Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Vote for me; I'll set you free: American politics in film

By Steve Evans

The U.S. campaign season has blessedly come to an end. No more promises. No more accusations. No more stump speeches and other rhetorical tedium.

While waiting for the polls to close, here we have a baker's dozen uplifting film suggestions to maintain perspective and get us through Election Day. Truth may be stranger than fiction, although fiction often conveys a greater truth:

All the King's Men (1949)
Broderick Crawford famously portrays Willy Stark, a rural Louisiana politician whose ambition causes him to lose his innocence and eventually his mind. Based on the life of Huey “The Kingfish” Long, a Louisiana governor, U.S. Senator and would-be presidential candidate who was assassinated in 1935.

All the President's Men (1976)
Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) risk their careers – and, it is implied, their lives – to unravel the Watergate Cover-up that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Hal Holbrook is Deep Throat, nicknamed after a porn film popular at the time.

A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Andy Griffith delivers his best dramatic performance as a charismatic musician who gains fame and power, gradually revealing himself to be venal, utterly corrupt and probably sociopathic. You’ll never look at Mayberry the same way after watching Elia Kazan’s powerful and eerily prescient film on the power of the media to catapult a hick to the forefront of public adoration. Predates Sidney Lumet’s Network by 20 years (and Rush Limbaugh by 30 years), while covering similar thematic territory.

The Candidate (1972)
Robert Redford runs for a U.S. Senate seat in California, only to suffer a crisis of conscience as he discovers no real issues are ever discussed; there are only carefully choreographed sound bites.

The Manchurian Candidate (I prefer this 1962 original over the 2004 remake)
Director John Frankenheimer and screenwriter George Axlerod set the standard for paranoid political thrillers in this odd (and darkly comic) film about a Communist conspiracy to plant a subversive politician in the White House. Lawrence Harvey’s bland acting style found the role of a lifetime in Raymond Shaw, the brainwashed assassin. Frank Sinatra stars as the army captain determined to crush the conspiracy.

Seven Days in May (1964)
Hawkish military man Burt Lancaster attempts to overthrow a presidency, stage a coup d'état and fight Communism on his own radical terms, even if it means nuclear annihilation. Another great Frankenheimer political thriller co-starring Kirk Douglas as a man of conscience and a powerful, late-career performance by Frederic March as the president.

The President's Analyst (1967)
James Coburn stars as a psychologist picked by the U.S. Secret Service to serve as the president’s secret psychoanalyst in this swinging-sixties satire. Coburn soon becomes caught up in a conspiracy to render the phone company obsolete through Matrix-like brain implants in all citizens. Remember, this was 1967.

The Parallax View (1974)
Newspaper reporter Warren Beatty investigates the mysterious Parallax Corporation, which seems linked to a series of political assassinations. Beatty begins to wonder if Parallax may actually be running a puppet government by proxy. Shades of Halliburton, anyone?

The Dead Zone (1983)
Adapted from a Stephen King novel, this film by David Cronenberg lingers on the supernatural aspects of a man (Christopher Walken at his haunted best) who is gifted with the power of seeing into the minds of others whenever he makes physical contact. When he shakes hands with a presidential candidate (Martin Sheen) he discovers the politician’s true agenda, setting him on a course reminiscent of the Manchurian Candidate.

Bob Roberts (1992)
Tim Robbins stars as the titular character, a candidate for U.S. Senate who holds far greater aspirations. Candidate Roberts sings folksy Dylanesque songs that belie a self-serving and borderline Fascist message. Robbins also co-wrote and directed this, his first feature film, and his proselytizing can be ham-fisted at times. Still, this is a riveting example of “politics as theater” and a cautionary tale of what happens when news media present an unfiltered message without benefit of critical thought.

The Ides of March (2011)
George Clooney is a morally corrupt politician screwing interns and covering up the aftermath of his affairs. His junior campaign manager (Ryan Gossling) learns a harsh lesson in the reality of modern-day politicking, leading to inevitable disillusionment with a life squandered on political promotion. A great supporting cast features Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti.

The War Room (1993)
Famed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker received unprecedented access to then-candidate Bill Clinton’s political strategists. Film focuses mainly on the machinations of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, who sculpted their baggage-laden candidate and maneuvered the media to court popular favor and win the presidency.

W. (2008)
Oliver Stone’s surprisingly restrained biopic of President George W. Bush promotes the none-too-surprising thesis that “Dubya” was basically a decent and simple man – emphasis on the simple – who was in way over his head. Josh Brolin turns in a credible performance as the oft-confused president, though Richard Dreyfus steals the film as Vice President Dick Cheney, shown here as the real brains – and the main problem – of the Bush Administration.

And if you can't appreciate irony, then just watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Frank Capra directed Jimmy Stewart in this 73-year-old classic, made when people actually harbored optimism in their hearts for the political process. It’s still a good film.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Playing The Game

By Steve Evans

“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself.” – German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

I re-watched David Fincher's The Game (1997) last night. The picture is not as clever as its creators think it is, but remains thought-provoking. And that's rare for a big-budget film starring Michael Douglas. 

In retrospect, casting Douglas was an ideal choice. The man has an uncanny way of tapping into and exploiting social issues with precision timing: 

In 1979, he co-starred in The China Syndrome, about an accident at a nuclear reactor. The film's premiere coincided within weeks of an actual accident at the nuclear plant in Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island.

A decade later, as public sentiment began to turn against the money-obsessed, Douglas won an Oscar for Wall Street in which he famously declared that "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good," creating in Gordon Gekko a villain for the times, if not the ages, as he would return two decades later as the same character played on a more sympathetic note (the poorly titled Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps).

Around the same time, Douglas starred as a walking metaphor for the dangers of marital infidelity and, perhaps as subtext, the very real risk of contracting a terminal disease, in the wildly successful Fatal Attraction.

Eight years later, Douglas was an improbable victim of sexual harassment in the workplace in Disclosure.

And he was right for The Game as a millionaire investment banker who gets a strange birthday present from his brother (Sean Penn). It is a voucher from a sketchy company known as Consumer Recreation Services to play a mysterious game that the brother assures "will change your life." Soon, the wealthy man wonders whether the Game is designed to kill him, instead. 

The Game is that rare thriller that stretches credibility to the outer reaches of the breaking point, yet holds together in its enduring theme: the importance of living the examined life. It is a fascinating metaphor for breaking down a man to his raw components -- as life will do -- and waiting to see if the man can rebuild himself into something better. 

Fincher's third directorial effort is also a uniquely American film that taps into the cultural obsession with fame and wealth, while privately enjoying the fall of the famous and wealthy. The Game panders to this perverse Schadenfreude as viewers envy the protagonist's comfortable life, then gloat when complacency and riches are forcibly taken from him. Yet by the end of the film, Douglas' unpleasant millionaire regains his humanity after he is force-fed a rather large serving of humility by Consumer Recreation Services, a corporation that seems to take malicious glee in playing God. Viewers may feel sorry for Douglas’ persecuted character, even come to like this man.

The Game understands and exploits American culture like few modern films. Its story arc follows a typical celebrity confessional on an episode of Oprah: An arrogant and self-obsessed individual comes tumbling down from grace, makes penance (in The Game, it is a proverbial trial by fire) and seeks absolution. Everyone has a good cry and walks into the light. Salvation at last.

