by Bill Stamets

Fear errant DNA in “Annihilation” and “Rampage”

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on April 18, 2018

by Bill Stamets

Biophobia vivifies “Annihilation” and “Rampage,” two films imagining altered DNA imperiling our planet. Unlike in all kinds of ways, these U.S. features happen to coincide in their disquiet. Both are symptomatic of pop cultural panic about the body.

The body in question belongs to a character bonded to another who will take enormous risks to accost, with the intent to cure, a monstrous anomaly. Other bodies– outsized mutants– assume fearsome secondary roles in the storylines: a bear and an alligator in one; a wolf and crocodile in the other. There’s an albino body in each film.

“Annihilation,” starring Natalie Portman, ends on an opaquely pessimistic note. “Rampage” stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who saves the day in high spirits.

Things in flames streak through the upper atmosphere and hit the United States in initial scenes of the two films. Their last scenes are less alike. In “Annihilation” a wife embraces her husband, whose multiple organ failure is in turnaround. In “Rampage” an orphaned silverback gorilla makes what the MPAA flags as a “crude gesture” (for coitus) to embarrass his adoptive dad in front of his budding love interest.

The two narratives observe research scientists with prior military careers using their expertise to intervene in a biological crisis. There is a highly secretive U.S. government operation in both scenarios.

Portman plays biologist Lena in “Annihilation,” written and directed by Alex Garland (“ex machina,” “28 Days Later”). Distributed by Paramount Pictures, this R-rated science fiction drama is based on the 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer. There her character is identified only as The Biologist. For seven years Lena served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan or Iraq, judging from a photo of her and her husband in uniform. She got her Ph.D. and now teaches cellular genetics in the medical school of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Johnson plays primatologist Davis Okoye in “Rampage,” directed by Brad Peyton (“San Andreas”). This PG-13 “action adventure” based on a 1986 arcade game is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Davis is on staff at the San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary. His earlier service record in Army Special Forces is much redacted. Although his academic background is skipped by screenwriters Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse (“San Andreas”), Ryan J. Condal and Adam Sztykiel, we hear his new ally has a “Ph.D. in biochemistry from Stanford with a specialty in conservation genetics.”

Opening titles for “Rampage” read: “In 1993, a breakthrough new technology, known as CRISPR, gave scientists a path to treat incurable diseases through genetic editing. In 2016, due to its potential for misuse, the U.S. Intelligence Community designated genetic editing a `Weapon of Mass Destruction and Proliferation.’” Cut to Athena 1, a space station run by Wyden Technologies. Screams, alarms, red lights, sparks, flames and smoke. Ground control cannot believe a CRISPR experiment could be to blame: “Test subject is a rat.” The only scientist left alive up there radios back: “Not any more.”

Three canisters of illegal gene-editing goo fall to earth in California, Florida and Wyoming. In all three states a random animal near impact undergoes a DNA hack. A gorilla, a crocodile and a wolf start to grow “exponentially larger and fiercer,” just like the mutant killer rat that knocked that corporate bio lab out of orbit.

Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), a justifiably disgruntled ex-employee of Wyden subsidiary Energyne, catches San Diego’s morning TV news and rushes over to the wildlife sanctuary. Last night an albino gorilla there, who goes by the name George, came into contact with one of the canisters from Athena 1. He got big and bad and killed a guiltless grizzly. Kate tells Davis that a few years back she made CRISPR faster-acting. “I am the only one who can cure…” George interrupts, bellowing his newly engineered rage.

Davis and Kate team up with an operative from a never-specified outfit designated OGA, as in Other Government Agency. Agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) briefs primatologist Davis and geneticist Kate on his mission: “You see, when science shits the bed, I’m the guy they call to change the sheets.” The trio chases after the three interstate rampagers. The top priority for Davis, of course, is stealing the antidote from the Wyden Technologies lab that can arrest the runaway genetic mutation that turned his BPF (best primate forever) into a monster.

Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman) and Brett Wyden (Jake Lacy) of Wyden Technologies see dollar signs in the “weaponized DNA” of the three unplanned test subjects. As soon as they beam low-frequency bat-inspired sonar waves from an antenna atop their corporate headquarters in Chicago to beckon George, the 13.8-ton wolf and 150-ton crocodile to climb the city’s tallest skyscraper; and the U.S. Army kills them; then the Wydens will package the remains of their monsters. “We can sell that shit for a mint!” blurts Brett.

It’s a workaround for the Athena 1 rat fiasco. Claire and Brett proceed with their original business plan: offer a new bioweapon on the arms market. Wyden Technologies tasked Energyne geneticists like Kate to edit the DNA of sharks, whales, cheetahs and rhinoceros beetles. This bioengineered upgrade delivers “extraordinary genetic gifts, unlimited physical potential, combined with unthinkable violent and aggressive disposition.” And it works, as the rat, ape, wolf and croc prove. Dosing an animal with this DNA-adulterant would grant Wyden customers a tactical edge. Leash not included.

Kate and Davis find the secret antidote, and improvise a comic and shocking method to get George to swallow his medicine. Cured in a matter of seconds, he is recruited to take down the wolf and crocodile. Untreated, they continue to mutate and increase in meanness and body mass. Hardly a fair fight. Chicago is wrecked in the smackdown.

“Rampage” is dumb fun in places. I liked the spectacularly staged attacks on helicopters. Super-critters lunge upward to snatch aircraft in their jaws. Last year’s “Kong: Skull Island,” directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, excelled at this.

Johnson’s character pilots a helicopter in “Rampage,” as his character did in 2015’s “San Andreas” and will do in its upcoming sequel, again directed by Peyton. Johnson increasingly winks at his bankable screen persona: “Let’s go save the world,” he mugs here. Even the gorilla is self-aware. George– taught how to sign with his hands by Davis– pulls lame pranks. Performed amidst the rubble of Chicago, his ace gotcha pivots on a cheap movie cliche.

“Inspired by the Rampage Video Game,” state the credits of “Rampage.” One of the vintage games is installed in the Wyden Technologies office. Brian Colin and Jeff Nauman created the three-player arcade game for Bally Midway in 1986. That was before CRISPR genome tech was invented, so different glitches trigger the three rampagers who playfully level urban infrastructure. There’s no eco-anti-city agenda beyond adolescent glee in virtual mega-vandalism.

“Smash. Bash. Trash.” was the promo mantra for the original Rampage game. The manual for a 1988 iteration adapted for the Atari 2600 video console listed “Points Awarded” for “Punching a Building Vertically” (50), “Eating a Pedestrian or Soldier” (50), “Punching a Helicopter” (750) and 11 other moves. “Crunch the Concrete! Snack on a Soldier! Trash a Trolley! Join arcade legends George the Ape, Ralph the Wolf and Lizzie the Lizard on a mission of mass destruction from coast to coast. Go on a RAMPAGE!”

Press notes for the “Rampage” film claim the “gargantuan, genetically mutating creatures, completely out of control” are “on a path of destruction toward Chicago.” The stakes escalate into “a collision course with civilization.” Equating my city with all humanity might flatter the Chicago Film Office and the Illinois Film Office, but a publicist’s overstatement cannot be taken as cuing a larger-scaled sequel. Unless that rat survived the vacuum of outer space, or not all of Athena 1’s canisters are accounted for.

Peyton’s popcorn movie scolds corporate evil. The CEO gets her comeuppance. Ditto her obnoxious brother, in a dubious bit recalling the World Trade Center plaza on the morning of September 11, 2001. “Billionaire siblings,” as the press notes brand the Wydens, are easy prey.

If “Rampage” lacks social commentary on the ethics of biotech execs, there is surplus fear-engineering about gene-engineering. The 107-minute running time and $120 million budget are largely invested in magnifying the frightfulness of the rampagers via CGI. A tagline touts: “Big Meets Bigger.”

“Annihilation” is a far superior film that takes its fears more seriously. The poster warns: “Fear What’s Inside.” Garland uses CGI to conjure cellular, human-scaled and cosmic sights, ranging from the empirical to the ineffable. The opening shot focuses on a deep red flux: bubbling magma or pulsing protoplasm? Such imagery could be derived from vulcanology or microscopy footage licensed from a nature film archive. Garland concludes with the digitally altered iris of an eye, no less human than yours or mine, let’s hope.

Exiting a prescreening of “Annihilation,” one of the eight producers, David Ellison of Skydance Productions, called the cut “too intellectual” and “too complicated,” according to sources contacted by Borys Kit at The Hollywood Reporter in early December. It’s hard to see any of the 11 producers of “Rampage” saying that about their own product.

I have no idea how “Annihilation” might have changed, but the film as released certainly suits my taste for intellectual and complicated entertainment. After watching it twice, I read the first book in The Southern Reach Trilogy by VanderMeer. It is titled “Annihilation.” The next two are “Authority and “Acceptance.” On the internet, while looking for something else, I came across a PDF of a 127-page “Annihilation” script. Its cover page is labeled “Alex Garland V.10.”

Nothing I read in VanderMeer’s story and in V.10 that was not in Garland’s film, however, struck me as anything I would wish to add to the film I experienced, whether plot details or overall design.

Compared to “Rampage,” with a single flashback showing Davis meet two-year-old George in Africa, “Annihilation” is a more ambitious narrative. Editor Barney Pilling interlaces flashbacks and flashforwards consistent with Lena’s helical quest to decode crazy DNA.

“Annihilation” is mostly set in a timeline that starts with Lena teaching a cell biology class. About a week later she volunteers to join four women carrying scientific instruments and automatic rifles on a classified expedition into a biologically bizarre zone radiating from a lighthouse. Flowers sprout from the elongated antlers of miniature deer. Other fauna includes two huge mutants: a bear and an albino alligator. Lena kills both, though not before one of the freaks of nature kills two women. She hikes to the lighthouse, the epicenter of all this weirdness. One more kill and then she gets out of there.

The first scene with dialogue is a flashforward from the above timeline. Wearing a white Hazmat suit, Lomax (Benedict Wong), debriefs Lena, in white hospital garb, about the expedition. She is the only one of the five who came back. They sit facing one another at a table in a plain room. Government types watch through windows. Five more flashforwards will continue their encounter. Lena’s and Lomax’s last session segues to the film’s last scene, when Lena hugs her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). They are isolated in a hospital-style room at the same secretive facility.

“I don’t know” is how Lena answers most of Lomax’s questions. To the word, that’s also how Kane answers her questions when he returns from his mission. The couple sits at their kitchen table. They face each other much like Lena and Lomax do in the flashforwards they share. Lena gets no further than Lomax will get.

Two flashbacks in the main timeline show Lena and Kane together at home. He is in Special Forces. Covert missions take him around the world. He departed a day early for his next one. Two other flashbacks show Lena and her lover, a married colleague on the medical school faculty. She ended the affair.

Kane left a year ago. Lena never found out what happened to him.

One evening he inexplicably makes his way to their house. She is repainting a room when he startles her. He is standing in a hallway, watching her without speaking. She takes him in his arms. His affect is off. He hardly knows himself, let alone her. All he can say is “I don’t know.”

Kane suddenly convulses and hemorrhages. En route to the local hospital, the ambulance is intercepted by speeding black SVUs and low-flying helicopters. Government suits and operatives take Kane and jab Lena in the neck with a sedative. Garbed in an orange jumpsuit, she awakes in a windowless room in Area X, what Agent Russell in “Rampage” would call an Other Government Agency. Unlikely line itemized in the federal budget, it’s there to make sense of something called the Shimmer. (This OGA’s budget is $300 billion in V.10.)

From outside, the Shimmer looms as a vast hemispherical enclosure appareled in Northern Lights. A diaphanous, viscous smear of pastel hues flow upward. It’s expanding. Area X must relocate to keep beyond the Shimmer’s ever-advancing boundary.

Lena learns Kane was on a prior team sent inside to bring back data, but she gets little out of Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the psychologist in charge of expeditions. “It started around three years ago,” she relates. “A religious event, an extraterrestrial event, a higher dimension. We have many theories, few facts.” She decides to lead the next team. (The Shimmer materialized 13 years ago in the novel; 30 in the V.10 script.)

By orders of magnitude Ventress will increase her understanding once she reaches the lighthouse. Right after it was hit by something in flames coming from space, the Shimmer arose there. Her enlightenment is literal. The lumens are immeasurable. She will not get out of there.

Before heading for the Shimmer Ventress assesses Lena, who thinks there’s a chance she can find a cure there for Kane, near death in an isolation ward on the base: “Soldier. Scientist. You can fight. You can learn. You can save him.”

Kane recorded two videos during his time in the Shimmer. Footage meant to inform the next team only panics them. Lena replays the video and we watch too. This is how Garland embeds two key flashbacks.

We know that Kane and Lena learn much about what transpires in the Shimmer, on their separate trips. Upon exiting– and they are the only ones ever to do so– their knowledge of it dissipates. Garland’s screen only mesmerizes. The Shimmer deletes memories. Unlike Lena and Kane, audiences can enter and exit the screen– and the Shimmer within– without suffering side effects. As the end credits roll, we can begin thinking through the “many theories, few facts” Garland disseminates.

Biophobia abounds in “Annihilation.” Life is frightful. Its very essence is its nemesis. The Shimmer is mega-exaggeration of life. A metastatic phantasmagoria.

The title is ominous. And ambiguous by implying there could be an annihilator. In the lighthouse Lena confronts a highly mutable thing listed in the cast credits as “Humanoid.” The press notes add: “Sonoya Mizuno… provided motion-capture reference for the being in its humanoid phase.” (V.10 variously refers to it as an “alien form,” “alien creature,” “The ALIEN” and “A BEING.” VanderMeer uses “alien” only as an adjective in the novel.)

Mizuno’s counterpart playing George in “Rampage” is Jason Liles, a 6’ 9” performance-capture actor. Garland gave Mizuno no lines in “ex machina,” where she played the mute android Kyoko. But in “Annihilation,” he supplements her modeling role and also casts her in a minuscule speaking part as Katie, a medical student in Lena’s class with one line.

“Over the course of the next term we will be closely examining cells in vitro and discussing autophagic activity,” lectures Lena. Autophagy is the process whereby living cells die. “Your research area is the genetically programmed life cycle of the cell,” Ventress later reminds Lena. “You’re a biologist. Isn’t self-destruction coded into us? Programmed into each cell?”

Annihilation is automatic, a mechanism in the dialectic of life. Cells self-destruct for the greater good of the organism. No need to embody or personify any annihilator of living things. The lighthouse entity that manifests itself to Lena is not so much an individual as a clump of alien clay that can model individuals in life-like detail, minus souls maybe. The pods from outer space did this with people in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Don Siegel’s paranoid sci-fi film from 1956.

“It mirrored me,” Lena tells Lomax. She cites “echoes” and “corruptions of form, duplicates of form.” She sees it reproduce her. Kane saw that happen to him in the lighthouse too, as Lena sees when she plays the video he recorded there a year ago.

Ventress, who never told her team she had terminal cancer, experiences the Shimmer very differently: “We are disintegrating, our bodies as fast as our minds. Can’t you feel it? It’s like the onset of dementia.” On the verge of an involuntary transcendence, the psychologist suffers entropy panic: “[I]t will grow until it encompasses everything. Our bodies and minds will be fragmented until not one part remains. Annihilation.”

“It wasn’t destroying,” Lena tries to clarify for her interrogator. “It was changing everything. It was making something new.” Making what?” presses Lomax. Again he same three words: “I don’t know.”

When the expedition first steps through the shimmering veil, the women behold a terrain of marvels and menace. Lena notices peculiar flora and fauna. Impossible hybridizing occurs not just between species and genus, but phylum and kingdom. Rampant mutations and malignant growths, “like tumors,” hypothesizes Lena. Accelerated and uncontrolled cell growth. The alligator has shark teeth. The bear absorbs the screams of its prey, who continue to scream as if somehow alive somewhere inside its nightmare of a body.

The physicist, not the biologist, figures it out. Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) tells the team: “The Shimmer is a prism but it refracts everything. Not just light and radio waves. Animal DNA, plants’ DNA. All DNA.” Whatever crashed into the lighthouse three years ago generated an aberrant Eden, a random remix of all DNA in the vicinity, a hack of life as we know it.

This astonishing idea is apparently Garland’s. A search of VanderMeer’s text yields no hits for “prism” or “DNA.” Credit the filmmaker as well for symbolizing Radek’s theory of refraction by framing a simple glass of water. Close-ups show Lena and Kane touch fingertips. The glass is placed on kitchen table in between the camera lens and their fingers, so the water magnifies part of their fingers. The rest of each hand, though, is its normal size. The split between magnified and normal, along the two sides of the glass, makes the couple’s hands look deformed, however. I interpret this shot as a microcosm of the refractive Shimmer.

Another wondrous image in the film shows what happens when human DNA and plant DNA commingle. Tangles of vines, leaves, flowers, moss and shrubs take the form of stationary people. Or people transmogrify into plants. Legs morph into thin tree trunks; branches replace arms. (“Like a topiary.” V.10.)

Radek theorizes hox genes freely circulate among living things in the Shimmer. She explains the purpose of these genes in nature is to guide the layout of a growing plant or animal. That’s how chimera could proliferate in the Shimmer. When greenery sprouts on her forearms, Radek welcomes this fate for her own body. Putting down roots, as it were, in the Shimmer.

Backstories for biophobic motifs in “Annihilation” and “Rampage” are traceable to historical and scientific texts in the real world.

George towers over Davis in posters advertising “Rampage.” The human handler may believe he’s the evolutionary better of the two primate pals, but the genetically super-charged gorilla knows only he can overpower the croc and wolf smashing, bashing and trashing Chicago. Ape upgrades were advocated by a German philosopher.

“The age of the experiment!” proclaimed Friedrich Nietzsche in 1881. “The assumptions of Darwin have to be tested– through the experiment! Likewise the genesis of higher organisms out of the lowest ones. Experiments must be performed for thousands of years! Apes must be brought up to be human beings!” Energyne geneticists could research that in a “Rampage” sequel.

Legendary white apes populated Chinese paintings, prose and plays dating from third century B.C., as chronicled in such accounts as “Encyclopedic Records of Things.”

Albino apes were put on display long before George got to the San Diego Wildlife Sanctury. “A Milk-White Baboon. The Wonderful Albino Ape that Has Just Arrived in England,” reported The Buffalo Commercial on July 7, 1894. The Los Angeles Times ran the same story with the headline: “A Freak.”

The unnamed male from South Africa had a backstory as horrifying as George’s: “After a fierce fight the mother was killed and the young male was led away in captivity.” On the United Nation Anti-Poaching Task Force, Davis extracted George during a raid in an undisclosed African country: “When my team arrived, these bastard were in the middle of butchering his mother. They were cutting off her hands so they could sell them as ash trays.”

A “News of the Day” newsreel in 1937 included “Albino ape is brought to America,” according to the Motion Picture Herald. I found no related articles in an online archive of U.S. newspapers. But the phrase “albino ape” appears in a November 29, 1944 article distributed by United Press: “Japs Threaten to Kill Airmen Who Bail Out Over Japan; Call Them `Savages’ and `Albino Apes.’”

“White Pongo” was a summer 1945 release featuring “a white ape who practically steals all the scenes,” noted Showmens Trade Review. “The Ivory Ape,” a Japanese-American co-production set and shot in Bermuda, aired on ABC-TV in spring 1980. Jack Palance played the villainous big-game hunter seeking “a creature so rare worth it is weight in diamonds.”

New Scientist covered the death of “the world’s only known white gorilla, Floquet de Neu or `Snowflake.’” His cause of death on November 24, 2003 was oculocutaneous albinism. “Barcelona city authorities have rejected suggestions that Snowflake be stuffed, considering naming a street or plaza after him,” added the London-based weekly.

Two science books are placed in view as the camera passes through Dr. Kate Caldwell’s apartment. This gene scientist with a Ph.D. has what look like introductory undergrad textbooks simply titled “Genetics.”

The one book we see in “Annihilation” is more instructive. Lena has a copy of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. Johns Hopkins Hospital doctors extracted cervical cancer cells from a terminal African-American patient. Henrietta Lacks (1920–1951) died not knowing what researchers did with tissue samples they scraped from her tumor, which they were unsuccessfully treating with radium. In test tubes, though, “Henrietta’s cells,” writes Skloot, “were growing with mythological intensity.” Sold to labs around the world, the HeLa cell line enabled breakthroughs in tissue-culture technique, human genetics and genomic medicine.

Skloot footnotes “Probing the Secret of Life,” an article by Bill Davidson that Collier’s Weekly published on May 14, 1954. In a Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine lab Davidson watches footage of HeLa cells “magnified 100,000 times” and rhapsodizes: “The movie was breathtaking and a little frightening. It was like a glimpse at immortality. There on the screen before me, big as a close-up of a movie star, was a cluster of turbulent disk-shaped living cells… All the time, there was constant unfathomable movement within the cell as it prepared for the greatest mystery of all– cell division.”

After the title “Annihilation,” Garland cuts to a lecture room screen filled with a round black-and-white image. “This is a cell,” Lena tells medical students. “Like all cells it was born from an existing cell. By extension all cells were ultimately born from one cell, a single organism alone on planet earth, perhaps alone in the universe. About four billion years ago, one became two, two became four. Then 8, 16, 32. The rhythm of the dividing pair which becomes the structure of… everything that lives and everything that dies.”

Without naming Henrietta Lacks, Lena tells her Johns Hopkins students the source of the tumor: “Female patient, early 30s taken from the cervix.”

Mitosis is what biologists call the division of cells. Lena makes it inexorable, exponential and existential. A day or so later she is alone at home. Painting a room shared with Kane could be her way of moving on. It’s been a year. She listens to the Crosby Stills & Nash song “Helplessly Hoping” from 1969: “They are one person/ They are two alone/ They are three together/ They are four for each other.” The lyrics splice her marital straits with her class notes on mitosis.

“Rampage” never lectures about its biology nor licenses tender songs to symbolize CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). Befitting the film’s emphasis on action, the end credits name two Military Advisors and one Genetics Lab Tech Advisor. The latter is James Dahlman from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Previously he was in the Genome Engineering lab at Harvard, headed by Feng Zhang, an innovator in using CRISPR-Cas9 for “multiplex genome editing in mammalian cells.” Just like Dr. Kate Caldwell in “Rampage,” Zhang earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at Stanford University.

Nature ran this rather sensational headline in its news section two years ago: “CRISPR’s hopeful monsters: gene-editing storms evo-devo labs: Easy gene alterations in weird creatures make CRISPR a killer app for evolutionary developmental biology.” Considering the jokey tilt of “Rampage,” I am surprised Energyne geneticists never picked CRISPR Critters as a nickname for the mighty mutant city-wreckers.

Biophobic prompts are also detectable in this Guardian headline: “Synthetic biology: ‘playing God’ is vital if we are to create a better future for all: The present gains and future benefits of synthetic biology are too great for it to be written off with fear-mongering maxims.” The byline belongs to Adam Rutherford, credited as the Scientific Advisor on “Annihilation.” He was one of the 15 co-authors of the paper “Human microphthalmia associated with mutations in the retinal homeobox gene CHX10” published in Nature Genetics. In the film Josie uses the term “hox” (sometimes italicized), shorthand for “homeobox” among gene scientists.

“Homeo” as a prefix came from “Homœosis,” a term proposed by William Bateson in his 1894 work “Materials for the Study of Variation, Treated with Especial Regard to Discontinuities in the Origin of Species.” He meant an anomaly in body plan altering where body parts appear, like “the modification of the antenna of an insect into a foot, of the eye of a Crustacean into an antenna.”

Walter Gehring, a pioneer in hox research, discovered in 1966 the underlying genetics of fruit flies that grew a leg out of their head where an antenna ordinarily is supposed to be, a freakish phenomenon known as antennapedia. On a 1980 trip to an international congress in Kyoto, he visited a ninth-century Buddha statue and found bronze butterflies with two more legs than normal.

In nature homeotic mutants are linked to “master regulator genes which play a key role in the specification of the body plan” in an individual plant or animal. The hox-type mutants in “Annihilation” that unsettle Josie multiply and move around for a pandemic of genetically modifying organisms. “Something here is making great waves in the gene pool,” warns Lena.

Strands in real genetics intersect in plot details. “Annihilation” scientists never refer to CRISPR, yet the Shimmer prism tampers with every genome in range. “Rampage” scientists never refer to hox genes, yet rampant CRISPR-triggering creates a trio of hox mutants.

The “Rampage” wolf keeps mutating. All of a sudden it can fly like a flying squirrel due to newly-grown webbing between its legs. In 2016 University of Chicago researchers used CRISPR/Cas9 to engineer changes in the size of web-like folds between the fins of zebrafish. Mutations in its tail arm the “Rampage” crocodile with porcupine-like projectile quills.

Dr. Ventress in “Annihilation” fixates on self-destruction as an all-purpose theory applicable to everything from cells to careers. There are real-world studies for that too, ranging from Sabina Spielrein’s 1912 psychoanalytic paper “Destruction as the Cause of Coming Into Being” to “Hox Proteins: Sculpting Body Parts by Activating Localized Cell Death,” published in 2002 by Current Biology.

Real-world fears exist offscreen. James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, briefed the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on February 9, 2016: “Research in genome editing conducted by countries with different regulatory or ethical standards than those of Western countries probably increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents or products.”

One year earlier, Chinese researchers described successful efforts to enhance Beagles with targeted muscle hypertrophy. Two puppies– named Tiangou and Hercules– came into the world with their muscle mass doubled. Insects with hox malfunctions get their legs and wings doubled.

Published in the Journal of Molecular Cell Biology, the Letter titled “Generation of gene-target dogs using CRISPR/Cas9 system” ends with an ominous phrase: “This approach may not only greatly facilitate the generation of novel dog models for bio-medical research, but also promote the creation of new strains of dogs with favorable traits for other purposes.” [italics added] Militarized mutant dogs?

The gene-militarizing profiteers in Brad Peyton’s film “Rampage” aim precisely at that sector of the international arms market. Worse screen fears are out there. The 10th draft of a script attributed to Alex Garland, the writer-director of “Annihilation,” compares the impact of the thing that caused the Shimmer to a weapon wounding Earth: “Then it hits the ground by the LIGHTHOUSE drilling into the earth like a bullet hole.” Intent to harm is implied, unless it was a stray shot from across the universe.

Profit obviously motivates Wyden Technologies but the Shimmer is illegible. “What does it want?” inquires Lomax. “I don’t think it wanted anything,” Lena answers.

One year apart, Lena and Kane each come face to face with an uncanny double in the lighthouse. A phosphorus grenade punctuates both encounters. Bodies incinerate in blinding white light. The couple gets a “glimpse at immortality,” as the 1954 author of “Probing the Secret of Life” described his sight of an endlessly dividing cell.

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you,” wrote Nietzsche in his 1886 book “Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future.”

“Annihilation” is nihilist entertainment with the nerve to assert that nature with its DNA awry is an unknowable nothing.

 

©2018 BILL STAMETS

Suppressing Sound to Survive in “A Quiet Place”

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on April 6, 2018

“A Quiet Place”

directed by John Krasinski
written by Bryan Woods & Scott Beck and John Krasinski; story by Woods & Beck
acted by Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe
presented by Paramount Pictures
running time: 90 minutes
MPAA- rated PG-13 “for terror and some bloody images”

 

by Bill Stamets

 

Beautifully made, “A Quiet Place” is a horror film about a family of five in a quiet place in the country. The Abbots walk, fish, dine, play Monopoly, homeschool and birth a baby– all while evading blind creatures of unspeakable ferocity. With preternaturally acute hearing and metal-ripping claws, they depopulated a nearby town. And possibly much of the planet.

John Krasinski directs, co-writes and stars in this atypical fright effort. He and co-writers Bryan Woods and Scott Beck install genre fixtures that do the job. But their premise and plot transcend generic set-ups that trigger less demanding fans. I enjoyed a handful of jolts, even if those seated to my immediate right and left did not care to abide scares secondhand.

More than unnerving, Krasinski’s drama is moving too. Krasinski called it “a love letter to my kids” on The View, ABC’s morning talk show. On NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Krasinski said he liked that someone came out of an advance screening and said: “I never thought I’d cry in a horror movie.”

The opening title states “DAY 89” in white letters on black. An abandoned town, likely in upstate New York. A knocked-down red traffic light lays sideways on the street. “Missing” posters flutter on a bulletin board. The front page of the New York Post spells out: “It’s Sound.” Another headline, shown later: “YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN.”

Barefoot, the Abbotts silently loot a store. They use American Sign Language, subtitled on screen. Evelyn (Emily Blunt) picks through prescription drugs for her son Marcus (Noah Jupe). Lee (John Krasinski) hands a tool from the hardware shelf to their deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who has a broken cochlear implant. The youngest, Beau (Cade Woodward), is denied a toy NASA rocket whose battery-powered engine roars could draw a creature.

Homeward bound, the family is hunted. We only see a blur racing between trees. Then comes the film’s title, followed by the laconic “DAY 472.” I guess that’s good news. The Abbotts are still alive? Bad news– the countdown is not over. Day 1 presumably marked the slaughter’s onset. From the dates of birth and death on a memorial, we can estimate the film is set about two years from now.

Although the animated logo for Paramount Pictures showcases stars from space racing towards a mountain peak, we cannot presume that design signals any extraterrestrial origin for the things terrorizing “A Quiet Place.” Although the second scene of Paramount’s recent “Annihilation”– alien life form imperils Earth– in fact shows a fiery object from the sky striking a lighthouse where whatever-it-is will make its new home. I watched “A Quiet Place” liking not knowing where its ghastly creatures came from. (After the press screening, a reviewer mentioned glimpsing a shot of a news clipping with the words “meteor” and “Mexico.” So just pretend you did not read that.)

Krasinski and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen frame the quiet with subtle touches like placing the camera at ground level to catch footfalls. A similar inter-sensory challenge was met in “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” (2006), directed by Tom Tykwer. A non-alien character has a sense of smell as keen as Krasinski’s creatures. Scents he detects are evoked with sensuous close-ups of things, living and dead, emitting a gamut of fragrances, musks and stenches.

Krasinski and sound editors Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn compose the soundscape with naturalism. Regan’s audio perspective finds its way into the storyline to discreet effect. Her father’s failed attempt to solder a fix in her implant cues a discovery key to the family’s survival.

