Saturday, November 8, 2014

Intergalactic Planetary

Christopher Nolan's movies have tended to be plotty puzzle boxes that delight in staying one step ahead of the audience right up until the end. This worked, just barely, in 2009's mind-heist Inception but became too ungainly for its own good with The Dark Knight Rises a mere two years ago. Interstellar represents a turn away from that towards a more straightforward style making nakedly emotional appeals to its audience. This would be refreshing except that Nolan doesn't really know how to do that.

The Setup: In the near future, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) was a NASA pilot once, but now spends his days tending a farm, raising what crops he can with his two children Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, later Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet, later Casey Affleck) with his father in-law Donald (John Lithgow). The earth is subject to frequent dust storms and blight that is steadily wiping out entire crop species, and the Coopers seem to be at the center of some strange magnetic forces that lead them to a secret NASA base led by Cooper's old mentor Professor Brand (Michael Caine) that's planning to evacuate humanity from the Earth, which requires finding a habitable planet to colonize, which in turn requires making contact with members of the exploratory team, including one whose identity I won't spoil, that was already sent out. Cooper arrives just in time to pilot this expedition, with a team that includes Brand's daughter Amelia (Ann Hathaway) and a personable robot assistant, TARS (Bill Irwin), who is so much less annoying than it could have been. To everyone's surprise things do not go as expected.

Simple, no? No elaborate mechanics of dream extraction nor unwieldy conspiracies to unravel, just a straightforward tale of setting out to do a big thing or two to save the world. There are complications along the way, and a few Big Questions that the plot is going to eventually solve, but the answers (in the broad sense if not their weird details) are kind of obvious, and once it gets going the film becomes mostly concerned with wowing the audience visually, when it's not lecturing them about love (and sometimes even when it is!).

That's once it gets going: the first act is an odd beast, with character-building exercises that function to set up later plot developments for both this movie, and one that doesn't exist (I have no idea what to do with the knowledge of Cooper's cancer-killed wife, and neither does the film). On the plus side, its world-building is refreshingly unfussy. The blight crisis is spelled out in no uncertain terms, but the implications that it's had for society--which has apparently shrunk so drastically that the crowd size for a New York Yankees game is appropriate for a Little League match--is understated. The film doesn't know how to transition out of this into space exploration mode, though, at all, so it more or less cuts to liftoff rather gracelessly. It feels like a whole act has been sliced out of the movie, but I cannot imagine anything of importance being included in it and am grateful that the movie is not longer than its epic two hours and forty-five minutes.

Once we're off to the (space) races, the movie Interstellar most brings to mind is Danny Boyle's Sunshine, both in its 'last-ditch mission to save humanity' setup, and also its abrupt third-act shift out of an unhurried storytelling mode into tension and white-hot action. The difference, though, is galactic: for where Sunshine has an unimpeachably brilliant build-up that is thrown away for hectic film-breaking bullshit, Interstellar's extended dual climaxes save it from the insubstantial naval-gazing that has come before. There so much talk, about love as a force like gravity, and there is so, so much crying. It is not without reason, certainly, but it is an emotional cheat. Even with Nolan's usual plot knottiness stripped back the characters still feel like devices rather than people with interior lives that we are privy to, and so the weepiness has little impact.

Nolan is on much surer footing when he's trying to knock our socks off, which he does spectacularly and often. The images (which I saw in glorious IMAX 70mm film projection) are rich and frequently mind-bending, and they're paired with some choice sound design. There's a moment where a shot of a shuttle orbiting Saturn is juxtaposed with the sound of rainfall and thunder that approaches sublimity, and the success of the movie's third act that I mentioned is largely owed to the sturm und drang of Hans Zimmer's hulking score, which over a sustained half hour mutates from strings into pipe organ into electronics, building and releasing tension masterfully.

With much of this approach, it seems Nolan wants more than anything to recall the heady sci-fi of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. He comes close in parts, especially the climax of the climax, but he is hamstrung by his (and his brother Jonathan Nolan, with whom he wrote the script) insistence that everything make narrative and logical sense in the end. 2001's success rests entirely on matching its unforgettable visuals with elliptical storytelling that leaves much unexplained and invites the viewer to provide meaning. Nolan's got the visuals down pat, but he tells us everything (including when to cry) to considerably diminished effect.

It didn't have to be this way; Inception's dream logic was undermined by a similar heavy-handedness, but The Dark Knight used its very messy structure--which would normally be a liability--to formalize the story it was telling: it made the audience feel the Joker was an agent of chaos, rather than just telling them. Interstellar falls short of its lofty ambitions, much as Inception did, but it's still very entertaining and awe-inspiring on its own terms. It shows Nolan loosening up, perhaps too much in the waterworks department, but it's a welcome development all the same, and the craftsmanship is as impeccable as ever.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Notes on Godzilla


Because it's quicker than an essay.

- The opening credits are the best I have seen in years, since Watchmen at least. Big, exciting music set to blocks of classified text that are swiftly redacted leaving only the cast and crew, all superimposed over "stock" footage that I only realized toward the end was in fact giving us a condensed version of the movie's Godzilla's origin...

- ...which it strangely elects not to tell. There's sentimental value in having had him originally make trouble in 1954 and only now  reawaken, but beyond that...why? The film never really explains why he's around and has it out for these giant bugs that are the real enemy. This is a reboot if anything, and though superhero origin stories are by now well-worn, it would have been interesting for the humans in the film to treat Godzilla as a force of nature rather never before encountered than to be largely taken for granted. A big part of characterization, even of characters who only roar at things, has to do with how they are regarded by the other characters; having Godzilla be treated as not that big a deal, makes him not that big a deal.

- The biology of those giant bugs makes no sense. They are originally introduced as parasites, discovered inside the fossilized remains of a giant...something. But their whole mission in the movie is to incest mate, in some hole in the ground. If anything they should be trying to fuck each other through Godzilla, which would certainly give the movie the horror kick that monsters seem to lack these days.

- The humans' strategy doesn't make much sense either. If you're trying to get a nuclear bomb past the baddie that we know doesn't fly, why send it on a train to be attacked, and then airlift it? (Because a train attack looks cool, of course, and I'll admit, the shots of the female bug passing over and under and around the bridge are pretty neat.)

- I like the Godzilla design. Much good use is made of the dorsal fins, cutting through the surface of the ocean like a shark times a million, and the face, while strangely dog-like in its nose, is quite expressive. He's got a nice 'fuck you' sneer to these giant bugs.

HERE BE SPOILERS

- I guess this is the closest I'll come to knowing what it felt like to watch Psycho when it first came out, because I was genuinely shocked that they killed Bryan Cranston not even halfway into the movie. It's a bold gambit, but it doesn't pay off because there's no Anthony Perkins to replace his Janet Leigh. The ostensible star of the movie, the big lizard, is deliberately only glimpsed through much of the film to keep from spoiling his mystique. Which is all well and good, but that leaves us with the other humans, none of which step into the celebrity void to anchor the film that Cranston leaves behind him. Ken Watanabe has the most natural gravity, and I was hoping that Cranston's death would clear the way for the story, such as it is, to focus on a character who is actually from the nation that gave us Godzilla. But Watanabe is reduced to spouting pseudo-profundities about Godzilla 'creating balance' and man trying to control nature. After being introduced as the leader of the lab that's been keeping the bug egg a secret for a decade-and-a-half, he ends up having nothing to offer and unlike Cranston isn't allowed to die when he's outlived his usefulness. Aaron Taylor-Johnson instead becomes our ostensible lead, but he is no more memorable than whatshisface from Pacific Rim was. None of the characters are so stock-y, but neither are they compelling in their own right either.

- Pacific Rim was dumb by design, and its humans generic ciphers. Godzilla tries to put some meat on these bones, the better to give some weight to the events at hand. The scenes have a greater visceral thrill by giving us so much of a worms-eye view of the destruction, but the consequential violence is all front-loaded, and none of the characters matter enough anyway. And there's some good monster action to be had, including some applause-baiting money shots. But the movie's coy approach to its monster star and undue emphasis on its human stars eventually works against it by cutting away from its final battle to characters who have long since ceased to be interesting.

