Ghostbusters

© 2016 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Erin (Kristen Wiig) comes to talk to Abby (Melissa McCarthy) and Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) at the Paranormal Studies Lab at the Higgin’s Institute in Columbia Pictures’ GHOSTBUSTERS.

 

One step away from earning tenure at Princeton, physics wizard Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is drawn back into one of those inexplicable friendships that drive most buddy comedies.  Her childhood friend, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), hasn’t given up on their paranormal exploits.  Having enlisted the aid of “nuclear scientist” Jill Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) who constructs gadgets for ghost hunting (something an electrical engineer would do, but never mind), Abby coerces Jill into a trip to a mansion haunted by a Lizzie Borden wannabe.  Zach Woods (Jared from HBO’s Silicon Valley) as a tour guide-slash-charlatan sets up an opening that could go in any direction, but doesn’t.  From here, the film re-treads all the major beats of the original GHOSTBUSTERS (1984, dir. Ivan Reitman), yet even that isn’t where it falls apart.

Written by Kate Dippold (THE HEAT), the screenplay re-creates the Venkman-Spengler-Stanz triad with the Zeddmore stand-in repeating the fifth wheel role thrown to Ernie Hudson (this time Leslie Jones as the token streetwise African-American MTA worker).  That the dialogue is peppered with copious amounts of faux-technobabble seems an unnecessary pre-emptive strike against fringe misogynists.  They’re not the film’s greatest obstacle to success.

Instead of trusting the comedic talents of the principals, director Paul Feig (BRIDESMAIDS, SPY) prematurely dials a lifeline in the form of cameos and nods right on the heels of unfolding the first ecto-terrorist plot I’ve ever seen in cinema.  The instant Bill Murray shows up to tangentially reprise his role as a skeptic, any hope of the film standing on its own merits is lost.  And even still, the core problem lies elsewhere.

It’s not that this go-around regurgitates the spectral introduction, the band getting back together, the token black person, the hearse, the headquarters-on-a-budget, the calculating Mayor and his ambitious sidekick, the containment system that can’t contain, haunted Manhattan, the Fourth Cataclysm (if you’re going to bring that up and leave out the rectification of the Voldrani and the Third Reconciliation of the last of the Maketric supplicants… well, I have no words for you)… It’s the inconsistency of the dialogue, story and editing that leaves me flat.

After the crafty opening haunt at the mansion, the first act plays like an SNL sketch with each of the seasoned players channeling characters that feel too borrowed from earlier material.  When the acting comes off its stilts, the narrative climbs aboard and trundles dutifully through all the transit stops until we arrive, predictably, at a climactic sequence that makes you wonder how Michelin turned down promotional placement in a successful franchise twice.

I almost forgot to tell you that Chris Hemsworth is in this film.  That the film spends a great deal of time dwelling on his dumber-than-styrofoam character because there’s so little confidence in the comedic chops of the four female principals should tell you why I don’t care that Hemsworth is in this film.  Sure, he’s great to look at and jokes abound.  But it leaves me wondering if studios have forgotten who they are trying to please, are trying to please everyone and no one at the same time, or simply don’t care if they please anyone at all.   The film won’t please film purists who believe that GHOSTBUSTERS should never have been remade.  The film won’t please women for whom the fabrication of intelligent banter seems lazy.  The film might please eight to twelve year olds, who will have no knowledge or recollection of the original … begging the question as to why so much time and effort needed to be spent revisiting old territory and paying overspent actors for unnecessary appearances if the likeliest audience for this film doesn’t know or doesn’t care.

The one person at my screening who I can say was truly excited about this entire affair periodically shouted, “WHOYAGONNACALLLLLLL” in a way that telegraphed his blood alcohol content.  And I am convinced that the average eight to twelve year old is more demanding in their tastes.

A parting thought: As I left the theater, my conscience grappled: Is this the future of cinema?  Are we doomed to an endless stream of recycled pictures consisting entirely of reconstituted gristle seasoned with guest appearances (in thirty years can we expect Wiig and co. to make cameos in a rebooted reboot?), so that, like a few theme parks that come to mind, the audience can fork out the gross domestic product of a small country to rent a chair, watch oversaturated colors fly at them (in gimmicky 3D) on an improperly lit projection with uncomfortably loud sound?  I’m trying to think of a witty, Gene Shalit punchline to this… but now I’m just fucking depressed.

The Neon Demon

NEON DEMON. ©2016, Broad Green Pictures.

ELLE FANNING as Jesse in Nicolas Winding Refn’s THE NEON DEMON.

 

Writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn’s elegy to the 80’s riffs endlessly off the visuals of better directors (DePalma, Mann, Cronenberg, Lynch) while succumbing to its own conceits.

Elle Fanning plays Jesse, the typical naif in a sun dress and braids, telegraphing her ingenue-off-the-bus status to her fellow models—clearly L.A. natives in their bodices, skin-tight leather jeans and Aviators.  The joke played best in Verhoeven’s SHOWGIRLS, in which Elizabeth Berkeley arrives in Las Vegas, a wide-eyed optimist from Bumblefuck, U.S.A., leeches off the sweetest (read: dumbest) boy in town, and climbs to the top of the entertainment world ladder.   The genius of filmmakers like Verhoeven and DePalma was that one could never quite tell whether they were in on the joke or not.   Where’s Kyle MacLachlan when you need him to spell it out?*

Jesse befriends make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), whose unrequited attraction veers the plot into manufactured unease as a setup for a tonal and narrative shift that makes no sense.   Absent is the necessary connective tissue walking us logically from Ruby’s ill-timed come ons to her misguided turn.  Instead, we get a disjointed series of vignettes that tell a less coherent story than 117 minutes of Human League, DEVO and Talking Heads music videos spliced together indiscriminately.  There was a great opportunity for Refn to take notes from DRESSED TO KILL (De Palma) and make a bolder statement about sexuality, gender identity and power, but instead he opts for the more worn-out trope of the has-been’s revenge.  The has-been, Sarah (Abbey Lee), and her protege, Gigi (Bella Heathcote), engage in psychological warfare with Jesse.  Undeterred, Jesse becomes Queen of the Plastics—errr, the new hot commodity.

