Star Wars: The Last Jedi

©2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI. L to R: Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Photo: Jonathan Olley.

Certainly, we have hardly ever faced a world in worse shape or in greater need of the lyrical, mystical, and common-sensical. There seem to be large and perpetual pockets where fair and sustaining values are more pale than they should be. But when we consider Plato, Strabbo, and the apostles Paul and John, and many others over the centuries, we see that they also wrote about their times as being likewise devoid of proper “management and meaning.” It appears that “culture at edge of utter corruption” and “world at the edge of utter destruction” are two of the oldest themes to be found in stories of the human race.

-Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D., from the Introduction to Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”

In my editorial, “Frank Herbert’s Star Wars,” I posited that STAR WARS, as contemporary monomyth, might reach the same conclusion that Campbell did in that final chapter of his treatise, in which the Hero transcends the temporary objects of good and evil in deference to the cosmic perspective.

Where THE FORCE AWAKENS cribs from STAR WARS (1977), director Rian Johnson repeats the Rebel evacuation plot of the THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.  A tonally-inconsistent mess, it tries to balance callbacks to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK—Rebels backed into a corner, Jedi training, bad omens—with some truly brilliant ideas, particularly involving Luke, Leia (Carrie Fisher), Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the Force.

While the central story concept of THE LAST JEDI, Luke’s Dharmic apotheosis and Rey’s Gnostic enlightenment, is a brilliant one, it’s hounded by lopsided execution and a ham-fisted subplot involving Stormtrooper-turned-Rebel Finn (John Boyega) and a maintenance worker, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). They must disable a tracking system aboard Supreme Leader Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) ship to evade the Imperial forces and the only man in the galaxy who can help them turns out to be Fenster from THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Benicio Del Toro).  That, I can buy.  What I can’t abide is the sloppy, last-minute romance that emerges out of this unnecessary thirty-five minute digression as if the studio executives decided at the eleventh hour to retain a sequence, otherwise extraneous were it not for the need to make something out of nothing—and the kiss still feels horribly misplaced and selfish, endangering the entire Rebellion because of a crush.

Adding insult to injury are two clumsily-doled moments:  A drab, overtly topical pep talk about #TheResistance from Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and a subtext about war profiteers in an elaborate set piece (going for Bespin by way of the STAR WARS prequels) festooned with champagne goblets—you might call it the One Percent Planet (apologies to Nicholas Meyer).  Maybe if you look hard enough, you might see a monocle-wearing peanut?  The entire bit is unnecessary as it can be slashed down to a single shot in which Fenster, I mean DJ, flips through a catalogue of Rebel and Imperial arms.

While the second and third installments of the original STAR WARS trilogy also hopped back and forth across different subplots to bridge the complex and epic span of the Rebellion’s fight against the Empire set in the backdrop of Luke’s personal journey culminating in Darth Vader’s redemption, you always knew where you were in the story and had a chance to breathe before a major shift, like the conductor resting his baton between movements of a symphony.

It’s not that Rian Johnson can’t function as a director.  BRICK was an intelligently made film, but his inexperience is overshadowed by the looming weight of the STAR WARS saga and the monocle-wearing peanuts at Disney who might have picked him for the same reason Lucas replaced Irvin Kershner with Richard Marquand for RETURN OF THE JEDI.  A seasoned director and film professor at USC, Irvin Kershner relied on his own wisdom and that of his actors to drive EMPIRE into the densely-packed chapter that cements the whole story together.  This being Johnson’s third feature, he’s not teaching classes at USC any time soon.

In fairness, and without spoiling anything, I’ll call out two parts that worked well: 1. An ingenious sequence that personifies the Dark Side of the Force as a duality-within-duality of independence and solitude in contrast to the Light’s unity/conformity, and 2. Mark Hamill.

Probably one of the most underrated actors of our time, beset by typecasting, a disfiguring injury, and the tendency of fans to misguidedly credit George Lucas with Luke Skywalker’s gravitas, Hamill gracefully balances out the atonality with an acting style informed by Meisner technique, never stretching so far in either direction (the dialogue often vacillates between drama and weirdly-timed wisecracks) as to give the viewer emotional whiplash in spite of Johnson’s best efforts.  Yet even the Moptop Jedi can’t save a plot in which his greatest revelation—that balance lies beyond dogma, institutions, and the very constructs of good and evil—is undermined at the last minute by a walk-back so baffling its logic is almost Trumpian.

It’s rather tragicomic that a movie whose themes revolve around lessons from failure and the social cost of colonial imperialism would be helmed by Disney, for whom owning the Marvel and STAR WARS franchises isn’t enough; they’re mulling a bid to buy Fox.  A more experienced director might have followed his or her own instincts and expertise, expanding upon the parallels between Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), connecting two of the most thrilling moments in the entire saga and the inexorable bond between Luke and Leia—together besting Lucas’ own muddled (and retconned) explanations of the Force with one which Campbell himself would approve:

I am the cleverness in the gambler’s dice.  I am the radiance of all things beautiful.  I am the victory and the struggle for victory.  I am the goodness of those who are good.  I am the scepter of the rulers of men.  I am the wise policy of those who seek victory.  I am the silence of hidden mysteries; and I am the knowledge of those who know.  And know Arjuna that I am the seed of all things that are; and that no being that moves or moves not can ever be without me.  Know that whatever is beautiful and good, whatever has glory and power is only a portion of my own radiance.  But of what help is it to know this diversity?  Know that with one single fraction of my Being I pervade and support the universe.  And know that I AM.

– Bhagavad Gita 10:36-41

 

 

 

The Disaster Artist

(L-R) Dave and James Franco as Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau in A24’s THE DISASTER ARTIST. Photo by Justina Mintz.