At its core, The Game can be seen as a Christian allegory of redemption – if we can get past the outrageous plot and treat the film as character study. It is ultimately the millionaire’s personal mettle that is put to the test; the rest is slicked-up action entertainment by cinematic craftsmen at the top of their own game.

Though many critics have commented on the mean-spirited nature of The Game, it actually remains Fincher’s most humane and hopeful film. And that, like the cultural zeitgeist flowing below the surface of The Game itself, is a curious paradox not found in any other contemporary film.

Note: The always-excellent Criterion Collection recently released a special edition of this film.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 7, 2012

In Defense of Film Critics

By Steve Evans

Moviegoers might wonder why film critics seem to enjoy attacking and picking apart motion pictures. We're talking about critics who go far beyond a simple thumbs up or down; they eviscerate the movie and chew it up. Such vitriol. How mean-spirited of those nasty critics. For fans of a particular director or actor, negative reviews might spur outrage far disproportionate to the actual criticism.

You'd think it would be a non-issue. So many publications have eliminated film critics from the payrolls that a huge void in cultural analysis has been created and may never be filled, except perhaps by academics whose influence exists outside the sphere of mainstream movie going. In conversations with fellow film lovers, I have been asked whether contemporary critics deliberately rip into movies in order to spur controversy, sell publications and possibly hold onto their jobs. We are, after all, an endangered species.

I’ll always defend movie criticism as an important part of the cultural dialog. While there may be a few constipated critics who hate everything they watch, their numbers are minuscule in comparison to the true professionals who bring passion, integrity and a genuine love of the cinema to their reviews. Film criticism may be the most misunderstood of the rhetorical arts.  

As someone who has spent many hours in movie theaters, writing about films for newspapers, magazines and websites, I have had to sit through a lot of bad cinema. Sometimes the story doesn’t work or the narrative structure holding the tale together unravels, instead. Maybe the problem is a poor performance or miscast actors. Often, though, it is not one thing that causes a movie to fly off the rails and crash, but an accumulation of incompetence and bad creative choices, compounded by the filmmakers’ arrogance, hubris and access to too much money -- or perhaps not enough.

So why the critical hostility? Is it really a big deal when someone makes a bad movie? I suspect that those of us lucky enough to get paid for reviewing movies may have a lower tolerance for lousy ones, since we see so many. But when a movie actively insults our intelligence, that crosses the line and the pointed pens come out.

In fairness, no one ever set out to make a bad movie, but plenty of marketing dollars have been spent trying to promote movies that the studios realized, after the fact, are rotten to the core. The job of a film critic is to penetrate this smoke screen and answer a fundamental question: does the movie hold appeal for its intended audience? Analysis of a movie’s technical and artistic merits can help answer this question.

There is the old axiom that “everyone’s a critic,” which is certainly true, although I prefer to read the criticism of individuals with informed opinions. Someone who has seen many movies, who knows the history of the medium and its key players, has the contextual knowledge and experience to understand what works in a picture – and what doesn’t. Movie critics are part of the last bastion in a dying part of commerce: quality customer service. By reading reviews of critics whose insights you respect, you can make better decisions on how to spend your entertainment dollars. That's good value. That's customer service.

I have yet to read the work of any critic who ripped into a film without good reason.

Expect the worst if you read reports that a film was not screened in advance for critics. That is almost always a clear signal to hold off going to the theater for a few days, as the studio that made the film has no faith in its ability to sell tickets. Studios try to get a jump on revenues by bypassing critics and hauling in at least one day of ticket sales before word gets out on a bomb.

The sole function of movies made by the American studio system is to extract money from you in exchange for an experience that typically lasts two hours. You have no way of knowing whether it will be a good or a bad experience. Like any investment, buying a movie ticket is a gamble. So critics should indeed attack bad movies — savage them without mercy if they are utterly incompetent in the core areas of technical and artistic skill. People should not have to spend money on inferior goods. 

A good critical drubbing helps clear the marketplace of lousy product. It certainly won’t eliminate bad films but it can help.

Going to the movies is an increasingly expensive entertainment option. Theaters in most U.S. cities have long since broken the $10-a-ticket barrier, although a matinee costs a little less. It would be disingenuous to argue that theaters upgrading to digital projection would not pass along those costs to consumers at the ticket-buying level. Expect concessions to increase as well. Going to the movies is an investment.

Taken in that light, compare a film critic to a stock analyst. A good, unbiased analyst can help you make a sage investment decision with those precious entertainment dollars. This is especially true when confronting an artfully constructed movie trailer or TV advertising for a film. A skilled trailer editor can make a bullshit movie appear as shimmering gold. That's their job. The job of a film critic is to holler, “The Emperor has no clothes!” when necessary, no matter how slick the marketing effort.

Ah, and now my favorite argument in defense of critical attacks on lousy films: There is a unique pleasure to be enjoyed in watching a knowledgeable film critic tee off on a really bad picture. Comedy is where you find it, and I find that bad movies bring out the best writing in many critics. Roger Ebert's popular book, "Your Movie Sucks," is proof of this.

Finally, I may go see a hideously ravaged film despite the negative critical sentiment just to see for myself how bad it really is. You can learn a lot about making good films by watching the blunders in bad films.

Truly awful films are sublime — they are like a window into the deranged mind of the film’s creators. Take Mesa of Lost Women (1953) starring poor, old Jackie Coogan, struggling for a paycheck after his mother and step-father ripped off his fortune earned as a child actor during the Silent Era. Coogan plays mad scientist Dr. Arana, creating spider-women and dwarves on his isolated mountain bluff. Why he does these things defies explanation. Ah, but there’s so much more. Mesa of Lost Women has flashbacks within flashbacks, alternating points of view, atrocious acting, a narrative structure that an elementary school theatre group could easily surpass, plus bad special effects, disjointed editing, characters recalling events at which they were not present to witness, a grating Flamenco guitar and piano musical score, plot threads that go nowhere, and a thick layer of preposterous, hubba-hubba sexploitation, 1950s-style. Some bimbo named “Tarantella,” performs a weird dance in a bar in the middle of the picture — for no reason any sane person can discern, although it certainly holds the attention of the barflys watching her with glassy eyes.

With the exception of Coogan, who went on to a career in television, every other actor in this picture soon vanished like a virgin on prom night. Behind the scenes, the work that went into this low-budget movie required the efforts of two directors, two screenwriters, two editors and four producers, which is easily twice the number of creative individuals needed to make most films, including bad ones. 

Mesa of Lost Women is a fascinating 67 minutes of “Huh?” It is inept at every conceivable level of the filmmaking process and also entertaining as hell.

That is a fair and accurate assessment of the movie. On the chance you've never heard of this picture, as a film historian and critic I feel obliged to point out its existence as a high-ranking contender for the worst film ever made.

Whether you seek out and watch it is a decision that I leave up to you.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Stephen B. Evans. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Norman Mailer's Drug-Addled Cinema

By Steve Evans

Norman Mailer
Mailer in a rare moment of repose.
I have read much of Normal Mailer's literary output through the years, as well as a comprehensive and unauthorized biography of this egocentric talent, but only recently have I come to know the two-time Pulitzer winner as an experimental filmmaker.