Verhoeven had the sense to toy with the sexual tension between Gina Gershon’s Cristal Connors and Berkeley’s Nomi Malone, but Refn plays it straight.  It’s fine that this turns it into black comedy akin to Mary Harron and Gwen Turner’s AMERICAN PSYCHO, but when a filmmaker imagines himself and his work to be high-minded “events”, evinced by the aura and awe manufactured through NEON DEMON’S publicity campaigns, it’s awfully pedestrian of him to reduce the story to a pissing match with less depth than the feud between Regina George and Cady Heron in MEAN GIRLS.  In MEAN GIRLS and SHOWGIRLS, both approach the macabre humor of PSYCHO—Regina gets hit by a bus, Cristal gets thrown down a flight of stairs.  An empty pool in Los Angeles?  Why not just toss her off the U.S. Bank Tower with a faulty wing suit so she can crash face-first into the side of the Bonaventure?  If you’re going to mock your own art flick with a Los Angeles cliché…

Refn is too engrossed in false color nostalgia, replicating the moods and palettes of the 80s, like Panos Cosmatos (BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW) or the retro-wave hipster bands of late–copying the sound and fashion, but never bothering to listen to the lyrics.


* Keanu Reeves cast against type as a child predator seems less motivated by his acting chops—spanning the entire gamut of blank—than an attempt to update the joke hoping Millennials might get it. After the fact, reading scads of reviews and comments comparing this film to BLACK SWAN (2010), both the story and the subtext (if any) are completely lost on them anyway. So too is a casting stunt meant to contrast with a diametrically-opposed role ten years older than Aronofsky’s SHOWGIRLS-meets-FIGHT CLUB on crazy pills.

 

Captain America: Civil War

© Walt Disney Pictures Studios. All rights Reserved.

Chris Evans as Captain America and Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. © Walt Disney Pictures Studios. All rights Reserved.

 

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

-Samuel Johnson, 7 April 1775

 

In the 1950s, as declassified documents reveal, the Central Intelligence Agency created Project MKUltra, an attempt at using conditioning/interrogation techniques in combination with psychotropics (LSD) for mind control of subjects.  Uncovering moles was the Agency’s initial goal.  The program had considerable participation from numerous institutions and prestigious universities and, along with the Tuskegee Experiment and radiation exposure tests on Native American subjects associated with the Manhattan Project, the operation remains one of America’s darkest spots.

Albeit a failure, MKUltra continued on through the 1970s.  Its test subjects included counterculture author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and Ted Kaczynski—the Unabomber.  Ted Kaczynski was a UC Berkeley professor until he inexplicably quit in 1969, by all accounts then a normal individual until he was subjected to a controversial study conducted by Henry Murray.  Kacyznski is serving eight consecutive life sentences at a SUPERMAX prison for sixteen bombing scommitted between 1978 and 1995.   In 2010, ten Russian sleeper agents were arrested in the United States and exchanged in a prisoner swap.  The Cold War, it seems, never ended.

Following the narrative set in motion by CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, its title a reference to the Winter Soldier hearings and Paine’s quote in The American Crisis, the Avengers are met with fierce criticism in the wake of collateral damage in Lagos.  Wakandan aid workers in a nearby office building withstood an explosion the superheroes attempted to contain while in pursuit of a terrorist stealing a biological weapon.  Wakanda, for those new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a fictional African nation, home to the precious vibranium ore—also fictional, a virtually indestructible material from which Captain America’s shield is made.

Out of this catastrophe, the jurisprudence of the Avengers is questioned by Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt). They’re effectively under house arrest until the Sokovia Accords which will place their oversight in the hands of the United Nations.  A prime suspect at the center of foul play in the signing of the Accords is Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), a former instrument of the Cold War, not unlike those test subjects and sleeper agents—literally thawed out and “activated” to assassinate targets with secret codes.  The embers of Barnes’ friendship with Steve Rogers/Captain America ignite a rift between two camps within the Avengers—those wary of their unchecked power and those skeptical of oversight by governments easily infiltrated by HYDRA, the Nazi splinter faction corrupting nations since World War II.

Several of the characters are placed in a moral dilemma.  The opening scene’s destruction comes at the hands of Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. Scarlet Witch, an “enhanced” individual with special powers; Marvel’s extant licensing agreement with Fox bars overt use of the X-Men trademark.  Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Falcon (Anthony Mackie; watch for a timely Mark Fuhrman reference), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and other superheroes on both sides seem less cocksure of their chosen side (TEAM CAP or TEAM IRONMAN, marketing mirroring the media penchant for polarization).  But the standout is Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther.

The son of Wakanda’s king, Prince T’Challa skirts the Magical Negro trope for his role as the one voice of rational skepticism guiding the principal, and predominately white, characters out of their conundrum—self-inflicted out of a plot-convenient failure to communicate.  However, a pivotal scene I will not spoil, makes T’Challa a leader:  He spares another man similarly consumed by rage, whereas Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) would have killed another.

