Excessive, Escapist Excellence — Django Unchained

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

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Over the years, acclaimed filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has exhibited the influence of 60s/70s Italian-made “spaghetti” westerns through the narratives, dialogue, cinematography, and music of his movies, but never before has he directly taken on the genre itself. Until now.

Well, almost, anyway. Given that ‘Django Unchained’ takes place more in the Old South than the Old West and centers on the issue of slavery, Tarantino himself has branded the film a Southern (as opposed to a Western). Still, ‘Django Unchained’ thoroughly captures the spirit of the spaghetti westerns from which it draws inspiration. That wonderful, raw, purposefully violent and over-the-top escapism is present in full force, laid beautifully with the corner stones of Quentin Tarantino’s filmmaking—deep and witty dialogue, extravagant characters, unorthodox plots, and striking cinematography.

It’s fun, pulp cinema at its finest, which may be why some have failed to understand it. Various critics as well as noted African American director Spike Lee have derided the film. The story—centering on a former slave who becomes a bounty hunter and kills slaveholders—has been criticized as insensitive to the historical reality of slavery, an ignorant insult to those unfortunate victims of inhumanity and racism.

Such criticism would be valid if Tarantino had actually intended for ‘Django Unchained’ to be at all serious or historically accurate. But he didn’t.

‘Django Unchained’ doesn’t try to say anything particularly insightful about racism and slavery, only that they’re bad; and he almost purposefully seems to throw anachronisms into the film, as if to dissuade anyone from thinking that this was real history. The film is purposefully indulgent in a good way—it allows us to suspend the trappings of reality and (to some extent) real morality and then lets us explore our more base feelings. We want to see evil slave holders being blown away by a former slave; we want the satisfaction of seeing blatant evil destroyed, regardless of the actual historical conditions of slavery in America. That the title character, Django, is himself hardly a banner of morality is irrelevant. He takes down the embodiments of true evil, and that is what we love to see. It’s the same thing the old spaghetti westerns depended on, and it’s a small part of why filmmaking in general is so special. More so than books or plays, film gives us a uniquely powerful way to explore ideas and moralities different than our own. It lets us be excessive, to white wash experiences not for the sake of ignorance, but for emotion. Few of us, hopefully, would ever solve the world’s problems by shooting at them, and yet there is something amazingly cathartic about seeing it done on screen, if only so that we can vicariously live out thoughts and feelings we otherwise keep hidden. In that sense ‘Django Unchained’ is strikingly potent, a well executed celebration of the medium of film.

All that being the case, if you aren’t prepared for graphic shootings, beatings, nudity, explosions, and frequent racial slurs, this probably isn’t the film for you.

What else can be said about this film? The characters are all brilliantly cast. Jamie Foxx plays Django with much the same striking presence that Clint Eastwood had as the Man With No Name; Christoph Waltz (thankfully) plays the antithesis of his character in ‘Inglourious Basterds’ as a German bounty hunter with a heart-of-gold. I hope he gets more heroic roles after this. Leonardo di Caprio steals the show as Calvin Candy, a wonderfully over the top slaveholder and a really fun bad guy with a hilarious accent to boot. Finally, Samuel Jackson, as the head slave of Candy’s plantation, gives an odd yet incredibly effective performance as the film’s true villain. They even get the original Django from the 60’s spaghetti western (which I reviewed on this site), Franco Nero, for a small cameo, which is a nice touch.

Tarantino inserts his usual lengthy dialogue into the film, but unlike the somewhat unjustified excesses of ‘Inglourious Basterds’, it’s more restrained here, and that’s a definite plus. Admittedly, at nearly three hours, the film’s length caught me off guard the first time I saw it, and I initially felt that it dragged by about a half hour. After seeing it a second time, though, I’m now convinced that the film, while not as short as it perhaps could have been, is paced the way it needs to be, and its length is not the hindrance I originally thought.

Lastly, the soundtrack to this film is truly exceptional. Tarantino incorporates a diverse pallet of artists, from Johnny Cash to hip-hop, from the 1960’s to present day, into the film in striking sequences that are a lot of fun to watch. Famed spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone, one of the greatest composers of all time, even wrote some original music for the film, which is just awesome. I highly recommend purchasing the soundtrack on its own merits.

