MMM: The Sixth Unbreakable Lady

James here with Movie Music Monday.

Three selections from James Newton Howard’s body of work, specifically his collaborations with M. Night Shyamalan.   I like all three pieces for the same reasons — effective blending of fear and wonder, aural establishment of the film’s iconography.  Good music.  Yep.

NR: When A Voyage Becomes A Tour

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

It seems I’m stuck in a Disney rut.  The object of discussion today is the fourth ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ sequel, ‘On Stranger Tides’, which, as Collider attests, has awesome theater displays.  It also has a mediocre trailer, which is embedded below.

So to rephrase the headline, when does an exciting voyage into the unknown (a new story) become a run-of-the-mill tour?  What made the first ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ film good was its organic story and its fresh, witty, tongue-in-cheek take on classic adventure cinema, a spiritual cocktail of ‘Captain Blood’, ‘Jason and the Argonauts’, and countless serials.  The second and third sequels attempted to elevate the material into a saga, and while the spectacle was suitably spectacular, it lost some of the magic through overexposure.  I’ve said it before, familiarity kills wonder, and if a sequel shows us the franchise’s hand too early, it becomes tedious.  I’d say that this franchise’s premise has run its course.  A pleasant surprise is welcome, but despite getting back to basics and focusing on fan favorite Jack Sparrow, the new film appears to check off the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ list faithfully and doesn’t try for anything more.  An adventure film is first a spiritual journey, and the sum of the trappings, exotic locales, beautiful people, inventive action sequences, and what have you, is only whipped cream on the pie.  If the plot centers on the Fountain of Youth, this germ should grow through the characters, and should come to dominate the film’s iconography and advertising.  Watching the trailer, I never get the sense that anybody is defying old age or really has any motivation beyond fortune, and greed has already been explored satisfactorily in the previous entries.  I don’t see a story about the Fountain of Youth.  I see a movie full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  An adventure film’s substance is spirit, not spectacle, and I fear that ‘On Stranger Tides’ is heavy on the latter.

Munich

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A haunting, harrowing exploration of heroes and homelands, expertly directed and perfectly executed.

Review:  Tackling a piece of complex cinema is like trying to eat an elephant.  You have to start somewhere, and it will be awkward.  For Spielberg’s 2005 film ‘Munich’, I’ve chosen to broach the subject by philosophizing my impatience.  There is an artistic relationship between a film’s length and its subject. Like a piece of music that requires time and space to build and create emotional resonance, a film in excess of two hours often is so because of reasons beyond plot intricacies.   ‘Munich’ is a paradox of pacing and running time.  It waxes long but plays with the requisite immediacy one expects from a film so firmly grounded in the documentary style.  The meaning of its length is found in the film’s philosophical heart, which, in his introduction on the DVD, he simply relates as (if I recall correctly) “the artist’s intent”. That is, empathy, extended in every direction.

I know a thing about politics, and the film knows a thing or two, so of course I could look at it from that angle.  However, that would, I feel, miss the grander scheme.  ‘Munich’ is to my mind a meditation on heroes.  The film opens with a brilliant montage crosscutting the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre with the subjective reactions of the concerned parties, Arabs, Jews, etc. watching their televisions.  The handheld, highly dynamic camera and the overlapping actions and dialog set up a potent sense of realism and empathy for all sides.  As the film’s plot gathers steam, complicates and finally untangles, the filmmakers never stop being lavishly empathic.  The brutal nature of real-world espionage shatters our illusions of heroic, sexy, mentally balanced spies protecting our interests abroad.  It is not so much that heroes do not exist, but that villains share the same faces.  All anyone wants is home.  What they do to get it is another matter.

