The Mummy (1932)

The Mummy 1932 (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Mummy, Karl Freund’s 1932 horror classic about an ancient Egyptian priest, returned to life by the power of a sacred spell after his tomb is discovered by archaeologists, and his efforts to reunite with the reincarnated soul of the woman he loved thousands of years before. One of the three iconic monster movies- with Dracula and Frankenstein- made by genre-champion Universal Studios during its golden age of the early thirties- it was the only one not derived from a pre-existing literary source, instead being developed in a deliberate effort to capitalize on the then-current craze for Egyptology and the sensationalistic popularity of the “Curse of King Tut,” of which rumors had been circulating since the discovery of the young Pharaoh’s tomb, ten years before, and the seemingly mysterious deaths of several of those who participated in its excavation. It was also intended to capitalize on the newfound stardom of Boris Karloff, who had been a virtual unknown barely a year before, but thanks to his success as the monster in Frankenstein was now so popular that he could be billed in the movie’s ads by his surname alone (“KARLOFF is THE MUMMY“) and still guarantee the film’s status as a box office hit.

Charged by Universal studio chief Carl Laemmle, Jr. with the task of finding a suitable story for an Egypt-themed thriller, story editor Richard Shayer came up empty-handed; drawing inspiration from the real-life history of Alessandro di Cagliostro, an 18th-Century occultist and charlatan who claimed- among other things- to have used arcane mystical practices to prolong his life for centuries, he teamed with writer Nina Wilcox Putnam to write a story treatment entitled Cagliostro. Laemmle was pleased with the essence of their narrative, but still determined to make his Egyptian picture, he brought in Dracula and Frankenstein screenwriter John L. Balderston to transform the idea into a script that suited his needs. The Italian magician became an Ancient Egyptian priest, and the rest of the details fell into place. The movie begins in 1921, at the base camp for the British Museum’s archaeological expedition in Egypt. Renowned Egyptologist Sir Joseph Whemple and his young assistant, Ralph Norton, have discovered the 3000-year-old Mummy of a High Priest named Imhotep, buried in an unmarked tomb with a mysterious box inscribed with a curse which promises destruction to any who open it. Whemple has called in his old friend, psychiatrist and occult expert Dr. Muller, as a consultant; the doctor recommends that both mummy and box be returned to the earth and forgotten, but while the older men debate the issue outside, the younger Norton cannot contain his curiosity, and he opens the box. There, he finds an ancient scroll, and as he begins to read out the hieroglyphs it contains, the mummy of Imhotep awakens. The sight of the ancient corpse come to life drives the young archaeologist instantly mad, and the mummy leaves him crumpled on the floor, hysterical, as it takes the scroll and wanders slowly out into the desert night. Ten years later, the disappearance of these artifacts is still a mystery, and a new British expedition, in which Whemple’s son Frank (who has followed in his father’s footsteps) is involved, is having scant luck finding anything of note in their digging- until Ardath Bey, an Egyptian scholar with an odd, aloof manner, arrives unexpectedly and leads them to the undiscovered tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. The British soon have the Princess and her relics on display at the Cairo Museum, reaping the scientific rewards of their find- but the mysterious Bey has his own purposes. He is, in fact, Imhotep himself, and he has spent the decade since his resurrection planning to use the stolen scroll to restore life to the Princess- his former love- so that they may at last be reunited. Using spells and incantations in the museum after hours, he summons the reincarnated soul of Anck-es-en-Amon- now inhabiting the body of young, beautiful Helen Grosvenor (coincidentally, a patient of Dr. Muller’s)- to come to his side. Muller, however, immediately surmises the truth behind the girl’s strange attraction to Bey, and with the help of young Frank Whemple, attempts to thwart the ancient priest’s dark purpose by taking her under his protection. Imhotep’s mastery of the scroll, however, makes him a powerful adversary, and with it he exerts his will to break down the mortals’ defenses, despite Muller’s vast knowledge and understanding of these archaic forces- and despite the love that is blossoming between Frank Whemple and the object of his millennia-old obsession.

I’ve said it before in relation to other horror films from this classic era, and perhaps it seems an obvious point hardly worth mentioning at all, but for today’s audiences- conditioned as we are to the oceans of gore and unspeakable violence that permeates the genre and so familiar with its standard conventions of plot and character that they have achieved for us the level of cliché- The Mummy offers little in the way of genuine thrills or chills. The script is laden with clunky exposition, the necessary conditions of the plot are unconvincingly established and accepted by rote, and the most directly terrifying moments are portrayed either by sound effects or reaction shots as they take place offscreen. Its plot is formulaic, borrowing more than a little from Dracula- unsurprisingly, perhaps, considering that this film is a product of the same studio, written by the same screenwriter, and directed by the previous movie’s cinematographer- with its scenario of an ancient horror using arcane powers to lure a young and vital female to the doom of an unholy union. Even so, The Mummy can scarcely be dismissed as an irrelevant or inferior work; indeed, dated though it may seem to the casual viewer today, it was and continues to be a vastly influential film, helping to define the genre at least as much as the others in the Universal canon and casting its dusty shadow over every archaeological fantasy film to follow, right on down to Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies and beyond. It is every bit the equal of Frankenstein and Dracula in terms of artistry and surpasses them in technical prowess, setting new standards in makeup and special effects. More importantly, in terms of lasting effect, its then-novel conceit of a resuscitated mummy has become an iconic pop culture trope, joining the ranks of such legendary monsters- with lengthier pedigrees- as vampires and werewolves as inspiration for imaginative tales and Halloween costumes the world over.This last item will no doubt be the source of most interest for the casual modern movie viewer, a chance to see the original incarnation of a much-loved and imitated celluloid spook that has terrorized everyone from Abbot and Costello to Scooby-Doo and his gang. Painstakingly executed by make-up pioneer Jack Pierce (who also crafted Karloff’s frightening countenance for his star-making role in Frankenstein), the mummified Imhotep was created in an excruciating 8-hour process involving clay, cotton, spirit gum, and linen. Karloff went before the cameras for another 5 hours, and then spent 2 hours having the make-up removed; the actor- who famously complained to Pierce that in all his attention to intricate detail, he had nevertheless forgotten to include a fly- later called it the most “trying ordeal” of his life. He had only to endure it once, however; Imhotep is seen in his fully-wrapped mummy regalia for only few minutes, during the opening sequence in which he is studied and inadvertently revived, and the character spends the rest of the film in the simpler- but no less effective- make-up required to give him the desiccated, shriveled look one might expect from a man who has spent three millennia beneath the desert sands. This brief appearance may disappoint those hoping for a whole movie’s worth of moaning, shambling, bandage-wrapped menace- a device not introduced until several years later, when the studio re-introduced the character for a series of inferior, unrelated pseudo-sequels- but it offers a classic look for this particular ghoul that has never been supplanted or surpassed, and it was enough to electrify audiences in 1932; indeed, the chilling moment when Karloff slowly opens his eyes for the first time remains one of the most singularly ominous few seconds in the history of the horror genre.

It is Karloff’s performance, too, that gives The Mummy its classic stature, for without his elegant presence in the title role the film would be little more than a stylish-but-hollow melodrama; though his character is less directly menacing than Dracula and less brutal than the creature of Frankenstein, Karloff nevertheless infuses him with a palpably terrifying power, exuding the absolute confidence of invincibility with every underplayed line. Always a master of physical performance, his brittle, slow and deliberate movement gives us not only a sense of Imhotep’s antiquity, but emphasizes a soft and careful gentility that contrasts the destructive intent that hides beneath his staid persona. It’s a difficult task to convincingly portray the ability to enslave and destroy with the power of a mere thought, but Karloff does so. More crucial than that, however, is his gift for revealing the tender soul that dwells inside the monster; though he makes clear the treacherous nature of Imhotep, and leaves no doubt of his callous disregard for the suffering of mere mortals, so too does he show, with utmost sincerity and simplicity, the deep and desperate pangs of love that have driven him across centuries and motivated him to defy the gods themselves in order to recapture the woman he has lost. Karloff gives us a villain who is, at his most private core, an almost touchingly naive romantic- something to which we can all relate, at some level- and therefore one we can feel sorry for, particularly in light of the vaguely smug sense of anglo-centricism, a product of the less-culturally-sensitive era in which the film was produced, projected by the protagonists. It’s a masterful performance, and one that takes its place alongside the other classic characterizations that made this gifted actor into a screen legend well-known and respected even today, when so many of his fellows from the early days of cinema have long faded into obscurity.

Sharing the screen with Karloff are a handful of other capable performers of the time, an A-list selection of actors who help, in their own ways, to make The Mummy stand the test of time. Most notable, of course, is Edward Van Sloan, the horror stalwart who here completes his triumvirate of monster-fighters (having previously portrayed the title character’s mentor in Frankenstein and the intrepid vampire-hunter, Van Helsing, in Dracula) as Dr. Muller; wise, intense, and steely at the core, he cements his own legend with a solid and believable performance that may not be as showy or compelling as those offered by some who have followed his footsteps in similar roles, but nonetheless sets the standard for this indispensable archetype of the genre. The most memorable supporting player, however, is perhaps Bramwell Fletcher, as the unfortunate and overly-enthusiastic archaeologists’ assistant who unwittingly speaks the words which return Imhotep to the world of the living; as the central figure in the film’s most famous sequence, he is burned into popular consciousness by virtue of the chilling, hysterical laughter into which he descends as the sight of the reanimated relic turns his mind to permanent jelly.

Much of the authenticity of the film’s conceit, though, hinges on the performance of Zita Johann, the exotic and beautiful actress with the difficult task of portraying Helen, a young woman rooted simultaneously in both the modern and the ancient world; she exudes warmth and intelligence even as she is convincingly mesmerized by her ancient lover’s mystical powers. and she successfully conveys both the sophisticated candor of a contemporary woman and the haughty formality of an Ancient Egyptian princess. She was no doubt aided with the latter by a deeply-held personal belief in reincarnation; indeed, she protested vehemently when a lengthy flashback sequence, portraying her character’s journey through the centuries in a series of lives during different historical periods, was cut from the film in an effort to reduce its running time- though sadly, her efforts to have the scenes reinstated were unsuccessful and the footage has been long-since lost. Even so, her contribution to The Mummy is a performance worthy of being matched with the great Karloff, from an actress whose screen career- abandoned after only five films for a life in the theater, working with then-husband John Houseman and his cohort Orson Welles- was all too brief.

The third corner of the movie’s bizarre love triangle is David Manners, a popular and respected stage-actor-turned-movie-star who had played essentially the same role in Dracula, a year earlier; while the character is not particularly compelling and is mostly required to perform the obligatory acts of passionate (if ineffectual) heroism inherent to the film’s formula, this handsome, likable actor gives him much more personality than many of the others who have played his equivalent in countless creature features. Manners, though primarily known for his twin roles in these iconic horror films, also appeared with Katharine Hepburn in her screen debut (A Bill of Divorcement) as well as several other important leading ladies of the time; he was a star in the making, well-liked by colleagues who spoke very highly of his professionalism and supportive attitude- but, like his female co-star in The Mummy, he retired young from Hollywood, saying it was “a false place.” He moved to a ranch in Victorville, California with his life partner, writer Bill Mercer, and returned to a successful stage career; at one point in the 1940s, he worked in Maxwell Anderson’s play Truckline Cafe with fledgling actor Marlon Brando, who later said he owed Manners his “entire career.”

The fine cast and artful production values of The Mummy were supervised by director Karl Freund; a legendary cinematographer from Germany, where he had photographed such visually stunning masterworks as The Last Laugh and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, he had emigrated to Hollywood a few years earlier. Hired to lens Dracula, he had been left in charge of many of the scenes in that film due to director Tod Browning’s frequent absences from the set; consequently, Universal officially gave him the job of directing this follow-up. It proved a wise choice, for Freund approaches the story with a photographer’s eye; wisely recognizing the weakness of the narrative, he relies on mood and atmosphere to carry his film, using an elegant visual style- replete with exotic locales, majestic sets, sumptuous costumes, and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (executed by Charles Stumar, no doubt under close supervision from Freund himself)- to give us imagery that transcends the plot and transports and unsettles our imagination almost independently of the script. Freund would go on to direct a handful of other films, and photograph many others, but his greatest success would come much later in his career, when he was hired by Desi Arnaz to supervise the photography on the series I Love Lucy; he developed a use of lighting that would allow multiple cameras to shoot the same scene simultaneously, eliminating the need for cutting the action to change angles and thereby allowing for an uninterrupted performance to be filmed in front of a live audience. It was a ground-breaking technique that changed the future of television sitcoms forever, and Freund received much well-deserved acclaim and respect for it, giving him a sizable feather in the cap of an already-illustrious career.

It would be overstating the case to say that The Mummy is a great film, in the sense of other early talkies such as The Public Enemy or All Quiet on the Western Front; it was, and remains, a piece of glossy pulp cinema, a sensationalistic crowd-pleaser aimed primarily at providing scares and making money. It did both in 1932, making it a successful film, whether or not it was a great one. Just because it is, essentially, schlock entertainment, however, doesn’t mean it is not also a fine example of the filmmaking art as it was at the time; indeed, the primal, timeless nature of its subject matter- and even its relatively lowbrow intent- means that it is more easily accessible to modern audiences, playing better today than many of the more prestigious “art” pictures of its day. If nothing else, it’s a treat to look at, but more than that, there is something intangibly resonant about it; perhaps it is its theme of undying love opposed by the inexorable march of time and the irresistible winds of fate, or its evocation of ancient memories buried deep within our psyches through its exploration of reincarnation and arcane magic, but The Mummy, creaky and corny as it may be to our modern sensibilities, still has the power to move us. There are lots of good reasons why this golden-age potboiler remains a classic, worthy of watching for those who have never seen it and of repeated returns for those who have; but the best of these reasons, and the one which makes The Mummy a truly essential piece of cinema, is Boris Karloff. The man had a rare ability to find the monster within us all, and show it to us with the dignity, honesty, and pathos it deserves; he did so many times- and did it well- throughout his long career, even in films far inferior to this and his other early classics. To see him here is to understand why, so many generations later, and despite his association with depraved, monstrous characters, he is still one of those rare actors who can genuinely be called “beloved.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0023245/?ref_=fn_al_tt_2

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Cloud Atlas (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Cloud Atlas, the epic 2012 adaptation of David Mitchell’s multi-narrative novel exploring the connections between individuals and their actions across time and space, written and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski in collaboration with longtime associate Tom Tykwer, and featuring an ensemble cast of stars in multiple roles.  Produced in Germany with funding from an assortment of production companies and government agencies, it was one of the most expensive independent films ever made (with a budget of $100 million); the difficulty in securing the necessary finances led to stalls in development and production, with the project being declared “dead” at several points, but the enthusiasm and determination of the cast and crew- particularly the dedication of its biggest star, Tom Hanks- helped provide the impetus to drive the project to fruition.  After a premiere at the Toronto Film Festival met with a ten-minute standing ovation, it was released to widely mixed reviews and disappointing box office receipts, ending up in the unusual position of being placed on lists of both the ten-best and ten-worst movies of the year; nevertheless, its creators have maintained their pride and belief in the work as a labor of love and a true expression of cinematic art.

The screenplay, written in close consultation with original novelist Mitchell, follows six interwoven stories, each set in different eras, in which common elements bind seemingly unrelated characters and developments together through the course of an overall narrative.  In 1849, Adam Ewing, a young lawyer on an ocean voyage to conduct a transaction for his father-in-law’s slave-trading business, keeps a journal of his experiences on the ship, detailing his battle against a mysterious disease which worsens despite the efforts of the ship’s doctor, as well as his unexpected friendship with a runaway slave who has stowed away in his cabin; in 1936, Robert Frobisher, a gifted young musician, writes letters to his lover Rufus Sixsmith from the estate of an aging composer, where he works as an amanuensis, transcribing his employer’s musical creations as he strives to compose his own masterpiece; in 1973, Luisa Rey, a young reporter, has a chance encounter with the now-elderly Sixsmith, leading to her dangerous pursuit of a story exposing corruption and fraud in the development of a new nuclear power plant; in 2012, Timothy Cavenaugh, an aging, down-on-his-luck London publisher, has a surprise bestseller on his hands when its author becomes front page news by murdering a disapproving critic- but when the writer’s thuggish family comes after a cut of the profits, he is duped by his own resentful brother into hiding out in a rest home, where a draconian staff holds him against his will until he joins with a band of other disgruntled residents to plan a daring escape; in 2144, Sonmi-451, a genetically-engineered “fabricant” created for life as a server in a Seoul restaurant, is freed from her slavish existence by a handsome and mysterious young stranger who wishes to recruit her into a rebellion against the oppressive, consumer-driven government, and after he reveals to her the dark secrets of the regime and its treatment of her kind, she agrees to speak out in an underground broadcast which will expose the truth and spread a message of love and equality for all people; and finally, in 2321, a century after a catastrophic event in which most of Earth’s population either perished or fled to colonies in outer space, a primitive tribesman named Zachry lives with intrusive visions of a ghoulish figure he refers to as “Old Georgie,” and when his village is visited by a “prescient” (a group of culturally-and-technically advanced remnants from the old society) who seeks their aid in reaching a deserted outpost from before “the fall,” he must decide whether to offer her his assistance or to abide by the prompting of his otherworldly counselor, who advises him to mistrust and betray her.  As these six different tales unfold, it becomes clear that the events of the past send ripples through time to shape the events of the future, and that each person is intertwined with every other who ever lived or will live in an ongoing destiny shaped by individual choices and actions, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem.