When directors Joe and Anthony Russo are at their best, inspired by Pollack’s THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR and Ritt’s THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, they dive into character details.  In their previous film,  Black Widow and the titular Captain America bantered about their personal lives, continuing in that vein with a sensitivity absent in other Marvel films.  In CIVIL WAR, we see shards of Bucky’s shattered life—the tattered mattress on the floor of his flophouse room, candy bars strewn atop the refrigerator and a journal with a museum brochure in it.

On the obverse, Sharon Carter (Emily Van Camp) receives short shrift despite a setup in THE WINTER SOLDIER for a solid, thoughtfully crafted role as Agent 13 in Marvel’s clandestine unit, S.H.I.E.L.D.  A shoehorned romance with Captain Rogers plays inappropriately, too soon, and entirely out of character for either of them.  A subplot involving other sleeper agents serves no purpose and meets no end except as a vehicle to further the rift between Stark and Rogers.

The film lacks the grace of THE WINTER SOLDIER which paces its fantasy action and political thriller elements more evenly.  The Russos devote substantial time undoing the incoherent mess Joss Whedon left behind in AGE OF ULTRON—even working in a joke about Clint Barton’s (Renner) family life and Tony’s inexplicable un-retirement.

So busy juggling character introductions and story setups, the story never really resolves its own central thesis: whether or not the Avengers, save for Rogers, can learn to fight for something beyond themselves and each other.  Once they take sides after Lagos, subsequent battles occur in remote or vacant locales presenting no moral quandary.  Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) has a funny scene that might turn horrifying if the airport weren’t conveniently evacuated.

Saddled with the responsibility of introducing numerous characters and threads leading into the climactic INFINITY WARS, CIVIL WAR is effective yet falls short of brilliance, were it instead focused narrowly on rebuilding the fragments of Bucky and Steve’s friendship.  They’ve 70 years of catching up to do and the film cannot spare them a single moment, save for a glance of solidarity.  Why, when theirs is the saddest story of all?  Bucky was enlisted twice: First, as Steve’s friend and protector.  Then drafted into service, made a prisoner of war, tortured and conditioned to commit horrible atrocities.  Steve is still the little scrapper from Brooklyn who lied to enlist, so he could combat atrocities and the bullies who commit them. Bucky is a victim in recovery, fighting other people’s battles his entire life.  Like SSgt. William James in THE HURT LOCKER, Steve is no Sunshine Patriot.  For him, the war never ends.

High-Rise

©2016, Magnolia Pictures.

Tom Hiddleston in HIGH RISE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

A Boy Eats His Dog -or- How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Twenty-Fifth Floor.

It wasn’t the coke-fueled sex parties at the pool, the string quartet playing ABBA at a decadent, Restoration-period costume party in the penthouse, or the literal defacing of a cadaver’s head that struck me—the least of the film’s grotesqueries.   There’s a moment in Ben Wheatley’s HIGH RISE where physiologist Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) and Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), architect of a Gilliam-esque apartment complex-turned-social experiment, volley serves in a game of squash when you notice the warped, desiccated floorboards of the court.   This occurs well before other hints that Royal’s dream, residential towers intended to form an outstretched hand, is becoming an inescapable nightmare—think Sartre’s No Exit.

Adapted by Amy Jump from a novel by J.G. Ballard that’s been stuck in development hell for a good thirty years, HIGH RISE is a timely retro-mod commentary on social inequality that has no protagonist.  Rather, it has an agonist: The fucking trash chute.  I’m reminded of an apartment complex my wife and I lived in some years ago that was billed as “luxury living”.  The architect saddled the management company with, reportedly, somewhere around 1,300 design flaws.   A few dozen drunken trust fund baby, 3am-on-a-Tuesday pool orgies later, we abandoned ship… I kept tabs on the reviews only to discover that within the year that followed, the hallway trash pileups graduated to dogshit piles.  HIGH RISE descends through several more levels of hell before hitting bottom.

The film is more meticulous in design than the concrete albatross in which it takes place.  You know from the solitaires on both ring fingers, one weathered hand pressed to Laing’s forehead to confirm a fever, that his assistant is a remarried mother.  Is it relevant to the plot? No.  It’s relevant to the atmosphere, which plays somewhere in the space between Bong Joon Ho’s SNOWPIERCER (class warfare), Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL (bureaucracy, aristocracy, excessive ductwork) , Cameron Crowe’s VANILLA SKY (trapped in a nightmare), and some touches of Richard E. Grant’s shrinking grasp on reality in Bruce Robinson’s HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING.

My former writer, Daniel Laabs, introduced the film at the Tenth Annual Dallas International Film Festival, exuberantly declaring it “insane”.  On the contrary, the film couldn’t be clearer.   It’s the tenants who slip (read: derail) into bacchanalian indulgence, save for Laing—the calm in the eye of the storm.  After dabbling in the sex, booze and brutality, in one instance over a can of paint in the onsite grocery store (it takes a moment before you realize that no one ever leaves this concrete hell except for work), Laing dissociates while the other residents unravel.  Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), his upstairs neighbor, is another matter.  Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) is Wilder’s object of lust; Helen Wilder (Elizabeth Moss), his unbridled rage.  Yet Wilder remains, as Laing observes, actually sane—self-aware of the accretive psychological effects of the anarchy aboard this festering eyesore.

Royal and his entourage of aristocratic sycophants descend further into madness, at one point protesting that Wilder has taken to, “raping people he’s not supposed to rape” whilst themselves raping and pillaging.  It’s almost absurd, until you remember Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert.   Royal and his penthouse loiterers actively plot to steal resources from the lower floors/classes who are too far gone to organize a resistance—the women lack agency, the men are out to lunch.  Unlike the French Revolution, the film ends with a bang AND a whimper….

