Cinema News and Reviews for the Rest of Us

Archive for August, 2010

Rumors of George Lucas being a sell-out douche turn out to not be very exagerrated at all

This is just confirmation of what most of us already knew, but in a recent interview with the LA Times, Star Wars producer Gary Katz lays out some not-so-complimentary observations on the primary focus behind every Star Wars film after the masterful Empire Strikes Back.  Seems that when it came to Return of the Jedi, Lucas was much more concerned with toy sales than he was with the artistic integrity of the film itself.

Although I like Return of the Jedi and loved it as a kid, it can definitely be viewed as the beginning of the satanic marketing drive that ended up dragging the entire franchise into the kiddie-focused ineptitude of the second trilogy, and learning of Lucas’ primary motivations as an ‘artist’ make his missteps in those later films much more unforgivable.  It’s one thing if you stick your neck out for your art and just don’t hit the mark.  It’s another thing entirely if you’re not shooting for art at all, just taking a beloved franchise and manipulating it to sell plastic.

Says Katz to the LA Times:

“I could see where things were headed,” Kurtz said. “The toy business began to drive the [Lucasfilm] empire. It’s a shame. They make three times as much on toys as they do on films. It’s natural to make decisions that protect the toy business, but that’s not the best thing for making quality films.”

He added: “The first film and ‘Empire’ were about story and character, but I could see that George’s priorities were changing. The emphasis on the toys, it’s like the cart driving the horse.”

“We had an outline and George changed everything in it,” Kurtz said. “Instead of bittersweet and poignant he wanted a euphoric ending with everybody happy. The original idea was that they would recover [the kidnapped] Han Solo in the early part of the story and that he would then die in the middle part of the film in a raid on an Imperial base. George then decided he didn’t want any of the principals killed. By that time there were really big toy sales and that was a reason.”

The discussed ending of the film that Kurtz favored presented the rebel forces in tatters, Leia grappling with her new duties as queen and Luke walking off alone “like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns,” as Kurtz put it.

Crystal Kurtz said that ending would have been a more emotionally nuanced finale to an epic adventure than the forest celebration of the Ewoks that essentially ended the trilogy with a teddy bear luau.


DiCaprio the new King of Hollywood?

With Shutter Island proving commercially stout and Inception likely to earn upwards of $700 million worldwide, Leonardo DiCaprio has drawn attention as one of the few true box-office champions left in existence, seeing as old stalwarts like Tom Cruise and Will Smith are no longer guaranteed money-makers.  All of this despite the fact that DiCaprio’s filmography doesn’t have even the faintest whiff of commercial calculation.  He’s an actor first, star second, and that makes his rise in popularity as a mature leading man even more satisfying to me as a fan of cinema.

My favorite movie rag Empire Magazine features a blog article discussing the current state of box office champs, and Leo’s place in the it.


DVD Review: ‘The Book of Eli’

Though I’d hardly call myself a person of faith in the traditional sense, the subject of faith is wrongfully shunned by the Hollywood establishment, which isn’t as militantly anti-religion as right wingers claim but which certainly isn’t quick to bring anymore Charlton Heston-style Bible epics to the screen anytime soon.  In a storytelling medium, that’s a great shame, because matters of faith remain at the core of what drives us as a species.  We are wired to probe beyond the reaches of what we do not understand and to use the torch of faith to lead us in what we hope is the right direction.  Modern cinema could stand to explore faith a great deal more, and that’s why it’s refreshing to see a big Hollywood film with a big star tackle the subject head-on without wrapping it in heavy irony or hyper-intellectual criticism.  It’s just too bad it couldn’t have been tackled a little bit better.

The Book of Eli is a pretty good film.  It addresses the dual-role of religion as both a tool for good and a weapon wielded in the pursuit of power.  The performances are pretty good, notably the ever-interesting Gary Oldman as a small-scale dictator looking to use the Bible to expand his power in a desolate post-Armageddon world.  It even has a few show-stopping action scenes that display some very assured filmmaking (a shootout at a peculiar farm house is exceptionally well-done).  But the good parts don’t add up to the great whole that could have been.  The Hughes brothers suffer from the same over-stylized directorial ticks that kept previous films like From Hell from reaching their potential.  The gray/brown color palette they use may be apocalypse-appropriate, but it quickly becomes bland and uninteresting.  The film also suffers from an ending that isn’t nearly as profound as it thinks it is.

