Rewind & Reboot: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

X-Men Origins Wolverine movie poster

 

Much of what’s wrong with X-Men Origins: Wolverine can be traced right back to its confused conception, indeed beginning with its clumsy title. The ungainly prefix is clumsily bolted on solely for it to alphabetize adjacent to the three previous X-Men films on Walmart shelves, iTunes, Pay-Per-View, and torrent trackers. The two halves split by a colon try to have it both ways: “X-Men Origins” brands it as part of a proposed series of prequels to the lucrative original trilogy (none else of which have yet to materialize, apparently discarded in favor of the complete reboot X-Men: First Class), while “Wolverine” promises a fresh new franchise in and of itself.

With the original trilogy still warm in its grave, barely a decade after it began, why rewind and start over again so soon? There’s no reason why a prequel featuring honest-to-goodness movie star Hugh Jackman as the fan-favorite icon couldn’t have stood on its own. One gets the feeling X-Men and X2: X-Men United were prematurely discarded. All of this is quite the pity, as director Bryan Singer’s interpretation was far superior than this and Brett Ratner’s weak X-Men 3: The Last Stand.

I can understand the desire to create a jumping-on point for new viewers, one that does not require a detailed memory of the events of the previous installments. But if what 20th Century Fox and Marvel Comics sought was a fresh start, this isn’t exactly it. The narrative contorts itself to slot into some of the established chronology, while simultaneously ignoring or contradicting many other significant elements of the canon.

Liev Schreiber and Hugh Jackman in X-Men Origins: WolverineSabretooth and Wolverine demonstrate the proper protocol in executing a man hug

Danny Houston portrays a younger version of William Stryker, a role originated by Brian Cox in X2: X-Men United. We learn a little more of his villainous motivations and ties to Wolverine’s secret origin, none of which really surprise or illuminate. Fans might be pleased by superfluous cameos by a younger Cyclops (Tim Pocock) and Professor X (a digitally rejuvenated Patrick Stewart). Then there’s the matter of Sabretooth, whom we already met as Magneto’s henchman (Tyler Mane) in the original X-Men (2000), but now entirely recast and reconceived as Logan’s brother Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber).

A prologue set in Canada’s Northwest Territories in the mid 1800s reveals Logan’s damaged psychology to be the product of fratricide. He and brother Victor were doted upon by a wealthy adoptive father, but their superstitious biological father wanted to kill them. The best sequence immediately follows: an impressive montage of the brothers fighting side-by-side through the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World Wars I and II, and Vietnam. The wordless sequence succinctly illustrates the immortal warriors growing apart, as Victor becomes increasingly unstable while Logan slowly develops a moral code and distaste for killing.

A Wolverine film seemed like a promising idea when I first heard of it; it could have provided a neat way to shake off the detritus that had accumulated by the end of the original trilogy. Each subsequent installment added too many additional characters drawn from decades of Marvel Comics history, and quickly snowballed to the point where the ensemble cast became comically unwieldy (pun intended). So, the notion of a fresh story focused around just one character sounded like a wise choice. But expecting a smart creative choice from 20th Century Fox was obviously too much. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is overstuffed with a tremendous number of X-Men b-listers, including The Blob (Kevin Durand), Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), The White Queen (Tahyna Tozzi), and Bolt (Dominic Monaghan). The latter, incidentally, features in one of the best scenes in the film, in a low-key confrontation with Victor that approaches real drama.

Taylor Kitsch, will.i.am, Liev Schreiber, Hugh Jackman, Tim Pocock, Ryan Reynolds, and Lynn Collins in X-Men Origins: WolverineThe Amazing Adventures of the Uncanny C-List Characters, coming soon from Marvel Comics

Worse than the proliferation of supporting characters is its menagerie of villains. Like Spider-Man 3, the film features a muddled array of enemies when just one well-developed villain would have suited the story better. At least three mortal nemeses align themselves against our hero here: Stryker, Sabretooth, and Weapon XI. The best, most iconic comic book villains are flamboyant characters intricately tied in with the origins of the hero: Batman vs. The Joker (Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger), Spider-Man vs. The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), and Superman vs. Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, Kevin Spacey). But Wolverine’s most serious foe here is the literally mute and expressionless Weapon XI, devoid of character or charisma. Worse, his moniker looks much better in print than spoken aloud; “Weapon Eleven” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is directed by Gavin Hood, of the critically respected film Tsotsi, making it unusually finely pedigreed for an escapist piece of entertainment based on kids’ comic books. Marvel Comics seems not to have learned its lesson from handing Hulk to Ang Lee and Thor to Kenneth Branagh. A good case study for Fox and Marvel would have been Warner Bros.’ disastrous Invasion, from Oliver Hirschbiegel, director of Downfall. Both Invasion and X-Men Origins: Wolverine are somehow fatally broken, to the point where they fail to make rudimentary sense (which ought to be a base requirement for popcorn special-effects-driven blockbusters). Is it too much to ask that films like this at least be internally logical?

Stryker’s scheme simply doesn’t add up. What exactly does he intend to do? Stryker is evidently dissatisfied with his creation Weapon X (who escaped and became Wolverine). After what he perceives as a failed beta test, Stryker moves on to Weapon XI, an ostensibly perfect soldier with superpowers extracted from other mutants. So why does he go to extreme lengths to keep Wolverine under observation by a fake girlfriend (Lynn Collins) for several years, when all he has to do is kill him and extract his powers with his super-syringe? Even more puzzling, if Stryker wants Logan dead, why does he trick him into signing up to become Weapon X? Stryker succeeds only in making an already near-indestructible man even more so.

