NR: On Untitled Satires

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections!

One of my favorite writer/director teams of recent years is Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman (strike that, reverse it), responsible for ‘Being John Malkovich’ and ‘Adaptation’, thoughtful, poignant movies about creativity and other dreadful things.  Kaufman and Jonze, as explained in a SlashFilm article, are reuniting for an untitled satire (not the title, of course, but it tickles me to think that it could be).  Apparently it’s “about how world leaders gather to figure out all the seismic events that will take place in the worlds [sic, maybe?], from oil prices to wars that will be waged.” Which is a lovely concept.

Cover of "Adaptation (Shooting Scripts)"

Cover of Adaptation (Shooting Scripts)

Which is what I love about these guys: They don’t skimp on big ideas.

I see a disturbing sensibility in too many creatives; the lack of enthusiasm for really off-the-wall ideas, genre-bending or genre-less concepts that are so interesting in themselves that they buy the audience’s attention from the get-go.  As a cinephile, uniqueness is way at the top of my subconscious list of things to look for in a potential viewing experience.  I don’t go to very many films or watch too much television.  I’m James the Unmerciful, mediocre filmmakers beware.  In truth, I do try to look for the good things in film in general and in specific movies, even bad ones.  This is why my reviews typically are of cream-of-the-crop stuff.  I’m a picky eater.  I realize many folks are casual in their relationship with the cinematic arts, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to make films for the lowest common denominator.  Bad movies either fade or live in infamy, and when they achieve the latter they often define their creators’ reputations.  Not a place a creative wants to work in, unless you’re Tommy Wiseau.

It’s entirely possible to execute a great idea horribly, but it’s always better to start with the best ingredients, even if you bake the cake too long.  At least you (or someone else) can use the recipe later, and people might even forgive you for it.  In the business of screenwriting, I get it that producers like to buy stuff that duplicates the latest big thing in spirit, but there’s always the question, “How did that popular thing get made?”  Somebody has to take a risk, and it might as well be the writer.  If the writer takes big artistic risks but doesn’t skimp on excellence, and if they show tenacity, their work might get sold and the project’s distinctiveness could very well carry over through the process.  There’s never a guarantee of a big hit.  There’s that Hollywood aphorism that “Nobody knows anything”, and there’s some truth to that.  Nobody knows absolutely what will get a massive audience and a billion dollars.  If we knew, we’d be Harry Seldon.

I recently watched a documentary on the composer Philip Glass, and he said something along these lines: “If you don’t have to invent a new technique, chances are you don’t have anything new.” So instead of recycling the latest garbage, try for something absolutely insane.  If you get nervous or wise, you can always tone it down later.  Creativity is a gamble, but it pays to bet radically, let the chips fall where they may.  At least an attempt is made to rise above the mediocre.  The world needs more bizarre untitled satires, chronologically mismatched film noirs, movies based on dream logic with ambiguous endings, and something that only exists in your brain, or else I’d reference it here obliquely.  Big ideas stick with us, and they stick with their creators, and audiences get stuck on them in turn.  It all rolls into a giant ball of timelessness we like to call Classic Cinema.

NR: Write This Way If You Want To Live

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

I keep chiming in on science fiction topics.  Go figure.  Today it’s the future of the ‘Terminator’ series, which suffered from not one, but two mediocre revival attempts.  Or so I hear, as I have not seen ‘Terminator 3’.  In any case, McG’s ‘Terminator: Salvation’ didn’t go over too well, and now Universal is batting even more revitalization ideas about the field.  SlashFilm has a few words to say about the situation.  My two cents follow below the poster.

‘Terminator’ is a B-movie, a synthesis of slasher flicks, apocalyptic paranoia and very large firearms.  It revolves around a simple mythology, the endless conflict between humanity’s messianic defender and the ghosts in an army of machines, a war that spills out into logic-defying time travel.   It’s the worst case scenario of the Computer Age as conceived circa 1984.   Every subsequent installment revisits these themes and, rather than manipulating them into new, terrifying shapes, allows them to stagnate.   By ‘Terminator 2’, James Cameron’s final entry, it was obvious that the concept couldn’t go any further in its present form, so Cameron intended to let it go.   The film made a lot of money, however, so those blessed with the franchise rights were determined to keep it alive.   The next two sequels, separated by margins of 12 and then 6 years later, respectively, undid Cameron’s imposition of finality and then undid themselves.  What was necessarily convoluted has become hopelessly confused.

