NR: Beyond The Flickering Frame

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

I really appreciate J.J. Abrams’ approach to meta-narrative; that is, cinema lives beyond a film’s running time, or should, anyway.  Abrams approaches filmmaking as mythmaking, which is a noble idea, but very hard to execute properly.  He possesses a very old school love for mystery, expectation, wonder and surprise, an affection that it is difficult to sustain in the Information Age.  His next foray, ‘Super 8’, is an intriguing blend of 70s era Spielberg — with support from the man himself — and his own sensibilities.  Collider recently posted a collection of subliminal clues to its story, discovered in the Super Bowl teaser, a brisk 30 second spot that I have embedded below.  Behold!

The proverbial old man by the fire has only begun to relate the myth, and I’m already hooked.  The teaser promises a powerful collision of wonder and horror, an apocalyptic tale with a child’s eye view, and that’s something we haven’t seen in cinema for far too long, it seems.  Spielberg has sailed on from his signature childlike fantasy films into more dangerous waters, and he has no clear successor.  Even Abrams, despite showing an affinity for that sort of material, gravitates to stories with more violence and less poetry.  If anything prevents ‘Super 8’ from successfully emulating Golden Age Spielberg, it will be that tendency.

What’s important about this excellent teaser for ‘Super 8’ is what it doesn’t show.  I have always maintained that, especially in fantasy films, what is most effective is what filmmakers stop just short of showing.  In ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, Spielberg did not show the Mothership’s interior until a Special Edition rerelease gave him the opportunity.  He immediately regretted spoiling the heavenly mystery that the original ending created, and this blissful ignorance got restored in the Director’s Cut.  Abrams would do well to show similar restraint in the final cut of ‘Super 8’.  Proper advertising, however, creates a sense of great expectancy that needs great satisfaction.  The payoff must equal the setup.  So far, the trailers have created a distinct tone for ‘Super 8′, but wisely they left much of the plot out of sight.

What separates Abrams’ mythic strategy from predictable, tell-all advertising that plagues most films is that it expresses a real confidence in the movie.  If the filmmaker believes they have something great, a story that really surprises and thrills, they will treat marketing as an artistic prelude.  Consider the gradual reveal of Nolan’s passion project ‘Inception’ through these three trailers:

Striking images.  Bone-rattling sounds.  Terrifying.  It cast a spell on me.  The next brings on action and hints of the story’s meaning, with some deliberate misrepresentation of the plot:

The last trailer reorients audiences from the previous two, which had strong psychological horror overtones, further digesting the premise into a highly emotional action movie:

Progressively, the trailers expand on the movie’s key themes, but demand resolution.  ‘Inception’, even before we sit down for the main event, is already being told.  In the film itself, the story resolves, but does not firmly end.  It leaves us with questions, so we can go on experiencing the story after we’ve left the theater.  This is similar to ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’; Spielberg resolves the conflict, but leaves us with wonder.  The adventure continues in our hearts.

‘Super 8’ has a similar marketing campaign.  The first theatrical teaser gives us, like the first for ‘Inception’, strong horror elements: An absurdly violent, apparently deliberate trainwreck, releasing an unseen alien monster, juxtaposed with a rapid zoom out from grainy Super 8 footage containing subliminal images.

The next, embedded at this article’s beginning, expands on the horror hook with gorgeous American nostalgia, primal familial emotions, and apocalyptic destruction in ’70s suburbia.  Present in both, doing most of the heavy lifting, are two strains of Midwest mythos: UFO cover-up conspiracies, and amateur filmmaking.  The Super 8 camera, I’d venture to say, is symbolically Hollywood’s lost childhood.  Many great filmmakers used it to hone their skills as children.  As digital devices take its place, its symbolic power only increases, an effect certainly related to Abrams’ film.  J.J. is using it as a deliberate homage to Spielberg, whose films have defined cinema for a generation.  So, while ‘Super 8’ may seem an incongruous title for a film about aliens and paranoid conspiracy, it’s obvious that the camera and the kids behind it are the film’s heart and soul.