To my ear, the most inspired choice on the soundtrack comes when Lee and Evelyn share earbuds as they slow dance to “Harvest Moon” by Neil Young. To swoon to. One letdown is recycling the scary clicks of insectoid creatures dating from 1997, the year Guillermo del Toro’s “Mimic” and Paul Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers” were released.

“A Quiet Place” is hybrid horror spliced with other genres. Horror purists will note the absence of the supernatural. No spirits torment the Abbotts, nor do ghosts haunt their house. The screenplay borrows from those westerns where a frontier family defends a homestead from outlaws or Indians. The Abbotts appear to have taken over a vacant farm; they are not the stereotypical farmers of Hollywood. One of their perimeter defenses did remind me of steps taken by the resourceful family of five in Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson” (1960) when a pirate attack loomed.

“A Quiet Place” better fits on the sci-fi horror shelf alongside M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” (2002), in which aliens encircle a Pennsylvania farm family. The urban and suburban iterations would be “The Purge” series of politically satiric horror films made by James DeMonaco in 2013, 2014 and 2016. Now the monsters are other Americans on 12-hour murderous rampages sanctioned by U.S. government each year as civic catharsis.

Truly original, “A Quiet Place” makes room for a sobering pause when Lee and Evelyn define their lives as defense of their children: “Who are we if we can’t protect them? What are we?” The matter-of-fact nobility of those lines segues– a bit later in a deft tonal shift– to that screen cliche of a badass mama bear wielding a shotgun and doing one of those one-handed reload pumps, `bring-it-on’ style. Without a word.

“Ready Player One”: Marx and Meta not in play

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on April 1, 2018

“Ready Player One”
 
directed by Steven Spielberg
written by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, based on Cline’s novel
acted by Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance
presented by Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures, Amblin Entertainment
MPAA-rated PG-13 for “sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, nudity and language”
running time: 140 minutes
Chicago screening options include 70mm at Music Box Theater, 3733 N. Southport, and Navy Pier IMAX, 700 E. Grand
 
by Bill Stamets
 
“Ready Player One” is the touching story of a Columbus, Ohio high school senior finding the confidence to kiss his first love. Steven Spielberg’s thoroughly entertaining two-hour and twenty-minute saga of adolescent self-actualizing is set amidst an epic contest to preserve the status quo of an escapist entertainment corporation in the year 2045.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) takes his cue from James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the world-acclaimed creator of the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) whose lifelong regret was not kissing the one woman he loved.

Regrettably, this teen odyssey deflects from seeing the OASIS as a digital opiate of the masses. The emotional maturity of an orphaned gamer who does not get out much– not the political economy of a massive multiplayer online immersive simulation game– is the tiny heart of this “action adventure” observing five online friends playing the biggest electronic game ever. Warner Bros. Pictures, Amblin Entertainment and Village Roadshow Pictures tender a $175 million prospectus for a user-friendly simulation of a nondenominational paradise.

“Ready Player One” invests no ironic narrative interest in a last-century lens-based movie medium now valorizing a consumer VR (virtual reality) tech platform that could make screenwriters, screens, theaters and concession stands obsolete. The film’s closing disingenuous claim is that real life is better than escapism. The lifework of James Halliday and Steven Spielberg, of course, belies that commonplace.

Screenwriters Zak Penn (“Last Action Hero”) and Ernest Cline improve Cline’s 2011 novel. Streamlining decreases locales, truncates chronology, and reassigns a couple plot turns to different characters. A virtual car race through Manhattan to Central Park is among the CGI spectacles replacing humdrum episodes in Cline’s text. Profuse references to eighties pop culture are filtered out. Many remain, very many. Two “Spielberg” namedrops in the book are cut, as are two uses of “fascist” to smear the corporate villain. Halliday’s corporation, the one we are supposed to root for, is Gregarious Games, shortened from Gregarious Simulation Systems in the book. A half-minute of ambiguous dialogue about a spectral character is tacked on for the film’s beguiling finale.

“Ready Player One” opens with Wade introducing himself and the OASIS: “I was born in 2027. After the corn syrup drought, after the bandwidth riots. After people stopped trying to fix problems. Just tried to out-live them… These days, reality is a bummer. Everyone’s looking for way to escape. And that’s why Halliday, that’s why he was such a hero to us… James Halliday saw the future and then he built it. He gave us a place to go, a place called the OASIS… He showed us we could go somewhere without going anywhere at all… People come to the OASIS for all the things they can do, but they stay because of all the things they can be.”

When he logs on “to escape the shitty hand that life dealt me” Wade becomes Parzival, his avatar in the OASIS. There he virtually hangs out with a few other avatars. These friends have never met in person. But they will. When they do “Ready Player One” will have little to say about online versus offline identities.

Parzival’s main reason to be in the OASIS is to one day own it. Upon his death Halliday hailed all OASIS players in a prerecorded video: Be the first to meet three challenges, find three keys, unlock three gates, and thereby win an Easter egg, as gamers term a special item hidden inside a game. Alluding to the Easter bunny, not the risen Christ. The ultimate winner gets OASIS and Gregarious Games, the company that Halliday co-founded in Columbus, Ohio. And a half-trillion dollars.

Five years later no one has figured it out. Most quit trying. Parzival competes with super-serious OASIS players called “gunters,” as in egg hunters. Most belong to clans to consolidate their efforts. Others, like Parzival and his four pals, toil solo.

Oologists, as in egg scientists, are a paid cadre of robin-egg-blue-sweater-wearing obsessives who over-analyze Halliday’s vast trove of eighties trivia to extract clues. Oology, by the way, is not another word Cline made up. The Oxford English Dictionary cites its origin in 1831 with the debut of a journal titled “British Oology: being illustrations of the eggs of British birds, with figures of each species, as far as practicable, drawn and coloured from nature: accompanied by descriptions of the materials and situation of their nests, number of eggs, &c.”

The Oology Department is inside Innovative Online Industries (IOI), the second largest company in the world after Gregarious Games. IOI dispatches its commando-styled avatars into the OASIS to hunt for Halliday’s mega-egg. They kill the avatars of gunters in their way. IOI also kills real people in the real world by deploying armed security agents and drones bearing explosives.

The detailing of two worlds in “Ready Player One” is telling. Living online differs from living offline. What do onscreen Columbus and online OASIS, one more fictive than the other, reflect about the reality where Spielberg, Cline and Penn live? They identify with Halliday, to whom they give the line: “I build worlds.” Game-playing interests them more than world-philosophizing.

The world of 2045 we see in the theater is limited to Columbus, Ohio. Grey skies. Drab garb. No trees or dogs. Meager smiles. Wade wakes up in his aunt’s trailer. He sleeps on her washing machine. Trailers are stacked in ramshackle towers. As Wade climbs down the metal scaffolding, we get peeks of his neighbors outfitted with VR visors and plugged into the OASIS. He sneaks into his hideout under a pile of rusty wrecked cars. That’s where he enters and exits the OASIS via an internet hook-up.

The Stacks, as Wade’s neighborhood is known, is a “ghetto trash rat warren,” sneers Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the so-easy-to-hate head of operations at IOI. Apart from a few street scenes, the only other side of Columbus in sight is the sleek headquarters of IOI where Sorrento runs the Halliday egg hunt like a corporate espionage and military intelligence mission. It’s a two-corporation economy, implies the film. I spotted only two ads. An IOC sign reads “Enlist Today.” A video billboard for haptic body suits reads: “Feel of Real/No Pain No Gain.”

Spielberg spares us the trope of television news clips of strife to bring us up to date on how the country got this way. He dispenses with the video newsfeeds watched by characters in Cline’s book. I am not even sure “United States” appears on the screen or soundtrack. Two things have not changed. A drugstore displays a “Medicaid Accepted” sign. And the police still issue the command: “Drop-the-gun-now-on-the-ground-turn-around-hands-on-your-head-walk-back-towards-me” without shooting to death the white man in a suit brandishing a gun.

Cline supplied more detail in his novel. (His site reproduces the covers of 16 translations, with Bulgarian, Japanese and Russian editions to come.) Sorrento ranted at greater length about Wade and his kind as “human cockroaches out there collecting food vouchers and using up precious oxygen.”

The popularity of the OASIS is boosted by “an ongoing energy crisis” and “an ongoing economic recession,” Cline writes. Gregarious Games and IOI headquartered in the same city yields a local upside in infrastructure: “Columbus doesn’t suffer the from rolling blackouts that plague most major U.S. cities.” The terrain between urban centers is described as a “lawless badlands” when Wade travels on “the deteriorating interstate highway system.” The 40 mph electric bus has “armor plating, bulletproof windows, and solar panels on the roof… A team of six heavily armed guards… protect the vehicle and its passengers in the event of a hijacking by road agents or scavengers.”

OASIS is far more fun. “You can climb Mount Everest– with Batman!” enthuses Wade as Parzival in his virtual tour for Spielberg’s audience. If you virtually fall from a virtual peak to your virtual death, you won’t feel it for real. What else is in the OASIS? Public schools and prostitution motels. No places of worship. Cline wrote in his book that Wade does not vote in local and national elections. “I did take time to vote in the OASIS elections, however, because their outcomes actually affected me,” relates Wade.

VR, videogames and films preoccupy the creators of the 2011 novel and its 2018 film adaptation. Gamer geeks can identify with the gunters and oologists. “Ready Player One” readers and “Ready Player One” moviegoers are alike as proxy gunters.

A clue in Robert Zemeckis’s 1985 film “Back to the Future” lets Parzival traverse Halliday’s first gate. Wade’s avatar tops the OASIS scoreboard. Parzival is instantly a global celeb. IOI targets him as an imminent threat to their takeover of OASIS, which Sorrento deems “the world’s most important economic resource.”

Parzival diligently mines a virtual archive for clues leading to the second gate. Halliday planted items for his site to relay to an alert gunter like Parzival. The archive’s English-accented curator avatar leaks a tip: “Rosebud,” a reference to an opaque clue in Orson Welles’ 1941 film. “Citizen Kane,” like “Ready Player One,” relates a quest to unlock a secret about a media titan. “Halliday kept track of every movie he ever watched, the week and the year he rewatched it, and how many times,” Parzival narrates.

Digital dioramas at Halliday’s autobiographical museum reenact incidents from his past. Parzival and Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), his online crush and competitor-turned-partner, eavesdrop on conversations. They hear Halliday recount an awkward first date in 2025: “She wanted to go dancing. So we watched a movie.” A new clue leads to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” which likely contains yet another clue, so their avatars rush to the Overlook Theater and instantly find themselves inside the Overlook Hotel where Kubrick set his 1980 film based on a 1977 Stephen King novel. Art3mis scores a breakthrough by asking the avatar of Halliday’s date if she’d like to dance.

Cline incorporated a more on-message ‘80s film in his novel. Halliday hid one of his gates behind a poster for the 1983 film “WarGames.” Parzival points out: “`WarGames’ had been one of Halliday’s all-time favorite movies. Which is why I had watched it over three-dozen times.” Memorized dialogue equips him to unlock a gate. Parzival succeeds at a later gate thanks to watching “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” he specifies, “exactly 157 times.”

“WarGames,” directed by John Badham, features a Seattle high school kid (Matthew Broderick) hacking into a NORAD game titled Global Thermonuclear War. Helped by his girlfriend (Ally Sheedy), he averts Armageddon with the U.S.S.R. Parzival recites all the teen hacker’s lines with spot-on role-playing: “I was Matthew Broderick’s character in the movie `WarGames,’ I was in the movie.”

“Ready Player One” makes no play to put us inside itself using VR-like tricks, circa 2045. Two AMC theaters in Chicago where I attended preview screenings delivered meta-cinema moments of their own. The pre-presentation promo for Dolby Cinema promised a sensory experience almost on par with the OASIS: “Astonishing Brightness and Color/ Depth, Detail and Realism/ Moving Audio/ Completely Captivating.” Colliding ice cubes and bubbles of carbonation in a big cup of Coca-Cola sounded like the RMS Titanic repeatedly striking North Atlantic icebergs.

“`Ready Player One’ is a game-changer in Dolby Cinema,” touts AMC’s internet site. “The sleek, power recliners reverberate to move you deep into the story,” continues the come-on. The tech is not just “putting you at the center of the story” but it’s “letting you step into another reality and surrender to the story.”

“Watch a Movie or Be Part of One,” hypes AMC’s Navy Pier IMAX. Captivated participating is limited to sitting. The OASIS, on the other hand, will entertain in the near future without ever expecting us to “surrender to the story.” We are the storytellers. Exit writers for passive spectators; enter coders for interactive players.

True to his 1970s sense of high concept– a film premise simple enough to pitch in 25 words– Spielberg is neither conceptual nor high-minded about the film/game nexus his latest crowdpleaser. The big insight the late Halliday– via his artificially intelligent, archive-uploaded interactive avatar– imparts to Parzival is a sophomoric stoner tautology: “reality is real, you understand what I’m saying?” “Ready Player One” aims lower than Spielberg’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001) and “Minority Report” (2002). Those near future sci-fi efforts are rather serious considerations of corporate ethics and technologies of virtuality.

“Even with all the popcorn in a film like ‘Ready Player One,’ it does still have social meaning,” Spielberg told the New York Times. What could it be? The 71-year-old filmmaker might not have said what he meant by that, or the writer or his editor decided it did to matter. Spielberg told Reuters: “In a way, our story is a cautionary tale as well as a great adventure.” The one cautionary scene, however, is played for laughs. A young mom is too immersed in OASIS play to pay any mind to her son who’s trying to let her know there’s a pan in flames on the kitchen stove.

Someone tried to impart “social meaning” to Spielberg’s film by invoking the rhetoric of  righteous rebellion. Advertisements read: “A Better Reality Awaits,” “Break Free” and “Accept Your Reality… Or Fight For A Better One.” I doubt the writers of those taglines read the book or shooting script. OASIS occupants accept OASIS as is. They do not want to “break free” from it. They are contented consumers. There is no “better” OASIS to “fight for.” Unless IOI gets its hands on the Easter egg. Then the OASIS will certainly get worse, unacceptably so. Fighting for a better virtual reality at that point would just be a fight to bring back the old OASIS.

Fighting for a better real world is inconceivable. Cline’s novel reported: “The Great Recession was now entering its third decade, and unemployment was still at a record high. Even the fast-food joints in my neighborhood had a two-year waiting list for job applicants.”

There is only a sliver of resistance in Spielberg’s dystopic 2045. Samantha (aka, Art3mis) belongs to a small cell located in the Stacks. We learn little about her comrades; one is shown buying fresh carrots at the market. They recruit Wade after knocking him unconscious with an inhalant. When he wakens in their lair, Samantha quotes a “Star Wars” line: “Welcome to the rebellion, Wade.” They are resisting IOI, mostly online. There are no boots-on-the-ground guerrilla operations against other powers-that-be. It’s not a have-nots versus haves scenario. Samantha wants to win the OASIS and spread the wealth to feed the hungry.

Sorrento is unambiguously the bad guy. How bad? He crows about “the first of our planned upgrades” at IOI: “Once we roll back some of Halliday’s ad restrictions, we estimate we can sell up to 80% of an individual’s visual field before inducing seizures.” Boo!

IOI ought to incite political opposition for operating Loyalty Centers, the Orwellian name for its indentured servitude facilities. People in debt to IOI for internet service fees or VR gear, like visors and haptic body suits, or people whose avatars are behind in their virtual bills in the OASIS are rounded up and incarcerated. Samantha’s ill father was worked to death in a Loyalty Center. She lands in one too. IOC locks a visor on her head and forces her to operate her avatar in OASIS doing dangerous menial labor with explosives.

Since OASIS is coded entirely out of ones and zeros, it does not add up that virtual demolition, virtual construction, or any other virtual labor by indentured avatars would do what coders are doing to demolish and construct parts of this virtual world. The film reworks Cline’s novel here. Originally in the book it was Wade who’s forced into a Loyalty Center. But his work there made more sense. He did online tech support to help IOI customers with their OASIS issues.

Virtual work by real workers is critiqued more incisively in “Sleep Dealer,” Alex Rivera’s 2008 political indie set in the near future. The U.S. has closed the Mexican border. Virtual migration of manual labor replaces bodily migration, legal and illegal, of laborers. Internet feedback links let a Mexican worker in Mexico operate a cyber-robot on a job site in the U.S. The remote worker could be a welder, nanny, waiter or orange-picker. “We give the United States what they’ve always wanted– all the work without the worker,” explains a manager in Tijuana.

Released in 2009, “Surrogates” is a sci-fi thriller like “Sleep Dealer.” Both weigh mind/body duality issues skipped by “Ready Player One.” “Surrogates” director Jonathan Mostow adapts “The Surrogates,” a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele set in 2054. This noir detective tale, reset to the “Present Day,” sharply judges virtuality. Arguably reactionary, humanist and technophobic, “Surrogates” moralizes about people who purposely experience the world by proxy.

“Become anyone you want to be from the comfort and safety of your own home,” advertises Virtual Self Industries. “You can finally live the life you’ve always dreamt of without any risk or danger to your self.” Corporate motto is “Life… Only Better.”

You can make your life better by buying a very life-like robot that’s better in every bodily way. As in the OASIS, you can choose your gender and age, height and weight, and the colors of your skin, hair and eyes. You are limited to a humanoid template. The OASIS offers unlimited species, life forms and even nonliving things to choose as your avatar.

Uncommonly good-looking, the surrogates in “Surrogates” only exist offline. At home you plug into a special recliner that lets you remotely operate your surrogate via the internet. It goes to your place of work– and play– where it sees, talks, hears, tastes and feels everything you would if you were there yourself using your own senses.

The Prophet (Ving Rhames) exhorts people or their proxies, via artificial eyes and ears if their surrogates are paying attention: “We’re not meant to experience the world through a machine.” An entry at the Multiversal Omnipedia site reports that the first surrogate, made for a quadriplegic, climbed Mount Everest. Not with Batman, though.

Years later the wealthy reclusive inventor (James Cromwell) changes his mind and condemns surrogacy as “a perversion” and “an addiction”: “I changed the course of human history when I created surrogates. Now I’m going to change it back.” He unleashes a virus to  irreversibly erase the operating systems of all surrogates. Boston streets are strewn with inert, insensate humanoids unyoked from their human operators. Pale and blinking at the sun, the populace stumbles out of doors in their bathrobes to live again `in real life,’ or IRL as they say online.

Unlike his counterpart in “Surrogates,” Halliday in “Ready Player One” has no change of heart about his historic creation: “Some things are perfect they way they are.” Nevertheless he shows Parzival a big red button that can delete OASIS in toto. It’s unthinkable the new owner will hit it intentionally. Wade too is OK with the utopian game space as Gregarious Games always ran it, although he outlaws Loyalty Centers operated by IOI.

As entertainers in a capitalist society, Steven Spielberg and Ernest Cline are not typically paid to demystify their medium and disenchant fans. Did they sublimate reflexivity into satire (e.g. “corn syrup drought” and Parzival watched a Monty Python film “exactly 157 times”)? The film and its source novel are culturally self-conscious only insofar as they indulge fanboys and fangirls. Gunters and oogolists partake in a purely tactical nostalgia to decode ‘80s fan Halliday. Absent in 2045 are fans of new songs, TV shows, toys, comics or novels, assuming anyone is making new ones in 2045.

“Ready Player One” is incurious about movies, games and virtual reality making us see, listen, feel, think, wish and live differently. “OASIS would ultimately change the way people around the world lived, worked, and communicated,” conceded Gregarious Games co-founder Ogden Morrow in Cline’s book. Simon Pegg plays him in the film. He is double cast as an avatar key to Parzival’s quest.

The film trims Morrow’s misgivings. According to the book, “he felt that the OASIS has evolved into something horrible” and wrote in his autobiography: “It has become a self-imposed prison for humanity.” Wade recounts: “As the era of cheap, abundant energy drew to a close, poverty and unrest began to spread like a virus. Every day, more and more people had reason to seek solace inside Halliday and Morrow’s virtual utopia.”

Headlines of articles papering the interior of Wade’s hideout include a Wired magazine cover asking: “Is James Halliday Playing Games… or Playing God?” In a voiceover the acolyte lauds the supreme gamer and Easter-egger: “he wasn’t just the owner of the world’s biggest company, he was like a god People loved him. They worshipped him as much as his creation.”

OASIS looks like Karl Marx’s nightmare of capital’s dream of distracting the masses with phantasmagoria. “Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes,” Marx wrote in 1843 while living in Paris. “Religion… is the opium of the people.” This dictum is found in his “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” published in German in 1844.

Here is the line in context: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”

“Marx himself used opium,” write historians Victoria Berridge and Edward Griffiths in “Opium and the People: Opiate Use in Nineteenth-Century England.” His use was medical and metaphorical, argues U.K. sociologist Andrew McKinnon.

Opium did not suffer opprobrium at first. Among early auspicious mentions: “Bullein’s Bulwarke of Defence against all Sicknesse, Soarenesse and Woundes” in 1579. “Opium at prefent is in great efteem, and is one of the moft valuable of all the fimple medicines,” indicated “Encyclopædia Britannica; or a Dictionary of Arts and Sciences” in 1771. “In 1820s England, there were somewhere between 16,000 and 26,000 opium sellers,” note Berridge and Griffiths.

The year Marx penned his infamous metaphor, opium use was surveyed in “First Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the State of Large Towns”: “It was stated by the Rev. Mr Clay, that in the town of Preston alone, in 1843, `upwards of sixteen hundred families were in the habit of using Godfrey’s Cordial [labeled a “children’s opiate”], or some other equally injurious compound.’” Other brands to pacify English children were Atkinson’s Infants’ Preservative, Street’s Infants Quietness, and Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, which was imported to England from United States.

Reformers raised alarms about “opium poisoning” from overdosing. Opium was also used for suicide. Starting in the 1850s drafts of the Pharmacy Act and the Sale of Poisons Bill proposed restricting opiate sales in England. Stigmatizing opium users as moral defects came later.

OASIS is Halliday’s Remedy For Interpersonal Isolation. “I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world,” Halliday shares with Parzival. “I just didn’t know how to connect with people there. I was afraid for all my life. Right until the day I knew my life was ending. That was when I realized that as terrifying and painful as reality can be it’s also the only place that you can get a decent meal. Because reality is real.” (An oologist would catch that “decent meal” quip as coming from a line about getting a “good steak” in a 1977 New Yorker story by Woody Allen.)

After kissing Samantha, Wade announces: “We closed the OASIS on Tuesdays and Thursdays. People need to spend more time in the real world because like Halliday said, `reality is the only thing that’s real.’” Once there, in real life, outside of the OASIS– what will people do besides kiss?

To save the future of the OASIS, Parzival united OASIS avatars loyal to Gregarious Games and lead them to victory over the avatars of IOI. Any chance Wade and Samantha will lead offline masses to repair present reality? At the beginning of “Ready Player One” Wade says the OASIS came along “after people stopped trying to fix problems.” If 2045 is the year to make America great again, its fixers must log out of the OASIS first. And that can be uncomfortable. “It’s the only place that feels like I mean anything,” reveals Wade in the trailer. That line is not heard in the film.

Spectrally evanescent avatars in the OASIS are like impotent ideas attacked in “The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism,” a polemic Marx and Fredrick Engels wrote in late 1844, again in Paris. It was their first collaboration. They urged: “Ideas cannot carry out anything at all. In order to carry out ideas men are needed who can exert practical force.”

Online players and offline people are alienated, like “ideas” and “men” in 1844. Dualist disconnects are built into existence in 2045. What is to be done, practically? “Ready Player One” entertains no idea. When is good for you?

Tuesdays and Thursdays are open.

Father finders: a raider of tombs and a wrinkler of time

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on March 25, 2018

Brave daughters undertake quests to find their missing fathers in “Tomb Raider” and “A Wrinkle in Time.” Seekers of an empowering role model will find her here. One film dabbles in magico-cosmo-theology. The other muses on it by zooming around the universe.

Very far from home, dearly missed fathers are found by daughters overcoming fantastic obstacles. Twenty-one year-old Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander)– in “Tomb Raider” directed by Roar Uthaug (“The Wave”)– decodes clues to locate the tomb of Japan’s legendary Queen Himiko in order to thwart the “Order of Trinity, an ancient militant organization that seeks control over the supernatural to rule the fate of mankind.” Eighth-grader Meg Murry (Storm Reid)– in “A Wrinkle in Time” directed by Ava DuVernay (“Selma”)– navigates a 91 billion light year fold in space-time to fight “a purely evil energy, known simply as the It, … an evil that’s actively spreading throughout the universe.”

“Tomb Raider” is a descendant of a 1996 video game of the same name. Fourteen more versions followed, according to Wikipedia. I cannot say I played any of them. Never watched a 2007 web series of ten animated shorts. Press notes for the present film fail to mention two prior feature films: “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” (2001) and “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider– The Cradle of Life” (2003). Both starred Angelina Jolie playing an older Lara Croft brandishing an ironic grin along with high-tech arms.

We meet the Lara Croft of 2018 losing a sparring match at a mixed martial arts gym where she’s behind in her fees. This East London bike courier cannot accept that her father, wealthy widower Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), might have died during his mysterious absence, now in its seventh year. She cannot bring herself to sign a Declaration of Death in Absentia and thereby inherit Croft Holdings and Croft Manor.

On the verge of finally inking her signature, Lara instead opens a Japanese puzzle box her father left her. Inside is an old snapshot of them together. And there’s a note leading her to the Croft family mausoleum, under which she finds her father’s hidden research workshop. Thanks to a SONY camcorder with a battery that hold its charge for seven years, Richard instructs Lara to destroy his Himiko files. She does not. She looks through that box, finds an invoice from a sea captain, flies to Hong Kong.

Lara finds that captain’s son Lu Ren (Daniel Wu). His father also disappeared seven years ago, after an attempted voyage with Lara’s father to the legendary island hiding the legendary tomb of the legendary Queen Himiko. After a glance at a snapshot of himself with his father, Lu Ten decides to take Lara’s money and take her there. En route we hear notes Richard recorded on his tape recorder, and see charts and sketches from his notebook. Perils ensue.

Lara’s action scenes are brutalizing. The MPAA rates “Tomb Raider” PG-13 “for sequences of violence and action, and for some language.” First is her fierce gym fight where she taps out of a headlock. Then a bike chase injures her. In Hong Kong she deals with a trio of young thugs. Currents and reefs smash Lu Ren’s vessel upon Yamatai Island, which is not so legendary after all. Lara and Lu Ten are captured by heavily armed multinational thugs employed by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins, who is great at popping his eyes toward green screens). He says he killed their fathers.

For seven years, a Trinity subcontractor or subsidiary has tasked Vogel– using dynamite and slave labor– to find Himiko’s tomb and bring back her super, if not truly supernatural, weapon. Shots of a framed photo of Vogel’s two daughters tell us he really, really wants to finish this and go home.

Although their hands are bound, Lara and Lu Ten spearhead a slave revolt. She flees through the jungle, leaps off a cliff, plunges into a torrential river, grabs ahold of a rusty WWII bomber at the brink of a waterfall, parachutes into more jungle, and then kills her tracker with a headlock. An attack on Vogel’s camp to steal a satellite phone takes an unexpected turn when Vogel puts a gun to the head of none other than Lord Richard Croft, an evasive semi-crazed cave-dweller on the island for the past seven years. The plot delivers a revisionist twist to Himiko’s resume and a lot of action inside the raided tomb, much in debt to Indiana Jones films.

The London ending points to a sequel. Her father once warned: “Trinity is everywhere.” As Croft executive Ana (Kristin Scott Thomas) reminds Lara: “Just think what you can do for the world, with your potential, with your wealth.” At a pawn shop Lara arms herself with more than headlock, looks into the lens, and grins. Cue end credits of this diversion distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures and Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures.

The only idea entertained by screenwriters Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons, with the story credited to Evan Daugherty and Robertson-Dworet, touches on an out-of-date debate about myth versus truth, magic versus science by British anthropologists.

The Croft crypt contains Lady Amelia Croft, 1964–1998. In his video to Lara, her father reveals her death inspired a quest: “I began searching the world, desperate for a hint of another realm, for proof the supernatural, anything to feel her with me again.”

The grief-struck widower’s research detoured to Queen Himiko: “a powerful sorceress who ruled through dark magic, spreading death and destruction through the mere touch of her hand… entombed beneath a mountain.” He vows to stop Trinity: “If Vogel opens that tomb, Himiko’s curse will be unleashed on the world.” “If it fell into the wrong hands, it could be catastrophic.” He foresees “genocide.”

In a flashback to Croft Manor, 14-year-old Lara shoots arrows at an apple. Richard cites a Swiss archer of old. “William Tell was a myth, dad,” corrects Lara. “Well, all myths have foundation in reality,” he counters. Richard’s point is underscored when that line recurs later in an audio montage.

Vogel is inconsistent. He believes the Queen’s tomb and touch are real enough to excavate for Trinity, yet he taunts the Crofts: “[T]he difference between myth and reality, Richard, something you could never understand.” Entering the tomb, the raiders notice a pulse of air. “She’s still breathing,” marvels Richard. “Or a change in atmospheric pressure,” cracks Vogel. Opening the coffin, they are taken aback when the queen’s corpse sits up. Vogel points to the gears and levers beneath her: “See? Smoke and mirrors.”

Vogel doubts Lara could ever “believe this nonsense.” She interprets ancient paintings inside the tomb that revise the demonized image of Queen Himiko as a deadly vector. Unsophisticated epidemiologists, her contemporaries had turned to the supernatural. “They thought it was magic,” divines Lara.

“A Wrinkle in Time” admits no ambiguity to its big picture, albeit one populated with supernatural-seeming beings. Not from Earth, they are nonetheless totally real. Einstein explains nearly everything in this fantasy adventure from Walt Disney Studios that’s rated PG “for thematic elements and some peril” by the MPAA. An ambiguous agenda in the film’s Cold War era source novel, however, does not make its way to the screen.

Meg Murry (Storm Reid) will leap instantaneously across the cosmos accompanied by her adopted younger brother Charles Wallace Murry (Deric McCabe) and her classmate Calvin (Levi Miller). The threesome’s kindly enablers are Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling). Mr. Which, Mr. Whatsit and Mr. Who are elsewhere, if they exist.