Tahyna Tozzi and Lynn Collins in X-Men Origins: WolverineThe White Queen and Silverfox look worried as they dash through some corridor or something, whatever, who am I kidding — Tahyna Tozzi and Lynn Collins are just in this movie to titillate the fanboys

The problem with comic book superhero stories is that there’s a point at which your powerful protagonist becomes literally inhuman, and thus difficult to find sympathetic or relatable. The best example is Superman, literally an alien who can do almost anything. What kinds of problems would such a creature have, and how can any viewer relate to him? Here, Logan and his nemesis Victor are both effectively immortal, so there is little at stake in their conflict. The most interesting comic book superheroes must reconcile superhuman powers with their deep flaws and anxieties, like Spider-Man’s insecurities and Daredevil’s disability, or are normal human beings with extraordinary drive, like Batman and Iron Man.

A pirated version of X-Men Origins: Wolverine infamously leaked online before its official theatrical release. It was roundly panned, and Fox attempted damage control by claiming it was an unfinished workprint with placeholder CGI, sound effects, and titles. According to the Los Angeles Times, the version finally released in theaters was reportedly almost identical, an embarrassment to say the least.

The special effects are rather shoddy, especially compared to the state of the art as seen in its contemporaries Star Trek and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Wolverine’s claws and Sabretooth’s bounding and pouncing suffer especially from unconvincing cheapness. The only two genuinely impressive exceptions were wasted, to showcase supporting character Cyclops’ laser eye-beams slicing large structures into geometric chunks.

Stray Observations:

  • Two easter egg codas follow the credits. One is totally unnecessary (Stryker’s fate is better left to the imagination), but the other is enjoyably campy, with a kind of sick humor that could have enlivened the rest of the film.
  • The DVD features an anti-smoking Public Service Announcement, no doubt penance for Logan’s signature cigar-chomping. But where are the warnings against drinking alcohol, riding motorcycles without helmets, killing people with blades, and performing unethical medical atrocities?
  • The script is a nonstop barrage of clichés: if I had subtracted one star for every time somebody utters “Let’s do this” or “Look what the cat dragged in,” my rating would be, well, a lot of negative stars.

Official movie site: www.x-menorigins.com

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Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus movie poster

 

Terry Gilliam is burdened with a number of unfair reputations. First, as a visual stylist more than a storyteller or director of actors — the latter, at least, obviously refuted by the fact that many high-profile stars will repeatedly work with him for pennies. He’s also known as an unpredictable hellion and spendthrift, which are, from the point of view of those that hold the pursestrings, the two least desirable characteristics in a director. He may in fact be concerned more with the integrity of the work than with the business angle, as any artist should be, but he is no wastrel. In fact, all but one of his completed movies came in on time and under budget. A better way to describe him would be as the most unlucky person in the movie business.

After the multiple calamities and misfortunes (that even an atheist might characterize as acts of god) that befell The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam made The Brothers Grimm as a commercial concession. Despite it still bearing his unmistakable imprimatur, it remains the sole Gilliam film I actively dislike. One good thing to come of it, however, was a genuine friendship with its star Heath Ledger. Interested in filmmaking himself, Ledger stuck around on the set of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus even when not needed on camera, serving as Gilliam’ apprentice and pitching in whenever possible.

Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus“Can you put a price on your dreams?”

Gilliam’s fabled bad luck first reared when he was hit by a bus and cracked a vertebra, as reported in Wired. Ledger died during production, followed by producer William Vince before post-production could begin. If one untimely death could possibly be said to be any more of a shame than another, Ledger’s accidental overdose at the age of 28 might be truly unfair. He was riding the crest of a wave of appreciation for his performances in Brokeback Mountain and Batman: The Dark Knight, and had just begun to stretch his muscles as a director with music videos for Ben Harper and Modest Mouse.

The production was very nearly halted, but Gilliam realized it could be salvaged and re-conceived if Ledger’s part were partially recast with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. Gilliam stuck to one simple and absolute criteria: all three actors must be personal friends of Ledger, leading him to reportedly turn down an overture by none less than Tom Cruise on the basis that he hadn’t known Ledger. Depp and Law actually do quite resemble Ledger onscreen, at least with the aid of eyeliner and costuming. However, Farrell most captures Ledger’s physical presence and mannerisms. Charmingly, the movie is credited not to Gilliam but to “A film from Heath Ledger and friends.”

Lily Cole in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus“Voila!”

The eerie synchronicity between Ledger’s death and the film’s themes of mortality are, remarkably, coincidental. Gilliam co-wrote the script with Charles McKeown (also of Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which this movie most closely resembles). According to Collider, the story is based on Gilliam’s own feelings of artistic frustration, particularly after the reception of his controversial film Tideland, which many found not just difficult but even offensive.

As its title makes plain, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is set literally in a world of imagination, a place we have visited before in nearly every single Gilliam film. Most famously, Brazil riffs on James Thurber’s 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” The few exceptions include Jabberwocky and The Brothers Grimm, in which fairy tales exist matter of factly in the real world. In 12 Monkeys, it remains ambiguous if James Cole’s (Bruce Willis) future (his present) or the present (his past) might be real or delusions.

Tom Waits in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus“He’s come to collect.”

It would be a huge mistake to expect any Terry Gilliam film to make total logical sense. Such pedestrian expectations would weigh down an artist we love for his unique, vivid flights of fancy. But perhaps even the wildest Gilliam fancy ought to be internally consistent to a degree. If something doesn’t make sense, is it a tantalizing conundrum left open for the viewer to mull over, or is it evidence of sloppiness? The central question left unanswered for me has to do with the core conceit of the film itself: people are drawn into the mind of Dr. Parnassus through his magical mirror. In his mindscape, they must choose between entering a building maintained by the Devil (Tom Waits), or… what, exactly? Of those few that reject the Devil, we see their blissful, unencumbered state upon leaving Dr. Parnassus’ mind. What exactly happens to them that makes them happy? Also, there’s the side effect of them shedding their possessions. They may have been freed of their own earthly materialism, but that doesn’t stop Parnassus from conveniently enriching his own troupe’s coffers, giving the whole process an air of a scammy confidence game instead of spiritual awakening. Reflecting the theme of insincerity is the cornball tune “We Are the Children of the World” which appears as a ringtone in the film, and at the end of the closing credits.