- So the human : monster ratio in these movies has yet to be perfected. Godzilla is probably the better film, but I can't help but wonder if Pacific Rim is the better monster movie.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Driving Each Other Crazy

Many a short play revue are organized around a theme. Love, for instance, or the number ten. In Neil LaBute’s Autobahn, the unifying characteristic is the automobile, that symbol and begetter of American sprawl and freedom. The car is not a thematic interest, though, only the setting. Big Intimacy Group’s recent production of the short play cycle, directed by Rob Mueller, doesn’t belabor this point, with Colin McIlvaine’s straightforward and unfussy set, a couple elevated car seats with a steering wheel in front of a scene-setting scrim, being all that it needs to be without feeling just so. The plays showcase what kind of scenes can be staged within a vehicle, but cars in themselves do not figure much into the plays’ inquiries—that would be word games and Labute’s somewhat alarming gender politics. The production is, barring a few missteps, the best treatment the material could receive.

The proceedings start strong with “Bench Seat.” Two young lovers (Emma Thorne, Logan Sutherland) are up on a secluded hillside overlooking town to make out, or, maybe, to break up, as it becomes clear that the young lady has serious, serious issues. The piece is a neat study in contrasts, with Sutherland’s smooth jocularity (which eventually shades into a passive resignation) juxtaposed with Thorne’s jagged, twitchy paranoia. Like several of the pieces it goes on for too long, circling back to the same topics and comic devices, but the performers’ energy never flags and it entertains and unnerves in equal measure.

Said energy carries over to the next playlet, the best of them, “All Apologies.” It is a comic monologue, given by a man (Jonathan Berenson) to his wife (Jill Durso), in which he apologizes in his own fashion for being an abusive sack of shit. It flips the dynamic of the previous scene, with the woman now reacting, this time silently but so intently, to the increasingly unhinged man. His rambling is a tour-de-force performance in bullshit-spinning peppered with digressions on the origin and meaning of words like “awesome” and “golf,” in the end punctured simply and devastatingly by the wife’s incredulous laughter. The laugh is not in fact in LaBute’s script--she merely stares instead--but it’s a welcome addition that opens the storytelling perspective beyond the captivating and entertaining monster at the piece’s center and keeps it from letting him off the hook.

The same, alas, cannot be said for “Merge,” in which a husband (Anthony Taylor), having picking his wife (Haley Palmaer) up from a convention, tries to parse her ambiguous testimony about having been raped in her hotel room. She wasn’t raped, we learn, for she drunkenly invited all those/both those (the use of the word ‘all’ is a detail the husband clamps onto with the tenacity of a pit bull) men to join her. The script’s one-sidedness--we never get an explanation for or exploration of her nymphomania--makes the play problematic to begin with. Coupled with Anthony Taylor’s furious, accusatory take on his character, it makes the play an ugly exercise in slut-shaming which reaches its terminal conclusion in a nihilistic ending, a murder-suicide traffic swerve that is merely hinted at in the title and stage directions. Of the night’s proceedings, it’s a considerable bump in the road.

The show gets stuck in second gear for the the next piece, “Road Trip.” We’re presented a man (Todd Litzinger) and a young girl (Caroline Jordan) on a seemingly innocuous excursion. We learn that he’s a predator, and like most predators he’s family or something like it, probably her step-father, and this trip, for the girl at least, is decidedly one-way. The relationship between the two characters and the reveal of its true horrible nature is drawn delicately, but the tension of the play exists only between the audience's omniscience, and the limited perspective of the girl. Between the girl and the man there isn’t so much friction, and the piece never quite takes off because of it.

Though it shares similar subject matter, this is not true of the final and most intriguing piece, the show’s namesake, “Autobahn.” Like “All Apologies” it’s a monologue, this time given by the woman (Annie Grier) ruminating while her husband (Jonathan West) drives, about their troubled foster son’s accusations of sexual abuse. The play rightly doesn’t belabor the reveal of what it’s about and so spends its time exploring the two characters’ responses to this situation and, accordingly, forcing us to wonder what exactly the situation is. The wife’s chatter, her rationalizations and can-do optimism, increasingly feel like an evasion of a horrible truth. Meanwhile Jonathan West wears a mask of the most profound sadness--but is it a mask? Is it guilt? Self-pity? Manipulation? The play never tips its hand in either direction. This can be frustrating, playing up an ambiguity for which, as Dylan Farrow’s recently renewed allegations against Woody Allen have shown, there is no luxury in real life. As a work of drama, though, the did-he-or-didn’t-he question works, especially as a contrast to the other the earlier plays, whose creeps we were allowed to feel much more certain about.

The production, it should be noted, eliminates two of the seven vignettes, "Funny" and "Long Division." They are missed not for the plays in themselves, though "Funny" is quite good, but for their casts, two women and two men; the one man-one woman dynamic of the other plays, especially given Neil LaBute’s fixation on abusive sexual relationships, could use some variety. What we are given, however, is a solid offering, directed and performed with energy and attention, in service of an at-times uneven collection of plays. As a vehicle for drama, the engine occasionally threatens to stall, but the body is ever polished.





Saturday, July 6, 2013

Once More, With Feeling


'Pretty durned good' is not meant to be a put-down. Yet for Once, the darling of critics and the Tonys, I can't help but feel a little disappointment. The ads promised transcendent, romantic rapture. What I got instead was a mostly rote tale of masculinity crisis, vigorous life by enormous talent. Not life-changing, but pretty durned good.

The story, adapted from a well-received indie film written and directed by John Carney, concerns a Dublin musician, Guy (Arthur Darvill), who's despondent over the departure of his girl to the New York City, and the resulting anguish in performing the repertoire of songs he had written about her. Enter Girl (Joanna Christie), a Czech immigrant who takes an interest in his music (and vacuum-repairing skills) and before long has  him booked in a recording studio to lay down a demo and potentially break out of his dreary routine and live life to the fullest.

The scenario, in its broad strokes, is a variation on what is now the well-worn Manic Pixie Dream Girl vehicle: sensitive nice guy is in the middle of an existential crisis, and in comes a quirky, life-affirming lady who exists solely in relation to him to help him realize his true inner potential. Girl here is not quite so simple: we see her at home among her family, and we learn that she has a daughter, and a husband. In perhaps the biggest departure from the trope, she doesn't end up with the boy, only helps him to follow and try to rekindle the magic with his former paramour. Yet Girl still feels like an adjunct to Guy's story; her daughter is a prop, not even a proper plot device, and it remains unclear what her stake in all of this is, and why she would be so intensely focused getting Guy straightened out (though it does help that, again, his musical skills are phenomenal). She feels secondary, which is fine in a story of about guy finding his footing, but suspect in a show whose promotional photos constantly show the two characters together. This is very much his story, not theirs.

The show would not be nearly the success it is were the rest of its elements not absolutely top-shelf. John Tiffany's direction creates an intimate environment within its pub interior set, having the cast all onstage at the top of the show jamming on old folk standards, and with drinks being served at the bar during intermission.  And the one time the staging does break out from the bar setting, in which the two leads stand up above it all, looking over Dublin, is both totally unexpected, and absolutely, brilliantly logical. Tiffany is immeasurably aided by Natasha Katz' lighting, deftly used not just to create moods but also delineate the playing spaces of a scene, and Steven Hoggett's choreography, which keep the sometimes subdued music and potentially momentum-halting scene changes lively.


Above all the show lives and dies by its music (supervised and orchestrated by Martin Lowe), which here operates a little differently than normal. Being a musical about musicians, the numbers are (mostly) not stylized renditions of a characters' inner turmoil or conflicts, but actual songs that the characters themselves are performing. In the wrong hands this could be disastrous, a creaky plot functioning as a skeleton on which to hang some tunes. Which it still sort of is, except the music itself is really quite wonderful. It's deceptively simple soft folk-rock, but with craft and texture applied to the composition and lyrics--Mumford and Sons-styled bellyaching, it ain't. It's performed by a cast/orchestra (when they're not playing secondary characters, the other actors are doubling as the show's musicians) with nary a weak link. It is a joy to listen to. The songs's emotional impact is boosted by the fact that they are often (in the story) being used as proxies for how the characters are feeling, such that the way they are played and sung is more important than what's being sung. This is just as well, as the story, at least as presented here, is not rich enough on which a traditional music-and-lyrics score could hang.

