination to recapture his worldly success, he abandons his role as protector and companion to his family; indeed, he effectively separates himself from the rest of mankind, devaluing all outside influence and presuming to stand alone against a powerful evil which he has yet to fully comprehend.  Cut off from the source of his humanity, and with his stubborn ego undermined by self-doubt and self-loathing, he can only watch, powerless, as the forces he has unleashed proceed to overwhelm him and infiltrate the world around him.  It is this portrait of a man haunted from within, driven by his ambition but paralyzed by his fear of failure, that gives Derrickson’s movie its real power; the story of Bughuul and his ancient evil becomes a metaphor for the soul-consuming effect of displacing one’s humanity in favor of the blind pursuit of material success, and Ellison’s spiraling downfall is as much an indictment of the so-called “American Dream” as Willy Loman’s delusional road to suicide in Death of a Salesman over a half-century ago.  Of course, this is not to say that Sinister has social commentary as its ultimate purpose; the film is aimed squarely at scaring the bejeezus out if its audience, and it succeeds wickedly.   Nevertheless, while it is relatively easy to shake off the chills it brings by exploiting our fear of things that go bump in the night, this deeper level allows those chills to sink to the bone, leaving us unsettled and uncertain long after the final, gruesome images have faded from the screen.  It is also the presence of this underlying theme that allows the film to seem fresh and original even as it evokes and pays homage to the genre classics which influenced its director- most obviously The Shining, a movie with which Sinister bears many similarities in story, subject, and mood.

Derrickson’s slick direction goes a long way towards making the whole thing work.  He heavily utilizes his soundtrack, both musical and ambient, to create near-unbearable tension; the big visual scares come as surprises, emerging from the periphery of our gaze or rising from the shadows of the background; his use of authentic Super 8 film to recreate the ghostly snuff films which lure both protagonist and audience into the story lends a grainy realism that makes these sequences all the more disturbing, and his choice to cut away from these at their most gruesome moments, or show us the gore out-of-focus, in a reflection or in the background, forces our imagination to complete the picture with images more horrific and unthinkable than anything he could have put on film.  The director’s cleverness behind the camera, however, would be for naught without a strong performance from his star, and Ethan Hawke- an oft-overlooked but genuinely fine actor, particularly adept at playing likable losers on a downward spiral- delivers just that; in Hawke’s capable hands, Ellison avoids coming off as just another cocksure golden boy paving the road to his own deserved comeuppance and instead becomes a sympathetic Everyman, flawed but inherently decent, well-intentioned despite his over-confidence, and ultimately more devoted to his family’s welfare than his own success.  Though we see from the beginning that he is an unreliable figure in which to place our trust, we are drawn to identify with him nevertheless, largely due to Hawke’s honesty, which lets us inside the conflicted and desperate mind which drives him; he takes us along for the ride, bouncing between determination and fatalism, buoying himself with self-assured good cheer even as morbid self-doubt eats away at his core, and never letting us forget that Sinister, for all the arcane circumstances at its surface, is really about a man’s struggle with demons on the inside.

This review may seem like a rave, and in a way, it is.   I must admit that, for the most part, contemporary horror movies do very little for me; I find them gimmicky, shallow, and unimaginative, relying on gross-out tactics and cheap scares to make an impact without challenging the intellect.  They debase human behavior, fetishize violence and cruelty, and reinforce a simplistic morality even as they present a nihilistic view of a hostile and malicious universe.  Of course, these criticisms of the genre are not unique to its most recent expressions- far more horror movies have been lowbrow schlock than have been cinematic gems, no matter what the era- and there are certainly exceptions.  Sinister is one of those, a movie in which the shocks resonate to a deeper level and strike at fundamental issues in our collective psyche; it taunts us not just with primal fear of horrors hiding in the dark, but with the more sophisticated terrors of living in the real world- of failure, of inadequacy, of getting it all wrong, and perhaps worst of all, of playing in a rigged game where even your most determined effort only serves to ensure your ultimate defeat.  Sinister is not, in the end, a film of the caliber of such cinema greats as Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist, which weave philosophical contemplation about the true nature of evil seamlessly into their narratives, nor does it approach the subversive genius of Golden Age classics like King Kong or Bride of Frankenstein, in which the hypocrisy, greed, and intolerance of so-called normalcy are used to cast the “monsters” as more worthy of sympathy than those they terrorize; like those and other films of the genre, it invites us to think and to feel as it thrills us, but it falls short of true brilliance by never quite breaking free of standard formula, no matter how expertly it adapts the tropes to its own ambitious needs.  Nevertheless, it succeeds in chilling us to the bone without expecting us to shut off our higher functions in exchange for the thrill, and it manages to breathe new life into its clichés without being too clever for its own good (see my review of The Cabin in the Woods).  Sinister may not be a great movie, but it is, in my estimation, a good horror movie- and coming from me, that is high praise indeed.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1922777/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

Argo (2012)

Argo (poster)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Beasts of the Southern Wild (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Beasts of the Southern Wild, the 2012 first feature from director Benh Zeitlin, a movie which rose from acclaim in the festival circuit to become hailed as one of the best films of the year.  The story of a little girl and her father who face the destruction of their way of life as rising sea levels threaten to submerge their Louisiana fishing community, it not only took top awards at the Sundance, Los Angeles, and Cannes film festivals (among many others), it also surprised many industry insiders by earning nominations for several Academy Awards- including Best Picture, Best Actress (for Quvenzhané Wallis, at 9 years old the youngest person nominated to date for this award), and Best Director, with newcomer Zeitlin edging out several favored contenders to gain his slot in the latter category.