It seems obvious at this point and a little redundant to say, but I enjoyed ‘Django Unchained’ a great deal, as much any film I’ve ever seen in theatres. As long as people approach this movie with a proper understanding of spaghetti westerns and the purposefully surreal nature of the plot, I think they too will enjoy it for thrill ride it is.

Around the Clock — Looper

This review contains devastating spoilers!

Review: Time travel functions with unique philosophical efficacy in science fiction and fantasy stories.  By nature, time travel tests mortality, explores sequences of moral cause and effect, and transcends cosmic expansion and collapse.  In other words, time travelers are analogous to storytellers — through their devices, they alter our perceptions, making us painfully aware of our human frailties even as they give us a god’s-eye-view.  Storytelling, like time travel, transcends the space-time continuum to which our bodies are bound.  Through them we revisit past mistakes and explore possible futures.  Therefore, the time travel conceit, as well as storytelling at large, are both permutations of spirituality.

Rian Johnson’s ‘Looper,’ by narrating a conflict between two versions of a self, embraces the mystical side of time travel.  Consequently, its logic is moral, rather than purely temporal.  Johnson’s script invokes temporal logic — namely, the titular loop — as a metaphor for a cosmological concept.  In this way, Johnson stands firmly within the tradition of classic science fiction authors like Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick, who used genre tropes to weave fables.  Young Joe  (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in great make-up) and Old Joe (Bruce Willis, doing great work) constitute a temporal loop that, like Yogic philosophy’s wheel of samsaras, keeps recycling the same bad choices over and over.  In effect, Joe’s loop renders him eternal, as despite his inevitable death his choices lead inexorably from past to future to past and back again.

Now, I’m about to spoil the ending, but it’s necessary to make my point, as to quote FilmCritHulk, “the ending is the conceit.”  Joe’s eventual solution to the horrible cycle first requires a moment of clarity, discerning the loop — an insight analogous to Buddhist enlightenment — followed by redemptive self-destruction.  By death, Joe transcends death, as the destruction of his loop restores harmony to the story world.  Director Johnson’s latent Christianity suggests a Christ parallel, but it’s far more likely, given the thematic significance of cycles, that the Yogic — and by extension, Buddhist — interpretation better fits the film.  Joe’s self-sacrifice is analogous to ego-death, which, in Yogic philosophy, ends the painful cycle and liberates consciousness.  An individual, so liberated, brings balance to his or her surroundings and reduces suffering — exactly like Joe.

It gets better; not only does Johnson’s take on time travel befit mysticism, it speaks to an effective storytelling ethos.  Old Joe, in trying to prevent a tragedy, attempts to rewrite history.  We process time as narrative, splicing memories — like film strips — into logical order.  So Old Joe’s mission is to tell a new story.  However, like his younger self, ego blinds him.  He sees only the historical narrative’s tragic impact on his fortunes.  All other persons and interests become expendable before his ego; he is, therefore, unable to tell a new story.  Young Joe receives enlightenment when he realizes that Old Joe’s selfish (not to mention murderous) rewriting actually ends in the same way that Old Joe tries to prevent — hence the loop.  The only way to write a new story, then, is to wrest the pen away from ego.  Truly inspired, effective storytelling is by nature generous, transcending one person’s interests and harmonizing within the larger human community.

‘Looper’ works because Johnson embraces a thoughtful conceit and lets it structure the film like DNA. Every scene, character and subplot relates obliquely to this DNA strand, even embedding time travel’s mystical dimension into virtuoso sequences of sex and violence.  An all-around brilliantly conceived and executed film, ‘Looper’ vindicates its conceit, genre, performers and director.

A Bureaucratic Cosmos — The Cabin in the Woods

Though the film has already seen a pretty wide release, I’m putting up a SPOILER WARNING right here, just in case anyone wants to preserve the surprise.

Review:  It’s a very good year to be Joss Whedon, not only because of ‘The Avengers’, his triumphant return to feature film directing, but on account of his co-writing, with first-time director Drew Goddard, the excellent and under-seen horror flick ‘The Cabin in the Woods‘.  In some superficial senses the two films are similar — they both epitomize their respective genres via the kitchen sink approach, they both feature ensemble casts with Chris Hemsworth, they both feature shadowy government agencies — but their themes are diametrically opposed.