Although the young adult novel by Madeleine L’Engle once mentions a “time wrinkle” coupled with a “space wrinkle,” the 1962 book and 2018 film titled “A Wrinkle in Time” are actually about their characters traveling through space, not in time.

Four years ago to the day, as a television newscaster tells us, Mr. Murry (Chris Pine) mysteriously vanished in an attempt to “travel the universe with his mind.” How? The NASA theoretical physicist theorized: “Tap into the right frequency.” How far? Approximately 91 billion light years. That distance is inexplicably downscaled to 92 million light years in the press notes from Walt Disney Studios.

Meg’s mom, Mrs. Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), is a biophysicist: “I’m mostly interested in the small atoms, particles, the unseeable energies that move through us all.” Together, Meg’s parents discovered “tessering,” a fifth-dimensional mind-based way to transit the universe via a “tesseract” without a spacecraft or supernatural tricks. Before her maiden voyage Meg is assured: “Tessering is almost nearly perfectly natural.” (To wrinkle is to tesser in the vocabulary of this story.)

“Your father has done an extraordinary thing,” Mrs. Which advises Meg. “No human has ever traveled so far out in the universe. But he may be in danger and we’re here to help you find him.”

Why do these three eccentrics– peculiarly capable of materializing and dematerializing– want to help out? “Because that’s what we do,” brightly offers Mrs. Whatsit. “We’re warriors who serve the good and the light in the universe… Think of us as big-hearted.”

DuVernay’s screen adaption of L’Engle’s novel traces Meg’s evolution from a dispirited, detention-prone outcast at James Baldwin Middle School, to a bold selfless cosmic do-gooder. Her superpower of sorts is her love that lets her rescue her father imprisoned on the planet Comazotz, and to free her brother from the awful soul-stealing It voiced by David Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma.” L’Engle variously describes It as IT, the Thing, the Dark Thing and the Black Thing.

Reunited with Meg– nicknamed Megatron and Megaparsec by her dad in the book– Dr. Murry in the film apologizes for prioritizing science over parenthood: “I wanted to shake hands with the universe but I should have been holding yours.”

“A Wrinkle in Time” devotes more narrative space-time to detailing emotion and evil than does “Tomb Raider.” Lara Croft self-actualizes just a smidgen in her character arc. Her nemesis Trinity is thinly drawn. Its counterpart in the 2001 film was the Illuminati.

Mrs. Which schools Meg on the insidious intergalactic shadow: “You see, this is what the It does, one person at a time, until fear takes over, fear turns to rage, rage leads to violence, and then there’s a tipping point. If we do not act soon, Darkness will fall across the universe. We’re in search of warriors who can fight the It. Who can bring hope back.”

“Some of our the best warriors have come from Earth,” Meg is told. Her brother makes a guess: “`Jesus!’ Charles Wallace said. `Why of course, Jesus!’ `Of course!’ Mrs. Whatsit said.” That exchange in the novel is not in the film. Screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell drop the son of God from L’Engle’s pantheon of Earth’s prior warriors.

Only one woman is named the 1962 book: Madame Curie, the Nobel Prize winner who coined the term “radioactivity.” L’Engle added Mother Theresa, Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy Day when Scholastic magazine students asked for more recent “light-bearers,” according to an undated transcript.

Curie is joined in the film by “[Frida] Kahlo… Maya Angelou and now Meg Murry.” Mrs. Which lauds Meg: “the universe is right tonight because of you.”

The screenplay leaves out a scene in L’Engle’s book where Calvin strains to explain to an alien trio of “Things” what sort of beings Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Whatsit are. “`Angels!’ Calvin shouted… `Guardian angels!’… he shouted again… `Messengers! Messengers of God!’”

Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Whatsit bestow a higher purpose on Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin. “This is where we leave you,” says Mrs. Which. “To become warriors on Earth.” The three kids and Mr. Murry all tesser homeward. They land in the Murry’s back yard.

Grown up Meg and Calvin are scientists with seven children in a 1965 novel by L’Engle.

Christian parents in Alabama, Alaska, California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and Texas objected to public schools assigning fiction they deemed religiously incorrect.

“Attention parents… After page 64 this book is 90 percent occult… Demand that it be taken out of our schools. Do it now for the sake of your children and future sixth and seventh graders,” exhorted Kathleen Hollop of Wappingers Falls in her letter printed in The Poughkeepsie Journal on December 3, 1987. In her January 1, 1988 letter she asked: “Who do you want your children to serve– God or Satan?”

People for the American Way ranked “A Wrinkle in Time” one of “11 Top targets in 1990-91” in its survey of attempts to take books out of public schools. The novel also appeared on two lists compiled by the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association: “100 Most frequently challenged books” in 1990–1999 and “Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books” in 2000–2009.

Calvin College prof Donald Hettinga reported in Christianity Today: “[L]ibrarians in Christian schools and churches handle her books as though they carried dangerous heresies, sometimes relegating them to back shelves where patrons must ask specifically for them, and sometimes banning them altogether.”

“Banners have a tiny, controllable little God and they’re terrified that God might be bigger, more exciting, wilder,” L’Engle told the Associated Press in 1993. Claris Van Kuiken penned a 1996 exposé titled “Battle to Destroy Truth, Unveiling a Trail of Deception” that accused L’Engle of lacing her prose “with a pinch of rat poison.” In 2017 she still maintained: “L’Engle’s novels… are spiritual poison for children, precisely because they are considered `Christian.’”

L’Engle tuned in a radio show attacking her and related: “It was a very strange sensation to listen to a spewing out of hate, a septic vilification of me and everything I believe. My response was instinctively visceral, as though someone were plunging a knife in my intestines and twisting it.”

Evangelicals attacked L’Engle for her alleged New Ageism, Christological deconstruction and allegiance to a doctrine called “open theism.” An Anglican, she explained her intent for “A Wrinkle in Time” to the National Catholic Reporter in 1986: “It’s based on Einstein’s theory of relativity and Planck’s quantum theory. It’s good, solid science, but also it’s good, solid theology. My rebuttal to the German theologians [who] attack God with their intellect on the assumption that the finite can comprehend the infinite, and I don’t think that’s possible.”

L’Engle reflected on her path of faith in a 1972 memoir: “I found myself explaining to the young minister that I did not believe in God, ‘but I’ve discovered that I can’t live as though I didn’t believe in him.’” In a 1986 book she wrote: “Jesus… is God’s show and tell” and told an interviewer that same year: “The Bible is… a magnificent story book. It doesn’t give any answers, it just tells more stories.”

Passages of scripture recited by Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Whatsit are italicized in the book, although L’Engle never cites Biblical chapter and verse. And when Meg must block It from brainwashing her, she “shouted” the Declaration of Independence and the Periodic Table of the Elements as if they were incantations to counter against cosmic evil. Inasmuch as It is depicted as an totalitarian entity, not Satan, maybe patriotism and physics are apt ordnance.

L’Engle attended Episcopalian services and served as a volunteer librarian and writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. A PBS interviewer asked her in 2000 if she was a Christian writer and she answered: “No. I am a writer. That’s it. No adjectives. The first thing is writing. Christian is secondary.”

L’Engle’s tertiary thing might be an early sixties zeitgeist marked by Sputnik upset, Communism phobia and conformity panic. DuVernay’s film omits a political theme prominent in L’Engle’s book. Unlike religious errancy, the writer’s ideological bent might have struck readers as unambiguous, so she triggered critics on neither the right nor the left.

When the American Library Association awarded its John Newbery Medal to “A Wrinkle in Time” L’Engle gave an acceptance speech on July 15, 1963 at a banquet during the organization’s annual conference in Chicago. She cautioned against a Sputnik-provoked curriculum that denied American children access to imaginative literature: “There are forces working in the world as never before in the history of mankind for standardization, for the regimentation of us all, or what I like to call making muffins of us, muffins all like every other muffin in the muffin tin.”

That folksy metaphor of packaged baked goods evokes “Little Boxes,” a song written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962 and popularized by Pete Singer the next year. The lefty folk singer also recorded Reynolds’ ban-the-bomb lament “What Have They Done to the Rain?”

Collective de-individualizing groupthink is targeted in “Little Boxes.” Southern California suburban tract housing inspired Reynolds’ refrain: “Little boxes all the same… And they all look the same.” Middle-class routines of school, college, white-collar career, home ownership, marriage and children are satirized from a liberal angle.

The Murry family hardly dwells in a Little Box. Dr. Murry is a maverick at NASA. The book supplies more detail about his government employment in a top-secret tesseract project at Cape Canaveral. “Certainly we weren’t the only nation to investigate along that line,” he informs Meg. “But we did try very hard not to let it be known abroad that we were trying to make it practicable,” adding “there was no way to try it out ahead with rats or monkeys or dogs.” He was the second tesser-enabled traveler. The first was lost in space-and-time. L’Engle is clearly referring to the U.S. competing with the U.S.S.R. to launch satellites– then identified as “artificial”– in the Cold War “space race.”

Over many pages, the book describes Comazotz as an extra-terrestrial Communist hell run by the CENTRAL Central Intelligence Agency. In the chapter titled “The Man with Red Eyes,” Prime Coordinator (named “Red” and played by Michael Pena in the film) eyes Charles Wallace and claims: “I am peace and utter rest. I am freedom from all responsibility.”

In a matter of blinks, the boy is hypnotized and brainwashed. Telepathically he is forced to channel It’s pitch: “On Comazotz we are all happy because we are all alike… Complete equality. Everybody’s exactly alike… You see, on this planet everything is in perfect order because everybody has learned to relax, to give in, to submit… on Comazotz individuals have been done away with. Comazotz is ONE mind. It’s IT.”

An unlucky boy out of sync with robot-like boys in his homogenous neighborhood is re-educated through painful conditioning. “After today he’ll never desire to deviate again,” comments Charles Wallace approvingly. “IT sometimes calls Itself the Happiest Sadist,” he “giggle[s].” Social engineering includes euthanasia: “[W]e have conquered all illness, all deformity… We let no one suffer. It is so much kinder simply to annihilate anyone who is ill… Rather than endure such discomfiture they are simply put to sleep.”

Life under It is a tyranny of mind and body. Yet some passages could be read as a beat-era critique of conformity– befitting a one-time denizen of Greenwich Village who set her first published novel in that bohemian enclave. My alternate take may be irrelevant to the novel’s initial reception. Did the book’s anti-Soviet message elicit no objections in 1963?

I see “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” directed by Don Siegel, as social commentary open to similar interpretations. This 1956 science fiction film was based on Jack Finney’s story “The Body Snatchers” serialized by Colliers Magazine in 1954. Big pods from outer space fall on fields near a small California town. As residents sleep, they are duplicated overnight by goo in nearby pods. Outwardly looking like the original, the dupe lacks all its individuality. Pod people are pacified. No emotions. Mind-controlled, they dutifully do the bidding of the invaders and dispatch truckloads of pods throughout the country.

Is this an anti-Red allegory? Or does the film subvert that exegesis with a different alarmist agenda? “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is arguably a paranoid diagnosis of a country losing its individuality, humanity and liberty to conformity. The U.S. is doing this to itself. There’s no need to accuse outsiders.

“Communism is struggling for the minds of men while we have been sleeping,” stated the film’s producer, Walter Wanger. Finney denied he ever wrote “a cold war novel, or a metaphor for anything.” The film is “neither anti-Communist nor anti-anti-Communist,” writes Wanger biographer Matthew Bernstein. He quotes contributing uncredited screenwriter Richard Collins: “It wasn’t either of those things, believe me.” Once a member of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and Communist Party, Collins was blacklisted until he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951.

“Tomb Raider” is unambiguously free of big ambiguities. There’s merely Vogel’s cognitive dissonance of simultaneously believing and disbelieving that Queen Himiko is a supernatural weapon of mass death. The film “A Wrinkle in Time” delivers uplift minus bookish thoughts about Christianity and conformity.

The book and film sharing the title “A Wrinkle in Time” express a relatable sentiment: daughters love their dads. L’Engle and DuVernay dedicate their respective works to their respective fathers. Lara Croft would no doubt dedicate one of her efforts to Lord Richard Croft if Croft Holdings invests in a sequel and her executive producer perks include dedicating the film.

“Pacific Rim Uprising”: less than oceanic in originality

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on March 23, 2018

“Pacific Rim Uprising”
directed by Steven S. DeKnight
written by Emily Carmichael & Kira Snyder and Steven S. DeKnight and T.S. Nowlin; story by DeKnight and Nowlin
acted by John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Jing Tian, Cailee Spaeny, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman
presented by Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures
MPAA-rated PG-13 “for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language”
running time: 111 minutes

 

“Pacific Rim Uprising” offers inanely iterated bouts of CGI combat between Kaiju, mega-dino-like creatures from another dimension, and Jaegers, 25-story-high mecha-robots whose embedded human co-pilots neurally bridge right and left hemispheres to muster the requisite brain power for interfacing with their mechanical limbs and weapons.

Dazzling pixels and numbing decibels overserve the senses. All this entertained many of my neurons, if not my plot receptors. An amazement in the design: an underdetailed narrative built on thin, short threads of dialogue between one-note characters. It’s almost bold to insert such slight pauses between the outsized action sequences.

Guillermo del Toro directed “Pacific Rim” in 2013. The credits for “Pacific Rim Uprising” list him among 14 producers in the 2018 sequel directed by Steven S. DeKnight. Screenwriters Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder and DeKnight bring back many characters and tropes created by screenwriter Travis Beacham in 2013. When is a sequel more like a reboot?

Not returning is Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the Pan Pacific Defense Corps commander who cloaked his Jaeger in Kaiju corpse DNA to fake out the Kaiju guarding an inter-dimensional “Breach” on the floor of the Pacific Ocean through which the “alien race” of Precursors dispatch Kaiju to defeat humankind and terraform Earth as a new habitat for Precursors. “Today we are canceling the apocalypse,” proclaimed Pentecost upon launching his suicide mission to breach the Breach and detonate his onboard nuclear reactors.

Ten years afterwards, in 2035, the son of this world-famous world-saver has quit as a Jaeger pilot. Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) works as a Jaeger tech scavenger with a famous father issue.

From the start, the screenplay of “Pacific Rim Uprising” repurposes “Pacific Rim” elements. The first film also had a father and son who were both Jaeger pilots. The son had similar “daddy issues,” as another pilot put it. Both films have black markets: in the first dealers peddled Kaiju debris; in the second Jake and Amara (Cailee Spaeny), a plucky 15-year-old scrapper, deal in Jaeger parts. Both films feature hotshot protocol-overriding pilots who quit and find dangerous work elsewhere. They’re induced to return to the Pan Pacific Defense Corps where they piss off officers and bond with other pilots.

“Pacific Rim Uprising” repeats a major plot point in “Pacific Rim.” Jaegers and their pilots face replacement by a new defensive technology. In the first film there’s a billboard for “Defending Your Future, Alaska-California Anti-Kaiju Wall,” presumably one of many designed to protect Pacific coastal cities from further attacks. This time a Chinese corporation debuts remote-controlled anti-kalju drones to make Jaegers obsolete. Neither measure succeeds. Jaegers must save the day.

The most appealing carry-over is the spat between scientists Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Herman Gottlieb (Burn Gorman). Know-your-enemy inquiry results in dire blowback. This twist is the most original reveal in “Pacific Rim Uprising,” in which there is no uprising, above or below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, by the way.

As in “Transformer” and other sci-fi action franchises, there is no permanent plug in the inter-dimensional portal in “Pacific Rim Uprising.” More invaders are inevitable. So too is the collateral damage when we keep battling aliens in high-density population centers. This over-indulgence in CGI urbicidal fantasy is nearly obscene.

What I Did Not See in “All I See is You”

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on November 2, 2017

“All I See is You”
directed by Marc Forster
written by Marc Forster & Sean Conway
acted by Blake Lively, Jason Clarke, Yvonne Strahovski, Danny Huston
presented by SC International Pictures
rated R for strong sexual content/nudity, and language
running time: 110 minutes

 

I did not get “All I See is You”

Because:
a) I did not notice the right things and connect them the right way.
b) The film is unambiguously about ambiguity and I did not get that.
c) The filmmakers incompetently crafted the uncertainty they sought.
That is, the motives of two key characters are indistinct in ways that did interest me.

I can see all of the above being partly true. It can be a treat or a chore to disambiguate clues and parry misdirection in a film. It depends on the spectator’s inclination to collude with the director. “I would prefer not to,” to quote the title character of Herman Melville’s 1853 story ‘‘Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,’’ scrivened a year after his “Pierre: or, the Ambiguities.”

Director Marc Forster is versatile, with credits including “World War Z,” “Machine Gun Preacher,” “Quantum of Solace,” “The Kite Runner” and “Stay.” His “Stranger Than Fiction” and “Finding Neverland” shuttle with finesse between the inner life of an author and the lived truth of other characters. Neither film is psychologically puzzling like “All I See is You.”

Before making his mark in 2001 with “Monster’s Ball,” Forster directed three features that he co-wrote. The first was the unreleased “Loungers,” shot on 16mm in 1995. According to the Internet Movie Data Base, the “storyline” of this “experimental absurdist musical” was “A lounge singer hires his sister, who suffers from amnesia, to kill their parents.”

Forster is co-writer of “All I See Is You” with Sean Conway. The “I” and “You” in the title possibly refer to both sightless Gina (Blake Lively) and her sighted husband James (Jason Clarke). Flashbacks to Gina’s childhood glimpse a car accident in Spain. Her parents died. She and her sister survived. This is when Gina lost her sight. The plot skips her years prior to marrying James and moving to Bangkok where he works in insurance. An operation restores vision to Gina’s right eye. Her left one was irreparably damaged.

What her new sight changes in her life is unclear. Does James change? Then Gina’s one good eye starts to go bad. Lies are told. The film is not lying to viewers but Forster and Conway go too far in not spelling out too much of what’s going on.

The press notes for “All I See is You” refer to “an almost perfect marriage.” In the pre-operative part of the story I saw no obvious imperfections. The couple’s good-natured disagreements usually end in laughter.

Post-operative Gina dyes her hair blond, adopts a neighbor’s elderly dog, and goes house-hunting. Making choices on her own is a side effect of seeing again. James, in turn, surprises her with a trip to Spain where they honeymooned and her sister lives now. There’s a slightly sharper argument about whether they are staying in “the exact same suite” they booked years ago. She is sure it’s different. He admits he lied about it for some reason. After they return to their high-rise apartment in Thailand, he buys the house Gina likes without telling her.

Sexual tension arises, even if this was not a pre-existing condition for the couple. James is concerned with what Gina sees and how others see her. On a night-time stroll at the Spanish resort they pass a beachfront room where a naked couple stands by their sliding glass door, making love with the lights on. James tells Gina she doesn’t want to see that. On a night out, James refuses to join his wife, her sister and brother-in-law when they take in a sex show at a club. One night in their train compartment Gina binds her husband’s wrists for some martial experimentation. And she records it. James is neither amused nor aroused.

Back in Bangkok, the couple gets ready for a big deal dinner with James’ work associates. James is taken aback at her look. “I just never seen my wife in a dress like that before,” he says. “I guess it’s not really you, huh?” Gina counters: “Well we don’t really know who me is, do we?” Me neither, at this point.

Another exchange underscores a mutually impaired regard.
“Did you love me more before?” –Gina.
“When you were blind?” –James
“Uh uh.” –Gina
“I could ask youth same thing.” –James
“No I asked you.” –Gina

All we may know for certain is what two doctors tell James and Gina– in the absence of the other. His doctor tells him he is infertile. Her doctor tells her the eyedrops she is presently applying are ineffective; a lab test shows they lack the prescribed antibiotic for her corneal transplant and iris reconstruction. That accounts for the inflammation and her failing vision, if not what occurred with her medicine. Neither spouse passes along those test results to the other. Both findings will put the couple in a bad light. At least from our perspective.

Gina’s eye surgeon is a tad shady. Dr. Hughes is played by Danny Huston, frequently found in the role of an unreliable character. Although the credits include an Eye Consultant, Dr. Hughs uses the improbable expression “interocular lens implantation.” That would mean implanting an eye midway between his patient’s right and left eyes, where mystical lore locates a “third eye.”

The cure of a blind lover figures in many French novels and plays between 1760–1830, notes University of Michigan lit prof William Paulson. “The eye surgeon was to prove an ambiguous figure in this literature, sometimes a virtuous hero of enlightened science, sometimes a vain old schemer, sometimes an out-and-out charlatan.” One instance in this genre was “The Blind Man Who Refused to See,” a story by Chevalier de Cerfvol in 1771. Identified with France’s “populationist” camp, he opposed celibacy and penned nine books advocating legal divorce.

In her 1824 pamphlet “Reflections on the Physical and Moral Condition of the Blind,” a 22-year-old blind woman named Thérèse-Adèle Husson cautioned against the blind wedding the blind. She sketched a dire prospect for such a match. “If this portrait is horrifying, that of a young, unmarried blind woman marrying a sighted man is even worse… I beseech women deprived of sight but with some money to live and die keeping hold of their precious freedom.”

“I’m pregnant,” Gina tells James towards the end of “All I See is You.”

Mating by the blind vexed Lucien Howe, an eye doctor and eugenicist who headed the Buffalo Society of Sanitary and Moral Prophylaxis and chaired the Committee of Hereditary Blindness in the Ophthalmology Section of the American Medical Association. At a June 1918 AMA meeting in Chicago he proposed: “It is unjust to the blind to allow them to be brought into existence simply to lead miserable lives. It is unjust to taxpayers to be compelled to support them.” The currently blind and kin of the congenitally blind would need to post up to $14,000 in bond to qualify for a marriage license.

Howe also suggested legislators let “innocent taxpayers” block “cacogenic marriages”: “When a man and woman contemplate marriage, if a visual defect exists in one or both of the contracting parties, or in the family of either, so apparent that any taxpayer fears that the children of such a union are liable to become public charges, for which that taxpayer would probably be assessed, then such taxpayer, on guaranteeing the legal costs, may apply to the County Judge for an injunction against such a marriage.”

“I am of the opinion that a really large percentage of the blindness is caused simply by neglect in early childhood,” stated Howe in 1893. He singled out German-American midwives– “not infrequently ignorant and careless in the extreme.” Howe also used the singular “woman” for all womankind. “I use that word in the generic sense, as including not simply the married woman, but that very considerable number– I think about 4,000,000– of the unmarried women, because they have motherly instincts, and if they are not married, they expect to be.”

On January 4, 1918 Howe appeared before the Committee on Woman Suffrage in the House of Representatives for over an hour. Women ought to deal with “infant mortality” instead of seek suffrage, he urged. Chairman John E. Raker: “You lay this loss in infantile life to woman, do you?” “Very, very likely,” answered Howe. “[W]omen should correct those defects as promptly and completely as possible… [W]e should have the energies of the women at all times directed to the care of those children… and not occupy their attention and energies with politics,” testified Howe on behalf of the American Constitutional League.

War raged in Europe, children died here. “One hundred and fifty thousand in one year! The battles around Verdun– in fact, the whole Compienge district– hardly gave in dead many more than that. That is only one year.”

Helen Keller urged blind women not to marry. Blind herself, she wrote in “Midstream: My Later Life” in 1929: “It would be a severe handicap to any man to saddle upon him the dead weight of my infirmities. I know I have nothing to give a man that would make up for such an unnatural burden.” Keller related her conversation with Alexander Graham Bell: “`I can’t imagine a man wanting to marry me,’ I said. `I should think it would seem like marrying a statue.’”

Publicized as a “psychological drama” and “obsessive love story,” “All I See is You” prompts vague suspicions about James and Gina alike. Someone broke into their apartment. Her dog is gone. Then a letter– with a misspelling of “know”– comes from someone who saw a man tie the dog to a fence: [I] “really believe in my heart that she belongs to me. When I look at her she looks back at me and that is called love. I now that you are missing her but I cannot give her back. It would make me too sad. Sorry.”

Eyes reflecting love is for pets and owners, as well as lovers. Gina teaches guitar to a neighbor girl. They appear on stage for a school contest. They strum and sing: “when I’m happy all I see is you… You can see the love that’s in my heart when you look deep into my eyes.” James leaves the auditorium when he hears the lyric “Say goodbye.”

Little in the film is that legible, except in the end credits where score titles include “I’ve Only Seen Them in Movies,” “I’ve Never Been to a Nightclub” and “Reality and Fantasy.”

Possessive sight and the female gaze are longstanding screen tropes. Yet “All I See is You” visualizes blindness and its cure without imagination. To quote the press notes quoting the director and co-writer: “`When I make a film, my visuals are always guided by the motivation of both the character and the story,’ Forster says. `In this case, I wanted to find a way to tell a story without the limitations of traditional narrative devices, where I could literally embody a painter and create innovative and fluid visuals.’” Cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser believes he sidesteps an obvious binary style: “now it’s Hollywood and now it’s avant-garde.”

The “traditional narrative devices” in this marital thriller are too indirect to my eye. Motives remain in a murk. I prefer the sublime opacity of the couple in “Last Year in Marienbad,” the unapologetically avant-garde narrative by Alan Resnais from 1961.

 
©2017 Bill Stamets

“Blade Runner 2049”: Enthralling sci-fi action thriller unearths a birth of freedom

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on October 9, 2017

“Blade Runner 2049”

directed by Denis Villeneuve
written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green; story by Hampton Fancher; based on characters from novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick
acted by Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, with Dave Bautista and Jared Leto
photographed by Roger Deakins
scored by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch
presented by Warner Bros. Entertainment and Alcon Entertainment
MPAA rated R for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language
running time: 164 minutes

 

A Los Angeles Police Department officer undertakes a noir quest in “Blade Runner 2049,” set thirty years after the original “Blade Runner.” Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”) directs an absorbing sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi thriller in an even more dystopic California. Officer K (Ryan Gosling) tracks clues that point to his past. After detouring into a cul-de-sac of self-knowledge, he uncovers things that could incite a sea-change of liberty in the labor economy. Already I can see another sequel coming.

The titles of the two films refer to a law enforcement specialty necessitated by willful and lethal “replicants,” android slaves manufactured by the Tyrell Corporation in the first film and by the Wallace Corporation in the second. A blade runner tracks and terminates renegade models among these laborers, soldiers and “pleasure units.” The 2019 blade runner in the 1982 film was Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). He meets his 2049 counterpart K in the 2017 film, as the teaser trailer makes too clear.

This spot debuted on December 19, 2016, repurposing some of Deckard’s 2019 dialogue for an opening voiceover: “Replicants are like any other machine. They’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit it’s not a problem.” Deckard and K are the focus of the 1:45 video, which is disproportionate to the screen time the two end up sharing in the 164-minute film.

The chain of clues includes the date “6.10.21” carved under the hoof of a wooden toy horse K finds on an out-of-the-way protein farm, windswept with red dust. One tiny yellow flower blooms somehow. Rib bone scrapes made with a combat medic’s scalpel lead to a serial number. As in “Children of Men”– Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film set in dystopic 2027 U.K.– a singular birth augurs salvation. Heroic sacrifices are made to safeguard this unique individual.

Records about the person of interest in “Blade Runner 2049” were erased thirty years ago. New evidence emerges. Warner Bros. Pictures and Alcon Entertainment asked reviewers to not categorize this character, among others, as human or replicant. Publicists stipulated at some advance screenings that members of the press sign a Confidentiality Agreement itemizing “confidentiality obligations in connection with being given the opportunity to view the Motion Picture prior to its general release’ that reads, in part: “I WILL NOT POST, TWEET, EMAIL, BLOG OR OTHEWISE SHARE MY THOUGHTS, OPINIONS OR ANYTHING ELSE ABOUT THE MOTION PICTURE OR THIS SCREENING PRIOR TO FRIDAY, SEPT. 29 at 9:00 AM Eastern Time/ 8:00 AM Central Time/ 6:00 AM, Pacific Time.” (Upper-case boldface and typo in the original.)

Signing the agreement also obligated writers to not disclose this agreement or quote it: “I will not disclose any information to any third party not employed or engaged by Warner Bros. regarding how Warner Bros. conducts the screening…”

At a Chicago screening a publicist read aloud a prepared statement from Villeneuve: “I’m excited for you to see my film today. Before we begin, I have a favor to ask all of you… Of course, what you think of my movie is up to you. However, in whatever you write I could ask that you try preserve the experience for the audience seeing the film the way you will see it today, without knowing any details about how the plot unfolds… Thanks, Denis.”

“Do not reveal the fate of any of the characters,” instructed a follow-up email sent to those who attended the screenings. At the end of the film, we do see who is still alive or life-like. But their actual fates might not be known until another sequel updates us.

That lets us spend more time on design details, like the puzzling 20th-century expressions “Made in CCCP” and “Soviet-Happy” that co-writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green place in 21st-century signage. Fancher was the main screenwriter for “Blade Runner” and gets a story credit on “Blade Runner 2049.”

Archivist Coco (David Dastmalchian) speaks of “thick milky” records thwarting K’s inquiry. His odd phrasing sounds as if borrowed from Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel “A Clockwork Orange.” Most electronically stored data vanished in a pre-2049 “blackout.” Coco recalls the ensuing “ten days of darkness” from his youth. Although K could be about the same age, he has no memory of his own since he is a replicant and knows his memories are “implants.” Never born of woman, he and his kind each come with convincing fictive recollections of their nonexistent early years.

Rachel (Sean Young) was a replicant in the first film who at first was unaware she was a replicant, a prototype loaded with images of childhood that came from the niece of Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), Rachel’s employer and maker. In the second film, K meets Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), a Wallace Corporation subcontractor who makes up memories to install in a later line of replicants.

Humans learn who is a replicant by asking questions designed to elicit emotions replicants lack. The screenplay of the first film was replete with evocatively crafted prompts and scenarios for blade runners conducting sessions. A variant in the new film is a “baseline” administered by LAPD, apparently to monitor replicants in its employ. K, a known and self-knowing replicant formally identified as KD6–3.7, must reply to a volley of queries. Reaction times are key, he’s reminded by the vocal device. Exchanging phrases with his artificially intelligent examiner, K spits out non sequiturs like “cell,” “interlink,” and an alliterative string “dark… distinct… dreadfully.”