Adapted by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar from the latter’s one-act play, Juicy and Delicious, the film unfolds through the perspective of Hushpuppy, a 5-year-old black girl who is part of an isolated community on the Isle de Charles Doucet, known to its residents as “the Bathtub,” an island in the mouth of the Mississippi River delta at the southernmost edge of Louisiana.  Following a generations-long tradition, the people of the Bathtub eke out their simple existence by harvesting the riches of the sea; they are separated from the wider world by geography- and the levee which protects the population of the north from the fluctuations of the tides and the weather- but they are fiercely proud of their heritage and their independence, despite the precarious nature of their existence at the mercy of the ever-rising sea levels.  Little Hushpuppy- though she lives by herself in a separate house- is under the care of Wink, her short-tempered but loving father; she is also, like all the children of the community, under the watchful eye of Miss Bathsheba, the island’s schoolteacher, who tells them how the melting ice caps will cause the ocean to eventually submerge the Bathtub.  Her lessons also include stories about their prehistoric ancestors and the fierce wild beasts- the aurochs- which preyed upon them.  These things have a deep impact upon Hushpuppy’s inner life- she imagines the great aurochs slowly being released from their frozen sleep by the melting ice, and slowly making their way towards the Bathtub.  She also maintains an imaginary relationship with her long-absent mother, as well as making drawings which she intends to be found by “scientists of the future.”  As for Wink, his health is clearly deteriorating; he disappears for days, eventually returning in a hospital gown, and he sometimes collapses into a near-catatonic state, but he refuses to acknowledge this weakness to his daughter.  An approaching storm soon supersedes all other concerns, and though some islanders opt to abandon their homes for higher ground, many stubbornly refuse to leave.  Wink and Hushpuppy weather the violent storm, but when it subsides, the Bathtub is flooded underneath several feet of water.  The two form a camp with fellow survivors to wait for the flood to recede, but their hardships are only beginning; the salt water lingers, slowly killing the land beneath it, until Wink develops a desperate plan to solve the problem by sabotaging the levee.  The resulting consequences could lead to the islanders’ forced evacuation from the land they love, as well as the separation of father and daughter.  As the aurochs grow nearer in Hushpuppy’s imagination, she resolves to undertake a journey which might help her to flee the troubles which have enveloped her world- or to find the answers and the strength she needs to face them.

Zeitlin’s movie is a remarkably unique accomplishment, to be sure.  He takes us into a world most of us have never seen or even known about, revealing its conditions with a documentarian’s style while using it as the basis for a multi-layered metaphor infused with humor, drama, and fantasy, one that addresses human concerns from the most basic and primal to the most pressing and contemporary.  With a restless, hyper-mobile camera, mostly utilized for extreme close-ups and wide establishing shots, he pieces together a clear, compelling narrative that grabs us from the beginning and keeps us riveted throughout.  He tells his story through impressions, a whirlwind of fleeting images that somehow conveys all the pertinent information we need to follow the plot and connect with the emotional reality of its people, while also suggesting the perspective of its tiny lead character on the constantly-fluctuating reality that surrounds her.  This is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that he never looked at any of the raw footage from the shooting process until it was time to edit the film into completed form.  Any of these feats alone would be enough to mark Zeitlin as a gifted young director; taken all together, they herald him as a prodigy.

All of his prowess behind the camera would be for naught, however, if not for the casting of young Wallis in the film’s central role.  At 6, she possesses more screen charisma than that shown by any number of established starlets in their entire careers, and the sheer power of her diminutive presence is enough to make Beasts of the Southern Wild an unforgettable film.  It’s one of the most impressive film debuts in recent memory, and certainly one of the strongest juvenile performances in cinematic history; Zeitlin builds his movie around it, and it never comes up short.  Of course, considering the young lady’s age- and the certain fact that film is a director’s medium- it is possible that Wallis’ formidable performance may be at least partly the result of careful editing, pieced together by Zeitlin himself to achieve maximum effect; even if this were the case, however, the little girl’s presence, personality, and raw honesty are undeniably on display, and these qualities cannot be faked even by the most gifted film technician.  She is well-deserving of all the kudos she has received.  She is ably supported by Dwight Henry, as her father; a non-professional, like the rest of the film’s cast, he is a New Orleans’ bakery owner whose life experience as a survivor of two real-life hurricanes- Betsy in his childhood, and Katrina as an adult- helps to infuse his performance with an innate understanding of the precariousness of his character’s situation, and he is equally capable of capturing the volatile psychological chemistry that makes Wink both charismatic and intimidating.  The rest of the cast is as authentic a collection of local faces and personalities as ever seen in a fictional film, underscoring the documentary feel and helping to transport us completely into the unfamiliar world it depicts.