Artistically, of course, this is a wonderful boon for Whedon, marking him as a flexible writer with a taste for genre-specific philosophies, meaning he approaches screenwriting with a critical, rather than purely exploitative, eye.  Whedon knows why filmmakers do what they do and why audiences watch them.  Better yet, he doesn’t write to deconstruct genres (at least not in the sense of dismantling to discredit) but rather to deliberately and overtly explore genre psychologies while crafting fulfilling narratives in their own right.

To see how this technique works so subtly, compare Whedon’s ‘The Avengers’ to Christopher Nolan‘s ‘The Dark Knight‘; here’s two great superhero films that push their title characters to the absolute limit in search of their respective cores, hoping, at the end of each film, to remind audiences why the protagonists ought to matter to them.  Superficially, then, despite differences in tone and political philosophy, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Dark Knight’ have the same kind of rousing conclusion.  By contrasting them, however, we see where Whedon’s technique differs substantially from Nolan’s.  In ‘The Avengers’, Whedon uses the ensemble approach to turn character complexities into a straightforward putting-the-band-together narrative, and wraps a rote summer blockbuster story around classic comic book optimism, rejuvenating the genre without resorting to major surgery.  Or, simply put, Whedon puts the fun back into it.  We, the audience, need the good guys to come together and put the smackdown on evil.  It just helps when we believe in it, and Whedon makes that possible.  Nolan’s approach to ‘The Dark Knight’, on the other hand, is to explore the post-9/11 political climate — which, worldwide, is afraid of both authorities and anarchists — by exposing Batman’s inherently fascist elements and the Joker’s archetypal resemblance to real-life terrorists.  Here’s the world on the edge of a knife; the audience must choose which way to lean.  Rather than affirming the genre’s emotional truth, Nolan goes for the big artistic bucks and tears Batman down, generating catharsis by making him a tragic figure.  In other words, Nolan takes the fun out of it so he can make us think.  The trouble with Whedon’s approach is that it’s limited; it can never be quite as definitive as Nolan’s technique, as we’ll see in Whedon’s writing of ‘The Cabin in the Woods’.  However, the trouble with Nolan’s take — at least in ‘The Dark Knight’ — is that it doesn’t allow for unironic genre consumption.  Rather than rewarding viewers for their love, it punishes them, hoping to affect their outlook towards thoughtfulness, though it often generates cynicism instead.  For Whedon, though, the audience is king; they just sometimes forget what they want.

Which is why ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is such a different beast.  Rather than just catering to our tastes, like ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ wants us to have a critical, detached look at our cake and to eat it sincerely, too.  The problem, of course, is that these demands don’t really jibe without generating an unnervingly pessimistic theme.  In order for you to understand what I’m driving at, I have to describe the film’s mechanics in detail, hence the spoiler warning up top.

In the film’s world we have three levels: on the surface is, basically, the real world, with the control bunker beneath devising murderous scenarios that fulfill horror film tropes, and deeper yet is the prison of the Ancient Ones — evil gods who threaten to destroy the world if their desires (for elaborate and sexualized sacrifices) are not satisfied.  In a psychological sense, this geography seems pretty well spot-on — well, at least if you subscribe to the dominant Western view of human nature.  The Ancient Ones are primal human instincts (soul, a wellspring of evil,) kept in check only by the bureaucracy (mind) which in turn determines events in the surface world (body) in service to the underlying instincts.  If the problematic facet of this isn’t obvious to you, well, here’s the deal: we, the audience, are the Ancient Ones.  We are a wellspring of evil.  So that we don’t run wild, the filmmakers, in touch with their own violent instincts, create fantasies to satisfy our desires and keep our darker selves sublimated.  Horror films exist to save society from collapsing into chaos. This is line with the world according to Hobbes and indeed most of Western philosophy.  Unlike ‘The Avengers’, where Whedon trumpets humankind’s ability to overcome pretty differences in service of unmitigated good, this is a deeply pessimistic film.