Villeneuve tests viewers with misdirecting stimuli in the opening minute. Corporate logos are all frizzly glitchy. It’s a big screen cliché– this video counterpart of radio static. It is based on the anachronism of electron guns raster-scanning interlaced lines of pixels in a cathode ray tube. Destabilizing sight to index distrust in reality. Although Deckard will gruffly and defensively insists: “I know what’s real,” neither of the “Blade Runner” films are about any reality underlying or enveloping an unreality, as deconstructed in “The Matrix” films made by the Wachowskis between 1999 and 2003.

What is real in “Blade Runner” films is a personal crisis for humans and replicants unsure of what they are. Villeneuve politicizes this uncertainty and questions how different replicants and humans really are. “This breaks the world, K,” warns LAPD Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) when K’s clues align above his pay grade.

After a title card of set-up, “Blade Runner 2049” opens with an extreme close-up of K’s closed eye. It opens. There is no narrator, but the film centers on his perspective and blind spot. The first film’s first scene had close-ups of eyes belonging to a different replicant piloting a craft through the November night sky of 2019 Los Angeles en route to the designer of his artificial eyes. Towering gas jets were reflected on his eyeballs. Thirty years later, the city is even darker. Natural gas reservoirs must be depleted since no flames are in sight. Less neon too.

Locations multiply in Villeneuve’s film. The action gets out of L.A., starting with the farm where K targets AWOL replicant Sapper (Dave Bautista). The ruins of San Diego and Las Vegas are staging grounds for explosive set pieces. There’s an orphanage where wretched, albeit “nimble,” children take apart old circuit boards. “The nickel is for the colonial ships,” K is told. Lines in both films refer to “Off-world” enterprises requiring labor under conditions no human could endure.

Costume designer Renée April told the New York Times: “It’s snowing, freezing, pollution everywhere. There is no fashion.” Fancher’s story adds little to the backstory of who screwed up this world. A voiceover that never reached the soundtrack of Scott’s film, in one of its handful of iterations, blamed “overpopulation and the greenhouse factor.”

No country is named. Two corporations– Tyrell’s and Wallace’s– matter. The only historical item traceable to our world is “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Curiously, two characters in 2049 know the same line from that 1883 novel. There are no schools, libraries, universities, bookstores, theaters or cinemas in this Los Angeles. For that matter, nor is there a city council, board of supervisors, state legislature, U.S. Congress or United Nations.

“`Blade Runner,’ in a sense, actually is about paranoia,” Ridley Scott told Paul Sammon in “Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner,” revised and updated in 2017. Sammon collates his seven interviews with the English director between 1980 and 1995. Scott is an executive producer of the sequel which Villeneuve says he perfuses with: “A kind of inner paranoia about yourself that I wanted to keep alive in the second movie.”

In Scott’s film Deckard deals with clues that he is a replicant, like Rachel. Scott called that twist: “A narrative detail which would always be hidden, except from those audience members who paid attention and got it.” Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), CEO of the Wallace Corporation, taunts Deckard in 2049 that the blade runner’s initial encounter with Rachel at Tyrell’s office was predestined by corporate design. A “single perfect specimen” was foreseen.

Scott and Fancher opened “Blade Runner” with text about the Tyrell Corporation conceiving replicants for “slave labor.” A replicant band of mutineers from an “Off-world” work site returned to Los Angeles. Their mission was metaphysical, as Deckard discovers. In 2049 newer models of replicants, in larger numbers, will announce a political agenda. It too is personal.

Villeneuve, Warner Bros. Pictures and Alcon Entertainment do not care if critics spoil the ideological mise-en-scène of their sci-fi action thriller sublimely crafted by cinematographer Roger A. Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner. Philosophizing on humanity and autonomy play no part in the marketing of “Blade Runner 2049.” Ford and Gosling are not playing deep thinkers, yet these two blade runners transcend their duty as slave chasers. (California’s governor signed the Fugitive Slave Law on April 15, 1852, but by 1855 the state assembly had stopped voting annually to renew it. Congress had passed national versions in 1793 and 1850, then repealed them in 1864.)

Between the blade running in 2019 and the blade running in 2049, there was a period of replicant “prohibition,” as it was put at the time. Villeneuve commissioned three filmmakers to imagine prequel vignettes. Shinichiro Watanabe’s “Blade Runner 2022: Lights Out” shows “human supremacy movements” and urban lynching of replicants. Christian singer-songwriter Lauren Daigle composed “Almost Human” for this 15-minute anime.

A replicant is “a being virtually identical to a human,” explains the opening card of Scott’s 1982 film. The human slur for replicants is “skin jobs.” Tyrell tells Deckard: “Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. `More human than human’ is our motto.” Thirty years later, a post-prohibition replicant recycles Tyrell’s hype with an ominous sneer. You could call her an abolitionist or maybe an alt-human supremacist.

Tyrell’s goal is ungodly. Could he make a replicant capable of replicating? “Androids can’t bear children,” Rachael Rosen reminded Rick Deckard in Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Scott and Villeneuve do not show the love-making scene that follows in the source novel of their respective screen adaptations: “I am not alive! You’re not going to bed with a woman. Don’t be disappointed, okay?” (Dick’s spelling of her name can be spotted in the ungrammatical admonishment to the press: “Please not mention of any cameo roles, including references to Rachael.”)

Tyrell told Deckard: “Rachel is an experiment. Nothing more.” Replicants cannot literally evolve unless they can procreate, but Tyrell upgrades his models faster than natural selection does.

Replicants are screen descendants of robots. Class interests typically conflict. Maria (Brigitte Helm) in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis” is a one-off look-alike of a community organizer. “She is the most perfect and most obedient tool which mankind ever possessed!” exults her creator. He dispatches robot Maria to sabotage the workers struggle lead by the real Maria. Detroit labor strife flares when human cops vote to strike over an Omni Consumer Products contract for hiring, or rather purchasing robotic cops in Paul Verhoeven’s “Robocop.” Cybertronics is at fault for manufacturing lovable robots for childless couples in Stephen Spielberg’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” Set in 2035 Chicago, Alex Proyas’ “I, Robot” puts a detective on the case of rogue machines at U.S. Robotics.

Wallace Corporation is the top suspect now. “Every leap of civilization was built off the back of a disposable work force,” declares Wallace. “We lost our stomach for slaves, unless engineered.”

“Blade Runner” films are as philosophically minded as they’re astutely designed. Rachel and Deckard were tormented by ambiguity: `who-or-what-am-I?’ and `where-did-I-come-from?’ Knowing oneself meant doubting one’s humanity, for both characters. Their identities hinged on untrustworthy memories and snapshots with no negatives in hand.

“Blade Runner 2049” reprises existential crises Rachel and Deckard faced in 2019. Political ideas enter the picture too. Left unanswered is who made Los Angeles so awful. One dirty bomb, we hear, went off in southern California since the first film.

Because Villeneuve, Deakins and Gassner put entrancing vistas before our eyes, it’s disorienting to hear words ungrounded in that story world. Lt. Joshi lectures K: “The world is built on a wall. Separates kind. Tell either side there’s no wall, you bought a war, or a slaughter… It’s my job to keep order. That’s what we do here. We keep order.” Except Fancher and his co-writers– David Peoples in 1982 and Michael Green in 2017– omit a sense of how Los Angeles or society at large operates. Yes, there are multi-lingual, multi-national, multi-racial throngs in streets patrolled by militarized LAPD units. That’s only a caricature of civic order.

By “kind(s)” and “side(s)” that are “separate(d)” by a virtual “wall” Lt. Joshi could mean antagonistic classes of Angelenos. The film later implies there are human and replicant castes, with more and more of the latter working on Earth. Scott’s film limited their number to a handful of illegal immigrants from a colony. Villeneuve inserts an anomalous scene, at most two minutes long, where we see plainly garbed people in what looks like Roman catacombs. Intrigued as I am by Lt. Joshi’s loaded words, this assembly felt like a placeholder for a third “Blade Runner” film.

Standing among believers, Freysa (Hiam Abbas) delivers lines like Lt. Joshi’s, even if the two women are not of the same kind on the same side. In her only scene, Freysa informs K: “A revolution is coming and we are building an army. I want to free our people… Deckard, Sapper, you, me– our lives mean nothing next to a storm that’s coming. Dying for the right cause is the most human thing we can do.” A slave revolt looms? Voltaire in a 1769 letter lauded the one lead by Spartacus in 73-71 BC as “a just war, indeed the only just war in history.”

The seed of insurrection was planted three decades ago. A select few replicants took a quantum leap of self-definition. Freysa and Sapper may be the only ones still around who witnessed what they call a “miracle” on 6.10.21 that “meant we are more than just slaves” and “we are our own masters.”

Christian motifs in “Blade Runner 2049” are more allusive than the unmistakeable ones in “The Matrix” and “Children of Men.” Ordered to kill his first living thing, K shares with Lt. Joshi: “I’ve never retired something that was born before.” Dick’s transitive verb for terminating replicants was “retire.” When she asks, “What’s the difference?” K answers, “To be born is to have a soul, I guess.” This is not the usual water cooler discourse at the office. “Hey, you’ve been getting on fine without one,” snidely cracks his immediate superior.

No souls– or winged symbols of them– are in sight but there’s one birth of sorts. Wallace is inspecting a new model. This specimen is encased in a white sac suspended from the ceiling. It reminds me of scenes from documentaries about meat processing plants, where a carcass on an assembly line is hung by its hooves and a butcher’s cuts loosens its guts. Instead of viscera, Wallace’s slice yields a tremulous naked adult female replicant moist with goo.

“Happy Birthday,” blesses Wallace, dripping with irony. His best designer of childhood memories to implant in adult replicants happens to love making up birthday parties.

“We make angels in the service of civilization,” rhapsodizes Wallace in the obligatory monologue where the evil genius explains his master plan to the good guy for our benefit. “We can storm Eden and retake her.”

A more obscure Christian reference slips into some medico-bio-genetic engineering dialogue: the so-called “Galatian syndrome.” In Galatians 5:1 the apostle Paul preached: “[W]e are children, not of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

I leave that Biblical verse uninterpreted for now, although Villeneuve, Warner Bros. and Alcon did not ask the press to refrain from close readings of scriptural shout-outs. Truly original and thoughtful science fiction like “Blade Runner 2049” and “Arrival”– whose pivotal shot Villeneuve echoes here in concluding frames– is as rare as a tiny flower growing under a dead tree above an ossuary on a protein farm.

K’s and Deckard’s kinetic pursuit of clues merits the cliché `life-changing.’ Procreativist sedition is at hand. Visionary paranoia pays off.

@2017 Bill Stamets

Descrying the designs of “Friend Request” and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” (with a Digression on Scryers and Scrying)

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on October 5, 2017

Badly conceived and crafted, “Friend Request” and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” display odd choices by their respective filmmakers. Whether the genre is scary undergrad horror or jokey international action, we can at least wish for original designs in the supernatural backstory and cautionary moral, and the evil conspiracy and villain’s lair, respectively.

Arbitrary similarities between these two R-rated films opening on September 22: a woman makes extraordinary efforts to get attention, as women in smaller roles take recreational drugs– hypothetical or actual– that could kill them in awful ways. One woman tracking another on social media is a big part of “Friend Request,” although it’s only a momentary plot point in “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.”

“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” picks up near where “Kingsman: The Secret Service” left off in 2015. Both films come from the 2012 comic “The Secret Service” created by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. Matthew Vaughn, the British director of the first two Kingsman films and two “Kick-Ass” films to boot, revealed last May that he’s readying a third one. The trilogy benefits from a more robust set-up than what we find in “Friend Request.”

Overstating its twist, the press kit for the first Kingsman film claims it “wryly subverts the conceits of the spy genre.” The press kit for the second film reiterates that hype: “it was a no-holds-barred, boundlessly inventive action film that played with and subverted the tropes established by a thousand spy movies before it.” Co-writers on both films– Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn– are not terribly savvy, naughty or cheeky. They do try. Vaughn directs both with juvenile distraction.

Colin Firth plays dapper operative Harry Hart, who lays out the backstory for a secret elite high-tech coterie of nongovernmental world-savers. They wear exquisitely tailored suits and uphold the 1519 credo “Manners maketh man” credited to an Eton School headmaster. The alliterative pronouncement is a tagline for the 2015 film and turns up in 2017 dialogue.

Here is Hart’s exposition, as posted at IMDb.com (International Movie Data Base, a site based in Seattle): “Since 1849, Kingsman Tailors have clothed the world’s most powerful individuals. In 1919, a great number of them had lost their heirs to World War I. That meant a lot of money going uninherited. And a lot of powerful men with the desire to preserve peace and protect life. Our founders realized that they could channel that wealth and influence for the greater good. And so began our adventure. An independent international intelligence agency operating at the highest level of discretion.”

Firth, out of character, is quoted in the 2015 press notes: “We’re living in an age in which we’re very suspicious of our institutions and our governments. Whatever trust we’ve once had has been undermined, so I think it’s interesting to explore the idea that there is an organization with pure motives. One not compromised by the politics and bureaucracy of these institutions. The Kingsmen are the modern-day Knights of the Round Table.”

In “Kingman: The Secret Service” Hart and Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the son of a KIA Kingsman, must save our species when a villain schemes to save the planet instead. Digital tech billionaire Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) tells Harry of getting nowhere with “climate change research, lobbying, billions of dollars.” Premise for plan B: “Global warming is the fever, mankind is the virus. We’re making our planet sick… The host kills the virus, or the virus kills the host.” Valentine kidnaps a climate prof who claims: “Humankind is the only virus cursed to live with the horrifying knowledge of its host’s fragile mortality.” Nitpicking virologists will note per “kill” that not only are viruses non-living things, but non-knowing ones. They can know nothing about this thing we call killing.

Valentine announces the best ever online plan: “As of tomorrow, every man, woman, and child can claim a free SIM card that’s compatible with any cell phone, any computer, and utilize my communications network for free. Free Calls. Free Internet. For Everyone. Forever.” He engineered cards with a short-range transmitter omitted from the Terms of Service Agreement. Distributed worldwide, that SIM freebie will relay via Valentine’s satellite “a neurological wave that triggers the centers of aggression and switches off inhibitors.” What is the ensuing mass slaughter good for? Eugenicist “culling” of the masses and the survival of a tiny elite pre-outfitted with signal-blocking cranial microchips. Unless Kingsmen save the day.

The cleverest scene rates as self-aware, but hardly genre-subverting. In the last reel Valentine schools Hart: “You know what this is like? It’s like those old movies we both love. Now, I’m going to tell you my whole plan, and then I’m going to come up with some absurd and convoluted way to kill you, and you’ll find an equally convoluted way to escape… Well, this ain’t that kind of movie.” And in a blink and bang, Hart takes a headshot. He survives with retrograde amnesia in the sequel. Bereft of his past as a Kingsman, he insists he’s the lepidopterist he once was before manners remade him.

“It’s really hard to come up with a villain plot that doesn’t seem silly,” relates Vaughn in the 20th Century Fox press notes for “Kingsman: The Golden Ring.” He is as much as admitting he failed on that score by conceiving Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) as a global drug monopolist. Fox notes describing this villain get her endgame wrong: “a megalomaniacal, deluded villain with designs on taking over the world.”

The villainy is no less misanthropic this time. It’s just so odd. Poppy contaminates drugs instead of SIM cards, scaling her ploy smaller than Valentine’s. (I am assuming there are fewer users of illegal recreational substances than users of SIM card devices.) She adds “an enterovirus in all varieties of my product– cannabis, cocaine, heroin, opium, ecstasy and crystal meth.” Blue lines start appearing on the faces of infected customers. A terrible death comes in a matter of days. Unless they get the antidote, which Poppy has stockpiled aboard drones around the world. The logistics are laughable, of course, but that’s the point of this very small joke about the genre.

And what’s up for negotiation “in the largest scale hostage situation in history”? Poppy addresses the Oval Office, not the United Nations, despite the global distribution of her merchandise: “First, you agree to end the war on drugs once and for all. All classes of substances are legalized, paving way to a new market place in which sales are regulated and taxed as per alcohol. And second my colleagues and I receive full legal immunity.”

This Harvard Business School alum does not share market projections should the President of the United States indeed sign an “executive decree” to end what she calls a misguided “exercise in prohibition.” Poppy’s slogan is “Save lives, legalize.” If he does not sign, she kills off billions of customers and ends demand for product in her lifetime.

The president tells his inner circle, comprised of one general and one aid who needs drugs to maintain her punishing schedule: “We’re going to dance to this lady’s tune… Let the junkie scum go down in flames… No drug users, no drug trade. It’s a win-win situation. This presidency has just won the war on drugs.” Yet another dumbly designed plot turn .

The usual nemeses have the usual motives in these entertainments. Poppy, though, is a big exec with professional image and recognition issues. Is there a joke about glass ceilings? “Our profits were $250 billion last year,” she notes. “I’m the most successful businesswoman in the world. Nobody knows who I am.” Unlike Donald Trump, she has no framed magazine covers to show off in her untraditional office. Understandable if you hide atop a Cambodian mountain and plant land-mines in the surrounding jungle.

Poppy’s lair Poppyland is imagined as badly as her ploy and pay-off. Her executive workspace is an outsized diner and soda shop. Production designer Darren Gilford and art director Joe Howard confect a kitschy Americana set. A movie theater, bowling alley and beauty parlor figure in Poppy’s miniature ersatz Main Street accessorized with a kidnapped Elton John (Sir Elton John) supplying tunes on demand. Another headscratcher, design-wise.

“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” screenwriters Goldman and Vaughn extend the Kingsman brand by creating a Nashville “cousin” to the London organization hidden under a tailor shop. The newly disclosed one is hidden inside a Kentucky distillery. Again the press notes overstate their joint mission: “these two elite secret organizations band together to defeat a ruthless common enemy, in order to save the world.”

The challenge in “Friend Request” is not saving the recreational drug users of the world, let alone the whole world; just a handful of friends of Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey), a sophomore psych major at Newkirk College. Set in California and shot in South Africa, this smaller budgeted German production has no U.S. stars, while Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum and Halle Berry play supporting characters in “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” Berry, as Ginger Ale, must locate the globe-trotting girlfriend of Polly’s top henchman. Instagram is her method.

Facebook is the social medium driving the narrative of Simon Verhoeven’s “Friend Request,” titled with a phrase that appears on your Facebook screen when someone asks you to click and accept their online Friendship. Laura accepts one such request from Marina (Liesl Ahlers), that weird, pale transfer student wearing a black hoodie who sits in the last row of Psychology 201.

Their prof debunks the trending diagnosis of Internet Addiction Disorder in the opening scene. That’s an early, if minor, glitched detail in the screenplay by Verhoeven, Matthew Ballen and Philip Koch. No character, on or off campus, suffers from any addiction, online or off. But Marina is demonstrably obsessed with her life-long isolation and abject lack of attention. Her quest to fix that will cost far fewer lives than unpopular Polly ever put at risk with her enterovirus to leverage attention in “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.”

Marina has a screen name of Ma Rina and has zero Friends on Facebook, where she has created and posted countless macabre videos, mostly grey-toned animated clips rife with nightmarish motifs. Laura, on the other hand, has 848 Friends, three roommates, a med student boyfriend, and a classmate with an unrequited crush who will undertake all the internet research to uncover the supernatural backstory Laura needs as much as the audience. All of Laura’s numbers will drop to zero before the end credits roll.

After exchanging a few words after class, Laura clicks on Marina’s Friend Request. Now Ma Rina has one Friend. Her first. “I was just trying to be nice,” Laura later tells her real life friends, who wonder if her kindness is more clinical at heart. Marina scrutinizes Laura’s Facebook page and sees her birthday is coming up. She expects to go. Laura lies that it’s just going to be her and her boyfriend. Marina sees party selfies posted by Laura’s real friends. She goes stand in the dark outside the restaurant. She turns on Laura. Laura unfriends her. Uh oh.

When the psych class meets next the prof announces Marina’s suicide. A ghastly black-and-white video posted online shows her hanging herself while on fire. No body is found. Yet Ma Rina– her malevolent avatar?– starts defriending (to re-prefix a Facebook verb) Laura by possessing her friends’ Facebook pages and their souls too. It’s impossible to delete videos this virtual and/or supernatural entity posts. No one can Unfriend her. One after another, Laura’s real life friends end up dead by their own hands with an assist from demonic wasps. “Is there some shitty new drug we don’t know about?” asks a local policeman.

Marina messages to Laura: “u will know how it feels to be lonely :)” which Laura’s `just-a-friend’ friend Kobe (Connor Paolo) decodes. “You’re going to be fine,” he assures Laura. “She said she wants to make you lonely. If that’s true then you are the only one who’s safe.” The rest of us are doomed, he figures. That Kobe is a clever one. The screenplay’s best twist is how that logic plays out: “I’m sorry,” he says, knife in hand. “She can’t make you lonely if you’re dead.”

Moralizing is obligatory in horror films with imperiled characters making damnable choices. Another Laura (Heather Sossaman) appears in a 2014 film titled “Unfriended” and directed by Levan Gabriadze from the Republic of Georgia. Shot and set in California, “Unfriended” shares with “Friend Request” cautionary social commentary on social media, an online suicide, and a terrifying string of related deaths. This earlier Laura– Marina’s counterpart– is a high school student who got wasted at a party and soiled herself. An unknown classmate uploads a cellphone video of the humiliating incident. Cyberbullying ensues. Laura commits suicide. One year later six classmates in a live video chat group are tormented by Laura’s vengeful internet-savvy spirit. Incidentally, “Friend Request” was titled “Unfriend” for its German release on January 7, 2016.

Laura’s birthday lie in “Friend Request” hardly merits the toll exacted by Marina, whose suffering began before birth. Kobe shows Laura old newspaper clippings about a literal witch hunt at “some weird commune.” There were flames. Severely burned and unconscious, Marina’s pregnant mother survived until doctors performed a C-section. “She was alone in the womb for months,” says Kobe. “Jesus, she was always alone,” says Laura.

True to horror tropes, Laura drives to an out-of-the-way orphanage to flesh out Marina’s case history. This unfortunate “ward of the state,” confides an administrator, “found some dark corners online, things no child should see. Sometimes she would just stare at the computer for hours. Nothing on the screen at all. Just her own reflection in the darkness. The kids became terrified of her. They said she gave them nightmares.” Two boys who tormented little Marina died by her alleged witchcraft. The soul ghouls of this duo, standing mutely side by side, pop up in the head spaces and crime scenes of Marina’s later victims. What they’re doing there is unclear.

A far more intriguing facet of the mise-en-scène is a motif prefigured in the black, blank laptop screen that preoccupied Marina at the orphanage. Credit Kobe with more ace research. He learns that Marina’s mother and others on the commune used “black mirrors” in evasive self-defense, explaining to Laura: “They’ve been used in the occult for thousands of years… And they say if you stare into it you can communicate with some other side. It’s called scrying. But sometimes these witches, if they were being hunted, if they didn’t have any other way out, they hang and burn themselves in front of a black mirror and become something else. Call it whatever you want. An evil spirit, a demon. The point is that’s how they got revenge on people. Possessing them and haunting them. Killing them.”

The 21st-century version of a black mirror that Marina used to turn herself into a demon who haunts and hacks Facebook profiles is her own laptop, the same one she set up to record and upload her suicide. Smashing that computer is the only way Laura can stop Marina’s super harsh online unfriending and lethal defriending.

This leads to overmuch digressing, for a look into black mirrors. In its production notes for reviewers, Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures, the U.S. distributor of “Friend Request,” refers to “occult lore” from the 15th-century Munich Manual of Demonic Magic (Liber incantationum, exorcismorum et fascinationum variarum). This may be the very volume consulted by Kobe when he discovers that Marina and her mother are scryers (from an Old French/ Middle English verb “descry”).

Excerpts from that anonymous compendium are translated by Richard Kieckhefer in “Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century.” This Northwestern University medievalist, who did his dissertation research that Munich archive, speculates on the manual’s origins: “It may have been a pastime for underemployed clerics with time on their hands and a fondness for this quintessentially clerical form of dark and daring entertainment… Like the Ouija board in latter day culture, it may well have been… an amusement constantly in danger of becoming serious, dark and threatening.”

The Munich manual indexes “experiments”: “For obtaining information from a mirror,” “For obtaining information about a theft by gazing into a fingernail,” “For learning about any uncertain thing by gazing into a crystal,” and “Suffumigations for each day of the week.” Instructions are intricate. One formula starts with eviscerating a black cat born in March, cutting out its heart and eyes, inserting seeds, etc. Scryers availed themselves of diverse reflective surfaces such as the “oiled shoulder blade of a ram.” “The liver could be used for this purpose just as well as a hand painted with black soot and oil, as described in the Hebrew magical texts,” observes a 1917 article in the Journal of Biblical Literature.

Kieckhefer and other scholars cite penalties for possessing books about black mirrors and other bedeviled devices. Bernard Délicieux was imprisoned in 1319 for having a text on necromancy. Such tomes were put to the torch in exorcisms. On August 6, 1463 “a book of devilry” was itself put on trial, found guilty, and executed by burning in Dijon.

Second century Roman philosopher Apuleius defended himself against charges of owning a mirror and inflicting fits in a slave. He denied doing magic, arguing there was no proof he used his mirror unlawfully. He also claimed his alleged victim was a known epileptic.

As for specularii– users of mirrors, crystals, water bowls, etc. for supernatural ends– a 450 A.D. synod called by St. Patrick and St. Auxentius condemned those Christians believing mirrors could harbor unholy entities. English Bishop Baldock ordered “sorcerers and enchanters” not to access spirits “in fingernails, mirrors, stones and rings” in 1311.

In his 1326 letter Decretal super illius specula, Pope John XXII threatened to excommunicate Christians using mirrors this way: “With grief we discover, and the very thought of it wrings our soul with anguish, that there are many Christians only in name; many who turn away from the light which once was theirs, and allow their minds to be so clouded with the darkness of error as to enter into a league with death and a compact with hell. They sacrifice to demons and adore them, they make or cause to be made images, rings, mirrors, phials or some such things in which by the art of magic evil spirits are to be enclosed. From them they seek and receive replies, and ask aid in satisfying their evil desires. For a foul purpose they submit to the foulest slavery.”

Paris theologians criticized scrying in 1398. Jean-Baptiste Thiers applauded their stand, writing in his “Treatise on Superstitions” that “it is idolatry to invoke demons and lock them up in mirrors.” Spain’s King Juan II decreed the death penalty for mirror-diviners in 1410. This ruling was read aloud each month at marketplaces. Parisians burned a Norman sorcerer for making mirrors in 1609.

Before inventing his printing press, Johannes Gensfleish Gutenberg manufactured “holy mirrors” out of lead, tin and antimony in 1438. Pilgrims heading to Aachen thought that aiming one of these mirrors at relics in Aachen would capture emanations. Believers would cover the exposed surface, return home, uncover the mirror, and outflow beneficence would heal loved ones and livestock. The plague canceled travel that year, so business sucked.

That Munich handbook describes illusionist experiments,” including one “to make a dead person seem alive or vice versa.” Marina surely deploys this special effect with her online videos in “Friend Request.” An aide to Cardinal Campeggio– sent to England by Pope Clement VII to adjudicate Henry VIII’s annulment– wrote in 1532 about Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa demonstrating a special mirror wherein “the dead seemed alive.” One of this wizard’s English encounters is depicted in Lucy Madox Brown’s 1871 painting “The Fair Geraldine, or The Magic Mirror, Cornelius Agrippa showing the Fair Geraldine in a Magic Mirror to the Earl of Surrey.”

Nostradamos began his career as a scryer in 1547 by peering on the surface of water in bowls. One his lesser known specialties was interpreting moles of nobles.

John Dee– natural philosopher and court astrologer for Queen Elizabeth I– divined the Day of Judgment, vagaries of English diplomacy and other matters through his “shew-stone.” A black obsidian mirror in British Museum is uncertainly catalogued among Dee’s implements. Scryers served as Dee’s channels to angels and assorted spirits.

“His only (but great and dreadful) error being, that he mistook false lying Spirits for Angels of Light, the Divel of Hell (as we commonly term him) for the God of Heaven,” wrote Meric Casaubon in “A True & Faithful Relation of What passed for many Yeers Between Dr. John Dee (A Mathematician of Great Fame in Q. ELIZ. and King JAMES their Reignes) and some Spirits” in 1659.

Elias Ashmole proclaimed mirrors and the like that increased vision. In his 1652 text “Theatrum chemicum Britannicum, Containing severall poeticall pieces of our famous English philosophers, who have written the hermetique mysteries in their owne ancient language,” he rhapsodized: “By the Magicall or Prospective Stone it is possible to discover any Person in what part of the World soever, although never so secretly concealed or hid; in Chambers, Closets, or Cavernes of the Earth: For there it makes a strict Inquisition. In a Word, it fairely presents to your view even the whole World, wherein to behold, heare, or see your Desire. Nay more, It enables Man to understand the Lan∣guage of the Creatures, as the Chirping of Birds, Lowing of Beasts, &c. To Convey a Spirit into an Image, which by observing the Influence of Heavenly Bodies, shall become a true Oracle; And yet this as E. A. assures you, is not any wayes Necromanticall, or Devi∣lish; but easy, wonderous easy, Naturall and Honest.”

In the Americas, there was a long tradition of polishing obsidian and pyrite for mirroring. Sophisticated mirrors were found since the ninth century, according to contributing to the book “Manufactured Light: Mirrors in the Mesoamerican Realm.” Archaeologists and other academics variously discover “mirrors serve as cave-like passageways for supernatural beings. Much like Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass;” “mirrors, polished jade, and even dewdrops at dawn relate to the Mesoamerican concept of shining elements being windows or passageways for souls and gods;” and “Acting as cosmic portals or devices of divination, the king or shaman could use a mirror to conjure up gods and bring them into the human realm.” Huichol Indians of the Western Sierra Madre in Mexico “exercise their `gift of seeing’” via mirrors.