If ‘Super 8’ has a great story, as I am ready to believe, then it had better include that final, crucial magic trick; the hint at things to come.  Not a sequel, not a television series, not a comic book; a story that lives forever, unstained by cash grabs, beyond the flickering frame.

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NR: The Sci-Fi Ghetto

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

It’s painfully predictable that I would comment on the Oscar nominations (find them all here), but I’m going to do it anyway.  My interest, though, is in one particular issue that continues to torture nerds, geeks, otaku of certain colors, and anybody with an interest in fair play.  It’s the aptly named sci-fi ghetto.

This is the stigma associated with science fiction and fantasy works of all kinds that often prevents them from being taken seriously by most critics.  As enlightened critic Andrew Gordon points out, “…certain film genres are read as ‘less fictional’ (Westerns, gangster, and war films) and others as ‘more fictional’ (the musical, horror, and fantasy).” [1] It’s a skewed understanding of fiction and, sadly, a prevalent attitude.  Ursula Le Guin found that, in America, the cultural mindset is “to repress their imagination, to reject it as something childish or effeminate, unprofitable, and probably sinful”, which she ties to “our Puritanism”. [2] Many great movies are ignored at the Oscars as a result.  They tend to get technical awards, but Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, etc. are reserved for “higher” movies.  After all, who needs that juvenile, unsophisticated, fast food genre junk?

Oh… Oh, that’s right, okay.

A really good example of the cultural dissonance between what the Oscars deign to honor and what the public actually appreciates is in the case of the 55th Academy Awards, where ‘Gandhi’ beat ‘E.T.’ for Best Picture.  Richard Attenborough, the director of ‘Gandhi’, said “I was certain that not only would E.T. win, but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful, [and] wonderful. I make more mundane movies.” [3] By quoting this I am not implying that historical dramas are all “mundane”, but that a movie’s emotional power transcends its trappings.  There’s no reason a sci-fi, fantasy, or (to add a veggie to this stew) an animated film should be disregarded because its subject or narrative style is distinctly different from so-called “less fictional” works.  Either it’s good or it isn’t.

While ‘Inception’ and ‘Toy Story 3’ were given nominations this year, there’s little hope of them winning, for the reasons I gave above.  I’m inclined to believe that ‘The Social Network’ will win for being a topical, up-to-date film, even over other dramas like ‘The King’s Speech’.  I’m not sure that it’s the year’s best picture, but I don’t believe that I’m qualified to make that judgment.  I don’t believe the Academy is either, for that matter.  The difficulty I have with the Academy’s pending decision is that ‘Inception’ and ‘Toy Story 3’s loss due to critical snobbery is a foregone conclusion.  I’d love to be proven wrong.

NR: Meet Me On Holodeck 3

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

Today, piggy-backing off Collider’s report, I’m talking about 3D‘s evolution.  Thanks chiefly to James Cameron, nearly every major Hollywood player has bet it all on 3D.  I’ve been down on the technology in the past, as I prefer classic cinematography, but it is quite seductive.  Its justifies its existence by excellence and its potential to evolve into a daughter medium. Now, due to such innovators as Apple and Nintendo, the technology is outgrowing the need for uncomfortable, dimming glasses. Heck, in twenty years, my kids might be asking me for a holodeck without safeties.

Okay, so that’s unlikely for several reasons, but it’s clear the virtual world is outgrowing its bounds and establishing a beachhead in reality. We won’t dodge Agent Smith in The Matrix, we’ll be dodging him in the suburbs.

Okay, so that’s highly unlikely, too, but tongue-in-cheek exaggeration aside, in a world economy fueled by ever-accelerating demand, 3D tech is sure to develop into a new brand of escapist virtuality easily distinguishable from cinema. Traditional films may find themselves in the place still photography is now to motion pictures; not disregarded by any means, but perhaps playing a semi-ancillary role to the “highest” medium, whatever we call 3D then. Obvious, this new virtuality effects video games as well. Just as older, simpler forms of gaming remain popular as increasingly complex systems grow, it’s likely that 2D gaming will survive, but in my mind’s eye, the effects on the gaming industry will be far more profound.