However, it’s also brilliant, and pretty well spot-on in regards to the spiritual machinations behind horror films.  Yes, horror films do exist to fulfill a ritual function that taps into, and satisfies, a violent and sexual undercurrent of the human psyche.  That much is clear.  What ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ doesn’t offer, though, is what Nolan might have created using his toolbox — a deconstruction that provokes real doubt in the viewer as to the genre’s legitimacy.  Whedon & Goddard never really question it; they just accept the premise of humankind’s inherent evil and roll with it, seeming to point an accusatory finger at the audience while giving them a sympathetic wink.  Therefore, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ approximates Whedon & Goddard’s solution to Truffaut’s Law; that is, the aphorism that you can never make an anti-war film, because war is inherently spectacular in the literal sense, and people like to see things blow up.  Put another way, the gross features of human nature will always undercut any serious attempt to critique them by using imagery that excites those same features.  Contrary to Truffaut’s Law, however, I suggest that it is possible to create an anti-war, or, to the point, an anti-horror film.  Just avoid spectacle, which is, after all, the exploitative fuel which war, horror and erotic films run on.  With an oblique approach, it is possible, in theory, to directly comment on these genres without participating in them.  That’s assuming, of course, that a screenwriter could resist exploitation’s pull on the page, and a director could do the same.  Again, Whedon & Goddard’s solution is that there is no solution, and we might as well make the most of it.  We can never defy the Ancient Ones; if we do, they destroy the world.  Catch 22.  Keep the spiritual bureaucracy running.

In view of Whedon & Goddard’s brilliant, if negative, writing, is it possible to make a plausible alternate reading of ‘The Cabin in the Woods’?  Yes, actually, and to their credit, Whedon & Goddard deliberately give us this option, even though it runs counter to the film’s obvious thematic statement.  Like our lead characters, we can choose to defy the Ancient Ones anyway, grasping at the dignity of the choice that prevents the leads from murdering each other, even though it unleashes a greater, indeed apocalyptic evil.  In a way, the writers are penalizing us for this reading by suggesting that, if we chose to stop making horror movies, we would release real sublimated evil into society.  Whedon & Goddard are not about to play fair on this point.  They’re kind of cheating, which is of course their right as artists.  On the other hand, if, like the leads, we decided that rising above the negative aspects of ourselves was worth the cost, there is no proof that it would actually unleash the apocalypse.  Counter to the Western view to which Whedon & Goddard subscribe, if we accept an Eastern take on human nature — namely Taoism — we could conclude that the goodness inherent in all things would overcome the temporary destabilization caused by refusing to participate in horror films.  Therefore, though brilliant, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is understandably biased towards its own conclusions, and with a more comprehensive outlook and even hand, it need not cut to black on the end of the world.  Like ‘The Dark Knight’, it could have benefitted from a conflict and conclusion based on balance, rather than acting in typical Whedonesque fashion as an absurdly well-written genre tract — though, again, such affirmations are not in any way less artistically valuable.

All of this is not to say, however, that the horror genre is necessarily a product of human evil that must be done away with.  I’m not here to make any such definitive statements, though I can sympathize with arguments for and against its existence.  Indeed, that’s ultimately what makes ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ such a terribly good movie; it provokes critical discussion deliberately while also functioning as a pure exercise in entertainment.  It’s a subtle, intelligent work, proving Whedon’s excellence once again and hopefully paving the way for Goddard’s should-be-long-and-wonderful career.

Old-Fashioned Notions — Marvel’s The Avengers

Review:  May 4th, 2012 was, in keeping with geek tradition, ‘Star Wars’ Day.  On that most, uh, Force-full of days, we the guardians of sci-fi, fantasy and comic books take a moment to remember when we first got to see the saga of a ragtag team’s struggle against cosmic evil on the big screen.  Let’s never forget those days.  They were very nice, though some of us were eleven in those days, or as yet mere concepts in the hearts of teenage lovers, or not even proper inklings in anyone’s head, really.  But in counterpoint to ‘Star Wars’ Day nostalgia (which is only too appropriate, given “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”) on that particular May the Fourth in the U.S. we were blessed with the frankly stunning apotheosis of the cinematic superhero genre: ‘The Avengers’.  And the future — at least of sci-fi action-adventure cinema — seems very bright indeed.

