Much hullabaloo has been made about the relation of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus to the Alien franchise that he began back in 1979. None of that, it turns out, was justified: this is a straightforward prequel to Scott’s original film, bearing scenes and sequences that seem directly copied from its predecessor while gluing on a ponderous philosophical exoskeleton that is largely mumbo-jumbo and that seems to run parallel, not integral, to what is happening on screen.
Cults, it seems, have made a comeback these last couple of years: after Martha Marcy May Marlene got Elizabeth Olsen some under-the-radar awards buzz last year, 2012 sees the high-profile release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, his first since instant classic There Will Be Blood came out in 2007. In the same vein is the smaller-sized Sound Of My Voice, an indy co-written by rising star Brit Marling and director Zal Batmanglij that premiered at SXSW. Like Martha Marcy, it’s driven by the charisma of its cult leader (John Hawkes in Martha, Marling here) and by its spinning top of an ending. With these movies, as with the cults that they emulate, success is a game of teasing and ambiguity, giving you just enough to begin to believe but not so much that your doubts are assuaged.
This week, James Cameron’s box-office colussus Titanic was re-released in theaters, fully converted to 3-D. Cameron, the maven of the movie event, has been a subject of fascination for me for a long time, since I’m not sure what it is about his work touches people so deeply. For the re-release of Titanic, I present “Comprehending Cameron,” a little-seen article on what makes Cameron’s films tick that appeared almost a full year ago in the early days of Jentleman Film Journal.
15 April 2011
The other day, I watched Titanic for what was, incredibly, only the first time – I was a little too young for it when it came out in theaters, and I guess I’ve avoided it since then because I was convinced that it couldn’t possibly be all that good. However, following my negative feelings about Avatar, and being sick and tired of being constantly told that I justhad to see Titanic, I thought it was time to give it a shot.
Surprisingly, I didn’t hate it, though I have a feeling that I could pretty easily talk myself into hating it if I spent a couple solid hours thinking about it. More interesting than any review of the film, though (because, really, what is there to say about it that hasn’t already been said?) is how it reflects, and is reflected by, Avatar, which shares fundamentally the same preoccupations. That in turn reflects the interests and efforts of writer / director Cameron, and – maybe – can tell us something about what about these fundamentally mediocre efforts so connected with audiences.
Sports movies are their own subgenre in American filmmaking, but the relative popularity of a sport doesn’t seem to have much correlation with how much it resonates on the big screen. Probably no sport has produced as many genuinely good movies as baseball, which would seem unsurprising given that game’s history and enduring appeal to the general public, yet football, the most popular sport in the country by a healthy margin, has given us only Rudy, Brian’s Song, and… what? The Blind Side? As a nation, we ignore boxing but we love boxing movies; Hoosiers is about the only feature film about basketball worth watching; and Match Point remains perhaps the only good tennis movie ever, and it is emphatically not about tennis.
Hockey, with its violence, its speed, its subcultures of drinking and militant nationalism (the latter two being frequently combined), seems to offer fertile thematic ground for filmmakers, but, outside of 2004’s Miracle and of course the Holy Trilogy of the Mighty Ducks, has been largely ignored by Hollywood. (One wonders if that’s to some degree because the American film industry is held hostage by the warm, endless pavement of Los Angeles.) That makes Goon, not just a hockey movie but a surprisingly good and heartfelt one as well, a welcome presence at our multiplexes.
I knew that I was going to see The Hunger Games this weekend, because there was nothing else coming out and perhaps also because I wanted to see what the world was suddenly so excited about, but I had no thought of going to a midnight showing. Why would I? To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never so much as touched a copy of one of the books; if you’d asked me about the movie a month ago, I probably would’ve guessed that ‘hunger game’ was the proper anthropological term for those offers at restaurants where your meal is free if you can eat an entire three-pound hamburger.
Then a friend from work suggested that a group of us go to see it at midnight at the Arclight Hollywood, and, well, why the hell not? So it was that five of us found ourselves rushing to our seats at 12:20 in the morning, fully aware that we had to get up to be at work at 9 the next day, surrounded by teenage girls and middle-aged fantasy fans, not sure what to expect.
If, walking out of a screening of Superbad after its release in 2007, you had told me that two of its leads would five years later be two of the biggest stars in Hollywood, I would have been skeptical. If you had pressed the point and added that the two who would become those stars were Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, I would literally have laughed in your face. And yet, almost five full years later, Stone is our newest It girl, Hill just got nominated for an Oscar, and 21 Jump Street is both the #1 movie in America and the first comedy hit of the year – meaning that the combined star power of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum somehow adds up to more than that of Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, and Reese Witherspoon. All of which goes to prove, even above the shocking discovery that the Jentleman isn’t always right, that movie stars are not made so much as they become.
Admittedly, the movie’s not bad either, though it probably won’t be worth seeing if you don’t see it in the theater: over-the-top comedies, like the stand-up comedians that often populate them, are always amplified when they play to a large audience that laughs together, and 21 Jump Street is as over-the-top as they come.