There are any number of reasons why Beasts of the Southern Wild is an excellent and exciting piece of filmmaking, the aforementioned performances and direction among the foremost.  For many viewers, it will doubtless be considered great; for me, however, despite its many strengths, it falls just short of that mark.  For all its imagination, its blend of harsh social realism and youthful fantasy is held together by a plot that is ultimately as typically “Hollywood” as any mainstream studio family picture you might think of.  Zeitlin and Alibar’s screenplay undertakes from the very beginning to tug at our heartstrings in a manner which would seem insultingly blatant if not for the film’s edgy style, and despite the seemingly detached empiricism of the director’s approach, Beasts of the Southern Wild has a calculated feel in the way it manipulates our sympathies throughout.  We never really get the chance to make up our own minds about how we feel towards Hushpuppy, Wink, or the Bathtub itself and its way of life; we are guided to our conclusions by Zeitlin’s steamroller approach to the story.  Of course, it is a work of fiction, so there are no aesthetic or ethical reasons why the writing and direction should not be designed to elicit a desired response from the viewer; and it’s not as if the movie lacks any sincerity- on the contrary, it’s clear throughout that it is a work of deeply heartfelt passion.  Nevertheless, there is a heavy-handed quality to the narrative that ultimately leaves us feeling less satisfied than wheedled into submission.

This is not to say that Zeitlin’s film is a failure, by any means; Beasts of the Southern Wild is a refreshing example of the kind of cinematic magic that can be created outside of the numbers-driven system of mainstream movie-making, and it leaves an indelible impression upon any viewer.  Audiences whose tastes run towards sentimentality will undoubtedly find it an exceptionally rich experience, and even those who prefer a less “precious” approach will be moved by it, if not overwhelmed.  It may not be the masterpiece that some have hailed it to be, but it’s still an impressive work of art by a promising young director.  To be truthful, Quvenzhané Wallis alone provides a good enough reason to see it; but beyond her remarkable performance, there is also a thought-provoking and resonant meditation on the nature of human existence in the universe, both as individuals and as a whole, which contemplates everything from parental bonds to global warming and manages to leave us with a thrilling sense of hope and possibility despite a story which dwells in desperation and dysfunction.  It’s a rare film that can pull off a trick like that, and even if some of the trickery might be a little obvious, it’s still an accomplishment that deserves to be lauded.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2125435/?ref_=sr_1

 

 

Django Unchained (2012)

Django Unchained (poster)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

The Cabin in the Woods (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Cabin in the Woods, the genre-twisting feature, from the team of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, that satirizes horror movie conventions within a larger science fiction framework as it tells the tale of five college-age friends who are secretly manipulated by a mysterious high-tech agency during a weekend getaway at a mountain lake.  Filmed in 2009, it was held from release by the bankruptcy of its studio, MGM, which could not afford the cost of marketing and publicity; eventually picked up by Lionsgate Films, it finally hit screens in early 2012, when the long anticipation by Whedon’s many fans turned it into a major box office success.  Lauded by many critics for its clever restructuring and skewering of the “slasher movie” genre, it managed to find its way onto several best-of-2012 lists in addition to becoming one of the year’s biggest financial hits.

The movie begins with the back-and-forth intercutting between scenes of a large-scale government tech lab where final preparations are under way for an elaborate and unspecified project, and a group of five young people getting ready for a trip to a secluded mountain cabin.  The kids- Dana (the sweet and comparatively wholesome “good girl”), Jules (the bleached-blonde sexpot), Curt (Jules’ jock boyfriend), Holden (Curt’s studious friend, brought along as a blind date for Dana), and Marty (the pot-smoking nerd)- set out in an  RV, and, though they have an unsettling encounter with the attendant at a run-down gas station on the road to the cabin, they remain in high spirits, looking forward to a weekend of good times.  Meanwhile, it becomes clear they are being remotely monitored by the technicians in the mysterious lab, who seem to have complete control over their environment.  Upon arrival at their destination, the five friends discover that the cabin- recently purchased by a cousin of Curt’s- is an odd and disconcerting place, adorned with gruesome art, fearsome stuffed animals, and see-through mirrors, and they eventually stumble upon a trap door which leads to a secret basement full of odd and arcane relics.  Among these objects they find a diary, written by the daughter of the cabin’s original owners; as Dana reads it aloud, it reveals a horrific tale of torture, disfigurement, and murder, practiced by the family in the service of their twisted puritanical beliefs, and includes a strange Latin invocation- which she also reads aloud, unwittingly calling the long-deceased clan back from the dead.  Perhaps even more sinister is the fact that all of these events seem to be under the orchestration of the observing lab technicians, who watch with satisfied interest as the murderous zombies slink towards the unsuspecting young people in the cabin.  Needless to say, the weekend getaway is soon to become a terrifying fight for survival, in which the would-be victims will discover that their perilous situation has larger implications more dire than any of them could suspect.