Capping off Marvel Studios’ ambitious (and actually quite sudden) plan to finally approximate the diverse world of comic books (with their multitude of clashing heroes, villains and subgenres) in the movies, ‘The Avengers’ is a major coup for everyone involved in its creation.  Especially writer/director Joss Whedon, who, having previously built up a well-deserved but continually frustrated cult fanbase, successfully helmed one of the biggest summer movies of all time, and if he were to die young, he would die having proven to the world that he really knew what the hell he was doing after all.  Outside the rewards reaped by its creators, however, the whole of genre filmmaking stands to benefit from the film’s success, since, like the original ‘Star Wars’ before it, it can serve as a roadmap to properly realizing fantastic concepts in an appealing human manner.

For as big and silly and wonderful as ‘The Avengers’ gets, it’s grounded by honest, fallible and likable characters that remind us, by their magnetic presence, why we ought to enjoy any of this ballyhoo.  Any hack filmmaker can pit a superhuman against an alien invasion force and call it drama; it takes a real storyteller like Whedon to assemble a team that feels, despite their colorful and disparate personalities, inevitable.  These people — indeed, they are people first, heroes second — compliment each other perfectly.  Flaws become strengths by virtue of the team’s unlikely unity.  Out here in the real world, such moments of cohesion do occur, and tend to generate shockwaves when they do.  Because the film’s structure builds to the point where the team finally coheres, the expected trope of the climatic battle suddenly becomes organic, and the team’s fight against evil, instead of being rote action, is raw humanity gloriously unleashed.  Audiences react to this instinctively in a way they never will to ‘Transformers 3’.  They may not know why the dynamic in ‘The Avengers’ thrills them so deeply, but it surely does, and some of the kids who see the movie in theaters today will turn their quest to replicate the experience into a career in filmmaking.

The team dynamic is not the only secret to the film’s success, but it’s arguably the most important one to discuss in terms of its immediate cultural impact.  It’s the team itself that excites the (to use a word I dislike) zeitgeist.  ‘The Avengers’ is incredible optimistic and fun only because the team coalesces, by doing so healing all wounds and overcoming all evils within the team and without, at least as long as the team is together.  So ‘The Avengers’ is not obviously important like ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Citizen Kane’, because it’s not a critique or a deconstruction of societal forces, but it absolutely is important and resonates so widely because it strongly affirms human community.  Basically all ‘The Avengers’ says is “We need each other.”  But does anything else really need to be said?

Let’s not presume that every work that captures the zeitgeist must include riffs on relevant real-world conflicts, i.e., the Joker-as-archetypal-terrorist plot of ‘The Dark Knight’ (which, I hasten to add, is extremely good) or the military’s presence on Pandora in ‘Avatar’ (which, like it or not, struck a chord with audiences to the tune of billions of dollars.)  Of course, even if we were to say that ‘The Avengers’ must include such imagery to resonate properly, we can easily find it in the film’s central conflict.  Eleven years after 9/11, here’s a massive hit movie that features a hostile force appearing suddenly in the sky and killing thousands in New York (sound familiar?) only to be thwarted by a team led by the embodiment of American heroism.  It’s an optimistic statement that draws (explicitly) on old-fashioned notions of teamwork, self-sacrifice and patriotism.  Indeed, while the film’s thesis is pretty much on-the-nose, so, for that matter, is ‘The Dark Knight’.  As much as I appreciate that film, it’s not exactly subtle; in fact, I’d say one reason Batfandom can be so irritating is that they do not understand how simple ‘The Dark Knight’ is, and flatter themselves for understanding a pretty damn obvious thematic message.  That, of course, is part and parcel with the common fantasy among Batfans (and I count myself among their number) of being the brilliant, dark, misunderstood vigilante — as much as I like it, the Batman concept appeals to (typically teenage male) arrogance.  It’s like walking out of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ convinced you’re the only one who realized that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, and then thinking you’re the wise Jedi master who has to explain it to everyone.  But ‘The Avengers’ lacks the haughtiness of ‘The Dark Knight’; it isn’t trying to be important, it just is, because Whedon and company have their hearts in the right place.