Whatever the case, it’s not necessary for film lovers to bemoan the inevitable rise of 3D, but it’s probably a good idea to catch up on William Gibson and Philip K. Dick novels, for when things get weird.

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.

NR: Avengers… Assemble, I Guess?

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

More Jon Favreau related news, and this time it’s bad… maybe.  The ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Iron Man 2’ director has decided, with good reason, to leave the franchise.  I learned of this from this article.

Photo from Paramount Pictures

Favreau left because Marvel Studios is, apparently, unfocused and confused.  As he said,

“In theory, Iron Man 3 is going to be a sequel or continuation of Thor, Hulk, Captain America and Avengers… This whole world… I have no idea what it is. I don’t think they do either, from conversations I’ve had with those guys.”

I’m sure they can rustle up a good director of ‘Iron Man 3’, but that’s hardly the issue.  If Marvel’s suits don’t really know what they’re doing, if in fact they are unaware of what direction this boulder this roll, they’re in big trouble.  There’s no stopping the ‘Avengers’ behemoth now.  If it fails creatively, people will still go see it, if only to see what kind of damage the giant boulder can do.  I don’t think Favreau’s departure from the undeveloped sequel project is a death knell, per se, but I hope it convinces the execs to find greater focus.

But wait! Favreau has more to say, as found in this LA Times article.  He says, among other things,

“Marvel and I both came of age together. The years that we shared were a pivotal experience. Kevin has a firm grasp on the many franchises and how they all interweave and I am happy that I had the opportunity to establish the world that these characters can now play in…. ‘Iron Man’ has given me tremendous opportunities and Kevin and I are enjoying a lot of momentum in our careers thanks to the ‘Iron Man’ films. I look forward to seeing what others can do playing in the same world.”

He also says that basically he’s switching his focus to Disney’s ‘Magic Kingdom’ film, and that’s the real reason for his departure, not a creative dissatisfaction with Marvel.  That would seem to directly contradict his earlier statement.  It could be because he was angry about something and spoke too soon or perhaps too honestly, and his interview with the LA Times is a political move just to smooth things over and make it all look positive and professional.  Though I’m sure that if Favreau wanted to direct ‘Iron Man 3’, Marvel could accommodate his ‘Magic Kingdom’ schedule because he already gave them two big hits.

I don’t doubt that Favreau’s decision comes from creative passion for his Disney project, but such passion is a double-edged sword, and I have a feeling that he really did mean his earlier statement.  Of course, just because one director expresses disappointment with Marvel’s grand scheme does not mean it will fail, or be anywhere as bad as I said it could be.  The Favreau situation is really interesting because of the director/studio dynamic at play.  The truth of the situation is left to the future and our best guess.

NR: Transformers’ Ever-Shifting Tone

James here with News Reflections.

The man emphasizing something below is Michael Bay, directing a movie.

Michael Bay is a frustrating talent.   He’s one of those guys in Hollywood with all the big guns (literally) who can get whatever he wants on-screen, and what does he use it for?  Some of the most uneven and often intolerable movies you’ll ever see, such as the horrendously epic ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’.   The teaser trailer for the third ‘Transformers’ sequel, awkwardly subtitled ‘Dark of the Moon’, is now here, as pretty much every movie blog has reported.  So here it is, embedded below, for your edification.

This is a good teaser.  It does exactly what it should.  Best of all, it commits to its story and tone and doesn’t let up.  It’s appropriately big, audacious, creepy, and mysterious.

In short, it does in two-and-a-half minutes what Michael Bay has failed to do with a two-hour feature on more than one occasion.   It isn’t that the filmmaker cannot deliver proper sequences with the aforementioned elements, but that he hasn’t shown a knack for weaving a multitude of bits and beats into a work greater than the sum of its parts.   As a result, his work is typically only consistent in its discordance, a rapid-fire hodge podge of clashing materials that assault the viewer.