In 2003, almost a decade after I discovered ZARKORR: THE INVADER at a local video rental on the University of Minnesota campus, an unknown named Tommy Wiseau wrote, directed, financed, starred in and produced a film so inexplicably stupid it failed its way to cult status.

Directed by and starring James Franco as Wiseau, THE DISASTER ARTIST tells the story of the aspiring actor/filmmaker—an eccentric with a vaguely Eastern European accent and seemingly bottomless pit of finances, the source of which is unclear yet rumored to be a sub-TJ MAXX clothing line, Street Fashions USA.

The film re-creates, as best as possible, the backstory and working conditions of the bizarre melodrama, THE ROOM, from the point of view of Wiseau’s acrid relationship with aspiring actor, Greg Sestero (Franco’s brother Dave).  Wiseau’s third-rate, love triangle flick ran up $6 million, mostly due to his abject ignorance of industry best practices—knowing the difference between leases and capital expenditures would have been a nice start.  Entire rooftop sets are created in Los Angeles and San Francisco, two cities with no shortage of rooftop terraces.

As the production costs spiral out of control, so too does Wiseau’s strained relationship with Sestero who admires Tommy’s off-the-wall passion at the cost of his own bona-fide television opportunity alongside Bryan Cranston (playing himself in a cameo).

While THE DISASTER ARTIST doesn’t mince words about Wiseau’s harassment of cast and crew, it does underhandedly speak to a kind of geek subculture that appropriates kitsch value in all the wrong places.  It’s difficult to cheer on Wiseau as an anti-hero when it’s not clear exactly what, other than a vehicle for his own narcissism, he was championing.

In one instance, Wiseau’s inability to get through a single line reading becomes intolerable to a point where the director seems ready to walk.  This would be funnier for me if I hadn’t watched ten straight hours of the real thing on a location shoot, resulting in an actor’s trip to the ER and a day’s worth ($250,000) in lost productivity.

One feels no unease knowing that no humans were harmed during the filming of the Funny or Die sketch “Acting With James Franco“, which might as well have been James’ inspiration for taking on this project.  But THE DISASTER ARTIST, driven mostly by a near shot-for-shot re-creation of THE ROOM (excerpts shown side-by-side in the end credits), was already beaten to the punch before THE ROOM was ever a thing.  In 1999, Steve Martin and Frank Oz collaborated on BOWFINGER—about an equally hard-luck gang of Hollywood wanna-bes.  After perfecting his craft through two decades of stand-up, SNL and cinema, Martin reportedly spent fifteen years developing and two months writing that script.

It shows.

The Post

© 2017 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX FILM CORPORATION AND STORYTELLER DISTRIBUTION CO. LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Tom Hanks (as Ben Bradlee) and Meryl Streep (as Kay Graham) in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE POST. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise.

There are two types of courage involved with what I did. When it comes to picking up a rifle, millions of people are capable of doing that, as we see in Iraq or Vietnam. But when it comes to risking their careers, or risking being invited to lunch by the establishment, it turns out that’s remarkably rare. -Daniel Ellsberg

About 20 minutes into Alan J. Pakula’s ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, The Washington Post publisher Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) emerges from his office to meet with Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to discuss the Watergate lead.  One of the fastest kinetic tracking shots at the time, it’s punctuated by the Eastman 5254 100T film stock, “pushed” in chemical processing resulting in a slight, diffuse glow of the grid of overhead lights—a shot that sticks in my mind as surely as it stuck in the mind of a young filmmaker who had just come off directing JAWS.  His next film, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, about a man’s relentless pursuit of the truth to the incredulity of all those around him, took on a decidedly different look.

In THE POST, director Steven Spielberg fluidly mirrors this shot with a SteadiCam following Bradlee (Tom Hanks) through the newsroom as the drama begins to unfold around Daniel Ellsberg’s (Matthew Rhys) 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers—a decades-spanning intelligence assessment which betrayed administration doubts about success in Vietnam, highlighting the influence of what Eisenhower warned was a growing Military Industrial Complex.

When Ellsberg returns from Vietnam after conducting part of the intelligence assessment for the State Department, Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) concludes with his advisors that the Vietnam situation is worsening, “We put another hundred thousand troops in the field, things are no better.  To me that means things are actually worse,” then does an about-face before the press.

This bald-faced lie sets Ellsberg’s mind to providing The New York Times with morsels of the study that demonstrates Presidents dating back to Eisenhower committed U.S. forces to military actions in Southeast Asia that were nonetheless doomed to failure.

THE POST also tells the story of the paper’s beleaguered owner, Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), who inherited the paper from her husband Philip following his untimely suicide.  At loggerheads with Bradlee, Kay agonizes over whether or not to publish Ellsberg’s find amidst skepticism that the paper can be run as profitably as competing publishing entities Gannett and Knight/Ridder, the latter of which was purchased by McClatchy in 2006.

Spielberg and writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer reinforce the “feet on the ground” aspect of traditional journalism as we watch people running, from office to office, building to building, out at dawn on a Sunday morning to grab the first copies of The New York Times issue featuring Neil Sheehan’s report on McNamara’s study.  Like Pakula’s Director of Photography Gordon Willis, Janusz Kaminski shoots frequently from low angles to capture those drop ceilings at The Post and the The New York Times.  Spielberg contrasts this nose-to-grindstone milieu with the aristocratic boardroom drama of the pending initial public offer of Washington Post stock on the American Exchange.