What I love about Spielberg is how his films come alive.  While, inescapably, the artifice came through, ‘Munich’ tempted me to believe what I was seeing was real.  This is obviously damn good filmmaking.  How he accomplishes this is surprisingly obvious as well.  It’s also enormously complex.  Cinematographically, ‘Munich’ is not a representation cut into pieces.  It is not a million little shots of plot-worthy or atmospheric details, ala the ‘Bourne’ films.  It is expertly staged, with a great deal of depth in most of the shots.  Layers of actions and sounds cross over each other, fighting for attention.  This is a common feature of all Spielberg’s films, but with Janusz Kaminiski’s docu-style cinematography, the effect amplifies.  The film’s texture, partly because of the production design, feels very much like a ’70s era movie.  I can compare it to ‘Bullitt’ and ‘The Godfather’.

The production design is worth praising a little more.  I appreciate their effort to defy convention and strive for accuracy on weapons and their messy effects.   The bombs, for example, even have delayed sound.  Silenced weapons don’t have the laser-ish sound effect heard in so many thrillers.  Instead, they sound like suppressed gunshots, which makes so much sense it’s painful we still have to put up with everybody’s weird idea of what they should sound like.

There’s a lot to praise, and it’s too easy.  It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.  In the end, ‘Munich’ is proof that Spielberg is still a formidable, flexible filmmaker, perfectly capable of handling the most harrowing issues with a steady hand and a philosopher’s soul.  This is cinema’s mirror directed at the souls of heroes and the homes they protect.  What they reflect back is not easy to see.  It is haunting.

National Treasure

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A heedless, fun, and solid piece of summer entertainment in the best Hollywood tradition.

Review:  Cinema, like any other creative endeavor, slides on a scale between pretentious and pretense-less.  ‘National Treasure’, a deliriously patriotic and good-humored entertainment, somehow falls on the pretense-less end without sacrificing its ambitious quasi-historical narrative.  Disney assembled an excellent cast, with Nicholas Cage, Diane Kruger, Jon Voight, Sean Bean, Harvey Keitel, and Christopher Plummer, and they all seemed to have a blast hamming it up in this traditionalist matinée adventure.  Disney’s major collaborations with producer Jerry Bruckheimer have been mostly quality throwback stories with nostalgic sensibilities.  ‘National Treasure’ is not innovative, but it’s done well, as it hits all the popcorn flick story beats with heedless abandon.  In this sense, it is without pretense, knowing exactly where it stands.  On the other hand, central to the plot is a rather loose but very positive interpretation of American history that bubbles up into brief soliloquies.  Despite A-list talent, such diversions could have easily crippled its decent B-movie plot, but because of the story’s philosophical nature, it works.

The best thing about ‘National Treasure’ is that it actually has a good central theme, that is, all history is family history.  This is best illustrated in the excellent prologue when young Benjamin Gates sneaks into his grandfather’s attic in search of secrets.  Grandpa (Christopher Plummer) finds him there and rewards his quest for knowledge by summing up the film’s McGuffin, setting up the narrative desire succinctly in the first few minutes.  Above all, we learn that Ben’s lifelong desire to find the titular treasure comes from his love for his family.  His knowledge of American history is merely that love extended.  Also, by starting out with young Ben, we get a sense of time’s fluidity and how entangled past and present become over the film’s course.  Extrapolating, the moral of the story is clear: History is integral to our identity, and such entanglement, as is the protagonist’s desire, should be ours as well.

As I am fond of maintaining, sound is half the picture, and composer Trevor Rabin (formerly of progressive rock outfit Yes) really sold the film.  The score reinforces the scenario’s grand implications, deftly mixing epic brass with electronic and rock elements, a genre-bending feat indicative of Rabin’s roots.  The themes of depth of history, love of family, and acceleration toward a technology-laden future all find a musical spouse in Rabin’s work.

One last note before I close: The awkward finale, which features not one, but two fake-out endings, actually has a thematic purpose, though subtle.  The Freemasons, integral to the historical background, had only three levels or degrees in the period in which the titular treasure was supposedly hidden.  Therefore, the three treasure rooms, and their corresponding character reactions, correlate to each degree.  What seems excessive makes sense, with a little perspective.