‘Terminator: Salvation’, though, was on the right track.  It brought us into the glimpsed post-apocalyptic war.  It did not deliver on the suspense implicit in the scenario, however, proving largely toothless and shifting the focus from messianic John Connor to a previously unknown character.  When we should have experienced the horrific urgency of Connor’s war, instead we visited yet another illogical time travel plot.

So, should ‘Terminator’ be left to rot?  I don’t think so.  All stories are reinventions.  I don’t find it necessary to complain about sequels or reboots in themselves, only to deliver justified criticisms when they go typically wrong.  There’s no reason a crack team of filmmakers can’t rightfully reinvent ‘Terminator’ to channel the original’s suspense and push the story in an unprecedented direction.  ‘Terminator’ can live again, but it must become unpredictable, passionate and adult.  It should be dangerous.

MMM: You Only Live On Her Majesty’s Daylights Twice

James here with Movie Music Monday!

Standing before you guilty of loving James Bond movies, I present in my defense three (or so) classic pieces from composer John Barry, who scored the series’ majority until ‘The Living Daylights’.  I hope they can convince you to be lenient in your sentencing.

‘You Only Live Twice’, with its screenplay by Roald Dahl, bizarre hijinks, and Bond made up ambiguously Asian, is one of the chief reasons I was brought before this honorable court.  To offset its awesome British badness, I offer this gorgeous instrumental of its famous theme song.

George Lazenby was a great Bond, I think.  ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ was pretty darn entertaining, which is why I chose this video to illustrate this point and hopefully rebuff some of my accusers, your honor.

I confess!  Timothy Dalton’s underrated turn as James Bond turned out my favorite of the series, ‘The Living Daylights’.  You might as well haul in the chair right now and fry me.  This medley of the main themes as performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic sums up its musical appeal.  Now, where’s the priest and my last meal?  Can I get chocolate chip cookies for that?

Children Of Men

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A perfectly realized sci-fi meditation.

Review:  Science fiction gives us an excuse to stretch reality just thin enough to give us a window into our souls.  It seems we’re quite scared of what we’ve found, which explains the common use of science fiction as pure fantasy, to escape, rather than explore.  ‘Children of Men’ shows us what we have to fear, and why we have to hope.  It is an apocalypse — literally, an unveiling.

In the not-too-distant future, every woman on Earth is infertile, and every child is either matured or dead.  Without children, it seems, humankind has gone insane, with every ounce of hatred boiling beneath the surface, once sublimated, now unleashed without regard.  Only a few last havens exist, at least in the minds of the surviving members of what can loosely be called “society”.  A British cubical denizen named Theo, the protagonist, finds an occasional refuge at the home of an aging liberal activist, where he listens to the old man philosophize and dream as Theo himself no longer can.  Before the world fell apart around his ears, he was an idealist, along with his former lover, who now operates a rebellion against the fascist government in Britain.  She contacts him, seeking his help in smuggling a young refugee girl out of the country, and Theo learns that the girl is pregnant, a beacon of hope for the world.  Soon, it’s up to him, alone, to protect the mother and child from selfish interests on all sides, and take them to a rendezvous with the perhaps mythical Human Project.

Common wisdom says that you don’t know something’s value until it is gone.   It’s difficult to overestimate procreation’s importance in the human scheme.  When the system breaks down and fails to produce a new generation, the proverbial human castle comes crashing down, first in the mind and then in the matter, despite everything our hands have wrought.  All of this is obvious.  Maybe it’s the deepest, darkest ancestral fear in our species.  ‘Children of Men’ is important because it unveils our most basic humanity, the fragility beneath the façade of culture, religion, politics, technology, what have you.  It is in part a retelling of the Christian Nativity story.  For the divine person, there is no greater humility or sympathetic expression than incarnation.  In the Gospels, God’s embrace of our condition is literal.  In ‘Children of Men’, it is subtext, but nonetheless plain.  The refugee’s child isn’t God, but she is evidence of the divine hand at work, a living apocalypse that could stop all wars, if only we’d listen to her cries.