Films like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Avengers’ impact audiences in deep, unconscious ways, making their particular brands of storytelling popular again.  Before ‘The Avengers’ hit the screen, there were many unqualified rumblings about superhero films dying off, but those diagnoses were really prescriptions, trying to cure cinema of a trend many believed was sapping the movies of their popularity and importance.  It’s much harder to make such statements now without coming off as hopelessly cynical or snobbish, because the superhero genre has just now come into its own, injecting Hollywood and audiences with new enthusiasm for superheroes and other related genres.  For the guardians of geekdom, who have taken over the multiplex yet again, May the Fourth can serve as a reminder of past glories and the possibility of future revelations.

Tough Love — (500) Days of Summer

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: As I said once before, we don’t really review “chick flicks” (or, films about relationships in general) on this website.  Partly because James and I are men and we have more masculine tastes; partly because they are an easily exploited genre, and finding truly worthwhile films to review can be, well, cumbersome.

That said, 2009’s cult hit ‘(500) Days of Summer’ is a little different.

I suppose people might have thought it was traditional romantic stuff when the film first came out.  You know, boy meets girl, they fall in love, a lot of “will they?/won’t they?” before they finally do.  But that’s not what ‘Summer’ does.  Very boldly during the opening, it announces that the boy and girl will NOT wind up together at the end.  Crazy, right?  But it works, for the most part anyways.
Tom Hansen, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt (‘Inception’!), is a young romantic who believes in true love.  Summer Finn, played by Zooey Deschanel, is a coworker who does not.  They slowly begin a relationship (though Summer maintains that they are not boyfriend and girlfriend), and the film, told from Tom’s perspective, chronicles 500 days of it, through good and bad, through their break up, and what we conclude is their final goodbye.  The entire film is told nonlinearly, showing their break up early in the movie, which, combined with the film’s opening promise that they won’t fall in love, manages to keep us involved throughout; we, like Tom, look back through the past to see what went wrong in their relationship.

But that’s just it: their breakup, sad as it is for Tom, is not due to any flaws in either his or Summer’s personality or any mistakes they made.  Neither was a bad person, neither was unreasonable.  Though it could be assumed that they broke up because of their different views on love, this isn’t really true.  That Summer does learn to believe in love at the end of the film (albeit with another man) shows that she was not beyond growth.  She admits that Tom was right about love, just not about them.  So, nothing really went “wrong,” beyond that they simply weren’t right for each other.

Thematically, this reminds me of the biblical Book of Job, which tells the story of a man who, while virtuous and god-fearing, still suffers greatly in his life.  The point of that story, I think, is that, while we like to believe that we can, in some way, “earn” a good life, we are ultimately always at the mercy of others, always subject to forces beyond our control.  Bad things do happen to good people.  And so it is with love.  We cannot win love, we cannot earn it, we do not deserve it, and we are not entitled to it.  Love is simply given and received.  All we can really do, then, is share our own love with others, and hope that they return it, knowing full well that it doesn’t always happen.  That, I think, is what Tom learns at the end of this film.

I said that ‘(500) Days of Summer’ mostly works.  It’s very well-crafted and creative, and I think it was right for someone to make a movie that, while not completely realistic, more or less draws from realty.  In that sense, ‘Summer’ is a very unique, important film.  Perhaps the only thing about the film, though, that doesn’t really work is the ending, which implies that, for Tom anyways, true love is “just around the corner”, which, while ending the film on a hopeful note, feels a bit forced.  But I won’t fault it for that.

That said, for those of us who have gone through what Tom Hansen went through, the film is a little painful as well.  It is uncompromising in showing that sometimes the people we love don’t love us back the same way, and sometimes our greatest hopes and dreams are smashed in front of our very eyes.  It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and while I’m glad I watched the film, I can’t see myself watching it again any time soon, if only because the experience itself was so harsh.

‘(500) Days of Summer’ is the kind of film that comes only occasionally, although that’s more than sufficient.  It’s a “tough love” story for the audience that will challenge more than comfort.  But it’s also a very good, truthful film, reminding people that, sometimes, even Summer has to end.

Wild Tales of Wonder — John Carter

Review: Film fans of my generation tend to gripe about the lack of quality genre fare these days.  Where’s the heir to ‘Star Wars’?  Can’t somebody make a film as innocent and tearjerking as ‘E.T.’?  Whatever happened to weird and wild fantasy films such as ‘Legend’, ‘Conan the Barbarian’, ‘The Neverending Story’, and the ‘The Princess Bride’?  Why did they stop making good movies?