“You think this is really necessary…. taking the company public,” says Donald Graham, who later sold Washington Post Co. to Jeff Bezos for $250 million in 2013.  Bezos was admonished in the press for lacking due diligence in his acquisition; in retrospect this compels one to scrutinize Donald Graham’s disposing of a key pillar of the family’s political and social presence.  A contentious end to a paper that serendipitously landed in the hands of his mother.  The paper’s founder, Eugene Meyer, passed control of The Post to Philip and not Kay—a fact that Board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) dredges up as he balks at the IPO, which the underwriters price $3 million less than planned.  Restraining anger, Kay responds fulsomely, “Thank you, Arthur, for your frankness.”

Assistant Managing Editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) follows leads to locate Ellsberg—now off the grid as the Nixon administration secures an injunction against The Times, the first such censure of the free press in America.  Kaminski echoes the closeups (minus the split diopter) of Woodward (Redford) hitting up all his contacts to track down Ken Dahlberg and the $25,000 check that connected Nixon’s re-election campaign to the Watergate break-in.

These moments, however, are beset by numerous Spielbergisms.  Returning to D.C. with the classified documents on an Eastern Airlines flight, a stewardess asks about the large box in the window seat, “Must be precious cargo.”

Ben replies, “Yeah. It’s just… government secrets.”

Later, as the team of journalists scramble to reassemble the un-numbered pages of the classified study, they’re paid a visit by Senior legal counsel Roger Clark (Jesse Plemons).  Tony Bradlee (Sarah Paulson), Ben’s wife, counts heads to make them sandwiches.

“Tell me these aren’t the pages from the McNamara study,” says Clark.

“Four thousand pages of it,” concedes Bradlee.

Just then, Tony enters with the sandwiches, and the punchline, “Anybody hungry?”

Spielberg atones, barely, bestowing Tony with the “Oh please” speech that’s important, especially now, to differentiate the task Kay has as a woman entrepreneur from that of her male publisher. But the point is to further Bradlee’s arc and, while it’s made in one sentence, Spielberg throws in four more.

Later, the plot crescendoes—a montage of the presses and trucks rolling, accentuated by the portentous bombast of John Williams’ score.  And, aside from a conclusion I won’t spoil except to say that it plays exactly like the meta-film twist at the end of Altman’s THE PLAYER, Spielberg can’t resist to inject a Gumpian “brush with history” as then Assistant Attorney General Rehnquist, a future Justice of the Supreme Court, calls to advise Bradlee the publication of the papers is prohibited by the Espionage Act of 1917—just a beat too late to stop the story going to print.

I grapple with Spielberg’s directorial ethos.  An immensely talented filmmaker, he tries too hard to please audiences when he doesn’t have to—I get why.  Like a publisher bristling to print the most important story of our time, threatened by exogenous forces, he buries his own lede an hour into this 109-minute crowd-pleaser:

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks might be the two most overrated and yet simultaneously most talented actors sought by such Generals of the Arts as Spielberg.  Before making her historic decision, Kay presses Ben about his palling around on Kennedy’s yacht, “Hard to believe you would’ve gotten all those invitations if you didn’t… pull a few punches.”

Streep subtly accents the pause with a dismissive twirl of her wrist.

Later, Bradlee admonishes Kay, “I never thought of Jack [Kennedy] as a source.  I thought of him as a friend, and that was my mistake.  And it was something that Jack knew all along.  We can’t be both.  We have to choose, and that’s the point.”

In February, The Washington Post adopted its new slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”  Coined from a quote by Judge Damon J. Keith whilst ruling from the bench of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that warrantless wiretaps were illegal, it’s ironic that Bezos pushed the slogan.  His Amazon empire commands the new technocratic state, accompanied by Facebook, Google and Twitter, the legal counsels of which were grilled by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees for their role in enabling Russian disinformation campaigns in the 2016 U.S. election.

The new technocrats understand page views, they understand ad-based revenue, but do they understand editorial guidance?  Do they understand protecting sources?  Do they respect the role of the “investigative journalist”, a phrase that became a mockery before the blogosphere thanks to the advent of 24 hour ad-funded network news.

Yet in the past week we witnessed the due diligence of editorial guidance in the firing of Brian Ross from ABC; The Washington Post rejected a fake source backed by Project Veritas.  The wheels of justice may be slow, but the hammer-stroke of responsible journalism is swift.

 

Justice League

© 2017 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC

(L-R) RAY FISHER as Cyborg, GAL GADOT as Wonder Woman, EZRA MILLER as The Flash and JASON MOMOA as Aquaman in Warner Bros. Pictures’ JUSTICE LEAGUE, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ TM & © DC Comics

For as long as I can remember I just wanted to do what was right. I guess I’m not quite sure what that is anymore. And I thought I could throw myself back in and follow orders, serve. It’s just not the same.
– Steve Rogers

As a moviegoer, you steel yourself before a film like this, “I have no expectations.  I just want it to be fun.  Anything beyond that is gravy.”

But gravy has texture.  And this review has spoilers…

Wonder Woman thwarts a terrorist plot using the Lasso of Truth to credibly work in the expository monologue in which the bad guy explains his scheme.  In the real world, the terror is the motivation, so threatening to do it seems rather counterproductive.  This opening is punctuated, unsubtly, with slow-motion scenes of (hold your laughter) a skinhead kicking over a fruit stand while a hijabi recoils in horror.  I did not make this up.  This was an actual scene, in an actual movie, that actually cost over a third of a billion dollars to produce.

It’s equally funny (or painful) to observe the way in which this prologue beats us in the head:  Nazis and other evil proliferated because Superman is dead and the world is an irredeemably horrible place.  Or maybe, just maybe, it’s that the movie is irredeemably horrible.

Written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, directed by Zack Snyder, JUSTICE LEAGUE is one of the ugliest and most disorganized films I have ever seen.  It’s offensively ugly, as with an establishing shot of the Amazonian lands of Themiscyra.  Patty Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN introduced us to the gilded fortresses and lush vistas of this mythical land.  As if to purposely insult her work, a seconds-long CG sequence that feels minutes-long presents this magical place in the most unimaginative, boring, flat angle humanly possible.

