Sunday, December 20, 2015

I Come To Bury Star Wars, Not To Praise It..

Dear Star Wars,

Yes. I am aware that I am speaking to you in a voice that denotes your existence not unlike that of a sentient being with its own soul and sense of free will. And it isn't without merit. There are a great many things I must thank you for as someone who has grown up with your presence ever near, even when paths led you astray, and allowed relations to fray with many the galaxy over. There are a great many things you taught me over the course of my life, and it is within the walls of this personal site that I am at last able to happily willing to place a date of expiration next to your name. Oh, please do not feel sorrow for such a choice. What I am saying? Your existence and spirit does more than well enough without me, especially now that you have an entire new generation of admirers and friends to keep you company deep into history.

And please do not think that this is completely borne out of some angst-ridden schism between you and I. Far from it. While we've certainly had our ups and downs over the years, your very role in the adventures of my days goes so much deeper than an attraction to all effects special, or the promise of escape from an existence surrounded by oceans of sand in every direction. You sheltered, and inspired me when those who would hope to be a beacon flickered. As a child of divorce, your earliest tales informed and comforted me with notions of both toil and redemption that few other grand stories ever could. You helped me understand that even the most forthright of heroes had their dark days, and that we are often placed firmly between angels and demons. You helped me understand myths beyond those bound by a cross, and illustrated the conflict that makes for the bulk of my life. And that good was a responsibility, and not merely a face to wear for benefit. That light and dark were but facets of the whole. It was through you that I became interested in stories, storytelling, human psychology, philosophy, metaphor, and gained a yearning for writing and teaching.

And as we at last witness the first official new installment of your saga, a part of me feels that it is more than time to step away, and to seek tales anew while markets readjust, rendering you into something wholly different from what you once were. Again, this is no slight onto you. Far from it. But part of me reside deeply within the fleshy matter of human connection. Elements that drew me most to your fire. As we watched technology and visual mastery evolve, as we have also seen storytelling evolve into new forms, for both better and worse. After seven features, several television films, animated series, novels, merchandise, and a holiday special, I cannot help but feel that this is all I ever truly needed from you. The notion of a friend for all time, while a genuinely sweet and noble ideal, is far from a realistic one. Ships must inevitably disembark, and tides must again tug and sway. Otherwise, there is always the possibility of a relationship finding fissure. Fissures that often rear themselves after too much exposure.

There are also matters of why you remain here, and why it's so important that you tale see itself reinterpreted, and it isn't always for the most earnest or personal reasons. In fact, this is perhaps where I am most willing to depart. Any good thing in life can ultimately turn against the very ideas and feelings that made it so important to my personal evolution. Much like a child growing up and candy lover, at last faced with a genetic predisposition to diabetes. There is a certain point where our greatest joys can give way to harmful repercussions.

Looking at your history as a global crowd-pleaser, I can definitely see why many out there feel that is is you who could save the landscape from great change. But I also believe that change is paramount for life to evolve. So to see your soul taken wholesale in the name of saving a previous business model, a part of me cannot help but sigh in mild dismay. And while it is indeed true that a lot of Episode VII:The Force Awakens, carries with it an aura of what made you so special, it too harbors the decay and facade of a loved one, long dead and shambling about under well-meaning, but misguided control by powers out to rescue us from the current day. Again, while a lot of the heart flesh remains, there is barely enough to allow it to move emotive or intellectual powers that once seemed so easy to access. We've been here before, and a mere few augmentations here do very little to hide the little brother wearing grandmother's glasses, dancing about in strange voices, trying in vain to make us smile the same way again. I do care and thank you, but it seems that studios and a dying multiplex infrastructure needs you a lot more than my heart does.

It's also deeply important to me that people see the face of you, not so much the mask. I still see so many enamored with the idea of you, rather than your ideas. The brand, and not so much the personality within. While I do understand the appeal, I cannot help but feel that there was always a great deal more to you during those early days. It's true. There is no going back. But if your legends cannot offer new and challenging responses to your soul, then all we're doing is looping. When all we probably needed to do, is look back. (Provided your father was willing to allow us to do this unreservedly - I know this is something of a sticking point.

Apologies for bringing this up.

We need numerous gardens to explore, not merely several pickings from the same batch. Homogeneity, even from you, sounds rather unhealthy.

So while I do intend to be near you for one more film, I would love to very much make my intentions more than clear. There are parts of me that are truly warmed inside by your new cast of characters. They are charming, energetic, and come from an earnest place. Make no mistake, these are worthy heirs to your legacy. And even though I really do wish to travel alongside them a little more, there is a feeling that there is little else you could possibly share with me that I am not already familiar with or understand. You are the most fanciful of bedtime stories. You grant people light when so much seems so dark. Sometimes, you're willing to illuminate that these things aren't so alien to one another. But it's hard to imagine art and expression working themselves through with a necessary amount of freedom confined to a single myth instead as opposed to the broadness of genre. The powers in charge would like to think this is an answer, but I cannot agree to it. You mean a lot to me, even when parts of me have denied it in the past. It's true. You were a spark that led to a flame. But the wood has neared its end, and I need new elements offering with them fresh and healthy amounts of oxygen. I'm only looking out for my health you see. I only wish to do good by what you imbued within me.

Even if it means leaving you behind soon.

Trust that I'll always keep you close, even if I'm not there.   

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Status Of The Force: Some Personal Thoughts

I hadn't initially planned to spill anything about my thoughts on next week's events, but since many are airing out how important the Star Wars saga has been for them, it suddenly felt right to place them into a snug place like this. Like so many kids of the seventies and eighties, the original trilogy holds a powerful sway upon my relationship to all things genre. And as I grew older, discovering just how much it carried within it legacies of mythology enriched my appreciation for them more. Be it through the mountains of merchandise even young first generations experienced throughout the early 1980s, or those hopeful days before the release of Episode I in the latter 1990s, the flirtation with longer exposure to the world of space knights, hyperdrives, and galactic empires seemed more like a junkie's promise than an organic and necessary expansion of a beloved universe. 

But to hold them in such high esteem while the medium of film has evolved into a sort of mass production machine, coldly aiming for those nostalgic nerves in hopes of igniting a new generation, parts of me grapple with the notion that we have moved so far beyond this spark, that it often feels redundant. And to that end, rife with the ability to strip thin bones that would sooner provide the blood cells necessary to spur further discussion between kids. Talks that even a small me was willing to have with fellow kids, and even adults about the nature of good and evil, themes of fate, and questions about revolution. Perhaps this isn't the most common person's view of Star Wars, but it was mine as far back as grade school. I wanted to know why our relationship with nature decided where we were as people. A notion fathoms beyond the average kid who often found themselves enamored with fantastical tech, and grand scale space warfare. The mystery of the force, and how it binds all things was what granted a pull for me in the wake of spiritual chasm that were the revelations at the end of Empire Strikes Back. Where even the wisest could find themselves in the wrong for lying. Coming out of a separation after parents divorce, and seeing in both film and in real life how adults couldn't hold to their word despite their assumed station was a pivotal door for me to walk through at an early age. And perhaps this granted the series more depth than I was able to comprehend at the time.

That's right. A part of me feels like there's little else more Star Wars can truly offer except for new variations of the same thing. And unless the model is willing to take some bold leaps away from the tired and gunshy positioning the departed George Lucas undertook as far back as Return Of The Jedi, it may be a venture unwilling to do more than cycle endlessly. What made the films so special to me, were the operatic touches, the relationships, and a clear understanding that heroism can quite easily morph into villiany. It's meat and potatoes grand myth. So perhaps the only real way to acknowledge the most important updates the saga, is to look sharply at the new cast, and to celebrate the shift in focus that potentially will reside. It's true that there is real, hard hitting possibility in the series' new heroes.

But what I'm truly hopeful for, is a glimmer of revolutionary honesty beyond the blasters and destruction of machines. That our heroes will indeed observe a new world with unprecedented potential. To see past the demographics, and offer up means to respond to mythology of the past. Star Wars, served as an important window to what became my love for anime, classic westerns, samurai cinema, as well as the works of Joseph Campbell and Carlos Castaneda. So a part of me is not sure we were ever meant to linger in one place. New myths can offer new bents to classic tales, and perhaps illuminate truths that often the most rudimentary stories often find themselves unequipped to explore. Which isn't to say that I don't believe this is possible. But there is a doubt that there is enough room, or hook in one universe to do so. I would very much like to be proven wrong, but as it stands, Star Wars has become more a place of comfort, rather than a means to challenge. It's a reliable old pal at this point.

But just because a friend invites you over, doesn't mean you should overstay your welcome.  