If all that seems confusing when encapsulated into a bare-bones one-paragraph synopsis, it is no less perplexing as it plays out in leisurely detail during a nearly-three-hour running time on the screen.  This is, however one of the strengths of Cloud Atlas; as the various plotlines slowly move around each other in a carefully orchestrated progression of intercut scenes, they offer a challenge that intrigues the viewer despite the seeming incoherence of the juxtaposed scenarios, rather like the experience of piecing together a puzzle without being able to see the picture it will eventually form.  It is difficult to become emotionally engaged in the characters or their adventures, at least at first, simply because for a good third of the film it is virtually impossible to tell what is going on or where it is all leading; but the intellectual challenge of piecing it all together from the plethora of tantalizing clues with which it baits us is sufficiently irresistible to hold our attention until, as the parallels and common elements become apparent, we find ourselves invested in the proceedings, almost without having noticed it happening.  The rhyme and reason of these initially dissevered narratives becomes clearer as the threads that bind them into one are revealed, and by the time we see the underlying premise at work- the interconnectedness of all human life and experience as revealed through the gradual passage of time- we are ready to let go of our academic need to understand precisely how it fits together and simply sit back to watch as they resolve into their respective conclusions, simultaneously converging into an emotional climax which unites them into the single story which, of course, they have been all along.

At least, this is the design of the Wachowsi/Tykwer team behind the film; however, in order for it to work according to that plan, the viewer must be willing and able to buy into the conceits upon which their movie is built.  This is asking a lot of modern mainstream audiences, who generally expect their movies to be grounded in concrete, tangible realism and follow a logical, linear storyline; and though there is a built-in appeal for fantasy and sci-fi fans, Cloud Atlas mixes in elements of other genres that may only serve to put off those who are hoping for a more straightforward piece of escapist adventure.  In addition, its philosophical leanings, serving not merely as underpinnings to the overall piece but as the very core of its purpose, are impossible to disregard for those whose taste runs towards more concrete matter.  In the end, though the film packs plenty of action, drama, and even comedy into its panoramic tale, these things take a backseat to its larger agenda of presenting an epic meditation on the unseen forces that drive our collective journey through history; there is a decidedly literary feel here- indeed, references and homages abound to authors from Melville to Ray Bradbury, and many of the situations and settings evoke memories of their best-known works- and though the directors have not slacked in their efforts to create a cinematic experience, Cloud Atlas achieves its ends largely through a cerebral process more akin to reading a book than to the visceral response associated with film.  This is an observation, not necessarily a criticism; nevertheless, audiences seeking thrills and excitement may find themselves less entertained than frustrated.

For those who relish the challenge of it, however, the scrambled-picture format of Cloud Atlas makes for an engaging exercise; deciphering the internal logic that transforms this mosaic of seeming non-sequiturs into a cohesive whole requires a close attention to detail and provides insurance against a flagging of interest before things become clear enough to capture our sympathies as well as our intellectual curiosity.  Tykwer and the Wachowskis have done a deft job of building their game of connect-the-dots, providing no shortage of clues- presented with varying degrees of subtlety- that keep us assured that something is going on here, even if we can’t tell what it is.  This, of course, binds us with the characters, most of whom also become gradually aware of these as-of-yet unexplained points of intersection, and by the time we have begun to see the layered pattern of connectivity within these conjoined tales, we are able to surrender to the momentum and let the movie carry us towards the emotional nexus of its finale.  Indeed, it is the structural mystery itself that gives the film its appeal; taken on their own, the various episodes would be far too weak to build an entire movie around- with the possible exception of the dystopian saga of Sonmi-451.  Tied together by the undercurrents of causality that are the filmmakers’ true focus, however, each segment assumes a higher level of integrity than is bestowed by its individual premise or plot developments, and Cloud Atlas ultimately becomes a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Besides the ambitious structural conceit, there are other aspects of the movie that may prove problematic for some viewers.  Part of the thematic core is reinforced by the choice of using the same company of actors in all the stories, playing different roles; the cast was told by their directors to think of themselves as playing a “genetic strain” rather than individual characters, and the result is a suggestion of spiritual continuity and progression throughout a series of lives- though the idea of reincarnation is not directly referenced in any other way, nor is the story dependent on a belief in that concept.  This multiplicity of casting, of course, gives the film’s stars a rare opportunity to show the range of their talents and yields the fun of seeing them in a wide variety of personas throughout- some of them across lines of age, gender, and ethnicity.   This latter element has been the source of some controversy, with objections being raised to the use, specifically, of white actors in “yellowface” to portray Asian characters.  This decision was made purely to maintain a crucial thematic concept, and indeed, Asian and black actors are also cast in white roles for the same reason; nevertheless, audiences sensitive to these kind of racial issues may find this uncomfortable.

Questions of perceived racism aside, this somewhat theatrical tactic, achieved with an extensive use of make-up and prosthetic effects in order to create vastly differing appearances for each of the characters’ various incarnations, may prove somewhat distracting- even jarring- to audiences not quite able to accept seeing these familiar faces passed off as anything other than their recognizable selves.  Some of the more obviously exaggerated permutations- Hanks as a Cockney gangster, for instance, or Hugo Weaving as a sadistic female nurse- are deployed for intentional comedic effect, but the inescapable cartoonishness of the disguises, in other cases, may elicit inappropriate chuckling.  To be sure, the use of actors in multiple roles is nothing new; it is part of a grand cinematic tradition most famously represented by the likes of Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers.  Again, though, contemporary audiences are unused to seeing it, and the sight of Hanks with enormous prosthetic buck teeth or Susan Sarandon as a heavily-tattooed tribal crone might demand too great a test of the willing suspension of disbelief for a good number of viewers.

The biggest obstacle that Cloud Atlas faces, though, in winning the hearts and minds of its audience, comes not from its unorthodox structural form or its casting, but from the very essence of its premise.  In positing a continuous thread of influence that runs through the course of human history, the film presents a thought-provoking- and relatively uncontroversial- idea that most reasonable viewers will have no problem accepting; but Tykwer and the Wachovskis, along with original author Mitchell, layer in the additional suggestion of an underlying consciousness of this phenomenon that manifests itself in an awareness within the characters themselves.  While it is not a stretch to portray individuals who feel a certain sense of destiny, Cloud Atlas goes further than this, making it clear that these moments of a priori recognition are the result of a force- whether supernatural, spiritual, or scientific- which exists beyond conscious perception.  To fully accept Cloud Atlas, the viewer must be open to embracing a certain “New Age” sensibility (for want of a better term) that encompasses notions of collective consciousness, the continuity of souls, and the workings of karma; though there is no overt discussion of these things by name- characters express their own beliefs and speculations in more-or-less generic, non-denominational terms- they are directly implied and, indeed, required as a condition of the film’s entire premise.  It is this factor that may most sharply determine whether a viewer can enjoy Cloud Atlas or not, and it’s a point that is not dependent on any affect the film may adopt.  There is no persuasion to be accomplished here; you either believe in this stuff or you don’t, and if you don’t, the payoff at the end of this ambitious epic will likely leave you cold.

That said, even for skeptical or cynical cinema enthusiasts, there is much to admire in Cloud Atlas.  The directors- who split the segments between themselves, with Tykwer handling the 1936, 1973, and 2012 stories and the Wachovski siblings helming those set in 1849, 2144, and 2321- have delivered a polished and cohesive whole while not only working separately but within styles appropriate for the different tones and settings of each of the six episodes; from period drama to seventies action to contemporary comic caper to futuristic action-adventure, they hit the right chords in their approach.  They deftly cut between the various threads in such a way as to emphasize the crucial parallels and reinforce their central conceit, as well as using the cross-cutting as a technique to build suspense and quicken the pace.  Most importantly, perhaps, they infuse their movie with the kind of epic visuals that linger in the memory- not just in the sci-fi segments, where dazzling design and effects create a distinctive and original vision of the future while evoking classics like Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in the less fantastical sequences as well.  Artful composition and imaginative camerawork are expertly employed throughout, allowing, after all, for that direct, visceral effect of a purely cinematic experience, and thereby creating a cumulative emotional response while the necessary intellectual constructs develop through the dialogue.  It is this mastery of filmmaking technique that gives Cloud Atlas its most universal appeal; even those with the most vehement rejection of its concept and message can appreciate the artistry that has been employed by its makers in their passion to bring it to the screen.

That same passion manifests itself in the work of the cast, an oddly-mixed yet complementary ensemble that includes no less than four Oscar-winners and an assortment of acclaimed up-and-comers.  The aforementioned Hanks heads the group, playing a “genetic strain” that makes perhaps the most profound journey- from avaricious killer to selfless hero- during the course of his six incarnations; of these roles, the most “Hanks-like” is that of a sympathetic nuclear physicist in the 1973 sequence, in which he gives voice to perhaps the most eloquent expression of the film’s central theme, but it is in his against-type turn as a visionary post-apocalyptic tribesman that he truly shines- though for some viewers, accepting the usually warm and civilized everyman actor in this gruff and primitive persona may be too much of a stretch.  Halle Berry is also prominently placed as Hanks’ feminine counterpart, of sorts, serving as muse and catalyst for the development of others as she continually works towards her own fulfillment; her best work comes in her showcase role as journalist Luisa Rey- though she has an undeniably intriguing presence as the white, Jewish-refugee wife of the aged composer in the 1936 story.  Jim Broadbent is, as always, spot-on in his multiple appearances, the quintessential character actor clearly relishing the opportunity to show off his range; though his star spot comes in arguably the weakest of the scenarios- the cutely comedic adventure of the rascally publisher and his escape from the old folks’ home- his honest and likable performance is more than enough to make it engaging and endow it with the weight necessary to make it suitable as a companion to the other, more serious tales.  Hugo Weaving is perhaps a bit wasted in his series of roles, for the most part representing the darkest side of humanity throughout the film, and therefore denied the opportunity to show the kind of variety displayed by his co-stars; but he is, nevertheless, a welcome participant, particularly in his delightfully droll drag appearance as the elder-abusing head nurse who terrorizes Broadbent.  Ben Whishaw and James D’Arcy are moving and believable as the doomed young musician and his future-nuclear-physicist lover, making their tragic love story as inspirational, resonant, and universal as it deserves to be.  The former is particularly heartbreaking, playing against sentimentality to embody the roguish dilettante and making this pivotal character all the more sympathetic for it; and the latter- the only cast member to play the same character in two separate segments- also stands out in his other featured role as the interrogator struggling to maintain his neutrality as he questions captured rebel Sonmi-451. Jim Sturgess, who plays a central role in both the 1849 shipboard drama and the tale of Sonmi, is appealingly sensitive- and handsome- as each; and Hugh Grant is virtually unrecognizable in most of his appearances here, but highly effective in all of them, reminding us that this former matinee-idol- a last-minute addition to the cast- has always been a formidable actor, as well. With less screen time than some of the others, the aforementioned Sarandon lends her venerable respectability to a handful of supporting parts, mostly representing the dignity and wisdom of the feminine aspect, and David Gyasi scores with the earnest nobility he brings to Autua, the runaway slave.  The performance that provides the heart and soul of Cloud Atlas, though, comes from Doona Bae as reluctant rebel Sonmi-451; with quiet, unassuming intelligence and a sense of wonder that mixes with a deep sadness in her core, she gives us a believable and touching transcendence from slave to saint, filling the center of the film’s most ambitious segment and making it into the most touching and memorable of the lot.

Aside from the direction and the performances, there are numerous other impressive contributions to Cloud Atlas; the costume and makeup design are outstanding, the cinematography luminous, the scenic elements- which include both magnificent natural locations and sumptuously realized interiors- rich and detailed, and the special effects stunning.  If there were a single element to be singled out, however, it would unquestionably be the remarkable score.  Composed by co-director Tykwer himself in collaboration with Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek (a long-standing team responsible for the music in most of Tykwer’s previous films, as well), it is a genuine masterpiece of movie music.  Emerging within the narrative itself as the “Cloud Atlas Suite” written by young Frobisher, it weaves the same dominant themes and motifs throughout the six stories in styles which complement the mood and setting of each; alternately haunting, sad, stirring, triumphant, eloquent, and simple, it registers both subliminally and overtly as the true backbone of the film’s emotional and conceptual raison d’être, and though it could easily have been pushed just a few notches up to become maudlin, manipulative, and bathetic, instead it strikes just the right balance of flourish and restraint every step of the way.  A textbook example of the proper use of scoring in the cinema, it is strong enough that it could likely tell the story without need for dialogue, and deserves to stand among the best works of other film-scoring giants from Erich Wolfgang Korngold to John Williams.

Ultimately, Cloud Atlas is one of those movies that defy criticism.  Technically superb as it may be, and whole-heartedly committed and enthusiastic as all its participants were in its making, it inevitably elicits a polarized response.  Cinema, like all art forms, is at its essence a conceptualized expression- whether of an idea, an emotion, or some mixture of both; the reaction of the observer, when all is said and done, is dependent upon how that observer feels about what has been expressed.  There are those who will simply not respond sympathetically to the message of Cloud Atlas, and there are others who will find it deeply profound and inspirational.  Much like the perennial Christmas classic, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, its a matter of personal taste; one could probably split the world neatly into two types of people: those who like it and those who don’t.  Of course, there will always be an overlapping group of those who can’t quite make up their mind, for whatever reason; for my own part, that’s where I found myself fitting in, at least initially.  As days went by, however, I kept thinking about this unusual, challenging film, and remembering moments that I had almost overlooked in the lengthy sweep of it; the more I thought, the more I admired it, and I am now eager for a second viewing, and perhaps more, in order to catch hold of the myriad threads of detail with which its tapestry is woven.  I suspect that multiple viewings are probably necessary to gain a full appreciation for Cloud Atlas, and I must say that I am now more than willing to test that theory.  As much as I have come to appreciate it, however, I have my doubts that this Wachowsi/Tykwer opus will ever approach the top of my list of favorites.  Though I confess my personal beliefs are very much in sync with the ones presented here, there is something about seeing them presented as a concrete truth that somehow diminishes them; perhaps it is because, by nature of the very act of creating a story to encapsulate them, a degree of necessary artifice exists which evokes a suggestion of insincerity.  To its credit, Cloud Atlas skillfully avoids being precious, preachy, or cloying, despite many moments which could easily go this way, and it is clear from beginning to end that its makers are adamant in the beliefs their film espouses; indeed, it’s hard to imagine a movie that feels more genuine in its dedication to a purpose.  Even so, there are many viewers- myself included- who simply prefer to be allowed to draw their own conclusions about such deeply personal matters, and while Cloud Atlas never makes a defining pronouncement about the nature of existence itself nor declares any principle as an ultimate truth, it certainly leaves no doubt which way you should look for these things.  Perhaps it’s less a movie than a devotional meditation, in the end; though it can be a beautiful experience for seekers and believers, everybody else is going to have a hard time seeing the point.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1371111/?ref_=sr_1

The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Great Gatsby 2013 (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Great Gatsby, director Baz Luhrmann’s appropriately extravagant 2013 screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic “Great American Novel” about an enigmatic millionaire at the center of New York’s Jazz Age social whirl and the intrigues and entanglements which surround him at his Long Island estate.  The fifth film to be based upon the classic book and arguably the most ambitious, it takes special pains to recreate the giddy, opulent atmosphere of the “roaring twenties,” as well as making a direct connection to the contemporary party culture through its interpolation of modern pop music, and striving to translate the story’s introspective style into a strong visual narrative.  Buoyed by the box office appeal of its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Luhrmann’s reputation for making wildly eccentric- and hugely successful- films that combine high art with pop culture (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge), it has met with considerable box office enthusiasm.  Reactions, however, have been dramatically mixed, from critics and the public alike, ranging from enthusiastic praise to vehement antipathy.