Nathaniel Hawthorne evokes the black mirror in his 1850 novel “The Scarlet Letter.” Hester Prynne recounts the perils of self-regard for her daughter Pearl: “Once, this freakish, elvish cast came into the child’s eyes, while Hester was looking at her own image in them, as mothers are fond of doing; and, suddenly,– for women in solitude, and with troubled hearts, are pestered with unaccountable delusions,– she fancied that she beheld, not her own miniature portrait, but another face in the small black mirror of Pearl’s eye. It was a face, fiend-like, full of smiling malice, yet bearing the semblance of features that she had known full well, though seldom with a smile, and never with malice, in them. It was as if an evil spirit possessed the child, and had just then peeped forth in mockery. Many a time afterwards had Hester been tortured, though less vividly, by the same illusion.”

Abraham Lincoln had his own encounters with mirrors that he confided to two intimates and his wife. On two occasions he reclined in sight of a large mirror. ”There, in the glass, he beheld a double image of his face, and one of the two faces was very pale, like a dead man’s,” wrote historian Richard Current in his 1958 book “The Lincoln Nobody Knows: A Portrait in Contrast of the Greatest American.”

Curiously, these uncanny incidents are cited in a study of 48 mental patients peering at mirrors for a half hour. Two St. Louis researchers published their findings in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease in 1968.

Laura’s late father was a psychiatrist in “Friend Request.” Unfortunately, that offhand detail does as little for the plot as her psychology prof bringing up Internet Addiction Disorder.

The designers of “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” nod to spy and spy spoof genres. The minds behind “Friend Request” make an inspired choice of black mirrors, yet miss an opportunity to repurpose medieval magic for commentary on Facebook. At least “Unfriend” entertained a conceit about social media by framing the narrative via live cameras on characters’ laptops. Both horror films– spoiler alert– end with the identical cliche: a shock close-up of a demonized Laura lunging at us. Meta-mannerisms redeem none of these efforts.

“mother!”: an allegory in flames by Darren Aronofsky

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on September 15, 2017

mother!

written and directed by Darren Aronofsky
acted by Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse
presented by Paramount Pictures
running time: 120 minutes
rated R by MPAA for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language

 

“mother!” is an audacious downbeat allegory of Christian cosmogeny. In full-blown male auteur mode, Darren Arnofosky mocks a God-like blocked author who tears the very life-force out of his young wife to appease his worshipful, world-ravaging fans. Arnofosky interpolates a ballerina’s creative hell of “Black Swan” (2010) with his mystically fixated men from “Noah” (2014), “The Fountain” (2006) and “π” (1998).

Paramount Pictures publicizes Aronofsky’s seventh feature as a “psychological thriller,” “relationship thriller” and “a home invasion horror tale.” Allegory alert! None of the characters haveth names. Only one, the first listed in the credits, gets an upper-case first letter. Him (Javier Bardem) is getting nowhere on his next book, as mother (Jennifer Lawrence) finishes up rehabbing their three-story house.

It starts as a horror film. A montage of dissolving interior shots shows blackened ruins metamorphose from soot and cinders into bright rooms and hallways in color. This is where the couple live alone and where all of “mother!” is set. Childless mother awakes in bed and calls for her husband: “Baby?” Aronofsky inflects her opening scenes with horror tropes. The lovingly restored old place abounds with creaks and thunks. A circling camera at very close range personalizes her perspective. We immerse in her episodes: hearing high-pitched sounds, peering through walls to a behold beating heart, and dosing herself with yellow-powder from old vials.

The first knock at the door comes in the seventh minute. It’s man (Ed Harris). Says he’s new around here. An orthopedics prof looking for a B&B. Turns out he loves the words of Him and carries a Him photo that unsettles mother. “I’m a huge fan,” gushes man. “Your words have changed my life.” He spends the night. Next morning his wife, woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), knocks. Then their two grown sons show up. One kills the other over a will.

Blood seeps through a vagina-like crack in the floorboards, with supernatural consequences downstream in the basement where an oil-burning furnace fires up on its own. On mother’s last trip down there, fans of “The Hunger Games” may find offense in a Girl on Fire flashback. Recall that line by Jennifer Lawrence’s character: “I was just hoping I wouldn’t burn to death.”

At this point “mother!” has birthed a blackly absurdist comedy as mother is buffeted by family and friends of man, woman and their late son who barge in for a wake. Him accommodates an ever-growing influx of unwelcome visitors who are uncommonly inconsiderate of mother. They come to Him for autographs, souvenirs, blessings and ultimately a neonatal eucharist.

Aronofsky leapfrogs genres and lands in terra incognito. With blunt strokes he trespasses on incongruous religious themes found in Peter Greenaway’s 1993 provocation “The Baby of Macon” and Terrence Malick’s 2011 hymn “The Tree of Life.” This auteur boldly allegorizes creativity and Creation. His grandiloquent poet– we never see or hear a word he writes– is enthralled by His abjectly debased and world-despoiling readers. Aronofsky cynically eviscerates celebrity culture.

“mother!” imagines a monstrous cycle of life and nothingness. The last shot nearly replays the first, with foremother (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) turning over in bed for the last line: “Baby?” The film’s anonymous press notes quote the film’s writer-director on conceiving his film, with no muse in sight: “From this primordial soup of angst and helplessness I woke up one morning and this movie poured out of me… It is a mad time to be alive.” As evidenced, Aronofsky adds, by world population, migrants, politics, icebergs, meat-eating elites, and tourists killing “rare baby dolphins” for the sake of a selfie. “As a species… we live in a state of denial about the outlook for our planet and our place on it.”

On Jimmy Kimmel Live! this week Jennifer Lawrence said the film’s singular setting– an octagonal house in the country– stands for “Earth.” You may notice that it has no driveway. She also called Aronofsky’s film “biblical.” Only twice does her character utter a word along those lines. About her rehab project after the unexplained fire that incinerated the house wherein Him dwells, she explains to man: “I want to make a paradise, and I love the work.” In a later scene, once Him starts to write again, she excuses herself from his writing room: “I don’t want to interrupt. I’ll just get started on the apocalypse.”

Dumbstruck by Aronofsky’s nerve, I liked thinking through “mother!” for a day or two then quit. Its shape and agenda are ugly.

[My last two lines amend my initial review as posted. I may revisit Aronofsky’s earlier films, find his interviews, and write more. Mused or museless.]

“Dunkirk”: valorizing mechanics of suspenseful survival

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on July 31, 2017

“Dunkirk”

directed by Christopher Nolan
written by Christopher Nolan
produced by Emma Thomas and Christopher Nolan
acted by Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan
scored by Hans Zimmer
presented by Warner Bros. Pictures
running time: 107 minutes
rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language
screening in 70mm at Music Box Theater, Chicago

 

“Dunkirk” is a war movie about an historic retreat that equivocates about English valor. Writer-director Christopher Nolan renders an epic maneuver by interpolating tales of soldiers, sailors, pilots and civilians. Set between May 26 and June 5, 1940, the panorama encompasses France and England, the sea between and the sky above.

England evacuated 338,226 troops from a French beach under German attack. Most of the British Expeditionary Force crossed the English Channel in 222 Royal Navy and 861 English civilian vessels. Joshua Levine, the film’s historical consultant, quotes 113 eye-witnesses in his 2010 book “Forgotten Voices of Dunkirk, in Association with Imperial War Museum.”

This masterful 107-minute narrative unfolds linearly, like every other piece of cinema ever projected on a celluloid strip or from a Digital Cinema Package. The distinctively edited “Dunkirk,” though, installs three distinct timelines, each with its own duration: one week, one day, one hour. Nested episodes overlap for novel continuity. Shuttling between the three strands is disconcerting only on cuts when the times of day do not match.

Nolan’s originality lies in narrative form. Machinery for concocting anomalies in chronology appears in the mise-en-scène of his films “Memento” (2000), “Inception” (2010) and “Interstellar” (2014). Their respective plots foreground technology: a Polaroid camera, a dream-sharing Portable Automated Somnacin IntraVenous device, and a gravitational lens intervening in spacetime via an Einstein-Rosen bridge.

In the tie-in book “Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture” Nolan tells Levine he shot “from the point of view of the pure mechanics of survival… We don’t deal with the politics of the situation.” Screen time for the German operation Case Red (Fall Rot) is limited to strafing and shelling by the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht. There’s no to-do about the design of “Dunkirk” other than onscreen titles introducing three time frames– “one week,” “one day,” “one hour”– during Operation Dynamo.

“To me, narrative is controlled release of information, and I don’t feel any obligation to make that release chronological,” Nolan told the Village Voice when he debuted his first feature in 1999. “Following” embedded “an ingenious structure that involves flashforwards and doubling back,” stated its press notes.

“Nolan’s now trademark twists and turns and disjointed approach to time’s linearity” is noted by one contributor to the 2015 book “The Cinema of Christopher Nolan: Imagining the Impossible.” Seven other writers there use the misnomer “non-linear” to describe Nolan’s style. That term comes from algebra. In the 1970s it was adopted to market film editing on video using meta-data and random-access. It’s trending among reviewers as if linearity is the default narrativity for the last millennium or longer.

The arc of “Dunkirk” is grounded in the historical record. But the viewing experience is anything but distant. Cameras attached to Spitfires catch tilted vistas during dogfights. Close-ups of his fuel level dial increase tension about the fate of Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy, “Inception”). Hans Zimmer’s score ever ratchets upward through a jagged sawing of strings.

“We looked at a lot of suspense films,” Nolan told entertainment reporters. “I really wanted the film to be driven primarily through the mechanism of suspense, which I think is one of the most cinematic of film forms, the most pure cinema.” He mentioned “Wages of Fear” directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot in 1953. He disguised his screenplay by titling drafts “Bodega Bay” after the California locale of “The Birds,” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 thriller that climaxed with a fictive evacuation.

“I don’t see it as a war film,” Nolan tells Levine. “It’s a suspense film, but we try and push the visceral suspense as far as we can. So you get into the language of horror films, definitely… I didn’t look at too many war films. We looked at Spielberg’s `Saving Private Ryan,’ which was also instructive because it has a horror movie aesthetic.”

As for the Germans– and not just those helming U-boats– “It’s like the shark in `Jaws,’ maybe you see the fin but you don’t see the shark.” When cameras started rolling Warner Bros. Pictures slotted “Dunkirk” as an “Epic Action Thriller” in a May 26, 2016 press release.

Does Nolan’s 2017 big screen genre correspond to the 1940 wartime event? England grappled with Dunkirk, an exodus christened the “Miracle of Dunkirk” not long after a Day of National Prayer on May 26 in Westminster Abbey attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury, King George VI and prime minister Winston Churchill. “Wars are not won by evacuating,” Churchill told the House of Commons on June 4. “Dunkirk” survivors read his speech in newspapers the following day on the train from Dorset to London.

That same day Deutsche Diplomatisch-Polititische Korrespondenz informed the Berlin bureau chief of the New York Times that the prime minister’s speech, broadcast by BBC radio, was “a sober, unvarnished, manly confession of defeat.” An Associated Press dispatch from Paris called Dunkirk “a great retreat.” The Chicago Tribune called it “a defensive holocaust to meet the Nazi drive.”

“England’s rout at Dunkirk,” as Colliers magazine war correspondent Quentin Reynolds put it in his 1963 autobiography. “Only incredible courage, amazing luck, and unexpected German stupidity had saved the English army from complete annihilation,” he recollected in The Ottawa Journal on October 18, 1941.

Just days prior to the evacuation, on May 22, 1940, an Associated Press forecast: “The British expeditionary force, in peril of being pinned against the English channel, means to die where it stands rather than let the Germans occupy the coast where they could face an attack on the British Isles.”

“WE NEVER SURRENDER,” later thundered the all-caps headline in London’s Daily Mirror on June 5. Ninety-nine soldiers in the Royal Norfolk Regiment did surrender near Dunkirk on May 27. Waffen-SS troops then machine-gunned them at a farm house in Le Paradis. Two survived. Some 200 French West African soldiers in the vicinity were not even allowed to surrender. They were massacred at once. A German High Command communiqué claimed German forces captured 40,000 Allied troops left behind at Dunkirk.

“The emerging story of Dunkirk was being shaped to fit the sense of national self,” writes Levine in his 2017 book. Author J.B. Priestley mused on his weekly BBC radio broadcast of June 5, 1940: “The news of it came as a series of surprises and shocks, followed by equally astonishing new waves of hope. What strikes me about it is how typically English it is. Nothing, I feel, could be more English both in its beginning and its end, its folly and its grandeur… What began as a miserable blunder, a catalogue of misfortunes ended as an epic of gallantry. We have a queer habit– and you can see it running through our history– of conjuring up such transformations.”

“Dunkirk” too is transforming history. Nolan calls his serious entertainment “an intimate epic” about “communal heroism.” Yet valor is individualized, equivocally.

In the opening scene Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) makes his way through the deserted streets of Dunkirk. German propaganda flyers flutter down. They show a map and spell out: “You Are Surrounded!” Tommy filches a cigarette butt from an ashtray inside a window sill. Unseen Germans shoot down his five mates. He runs to an English emplacement then heads to the beach and beholds endless lines of soldiers waiting to board ships home.

Tommy helps a French soldier (Damien Bonnard) bury an English one in the sand. They exchange no words, as the latter puts on the uniform and boots of the dead man, identified by his dog tags as Gibson. Together they pick up a stretcher bearing a wounded English soldier and push their way ahead of able-bodied men to reach a hospital ship.

Nolan charts their mission with a revelatory chain of tracking shots. Left ambiguous are the young men’s motives: selfless aid to an abandoned comrade, selfish opportunism, or an impulsive tangle of both. Stretcher-bearers are turned away in one scene, though. “One stretcher takes the place of seven men,” bluntly states an officer counting evacuees.

Levine’s 2010 book quotes a few Dunkirk survivors who call themselves “cowards.” Others do not come home. A sergeant in the Royal Engineers recalls: “I saw chaps run into the water screaming because mentally it had all got too much for them. During the two days we were on the beach, at least a couple of dozen men committed suicide by running into the sea.” Nolan shows Tommy, the nameless French soldier, and Alex (Harry Styles) on the shore witnessing one such incident, wordlessly.

Another casualty is the fault of a shell-shocked Englishman rescued at sea by the Moonstone, a “little ship” owned by retired Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance). Listed in the credits as Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), he panics and shoves George (Barry Keoghan), a young civilian onboard who dies of his resulting head injury. George’s dying wish is fulfilled. His local newspaper, Weymouth Herald, memorializes him as a “hero” instead of the unlucky victim he in fact was. Nolan renders this episode with duplicitous sincerity. There’s no angst over the `noble lie’ of civic fictions found in his “The Dark Knight” (2008) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012).

“All we did was survive,” a soldier admits. This shame was overshadowed by a rallying cry dubbed the “Dunkirk spirit.” For the sake of home front morale, Churchill blocked the news on June 17 about Germany sinking the RMS Lancastria off the French coast. Operation Ariel, an ill-fated replay of Operation Dynamo, overloaded this requisitioned Cunard liner with civilians bound for England. Some 4,000 to 6,000 died from drowning, burning oil on the surface, and strafing.

Two years later Joseph Goebbels invoked what Churchill had once labeled a “colossal military disaster” to argue that “an attempted landing anywhere in Europe would quickly provide England with a second, and far worse, Dunkirk. [Churchill] cannot risk such a defeat without causing a fatal crisis for the Empire.” The article– titled “The Air War and the War of Nerves”– ran in the June 14, 1942 issue of the Ministry of Propaganda weekly Das Reich. The Allied invasion at Normandy would start on June 6, 1944.

Dunkirk interested Hollywood long before “Dunkirk.” Variety reported in 1940: “Within 20 days there were four claims on the subject” with the disclaimer: “nothing more than a title and an idea exist for most of these pictures.” Universal eyed “Dunkerque.” Warners lined up properties titled “Dunkirk” and “Evacuation.” A November 27 Variety headline that year read: “Dave Selznick… Yens `Dunkirk’ Yarn.” His tentative title was “Beaches of Dunkirk.” The source was supposedly “a semi-official story by a survivor.” The August issue of The Atlantic Monthly ran a short story by a Royal Navy captain using the pen name Bartemius. “The Beaches of Dunkirk” relates a plucky gal disguising her gender and motoring across the Channel to Dunkirk. Is her sweetheart among the survivors?

Another fictive skipper appears in “Channel Incident,” released September 23, 1940 by the Ministry of Information. Anthony Asquith directed this eight-minute short “told in story form” starring Peggy Ashcraft. The Sydney Morning Herald deemed it “a film which is almost unbearably true in its simplicity.” A brief review in the Motion Picture Herald, published in Chicago, related: “A yachting, sporting lass hears the call for boats. She rallies the yachting club bartender, a feeble minded but faithful retainer and an errant soldier, aboard her boat; and does her heroic evacuation work. She also finds her soldier friend among the defeated. The short contains actual Dunkirk scenes. But these are few. The rest are acted, and in the manner of amateur theatricals.”

Documentary News Letter, founded by John Grierson and based in London, panned “Channel Incident” for “its insistence on the outlook of the Edwardian novelette.” The anonymous critic continued: “It is a flaming insult to the men of Dunkirk and to the men and women of the little boats, a flaming insult indeed to the British people, to reduce this great story to the terms of a middle-class female chuntering back and forth across the Channel and rescuing soldiers only incidentally while she searches for her husband… If ever a film symbolised the mental outlook by which Britain could lose this war, `Channel Incident’ did it; and it was splendid to note the disgust, either frigid or vocal, with which it was received by many in the public cinemas.”

The Guardian agreed that “Channel Incident” was useless for bolstering or burnishing the new Dunkirk spirit: “a slight story, but no moral whatsoever.”

Variety noted that English novelist Louis Golding– sailing to New York City in November 1949– pitched a feature-length drama inspired by Dunkirk that would push no moral or message. “These Are the Lads” nonetheless “presents the point of view the British are anxious to get across.” Variety stated “he wanted to make the picture on a straight commercial basis, as he feels it is not propaganda but a story.” Four months later, syndicated Hollywood columnist John Truesdell wrote: “Golding, has the movie factories bidding high for his story of the Dunkirk devastation, titled `Leave It to the Lads.’” Golding claimed he could not shoot on the English coast because the civilian vessels would become military “targets.”

“Hollywood has an acute naval situation, a shortage of small sea-going craft,” announced Variety on May 28, 1941. British Air Ministry helped on Spitfire scenes in Hollywood’s “A Yank in the R.A.F.” Twentieth Century-Fox shot the Dunkirk evacuation scene on a back lot in June. The National Board of Review called it “a thrilling reconstruction of the debacle at Dunkirk.” Betty Grable and Tyrone Power starred. It premiered on September 25, 1941.

Two other films came later: “Dunkirk” (1958) and “The Sands of Dunkirk” (1961). The 2016 release “Their Finest,” directed by Lone Scherfig, is a workplace romance set in the Ministry of Information. Two screenwriters adapt an irresistibly uplifting, if factually iffy, tale of twin sisters borrowing their father’s fishing boat to help bring soldiers home from Dunkirk.

Nolan valorizes the mechanics of evacuation in his “Dunkirk.” Zimmer’s valedictory score at the end mobilizes the Miracle of Dunkirk motif. It’s hard to imagine Nolan adding a coda to acknowledge a June 2, 1940 report from the Paris bureau of the Associated Press headlined: “Turn Back Nazis at Dunkirk. 200,000 Germans Attack in Waist Deep Flood; Mowed Down.” Allied defenders opened flood sluices to create a seawater moat to block Germans advancing on Dunkirk. “Bursting shells made geysers in the water and churned it into a muddy and bloody froth.”

©2017 Bill Stamets

“Spider-Man: Homecoming”: Marvel’s universal sophomore knows his place in Queens

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on July 18, 2017

“Spider-Man: Homecoming”

directed by Jon Watts
written by: Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley, and Jon Watts & Christopher Ford, and Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers
based on the Marvel Comic Book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
acted by Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Edward Leeds, Zendaya, Jon Favreau, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Marisa Tomei, Chris Evans
released by Sony Pictures Entertainment, Columbia Pictures, Marvel Studios
rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments

 

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” pleases as an action adventure about growing up. In a deciding moment of self-making, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) will scale his future as a superhero. Jon Watts directs this summery PG-13 diversion based on the Marvel Comic series launched by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in August 1962. In April 1999 Los Angeles Superior Court judge granted rights for the Spider-Man character and television distribution of films to Marvel Enterprises and Sony Pictures Entertainment. A screen franchise ensued.

A newfound maturity lets Parker know himself as a 15-year-old sophomore at Midtown School of Science and Technology. Apart from his chimera arachnid characteristics, the title character is at the age to go to a homecoming dance, take a Spanish quiz and resolve a linear acceleration equation. He shows up for the academic decathlon nationals. Instead of competing alongside his teammates, however, this costumed web-spinner saves them from peril atop the Washington Monument. Full-time world-saving can come later.

Parker is on his own for guidance. Grown-ups are not around for this teen from Queens. His legal guardian is Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). She’s concerned by how much time he spends in his room. And why is he always losing his knapsacks? Five and counting. Quick changes in alleys mean Parker forgets where he cached his street clothes when changing for crime-fighting errands.

Parker looks up to Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), a mostly absent mentor renowned for his exploits as Iron Man. This CEO of Stark Industries, headquartered in Manhattan, is Parker’s corporate sponsor of sorts. On their irregular get-togethers Stark brings him upgraded Spider-Man outfits. The latest beta comes with a Siri-like A.I. assistant. No one knows who Spider-Man is behind his mask. Iron Man, on the other hand, is out as an international celebrity.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” opens with Parker shooting a selfie video about jetting to Berlin. Aunt May is told he was on a Stark internship retreat. The truth is that Stark beckoned Parker to join forces with the Avengers, a consortium of adult superheroes lead by super-industrialist Stark. We do not see the battle in question detailed in “Captain America: Civil War” last year.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” presumes we saw that film, along with others in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The press notes quote director Jon Watts explaining why he and his co-writers Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers dispensed with backstory: “[W]e… didn’t have to spend any time explaining why this 16-year-old kid [Parker says he’s 15 in the film] would come up with the idea of becoming a superhero. He’s grown up in the MCU; when Peter Parker was eight years old, he saw Tony Stark say ‘I am Iron Man’ on TV.”

An Iron Man animated series aired from 1994 to 1996, but there’s no flashback to seven- or eight-year-old Peter watching reruns on television, reading comics, or playing with action figures in the 2017 film. Nor do we learn what happened to his parents. And there’s nothing about the radioactive spider bite that enhanced him with spidery powers. Aunt May is off the mark about the “changes your body is going through.”

So fanboy Parker first met Stark on the screen. Fans of Spider-Man met him there too: “Spider-Man” (2002), “Spider-Man 2” (2004), “Spider-Man 3” (2007) and “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012). Tobey Maguire played the title character in the first three films; Andrew Garfield in the fourth. Fans got to know Stark in “Iron Man” (2008), “Iron Man 2” (2010) and “Iron Man 3” (2013)– all starring Downey. For an otherwise calculated effort, Watts’ film offers no guide for unversed viewers.

The notion of guiding neophytes is teased in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Captain America (Chris Evans), a Marvel character introduced in a 1941 comic book, turns up in videos at Parker’s high school. “Hi, I’m Captain America… Today my good friend _______ , your gym teacher, …” This upstanding superhero imparts one-liners to kids in detention: “The only way to really be cool is to follow the rules.” Apparently public schools outsource both calisthenics and counseling to Captain America.

To do your homework, watch “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011), “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014), “Captain America: Civil War” (2016) and the two Avengers films without his name in their titles. When Spider-Man interrupts a crew of ATM thieves, note they’re wearing masks of various Avengers. An Identity Theft poster is on the wall.

If the 2017 screenwriters skip essentials in Spider-Man’s origin story, they introduce a new supporting character deserving more screen time, if not a spin-off of her own. Michelle (Zendaya) is a quirky academic decathlete. Off to the side, she speaks out of the corner of her mouth in her handful of scenes. Classmates wonder why she knows so much about Parker, like his dropping marching band and robotics lab. “I’m not obsessed with him, just very observant,” she deflects. She lurks in detention: “I just like coming here to sketch people in crisis.”

Parker’s best pal Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) marvels at a theory Parker devises to explain a local crime trend under Stark’s radar: “Whoever’s making these weapons is obviously combining alien tech with ours.” Leeds goes meta-nerd: “That is literally the coolest sentence anyone has ever said.”

The self-radicalized entrepreneur making and selling those weird weapons is Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton). His resentment against east coast elites drives the narrative of “Spider-Man: Homecoming”– not Parker’s path to Spider-Manhood. Toomes’ criminal activity furnishes Parker with a case to solve. He hopes to impress Stark and attain Avengers status.

Toomes gets a backstory in the opening scene, set eight years before the storyline of “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” His hardhat crew processes debris in a sort of ground zero in New York City. Suddenly a contingent of federal suits come on site. They brandish executive order 3960 per “exotic alien technology” that overrides his contract. This will ruin his business and put his people out of work, he pleads.

A television newscaster adds context: “A joint venture between Stark Industries and the federal government, the Department of Damage Control, oversees the collection and storage of all alien and other exotic material. Experts estimate there are over 1500 tons of exotic materials scattered throughout the tri-state area.” What you may have missed in a prior Marvel film was the Avengers defending New York City from aliens. Extraterrestial war materiel was left on the field of battle.

Stark and Washington, D.C. collude to disempower Toomes, who identifies with forgotten men and women. He makes a hard turn to a darker side: stealing alien tech and selling a new generation of hardware to criminals– and terrorists? “The world’s changing,” Toomes tells his employees. “It’s time we changed too.”

Alongside a rebooted career, the changing Toomes adapts that “exotic” tech to fashion himself a superhero-style outfit. Enter the Vulture, a villainous version of Iron Man. This befits Keaton after starring in “Batman” (1989) and “Batman Returns” (1992), and later in “Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence” (2014) where he played an over-the-hill winged action hero. A paunchy middle-aged man in a Spider-Man outfit appears briefly as a background character with no lines. In the current film a Toomes employee adopts an alien tech-enhanced persona of Shocker on sales calls.

Watts may not waste screen time with Parker’s angst of adolescence, yet Toomes takes the floor to speechify: “How do you think your buddy Stark paid for that power? Or any of his little toys? Those people, Pete, those people up there, the rich and the powerful, they do whatever they want. Guys like us, you and me. They don’t care about us. We build their roads and fight their wars and everything. They don’t care about us… That’s how it is. I know you know what I’m talking about.”

That’s it for political philosophizing. Even that much talk strikes Parker as out of place. He asks the question few characters actually do ask in these circumstances: “Why are you telling me all this?” Toomes admits it’s in part to buy time to get “airborne” as Vulture. As another Keaton character once insisted, channeling his Birdman persona: “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” And so the fight begins: Spider-Man versus Vulture.

Earlier, Toomes schooled Parker: “You’re young. You don’t understand how the world works.” True enough, though Parker is more worldly than his sidekick who guesses that after high school this is what a boss tells an employee: “Good job on those spreadsheets. Here’s a gold coin.”

Watts’ film snarks about the Avengers franchise. The gym teacher who had to play the Captain America video cracks: “I’m pretty sure this guy’s a war criminal now but whatever.” Iron Man– Tony Stark is called “hypercapitalist” in the press notes– has drawn a heavy critique or two. Exhibit A: the 2014 Cineaction article titled “How to Read Iron Man: The Economics, Geopolitics and Ideology of an Imperial Film Commodity.” There Tanner Mirrlees proposes: “Iron Man supports the economic power of the U.S. Empire by sustaining the global market dominance of Hollywood and its cross-border trade in blockbuster films, synergistically cross-promoting itself and other U.S. commodities through itself and other derivative goods, and generating revenue for the Walt Disney Company and its U.S. ruler and owner, [CEO, Robert A.] Iger.”

A glance at the historical record yields no web so nefarious, although on March 9, 1942 the Motion Picture Daily reported a new book titled “Himmler, Nazi Spider Man.” Another wartime allusion can be spotted in Time Magazine on June 6, 1944: “The strong, fine strands of spider webs have been very helpful in the wartime manufacture of optical instruments and range finders.” Headlined “Spider Man,” the article credited “Pete” Petrunkevitch, “the world’s foremost authority on spiders,” with that very spidey innovation. Captain America and Iron Man plots foreground on U.S. research and development for overseas war efforts.

So far I found no evidence that Peter Parker owes his name to the above-mentioned Yale professor from Russia, one Alexander Ivanovich (“Pete”) Petrunkevitch. Spiderman creator Stan Lee, who has a fleeting cameo in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” originally heralded his comic book hero with no ideological baggage at all: ‘‘the world’s most amazing teen-ager– Spider-Man– the superhero who could be– you.’’

Fans– that’s “you”– identifying with Lee’s character could read the fine print, after Wikileaks posted hacked emails exchanged between Sony Pictures Entertainment and Marvel Characters, Inc. A Confidential Non-Binding Discussion Document and a Second Amended and Restated License Agreement state that Peter Parker and Spider-Man “must always strictly conform to the following Mandatory Character Traits.”

The Caucasian heterosexual male character “does not deliberately torture… deliberately kill humans other than in defense of self or others… use foul language beyond what is permitted in a PG-13 rated film… smoke tobacco… abuse alcohol… use or sell/distribute illegal drugs… engage in sexual relations before the age of 16 or with anyone below the age of 16.”

Core Powers and Abilities are specified too. “Spider-Man has the proportionate strength of a spider. This means he can lift or press approximately 10 tons. Spider-Man has the proportionate jumping ability of a spider. This means he can jump vertically approximately 5 stories (approximately 50 feet) and/or horizontally approximately the length of a city block (approximately 264 feet).” His exceptional “flexibility” exceeds that of a “contortionist.” He “can evade bullets– even from automatic weapons… His accelerated metabolism increases his tolerance to toxins.” He “can maintain his equilibrium better than an Olympic level gymnast.” Sony Pictures Entertainment “shall have the right to depict any of Spider-Man’s Approved Powers in any particular Picture at up to full strength and/or as having any lesser strength… Spider-Man’s powers apply to Spider-Man’s civilian identity, Peter Parker, as well.”

Oblivious or not to limits on his freedom, Parker ultimately makes a self-knowing choice. Spider-Man– “Queens’ own local colorful crime-stopper,” to quote an admiring local TV news talent– is staying home. He never left, really.