The screenplay for The Cabin in the Woods was co-written by Whedon and Goddard, who worked together on Whedon’s cult-classic TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer; though it took them only three days to write, it is undeniably clever.  It’s difficult to discuss it in much detail without giving away too many of its secrets, but it is safe to describe it as a mash-up of Friday the Thirteenth and Night of the Living Dead as conceived by H.P. Lovecraft. This in itself is creative enough, but it’s also apparent that the pair have a definite agenda here, in which they use a sort of meta-drama- self-consciously utilizing all the stock characters and conceits of the slasher film scenario- to explore the deeper psychological origins of the horror genre, linking it both to its ancient roots in the superstitions and religions of ancient cultural memory and to its modern role as a fetishized outlet for the primordial and antisocial urges that still lie at its core.  The story of the five not-so-innocent kids is enfolded into a larger plot that allegorizes the makers of such formulaic horror vehicles themselves, using an elaborate metaphor to satirize their motivations and criticize the growing trend towards “torture porn” within the genre.  The concept is ingenious, audacious and inspired; the writers have constructed a puzzle box of a movie, in which several layers of plot fit neatly inside each other, with each addressing larger and more significant themes, ultimately providing both homage to and an indictment of a genre which celebrates the bloodlust lurking in the core of human nature.  At the same time, they endeavor to create a movie which works simultaneously as a high-concept art piece and a wildly entertaining example of schlock cinema.  With the first goal, they come respectably close; with the second, however, they are much further from the mark.

On a conceptual level, The Cabin in the Woods works well; the underlying conceit, though veiled, is apparent from the beginning, allowing us to appreciate the way it informs the narrative as it gradually emerges to our full understanding.  It’s a good choice, because on the surface level, what we are given is far too ordinary to hold our interest for long.  The movie-in-a-movie storyline, with its hapless young victims being stalked and slaughtered one by one, is so familiar and predictable as to be completely devoid of shock; it’s deliberately derivative, of course, but the unimaginative, by-rote handling of the formula is no less dull for its intentions.  To make matters worse, the dialogue, loaded with obligatory comic banter and snarky “fanboy” in-jokes, is stale and stilted, with a decidedly sophomoric reliance on cliché and self-indulgence; the characters, though an effort is made to give them more personality and depth than the typical stock figures in such fare, still behave like one-dimensional stereotypes, and despite the fact that we are clearly told that their actions are being manipulated by their white-collar puppeteers, again, it makes little difference to our level of emotional investment in them- or rather, our lack of it.  It’s true that. as the movie expands from the killer zombie hillbilly scenario, they (the survivors anyway) are seen to have a little more on the ball than they’ve managed to show so far, but by the time this larger plot has taken over, so much screen time has been squandered on the regurgitation of shallow horror convention that it’s hard to care.  Even though it happens too late in the game, the development of the framing plot, in which we discover the real horrors of the cabin in the woods, is far more original and engaging, though it, too, suffers from the malady of unconvincing dialogue; the film’s final quarter is so much more interesting that it heightens our disappointment over everything that has gone before.  Still, when the movie finally reaches its endgame, fully revealing its devilishly clever dual purpose as a satirical exploration of form and a cynical commentary on human nature, it succeeds in winning us over with its sheer audacity, leaving us with a sort of grudging delight and making us wish that Whedon and Goddard had spent more than three days writing their screenplay.

The movie built on that script is certainly made well enough; directed by Goddard, with Whedon serving as producer (presumably too involved with his myriad other creative endeavors to get behind the camera on this one), it succeeds in emulating the stylistic sensibilities of the teen scream genre it draws from, using time-honored techniques of visual vocabulary to tell its story (with a good bit of sly humor) and expanding to a slicker, more contemporary mode as the focus shifts loose from the constraints of genre formula. There is nothing truly mind-blowing here, in terms of visual style or innovation, just smart utilization of the established tricks of the trade, but Goddard has clearly done his homework, and he pulls it off in a workmanlike fashion. More overtly impressive, from the standpoint of cinematic creativity, is the work of the movie’s designers and technicians, who give us a number of delicious visual treats, particularly in the climactic scenes involving an everything-but-the-kitchen sink catalogue of movie monsters ranging from the familiar (murderous clowns, werewolves, sadistic hell-spawn) to the not-so-familiar (a killer unicorn, a lamprey-faced ballerina, and a decidedly grotesque merman). These sequences were accomplished by an impressive assemblage of the finest effects artists and technicians in the industry, requiring the rental of extra facilities to accommodate the sheer number of workers, and shooting at the huge aerospace building of the British Columbia Institute of Technology, since the available studio space was inadequate for the necessary scale. The unprecedented effort was worth it- this section is by far the most fun and memorable few minutes in the movie, generating more actual laughs and thrills than the entire pick-em-off-one-by-one saga that takes up the first three-quarters of screen time.

The film’s other production values are solid, as well; the cinematography by Peter Deming, the musical score by David Julyan, the production design by Martin Whist – all these are several cuts above the level of the low-budget exploitation thrillers upon which The Cabin in the Woods depends for inspiration, which is not necessarily a good thing. A little amateurish roughness around the edges might have gone a long way towards bestowing Goddard’s film with more of the authentic grindhouse flavor it sorely needs.  The higher quality is appreciated, however, when it comes to the performances, since bad acting is rarely a plus, and since the film requires a bit more nuance from its players than the typical horror entry.  Though it’s notable that two of the cast members are Chris Hemsworth (as Curt) and Richard Jenkins (who shot their roles here before making it big as Thor and earning an Oscar nomination for The Visitor, respectively), the true stars are Kristen Connolly and Fran Kranz, as Dana and Marty, who are both charming enough, and more importantly project the intelligence and spunk needed to make them into a convincing hero and heroine.  Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are goofily likeable as the pair of elder-generation nerds who serve as team leaders for the mysterious behind-the-scenes project, and Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, and Jesse Williams, as the remainder of the youthful adventurers, succeed in making their characters more than the mere ciphers they might have been.  Sigourney Weaver, who seems to have made a supplemental career for herself playing self-referential cameos in this kind of satirical sci-fi fare, makes a surprise appearance near the end, but disclosing the nature of her role would be too much of a spoiler; suffice to say that her presence onscreen is welcome and her performance is amusing without being over-the-top.