The Jungle Book

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

– Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden”

In attempting to distance themselves from Kipling’s racist views of indigenous peoples and British colonization/occupation of the same, as well as the conservative views of Walt Disney’s founding father as reflected in the values of the 1967 motion picture, Disney created a version of The Jungle Book which has no sense of the setting or culture of India.

A feral child, Mowgli (Neel Sethi), is raised by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), a mated pair of wolves, leaders of a pack coexisting in a truce with other animals of the jungle.  When threatened by Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a wounded and hungry tiger distrustful of humans, Mowgli and his mentor, the panther cum narrator Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), decide that Mowgli must return to the world of his fellow humans.

The story follows Mowgli’s adventure as he is befriended by an opportunistic bear, Baloo (Bill Murray), preyed upon by a python (Scarlett Johansson in a trippy sequence that, thankfully, shelves the musical number for the end credits), and creeped out by a power-hungry Orangutan, King Louie (Christopher Walken, fulfilling his duty as the eccentric weirdo who shows up half-way through the picture).   Aside from the murderous tiger, quaaludes-and-fog snake, gigantism-stricken primate singing an upbeat tune about assimilation in a maniacally-destructive rampage, this is totally a children’s movie… or not.

The computer generated animals look convincing, melding language with their natural facial movement, avoiding the uncanny valley but at the same time imbuing the grim story with a realism that some children might find unsettling.   To wit: the woman sitting to my right spent the entire film consoling her child from one tragedy to the next.  But, even and especially the unnervingly precocious child-actor Sethi, a Manhattanite billed as a real Indian (I’m a real Indian too, but my parents couldn’t afford private schools), takes me out of what’s supposed to be colonial India…. never mind the grey wolves, orangutans, jerboas and myriad other animals who don’t exist there.  I like Sethi, and maybe he’d be perfect in a comedy about a precocious Indian-American who gets lost in the grid-layout of Manhattan only to be found by a scheming casting agent played by Joe Pesci.  But here, his line readings and over pronounced body language has to be carried by the likes of Sir Ben of whose majestic enunciation the film seems undeserving and Murray who I was certain had sworn off acting aside CG cats.  I had forgotten that paychecks can induce amnesia.

That said, the film is visual spectacle, to be sure.  And one becomes invested in the fates of the characters, including Mowgli’s inquisitive pack-mate, Grey (Brighton Rose).  The film creates a clear sense of right and wrong; violence and greed are blinding forces that threaten a delicate balance upon which all depend.  More disturbing than any chase sequence is a moment where Shere Khan attempts to destabilize the wolf pack by gas-lighting the pups—Mowgli is an outsider usurping their den.  As Shere Khan spins the lie, the terror in Raksha’s eyes is heart-breaking.  In that sense, the film combats the kind of otherism perpetuated by Kipling and the Colonial aristocracy.  Given the current sociopolitical climate of xenophobic vitriol, there’s substantial merit in instilling these values in the next generation that might, like Mowgli and his companions, rescue us from ourselves.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ TM & © DC Comics

(L-R) HENRY CAVILL as Superman, GAL GADOT as Wonder Woman and BEN AFFLECK as Batman in Warner Bros. Pictures’ BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

It’s generally a bad, bad sign when a screening is prefaced by a video of the director pleading with critics to not spoil any key detail of the film.  As Roger Ebert famously wrote, “What makes a movie great is not what it is about, but how it is about it.”  It’s a given that critics understand the unwritten rule of not spoiling the plot, and no studio executive or director needs to educate us on the basics of critical analysis.  That is, a good critic doesn’t beat you in the head with paragraph after paragraph of expository synopsis.  That’s Zack Snyder’s job.

DC and Warner Bros. have put their hat in the superhero ring with this tepid follow up to MAN OF STEEL (2006), again penned by David Goyer who seems to hate moviegoers more than he hates critics.  In schizophrenic fashion, Goyer’s crammed three movies into one with his signature incompetence—exposition, redundant flashbacks (who doesn’t know that Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered?), recycled platitudes (“People are afraid of what they don’t understand.”), and a franchise-reinforced false sense of security coupled with a complete departure from character (Kent’s as dour as Supes, and selfish to boot?).

Without tempting fate and angry phone calls from a desperately insecure director, the central plot of BATMAN V SUPERMAN introduces us to Jesse Eisenberg’s version of Mark Zuckerberg’s version of Lex Luthor.  Instead of a hackneyed plot to corner the real estate market, Luthor masterminds a criminal plot to pit crimefighters against one another with a series of easily disproven falsehoods.  What could possibly go wrong?  I’m not saying Lex is terrible at covering his tracks but he’d have been better off ordering those armor piercing rounds through the Adam & Eve Catalog.  But then the story would be missing a paper trail for Lois Lane (Amy Adams) to follow.  “Gumshoe” comes from Latin, meaning, “Plot convenience.”

Peculiar even still that Henry Cavill’s Superman, Ben Affleck’s Batman and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman never crossed paths without Luthor’s machinations.  From Metropolis, Superman can hear a girl trapped in a burning building somewhere in Mexico—correction, in the Snyderverse, Supes gets his crime alerts from network news!—yet never does he sense that these and other “metahumans” could use some help fighting injustice now and then?  To be fair, Luthor put so much effort into creating custom electronic dossiers with neat little logos, practically naming the future Justice League.  He stores them in a secured filesystem that nobody knows exists.  As with all Hollywood hackers, all it takes is a hunch about a codename the meaning of which you haven’t the slightest clue and you’ll magically stumble upon the precise, completely unrelated, information the villain needs you to find to cartwheel into the third act.