 

©2017 Bill Stamets

“Transformers: The Last Knight”: Securing homelands and unearthing secrets

Posted in film review by Bill Stamets on July 7, 2017

directed by Michael Bay
screenplay by Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, Ken Nolan
story by Akiva Goldsman, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, Ken Nolan
acted by Mark Wahlberg, Laura Haddock, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhamel, Jerrod Carmichael, Isabela Moner, Santiago Cabrera, John Turturro, Stanley Tucci; Transformer characters voiced by Peter Cullen, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi
presented by Paramount Pictures in association with Hasbro
rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language, and some innuendo
running time: 149 minutes

 

Pop culture cosmology lifts Arthurian myth to embroider backstory in “Transformers: The Last Knight.” The fifth film of a toy-based franchise directed by Michael Bay lobs summer action spectacle. The CGI chaos is as meticulously crafted as ever. Bay can stupefy almost sublimely. Enabled by six editors, this hands-on showman evokes a three-eyed Shiva, the Hindu god known as a `transformer’ depicted with up to ten arms.

Since the 2007 debut of “Transformers” I have ogled Bay’s cinema-of-attractions set pieces. Futurist-Vorticist detailing of metallic behemoths– transforming in a matter of seconds into cars, trucks, motorcycles, helicopters, jets, submarines, boomboxes, laptops, flatscreen televisions, campus hotties, dinosaurs and fire-breathing dragons– startles the eye.

Eardrums endure collateral damage. So do Chicago, Shanghai and other unlucky terrestrial locales where factions of “intelligent mechanical beings” from the civil war-ravaged planet Cybertron continue their eons-old “blood feud.” A 2007 tagline apprised us: “Their war. Our world.”

Autobots “fought for freedom” and Decepticons “dreamt of tyranny,” narrated Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) in the third film. He– all of his kind are gendered as male– is the key recurring Autobot (Autonomous Robotic Organism). In 2017 he will face a crisis of self-knowing by encountering his creator.

Hasbro Industries imported Transformer toys from Japan in 1984, four months after Tonka Corp. began distributing a similar GoBots toyline. (Hasbro Industries, renamed Hasbro, Inc., bought Tonka in 1991.) Hasbro restyled its G.I. Joe male action figure as “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero,” a counter-terrorist taking on the international evildoers of Cobra Command in 1982. A script is in the works to combine G.I. Joe and the Transformers onscreen.

The ad campaign from ten years ago hyped: “[director/ executive producer] Michael Bay (Armageddon) and [executive producer] Steven Spielberg (War of the Worlds) change the history of motion pictures with their stunning and revolutionary visualization!”

Bay’s battles and chases are inventive, but what comes in between is not. Seven writers fill the 149 minutes of “Transformers: The Last Knight” with intrepid outliers unearthing an outlandish truth underlying a debunked myth, and save Earth from annihilation by aliens. Mostly set in contemporary England– Stonehenge and 10 Downing Street are among shooting locations– Bay’s latest conjures up a premodern pact and prophecy.

As in “Prometheus” and “The X-Files” evidence emerges of primordial alien arrivals. We might be latecomers to Earth. The very end of the fifth film hints the sixth will elaborate. This one may be the last Transformers for Bay, who says he is handing over directing duty to others. Three months ago he told MTV News that 14 more Transformers films are outlined.

“Transformers: The Last Knight” opens amidst the CGI ruins of Soldier Field in Chicago. A dying Autobot knight– who came from the planet Cybertron at least 1600 years ago– hands a Cybertronian-etched talisman to a Texas inventor running a Badlands junkyard to hide illegal aliens from the private paramilitary Transformers Reaction Force. Sector Seven– “a special access division of the Government, convened in secret under President Hoover”– no longer monitors terrestrial Transformers.

As the title’s “Last Knight” Mark Wahlberg reprises his role as Cade Yeager from the fourth film, “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” Except now this Texan on the run is like a station manager on an underground railroad for his Autobot buddies. The abolitionist reference is hardly farfetched. Look for a photograph of Harriet Tubman later on. The first three films featured Shia LaBeouf playing the lead befriender of the Autobots. We followed his character Sam Witwicky graduate from high school, go to college and get his first job. U.S. President Barack Obama awarded him a medal for his heroism.

Yeager, a widower with a daughter in college, is paired in the 2017 iteration with Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), an Oxford University professor of English history. We first meet her playing polo. A teammate taunts her for being “single.” In her next scene she instructs Puffy and other kids on a London museum tour that all those Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin and Percival legends are “horse shit.” Imagine her shock upon discovering she shares DNA with one of them.

“You don’t need to save the world. You need a frigging’ girlfriend,” advises Yeager’s daughter in a phone call cut short to foil U.S. government intel gatherers.

Wembley and Yeager are brought together by Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins), “the last of the Order of the Witwiccans.” Burton imparts the inside story of this “secret society” founded “to protect the secret history of Transformers here on Earth.” The 40-generation roster includes Leonardo Da Vinci, William Shakespeare, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Catherine the Great, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, Stephen Hawking and even Sam Witwicky.

“Your father was a member,” Burton informs Wembley. She learns Merlin was real. We saw him ourselves back in the opening scene: “England– The Dark Ages.” Merlin (Stanley Tucci) is drunk and late for a battle where Arthur (Liam Garrigan) and his army are “outnumbered, a hundred to one.” Merlin begs for military magic from Transformers hiding in a local cavern. They deploy a three-headed dragon to win the day. Debunker of legends of fire-breathers, Wembley always thought Arthur’s catapults hurled fireballs at Saxon invaders. Paramount Pictures lobs CGI fireballs through the opening credits at the audience.

Merlin also gets a secret super powerful staff from the Transformers. Only he or an heir can wield it. In the right hands it will save the world someday. “You, Miss Vivian, are Merlin’s last descendant here on Earth and as such you are our last hope,” states Burton. And right there, on the very last page of volume 40 of the dusty tome charting Merlin’s family tree, there’s an irrefutable 8×10 photo of Vivian Wembley. Only her grasp can activate the long-lost staff. She and the Yank are now yoked as Earth’s co-saviors.

Transformers screen characters– human and alien– are never scripted as lovingly as the special effects and soundtrack are composed. Screwball dialogue between Yeager and Wembley is on the schoolyard level. She orders: “You American man, shut it.” In a later scene he comes back with: “You, English lady, shut it.” They spar over mishearing “chaste” as “chased.” Wince when you hear Sir Anthony Hopkins use “dude” and “dickhead.” His human-sized robo-butler Cogman (voiced by Jim Carter) cracks, “No shit, Sherlock.”

It’s as if the writers excuse their lapses by inserting an early scene of four Chicago boys trespassing on an Alien Contamination Zone in search of robot souvenirs. “We’re kids,” their leader tips his cohorts. “We can get away with anything.”

Careless writing leads to different characters referring to the same planet as both “Unitron” and “Unicron.” In Bay’s world the words “race” and “species” are interchangeable: all of humanity is one “race” and one “species,” and all the Transformers represent a single “race” and “species.” It’s a binary cosmos. “Two species at war. One flesh, one metal,” narrates Burton.

In the previous film, Yeager dubbed his daughter’s Irish boyfriend “Lucky Charms” and mocked his “Leprechaun” accent. “You’d get your ass kicked in Ireland for saying that,” advised Shane (Jack Reynor). Yeager gets another pushback in “Transformers: The Last Knight” when a Native-American policeman (Gil Birmingham) complains that Yeager calling him “chief” is “vaguely racist.”

Lines emanating from the “vocal processors” of Transformers cater to a demographic that once played with Hasbro toys, read Transformers comics, watched Transformers cartoons and played Transformers video games. And may continue to so entertain themselves. Autobots and Decepticons sound like macho bikers and military irregulars. With all their quicksilver transformability, you’d think the screenwriters would tap into the politics of identity and diversity that animate so many superhero narratives (e.g., “The X-Men”). Instead these English-speakers default to adolescent trash talk.

The first Autobot to manifest on Bay’s big screen is Bumblebee. Hiding-in-plain-sight is the modus operandi of Transformers in Earth’s technoscape. This particular alien morphs into a yellow and black 1977 Camaro that turns up on a used car lot. The proprietor has no idea how it got there but sells it to Sam Witwicky in the first Transformers film.

No voice actor is credited for Bumblebee in the first four films because this CGI character is mute, due to prior damage in combat. All his dialogue is sampled from rock songs and movie lines. Ironically, his pop cultural tastes in sampling lend him a more distinctive personality than his voiced peers. At the end of the fifth film, he has two different “voice processors” installed. Bay’s longtime sound designer and supervising sound editor Erik Aadahl voices Bumblebee’s handful of lines here. This Autobot headlines a prequel/ spinoff film scheduled for next June.

Script slips can puzzle. Every “Transformers” film seems to include Americans discovering an old Transformer in an out-of-the-way place like the Arctic Circle. That entity was “reverse-engineered,” starting in 1935. Among the “modern age” tech yielded: “cars.” Rather imprecise on the timeline of internal combustion motor vehicles. Henry Ford debuted his Model T in 1908.

Meaningless precision occurs in the 2014 film. Aliens turned Earth, partly or totally, into Transformium “65 million” years ago. And that is “B.C.” to be clear. Aliens also visited in “17,000 B.C.” Optimus Prime divulges, indefinitely: “They have been here forever.” That voiceover is used as a tagline too.

Dialogue and taglines repurpose Hasbro hype. “More than meets the eye!” reads a 1984 ad touting a Hasbro toy that transforms between a Decepticon and a Walther P-38 gun. “Ages 5 & Up.” Optimus Prime uses the same expression in “Transformers” to refer to the optics of humans and Transformers alike. It reappears in a 2017 article in The American Journal of Economics and Sociology that “interrogates” the first two Transformers films. “[T]here is much more to these commodities than meets the eye: they are also U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) promotions in disguise,” argues an Ontario assistant professor of communications.

Marketing prose at times is off the mark: “`The Last Knight’ shatters the core myths of the Transformers franchise.” No such thing to see here. Nothing is demystified or deconstructed. This film conforms to what came before and continues the tale. Even though the three writers credited for this screenplay and story have not worked on earlier Transformers films.

The filmmakers indulge in one witty bit of reflexivity. Music builds as Burton intones weighty lines of ancient lore about King Arthur’s 12 knights and their 12 alien Guardian Knight allies. Just as we hear an overwrought crescendo, we spot Cogman playing an organ in the background. “You ruined the moment again,” hollers Burton, the 12th Earl of Folgan. “I was trying to make the moment more epic,” pleads his aide-de-camp. “Legend tells that one last knight would someday be chosen and the struggle to save the world would begin,” continues Burton, who always gets Yeager’s surname wrong. “It would appear, Mr. Cade, that that last knight is you.” Cue a swelling offscreen chorus. Burton orders Cogman: “Stop it!”

When his 2014 Transformers film came out Bay told a Mother Jones writer: “Yes, I am a political person, and I have my views about America… I don’t feel the need to go out and tell people what to believe politically.” Last year The New Yorker ran a satire headlined “Donald Trump Chooses Michael Bay as Running Mate.”

Two taglines for “Transformers” (2007) launched the franchise premise: “Their war. Our world.” and “Most have come to destroy us. Some have come to protect us.”

At first an interplanetary bystander, the U.S. turns into an ally of the Autobots, but then tries to exile these conflict refugees. In later episodes, American CEOs and NSA types will make covert deals with Decepticons.

A topical hook threading the five films is the Department of Homeland Security. Transformers are classified “alien terrorists” in the fourth. Non-alien terrorists are absent. There’s a fleeting reference to 9/11 in the second. When Decepticons strike, a television newscaster reported the country is at “Condition Delta, which is the highest level we’ve been at since 9/11.”

Decepticons in the first film targeted U.S. military computers at Special Operations Command Central in the Qatar desert. Bay’s second film made up the Classified Alien-Autobot Cooperation Act and Non-Biological Extraterrestrial Species Treaty. U.K.’s unnamed prime minister (Mark Dexter) is on the phone asking about the unnamed “U.S. president” and “Putin” in the 2017 film. Bay skips the traditional scene from other alien attack films: a montage of world capitals in a united front for self-defense.

Transformers films universalize the issue of homeland security. Civil war ruined Cybertron. That puts Earth in peril. Autobots seek asylum here. Decepticons in pursuit always seek some Cybertonian power source and an ultimate weapon to wipe out Autobots. And they seek dominion over Earth as a resource to rebuild Cybertron. In Bay’s universe, no one’s home is secure.

“Earth, the only place in the universe whose people let me call it home,” Optimus Prime shares with Yeager in “Transformers: The Last Knight.” Yet, as Burton notes: “Transformers are declared illegal on Earth.” This film introduces homeless 14-year-old Izabella (Isabela Moner), orphaned by a Decepticon missile strike during the Battle of Chicago. Hiding amidst the rubble, she stands by stigmatized, stereotyped Autobots: “Someone’s got to take care of them. They’re scared, they’re lost. No place, no home, no family. Do you know how that feels?” This nurturing militant is a social justice warrior for illegal aliens. Yeager and his comrade Autobots let her tag along.

“All they want is a home and you know that,” Yeager argues with Lt. Colonel William Lennox (Josh Duhamel). “You push them and they push right back.” Lennox counters: “Whose side are you on? They’re all bad.” Transformer-phobe and rogue C.I.A. official (Kelsey Grammer) in the previous film insisted: “There are no good aliens or bad aliens, Yeager. It’s just us and them!”

Lennox fought alongside Yeager, Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and other Autobots against Decepticons in the first three films, where he was ranked Captain, Major and Colonel, respectively. Chief Master Sergeant Epps (Tyrese Gibson), fighting the good fight in those same films, noted: “We’ve shed blood, sweat, and metal together.” “Transformers are declared illegal on Earth,” narrates Burton.

Now Lennox fears more and more diasporic aliens finding their way to Earth. Little does he know the film will end with an alien narrator transmitting a homing beacon into space: “I am Optimus Prime. Calling all Autobots. It’s time to come home.” He means Earth, not Cybertron. In the closing lines of the first film Optimus Prime termed Earth “a new world to call home.”

“Friends?,” Lennox reacts. “This is an invasion. One day we wake up. They’re in charge.” In the second film he informed his commandos: “This makes six enemy contacts in eight months.” And Optimus Prime briefed General Morshower (Glenn Morshower): “Our alliance has countermanded six Decepticon incursions this year, each on a different continent.” In the third Transformers film, Optimus Prime related how Autobots also served their hosts as off-the-books United Nations Peacekeepers: “So now we assist our allies in solving human conflict, to prevent mankind from doing harm to itself.”

Self-harm was afoot in Chicago. Decepticons conspired with treasonous fixers ensconced in Trump Tower. Their objective? Acquire “a slave labor force” of “six billion” humans to “rebuild Cybertron.” Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy) decreed: “Now, it is time for the slaves of Earth to recognize their masters. Seal off the city.” The ruins of the ensuing Battle of Chicago, where 1300 died, are where Izabella and Yeager will meet in the 2017 film. (By hashtagging #MidasTouch, Donald Trump claimed some credit for the 2011 “summer blockbuster” in his August 13, 2012 tweet.)

“To punish and enslave” is the sneering motto adopted by a Decepticon disguised as a police car in 2007 and 2017. In 2014 Optimus Prime rallied Dinobots, variant Transformers predating the auto age who assume the guise of mechano-dinosaurs: “We must join forces, or else we’ll all be their slaves.”

Bay’s writers insert no dialogue about historical, terrestrial slavery. However, a relevant aphorism that recurs as a line of dialogue, a motto and a tagline does coincide with a 1942 quote in Vogue magazine about Japan enslaving China.

“Without sacrifice there can be no victory!” is the battle cry of medieval English warriors repelling Saxon invaders in “Transformers: The Last Knight.” Paramount Pictures recruits that line in its publicity. Burton lectures Wembley and Yeager: “It has been said throughout the ages that there can be no victory, without sacrifice.” For his 11th-grade history class, Sam gave a “family genealogy report” in “Transformers.” His great-great grandfather Captain Archibald Witwicky (William Morgan Sheppard), glimpsed via flashback, urged his band of Arctic explorers: “No sacrifice, no victory!” That’s the family motto.

“No Sacrifice … No Victory” is also the headline of Agnes Smedley’s dispatch in the April 15, 1942 issue of Vogue. Embedded with the New Fourth Chinese Army at a hospital near the front, Smedley quotes an elderly Chinese woman resisting the Japanese invaders: “Without sacrifice, there is no victory. We do not want to be slaves of the devils.”

Freedom is under threat across the galaxy. “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings,” declared Optimus Prime in 2007. A 2011 tagline warned: “Earth’s last stand. The fight for our freedom begins.” Bay leverages such anodyne one-liners only for mounting awesome maneuvers, never for an aside on human or alien rights. We have yet to see a Dialecticon or Kantbot on the roster of autonomous robotic organisms.

Other philosophical filler is for pondering origins. “Transformers: The Last Knight” continues a theme introduced in “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” Optimus Prime promised: “Autobots, we’re going to prove who we are and why we’re here!” His last lines were: “There are mysteries to the universe we were never meant to solve. But who we are and why we are here, are not among them.” To get answers, he zooms across the galaxy to wrecked Cybertron and meets the Creator known as Quintessa (Gemma Chan), “the Prime of Life.” Gendered female, Quintessa generates Transformers and can re-engineer them. She weaponizes his will for her designs on Earth.

Quintessa qualifies as an Intelligent Designer. Creationists may cry heresy. Bay is unclear about what form of life Transformers are. “They have evolved” since the first film, forewarned a tagline for the second. Darwinists will notice there’s nothing like natural selection going on. Characters variously refer to Transformers’ “genome,” “chromosomes” (which are somehow “infect[ious]”) and “hatchlings.” When a depowered Transformer is rebooted he is said to be “reincarnated” or “resurrect[ed].”

Transformers each have a “power source” in the center of their chests (or mediastinum, the term medical students had to memorize in Anatomy 101). It glows faint blue, as do all alien energies in Earth cinema. Unspelled on screen, this sounds like Allspark. “It contains our life force and our memories,” says Optimus Prime. “Yeah, we call it a soul,” replies Yeager. Sam got hold of a shard. Besides transmitting Cybertonian symbols into his head, it enabled him to read “a 903-page astronomy book in 32.6 seconds” and manically write arcane formulas on the blackboard in his Astronomy 101 classroom.

Christianity and other faiths are out of the picture. Transformers make little theological impact on Americans. “Excuse me, are you the Tooth Fairy?,” inquires a little girl the night one of the 30-foot-tall aliens cuts through her suburban yard. “You gotta wonder: if God made us in His image, who made him?,” asks Epps, in the only line of its kind in all five films.

“We were gods once, all of us!,” vents Sentinel Prime, former mentor of Optimus Prime back on Cybertron. This turncoat first entered the storyline in 2011’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” During the civil war, he fled their planet with space bridge pillars, but crashed on our moon. In 1961 the U.S. and U.S.S.R. discovered his spacecraft. The government secretly moved the depowered Prime that was on board to Earth. Secret research ensued. Just as it did in 1935 when a different Transformer was secretly moved from an Arctic Circle crash site to a secret research facility.

If Transformers were all gods on their planet, who were the lesser inhabitants, the believers bowing to them? Now there is only one and she sounds like a lower-case “g” deity who de-deified Transformers. Quintessa rebukes Optimus Prime: “You dare to strike your god?”

God-grade power takes the form of super-high-tech that drives every Transformers plot. Decepticons are the ultimate power-seekers, both physical and political. Autobots typically thwart their quests. Allspark, the Cube, Energon, Seeds and Transformium are at stake. Each film adds a plot element from long, long, long ago that tells us how these powerful resources made their way from Cyberton to Earth. Plots lengthen Transformers film running times– ranging from 143 to 165 minutes– with intervening hunts to find clues to locate keys to unlock alien powers. Among these items: eyeglasses etched with a map, a children’s book holding a secret, and something called a Matrix of Leadership.

Bay is more interested in alien weaponry than religious ramifications of one-time gods appearing here. He especially likes their planet-annihilating and sun-consuming gizmos. Transformers deploy really cool killer toys. An ill-conceived, if non-lethal, one that Hasbro launched in 1966 was “The Hypo-Squirt,” an oversized plastic squirt gun modeled on a hypodermic needle: “It’s Fun!! Shoots Over 20 Feet Accurately.”

Bay is invested in so-called practical effects– wherein real stuff really blows up– versus the digital virtual ones. His enthusiasm for filmmaking tricks echoes a line Orson Welles, an amateur magician and showman of stage and radio, supposedly said after touring the RKO Radio Pictures lot: “This is the biggest electric train set a boy ever had!” Roger Ebert is among many who recycled that irresistible quote. Biographers usually write “reportedly said” and cite no source. “When a New York friend asked him about it [RKO] Welles pointed to the wilderness of cameras, lights, sound apparatus and other engines of the talkies. `It’s the greatest railroad train a boy ever had,’” claimed the Saturday Evening Post in 1940, without identifying the second-hand source. John Logan’s 1997 draft of the screenplay for the Welles’ biopic “RKO 281” has Welles (Liev Schreiber) playing to a newsreel camera: “I’ll tell you what, this is the best electric train set a boy ever had!”

The scientific superiority of Cybertron inspires about a minute of demystifying dialogue in “Transformers: The Last Knight.” “Magic does exist,” relates Burton. “It was found long ago. Inside a crashed alien ship.” That was back in the year 484 A.D. when Merlin obtained a weapon made by 12 Transformers transforming into that singular Saxon-smiting dragon. To hide the key to Sun Harvester technology in the second film, six principled Primes from Cybertron sacrificed themselves to create a secret crypt inside an Egyptian pyramid. All to thwart an evil seventh Prime

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” says Yeager. Impressed, Wembley promptly name-drops Arthur C. Clarke as the source. Thus initiating a chance of romance. Natalie Portman’s character, an astrophysicist, used the same quote in Kenneth Branagh’s 2011 film “Thor” when she refers to the Einstein-Rosen bridge. The title god (Chris Hemsworth), son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), informs her: “Your ancestors called it magic. And you call it science. Well, I come from a place where they’re one and the same.”

“Personally I’m going to rely on physics and mathematics to save the planet, not mysticism, fairies and some hobgoblin,” declares the hard science guy played by Tony Hale in Bay’s new film. Wembley wielding Merlin’s staff to foil the evil Creator on her Earth-bound exoplanet is unthinkable to this Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer.

A “bidding war” for “alien technology” broke out between India, Israel, Japan and Russia in the fourth film. Engineers and entrepreneurs were busy dismembering aliens. One of whom, named Brains (Reno Wilson), resisted: “This is illegal experimentation… This is worse than waterboarding!” Yeager angled for a competitive edge: “If I could apply that technology to my inventions we’d never have to worry about money again.” A Chicago CEO (Stanley Tucci) crowed: “We will own the robotics industry.” Optimus Prime countered: “We are not your technology!”

Wembley tells kids at the museum: “A desperate last stand between civilization and barbarism. Two worlds colliding. Only one survives.” Burton later repeats her past words to underscore the Earth versus Cybertron showdown. Now the Creator and her Decepticons clash with Earth and its Autobot allies. That dualism evokes Samuel Huntington’s 1993 essay “The Clash of Civilizations?” On July 6, 2017 in Warsaw’s Krasiński Square, President Donald Trump framed a dire scenario for all of Europe. “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive… Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?… [O]ur civilization will triumph… So, together, let us all fight like the Poles– for family, for freedom, for country, and for God.”

Bay mobilizes similar sentiments on the grand scale of a galactic smackdown. Transformers films entertain with escapist spectacle that resolves nothing. Thinking of a different genre in a different time of war, Agnes Smedley regretted Hollywood distracted her home front readers from grasping the struggles of Chinese women: “American women, going to movies, finding the solution of life’s bitter problems in the mirage of a Hollywood kiss and embrace.”

©2017 Bill Stamets

Strange shadows on screen: Brit Noir at the Gene Siskel Film Center

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on November 14, 2016

A strange film vein comes to light in the Brit Noir series continuing at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 North State, through November 30. Upper-crust crooks, doomed dames, pervy plots, swinging scores and moral mayhem impart an irresistible weirdness to the five black-and-white dramas I previewed so far.

The eight titles in the line-up were released between 1946 and 1965. One that circulated in black-and-white is presented here with its color restored. Carol Reed directs two; John Ford one.

Among titles already screened is “Never Take Candy from a Stranger” (1960) directed by Cyril Frankel and shot by Freddie Francis. The opening `square-up’ touts: “This story– like its characters– is fictitious. It is set in Canada. But it could happen anywhere and it could be true.”

The new high school principal– a Canadian who left at age 10– brings his English wife and their 9-year-old daughter Jean (Janina Faye, who would appear two years later in “The Day of the Triffids”) to an eastern Canadian town. “Some of her best friends are foreigners,” quips the art teacher apologizing for a sniffy neighbor at the welcoming party.

In the opening scene, the local pervert and town patriarch peers through his binoculars at Jean and her pal Lucille playing on a swing. Lucille tells Jean the creep will give them sweets. We do not see the girls undress and dance for him, but Jean will so testify in court. Lurid psychological local color ensues in this “go-ahead” sawmill town with a “colonial” chip on its shoulder.

English boys and girls of the same age are told to undress– in proximity to a Geiger counter– in “These Are the Damned” (1962), directed by Joseph Losey. An American yachtsman runs afoul of seaside locals. First, there’s a gang whose signature tune goes:
Black Leather Black Leather Smash Smash Smash
Black Leather Black Leather Crash Crash Crash
Black Leather Black Leather Kill Kill Kill
(Single, double or triple exclamation points probably belong after every word in these lyrics.)
Then we meet nine radioactive children hidden in a secret underground lab. Government experimenters told them they are in a spaceship. Sci-fi social commentary mixes up a modernist sculptor with a delinquent clique in this hybrid exploitation art film.

“90 Degrees in the Shade” (1965) is decidedly more continental in sensibility. Shot in Prague with English dialogue, this Czechoslovakia/ UK coproduction directed by Jirí Weiss compares with other Brit Noirs by channeling sexual anxiety. It starts at a riverside swim park on a hot summer day. The miserably married Mr. Kurka (Rudolph Hrusínský, “The Cremator”)– bound in a six-button vest– leers at bathing beauties before auditing a shop with inventory irregularities.

The adulterous manager and his clerk Alena (Anne Heywood, “The Depraved” and “The Nun and the Devil”) are caught replacing the cognac with tea in 79 bottles of Martell and Courvoisier. The Jazz Orchestra of Czech Radio supplies a beat-noir setting for this moralizing sketch of an existentially wronged woman. Wry despair on the Vltava. Screens 6 p.m. Monday, November 14.

More malfeasance in a place of business transpires in “Cash on Demand” (1961), directed by Quentin Lawrence. Based on a play by the one-time owner of Herman Göering’s Mercedes, the plot is confined to the Haversham Branch of City & Colonial Bank. On December 23rd, a conman impersonates an insurance inspector, leans on a Scroogey small town bank manager (Peter Cushing, who joined Janina Faye in the “Dracula” of 1958), and absconds with £93,000. The dialogue is crafty, although there’s none of the erotic tension detectable elsewhere in the series. Screens 4:55 p.m. November 26 and 6 p.m. November 28.

“Wanted for Murder” (1946) is especially polished next to the more pulpy movies in Brit Noir. Lawrence Huntington directs a London thriller rather in the style of Alfred Hitchcock. Eric Portman, seen in three Powell & Pressburger films, here plays a serial killer dubbed “The Strangler.” The executioner to Queen Victoria figures in his lineage and he smashes the skull of his likeness on display in a horror museum. It’s a bloodline that dooms this toff to off one woman after another. The New Scotland Yard is on the case. Psychosexual class issues are on the couch. Screens 5 p.m. November 19 and 6 p.m. November 21.

Viscera, valor, values: “Hacksaw Ridge”

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on November 7, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge
directed by Mel Gibson
written by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight
acted by Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Rachel Griffiths, Hugo Weaving, Vince Vaughn, Darcy Bryce, Roman Guerriero, Firass Dirani, Luke Pegler, Michael Sheasby, Goran D. Kleut, Yoji Tatsuta
produced by William Mechanic, David Permut, Terry Benedict, Paul Currie, Bruce Davey, Tyler Thompson, William D. Johnson, Brian Oliver
rated R “for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images”
running time: 138 minutes

 

“For intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images” the Classification and Rating Administration of the Motion Picture Association of America rates “Hacksaw Ridge” R. Heads explode, guts spill, limbs are blown off, skin is aflame, rats feast on the dead.

Director Mel Gibson is not adverse to placing viscera on the screen– “Apocalypto,” “Braveheart,” “The Patriot,” “The Passion of the Christ,” “We Were Soldiers”– but it’s hard to see where “war violence” belongs in a film weighing non-violence as a value. Is the sickening realism here mocking the Sixth Commandment (“Thou shall not kill”) or is it there to vindicate a pacifist on the front line?

“A True Story” states an opening title in “Hacksaw Ridge.” Private First Class Desmond T. Doss (1919-2006), a conscientious objector and U.S. Army medical corpsman, receives a screen salute from Gibson and co-writers Robert Schenkkan (“The Quiet American”) and Andrew Knight (“The Water Diviner”).

President Harry S. Truman awarded Doss a Congressional Medal of Honor on the White House lawn on October 12th, 1945. The citation details “outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty” on May 2nd, 5th and 21st of that year. The unarmed Seventh Day Adventist pulled some 75 wounded riflemen from the field of fire on Okinawa. His own wounds, along with the tuberculosis he contracted, left him disabled for the rest of his life. He considered raising tropical fish to get by, reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch on July 27, 1947.

“In a cinematic landscape overrun with fictional `superheroes,’ I thought it was time to celebrate a real one,” says Gibson in the film’s press notes. In the role of Doss, he casts Andrew Garfield from “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”

True Comics, published in Chicago, profiled Doss in a 23-panel tale “Hero Without a Gun” in its April 1946 issue. A 1967 book titled “The Unlikeliest Hero: The Story of Pfc. Desmond T. Doss, The Soldier Who Wouldn’t Touch a Gun” was written by Booton Herndon, who served in a medical unit that landed at Utah Beach on D-Day. “Desmond Doss: In God’s Care, The Unlikeliest Hero and Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient” is the 1998 book by his second wife.