I suppose I should confess that I have never been particularly fond of the “slasher movie” sub-genre, though most of my generation, which grew up with them, seems to consider them essential touchstones of pop culture experience.  I always thought they were predictable and dull, and rarely frightening; consequently, I am perhaps not the best person to judge the effectiveness of The Cabin in the Woods, either as a legitimate entry or as a parody.  Many viewers have responded much more positively than I to Whedon and Goddard’s Lovecraftian mind-bender, but even I can say that it’s worth a look.  Even though, ultimately, I found it as predictable and unengaging as the films it sends up, it contains many aspects that impressed me, and yes, even entertained me.  For one thing, it has a lot more “heart” than most of these cold-blooded slaughter-fests, reminding us that alongside those savage instincts in our unconscious there are also nobler ones; though, in the end, the film’s “message,” if you can call it that, is cynical and even nihilistic, it leaves you with a more or less positive view of mankind- in the individual, if not in the collective.  It’s also a very smart movie, with canny observations about human behavior on the personal, social, and cultural level, and it weaves these into its formulaic plot in a way that illuminates the stock situations and conventions, revealing the deeper implications of the well-worn narrative structure and helping us to see it as more than mere repetitive drivel.  Finally, I can truly embrace its creators’ avowed purpose of decrying the level to which the horror genre has sunk in our modern era; most horror movies today are mindless spatter films, capitalizing on flavor-of-the-week trends and using sensationalistic formats to earn a quick buck and nothing more.  At best, they are meaningless, and at worst, they are thought pollution, celebrating cruelty and violence for their own sake and reinforcing some very ugly behavioral tendencies in an audience that is typically of a very impressionable age.  The Cabin in the Woods attempts to address this state of affairs by offering an alternative which both satisfies the need for a good scare and stimulates the intellect, as many (though certainly, admittedly, not all) of the so-called “old school” horror films tried to do.  It’s very clever, alright; unfortunately, in the end, it’s too clever for its own good.  Those who are likely to clue into the brainier aspects of the film will probably not respond to the horror, and those who are in it for the cheap thrills will undoubtedly be disinterested in any higher purpose.  Of course, there is a convergent group of viewers- most of them, probably, already fans of Whedon’s nerdy-cool fictional universe- who will find both levels of The Cabin in the Woods right up their alley, and they are the ones for whom this movie is made.  You might not be one of them, but it’s still worth watching; even if it doesn’t quite work (and even if it doesn’t look like it, at first glance), it’s refreshingly intelligent filmmaking.  There’s precious little enough of that out there, so get it where you can.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1259521/?ref_=sr_1

WARNING: If you haven’t seen the movie, you should know that looking at the pictures below might be a mistake.  I try not to provide spoilers, but some of these images might give things away that you don’t want to know ahead of time, and once you see something, you can’t unsee it, so view at your own risk.

John Carter (2012)

John Carter (poster)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brave (2012)

Brave (poster)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Les Miserables (2012)

Les Miserables (poster)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson’s long-anticipated return to the works of celebrated fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, whose three-part saga, The Lord of the Rings, provided the basis for the director’s phenomenally successful and critically-acclaimed trilogy of the same name.  Adapted- and expanded- from Tolkien’s earlier novel, The Hobbit, it constitutes the first part of a second trilogy which serves as a sort of prequel to The Lord of the Rings, telling of the young Bilbo Baggins’ adventures when he joins the quest of a band of Dwarves to reclaim their homeland from an ancient dragon who has taken it as his own- an expedition which sets into motion several events that will have great consequence in the later story.  Sure to be a major success on the basis of fan interest alone, it has met so far with somewhat mixed response- mostly due to Jackson’s decision to supplement the relatively short novel with additional material that connects it to the later events portrayed in The Lord of the Rings– and facilitates the splitting of its narrative into three separate films.  Reaction has also been divided about his choice to shoot the film at 48 frames per second (twice as fast as the standard rate), resulting in an ultra-high resolution image which gives his movie an almost hyper-real look, particularly when coupled with the 3D and IMAX formats in which it has been widely released.  Nevertheless, the majority of critics and audiences have been enthusiastic in their welcome for this adaptation of the much-beloved tale, and it undoubtedly marks the beginning of another triumphant achievement for Jackson and his creative collaborators.