Fans of the Superman comics already know how this film will end.  The answer is right in the theatrical trailer.  Perhaps DC and Snyder felt rushed to cram four character introductions into one story to catch up with Marvel’s Avengers franchise—nearing its plateau with CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, the lead-in to Phase Three and the climactic Infinity Wars.

After MAN OF STEEL spent the entire third act disintegrating into a blurry, CG mess of incomprehensible action, you’d think Snyder would resist the temptation.  Yet here he plunges even further into the abyss with violence escalating beyond all comprehension.  Yes, we get that they’re practically gods (Wonder Woman actually is one, which begs the question: Why armor?), but Snyder creates a series of bigger explosions and greater “inescapable” scenarios which works itself to absurdity until the audience, not the villain, is beaten into submission.  What about their ability to relate to one another’s unique search for identity and purpose?  Wouldn’t that make for an interesting genesis?

Adding insult to injury, the first two acts snowballing into this clusterfuck are dedicated to doubling-down on Snyder’s misinterpretation of Superman in the previous installment: Having just killed Zod, one of his only remaining Kryptonian cousins in MAN OF STEEL, Superman doesn’t vow to be a pacifist—the Superman we know, love, and admire.  Snyder desecrates everything that made Superman the exception among even superheroes: This Superman will be a petty, sneering, vengeful Superman with greater disregard for human life than ever before.  How crass does a director have to be?  Now he’s following in Bob Orci’s, Damon Lindelof’s and J.J. Abrams’ footsteps trying to rationalize missteps to the media.  He compares the toxically-mascuine violence of BvS with the planet-annihilating First Order of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS.  Never mind that the destruction in the latter is committed entirely by the villains.

But at least Bruce Wayne gets a ridiculous Rocky-esque training montage (sans John Cafferty motivational music) while almost every single woman in the film is either abducted or murdered.  I can’t wait to see what kind of positive feminist message awaits us in the upcoming Wonder Woman film…

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

© Warner Bros. Pictures

© Warner Bros. Pictures

What makes us human?  Adapted by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples from Phillip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,  Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER (originally released in 1982; now in its fourth incarnation) explores this question through the story of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a police officer who “retires” synthetically engineered beings called Replicants.  Four Nexus-6 Replicants have escaped from an off-world colony, where their kind are used as disposable labor in harsh conditions unsuitable to humans.  Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), Leon (Brion James) and Pris (Darryl Hannah) are led by the calculating Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer).  Either the studio did not afford Scott the time, or he didn’t care enough to show us, so everything I’ve just described is relayed in an expository opening crawl.

Saturated with images establishing the decrepit future of Los Angeles, 2019, Scott’s picture revels in postwar dystopian slang, a crumbling world wrought by specific oppression rather than benign negligence—the dilapidated Bradbury, impoverished Asian-American commoners muttering Esperanto or the like, and off in the distance, gleaming pyramids representing the monolithic Tyrell Corp, manufacturers of the Replicants—all suffocated in smoggy, diffuse light flashing through window shades as if we didn’t already know from the hammy Hammett dialogue that this a film noir.

Deckard uses a standardized psychological test, called the Voight-Kampff, to profile suspected Replicants and identify them on the basis of their lack of memories or normal emotional responses to provocation.  Invited to meet the founder, Mr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel), Deckard’s asked to administer the test to Rachel (Sean Young), a next-generation Replicant with memories implanted in the hope of fostering better emotional stability and human interaction.  Replicants have been given a four-year lifespan to prevent stunted emotions—a consequence of not having memories.  Rachel has both memories and a limited lifespan, and she shows up in an alley precisely when Deckard needs her to, but never mind.

The only characterizations that work for me are Cassidy’s Zhora and Hauer’s Batty.  Zhora, an assassin from a “kick murder squad” (whatever the hell that is), survives as a dancer in a seedy bar run by a stereotypically loathsome owner, Taffey Lewis (Hy Pike).  Zhora’s intensity and desperation followed by her public execution gains our empathy; did Deckard really have to kill her if she was going to die anyway?

If I were to ask anyone what defines the characters of Rachel or Pris, they might answer, “shoulder pads and cartwheels”.  All the detail is focused on how these women look—window dressing without the window.  Only Rutger Hauer is afforded the opportunity to chew scenery, figuratively and literally as he bashes his head through a wall and takes a nail through his palm.  Can Christ metaphors be any more sophomoric than that?

Scott’s story makes less sense than its individual images.  He attempts to connect the world visually through Mayan and Egyptian architectural motifs, occasionally stumbling his way into beautiful static triumphs of set and costume design, yet never connects them into a whole as Deckard trundles about the city hunting down the four Replicants.  A descendant of BLADE RUNNER, Alex Proyas’ sci-noir, DARK CITY, at least followed through with the question it begged about the core of humanity and the seemingly constructed nature of its contiguous world drowned in perpetual darkness.  Deckard (which my computer, apropos, keeps auto-correcting to “dickered”) is too busy chasing Replicants.