The apparent protagonist turns out to be an unredeemable villain, unlike virtually all of Gilliam’s previous heroes, in particular Kevin in Time Bandits, Jack Lucas in The Fisher King, Sam Lowry in Brazil, James Cole in 12 Monkeys, and Jeliza-Rose in Tideland. Which leaves us with Dr. Parnassus, who ends up a little bit like Parry (Robin Williams) as we meet him at the beginning of The Fisher King: homeless and seemingly permanently locked in a position of want. Both are hobos, rendered apart and invisible from a world of beauty and wealth. Parnassus’ longings are embodied by the beautiful Valentina (Lily Cole), whom may or may not be his daughter, now seen ensconced in an enviously blissful nuclear family. Parnassus remains forever tempted by the Devil.


Official movie site: www.doctorparnassus.com

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Hey Man, It’s Your Trip: Woodstock

Woodstock movie poster

 

The classic feature documentary Woodstock captures the full experience of the near-mythical 1969 festival of the same name, from septic tanks to traffic jams to brown acid. It remains an important record of one of the most peaceful spontaneous gatherings in human history, not to mention the brief-lived spirit of the hippie movement as a whole.

The original version directed by Michael Wedleigh, with a young Martin Scorsese as assistant director and editor and Thelma Schoonmaker as editor, was released the following year and played continuously in theaters for years. Oddly, it is the only film that the last surviving human on earth (Charlton Heston) chooses to watch repeatedly in The Ωmega Man. A Director’s Cut added 40 minutes of additional footage in 1994, but the new 40th Anniversary edition is a whopping four hours long, “Interfuckingmission” included. It’s unclear whether or not Scorsese and Schoonmaker were involved in either of the expanded editions.

The film is experimental in format, extending even to the aspect ratio. Nearly the first ten minutes are windowpaned, leading me at first to suspect something was wrong with the DVD. But the movie then alternates from windowpane to widescreen to splitscreen. The only other movie I can think of off the top of my head that played as loose with aspect ratios is the opening sequence to Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It.

Jimi Hendrix in Woodstock

With a leisurely four hours to fill, the first full 25 minutes concern the arrival of early fans while the stage is still being constructed. A surely ironic mural on one of the famously psychedelic caravan buses reads “even God loves America.” One of the festival’s most iconic images — a pair of nuns flashing a peace sign to camera — may have been in fact partially staged (as alleged in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock). Based on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber, Lee’s film goes on to tell a conflicting, largely discounted, version of events in which a small town misfit midwifes the festival, which in turn frees his identity and transforms his family.

The first performance footage in Woodstock is an extended unbroken close-up of Richie Havens’ intense solo performance. Finally, the cameras turn the other way around and look out at the staggeringly huge crowd. Indeed, as later scenes make clear, so many people arrived that the earliest arrivals couldn’t physically leave. That such a large number of people coexisted peacefully while quite literally being trapped is a minor miracle.

Everybody knows the tale of the gargantuan crowd, but I underestimated the scale of the concert itself. In my mind, I always pictured a tiny stage dwarfed by throngs of hippies, but in actuality, the festival itself would have been a large production even if the crowds hadn’t materialized. Before simple logic forced the organizers to waive the ticket fee, the festival had a multi-million-dollar budget footing a massive stage, huge towers, power, food, lighting, and sound system.

A scene from Woodstock

Not all the acts would necessarily be known to later generations watching the documentary, but there is some surprising variety in genre; Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie’s folk, Sly and the Family Stone’s funk, and Sha-Na-Na’s retro pop went a long way towards breaking up the sometimes tedious stretches of blues-rock jamming. Some key performances either weren’t filmed (such as The Band, at their request) or shot but excluded from the film (particularly The Grateful Dead, whose performance was compromised by heavy rain and technical issues), and some of the era’s top acts were absent altogether (most notably The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones — but Scorsese would later catch up with all three of them in his own documentaries Living In the Material World, No Direction Home, and Shine a Light). Personally, I most liked seeing The Who and Jimi Hendrix at the height of their powers, and was pleasantly surprised by an obviously nervous Crosby, Stills and Nash. CSN claimed it was only their second gig, and they seemed visibly relieved to receive applause. Each act was allotted only 1-2 songs each, even in the extended version of the film, which for many of these artists is not enough. I would have liked to see more Who footage, especially the famous moment where the often tempestuous Pete Townshend famously booted countercultural icon Abbie Hoffman offstage: “Fuck off! Fuck off my fucking stage!”

Interviews with audience members during the concert demonstrate that they were already self-mythologizing the event as it was occurring around them. A legend quickly spread that the gathering was the equivalent of a spontaneous city. Not quite, but the actual total of 500,000 people was nothing to sneeze at. But they were all correct that it was nothing less than a miracle that that many people could gather in one place and survive a massive storm on the second day, all without violence. That is, aside from Townshend again: “The next fuckin’ person that walks across this stage is gonna get fuckin’ killed!”

The film includes co-organizer Michael Lang and concertgoers facing hostile interviewers determined to express their bias that rock music is empty and meaningless. Scorsese emphasized similar confrontations in No Direction Home, where Dylan is dogged by condescending reporters determined to undermine his political and social import.

Wedleigh’s camera often seeks out nude young women. The blatant scopophilia misses the point of the burgeoning equality between the sexes by the late 60s — not only are the hippies embracing free love, they’re also obviously comfortable enough in each other’s company to bathe together like children in a bathtub. I can’t believe I’m complaining about the sight of naked girls, but Wedleigh’s camera is often just plain lustful.