Make no mistake, the book is never bad, but nor is it as deep as it wants to be--the characters are, if there is such a thing, stock quirk: the banker who likes to play music, the bar owner who wants to get laid, the self-described "serious" Czech girl. The actors give these types considerably more life than exists on the page, as does the music, and the outstanding direction. Thus does Once find itself in an awkward position of being better than it is on paper, yet not as good as it's been in the papers.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

More is Les

The reception of Les Mis, and the reception of the reception, is almost more interesting than the movie itself. Curmudgeons, with David Denby leading the charge, have reacted coolly to the movie’s bald appeals to emotion, while Megan McArdle, at least one Andrew Sullivan reader, and other more enthusiastically weepy viewers have celebrated its passion, forthrightness, and lack of ironic detachment. As a theatre person who’s seen Les Mis twice on stage (and had some nice things to say about it in London), and who even owns one of the cast albums, I think I have at least some standing to offer an opinion on Tom Hooper’s filmic adaptation, and by extension the show itself and the phenomenon as a whole. 

The movie is a fairly faithful adaptation, in that for better or worse, what one thinks of the original show is likely what one will think of the film. Anne Hathaway is as great as you've heard, and Russell Crowe as awful. The recreation of 19th century France is gorgeous, but you'd never know it by the abundance of long close-ups on the singers' faces. The much-ballyhooed live recording of the singing keeps the proceedings intimate and not as histrionic as the stage version often is (more on that in a minute). Anyone who loves the musical already should be satisfied with the film, which does not at all attempt to convert skeptics.

Like the stage show, it's a whirlwind telling--though, notably, slightly more complete than the stage version--of Victor Hugo's magnum opus, the tale of ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), his theft from and mercy granted by the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean), and his subsequent redemption through saving the life of Cosette (Isabelle Allen, later Amanda Seyfried), daughter of the ruined Fantine (Hathaway) from the vicious Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), and raising her to eventually fall in love with young Parisian Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is pined after by the Thenardiers' daughter Eponine (Samantha Barks) and who with a group of students led by the revolutionary Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) revolts against the re-established monarchy--with Valjean all the while evading capture by the justice-obsessed inspector Javert (Crowe).

Watching the show and the movie is sort of like reading that last sentence but with more elaborate adjectives and in all capital letters, and here is where we get to critics' complaints about the movie's emotional pushiness. Hugo’s novel is 1200+ pages long, which gives it ample time to unspool in a deliberate fashion. For every extended essay on justice or the Parisian sewers or the Battle of Waterloo, there’s a well-pitched, page-turning sequence—Valjean’s escape from a coffin, say, or his race against time to prevent an innocent man accused of being him from going to jail. Reducing the original, gigantic tome to fit three hours’ traffic of the stage can’t be done without a lot of corner-cutting, even with the amount of story that gets completely left out. By keeping all the main players and giving them their big moments as the musical does, the finer narrative details get butchered, to the point that it all plays like a Cliffs Notes version of the book: it hits all the major plot points, but with no concern for things like tension and pacing. Most of these plot points are decisive moments of crisis, which are played with maximum emotion and minimal context.

This is most true in the first half hour or so, when something new is happening literally every minute. It's the most interesting section of the film, an adaptation of an adaptation, in that its fidelity to the source material highlights all the more the difference between the two media. Onstage, it's easy enough to go along with the compressed action of the Valjean and Fantine exposition scenes, as even the most literal staging is at least somewhat abstracted. On film, however, we actually see this compression in action, and it's seizure-inducing. Like an extended music video, the rapid-fire montage editing cuts not just to a new angle, but a new scene every two or three seconds--Valjean will be outside a church one moment, on a rocky hill another, and talking to a stranger a third--settling down only to focus on an actor's face. It's profoundly jarring and discomfitting, and not in a good way, and it is perhaps the clearest illustration of the musical's manic way of telling its story. 

Things settle down once the action moves comfortably into the 1832 storyline, but characterization and development remain threadbare. Things happen, lots of them, but with only the minimum explanation of cause-and-effect (and sometimes not even that; the movie abridges a critical scene in the Paris sewers that, coupled with the actors additionally being covered head-to-toe in shit, makes it difficult to register what is even happening), with the operatic emoting of the characters doing the heavy lifting to get us through.

That operatic, sung-through score is the not-so-secret weapon in the show's arsenal against its audience. The basic idea of a musical is that characters break into song at moments of heightened emotion, when speech won't suffice. But the characters in Les Mis never stop singing. This is exhausting, and it gives the proceedings a sense of sameness over time. Sung-through musicals can be done well, to be sure, but they need lyrical and musical invention and a variety in moods to break things up. Sweeney Todd does this; Les Mis does not. It has a great deal of clunky lyrics (phrases like "the hate that's in your head" and "the cry of my hate" are particularly gross examples), and with the exception of the Thenardiers' handful of songs, the show's mood is deadly serious straight through, the better to ram home the emotions that the book (of the musical, not of Hugo) is not doing the work of cultivating.

This is what critics mean when they accuse the show of being manipulative. Of course all stories, and particularly Hugo's novel, are manipulative; but there's no art in the musical's artifice. Instead of playing with an audience's experiences and hopes and expectations to produce an emotional response, it takes the most obvious route of parading a frenzy of emotions with which it bludgeons the audience into following suit. (For a contrasting example, "Being Alive" from Company has more to say about life and love than Les Mis's entire libretto.)

Les Mis, the musical and movie is thus, basically, emotion porn. It’s skeletal storytelling to get to the goods, all climaxes with no foreplay. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that—lots of people like porn! And I even like and appreciate Les Mis for the emotion porn that it is! It's obviously very good at what it does. But let’s not pretend that it’s above criticism, merely because it’s popular. Were popularity the only barometer of quality, the Transformers movies would be stone cold masterpieces.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Pun Nintend(o)ed



(Some spoilers follow.)

Wreck-It Ralph should be viewed as less a movie than a cultural artifact of the early 21st century. It is not a bad movie, by any means. Its construction is sound, its technical ability accomplished, its celebrity voice casting surprisingly successful (I typically find Sarah Silverman grating, but here, no longer able to just be as obviously "offensive" as possible, she is refreshingly spunky). On entertainment grounds, it is largely successful. But far more interesting than how funny it is (quite, and quite often), is the way it trades on its audience's knowledge of video games, and depends on video game characters and iconography for its effect. So completely reliant is it that, regardless of its merits as popcorn cinema, it functions less as an independent cultural entity than as a milestone in postmodern cross-corporate artistry.


The contours of the story are deceptively familiar. In the games of Litwak's Arcade, all the characters live in a world unto themselves. The villain of Fix-It Felix Jr., Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) spends his days smashing windows that Felix (Jack McBrayer) repairs in order to eventually save the building's tenants, who throw Ralph off the building at the end. Tired of always being the villain and having to live in the dump, Ralph abandons his game one day to try to win a Hero's Medal in alien invasion first-person shooter Hero's Duty. In doing so, he crash lands in a candy-themed racing game called Sugar Rush, bringing with him one of the nasty, reproducing bugs from Hero's Duty. In the process he raises the ire of Sugar Rush's King Candy (Alan Tudyk) and Hero's Duty Sergeant Tamora Calhoun (Jane Lynch). He then enlists glitchy exiled racer Vanellope von Schweetz (Silverman), to win him a medal in a race so he can get back to his own game before the arcade owner decides it's irreparably out of order without him and has it unplugged and taken away.

The scenario is classic Pixar, even though this is a Disney film. Toy Story was about the secret world of toys, A Bug's Life the secret world of bugs, Monsters, Inc....You get the picture. Yet rather than these films, Wreck-It Ralph shares a far stronger kinship with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a film which also used the storytelling grammar and tropes of video games to an unprecedented degree, but even then just as a filter for an otherwise grounded love story. Ralph is about video games, period, and to its end enlists an array of cameos spanning the past thirty years of video games, from Q*bert to Pac Man to Street Fighter to Sonic the Hedgehog to Super Mario Brothers and beyond, with homages to other games not mentioned by name. To understand the difference between this and the Pixar pictures, imagine if, rather than just Mr. Potato Head and Etch-a-Sketch, Andy's room in Toy Story was populated with Stretch Armstrong, Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man, and other such brand names. That would have been distracting at best--but here it's vital, not just to the world of the movie, but also to its humor and themes.

Nor is it simply a crass toy commercial, not the way the actual Transformers cartoon was all those years ago, but neither is it a self-contained product. A look into the 'universe' of video games would simply not be convincing without being populated by authentic video game characters, every one of them worth millions of dollars and owned by media giants. A good case could be made that 20 years after Super Mario Brothers: The Movie, the reason there are no great films based directly on a video game is that the characters are too tied to the companies that own them, and they exist solely to sell products, the games themselves, that make those companies money.