BLADE RUNNER doesn’t engage you directly; it forces passivity on you.  It sets you down in this lopsided maze of a city, with its post-human feeling, and keeps you persuaded that something bad is about to happen.   Some of the scenes seem to have six subtexts but no text, and no context either.  – Pauline Kael

Like Nolan’s INCEPTION and Kubrick’s 2001, Scott’s works are really shallow, action set pieces masquerading as profound science fiction.  His films are themed, generally, in simplistic terms for broad consumption: David vs. Goliath, man vs. industry, good vs. evil, us vs. them.  Only in subsequent re-edits did Scott reverse engineer the character study, but in the wrong direction.  The Director’s Cut and Final Cut versions of the film show Deckard dreaming of unicorns.  Later, his sidekick Gaff (Edward James Olmos) leaves an origami unicorn at Deckard’s doorstep, implying that the dream or memory is implanted.  Various writers including Frank Darabont, have argued that the change, and Scott’s concrete confirmation in interviews, undermines the film’s morality.  As a human, it’s transformational for Deckard to gain empathy for Roy who ultimately accepts his own fate in a stunning, existential soliloquy that Hauer crafted on set.  As a Replicant, Deckard’s just looking out for his own kind.  It upends the entire meaning of the story, not that there’s a coherent one to begin with.

BLADE RUNNER is excessively praised for its visuals as well as its score by Vangelis, shallow compared to the Maestro’s other compositions and riffing heavily off the mood pieces in his homage to film noir, The Friends of Mr. Cairo, released a year earlier.  As much I am a fan of Vangelis’ work, I agree with Kael that, like his accompaniment of Scott’s dreadful 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE, the electro-orchestral score overwhelms the imagery and dialogue, or perhaps Scott isn’t skilled enough to keep up with Vangelis’ grandiosity.  I don’t know if that’s a compliment or an insult.


 

BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT is playing in a limited run at the Texas Theater.

The Hateful Eight

© 2015 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino on the set of THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Photo: Andrew Cooper, SMPSP / © 2015 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

In 2011, three of the world’s major suppliers of motion picture cameras—ARRI, Aaton, and Panavision—each announced they were ceasing production of film-based cameras and switching to digital.  The following year, Kodak announced it was selling off its film division.  As of 2014, all but 2,500 of the approximately 40,000 theater screens in the US have been converted to the Digital Cinema Package (DCP) format.   The advantages of digital distribution are primarily shared by theatrical exhibition and motion picture production.  That is, since the advent of DCP, motion picture studios have almost entirely eliminated the duplication and shipping costs associated with 35mm exhibition and theater owners have automated much of the exhibition process thereby eliminating the need for skilled projectionists.  Aside from the technical inferiority of the format, the absolute best of which appears washed out compared to even a middling film print, none of these savings have been passed on to the consumer.

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, punctuated beautifully by Ennio Morricone’s original score, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, has been presented for a limited, one-week engagement at 100 theaters nationwide in Ultra Panavision 70, a 70mm panoramic format 15% wider than the conventional 35mm standard Panavision format, with a stunningly greater degree of detail. Ultra Panavision was most notably employed for BEN-HUR and last used on the 1966 Basil Drearden epic KHARTOUM, which both utilized it to capture mostly outdoor panoramas.  Currently, the film is showing in digital cinema nationwide.

Our story begins several years after the end of the Civil War.  Union soldier-turned-bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) flags down a stagecoach transporting John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his bounty, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is to be hanged in the city of Red Rock, Wyoming.  Delayed by a whiteout blizzard (what we Midwesterners call “October”), the trio picks up a fourth, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) and takes refuge at Minnie’s Haberdashery—a watering hole where all is not as it seems.

At Minnie’s they happen upon Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the hangman of Red Rock, Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir), and two suspiciously quiet men, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and Confederate General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern).  What follows is part stage play, part whodunit, and part revenge porn—Anthony Shaffer’s SLEUTH comes to mind.

Since RESERVOIR DOGS, Quentin Tarantino has always put forth character studies with no innocents, no survivors without consequence, and at least one elaborate deception.  One can’t help but sense a stagnation in Tarantino’s storytelling, especially when his previous two pictures, DJANGO UNCHAINED and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, already effectively trod the disenfranchised retribution fantasy as well as the themes and lyricism of the Spaghetti western.  Odd that, in his tenth outing, he hasn’t once turned his eye toward the topical with gay protagonists, though he is content to overuse male-on-male rape as his closest go to.

I’ve never made a violent film. A violent film is one that bares a woman’s tits just to show them, instead of having it come from a place of some meaningfulness. There’s a way to present the conflicts we have in our sexuality that has meaningfulness and there’s a way to exploit sexuality without any meaning to it. There’s a way to present suffering and violence that has a meaning to it and a way to go lopping off heads that is mindless.

-Harvey Keitel, THE ART OF DARKNESS (1997 biography)

The strength of Tarantino’s oeuvre is in his usage of dialogue and violence to create depth and subtext.  In a movie landscape peppered with inane, plot-advancing exposition, Tarantino’s dialogues spin elaborate stories that bring us closer to the nature of his characters, or conversely further apart like a series of rabbit holes with no hint as to where they lead.  That too is a relief.  Twist-driven stories are tiresome, having become exercises in which the attentive viewer can unpack all the easter eggs that lead to a conclusion that has an equal chance of being right or wrong, depending on where the director chooses to take a left turn.  THE HATEFUL EIGHT invokes none of this:  The suspense and tension are built smartly on the interplay of the characters attempting to outwit one-another, rather than the omniscience of the audience’s reliance on twists past to dictate the outcome in a universe of finite possibilities like the horribly linear storylines of 90’s era video games.  Part of me wants to admit that Roger Ebert was right, and that THE USUAL SUSPECTS was a scourge on filmmaking rather than a boon, fixing our expectations forever on the reliability of the unreliable narrator trope.   Here, all the players are unreliable narrators.

In every film Tarantino’s made, no one is unnecessarily victimized.  Each person gets their comeuppance in a way that only the unobservant would interpret as hyper masculine violence porn.  While this holds true for EIGHT, it feels as though he’s overplayed his hand enough that several important beats don’t hit us as hard as should be.  Initially, yes.  When Daisy gets clocked in the jaw by Ruth the first three or four times, you feel it.  But once gallons of blood have soaked the floorboards of the Haberdashery, a harrowing near-escape doesn’t land with the usual punch.  Normally, in a Tarantino flick when someone loses an appendage, it’s a visceral moment.