The Book of Eli

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  An example of a genre film elevated by powerful truths.

 

Review:  When I set out to review this film, I inclined to rate it three stars.  I liked it, but there wasn’t that glee that usually comes from watching a really great movie.  However, upon further reflection, ‘The Book of Eli’ clearly deserves the honor of a full four.  I set out to review it, and its tantalizingly subtle greatness got to me.  There are layers here, man.  Caves of treasure to plunder.

At first look, it’s your typical pretentious post-apocalyptic science fiction story, with visuals and production design similar to ‘Mad Max’ and sundry films, all manner of mangas, comic books, and what have you.  Lots of martial arts, guns, car chases, and explosions, all set in a desert wasteland made so by nuclear holocaust.  An old drillbit, if you will, worn down from spinning in the groove too long.  Thankfully, the cast’s more than up for the challenge.  The protagonist, Denzel Washington’s Eli, is a dangerous, solitary journeyman who’s got the world’s last Bible (old King James Version, naturally). Eli wants to take it somewhere safe.  He believes God told him to.  He enters a town in search of water, and crosses swords with Gary Oldman’s Carnegie, the educated de-facto leader who covets the sacred book.  Carnegie wants the book for reason of its influence, which of course he can exploit for his nefarious ends.  Along the way, Eli gradually lets a local girl, the beautiful Mila Kunis’ Solara, in on his secrets.

The action is superb, and while that gets butts in seats (as does Mila Kunis), the religious nature of the film is difficult to swallow.  So, as Peter O’Toole’s character Anton Ego in ‘Ratatouille’ may suggest, what we need is a little perspective.

Subgenres, such as post-apocalyptic science fiction, can quickly become stale.  Seeing as they’re built upon more specific rules than your typical genre film, it’s the nature of the beast.  How they are properly refreshed is not necessarily by breaking those rules, but by finding what made a subgenre’s core ideas interesting in the first place.   Post-apocalyptic fiction isn’t about the end of the world, but its beginnings, the basics of human society.  The idea central to ‘The Book of Eli’ is one often overlooked in the past century’s popular fiction: discipleship.

Discipleship means imitation.  It is the process by which knowledge is properly transmitted, not as information, but as wisdom, and by which the meaning of one life carries on in another.  As uncomfortable as it is for people in our individualistic, depersonalized society to admit, the desire for discipleship is a natural, indeed crucial part of the human psyche.  If you are never someone’s disciple, it’s analogous to having never experienced childhood.  It leaves us out of balance, without a center.  Prior to the media proliferation that we take for granted in our era, it was the chief method of passing on history, the weight of the human experience.  In an unbroken chain of disciples, there is a depth of wisdom that is foreign to the frission-based postmodern world.  If and when our world comes tumbling down, the master-to-learner dynamic will prove essential.  ‘The Book of Eli’ is a bold affirmation of this basic human relationship.

There’s much more here that’s worthy of reflection, such as the dynamics of religion and power, knowledge and violence, education and class division, sex and survival.  The sad thing about films like ‘The Book of Eli’ is that, due to cultural saturation, they get lost somewhere and aren’t appreciated.  This is a gem worth digging for.

Classic Review: The Godfather

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: A beautiful, terrible tragedy, a prescient cinematic masterpiece.

Review:  If there is a perfect example of the modern tragedy, it’s Francis Ford Coppola’s epic ‘The Godfather’.  As of 11/20/10, it stands at #2 on the IMDB.com top 250 movies; a biased, transient list, to be sure, but a testament to its power over the past two generations of filmgoers.  The film is oft-cited, especially to amateur screenwriters, as the pinnacle of the dramatic craft.  What makes this story so effective?  What sets it, and other films we call “classic”, apart from the rest of the bunch?