And it's not just characters that are being licensed here. An assortment of brand names appear, in all manner of capacities. A close-up shot of a Subway cup is the most blatant and annoying; embedded far deeper in the movie's being are Oreos, which are the subject of a gigglingly obvious Wizard of Oz pun, and Mentos and "Diet Cola," on which a training montage and the movie's climactic action scene are inextricably tied. As with the game characters, the product-placement so completely sublimates the mise en scene that the two become bound, the art as vehicle for the ad, the ad as vehicle for the art.

It's all very entertaining, in the way that inside jokes are very entertaining to knowing insiders. (The movie is rotten with delicious candy-themed puns, which are the lowest of inside jokes, in that you only need to understand the language to understand the joke.) I'm not so much of a scrooge that I didn't enjoy myself. But still, should we not be a little depressed that every new character worth dressing up as for Halloween is now owned by some soulless mega-conglomerate?

The old criticism of Disney was that it debased classic stories and characters by reducing them to commodities. Yet in order to turn the little mermaid Ariel into a marketable Disney princess, the House of Mouse still had to create their own engaging version of a character that had existed in numerous, independently-created iterations for over 150 years. Copyright laws and media consolidation have so strangled our cultural development that our classics today are commodities, which exist and are licensed only in approved forms and tended with an eye for the bottom line. By modern laws and logic, everything that followed Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid was either intellectual property theft, or fan-fiction.



The fact of this creative corporatism--or is it corporate creativity?--affects not just the film's storytelling but also its message. By focusing and placing audience sympathies on Ralph, a "villain" who wants to be good, it presents itself as an underdog story of rebellion against a prevailing order. (Tellingly, Ralph resolves to do this in a funny scene set at an AA-styled meeting for video game villains that includes original rebel, Satan himself.) Yet games, the film's creators cannily understand, operate by rules that dictate what does and does not happen in a digital world. That's what video games are, essentially: programs made up of millions of lines of code that act as pure logic. It's a very conservative way of looking at the world that in this case happens to be true: the rules, the code, can't be changed. Thus Ralph's attempts to be a hero in the way Felix is, are doomed to fail (the code for Sugar Rush is changed as part of the machinations of the villain, a notably arbitrary plot device that is out of step with much of the rest of the film). When it comes to his world, the world of Fix-It Felix Jr., Felix will always be the hero, and Ralph will always be the villain.

One can read into this a certain reactionary strain of thinking that says things can never truly change, that the discontented ought to just be happy the prevailing order and get on with it, lest they destroy everything. It's certainly befitting a top-down hierarchical corporation with more money than God. Yet one can also hear in Ralph's final lines, in which he says that the best part of his day is just before he is thrown off the building, because it is then that he has the highest, greatest view of the arcade--one can hear in it echoes of The Myth of Sisyphus (indeed, is there anything more Sisyphean than living life according to a 'reset' button?):
I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.
One must imagine Wreck-It Ralph happy.

Like The Dark Knight Rises earlier this summer, Ralph tries to split the difference in its dealing with change and the status quo--for it is not just the villains but the heroes that must live by this code (there's that word again...). Towards the end of the movie, we learn that King Candy is in fact the hero of a previous racing game, Turbo Time, who grew jealous of a new racing game that took players away from him. He invaded the game and glitched it, causing both his game and the new one to be unplugged. He then secretly installed himself in Sugar Rush and overthrew Vanellope, its queen. The putative hero was subject to the same rigid system as Ralph, a "villain." Not coincidentally is Vanellope restored to her throne, whereafter she renounces her crown in favor of "constitutional democracy," a term I'm fairly certain has never been used in a Disney animated movie until now. Democracy, of course, is the quintessence of 'splitting the difference,' which seems to be the essence of the message the film is trying to impart. America's brand of democracy today goes hand-in-hand with the kind of pervasively entrenched corporatism I was talking about earlier, and so the circle is complete: corporate art encourages corporate democracy encourages corporate art.

Wreck-It Ralph is thus as much about its own nature as a vehicle of the postmodern zeitgeist, as it is about video games and how they drive the zeitgeist itself. I hasten to add that this postmodernism, this collapsing and subverting of the old definitions, cuts both ways. It's not just that rather than art becoming commercialized, our commercials are becoming art. Twenty years ago, my seven year-old self was allowed to watch Disney movies but not to rip someone's heart out of their chest in Mortal Kombat. Now a Disney movie marketed to seven year-olds includes a scene with Mortal Kombat baddie Kano ripping the heart out of a zombie. It's very funny in the context of the movie, but broadly speaking, not so much. Game Over, man.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Golden Fleecing

Art doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's a reaction--a commentary, an interpretation, a criticism--of the world we live in, and it can't help but be shaped by the material conditions of its creation. Most people know this, practically take it for granted. What gets less attention is how subsequent events shade our understanding and response. Argo was ostensibly intended as a taut and reasonably fun thriller that told the fascinating story of the Iranian hostage rescue mission that didn't fail; at most, its real-world resonance would be a modest rehabilitation of Jimmy Carter's reputation. Fate would have it the movie hit theaters barely a month after the September 11 attack on the American consulate in Libya that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens, the worst diplomatic disaster since, well, the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The timing can't help but color one's response.

Recent history gives Argo's opening scenes an especially visceral immediacy. Cutting archival footage of the 1979 storming of the American embassy with period perfect re-enactments, and depicting attempts within the embassy offices to deal with the rapidly escalating situation, the sequence has a terrific on-the-ground quality that starts the movie off with bang. By so vividly recreating the events of '79, it provides an uneasy vicarious experience of the Egyptian and Libyan missions of but a month ago. (I don't know if Warner Brothers ever considered delaying the movie's release out of "sensitivity" regarding the Libya attack, but since such moves are stupid and self-defeating, I'm quite glad they did not.)

After six American diplomats manage to escape and find asylum in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), the movie settles into what is essentially a heist flick mold. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), CIA rescue ops badass, is tapped by State Department mover and shaker Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) to figure out how to rescue the six Americans. He eventually settles on a plan, "the best bad option," to enter the country posing as a Hollywood producer scouting locations for a fake Hollywood science fiction movie, and to disguise the diplomats as his production crew and take them back with him. To do this he needs to create a believable dummy production--including script, concept art, and authentic trade magazine publicity--with the help of Planet of the Apes makeup man John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Which is hard enough before having to actually go to Tehran and get the Americans out before the sweatshop workers piecing together their shredded embassy photos can alert the Revolutionary Guards that there are Americans hiding in Tehran.

The plot pretty much takes care of itself, explaining the steps to be followed and then upping the ante with a raft of complications along the way. It's solid stuff, and the script and actors deftly balance the grave seriousness of the problem with the absurdity of the solution at hand. The good humor of Arkin and Goodman (who at one point tells Affleck, who directed this movie, that you "can train a rhesus monkey to direct in a day") dominates the Hollywood-heavy first half, somewhat to the detriment of the back end. As they can only sit around and wait to be rescued, the American hideaways are only given the barest of character development, and so it falls mostly on Affleck to carry the picture once it moves to Iran. He does good work as the smartest man in the room, steely and unflappable except for a concern about having to be away from his family that is exactly as perfunctory as it needs to be. Still, it would have been nice to get to know the trapped Americans better in order to contrast them with the roles they are forced to adopt for their survival.

Without getting into too much detail, the movie's third act goes perhaps too far in the use of creative license. The action got to be enough that it took me out of the film, and I started to wonder how much of this was true. It's not a fair complaint--there really was a lot that was fictionalized, to the movie's benefit--and William Goldenberg's editing does wonders tying together three plot threads that moment-by-moment push the tension ever higher. But the movie does start to feel (ironically?) a little too Hollywoody, whereas everything that came before was believable and restrained.

Maybe it's just recent events, the "too soon" factor, that make me fault the movie for its drift into fancy. If so, it works more than one-way. For not only does the September 11 consulate attack shape the way one approaches Argo, but Argo shapes the way one looks at the consulate attacks. It isn't much of a spoiler to say that the operation is successful but the U.S. government must publicly give all credit to the Canadians because the embassy hostages would otherwise face brutal reprisal. The movie ends here, but in the real world history marched on: those hostages and the failed attempt to free them, for whose sake the government buried the story of its most spectacular rescue mission, helped destroy Jimmy Carter's presidency, and it was not until he left office that they were freed.