Aside from free love and unashamed nudity, the next most alien aspect for contemporary post-War-on-Drugs viewers is the pragmatic attitude towards controlled substances. One of the first people seen brandishing a joint onscreen is none other than Jerry Garcia, despite his band not appearing in the performance footage. Everybody’s heard about the infamously dodgy brown acid, but dig this eminently pragmatic announcement issued from the stage: “Hey man, it’s your trip, don’t let me stop you, but if you feel like experimenting, try half a tab.” In contrast, we see a huge crowd practicing Kundalini yoga, which the guru espouses as an alternative to drugs.

One of the most striking sequences is when the documentary steps back from the proceedings to take in another angle that wouldn’t ordinary be covered in a typical concert documentary. Wedleigh takes the time to meet a Port-O-San maintainer with one son attending the festival and another flying helicopters in the Vietnam DMZ.


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I Call First: Who’s That Knocking at My Door?

Who's That Knocking At My Door movie poster

 

Martin Scorsese’s first feature film Who’s That Knocking at My Door? was shot over the course of several years, and was originally released in 1967 as I Call First. Its piecemeal origins are betrayed by two discrete sequences: one recounting the misadventures of a group of slacker friends in downtown New York, and a very different, more character and dialogue-driven love story between J.R. (Keitel) and the unnamed “Girl on the Staten Island Ferry” (Zina Bethune).

Non-linear cross-cutting between the two adds up to more than the sum of their parts. J.R. is increasingly hesitant to horse around with his gangster friends, a lifestyle involving shaking down debtors, terrorizing each other with loaded pistols, and going uptown to get with — and then rob — gullible girls. His reticence is explained by a parallel sequence in which he meets cute with The Girl. Similarly, their young courtship is given weight by the audience’s knowledge of what he’s done with his life so far, and how drastic a change he faces by considering marrying her.

Harvey Keitel in Who's That Knocking at My DoorThe passion of Harvey Keitel

J.R. is much more sensitive than his brutish chums to the splendor of nature and to the catharsis of cinema. His idea of seducing a girl is to lecture her on Hollywood Westerns, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) in particular. His models of masculinity come from the movies, especially John Wayne and Lee Marvin, and he divides women into two categories: broads and girls (which is another way of saying whores and madonnas). The Girl is savvy enough to know what she’s getting into; she clearly catches his meaning when he slips and openly refers to her as a broad.

Another piece to the puzzle was a sex montage added in order to ensure distribution. Scorsese scores J.R.’s fantasy of sex with a series of women to The Doors’ “The End”, later of course also to become a key ingredient to his peer Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now! (1979).

Harvey Keitel and Zina Bethune in Who's That Knocking at My DoorJ.R. (Harvey Keitel) knows how to romance Zina Bethune: “Let me tell you something, that girl in that picture was a broad”

Holding everything together is a framing device in the form of a flashback to young J.R. being served food by his mother (Catherine Scorsese, Scrosese’s own mother). It’s an obviously happy memory, but we learn that the core theme of the film is that J.R. is emotionally crippled by the Catholic guilt instilled by his family and upbringing. He is unable to consummate the relationship with the girl he loves, and who loves him back. When he finds out she’s a victim of rape, he alternates between not believing the facts and blaming her. Even in the end, he sees her rape as something he must forgive her for. The penultimate sequence is a montage of Catholic iconography set to the title track by The Genies.


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Champagne & Reefer: Rolling Stones Shine a Light

Rolling Stones Shine a Light movie poster

 

Martin Scorsese’s long history with musical documentaries and concert films includes working as assistant director and editor on Woodstock (1970), directing an account of The Band’s final concert as The Last Waltz (1978), executive producing and designing the shots for Peter Gabriel’s concert film PoV (AKA Point of View, 1987), directing part of the massive The Blues television documentary series (2003), and crafting the definitive Bob Dylan and George Harrison documentaries No Direction Home (2005) and Living in the Material World (2010).

Shine a Light is a little of all the above, but mostly just a straightforward concert film featuring the Rolling Stones in a benefit concert thrown at New York City’s Beacon Theater in 2006. The Stones are joined by special guests Christina Aguilera, Jack White, and Buddy “Motherfucker” Guy (watch the DVD bonus features for the entertaining story behind that moniker). It was originally released in IMAX, and no doubt loses something in translation from 50-foot theaters screens to small televisions. U2 did them one up by releasing U23D in 3D IMAX the year before.

Martin Scorsese and The Rolling Stones in Shine a LightAre you sure you want to see these faces in 50-foot-high IMAX?

Like Gimme Shelter (1970), a documentary account of the fallout following the killing of a fan at a Stones concert in Altamont, Shine a Light is sometimes less than totally flattering. Mick Jagger is seen to be so ruthlessly single-minded that he will not deign to collaborate with Scorsese. Even when meeting no less than Bill Clinton, he only wants to talk about whether or not the lighting will distract from his performance. But to be fair, The Rolling Stones hit the big time long before either Scorsese or Clinton, so perhaps Jagger’s vanity may be partially excused. Let it not be said that the old codgers in the band don’t embrace new technology; witness as Jagger strikes classic poses for fans in the front row to capture on their mobiles.