The screenplay, by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, frames Fitzgerald’s plot as a flashback, told by the depressed and alcoholic Nick Carraway- the novel’s narrator- as he receives treatment in a sanitarium.  In the summer of 1922, the young war veteran moves to New York to work in the booming stock market.  He rents a small cottage in an affluent Long Island community, near his cousin, Daisy, and her wealthy husband, Tom Buchanan; a far more intriguing neighbor, however, is the mysterious Jay Gatsby, whose palatial mansion next door to Nick is the site of spectacular parties at which New York’s “glitterati” cavort each weekend, and whose origins are the subject of many wild and conflicting rumors.  As the summer progresses, Nick becomes entwined in the affairs and intrigues of the wealthy social whirl that surrounds him; he is “fixed-up” by Daisy with professional golfer Jordan Baker, he is made an unwilling confidante and accomplice in Tom’s infidelities with working-class housewife Myrtle Wilson, and he eventually receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s parties.  There, surrounded by the free-spirited excesses of the Jazz Age- flappers, movie stars, musicians, gangsters, politicians, and businessmen, all mingling together in a seemingly endless sea of illegal liquor- he finally meets his infamous neighbor.  Gatsby- who is surprisingly young, handsome, and courteous- is a man possessed of a singular and intangible charisma, to which the idealistic Nick is immediately drawn; the millionaire courts his friendship, taking care to establish his own integrity.  In time, Gatsby reveals that five years previously, as a soldier preparing to depart for the war, he had a brief romance with Nick’s cousin Daisy, and though he promised to return and marry her, he kept himself apart while amassing his fortune; unwilling to wait indefinitely, and presented with a proposal from the rich and handsome Tom, she married, and now her former lover hopes to win her back- with Nick’s help.  Though he has mixed feelings about the morality of the situation, Nick agrees to facilitate a reunion between the pair, and their passion is rekindled- but Gatsby’s noble optimism may not be enough to overturn the jealously guarded status quo of the privileged elite, and the surfacing secrets of his past may shatter the spectacular dream he has so carefully built upon them.

Fitzgerald’s novel, a labor of love for the struggling author whose earlier successes were behind him and who was actively striving to create a lasting and definitive work, was a commercial and critical disappointment when it was published in 1925; it was seen as a shallow and inferior book by a formerly great writer, and by the time Fitzgerald died fifteen years later, it was largely forgotten, except by those who saw it as a quaint and nostalgic period piece, and its creator went to his grave believing himself and his magnum opus to be failures.  In the disillusionment of the post WWII era, however, the book’s theme of naive optimism crushed by cynical reality began to take on a new resonance, and The Great Gatsby rose to prominence as one of the quintessential American novels, eventually being ranked by literary critics and scholars as one of the most important books of all time and becoming standard curriculum in high school English classes the world over.  In the nine decades since its publication, it has become increasingly noted for its timelessness; it possesses a quality of universal relevance, for within the highly specific time and place of its setting it tells a story that touches on experiences of human life that exist in any era.  Consequently, like most great novels, it has repeatedly found its way in front of the camera, and though it’s hard to accurately gauge the relative success of these cinematic incarnations- the original silent version from 1926 is now considered a lost film, and the 1949 remake with Alan Ladd is largely unavailable due to copyright issues- the consensus seems to be that the results have been more or less disappointing.  Anyone familiar with the book itself will find this unsurprising; much of the story’s depth and power comes not from the events of its plot but from the private observations of its narrator, Nick Carraway, through which Fitzgerald’s voice infuses Gatsby’s tragic tale with meaning and significance, as well as providing acute insights on human nature, complex ethical and philosophical ideas, and a fairly sizable portion of social and cultural commentary.  Besides the obvious and uninspired use of voice-over narration, this crucial element of The Great Gatsby has proven virtually impossible to translate to the visual medium of cinema without sacrificing most of its potency- until now.

With Baz Luhrmann behind the camera, this previously insurmountable obstacle becomes instead a means by which to transform a literary masterwork into a breathlessly cinematic experience; rather than taking the expected course of offering a dramatization of the outward events of the plot, thereby rendering extraneous the all-important narration, he has constructed his film as a visualization of Nick’s memories and impressions, thus filtering the story of Gatsby’s idealistic quest through his eyes, and making the movie- like the book- a reflection of his internal reality rather than an objective record of events.  In doing so, the director frees himself from the understated simplicity of the novel- one of its most admired strengths- and allows for a limitless influx of the over-the-top theatricality which has defined his career.  The narration has been restored to its rightful place as the key component to experiencing the story, and Luhrmann employs the tactics of modern filmmaking to bring it into sharp focus, translating literary conceits into clear, striking imagery without regard for maintaining an illusion of realism.  It’s a bold approach, and a canny one, for while the book’s sedate detachment is a springboard for the reader’s imagination into the passion and drama beneath the surface, such a technique is better suited for the page than for the silver screen; by making the kind of florid, outrageous choices for which he is famous, Luhrmann uses aural and visual stimulation to bring about a heightened emotional state in a more directly visceral way.  The end result is the same, but the style which brings it to us is, appropriately enough, purely cinematic.

To describe the world Luhrmann conjures for The Great Gatsby in detail would be an overwhelming task, but anyone familiar with his elegantly excessive sensibilities can easily imagine the result of bringing them into a recreation of the Jazz Age, an era of such noisy and self-indulgent flourish that even the most flamboyant exaggeration cannot be said to go too far.  The screen is filled with a maelstrom of period fashion and design, meticulously realized and embellished with all the high-tech magic of a 21st-Century production.  The filmmaker seeks to over-saturate us, not simply in order to magnify our emotional response but to simulate, as much as possible, the giddy energy of the period’s amplified lifestyle, making it clear that every speeding car, frantic dancer, and crowded speakeasy is a pointed and obvious metaphor for the reckless mindset of the age. The camera zooms and twirls through crowds of dancing, reveling party people, piecing together its imagery with a mosaic of rapid cuts and juxtaposed images and making the film’s first two thirds feel like an ongoing bacchanalia; even when the scene changes- to luxurious estates, sumptuous rooms, bustling offices, and (in all their CG-rendered glory) the glittering streets and skylines of New York City- there is a constant sense of urgent movement, providing an appropriate and irresistible feeling of pushing forward to whatever spectacular experience comes next.  In this way, Luhrmann manages to capture the heady, progressive character of the twenties, with all its lax morality and blasé sophistication, in a much more tangible way than most previous films about the period, which often fall prey to a tendency towards the stiff and pretentious- or worse yet, to the quaint and precious- in an attempt to tell the story through imitating the stylistic means of the time itself.  Far from undertaking a recreation of twenties-era filmmaking, he instead pulls out all the stops available in the modern age, not only with the aforementioned computer-enhanced scenery and hi-tech camera fluidity, but by using audaciously contemporary conceptual imagery to bring some of the novel’s more abstract literary conceits (the famous “green light,” the ever-watching eyes of the oculist’s billboard, the utilitarian hellscape of the “City of Ashes”) to life in ways that would be impossible- even unimaginable- in the early days of cinema.  He even goes so far as to make his movie as a 3D blockbuster- and like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, The Great Gatsby is an example of how this state-of-the-art technology can be elevated from the level of a mere gimmick to an effective artistic embellishment by a true master of the craft.

All this visual opulence has given The Great Gatsby a decidedly dream-like quality, reminding us that what we are watching are the larger-than-life memories of the tale’s narrator, romanticized and heightened by his emotional state; suitably enough, after the parties have ended and the sordid truths have begun to emerge, and the story moves towards its denouement, the golden-hued, luminescent reality of Gatsby’s world takes on the semblance of a nightmare- still the glowing dreamscape, but now tinged with dread, foreboding, and sadness, it is a world in which the shimmering lights taunt us and the fixtures of luxury seem cold and comfortless.  For some, this change in the movie’s thrust, from the fast and furious to the slow and sorrowful, seems to make for an anticlimax in which the promise of the first 90-or-so minutes diffuses into a limping, unsatisfying conclusion; this, of course, is precisely the point of The Great Gatsby- the world it depicts is full of people going nowhere fast, riding a whirlwind of careless abandon towards the assumed certainty of an ever-brighter tomorrow, but we know (as Fitzgerald may have, in some way, foreseen) that their overconfident fantasy will come abruptly crashing down with the stock market just a few short years later.  Gatsby himself is their champion, a uniquely American figure who reinvents himself in the image he wishes to present, believing that wishing can ultimately make it so, and never permits doubt to enter into his thinking or his plans; anything is possible for him, so he thinks, if he wants it badly enough.  It’s a seductive idea, and one which all of us, to some degree, would love to believe in; Gatsby’s failure, then, becomes our own, and Luhrmann’s film does not allow us to deny it within ourselves by distracting us with the continual flash of the previous scenes.  In the end, all of Luhrmann’s razzle-dazzle falls away to reveal a stark and sobering human truth, conveying the purpose of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece by providing a full sensory experience which allows it to hit us not just on an intellectual level, but right where we live.

Though my own response to Luhrmann’s vision of Fitzgerald’s novel may have been highly positive, it should be noted that others have not been quite so appreciative as I.  As mentioned above, reactions to The Great Gatsby have been wildly mixed, unsurprisingly for a film by this particular director.  Baz Luhrmann is one of those filmmakers whose personal style is not only unique and unmistakable, but also aesthetically controversial; as a rule, audiences (and critics) either love or hate his work, with very little middle ground.  With a sensibility that might best be described as low-rent Bohemian glamour, he is unapologetically operatic, deliberately provocative, and audaciously eclectic; he challenges our expectations and preconceptions by imposing contemporary attitudes onto whatever material he happens to be exploring, whether it be the Renaissance poetry of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or the Parisian post-impressionist fantasia of Moulin Rouge.  His most controversial tactic by far is his prominent use of anachronism in his artistic choices, and Gatsby is no exception.  By far the biggest sore spot for most of the film’s detractors is its use of modern-day pop music- rap, hip-hop, “indie” rock- in the film’s soundtrack, a jarring device which directly opposes the visual (if heightened) authenticity of the 1922 world he has so painstakingly orchestrated.  To be sure, it seems, on first analysis, to be a blatant ploy designed to capture the attention of the youth demographic so coveted by studio executives wishing to maximize their profits; but as the movie progresses, it becomes plain that Luhrmann, who seamlessly interweaves the contemporary material into the genuine period jazz which accompanies the action, has a more pointed artistic agenda here.  The juxtaposition of this familiar “now” sound with the equally familiar (and, for many, dated) sound of the era’s music makes an unmistakable and instantaneous connection between the fast-living partiers which surround Gatsby and the modern-day club culture of which many of the movie’s audiences are presumably a part.  With this over-the-top stroke, Luhrmann succeeds in bringing home the point that, though separated by several generations and countless shifts in cultural interest, the people on the screen are, in essence, the same as the people seated in the theater.  Though it may be difficult for many to overcome their disapproval of Luhrmann’s choice, it is undeniable that it’s an effective tool, and in truth, there is a sense that the strains of Florence + the Machine, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé are a sort of reverse echo from the future, an otherworldly intrusion that we are meant to hear but to which the characters onscreen are oblivious.  Seen this way- and given the fact that Luhrmann has remained diligently faithful to Fitzgerald in both plot and thematic substance, as well as providing a remarkably detailed and authentic recreation of the time and place of the novel’s setting, The Great Gatsby is probably the director’s least anachronistic film.

Without question, the star of this Gatsby is its Australian director; but acknowledgement must be made to his fine cast, charged with putting faces to these iconic characters, who manage to rise admirably to the task- one which is made no less difficult by Luhrmann’s sensibilities, which insist on maintaining Fitzgerald’s already-elevated language in a deliberately heightened style.  Front and center, of course, is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in the title role; he is well-suited to play Gatsby, handsome and confident, but with an innate sensitivity that seems almost to be deliberately- and ultimately, unsuccessfully- concealed.  He makes this archetypal American dreamer into a flesh-and-blood individual, whose shining veneer is full of cracks that allow glimpses of the flawed psyche that lies beneath; we get a real sense, from almost his first appearance, that this pretty package contains damaged goods, but his charm and his sincerity- even when he is most obviously putting on a not-very-convincing front and telling the most outrageous untruths- are so engaging that we, like Nick, are naturally drawn in, and we like him despite our ever-growing certainty that he is not what he seems to be.  The more we learn, the more we sympathize with him and long for the success of his grand, romantic undertaking, and though this is partly due to Fitzgerald’s skill in creating the character (and Luhrmann’s skill at translating it into film), DiCaprio deserves full credit for successfully bringing what is clearly a deep understanding of this complex figure to his work here.  In the difficult role of Nick, who is in many ways an outsider to the story, but upon whom so much depends, Tobey Maguire also does stellar work.  Taking clear inspiration from the notion of his character as a stand-in for Fitzgerald himself (a conceit made obvious by the film’s framing device), he gives us a young man with all the manic emotional intensity of a burgeoning alcoholic, indulging in outrageous behavior and introspective intimacy yet always seeming aloof and distant, concealing a surging ocean of depth and feeling behind a faintly bemused, stoic expression.  Thanks to Luhrmann’s stylistic window, we are allowed to see past this placid exterior to the poetic soul which fuels the narrative, and when his pent-up passions finally explode forth, Maguire’s roaring performance elevates Nick to his deserved status as the true hero of the tale, rather than the parenthetical necessity so often presented in previous attempts to dramatize The Great Gatsby.  Joel Edgerton, stuck with the difficult role of Tom Buchanan, is able to bring out the humanity of this elitist, misogynistic racist, though to make such a pointedly hateful man sympathetic is beyond his- or, perhaps, any actor’s- abilities; Elizabeth Debicki fares better as Jordan Baker, presenting the quintessentially chic, sophisticated, and disaffected flapper in a long, lean package that manages to be likable despite the character’s inherent coldness; and Isla Fisher, though her Myrtle Wilson suffers from having a bare minimum of screen time and therefore pales in (the perhaps unfair) comparison to Karen Black’s standout performance of the same role in Jack Clayton’s 1974 film version, shows us both the appealing sparkle and the desperate longing of this tragic girl who is forced, by both the men in her life, to hide her light under a squalid, ashy bushel.  The film’s best performance, though, comes from Carey Mulligan, as Daisy; vilified by so many commentators as a vapid and shallow representative of self-absorbed materialism, the focus of Gatsby’s obsession becomes, thanks to the intelligence of this gifted actress, a real woman, torn apart by the conflicting impulses of her heart and the ingrained conditioning of her social role.  Though Fitzgerald’s portrait of Daisy leaves her inner experience a mystery, Mulligan lets us in, and shows us the pain, the fear, and the heartbreak that goes on as she struggles towards making her choice, and plainly shows us that it is a difficult and heartbreaking choice for her; because of this sensitivity and humanity, we can see why Gatsby should want her so badly- the unspoken depth she reveals validates his obsession, and rescues his character from shallowness, as well- and transforms this much-maligned character from a cruel and thoughtless child into as much a tragic victim of the status quo as her would-be paramour.  It’s a truly luminous performance, yet subtle enough in detail to go unnoticed and unappreciated by many; full recognition is deserved, however, and this remarkable English performer certainly gets it from me.