Director Alfonso Cuarón and his team chose to realize this story as concretely as possible.  Steadicam tracking shots and extended takes composed of multiple overlapping elements grant the film real presence.  It becomes difficult to look away.  The production design is superb, highly complex, and completely believable.  The filmmakers obviously strove to remove as many stylistic obstacles between the movie and the viewer as they could.  The film’s action sequences outclass most others in the genre.  The choreography is breathtaking, and it’ll certainly have you asking “How in God’s name did they do that?”, especially during the climatic battle which comes to us in nearly a single take.

‘Children of Men’ is awesome.  What a simple, beautiful story, realized so well, without hiccups or compromise.  It induced in me, on each viewing, a sense of oddly worshipful melancholy I have seldom experienced.  I intend to make this movie a personal Christmas tradition.

Tron: Legacy

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: A successful, slick, satisfying sequel, creatively and thematically progressive.

Review: What good does a cinematic sequel do, besides line filmmaker pockets? A good sequel moves the story forward, finds the meaning in the original’s premise and expounds on it, taking it that one step further that would’ve been too much for the first installment. It should find new extremes. It should dare to alter the status quo.

‘Tron: Legacy’ is a fun and fantastic sequel because it does all of those things.  ‘Tron’ let the CGI cat out of the bag, in terms of world design and action, while its sequel shows us how far that cat can run, and the tiger doesn’t show signs of wearying.  To simply call ‘Tron: Legacy’ a feast for the eyes would be saying too little, but it’s awfully hard to do justice to the extent of cinematographic innovation on show here.  There’s an exhilarating solidity to this world.  The action sequences are full of surprises, which hit hard and fast and demand repeat viewings.  The downside of this level of visual innovation is that it may occasionally be too dizzying for some audience members.  It’s almost too fresh.  ‘Tron: Legacy’ is designed as immersive as possible, and as a result, we share the character’s disorientation with gravity changes, high-speed lightcycle races, and digital dogfights.  It showcases the best of postmodern style while skillfully avoiding problematic techniques like “intensified continuity”, that is, cinematography and editing akin to the ‘Bourne’ pictures.  Like James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’, the camera is free to fly through virtual space and take us anywhere.

The story is surprisingly good, even an improvement on the original ‘Tron’, taking it several natural steps forward.  While ‘Tron’ had the villainous MCP, whose motives were purely power-lust, ‘Tron: Legacy’ has CLU, the mirror image of his creator, who believes so strongly in his purpose — to make the virtual world perfect — that he rebels against his user to this end.  Kevin Flynn’s quest to create the perfect world was a mistake.    Continuing a train of thought from the original, Flynn accidentally creates a new life-form, an aberration in the Grid’s programming called ISOs, and this “perfect imperfection” provokes CLU’s revolt. Humans, Flynn comes to realize, have no idea what perfection really is, and by putting this yoke on his creation he caused his own downfall.  He’s trapped in the digital world and separated from his son.

Sam Flynn, in his father’s absence, grows up just as reckless as Kevin in the original ‘Tron’, and arguably does not share his father’s illusions.  His quest isn’t for perfection, but for the relationship he lost.  A key thematic component is Kevin’s insistence that his beloved son is perfect, despite all moral evidence to the contrary, and this ties into the ISOs; life is beyond logic, beyond control, and beyond measurement.

To CLU, the ISOs are a critical flaw, and so he commits genocide and kills them all, save one rescued by Kevin, a girl named Quorra.  She demonstrates an intense curiosity about the physical world, reading whatever books that Kevin transported into the Grid, hoping one day to see the real sun.  To her, our world is just as awe-inspiring and transformative as the virtual world is to us.  Her character is positively endearing.