My lone experience with a Mailer film had been his 1987 directorial curiosity Tough Guys Don't Dance, which is a positively insane film noir. Ryan O'Neal staggers through most of this picture looking like he suffers from the worst morning-after in the history of hangovers. As his father, gravel-voiced Lawrence Tierney (the crime boss in Reservoir Dogs) talks endlessly about his desire to "deep-six the heads" when corpses begin to accumulate and the weirdness quotient expands exponentially.

It's a film worth experiencing just for the peculiar dialog.

There is an amazing exchange at a bar between Ryan O'Neal's besotted character and the femme fatale of the picture, Miss Patty Lareine. As she comes on to O'Neal, Miss Patty leans in close and purrs in a thick, Suthern drawl, "Ah used to have golden-blond pussy hair until ah scorched it with the football team."

This is not something you hear every day.

Character actor Wings Hauser, who specialized in convincing portrayals of psychotics, here plays the corrupt police chief in O'Neal's small town. Of his enthusiasm for smoking marijuana, Hauser's police chief declares, "I like your home-grown. It puts feathers on my ass. Godly stuff."

Such is the cinema of Norman Mailer, who adapted the Tough Guys script from his novel.

Lesser known is the fact that Mailer also produced, wrote, directed and starred in several drug-fueled cinéma vérité experimental films in the late '60s/early '70s that were mostly improvisational -- though just as Tough-Guys crazy. Most of them were shot in the Hamptons with Mailer’s friends and family. Drugs and booze allegedly flowed freely throughout this creative process -- with decidedly mixed results.

The Criterion Collection thinks highly enough of Mailer's early cinematic exertions to offer them in a boxed set.

The clip below is an unscripted scene from Maidstone (1970), in which Mailer and character actor Rip Torn, both probably high as monkeys, get into a vicious brawl with the cameras rolling. Rip whacks Mailer on the skull with a hammer and says he intends to kill Mailer's character in the film. In practical terms this amounts to attacking Mailer himself, though the writer-director seems unprepared for the assault. Mailer eventually takes a bite out of Rip's ear, prefiguring Mike Tyson by a couple of decades, while Mailer's wife and children scream in evidently genuine horror.

It certainly does not resemble a typical, staged movie fight. Mailer was not known to back down from conflict. His machismo is legendary, despite the fact -- or perhaps because -- he was a relatively small man.

As for his cinema -- is it avant-garde or drug-addled idiocy?

Decide for yourself:

Norman Mailer died in November 2007, age 84. His six marriages produced nine children.

Notable literary works include The Naked and the Dead, The Executioner's Song and Ancient Evenings, which are all particular favorites of mine. He was a co-founder of The Village Voice newspaper. He twice won the Pulitzer Prize and received the National Book Award.

His forays into film were considerably less successful.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Stephen B. Evans. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sean Connery's not-so-greatest hits

By Steve Evans

Sean Connery, the Academy award-winning Scotsman whose suave manner in a tuxedo was the epitome of 1960s cool, turns 82 next month.

Aside from his seven performances as the most famous vodka-martini-drinking spy in the world, Connery's oeuvre also includes such gems as Hitchcock's unfairly-maligned curiosity, Marnie, filmed in 1964 around Connery's Goldfinger shooting schedule, as well as the Disney children's classic Darby O'Gill and the Little People, in which we get to hear Sir Sean sing a song:

Apparently, Walt Disney was counting on American audiences not to discern the difference between Connery's Scottish brogue and a genuine Irish accent.

Connery was tailor-made for The Man Who Would be King, one of John Houston's last great films. And Connery won the Oscar, of course, for DePalma's The Untouchables. Given his pedigree as an action hero, he also seemed the logical choice to play Harrison Ford's on-screen father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Great films, all, and by no means an exhaustive list.

While Connery will probably always be best remembered as the greatest actor to portray Bond, James Bond, here at Cinema Uprising we suspect there may be one or two films the Scotsman would just as soon forget. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comes to mind. But perhaps his most awkward moments are on display as the ruthless, diaper-wearing anti-hero Zed in John Boorman's insane 1973 film Zardoz. Hard to believe he could have read the script (or consulted with the costume designer) before signing on for this one.

Sir Connery, I would like to thank you personally for the James Bond films, which meant a lot to me as a teenager. In spite of your superstar status, you remain a consolation to millions of people everywhere who occasionally make bad wardrobe decisions, though perhaps not as bad as this one from Zardoz:

Love the boots, Sean.

Still, I'll stick with From Russia With Love (1963) and try to get that last image out of my head.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Stephen B. Evans. All rights reserved.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Firebird Burns Brightly After 102 Years

By Steve Evans

Russian composer Igor Stravinsky's Firebird Suite premiered in Paris 102 years ago today, in 1910, to ecstatic reviews. The suite is considered Stravinsky's breakthrough composition; its reception encouraged him to create later masterpieces such as The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky was 28 years old when he composed the Firebird for ballet. He died in 1971 at the age of 89.

Just 12 years ago, Walt Disney Studios released Fantasia 2000, which concludes with a gorgeous visual interpretation of the Firebird. It remains one of my favorite pieces of animation, even though it veers off Stravinsky’s storyline.

Although pop music has long been used in motion pictures to telegraph certain emotional cues in the audience, such songs have the unfortunate side effect of instantly dating any film that uses them. Not so with classical music, which conveys timelessness. That makes the classics a perfect choice for underscoring eternal themes such as life, death and rebirth.

A beautiful melding of sound and image from Fantasia 2000 to inspire the start of our week:

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Stephen B. Evans. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury: An Appreciation

By Steve Evans

Author Ray Bradbury, whose richly evocative works of speculative fiction captivated me as a teenager, died yesterday, July 5, 2012. He was 91.

If there is a hereafter, I hope Bradbury now knows the significant and wholly positive impact his writing continues to make in my life. I am grateful.

Bradbury’s best-known novels, Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, which I devoured 30 years ago in high school, address perennial themes of repression, totalitarianism and the virtue of iconoclasm as the mark of a truly free individual in an oppressive society. His influence on my youth is inestimable, as I struggled to develop my own identity in a cliquish Virginia high school far too populated with smarmy individuals wearing Izod alligators on their shirts – a trademark emblem that I gradually came to associate with a Swastika. Being mocked for reading -- science fiction, no less -- is something I will never forget, nor was I ever able to wrap my mind around the ridicule. It made no sense to me then and still seems inscrutable today. Apparently, some people feel threatened when confronted with a person reading a book. Until I learned to fight back, to savor the satisfaction of connecting my fist to a plump bully's nose and to revel in the eloquent sound of crunching cartilage, I found wisdom and no small measure of escape in Bradbury's books.

Film director Francois Truffaut adapted Fahrenheit 451 for his first color motion picture in 1966. It was also the French director’s first English-language film and he was reportedly dissatisfied with the somewhat stilted results. Still, it is an interesting film – which Bradbury himself said he enjoyed – and a compelling visual experience.

In the world of Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which paper ignites), owning and reading books is forbidden. Black-clad firemen roam an unnamed city gathering illicit books into piles for burning with their flamethrowers. The penalties for reading are severe – from psychological reprogramming to execution. One fireman gradually begins to question his role in the totalitarian state that employs him.