The beautiful thing about ‘The Godfather’ is that it is brutally honest about the nature of evil.  The road to hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions; and hell, it seems, would be best defined as that state in which one has imprisoned one’s conscience in a cell made of excuses.  The conscience will kick against the walls and make the soul most uncomfortable, but the person will survive, perhaps wondering why every day has such a nagging sense of loss.  It’s a state that, despite what we like to think about ourselves, we are all familiar with, and this makes the protagonist, Michael Corleone, a person with whom we deeply sympathize.

‘The Godfather’ is about the true villains of the world, and they seem awfully similar to its heroes.  Michael, the youngest son of a Mafia don (or “Godfather”) initially keeps his distance from his beloved family, knowing full well the darkness inherit in the business.  After his father’s gunned down by order of rival Dons, Michael’s love for his family overcomes his moral qualms and he deeply, personally makes their survival his business.  It’s the Aristotelean tragedy; a man drawn to a terrible conclusion by a series of plausible, relatable events.  Michael could have chosen to take the moral high ground and refused a life of murder, vengeance, and generational manipulation, and we would have understood and agreed with him.  That he chooses his family over his own soul, we also understand, even if we wouldn’t necessarily agree.  He even loses his ability to be intimate and honest with those closest to him, making the tragedy complete.  It’s a complex dénouement for a complex problem, a bittersweet dish worth chewing on.  We’re forced to examine ourselves.  That’s the ideal function of cinema: clear reflection.

So we understand that its bittersweet flavor makes it a potent and prescient film.  Contrasting triumph and tragedy is a hallmark of many great films, especially modern epics, such as ‘The Lord of the Rings’, ‘Star Wars’, and the much disputed ‘Matrix’ trilogy.  Here, that dramatic contrast exists in one life, much like our own.  We’re confronted by a flickering silver mirror, and we’re forced to ask: “Is the image of Michael my own?”

Classic Review: Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★1/2

Summary:  Stanley Kubrick brilliantly uses provocative social-satire to show the world the Cold War’s insanity.

Review: I enjoyed watching ‘Dr. Strangelove’ a lot, and had I been around to appreciate some of the attitudes and paranoia of the Cold War, I probably would have enjoyed it even more.  What makes this film so entertaining is that it shows the absolute worst-case scenario, that most dreaded fear for mankind-Nuclear Holocaust — but it does so in such a wonderfully humorous way.

And so we can’t help but laugh.  We laugh at the comically insane general who orders U.S. B-52’s to bomb the Soviets and purposely start a war.  We laugh at the crazily patriotic captain of one of the planes, with his cowboy hat and goofy southern accent, who vows to do his patriotic duty come hell or high water.  We laugh as the President of the United States and the Soviet Premier, who are evidently VERY good friends, argue about what to do, and we laugh at the bumbling politicians in Washington who scramble to call the bombing off, lest they set off a Soviet super-weapon.  We laugh because the situation is so absurd.  It’s so goofy and ridiculous and hilarious throughout.

But then the ending comes, and we see a montage of nuclear explosions (for the Russian super-weapon has gone off) that seems oddly out-of-place with the rest of the film.  All of the sudden there’s a sinking feeling in our stomach, and the last feeling of this film is that of sorrow.

Why such a sad ending?  It’s because Kubrick is reminding us of something: While incredibly funny, the seemingly absurd situation in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ is not so far from possibility.  Sure, it seemed ridiculous in the film, but the threat of sudden, unexpected war, people not knowing what to do or how to stop it, and total annihilation is actually a reality.  The film’s insanity parallels that of the Cold War and really of all war.  Escalation, growing militaristic tension, and the constant hatred of the “other” can only lead to tragedy.  Had the United States and the Soviet Union persisted in this, we likely could all be dead now, much like the ending of the film.  It was only through reconciliation and reaching out on both sides that allowed for the Cold War to end, and even now there is still tension with other countries due to it.  Let’s hope we never run into an ending like ‘Dr. Strangelove’.

This film is one of Kubrick’s many cinematic masterpieces.  His strong sense of storytelling shines through brilliantly here, and his message is as powerful as any he has given.  Few people could have mixed something so funny with something so meaningful, and few movies are stronger for it.