Perhaps the only eyebrow-raising story component is the use of the Tron character, who was basically a plot device in the first film and here plays a minor role as CLU’s champion gladiator, having been converted against his will in the coup.  His arc is short, but satisfying still.  The ‘Tron’ series has, ironically, never been about Tron.  It’s Flynn’s movie.

I’d be loathe not to mention the marvelous score by Daft Punk.  Here, listen to this. End of line.

‘Tron: Legacy’ checked all the boxes on my list of things I’d like to see in a ‘Tron’ sequel.  As if I had such a thing.  It’s a satisfying trip that does far more than drill for nostalgia fuel.  It succeeds where most other long-awaited sequels fail, even entries in noted franchises like ‘Star Wars’, ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘Terminator’.  Despite its title, it’s not overly concerned with ‘Tron’s legacy, but rather telling a good story well.

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: Snyder’s Superman

James here.

This is the first article in a new series, News Reflections, here on The Silver Mirror.  When we see something intriguing coming down the wire, we give some commentary, weigh pros and cons, wag a prophetic finger if necessary.  Expect updates bi-weekly, Wednesday and Friday.

First up, thanks to Collider, we have the news that executive producer Christopher Nolan is stepping away from active involvement in the ‘Superman’ reboot to focus on directing ‘The Dark Knight Rises’.

This leaves the reboot entirely in Zack Snyder’s hands.  Yes, we knew this would happen eventually.  Somebody has to take the reins.

Superman, as I expressed in my review of the 1978 classic, is heroic idealism anthropomorphized.  He’s the guy who always wins, and he’s such a swell guy, too.  Also in my review, I directly contrasted him with Alan Moore’s cynical, nihilistic ‘Watchmen’ and its film adaptation, directed by Snyder.  I do find it amusing that Snyder, responsible for bringing Superman’s antithesis to the screen, is now interpreting the Big Blue Boy Scout for a new generation.  I don’t want to imply that Zack Snyder is the wrong man for the job.  He’s got a brilliant visual sensibility and manages to get believable emotions out of actors working in an effects-heavy environment.  My fear is, because he shows more affection for gritty, postmodern graphic novels than the optimistic pre-Cold War comic books of Superman’s heyday, he may not succeed in communicating the character’s essence.  Not being familiar with the gamut of Superman’s run in print, my main reference points are in film, particularly the superb Max Fleischer cartoons and the Richard Donner classic.  Getting to the point, I must confess my bias is towards the Fleischer cartoons and their pliable, World-of-Tomorrow aesthetic, and I have no wish to see a cynical, brutal re-imagining of the childhood icon.

The World’s Fair-inspired art in the 40’s cartoons has thematic resonance with the character’s soul.  Superman is sometimes aptly named the Man of Tomorrow.  He represents what the artists believe is best in humanity and what will allow us to flourish in an uncertain, often dangerous world defined by technological innovation.  It’s an important symbol, what with humankind evolving into a hybrid race with the digital world, eerily close to the predictions of such novelists as William Gibson.   It makes sense that Lex Luthor, the evil, ambitious businessman, is the most popular villain in Superman’s canon.  He represents innovation, spurred by capitalism, gone amuck.  Lex is the cynic.  Superman is the optimist.

Does Zack Snyder understand Superman?  Can he rightfully interpret the character, as Christopher Nolan promised, in a modern context?  We won’t know until the film plays in 2012.  There’s a lot on Snyder’s shoulders now.  He could either inspire a generation, or drag it further into the muck.  With the future coming faster than ever, we can’t afford the latter.

James Cameron’s Avatar

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  An amazingly well-done movie that suffers from a failure to take Socrates’ advice.

Review: I had previously written a somewhat negative review of this film after seeing it in 3D IMAX along with a sizable crowd. I did enjoy it, however. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to compare it to similar blockbusters and breakthroughs in filmmaking technique, as well as seeing it for the second time on a much smaller screen, I’ve come to a more complete and fairer conclusion. I’m still disappointed with it, but it’s not the two-star movie which I had initially recognized.  This is a remarkable work of art, but it could have been so much more.