Ultimately, of course, The Great Gatsby is a movie that is destined to divide; like all revered books, its source novel evokes deeply personal responses in its readers, and it is inherently impossible for an adaptation in any form to satisfy all of them.  Coupled with Luhrmann’s love-it-or-hate-it style of cinema, it is inevitable that many audiences would be left cold- or, just as likely, be actively outraged- by this film’s approach.  It is unlikely that anything I could say would sway those who dislike it, but for viewers with an open mind and a love for outside-the-box filmmaking, this is a movie that deserves a chance; as a fan of the book, I expected to be disappointed, but instead I found Luhrmann’s version not only exceptionally true to Fitzgerald’s original, but loaded with the kind of passion and insight that thrills me and reminds me why I love movies so much.  Is it eclectic and sometimes jarring to accepted sensibilities?  Absolutely, and that’s one of the reasons it worked so well for me.  Most of all, though, it is the work of a bold and consummate artist who was driven- by his own love of the material- to create a lavish and definitive representation of this resonant literary touchstone, and though I can understand why some may take exception to a few of his personal touches, for me it is beyond question that he has succeeded, far beyond reasonable expectation.  Baz Luhrmann has managed, after 87 years, to finally give us a film that conveys why The Great Gatsby is, truly, great.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1343092/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

Sinister (2012)

Sinister (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Sinister, the 2012 horror feature by director Scott Derrickson, about a true-crime writer whose research into the unsolved murder of an entire family uncovers links to a decades-long series of similar killings and connections to an ancient malevolent force.  Combining a standard cinematic narrative with elements of the now-prevalent “found footage” format employed by the horror genre, it relies heavily on mood and atmosphere, eschewing overt violence and gore for the terrors of a stimulated imagination and the deliberate build of suspense through tried-and-true methods of filmic storytelling.  Benefitting from intelligent writing and a strong and experienced cast headed by Ethan Hawke, it received mostly positive response from critics and was even named by some as the best horror film of the year.

Inspired by a nightmare in which he discovered a home movie documenting the hanging death of an entire family, Derrickson built a screenplay, co-written with C. Robert Cargill, in which this situation serves as the premise for a tale of real-life obsession and supernatural evil.  It begins as crime author Ellison Oswalt, moves with his family into a house located in a small rural town where a family has been brutally murdered the year before- except for a young daughter, who disappeared without a trace.  Hoping to recapture the success of his first bestseller after a string of subsequent failures, Ellison plans to research the sensational case up close; unbeknownst to his wife and children, he has gone so far as to purchase the very house in which the killings took place.  While exploring the attic, he discovers a box containing an old projector and several reels of Super 8 home movies; obviously curious, he takes them into the office he has set up in a spare bedroom and begins to watch.  When he begins with the most recently-dated film, he finds- to  his horror- that it shows the murder of the house’s former occupants, although any shots of the murderer have been edited out; even more disturbingly, the remaining films, dated over the course of six decades, contain a visual record of other, similar murders- each one the ritualized slaughter of an entire family by different, equally horrifying methods- and in each one, upon close inspection, can be found a glimpse of an ominous, dark-eyed figure watching the gruesome proceedings.  Though at first he considers bringing the films to the police, Ellison’s ambition to regain his fame and fortune wins out; he decides to pursue the investigation by himself, hoping to solve the case on his own and use it as the basis for his triumphant return to the bestseller lists.  With the help of a star-struck deputy sheriff and a local expert on the occult, he begins to piece together a pattern linking the various filmed murders, but the mystery only deepens- as does his obsession with it, leading him to heavy drinking and driving a wedge of alienation between himself and his family, who have begun to be affected by the sinister aura of the house.  It soon becomes apparent that Ellison’s ego-driven quest for answers has uncovered an ancient and diabolical secret, and that he may unwittingly be placing himself and his loved ones at risk by continuing to pursue the truth.

Derrickson’s efforts to create a truly frightening film went beyond the development of the screenplay itself, and involved a heavy focus on the creation of the central villain, whose wordless presence gives Sinister the bulk of its creepy power.  After abandoning his original conception of an evil “Willy Wonka” figure, luring children into his murderous trap, and transforming the character into an legendary Sumerian spirit rather than a demonic entity (to avoid rooting the film in a specific religious setting), he researched over half a million online images and drew inspiration from the visual style of “black metal” music- which is extensively used in the soundtrack- in order to achieve the look and persona of “Bughuul,” fondly known as “Mr. Boogie” by the children who fall under his spell.  The filmmaker’s instinct to get it right was a wise one- many otherwise effective horror films have been sunk by the presence of an unconvincing or laughable monster, but Sinister succeeds in dispensing chills largely because of the primal fear effortlessly elicited by its elegantly simple, utterly terrifying boogeyman. Made all the more disturbing by his ephemeral presence on the fringes of consciousness and reality, he appears only fleetingly onscreen, yet he leaves haunting, indelible images in the mind and makes us search for another look at him even as we dread the prospect of it.  Though the plot of the movie is driven, like so many other films in the genre, by characters making mind-numbingly stupid choices (why do horror characters never reach for a light-switch when they enter a darkened room?) and implausibilities that stretch the willing suspension of disbelief dangerously close to its limit, we forgive these clichés of the formula because of the palpable aura of inevitable doom conjured by our brief encounters with this otherworldly phantom.  From the first moment we see him, we know where things are going, and we are drawn into the journey towards that horrific culmination with the same illogical, obsessive fascination as the characters onscreen.

Not that Sinister is devoid of strengths besides the portrayal of its Sumerian specter; although the perfunctory and predictable pitfalls of the genre- cheap and sudden shocks, the usual reliance on creepshow staples such as evil children and menacing animals, the aforementioned brainless behavior of the potential victims- are undeniably present here, Derrickson and Cargill have infused their screenplay with enough intelligence to bring a sort of sense to these elements.  Their clever use of modern technology to facilitate the story not only allows for the visceral immediacy of the supposed “actual footage” upon which the premise hangs, but also for streamlining the narrative; the pursuit of information requires no more than a few keystrokes on a laptop, eliminating the need for lengthy expository scenes at the local library.  In addition, the rooting of the story in a tech-savvy modern world helps to heighten the contrast with the antiquated force of evil within it, and- more importantly, perhaps- serves to compound the isolation of our protagonist, whose vulnerability increases the as he retreats deeper into his self-created solitary confinement.  In addition, Sinister re-imagines the stock characters of the genre to a sufficient degree that they almost seem original.  The town sheriff is not a pompous buffoon, but a smart and authoritative figure with refreshing candor and obvious wisdom, and our confidence in Ellison is undermined almost from the outset, simply through the hostility and lack of respect he bestows upon this man; likewise, the deputy who later assists in Ellison’s research, though he seems, at first, to be the slack-jawed yokel we’ve seen so many times before, soon proves to be a sharp and savvy investigator, who might be a valuable ally if the ostensible hero were not blinded by his own sense of intellectual superiority; finally, Ellison’s wife and children, though ultimately relegated to the position of a plot condition, are not the clichéd ciphers so often seen in these roles- the kids, though troubled (understandably and believably so), are possessed of genuine and endearing personalities, and his wife (played by the lovely and substantial Juliet Rylance) is strong, supportive- within reason- and eloquent enough to deliver the film’s keystone monologue about her husband losing sight of his life’s true purpose in the pursuit of fortune and glory.

It is this last point that underscores what truly elevates Sinister above the level of schlock horror and gives it the weight and substance that allows it to be more than just a spooky campfire story.  In Ellison’s self-destructive determination to recapture his worldly success, he abandons his role as protector and companion to his family; indeed, he effectively separates himself from the rest of mankind, devaluing all outside influence and presuming to stand alone against a powerful evil which he has yet to fully comprehend.  Cut off from the source of his humanity, and with his stubborn ego undermined by self-doubt and self-loathing, he can only watch, powerless, as the forces he has unleashed proceed to overwhelm him and infiltrate the world around him.  It is this portrait of a man haunted from within, driven by his ambition but paralyzed by his fear of failure, that gives Derrickson’s movie its real power; the story of Bughuul and his ancient evil becomes a metaphor for the soul-consuming effect of displacing one’s humanity in favor of the blind pursuit of material success, and Ellison’s spiraling downfall is as much an indictment of the so-called “American Dream” as Willy Loman’s delusional road to suicide in Death of a Salesman over a half-century ago.  Of course, this is not to say that Sinister has social commentary as its ultimate purpose; the film is aimed squarely at scaring the bejeezus out if its audience, and it succeeds wickedly.   Nevertheless, while it is relatively easy to shake off the chills it brings by exploiting our fear of things that go bump in the night, this deeper level allows those chills to sink to the bone, leaving us unsettled and uncertain long after the final, gruesome images have faded from the screen.  It is also the presence of this underlying theme that allows the film to seem fresh and original even as it evokes and pays homage to the genre classics which influenced its director- most obviously The Shining, a movie with which Sinister bears many similarities in story, subject, and mood.

Derrickson’s slick direction goes a long way towards making the whole thing work.  He heavily utilizes his soundtrack, both musical and ambient, to create near-unbearable tension; the big visual scares come as surprises, emerging from the periphery of our gaze or rising from the shadows of the background; his use of authentic Super 8 film to recreate the ghostly snuff films which lure both protagonist and audience into the story lends a grainy realism that makes these sequences all the more disturbing, and his choice to cut away from these at their most gruesome moments, or show us the gore out-of-focus, in a reflection or in the background, forces our imagination to complete the picture with images more horrific and unthinkable than anything he could have put on film.  The director’s cleverness behind the camera, however, would be for naught without a strong performance from his star, and Ethan Hawke- an oft-overlooked but genuinely fine actor, particularly adept at playing likable losers on a downward spiral- delivers just that; in Hawke’s capable hands, Ellison avoids coming off as just another cocksure golden boy paving the road to his own deserved comeuppance and instead becomes a sympathetic Everyman, flawed but inherently decent, well-intentioned despite his over-confidence, and ultimately more devoted to his family’s welfare than his own success.  Though we see from the beginning that he is an unreliable figure in which to place our trust, we are drawn to identify with him nevertheless, largely due to Hawke’s honesty, which lets us inside the conflicted and desperate mind which drives him; he takes us along for the ride, bouncing between determination and fatalism, buoying himself with self-assured good cheer even as morbid self-doubt eats away at his core, and never letting us forget that Sinister, for all the arcane circumstances at its surface, is really about a man’s struggle with demons on the inside.

This review may seem like a rave, and in a way, it is.   I must admit that, for the most part, contemporary horror movies do very little for me; I find them gimmicky, shallow, and unimaginative, relying on gross-out tactics and cheap scares to make an impact without challenging the intellect.  They debase human behavior, fetishize violence and cruelty, and reinforce a simplistic morality even as they present a nihilistic view of a hostile and malicious universe.  Of course, these criticisms of the genre are not unique to its most recent expressions- far more horror movies have been lowbrow schlock than have been cinematic gems, no matter what the era- and there are certainly exceptions.  Sinister is one of those, a movie in which the shocks resonate to a deeper level and strike at fundamental issues in our collective psyche; it taunts us not just with primal fear of horrors hiding in the dark, but with the more sophisticated terrors of living in the real world- of failure, of inadequacy, of getting it all wrong, and perhaps worst of all, of playing in a rigged game where even your most determined effort only serves to ensure your ultimate defeat.  Sinister is not, in the end, a film of the caliber of such cinema greats as Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist, which weave philosophical contemplation about the true nature of evil seamlessly into their narratives, nor does it approach the subversive genius of Golden Age classics like King Kong or Bride of Frankenstein, in which the hypocrisy, greed, and intolerance of so-called normalcy are used to cast the “monsters” as more worthy of sympathy than those they terrorize; like those and other films of the genre, it invites us to think and to feel as it thrills us, but it falls short of true brilliance by never quite breaking free of standard formula, no matter how expertly it adapts the tropes to its own ambitious needs.  Nevertheless, it succeeds in chilling us to the bone without expecting us to shut off our higher functions in exchange for the thrill, and it manages to breathe new life into its clichés without being too clever for its own good (see my review of The Cabin in the Woods).  Sinister may not be a great movie, but it is, in my estimation, a good horror movie- and coming from me, that is high praise indeed.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1922777/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

Witchfinder General – U.S. Title: The Conqueror Worm (1968)

Witchfinder General (poster)Conqueror Worm (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Witchfinder General (released in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm), the 1968 historical horror drama directed by short-lived filmmaker Michael Reeves and starring Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, a 17th-century lawyer who used his self-appointed position as a prosecutor against sorcery and witchcraft to fuel a reign of terror across the countryside of Eastern Britain during the English Civil War.  Produced on a modest budget by Britain’s Tigon Studio, in partnership with American International Pictures (the U.S. company renowned for its success in churning out cheap exploitation films for the drive-in and grindhouse crowd), it was largely deplored by English critics for its then-excessive depictions of sadistic torture and violence and dismissed by American critics as insignificant and mindless pulp; nevertheless, it enjoyed considerable box office success on both sides of the Atlantic and was soon championed by a handful of critics as an underrated gem.  No doubt bolstered by the fact that its young director died of an accidental overdose of prescribed barbiturates and alcohol less than a year after its release, the film gained a sizable cult following and influenced a number of important horror movies over the next decade, and it is now regarded by many critics and enthusiasts as one of the best representatives of its genre.

Based on a little-known novel by Ronald Bassett, Witchfinder General is set in 1645, in the midst of the tumultuous war between the British Monarchy and the rebellious Parliamentary Party.  With bloody fighting going on across England and a lack of central governmental control, a state of near-anarchy prevails- particularly in the small rural villages which dot the countryside.  In the rebel-controlled region of East Anglia, an unscrupulous lawyer named Matthew Hopkins takes advantage of the chaotic atmosphere- and the puritanical fervor that exists in the area’s isolated, superstitious communities- by offering his services as a hunter of witches and sorcerers, extracting a steep fee from local magistrates in exchange for forcing confessions from suspected servants of the Devil and carrying out their subsequent execution.  With his unsavory assistant, John Stearne, he carries out sadistic torture and punishment upon the unfortunate accused, using his self-proclaimed power to terrorize and blackmail his way from town to town.  In the Suffolk village of Brandeston, he carries out one such persecution against the town priest, a kindly soul named John Lowes, from whose niece, Susan, he elicits sexual favors in exchange for showing mercy; when she is raped by Stearnes, Hopkins loses interest, and proceeds to torture and execute the old man- despite his previous promises- before leaving town to continue his bloody campaign and abandoning the devastated Susan to suffer the torment and ridicule of the locals.  Shortly thereafter, her fiancé Richard Marshall, a promising and heroic young soldier in the Parliamentary army, arrives to discover what has taken place; horrified and enraged, he “marries” Susan by his own authority in the desecrated town church, vows to extract vengeance on Hopkins and Stearne for their crimes against her, and sends her to another village, Lavenham, to await him.  Tracking the two scoundrels to the next town, he confronts Stearne in a tavern, but the henchman manages to escape and warn his master that they are being pursued.  Bound to return to duty with his regiment, Marshall must temporarily abandon his quest for justice; meanwhile, his quarry make their way to none other than the town of Leavenham.  There, as they perpetrate their usual horrific cruelty and murder in the name of justice, they discover the relocated Susan, and realizing that her young husband must sooner or later arrive to join her, the two scheme to turn him into a victim of their bogus inquisition before he can strike against them, setting the stage for a grisly final confrontation.

Director Reeves had previously been responsible for two well-received low-budget horror films, Revenge of the Blood Beast and The Sorcerer; he was hired to make Witchfinder General by Tigon executive Tony Tenser, who had read Bassett’s novel before publication and thought it would make the basis for a powerful film.  Reeves enlisted lifelong friend and previous collaborator Tom Baker to co-write the screenplay, but their first two attempts were rejected by the British censorship board on the basis of the heavy inclusion of graphic violence and torture.  The third draft, substantially tamed down, was approved; even so, the finished film still required so much editing before the board would permit its release that Reeves walked away from it, refusing to make any more cuts himself and leaving the studio to make the final extractions.  In America, censorship was not an issue, and the movie was released more or less intact, but the controversy over its gruesome content almost certainly helped to buoy its performance at the box office.