The Hobbit, published over a decade earlier than The Lord of the Rings, was written by Tolkien as a stand-alone book, though its narrative was part of the much longer and intricately detailed story of Middle-earth that he had been developing since his youth.  The book was a success- so much so that it achieved classic status, eventually allowing Tolkien to publish the iconic trilogy of novels which turned him- and the mythical world he created, along with its inhabitants- into a cultural icon.  In an appendix at the end of The Lord of the Rings, the author provides a detailed timeline of the entire history of Middle-earth, with particular emphasis on the events leading up to the War of the Rings, which is specifically chronicled within the trilogy.  The beginnings of this great conflict coincide with the timeline of The Hobbit, through which Tolkien provided glimpses of his larger saga within the peripheral details of the central plot.  An Unexpected Journey, as mentioned, incorporates this material into its adaptation of The Hobbit proper, placing the story into the larger context of the complete epic tale.  The film begins in precisely the same time and place as the previous trilogy, at the home of Bilbo Baggins, an aged hobbit (or “halfling”) who has begun to write the history of his personal adventures, many years before, in the far-flung corners of Middle-earth.  We are transported back, as he remembers his youth, to a day 60 years prior, when Gandalf, a wandering wizard once acquainted with his family, arrives at his door to invite him on an adventure.  Bilbo, accustomed (as most of his people are) to the predictable comfort and security of his home in the Shire, declines; Gandalf, however, is not dissuaded so easily, and later that night the young hobbit is surprised to be playing host to a company of Dwarves who arrive unexpectedly, claiming to have been summoned to his home- by the wizard, who explains that he has offered Bilbo’s services as a “burglar” to assist the Dwarves in a quest to regain their ancient home under the distant Lonely Mountain, where a powerful dragon named Smaug, many years before, laid waste to their kingdom, Erebor, and claimed their vast wealth as his own private treasure trove.  Bilbo, horrified, again declines to join the expedition, protesting that he not only has no experience as a burglar but that he would, in fact, be useless on any such quest- an assessment with which the Dwarves are inclined to agree, particularly their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, heir to the throne of the kingdom under the mountain and a proven and powerful warrior.  Nevertheless, the shrewd wizard eventually persuades Bilbo, who has long suppressed a childhood yearning for adventure, to accept the job, and the hobbit joins his new comrades as they begin their long journey.  As they make their way, they encounter obstacles and enemies the likes of which the fledgling adventurer has never seen, including hungry trolls, greedy goblins, and bloodthirsty orcs- foul, mutated creatures who seem bent on pursuing them, and whose ferocious chieftain seeks a personal vendetta against Thorin.  Meanwhile, it becomes apparent that Gandalf has a larger agenda as he accompanies the fellowship; in his secret role as one of the White Council, an alliance of wizards and elves that serve as protectors of Middle-earth, he has begun to sense the growing influence of a dark and ancient presence returning to the land- a fear which he shares with his fellow guardians when the company arrives for a brief respite at the Elven capitol of Rivendell.  However, the answers he seeks remain yet hidden in the shadows, and the fate of the Dwarvish quest demands his more immediate attention.  Eventually, the band’s travels bring them within sight of their destination- but not before Bilbo manages his first successful “burglary” by stealing away the most “precious” possession of a treacherous subterranean creature named Gollum, beginning a greater adventure that will eventually decide the fate of Middle-earth itself.

The Hobbit, as written by Tolkien, was aimed at younger readers; though not exactly a children’s book, it is considerably lighter in tone than the epic trilogy which followed, with a less austere literary style and a higher level of whimsy to soften the heaviness of the story’s darker elements.  Even so, the heart of its story lies in the fabric of this remarkable writer’s meticulously plotted history of Middle-earth, a complex and lifelong undertaking inspired by his desire to create a definitively English mythology and informed by his passion for philology.  This imaginary chronicle, produced over the course of decades, provided a depth of background for his writings that lends an unprecedented level of authenticity to the fantasy world in which they are set, complete with vivid geographical detail, cultural and linguistic traditions for all of the various races which populate it, and a fully developed cosmology.  This fullness is one of the qualities which helped to make both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings into cultural phenomena, and legions of fans have hungrily devoured every scrap of the copious background material from which it arises, through its later publication in books like The Silmarillion, by Tolkien himself, and the collected volumes of history assembled by his son.  It is with these kinds of fans in mind that Peter Jackson- along with his partner, Fran Walsh, and their longtime collaborator, Philippa Boyens- decided to expand the narrative of The Hobbit with the inclusion of story elements that provide background and foundation for the later events depicted in The Lord of the Rings.  Operating from the conceit that Bilbo’s adventures, as related in the novel itself, are only a part of the whole story, the screenplay, by the three aforementioned collaborators (along with Guillermo del Toro, who was originally slated to direct), weaves the story of the Dwarves’ quest into the larger story arc that links The Hobbit to its more ambitious successor; the introduction of the great ring of power, pilfered by Bilbo in the subterranean lair of the pathetic Gollum (the only episode in the novel that bears significant continuity into the later books), is here seen within the context of other circumstances revealed by Tolkien only in his extraneous writings.  Thus, An Unexpected Journey is not simply an adaptation of The Hobbit, but an ambitious effort to create a more complete vision of Tolkien’s mythic realm, fleshing out the depiction of “behind the scenes” activity- such as the meeting of the White Council and the discoveries of Radagast the Brown- in order to tell more of the complete saga as the author composed it in his own imagination.