In terms of the actual characterizations, however, QT is in top form: In particular, Walton Goggins’ performance as Mannix, a scenery-chewing bigot who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock.  While most of the characters, including a few surprise appearances I won’t spoil, are fine performances (hats off to Channing Tatum for somehow leveraging his generic, all-American charms into the realm of the creepy), it’s Goggins that builds the most interesting arc—a misguided, racist buffoon whose principles outweigh his prejudices.  Jennifer Jason Leigh as Daisy hits her cues to establish the stereotypically quiet psychopath (Domergue… Dahmer…) though this may yet be another misdirection.  The rest of the cast plays very much to type, including Tim Roth’s  mustache-twirling Brit, Bruce Dern’s cantankerous asshole, Demian Bachir’s cartoonish Mexican, Michael Madsen’s Michael Madsen and Russell’s Jack Burton-meets-Wyatt Earp of whom I can’t decide whether to find delightful or groan-inducing.

The standout, of course, is the visual storytelling.  There’s a moment where DP Robert Richardson breaks the so-called 180 degree rule in which the conventional setup for a dialogue utilizes matched over-the-shoulder shots so when the perspective is flipped, the actors are still on the same sides of the screen.  Here, Richardson uses the enormous negative space afforded by the Ultra Panavision format to let our eyes digest the feckless chickens in the barn juxtaposed against the next shot of the blistering, frigid snowstorm.   As though Richardson’s winking at us and his fellow cinematographers, the two actors criss-cross so they exit into the snowstorm on the same sides of our periphery as when we entered the shot—breaking and sustaining the convention at the same time.

Though epics such as BEN-HUR leveraged the format’s size to capture sprawling outdoor sets, the 2.76:1 aspect ratio closely matches our field of vision and, wall-to-wall, entombs us in the Haberdashery with the eight players.  Academy or Panavision (what many mistakenly call “scope”) formats wouldn’t capture simultaneously this spaciousness and confinement.  Astonishingly, Tarantino pulls it off with a picture 1.7 times wider than in Lumet’s 12 Angry Men,  achieving the same tension.

The presentation of the 70mm roadshow delights and infuriates me.  Given the technical and financial hurdles involved, we’re unlikely to see Hollywood, the Mecca of risk averse capitalism, venture out into this lone wilderness again.  Why not?  Why is 3D gimmickry a better path to ticket sales than large, crisp images with colors that pop, musical overtures to set the mood as patrons enter, and intermissions to relieve us of the $500 of concessions we purchased going in (and give the theater an opportunity to profit from seconds)?

And there’s no possibility of a big breakthrough in movies—a new release of energy, like the French New Wave, which moved from country to country and resulted in an international cross-fertilization—when movies are financed only if they fall into stale categories of past successes…

And when I saw The Black Stallion on a Saturday afternoon, there was proof that even children who have grown up with television and may never have been exposed to a good movie can respond to the real thing when they see it. It was a hushed, attentive audience, with no running up and down the aisles and no traffic to the popcorn counter, and even when the closing credits came on, the children sat quietly looking at the images behind the names. There may be a separate God for the movies, at that.

-Pauline Kael, “Why Are Movies So Bad -or- The Numbers?”, The New Yorker; June 23, 1980

Granted, there will always only be a handful of pictures that benefit from this kind of presentation.   To wit, prior to THE HATEFUL EIGHT, only ten pictures were ever filmed in this particular format.  Movies today, though, seem less like an event than a chore, like something you feel obligated to squeeze in on your way to buy overpriced jeans.

Frank Herbert’s STAR WARS

@2015, Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

@2015, Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

 

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

-T.S. Eliot, “The Sacred Wood”

This op-ed discusses numerous plot and character details.  It is intended as a discussion for the benefit of people who have already seen the film.

In STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, J.J. Abrams commits great effort (and money) to imitate the pathos if not the ethos of a galaxy far, far away.  We could deconstruct Abrams’ work as a pedestrian exercise in fan service vis-à-vis Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, but that would be just as much a slam dunk as handpicking not one but two movie franchises, each for its built in audience.

The babbling spring, in this case the “best watering hole in the galaxy”, is a bar run by Maz Kanata (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o), who bluntly tells Rey (Daisy Ridley) of The Call, leading her to the amulet (Luke’s original lightsabre).  Along with Rey’s refusal, Abrams dances through a facile re-creation of Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) Journey which begins with a premonition in the cave on Dagobah in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.  I’ve always wanted to know at least a little bit more about that cave, but I’m content to keep wanting.  George Lucas, that master of annihilating suspense with ponderous explanations, fortunately never revisited the subject.  J.J. did, in a slapdash manner more akin to visual cacophony than mystical omen.

As I mentioned in my review of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, there’s a well-paced, kinesthetic initiation in the duel between Rey and Luke’s fallen pupil, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  A tremendous opportunity was missed here.  We have already seen the initiation rites of the light side of the Force, but why not the Dark Side?  Why not see his Call and Refusal?  Kylo Ren can be a fascinating character, if writer/director Rian Johnson tugs on that thread farther than Kasdan and Abrams did.

You might have the underpinnings of a social commentary:  On the one hand you’ve got an underprivileged young woman, taken from birth and left on a ball of sand to scavenge for a trader who looks like a walking blobfish.  Then you have the privileged white male teenager whose parents are a Princess and a General.  He was boarded with the finest of teachers, Luke Skywalker himself.   How is it that the underprivileged woman keeps her chin up despite her circumstances and yet the privileged white boy succumbs to the forces of darkness and kills his own father?