On the heels of Jenkins’ critically- and commercially-successful film, JUSTICE LEAGUE unites Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince/Wonder Woman with Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck), Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), to defeat the horribly-animated Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds voicing what vaguely resembles a horned Liam Neeson in one of several absolute wastes of talent herein).

In some kind of unpoetic symmetry that would make George Lucas proud of his worst rationalizations, this “Save The World” plot steals from the Marvel universe twice–THE AVENGERS (2012) invokes the Cosmic Cube from Marvel’s Tales of Suspense (1966) which was then copied in D.C. Comics’ Fourth World series (1970-73).  Like the Cosmic Cube (the “tesseract” in the movies), the Mother Boxes are an Asimovian abstraction; both are technologies so advanced they’re sufficiently indiscernible from magic.  In cinematic terms, they’re the same MacGuffin.

The picture makes a great deal of hullabaloo about the Amazonians as protectors of the Earth from the wrath of various gods and demigods.  In a massive battle, reminiscent of Tolkien’s War of the Last Alliance, the Amazonians, Atlanteans, and humans, fight off Steppenwolf.  He attempts to combine the Mother Boxes into the world-shattering Unity the same way Thanos from the Marvel universe acquires the Infinity Stones to combine them on the Infinity Gauntlet.

When Steppenwolf returns centuries later, their Mother Box is housed in a fortress.  The Amazonians went to considerable trouble to protect this artifact.  We see enormous doors and a series of gigantic barricades and then, one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in film:  Steppenwolf bursts through an earthen side wall like the Kool-Aid Man.  Cue Rich and Randolph’s “Yakety Sax”.

Ultimately, the Unity can only be stopped by the cooperation of these heroes with extremely disparate abilities which somehow the writers have to cripple at key moments to arrest what might otherwise become an incomprehensible plot.  Aside from a casting stroke of genius–Ben Affleck plays a smug asshole–Wonder Woman, essentially a living god, could blow the thing apart with her magical bracelets but D.C. always saves the worst deus ex machina for last.

Anyone who can read IMDb understands that Warner Bros. has no choice but to revive Superman (Henry Cavill) because we’re now stuck in a nuclear arms race of apocalypses and reboots.  Aside from his drawn-out re-appearance (it’s neither a twist nor a delight, more of a slow dribble), it’s nice to see Superman bring back some of the lightness-of-foot of the old Justice League cartoons–particularly his sporty banter with Ezra Miller’s Flash.  In spite of the much-needed booster shot of levity into a crassly-dark core franchise that perverted the concept of the incorruptible Übermensch, the film remains a visual and conceptual hot mess.  Warner Bros. usually gives us at least two acts of somewhat noble conceits before unraveling in the third.  JUSTICE LEAGUE is a cacophonous mess from start to finish.

Some of that is going to be blamed on the untimely family tragedy suffered by Snyder necessitating the last minute rewrites by Joss Whedon, but the video game cutscene-quality animations, digital composites, and generally horrible editing on a $300 million budget seem consequences of a franchise caught off guard by Marvel and serially incapable of gaining a proper footing.

Setting aside the laws of thermodynamics for a moment, where is this idiot who keeps inventing these world- and universe-destroying MacGuffins and what was he thinking?  Yes, I’m sure there’s a backstory that began with good intentions and it’s probably documented in the errata of some comic book appendix somewhere that nobody who sees JUSTICE LEAGUE has either time or inclination to read.  It’s not in the film, nor do we see how the Box protected by the race of Men is recovered.  I guess it was just accidentally unearthed at some point.  Next time, throw it in a volcano or something…

Thor: Ragnarok

©2017, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures & Marvel Studios

Chris Hemsworth in THOR: RAGNAROK.

In the Poetic Edda, Ragnarök—”the final destiny of the gods”—brings an end to Odin, Loki, Thor and several other gods of Norse mythology.  In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s co-opted mostly to show off some cool CG animations, hurl a few baddies this way and that, and give a dud of a sub-franchise a much needed facelift vis-à-vis the comedic stylings of Chris Hemsworth and director Taika Waititi.

Suspended somewhere in the bowels of a fiery lair, a chained Thor (Hemsworth) listens captively as the smoldering demon Surtr (Clancy Brown) drones on in the usual expository monologue where the evil villain explains his evil plan.  Naturally, Thor fights his way out of this prison and returns to Asgard with Surtr’s crown which leads to a series of events that releases Hela (Cate Blanchett).  Possessing immense power, she threatens the destruction of the Nine Realms—Asgard and eight other worlds, including Earth.

Somewhere along this adventure, Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) find themselves on a garbage-strewn planet ruled by an egomaniacal weirdo, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum; who else?).   Sakaar appears to be some kind of intergalactic dumping station.   That’s merely a consequence of having various portals, including one that recalls the old joke about orifices, “Hotter than…”  Also home to a kind of interplanetary gladiatorial tournament, Thor is reunited here with the reigning champion, Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and introduced to the MCU’s first gaylien—Korg (an ad-libbing Waititi).

The film strongly leverages Hemsworth’s comic timing and openness to self-ridicule.  Grandmaster is a scenery-chewing delight as Jeff Goldblum, or vice-versa?  But Blanchett’s demigoddess feels impotent when relegated to CG-laden hand-to-hand combat—why, when she can snap her fingers and kill them all?