It is the violence of Witchfinder General, of course, that distinguishes it from so many of the era’s other horror movies- indeed, without it, the film could only marginally be called a horror movie, but rather would more accurately be described as historical drama.  From the standpoint of plot, it owes as much to the revenge tragedies of classical theatre as it does to the genre to which it belongs, but there is nothing highbrow about its script.  Reeves and Baker follow the standard formulas and conventions of such fare, and their dialogue, while not exactly banal, is hardly eloquent.  Nor are there any weighty socio-political observations made here; the film is not an indictment of religious hypocrisy or intolerance.  Hopkins is merely an unscrupulous opportunist acting in his own interest with no pretensions of moral superiority, and those who enlist his services seem unconcerned with church doctrine or spiritual corruption; the travesties of justice they carry out are motivated by greed and hatred, a desire to advance personal agendas rather than a firm belief, however delusional, in a religious cause.  If Witchfinder General has any cultural or psychological theme, it has to do with the breakdown of humanity in the absence of social order.  Where it rises above the ordinary crop of this era’s thrillers is in its pervasive mood, its evocation of unspeakable horror lying within the most mundane or idyllic surroundings.  The green and sun-drenched English countryside serves as a backdrop for monstrous cruelty and violence; from the deeply disturbing opening sequence in which a hysterical woman is dragged across a moor to be hanged by a strangely disaffected mob, we are inundated with scenes of brutality and bloodshed in the midst of picturesque beauty.  Soldiers are ambushed and perish in sudden explosions of gore, a sunlit field is the setting for an ugly rape, a quaint village square plays host to a gruesome immolation; the furtive torments enacted by Hopkins take place mostly in the dark, secret rooms and dungeons we expect, but they are only a portion of the savage grotesquery displayed by the population of this seemingly pastoral world.  Even the heroic efforts of our protagonist, cloaked though they may be in righteous outrage, amount to self-satisfying transgressions against the suspended ethical norm; and despite the viciousness of the film’s violence and suffering, in the end the most unsettling element is the calm, detached manner in which it is both perpetrated and observed.  Reeves gives us a world of cold dehumanization, in which the tranquility of the surroundings takes on an ominous chill, rendering the pretty landscape into a nightmarish wasteland in which nature itself stands in cruel mockery of man and his struggles.  There is ultimately no comfort, and no justice, that is not sullied and degraded by the cruelty of selfism, and in the absence of that moral center provided by a sense of community with others, there is no hope of respite or redemption.

Because it paints such a grim picture of human behavior, Witchfinder General remains a chilling and profoundly disturbing film experience despite the fact that over four decades of carnage on the big screen have rendered its once-extreme violence less shocking than quaint.  The amount of visible blood is minimal and unconvincing in its garishly-red theatrical stylization; the scenes of torture and torment are less upsetting for what they show us than for the off-handed manner in which they are enacted.  It probably goes without saying that modern-day horror fans will find it tame and even laughable, but for those with an appreciation for subtler-yet-deeper shocks will be rewarded for the time they devote to screening this unusual classic.  Apart from its overall effect, there are a number of other significant things offered here, such as the sweeping orchestral score by Paul Ferris- once usurped on home video versions, due to copyright issues, by an overdubbed electronic replacement, but restored in most available prints today.  Also notable is the use of authentic locations for the outdoor scenes; set against the backdrop of genuine architecture dating from the period, the bloody injustices perpetrated against victims of opportunistic persecution evoke the uncomfortable realization that similar events did, in reality, take place- events beside which, no doubt, the horror of these dramatized recreations would pale in comparison.

For most viewers, however, and particularly for those who are fans and buffs of classic cinema and its people, the primary interest will lie in the performance of horror icon Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins.  It is well-documented that Price and director Reeves had a very difficult relationship during the making of the film.  Reeves wrote Witchfinder General with Donald Pleasance in mind for the lead role, a familiar but lesser-known actor who embodied the kind of soft-spoken, officious menace the filmmaker wished to portray; American International Pictures, however, insisted (in exchange for their investment in the production) that Price, their resident horror star and headliner of their highly lucrative series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, play the part instead.  Reeves was openly hostile and disparaging to Price on the set, and the normally gracious and polite actor responded- perhaps rightly so- by being argumentative and uncooperative.  In spite of this- or perhaps because of it- the finished product offers Price giving perhaps the performance of his career.  Eschewing his usual hammy, florid delivery and over-the-top expressions, the legendary actor instead presents us with a brusque, understated persona that makes Hopkins all the more deadly; he is a true monster, devoid of affectation or charm, and unlike most of Price’s creations makes no appeal to our sympathies.  The film hinges on this cold, inhuman quality, and the actor delivers it to perfection.  Price himself considered it one of his best performances, and it is a testament to the actor’s professionalism and manners that, once he saw the finished film, he wrote a letter to Reeves praising his direction and apologizing for his own behavior; nevertheless, he did suggest afterwards that, had the director been more straightforward in communicating with him what was wanted, he would have been happy to deliver it without protest.

The rest of the acting, perhaps surprisingly for a low-budget film of this nature, is fairly high in caliber, though there are a few clunky moments.  In the role of hero Richard Marshall, Ian Ogilvy- another lifelong friend of Reeves’ who appeared in his other films as well- is suitably likable while still maintaining a sort of rigid aloofness that helps to fuel his obsessive quest for revenge; contrasting this is Hilary Dwyer as his fiancée-then-wife Susan, whose warmth and sensuality shine through the prim and modest exterior her social role of her character demands, and who is able to communicate- though no dialogue alludes to it- that she herself might be better pleased to put the horrors of her experience behind her and seek refuge in a new life with her beloved than to watch him pursue vengeance in her name.  Robert Russell makes for an intimidatingly malicious Stearnes, though his naturally high-pitched voice resulted in having his dialogue over-dubbed by another actor (Jack Lynn, who appears in another small role in the film).  A few somewhat recognizable British character actors also pepper the cast, with Rupert Davies as the doomed John Lowe, and brief appearances by Patrick Wymark (as Oliver Cromwell), and Wilfrid Brambell (best known as Ringo’s dad in A Hard Day’s Night).  These and the other performers mostly distinguish themselves with their work, though Price dominates by virtue of his star charisma and his showy role; still, it would be wrong to call Witchfinder General his show- the film owes its eerie power to the vision of Reeves, whose ability to turn his mediocre script into a movie of true stature testifies to a keen talent that might have yet yielded greater works had his tragic death not prevented the continuation of his promising career.

Witchfinder General, it’s worth noting, was marketed in the U.S. by AIP as a pseudo-entry in its aforementioned series of Poe films; retitled The Conqueror Worm, the American print featured an overdubbed reading by Price from the 19th-Century author’s poem of that name, but apart from this manufactured connection there was no connection between Reeve’s movie and any of Poe’s works.  This piece of blatant commercial chicanery no doubt contributed to the fact that it was,  like many such films among its contemporaries, disparaged and disregarded by “serious” critics and scholars.  Despite this initial reception, its popularity and subsequent reassessment led to its becoming an influential and seminal work in horror cinema.  It spawned a host of similarly-themed imitators and has been credited with inspiring an entire sub-genre of macabre films with seemingly idyllic rural settings, culminating in the masterful cult classic The Wicker Man.  For my own part, though, Witchfinder General falls a bit short of the reputation it has gathered; to be sure, it contains a great deal of effective filmmaking, particularly in terms of establishing and maintaining mood.  The weaknesses of its script, however, compounded by a degree of sloppiness in the visual storytelling, keep it from reaching the level of quality necessary to classify it as a truly exceptional picture.  It’s not all Reeves’ fault- budgetary constraints- not to mention the imposition of censors’ demands- were at least partly responsible for the rough-edged clumsiness that sometimes overtakes the proceedings.  Even so, rather than a definitive masterpiece, the movie is ultimately just an ordinary thriller, decidedly amateurish in many ways, but distinguished by the imagination and talent of a promising young director and the work of a few worthy professionals among the cast and crew.  It is for this reason that it remains worth seeing today, but to call it one of the greats is an overstatement.  Instead, it stands as a sad indicator of what might have been possible for its young creator had his own tragic fate not intervened.

Days of Heaven (1978)

Days of Heaven (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Days of Heaven, the 1978 second feature by director Terrence Malick, featuring a young Richard Gere alongside Brooke Adams and actor/playwright Sam Shepard in an elegiac tale of two migrant workers who scheme to con a dying farmer out of his fortune on the early-20th-century Texas panhandle.  Universally lauded for its visual beauty, it was nevertheless snubbed at the time of its release by critics who found it shallow and unengaging; in the years since, however, it has come to be recognized as one of the best films of the seventies, perhaps partly due to a two-decade hiatus taken by its director following its completion, during which time a sense of nostalgic retrospect- coupled with wide exposure on art-house cinema screens, cable TV, and home video- prompted a re-evaluation of its merits.

Set in 1916, Days of Heaven unfolds mostly through its visuals and the overdubbed commentary of Linda, the younger sister of its lead male character.  The movie opens in Chicago, where Bill, a short-tempered steel mill laborer, accidentally kills his foreman in an on-the-job fight.  Fleeing the scene, the young man collects his sister and his girlfriend, Abby, and the trio jumps a train with dozens of other poor laborers seeking opportunities in the wide-open spaces of the American Midwest.  Their journey takes them to the expansive plains of the Texas panhandle, where they find work as harvesters alongside other migrants on a large wheat plantation owned by a shy and sickly young farmer.  To avoid talk among the other workers, the unmarried young couple pose as brother and sister, and for awhile the little makeshift family finds a sort of idyllic peace in their simple existence here, despite the grueling and dangerous work required of them, and despite a growing interest in Abby from the lonely young farmer.  When Bill accidentally overhears a conversation in which a visiting doctor informs the farmer that an unspecified illness leaves him only a few months to live, the ambitious and opportunistic young laborer begins to concoct a scheme by which he and his companions might trick the dying man into leaving them his considerable fortune.  He encourages Abby to accept the farmer’s advances; she does so, reluctantly at first, but gradually warms to him as their relationship progresses.  All goes according to plan- the farmer marries Abby, and moves her into his house along with her supposed siblings- but as time passes and his health remains stable, the delicate balance of this romantic triangle grows ever more precarious.  With Abby’s feelings becoming more and more conflicted, and the suspicions of the farmer’s trusted foreman threatening to expose the plot, Bill’s jealousy and impatience grow, and he begins to contemplate other means of removing their gullible benefactor from the picture.

Director Malick, who earned a degree in philosophy before turning to filmmaking, had made an impressive debut with Badlands, a 1973 drama starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a young couple on a crime spree; produced independently, it garnered such acclaim at the New York Film Festival that Warner Brothers bought the distribution rights for three times the amount it cost to make.  For his follow-up project, Malick teamed with producer Bert Schneider, who negotiated a deal with Paramount Studios in which he and the director would be given complete artistic control over the project; the studio paid for the film, with Schneider agreeing to cover any amount spent beyond the allotted budget.  Malick, meanwhile, developed his vision for Days of Heaven with acclaimed Spanish-born cinematographer Nestor Almendros, drawing inspiration from paintings by Andrew Wyeth (specifically “Christina’s World”) and Edward Hopper (“The House by the Railroad,” an iconic image upon which the farm house in the film was based) and planning a narrative presented more through imagery than dialogue.   Filming took place in Alberta, Canada, despite the Texas setting, and thanks to Malick’s and Almendros’ wish to shoot mostly during the so-called “magic hours” (the 20-or-so minutes around sunrise and sunset) in order to capitalize on the special quality of light present at these times, it was a painstakingly slow and frustrating process for the actors and crew.  Things were made worse by Malick’s unorthodox shooting schedule, in which he would frequently diverge from the loosely organized daily plan according to his own whims and changing ideas; this caused expensive delays, as did the director’s choice partway through production to jettison his scripted dialogue and allow the actors to craft the story through guided improvisation.  In the end, the project went severely over budget- Schneider had to mortgage his house in order to live up to his deal with the studio- and took so long to complete that key participants (including Almendros) had to leave in order to fulfill other commitments.  To further exacerbate matters, Malick then took two full years to piece together the movie from the miles of footage he had shot; a full year after filming wrapped, he had to call his actors to Los Angeles in order to shoot assorted pick-up shots, famously including close-ups of Sam Shepard taken under a freeway overpass and an underwater take of Richard Gere’s submerging face captured in a large aquarium in Sissy Spacek’s living room.  When Days of Heaven was finally finished and released, the lavish praise it received for its visuals was undermined by the mixed critical reactions to its content, and though it turned a small profit at the box office, it was widely considered a financial failure.

Nevertheless, all the painstaking work undertaken by its director, maddening as his process may have been to his colleagues and his studio, resulted in a film of breathtaking beauty, and though its simple story is seen as if through a prism, detached from the reality of its circumstances and affecting our emotions only obliquely as we take in the wonder of the pretty pageant displayed before us, it nevertheless has a cumulative power that strikes deeply resonant chords within us.  It’s not a deep tale, and its inescapable conclusion is obvious to us even as its premise develops, but that is part of the movie’s haunting charm.  Our intellect is not the target, but rather our senses, and through them that deeper level of understanding where we can appreciate the profound beauty of sadness.  For sadness is the overpowering emotion in Days of Heaven, creeping around the edges of every scene, even those full of joy; it comes from the implicit knowledge that everything is temporary, that the world is in a constant state of change- a theme underlined by the importance of the seasons in the life of the farm, the ominous juxtaposition of industrial age machinery in the pastoral life of its workers, the certainty that the security of regular wages will come to an end with the harvest, and the specter of death that haunts the doomed farmer.  It is exuded in Linda’s narration, filled with wistful nostalgia and philosophical observation rather than direct reminiscence, and it is inherent in the entire situation presented by the film’s central plot- a timeless and oft-repeated saga of the heart being subjugated for worldly gain, of people yearning and struggling for a life better than the one they know, in which brief happiness is attained and lost by all involved.  Days of Heaven, ultimately, is a meditation on the transience of all worldly things, almost biblical in its message; indeed, the title itself is a scriptural reference, and biblical connections are conjured by a number of elements, not the least of which is a plague of locusts that settles on the farm during the film’s climax.  It is not, however, a preachy polemic warning us of the wages of sin, but rather an invitation to embrace life in all its pleasure and its pain, to appreciate the good moments as they come and weather the bad ones with the knowledge that they, too, shall pass; most of all, it is an evocation of things past, a commentary on the repetitive and universal patterns of human behavior, and a chance to mourn our own losses and celebrate our own memories.

Malick’s success at realizing his vision- laborious and, perhaps, badly organized as it was- cannot be denied, nor can credit be denied him for making a film of such unique and delicate beauty; it would be wrong, however, to ignore the tremendous contribution of cinematographer Nestor Almendros on the artistic success of Days of Heaven.  He worked extensively with Malick from the beginning of the process, having been chosen by the director for his earlier efforts (particularly The Wild Child, a 1970 effort by French master François Truffaut, with whom Almendros had a long-standing professional relationship); the two men were much in tune with each other’s sensibilities, and Almendros was impressed by Malick’s knowledge and understanding of cinematography, both technically and aesthetically.  Their collaboration and the loosely-structured, improvisational process they used in creating the all-important look of the film may have led to dissatisfaction and frustration among the rest of the crew (there were claims that the two men “didn’t know what they were doing”), but it resulted in a truly stunning visual experience that still ranks as one of the most gorgeous films ever shot.  Malick’s vision works because of the power of the imagery which Almendros helped him to realize, deliberately drawn from the painters which first inspired the film- not only the aforementioned Wyeth and Hopper, but Johannes Vermeer and other old masters, whose distinctive visual style is referenced throughout in the play of light and shadow- and the techniques of silent filmmaking, with its penchant for the ethereal qualities of natural lighting and its reliance on the importance of wordless storytelling; indeed, these infusions are a perfect fit with the period and setting of Days of Heaven, enhancing its sense of time and place trapped in a bottle, and giving it a magical, shimmering quality that pervades even its earthy and most brutal moments.  The achievement is more remarkable because not only was Almendros, as a foreign national, not allowed to operate the camera himself (due to union regulations), he was also beginning to lose his eyesight at the time, and had to prepare the shots in advance with the cameraman by taking polaroids of the set-ups and studying them through his glasses. It is important to note, in the interest of giving full credit where it is due, that another legendary cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, was brought in to complete the shooting process when Almendros had to leave; the two worked together for a week ahead of time, and Wexler made every effort to duplicate the style that his predecessor had set for the film.  Unfortunately, though over half the footage in the completed movie was shot by Wexler (according to his own letter to critic Roger Ebert), he received credit only for “Additional Photography,” rendering him ineligible to share the Academy Award ultimately received for the cinematography in Days of Heaven.  This oversight resulted in some degree of controversy within the industry, but it has been widely acknowledged by all involved parties that both men played an important role in bringing Malick’s opus to the screen, and the work that they did stands among the best in either of their careers.

Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World," the painting that primarily inspired Malick to make "Days of Heaven."

Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World,” the painting that primarily inspired Malick to make Days of Heaven

Edward Hopper's "House by the Railroad," another important visual influence on Days of Heaven

Edward Hopper’s “House by the Railroad,” another important visual influence on Days of Heaven

The magic of Days of Heaven is also bolstered immeasurably by Ennio Morricone’s ethereal score, borrowing from Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Aquarium” (from Carnival of the Animals), which is played over the film’s main tiles, and carrying its mood and motifs into the original music he provides for the narrative.  The remarkably authentic period atmosphere is made possible largely through the costumes designed by Patricia Norris, which she made with old fabric and used clothing items, giving everything a faded look of well-worn realism; also important here are the authentic period vehicles- everything from early automobiles to monolithic farm equipment to a bi-plane carrying a troupe of traveling entertainers- and, most prominently, the farm house, designed and constructed by Jack Fisk, which dominates the landscape of the film, both physically and psychologically, built from plywood and fully dressed with period detail inside and out.  This latter piece was used to film both exterior and interior scenes (a rare occurrence; standard practice, especially at the time, would be to shoot the interiors on a set in a soundstage) and leaves a lingering impression on the memory well after the film has faded to its final close.  It is, in its way, as iconic a structure as the house from Hitchcock’s Psycho (also based, coincidentally, on a painting by Hopper), and gives Days of Heaven a concrete center, a simple, serviceable image rich with multiple layers of symbolic meaning.  Finally, the cast cannot be overlooked.  Though Malick sought to evoke memories of the silent era, there is no bombastic posturing here, no emotional histrionics; instead, his players complement his elegantly simple plot with performances of equal simplicity, avoiding bravura displays and offering instead a low-key naturalism which implies volumes through its very restraint- likely a result of the improvisational nature of Malick’s shooting process.  All four principals give unforgettable performances; Brooke Adams provides a heartbreaking balance of pragmatism and romance as Abby, Linda Manz is hard-shelled but touching as the worldly-wise-before-her-time Linda, Sam Shepard mixes melancholy and earnestness into an appealing package as the unnamed farmer, and Richard Gere uses his almost impossible physical beauty as a powerful tool both to express a genuinely good nature and to mask the darkness brooding inside it in his portrait of the charismatic Bill.  Mention should also go to Robert Wilke, the craggy-faced character actor who manages to touch us deeply in his brief screen time as the farmer’s loyal foreman and surrogate father figure.

Terrence Malick, after Days of Heaven, spent twenty years as a virtual recluse from the movie industry, finally returning in 1998 with The Thin Red Line, a WWII drama which sharply divided critics who found it either a masterpiece or a pretentious sham.  The same response, by and large, has been generated by his subsequent films.  For many, myself included, the jury remains out on whether he is in fact a genius or a charlatan; but regardless of any assessment of his later work, Days of Heaven- especially taken in combination with his earlier Badlands- is more than enough to ensure his status as a true cinematic master.  The way it uses imagery to convey its story, as well as its underlying subtext and the thematic elements which drive it, is a rare and remarkable achievement in utilizing the full power of cinema as a visual medium, and the magnificent beauty of that imagery is still unsurpassed over thirty years later.  Those seeking a passionate romance, with all the typical heart-tugging excesses of standard Hollywood fare, are likely to find it a cold and distant experience, like watching fish behind the glass of an aquarium- a comparison that is, upon reflection, more apt (and less critical) than it might seem.  Malick’s triangulated tale of tragic love is more compassionate for being less sentimental, more deeply moving in its preoccupation with the surface than any number of films that strive to explore the inner experiences of its characters; though it has all the makings of a melodrama, it is a tale without heroes, heroines, or villains, and its characters all contain elements of each, making it impossible to take sides or to judge their actions.  Through the director’s well-considered lens he shows us life, plain and simple, using his art as a means to reveal beauty rather than to manipulate emotion.  As a result, though we may feel somewhat removed from the events and characters, they have the unmistakable ring of truth, and our reactions to them are as honest as they come; for this reason, I count Days of Heaven as one of my personal favorite films, and despite my ambivalent feelings towards its director, consider him one of the greatest filmmakers of his time.  I don’t like to make hyperbolic proclamations like that, so coming from me, you can consider it a pretty strong recommendation.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077405/?ref_=sr_1

 

 

Argo (2012)

Argo (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Argo, the winner of the 2012 Academy Award for Best Picture, directed (and starring) Ben Affleck and offering a fictionalized chronicle of the real-life rescue of six American refugees from Tehran during the 1979-1980 Iranian hostage crisis.  With a screenplay by Chris Terrio (who also won an Oscar for his work) and a talented ensemble cast that includes veteran actors Alan Arkin and John Goodman, as well as acclaimed Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, it was an instant critical and financial success upon its release, revitalizing Affleck’s career and garnering much praise for its intelligent, character-driven approach to the story- though it has also received criticism for its use of embellishments and fabrications to increase the drama of its narrative, as well as for its selective arrangement of facts to maximize its pro-American sentiments.

Based on Tony Mendez’ personal memoir, The Master of Disguise, and Joshuah Bearman’s magazine account of the mission, “Escape from Tehran,” Argo begins with the 1979 storming of Tehran’s U.S. embassy by militants following the Iranian revolution which supplanted the American-backed Shah with radical Islamic cleric Ayatollah Khomeni as leader of the nation.  The embassy staff have barely enough time to shred their confidential papers before they are taken hostage by the angry throng, who seek to exchange them to the U.S. for the return of the former Shah, so that he can be tried and executed by the new revolutionary government.  Unbeknown to the militants, however, six Americans have managed to escape through a side door, and have found refuge in the Canadian embassy; as the world’s attention turns to the tense diplomatic standoff over the captive diplomats, the C.I.A. tries to develop a plan for the safe extraction of these secret fugitives before the Iranian militants can discover their existence.  Called in to consult, “exfiltration” expert Tony Mendez hatches an unlikely plot by which the six can be safely flown out of the country under the very noses of the Iranian government; posing as a Canadian film producer, he will enter Iran under the pretext of scouting exotic locations for a new science fiction epic, then- with the aid of falsified passports provided by the Canadian government- the six refugees can depart with him, posing as his film crew.  With the help of a Hollywood contact- Oscar-winning makeup designer John Chambers- Mendez enlists a famous producer to help set up a production company for his phony epic, thereby establishing a convincing cover story through the Hollywood publicity machine, and with all the pieces in place, sets out for Tehran to enact his outrageous plan.  Before he can succeed, though, he must first convince the six terrified diplomats to cooperate with the scheme and turn them into a believable facsimile of a movie crew; to further complicate matters, the ever-changing political tides at home threaten to undermine C.I.A. support for the mission, and the Iranians- who are painstakingly restoring the shredded embassy records- are on the verge of discovering that there are six Americans still unaccounted for and at large somewhere within the city.  With time running out and no other option besides eventual capture and probable execution, there is no choice but to follow through with their desperate ruse and hope that their luck holds out.

In crafting a screenplay from these true-life events, Terrio has created, in essence, a caper film; the story is molded in the classic form of an adventure in which a diverse team of mismatched characters must work together to execute an elaborate scheme, wherein intricate planning and precise timing- and a healthy dose of good luck- are required to achieve success.   The premise is not far removed from such films as The Sting or Ocean’s 11, except that instead of a heist the players are attempting an escape.  Since the outcome is a matter of relatively well-known history, the challenge is to generate suspense as the action unfolds; in order to achieve this, the writer wisely chose to focus much of his attention on the personalities of the people involved, heightening the suspense with a personal dynamic that places much of the interest in seeing how these various characters manage to rise to the challenges they face.  This allows for a strong sense of ensemble among the actors and a layered tapestry of nuanced performances, bringing the plot to life with a richness that evokes the character-driven political dramas of the era in which Argo takes place.

The other tactic by which the movie creates suspense, while it is standard practice in the dramatization of true events, could be considered a bit of a cheat; Terrio has fabricated a number of circumstances within the narrative that did not occur in real life.  The six American escapees were never in imminent danger of detection by the Iranian militants, nor was there any suspicion or investigation of the Canadian embassy while they were lodged there; the C.I.A. never withdrew support for the rescue mission, and the Carter administration approved the plan well before the eleventh-hour climax portrayed in the film; and when the time came for the clandestine travelers to make their escape, they walked easily onto the plane and flew out of the country without so much as a second glance by the security at the airport.  Using artistic license is certainly an accepted method- even an expected one- for creating a more eventful and exciting film narrative, and it serves well in Argo, though historical purists may quibble; more questionable are the deliberate omissions and slanted characterizations that diminish the real-life role played by the Canadians in the operation, cast the British and other governments in an unsympathetic light, and depict the Iranians in a manner which reinforces an already problematic cultural bias.  Nevertheless, setting aside questions of fairness or historical accuracy in what is, after all, a movie “based on” a true story (as opposed to a recreation of actual events), Terrio’s screenplay is a superb piece of Hollywood myth-making, building a gripping and compelling story out of its concern for character instead of the intricacies of the plot, and doing it with a great deal of intelligence and- both surprisingly and refreshingly- a great deal of humor.

As for Affleck’s direction of the piece, he picks up the obvious connection of Argo to seventies cinema and uses it as the basis for his mise-en-scène; though modern day technical trickery has been used to achieve certain ends (such as the transformation of the Istanbul filming locations into the city of Tehran and the dilapidated state of the iconic “Hollywood” sign- another historical inaccuracy, since the landmark was actually restored a full year before the events depicted in Argo), the visual milieu of his movie is constructed with a deliberate eye towards capturing the time and place in which it takes place.  There are no ostentatious displays of effects wizardry, no high-def action sequences designed to dazzle and distract; Argo is made to look and feel like a product of seventies sensibility, with influences drawn from such films as All the President’s Men and an authentically grainy look to Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography- achieved by shooting on film, cutting the images down by half, then blowing them up 200%.  Affleck heavily utilizes authentic archival footage from the real historical events, both within the film (as TV newscasts) and as a guide for recreating the environment; the costumes (by Jacqueline West) are superbly realized recreations of late-seventies fashion, executed with authenticity rather than caricature (though in some instances- such as the scene in which a bogus cast, decked out in a ludicrous, disco-influenced wardrobe of campy science fiction designs, assembles for a read-through of the fictional film- the line between caricature and authenticity is non-existent); and all the trappings of the film’s environment- the architecture of the carefully chosen locations, the sensibility of the décor, even the artistic style of the various corporate logos and advertising which are almost omnipresent in the background- contribute tremendously towards transporting us back to this not-too-distant time in our cultural history.

Affleck’s work in coordinating all these technical asepects is impressive enough in itself, but his handling of Argo is also polished from the perspective of cinematic storytelling.  He keeps the movie moving at a pace which is tight but never hurried, superbly utilizing cross-edited footage to move different elements of the story simultaneously; he captures the claustrophobic experience of the American refugees with tight close-ups and jerky hand-held shots, he suggests the bustle of governmental bureaucracy with scenes of offices in constant motion and characters endlessly walking down long corridors (bristling with purpose, of course), and he evokes the loneliness of his protagonist’s chosen career with artfully composed scenes of his isolation in the midst of crowds, sumptuous rooms, and exotic locations.  It’s a strong, workmanlike effort, undoubtedly the young director’s best work to date, and though it is not exactly visionary or groundbreaking in nature, it is exactly fit to the material he is presenting; his omission as a nominee for the Best Director Oscar is certainly an oddity, particularly considering that he won the honor at many of the other awards ceremonies and that his film eventually took the Best Picture prize- though such a seeming paradox is not unheard of, as Oscar trivia buffs will quickly point out.  Honors and awards aside, Argo is a career-changing work for Affleck, and will doubtless provide the momentum for future projects which will (hopefully) stretch his artistic boundaries even further.

The cast, a crack ensemble of skilled professionals ranging from old hands to promising newcomers, does an excellent job across the board; there is a singleness of vision in the performances that allows each individual player to shine without any one of them seeming to stand out above the others.  The most screen time, of course, belongs to Affleck, and though his self-casting as the half-latino Mendez has generated some raised eyebrows from those who feel a more culturally appropriate choice would have been better, he makes for a likable hero, a man whose personal issues provide the impetus to redeem himself through his professional duties.  Bryan Cranston is memorable as Mendez’ superior, fleshing out what amounts to a stock character with rich personality, and Victor Garber is the picture of genteel compassion as Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who harbors the fugitive Americans and- historically, at any rate, if not within the context of Argo­- was the primary engineer of the plan to get them to safety.  As the harried refugees, a sextet of actors- Tate Donovan, Clea Duvall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, and Kerry Bishé- creates distinctive portraits of each one despite a shortage of screen time, with McNairy given the most prominent of these roles as a skeptical holdout to the plan who ends up playing a crucial part in its success.  A number of familiar faces also turn up in smaller parts, but the film’s biggest stars, in the two most colorful roles, are the great Alan Arkin and John Goodman, as the two Hollywood players who make Mendez’ subterfuge possible.  In a movie that casts the movie industry itself in a heroic role, it is only fitting that its representatives should be larger than life, and both of these fine actors fit the bill.  Goodman is characteristically robust and colorful as makeup designer John Chambers, but Arkin is particularly effective as fictional producer Lester Seigel (in real life the producer of the bogus movie was impersonated by an associate of Chambers’ named Robert Sidell), letting us see the pull of a deeper purpose in his choice to become involved with the mission.

Argo is a movie that is hard to fault, in terms of execution.  It features top-notch work all around and tells a story which is important to American cultural identity and has clear implications within the current political situation (in regards to the still-strained relationship with Iran).  It addresses, by implication, the consequences of former American policies in the Middle East, and it offers a chance to cheer for heroic deeds that transcend the ever-shifting needs of politics.  For my own part, I can admire the work done here by Affleck and company, but I can’t help but wish it had been done without the omissions and exaggerations that create a false impression of the roles of various participants in the saga- both national and individual.  Drama, traditionally, has always played fast and loose with facts in the interest of telling a good story, but this particular story may be a bit too close to home for such tactics to be entirely appropriate, and as a result, no matter how effective Argo is as entertainment, it smacks, vaguely, of propaganda.  Though it is an exemplary piece of intelligent popular filmmaking,  Affleck’s movie panders more than a little to its audience in the way that it manages to avoid taking either a liberal or conservative stance on its subject, adopting populist attitudes and embracing clichéd assumptions, and presenting America in a way that allows us to recognize its flaws while still feeling good about it.  As a result, it narrowly misses the mark of true greatness and instead settles firmly on the ground of romanticized dream factory escapism.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that; far too few big film projects achieve that ideal with as much success and integrity as Argo.  Clearly, given its tally of major industry awards, it’s a movie that strikes all the right chords, and even if it does so by means of manipulation, that is, after all, what filmmakers do.  Nevertheless, of the six (out of nine) nominees for the Best Picture Oscar of 2012 that I have thus far seen, Argo would have been my last choice for the winner.  It’s a very good movie, solid, polished, and safe; but if you expect to be blown away- as the accumulated hype may by now have led you to- you are likely to wonder what all the fuss was about.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1024648/?ref_=sr_1

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Beasts of the Southern Wild (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Beasts of the Southern Wild, the 2012 first feature from director Benh Zeitlin, a movie which rose from acclaim in the festival circuit to become hailed as one of the best films of the year.  The story of a little girl and her father who face the destruction of their way of life as rising sea levels threaten to submerge their Louisiana fishing community, it not only took top awards at the Sundance, Los Angeles, and Cannes film festivals (among many others), it also surprised many industry insiders by earning nominations for several Academy Awards- including Best Picture, Best Actress (for Quvenzhané Wallis, at 9 years old the youngest person nominated to date for this award), and Best Director, with newcomer Zeitlin edging out several favored contenders to gain his slot in the latter category.

Adapted by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar from the latter’s one-act play, Juicy and Delicious, the film unfolds through the perspective of Hushpuppy, a 5-year-old black girl who is part of an isolated community on the Isle de Charles Doucet, known to its residents as “the Bathtub,” an island in the mouth of the Mississippi River delta at the southernmost edge of Louisiana.  Following a generations-long tradition, the people of the Bathtub eke out their simple existence by harvesting the riches of the sea; they are separated from the wider world by geography- and the levee which protects the population of the north from the fluctuations of the tides and the weather- but they are fiercely proud of their heritage and their independence, despite the precarious nature of their existence at the mercy of the ever-rising sea levels.  Little Hushpuppy- though she lives by herself in a separate house- is under the care of Wink, her short-tempered but loving father; she is also, like all the children of the community, under the watchful eye of Miss Bathsheba, the island’s schoolteacher, who tells them how the melting ice caps will cause the ocean to eventually submerge the Bathtub.  Her lessons also include stories about their prehistoric ancestors and the fierce wild beasts- the aurochs- which preyed upon them.  These things have a deep impact upon Hushpuppy’s inner life- she imagines the great aurochs slowly being released from their frozen sleep by the melting ice, and slowly making their way towards the Bathtub.  She also maintains an imaginary relationship with her long-absent mother, as well as making drawings which she intends to be found by “scientists of the future.”  As for Wink, his health is clearly deteriorating; he disappears for days, eventually returning in a hospital gown, and he sometimes collapses into a near-catatonic state, but he refuses to acknowledge this weakness to his daughter.  An approaching storm soon supersedes all other concerns, and though some islanders opt to abandon their homes for higher ground, many stubbornly refuse to leave.  Wink and Hushpuppy weather the violent storm, but when it subsides, the Bathtub is flooded underneath several feet of water.  The two form a camp with fellow survivors to wait for the flood to recede, but their hardships are only beginning; the salt water lingers, slowly killing the land beneath it, until Wink develops a desperate plan to solve the problem by sabotaging the levee.  The resulting consequences could lead to the islanders’ forced evacuation from the land they love, as well as the separation of father and daughter.  As the aurochs grow nearer in Hushpuppy’s imagination, she resolves to undertake a journey which might help her to flee the troubles which have enveloped her world- or to find the answers and the strength she needs to face them.

