Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Not a terribly "Original Sin"

I suppose that those trashy Harlequin romance novels must go something like this.  Ridiculous dialogue, steamy locations, lurid sex…  Hey, maybe I should read some of those things...  Well, why bother when there are movies like Original Sin?  One used to have to sneak into the local adult bookstore’s back room, hoping someone from your church doesn’t recognize you while you’re there, in order to get movies like this.  Okay, I’m probably exaggerating a bit (like I'd really have any idea about such things, anyway... ahem...), but if you need a soft-porn fix, you could just stream this from Netflix or iTunes or someplace (assuming your home computer’s parental controls don’t prevent you from accessing such… material…).  After all, Angelina Jolie probably made a lot more money for doing this stuff than Jenna Jameson ever did doing her stuff...

But I digress.  What we have here is Antonio Banderas as Luis, the owner of a coffee producing operation in late 19th Century Cuba.  These are still the days of the plantation owner being the King of his kingdom, and Kings need heirs.  So, handsome devil that he is, he for some reason chooses to purchase a mail-order bride (maybe there weren’t any girls of the marrying sort in Havana in 1899).  The picture his bride-to-be from America, Julia, has provided is that of a plain girl, so imagine his pleasant surprise when Angelina Jolie gets off the boat.  Julia claims she didn’t want to be wed to a man who would only want her for her looks.  Sad Luis, however, is hopelessly in lust at first sight, so he is forced to confess that he is not a clerk at the coffee house as he stated in his letter to her, but the owner.  “It seems we have something in common, then - neither of us is to be trusted,” she smirks.  Oh, what a great omen this is. 

The rest of the film is mostly a highly convoluted case of is-she-or-isn’t-she, as in out for his money, although I’m yet to figure out how Julia knew he had money before she got there.  Anyway, the tale is told through a series of flashbacks, with Julia telling her story to a monk while in a prison cell awaiting execution, and I promised I haven’t spoiled anything by telling you that.  The two protagonists chase each other across Cuba in several different directions, catching up to one another on occasion to have wild lovemaking in some of the more graphic sex scenes you’ll see outside of adult bookstore’s back room.  The villain of the piece is also one of the stranger cats you’ll find in a movie, and yet in comparison to the “good guys” here, he stacks up just about the same. 

Maybe I should clarify myself a bit; I’m not saying this movie is a stinker.  There are movies that are so bad that they’re enjoyable, but this isn’t the case here.  Quite the contrary, it’s well-made and lovely to look at.  I’m merely saying that it’s well-made and lovely-looking trash.  If one must indulge in trash, it should at least be of high quality, and this is definitely trash of greater than garden-variety.  Written for the screen and directed by the Michael Cristofer, the screenwriter of smart movies such as The Witches of Eastwick and Falling in Love, it would have been a surprise had this not been good in at least a technical sense. 

I understand the novel upon which this flick was based was also the basis for Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid, but I’ve not yet caught up to that, so while it would be easy to guess that any Truffaut movie to be worthwhile, I certainly can’t swear to that.  That flick could very well be as convoluted as this one.  The uncertainty of the story is a bit frustrating, as the premise mostly doesn’t hold any water, but the fun here, somewhat disturbed fun that it may be, is in watching these very attractive people go through these melodramatic predicaments and uttering their overly-dramatic dialogue.  How can one not admire an actor who has the gall to recite, with great vitriol, lines such as “If I were to kiss you, would I taste her there, too?” to another male actor?  It’s simply amazing, like watching a multi-car highway accident would be. 

Antonio Banderas is pretty much always interesting onscreen, regardless of what he's doing, and Angelina Jolie ten years ago was definitely incredibly easy on the eye sockets, so the flick has those things going for it.  Were it not for the marvel of home video, I never would have seen this “masterpiece,” and while I’m glad it didn’t cost me any real money, I really didn’t mind wallowing in such well-made trash for a couple of hours.  All that said, though, I'm certainly glad that I didn’t have to go out in public to do so.

Friday, August 17, 2012

"The Thin Red Line..." Oh, I saw red, all right...

Working on cleaning off my DVR last night, I re-watched Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line.  I remember it being Oscar-bait on its initial release in 1998, but I didn't make it to the theater to see it.  Finally catching up to it on DVD a few years later, it really left a bad taste in my mouth.  However, never let it be said that I can't remain open to the possibility that I should re-evaluate something, so I decided to give it another chance and see if I'd missed something somehow.  No dice, folks - my opinion hasn't changed

Why must filmmakers of the last thirty-five years paint the fighting soldier, particularly the American fighting soldier, using a angst-filled, vile, butchering brush?  Did the home front experience of the Vietnam War so scar these men that now make movies about those who actually went over there and did the fighting?  The depictions of the armed conflicts of the last decade that “Hollywood” presents us demonstrates their attitudes haven’t changed, either.  The argument as to whether the Vietnam War or the War on Terror are Just wars is for another time and place, but in attempting to broaden that argument to cover all war in general, Malick has committed something akin to blasphemy in The Thin Red Line.  By choosing to move such metaphysical musings to the heads of the soldiers fighting the World War II battle for Guadalcanal in the Pacific, he has distorted history, insulted veterans and completely misrepresented the values and beliefs of the American GI’s who fought that crucial battle.

Malick doesn’t deserve all the blame, I suppose, as this film is based on James Jones’ somewhat autobiographical novel from the early 1960s, a time when all of the free-love, no-man-is-right-over-another philosophy was beginning to gel amongst the intelligentsia of the world’s youth.  The book may be fantastic, but I can’t say as I haven’t had the pleasure of reading it.  Whatever the quality of the source material, it seems that Malick has taken it and made a complete and utter mess of it.  Sure, this film was his celebrated return to filmmaking after a twenty-year absence, and it received a Best Picture Oscar nomination, most likely just due to the awe in which Academy voters hold Malick.  But this wasn’t worth the wait.

The plot (such as it is) follows four men, I think, as they struggle with finding meaning in the carnage of the Pacific War against the Japanese.  I say that I think it was four men because two of them, played by Jim Caviezel and Ben Chaplin, look so remarkably alike that at times I couldn’t tell them apart.  Hell, I challenge a viewer to learn their names without resorting to the Internet Movie DataBase.  One (Caviezel) plays the part of the Conscientious Objector, a chronic deserter who, after being picked up by the Army while living amongst island natives, is assigned to stretcher-bearer duty at the film’s outset.  By the end of the film, Malick shows the character’s selfishness to be misplaced, but for certainly less-than-patriotic reasons.  Another (Chaplin) is the one who was taken away from his young bride, and lives only to return to her.  Again, Malick shows us the foolishness of such devotion by the film’s end.

The other two are thankfully a bit more discernible from one another.  Sean Penn is a company sergeant who makes it his mission to show Caviezel’s character the error of his ways, but by film’s end, he finds more sympathy with the deserter than he would’ve imagined possible.  Lastly is the battalion colonel (Nick Nolte), who drives his men relentlessly to take a well-defended Japanese position, one that his underlings believe impossible to take.  While Malick shows the Colonel to be right, we’re to understand that it is more for the colonel’s fear of missing out on his share of military glory than for the higher cause of victory, because he flat-out tells his subordinates so!  How ridiculous a notion.

Other characters drift in and out of our vision, played by A-list stars like Woody Harrelson and John Travolta and John Savage, mumbling about vines consuming trees and soldiers being like children to their Captain-fathers, none of whom ever make any mark with us save as examples of the Hell of War.  Their voice-overs almost overlap, allowing us to eavesdrop on their confusion, their fear and their cowardice, but the weight of their musings is all but lost because it’s all but impossible to determine just which one of them is speaking at any given moment.

The film is so without a logical structure that I suppose it’s possible Malick himself didn’t know exactly what he wanted to say.  I understand that his original cut of the film clocked in at something like five hours, which Fox simply would not allow, so hacking out two hours of story may account for some of the incompleteness I felt from the dangling plotlines and underdeveloped characters (I think poor Adrien Brody has but one spoken line, despite his face popping up in it throughout the final two-thirds of the film - shoot, even the film's title is never explained).  He worked on this material so long that he might have simply drifted away from the novel’s original intent.  I doubt this, though.  Say what you want about the politics of filmmakers, their skill is rarely debatable, and filmmakers of Malick’s caliber put on the screen exactly what they intend.  It’s just so puzzling and disappointing that what he intended here was such a slap in the face to so noble a struggle.

The imagery of this movie is breathtaking.  Don’t let it be said that I didn’t acknowledge that.  Malick has not lost his visual touch during his extended vacation, but he has obviously not advanced beyond his mid-70s thinking.  Whatever things the Vietnam War may have been, World War II was almost none of them.  That war was a just war, and the soldiers fighting it knew it.  American men were lining up in droves to volunteer to go and crush an evil power that had attacked us and swore to destroy us, and only a microscopic few had any problems with self-doubt or introspection about “why nature must contend with itself” or finding the “evil inherent in all men” that the wretched souls in this film have.  Of course, I’m aware of the post-traumatic problems that some of the combatants suffered in the post-war years, but I shudder to think of what my veteran grandfather, God rest his soul, who froze his butt off during the Battle of the Bulge and marched across Remagen Bridge and into the German heartland, would’ve said about this bunch of pansies.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Revisiting David Fincher's "Fight Club"

Somebody, I can’t remember whether it was Groucho Marx or Woody Allen, once said that he wouldn’t belong to any club that would have him as a member.  This is the first flash of wisdom that comes to my mind after seeing what the central character of Fight Club experiences.  Perhaps it has something to do with my being male, and this flick is nothing if it isn’t an insight into the pent-up aggression that all men (or at least the straight ones) in modern society must feel, at least at one time or another.  The violence for which this movie is primarily known is certainly not the worst in modern cinema, but it has to be some of the most intense.  If there’s a movie I’ve seen that is more grotesque and disturbing, while at the same time engrossing and fascinating, I can’t quickly think of it.

Edward Norton portrays a man, whose name is not initially given to us, who can’t sleep.  Why can’t he sleep?  He’s not sure.  He only knows that he’s miserable.  He hates his job.  He hates his boss.  He hates living alone.  He can’t find any meaning to his life.  He narrates this story with the type of lines Hunter S. Thompson or Robert B. Parker would write in their pulpy novels; the kind of things only a man would say, and most likely only to other men (in one scene, “I want to destroy something beautiful; I wanted to break open oil tankers and pour crude on all of those pretty French beaches I’ll never see,” etc.).  He goes to all sorts of group therapy meetings, dealing with afflictions from which he doesn’t suffer, using the suffering of others to make his own seem less by comparison.  This newfound outlook brings him sleep, until he notices Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) appearing at all of these meetings, too.  She’s another like him, and it eats at his craw that there’s someone else in the room that isn’t really in pain; he needs to know he’s the only one in the room who’s really okay.

He next meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a stranger on an airplane that speaks to him more directly than perhaps anyone ever has, and seems to understand his inner torment better than even he does.  When our Narrator’s condo explodes in a mysterious gas explosion, he ends up rooming with Tyler in a dilapidated, run-down shack of a house where Tyler makes soap and explosives out of human fat garnered from liposuction clinics which he sells to department stores for twenty bucks a cake (“selling the fat asses of old ladies back to them,” as the Narrator puts it).  Tyler spews anarchic philosophy about being free of society’s rules, not being a slave to our possessions, the hell of being raised by women in a society of male rules.  Tyler begins a wild, raucous sexual affair with Marla, the shallowness of which disgusts our Narrator.

Somewhere in all of this, the two men begin fighting; not out of any disagreement, but supposedly for the adrenaline rush, or hostility towards the world at large, or maybe just because they don’t have anything more meaningful to do.  It becomes an ongoing thing, and pulls in other men who see them fighting and want to share in the energy.  Large numbers of strangers meet on a regular basis to pound the living snot out of each other, then return to their lives the next day, the bruises and gashes and broken noses not seeming to have any effect on their ability to hold jobs.  The sounds of fists landing on jaws and skulls landing on concrete floors pulses along with images of swollen cheeks bursting and eyes blackening, all the more disgustingly interesting for being in slow motion.  Our Narrator tells us that one never feels more alive than after a fight (as my last fight was in the fifth grade, my memory is a bit dim on that), and the club grows and grows.  Perhaps he just finally wanted to be in a club that would have him as a member.

The climax of the film is one of the better "twist endings you're likely to ever see, and in a somewhat unrealistic fashion, brings order to all this chaos.  David Fincher has composed a film that, for me at least, escapes a simple description.  There are turns in the film that demand we suspend our disbelief, or perhaps force us to.  Instead of turning me off to what came next, such turns lured me into what came next.  If I could think of movies with similar imagery to list for comparison, I'd do so, but none come to mind.

I have been a fan Fincher's since his days making music videos (his video for Steve Winwood’s “Roll With It” is still one of the most visually engaging videos of which I can think, and it was made almost twenty-five years ago).  His earlier films Alien3 and The Game were both visually impressive, but it's probably best that he made Fight Club when he did, as given how he has "graduated" to more commercially-acceptable fare like The Social Network and the remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he probably wouldn't have been able to make a film like this now.

Different viewers may have different takes on the deeper meaning of our Narrator’s struggles with his outlook on life and Tyler Durden’s ultra-radical, nihilistic rants and raves, any of which may have merit.  As for myself, I don’t think the meaning is as deep as some others have stated, but I do think it’s deeper than a mere statement about men needing to find an outlet for the pent-up aggression in an ever-increasing pansy-fied society.  Fight Club is not for the faint of heart; humorous in places due to its out-and-out assault on our ideas of logical behavior (especially its closing scene), but gut-wrenching in others as we realize the depths of madness to which the Narrator has fallen.  I couldn’t not watch this movie.  On that basis, I recommend it, but if you do see it, don’t come whining and crying to me if you couldn’t take it (how’s that for focusing my male aggression?).

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Do I have thoughts on "The Bourne Legacy"? Oh, do I...

Now, I know what Joe Average-Moviegoer has been saying since seeing the first TV spots back in March - What? Another Bourne movie?  Wait a minute – Matt Damon isn’t in it!  How the hell can it be a Bourne movie?  Sure, I understand the gut reaction to label this film as a cash-grab made to lure unsuspecting schmucks into blindly forking over their twelve bucks just because it has “Bourne” in the title, but I could argue that anybody who buys a ticket to a movie without any understanding of said movie might deserve whatever disappointment he/she may find.  If you know anything about Tony Gilroy, however, you’d know you probably didn’t have much to worry about.

I dig Tony Gilroy’s work.  I think he’s one of the best screenwriters working over the last fifteen years.  As primary screenwriter of two different fantastically-successful three-film franchises since 2001 (the Ocean’s series as well as the Bourne films), he has shown an ability to create interesting, watchable characters who speak clever, witty and intelligent dialogue, and to place them in situations that, even if far-fetched, keep the attention of contemporary audiences riveted to the screen (and given the gnat-like attention span of today’s audiences, this is no small feat).  I also firmly believe that Michael Clayton, his directorial debut, is one of the more underrated flicks of the last decade, despite its Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director.  For these reasons alone, I was willing to give The Bourne Legacy a chance.

When the first attempt at making a fourth “Bourne” film, one that would have included Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, etc. and been directed by Supremacy and Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass (and also written by Gilroy), fell apart before shooting began, I, like most folks, figured that this was the end of the series.  However, if there’s a buck to be made, Hollywood will find some way to get it, so producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy asked Gilroy to write a new script and take over the director’s chair to see what he could do.  I would’ve had much, much stronger reservations about this flick if ANYBODY else had made it, since Gilroy was as much responsible for the franchise’s success as Greengrass and Damon.

All that being said, he pulled it off, folks.  Gilroy has created a “paraquel,” a story that takes place simultaneously with the events of The Bourne Ultimatum.  We learn that the Treadstone project is just one of many Defense Department operations involving scientifically-tailored intelligence agents.  As a result of Jason Bourne’s and Pamela Landy’s actions in the previous film, a Defense Department heavy named Byer (Edward Norton), decides to “shut down” all of the programs by killing off the field agents, as well as the scientists who created the methods by which the agents are maintained.  One of these agents is Aaron Cross, played by Jeremy Renner, who escapes the attempt on his life in Alaska, makes his way back to the mainland, and contacts the scientist who monitored him, Dr. Shearing (Rachel Weisz) just as the CIA has arrived to shut her down, too.   Rescuing her, he learns that she knows how to free him of the medications he requires to maintain his peak physical and mental condition, and the quest to compete this process, being pursued all the while by Byer’s compatriots, takes us to the conclusion of the movie.

Jeremy Renner does a great job at NOT playing another Jason Bourne, which I think was a terrific decision on his and Gilroy’s part.  His Aaron Cross does not have the constant look of confusion that Bourne displayed due to his amnesia, nor is he as monotone in his demeanor as Bourne.  Cross actually smiles once or twice during this story, and Renner plays him as a curious, inquisitive type who wants to learn more about this “program” he’s joined as a means of becoming something better than he was in his life before volunteering.  Contrary to Jason Bourne, Aaron Cross remembers very well what he used to be, and wants very much to not go back there.   Rachel Weisz also brings her character above the stereotypical “damsel-in-distress” level, as despite it being obvious she is woefully unprepared for facing the consequences of her work outside of the laboratory, she does not shrink from what Aaron demands of her, and even plays an integral part in saving them from the final baddie near the film’s conclusion.

Legacy is not as frenetic, hyper-edited as the previous films were, and this seems a good thing to me.  Gilroy’s previous directorial efforts have all been a bit more cerebral than the Ocean’s pictures and the Bourne movies as a whole, requiring an audience to actually pay a bit of attention, and Legacy is no exception.  When I heard that bioengineering would be a component of the story here, I was afraid the movie would degenerate into science fiction somehow, but those fears were unfounded, and paying attention to the processes Dr. Shearing explains at different points of the movie made enough sense to me that I could easily invoke the Suspension of Belief that all moviegoers must grant movies at some point or another.  This is a Thriller, though, so there must be action scenes, and there are definitely a couple good ones here (the climactic motorcycle chase through the streets of Manila ranks right up there with anything from the other films).

It was fascinating to see a depiction of events surrounding the mayhem and carnage resulting from Jason Bourne’s actions in the previous films.  Some of the supporting characters from Bourne Ultimatum momentarily pop up here, and even provide enough fodder for another film, one which I could easily see either having a place in it for Jason Bourne’s return, or be a very interesting story without him.

John Carter ("of Mars," damn it...)

Upon seeing the first promotional materials for Disney’s John Carter almost nine months ago, and with each trailer, TV spot or web clip of the flick I’ve seen since, the first phrase to cross my mind each time has been “Dear Lord, I hope it does not suck…”  Let’s face it – a story that was written a hundred years ago?  If it held any appeal at all, then SURELY it would’ve been filmed by somebody at some point, right? (well, it was filmed by somebody before, a mere three years ago, but that crap was direct-to-DVD, and had Traci Lords in it, and DID suck, and was never seriously intended for wide audiences, and… but I digress…)

Anyway, I’ve been scared for this film’s fate since I first heard about it going into production more than two years ago.  Most sci-fi/fantasy nerds (such as myself) have read the John Carter books, and given my affection for them, I wanted the movie-going public to share my fondness for these stories.  However, knowing casual movie audiences as I do, I knew it would take skilled filmmakers and skilled marketing to get Joe Moviegoer to give this movie a chance.  C’mon, you can hear the questions, can’t you?  A Civil War veteran magically transported to Mars?  There’s breathable air on Mars?  Mars has people on it?  Some of those people have four arms?  What the heck is a “Thark?” Swordplay?  Loincloths?  Giant blind apes?  Yeah, surely the same audiences who long for the next Will Ferrell masterpiece or post-pubescent vampire sexual fantasy will beat down the doors to see this…  Of course, Disney didn’t help themselves one bit with their awful marketing of this movie.  Andrew Stanton’s resume was never used as a selling point, and why not??? Surely mentioning Finding Nemo and Wall-E could only have helped a potential audience gain some sort of affinity for the director’s newest work.  Not once did any of the advertising play up the fish-out-of-water theme of the movie (which is a shame, as Carter’s initial disorientation with Mars’ lesser gravity is one of the movie’s funnier moments), instead focusing on making it seem a pure action movie.  Their abysmal failure with last year’s multi-million dollar boondoggle Mars Needs Moms was almost certainly the driving factor in dropping the “…of Mars” moniker from this movie’s title (although Stanton himself denies this), leaving potential audience members who are most likely unfamiliar with the source material to wonder just what the heck a flick titled John Carter would be about.