Of course, it goes without saying the Jackson and his co-writers are themselves the kind of fans at which they have aimed their own movie; it’s clear from the outset that An Unexpected Journey is as much a labor of love as The Lord of the Rings, and even more of a dream project in the sense that the creators have the opportunity for bringing to light many of the things that have, until now, remained tantalizingly hidden between the lines.   The inclusion of these “extra” scenes, of course, begs the question of how faithful Jackson et al‘s vision can be to Tolkien’s intent when the author himself chose not to include them in the book.  The answer is, I think, very faithful indeed.  An Unexpected Journey contains very little that doesn’t come directly from Tolkien, except for the kind of embellishment of detail that is necessary when realizing a written work into cinematic form; the author wrote descriptions of all the so-called “extra” scenes, and though they were omitted from The Hobbit because they were irrelevant to the book’s self-contained purpose, they were nevertheless part of his complete vision.  Jackson and crew have given us a chance to see that vision come to life, and they have done it with relish.

There is actually very little I can say about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, at least in terms of standard critical commentary.  There are those who have a passion for this kind of fantasy adventure story, and there are others who have an equally passionate dislike.  No argument is likely to persuade one side or the other to change their view, and those two camps are going to either love this movie, or hate it, regardless of what anyone says; but for those many viewers in between, some guidance may be offered.  Casual fans of Tolkien’s books, who may not be well-versed in the surrounding lore, may find themselves confused by the inclusion of characters and concerns from the later trilogy, and might also feel that these elements muddle the focus of the main narrative, which centers wholly on Bilbo and his transformation from humble homebody to seasoned adventurer.  Likewise, those who have only come to the world of Middle-earth through exposure to Jackson’s earlier films might find themselves feeling a sense of all-too-familiarity over things we’ve seen before, or may not get the point of spending time on a plot line for which we have already seen the eventual outcome; this, of course, is always the pitfall of  “prequels,” and it is one which many viewers might feel is particularly needless here, when the source material does not itself contain these elements.  It is important to remember, however, that An Unexpected Journey is the first installment of a trilogy, and much of its content is meant as a set-up to the events which are to follow; though one may quibble about the necessity for padding out an already rich and complex storyline, or question the motivation for turning a single novel (which is, incidentally, shorter in itself than any of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings) into multiple sure-fire hit movies, Jackson’s vision is an ambitious one.  He is bent on building as complete an embodiment of Tolkien’s mythos as possible, one which draws not only on the content of the novels as published but on the supplementary material with which the author infused them.  To put it another way, he is thinking “outside the box” in order to capture the total experience of the author’s epic saga in a cinematic form that both elaborates on its details and remains true in spirit to his ultimate intent and purpose.  As with any artistic translation of a pre-existing work- particularly when the original artist is no longer around to consult- there is a necessity for personal interpretation; but Jackson and his team, who are die-hard fans of the first degree, are certainly as qualified to interpret with as much validity as anyone, and with their proven mastery of the kind of breathtaking visual storytelling required, they are obviously more than up to the task.

The level of perfection and coherence to which Jackson aspires is evidenced by the painstaking efforts he has made to connect his new trilogy to the previous one with as much unity as possible.  Settings which are shared by both are duplicated in detail, and returning characters are portrayed by the same actors (with the semi-exception of Bilbo, whose younger incarnation is now represented by Martin Freeman- though original actor Ian Holm reprises his appearance as the older version of the title character).  In addition, the visual style of the original film series is maintained through the richly detailed design work, inspired by the decades of illustrative art connected to Tolkien’s books- in particular those of Alan Lee and John Howe, who served as visual consultants on this film (and its future follow-ups) as they did on the original Jackson trilogy; needless to say, the high-tech magic used to bring life to the various denizens of Middle-earth and their exploits is once again a marvel of imagination merged with state-of-the-art wizardry, and the creation of props, costumes and make-up which convincingly capture the cultural character of the land and its population is once again executed with astute perfectionism.  An Unexpected Journey is cut so distinctly from the same cloth as its spectacular predecessors that it is clear the filmmaker intends, when all is said and done, for this new trilogy to be seamlessly bound to The Lord of the Rings as a single, unified whole.

Further enhancing this continuity is the welcome return of Howard Shore’s magisterial musical scoring, an indispensable element of The Lord of the Rings, which manages the remarkable feat of incorporating here the themes and motifs created for the previous trilogy while weaving them into the new material composed specifically for The Hobbit.  It’s the same technique which gave each of the three original films their own distinctive sound yet tied them all together, as well as adding a valuable aural component to the storytelling, and once again it serves its purpose well; the soundtrack has that rare quality of seeming instantly familiar, like music you have somehow known all your life without ever having heard it before, much in the same way that the story feels like an ancient memory of some long-forgotten dream.  Tolkien’s books touch the realm of archetypes, and, like Jackson, Shore has the skill to enhance this deep unconscious connection in a powerful and irresistible way.