Zeitlin’s movie is a remarkably unique accomplishment, to be sure.  He takes us into a world most of us have never seen or even known about, revealing its conditions with a documentarian’s style while using it as the basis for a multi-layered metaphor infused with humor, drama, and fantasy, one that addresses human concerns from the most basic and primal to the most pressing and contemporary.  With a restless, hyper-mobile camera, mostly utilized for extreme close-ups and wide establishing shots, he pieces together a clear, compelling narrative that grabs us from the beginning and keeps us riveted throughout.  He tells his story through impressions, a whirlwind of fleeting images that somehow conveys all the pertinent information we need to follow the plot and connect with the emotional reality of its people, while also suggesting the perspective of its tiny lead character on the constantly-fluctuating reality that surrounds her.  This is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that he never looked at any of the raw footage from the shooting process until it was time to edit the film into completed form.  Any of these feats alone would be enough to mark Zeitlin as a gifted young director; taken all together, they herald him as a prodigy.

All of his prowess behind the camera would be for naught, however, if not for the casting of young Wallis in the film’s central role.  At 6, she possesses more screen charisma than that shown by any number of established starlets in their entire careers, and the sheer power of her diminutive presence is enough to make Beasts of the Southern Wild an unforgettable film.  It’s one of the most impressive film debuts in recent memory, and certainly one of the strongest juvenile performances in cinematic history; Zeitlin builds his movie around it, and it never comes up short.  Of course, considering the young lady’s age- and the certain fact that film is a director’s medium- it is possible that Wallis’ formidable performance may be at least partly the result of careful editing, pieced together by Zeitlin himself to achieve maximum effect; even if this were the case, however, the little girl’s presence, personality, and raw honesty are undeniably on display, and these qualities cannot be faked even by the most gifted film technician.  She is well-deserving of all the kudos she has received.  She is ably supported by Dwight Henry, as her father; a non-professional, like the rest of the film’s cast, he is a New Orleans’ bakery owner whose life experience as a survivor of two real-life hurricanes- Betsy in his childhood, and Katrina as an adult- helps to infuse his performance with an innate understanding of the precariousness of his character’s situation, and he is equally capable of capturing the volatile psychological chemistry that makes Wink both charismatic and intimidating.  The rest of the cast is as authentic a collection of local faces and personalities as ever seen in a fictional film, underscoring the documentary feel and helping to transport us completely into the unfamiliar world it depicts.

There are any number of reasons why Beasts of the Southern Wild is an excellent and exciting piece of filmmaking, the aforementioned performances and direction among the foremost.  For many viewers, it will doubtless be considered great; for me, however, despite its many strengths, it falls just short of that mark.  For all its imagination, its blend of harsh social realism and youthful fantasy is held together by a plot that is ultimately as typically “Hollywood” as any mainstream studio family picture you might think of.  Zeitlin and Alibar’s screenplay undertakes from the very beginning to tug at our heartstrings in a manner which would seem insultingly blatant if not for the film’s edgy style, and despite the seemingly detached empiricism of the director’s approach, Beasts of the Southern Wild has a calculated feel in the way it manipulates our sympathies throughout.  We never really get the chance to make up our own minds about how we feel towards Hushpuppy, Wink, or the Bathtub itself and its way of life; we are guided to our conclusions by Zeitlin’s steamroller approach to the story.  Of course, it is a work of fiction, so there are no aesthetic or ethical reasons why the writing and direction should not be designed to elicit a desired response from the viewer; and it’s not as if the movie lacks any sincerity- on the contrary, it’s clear throughout that it is a work of deeply heartfelt passion.  Nevertheless, there is a heavy-handed quality to the narrative that ultimately leaves us feeling less satisfied than wheedled into submission.

This is not to say that Zeitlin’s film is a failure, by any means; Beasts of the Southern Wild is a refreshing example of the kind of cinematic magic that can be created outside of the numbers-driven system of mainstream movie-making, and it leaves an indelible impression upon any viewer.  Audiences whose tastes run towards sentimentality will undoubtedly find it an exceptionally rich experience, and even those who prefer a less “precious” approach will be moved by it, if not overwhelmed.  It may not be the masterpiece that some have hailed it to be, but it’s still an impressive work of art by a promising young director.  To be truthful, Quvenzhané Wallis alone provides a good enough reason to see it; but beyond her remarkable performance, there is also a thought-provoking and resonant meditation on the nature of human existence in the universe, both as individuals and as a whole, which contemplates everything from parental bonds to global warming and manages to leave us with a thrilling sense of hope and possibility despite a story which dwells in desperation and dysfunction.  It’s a rare film that can pull off a trick like that, and even if some of the trickery might be a little obvious, it’s still an accomplishment that deserves to be lauded.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2125435/?ref_=sr_1

 

 

Flesh Gordon (1974)

Flesh Gordon (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Flesh Gordon, a 1974 semi-”porno” feature spoofing the classic sci-fi movie serials of Hollywood’s golden age, directed by Michael Benveniste and Howard Ziehm and starring… well, probably no one you’ve ever heard of.  Rooted in the irreverently hedonistic sensibility of the so-called “sexual revolution” of the seventies, it lampoons the old-fashioned conventions of the original Flash Gordon adventures by sexualizing all of the story elements and adding lots of gratuitous nudity and sex.  Campy, juvenile, and amateurish, it nevertheless has a certain goofy charm that helped to make it a favorite on the midnight movie circuit and something of a cult classic.  It is also notable for its cheap-but-well-executed special effects, which were orchestrated by several future industry legends (most notably specialty make-up pioneer Rick Baker) and were sufficiently impressive to put the film into consideration for an Oscar nomination for Visual Effects- though ultimately the Academy opted to skip the category that year due to a shortage of suitable contenders.

As written by co-director Benveniste, the plot follows the story of the classic Flash Gordon serial so closely that the filmmakers had to include a disclaimer before the credits, expressly stating that the movie was meant as a parody and “homage,” in order to avoid a lawsuit from Universal Pictures, copyright holders of the original.  As the film opens, the titular hero is traveling by plane, summoned by his scientist father to help in the effort to stop a mysterious attack from outer space; the earth, it seems, is being bombarded by a “sex ray,” which causes widespread havoc by causing people to break into spontaneous orgies, and young Flesh is so far immune to its effects.  Unfortunately, the plane is hit mid-flight by a blast from this deadly extra-terrestrial aphrodisiac; its pilots abandon the cockpit in order to join the sexual frenzy in the passengers’ cabin, and the unmanned aircraft begins to plummet from the sky.  Flesh manages to rescue Dale Ardor, a young female passenger with whom he struck up an acquaintance before the ray hit (compelling her to rip off her clothes, of course), and the two parachute to safety on the ground below.  There, they find themselves at the secluded home of Dr. Flexi Jerkoff, an eccentric scientist who has traced the source of the sex ray to the planet Porno, and has built a spaceship- decidedly phallic in design- in which he plans to go there.  Flesh and Dale, naturally, decide to join him, and the three new comrades set out on their journey through space.  It doesn’t take long to arrive- this is super science, after all- and they soon find themselves in the palace of Emperor Wang the Perverted, who plans to dominate the universe through its libido; the deviant despot conscripts Jerkoff into his service, declares Dale as his new bride, and sends Flesh off to be castrated.  However, Amora, the Queen of Magic, has become smitten with the young hero; planning to make him her consort, she abducts him from the palace, with Wang’s men in pursuit.  Though Amora’s vessel is shot down, Flesh escapes intact; Jerkoff, meanwhile, has managed to flee from the palace, as well.  The two adventurers reunite, and, joining forces with Porno’s rightful ruler, Prince Precious, they undertake to rescue Dale, destroy the sex ray, and overthrow the evil Wang once and for all.  To do so, they must defeat a tribe of evil lesbian Amazons, outwit Wang’s spies, and defeat the Great God Porno, a giant satyr-like beast awakened from his long slumber by the evil Emperor himself.

It’s probably unnecessary for me to have provided even such limited detail in the above synopsis; like most so-called adult movies, the plot of Flesh Gordon is really immaterial.  It exists merely to provide a framework for the various titillations and parodies which are, of course, the only reason for the film to exist.  As far as titillation goes, though virtually every scene features some degree of nudity, and there are a number of scenes in which people are seen having sex, the truth is that Flesh Gordon is really pretty tame, even by 1974 standards.  Part of the reason for this is that, although the film originally included numerous scenes of explicit, hardcore sex, both straight and gay, the filming of such material was illegal in Los Angeles at the time it was made (hard as that may be to believe now); to prevent their prosecution for pandering, the filmmakers were forced to surrender all such footage the L.A. vice squad, and Flesh Gordon was released without explicit pornographic content.  This was undoubtedly seen as a setback by its makers, but in the long run it was better for the movie; if it had been full-fledged porn, it would not have been as widely seen- or perhaps, at least, not by the same audiences- and would likely not have achieved the popularity it eventually enjoyed.  In the more “soft-core” form it was forced to take, it managed to become as much a lampoon of “skin flicks” (as they were euphemistically called in those days) as it was of the corny space operas of old.

This brings us to the satirical side of the film.  Though Flesh Gordon is loaded with crude sexual innuendo and sophomoric jokes, it somehow manages to be endearingly cute.  Sure, the humor is as juvenile as the nudity and sex are gratuitous, but this in itself is part of the charm.  Benveniste’s script does not pretend to be anything other than a collection of cheap laughs; it is free of the kind of hip, self-aware cleverness that mars so many similar attempts at this kind of send-up.  The comedy is so obvious and so gleefully raunchy, so painfully and ludicrously obvious, and just so plain silly, that it is impossible for any but the most snobbish viewers to be unamused; you roll your eyes and shake your head, but you chuckle as you do so.  One of the main reasons for this is the movie’s underground feel; the cheap sets, the grainy 16 mm look of the photography, and the hopelessly amateur acting, all give the impression of watching some weekend garage-filmmaking project undertaken by naughty teenagers while their parents are out of town.  The two directors clearly have limited knowledge of how to make a movie, with poor staging, sloppy editing, and muddled storytelling that sometimes obscures the intended focus of scenes and prevents us from getting an adequate view of would-be sight gags.  It’s somewhat frustrating, at times, but it has the effect of making much of the movie’s funniest material play like throwaway gags, the kind of parenthetical comic detail that contributes to the underlying wackiness that pervades the piece as a whole.  At times, the film’s raw quality is similar to the early work of John Waters- certainly the sex and nudity has the same glamorless, unattractive sensibility as one finds in Waters’ films from this same era- but with more of an attempt at emulating the polish of mainstream Hollywood.  It’s an attempt that falls far short of the mark, but, of course, that’s part of the joke.

Despite the low budget and the obvious inexperience of its directors, however, Flesh Gordon manages to impress with its special effects.  Certainly, these are not the high-tech visual feats of magic one could expect from an A-list studio production, but cheap though they may be, there is a sense of artistry on display here that lifts the movie above the level of low-grade exploitation cinema.  Under the supervision of Walter R. Cichy (one of the film’s three producers, along with Ziehm and Bill Osco), the designers and artists involved- many of whom, as mentioned, were established or soon-to-be established industry professionals- manage to infuse their bargain-basement work with the kind of imagination and tongue-in-cheek humor that makes the cheapness seem like a choice.  With an obvious nod to the spaceship-on-strings style of classic sci-fi history, the movie delivers deliciously cheesy visual delights to go with its inane dialogue and corny story; shaky walls, cannibalized props and sets, and primitive in-camera trickery create the appropriately campy environment, populated by such ridiculous creatures as “Penisauruses” and the aforementioned Great God Porno (voiced, sans credit, by the then-young-and-unknown Craig T. Nelson) which are brought to life by surprisingly deft stop-motion animation.  In addition, the thrift-store pastiche of costumes and the over-the-top execution of the makeup give the whole thing a Halloween party tackiness that somehow puts the perfect finishing touch on the whole package.

As for the cast, the only name of note is Candy Samples, a former pin-up and porn actress who earlier had worked with Russ Meyer, who makes a cameo as Queen Nelly, the eye-patched (and breast-patched) ruler of the Amazon lesbian tribe.  For the most part, the performances are as banal as one might expect, with Jason Williams and Suzanne Fields, as Flesh and Dale, respectively, barely able to muster the sense of excited urgency that is, pretty much, all that is required of them- well, except for their bodies, of course, both of which are suitably sexy in that pre-personal-trainer (and pre-silicon) early seventies way.  As Dr. Jerkoff, Joseph Hudgens (in his only credited film role) manages to combine likable earnestness with a Vaudevillian sensibility that, for some reason, conjures memories of Groucho Marx, and Lance Larsen exhibits signs of personality as the deposed Prince Precious, a leotard-clad Robin-Hood-like figure, mercifully keeping his mincing to a minimum as he allows the character’s name to do most of the work in conveying his sexual preferences.  The acting highlight, as far as it goes, is the performance of William Dennis Hunt as Emperor Wang, sporting outrageous Fu Manchu makeup as he chews the scenery with appropriate relish, laughing maniacally as he incites his mostly naked subjects to copulate and calling his minions “dildoes.” To be sure, none of these performances are Oscar-worthy, but they work well enough for a film which gets most of its charm from being deliberately bad.  There’s something about bad actors doing their best- even when it’s terrible- that is much less painful than good actors purposely trying to be bad; in this case, it complements the style of the film and, somehow makes it all the more satisfying.

Don’t get me wrong here; though it might seem I’ve raved about Flesh Gordon, it’s hardly some sort of visionary masterpiece.  It’s pure schlock, in fact, and shoddily made schlock, at that.   What makes it entertaining is its sheer unpretentiousness.  Benveniste and Ziehm were simply trying to make a cheap, funny, sexy movie that would appeal to youthful audiences; the vehicle they chose was designed to poke fun at the old-fashioned entertainment of an older generation, and whether by accident or canny exploitation, they managed to ride a wave of nostalgia that was rising in popular culture at the time.  These factors may have helped to give their movie a bit more push than it otherwise deserved, but what made it become a sort of mini-phenomenon was the fact that, for all its ridicule of the serials that inspired it, it exhibits a clear love for that source material.  Despite its effort to reinvent Flash Gordon as a blue movie, Flesh Gordon is undeniably sweet, amusingly naive, and more than a little geeky.  It’s these qualities that make it worth sitting through, not just once but over and over, despite the lousy acting and bad jokes; personally, I would rather watch Flesh Gordon a hundred times than have to watch the abysmal 1980 remake of Flash Gordon even once more.  Though this movie makes fun, it also celebrates the original; in truth, it’s really pretty true in spirit to those old melodramatic space operas, because they, too, were designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator by exploring the public’s sensationalistic urges for action, fantasy and, yes, even sex.  After all, the costumes worn in those 1930s movies were pretty sexy, for their time; by 1974, they might have had to eliminate costumes all together in order to get the same effect, but the principle is still the same.  Obviously, Flesh Gordon is not for die-hard prudes; but you are likely to see racier stuff on late-night cable TV than you will in this movie, so anyone else is encouraged to check it out, at least once.  It’s likely to be one of the more unique cinema adventures you’ve had, and besides, do you really want to miss a movie where the only way to defeat the villain is to use the “pasties of power?”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068595/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

 

Django Unchained (2012)

Django Unchained (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 epic revenge-fantasy western, a movie that generated (and continues to generate) much controversy over its handling of the still-raw issue of slavery in the American past.  The tale of a freed slave who joins forces with a white bounty hunter to rescue his still-captive wife from a Mississippi plantation, it’s a characteristically violent entry to the Tarantino canon, paying homage to the exploitation films of old and using a mashed-up blend of genres to address complex social issues in a way that flies in the face of contemporary ideas about political correctness.  Unsurprisingly, it has drawn both passionate praise and passionate objection, primarily focused on its depiction of racism and its over-the-top violence.