The first screen version of the Doss saga was “The Conscientious Objector,” produced, directed and co-written by Terry L. Benedict. A Seventh-day Adventist, he made that 2004 documentary at the behest of the Desmond Doss Council, an organization initiated by Doss himself in 2000. Its mission is to “Preserve, protect and manage the life story of Desmond T. Doss and his intellectual properties, collections, and memorabilia in a manner that honors his legacy, his beliefs, his church and his God.” Benedict is credited among the eight producers of “Hacksaw Ridge.”

We first see Doss on his back. Wounded, he recites verses from Isaiah 40. The camera hovers overhead. Mud and blood are underfoot for his litter-bearers. The scene closes at the edge of an escarpment. Gloriously suspended in a white void, the din of battle muted, Doss is not heavenward. The story moves to the Blue Ridge Mountains, 16 years earlier, to the home of his Christian values.

Two concise scenes cue turning points for Doss. Ten-year-old Desmond (Darcy Bryce) fights with his brother Hal (Roman Guerriero). Losing and laying on his back, he knocks Hal out with a brick. “I could have killed him,” realizes Desmond. His mother Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) says: “Murder is the worst sin of all, is to take another man’s life. That is the most egregious sin in the Lord’s sight.” Doss peers at a framed illustration of the Ten Commandments and imprints on the Cain and Abel episode.

Years later his drunk father Tom (Hugo Weaving) once again threatens his mother. Desmond, now a young man, points a gun in his face. He later relates this incident to a fellow soldier in a lull in the hell of Okinawa: “And that’s when I made my promise to God I ain’t never gonna a touch a gun again.”

Before their infantry company deployed for the Pacific Theater, drill sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) had presented Doss and other trainees with “a clip-fed shoulder-fired semi-automatic weapon designed to bring death and destruction to the enemy.” Doss declined the M-1: “I’m sorry sergeant, I can’t touch a gun.” On Okinawa he does touch one in order to jerry-rig a litter for dragging the wounded Howell from the enemy. (The real Doss in 1945 used a rifle stock to set a compound fracture in his own arm.)

In other brief exchanges Doss makes his case to enlist as a medic, a noncombatant with a 1–A–0 classification. To his father: “I figure I’ll be saving people not killing ‘em.” To his sweetheart Dorothy (Teresa Palmer): “I don’t know how I’m going to live with myself if I don’t stay true to what I believe, much less how you could live with me.”

“The United States Army does not make mistakes,” insists an officer inconvenienced by a conscientious objector out of place in a rifle company. “If there’s a problem, you must be that problem.” An army psychiatrist is supposed to issue a section 8 discharge for Doss. “This is Satan himself we’re fighting,” claims the ostensibly secular clinician. “What are you going to do? Hit him with your Bible?… What do you do when everything in your world is under attack?”

“I don’t know sir,” responds Doss. “I ain’t got answers to questions that big. But I also feel that my values are under attack and I don’t know why.” The psychiatrist’s worldview evokes “Prelude to War” in the “Why We Fight” series. National values are at stake in this propaganda film underwritten by the United States War Department and the Office of War Information. S. Lowell Mellett, head of the Bureau of Motion Pictures, appraised this 1942 Frank Capra film: “One of the most skillful jobs of moviemaking I ever have seen, the picture makes a terrific attack on the emotions.” In a November 9, 1942 letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he wrote: “Engendering nervous hysteria in the Army or in the civil population might help to win the war, although I doubt it.”

On a date with Dorothy, Doss watches “Prelude to War.” Gibson’s film, however, implies that Capra’s film hardly makes an impact. The Seventh Day Adventist draftee opts to not accept a deferment. (Benedict says the real Doss made his first trip to a movie theater when we went to see his documentary “The Conscientious Objector.”)

The 138-minute “Hacksaw Ridge” devotes only seven minutes of dialogue for setting forth Doss’s faith and ethics. The script omits his religious tradition. “In the 1850s Adventists singled out the United States” as “the second beast of Revelation 13,” according to an Adventist sociologist. During the Civil War, a prophetess counseled: ”God’s people… cannot engage in this perplexing war, for it is opposed to every principle of their faith. The church assured Congress that Adventists were “a people unanimously loyal and antislavery, who because of their views of the Ten Commandments and of the teaching of the New Testament cannot engage in bloodshed.” The church would urge draftees in 1916: “Show yourself willing to cooperate, but keep your conscience clear, even unto punishment and death itself.”

The Selective Service Act of 1940 designated inductees who refuse to bear arms as “conscientious objectors.” A year later Adventists started using the expression “conscientious cooperators” for their patriotic form of “Christian noncombatancy.” Doss was one among some 12,000 Adventists serving as medics in WWII.

An Associated Press dispatch from Vatican City on November 22, 1941 quotes Pope Pius XII equivocating: “If it is true that the church does not want to mix in disputes about the opportunity, utility and earthly efficacy of diverse temporal forms which are purely political institutions or activities.” Plainspoken Doss, by contrast, is clear about his aims as an aidman– the U.S. Army term for a medic: “While everybody else is taking life, I’m going to be saving it. With the world so set on tearing itself apart it doesn’t seem such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.”

Gibson pits a-man-of-principle against the powers-that-be, although the film makes a point of not thinking too much about it. Tom Doss, a bitter WWI vet, tells his son Desmond he’s not cut out for war: “Everybody else jumps in, does things quick without thinking like the damn idiot fools we were. Soldiers who live, they live because they can do that. You can’t. You got to sit and think and pray about everything. Well, look at you, you’re doing it right now… See, there you go thinking it all out.”

At Fort Jackson, Sergeant Howell isolates Doss in front of other soldiers-in-training: “Do not look to him to save you on the battlefield. Because he will undoubtedly be too busy wrestling with his conscience to assist.” An Associated Press headline about the real Doss in 1945 would tell a different story: “Medic Won’t Kill Japs, But He Saves 75 Yanks.” Time Magazine wrote: “He felt that God would not let him perish by the sword if he did not live by the sword.”

An oddly included scene at the end of “Hacksaw Ridge” comes off as a wrong-headed comment on two cultures of sacrifice. Instead of surrendering, a character listed as “Japanese General” (Yoji Tatsuta) commits seppuku (self-disembowling) with a short sword, followed by kaishaku (decapitation) performed by an underling with a longer blade. Samurai code of honor and Seventh Day Adventist duty to uphold the Sixth Commandment are juxtaposed to no clear end.

“Hacksaw Ridge” is more action film than a pacifist apologia. A brave saviour under fire is a more likely hero than a spiritual introvert thumbing through his Bible. Gibson lauds the valor of Doss more than his values.

________________________________________________________________________________

A month after receiving his Medal of Honor, Doss and 48 other recipients came to the American Legion’s 27th annual national convention in Chicago. They stood to accept the applause of the assembly at the Coliseum. A breakfast was served in their honor at the Morrison Hotel. One piece of business reported by the Chicago Tribune: “To the accompaniment of cheers, the convention voted that conscientious objectors be kept in service until sixth months after the discharge of the last combat soldier.”

American Legion program for the four-day meeting stated: “For God and country, we associate ourselves for the following purposes: … To foster one hundred per cent Americanism; To preserve the memories and incidents of our associations in the great wars…”

On July 4, 2004 a bronze life-size statue of Doss was dedicated at the National Museum of Patriotism in Atlanta. The place closed in 2010. At an October 30, 2010 auction the President Jimmy Carter statue went for $125. Martin Luther King’s sold for $100. No word of what happened to Doss’s.

“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week– The Touring Years” a concert-contextualizing documentary about four friends and their screaming fans

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on September 21, 2016

“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week– The Touring Years”
directed by Ron Howard
written by Mark Monroe
edited by Paul Crowder
presented by Abramorama; streaming video on-demand on Hulu
at Music Box Theater through September 29
running time: 106 minutes

 

What was the world of The Beatles? “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week– The Touring Years” answers with a documentary that’s often insightful and always entertaining. American director Ron Howard contextualizes the concerts that took John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr from the clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg to the world via records, radio and television.

From June 1962 to August 1966, the British pop group played 166 concerts in 15 countries and 90 cities, by a count included in press notes. “We just want to play. Playing was the most important thing,” says drummer Starr, who attests: “We had the worst [record] deal in the world… You got to remember we made our money playing live.”

“By the end it became quite complicated, but at the beginning things were really simple,” relates singer, songwriter and bass guitarist McCartney. His late band mates John Lennon and George Harrison are well represented thanks to a vast trove of archival clips.

“The Beatles were kind of the dream of how you might be with your friends as you went through life,” offers screenwriter Richard Curtis, an English fan since boyhood. Howard, writer Mark Monroe and editor Paul Crowder bring in few talking heads to interpret the “14-year-old in 1964.” Author Malcolm Gladwell posits: “Quite literally, this society is dominated by teenagers… What you’re seeing is the emergence of this international teen culture.”

Sigourney Weaver was one of those 14-year-olds. She went to a Beatles concert at the Hollywood Bowl on August 23, 1964. “I felt as much a girl can feel. I was in love with John,” she recalls. “It was this sense of world music. We were all loving them all over the world.”

A 15-year-old Florida girl got a ticket to the September 11, 1964 concert in Jacksonville. The Beatles’ contract stipulated no segregated gigs, so the Gator Bowl admitted its first integrated audience, some two months after the Civil Rights Act passed. Kitty Oliver, a Fab Four fan turned jazz singer and oral historian, recollects on camera her thrill at that historic occasion, one that did not, though, make its way into her book “Multicolored Memories of a Black Southern Girl.”

Besides copious clips, Howard samples 16mm news footage from press events during international tours. Dealing with screaming fans and inane questions took its toll. “What do you dream of when you sleep?” asked someone at a June 26, 1966 session in Hamburg. “We’re only the same as you, man, only we’re rich,” responded Lennon, according to a transcription of the recording at http://www.beatlesinterviews.org.

Part of the ensuing exchange makes its way into “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week– The Touring Years”:
FEMALE: “Why are you all so horrid snobby?”
JOHN: “Because we’re not flattering you.”

PAUL: “You know… You expect, sort of, nice answers to ALL the questions. But if the questions aren’t nice questions, they don’t have to have nice answers. And if we don’t give nice answers, it doesn’t mean we’re snobby. It just means we’re natural.”

A later passage reveals more of the tour dynamic:
Q: “You’re successful now for many, many years. Are you sometimes very tired about it?”
PAUL: “No, I don’t think… You know, if we were tired then we’d stop, because there’s no need to. We’ve started out wanting money like everybody else. But when you get money, you don’t HAVE to go on, you know. But we only go on ‘cuz we enjoy it. We enjoy making records and we enjoy singing, and things. That’s the only reason. And having money as well, but the other one is the main reason.”

The Beatles stopped touring because it stopped being fun. The last show was in Candlestick Park in San Francisco on August 29, 1966. The lads had played a total of 815 sets– playing up to eight hours a day at the start. As musicians they had grown up. The best way to creatively keep together was to gather in a recording studio. Cue such albums as “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Magical Mystery Tour.” The last one was “Let it Be.” They split up in 1970.

Sully: “Does anyone need to see any more simulations?”

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on September 19, 2016

Sully
directed by Clint Eastwood
written by Todd Komarnicki, based on Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters by Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow
acted by Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Patch Darragh, Jane Gabbert, Ann Cusack, Molly Hagan
presented by Warner Bros. Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures
rated by the MPAA: PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language
running time: 93 minutes
 

Subtly designed, “Sully” is a disaster film that never over-dramatizes the five-minute flight of US Airways flight 1549 on January 15, 2009. Director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki instead dwell on how the event was scrutinized by the National Transportation Safety Board and sensationalized by New York City television. The outcome is commonly known: 155 passengers and crew survived an emergency landing on the Hudson River after Canada geese jammed the jet’s two engines.

What’s original in this drama’s design is how the plot interpolates varied audiences in the saga. “Sully” opens with the voice of air traffic controller Patrick Harten (Patch Darragh) at La Guardia Airport radioing “Cactus 1549, runway 4, clear for takeoff” to the cockpit of a Charlotte-bound Airbus. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III (Tom Hanks) confirms: “Cactus 1549, runway 4, clear for takeoff.” That exchange sets up the rapport between viewers and characters that structures the rest of the self-reflective narrative– “Sully” and Sully take off together.

Ironically, that controller will be the last one to know the pilot and everyone else on board survives. Right after flight 1549 breaks radio contact at 15:30:43.7 and drops off his radar screen, Harten removes himself from his post, presumably per tower work rules. He sits alone in a windowless room to process his shock. Only later does he discover what all his co-workers know from monitoring live news. Sully’s first call is to his wife Lorrie (Laura Linney) in the kitchen of their California home. “I’m OK,” he tells her. “What do you mean?” she replies. “Turn on the television,” he explains.

“Sully” was released two days before the 15th anniversary of four commercial passenger jets– commandeered by Al-Qaeda terrorists– crashing on September 11, 2001. “Hey, no one dies today,” a first responder assures a shivering passenger. In the fortuitous aftermath of flight 1549, one of Sully’s colleagues points out: “You know, it’s been quite a while since New York had news this good– especially with an airplane in it.” On September 11, 2016 Eastwood told the New York Times: “New York was still in shock from 9/11 and everything else. That particular time in history [January 15, 2009], New York was in a bit of of a depressed state. This thing was something people could hang on to as a happy-ending story.”

“We had a miracle on 34th Street– I believe now we have had a miracle on the Hudson,” Governor David Paterson told New Yorkers that day, invoking the title of the 1947 film “Miracle on 34th Street.” Within the hour “Miracle on the Hudson” would be the tagline for the feel-good news item. Four days before the inauguration of the 44th president, gino55 posted on the New Jersey news site NJ.com: “Shouldn’t we be counting this as Obama’s first miracle? I’m thinking we should!!! The messiah is already at work…”

For the record, “miraculous” never appears in the 196-page NTSB report titled “Loss of Thrust in Both Engines After Encountering a Flock of Birds and Subsequent Ditching on the Hudson River…” The engines “ingested” Canada geese whose remains were confirmed by mitochondrial DNA tests and stable hydrogen isotope analysis, and Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Lab comparing feather samples from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

Acknowledging the bird strike and its aftermath rank as “a movie-worthy moment in aviation history,” the independent federal agency informed the media: ”The NTSB was not asked to contribute to or participate in the production of ‘Sully’ and as such we were not afforded an opportunity to ensure our actions and words were portrayed with accurate context or reflected our perspective.”

“Sully” recalls Eastwood’s last drama, also a salute to an American hero. “American Sniper” (2014) is based on “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History,” written by Chris Kyle with two co-authors in 2012. “Sully” screenwriter Komarnicki draws on the 2009 autobiographical account “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters” by Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow, who helped Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her astronaut husband write “Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope.”

The structure of “Sully” is entirely Komarnicki’s. Three scenes revisit the flight itself. One starts with Sully buying a sandwich in La Guardia prior to take-off. Another shows the aftermath. Once safely ashore, he presses for a passenger count and waves off the mayor’s flacks attempting to stage a photo op. The plot largely spans that January day and a handful that follow, as Sully and Jeff attend NTSB hearings in New York City. (The real public hearings took place June 9-10 in Washington, D.C.)

We also see Sully imaging alternate outcomes for flight 1549– via a nightmare in his hotel room and a daylight vision that grips him as he gazes out the window of a high rise. There are no survivors in these tragic scenarios. Sully shrugs off post-traumatic counseling. He goes jogging around Manhattan.

Other plot elements are two flashbacks to turning points in Sully’s career– as a teenager and later as an Air Force pilot. He tapes an interview with NBC’s Katie Couric and turns up on NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman” with his flight crew. Komarnicki also places five calls between Sully and his wife in the storyline. Televisions playing breaking news are another recurring element. However, the dramatic crux of “Sully” arrives in the third act when the NTSB screens simulations of flight 1549. What alternate outcomes could have arisen after the bird strike?

Eastwood modulates tension when recreating the incident. Don’t brace for the impact of “Flight,” directed by Robert Zemeckis in 2012. Its fictional pilot appears before a NTSB board too. The real-life source of that script’s technical details, if not outcome, was Alaska Airlines flight 261 on January 31, 2000. No one survived its crash landing off the California coast. Nor does the Hudson River landing in “Sully” build the hold-on-to-your-seat suspense of the snowy Andes landing in “Alive,” Frank Marshall’s 1993 screen dramatization of the October 13, 1972 Chilean crash detailed in the book “Alive! The Story of the Andes Survivors.” Aviation film completists will note a fleeting scene of a B-17 landing on a Pacific shore in “Air Force,” directed by Howard Hawks in 1943.

On the outside, Sully is a consummate pro. His only request of the hotel manager is to dry-clean his uniform for his debriefing. On the inside, visibility is low. One sign he’s rattled: almost stepping into traffic on his first Manhattan jog after landing. Lifelong attention to detail surfaces when Sully interrupts a NTSB official: “It was not a crash.  We knew what we were doing. It was a forced water landing.” And, to be clear, he landed his A320 “on the Hudson” not “in the Hudson.”

According to NTSB transcripts of cockpit voice recordings, the real Sully said on that day: “we’re gonna be in the Hudson” and the La Guardia controller relayed to his supervisor: “I think he said he’s goin in the Hudson.” The film is true to one detail redacted from the official transcript: Sully says “birds,” which is followed by “[sound of thump/thud(s) followed by shuddering sound]” and then first officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) says “oh shit.” (NTSB transcribers uses “#” for “Expletive” and “@” for “Non-Pertinent word.”)
“Everything is `unprecedented’ until it happens for the first time,” points out Sully, annotating an NTSB official who used “unprecedented” to characterize flight 1549.

The audience foregrounded for most dramatic effect in “Sully” is the one at the public hearing to determine the cause of the accident. Everyone in that room already knows the actual outcome on January 15, 2009, just like everyone in audience at a “Sully” screening who remembers news reports or saw Warner Bros. Pictures’ trailers. Making their video premieres within the film are simulations streamed from the Airbus Training Center in Toulouse, France. A cockpit cam shows experienced pilots sitting in a flight simulator as they encounter identical parameters of engine damage, altitude, fuel level, wind speed, etc. in order to second-guess real-time decisions by their counterparts on the original flight.

“I don’t not like being in control of the process,” Sully tells his first officer.

The proceedings feel stacked against Sully and Jeff. In 20 computer simulations their aircraft reaches a runway for a safe landing. “Engineers are not pilots,” complains Sully. “They were not there.” He urges, “If you’re looking for human error, make it human.” Then the NTSB uses real pilots. They succeed in returning to La Guardia and a nearby New Jersey airport. But the board is forced to admit they had 17 practice runs.

“I cannot quite believe you still have not taken into account the human factor,” states Sully, as if pleading his case in open court. “These pilots were not behaving like human beings, like people who were experiencing this for the first time.” Since “there was no time for calculating,” he wants a new round of simulations. Adding a 35-second delay to the pilots’ response time will make their time frame more like what Sully and Jeff faced. The pilots now crash into city buildings before reaching airports.

The disaster is only virtual, of course, for both viewers inside the film watching a simulation on a video screen and those of us watching from the outside on the big screen.

At this point the “Sully” audience at the Chicago preview screening I attended did something atypical. Many applauded. Not to questionably cheer a catastrophe in Manhattan with hundreds of deaths. But to show solidarity with Sully.  An understatement of vindication. “Does anyone need to see any more simulations?” asks the NTSB chair.  Another round of applause. This audience also clapped when Sully earlier got confirmation that all 155 aboard were accounted for. I credit Eastwood, Komarnicki and Hanks for crafting such an impact at the multiplex.

“Sully” parlays the `this-is-like-a-movie’ trope discreetly. “This is so surreal,” muses Sully, taken aback by the media attention. “I guess I’m having a little trouble separating reality from whatever the hell this is.” When he gets an impromptu hug from a stranger, he’s at a loss: “What just happened?” Sully is spotted in a nearly empty bar. The TV is on. A clip of you-know-who is on the news. The bartender finds it all too “unreal” and has a comic epiphany: “Sully’s here and he’s there.” One of regulars chimes in: “He’s everywhere!”

Television can make an icon in less than a news cycle, and the internet can do so even sooner. “Sully, watch the news– you’re a hero,” explains Lorrie. “The whole world is talking about you.” “I don’t feel like a hero,” he insists, once again weighing a word choice. “I’m just a man doing a job.” Now retired as a pilot, he has a gig as CBS News Aviation and Safety Expert.

The echo style of lines passed between cockpit and tower– “Cactus 1549, runway 4, clear for takeoff”– repeats in later lines of dialogue. “We did our job,” Sully assures Jeff, who affirms, “We did our job.” “Tell me it’s almost over,” pleads Lorrie over the phone. Enough with the camera crews on the front yard. Sully obliges with, “It’s almost over.” Here the soundtrack parallels the visual mirroring via TV screens and NTSB videos.

“Sully” evolves into an inquest into the ineffable. Why flight 1549 lost thrust in both engines is no mystery but Sully’s inner calculus eludes investigators. They want more than: “I eyeballed it.” The chair concludes the hearing by thanking Sully: “Remove you from the equation and the math fails.”

Online truth-seekers go beyond the obvious. The Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry debunks the supernatural spin of “Miracle on the Hudson” on one site.  A paranoid one peddles “The Deep Semiotics of Flight 1549.”

Beneath the film’s surface lays a message. Komarnicki brings up a sentiment he heard from his former pastor from Belfast: “Never set sail to a fear, knowing that all seas are the seas of God and even if you sink, you sink only deeper into Him.” In an interview posted by Reel Faith the screenwriter observes: “This is a good news movie that reminds us there’s something deeply beautiful and unselfish within us as human beings that we can access through grace and sometimes by pure instinct of how we were made.”

Star Trek Beyond: career changes of small consequence

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on July 22, 2016

Star Trek Beyond
directed by Justin Lin
written by Simon Pegg & Doug Jung
based on “Star Trek” television series created by Gene Roddenberry
acted by John Cho, Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoë Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Sofia Boutella, Idris Elba
presented by Paramount Pictures and Skydance
rated PG-13 by MPAA for sequences of sci-fi action and violence. Violence: Characters are in peril in many scenes throughout this film, although little blood or other detail of violent acts are shown.
running time: 122 minutes

 

Star Trek films are of two sorts: TV-like episodes or cinema-scale epics. Even on a towering Imax screen, viewed from third row center, “Star Trek Beyond” felt small. Director Justin Lin, and writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, aim small. A routine narrative with thin characters, this lesser entry entertains only modest thoughts about the title’s “Beyond.” 

Big thoughts are a fixture in the franchise launched by Gene Roddenberry in 1966 as an NBC series. “Star Trek Beyond” is the 13th in an uneven succession of big screen features since 1979. Its philosophizing on virtuous vocations and galactic governance is cursory.

Once again, the five-year mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise is “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Originally intoned by William Shatner in the role of Captain James T. Kirk, that Starfleet mandate opened each television episode. “Star Trek Beyond” moves those lines to the film’s end. The first words– “Space, the final frontier”–  are voiced by a younger Kirk (Chris Pine). Assorted male and female crew members under his command recite the remainder, with “no one” replacing “no man.”    

“Today is our 966th day in deep space,” states Kirk near the start of “Star Trek Beyond,” his third turn captaining the U.S.S. Enterprise for producer J.J. Abrams. Morale is flagging. His log entry cites “prolonged co-habitation” as a contributing factor. He’s not seeing anyone himself. What does he see in the beyond? Is he less curious about the frontier? 

“The farther out we go, the more I find myself wondering what it is we’re trying to accomplish,” Kirk confides to his journal. “If the universe is truly endless, then are we not striving for something forever out of reach?” Doubts aside, he dutifully heads towards “an unstable nebula” out there in “uncharted space.” When he hails his crew, Kirk lifts a line from a 1966 television episode: “We have come to understand that there is no such thing as the unknown– be it temporarily hidden.” 

The plot is routine: ambush, shipwreck, escape, chase. Villain thwarted, civilians saved. Combat and chases unfold in loud blurs of shards. Which way is up is unclear because in space, there is no up. Maybe Lin needs Earth gravity to ground his action sequences. This was not an issue in his four turns steering “Fast and Furious,” a thoroughly terrestrial franchise where vehicles travel below warp speed. 

By luck the atmosphere, temperature and terrain of Vancouver and Dubai all support the shooting of exteriors light years from Earth. The characters, cast and crew never need helmets and suits, or off-planet per diems. The film’s visual highlights are two built environments with CGI enhancements: a primitive depopulated planet where a Federation vessel crashed a century or so ago, and an urbane Starbase with skyscrapers aimed every which way. Due to multi-vectorial artificial gravity, I figure.

Key cast members reprise roles from two past Star Trek films directed by J.J. Abrams: “Star Trek” (2009) and “Star Trek into Darkness” (2013). Besides Kirk, the roster includes commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), chief engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (Simon Pegg), Dr. “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin). Novel detail and nuance is scripted only for Spock and Kirk, the two ranked highest. They each get a speck of characterization tied to their respective fathers.

Career changes loom. On the anniversary of his father’s death aboard the U.S.S. Kelvin, Kirk waits to hear about a promotion to Vice Admiral. Spock weighs his own exit the Enterprise. Is it time to follow in his recently deceased father’s footsteps to New Vulcan? Their issues are small compared to what impels Krall (Idris Elba) to fire up the ultimate weapon– made then disarmed long ago by the Ancient Ones, in the best interests of the universe.

Krall is one seriously disgruntled seeker of redress. He once saw “a lot of off-world combat” as a Major in the United Earth Military Assault Command Operation, according to his file. “I’m a soldier,” he tells Kirk. “You gave us peace. Peace is not what I was born into.” He chafed in his new uniform when Starfleet made him captain of the U.S.S. Franklin. He could not abide the new order of galactic diplomacy. It borders on treason “to break bread with the enemy,” he seethes.

“This is where the frontier pushes back,” Krall threatens his former employer, the Federation. He debates Kirk about character-building and self-knowledge: “We knew pain. We knew terror. Struggle made us stronger… But without struggle you will never know who you truly are.” This quasi-Nietzschean diatribe gets muddled in a segue to Krall’s agenda: “To save you from yourselves.” An interstellar terrorist strike on a Starbase will teach the soft Federation a hard lesson in military realism or something.

As in the “Independence Day” franchise, wile is the weapon of the good and the just against overpowering odds. The same ploy is in play here. Take out the enemy’s command-and-control of its hive-like swarms of spacecraft to preserve the peace of the universe. Instead of uploading a virus, Kirk’s team broadcasts aggressive vintage rock by VHF to crash the “cyberpathic link” synchronizing Krall’s “bioweapon.”

Kirk speaks of politics in the known universe when he instructs Krall: “We change. We have to. Or we spend the rest of our lives fighting the same battles.” The former major could not make peace with his warrior within. Kirk and Spock likewise prove incapable of making their own career changes. They battle internally with duty, without collateral damage. Both decide to keep going boldly toward that final frontier.

Kirk was born on the day his father died. It’s never the right day to party. Yet this will be the day he elects to undertake another mission for “fun.” At a surprise celebration, Bones grouses about the prospect of encountering more “alien despots hellbent on killing us” and “incomprehensible cosmic anomalies that could wipe us out in an instant.” 

 “It’s going to be so much fun,” enthuses Kirk. If only “Star Trek Beyond” could make it so.

“Wiener-Dog”: a satiric dachsund encomium by Todd Solondz rated R for “some disturbing content”

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on July 16, 2016

“Wiener-Dog”
written and directed by Todd Solondz
acted by Julie Delpy, Tracy Letts, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn, Zosia Mame
produced by Annapurna Pictures and Killer Films
distributed by IFC Films and Amazon Studios
rated R by MPAA for language and some disturbing content
running time: 88 minutes
exhibited at The Music Box Theater, with Todd Solondz appearing at 7pm show on July 16th

 

The title canine passes through the lives of various owners in a mannered exercise of moralizing by writer/director Todd Solondz. “Wiener-Dog” is a thread of vignettes involving a dachshund in transit. She goes by various names. Her next to last owner, an elderly companion called Nana (Ellen Burstyn), names her Cancer.

In his press notes, Solondz synopsizes his effort as “a chronicle of the life of a dog and how this particular dog spreads comfort and joy to the people she meets, bringing meaning to their lives.” The dachshund indeed uplifts its human companions, who vary in their competence in caring for her and one another.

But Solondz omits his ironic style and spin from his line above. “Wiener-Dog” is a sentimental narrative of moral satire about mortality. Although Solondz (“Happiness” “Palindromes,” “Storytelling,” “Welcome to the Dollhouse”) mentions “Benji” and “Au Hasard Balthazar” as his “touchstones” here, I think he’s really working in the Renaissance genre of the animal encomium and later French satires that embroidered eulogies for dogs and other animal intimates– even our diseases.

The “wiener-dog,” as some owners and others call her, is not so much a character as an occasion for human characters to ask uncomfortable questions about life and death. The dog offers no consoling answers. She gets few close-ups and is not called upon for reaction shots. Unlike the Weimaraner and German shorthair pointer in the backseat of the Lincoln Navigator driven by Matthew McConaughey in the TV spot “Time to Eat.”

The film begins with someone dropping her off at an animal shelter. As opening credits in a mock-fancy typeface scroll by, she tries to figure out what she’s doing in a metal cage surrounded by the din of barking. This will be her longest one-shot.

Solondz soon places her in a home where a boy receiving leukemia treatment will pose the most profound questions. Next we see her in a car with Colorado plates heading to Ohio, the office and apartment of a screenwriter, a residential street, and ultimately an art gallery. Her role is always to help humans make their own sense of things.

A cynical, maybe sophomoric choice is later sampling “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy as counterpoint to the distressed barks the wiener-dog endured in the opening scene. Solondz’s most arch move is inserting a too-cute old-time intermission with corny titles. For an entra’-acte he includes a clever montage of a partly animated dachshund trotting by various backdrops around the country. The impossibly instantaneous changes in scenery recall surreal passages from Buster Keaton and Maya Deren films.