It is a cautionary fable of a fascist society that bans books as a means of repressing individuality. Truffaut’s picture has enjoyed a critical reappraisal in the 46 years since its release and is recommended viewing.

Thinking back on my own experiences in high school, I feel only contempt for my peers on the rare occasions when I bother to think about them at all. They wore the same shirts as everyone else so they could dissolve into anonymity and exist safely within the surrounding society. They mocked and derided anyone who was not one of them. During my coerced attendance at a high school reunion some years ago, I discovered that little had changed through the decades for many of these people. They move and perhaps even think in unison, like sheep herded toward an abattoir.

Why? Because there is almost always comfort in numbers, even if only illusory, which is perhaps why I have always been vaguely uncomfortable. Some people find it easier to hold the same beliefs and attitudes as the majority. They just let go of critical thought.

Ray Bradbury thought differently. His books were a solace and a reassurance to me that life can – and, dare I say, should – be lived on your own terms. You must simply avow to do so.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Stephen B. Evans. All rights reserved.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Vicarious Living Through Action Films

By Steve Evans

Hooray for action heroes, especially James Bond. He is smooth and capable. Bond gets things done. Evildoers get in his way only once.

Don’t you wish all the toxic people in your life could be dispatched with such elegant ease and economy?

Dumbass bosses. That asshole in the Lexus who cut you off in traffic. Ex-wives and their extended, dysfunctional, foul-smelling families of nitwits & buffoons. Plus assorted idiots and fools of every stripe.

Imagine all the free time you could enjoy with every bipedal pest in your life impaled to a coconut tree where they can no longer make a nuisance of themselves. Of course, nailing human cockroaches to tropical plants with a speargun is harsh, impractical and probably illegal in your jurisdiction. You will likely get into trouble if you engage in this sort of target practice. Ah, but we can still daydream with the magic of motion pictures.

You don’t have to admit it. That’s okay. But you are thinking about it. No one has quite figured out how to control your thoughts just yet. So revel in the stress-relief of slick action cinema, which makes us feel better. This is one reason why Sean Connery richly deserves to be, well, rich.

Wishful thinking: the essential appeal of action films.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Stephen B. Evans. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Does Reel Violence Beget Real Violence?

By Steve Evans

There’s a lively debate underway at The Auteurs.com/MUBI.com about the alleged impact of violent films on the people who watch them. As it happens, this is a debate as old as cinema itself.

Hard for me to talk about cinematic violence without digging up “Bloody Sam” Peckinpah, who used an effective range of techniques to portray violence — but he also had a point to make. For instance, Straw Dogs (1971) argues that violence is innate in all people. It is a primal force that will inevitably emerge in everyone — if we are pushed far enough. To prove his point, Peckinpah pushes emotional buttons in his audience until they are raw. Rare is the individual who does not feel his pulse quicken as Dustin Hoffman’s pacifist mathematician defends his home from drunken marauders at the relentlessly bloody climax of Straw Dogs.

Does a violent film spur violent acts? Who is so arrogant as to provide a definitive answer to a question that has been argued endlessly – and thus inconclusively – for more than a century? And what is the option, anyway?

I will not advocate censorship or condemn escapist films, simply because they serve a purpose by their very definition. Hollywood product shows conclusively, time and again, that the big moneymakers are almost always escapist fare, which only reminds me of the old Kinks song, "Give the People What They Want."

Debate on what is ‘good" for you or "bad’ for you becomes moot. Public demand sets the market for horror films and violent action pictures.

This segues into the broader question of society and where it may be heading. Similar debates over the violence and horror in graphically gory comic books raged in the 1950s and early 1960s, so the medium is now different even if the issue is not.

I would argue, instead, that romantic comedies create more social problems than violent escapist films simply because romantic comedies tend to dwell in the realm of the plausible — if not the probable. Most people, if they are honest, will admit to desiring love and acceptance. Romcoms create unrealistic expectations and may actively encourage fantasies about love that cannot possibly come to life. Hell, Pretty Woman made a ton of cash and it was just a movie about a whore. But it appealed to Cinderella fantasies and made a mint.
Violent films, on the other hand, tend to be wildly implausible because of the situations depicted in them. Dust off your old collection of Schwarzenegger movies from the 1980s if you don’t believe me. Give Rambo another spin. Check out any Bruce Willis action flick made in the last quarter-century. Escapism? No question.

Perhaps the better question would be to ask how "serious" violent films impact an audience versus satirical or deliberately cartoonish violent fare. When I saw Saving Private Ryan in a packed theater on its original release in 1998, not a word was spoken as the audience filed out of the auditorium over the closing credits. A decade earlier, when Robocop was released, people left the theater laughing and jabbering excitedly at the ride they had just seemingly enjoyed. Both films are more or less equally violent. One treats the action seriously, the other is a satirical commentary. Each uses violence to different effect.

As for horror films, to take this genre seriously is to question your own emotional development. People who revel in watching other people maimed and hurt already have more problems than they can count before they buy a movie ticket.

Reasonably sophisticated people understand that when they pay to see a movie, that’s exactly what they get — to paraphrase the famous tagline of Last House on the Left, “It’s only a movie, only a movie….” Cinephiles may also note that Last House on the Left, a nasty little picture, is just an exploitative rip-off of the artful Ingmar Bergman film, The Virgin Spring.

As for ridiculously unsophisticated people and whether they are harmfully affected by cinematic violence, I pose the rhetorical question: who shall we appoint to protect these individuals from themselves?

Right. We come full circle to the notion of censorship, which to me is more repellent than anything in violent films.

The debate over violence in the cinema may never be resolved, although escapism – with or without violence – serves its purpose. Need more fodder for debate? You got it:

Die Hard is the greatest Christmas movie ever made.


Cinema Uprising copyright © by Stephen B. Evans. All rights reserved.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Understanding How The Avengers Became an ATM

By Steve Evans

To understand how a movie like The Avengers could pop a record-breaking opening of more than $200 million and show no signs of stopping, juggernaut that it is, I pulled a useful book off the shelf in my office and started re-reading the insights of some academicians who study such things as cinema, though especially pop culture and the interplay with those who consume it.

Movie Blockbusters (2003; ISBN-13: 9780415256087) tackles both the film industry and the ticket buyers who keep studios in green clover. Thoroughly academic in content, yet accessible to anyone who enjoys film, this book will expand your mind in understanding what drives Hollywood to produce noisy and ungodly expensive pictures for the widest possible audience.

Big-budget, spectacular films designed to appeal to a mass audience: is this what - or all - blockbusters are? Movie Blockbusters brings together writings from key film scholars, including Douglas Gomery, Peter Kramer, Jon Lewis and Steve Neale, to address the work of notable blockbuster auteurs such as Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, discuss key movies such as Star Wars and Titanic, and consider the context in which blockbusters are produced and consumed, including what the rise of the blockbuster says about the Hollywood film industry, how blockbusters are marketed and exhibited, and who goes to see them. The book also considers the movie scene outside Hollywood, discussing blockbusters made in Bollywood, China, South Korea, New Zealand and Argentina.
It is a sobering read for anyone who laments the languishing state of arthouse theaters, or who yearns for thoughtful, provocative films that you can enjoy in a theater without hearing Captain America and the Hulk yell their spandex-covered asses off through the wall adjoining the theater next door.