‘Avatar’ is about the collision of two philosophies of life.  One, represented by the humans’ mining operation on Pandora, is the use of natural resources to feed an artificial, distant and mechanical kind of living, since Earth’s organic resources have apparently been wiped out (though it would have been more effective if they had shown us this wasted Earth).  The other, represented by the typically idyllic but sometimes savage and irrational Na’Vi aliens, is the integration of all forms of life into a kind of harmony guided by a superior, personal lifeform.

The story reveals very little faith in humanity, in direct contrast to Cameron’s previous ‘Terminator’ films, which presented the conclusion that humanity’s self-destructive tendencies were nevertheless canceled out by their potential for selflessness. The Na’Vi, to my disappointment, are not truly alien.  There is no study of ‘the Other’, which is unfortunate, as it is a way of encountering God.  Instead, the Na’Vi are superhuman.  They’re everything Cameron apparently wants us to be.  Athletic, beautiful, generally altruistic, feminine, but also in touch with a fierce animal side.  It’s a strange contradiction with Cameron’s brilliantly creative mind, since the Na’Vi are, quite simply, not ambitious.  They don’t show an appreciation for the idea of social evolution.  Cameron praises their refusal of the humans’ offers of technology, medicine, and education, yet these are all things that Cameron has personally invested himself and his resources in for the betterment of humanity. There is no betterment of the Na’Vi, only a keeping of the status quo, simple maintenance.  Ironically, this is kind of like a machine.  Eywa, the feminine deity of the Na’Vi religion, is a giant bio-mechanism in the form of a planet which shows admirable personality but not the desire for growth.  Machines, as of yet, don’t consciously reach out with curiosity to become better machines.  We do.  In doing so, we often resist control.  Eywa appears benevolent, but unlike a good human mother (like, say, Sarah Connor), ‘she’ merely keeps the cycle going, and there is no release of the Na’Vi into an independent adulthood.  It’s a nice, even beautiful cycle, but just like doing a Queen’s laundry in the Louvre, it’s going to become tedious eventually.

This is part of the inherent flaw of religions based solely on a deity’s will and/or a cyclical universe.  In Calvinist Christianity, since God has complete control over literally everything, there is no sanctioned stoking of independent desire and therefore, no social evolution, no betterment of humanity.  The best that Calvinism can ultimately offer is a cyclical heaven in which persons act like programs to fulfill a function.  In Buddhism and Hinduism, the universe is a cycle that repeats indefinitely, and the best escape offered in either, to my knowledge, is annihilation.

For all of James Cameron & Co’s amazing designs and well-told story beats, there is essentially no consideration of the complexities inherent in the opposing philosophies of the film.  The human bad guys are flat and unsympathetic.  The Na’Vi have a couple shades of complexity, but none of their flaws hamper them or are really considered flaws by the protagonist.  It’s true that ‘Avatar’ heavily relies on the concepts of the Noble Savage and nods to imperialistic atrocities, and what’s worse, they are again not explored in any depth.  This continual failure throughout the film’s long runtime to really explore the issues smacks of propaganda.  Perhaps in a rush to tell a successful morally simplistic tale like the original ’77 ‘Star Wars’, Cameron made the critical mistake of which morals to simplify.  ‘Star Wars’ was the noble rogues versus the oppressive, fascist state, a story as old as and older than Robin Hood.  It’s been mulled over, examined, rethought, and is pretty much universally acknowledged as being morally sound.  ‘Avatar’ pits unrealistically evil humans versus unrealistically good and superhuman aliens, a story as old as and maybe older than the 2000s, and an unwelcome addition, in my book.  Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being”. In a similar way, the unexamined idea is not worth having.

For all my complaints, it’s obvious that ‘Avatar’ was a labor of love for James Cameron and his massive team of artists, and they did make a pretty above average movie.  In fact, they made a very good one.  It’s a full 4-star movie, but it’s terribly terrible philosophy.