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Days Of Impact: When Action Comes Of Age

I recently had a series of prolonged discussions that centered on pieces that many agree have altered the action film landscape, and have stumbled upon a rare thought. There have been a films as of late that have helped alter the way we digest certain genres, and in many ways it feels like a grand shift has stealthily made itself known more prominently than ever. While it was indeed the comic book adaptation that saw itself in deep need up upping the thematic ante in the wake of Christopher Nolan, the once thrill-centric action film has pretty much seen itself dragged along. It likely wasn't a completely cognizant choice, but in lieu of being able to be exhilarated in a darkened theater, it's very possible that our intellects have at last caught up with our lizard brains. Our lust for being wowed is at last running up against our need for emotional catharsis. Sure, there will always be your standard meat and potatoes piece of genre, but to have noticed that some of the strongest pieces of pure action to come of this recent generation come with dramatic and thoughtful weight that is unusual for the form. Sure can be a controversial one for those more versed in traditional action, but it's a most welcome element.

Take for instance both Garret Evans' stunning Raid films as a prime example. Where the first flies out the barrel a relentless gauntlet of extreme martial arts and unrivaled tension, soon becomes a single-setting opera where the heroes and villains find themselves in a skirmish that leaves by a mere blemish on a clearly corrupt society. It all simply starts in classic video game fashion as a team of tactical police officers find themselves overwhelmed by an army of footsoldiers working for an apartment complex's single crime kingpin. But come the finale, it is revealed that the initial siege was but a power play by a bent cop, and his wishes to rise among the underworld's ranks(using the young cops as unassuming culprits). Add this to the soapy subplot centering on good cop protagonist, Rama (Iko Uwais), and his estranged brother, Andi (Donny Alamsyah), who has become a high ranking leader in kingpin, Tama's criminal enterprise. This plot, while atypical for this type of martial arts epic, the film not only eschews the expected dramatic payoff, but it also conveys the attraction gang life has in a society where the moral and the powerful have seemingly gone utterly south. There's simply little in the landscape of Rama's world that feels remotely advantageous for the good. And by the blistering finale, it is pretty clear that any victory had here is but a minor black eye, and that greater machinations are at play. No matter what our protagonist has survived, and learned, it is in the shadow of a greater threat.

Enter Raid 2, and Rama's turn from noble cop to undercover crusader which opens the canvas to an even more troubled vision. While being pressured by a "trusted" leader of a secret anti-corruption task force, as well as the death of a loved one, Rama is not thrust deep into the upper echelons of the vast criminal network that seems to run his city from top to bottom. From getting himself into prison for assault, to playing friend to the son of the city's great gangland mastermind, his mettle is tested on all fronts from the physical to the spiritual. He is witness to not only the son's simmering passion to rise to his father's level, but of the temptation brought upon by a violent new player with a plot to set the town's two largest syndicates against one another. All while the young cop and family man finds himself missing out on the crucial early years of his child's life. The intertwining plotlines of the second film amp up the drama without ever feeling forced or hypersimplified like most martial arts films. It confidently allows us to take in the troubles of this underworld power struggle, while driving home themes of family and how easily loyalty can find itself confused with fear and pride. While in many ways slower, and more patient than Raid 1, every action scene carries with it a surprising amount of dramatic weight. Even side characters whom we don't expect to feel something for or against, make a mark once the ferocious silat fights and car chases take collective breaths away. It's jarringly aware of what a little complexity and surehanded direction can do for action, and it never lets us off the hook in regards to the costs of even our hero's actions.

Something that helps define the tattered heroes of George Miller's Mad Max Fury Road.

A film that pretty much summed up my blockbuster summer this year, wasn't so merely for it's incredible presentation & execution. But also due to its resolute goal to sell so much complexity by way of pure cinema. Something genre cinema has long forgotten. While most films of the season do their best to obfuscate and bloat their casts in the name of forced notions of ticket value, Fury Road, allows the visuals and performances to sell the greater, more challenging ideas. In tradition of the original Max features, Miller and company virtually pack the screen with imagery and design that allows the viewer to piece together the philosophical landscape of Furiosa, Immortan Joe, Nux, the Wives, and ultimately Rockatansky, as he finds himself sucked into a post-patricarchal vortex of conflict. A hellishly wild ride punctuated by moments that argue for why it is we often find ourselves unwilling to take on the world so bent on subjugation and exploitation. Like Rama, to look at the world straight in the iris, is at times fraught with pain, and psychic suffering beyond imagining.

Because it's much easier to keep running, avoiding the hard work that comes with community, Max has found himself untethered from others. He has gone nearly feral from years of self-isolation and failure to champion others he has run across in his travels. He has lost far too much, and can only see himself fail again should he help shoulder the cause of the hard driving turncoat, Furiosa. The Immortan's trusted War Rig driver, who has seen far too much pain to do nothing about it. As the film's very sparse dialogue conveys, it is redemption she seeks, while his quarry seek hope. Something Max has seemingly long left in oceans of dust. He is even reminded of his failures on this particular adventure when he injures someone in the process of trying to escape on his own. But what comes of the journey, is a carefully crafted tale of redemption on the part of both warriors, as their combined efforts with Joe's runaway wives creates an unlikely family. Especially when they are joined by the sickly, and overzealous Warboy, Nux, who becomes an unlikely compatriot.

The triumph of Fury Road, largely resides in an almost mathematical method of pure sensory input, what it means to rejoin an organic collective in the face of toxic individualism. Furiosa, while using her knowhow to take the women to a mythic "green place", finds a kinship in men who aren't beholden to humans as shields or breeding stock. And Nux, finds that his world had for too long been kept under a fragile dome of control most of his life, and sees another way of life. (Or at the very least, a cause worth giving himself wholeheartedly to.) As the group find themselves unable to journey to this mythic other place, it is in revolution that change is ultimately claimed. And this is while Joe's murderous armada of dogma-injected warriors and crazies scrape for what little remains of their world. In a very real sense, Joe's Citadel and people represent the nadir of selfish scavenging, death, and greed. The film as a whole centers on what new forms of masculinity can emerge while dominator beliefs cannibalize themselves into oblivion. Max is at odds with what he is, and finds himself a blood conduit for a new world that is raging to be born from the ashes of a long powerful, yet stagnant one.

It's not only my favorite film of the year because it is an incredible feat of action filmmaking. It is. But because it highlights what action can be when it cares about its people and its thoughts. Everything on camera matters, and it is presented with a passion that is simply rare for any genre today. In an era where we could show the masses just about anything, it warms the heart to know that passion still exists beyond the spectacle. That it has meaning to the maker. And like any art form, that meaning can move emotional and intellectual mountains. It's more than heart and muscle, it's a means to move the world itself into action. Perhaps in this time period, the status quo simply won't do, and these landmarks are but reminders of the importance of changing the flow by all and any means. It's movement with purpose, and that's especially exciting. 


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Lost Soul (2015) Movie Thoughts

The more one spends around me, the more they discover my own personal fascination with filmmakers and best laid plains gone awry. From Cimino to Jodorowsky, there is just something very telling and deeply resonant about the always dicey promise of a large art project. And the pitfalls that can often derail even the most confidently assembled team embarking on something that on the surface feels surefire. Even when talking future cult favorites like Apocalypse Now, or Blade Runner, there leak tales of botched production concepts, personality clashes, and prolonged schedules that could render any studio nervous, desperate for damage control before the film even reaches screens. Often, the things that often trip up such projects can lead to what many might consider industry lore. But few personal apocalypses can possibly rival the endless tunnel of misfortune that seemed determined to dog the major studio debut of one Richard Stanley, and his proposed version of HG Wells' The Island Of Doctor Moreau. And with Lost Soul, David Gregory, in almost tall tale fashion, gives us one of the most crushing tales of art undone by cosmic forces imaginable.

Before sharing any further thoughts on Gregory's work here, let's just delve a tiny bit into my thoughts on the early work of the film's main subject. Like many film fans of the 1990s, I was introduced to the rogue stylings of director Stanley through my first viewing of the brilliant dystopian-horror hybrid HARDWARE(1990). To this day, his mini-budgeted indie dynamo remains one of the most consistently textured science fiction films in the post Blade Runner age. Pitting the denizens of a futuristic slum against a resurrected top secret cybernetic killing machine, the film is an inventive overdose of latter-Reagan era rage, fueled by an international cast, and some impressive puppetry.  Made on virtually crumbs, and jam-packed with enough used future and oppressive atmosphere for an entire goth-industrial club scene, HARDWARE remains an important footnote in the annals of independent genre cinema. My familiarity with his work with bands such as Fields Of The Nephilim, and others, it was clear that this was a filmmaker with an affinity for the fringe, and esoteric notions layered in a nihilism that was frankly refreshing in an era where risk was often shunned, and edge often flattened out before camera even roll..