There are two broad ways of thinking about this division between blockbusters and smaller films that explore the nuances of complex issues affecting our lives.

Old school showmen, the long-gone heads of the major studios, would tell us that the job of a movie is to entertain people so as to turn a nice profit.

People who think of film as a serious art form that wields tremendous influence tend to prefer pictures that provoke and spark conversations that could – conceivably – lead to positive social change.

These are not mutually exclusive considerations. There need not be blockbusters at the expense of smaller pictures that address social concerns, just as provocative cinema need not (and probably never will) supplant noisy action films. There is room in the marketplace for both of these broad categories of films. Unfortunately, one category makes nearly inconceivable amounts of money and the other gets discussed in coffeeshops.

The real issue comes down to show business, which of course is most definitely big business. Companies that wish to continue making money must deliver products that people will pay for.

So why do people pay to see rambunctious blockbusters featuring fictional superheroes who spout painfully obvious witticisms and dialog that serves little purpose other than to advance the plot to the next big action setpiece? This is the essential question.

I argue that it is principally because they are bored with their lives, don’t particularly like themselves and may even be deeply frustrated with the doldrums of their existence. Noise and spectacle (bread & circuses in another time and place) provide blessed distractions from the reality of dealing with an incorrigible boss or a failing relationship. Contrast the appeal of the blockbuster with a movie that explores painful but real human problems. The latter has a harder time finding an audience because it’s hard work to confront your demons head-on or even deal with them vicariously through a motion picture. The number of people who want to think deeply about the complexity of existence is disproportionately smaller to those who would rather not think at all.

The Avengers was made expressly for the second group.

Blockbusters place no demands on your intellect, only your wallet. They are as fleeting and ephemeral as an amusement park ride, which is just another form of escape from a banal existence.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

The essential truth of that sentiment has evolved since the 19th century. Today, many people are content to let someone else do their singing and live adventures on their behalf.

It’s safe to watch life the way we wish to live it; much harder to see ourselves in films that explore real problems – and then do something about them. If you wish to be challenged, if you don't care for the status quo and yearn for art that advances your intelligence, not insults it, there are entertainment companies that want your business and will satisfy your desires.

Myself? I’ll keep supporting the Criterion Collection and Janus Films, Kino Lorber, RaroCinema and Blue Underground until they turn out the lights and shutter their operations, may that tragic day never come.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Stephen B. Evans. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Glimpse of Django Unchained

By Steve Evans

Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz team up to fight Leonardo DiCaprio’s evil slave owner in Django Unchained, an upcoming revisionist Western by Quentin Tarantino, the leading practitioner of flat-out-wrong history in the service of exploitation cinema.

Miramax just released these stills from the film, which is set for a Christmas Day opening:

Foxx plays the liberated slave of the title who joins forces with a bounty hunter (Waltz) in an odyssey across the Antebellum South. Their quest involves finding Django’s wife, the improbably named Broomhilda, now owned by the wicked Calvin Candie (DiCaprio, sporting a Mephistophelean goatee). Tarantino regulars Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell provide support, along with Don Johnson, legendary makeup artist Tom Savini and Borat, um, Sacha Baron Cohen. Because this is a Tarantino film, when Django catches up with Calvin you know blood is gonna flow like Ol' Man River.

Revenge is the recurring and dominant theme in all of Tarantino’s films, which are looking progressively better as his budgets have increased. Waltz and Foxx, in particular, come off especially bad-ass in their Old West garb. Check out the bowler and tiered duster on Waltz, who could bring back fashions from the 19th century and make them popular once more with just his attitude.

No matter. Fine costumes and production values cannot obscure the fact that Tarantino’s one-note oeuvre becomes more preposterous with each film he makes. Here’s hoping Django Unchained marks a return to form. Let this picture be as taut, crazed, politically incorrect, hilariously profane and violent as his best work, which for my money is still his first picture, Reservoir Dogs (1992).

Tarantino launched himself 20 years ago as a genuine maverick with a disappointing penchant for producing derivative films. It is a well-known fact among those who care about such things that even his finest film, Reservoir Dogs, is little more than a mash-up of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle and the original Taking of Pelham 1,2,3, with some references to obscure Japanese thrillers thrown in to season the stew. Tarantino took the basic ingredients of better films, ramped up the profanity and violence, and called it macaroni. Audiences said “cool” and Tarantino basked in the wonder of it all. In the years since, after breathing too deeply of his own fumes and indulging too often in his own fan worship, the man still makes derivative films that are now as silly as his own chatterbox interviews.

Tarantino movies have all the substance of a dove feather, but to be fair, they’re often ridiculously entertaining -- at least for one viewing. It depends on your appetite and mood. A cheeseburger and cold beer are not in the same league as duck à l'orange and Veuve Clicquot, but both will take the edge off your hunger and slake your thirst.

So get back to where you once belonged, Tarantino. Grill me a cheeseburger, bloody rare, and pop a beer. You really need to get mean and nasty and daring with your audience once more. Push it to the edge (well, at least to the outer limits of a contracturally-obligated R-rating). Rub our noses in your Mandingo outrageousness and we’ll buy tickets, if for no other reason than many of us are bored. The sorry truth is most contemporary cinema is a snore. But knock it off already with the self-indulgence. You’re not the equal of Kubrick, Clouzot or Pabst, even though you like to name-check the masters. Just entertain us for a couple of hours with that pluperfect dialog you write so well and give up trying to make some kind of lasting artistic statement. Do that, and that'll do.

Oh, and to Waltz: love the coat.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Glengarry Glen Ross: 20 Years of Fuck You, Boss Man

By Steve Evans

Since the dawn of cinema, movies have always offered catharsis for a receptive audience. I might even argue that emotional release is one of the most appealing aspects of enjoying good films.

We want our heartstrings tugged occasionally. We instinctively root for the underdog to prevail. We demand thrills and excitement. Sometimes we want provocative cinema that makes us see our world in new ways, with clarity.

And sometimes we want our cinematic heroes to vent their profound frustration on our behalf, because we share their anger.

Aristotle taught us that the resolution of a problem is the essence of drama. Tension is the typical sensation that grips us when the problem could not conceivably become worse. This is vital to a good Act III climax, when all the troubles of the world come down on our hero.

Will he prevail? Can he win? Does the enemy get away with his treachery?

Ah, but the best dramas deal in complex questions that seldom yield easy black & white answers.

Playwright David Mamet understands this simple truth perhaps as well as any writer working in the performing arts today. His Pulitzer prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross represents the penultimate example of desperate working men whose efforts to sell unwanted real estate bring their individual characteristics into sharp focus. One man will give up. The office hotshot will persevere and sell the company’s dirt no matter what. The men in the middle will choose varied paths on their own appointed destinies to self-destruction when the real estate company, known only as Mitch & Murray, forces these salesmen into a do-or-die and ultimately unwinnable sales contest:

“First prize is a new Cadillac. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.”

Director James Foley’s 1992 film adaptation of the Mamet play resulted in an underperforming picture, in terms of box office, that in the 20 years since its release has become recognized as a small classic of cinema’s machismo genre. The once-in-a-lifetime ensemble cast includes Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey and Alan Arkin, with Alec Baldwin in the memorable role of a venal sales motivator who outlines the ludicrous monthly office sales contest.