Too often secrecy is invoked by our government today as a means of covering up information that would embarrass it. Argo presents an all-too-rare instance of secrecy that did precisely the opposite, that downplayed success for the greater good until 1997, when the mission was declassified. If there's a takeaway from the timing of the movie's release, it's that there is often more going on in international relations than we realize. Unknown unknowns, and all that. Moreover, the people who are involved in these hot spots, do realize what's going on. Or, at least, they know the risks. As an end-of-movie caption inform us, all of the rescued diplomats, in spite of their harrowing experience, returned to the foreign service. One imagines Ambassador Chris Stevens would have done the same.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Who Controls the Past, Controls the Future


"It's a precise way of describing a fuzzy process," says Looper's Bruce Willis about time-traveling and its implications for the future. He's actually being quite modest. Most time-travel stories must wrestle with the creation of a time paradox, the most elegantly simple of which may be that of the original Terminator (in which Kyle Reese is sent back in time by John Conner to protect his mother Sarah Conner, and in the process falls in love with her and fathers John Conner, who sends Kyle Reese back in time...). Looper rather cheerfully dispenses with such complications, even as it shares much with such films as The Terminator and Twelve Monkeys, yet it still manages to be one of the smartest and most exciting sci-fi films to come around in some time.

The year is 2044, and American society is in a state of long decline, with mass poverty and  violence pervading the streets. Everything in this (well-realized) world, including the minor advances in technology, seems to be in a state of disrepair or dysfunction. Even humanity's one significant forward step, the development in a minority of the population of low-level telekinesis, is only good enough for guys to use it to pick up chicks at the bar.

Enter Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), seemingly one of the few people around with money to burn. Joe is a Looper, whose job it is to kill and destroy the bodies of the undesirables of an organized crime syndicate from thirty years in the future, when time-travel has been invented and outlawed. Loopers are so named because they agree from the start that their final target will be their future self--the bosses don't want any evidence or witnesses--at which point they get a severance package and are free to waste their next thirty years. Closing the loop, they call it. Lately, though, Loopers have been getting closed with increasing frequency, and sure enough, Joe's future self (Willis) arrives for execution. Joe recognizes him and hesitates long enough for his quarry to get away.

Director and writer Rian Johnson demonstrated with his 2005(!) debut Brick that he knew how to conjure worlds, but his work here is impressive all the same. The concept could all too easily have become a dumb, violent chase, but in Johnson's hands it becomes so much more. Even when dispensing with heavy exposition, the movie is always grounded in its characters, with the two Joes developing side-by-side: as we learn more about Old Joe and his maturation we see the selfish, cold-hearted Young Joe himself begin to thaw. Many of the best moments, accordingly, are not guns-blazing setpieces, but smaller business, like an amazingly tense scene that just involves characters maneuvering around a small house trying not to be spotted. There is quite a bit of gear-shifting in the plot, particularly with the film's second half, but the developments are seeded early on and are a welcome change of setting and pace.

Besides being well-crafted, the script comes with a dry wit that at times positively slays. (The name "Shanghai," super-imposed, got one of the biggest laughs in the theater I was in; you'll understand when you see it). The visuals are uniformly excellent, contrasting the plainness and uniformity of a sugar cane field with the cramped, chaotic squalor of the city, and the imagery becomes, rather surprisingly, more distinct and striking as the movie gets further into its scenario. There's an image of a boy in a leveled cane field that, especially in the context of the movie, is straight-up eerie.

Good writing and production values can only take you so far, but fortunately Johnson has assembled a stellar ensemble to bring his world to life. Levitt does excellent work channeling Willis' coolly brutal  persona, while Willis becomes truly unhinged and menacing when the nature of his mission is finally revealed. The two are bolstered by a supporting cast that ranges from good to mind-bogglingly astounding. Paul Dano is well-used in his brief appearance as an excitable fellow Looper, and Jeff Daniels shows great range, initially coming off warm and funny and going stone cold at a moment's notice. Emily Blunt comes in relatively late, about halfway through the movie, yet as farm girl Sara she holds her own against Levitt, with whom she shares the most screen time. Yet far and away the most astonishing performance comes from five year-old Pierce Gagnon, who frighteningly inhabits his character. To say anything about said character other than that he becomes critically important to the story would spoil too much; suffice it to say that Gagnon's is a "child actor" performance the caliber of which audiences haven't seen since The Sixth Sense (incidentally, another film starring Bruce Willis).

As mentioned, the film is upfront about the murkiness of its time-travel mechanics. Contrary to the suggestions of its title, it avoids creating an endlessly recursive paradox, as well as anything like a splintered-off parallel dimension, in favor of an approach similar to Back to the Future, where the changes in the future--and the changes in the protagonist from the future--happen gradually, in keeping with the rhythms of the "present." In essence, Future Joe doesn't receive scars and memories until Present Joe does. It's kind of a cheat, honestly, as it was in Back to the Future, but it is both creative and consistent in the application of its rules. 

This counts for more than one would think. The Butterfly Effect, the most recent high-profile Hollywood time-travel flick that immediately comes to mind, suffered severely from a repetitively-applied plot device and a tawdry obviousness (it worked child pornography and prison sex into its story) in its approach.
That Looper manages in spite of its occasionally shaky logic to be fun and high-minded and never insulting is a rare treat, for which we should thank our lucky stars.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Fortune of Soldiers



Americans were not the only ones serving in Iraq.

It's a fairly obvious observation, but one that I don't recall being much considered during the darkest days of that endless war. True, we often spoke of our faithful allies, the British, but even that term 'British' itself is an elision. For, as writer Gregory Burke notes in the program for Black Watch, imported for the second time from the National Theatre of Scotland by the Shakespeare Theatre Company, "Scotland has always provided a percentage of the British Army that is disproportionate to its population size." The only time I recall Scotland entering the Iraq conversation was the public dispute between a belligerent Christopher Hitchens and Scottish MP and Saddam Hussein apologist George Galloway.

We did not think much about Scotland, much less its military class, in the context of Iraq, but they thought about Iraq, and us, at considerable length. So we find in Black Watch, an exploration of the play's namesake, a famed Scottish infantry battalion, and the outsized role it played in Iraq. The play, directed by John Tiffany, is a marvel of performance and technical skill and shows a critical moment in time from an unusual perspective. Yet a crucial component is missing: the play's original audience, without which something has been lost in translation.

The play's story moves on two tracks--an unnamed writer, ostensibly Burke, interviewing the men of the Black Watch, and the stories they tell him, of daily life and daily death in Iraq. Interspersed among the interviews and vignettes are found objects of the war: a debate between two Scottish MPs; letters from an officer to his significant other; Scottish traditionals and military tattoos. Over time the team's rude banter and idle foolery gives way to frayed nerves and boiling anger as they are worn down as much by relentless shelling and suicide bombers as by the government's decision to fold the Black Watch in with other independent regiments into a single unit.

With the exception of the lights and sound, which work in tandem to create the deafening and blinding explosions characteristic of post-Saddam Iraq, the show's technical approach is deceptively simple. The Sydney Harmon Hall's proscenium arch has been reconfigured into a stadium-styled seating that requires much of the audience to cross the stage, where they must remain until the end of the performance (the show runs a fleet two hours with no intermission). At one end of the stage is strung a curtain that triples as both projection screen and scrim, and on the other end is a hefty door. A rough frame on either side allows certain moments to be played from elevated heights. Set pieces were otherwise minimal, though a great deal of mileage is made with a mobile pool table. The costuming is authentic, both in the Watch's military garb and in their easygoing civilian pub-wear. The swift action is realized by a helping dose of misdirection so that new business is constantly materializing right under the audience's noses.

No single actor stands out among the ensemble cast, as it should be in a piece about a military unit. A few, though, are given greater prominence, particularly Robert Jack, pulling double duty as the timid writer and an abrasive Sergeant, and Ryan Fletcher, as the team's de facto leader Cammy. What most impresses about the cast is the lived-in quality of their characterizations, moving with both a young, hangdog masculine swagger and military precision. Their dialects can occasionally be difficult for the American ear to untangle, but their sheer physicality does a lot of the necessary communication for them.