Joseph Campbell once stated that George Lucas was his best student.  As I re-read Campbell’s Hero, I begin to understand, partially, why he stated this even though it was Kasdan and Irvin Kershner who did most of the heavy lifting after the financial success of a standalone story allowed them to run with the world Lucas haphazardly laid out.  The chapters describing the Hero’s Journey read like a reference manual.   Mind you, I love reference manuals.  However, the cold, analytical fact-reading tone of Campbell’s book is  devoid of passion, quoting passage after passage from classical prose.  This seemed to fit Lucas’ documentary mindset toward world-building and archetypal characterization.  Lucas embraced Campbell’s technical instructions for re-creating the pieces of the Hero’s Journey, if not the philosophical motivations.  Abrams merely sought to imitate the parts of Lucas’ technique to appeal to the pocketbooks of fans disgruntled with Lucas’ foundering, self-indulgent prequel trilogy.  To quote Walter’ Chaw’s brilliant writeup at Film Freak Central, “Abrams doesn’t always hit the notes, but he hears the music.”  Well, he hears the money.

In the final scene of THE FORCE AWAKENS, Rey finds Luke atop a steep cliff (typical of Abrams’ literal-mindedness).  Like Rey’s theme, one of Williams’ most original works in decades, the music swell evokes the same awe as during Indiana Jones’ raising of the Staff of Ra in the Well of Souls in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.  The name Skywalker, aside from sounding vaguely tribal, has an aura about it, and now monomyth becomes metamyth.  Luke’s defeat of Vader and the Galactic Empire is fundamentally reduced to prelude of a retread—the doomsday device plot already exhausted twice.  How could he??  Vader’s redemption is Luke’s apotheosis.  In the final scene, the now-godlike Skywalker, last of the Jedi, expresses simultaneous anguish and dread—already having established powers of premonition in films prior.

Part of me wishes to see Rey complete her training under Luke’s tutelage and liberate Kylo Ren from the clutches of Supreme Leader Snoke (Kim Jong-Il would like to have a word with the screenwriter).  However, wouldn’t that too be repetitive?

It’s a given, too, that Snoke is a direct stand-in for Oz, giving orders from afar appearing only as a giant holographic projection.  Who wants to bet that he’s just as short as Yoda or any other Campbellian crone in the paint-by-numbers Star Wars universe where everything is so deliberately and harshly delineated?  Why not imbue the characters with meaningful conflict.  Campbell did a great job of explaining the idea of monomyth and how the Hero’s Journey manifests, but he didn’t necessarily seem to subscribe to the idea that it was a good narrative.   But if I had to pick a mythology for which both he and Lucas shared affection, it would probably be Buddhism.

The STAR WARS universe is replete with unexplored possibilities and implications.  Consider the will power it takes for Vader to defeat the Emperor; his extended invitation to Luke is perhaps borne out of foreknowledge that Luke will be is his salvation.  Now take a step back…

The Jedi and Sith are both fighting for what they believe is subjectively good.  But in context of Buddhism and its intellectual grandfather, Hinduism, they’re both failing to see the forest through the trees.   The saga of STAR WARS is narrower than the ideas it embraces.  In a galaxy (ours spans 100,000 light years; there are 200 billion galaxies in our known universe), how do you contextualize such conceits as “good” and “evil”?   What ultimately is the objective of the Sith?  They’re evil. We get it.  But evil doesn’t exist for its own sake, except in the minds of the mentally ill.  The Sith have no ideology whatsoever, but its an ideology not an heritable illness.  Tyrants always believe, in their minds, that they’re doing good.   To write it off as, “The Sith only deal in absolutes,” is simply mediocre storytelling.

In post-Vedic Hinduism, there’s much introspection on dharma, the cause of doing right for its own sake.  But Lucas so hastily cribbed from Kurosawa’s tales of a thousand-year old warrior class protecting the peasants that he neither understood the outdated context of that narrative in terms of post-imperial Japan and American military pre-eminence, nor did he really digest the cosmic implications of creating a far-spanning galaxy in which those motivations would scale to the infinitesimally trivial.  Abrams was too shallow-minded to improve upon it and the common excuse given is that he’s setting things up for the next film.  It’s now a perpetual franchise, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Is that to be the excuse given by every writer and director who gets a paycheck from Disney from here until the end of time?  It need not be.

If the Saga stayed true to the ideals of more than just Lucas’ sophomoric read of Buddhist philosophy, how might its denouement manifest?   Rey and Ren would transcend the banal concepts of good and evil, light and dark.  Luke might merge with Ben, Anakin and the Force and ascend to a demigod, a semi-objective arbiter.  They might come together to defeat the ruling class of Princesses, Generals and Supreme Leaders, who, like our own ruling class, creates “others” out of everyone to manufacture the consent of the bourgeois to send peasants to fight wars that profit only the elites.

Wouldn’t it be something if the Saga concluded not with more battles to titillate and desensitize us.  Why, when they can move objects with their mind and see into the future, are they not already liberated from the petty ambitions of their teachers who are, to paraphrase Sagan, strangely transfixed on being momentary masters of a fraction of a dot somewhere in one galaxy among a couple hundred billion?   I suspect that every director who ever cribbed from Campbell never actually finished the book.

“The community today is the planet, not the bounded nation; hence the patterns of projected aggression which formerly served to co-ordinate the in-group now can only break it into factions….

“It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal—carries the cross of the redeemer—not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.”

-Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces