Tuesday, June 26, 2012

John Carter

It’s hard to see John Carter in any other light than that of its current status as one of the greatest debacles in recent box office history. When financial disasters like this happen, a number of reasons both internal and external to the movie usually have a hand in the mess. Pundits are more prone to scrutinize the movie itself, which in the case of some titles—Battlefield Earth, The Adventures of Pluto Nash—can be a perfect storm of awfulness. John Carter is different, but first let’s have a look at the context to make sense of Disney’s rare box office meltdown. Aside from the marketing and release date never seeming in sync, there might also be some element story fatigue at play. Whether or not you’re familiar with the Edgar Rice Burroughs source material, considered a precursor to Star Wars and Avatar (as the advertisements reminded), you know this story well. A flawed, but good-hearted hero is transported to a foreign world and immersed in an epic struggle. In this case, civil war veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) finds himself on Mars, where he quickly becomes steeped in the politics of warring nations. Naturally, Carter picks the right side (because of a babe, primarily) and fights the noble fight, for love, honor, and redemption. Oh, and he can jump really far. Like, really far.
As the title character, Kitsch is serviceable but lacks personality. This is a problem for the whole affair, however. Excepting perhaps the Martian dog whose loyalty to Carter never wavers, John Carter oozes mediocrity. It is epic by-numbers, evoking little in the way of wonderment even as it serves up all the latest tricks in special effects. The movie fashions an expansive world, complete with numerous alien species, sprawling cities, and sleek aircraft, all rendered with detail and precision. But as I watched and thought about the countless dollars that went into each busy shot, I lamented the film’s impotence in the face of it all. The problem isn’t that we’ve seen this before, but that there is nothing to latch on to, no pop to the images and no zest to the story. That there is so much activity on screen amplifies the movie's blandness. Part of the problem is that Pixar alumnus director Andrew Stanton ostensibly took the material very seriously and wanted to make something decent out of it. If nothing else, John Carter is earnest. But because it sets its ambitions so high, the film cannot even fall under the category of a good guilty pleasure. It's stuck somewhere in between without the gusto to be either a good "bad" movie or bad "good" movie. While not actively inept enough to elicit the cheerful battering that so many other movie busts have endured over the years, John Carter in a way is worse: It is relentlessly mediocre. (Andrew Stanton, 2012) *½

Friday, June 22, 2012

Minority Report at 10

Some of cinema's most awesome sights are those that envision our future. Movies have routinely taken a look at where we'll be decades, sometimes centuries, from now. And while these visions have captured our imaginations (from Metropolis's towering skyscrapers and lumbering archways suspended thousands of feet over ground to Blade Runner's perpetual rainfall over neon-lit urban decay), their accuracy has been sketchy. To be fair, not all of these movies necessarily tried to foster authentic versions of the future. Nevertheless, the near-deficiency of believable futuristic settings in the cinema speaks to the slippery slope of anticipating cultural, technological, and architectural components that are in constant flux. It's with some bit of irony, then, that a movie about visualizing the future has produced a vision of society decades from now that continues to gain legitimacy, even as the work itself slips further into the past. 
This week marks the 10-year anniversary of the release of Steven Spielberg's Minority Report. And though it grossed only $132 million in 2002 (a low number considering the actor-director pedigree of Spielberg and pre-meltdown Tom Cruise), it's left a legacy few contemporary blockbusters can touch. No doubt, the film's increasingly relevant depiction of mid-21st-century society plays a significant role in its growing presence in the cultural movie lexicon. But the film is more so a staggering achievement for precisely how it places the future it conjures in motion with storytelling's past. Minority Report straddles the divide of classicism and futurism, serving up a decidedly old-fashioned noir detective story in a modern sheer. And the combination proves virtuoso, as the film is every bit as much about a future world in decay as it is our own world now; except, unlike other films that exaggerate their vision of the future and rely more stringently on allegory, Minority Report brandishes in its own kind of surrealistic realism and offers a layered narrative surface, to boot.

Click here to read the full article at Slant Magazine's blog The House Next Door.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Louie—Season 1

On stage, he is in cool command. He knows his audience, makes all the right pauses, and is self-deprecating, to boot. Off-stage, he is socially awkward and insecure. This is the warring screen persona of comedian Louis C.K. and one of the defining attributes that sets the first season of the FX show Louie (2010) apart from its obvious forebear Seinfeld. But where Seinfeld carefully preserved its sitcom configuration, Louie pares it down to something more human—and also more cynical. The show bounds between the comedian's sardonic stage musings and tragicomic real-life encounters, threaded together with a quasi-documentary aesthetic (which C.K. himself aptly describes as vérité) that joins well with a no-frills dissemination of world-weary humor. So committed to this approach is C.K.—who not only writes and stars, but also edits and directs each episode—that much of the content has an autobiographical slant. Even some of C.K.’s fellow comics turn up to play themselves (or rather versions of themselves), lending to the “day-in-the-life” feeling of the show.
But there is more to the comedy and visual stylings than disenchantment. C.K. occasionally offers up wry surrealism, which has earned the show comparison to some of Woody Allen’s films. Take the set piece from the pilot episode, for example, when a woman makes a helicopter getaway after her date with C.K. goes terribly wrong. Louie weaves bits like this into its deadpan, naturalist style rather seamlessly. It leaps from fantasy to realism as frequently C.K. does topics, often without direction or abandon, but always maintains a pessimistic comedic edge. Within his established stage/vignette structure, C.K. proves willing to go anywhere, explore anything, and speak his mind, especially concerning his own misery, which is fueled more by indifference than depression. His observations about the most basic challenges of living and functioning often have a stinging truth and irony about them. He channels the base impulses many of us experience (but quickly suppress) when it comes to meeting responsibilities and coats them in irreverence. Whether talking about sex or parenting, he is always frank and upfront. 
Working within a rigorous narrative structure, C.K. explores various ways of blending his authenticity with surrealistic overtones. Even still, the flair of the first couple of episodes starts to wear around mid-season. This is likely due to the show’s rawness and the close proximity it puts you to the comedian. His generally negative disposition and candid remarks are frequently distasteful. In particular, his comments to and general treatment of women are mean-spirited and border on misogyny. But it’s worth noting that the show’s experimental platform would likely fail if it didn't include these elements.
I suspect what C.K. is after more than comedy (although the show is spectacularly funny at points). Unlike a good deal of other television shows that exploit faux-documentary elements, Louie doesn’t ride by on its high concept but on precise execution. It is an ambitious attempt to appropriate the stage-as-confessional concept to the television format. Whether it always works or goes down easy is up for debate, nevertheless Louie exhibits a distinct brand of self-inquiry that emboldens its profiling of the life of a performer. The material at times is exhausting—even frustrating—but it is also uncommonly vibrant for following the 22-minute format so closely.