Still, the performances are winning (outside of a miscast Mila Kunis) are rock-solid.  Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman are two actors who can make any film intriguing, and they play off each other very well.  Every scene featuring the two of them together is a guaranteed attention grabber.  It’s just too bad that film has to settle into “good” status when there was some hope hope of greatness in the material.  The story of the Hughes brothers’ career.

DVD Review: Getting Around To Some ‘Best Picture’ Nominees

I saw most of last year’s Best Picture nominees, but there were a couple that slipped past me, and I spent the last week doing some catch-up.


Precious is a film that could have very easily failed.  “Poverty Porn” is a common term for films dealing with the disaffected underclass that lose their artistic vision while shoving the audience’s face in the muck.  Precious avoid this.  Oh, it definitely has more than its fare share of muck, perhaps as much as you’ll ever see in a film, but director Lee Daniels and his cast rise above the squalor to deliver a work of real insight and even a little bit of hope in what looks like an utterly hopeless situation.

There is enough misery here to fill a dozen Lifetime dramas.  Young protagonist Precious is 17, morbidly obese, illiterate, abused, and about to have her second child by her own father.  That’s not even counting the great misfortune that befalls her later in the film, and to top it off, the one child she already has is stricken with Down’s Syndrome.  This has all ingredients for some dire exploitation, but the film never goes that far.  Daniels cuts up the film with Precious’ vivid fantasies, the girl’s only means of escape, which could have fallen flat if Daniels didn’t make them so affecting and character-specific.  Precious doesn’t dream about material wealth or the usual things we fantasize about.  She dreams about singing in a church choir with a bunch of nice old people, and in one disturbing yet illuminating scene, about being a skinny blond white girl.

This is an actor’s showcase, first and foremost.  Gabourey Sidibe is wonderful as Precious, balancing pain and despair with a very real courage and resistance bubbling beneath the surface.  Pop stars Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz strip themselves of glamor to play a weary social worker and a male nurse.  But it’s comedian Mo’Nique who stands above them all.  As Precious’ abusive kraken of a mother, she plays one of the most frightening and frighteningly real monsters in recent memory.  Her seemingly limitless depravity and self-absorption might seem two-dimensional if the actress didn’t imbue the role with such a powerful sense of damage.  This is not simply an evil incarnation of all our “bad mother” fears.  It’s the twisted and hopeless wreckage of a truly damaged mind.  Mo’Nique’s monologue at the film’s conclusion may be Oscar bait (successful at that), but it’s a towering outpour of sorrow and rage as only a permanently destroyed psyche could render.  Terrifying stuff.

Sapphire, author of the book, said that her most important goal in writing it was to “make it so we no longer ignore the Preciouses when they pass us on the street.  So that ‘them’ becomes ‘us’.”  This film might take us a little further in that direction.

The Blind Side

I actually rather enjoyed this film while watching it.  Then, about an hour later, it started to get to me.  On its own straightforward terms, The Blind Side is a perfectly reasonable, reasonably affecting story of a poor young man’s adoption by a wealthy family and ascent to football fame and riches.  But while I scoffed at the far-left cries of “white savior” insults that followed the film’s original release, after digesting it I found it impossible to ignore the incredibly mawkish nature of the narrative.  It doesn’t help that Michael Oher, the young future football star, is pretty much a blank slate onscreen, not doing much other than looking down like a sad puppy and smiling like a goof when white people are nice to him.  He’s not much more than cipher for the good will of the charismatic and assertive (and rich) white folks who come to his rescue.  Now, this story actually went down like that, so I can’t complain there.  But there’s just absolutely no nuance injected into the film to raise it above the trappings the filmmakers had to have known were there from the start.  There’s no malice or ill-intentioned racism here, but the views of race relations are incredibly old-fashioned.  Poor down-trodden black athlete needs the WASP brigade to bring him in out of the rain and strap on the football pads.  It’s all happy and nice, but there’s just something wrong about this that I couldn’t ignore.

The film avoid the doldrums of 2-Star territory because it does hit its emotional beats with enough panache to provoke a genuine response in the audience.  Like I said, this story actually happened this way and it’s wonderful that Oher found a family and a career when he could have easily stayed in the sweaty Tennessee slums.  Sandra Bullock does attack her role with a zeal and energy few actresses can muster.  But I can’t really see how she deserved the Best Actress Oscar for this.  And I sure as hell can’t see how this got a Best Picture nomination over much greater films.  Of course, that wouldn’t have happened in the old 5-film pool, but this film shouldn’t have gotten in there if the pool were 20 films deep.