In the same vein are the performances; though this kind of acting is rarely acknowledged when awards are handed out every year, the ability to convey humanity and make emotional connection while playing in a necessarily heightened style is a delicate gift, and Jackson has once more populated his epic with performers who are up to the job.  Returnees Ian McKellen (whose magnificent Gandalf has been one of the highlights of the series from the beginning, and is a particular delight this time around), Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and the venerable Christopher Lee (whose personal expertise on the Tolkien canon has been of vital importance to Jackson’s project offscreen, as well)- as well as the aforementioned Holm and Elijah Wood (in a brief cameo)- are all seasoned purveyors of this craft, by now, and have become the quintessential embodiment of their characters; it is a pleasure to see them, however brief their involvement.  The new cast members, however, are every bit their equal in terms of capturing the necessary flavor; Jackson’s month-long pre-filming regime of combat and horseback training, designed with the dual purpose of establishing a tight-knit camaraderie among the players, no doubt contributed to the chemistry that is evident onscreen, and his ensemble provides a superbly symbiotic assortment of performances which are each destined to become as iconic as those from The Lord of the Rings.  Of particular note are Richard Armitage- whose brooding intensity gives Thorin Oakenshield a powerful charisma which complements his role as the destined ruler of the Dwarves- and Sylvester McCoy- whose memorable turn fleshes out Radagast the Brown, a peripheral character that has always been a subject of fan curiosity through importance of his role in the saga and the brief-but-vivid descriptions he received in Tolkien’s work.  Mention must be made as well of Andy Serkis, whose mesmerizing performance as Gollum- achieved through motion capture technology but executed live on set with his co-stars and derived entirely from his real expressions and physicality- was one of the most acclaimed elements of The Lord of the Rings and comes close to stealing the entire movie in his single scene here.  Finally, Martin Freeman is the perfect Bilbo Baggins; down-to-earth, likable, comical, and yet endowed with a great and generous spirit that shines through from early on, it is no wonder that he was Jackson’s first and only real choice for the role- the production schedule was completely rearranged to fit the actor’s availability- and his understated, everyman charm (rightly, since it’s Bilbo’s story) provides the heart and soul to the film.

There are so many wonders on display in An Unexpected Journey, and to list them all would be pointless; far better to let you discover them for yourself.  On that subject, the issue of presentation becomes an important factor.  Jackson’s audacious decision to shoot his film in the double-rate format of 48 fps. has generated much debate- and quite a few complaints from viewers who find the resulting depth and clarity to be disorienting and distracting- particularly when combined with the seemingly obligatory 3D and IMAX formats, as well as a tendency to make the various and extensive special effects trickery appear, well, obviously fake.  In answer to this, I can only say it’s entirely a matter of personal taste; I myself have seen the film twice now, once in the full-blown mega-tech format and once in the plain old 2D standard version.  I was mesmerized both times, and I had no complaints- though I will say that my second viewing, free from the “ooh-aah” factor which accompanied my first time through, allowed me to focus more attention on the content of the story itself without the bedazzlement of total sensory experience.  The content is, of course, what ultimately matters more than the gimmickry of its presentation, and it must be noted that eventually, when the film is viewed as it will later be, without the trappings of big screen showmanship on millions of smaller home screens around the world, it will be that content upon which viewers will base their judgment of the film.  In the meantime, those with a low threshold for technical bells and whistles might do well to skip the deluxe experience and visit your humble neighborhood theater; the tickets will be cheaper, and you will be able to focus on the essence of the film without the distraction of feeling more completely immersed in an imaginary world than you want to be.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is, ultimately, a film for fans.  That doesn’t make for a limited appeal, in this case; Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was one of the most popular and acclaimed film franchises of all time, and the devotion that it engenders in its fans rivals that of such other cultural phenomena as Star Wars and Harry Potter.  There will be many, of course, who will adopt a dilettante attitude towards the new trilogy, perhaps for no other reason than to separate themselves from the crowd, just as there have been critics who seemingly were poised and ready to attack the film before it was even released.  There are probably audiences who will feel that this new film is really just “more of the same,” and admittedly there are a few elements that seem like repetition of things we’ve already seen- though of course these moments are faithful to the source material, and to change or excise them would be untrue to Tolkien’s story.  No doubt the majority of fans, however, will be thrilled at the chance to return to Jackson’s rendition of Middle-earth, and will eagerly anticipate the remaining entries over the course of the next two years.  I must, in the interest of full disclosure, admit than I am definitely in this last category; it would be hard for me to have found fault with An Unexpected Journey, short of a total botch job by its director, which was never very likely- though not it’s certainly not unheard of for a trusted filmmaker to drop the ball when remounting a beloved franchise (dare I mention George Lucas’ The Phantom Menace?).  The truth is that expectation has so much to do with the enjoyment of a cinematic experience that it is sometimes impossible to have an objective reaction, particularly with a highly anticipated film such as this one.  To be sure, what it delivers might not match the expectations of many- but in reading some of the harsher reviews that have so far been published of An Unexpected Journey, I find it hard to believe they are talking about the same film I saw.  Perhaps it comes down to the “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately?” attitude that seems to pervade popular culture today, which results in a loss of interest for that which was once popular and a snarky skepticism about any attempt to revive a former glory.  Whatever the reason, there are many who would disparage Jackson for returning to familiar territory instead of taking a new direction; but exciting filmmaking does not always have to break new ground, nor does the desire to revisit a successful formula indicate a lack of creativity.  It is obvious that this New Zealander considers the definitive transfer of Tolkien’s work to the screen to be his life’s work, at least for now, and I, for one, couldn’t be more delighted.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0903624/