Sam Peckinpah’s Western masterpiece The Wild Bunch (1969) covers similar thematic turf -- desperate men at the end of the line -- although Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a more direct ancestor to Glengarry Glen Ross.

My enduring admiration for this film continues to build with each viewing. I realized some years ago that the appeal of Glengarry Glen Ross has much to do with the fact that I can relate, on some level, to virtually every character. This is because every boss I have ever worked for in my 20+ years as a writer has been either a goddamned idiot or a degenerate sonofabitch, devoid of any redeeming quality except for his tendency to take an occasional vacation and get the hell out of the office so the rest of us could work.

I have felt the relentless pressure to reach ridiculous profit objectives. I have listened in contempt during staff meetings when some microcephalic cretin protested a proposed course of action with the pathetically lame observation that “we’ve never done that before.” My response has always been: “Yes, that’s why it’s going to work.”

Four years ago, I turned my back on the corporate world and started my own business. It was the second greatest decision of my life. Marrying my wife Claudia ranks as the first. I still deal with people in the business world, all over the world, although it’s on a contractual basis favorable to my own needs and objectives. Working for yourself affords these benefits. It is with this happy observation in mind that I recall Al Pacino’s breathtaking riposte into office manager Kevin Spacey near the end of Glengarry Glen Ross. Pacino's rant is catharsis, defined. It is a celebration of every profane thought that honest people will admit they harbor toward their stupid employers through every interminable moment of the working life.

Yes, Pacino’s character may not speak for everyone, especially those who live in fear or who are unencumbered by deep thought, but in delivering Mamet’s choice dialog he most certainly speaks for me, right now, as I proffer a hearty “fuck you” to every miserable fool of a boss I ever endured during my tenure in the insanity that is corporate Amerika:

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Spielberg's War Horse: Saving Mr. Ed

By Steve Evans

Friends, film lovers and cinephiles everywhere, I come not to bury Steven Spielberg, but to praise him in a back-handed way, and to paraphrase Shakespeare, since Spielberg and I might as well borrow from the best.

Here is a filmmaker who knows how to tell stories, such as his recent offering, War Horse. He also knows how to press emotional buttons that make his skill at audience manipulation almost the equal of Hitchcock. Spielberg may hold aspirations as great as Shakespeare's, but the most famous film director in the world forever falls victim to his own emotional excess.

Spielberg cannot resist pouring on the schmaltz. It is his fall-back plan time and again. His safety net. Ever since he turned 30, around the time Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released, Spielberg has rarely been able to rise above a cloying level of sentimentality comparable to the films of Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life), whose detractors derisively referred to as "Capra-corn."

For those who enjoy a director yanking on their heart-strings, Spielberg will satisfy those cravings with War Horse, as unabasedly old-fashioned and sentimental a picture as he has ever made. To see War Horse is to wonder if Ingmar Bergman actually directed The Color Purple or Always.

Never a man to trust his audience, Spielberg uses John Williams' War Horse musical score to highlight, amplify and hammer us over the head with every point he wishes to make (and a few he probably doesn't):

1. War is bad.
2. World War I was especially nasty.
3. Horses are pretty and have expressive eyes.
4. Horses are brave.
5. A boy and his horse should not be separated.
6. Chance may favor the prepared mind, but random chance is the guiding force in the world.
7. Convenient coincidences help move your story along. Do it fast enough, and few will notice the plot holes.

I will not dwell on the plot of War Horse, which is thoroughly reviewed across the Internet. Nor will I find fault with the technical execution of this beautifully crafted film. It is the sort of good-looking event picture that fairly overwhelms with the smell of the money that must have gone into its production.

And yet.

I argue principally that Spielberg persists, after 40 years of making films, in holding his audience by the hand and explaining every detail to them as a parent might talk to a slow child.

I still think Spielberg's Jaws is one of the most effectively terrifying and brilliantly constructed thrillers in the history of the cinema. It holds up well. But after that seminal film came out in 1975, something switched on (or off?) in Spielberg's brain. He discovered that by telegraphing his every intention -- giving a shout-out to the cheap seats -- he could pack more people into the movie theater, especially the dull-witted folks who might need a little help with story exposition and those slippery, elusive themes that occasionally transform mass entertainment into Art.

In the years after Jaws made him rich, Spielberg's relentless appeal to the common man resulted in movies that were simply...common. This is a director who never seems to have much faith in the intelligence of his audience. Two exceptions come to mind: Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. He won directing Oscars for both. They are arguably his best films.

Still, in the concluding scenes of Schindler's List, when Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) undergoes an emotional breakdown and the people he has saved swarm around him to give comfort...ah...the music swells on the soundtrack and we all weep in catharsis. It is one of the most overwrought moments in the last 50 years of the cinema and nearly undermines the devastation that has gone before it.

Steven Spielberg has the clout and resources to produce the very best films that money can buy, but he almost always relies on the assumption that everyone in his audience has the intellectual and emotional development of a nine-year-old.

War Horse may be the most expensive ABC After School Special ever made, which is unfortunate. Rated PG-13 and replete with harrowing combat scenes, the picture clearly was not intended for children, although its message is well-suited for kids.

Spielberg may not have much faith in the brain pans of those who pay to see his films, but he could elevate his art while simultaneously stoking his ego and enhancing his reputation for all posterity -- factors that seem important to him, judging from his interviews and comments through the years -- if he would simply stop insulting our intelligence.

On the other hand, the director may have access to information that I do not. If he has learned conclusively that people who still go to the movies are, in the aggregate, dim and unsophisticated, then he has hit upon a successful formula that may serve him well for the balance of his career.

That is a prospect more frightening than anything in Jaws.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"John Carter" is "Avatar" Spelled Backwards

By Steve Evans

Disney lost $200 million on Mars. That means we have a new all-time box office bomb, film fans: "John Carter," the movie that a dozen studios kicked around for more than 20 years in so-called “development hell” before Disney decided to produce and release the expensive sci-fi extravaganza.

Director John McTiernan (Die Hard) was once scheduled to direct, with Tom Cruise starring in the title role. Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) tried for years to get the picture off the ground, but no one could agree on a script or budget.

Disney finally rolled the dice...and threw snake eyes. John Carter has been in theaters less than a month, but Disney is apparently giving up on the film and admits laying an egg.

There are flops, and then there are failures so profound they can affect an entire industry. With losses that Disney expects will exceed $200 million, John Carter now surpasses last year's Mars Needs Moms (down the hole for $136 million) and The Adventures of Pluto Nash, another sci-fi flop that held the record as the cinema's worst money loser for nearly a decade. Despite (perhaps because of?) Eddie Murphy's star presence, Pluto Nash lost a comparatively frugal $110 million following a 2002 release to a meager audience consisting mostly of crickets. Mars Needs Moms tanked so badly that it essentially shut down ImageMovers Digital, the special motion-capture animation studio created by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump). All projects that were in development at ImageMovers have since been dropped, including a remake of the Beatles' Yellow Submarine, so a studio's failure perhaps in this instance is a good thing.

Unless home-media sales and rentals set an unprecedented record and give John Carter a boost, the picture is on target to become the reigning worst box-office flop of all time, not adjusting for inflation and other myriad factors in Hollywood's bag of tricky accounting techniques. In terms of plot, the special effects-laden picture compares in almost all respects to James Cameron’s Avatar, minus the financial success.