Inspired heavily by FLASH GORDON (1980), RAGNAROK is easily one of the most entertaining Marvel films.  Yet, for all its brazen gags, its hip soundtrack (forking out the gross domestic product of a small nation-state for a couple verses of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”), and its cool if somewhat hetero-normative heroes (Valkyrie and Korg, Tessa Thompson who could be an action star in her own right and Waititi, respectively, rep LGBT in the comics), the House That Steve Rogers Built doesn’t rush headlong into truly dangerous territory.  Having exhausted multiple origin stories, each Marvel sequel is stuck perpetually recycling a “save the world” plot, just rearranging characters and settings.  How many times can an immortal god of thunder come of age and find his place in the universe?

The Millennial Falcon: What Wright Gets About Music that Chazelle Gets Wrong

:©2017 TriStar Pictures, Inc. and MRC II Distribution Company L.P. All Rights Reserved.

Baby (ANSEL ELGORT) in TriStar Pictures’ BABY DRIVER. Photo: Wilson Webb

In the climactic concert performance capping Damien Chazelle’s WHIPLASH in which Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) furiously  hammers out a drum solo to “Caravan”.  Chazelle haphazardly intercuts close ups and split screens that neither correlate to the correct pieces of the kit nor convey the feverish intensity of John Wasson’s arrangement of the jazz standard.  The typical counter-argument is that WHIPLASH isn’t a jazz movie.  True.  And SHINE isn’t a biography of Sergei Rachmaninoff, but the critical theme of both films is the short distance between perfectionism and madness.

Chazelle, a self-professed mediocrity of a musician, compounded his mistake with the saccharine, misguided LA LA LAND, in which black culture and the true origins of jazz take a back seat.   Nothing is made of the fact that Duke Ellington wrote “Caravan”, nor does Neiman show any appreciation for Ellington or anything else he composed.   Chazelle “hears the notes, if not the music,” with his obsessive, mechanical miscomprehension of “Caravan” and of jazz in general.

In “Whiplash,” the young musicians don’t play much music. Andrew isn’t in a band or a combo, doesn’t get together with his fellow-students and jam—not in a park, not in a subway station, not in a café, not even in a basement. He doesn’t study music theory, not alone and not (as Parker did) with his peers. There’s no obsessive comparing of recordings and styles, no sense of a wide-ranging appreciation of jazz history—no Elvin Jones, no Tony Williams, no Max Roach, no Ed Blackwell. In short, the musician’s life is about pure competitive ambition—the concert band and the exposure it provides—and nothing else. The movie has no music in its soul—and, for that matter, it has no music in its images.

– Richard Brody; “Getting Jazz Right At The Movies”, The New Yorker

Named for the Simon & Garfunkel tune, Edgar Wright’s BABY DRIVER is a musical disguised as a chase flick.  The film opens on a heist, in which Baby (Ansel Elgort) is employed as the wheel man.  Inspired heavily by Walter Hill’s THE DRIVER, Wright plunges us headlong into a riveting chase—the best I’ve seen since RONIN.  Baby, constantly plugged into his iPod to drown out tinnitus caused by a childhood injury, cranks “Bellbottoms” recorded in 1994 by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.   You’re ready to believe that Wright’s stand in for the OCD Neiman is just another millennial hipster glomming on to Gen X music for nostalgia.  The title card hits, trumpets strike a familiar chord, but instead of House of Pain’s “Jump Around” we’re transported back to the source of that sample: Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” (1963).

Just as quickly as we wonder how Baby developed his appreciation for the classics, we meet his foster father and a pile of records from vintage labels like Chess and Stax.  But let me step back for a moment:  The opening heist and ensuing chase are punctuated by swooping and swinging car-eography and the syncopated percussion of cleverly edited gunshot foley.  Even as he returns to his apartment, the camera swings and sways in a single take across the living room and kitchen while Baby dances to Carla Thomas’ tune of the same name—earlier, he’d met a waitress quietly singing the words.  Later, when the two hit it off, watch how the ringing in Baby’s ears ceases (sans music) and the DP dollies the camera around and around, in a restaurant, at the laundromat.  The boy is smitten.  The girl throws his equilibrium out of whack and, for a moment, he can stop thinking about what Doc (Kevin Spacey) will do to him if he doesn’t pay him off.

The visual poetry is always accompanied by the perfect song, and there are so many, from the soulful “Nowhere To Run” by Martha Reeves & the Vandellas to the smooth “Never, Never Gonna Give You Up” by Barry White—again, covered magnificently in the 90’s by Lisa Stansfield but Wright wants us to appreciate the original except in a couple of instances where he poignantly juxtaposes old and new versions: “Easy” by Sky Ferreira and the original by The Commodores, and Beck and T.Rex’s versions of “Debra”.   From the frenetic “Brighton Rock” by Queen to Young M.C’s self-mashup “Know How”—Baby has a briefcase full of mixtapes—each track fits the scene to which it is coupled and gives us a virtual tour of blues, jazz, rock, funk, reggae and hip hop in a running time barely longer Chazelle’s broken record.

A word about Ansel Elgort.  Suffice it to say he’s more compelling to watch than Lily James whom, sadly, Wright didn’t give much to do except inexplicably fall for and be whisked away by… The cherub-faced boy concealing a carnivorous smile plays Baby focused, with an economy of words—triggering what my wife refers to as a “competency kink”.   Behind sunglasses—he owns more pairs than Elton John—Baby resembles a cross between Anthony Michael Hall’s awkward geek in THE BREAKFAST CLUB, and Tom Everett Scott’s drummer, Guy, in THAT THING YOU DO.  Like Tom Hulce’s fictionalized Mozart, he’s a prodigy so insanely skilled, he waits out the heists not obsessively calculating his next move but playing with his wiper blades.  This fits.  Chazelle’s Andrew is, as Richard Brody observes about Buddy Rich, a technician, but Baby is a true band geek.  Like Bruce Willis’ cat burglar in the misunderstood, mis-marketed absurdist comedy HUDSON HAWK, Baby’s technical application of music (timing out his escapes) is secondary to his aesthetic appreciation of the same.