Some movies qualify as specialty releases because their subject material is controversial; others, because they’re stylistically far outside the mainstream. Occasionally, though, it’s because their subject material is so minor or quirky that it’s hard to imagine how it could possibly draw any sort of significant audience. That is the group that Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, the new film from umlauted Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom, belongs to.
Really, the title tells you everything that you need to know about the movie: a wealthy-beyond-wealth Yemeni sheik wants to ‘introduce the sport of salmon fishing into the Yemen,’ and he enlists the help of one of his money managers (Emily Blunt) and a Scottish official in the UK government’s fish and game department (Ewan McGregor) to make it happen. Powering the project forward is Britain’s Press Minister (Kirsten Scott Thomas), whose knack for smelling out stories beneficial to her government is matched only by her disdain for her coworkers. Naturally, there’s a personality clash between McGregor’s Freddie, who initially views the whole thing as an insult to the great salmon population of the British Isles, and Blunt’s Harriet, a London yuppie who just wants the sheik to get what he wants, and also naturally, their feelings deepen beyond what they’d expected.
There’s some heavy stuff mixed in – apparently the sheik’s love for salmon fishing isn’t appreciated by some in his homeland, who view him as becoming too Western – and all that comes off as the effort to make the subject material more broad and relevant. Frankly, though, Salmon Fishing is at its strongest when it acknowledges how thoroughly silly it is, and when it remembers that the only thing that makes an audience care, really, is how it feels about the characters, and by extension how the characters feel about their situation.
I don’t mean to suggest that the movie would be better if it stayed more permanently and comfortably within Scott Thomas’s wisecracking wheelhouse. Rather, it’s far more interesting to watch McGregor’s Freddie discovering that he cares about a project that he initially dismissed than to watch nameless beturbaned villains plotting against the sheik for being too Western. Similarly, the simple progression of the love story between Freddie and Blunt’s Harriet is far more engaging, and far more human, than the hackneyed dilemma that Harriet is presented with at the end of the film.
All of which is to say: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a charming, thoroughly minor, piece of work. There’s nothing wrong with that: just such a film just won the biggest prize in cinema at the Oscars, after all. It does mean, however, that it’s hard to find anything interesting to say about it.
But then, surely not every movie needs to be a conversation starter, so long as manages to entertain; and, through its clever jokes, its attractive characters, and, yes, even through its occasional absurdities, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen does at least manage that.
Remember those scenes early in the first Spiderman movie, where Peter Parker discovers that he all of a sudden has these super powers and starts playing around to see what he can do? In spirit, if not in direct patrilineage, those scenes are the progenitors of Chronicle, about three high school seniors who gain telekinetic powers. As in the Marvel film, there is a clear progression of inquiry, from incident to experimentation to the broader question of what to do with these powers. Chronicle, though, is a more circumscribed, personal movie, if any movie about superpowers can be described as ‘personal.’
The most central of the three protagonists, Andrew (Dane DeHaan), is one of those socially inept high schoolers who has sort of slipped through the cracks. He’s a bit of an introvert, and we get the sense that he doesn’t have anything that he’s really good at; meanwhile, he lives with a dying mother and an abusive, embittered father. At the beginning of the movie, he begins filming everything that he does, and the narrative progresses in the found footage style that has been in vogue recently (Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, etc). By chance, he, his cousin Matt, and local popular kid Steve stumble on an unidentified, presumably alien, object, which they soon discover has given them the power to move objects with their minds.
The found footage gimmick is a little cumbersome, especially at the beginning of the movie, but you get used to it after a while – and Chronicle, by virtue of its telekinetic heroes, finds a way to cheat itself into a bit more leeway once the characters have begun playing with their new abilities. Though it raises some questions, the found footage technique also provides the film’s most sophisticated touches, as in one scene later in the film where Andrew, lying on his bed, gazes inscrutably, as if trying to look at himself, up at us as we float above him.
The movie’s biggest problem – as well, perhaps, as its most interesting element – is the disjointedness between the two halves. Most of the first part of Chronicle is about these kids reveling in the joy of their new abilities, and here, at least, the found-footage approach is frequently effective: you really feel like you’re seeing their delight as something captured rather than something staged. At some point, though, the movie veers off on a darker tangent, and it doesn’t quite all fit together. The plot points are all in place, but the characters haven’t quite been put together well enough to make what happens make sense. (I realize that that’s pretty ambiguous, but I can’t add much more without betraying what happens.) And, speaking more broadly, it’s frustrating to see writers and directors continue to bank on the imagined cultural memory of what high school is like.
All that said, I liked Chronicle quite a bit. Like last year’s Kick-Ass, it has at its core the idea of deconstructing the superhero myth, but it does so a lot more successfully because, unlike Kick-Ass, it doesn’t end up relying on that same myth for its dramatic payoff. Andrew, Matt, and Steve are just a bunch of kids – and, in what might be the movie’s greatest innovation, they don’t stop being kids just because they figure out how to fly.