It’s possible to see a film like ‘Revenge of the Fallen’, admire its production values and the Olympian effort behind it, and still come away feeling empty, or worse, angry.   Furious, even, because all that work goes to waste if there isn’t a dramatic unity, a narrative perfect and complete in itself that delivers catharsis.   It may seem like too much to ask from a film like ‘Transformers’, but in truth it’s a reachable ideal, not reserved for pretentious art films.

Story is like a muscle.  Organic, but you have to work at it.   Kids are natural storytellers, and so they work this muscle all the time.  It’s why they play with toys like the titular shape-shifting robots.   When a filmmaker like Bay has all the biggest and baddest toys, and this is the most intelligent stuff his “play” turns out, it worries me.   It worries me because people don’t resist it, don’t challenge him to try harder, to create a narrative soul and craft an appropriate body for it.  Steven Spielberg, whose work I adore, is the executive producer of the ‘Transformers’ series.  He has given creative input.  It’s part of his job.   Is he not resisting Bay’s more destructive impulses?  Does he not care, as long as the films make a killing, as they have and will continue to do?  One can only speculate.

Regardless, it’s probably safe to say that Michael Bay’s latest entry in the series will be a mixed bag.   I can only hope that this excellent teaser trailer bears witness to a better movie.

NR: Finding The Magic In The Kingdom

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

Screenrant recently posted a piece on ‘Iron Man’ director Jon Favreau and his work on Disney’s new ‘Magic Kingdom’ project.  The article is definitely worth a read, so head on over to Screenrant and give it your attention.  Then come back, for I have a few words to add.

Director Jon Favreau

Magic Kingdom's Centerpiece

There are rough waters ahead for Mr. Favreau. ‘Magic Kingdom’, a film based on a theme park, could all too easily be a shallow spectacle, a comedy misfire, a self-indulgent debacle or worse. But it’s clear Favreau believes that there’s potential for a rich, exciting narrative. I quote Mr. Favreau via Screenrant (emphasis mine):

“When Walt first set out to do it there was something very nostalgic and forward looking at the same time about Disneyland. When you went down Main Street it was the turn of the century, it was days gone by and Tomorrowland was the future. There is such a weird shared experience that any of us who’s ever gone to Disneyland feels that I don’t think has really been mined yet. It’s this collective subconscious that we have and there are these archetypes that are so strong that there’s a fun way to present something that is family entertainment but still will take you through the experience that you had [growing up].”

Favreau wants to mine nostalgia, which when properly harnessed is a powerful cinematic force.  Many of the great films of the late 20th century run on nostalgia fuel.  ‘Star Wars’, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, ‘The Godfather’, ‘Pulp Fiction’, ‘Dark City’ — all mined from the cinematic and cultural heritage of their creators.  All of them present worlds that fuse the auteur’s nostalgia with their unique vision.  Favreau’s opportunity is to reinterpret Disney’s legacy in his own image, which, if it works, could deeply influence its future.  ‘Magic Kingdom’ is not just another theme park ride adaptation ala ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’.  It’s the whole park, and therefore symbolic of Disney’s heart and soul.  The tactile juxtaposition of the mystical past and the incredible future, with today’s family caught in the middle, has delighted and inspired millions.  There’s obviously a great story there.  How does a filmmaker turn this into an emotional arc complete with action and suspense without succumbing to cliché?  It’s a daunting, though tempting challenge.

I believe Favreau is up to it.  He has the arms and the oars for this whitewater ride.  His ‘Iron Man 2’ could serve as the proof.  Not for the film’s main story, which suffers from Marvel’s insistence on setting up ‘The Avengers’, but for the Stark Expo that anchors it.  With music and production design deliberately reminiscent of the World’s Fair and the Magic Kingdom’s own Tomorrowland, there is exactly that same nostalgia-future collision that so attracts Favreau to this new project.  He can now fully explore this concept and hopefully conjure up the cinematic magic necessary to save Disney’s kingdom from ending up on the rocks.  I wish Favreau, his team, and Disney the very best of luck.