Monday, June 11, 2012


These days, few movies are intrepid enough to don the NC-17 badge. The MPAA’s most notorious rating is reserved for movies crammed with sex. Movie sex is usually ok; you know, the kind that’s limited to women’s breasts, men’s buttocks, and some implied thrusting. But when you start showing babymaking parts (even in a non-sexual context), you’re in trouble. Steve McQueen’s Shame is the latest entry on the short list of NC-17 rated films, and it likely has the distinction of being the only one to earn the rating with its opening shot. It peers from above at Brandon (Michael Fassbender) lying in bed, his body motionless and half exposed. After a prolonged stillness he gets up, opens the blinds, and walks around bare in his empty apartment, listening to voicemails from someone beckoning his attention.
Shame is not about sex, but a man imprisoned by it. The opening scenes establish all this with little visualization of Brandon’s sexual encounters. McQueen is more interested in what happens after the impulse and release, which in this case is profound indignity. From here, Shame delves into Brandon’s life, which despite his giving the appearance of control is, in fact, teetering. We are introduced to a number of supporting characters—from Brandon’s chauvinist of a boss to his unstable sister. But, the more the film shows us of Brandon’s life, the less compelling it is. Part of the reason for this is that the screenplay sells the premise short. Its symmetrical bookends (an encounter on the subway) and too-neat character arcs are not especially genuine or interesting, nor do they pair well with McQueen’s minimalist aesthetic (which perhaps requires less rigorous structure from the screenplay).
Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the numbness into which his character’s relentless pursuit of pleasure inevitably transforms is wrenching. His ability to express profound suffering with so little speech and movement borders on poetic. Needless to say, Fassbender is Shame’s greatest asset. Paradoxically, the pain he movingly exudes is most potent and fully realized at the outset of the film, when we have less of a sense of Brandon’s life. That’s because despite eschewing a concrete resolution, Shame remains tightly sealed and with curiously little to do. I admire McQueen’s frank approach to addiction—which netted the film an NC-17 rating—and I wish more directors were as brave purely on a conceptual level. However, McQueen fails to leverage both his broader mission and Fassbender’s withering vision of dependency into something substantive. (Steve McQueen, 2011) **

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Having not read John le Carré’s renowned spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I cannot say whether Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 adaptation is a faithful work. It nonetheless has the taste of a good novel. Dense with information and characters (some say to a fault), the plot generates even amounts of intrigue and disorientation. Yet for as difficult to follow Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy often is, its impeccably crafted atmosphere lends a level of narrative and thematic depth within which it becomes easy to lose oneself. Set during the height of the Cold War, the film stars Gary Oldman as George Smiley, a retired British Intelligence agent who is recalled to hunt down a Russian mole in his unit. Oldman is terrific as Smiley, a soft-spoken, slow-speaking man who maneuvers every conversation with scary precision. Alfredson surrounds Oldman with the likes of John Hurt, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tom Hardy, all of whom bring a distinct flavor to the proceedings.
Integral to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s navigation of a labyrinth of character relationships and narrative cogs is its deft manipulation of time. Essentially, the film is a series of conversations, but they are presented in such a way that makes connecting them to a tangible timeline a challenge. Perhaps the scattered staging of the various dialogues reflects Smiley’s own recalling of their occurrence and relative importance to the puzzle. No doubt, as his investigation peels away more layers, the temporal fluxes add to a growing sense of paranoia in each successive exchange. But Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does more than ramp up suspicion and tension (which, by the way, it does exceptionally well). It also does something that many a spy story does not, which is to impart the emotional burden of the life of a spy. Moreover, Tomas Alfredson's film does so with uncommon nuance, culminating in a finale that overlays past and present in beautifully lyrical ways. The scene—a recurrent image throughout the film—is celebration attended by nearly all of the concerned parties, where wordless exchanges punctuate the fleeting sense of happiness. The reason for the party is not quite clear; nor is its placement in the story. But as the film hurdles toward its inevitable resolution, the purpose of the respite sharply emerges in focus. And what begins as a simple exchange of smiles (set to the tune of Julio Iglesias’ performance of La Mer) becomes a singularly devastating moment towards which Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has been building all along. (Tomas Alfredson, 2011) ***½