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: 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.

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.

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.

Elements of the Screen: The Art of the Antagonist

Hey dear readers, a new entry in ‘Elements’ is here, where I do my darnedest to make the archetype of the Villain crystal clear.  You can find it here:  https://thesilvermirror.wordpress.com/the-art-of-the-antagonist

Please do remember to comment.  We appreciate your feedback.

Now if I can only get Patrick to post an article for ‘Elements’…