MSN’s Parallel Universe reports.

Budgeted at $250 million, John Carter has made less than $180 million worldwide since the film’s March 9 release less than two weeks ago. Disney is already calling it a bomb, a stink bomb of monumental proportions – since it appears the cost of marketing and promoting the film amounts to as much as $130 million on top of production costs. Essentially, the $250 million budget plus $130 million to schill the picture results in a negative cost of $380 million. With revenues of $180 million, John Carter is still down $200 million. Only miraculous DVD sales, rentals and pay-per-views could erase that many barrels of red ink.

Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs a century ago as a series of pulp adventure novels, John Carter follows the story of a Civil War veteran transplanted to a futuristic civilization on Mars, where he joins a rebellion to quash the forces of an evil empire, shoot space ships out of the sky, save the princess, etc. Sound familiar? George Lucas played around with the basic elements and struck gold with Star Wars, which is an amalgam of Burroughs, old Akira Kurosawa films (especially The Hidden Fortress) and mystical mumbo-jumbo that attracted New Age ding-dongs like fruit flies to overripe bananas.

Burroughs enjoyed greater success with his Tarzan novels, for which he is perhaps best remembered.

The disaster of the John Carter film can be traced to the age of Burrough's books and the easy observation that a studio waited too long to film this material. So influential were the original John Carter stories that virtually every science fiction movie director has pillaged and pilfered from them. By the time John Carter finally arrived in theaters, audiences had already seen close variations of virtually everything in the film, often many years ago, by way of Star Wars, Avatar, Star Trek -- even the big action sequences are reminiscent of the spectacular battles in the Lord of the Rings films.

Worse, early trailers for the film showed hardly a glimpse of action or wondrous special effects, elements crucial to whipping up audience interest in a would-be blockbuster.

Not even a Pixar pedigree could save the film. John Carter was directed by Andrew Stanton, an acknowledged fan of the Burroughs books, who wrote Pixar's massive hits Finding Nemo and WALL-E. John Carter is Stanton's first live-action film. Given his reported on-set clashes with studio executives, it may be awhile before he settles into another director's chair on the Disney lot. Due to his moneymaking ways at Pixar, Stanton asked for -- and received -- total control on the John Carter project. Draw your own conclusions as to who will catch the blame for this costly flameout.

The ripple effect of this box office bomb can already be seen in Disney’s drooping stock price and Wall Street's expectation that the House that Walt Built will post a loss of $80 million to $120 million for the fiscal quarter that ends March 31. That means serious consequences for the Disney suits who pushed John Carter into production on the heels of Avatar's global success in late 2009.

Mickey Mouse is said to be stomping the halls of Disney Studios swinging an axe at any executive who dares to pop up for air after breathing John Carter’s foul Martian fumes.

Disney will almost certainly turn deaf ears on the handful of fans reportedly petitioning the studio for a John Carter sequel, which is now about as likely as Stanley Kubrick returning from the dead.

Collectors of pop-cultural ephemera can look forward to hefty discounts on John Carter toys and lunchboxes well before the Christmas shopping season, when the merchandise will be layered with dust on toy store shelves, unloved and unwanted by children and fanboys everywhere.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Bob Dylan's First Album Turns 50 Today

By Steve Evans

Bob Dylan's eponymous first album was released half a century ago today, March 19, on the Columbia label. The record contained only two original compositions; the rest were traditional folk songs. One of them -- Baby, Let Me Follow You Down -- was captured magnificently more than 14 years later (in an up-tempo electrified arrangement) by Martin Scorsese and his crew in the documentary The Last Waltz.

I always thrilled to the sentiment of this raucous song. Here is a take from Dylan's 1966 Royal Albert Hall concert:

Almost the equal of Dylan's living-legend status, Scorsese's The Last Waltz (shot on Thanksgiving Day 1976 and released theatrically two years later) still stands among the greatest of all rock-concert documentaries. Scorcese deftly blends insightful interviews with members of The Band, Dylan's former backing group, with astonishing concert footage captured with multiple cameras and shimmering, multi-channel sound. The film is a beautiful, bittersweet testament to the toll of rock and roll on the lives of those who live it.

Dylan celebrates his 71st birthday on May 24. Scorsese will be 70 in November.

And may you stay forever young.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Oscar Aftermath & a Brief Look at Cinema in 2011

By Steve Evans

Handicapping the Academy Awards can be a fool’s game, as evidenced last night with the Oscars distributed across a slate of wildly different films. The Artist, a French arthouse picture harkening to the silent era and filmed in black and white, came away with five Oscars: for best picture, director Michel Hazanavicius, best actor Jean Dujardin, original musical score and costume design. It was the first silent film since 1929’s Wings to win best picture (in the first year of the Academy Awards) and the first winner shot in the boxlike 4:3 ratio since Marty in 1955. All best picture winners have been filmed in widescreen since Marty.

Francophiles can rejoice. Three of the best picture nominees, The Artist, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, were all period pieces set in France.

The Artist and Hugo are movies about the love of movies. Hugo also won a quintet of Oscars, although in technical categories including cinematography and special effects.

Meryl Streep’s win for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady was expected, although her chances seemed to waver after the film’s producers distributed a reportedly annoying email to the academy’s voting members saying it was “about time” she won again. Streep last received a Best Actress Oscar for Sophie’s Choice in 1982.

I correctly predicted wins for Alexander Payne and Woody Allen in the best adapted and best original screenplay categories, respectively, for The Descendants and Midnight in Paris. George Clooney had been the odds-on favorite to win Best Actor for The Descendants, but left the Hollywood and Highland Center auditorium sporting only a classical tuxedo and dignified smile.

Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, a challenging and beautifully shot film about nothing less than all creation and life itself, was shut out of the Oscars. I saw this mesmerizing film last summer on its original run and about a third of the audience walked out before the credits, scratching their heads. I suspect academy voters did, too. This is depressing since film artists working within the studio system may be less likely to push the boundaries of the medium if they believe their efforts will go unrewarded. While many Indie films continue to challenge audiences, the very nature of independent cinema has evolved dramatically over the last 20 years. Now independent productions are often viewed as a testing ground for aspiring filmmakers who want to win festival prizes that catch the attention of the major leagues in Hollywood. Many independent pictures screen like calling cards from directors who yearn for greater things.

This, of course, misses the point of producing independent cinema, where lower budgets and lesser known actors can take chances with minimal risk.

Here, then, is an apt segue on the state of film: Minimizing risk is what show business is all about. Last year produced a record 28 films that were sequels to earlier hits. Of the top 10 highest-grossing movies in 2011, nine of them were sequels. The final Harry Potter installment topped the list with $1.3 billion in worldwide revenues, followed by Michael Bay’s third Transformers film, and the fourth entries in the Pirates of the Caribbean, Twilight and Mission Impossible franchises. Every single one of them cost more than $175 million to produce and market.

All aesthetic judgements aside, these are the movies most people paid to see in 2011. All are heavy on special effects, with thin, merely serviceable scripts. Story takes a back seat to spectacle and furious, multi-channel sound.

The Artist was shot on a budget of approximately $15 million and produced returns of not-quite $73 million, according to figures from Box Office Mojo. This take represents only 13 percent of the box office produced by Disney/Pixar’s poorly-reviewed Cars 2, which ranked 10th in highest grossing films last year.