Tarantino’s screenplay, like most of his others, brings together explicit influences from numerous pieces of cinematic history, most notably the spaghetti westerns and “blaxploitation ” films of the ’60s and ’70s- with a liberal sprinkling of the prime-time television shows from the same era.  Most specifically, he takes inspiration (and the theme song) from a particular 1966 spaghetti western called Django, directed by Sergio Corbucci, a bloody tale of revenge which was considered at the time to be the most violent western ever made.  Though its plot has no resemblance to Tarantino’s story, nor does it involve issues of racism or slavery, the spirit of this original film is nevertheless a tangible part of Django Unchained- a title which also references Hercules Unchained, another Italian epic about a mythic hero who breaks the bonds of slavery to rescue the woman he loves.  Alongside these pulpy pop-culture sources, though, Tarantino draws from the Nordic legend of Brünhilde and Siegfried, adding a deeper mythic connection to the story and rooting its true thematic purpose to an archetypal level that transcends the racial subject matter on its surface.  Set in 1858, the film opens as a pair of slave traders march their chained captives- barefoot- through the Texas desert at night.  They are intercepted by a horse-drawn wagon driven by a courtly German, a traveling dentist named Dr. King Schultz, who has traced a particular slave to them.  After questioning the man he seeks, whose name is Django, Schultz offers to buy him, but the traders, uncomfortable with the German’s attitude and wary of the manner of his approach, refuse to sell; they order Schultz to leave and threaten to shoot him if he does not comply, at which point their visitor draws his gun and fires, killing one trader and trapping the other under the body of his fallen horse.  He gives the wounded survivor money for Django, takes the keys to unchain his purchase, and leaves the rest of the chain gang to free itself and deal with their former captor as they see fit.  Schultz, as he informs Django, is a bounty hunter, who tracks wanted criminals and kills them for the reward money; he is very good at his job, and he has sought out his new companion because the men he is now tracking were former foremen at a plantation upon which Django was once a slave, and he needs someone who can positively identify them.  He tells Django- whom he treats as an equal- that in exchange for helping find the wanted men, he will receive his freedom and a share of the reward.  As the two men travel in search of the fugitives,  Django reveals that he and his wife had both been slaves on his former plantation, but after they had tried to run away together, their owner had them sold to separate buyers as punishment; he plans to use his share of the bounty to pay for her freedom, but Schultz fears that a black man, legally free or not, will be at high risk if he returns to the heart of the slave empire alone.  The German makes a proposition- if Django (who clearly has a knack for the work) will partner with him as a bounty hunter for the winter, the two will find and liberate his wife together.  Django agrees, and the pair begins a series of adventures that will culminate in a deadly confrontation with one of the most notoriously cruel slave owners in the country.

Tarantino makes movies that are a critic’s dream, in the sense that they are- for better or for worse- an unapologetic expression of love for the medium of cinema in all its forms. He borrows elements from all genres, disregarding accepted notions of worthiness or quality, and puts them together in an eclectic mishmash of style that is distinctly his own.  He is as much an auteur as Kubrick, as great a showman as DeMille, and as much a master of exploitation as Russ Meyer, and, without discrimination between these differing aspects of the medium, he blends them into one audacious approach that invites comparison to another great maverick filmmaker, Orson Welles.  It may be premature to place him in such company, but his impact on the art form has been substantial and significant, legitimizing styles and forms from outside the mainstream that were previously dismissed as irrelevant or inferior, confronting difficult or taboo subject matter in a way which challenges and provokes his audiences, and breaking the established rules and conventions of cinematic storytelling even as he uses them like a master.  In short, his movies elicit strong reactions and give us a lot to think, talk, and argue about.  Django Unchained, with its pulp-fiction storyline constructed squarely around the inherently divisive subject of racism, is unquestionably his most provocative effort to date- and that’s saying a lot.

So much has already been written and said about Tarantino and his work; I’ve discussed him in my earlier review of Death Proof (a vastly inferior movie to Django Unchained) and I don’t feel it necessary to repeat myself here.  A description and analysis of his signature style is available in a vast number of other places.  In discussing Django Unchained, it is far more relevant to address the elephant in the room; by making a movie about slavery in which a black hero avenges himself on the white people who have perpetrated unspeakable cruelty upon him and his kind, the filmmaker throws aside any semblance of a protective veil and confronts his audience squarely with the difficult issue of race- or, perhaps more accurately, of attitudes towards race, both within the setting of the film and in contemporary society.  Here is a white filmmaker, using a traditionally white milieu (the Western, with all its mythic reverberations in the ethical and psychological landscape of American culture) to tell a story about white guilt and black revenge; this in itself invites debate about everything from Tarantino’s suitability to address the topic to his motivations and methods of doing so, as well as invoking questions of social responsibility in the approach he has chosen to take.  The film has been accused of racism against both blacks and whites, criticized for its perceived advocation of violence, and even described as an incitement to race war; it has been lambasted for both exaggerating and trivializing the horrors of slavery and for making this abhorrent institution the basis for a piece of slick pop culture escapism.  It has also been acclaimed for daring to address the subject of America’s heritage of slavery without equivocation, apology, politics, or preaching.  In other words, like all great art, it serves as a mirror; the interpretations and reactions of its audience are reflections of their own viewpoints.  Like an ink blot, it shows us the content of our own psyche.

This is not to say that Tarantino has put nothing of himself into the film; obviously, it is an extremely personal statement for him, one which expresses his own character and personality and clearly- in my interpretation- reflects his utter disdain for the entire concept of racism.  Django Unchained assumes at its core the inherent wrongness of racist thinking.  Without exception, those who embrace the idea of slavery are depicted as monsters, and though racism is the central condition of the movie’s world, it is ultimately a symptom of the overall inhumanity that pervades the social order.  Though it is a film which deals with race, the conflict here is not between black and white, but between ignorance and enlightenment.  Furthermore, it reflects a populist sensibility in its suggested equation of the proponents of slavery to the economic elite, who maintain their wealth and power by means of a legally-sanctioned hierarchy of enforced dominance; this is underlined by the fact that one of the film’s most loathsome villains is in fact a black man, completely indoctrinated into a system that dehumanizes himself and the rest of his race by the personal status he holds within it.  Conversely, the white Schultz, despite his mercenary profession, is clearly a fierce opponent of racial inequality and injustice (he refers to slavery as “malarkey” at one point), risking his own life and livelihood to strike a blow for freedom whenever the opportunity arises; and despite the title character’s assertion that his new vocation is appealing because he gets to “kill white people” and be paid for it, his true purpose is to seek justice for himself and the woman he loves.  Django and Schultz are champions of the oppressed and downtrodden, and neither their compassion nor their wrath are conditional upon race.  The story here is classic western fare, really; a wronged man seeking frontier justice against those who have done him harm, except instead of the archetypal white cowboy he is a freed black slave.  Though some may find this new twist to the old formula to be somehow disrespectful or inappropriate, the real shame, in my view, is that it took until 2012 for a mainstream Hollywood film to attempt it.  It’s a natural fit, and the inescapable sociological questions that it conjures, however difficult or painful they may be to those who would avoid them, are long overdue for confrontation.

Django Unchained is not, however, the first mainstream Hollywood film to address the issue of racism in a controversially irreverent manner; it’s not even the first western to do so.  In 1974, Mel Brooks similarly outraged and shocked the movie-going public with Blazing Saddles, a raucous and raunchy lowbrow farce that attacked the issue head-on, openly mocking racial stereotypes and exposing the inherent racism of Hollywood’s traditional myth of the Great American West.  Brooks’ film created controversy with its deliberately excessive use of “the ‘N’ word” (which I will not use in this forum, to avoid opening myself up to the same kind of controversy), intended to detoxify it through over-exposure and to turn it against itself by using it as an instrument of comedy.  It’s ironic that Tarantino’s film, 38 years later, has fallen under criticism for breaking the exact same taboo, using the epithet so much that it becomes a mere banality.  Ironic, but not surprising, considering that Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written well over a century ago, still falls regularly under criticism for the same reason despite its anti-racist message.  Django Unchained is not Huckleberry Finn, nor is it Blazing Saddles, for that matter, though these works form an artistic heritage from which it is definitely descended.  Like them, it addresses a serious social issue- perhaps, ultimately, the most serious one affecting American culture- with a considerable amount of humor.  To be sure, it’s a grim sort of humor, to say the least; but it is irresistible, and the way he connects it with horrific imagery is one of the most significant devices he uses to give Django Unchained its unique power.  Nevertheless (though some have suggested it), Tarantino’s film is not a comedy- not even a dark one.  Like all of his work, it defies exact classification; though it follows the formula of a melodrama, it’s infused with elements of so many other genres, and marked by such a ferocious and unrelenting pattern of escalating tension and ultra-violent release, that the most accurate description is probably just to call it a Tarantino film and leave it at that.

Like the other movies that fit into that exclusive category, Django Unchained is not for every taste; those sensitive viewers who are easily disturbed by profanity and excessive violence- including violence towards animals- will likely be out of their depth here, and those for whom the issue of race relations is an uncomfortable topic are almost certain to find themselves offended.  For the rest of us, however, it’s a film that offers a wealth of cinematic riches.  Gorgeous cinematography by Robert Richardson evokes the visual qualities of Tarantino’s beloved filmic influences while asserting its own distinct flavor; imaginative, detailed costume design by Sharen Davis adds its own subtle commentary and playfully- but meticulously- incorporates iconic inspirations that help to establish the purposefully derivative pop-culture tone; the eclectic, carefully chosen mix of musical selections, which includes everything from segments of scoring lifted out of other films to ’70s pop standards to modern rap, continues Tarantino’s tradition of deliberate anachronism on his soundtracks, a technique which helps contemporary audiences to connect to the material and provides its own kind of commentary through the associations it creates; and, of course, there are the performances.

Tarantino’s writing, like Woody Allen’s, requires his actors to convincingly speak in his own voice, another hallmark of his canon; his dialogue, laced with intricate wordplay and possessed of his own distinctive syntax and structure, at once creates vivid individual characterizations and unifies his work with a singular verbal style, and challenges his actors to strike a perfect balance of stylization and reality.  The cast of Django Unchained meets this challenge triumphantly, with solid and unforgettable performances from all.  Jamie Foxx makes a perfect western hero, a seamless blend of Clint Eastwood and Isaac Hayes that bridges the gap between genres and helps the film to successfully accomplish the same feat; Leonardo DiCaprio is well-cast against type as the dissipated and off-handedly sadistic slave master into whose empire the heroes must venture to achieve their quest; and Kerry Washington, playing the object of that quest with quiet dignity, shines in her relatively silent presence amidst all the bombastic rhetoric spewed around her.  There are a number of familiar faces in smaller roles, ranging from TV icon Don Johnson (complete with white jacket) in a featured turn to screen veteran Bruce Dern in an unbilled cameo; even Franco Nero, the original “Django” from the aforementioned 1966 classic, turns up to participate in the most blatant of the film’s many in-jokes.  All these players contribute to Tarantino’s vision, both with their talented work and by virtue of the associations they bring with them.

The standouts, though, are the mesmerizing performances of Tarantino stalwarts Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson.  As Schultz, the former glitters with wit and intelligence without once letting us lose sight of his serious subtext; he gives us a man of scrupulous honor, grim determination, and unparalleled capability, as charming as he is deadly and as noble as he is practical.  He makes his character a ray of dazzling light in a very dark world, and brings the ethics of contemporary reason into the film’s primitive setting like an inexorable wave of progress bent on sweeping away the stubborn ignorance of the past.  In direct opposition to this paladin-like force of justice is Jackson, as the “old retainer” of DiCaprio’s household; a re-invention of the well-worn “Uncle Tom” figure, he fumes with what one of my friends called “misdirected rage,” diverting his considerable intelligence and power towards the protection of his master’s world- in which he enjoys his own high status- at the expense of his own people.  Wily, cantankerous, and proud, he is the true villain of the piece, having gone beyond mere acquiescence to an oppressive and inhumane system to become a ferocious guardian of it; in his complete lack of compassion, and in his unrepentant commitment to upholding the brutal status quo, he becomes arguably more reprehensible than the master he adores, and Jackson- though he finds the human truth of this twisted soul and plays it with utter conviction- makes no attempt to sugarcoat or shy away from the ugliness of this character.  It’s a delicious performance, perhaps the finest of the actor’s career, and its lack of sentiment drives home the movie’s indictment of compromise in the face of racial inequality by peeling off the benign mask of a stereotype and revealing the tragic betrayal of humanity that it represents.

The true star of Django Unchained, however, is Quentin Tarantino himself, and I’m not referring to his signature cameo appearance late in the film; no matter how big the names in his cast, it is his own name above the title which provides the biggest draw, making him part of an elite club of filmmakers whose reputation and celebrity in itself is enough to ensure substantial box office sales.  He has earned this status by his ability to make films that provide visceral, audience-pleasing thrills while still stimulating the intellect and stretching the boundaries of the art form.  Django Unchained is no exception; he keeps us riveted with a story which compels us at an almost primal level, confronts us with situations which force us to think about difficult issues, and dazzles us with his technical and aesthetic mastery of the medium.  He provokes us by finding visual poetry in horrific violence, creates profoundly resonant imagery with the elegant simplicity of his composition, and combines lowbrow content with highbrow concept to manipulate our emotions and bring us to a catharsis that satisfies on every level at once.  Perhaps most important (and ultimately, perhaps, most controversial); he invites us to laugh at things which would normally disturb us, helping us to distance ourselves from the issues at hand and simultaneously letting us share in his own perspective on the absurdity of human behavior; like his penchant for building tension through dialogue and his heightened, over-the-top stylistic choices, his use of macabre and ironic humor as a tool for audience alienation betrays an unmistakably theatrical sensibility, yet thanks to his gift for the medium of film, what he creates with these elements is pure cinema.

I could, of course, go on and on about Django Unchained, dissecting its details, tracing its themes, identifying its influences, and analyzing its effect; as I said, we love to write about Tarantino films.  In the end, it’s up to individual viewers to determine the merits of his latest piece of “dangerous art” for themselves.  As I mentioned above, it’s a movie that gives us back what we bring into it; Tarantino himself has discussed, in interviews, his love for “subtextual criticism,” the discussion and analysis of facets of a film that were not, in fact, intended by its creator, but which are present, nonetheless, by virtue of their having been perceived by the viewer.  It’s no surprise, therefore, that he builds his work in a way that encourages these kind of individualized reactions, and it’s highly likely he would acknowledge the validity of any point of view towards Django Unchained, no matter how far it veers from his own intentions in making it.  For myself, I’ve expressed my take on the issues at hand, and I’ve probably made my admiration for the movie itself pretty clear.  If I were to make comparative value judgments, I would probably place it pretty high on my list of Tarantino’s films, slightly above the youthful bravado of Pulp Fiction, about equal with the devilish boldness of Inglorious Basterds, and slightly below my personal favorite, the sublimely elegant two-part (so far) Kill Bill saga; but such distinctions are unimportant, really, when one considers his entire body of work as a series of variations on his recurring themes.  One arrangement of the melody may please you more than another, but it’s a pretty good tune all the way through, regardless.  For those who would avoid Django Unchained out of objections to any of its content or its handling thereof, there is probably nothing I can say to change your mind; but in addressing at least one of these concerns- the idea that Tarantino’s ultra-violent fantasy of revenge is itself a call to violence- I think it is important to remember that film, like all art, presents a metaphor for reality.  Though Django exacts a high payment in blood from his oppressors, and the filmmaker takes great pleasure in making us enjoy his lethal victories and cheer him on as the body count gets higher and higher, he- and the scourge of his vengeance- are not meant to be emulated in a literal sense, but rather to be seen as a symbolic cleansing of antiquated, ethnocentric fallacies, once and for all, from our culture.  We must be as ruthless and unforgiving in our quest to eradicate racism in our thinking as Django and Schultz are to eliminate the racists who stand against them.  That’s what the ink blot shows me, anyway.  You may see something different; but whatever it is, it’s a pretty sure bet that you will never forget it.  Django Unchained is that kind of movie; it stamps itself on your mind immediately, and refuses to fade away.  For that reason alone, there’s no arguing that, whether you love it or hate it, it’s destined to be a classic.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1853728/?ref_=sr_1