And there is much to communicate. The play offers some unusual perspectives, particularly for an American audience. The Watch views us, for instance, with a mixture of appallation and admiration at our overwhelming military superiority. So goes an exchange during a four hour bombing campaign:
"This is nay fucking fighting. This is just plain old-fashioned bullying like. 
"It’s good fun, though." 
"Do you think?"

"Aye. It’s good to be the bully."
There is too the realization that ours was far from the only nation that relaxed the standards of admission to its volunteer army in order to fully staff its ranks. Late in the play we learn that one of the characters was diagnosed depressive after his first tour and should never have even been in Iraq a second time, but all that pesky medical paperwork just happened to get lost when the military needed warm bodies.

Still, or all it has to recommend it, particularly in universal moments like these, I couldn't help but feel at some remove from the play as a whole. Theatre is a live event, with each production, to say nothing of each performance, born of given circumstances. All shows are particular, but some are more particular than others. Black Watch, both the play and this iteration of it, are very much artifacts of mid-2000s Scotland, a nation the size of South Carolina with the population of Colorado. Nor is it just a play by Scotland, but of Scotland for Scotland. The show began life as a National Theatre of Scotland production at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in an old drill hall and is saturated in a cultural shorthand--not just the dialects, but the politicians, the songs, the Black Watch itself--that could be taken for granted to forge a bond between performers and the audience that is at the heart of a live experience. Transplanting the play to one of the fanciest venues of the most powerful city in the world robs it of both its physical and cultural intimacy.

There's nothing wrong with the show. But without that full connection to the audience, it can't but feel slightly rote. All theatre, all theatre that matters, is local, and so it goes with Black Watch. As was said of another disastrous American military venture, "You weren't there, man."

Monday, July 23, 2012

Why So Serial?



With Heath Ledger dead and the Joker thus removed, the deck was stacked perhaps impossibly against Christopher Nolan to ideally conclude his Batman trilogy. The last film literally left him hanging and the character was such a wild popular success that his absence was always going to be felt whether the role was re-cast or the story re-tooled. I'm shooting this elephant in the living room now because it's not fair to judge the movie we have in theaters, The Dark Knight Rises, by what it now could never have been (nor is it fair to bring in the monstrous acts at the film's premier Aurora, Colorado, however salient the issues of citizen violence it raises may be). The movie simply is what it is. And what it is, is incredibly, if not quite terminally, problematic.

There's a great many plot developments I shan't spoil, but in essence: eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight. Batman (Christian Bale), blamed for the death of Harvey Dent, has disappeared from Gotham. Bruce Wayne has also retired from public life, and has sunk his fortune into what seems to be a half-baked fusion energy project headed by one Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). The police, thanks to new powers granted in Dent's name, have largely cleaned up the streets, such that cat burglar Selina Kyle (Ann Hathaway) is the worst of Gotham's worries. The going is so good that plans are afoot to get rid of Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), who is looked up to by idealistic officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt). All of this changes with the coming of Bane (Tom Hardy), a buff and gas-masked terrorist who plans to overthrow Gotham City's ruling order of compromised cops and parasitic rich.

This would be a lot for just a standalone movie to tackle, but in the story department Rises is actually pulling triple detail. Not only is it introducing new elements for it own story, it is also tying up loose ends from the last movie and re-establishing narrative and stylistic continuity with Batman Begins. As a result the pacing is noticeably slack, especially when compared to its predecessor, which--largely due to Heath Ledger's mesmerizing performance and Hans Zimmer's abrasive one-note Joker theme--was relentlessly paced and by the end left the viewer traumatized. 

Rises simply has much more to attend to, and so resorts to corner-cutting and rule-breaking that starts getting it into trouble. Although one never becomes unsure of what's happening, how it got there is decidedly less clear. Where did those motorcycles come from? How does Bruce Wayne return and where'd that Batsuit come from? The movie lacks the machine-like narrative precision of Nolan's most recent film, Inception, instead indulges hoary plot devices like a ghost, questionable character deceptions used justify a late plot twist, and a lot of happy, stylish coincidences. The Dark Knight fudged its logic too (the Joker's bombing schemes would have fizzled if the characters did not react exactly as they did), but this tended to be obscured because, again, that movie's structural chaos and sensory assault kept one from noticing.

The philosophical concerns of Rises are in a similar state of labored muddiness. Bane goes on with the logorrhea of an Ayn Rand character, about returning justice to Gotham City and punishing the corrupt rich, with explicit echoes of Occupy Wall Street. Yet his supporters are all thugs, no idealists except maybe for Selina, and it's all a sham anyway, a cover for his real plan--and I don't think I'm really spoiling anything here--to wipe Gotham City out entirely. This is a shame, because the movie is otherwise covering some interesting territory. The ending of The Dark Knight suggested that people needed a beautiful lie, e.g. Harvey Dent, to be inspired to goodness, but that idea is here completely exploded. Whereas Batman was previously the force that provoked an escalating criminal madness (the Joker), here the Dent myth creates a sham prosperity, a levee against Gotham's crime that will and does break. Instead of the order/chaos dichotomy that Batman's relationship with the Joker represented, Bane's overturning the status quo is the twin to Batman's vigilantism: they are both products of and solutions to a failure of public justice. This similarity seems to escape Nolan (perhaps because he spent the whole previous film arguing that Batman in fact made things worse), who instead settles for a much more optimistic and simplistic idea that erasing the past and starting anew will lead to a better tomorrow, as opposed to just beginning the same problems over again.

It's all grandiose, too much for its own good, but the film's superlative technical aspects keep it from bogging down too badly. Christopher Nolan has finally figured out how to direct visually coherent action sequences, so that the many battles going on, the Bane-Batman fisticuffs in the sewers in particular, can actually be appreciated. Pittsburgh, playing Gotham City, lacks Chicago's grittiness from the previous two entries, but in the movie's second half convincingly doubles as a Hobbesian failed state (I mean this as a compliment). Hans Zimmer's score uses much of what came before and is mostly effective, though without the straight madness of the Joker theme it does not have the same drive and at times feels less urgent than merely frantic.

The performances are typically great, but I'd like to single out Hathaway's Catwoman, who was certainly the biggest X factor of the piece. A lithe and playful anti-hero that serves as an effective foil to the largely dour and tortured Batman, she's a dependable ass-kicker and gives the movie some needed bounce in every scene she's in. She's also perhaps the most morally grounded of the characters, with a relatable sense of grievance and thwarted justice that is much more genuine than Bane's comic book-y posturing. She sells her character's ambivalence and development much more than one would think the script would allow.

So in the end, does all this sound and fury pay off? Again, the results are mixed. As a standalone film it's kind of a mess, but in the context of the series as a whole it gets the job done in bringing everything across the finish line (the possibility of which was in grave doubt following Heath Ledger's death). The central issue of the trilogy, how crime and crime fighting have deformed Bruce Wayne's character, is fully explored and pushed to its logical conclusion--before the movie beats a slight retreats at the last moment, in a way I can't decide whether or not it's cop out. Though I question the details of how it goes about tying back in to Batman Begins, I'm glad it did so if only so that film, with its pulpy secret society wants to destroy Gotham plot, wouldn't seem like such an anomaly among the three.

It's a question of ends and means, one which the series has fixated on for some time now. Batman's existence, once implied and here made explicit, is essentially that "the rules were once a weapon and now have become shackles," and Batman was necessary "dig into the filth" in order for the police to keep their hands clean. This problematic logic--to hell with principle, you're going to have to cheat at some point to win in the end--The Dark Knight Rises subscribes to not just morally, but narratively too. The story cheats when it has too, and sometimes even when it doesn't. The end result is a conclusion that like its hero is successful, but qualified and compromised.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Damon the Dude

The Williamstown Theatre Festival opened last week with The Importance of Being Earnest, done in a Damon Runyon-esque Guys and Dolls aesthetic. I was assigned to do a piece about Runyon that ended up not being needed (and would have needed to be drastically cut anyway). I present it with little alteration.


Damon Runyon was a journalist and sports writer, who became best known for his short stories, which detailed the colorful lives of petty thugs, bookies, chorus girls, and other endearingly disreputable persons that populated the Broadway of Depression-era New York. His influence is tremendous, being as he was one of the first people to write at length about the criminal underclass.