Keith Richards and Buddy Guy in The Rolling Stones Shine a LightKeef jams with Buddy “Motherfucker” Guy

Scorsese is famously a fan, utilizing Rolling Stones tunes in his soundtracks so often that Jagger now jokes that “Shine a Light was the only film of his not to feature the song Gimme Shelter.” I like The Stones well enough, but I’m not a huge fan. Here’s what a similarly casual listener might learn of them based on Shine a Light:

  • Charlie Watts, also a successful artist and jazz drummer outside of the Stones machine, comes across as quite distracted, almost to the extent of appearing senile (or maybe even more drug-addled than Keith Richards). He behaves the same in vintage interviews scattered throughout Shine a Light, so perhaps it’s just his natural demeanor. But there’s no doubt he can still rock his stripped-down drum kit.
  • Mick Jagger still has the body of a preteen girl, albeit one with impressively ripped arms.
  • Everybody knows the legendary Keith Richards has abused his body to such an extent that he has no business still walking this earth. He jokes in the film that he must come from hardy stock, but maybe he is in fact already dead, seeing as how he barely notices a kiss from Christina Aguilera. He still has chops, though, beyond going through the highly rehearsed motions of a typical Stones spectacle. In a telling moment, the camera catches him alone, playing some moody blues licks to himself as the rest of the band hobnobs.
  • Ronnie Wood comes across the best, reminding fans that although Keith Richards may have co-written many of the most popular and enduring rock songs of all time, he’s the one that plays all the solos.

Scorsese includes himself as a character in his own film, appearing at least twice in a characteristic tracking shot that caps the film: following the Stones offstage and out of the theater, and flying up into the night sky over New York. The world will have to wait for Scorsese’s true documentary on the Stones to equal No Direction Home and Living in the Material World as a true fan’s deep look into some of the world’s most interesting celebrities.


Official movie site: www.shinealightmovie.com/

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Action Figures: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra movie poster

 

It’s tempting to throw up one’s hands in despair that the brow level of source material for movies has dropped this precipitously low. To be fair, trash (escapist or just plain trashy trash) has existed since the very first days of the medium. But cinema’s early conception as a theatrical presentation made before a paid seated audience associated it with plays, and many early narrative silent filmmakers looked to plays and literature for source material.

Over 100 years later, no amount of original material, adaptation of great works, or repeated remaking of other movies could be enough to feed movies’ hunger for story. It took almost 80 years for Hollywood to draw upon comic books for anything beyond cheap serials. The success of Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) reverberated for years, leading directly into other seriously budgets prestige productions as Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990).

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, something has changed. Drunk on the proceeds of a second wave of comics movies (particularly Bryan Singer’s X-Men and X2: X-Men United and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and Batman: The Dark Knight), Hollywood burned hundreds of millions of dollars on failed projects based on comics properties that even many comics fans might not be terribly familiar with, including Tank Girl (1995), Elektra (2005), and Jonah Hex (2010). With popular comic books exhausted for now, Hollywood is quickly turning to toys and even from board games (Peter Berg’s Battleship and Ridley Scott’s Monopoly are coming soon to a theater near you).

Lee Byung-hun and Ray Park in G.I. Joe: The Rise of CobraNinjas: The reason 10-somethings played with G.I. Joes and also the reason 30-somethings went to see this movie

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is based on the eponymous line of plastic action figures and accessories marketed to boys in the early 1980s by toy company Hasbro. No doubt it was rushed into production after the massively lucrative success of Michael Bay’s two Transformers films, which were based on a contemporaneous toy line. The Rise of Cobra’s critical reception was all but assured as soon as it was announced; it was of course widely and justly panned. But I happened to see it in quick succession with Transformers: Rise of the Fallen and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. In such company, it is a masterpiece, if for no other reason than its logic is internally consistent (if stupidly implausible).

Although possessed of a certain degree of deliberate camp not seen since Burton and Beatty’s comics-based films, the movie seems bizarrely unaware of spoofs that came before it. Echoing the Mystery Science Theater 3000 theme song, a title card announces the story is set in the “Not too distant future” — which, as any MST3K fan knows, promises little but cinematic crimes against humanity. The futuristic settling weakly explains away the advanced weapons and transport technology readily available to G.I. Joe, an elite transnational military force with seemingly unlimited funding, and its nemesis Cobra, a terrorist organization enamored of teleconferencing. Traditional ballistics are deprecated in favor of cheesy laser blasters that provide for lots of death, all of it bloodless. To be fair, this is relatively more realistic than the comics and cartoons, where every shot simply missed and nobody was maimed, disfigured, or killed despite a constant state of war. The other major head-slapping moment of cultural deafness comes when a major action set piece is staged in Paris, as Cobra disintegrates the Eiffel Tower. Does no one involved remember Team America: World Police?

Its structure is a strange and confident gamble; rather than start the story in the middle, with its heroes and villains established and locked in perpetual battle as in the source material, we start before Cobra even rises. The movie makes plain its intentions to set up a franchise, not even giving birth to two of its most iconic characters until the final moments.

Saïd Taghmaoui and Rachel Nichols and Ray Park in G.I. Joe: The Rise of CobraBody armor works better if molded with faux breasts and six-packs

The entire movie is designed as one giant origin story hobbled with numerous flashbacks. First off, a prologue set in 1641 France features an ancestor to Scottish weapons dealer James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston), with little benefit beyond providing a framing device. Other flashbacks tell us more about the rivalry between dueling ninjas Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun), and the relationship between Duke (Channing Tatum), The Baroness (Sienna Miller), and her brother The Doctor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, hilariously full of himself in promotional interviews, citing the art of kabuki as his inspiration for acting much of the film behind a mask). The Baroness and The Doctor (not to be confused with Eccleston’s most famous role) are siblings, Duke dated The Baroness, and was once responsible for protecting the young Doctor. Got all that?

None of these tangled family ties figure into the original mythos established in the 1980s comic books and animated television series, which existed in service of promoting the toy line. The ancillary media provided characters and scenarios for play, all with the aim of inspiring kids to want to collect the whole set and stage epic battles in their parents’ basements. The stories provided by marketers arguably reduced the element of imagination in children’s play. But looked at another way, the entire G.I. Joe package could be seen as a large-scale multimedia act of world-building. Over time, the brand accumulated an epic story with a giant cast, and may have helped set the stage for later ambitious serialized popular fiction of the 21st century, like Lost.