New trailer for ‘The Social Network’

Having just covered an unsung David Fincher masterpiece in my Zodiac article, here’s a new trailer for his upcoming film The Social Network.  This one doesn’t add much to the old trailers, except to make Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg look like even more of an infantile asshole than before.  Still very, very excited about this film.

Unsung Masterpiece: ‘Zodiac’

I’m just going to go ahead and throw this out there.

David Fincher’s Zodiac may be the greatest cinematic address of the 9/11 disaster released in the decade since the attacks.

Not simply for the unnerving sense of hanging dread that he drapes over 1960s San Francisco as the Zodiac Killer picks off citizens without method and without purpose, though that is on-point and expertly realized.  No, it’s more for the depiction of what happens after the shock and terror is over, once the ash settles on the ground and the monster retreats back into the darkness, leaving dedicated yet clueless boy scouts to flail about in the dark in a vain attempt to find it.  Zodiac is less concerned with the terror itself than with the long, soul-sucking denouement that follows, a denouement we still stand in the midst of all these years after those attacks on New York City. The film is a masterclass on horror without catharsis, on the empty path that may lay ahead if we pursue our all-too-human lust for justice and our obsessive need to hunt down and destroy the monsters that lurk in the shadows.

Of course, those themes cannot be effectively explored if the terror itself is not vividly realized.  The Zodiac killings as depicted in the film are some of the most disturbing murders ever committed to celluloid.  They consist of fairly little onscreen blood and gore, but the chaos of it, the senseless and sudden ending of lives is filmed in a way that literally makes you sick.  Two of these scenes stand out as among the greatest-ever cinematic offings.  The opening scene, where the Zodiac plugs a pair of hapless youths in their car on Lover’s Lane, all to the ethereal rhythms of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” is a show-stopper, a stunning display of technique that immediately gets the viewer on board.  A later assault on an attractive young couple on a sunny day by the lake is gut-churningly tense and an ultimately merciless mash-up of gorgeous cinematography and animalistic slaughter.  These are acts of heinous evil, and by watching them we are able to understand the determination of the dogged investigators who hunt down the mysterious murderer at the risk of their lives, their families, and their sanity.  Jake Gyllenhall is surprisingly edgy as a nerdy cartoonist turned into obsessive hunter, and he’ll risk his family life to see his mission through.  Mark Ruffalo also does his usual excellent work as a very good cop drained of his life force by the empty search, his sense of identity and self-worth decaying over time in a painful mosaic of missions unaccomplished.

It’s in the story of these pursuers, not the killer, that the film finds its disquieting soul.  Fincher, ever the keen film scholar, knows the conventions of the serial killer genre.  He created one of the most notable films the genre has to offer in Seven.  But while he skillfully uses certain tropes to set the table and introduce his monster, he dangerously throws them out the window down the home stretch.  Terror gives way to a kind of empty quiet.  The killings stop, the killer vanishes, and after a time most of those involved opt to simply go on with their lives, content with the calm at the expense of justice.  This is a dangerous place to take a film because A) it discards the killer-hunting momentum of the first half, and B) it really confuses the audience as to whether they should side with the cartoonist as he obsessively hunts for the killer’s identity, or the rest of the Bay Area as it opts for peace after a fairly brief period of madness.

To hunt down the monster with the risk of further, more personal carnage, or to hold your guns and try to get you own house in order after being so mercilessly attacked?

Never before has there been an hour-long denouement in a serial killer flick.  But that is Fincher’s mission.  He is an obsessive filmmaker exploring the nature of obsession, his exploration made all the more powerful by the fact that hunting down a ruthless murderer is a worthy and admirable goal, even though the hunters seem more concerned with completing a puzzle than avenging murdered innocents.  But what if the hunt doesn’t end?  What if all there is at the end of the tunnel is old smoke and cold ruins and more questions?  Unlike the worlds of C.S.I. and Law and Order, our world doesn’t have have a fail-safe procedural process for finding and punishing the monsters.  I’ve often thought that the reason we are fascinated by serial killers is that they present us with a clear encapsulation of all the more mysterious evils that lurk on the periphery.  When we find such a concentration of darkness, we are driven to capture or destroy it in an effort to keep the light on for another night, to keep the monsters at bay.  But what happens when the monsters will not be captured?  And what happens when we don’t know whether or not to stop trying?

These are weighty and certainly not comforting issues, and you’ll rarely find them more quietly and disturbingly probed than in Fincher’s methodical look at a dark little period of American history that never found a proper way to end.