So when Dust Devil died kind of a quiet death, and talks of a Moreau update were in the air, hopes were high.

Flash forward to 1996, and my shock when Stanley's name didn't appear on any of the finished film's ad campaign. Soon after, I had heard of tensions leading to his ousting, as well as stories of weirdness on the set as Stanley and crew sought to film in an isolated beachside section of Cairns in Australia. But what Lost Soul presents to us, is a creative spark, that slowly builds into a tire fire of incredible proportion. One might almost want to cry fake. It simply seems too horrible to be true. And soon after that, it dissolves into something worse. One after another, the film makes strides to remind you of the human toll, and of how real all of this is, even when chronicling the erstwhile director's clearly deteriorating mental state. There is even a chapter detailing Stanley's alleged retreat into one of the beach's highest tree, refusing to come down. Yet despite all of this, the piece remains quite empathetic to the plight of Stanley, as he is forced to walk away from his ambitious project, and then the surreality of the journey truly begins.

Packed with testimonials from numerous major players including Fairuza Balk, Edward R. Pressman, Rob Morrow, and others reveal more about the doomed project than many might have ever wanted to know. Also very painful are the stories of what came of the final main cast, and how that arc of fate only served to worsen the film. Given what many have read or heard about stars Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando, little prepares one for what is revealed here. And even former New Line head, Robert Shaye, long distanced from "the house that Freddy built", doles out some impressive insight into the whole sordid affair. But largely, it's Balk who provides a great deal of the film's tether to what was truly lost in all the madness. A friend of Stanley's throughout the entire ordeal, and someone who's career never truly rebounded in lieu of this, Lost Soul is also a tear-stained love letter to all creators who arrived on the landscape without many of the same philosophical ambitions of your atypical commercial asset. It's a whirlwind of a film documentary, and one of the most eye-opening ones of its kind since Hearts Of Darkness.

Only in Hollyweird.  

Friday, August 14, 2015

Creep (2014) Movie Thoughts

Driving up a mountainous road, looking forward to a quick 1,000 dollars based on an ad, videographer, Aaron finds the lonely cabin, and quickly is surprised to meet the instantly quirky, Josef. Upon the first few minutes of meeting the uncommonly friendly host, it's established that the day's work will consist of following him as he wishes to create a parting video for his unborn son. You see, Josef discloses that after a long battle with cancer, this latest onslaught seems terminal, and to leave something for his wife and child to remember him by is the order of the day. Only, as the day grows on, Josef's behavior becomes increasingly strange, and the clearly unsettled Aaron finds himself (and the audience) captive to not only the most primal of fears, but possibly even his own conscience. Part Duplass Brothers comedy, part found footage freak-fest, Creep plays like a mostly well-executed prank complete with some of the most disquieting moments in horror I have experienced in a spell.

True to these statements, the piece feels like an examination of not only this pair of characters as motivations are questioned, but of the line between uncomfortable comedy and deep disturbance. As we assume the role of the constantly filming Aaron, we are witness to Josef's strange, often friendly sounding attempts to maintain a facade, and it becomes a game of when that final show will drop like a block of lead. Early on, we are introduced to a wolf motif that will find itself echoing throughout as if the film is completely willing to let us all in on the gag. As in just about all found-footage pieces, we become voyeur, and find ourselves at the mercy of the cameraperson's own demeanor. And in the case of Creep, it is of a lead that is clearly in this situation out of his control. Expectations are played with like a dangling mouse in a cat's claw, as Aaron begins making decisions that border on forcing the story, but it's also hard to completely blame him as the story unfolding exposes that perhaps he too harbors skeletons that render him an ideal counterpoint to Josef's increasingly erratic actions. At some points it becomes hard to tell who is being more deceptive.

One of Creep's biggest arrows in its quiver though, is the intimate casting and performances between Duplass and Brice, who apparently improvised the entire film. There is a constant thread of unreliable storytelling between the two men, that it becomes unbearable with how much the truth seems desperate to get out(even if perhaps we don't really want to know). Duplass' Josef, is something of a revelation here, as a man who clearly is suffering from something beyond the tumor he speaks of. He never wavers in his ability to get beneath the skin, and stay there. And Brice's straight man aura becomes an effective barometer for each scene he tries desperately to get out, paycheck be damned.

For a film of even this format, it is easily one of the most minimal outside of the original Paranormal Activity, where there is so very little to see, but the dread thickens to a handsome degree. And while the film clocks in at an incredibly lean 82 minutes, the balancing act between laughter and jitters almost hits an imbalance during the last third. Even so, the performances and sheer minimalism of the whole makes for one of the more effective uses of the verité format in some time. Brice does a fairly sharp job of making it all feel very much in the real world for a great majority. And as the often clueless Aaron, he makes for a mostly understandable worm on a hook. And as such, one can easily conjure mental images of festival audiences taking some real theater escape route scanning during screenings. When one isn't giggling at the absurd eerieness, one couldn't be blamed if they felt compelled to run out of the theater a few times. One would be hard pressed to not have experienced this at least once in their lives.    

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Ethan Hunt & The Power Of Self-Effacement

Art, is always open to new opportunity.

Even when speaking of highly commercial vehicles, often designed as a print making license.

Which is what makes this creature so curious when talking about Tom Cruise, and his artistic management arc throughout the twenty year history of his Mission Impossible film series. We have seen film franchises wear different garb from work to work before, but rarely has it been as varied and telling like Ethan Hunt's globe-trotting adventures with the ever besieged IMF. And with Rogue Nation, the flight pattern turns yet again, into what at last feels like something out of a wholly new cloth from where they started. Sitting in the darkened theater this time, felt so much like a final maturation stage. A means of balancing out all that had come before, in ways that perhaps weren't evident as the series began back with Brian De Palma, back in 1996.

Mission Impossible (1996)

What struck me most about Ethan Hunt's first go-round as point-man, and ultimately leader, is how painterly, and yet eager it was to ease the public into an increasingly complex spy cartoon in lieu of the just-then ending Cold War. Fan-kicking plot twist aside, this first piece is clearly concerned with establishing Cruise as the essential attraction, while De Palma's pastiche does its part to create a comprehensible world despite the often iffy plot mechanics. What results, often feels more akin to a three-stage video game from the Nintendo 64 era. Three major set pieces, barely held together by a plot to make sure this is Ethan Hunt's story. A self-conscious move, perhaps, but a star-laden, often lovely to behold piece of pop silly. It's a shallow ride, but the Prague job and the Langley mission remain worth price of admission.

Mission Impossible 2 (2000)

Made in the eye of the Hollywood/Hong Kong Gush era, John Woo's bizarre entry to the new series finds us in some truly bizarre, and hopelessly idiosyncratic territory. Taking a page from Hitchcock's Notorious, Ethan Hunt's mostly solo outing as a single point in a most awkward love triangle remains the series' most egregious misstep. Instead of offering up more ensemble fun, gadgets, and intrigue, all we get is one confused muddle regarding a killer virus, and a showcase for Cruise to exist in a post-Matrix landscape. He climbs desert cliffs, he wears black, he's got the light of God on his side. It's a bizarre manga wannabe, complete with waltzing cars, goofy dialogue(Wait, Robert Towne was involved?), and some seriously silly multi-camera slow-motion martial arts moves. It's Cruise at his most self-conscious, and as juvenile as the series could possibly be. It's a reminder of an era this Kaijyu has no interest in revisiting, save for the final 25 minutes that are both breathtaking in technique, but laughable in context.

Mission Impossible 3 (2006)

After the perplexing success of MI:2, and the subsequent backlash that resulted, moves were under way to make the third entry something far more urgent and emotional. Enter newbie filmmaker, J.J. Abrams, who brings with him his larger than life television persona to the big screen, and comes out swinging. Ramping up the ridiculousness (Ethan falls in love, attempts to live a double life), somehow, this first round via the Bad Robot team, takes the bombastic Michael Bay approach, and grants the series an emotional pull that propels this into some seriously hectic places. Never not moving, and uncompromisingly dark for a PG-13 film, Abrams and Cruise fashion something that is far more personal than the previous films, and posits a formula that would come to solidify the series from this point going forward. No matter how one feels about Abrams, or his since then well-established form of pop cinema, MI:3 is rough and tumble fun only made more potent by having Philip Seymour Hoffman as your frightening antagonist. Pre-Dark Knight, it made a great case against post 911 policy with a little added burn to spare. And unlike the previous, there is a sense that a more colorful spirit is entering the mix, one that is less about our star, and more about the world he inhabits.

Always a plus.

 Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

Four films in, and Cruise and Co. finally strike gold. Three films later, and with the addition of animation genius, Brad Bird, the Bad Robot crew live up to their promise with one wild ride. From a Russian prison break, to infiltrating the Kremlin, to scaling the Burj Khalifa building, to the insane finale in Mumbai, this is classic MI adventure territory here made with almost mathematical care for geography, character, and action. As Ethan finally settles into what becomes an all-new IMF team (featuring welcome additions, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton,  & Jeremy Renner), their existence could not be in greater danger as catastrophic events have rendered the IMF completely disavowed, forcing Hunt and cohorts to scale the world, clear their names, and save the world from nuclear devastation. Still true to the series' more over the top worldview, the Bad Robot approach serves the whole with class and energy. On top of this, Cruise at last feels confident enough to relinquish the reins to an instantly appealing group of characters ready to share the spotlight. It finally feels like the television series on a grand scale, complete with clever fake-outs, wild stuntwork, and crowd-pleasing humor.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)

Intense to think that this has been going on for nearly two decades, and sees no signs of slowing. Cruise, now with his third collaboration with writer/director Chris McQuarrie (Jack Reacher, Edge Of Tomorrow) finds himself and the franchise wisening like a solid oak. Rogue Nation, while taking a charming look back at the entire series before it, also feels like a proud, experienced veteran, ready to accept age as consequence. In this one, Ethan and what remains of the entire IMF (meaning him and fellow agents) after being quashed by the US government, are forced to contend with their most cunning adversary, a supposedly nonexistent army of once powerful spies bent on destroying the infrastructure from the inside; the IMF's mirror opposite. Not ready to turn in the gear for good, Cruise and company run across a mysteriously solid agent in Rebecca Ferguson, are being dogged by a more than over it CIA head, Alec Baldwin, and troubled by a frighteningly cold Sean Harris. It's a refreshing, ultimately satisfying hybrid of action spectacle, and old fashioned spy yarn of a previous era.

It's so happily old school, that the whole feels just as thrillers once did, granting the audience enough room to breathe before the biggest surprises, which weren't geared toward screaming in our ears. There are also some great hidden easter eggs celebrating the previous films strewn throughout. It's amazing to see such a series turn such a corner, and welcome something more akin to a giddy airport novel, complete with quiet exchanges, dark alleys, and some brutal close-quarters combat. It's as mature as a series like this could be without losing the initial concept's more fun loving spirit. With this film, Cruise and company seem to be acknowledging the ups and downs that have led us here, and it's done with a kind of panache and adventurousness that only comes with growing up. Much like his film equivalent, Cruise is ready for facing insurmountable obstacles, but he sure as hell could not do it alone.

So great to see that revelation expressed with such elegance in what could so easily have ignored it.       

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Growing Up James Horner (1953 - 2015)

It has been forty-eight hours since I heard the news across my brother's Facebook feed, and I'm still reeling with thoughts of the James Horner's influence upon my life. Ever since I grew to appreciate, and eventually love film scores, his work leapt out at me with a fierceness that could only happen to a quiet obsessive at the sponge-like adolescent stage. Film music to me has long been an irreplaceable part of the film watching experience. It is an essential part of the engine that allows for us to feel beyond the more literal fabric of a story. A carefully considered heartbeat. And Horner, no matter the veterans that his field was still very much dominated by, was able to carve an indelible place for himself in the pantheon of late twentieth century cinema, most notably genre works. As an important voice in the 1980s deluge of pure fantasy cinema, his sound became an unmistakable mark which assured viewers that what they were witnessing together in that darkened room was something closer to an operatic, and at times internal experience writ large. He never failed to make the corners of a film that much larger. So large that they often extended far beyond the confines of an auditorium.

They were among the first soundtracks I absolutely had to own, and wear down from overplaying.

And even if his motifs were re-used and remixed over the years, it felt less like the work of someone short on ideas, but rather new nuances to a larger story an artist was attempting to tell. Even though I may not have followed his work nearly as much as the 1990s wore on, his early works continue to inform and influence me when I write or think of stories with a certain largeness to them. Alongside masters like Goldsmith, and Williams, they help define the last bastion of classical cinema music. And now with Horner gone, it's as if a truly prolific component of the moviegoing experience has shuttered its doors for good. It's certainly one hell of a legacy, and something many filmmakers would do well to keep close.

And now, some standout favorites from those heady days of being starstruck by swelling strings, leitmotifs, and heroic themes..

Battle Beyond The Stars

Just plunking down some thoughts in memoriam of one of the last of a dying breed. Composer James Horner became a fixture in my own growing vernacular of storytelling when I was but six years old when I saw Battle Beyond The Stars for the first time. It's a rollicking, campy space western made in the mold of Star Wars, but with more emphasis on the western. Seven space faring warriors are gathered together by a young pilot as his planet is being bullied by a galactic conqueror. It's a fun little film, made all the more grand and fun by way of the young Horner's more than ample chops. (Fun Fact: Young James Cameron worked on this film in the props and art department, eager to move up in the world. - AND HUNGRY.)

Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan

Flash forward to 1982, when he was tasked with taking the already in danger Star Trek franchise into bold new territory. With a whole new look, attitude, and a flare for the hyperdramatic, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan has grown to be the most imitated and beloved Trek film. Leaping from Jerry Goldsmith's already iconic score, Horner's implies submarine battles in deep space, and a deep romantic feel that harkens to a more old world sea tale. This score moved me to tears as a kid. Still does from time to time. One of the greats, period.


Few scores later, Horner was reunited with now powerful indie genre maverick, James Cameron as he was ready to take the reins to the follow-up to the now horror classic, ALIEN. With ALIENS, the emphasis was less on horror, and more on action and gut-tightening suspense. Written and recorded in under a week, ALIENS is now famous for multiple reasons, not the least of which is its powerful, utterly exhausting score which became the most often used and imitated trailer music of all time. This sucker remains an all timer for me, and perhaps is most responsible for my heart problems. It's an unrelenting beast that still overwhelms today. As nerve-ripping as the film itself.

An American Tail

That same summer, Horner was assigned to animate former Disney darling, Don Bluth's second animated film, An American Tail. Say what one will about the final film, the score can wrench the waterworks from even the most cynical viewer.


1988, Horner was now poised to take on the big dogs when George Lucas and Ron Howard took on the hopeful fantasy Willow. With extended amounts of prep time, and the largest orchestra he had had experienced to date, Willow's score remains a woefully underappreciated gem. Grand, grand stuff. Possibly his richest score.


1989, Horner reaches for dramatic iconography with Edward Zwick's Glory. And the end theme still echoes on as a score lover's favorite. An incredible ode to heroes long thought forgotten. Stirs deeply even now.

The Rocketeer

And now, we jump forward to what is perhaps my all-time favorite Horner work, his grand, nostalgic, innocent and thrill-packed score for Joe Johnston's The Rocketeer(1991). I cannot express just how much this score means to me, and how much it makes me long for when orchestras ruled the cinema, and when music was an indispensable part of the filmic whole. The culmination of his work in the 1980s congeals into a heroic melange that is sorely missing in today's superhero congested climate. It's a reminder of not only simpler times, but of the innate humanity within our heroes and those who they struggle for. It's a romantic dance between the humble and grand, which makes Johnston's future as the man who brought dignity to Captain America, all the more potent. Sincere and soaring, much like the film itself. Just flat out Hollywoodland magic.

Patriot Games

Lastly tonight, we have the opening to one of his more understated, but no less stirring works, Patriot Games. The second film to be based upon the Jack Ryan novels by Tom Clancy, this was a revenge tale regarding a renegade IRA terrorist out to pay back former CIA analyst for accidentally killing his brother while on a trip to London. The Gaelic themes and moody electronics are a startling change of pace, but is perfect for this tale of late 20th century cloak and dagger. Doesn't hurt to have CLANNAD's Mary Boyle here for vocal support.

And there we have it. Just a peek into growing up with this man's sounds. And even though he later grew to legend status as the man responsible for the music to Titanic, Braveheart, and A Beautiful Mind, I was much more enamored with his earlier, more fiery works. It's such a sad loss for not only film music lovers, but of classical lovers as well. While it had been a long time since I last truly found myself enraptured by a full blown orchestral score, the yearning for that kind of analog accompaniment never ceases to be strong within me. And with James Horner, it was never hard to feel a film, even when the final product didn't seem to run parallel. Even so, any work that shared his musical spirit was a welcome reminder that somewhere in that piece, we were in great hands. May his works continue to encourage future storytellers to think large, and dream grand. My brothers and I are still reminiscing where we were, and what these scores meant to us. And as long as these songs endure, may the discussion of the legends they embrace continue to as well.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Lo Pan Dilemma: Why I Will Never See Another Big Trouble In Little China

"My problem is this place. It is my tomb. I'm buried here. A young man, a king, a warrior, is entombed within this.. old man's crippled body. And all I need is a woman, Mr. Burton. A special kind of woman with dragon green eyes to make me whole again. Young again. So that I may rule the universe from beyond this grave."