The story ultimately centers around Duke and his pal Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), implying the filmmakers failed to poll fans to find out what exactly it was they found appealing about G.I. Joe as kids. Ask anyone who actually read the comics, watched the cartoons, or played with the toys, and they will tell you Snake Eyes was always the most popular character. His unrequited love for the Joes’ sole female operative Scarlett and complex relationship with “brother” Storm Shadow provided most of the longest-running storylines. Sommers’ movie minimizes the disfigured, mute ninja commando (despite the perfect casting of Park, famous as Darth Maul), and inexplicably costumed with a mask incorporating a mouth. Scarlett’s affections are here transferred to Ripcord, and Storm Shadow is more overtly evil, whereas I recall his loyalties being more interestingly ambiguous in the comics. His apparent death is an obvious homage to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, as is an underwater submarine battle lifted from any number of other George Lucas space battles. In the exact inverse to Storm Shadow, the purely villainous Baroness is here transformed into a fixer-upper.

Sienna Miller as The Baroness in G.I. Joe: The Rise of CobraModelling the latest in terrorist fetishwear is Sienna Miller as The Baroness

One flaw the movie retained from the comics and cartoons: while each “Joe” has a distinct codename and personality, most of Cobra’s forces are nameless and faceless drones. Indeed, their stormtrooper brains have been surgically modified to turn them into obedient zombies. Some meager drama is derived from The Baroness’ potential rehabilitation, but her villainy is defused by making her another victim of mind control. Leaders Destro and Cobra Commander are classic examples of the grotesque figure in literature — like Gollum and Richard III — where physical deformity is an outward expression of evil.

Following the overt racial caricatures in Transformers: Rise of the Fallen, I feared the worst for Marlon Wayans as Ripcord. Indeed, the trailer made a point of highlighting his clowning around. Surprisingly, one of the few areas in which the film managed to outperform expectations was its treatment of its non-white characters. Wayans was given the opportunity to be often genuinely funny and not nearly as annoying as I suspected he might have been. Ripcord gets real chances to prove himself, succeeds, and even gets the girl in the end. Further proving The Rise of Cobra’s bona fides as a surprising source of affirmative action is seen in Saïd Taghmaoui as the heroic Breaker, finally breaking out of his terminal stereotyping as a generic Middle Eastern terrorist / enemy combatant (q.v. Three Kings, Vantage Point, and Traitor). Now if we could just do something about Cobra being made up of evil Brits, Scots, Japanese, and Eastern Europeans.

Why is The Dork Report covering G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra now? Well, the trailer for the sequel just dropped, and it’s very interesting. Whether out of better storytelling or talent availability, the large cast of characters appears to have been drastically scaled back:


Official movie site: www.gijoemovie.com

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A Tall Tale: Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock movie poster

 

Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock is based on Elliot Tiber’s memoir Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life, that purports to be the untold story of how the Woodstock music festival came to Bethel, NY, in August 1969. Tiber claims he was the crucial go-between that introduced the festival’s organizers to Max Yasgur, owner of the farm that became the site of the famous three days of music, peace, love, mud, brown acid, and traffic jams.

Even if only a portion of Elliot’s tall tale is true, it’s incredible that it has not been dramatized before now. In his version of events, an ordinary, meek kid becomes the accidental midwife of one of the biggest cultural events in modern history. Mix in most of the hot-button issues of the time — the hippie vs. square culture clash, gay awakening, anti-semitism, the mafia, and fallout from the Korean and Vietnam Wars — and you end up with what should have been a richly definitive movie dealing with the era.

Demetri Martin and Paul Dano in Taking WoodstockTripping the light fantastic in the magic bus

That Tiber’s account of the festival is vigorously disputed by almost everyone involved (and sober enough to recall events now) is beside the point. The story is a good one, but the film never seems to capture the joy, anxiety, or excitement of the moment. So what if it isn’t true? We already have a supposedly objective documentary on the festival (but more on that below).

The biggest problem is Demetri Martin, who despite his success as a comedian and contributor to The Daily Show, possesses approximately as much star charisma as a plank. To be fair, his character is written to be repressed and buttoned-up, but the kid remains boring even after what ought to have been a transformative number of enlightening experiences, including his first gay kiss, first acid trip, and betrayal by his mother. Emile Hirsch appears in a small role as a psychologically scarred vet, and clearly would have been better in the lead role. Even Elliot’s parents are both more compelling characters than he. His father’s (Henry Goodman) interactions with the burgeoning counterculture awaken him from the virtual coma his life had become, and his mother (Imelda Staunton) is a self-destructive hoarder, which the film links to Holocaust survivor’s guilt.

Demetri Martin and Liev Schreiber in Taking WoodstockThat’s a man, baby!

Lee’s visuals are fairly straightforward, making it rather jarring when split-screen sequences visually allude to Michael Wedleigh’s documentary Woodstock (1970). Taking Woodstock supports Wedleigh’s thesis that the mostly harmless hippies that sought a weekend of peace and music instead found hostile locals and a combative, condescending press. But other moments in Taking Woodstock serve to undercut the original documentary, such as when Wedleigh is seen coaching a trio of nuns to flash the peace sign. If that iconic image was staged, what else might have been false or exaggerated? Taking Woodstock may be a tall tale, but it also makes clear that Wedleigh’s film isn’t necessarily reliable either.

Taking Woodstock ends with organizer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) about to mount another free concert featuring the Rolling Stones. The Woodstock festival may have been chaotic, but it was successful insofar that it proved people could gather in massive numbers and celebrate positively and peacefully. Lang is energized by what he achieved, but the mood is not so optimistic for those of us that know how it all turned out. The chaos and murder of the Altamount debacle that marked the end of the Summer of Love would be documented by The Maysles Brothers in Gimme Shelter (read Matthew Dessem’s excellent take on the film at The Criterion Contraption).