More significant than just his subject matter was his portrayal of it. His Broadway stories were written in a dry and comically non-judgmental first-person voice marked by the absence of contractions and a near-total reliance on the present tense, with sentences generously sprinkled with elaborate half-authentic, half-invented street slang. Here is a representative sample, an excerpt from “Breach of Promise:”

Of course Judge Goldfobber is not a judge, and never is a judge, and he is 100 to 1 in my line against ever being a judge, but he is called Judge because it pleases him, and everybody always wishes to please Judge Goldfobber, as he is one of the surest-footed lawyers in this town, and beats more tough beefs for different citizens than seems possible. He is a wonderful hand for keeping citizens from getting into the sneezer, and better than Houdini when it comes to getting them out of the sneezer after they are in.

Personally, I never have any use for the professional services of Judge Goldfobber, as I am a law-abiding citizen at all times, and am greatly opposed to guys who violate the law, but I know the Judge from around and about for many years.

This comic voice--so distinctive that he is today remembered for the ‘Runyonesque,’ stage musical Guys and Dolls, though not a word of it is his--he used to deal extensively with gangster culture in his fiction.

Runyon was one of the first authors to do so. Among his peers were Strange Fugitive by Morley Callaghan and WJ Burnett’s Little Caesar. Both novels shone a light—harsh, to be sure, but a light all the same—on the shadowy world of mobsters, to an unprecedented degree. But where theirs was a gritty, realistic style, Runyon’s was a deadpan wit.

Runyon’s innovation was to make criminal life not merely comprehensible to Americans, but also entertaining. The setup for a story like “A Very Honorable Guy”a man sells his body to an unscrupulous doctor in order to pay off his debts because he would rather lose his life than his good name—would normally be cast as weighty moral dilemma. In Runyon’s telling, it’s a farce. The pact with the doctor is not an act of desperation, but sensibility, until it isn’t: after paying off his debts and winning the affections of his doll, the man, Feet Samuels, decides he doesn’t want to die after all and has to fend off the knife-wielding Doc Bodeeker.

The humor, a product of both the mundane take on its exotic subject matter as well as Runyon’s unusually and overly precise language, makes the rakes and harlots of Broadway recognizably and relatably human in ways that would be elaborated in pop culture in subsequent decades. Short is the distance between “Dave the Dude is certainly not a man to have sored up at you” and “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

Just as significantly, by taking the criminal making it both comical and commonplace, Runyon implicitly elevated it while taking polite society down a peg. Much of the organized crime of the 1920s existed not in spite, but because of Prohibition’s preening, society-wide moralism. Runyon expressed this in his nonfiction as well, in his non-fiction. Runyon covered the investigations into both J.P. Morgan’s as well as Al Capone’s business dealings, and in the end found Capone the more sympathetic character. One may argue this goes too far, but the question remains: if mobsters were to be considered shadowy figures, it was only logical to ask, ‘whose shadow?’

Audiences responded tremendously to Runyon’s streetwise yarns. His newspaper readership resided north of ten million, making him one of the most popular writers in the nation, and his stories were adapted into more than twenty films. Such was his popularity that an appeal by friend Walter Winchell for money to research and treat the cancer that killed Runyon in 1946 resulted in the creation of a foundation that remains a leader in cancer research decades later. Though largely forgotten today, Runyon’s influence on the culture remains considerable, with a legacy that includes both crime dramas like Goodfellas and The Sopranos, and the afterlife of terms he invented and popularized, including ‘shiv,’ ‘noggin,’ and, naturally, ‘guys and dolls.’ He remains like the unnamed narrator of his short stories: rarely active, but ever present.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

On the Road

This is just a programming note. I'm en route to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, whose literary department I'll be interning with for the next couple months. It's going to be terrific fun and a great opportunity, but the workload--I'll be helping to work on seven productions and much more besides--means I'm not going to have time to read or watch much else, and certainly not to write about it. Thus the blog is going on a hiatus of sorts for the next few months. I may do some cross-posting of the material I write for the festival, but I otherwise won't be generating anything here.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Pretender of the Faith

Every culture has a creation myth, a story that explains the origins of the cosmos. Vividly detailed and fantastical, they work well enough as symbols and allegories, but as literal, beginning-to-end narratives they are convoluted, illogical, and absurd. (To take only the most familiar example, three days separate the creation of light and the sun in the book of Genesis.) The hype for Prometheus, bolstered by its world-building viral marketing, has approached religious fervor, not least for the striking imagery in its trailers that promised a return to form for the debased Alien franchise from Ridley Scott, who kicked the whole series off in the first place. Sadly, Scott seems to have fallen for his own hype, as far as religious significance goes. Prometheus, no longer what it could be but what it is, is a ponderous mess that spends too much time asking and refusing to answer questions about gods and monsters instead of giving us a goddamn monster movie.

The setup, as could be gleaned from the trailers, is promising enough. Scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have found in artifacts from ancient cultures across the world what looks to be a star map indicating communication from an alien race. A team of 17--the most important of which are Weyland Corporation tool Elizabeth Vickers (Charlize Theron), droid David (Michael Fassbender), and captain Janek (Idris Elba)--is dispatched to the corresponding star system, which just happens to have a planet with a moon with a similar atmosphere to Earth, in order to make contact with our putative creators. The premise is comforting in its familiarity as a deliberate throwback to the original Alien, with enough room to develop into its own thing; the problem is it can't make up its mind what it wants to be. 

To be blunt, there is too much shit going wrong, with none of it going wrong enough and much of it happening for the wrong reasons. There are a number of intense scenes and action sequences that are in themselves often effective--I'm thinking of one character's death by flamethrower, a crazy surgery procedure, and the awakening of the Space Jockey--but they are arrived at by narrative contrivance and  character stupidity, with people who should know better getting lost or going off to have sex at the most (in)convenient moments. I'm not even joking about the sex. In true slasher fashion, two characters get killed off because the people that are supposed to be monitoring them are having a shag. That kind of plot gimmick is merely obnoxious in a Friday the 13th knock-off about horny teenagers; in an A-list movie with a median age of 30-something cast it's positively embarrassing.

Worse yet, instead of the good scenes escalating the tension and pushing the story forward, their consequences are often immediately forgotten as the film switches gears and focuses on some other subplot.This is bad enough for any movie, but especially deadly for an Alien film. There are something like five or six different kinds of creatures populating this movie, but after a signature scene each one is then not seen or even referenced again unless convenient. As a result none of them ever registers as a major threat, and so nothing like the claustrophobic dread of Alien--or hell, the balls-out adrenaline drive of Aliens--never materializes. There's too much to keep up with, and most of it doesn't matter anyway.

The primary issue is the movie's insistent harping on its bizarre creationism. The story is constantly derailed by further investigation into the nature of the giant human(oid) aliens, and several dialogues are given over to Shaw's "faith," both in a vague Christianity--her cross necklace becomes an unlikely object of interest--and in her alien creators thesis. It leads to some painfully unconvincing plot developments in the last act of the movie, and more besides, it is a conceptual non-starter. To constantly lecture the audience on a religio-scientific thesis about aliens that exist only in the movie's universe is the quintessence of missing the point. It turns what should have just been the film's Macguffin, the means to get the characters to their deadly ends, into the entire purpose of the movie. Imagine George Lucas devoted not just a scene but all of Star Wars: Episode 1 to explaining midichlorians, and you begin to grasp fundamental wrong-headedness of the enterprise.

Of the inflated cast, only Fassbender comes out relatively unscathed. His David is calm and detached, and the implications of his relationship with human beings is about the only thematic detail the movie gets right (at one point he sagely notes that man's creators are likely to regard them the way they regard their own creations, robots). Theron plays the 'company man' role cold as ice, but late plot developments force her into increasingly reactive and nonsensical behavior. Ditto Rapace, who does what she can to sell the movie's theology and try to keep the story from coming completely apart, but by the frantic ending it's simply too much for her to be able to salvage.

At one point David, ever the voice of reason, when asking Shaw why she is pressing on to discover the truth about the aliens and faith and all that, says something along the lines of, "sometimes the answers aren't important." That could certainly be applied to Prometheus itself. To the extent that it explains elements of the original Alien, it merely confuses (particularly in terms of the creature's biology, which dilutes the elegant simplicity of egg-->facehugger-->queen/chestburster-->egg into a mess of infection and cross-breeding impregnation). When it comes to explaining itself, the film is even more circumspect, with its ending serving as a jumping-off point for further revelations in an all-but-guaranteed sequel. As both atheist and moviegoer, I'm not much interested in making that particular leap of faith.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Stranger Than Fact

Richard Linklater is great again? And so is Jack Black? And Matthew McConaughey? It's unbelievable, but it's true. That could be said to apply to their newest film Bernie, which is derived from actual events but goes to great lengths to test the plasticity of the designation "based on a true story."