While it has been nearly a week since word came out that Dwayne Johnson was excited to star in a remake of one of my all-time favorites, the reactions, while to be expected, needed a little extra time to ferment. And while this feels like yet another case of Hollywood simply gambling on reliable IP to stay afloat, this attempt to make eyebrows perk up left me with an even more troubled mind. Especially in lieu of 2011's lukewarm pre-boot of John Carpenter's other less than financially stellar studio offering, The Thing(1982). Both being massive personal favorites despite their initial performances, I'm far more understanding of the former's existence. Over the last several years, remakes have grown to become a de-facto response to diminishing box office returns, often ironically to the tune of even greater losses. And many of the largest, most important cult film properties of the 1980s, have already seen themselves reconstituted and sold as hollow, zombified versions of themselves, so perhaps it was only a matter of time before the spotty hands of Hollywood would reach for the hidden gem bag yet again. But perhaps this time, they have reached the nadir of confusion. Desperation and disconnect so grand, that the end product could only reveal greater problems within an antiquated business model.

There are a myriad of reasons beyond mere love for the Carpenter film on a surface level that inform this bushel of feelings. Many of them stemming from just how unusual Big Trouble In Little China was on the film landscape at the time. In an era where just about any manner of pop culture mashup can be realized to the cheers of many, it simply was unthinkable in 1986. An era just awash in Vietnam revisionism, macho fantasy, and a longing for a 1950s simplicity of life. Hybrid culture had yet to gestate, and for the average moviegoer, the very idea that one film would be willing to embrace everything from kung-fu cinema, hard action, manga, video game silly, screwball comedy, and ensemble acting was simply too hard to accept. And then, there was a strange willingness on the part of the film to treat chinese characters as just characters, with the lesser known co-star being the film's stealth hero.

That's right. Big Trouble In Little China is special in that it subverts everything about the era in which it was made. It exists as both a marker of 1980s still brewing american xenophobia, and a growing movement toward seeing a more inclusive and understanding national identity. It utilizes the ideal of the individualistic proto-action icon in the All-American blowhard, Jack Burton. We are whisked alongside him in a vision of our own cultural glaucoma as it runs head on with the baggage of those tasked with making an american ideal possible. Burton's hapless buddy, Wang Chi(Dennis Dun) represents the then next generation's consciousness, tackling both tradition and burgeoning community sensibilities as his bride-to-be is kidnapped by street toughs, only to have her handed off to a centuries old evil sorcerer bent on becoming immortal through the use of her own unique physical qualities. He has no intention to marry Miao Yin for love, but rather for her green eyes. Not unlike Jack's need for his stolen truck to get by, the villainous Lo Pan is hellbent on this dehumanizing task to help enable his need to keep matters the same as so long ago.

In a very clever way, Lo Pan, while he has found himself to be a very saavy and occasionally witty businessman, running San Francisco Chinatown's underworld with a tightened claw, he seems more than happy to maintain the universe as it had long before the advent of the american ideal.

Burton, for all his friendliness toward people of all stripes, seems like a John Wayne gone Hanna-Barbera cartoon. A flag-waving tough guy with a head full of rocks. And as he voyages through the mounting weirdness that is this tale, his understanding of the world is endlessly rocked, leading to personal revelations about not only his own masculine prowess, but his own part in a larger community. And while he doesn't fully learn his lesson by the finale, there is indeed a hint that he knows himself far better now that he had at the beginning of the adventure. It's an endearing trick that Carpenter and Kurt Russell pulled off with the character, as all of Hollywood was basking in the instant gratification machinations of the Stallones, and now Schwarzeneggers of the world. It takes a great deal of self-effacement, and lack of seriousness to pull such a thing off, which only makes the character that much more charming.

On the side of good, there is also a cast of side characters who seem more than up to the task in changing perceptions in a film landscape that was still far too comfortable in treating certain characters without the respect they deserved. Just take Victor Wong's Egg Shen as a prime example. A local tour bus driver/local businessman/secret sorcery expert and wizard, with a smart mouth the likes few had seen in a major motion picture at that point. He's not only a man of numerous talents and abilities, he's also well-connected, and a natural wit who knows his ancient and San Francisco lore. And what of Uncle Chu, Eddie, The Chang Sing? Just treating characters as people goes such a long way, and BTLC never stoops low to sell us stale archetypes or ideas. In a film that so easily could have gone this way, every move seems calculated to avoid such turns, and remains perpetually ahead of the cultural curve. It knows we can be better, and drives for it every time, even as we are besieged by monsters, magic, kung-fu battles, and ghosts.

Big Trouble In Little China, is a perpetual cornerstone of popular culture that defies even the simplest of description, and as thus is without easy import. It's not a simple chassis with which to play with in some form of hyper-simplistic retooling. So if they truly wish to take us headlong into another go-round with Jack, Wang, and pals, the impetus is on today's filmmakers to delve deep into the murk of now, see exactly where we are as filmgoers, as well as social beings. It's not in Big Trouble's nature to retread what has been traveled before. It embraces the unexpected. And for befuddled studios to finally see this as a last ditch chip to cash in, seems not unlike a wily old sorcerer longing for the glory days. Partaking in the packaging, without a single inkling of the soul that lies beneath.

But much like his own undoing, it's all in the reflexes.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Why I Cried On The Fury Road..

So it has been nearly two weeks since George Miller stunned the world with his long-in-development return to the accidental mythology he kicked off decades ago, and I'm still emotionally dizzy from it. Not only has it instantly become one of the best contemporary examples of what I go to grand scale films for, it has also spawned the kind of enthusiasm for an R-rated film that has become anomalous in this day and age. And based upon a recent Facebook post where I openly admitted to weeping openly to it upon the second viewing, it felt proper to explain why this megabudget blockbuster allowed such an impassioned case of sheer waterworks to happen. Hint: it wasn't because of simple geek out.

While one can certainly express satisfaction by merely being affected by an impressive piece of art, there was something truly remarkable about my second viewing of Fury Road. True to what many colleagues and friends have expressed, viewing the film once simply isn't enough. The initial physical and borderline psychic shock that followed that first go-round was something that pretty much never happens to me in films. It is something more in line with what can happen at a live concert where something truly extraordinary occurred, or perhaps even a jarring life event. And while I knew for certain that I had indeed enjoyed the film's journey, it was the second watch that allowed me to soak in the surprisingly rich emotional and thematic landscape with greater impact.

What especially took me this time around, was not only how confident the entire film is with its "Show-don't-tell" methodology, but in how restrained it is with characterization. To best get emotional mileage from any story, is to best know what to tell and what to allow the audience to fill in on their own. And in the case of virtually every character in the film, this is done with a sensitivity that simply doesn't happen, especially with action cinema. Everything is meant to be told on a move, and yet Fury Road never shortchanges the viewer into best understanding where Furiosa, Max, Nux, the wives, and even the villains are through the course of their shared journeys. Knowing full well that the entire film is practically one large action scene, fragments of who these people are from the beginning to the fiery finale, are delivered with a precision and care that implies spending a great amount of time with them long before cameras rolled. Quite true to the adage that all characters in a story are but elements of one person's psyche, there is a deeper feeling at work that never feels less than personal. They are all but the cataclysmic, desolate, hopeful, and cooperative parts of a larger heart.

Something that is often all too rare in grand scale action films; heart. Despite Miller's admission that the film's sincere hopes for a more gender pluralist society weren't initially the core reason for doing the film, it certainly found it's way deep into the process. So when we take in Furiosa's last ditch effort to make up for past sins, there isn't a moment that feels grafted on, or telegraphed. Her concerns are completely understandable, and the implications of her past horrific. She has taken everything upon her shoulders to see that the society she has long helped solidify no longer clings to submission and desperation. And while her journey with Max in tow takes on truly unexpected turns, it comes like a personal revelation. We, with her, come to realize that so many suppositions about a "mythical place" are more about fostering a rebirth than escape. This is the first Mad Max film to take on the possibility of a better world on our doorstep, and it does so with a sense of personal epiphany.  

And perhaps that's it. The waterworks came, because everyone's journey is based on hope. Even as Max seems bent on taking advantage of his ride on the War Rig, and making his own way, there's still this need for him to witness some semblance of the cop and father he once was. As the odds become ever more desperate, the notion that Furiosa could be able to even fight this hard for something that might be little more than a fairy tale, not to mention the heart displayed by the wives and even Nux, a boy who could for a time only be a playback machine to a madman's dogma, becomes something even he can't deny. So by the time they encounter the Vulvalini, and choose to take back the future, everyone's journey is sealed. I felt the early distrust, to the selfishness, and later the respect and camaraderie without it ever feeling forced or false. Each character gets under the skin with just the right amount of coverage. By the finale, I was able to feel the struggle becoming that of a shared dream. Something larger than that of a mad dash between motor vehicles, crazies, and heroes. It felt like the journey of a life's purpose realized. As if all the dangers and tragedies that occurred on that path were much in line with how life can often be. The revelation of your life, and what it means to finally have a family and a goal to seek no matter the difficulty ahead.

