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.