Footnote: While Wright’s most obvious homage—Baby’s black-on-white vest-on-longsleeve—caught my eye immediately, I ruminated on the intended metaphor.  And then it hit me….

You’ve never heard of the Millennial Falcon?  It’s the Subaru WRX that made a robbery getaway in less than five minutes and sixteen seconds.

Blade Runner 2049

© 2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC

RYAN GOSLING as K in Alcon Entertainment’s action thriller “BLADE RUNNER 2049,” a Warner Bros. Pictures and Sony Pictures Entertainment release, domestic distribution by Warner Bros. Pictures and international distribution by Sony Pictures.

This review contains spoilers, as do most reviews or op-eds of any intellectual value for that matter.

Roger Ebert described PEARL HARBOR as, “a two hour movie squeezed into three hours.”  That is precisely how Denis Villeneuve’s BLADE RUNNER 2049 plays.  While the 163-minute sequel to Ridley Scott’s rather loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, succeeds in more complex world building, it doesn’t achieve a depth of story that couldn’t have been told in half the running time.

In a future where synthetically-engineered humans called Replicants were banned and purged from Earth, a police unit of so-called Blade Runners is tasked with hunting down and “retiring” them.  K (Ryan Gosling) is assigned to this unit.

While pursuing one, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista featured too briefly in a role that showcases a real talent for subtle acting), K unearths a corpse of particular novelty, the discovery of which sets off his boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), and attracts intense interest from Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the blind, eccentric founder of Wallace Corporation, which acquired the assets of Tyrell Corporation.  Inventors of the replicants, Tyrell Corp fell into bankruptcy after the death of Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), a more believable corporate profiteer who saw himself as more engineer than demigod.  Real villains never see themselves as the villain.

Wallace sends a lieutenant of his own, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), to follow K and acquire the corpse.  I feel like Hoeks has something to say, but it’s muddled by the writers’ tendency to relegate her to glowering looks and lots of leather-clad Bad Girl/Fighting Fuck Toy high kicks.  In the end, she’s still a servant, just like Joshi, but Villeneuve and writer Hampton Fancher have little, if anything, to say about it.

In spite of daily “baseline resets”, a mantra designed to clear the mind of emotional disturbances (think of the Mentats in DUNE), K sets upon a journey to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the old-school Blade Runner who supposedly holds the key to this mystery.  His partner in this journey is… a sexbot named Joi (Ana de Armas).  And this is where the problems begin.

Betwixt a technocratic allegory to Ancient Egypt and the Let’s Go Find Harrison Ford plot, there’s so much dead space.   It isn’t used, however, to establish any sort of social commentary about the enslavement of females save for a couple tears shed by Luv.

See how meticulously the scene compositions of BLADE RUNNER 2049 are crafted:  Inside the catacombs and chambers of what appear to be the leftover Ziggurats of the defunct Tyrell Corp., golden light dances and follows Luv and Niander, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere.  Roger Deakins, who famously commented that films today tend to be overlit, gorgeously captures the fantastic textures of character actors like Bautista with barely anything but a rim light curling around his cheek.  Gosling’s face, bruised and beaten, the cobalt light turns the blood and dirt black—similar to the look of a Day-for-Night scene in MAD MAX FURY ROAD.  But this too is child’s play for Deakins.  Recall the glowing lanterns in SKYFALL.

Especially at a time when geek and film culture is beset by scandal after scandal, one would hope that filmmakers take as conscientious an approach to character and story design as the lighting and cinematography.  Gosling’s K evokes a familiar everyman, whose troubles are assuaged by his holographic sexbot.  That the entirety of her personality can be contained on a device the size of an Amazon Fire stick says as much about technological advancement as it does about female disenfranchisement.  But to the average viewer this will merely come off as a plot convenience.  There’s no deeper commentary on K’s dependency on a mindlessly-devoted, sexy female companion to define and enrich his humanity.

Let’s count:  The Macguffin is a dead woman.  The protagonist has a generic sexbot.  The mustache-twirling villain has a generic Fighting Fuck Toy, and a penchant for unnecessarily murdering his disposable women.  Mackenzie Davis (HALT AND CATCH FIRE) is completely wasted as a hooker.  The police Lieutenant seems to be written as a man cast as a woman—where either they have femininity or they are leaders, but can’t have both.  If you marvel at the casting but not the story, consider that all the casting directors are women and the creative team all men.

Even with its many locales in and around a future Los Angeles, the film is surprisingly shallow on diversity unlike its predecessor.  As I noted in my review of Ridley Scott’s original BLADE RUNNER, street scenes show us a hodgepodge of races, many speaking a sort of hybrid language similar to Esperanto.  Rain-soaked streets and alleyways are bustling with people like Osaka at night.

Yes, BLADE RUNNER 2049 alludes to environmental chaos sown by overpopulation, but are we to believe it only wiped out all the nonwhite people?

Intelligent storytelling would have more deeply examined the nature of the differences between male and female enslavement, rather than conveying them nakedly (literally in one case).  On message boards and in discussions about Hans Zimmer’s rushed score replacing Jóhann Jóhannsson’s, many readers remain transfixed on Vangelis’ vaunted accompaniment to Rutger Hauer’s brilliant Tears in Rain soliloquy.  One of the most iconic scenes in science fiction, and reportedly improvised on set by Hauer himself, it shows a male slave resigning to his fate, almost naked, clutching a dove.

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.  Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.  I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.  All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain…

Regard that image for a moment.  Think about its femininity, its vulnerability, its defiant transcendence.  Then watch the mindlessly physical work of the male slaves in this film from beginning to violent end—its slapdash coda constructed as afterthought.