The Fury Road becomes something of a culture's turning point, a woman's path to becoming an emissary for change, and an artist's viscerally poetic realization of a dream.

Of course, Max Rockatansky had to be there. A personal torch was there to be passed. And likely for the better.

Just Experienced Kung Fury..

After over a year of waiting, David Sandberg's Kickstarter success story has burnt out what remains of my tattered retinas. The swedish paean to all things kitschy 1980s exploitation has finally made its YouTube debut, and now I am a smoking wreck of what the eff? While the viral marketing campaign was in no way far off in how it sold this love letter to all things VHS era, the final product is definitely something that will either win you over, or lead to eyeroll migraines the likes few have ever witnessed. And while I mostly find myself in the former category, this expanded rendition of the David Hasselhoff music video that was released a little over a month ago, often feels padded where even ten minutes would have been dandy.

That said, no amount of description here will possibly do this wild short justice. From an arcade console gone amok, to a flaming baby carriage, to a martial arts challenge for the ages, this is perhaps the ultimate nod & wink to a time I still remember with bitter fondness.

Man, we were friggin' warped as kids. How can we possibly face an uncertain future?

Only Kung Fury knows for sure..

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Max: How I Stopped Worrying & Learned To Live In A Waking Apocalypse

Upon beginning this little blog, it was largely under the premise that I felt a deep need to explore the nature of myth, and what it meant to reflect not only the time in which it was told, but how it can often morph over time. And few major cinematic myths have experienced quite the history as Max Rockatansky has. Once an ace office of the Main Police Force, later a wasteland-weary loner seemingly saddled with trouble wherever he goes, remains one of the more original icons of the popcorn landscape. And with the long-awaited Fury Road just about to hit screens with what seems like a harsh gale force the likes film fandom has rarely seen, it seemed right to peek back George Miller's signature hero, and what he has meant to me over the years.

Long before I even truly knew about Mel Gibson, or of George Miller, my childhood visual mythology was already running rampant with heroes of all dimensions. From Luke Skywalker to Atticus Finch, films allowed me to fine tune an image to what storybooks and good people in the real world were already informing my worldview. One could envision the path, the fear, and ultimately the choices these characters had to make before standing up to their will to run in the name of some form of good. And while these definitions were what many would call rudimentary, they carried a potent array of reminders of how important it is to learn from every experience. Sure, there were times when storytellers would pull a ruse of laziness, and expect kids to accept a hero as moral without question, and even then, young me couldn't help but suspect something was amiss on the part of the teller. Even so, complexity wasn't huge on my periphery.

So when a relative inadvertently exposed me to the original Mad Max via a trip to the local Drive-In, the very idea that a hero could be so complicated, and at times downright broken, frightened me. It also threw me for a big loop. Since Max's journey largely takes place on the sidelines as his pals on the MFP(Most notably his buddy, Goose) took precedence until the Toe Cutter and his gang shifted their evil gaze his way. Having only seen a few horror movies at the time, the encroaching doom that lurched ever closer to Max and his little family felt a little too close for comfort. Every step the marauding gang of biker hooligans took toward the inevitable was one step closer to my little mind breaking along with poor Max's. But to see our hero go so far as to handcuff a lesser villain's ankle to an overturned vehicle leaking gasoline, and left behind to die a fiery death was something that I certainly wasn't prepared for. Even when the world of the preceding ninety minutes seemed dire and decaying, it was nothing compared to the distressing feelings that wrapped up the film. Simply put, nothing was to be the same again. The road ahead could not be more uncertain for Max, not for us. Perhaps it was all too soon. A road that went foggy without warning, with only rage and sorrow as navigator.

And funny enough, a year later when we caught the follow-up at the same twin drive-in, the stomach churning finale of the original Max was mere prelude to the even more evocative apocalypse that surrounds us here. Mad Max 2 (AKA - The Road Warrior), is a classic case of reinvention that takes the promise of desolation into revelatory mythmaking peaks. Gone were the green grasslands, clean roads, and promises of populated landscapes ahead. The world had become a savage ocean of desolation on all corners that shook little kaijyu to his very bones. In this rendition of the world, there truly is noone to look to for protection. No government. No hard driving ace police. Nothing. With only machines, wits, and goodness, a little luck finding juice, one may just have a chance. It was a deep dark place where only the resourceful could survive, and I couldn't imagine kids like me having a prayer.

It also opened me up to the realization that heroes weren't bound necessarily by continuity. That depending upon who is telling the tale, our lead can take on many guises, as can the world that surrounds them. While the film does visualize that this is the same Max, it could very easily be a souped-up reincarnation since the world has indeed fallen quite a ways from where it was just one film ago. Even so, one cannot help but understand why this character evolved into a self-serving survivalist in the wake of past events. He even goes so far as to consider ditching his first real bastion of human contact with the people of the film's main setting - a refinery under siege by a gang of scavenging psychos led by the charismatic slab of beef known as The Humongus.

The leap between film worlds was made less jarring by the natural progression of Max, not to mention sheer visceral thrill of Mad Max 2's still astonishing action and sense of vision. And even as Max becomes little more than a mythical hero in the eyes of a child, it is this spark of storytelling license shorthand that allows the character to have this more plasticine nature allowing for his world to become a boundless sandbox for George Miller's fertile imagination. It's a blank check for him to upgrade/alter the post-apocalypse to whatever his heart's desire. Something that Miller and his now well-honed band of daredevils could utilize to their advantage after The Road Warrior's big splash on the global stage. Max had become as important to me a mythical figure as anyone under the auspices of Spielberg or Lucas. The bleak future had become but a canvas to place upon it a hero eternally at odds with his will to escape his greatest fear, empathy.

So when the roads finally gave way to dunes in Beyond Thunderdome, who could blame Miller and company for aiming for soft-pedaled illustrated storybook territory? At the time, Star Wars had been put to rest (or so I thought), and I was hurting pretty heavily for another cinematic legend to drive it all home, so naturally Mad Max was on my mind full cycle as Tina Turner music videos and ads promised a Max adventure on a scale unseen. Even though I was fully aware of the tragedy that befell the production before filming with the loss of producer Byron Kennedy, what I was able to see from the marketing storm that followed near release in 1985, was something striking and potentially very special.

Having Max, this time much older and used as a pawn in the power struggle between the powerful of a trade-based boomtown deep in the wasteland, was an exciting new dimension to the mythos. And while the first thirty minutes of Thunderdome indeed burned a mark into my DNA that summer, it was hard to reconcile with certain choices that were made to close the circle. From the Fellini-esque touches that graced the glorious pit known as Bartertown, to its people, to Thunderdome itself, the film flirts with a greatness that far surpasses anything that had come before. And yet, Max's adventures beyond(yeah, just go with it) end up grinding the film to a halt instead of rocketing past. And while the notion that the feral child from the previous film would be a harbinger of sorts to an entire colony of child survivors of a plane crash, is a good one, as a story it never feels fleshes out to any satisfying degree beyond the visually respledent. It's pretty much an equivalent to Jedi's Ewoks. It feels like compromise. A compromise that in many ways belittles Max, and renders him more spectator than participant.

While still a gorgeous third film, it lacks the sense of dramatic propulsion that had brought the legend of the loner cop to such a status.

And then the legend lie dormant. And George Miller had for decades distanced himself artistically with often terrific, yet baffling choices for projects. To think that the man who brought Max Rockatansky to so many hearts and minds, also brought us Lorenzo's Oil, and Babe, remains head-spinning for its' sheer willingness for experimentation and fortitude. And his forays into the realms of CG animated fare took his career into many more impressive areas. It was as if success had then allowed him to treat work as a neverending film school, where he could further explore his ongoing theses about the ordinary thrust into the extraordinary into the super-extraordinary. (Just look at the leaps between Babe and Babe: Pig In The City)

For years, I had heard wind of a return to the wasteland. And it was around 2007 when I heard about a script for Mad Max: Fury Road being in the works. And in no traditional sense either. Had heard that  a majority of the film was to flirt with the comic world by being almost wholly composed via hand drawings before a word of dialogue was written down. So for years, I had long been hoping for more information, for some news that Miller and company were to make this dream project a reality. And then come roughly 2010, it came down the pipe that it would finally come to pass. But not before production problems, delays, shooting location moves, and various other drama made it almost supernatural in how fate seemed destined to keep Max from seeking redemption again.