Arthouse pictures give Hollywood a thin patina of artistic respectability, but when it comes to bankrolling big movies, studios still place their bets on the sure thing. This is why you can look forward to another Spiderman movie this year, another Batman adventure, a second GI Joe action flick, the final installment of the Twilight series, a remake of Total Recall with Colin Farrell in the Schwarzenegger role, a remake of The Great Gatsby with Leonardo Di Caprio stepping into Robert Redford’s shoes in the title role, a film adaptation of the videogame Halo and, yes, another Godzilla picture.

I could ramble on another six paragraphs, but there are plenty of websites that list the slate of pictures scheduled for release in 2012. If you can find half a dozen original films about something – anything – you’ve never seen before, kindly let me know.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Same as it ever was: Taxi Driver's mean streets

By Steve Evans

A recent conversation about the physical transformation of New York City over the last 40 years set my mind to thinking about some of the great films made in Gotham and one picture, in particular, that still works brilliantly today as social commentary. Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic, Taxi Driver, remains a virtual travelogue of the sights and sounds one could experience in NYC during the city’s seedy low point, when Times Square was as dangerous as any jungle in the Congo and neighborhoods such as the East Village, some 30 blocks south of the Theater District, were home to lost souls and impoverished individuals whose notion of hope consisted of nothing more than surviving through another day.

Scorsese has said that the New York of Taxi Driver was meant to represent all American cities, where structural and social decay might eventually corrode a man’s soul. In the case of the film’s title character, that corrosion leads inexorably to isolation, alienation and murderous madness. I have seen the film many times and explored New York City extensively through the years, from Harlem to Wall Street on the southern tip of Manhattan and east into Brooklyn.

Decades of revitalization and governmental efforts to clean up New York have long since transformed much of the city’s Manhattan borough into a gleaming, gentrified habitat for the rich and those who aspire to be. Most everyone else has been marginalized. Times Square in 2012 is virtually unrecognizable from the steamy, rain-slicked hell that Scorsese captured on film 36 years ago. Gone are the grindhouses, sex shops, the hookers, the drug addicts and the pushers who catered to them, replaced by Starbucks and Sbarros pizzerias, Disney theaters and four-star hotels. Whether this is a good thing may depend on individual notions of adventure. Some people want to feel exhilaration and a sense of danger when exploring major cities. Others may be in town to see a performance of Phantom of the Opera after dining at Sparks Steak House. Street people are not a part of the latter equation, although you can still see them, just off the sidewalks, slouching in the shadows.

Beyond the thick layer of sleaze, the dilapidated buildings and grime that permeate the surface of Taxi Driver, there exists the world of the disenfranchised and the doomed. Midnight Cowboy (1969) explored themes of isolation and hopelessness among society’s outcasts, but Taxi Driver hammered home the point with such force that much of the picture has entered our iconography.

As the unhinged taxi driver Travis Bickle, Robert De Niro famously asks, “You talkin’ to me?” while brandishing his weapons. He speaks to a mirror. The answer comes later, in a gore-drenched shootout with low-level mobsters and a pimp when Travis attempts to rescue a 12-year-old prostitute (Jodie Foster) from a brothel, which was filmed at 226 E. 13th St. in the East Village (above and at right; frames from the film captured from my DVD). The same building’s front steps were later the scene of a real-life tragedy in 1988.

A former slum, the East Village is now home to NYU students, artists and theater folk. The room where Travis Bickle completes his rampage rents today for $1,690 a month, according to a NYC real estate listing (below, the facade of the building as it appears today). The original residents are long gone, perhaps pushed back into Brooklyn. But they are somewhere.

Renovating 100-year-old buildings and converting them into loft apartments might improve property values, but it does little to address the social ills on display in Taxi Driver. That is the real, lingering power of the film, because we can see in hindsight how little has changed in a generation. The streets may be cleaner, but the people who walk them are not demonstrably different.

One minute Travis runs from his failed attempt to assassinate a presidential candidate. The next, he’s gunning down a pimp. Scorsese and Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader engage in not-so-subtle allegory by making the Machiavellian politician and the sleazy pimp interchangeable in the eyes of their protagonist. Travis Bickle says he feels compelled to “do something” to clean up the streets and, by extension, clear his troubled mind. He is a man sickened by his environment, by his inability to connect to anyone in any meaningful way. He is not a hero.

Decades later, the politicians have cleaned up many streets, but not the minds of the wildly different people who inhabit them. To some extent, the current Occupy movements reflect this idea of the disenfranchised taking a stand. I wonder sometimes how far it will go.

It is said that violence is the final refuge of a man who has run out of options – and ideas.

In this election year, when the wealthy spend millions to elect rich politicians whose ideologies are in sync principally with their campaign contributors, the simmering of the disenfranchised can be felt on the streets, echoing across the Internet and occupying the front pages of the remaining newspapers in America. It can be felt in every budget cut, every rejiggering of social policy that shifts power and wealth to a smaller, more concentrated elite. There is anger. Taxi Driver never seemed more relevant – or frightening.

The original promotional poster for the film featured a tagline: “In every city there is one man….”

Today I suspect there is more than one.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Spike Lee is Peeved. Again.

By Steve Evans

The 2012 Sundance Film Festival got an injection of hubris from director Spike Lee, who is angry again, this time at Hollywood for not greenlighting his projects and for offering what he suggested was ...too many suggestions on how he should write his scripts.

"I didn't want to hear no motherf------ notes from the studio telling me ... about what a young 13-year-old boy and girl would do in (Brooklyn neighborhood) Red Hook," he told a Sundance audience. "They know nothing about black people. Nothing!"


Lee catapulted onto the national cinema scene in the 1980s with race-relations films, most notably Do the Right Thing. He made a fortune, seemed to lose his way in the 1990s, and hasn't made anything especially memorable since Malcolm X, with the possible exception of Inside Man (2006), on which he was only a hired gun to direct a screenplay written by Russell Gewirtz.

Spike, baby, you gotta understand: it's not whether Hollywood suits know anything about black people. They are only interested in films that make money. A lot of it. Either pull together financing for your own projects and roll the dice with an indie distributor, or accept the simple verity that Hollywood studios are not going to bend to your churlish tirades.

Spike famously got into a who's-got-a-bigger-dick contest with Quentin Tarantino over the latter's pervasive use of the N-word in Jackie Brown (1997). No less an authority on hipster cool than Samuel Jackson came to Tarantino's defense at the time, saying, "I don't think the word is offensive in the context of this film ... Black artists think they are the only ones allowed to use the word. Well, that's bull. Jackie Brown is a wonderful homage to black exploitation films. This is a good film, and Spike hasn't made one of those in a few years."

Jackson's observation on Lee's output still holds true today.

It seems Lee wants it both ways: to spend Hollywood money and enjoy complete control. That's not a bad goal, per se, and maybe he could have both if his track record of late wasn't so spotty. It's not a matter of having control over, black, white, blue or pale-yellow films. It's about making good films.

For a director who launched himself into the limelight 25 years ago as an angry young man with indie street cred, I note with an air of fatalism that today Lee is a one-trick pony who has grown into little more than an angry old man who used to make good films. His message, if he still has one, is lost in the delivery.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.