In the 35 years since BLADE RUNNER opened, I can think of one instance alone that reminds me of this scene.  In Spielberg’s massively underrated film, A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE—arguably his masterpiece—Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), when taken away by police, exclaims, “I AM.  I was!”  Just shy of utter brilliance, the scene plays in the safe space of heteronormativity rather than taking a more subversive route, yet Steven Spielberg remains one of the few, if only, directors who gave the sexbot the humanity the protagonist couldn’t find.

 

Suspiria

Jessica Harper as Suzy Bannion in Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA.

Admittedly, my knowledge and experience with Italian horror is weak.  So I begin my education here, with Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA, brilliantly restored for its fortieth anniversary.  As one colleague points out, however, SUSPIRIA is straight Italian horror and not Giallo (Italian for “yellow”, so named for the inexpensive pulp stock that dimestore novels were printed on).  The former is a supernatural thriller whereas Giallo, a genre established by Mario Bava in 1967 with the visually sumptuous KILL, BABY… KILL, may invoke the spirit but leans heavily toward the murder-mystery elements of noir.

American ballerina Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) travels to Freiburg, Germany, to study at the prestigious Tanz Academy.  From the moment she arrives, however, something feels amiss.  A girl rushes out the entrance, frightened out of her wits.  When Suzy rings the intercom, a voice answers abruptly telling her to go away.  The following morning, the headmistress, Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) and Directress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) explain that the girl simply disappeared.  Not so.  What follows is a descent into occult madness and terror that’s part ONIBABA, part BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS… You’d swear that the blind pianist, Daniel (Flavio Bucci), was Z-Man in the flesh.

Writer/director Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA returns to screens in a new 4K restoration print that is among the best I have ever seen.  Co-written by Daria Nicolodi, shot by Luciano Tovoli and scored by prog-rock group Goblin, the story itself is the genesis of Argento’s induction into the annals of cinema legend.

There are two ways to unpack the narrative:  One is as a fairly bigoted wives’ tale against Romanians who figure prominently in the occult ongoings at the ominously crimson Tanz Academy (the film is an admixture of an account told to Nicolodi by her maternal grandmother and several excerpts from Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis).  Another is as allegory to the ways in which unscrupulous women oppress other women to maintain some semblance of power in a patriarchy.  However, a lost opportunity lies in the character of Professor Verdegast.   A Mengele type played by Renato Scarpa, undoubtedly the inspiration for Daniel Schreber in Proyas’ DARK CITY, Verdegast could have been the mastermind of a psychotropic experiment only disguised as occult hysteria—ideas recently, albeit tangentially, explored by Ben Wheatley’s HIGH-RISE and Panos Cosmatos’ BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW.

The most terrifying character of all is not, as you would suspect, Verdegast.   It is not even The Black Queen whose aura casts dread throughout the third act.  Rather, it is Tovoli’s dynamic use of lighting as diegesis.  Late in the first act, Suzy passes by one of the Romanian housekeepers/cooks inexplicably brandishing a sharp-edged glass prism.  Suddenly, Suzy becomes delirious and disoriented.  Cutting back to the housekeeper, the hallway is now awash in diffuse light and a strange mist.  Bathed in a color best described as “angry pink”, accompanied by the swell of Goblin’s score, the scene telegraphs an evil omnipresence.

The creeping paranoia and the excellent setups that make you suspect various players until the true story starts to unfold creates an unsettling feeling of dread, absent from American horror cinema which shifted quite a bit to gore and body horror for a good couple of decades until, probably, THE SIXTH SENSE… but even thereafter, what most filmmakers took from Shyamalan’s film was not the buildup of dread, but rather the mystery box and the twist, weakening the emphasis on narrative and suspense.

The colors are absolutely brilliant and the film looks exactly as it should have. The restoration of picture is true to the three-strip Technicolor process and color timing of the original.  The Technovision anamorphic aspect isn’t corrected or altered in any way… the optical barrel distortion toward the far left and far right of the frame (common for many anamorphic lenses outside of Panavision) adds to the disorienting mood.  True to the original, the oddly unbalanced 4 track re-acquaints us with the ungodly loud score and looped dialogue with no modification.

Having inspired so many other horror films, SUSPIRIA is terrifying in ways many American horror films simply aren’t. The score, by Goblin, isn’t used to punch up the film’s few jump scares. Instead, the wailing, screeching and bells, casts an aura of horror over each buildup, punctuated by silence when the evil actually strikes.

The creeping paranoia and the excellent setups that make you suspect various players, until the true story starts to unfold, creates an unsettling feeling of dread absent from American horror cinema which shifted quite a bit to gore and body horror for a good couple of decades until, probably, THE SIXTH SENSE… but even thereafter, what most filmmakers took from Shyamalan’s film was not the buildup of dread, but rather the mystery box and the twist, diminishing the emphasis on narrative and suspense. The closest I’ve seen in recent memory is probably THE BABADOOK, borrowing from Argento as much as it borrows from Kanedo Shindo.

Overall, SUSPIRIA ranks as my favorite 4K restoration from Kino Lorber, bringing back to the screen (this week at the Landmark Inwood in  Dallas) in pristine form one of the most harrowing horror films ever produced.

RoboCop (1987)

(L-R) Nancy Allen as as Officer Ann Lewis and Peter Weller as Murphy in MGM/Orion Pictures’ ROBOCOP.

Metro police officer Frank Fredrickson identifies criminal mastermind, Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), who orchestrated the killings of three other officers.  In response, the police force in Detroit is being privatized by conglomerate Omni Consumer Products.  The police union reacts, threatening a strike.

OCP wants to commoditize law enforcement purely so they can gentrify urban areas.  Of course, they will assume the commercial real estate development as well.  Sound familiar?