Oh, sorry - all that being said, I suppose I really should talk about the movie a bit – John Carter is a not-entirely-literal adaptation of “A Princess of Mars,” the very first published work of author Edgar Rice Burroughs, better known as the creator/author of “Tarzan.”  The title character is a Civil War veteran (played by Taylor Kitsch, of TV’s “Friday Night Lights”) who is searching for gold in New Mexico territory and upon stumbling into a cave, is mysteriously transported to a strange land where he finds himself to have superhuman strength.  This world, called “Barsoom” by the natives, but known to us as Mars, is inhabited by strange peoples and beasts with even stranger names and titles, yet he becomes involved in their politics and wars, falls in love with a native princess and helps to save their world from the evil machinations of a god-like race.  Pretty simple stuff, for sure, but it’s pure classic pulp-fiction fun.  For Pete’s sake, who DOESN’T love a rousing yarn about reluctant heroes and princesses in danger and shady evil-doers and magic and swordfights and…?

The stories were first published in 1912, and numerous filmmakers have tried to get them to the screen in some form or another for the next hundred years, but it took $250 million of Disney’s money to finally get it done.  It’s the first live-action film from director Andrew Stanton, who, as mentioned above, brought us two of Pixar’s most beloved films and was involved in the creation of all three Toy Story films as well.  One could argue this is also an “animated” film, as there’s so much CGI involved that one wonders how anyone other than an animator could have brought such an other-worldly vision to the screen.  This movie passes the first test ANY movie must pass – it’s nice to look at.  Movies are a first and foremost a visual experience, and before anything else, they must be (in SOME sense) pleasant to see.  The costumes are fantastic, the locations and sets are incredibly detailed, the photography is first-rate and the CGI is so wonderfully done as to be almost indistinguishable from “reality,” so Stanton must be praised for that much.

Did I find fault with it?  Well, I admit to finding myself comparing John Carter to the source material as I was watching it and feeling another tinge of fear as I heard Martian (Barsoomian?) names and other information being hurled at the audience with such rapid-fire dialogue that I worried those unfamiliar with the books would miss important information, but my movie-going companion that evening had never read the books, and she assured me that she never felt left behind, so perhaps that fear is unfounded (or she’s a frickin’ genius, which is entirely possible).

For those of us who ARE familiar with the books, however, we don’t have much reason to be disappointed.  Are the characters a bit one-dimensional? Yes, but I don’t mind that in this sort of material.  Edgar Rice Burroughs was fantastic at what he did, and Ernest Hemmingway was fantastic at what he did, but they didn’t do the same thing, after all.  Burroughs, who inserted himself as a character in his Barsoom stories, is probably the character with whom we would most identify, despite his relatively minor involvement.  Stanton makes sure that we see young Burroughs’ amazement as he learns just how factual those bedtime stories his “Uncle Jack” told him actually were, but while the rest of the cast of characters aren’t very relatable, I don’t feel that they’re meant to be.  This ain’t “Macbeth” – it’s Saturday morning cartoons, and it works splendidly on that level.

In the end, I enjoyed John Carter.  I’d have enjoyed it more if Disney had marketed the movie better and not caused me such angst in the year leading up to my finally seeing it, but I suppose one could argue that this is my problem, and not Disney’s.  That said, the fears I feel from their lousy marketing job continues, as the resulting negative press (and resulting lack of box office) may prevent Stanton from being allowed to produce the next two chapters in the Barsoom saga that he has planned, and that’s a dang shame, given how well he pulled off this one.