The answer to all these questions, of course, is that my generation is blinded by nostalgia and cannot see the fantastic stuff that’s right in front of them.  For the most part, if a movie comes close to the pure fun quotient of ’80s classics, it ends up oddly ignored, or worse, needlessly criticized. For example, J.J. Abrams’ ‘Super 8’, the heir apparent to ‘E.T.’, nailed the tone so precisely that it was largely rejected by geekdom as a suspicious attempt to cash-in on nostalgia.  It’s happening again with Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton‘s first live action film, ‘John Carter’, which successfully adapts Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ novel ‘A Princess of Mars‘ into a film as gleefully exciting as the original ‘Star Wars’.  And so, ironically, the generation weaned on Lucas’ fantasy films refuses to embrace the very thing they want.

If Stanton made a major mistake in adapting ‘John Carter’, it’s in assuming that people actually buy into this stuff anymore.  Not that you can blame him.  One would think today’s audiences, who complain endlessly on the internet about Michael Bay and Stephen Sommers movies, would eat up a genuine film adventure if they had the chance.  Of course, today’s audiences have shown their true feelings by rewarding the likes of ‘Transformers’ with billion dollars grosses, so it should come as no surprise to Stanton if ‘John Carter’ fails to make bank.

Which isn’t to say that today’s audiences can’t reward a great movie when it arrives. Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Inception’ deserve all the attention they get.  So does the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise.  But note that even ‘Harry Potter’, which got its start overflowing with childlike wonder, became steadily darker and grittier — and so the box office grosses got higher.  Cynicism, violence, tragedy, and brooding seem to resonate with audiences far more than ever.  Critics often highlight the ’70s as the most “adult” cinematic decade, but I’d argue that the 2000s threaten its crown, since even the family fare, Pixar aside, tended to reward cynicism over wonder.  You couldn’t have a ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘ in the ’10s.  People wouldn’t understand it.

Wonder, therefore, is the crucial ingredient of all those beloved childhood classics. Stanton and company get it.  They infused ‘John Carter’ with it, creating a vigorous, heedless, and beautiful film.  It’s not always pure cinema, but then again neither was ‘Star Wars’, which is something people tend to forget.  For my money, ‘John Carter’ has more wide-eyed wonder in a single scene than James Cameron’s derivative ‘Avatar’ had in its entirety.

Consider the hero’s arrival on Mars, or, as the inhabitants call it, Barsoom.  As he tries to  walk, he accidentally catapults into the air repeatedly, comically landing in the dust over and over, until he realizes that he can jump hundreds of feet with a single step.  In the course of two minutes, we’ve gone from shock, to frustration, to comedy, to revelation and wonder.  In short, in but two minutes, we’re caught up in true adventure.  This is what we’ve been missing — a flexible tone, rooted in character, exercised to exhilarate the audience.  This continues through the entire film.

Sonically, the film has a very strong backbone, courtesy of Academy Award winning composer Michael Giacchino — who really is the new John Williams.  The main theme conjures up ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, meshing perfectly with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp universe.  In my view, a film composer’s responsibility is to richly evoke every unique character and scene, tying the emotional core to the viewer.  Of course, this assumes that there’s an emotional core to tie, but Stanton doesn’t let Giacchino down.

Since its tone and its overall execution are spot-on, one would think people would respond as strongly as they once did to this kind of thing, but nay!  Audiences are suspicious of it.  ‘John Carter’ has far fewer script issues than the ‘Star Wars’ prequels and ‘Avatar’, but people readily bought into those films, only to trash them later.  Truly worthy blockbusters are rare.  More often than not, great films are ignored, only finding audiences long after the fact.  Here’s a movie with a brisk, familiar narrative, elevated by strong characters, inventive action, stunning visuals and a stirring score.  You know, like ‘Star Wars’.  Yet ‘John Carter’ is poised to land soft in the U.S. box office.  We don’t know what the hell we want.  There’s still hope that ‘John Carter’ will hit the world box office hard, but regardless of how it does in theaters, I believe what we’re looking at here is a cult classic.  Considering how many fantastic films have taken ten years or more to get the recognition they deserve — Keaton’s ‘The General’, Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’, to name a few — this bodes well for ‘John Carter’.