2015. I am now forty years old. The wait has ended.

True to his ways of re-examining his mythological figures through a new lens each time, and with great sensitivity to the world around him, Miller's return to the world that brought him the world's attention is nothing short of extraordinary.

Mad Max: Fury Road, is proof positive that passion can still survive after decades of bliss seeking. That film as art can still mean something, and that action films can indeed chart a changing world. Older me can find himself both enthralled by the intensity and often insane composition of the action. He can even be deeply impressed by the film's clear love for the cast, and it's incredible gallery of memorable characters who are only given so much dialogue. Tom Hardy's Max, is a great new interpretation of the loner hero, and should do well in subsequent films should they go that route. And Charlize Theron's turn as Imperator Furiosa does Max one better in creating a hero that can at last carry that torch alongside him no matter where she goes from here on out. And what truly captured me, was that Fury Road is a return that carries the weight of weathered experience, and a willingness to transcend anything that had come before. And that even includes sexual/gender politics, not to mention world-building, and philosophical stances.

Years of percolation has allowed the film to become both a relentless, and exhausting feast for the senses that displays an unheard of amount of affection for the world and its people. It feels like the world of Max, has in itself both an artist's rage and love that feels ready to burst. Not everyone mellows with age, and we have seen quite a bit of shifting in our lifetimes. Miller seems to use this series as a barometer for how he sees the world, and with Fury Road, he sees a world ready to slough off old skins. That perhaps the post-apocalypse isn't this nightmarish place that must be avoided or to be protected from. It is here, and that perhaps by knowing your community, and taking it back for future generations, answers will indeed come through togetherness. The film admits that such a process is hard, but with each other, perhaps it isn't quite so painful. It's possible that the reason why Thunderdome wasn't quite able to deliver Max to the ages, was because this had to happen first. Max simply wasn't ready. Miller, wasn't ready.  

And now it's here.

I finally feel ready to put aside my love for the hero, and become my own.

Maybe one day, we all can.

Image by Kaz Omori

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Ex Machina (2015) Movie Thoughts

It's always a tightrope act when a lauded scribe gets his first crack at directing a feature. And yet, novelist and occasional Danny Boyle collaborator, Alex Garland startles with unexpected ease. Brilliant young search engine coder, Caleb finds himself a winner of his company's lottery, and wins a trip to meet his oufit's reclusive CEO deep in the mountains. Completely unaware of what to expect in this clinical environment surrounded by miles of natural beauty, he is invited to participate in what could be the scientific discovery of a generation. Perhaps, of all generations.

Upon meeting the unexpectedly masculine and coolly unnerving Nathan(Oscar Isaac), Caleb is then let in on the purpose for his mysterious visit. He will be spending a week, tasked with meeting Nathan's latest technological breakthrough in hopes of performing a rigorous rendition of the Turing Test. A means by which a human can be completely fooled by a computer. When faced with this proposal, matters take on a more sinister bent when it is revealed that the subject for this test is in the form of Ava, a near-perfect replica of a humanoid machine. Featuring a body composed of largely synthetics and mesh, Ava's very human face and curiosity about Caleb makes for a powerful impression. But it isn't long before the young man, his new machine charge, and the troubling supergenius forge an air of curiosity and suspicion as Garland's tale comes up short on simple answers, but offers up a challenging bevy of questions about our current precipice of technology and philosophy.

When cinema tends to reach for answers to the ever-prescient question of the inevitable consequences of artificial intelligence, the reply almost always seems to hash out the same technophobic slant. (Just look to last week's Avengers: Age Of Ultron for yet another example) Time and again, we have been witness to morality tales about humanity's reach versus its grasp. And rarely do films that tackle the more open ends of this discussion with such openness and candor. Garland takes the quiet approach by making Nathan's stone and white colored home into a series of cells and corridors blocked by specially selected code keys, and surveillance cameras on every corner. The mountains and vegetation make for a world that makes our boy wonders on this voyage of the mind seem that much smaller.

And by that, I mean that placing the wiry, gaunt Caleb alongside the beer chugging, weight lifting Nathan, we are privy to where nerds have come over the generations. Both men have seen themselves products of a technological renaissance of sorts, and yet Nathan seems geared toward seeking a world that is more based upon controlling nature, while Caleb finds himself more and more at odds with his role in the testing. Ava seems to know more than she's letting on, and is growing more and more fond of him with each meeting. Even more disconcerting, is the only other person in Nathan's home/research facility, the practically mute Kyoko, who seems to only serve as a house servant. A game of who is playing who kicks into gear, and the screws begin to tighten to almost unbearable levels as it comes clear that what we are witnessing is a play on empathy, and what happens when we lose it in the name of juvenile desires.

And by this, I speak of the film's equating of our relationship to technology versus our most base desires. The film toys with not only Caleb's, but our collective habits in the wake of the internet, as well as many other breakthroughs in the past. There's almost always a hint of the hypersexual in ways that the average human considers advancements. So when we realize that Caleb's job, and Nathan's company is a world renowned search engine known as Blue Book, not to mention a discussion of what happens when all seach data is collated for ulterior purposes, it's not a stretch to consider Ava as a walking embodiment of the human id. In a film that could on the surface be seen as objectifying of the female form, there's a dimension at play here that harkens to a masculine world that seems to stutter behind with every new discovery with our lizard brains struggling to keep matters from evolving too rapidly. When we meet Nathan for the first time, it's clear that his demeanor defies every movie scientist archetype, and is closer to an "alpha-bro" with some serious masculinity issues. Sure, he's socially inept and bordering on megalomaniacal, but there's also a hint of perpetual pre-adolescence that pervades Isaacs' performance, and it is very much by design. Caleb, while more sedate, resembles a quiet, inquisitive teen who's a little more balanced, but racked with doubts as to Ava's motivations, and in turn Nathan's. He sees the man behind the machine, but is also in quiet awe of Ava. It's a tricky counterbalance to play, and Domnhall Gleeson slinks into it with unusual weight.

But the real find here is Alicia Vikander, who's Ava, exhudes the enthusiasm of a well-mannered and curious being who has only known a cage her whole brief life. Longing to know more about the boy sent to test her, and definitely exhibiting signs of a clear desire to embrace more colors of life, her role is all in the body language. All constantly creating a gravity with each title card designated meeting, she is magnetic, especially when her performance delivers hints at the complexity underneath her curious demeanor. Which makes for some surprising developments as the tension rises.

With a sure-handed demeanor, Garland and crew find themselves ready to tackle themes of The Singularity, and our role in it with often astonishing grace. Also important players in this piece are DP Rob Hardy, and music composers, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, who create a calmly sensual aura throughout.  About the only real complaint that one can lob around here, was that some of the more provocative ideas were piled upon others. The end result of course, making the whole film feel more like a weighty discussion than a solid story. Which would only hurt it if it were aiming for something that traditional. With the self-imposed budgetary restrictions on hand, Ex Machina finds itself most comfortable tackling our collective worst habits as not merely dominator male legacies, but as creatures of convenience. What the film ultimately shares is a post-human notion that perhaps the machine futures of films past had yet to allow the processing of our inevitable new roles in the evolutionary chain. And that perhaps it's of our own undoing that we find ourselves so unwilling to keep up the race as creatures of understanding. Much in the way that gender and sexual mores of the past are at last leaving the pastures of the past, so shall our technologically enabled brothers and sisters.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Stop The Universe, I Want To Get Off (Age Of Ultron, Age Of Nope)

Months back, after thinking about how well Marvel Studios gambled to great success in 2014, it felt to me as if a great gamble had finally paid off. After decades of marginal adaptations, false starts, and years of self-conscious film production, it certainly felt as if the superhero film had finally come into its own. Every MCU film post Joss Whedon's The Avengers seemed to herald something of a salad period in which the comic book film could finally exist in all its pulpy, soap operatic glory. Gone were the notions of spandex-questioning team members, and overt grit-ification of once larger than life serial landscapes. Marvel had finally cracked the code to making films that could not only satisfy the most die-hard devotee, but also rake in droves of new action and adventure lovers the world over. It's a mix generations in the making, and as such Avengers: Age Of Ultron, feels like the final culmination of that dream.  

Which brings me to the reason for this quasi-review. As a lover of all things cinematic, as well as someone with a love for breadth of storytelling, observing the major studios and their wishes to each hone together their resources toward creating successful shared universes with which to better compete with Disney's caped juggernauts, has led me to come to a singular conclusion that may sever me from a generation that seems to be experiencing something of a cinematic renaissance - A wish to step off the shared universe concept, and to seek newer means of enjoying myths without feeling like a once powerful business' last refuge. As much as these filmmakers have been doing some impressive work, and what was once considered a shelter for young admirers of fantasy, is now considered monstrous commodity, there is something truly telling within Age Of Ultron that shares a solid, sobering message; that saturation and lack of variety are the death of vitality in all forms of communication. It's ultimately a blandening mechanism for not only business, but for art as well.