Based on a 1988 Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth, Bernie tells the story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) a mild and ambiguously gay mortician who is beloved by the town of Carthage, Texas for the kindness he shows his clients, both living and dead. This kindness he extends to Marge Nugent (Shirley Maclaine), reputed to be the nastiest old crone in town. They become increasingly close, shopping, traveling, seeing and shows, with Nugent eventually bequeathing the entirety of her estate to Bernie. She also becomes increasingly possessive, to the point that Bernie snaps and shoots her in the back four times, then keeps her body in a freezer while giving away enormous sums of her money to the people of Carthage. When he's caught none of the townspeople can believe he did it, or that he ought to go to jail, and so it falls on District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) to see that justice is properly administered.

The story is straightforward enough, but is given all kinds delightful wrinkles and twists. To start with, the tone is mordantly humorous, especially for a true crime story, but also rather sweet. The opening scene, in which Bernie demonstrates the finer points of corpse preparation (the angle of the head should be "neither star-gazing, nor navel-gazing") sets the deliberately and jarringly light-hearted tone for the rest of the movie.The story is told through a mixture of straight scripted narrative and interview footage with the townspeople of Carthage, who are endearingly provincial; an old codger type has some of the funniest lines, describing southern Texas as "where the Tex meets the Mex," and referring to "The People's Republic of Austin." Many of the interview subjects are actors (one of the actors is Matthew McConaughey's mother), though, which adds yet another layer of unreality to the film.

The comic ambiguity extends to its three stars. Jack Black is the film's greatest asset, giving a performance that is uncharacteristically restrained and made all the funnier for it. His Tiede is mannered and precise, right down to the delicate way he walks, and has a beguiling sweetness that makes his decision to kill his sugar momma both the most natural and most unbelievable thing in the world. (All too fittingly, one scene has him playing Harold Hill in a self-directed community production of The Music Man.) It's by far the best performance of his career.

This goes for Matthew McConaughey, too, generally useless as a rom-com leading man but here displaying great comic timing as the clueless DA who ends up being the only person in town able to view the murder with the proper perspective. Shirley MacLaine at first seems like the weak link, only on rare occasions becoming the Bitch Out of Hell that the townspeople make Marge Nugent out to be, but one wonders if this isn't intentional. The Carthaginians are gossip hounds through and through, and given how much the film is elsewhere forcing us to question what is or isn't true, it's entirely possible that the heavy emphasis on Nugent's happiness when she's with Tiede isn't deliberately chafing against her reputation.



Bernie came from nowhere and has ended up one of my favorite flicks that I've seen in awhile. It is, moreover, one of the most quotable. The last time I can remember reciting lines  to my friends afterwards was Burn After Reading, almost four years ago. Bernie has slipped under the radar thus far--it's made only $2.5 million and is likely only going to play in indie theaters--but I can easily see it finding its audience on DVD. But why wait? It's a great group movie, believe you me.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Summer Movie as Democrat Election Parable





The Avengers is a great summer movie. I don't need to elaborate on why, for if you are reading this you likely have already seen it and either do not need or do not want convincing. A.O. Scott, however, even when praising the film for its entertainment value, is queasy about the cold corporate calculation of it all.
“I’m always angry,” [Bruce Banner] says at one point, and while “The Avengers” is hardly worth raging about, its failures are significant and dispiriting. The light, amusing bits cannot overcome the grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism that is less a shortcoming of this particular film than a feature of the genre. Mr. Whedon’s playful, democratic pop sensibility is no match for the glowering authoritarianism that now defines Hollywood’s comic-book universe. Some of the rebel spirit of Mr. Whedon’s early projects “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly” and “Serenity” creeps in around the edges but as detail and decoration rather than as the animating ethos. 
“I aim to misbehave,” Malcolm Reynolds famously said in “Serenity.” But for all their maverick swagger, the Avengers are dutiful corporate citizens, serving a conveniently vague set of principles. Are they serving private interests, big government, their own vanity, or what? It hardly matters, because the true guiding spirit of their movie is Loki, who promises to set the human race free from freedom and who can be counted on for a big show wherever he goes. In Germany he compels a crowd to kneel before him in mute, terrified awe, and “The Avengers,” which recently opened there to huge box office returns, expects a similarly submissive audience here at home. The price of entertainment is obedience.
The corporatism goes deeper than cinematic aesthetics. Marvel Comics quite infamously screwed Jack Kirby from receiving proper compensation for co-creating the Avengers and dozens of other iconic characters that Marvel simply would not today exist without. They imposed limits on his rights to his own artwork and have made billions of dollars off his creations. In the months leading up to The Avengers' release there was talk of a boycott on these grounds. The number of people were enlisted to the cause is moot, however, in the face of a $200 million opening weekend that has unstoppably grown the movie Hulk-like into a billion dollar baby.

In a way this reminds me of liberals' moral dilemma when it comes to the question of re-electing Barack Obama. Politically speaking, Obama is The Avengers to liberals: hip, energetic, pushing all the right buttons. He stanched the bleeding of an economy in freefall, saved Detroit, passed Health Care Reform and financial regulation, repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and is the first president to come out in support of gay marriage. He saved the day and looked cool and smart doing it.

Yet his presidency is littered too with illiberal policies that, were they done by a Republican, would have liberals howling: "extrajudicial killings, violating the War Powers Resolution, waging war without Congressional approval, violating the Geneva Conventions, whitewashing torture, warring on whistleblowers," to name a few. The liberal wish list is being dutifully checked, while fundamental issues of the rule of law have been left to atrophy or, worse, have been outright attacked. Like The Avengers, the slick surface sheen obscures a fundamental emptiness.

Tim Brayton, in a positive if weary review, referred to the Marvel mashup as "Transformers: Dark of the Moon for literate people who enjoy wit." Implicit in the complaint is a reluctant defense: "Have you seen the alternative?" With yesterday's release of Battleship, which grafts an alien invasion plot onto the mechanics of a Milton Bradley guessing game, we get a stark view of just how much worse it can be.

So Avengers, so Obama, whose opponent is a man described by his own underling as an Etch-a-Sketch in what was supposed to be a compliment, who once promised to "double Guantanamo," wants to start a war with Iran, and can barely even be bothered with pretending to care about the law. Unlike movies, elections are zero-sum competitions. One of these two will come out victorious, and anyone who votes for a third-party candidate or abstains out of protest would do well to keep that in mind.

The problem remains that the better of the viable options are still far from ideal. The Avengers is ultimately insubstantial, as is Obama's approach to the law. But these choices don't present themselves out of the blue. They are both, in fact, animated by the same thing that drives their vastly inferior competition: corporate cash and popular sentiment. Like the Jack Kirby case, Obama's legacy is handicapped by monied interests. The health care and financial regulation bills both conceded numerous demands in the interest of receiving industry cooperation. When industry sets the terms of regulation, the word has lost all meaning (that the Wall Street-backed Republicans tried to attack the legislation as a giveaway to the financial industry merely demonstrates, again, the debased nature of the choices we have).

A deeper problem still is in fact the feature of democracy, the wisdom of the crowd. Obama is one of our canniest politicians, such that even a humane gesture like supporting gay marriage is calibrated toward pacifying constituencies, garnering votes and donations. That's just the nature of running for office. Yet where is the civil liberties constituency? I'm not even speaking of liberals, but of the broader electorate that any candidate must court in order to win. Will they favor their franchise toward appeals for due process, executive transparency, and an unwinding of the security state--or promises of jobs and protection from whoever may or may not be trying to take away their influential minority's rights? Whether it's Jack Kirby or Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the American public has far less interest in upholding fairness and justice than in self-gratification, particularly when life is so dire already.

Obama was once promised to be transformative. That just as well describes Mitt Romney, both for his ideological shape-shifting, and his policies, which have their cinematic analogue in the  empty-headed mayhem of the Transformers movies. Obama and The Avengers are both compromised, but as a product of the broken systems in which they operate. For all the valid criticisms of them that do exist, one must ever ponder the alternative. Revenge of the Fallen was by all accounts a terrible movie; we don't need to watch it again.