Demetri Martin in Taking WoodstockOne of the most famous traffic jams in history

Just as Taking Woodstock never quite takes off, Elliot never actually makes it to the concert. The fact that we never see it, and barely even hear it, is part of the point. Many of the 400,000 attendees probably never got any closer, either. And even those that did may have been too altered to recall much.

Random observations:

  • There are puzzling hints that Lang’s assistant Tisha (Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter) is significant, but her character is ultimately superfluous. The role is not significant enough to match the notable casting.
  • Like contemporaries Michael Winterbottom and Danny Boyle, Ang Lee seems determined to never make the same film twice. Seen in that light, Taking Woodstock is a refreshing break in tone from his grim, thoroughly nonerotic Lust, Caution.
  • Further, it’s also worth noting that Eliot’s homosexual awakening is much more successful and fulfilling than that of the tortured cowboys in Brokeback Mountain.

Official movie site: www.takingwoodstockthemovie.com

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Visualizing the Invisible: Bright Star

Bright Star movie poster

 

As an English Major in another life, I’m not uninterested in poetry, or Keats in particular. Movies about poetry are another matter. It’s difficult to imagine a less natural source material for the eminently visual medium of cinema than poetry. You can mute the sound, drain the color, or take off the 3D spectacles, but the one thing you can’t subtract from movies is the moving picture.

Other filmmakers have tried to visualize essentially invisible things before: scents (Perfume), academic research (The Da Vinci Code), and math (A Beautiful Mind, Pi). The handful of movies about writing (Capote, Factotum, Henry & June, Wonder Boys) are nearly outnumbered by movies about not writing (Shakespeare in Love, Barton Fink, Adaptation, The Shining).

Abbie Cornish in Jane Campion's Bright Star“Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art”

When it comes to poetry, the most internal and abstract form of writing, it’s slightly disappointing that the most writer/director Jane Campion makes of it is to have her characters read verse aloud. However luscious the cinematography, it doesn’t help that the historical Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and John Keats (Ben Whishaw) weren’t all that interesting as dramatic characters. The former is a lovestruck obsessive and the latter a sickly artiste not meant for this mundane world. It’s the standard biopic cliché: the insufferable wunderkind and the suffering woman that loves him anyway. At least, in this case, Keats wasn’t an addict (q.v.: Factotum, Bird, Ray, Walk the Line, Walk Hard, etc.).

Fanny reads Keats’ sonnet about her “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art” at the close of the film. She lived to witness his posthumous recognition, and never stopped mourning him.


Official movie site: www.brightstar-movie.com

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The Therapist Experience: The Girlfriend Experience

The Girlfriend Experience movie poster

 

Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience is a low-fi, partially improvised production loosely associated with his periodic palate-cleansing experiments including Schizopolis, Full Frontal, K Street, and Bubble. Working with real locations and relatively cheap cameras, this class of thrifty productions allows Soderbergh a rapid turnaround from conception to finished product. In the case of Schizopolis, the lower price tag allotted a certain amount of creative freedom for uncomfortable autobiography. But Soderbergh is also able to bring timelier subject matter to theaters more quickly than most feature films can manage, delayed as they are by the monumental amount of funding and team effort it takes to make and market one. Even the music is economical — most of it diegetic, performed onscreen by street buskers, but also incorporating a cool score by Ross Godfrey.

The Great Recession and Bush’s October 2008 bank bailout hang over everything. Soderbergh beat other films featuring characters beset by unemployment and poverty, including Wendy & Lucy, Frozen River, and especially Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. The sex trade is just a titillating hook for the greater theme of commerce itself, and the way freelance individuals market themselves in order to make a living. The high-class escort Christine (Sasha Grey) is nothing more than a small business owner, a hooker Joe the Plumber.

Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend ExperienceHigh-class escort Christine (Sasha Grey) is a hooker Joe the Plumber

Terminology is very important. “Call girl” is allowed, but “prostitute” is most certainly never used. The phrase “the girlfriend experience” is professional lingo used by call girls to describe service that goes beyond mere sex. The movie depicts very little nudity or sex, and we’re thankfully spared a humiliating experience in which she trades sex for a positive online review from a scumbag (Glenn Kenny) who has granted himself the power to destroy or boost escorts’ careers.

The film opens with an image of a modern work of art hanging on a gallery wall, comprised largely of dull, flattened, reflective metal — just like Christine herself. Whether Grey’s blank performance is deliberate choice or an expression of her limited acting abilities, it fits the character. While Christine is a savvy businesswoman concerned with self-promotion and maximizing her income, her business is entirely in the fulfillment of others’ wishes, up to a point, for a fee. She has goals and desires, but tellingly, Christine defers even her dinner orders to men. The only thing that seems to arouse her is Personology, a Scientology-esque variation of new age hokum astrology that she uses to guide both personal and professional decisions. It seems a bigger hazard to her happiness and success than her profession.

The economic climate may be bad, but Christine and her boyfriend live in a swanky apartment adorned with their art collection. Her clients are mostly financiers, living luxe lifestyles but made anxious by the financial calamity to the point of impotence. They vent their panic to her while she patiently listens and asks softball questions. She always makes a point to ask her clients how their wives and children are doing; not to shame them, but out of a kind of polite decorum that somehow validates what they are doing with her. She has variations of the same staid conversation with her own boyfriend: “It’s good to see you too. How was your day?” Sometimes her clients are so worked up they don’t even want sex, just someone to listen. So what she provides might sometimes be better described as The Therapist Experience. In the unexpectedly touching final scene, she meets a favorite client in less glamorous circumstances than we’ve seen before, and fulfills his needs with a tenderness she hasn’t previously demonstrated, even for her own lover.

Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend ExperienceChristine (Sasha Grey) provides The Therapist Experience… for a price

The story is told through multiple layers of narration. Christine keeps a functionally dry journal of her appointments, keeping track of her various ersatz relationships, the brands of clothing she wore (down to the lingerie), where they dined, what movie they saw, whether or not they had sex. In a second layer of narration, a journalist interviews her for an piece he’s writing on call girls. He finds her interesting in that she’s the only escort he has met that is in a serious relationship. The issue is raised as if it were the key question of the movie, but the theme falls by the wayside to make way for examinations of the ways that people sell themselves in a difficult economic climate.

Her boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos) is a physical trainer, another profession that values youth and physique. While Christine tries to expand her escort business by commissioning a website, and soliciting reviews on seedy internet message boards. All the while she hopes to remain anonymous so she can eventually finance and launch a legitimate boutique. Meanwhile, her boyfriend is simultaneously trying to expand his own business. Like Christine, he is his own boss while working in an established system that resists free agents. His most successful tactic to upgrade his clients into longer, more lucrative commitments is to insincerely cast their work together as a relationship, a bit of psychological manipulation he perhaps learned from his girlfriend.

Like Soderbergh’s Bubble and K Street, some of the cast are non-actors. But Grey is one step removed from an amateur, being in fact a professional porn star. She is likely one of the few to ever fall up, as it were, from pornography to a legitimate film career. She doesn’t seem to have extraordinary acting skills (which is good, for her character is distant and chilly by design), nor does she have an especially expressive face or voice. But she is remarkably pretty, petite, and blessed with a lovely figure seemingly unmolested by silicone. But why look to the world of porn to cast a prostitute? To put it bluntly, it’s illegal in most states for one person to get paid to provide sex, but it is legal to get paid to have sex on camera. Did Soderbergh imagine a real porn star would have special insight into the character of a prostitute? Perhaps he saw parallels in Grey markets herself as a brand in the adult entertainment world.


Official movie site: www.girlfriendexperiencefilm.com

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The Ultimate Six-String Summit: It Might Get Loud

It Might Get Loud movie poster

 

It Might Get Loud indeed, when three generations of rock guitarists convene for the ultimate six-string summit. Jimmy Page (representative of 1970s stadium rock and, with Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, part of the canonical trinity of guitar heroes) joins The Edge (child of the punk/new wave era but also paradoxically a bit of an egghead) and Jack White (student of Americana and freewheeling blues-rock of The White Stripes and the Raconteurs). The three had no doubt crossed paths before now, but probably never had a chance to pick each other’s brains, let alone trade licks and jam.

Director Davis Guggenheim also made the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth and the soccer drama Gracie, but the core concept came from Thomas Tull, producer of Batman: The Dark Knight. As White quips in one of the DVD bonus features, he thought Page would make a fine Joker.

The Edge in It Might Get LoudU2’s The Edge is a child of the punk/new wave era but is also paradoxically a bit of an egghead

Throughout, White is considerably more witty and spontaneous than the others, both verbally and in his effortless improvisation. In comparison, The Edge sometimes seems reticent and comparably tongue-tied. Considering his notoriety as the man that introduced cod-Satanism and Tolkien into Led Zeppelin’s lyrics and iconography, Page is quite the dapper English gentleman. He arrives in a chauffeured Rolls, while White and even The Edge drive themselves to the set.

Jack White in It Might Get LoudJack White, of The White Stripes and The Raconteurs, keeps it real

While Page and White share a background in the blues, The Edge comes from somewhere else altogether. He’s long been more interested in sonics and textures than in impressing audiences with fleet-fingered technique. Page was, for a time, one of the biggest rock stars in the world, but of the three, The Edge has enjoyed persistent fame the longest. He states with total conviction that This is Spinal Tap was, for him, not funny at all: “it’s all true.” A deleted scene answers a question I’ve long had: U2’s nicknames date back to their childhood, and now even The Edge’s mother now no longer calls him David.

There’s no need for an onscreen interviewer when no one else would know better what to ask these three men than each other. When guitarists get together for gabfests, a natural topic is to wistfully reminisce over their first instruments (The Edge and White still own and play theirs). Their conversation is interspersed with short animated sequences and priceless early footage, with relics including embarrassing very early footage of U2 as gawky teenagers.

All three have enjoyed comfort and success for quite some time, so it comes as a rather awkward shift in tone when they are called to reflect on times of crisis in their careers. None were instant stars. Page’s early anxieties are the most interesting; he became a highly successful session guitarist fairly early on (working largely in the now-forgotten musical genre of Skiffle), but realized he was looking at a creative dead-end. He found release in The Yardbirds, a fertile cauldron that famously also included Beck and Clapton at various times, and arguably invented hard rock. The hair came down, the pants flared, and the cello bow came out. Multi-instrumentalist White recounts a childhood sleeping on the floor in a room too crowded with drums to leave room for a bed, and founding his first band while working the lonely job of furniture upholsterer. The Edge recalls the contemporary political turmoil of Ireland as a backdrop to his anxiety over being “just a guitarist” and possibly never a songwriter. From this crisis of confidence came the politically charged U2 standard “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” His substantial contributions to U2 were deliberately obscured by the unusually democratic band; it’s only recently that they have begun to talk more openly about their internal division of labor (generally, Edge demos the music, Bono supplies the lyrics, Larry works alongside the producer, and Adam is resident sartorialist).

Jimmy Page in It Might Get LoudLed Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page is now quite the dapper gent, but was once an infamous 70s bad boy that introduced cod-satanism and Tolkien to stadium rock

The natural wish is for the three to strap on their guitars and jam. So as each is celebrated as much for their songwriting as for their chops, they take turns teaching the others one of their signature tunes. The Edge’s chiming “I Will Follow” riff fails to take off, but Page’s “In My Time of Dying” provides a bed for some fantastic slide-guitar solos from all three players. The climactic closing tune is ill-chosen; The Band’s “The Weight” is without a doubt a great, classic song, but not much of a guitar showcase.


Official movie site: www.itmightgetloudmovie.com

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