While the second chapter in what is Marvel's flagship series, Tony Stark's discovery of this deeply complex programming, leads him toward a path which places his fears at odds with his comrades. The Ultron Program, which on the surface promises a more secure world, not only from those who would threaten the Earth and its occupants, but from this increasing population of empowered beings who threaten to cause as much damage and suffering. Naturally, this doesn't fare well at all, leading to what is easily one of the most jaw-tearing grand action spectacles ever filmed. The cast travels from one end of the globe to the other as allegiances are shattered and formed, and comic book soap opera reaches the pinnacle of its form in under two-hours plus. And as impressive as it sounds, Age Of Ultron suffers largely from not only an event heavy storyline, an endless parade of characters, and a pace that stumbles rather than flows, the film grinds when the form should coast.It practically beats us into pure indifference.

Also a casualty of the form reaching this milestone; a threat to focus and memorability. Ever since Return Of The Jedi, filmmakers have been steadily piling on the multi-battle storytelling form to diminishing returns. Where once three separate battles could make the head spin, but miraculously maintain focus between character beats and dramatic pace, Ultron leaves so much underfocused, and little to actually absorb. Character moments shine, and rekindle interest, where action events are often pulling the brain apart, vying endlessly for attention. For all the technology we have to finally visualize the most astonishing visions of apocalypse, and derring do by beings that can easily resemble gods, it isn't terribly compelling, nor nearly as fun as it could be if it were mounting with something more mathematical in mind. Gone are the days of simple set pieces like the truck chase in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, where we had simple stakes, clear choreography, and editing and music that truly sell the stakes.

Which leads me to another casualty of this new paradigm..Music.

This has been addressed before elsewhere, but it couldn't be more damning a notion. That with mass production comes a lowering of standards in one section or another, and in the case of these Marvel films, there has yet to be a single truly memorable score. Considering the action pedigree that these films often pay homage to, the lack of a driving, effectively emotional orchestral score is a stunning vacuum to consider. Whether it be the work of recent composers like Henry Jackman, Brian Tyler, and even Alan Silvestri, there has yet to be the kind of consideration made for the sonic spirit of the film. Without it, and with music that often feels like temp tracks for a generic action reel, all one has is the spectacle to drive matters. Which would be fine if the stakes actually felt palpable.

So in short, once we have multiple characters with their own separate film series combining together every few years, we are pretty assured that the drama will not threaten the future. And in doing so, what our film experience is, is nothing less than episodic television. That is the end game of the shared universe model. We are ostensibly paying to watch hundred million dollar episodes, where very often the dramatic stakes (along with the music) must represent the general overhead in that they cannot reach past a certain ceiling. Which only serves to undercut the drama of what we are actually watching. This, is poisonous to the filmgoing experience to some, myself included. It simply isn't encouraging enough to enjoy another adventure of a favorite action hero, there needs to be something these characters could lose beyond a simple two hour running time. Like emotions and money, investments remain a vital part of the moviewatching experience for me, so without the feeling that there is something to lose from the drama unspooling before us, it feels very much like being treated like a creature of habit. Like a junkie. Like an ATM.

And far be it from me to determine what others should place value in, habit should not be one of them. Having been a longtime fan of anime television series, I know what it is to be taken for a ride from a serialized work that seems to offer no real dramatic stakes let alone a finite path. After a while, it feels like nothing more than a means to stay employed. It becomes a paycheck. And when routine sets in for any form of art, cracks begin to show in realms of passion. It's just inevitable. We see it in all forms of creativity whether it be punk rock, typography, and even diets; once we make the revolutionary the norm, blandness sets in, and so does the rot. It simply isn't all things to all people. Where only the addicted stick around. Again, this is perhaps a bit presumptuous, but Age Of Ultron smacks to me of the beginning of said atrophy. As Joss Whedon walks away from these megapictures, as do I. As fun as it has been, it serves the soul a great deal to seek more than mere distractions. The world is far too vast a place to spend it cycling toward infinity.

It happened to the slasher film. It happened to the simple sequel.

It will happen to the shared universe.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Babadook (2013) Movie Thoughts

Somewhere in South Australia, single mother, Amelia Vannick(Essie Davis) has seen better years.

Working at a nursing home for the elderly , struggling to raise her hyperactive six year old son, Samuel(Noah Wiseman) has begun to reach a breaking point. The loss of the boy's father on the way to his delivery in an accident has continued to haunt them both. Now manifesting itself in little Sam's borderline aggressive clinginess and desperation to protect his mother from unseen beasts. From uncomfortable hugs to improvised weapons wreaking havoc about every other corner of their lives, Amelia's life begins to resemble a classic powder keg situation as sleep deprivation begins to take hold. And it's about to get worse, when a mysterious pop-up book seems to magically appear on Sam's bookshelf. A sinister red book starring none other than a terrifying dark specter clad in black, known only as The Babadook. A book that promises to never go away, until the unthinkable has consumed them both.

Enter Jennifer Kent's small scale, but primally chilling allegory that proves beyond all doubt, that good horror is a game of understanding the terrors of daily life. From the opening frames on, there is no doubt that what we're experiencing is something that is so familiar, frankly because it is so close to so many of us. From Amelia's daily troubles of raising a son who seems on the brink every other moment, to working surrounded by reminders of what life she has forsaken to raise him, is rife with baggage so heavy that it's no wonder horror comes knocking. It's bad enough that the boy cannot celebrate his birthday on the day, but must share parties with the daughter of Amelia's seemingly more mobile sister, Claire. And that Sam's erratic behavior has garnered some disciplinary problems at school. Matters are reaching almost oppressive levels, and this is before any hint of the supernatural even arises. We are dropped square into the worst possible single parenthood scenario's deep waters before the dreaded shark arrives. And when he does, it feels like a powerful , inescapable abyss that scares in ways that few have in decades.

Dropped so sadistically into a spiritual deep end, while cruel in some ways, is precisely where the film lives and dies. There is a muted color palette that surrounds Amelia's life, like the last remnants of brightness to her world is on the verge of a fuse burnout. Right off the bat, we are in a place that is both cold, and disquieting. One of the many potent weapons in the film's arsenal, is something far too many pieces of horror tend to forget, environmental and lighting design. We are host to a sight and sound universe that is sensitive to Amelia's plight. It only bolsters the tension as her life begins to resemble a Von Trier film, complete with endless supernatural amounts of emotional torment. (which made the revelation that Kent spent some time studying/working with the danish auteur, make grand sense) And when we find ourselves largely trapped within the chilly halls of their home, the lighting and art direction take on a quiet, painterly menace that tightens its grip throughout. It only makes the unforgiving blackness of our titular villain that much more powerful. The film understands the history of horror, and milks it largely to great effect.

 But the crowning jewels of the film are truly Davis and Wiseman, who conjure up some truly astonishing performances as a tattered family on the verge of tragedy. Davis' Amelia, is such a delicate, demanding piece of work that could co easily have gone comic in other hands, but she comes off as completely relatable as she is granted every logical stage to an almost inevitable form when her resent and grief boils over. We can grieve for her, as well as beg for her to stop, and not for a moment lose that gravity. And on that note, she could not be more blessed in having Wiseman, who's Sam, is both one of the most unnerving and one of the most frighteningly effective child performances I have ever experienced. When he is a terror, he is a terror. And when he is achingly vulnerable, it's deeply uncomfortable. The film is so diabolical in some manners, that it's a miracle of casting that any kid would be able to deliver such incredible work.

It's a most interesting marriage, taking the spirit of scary tales from the past, transposing them to something as universal as single parenthood. So easily, the film could have taken a more exploitative tack. And yet the character sensitivity here never lets us the viewers off the hook. We are every bit as complicit by playing the voyeur to what is ostensibly something that happens more commonly than we care to let in. It's also telling that the film's stylings harken to the days when such parenthood was just becoming commonplace. As a child of a single parent, I too can see how the dynamic between mother and son could reach such troublesome lows. And considering that the children of that age are now the age of Amelia, the shoe has finally exchanged feet, and it is a sobering reminder. It's no understatement. This is classic, "old school", down to the marrow horror told with a 1970s performance and editing sensibility, wrapped in something altogether too understandable. Even as The Babadook chooses to go a more traditional genre route, it is done with class and empathy. Because, as the nightmare-inducing pop-up book suggests, the horror is already here, and it's not likely to ever go away.