If you truly love the movies, if you thirst for adventure, then this wonderful film is for you.  Don’t let the magic of cinema go unrewarded.  See it now.

Campaign for the Heart — The Ides of March

Review: Politics is warfare without bullets. All war is really about who we identify with, and why, and to what extent we will defend our collective identity and all that it means to us.  It’s been said that the first casualty of war is innocence (or truth), and by extension, we understand the true casualty is the human soul.  George Clooney’s 2011 film ‘The Ides of March’, adapted from the play ‘Farragut North’ by Beau Willimon, is about that terrible moment of spiritual violence as it occurs in two men: Junior campaign manager Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) and Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney).  They are mirror images of each other; idealistic, brilliant, driven, and undercut by their own pride and lust.

In the film’s opening scene, Meyers walks on stage and gives a speech which is effectively an oath of religious loyalty to the United States Constitution.  It turns out he’s simply reading Morris’ lines, doing a sound check on a darkened stage, but we don’t doubt for a minute that he believes it as strongly as Morris.  Stephen Meyers is the ultimate political enthusiast; he ties the very fate of his soul to that of his candidate, and views himself as an extension of the candidate’s identity, as if Meyers was a fragment of Morris that converses with him from outside Morris’ conscious mind.  In war, soldiers wear a uniform to subsume them into the group, and in politics, the fighters wear their candidate, whether in campaign paraphernalia or ideology, and the effect of both strategies is to make the individual’s fate concurrent with the whole.

When the political bond between candidate and supporter is strong enough, all it takes is a single, critical mistake to reverberate through the entire campaign and force the parts of the whole to face each other as individuals.  The first sign of trouble appears when Meyers accepts a meeting with a rival campaign manager (Paul Giamatti,) who offers him a job, and the crucial tip that both campaigns are gunning for the same supporter.  Meyers refuses the job offer, but his rival insists that Morris is like any other politician; prone to corruption and bound to fall.  Because Meyers does not alert his own boss (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to the illicit meeting and its details, he becomes the target of a savvy reporter (Marisa Tomei) and begins to keep secrets, justifying them by his crucial role in Morris’ campaign.  He begins an affair with a beautiful intern (Evan Rachel Wood,) only to discover that Morris has been with her as well, and has impregnated her.

With his own corruption weighing on his soul, and his candidate’s idealistic façade exposed, Meyers chooses a dark path to save the campaign.  The scene in which Meyers make his decision is well-executed on every front.  He sits in his car in the dark under pounding rain, voice mails echoing in his head like accusing spirits, while Gosling plays Meyers as utterly overwhelmed, his tears lost in the reflection of raindrops on his face.

Not only is Clooney’s direction solid, but his portrayal of Morris is subtle and believable.  Like Meyers, Morris is on the defensive, and even before corruption infects the campaign the two men are subtly at odds, vying for control over the message.  Clooney plays Morris as a man who has lied to himself to protect his ideals because he believes that the message is more important than his conscience.  To Morris and Meyers, the war trumps the solider; a little bloodshed is necessary to win the fight, and what does it matter if it’s their own persons that are destroyed in the process?  When the two men finally face each other, instead of letting the campaign go to save themselves, they agree, in effect, to destroy each other’s souls.

Considering how profundity bleeds from the film’s subtext, I have to admit I find it more than a little odd that critical reaction wasn’t more favorable.  This is a great thriller, one fashioned in the mold of ’70s political films like ‘All the President’s Men’, with a kind of cynical clarity of vision.  Its most direct homage to the era is its darkly ambiguous ending, which may be the reason some critics find the film underwhelming.  The film doesn’t tie up everything in a neat little bow, instead cutting to black right before a climatic decision is made, and in doing so Clooney denies us the most obvious form of catharsis.  Instead, we must provide our own, dwelling on the film’s powerful themes until we realize the film isn’t about Stephen Meyers, but what it means to live in a society where political responsibility rests on our shoulders.  The film ends with Gosling’s character breaking the fourth wall, looking us in the eye, in effect asking us, “What decision would you make?”  In the campaign for the heart, you decide who wins.