This is the backdrop of Paul Verhoeven’s shrewd satire disguised as action/sci-fi.

“209 is currently programmed for urban pacification, but that is only the beginning,” says OCP President Dick Jones (Ronny Cox).

ED-209, a heavily-armed robot resembling a cross between a minotaur and a helicopter, is a visual gag of comical genius from effects supervisor Rob Bottin, bookended by a cleverly poetic reference to Theseus with a staircase standing in for the labyrinth.  Filmed in stop-motion, the sentry’s hulking mass moves clumsily, like a Harryhausen miniature in CLASH OF THE TITANS.  ED is unveiled in one of those corporate demos that takes place in a sprawling, ornate boardroom larger than you’ll ever see in any Fortune 500 company.  There’s also an entire wall of monitors directly behind a podium, oddly placed perpendicular to the backs of half of the Board.

Granted, neither the podium nor the monitors serve any explicit purpose in the presentation, except as aesthetic embodiments of corporate excess—and a stretch of a setup for the film’s denouement.  This is Verhoeven’s reductive genius at work, part of a weapons demonstration that: a. Should never take place in any office setting, ever.  b. Does a better job of satirizing presentations gone awry than would a Q&A with PowerPoint slides.

“You call this a GLITCH?” barks the Chairman of the Board (Dan O’Herlihy turning a mean streak completely opposite his jolly alien Grigg from THE LAST STARFIGHTER), right before hearing out Vice President Bob Morton’s (Miguel Ferrer) proposal to temper the program with a cybernetic mind—ideally recruited from the best officers Detroit PD has to offer.

Enter Alex Murphy (Peter Weller).  Assigned to Metro PD South precinct, Murphy is paired with Officer Ann Lewis (De Palma favorite Nancy Allen; DRESSED TO KILL, BLOW OUT).  Eventually, Murphy and Lewis are cornered in a steel mill (the ideal location to dispose of bodies, according to Apple’s Siri™).  To Verhoeven’s credit, Lewis never falls for RoboCop.  She’s her own woman and an equal partner aligned with Murphy’s relentless pursuit of justice.

Riddled by bullets from Boddicker’s gang, Murphy is airlifted to a hospital where OCP reconstructs him into a cyborg.  In one draft of the story, Murphy was to retain some of his flesh but Verhoeven instead chose, wisely, to conceal his humanity behind a cowl, like Batman.  Only Peter Weller’s prettyboy lips remain, droning mindlessly in monotone until the climactic return to the gangsters’ steel mill hideout where the reveal of his humanity is so meticulously and deliberately mirrored on Yul Brynner’s striking gaze as the Gunslinger in WESTWORLD.

Weller reportedly studied ballet to inform the way RoboCop moved—unlike C3PO, he emulated the graceful and fluid movements of, rather appropriately, an industrial robot from an automotive plant.  While many sequences in the film are too tightly shot to appreciate Weller’s physicality, you can see these influences in the wider-angle cinematography of Boddicker’s takedown at a cocaine distribution center run by the local drug lord, Sal.  Rather than the conventional narcotics slime-ball, Sal is played by the venerable character actor Lee de Broux, whose credits span television (Mannix, Baretta) and film (CHINATOWN).  He resembles Robert Duvall, as if Tom Hagen had left Staten Island to branch into his own criminal enterprise.

Writer Edward Neumeier and Director of Photogaphy Jost Vacano worked together on Verhoeven’s Riefenstahl-meets-Republicans pastiche, STARSHIP TROOPERS.  The result: A scathing social commentary loaded with layers of metaphor not immediately recognizable to my twelve-year old self, I’ve been digesting thirty years hence.

“Madam, you have suffered an emotional shock.  I will notify a rape crisis center,” says RoboCop to a sexual assault victim he rescued with his “Big Fuckin’ Gun” (A Beretta M93R dressed to look like a coffin).  Aside from the obvious poetry of RoboCop’s shiny metal ass facing the camera under a smug OCP Billboard touting its Delta City project (“The future has a silver lining”), the deeper subtext here is a commentary on privatization.  Displaying no emotion or concern, RoboCop’s utterance carries the blithe tone of a faceless customer service representative’s apology for “inconveniencing” one of Corporation XYZ’s millions of customers.

As with Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis’ BACK TO THE FUTURE, Verhoeven’s sociopolitical introspection is everywhere, especially in the Reagan-era ads for everything from brand-name artificial hearts (“By Jensen! Yamaha! You pick the heart!”) to belligerently large sedans with horrible gas mileage (the 6000 SUX, or, as my wife points out, presciently one letter away from “SUV”), and 30 second soundbite-driven news.  Executives live in high-tech mansions while homeless men wander the streets and there’s seemingly no middle ground.  Incidentally, the heedlessness and hedonism of the upper class would have its comeuppance six months after ROBOCOP’s release, culminating in Black Monday—the largest single-day decline in the stock market since the Crash of 1929.  Nonetheless, the catastrophe trickled down to us all.

Basil Poledouris’ score punctuates this cynical burlesque with clank and bombast reminiscent of his Anvil of Crom from CONAN: THE BARBARIAN.  Like Milius’ and Howard’s titular hero, RoboCop has a code of honor, in the form of three Prime Directives:  1. Serve the public trust.  2. Protect the innocent.  3. Uphold the law.  Murphy becomes the property of OCP brainwashed by a set of rules that serve his corporate masters. Not himself.  In a theme common to Verhoeven’s fictions (TOTAL RECALL, STARSHIP TROOPERS), the protagonist wrests himself away from external ideology in deference to his own innate understanding of right and wrong.

Theseus conquers the minotaur.


ROBOCOP is currently in limited re-release for its thirtieth anniversary.