I saw Man on a Ledge at the Hollywood ArcLight movie theater – probably the best cinema in Los Angeles – and walked out with more to say about the presentation of the movie than the movie itself. The ArcLight Dome is an old Cinerama screen that’s been repurposed for normal projection; if the term ‘Cinerama’ doesn’t mean anything to you, the important thing is that the projection space is enormous. It’s impossible to not be impressed by what you’re watching. That’s good for Man on a Ledge, because I ended up really enjoying it, and I’m not sure that I would have if I’d seen it on a normal screen. Because, frankly, there’s nothing about this movie that isn’t preposterous, from Sam Worthington’s belabored American accent to a heist sequence that was ripped directly from Mission: Impossible, the one without any Roman numerals after the name.
Like last year’s Tower Heist, which managed it a bit more effectively, Man on a Ledge is broadly about an unscrupulous rich man (David Englander, played with a scowl and a grimace by Ed Harris) who robs from the poor to enrich himself. Here, though, that theft is measured in human terms rather than in monetary ones: his victim is former cop Nick Cassidy (Worthington), who, prior to the action of the film, he has set up as the thief of an immense diamond, his intention being to keep the diamond and still collect on the insurance. Nick escapes from prison, and the film documents his elaborate scheme to prove that the diamond is still in Englander’s hands – by stealing it for real. That plan involves, yes, standing on a ledge twenty-one storeys up and threatening to commit suicide.
Think that doesn’t make any sense? You’re right! It’s all explained, of course, but fundamentally the reason that he’s up on that ledge appears to be that the writer (Pablo Fenjves, aka the ghostwriter of O.J. Simpson’s If I Did It) wants to illustrate that Nick is willing to die to prove his innocence. The problem is that you never believe that he might actually go over the edge, and even the movie admits this when the policewoman trying to talk him down (Elizabeth Banks, cementing her career move to go-to supporting actress in B-minus movies) points out that he’s nowhere near jumping. There’s always the danger that he’s going to slip, I guess, but you’d never know it from the way Nick prances around on his ledge like it’s a catwalk.
The more fundamental issue, though, is that there are about five too many moving parts in this film. The successful heist flick relies for some of its power on the protagonists’ always being one step ahead of the audience, so that each reveal increases our appreciation for just how clever they are. In Man on a Ledge, though, even the setbacks that look real turn out to have been planned for, making Nick and those helping him seem more or less prescient. It’s not just that it never seems like they might not succeed: there’s barely a moment in the movie where it’s the case that they might not succeed. There’s no risk of failure. And without the risk of failure, what do we care about what they’re doing?
If nothing else, Steven Soderbergh is probably the most adventurous American director working today. Since entering the cinematic conversation in 1989 with the tawdry, controversial Sex, Lies, and Videotape, he’s demonstrated a willingness to tackle almost any subject on almost any budget. Where most acclaimed directors carve out a niche to focus on particular eras and themes, Soderbergh has moved from historical epic (Che) to brat pack cool (Ocean’s Eleven and co) to abstruse sci-fi (Solaris) seemingly without blinking.
Haywire, his latest, is ostensibly an action thriller, but it’s closer to Soderbergh’s smaller, more experimental genre experiments than it is to his commercial ventures. There is an obvious parallel to 2009’s The Girlfriend Experience, another film for which Soderbergh cast his lead from outside Hollywood: here the star is mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano, playing a contractor for a private security force. Where The Girlfriend Experience peeked into the existence of a high-class New York escort, Haywire reads like a bare-bones reduction of the contemporary Hollywood action formula. It’s as if Soderbergh wants to distill the Bourne tradition into its most basic elements: paranoia, secrets, and gritty, bone-crunching physical action.
What’s missing is a compelling story; the plot of Haywire consists of a collection of standard action movie plot points strung together with little explanation or logic. The film’s opening sequence has Carano’s Mallory and her team (including Channing Tatum, as expressionless as ever) tasked with extracting a dissident journalist from his imprisonment under house arrest. When Mallory is then sent to Dublin to meet with an operative called Studer, however, things quickly go awry, and Mallory is forced to go rogue and try to understand how Studer, the journalist, and her employer are all connected.
There’s a lot of running across rooftops, grainy digital cinematography, and opaque telephone calls, but surprisingly little head-bashing: Carano’s flying kicks impress when she gets to do them, but somehow that ends up being not very often. Meanwhile, an impressive troop of actors – Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton, and Ewan McGregor all appear – mug for the (unflattering) camera and say lines like, “The motive is always money” to each other without it being quite clear how they’re all related to the heroine, if at all. It’s as if Soderbergh picked up his camera, called up his favorite boys in Hollywood, and suggested they all go shoot up a quick movie together in Dublin and Barcelona, content be damned.
It’s not bad, for all that: there’s a sinister stillness to the film that satisfies, and a grizzled Antonio Banderas injects some levity into the proceedings. Once you get used to the strangeness of it all – the semi-blurry camerawork, the unstyled, unpolished editing, above all the unsettling quietness of a movie in a genre that usually offers more bangs and explosions than you know what to do with – there’s even something interesting about it. I haven’t quite figured out what it is yet, but I’m pretty sure it’s there.