Last listed under “Thanks” in the end credits are “Little Hope, Big Hope, Vodka, Ruby and Rozie.” Could they be dachshunds playing the wiener-dog? Things may not have ended well for all of them, since there’s an anomalous qualification in the disclaimer: “American Humane Association monitored some of the animal action. No animals were harmed in those scenes.” Let’s not ask about unmonitored animal action in those other scenes. Also note the absence of a disclaimer that no dogs died in the making of this motion picture.

“Wiener-Dog” is a weirdly touching memorial with caustic inflections. (Spoiler: the Classification and Rating Administration of the Motion Picture Association of America indicates there is “some disturbing content” so “Wiener-Dog” is rated “R” for “Restricted.”)

Busters of Ghosts for Accompanying Popcorn and Air Conditioning

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on July 15, 2016

“Ghostbusters Answer the Call”
directed by Paul Feig
written by Katie Dippold & Paul Feig
characters by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis
acted by Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Chris Hemsworth, Cecily Strong, Neil Casey, Andy Garcia, Matt Walsh, Nate Corddry
released by Columbia Pictures
rated PG-13 for supernatural action and some crude humor
running time: 117 minutes

 

How does the “Ghostbusters” of 2016 differ from the “Ghostbusters” of 1984? Motives are added. Two busters of ghosts get a backstory this time. Also imbued with motivation– the disgruntled liberator of said ghosts. Once again, New York City is at risk and a tech-savvy foursome will thwart evil entering en masse through a spooky portal– just like the latest installment of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

“Ghostbusters Answer the Call” employs a new cohort of Saturday Night Live comics– Melissa McCarthy (a four-time guest host appearing in 28 sketches), Leslie Jones, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong– to replace selected male predecessors from that NBC series. Directing the mouthy McCarthy for the fourth time, Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids,” “The Heat, “Spy”) here reigns her in as team leader Abby, co-author of “Ghosts from the Past, Both Literally and Figuratively: A Study of the Paranormal.”

Abby’s estranged high school pal Erin (Kristen Wiig)– up for tenure at Columbia University– vainly denies that’s her byline and headshot on the jacket. To refute her lie that she only co-authored that 460-pager as a joke, the tenure committee chairman reads her the first sentence: “This is not a joke.” Erin’s career as a physicist is unplugged. Swapping out Ivy League tweeds for an accessorized MTA jumpsuit, Wiig wields her signature sly lines with downward averted glances to deliver a nuanced paranormal researcher.

SNL’s Kate McKinnon plays Jillian Holtzmann. This is the most out-of-the-box one in this “fully rebooted for a new generation” film– to pile on overworked cliches. She is a handy engineer in experimental particle physics. She signed on as Abby’s lab sidekick while Erin was off seeking tenure. I wish the true weirdness of Jillian’s lines came through. Several of her off-centered shots feel too short to register her originality.

Leslie Jones, another SNL cast member, plays Patty, the non-physicist in the chromosomally XX-quartet. She relocates from her subway booth at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to the Ghostbusters office above a Chinese restaurant. She brings to the game her historical knowledge of New York City– “I read a lot of nonfiction”– whenever the script calls for local exposition. Although “Ghostbusters Answer the Call” recycles a peek at the iconic Alma Mater sculpture on Columbia University campus, Feig shoots in Boston and its environs. For the original film, only exteriors were lensed in New York City, including Hook & Ladder 8 fire station on N. Moore St.

Over-rated by nostalgists, the 1984 “Ghostbusters” directed by Ivan Reitman was co-scripted by SNL vet Dan Aykroyd and the late Harold Ramis. Ackroyd and Reitman are among the 13 producers of the 2016 film. Nowadays Ackroyd is diversifying as a peddler of peddle wine, vodka and tequila spirits. “For Harold Ramis” appears on the screen at the end of this slightly better remake co-scripted by Feig and Katie Dippold.

The first “Ghostbusters” had unclever nonsense like “The possibilities are unlimitless,” a line delivered by Ackroyd’s character Ray. “Ghostbusters Answer the Call” starts smart with a tour guide (Zach Woods) at an historic mansion “featuring every luxury, including a face bidet and an anti-Irish security fence.” Another tidbit: “It’s said in this very room P.T. Barnum first had the idea to enslave elephants. Follow me.”

For physics input on props, Feig’s crew called on a Massachusetts Institute of Technology post-doc in the Laboratory for Nuclear Science linked to the Hadronic Physics Group that specializes in electroweak interactions and non-perturbative quantum chromodynamics. Not that any dialogue quotes any real physicists or metaphysicists. Ley lines– the topic of those notebooks stacked on the kitchen table in “Midnight Special”– do make an appearance in the plot.

A trope from horror films is introduced then dropped. Satanic verses and icons in a daytime(?) heavy metal concert apparently(?), accidentally(?) cue supernatural incursions of ghosts from the other side. The Ghostbusters are called but no comic commentary ensues. Daniel Ramis, a son of Harold, is credited in this scene as “Metal Head.”

“So how did y’all get into ghosts?” Patty asks Abby and Erin. Feig and Dippold designate this fourth ghostbuster on the squad as a conduit for backstory. Erin explains: “When I was eight-years-old the mean old lady who lived next door died.” Her ghost stood at the foot of her bed “for almost a year.” Years of therapy followed. Mean classmates heard about it and mocked her as the “Ghost Girl.” Abby transferred their junior year. She alone believed Erin.

“So now we’re the Ghost Girls?” Patty says, after seeing their efforts mocked by a TV newscaster. “I feel your pain, Erin.”

Their nemesis– let’s call him Ghost Boy– is Rowan (Neil Casey), a crazed advocate of the Fourth Cataclysm. This embittered janitor hides his evil super-technology underneath the hotel where he fixes toilets and unnerves guests. Rowan’s psychic wounds evoke Erin’s, to a degree. Into a mirror, he soliloquizes: “You have been bullied your entire life. Now you will be the bully… And the universe shall bend before your will.” He schemes to open a portal to unleash millions of disgruntled ghosts into New York City.

A climactic CGI set piece of ghosts versus busters ensues. Note the out-of-place shots of “War is Over” signs in the background. Feig stages a spectral Thanksgiving parade of ominous balloon characters, including a leggy Uncle Sam. Is he repurposing the chaotic parade of unconscious manifestations in Satoshi Kon’s animated “Paprika” from 2007? Spoiler: busters win, ghosts lose, city saved. But is there validation by the mean disbelievers?

Turn on the television. “The big question is: Was it the four women who refer to themselves as Ghostbusters who actually thwarted the attack?” wonders a newscaster. “We may never know.” One of the four watches and shares this with her sister Ghostbusters: “Well, we know how Batman feels.”

So do Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of The Shadows,” directed by Dave Green and released on June 3rd. “Let’s just say we’re four brothers from New York who hate bullies and love this city,” one declares after rescuing the city with no recognition, as usual in this franchise. At the end a TV newscaster offers a wrap-up: “However, questions remain about last week’s events. What was that threat from the sky and how exactly was it averted? But the bigger question is: Does it even matter?”

Yes it sure does, answers “Ghostbusters Answer the Call.” New York City’s skyline shines with affirmative messages of thanks spelled out in lighted windows. The intrepid foursome seek gratitude and get it. The Mayor (Andy Garcia) and Homeland Security cheer. Research funding pours in.

As mid-summer mainstream entertainment, “Ghostbusters Answer the Call” affords two hours of air-conditioning. A July 28, 1919 Tribune ad for a Balaban & Katz movie palace touted: “Our Freezing Plant Removes the Temper from Temperature.” Intemperate describes a plethora of fanboy posts attacking female casting in Feig’s remake. The bizarre flaming began so long ago Feig could work it into the finished film. One ghostbuster reads aloud this post on their site: “Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts.”

Sociological curiosity about this sideshow of flames, counter-flames, and threads of fretting over the same are insufficient reason to see “Ghostbusters Answer the Call.” Nor are cameos by Ernie Hudson, Bill Murray, Ozzy Osbourne, Annie Potts and Sigourney Weaver from 1984. But the 2016 version is more than adequate to accompany your tub of popcorn and wafting Siberian Zephyrs.

A second spoiler. Should you decide not to sit through all of the end credits, here’s the very last line: “What’s Zul?” Summer fare such as “Transformers” and “Independence Day” always teases more threats out there to come. Nothing to see here, not this time, for you seekers of subtexts about extra-judicial detection, confinement or liquidation of supernatural trespassers, interdimensional interlopers, alien invaders, immigrants or terrorists.

“De Palma” is sanguine ciné self-surgery

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on June 29, 2016

“De Palma”
directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow
running time: 111 minutes

 

Director Brian De Palma tells his story, film by film, in “De Palma.” Co-directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, this appealing documentary delivers a lengthy memoir illustrated with clips from 31 works by the 75-year-old auteur. From his 1960 short “Woton’s Wake” to 2012’s “Passion.”

Twenty-five other films are sampled, as well. The insightful editing sets up lineages of images.

Most of the auteur’s making-of anecdotes focus on “Blow Out,” “Body Double,” “Carlito’s Way,” “Carrie, “Dressed to Kill,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Scarface,” “Sisters” and “The Untouchables.” De Palma indulges in little whining about his setbacks and boasting about his hits. Setting-the-record straight and settling scores are done In a good-natured way. Gossip about his own missteps makes for good stories.

De Palma’s admiring chroniclers ably condense over 30 hours shot in 2010. During the one week shoot, De Palma’s outfit and backdrop stay the same. Paltrow has said it all started as a digital camera test in his apartment, with Baumbach handling the sound. “De Palma” reprises material from many Thursday night dinners the threesome shared over the years.

“We always saw the film as a conversation with our friend … who also happens to be Brian De Palma” (ellipsis in original), says Baumbach in press notes from distributor A24. For their first non-fiction effort, Baumbach (“Frances Ha,” “Greenberg,” “Kicking and Screaming,” “Mistress America,” “The Squid and the Whale”) and Paltrow (“The Good Night” and “Young Ones”) offer far more than a feature-length extra for a retrospective Blu-ray box set.

Baumbach defensively notes: “The film is not a work of investigative journalism. Our interest was to take Brian at his word– the film is structured to his words.” Besides not recording their own off-camera voices, the directors bring no other words into their film by interviewing critics, historians or industry insiders.

Nor do Baumbach and Paltrow look through old newspapers for items like “Ideas For First Film Promising,” a review by B.P. that ran in the Barnard Bulletin on April 27, 1961: “Mr. DePalma himself admits that since he as not yet learned to control camera techniques, the sequence of images may become confusing unless the symbols and plot are understood beforehand…. `Icarus’ is not to be missed. If only today, ten years hence– `Why I saw his very first picture.’”

Seven years later De Palma made “Greetings” with Robert De Niro in the cast. The young director was a guest on the February 26, 1969 episode of “Critique,” a WNET program airing in the same time slot as “What’s My Line?” Too bad it’s not excerpted in “De Palma.”

Also appearing that night was Stanley Kauffmann. Three years earlier, this film critic at The New Republic noted “the rise of the Film Generation.” He described its sensibility as a mix of “somewhat nostalgic revolution” and “an insistence on an amorphous cosmos.” He heralded the cinema scene as “the most cheering circumstance in contemporary American art.”

“I never considered myself an artist,” De Palma told Joseph Gelmis in his collection of interviews titled “The Film Director as Superstar” published in 1970. “I was going to be a physicist.” His high school science fair projects included “An Analog Computer to Solve Differential Equations” and “Critical Study of Hydrogen Quantum Mechanics Through Cybernetics.”

De Palma’s father Anthony, an orthopedic surgeon, let him see what he did at work. “I did grow up in an operating room,” says De Palma. “I used to go to the hospital and watch him operate. You cannot imagine how much blood is flying around in an operating room.” Never mind what hospital protocols were back in 1950s Philadelphia, let alone best practices regarding child endangerment by exposure to amputations and other sights.

The filmmaker traces his taste for bloody mise-en-scene to these experiences. As for authority figure issues in his fictive dramas, he acknowledges his father played a role there too. Dr. De Palma was often out-of-town at conferences delivering papers like “Slipping of the Femoral Epiphysis” and “The Present Day Status of the Fracture of the Hip Joint.” Or writing medical books, or trysting with his lover. As a teen, De Palma tracked his dad to an apartment and accosted the woman hiding in a closet. That too ended up on screen.

Unprodded?– there’s no way of knowing what prompting the off-microphone filmmakers did– De Palma links more of his past to motifs in his oeuvre. One of his brothers sounds like a stand-in for out-of-sorts characters in his plots:

“You see the character’s helplessness to stop this, this madness going on. I lived in a family full of these incredible egotists who seemed to be very insensitive about the kind of damage they were doing to each other. And my middle brother is very sensitive I didn’t feel he was powerful enough to stand up to these forces. I used to protect him all the time. He doesn’t have the kind of combativeness that I have.” –De Palma in “De Palma”

On feminist grounds certain reviewers objected to gender trending in De Palma’s choice of helpless characters. Film critic Pauline Kael was in his corner. Her combative style in The New Yorker provoked ruckus of among her more serious readers, just as his own style– at times rated “X”– upset viewers.

”It never sort of bothered me when they didn’t like the movies because they were, you know, seemingly unkind to women or too violent or. I just felt to me it always seemed like the right thing to do for the material. You know, the fact that Pauline liked me made people argue about me constantly.” – De Palma in “De Palma”

Doing the right thing “for the material” begs the question of why he chose to direct films like that in the first place. “If I’m going to put somebody in a dangerous situation I’d rather be following around a girl than a guy,” De Palma reasons. “It’s part of the genre.” After shooting “Redacted” (2007) he says he interceded to protect Zahra Kareem Alzubaidi, a young Iraqi woman playing a 14-year-old raped by U.S. soldiers: “Rather than leave her there with a very uncertain future… I brought her over here and put her in school so she can pursue her dream whatever it is.”

In 1970 Gelmis asked De Palma about his influences. The filmmaker answered: “Godard’s a terrific influence, of course. If I could be the American Godard, that would be great.” That infatuation faded. Alfred Hitchcock took his place. De Palma styles himself as his torchbearer from the Film Generation.

“I’ve never found too many people that followed after the Hitchcock school except for me… Here’s a guy who developed the most incredible visual story-telling vocabulary and it’s sort of going to die with him and I was like the one practitioner that took up the things that he’d pioneered and built them into different forms in a stye that I was evolving.” –De Palma in “De Palma”

De Palma likes “Hitchcock linguistics,” to use the metaphor of nameless interviewer “Q” in A24’s “Q&A.” Seeing “Vertigo” 1958 was pivotal for De Palma.

“It left an incredible impression upon me. What’s so compelling about `Vertigo’ is he’s making a movie about what a director does, which is basically create these romantic illusions and makes you fall in love with it and then kills it, twice. And it’s what we do as directors. We create these beautiful women, these exciting virile men, we get audiences involved in their stories and emotionally attached to them. And Hitchcock made a movie, which is, you know. It’s so Brechtian. It’s showing what we’re doing as we’re doing it.” – De Palma in “De Palma”

De Palma’s 1976 Hitchcock homage “Obsession” drew mixed notices. Rex Reed raved in the New York Daily News: “Like Hitchcock at the top of his form.” Vincent Canby’s New York Times review dismissed any likeness: “To be blunt, `Obsession’ is not `Vertigo.’” In The New Republic, Kauffmann trashed “Obsession,” that De Palma co-scripted with Paul Schrader, as “garbage of a special stench.”

“De Palma” is not as fragrantly “Brechtian” as “Vertigo” but Baumbach and Paltrow are compelling without killing off our illusions. De Palma’s cinema survives this exploratory surgery.

The unwed versus the undead: “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on February 7, 2016

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
written and directed by Burr Steers
based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel based on Jane Austen’s novel
acted by Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Lena Headey

 

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”– the premise alone amused me for many of this film’s first 107 minutes. Writer-director Burt Steers displays a winning regard for both an English novel and the zombie trope. A Venn diagram of their respective fan bases would show little overlap until now.

Packaged as a “reimagining of” Jane Austen’s 1813 novel “Pride and Prejudice,” Steers’ slight film adapts the 2009 parody “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” For that mash-up of landed gentry and the rabble of “unmentionables,” Seth Grahame-Smith shared his byline with Austen. His other efforts include “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters,” “Android Karenina” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer.”

The impecunious parents of the five Bennet sisters seek marital prospects of means. Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) is the eldest of the lethal siblings, all of whom acquired zombie-slaying marital arts skills in China, not to mention training in musketry. Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) is indeed pecunious, though initially off-putting to Elizabeth, with his haughty airs and thoroughly 19th-century sexism.

That Darcy– “Darcy, Colonel Darcy,” as he insists when introduced to Elizabeth– trained under masters in Japan, versus China, indicates this gentleman’s higher class standing. Elizabeth shows off her skills by vanquishing a ninja on duty at the estate of his fierce eye-patched sister, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey). Grahame-Smith relates Elizabeth extracting his bloody heart with her bare hand and taking a nibble: “`Curious,’ said Elizabeth, still chewing. `I have tasted many a heart, but I dare say, I find the Japanese ones a bit tender.’” Hardy foreplay between Ms. Bennet and Mr. Darcy will entail sparring in their respective Oriental fight styles.

A traditional romantic plot of their courtship alternates with scenes of kick-ass swordplay. There are zombies to decapitate and insurgents to thwart. Steers, however, cannot pull off a viable hybrid. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” wobbles like two earlier chimeras of screen genres: “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011) and “Wild Wild West” (1999).

But may we go back to that attempted coup by rotting corpses, if you please? “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains” is the film’s opening line, a twist on Austen’s first sentence.

Many years into England’s “mysterious plague”– 70 in the film, 55 in the book– a sub-population of undead “dreadfuls” emerges. If upon infection they are fed the brains of pigs instead of gobs of grey matter they would otherwise scoop from the cracked open skulls of their countrymen and countrywomen, their rot is arrested and they do not become full-blown zombies. Their dispositions are nearly reasonable. They attend a church of their own. Déclassé, yes. Mindless biters, not so much.

“These new zombies can be reasoned with,” pleads an appeaser who preaches tolerance of this demonized minority. “Before we know it they’ll be running for parliament,” frets one Englishman. “It’s only a matter to time before they outnumber us,” notes another in the at-risk class of the living.

Steers skips a few choice details from Grahame-Smith’s novel: enterprising huntsmen set traps baited with cauliflower heads that zombies mistake for human brains, and then sell their catch for pieces of silver. Municipal facilities burn these iron-caged unfortunates around the clock.

I quite like the looming civil war in the last reel. An underclass of the undead versus the over-privileged living. An upsurge of the repressed colonial Other is the subtext. The film’s intro offers a tidbit of backstory: it is vilely rumored that the pandemic originated in France. That theory is hinted in the graphics for the film’s trailer and poster: in the title “and” is twice replaced with French cruciform plus (+) signs fashioned on la croix pattée.

Class was an all-consuming preoccupation in Austen’s world. In his 1833 book “England and the English,” Edward Lytton Bulwer wrote: “By this intermixture of the highest aristocracy with the more subaltern ranks of society, there are far finer and more numerous grades of dignity in this country than in any other.” Austen’s attention to social rank was lauded in 1948 by Cornell University prof David Daiches: “she is the most realistic novelist of her age, and the only English novelist of stature who was in a sense a Marxist before Marx.”

Irreversible downward mobility is the fate of the highborn– once infected by a zombie. And the pandemic facilitates a kind of upward move for the deceased of all classes, regardless of the cemetery where they are supposed to spend eternity. All of the interred rise again, “de-graved” for a change of station in life.

The Motion Picture Association of America rated “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” PG-13 for “zombie violence and action, and brief suggestive material.” I doubt the raters suspect it is socialist or post-colonialist issues that this film is `suggesting.’

Teasing is what I’d call the film’s finale. In earlier bits of “zombie violence and action” the lunging camera delivers shock shots of wide-eyed, open-mouthed biters and those about-to-get-their-brains-eaten. One zombie gets a pre-decapitated point-of-view shot. Steers ends with close-ups of the dumbfounded faces of Elizabeth, Darcy and their wedding party. He comically prolongs the payoff of a reverse shot. At last we behold the onrush of unwelcome guests indecently interrupting the nuptials.

“Put the mask on now!”

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on January 10, 2016

The Mask

produced and directed by Julian Roffman
written by Frank Taubes, Sandy Haber, Franklin Delessert
shot by Herbert S. Alpert
scored by Louis Applebaum and Myron Schaeffer, with Electro Magic Sound performed, in part, on a Hamograph
acted by Paul Stevens, Claudette Nevins, Bill Walker, Anne Collings, Martin Lavut, Leo Leyden
running time: 83 minutes
screens with: Kelley’s Plasticon Pictures (1922, 8 minutes)
cardboard red/green anaglyphic “masks” provided for three 3-D sequences.
Bob Furmanek, founder of the 3-D Film Archive, appears at both screenings on January 10 at 3pm and 12 at 6pm at the Gene Siskel Film Center

 

Canadian director Julian Roffman creates a horror film about the perils of peering into the primordial male sub-subconscious in “The Mask.” The 3-D gimmick of this 1961 curiosity is how it cleverly interpolates the audience into the screen mind of a psychiatrist who dons the 3,000-year-old mask.

Shot in Toronto, “The Mask” was restored by the 3-D Film Archive in New York, and re-released this fall at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. For a U.S. re-release back in 1971 it was titled “Eyes of Hell.”

“You will see things never before seen on any screen,” publicist Jim Moran cautions us in the opening square-up. Posing with the jewel-encrusted prop, he continues: “You in this theater are especially privileged to join in seeing the terrifying sights that can only be seen through the mask… Each of you has been given a mask. When you see the mask put on in the picture, you put yours on too.”

The first horror feature made in Canada, “The Mask” not only invites us to participate in an “ancient ritual so unearthly, so terrifying it has been wiped out of the memory of man,” this black-and-white work evokes our primal encounter with cinema itself. “The greatest thrill since you first saw a picture move!” ballyhoos a poster from 1961.

Roffman (also going by Hoffman) starts his psycho-horror tale at night in the woods. A woman screams. Her killer awakes the next morning with three scratches on his face. He’s Michael Radin (Martin Lavut). “It’s like a nightmare,” he yells at his psychiatrist, Dr. Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens). “Can’t you understand this is not just another case of neurosis or psychosis? This is a living nightmare.”

Before taking his own life in his rented room, Michael mails the “cursed” mask to Allan’s office. Lieutenant Martin (Bill Walker) is on the case. Doctor Soames (Leo Leyden) at the Museum of Ancient History informs him that his late employee was “a brilliant archaeologist” who was studying this “great archaeological find” after hours.

Roffman reportedly asked the National Institute of Health for a psychiatrist for background. In a 1991 interview in Filmfax magagazine, the director claimed: “In South America and in Africa, the witch doctors rub peyote inside the mask and the heat from their face releases the drug. They go into a tantrum, they have their own visions. So we knew the mask could do this. I researched masks and I found a South American Indian Mask that the tribes had used.”

Allan reads the letter Michael included in the box with the museum’s mask: “Once I was a scholar. Now I am like an animal, fleeing from my own nightmares… Are you certain that just underneath the surface of your own mind there does not lurk a storm and fury waiting–  waiting to be released? Are you willing to make the experiment, doctor? You hold the key in your own hand. If you are not afraid, put the mask on now. Put the mask on now! Put the mask on now!! Put the mask on now!!!”

That’s your cue to put on your anaglyphic red/green mask too. “Look through your mask…If you can’t take it…Take it off!” instructs that same poster. This will be the first of three weird 3-D visits to a netherworld of deliriously unclear coordinates.

We see the archaeologist with sunken eyes. He dwells like a ghoul in a zone with much dry ice. Men in masks and robes place women atop sacrificial altars. Funhouse shots startle: eyeballs hurl into the theater, snakes lunge out of eye sockets of skulls, disarmed hands grasp, and fireballs discharge from the palms of officiants.

If this is the point of view of the psychiatrist, what is his late patient doing in the psychiatrist’s subconscious? Or are we experiencing replays of Michael’s memories now embedded in the mask? The camera lens never simulates the eyes of the character wearing the mask and looking through its eye openings. Instead, the mask operates more like Roffman’s camera: it lets us watch a 3D-movie in the 2D-movie. But we never become two-eyed witnesses to the weirdness, nor do we reenact misogynist, murderous impulses as first-person stranglers.

How the mask works mystifies the characters as much as must have the screenwriters. Wearing it is addictive, according to one diagnosis. “The legend states that the mask can hypnotize a man, and bring out the evil in him; bring it out and magnify it,” reports the Lieutenant.

“There’s much to be learned here,” insists Allan, in between his 3-D trips at the beckoning of the mask’s reverb voice. “Man’s most secret mind. Of a world that exists even deeper than the subconscious… The hope of man to know what his mind really is. What he really thinks.” Killing women is what men really, really want to do, reveals “The Mask.” Under the mask’s influence, Allan almost strangles his secretary one night.

“I hold out the knowledge of the universe and you– you spit on it,” Allan rebukes his fiancee Pam Albright (Claudette Nevins) after she resists trying on the mask herself. “Get out of my way.” Then he forces her to put it on. She reports no effect. “The Mask” here implies she lacks a subconscious, or the 3,000 year-old rite admits women only for sacrificial use.

“The Mask” tracks with post-war noir and horror that’s typically disquieted by mind control and the chaos inside our skulls. View at your own risk, per a disclaimer on the 1961 poster: “The management is not responsible for nervous breakdowns!”

A remake to repay the planet: “Point Break” goes eco-extreme

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on December 27, 2015

Point Break
directed and shot by Ericson Core
written by Kurt Wimmer
acted by Luke Bracey, Edgar Ramirez, Delroy Lindo, Ray Winstone, Teresa Palmer
running time: 114 minutes

 

FBI undercover rookie embeds in a cell of eco-spiritual sports extremists. Big stunts and green propaganda ensue in the new “Point Break.” Mystifying death wishes honor Mother Earth.

Ericson Core is both director and director of photography in this watchable remake of “Point Break” by Kathyrn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Strange Days”). The 1991 original starred Keanu Reeves as a quarterback-turned-FBI agent who hangs with bank-robbing surfers lead by sage-in-a-wetsuit Patrick Swayze.

This “re-imagined story,” as the press notes spin Core’s effort, suffers from uneven casting. Edgar Ramirez (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Liberator,” “Carlos”) is an inspired choice for Bodhi in the Swayze role. Luke Bracey, on the other hand, is a lackluster Johnny Utah, the Reeves character. He’s made over as an ex-extreme sports dude. His YouTube videos earlier tagged him as Utah. That’s what everyone calls him now.

The 1991 and 2015 films are set up with the same supporting roles. Utah is handled by a boss (Delroy Lindo) in the bureau’s office and an older partner (Ray Winstone in Gary Busey’s role) out in the field. His love interest Samsara (Teresa Palmer) gets less screen time than her 1991 counterpart. This time her parents perish in an avalanche, not a car wreck. Both films climax with a showdown between Utah, Bodhi and a mighty big wave.

Screenwriter Kurt Wimmer adds no insight into how Utah juggles badge and thrills. Bigelow lent more focus on that clash. Wimmer wrote and directed “Equilibrium,” a 2002 thriller set in a grey near-future when emotion is outlawed. A law enforcer (Christian Bale) is compromised by values espoused by suspects he chases, much like Utah is.

What’s intriguing now are the choices to expand W. Peter Iliff’s original screenplay. Wimmer multiplies the sports besides surfing and skydiving, and increases locations beyond the original’s California coast with an Australian coda. This time the crimes are more audacious. Bodhi’s motives transcend thrill-for-thrill’s sake.

Bodhi’s band in the 1991 film hit “thirty banks in three years.” Johnny detected a pattern in sync with the local surf season. A “`Point Break’ effect” turns up in a study published last April in Criminal Justice Studies. Its authors correlated 16,075 police incident reports and daily surf conditions posted online for two beaches in Ventura, California– just up the coast from where the 1991 film was set and partly shot. Using panel negative binomial models, the criminologists posit “micro-geographic” dynamics could aid “predictive policing.” Their statistics do not tally bank jobs as a sub-category, however.

The 2015 Bodhi (Ramirez) diversifies his theater of operations with international targets. His crew hits a diamond sorting facility, makes off with “10 million carats,” and “then gave it all away to the poorest of the poor in the slums of Mumbai.” They hide in the hold of a freight plane, attach parachutes to loads of U.S. currency, push them out the cargo door, and shower the Mexican countryside with cash. They torch a lumber operation on the Congo River. They trigger rock slides on French mountain road to bury a convoy of mining trucks bearing “a 100 million in gold bullion.”

They only rob a bank when the FBI somehow freezes the assets of  super-rich Pascal Al Fariq (Nikolai Kinski, who played Karl Lagerfeld in “Yves Saint Laurent” last year), the European sponsor of Bodhi’s extreme sports activity in exotic locales. The 1991 loot was needed to underwrite international travel to primo surf spots during Venice Beach’s off-season.

“I need a theory,” pleads Utah’s superior (Lindo) in the 2015 film. “What kind of people are we dealing with here?” Utah (Bracey) has one: Bodhi’s extreme stunts coincide with his covert anti-corporate actions. He figures Bodhi and his crew are following the path of the late “eco-warrior” Ono Ozaki who died trying to defend whales from a Norwegian whaling ship.

“One of the first recognized extreme poly athletes, [Ozaki] challenged the extreme sports world to a series of eight ordeals that he said honored the forces of nature,” continues Utah. Bodhi sees each opportunity in nature to attempt one of his death-defying feats as a “gift” from Earth. And “to balance out that gift” he and his comrades “give back something that was taken from the Earth” by the greed of others. Thus, the gold and the diamonds are their “offerings.” Eco-mumbo-jumbo it may be, but give Wimmer some carbon credits for tapping into a Gaia-globalization-GPS-GoPro zeitgeist.

“The film is replete with the most daring athleticism ever seen in a motion picture,” hypes the press kit that names 35 big wave surfers,  sheer-face snowboarders, high-speed motocross riders, wing suit  flyers, free rock climbers, and Ironman triathletes who contribute to “Point Break” on camera or as consultants. To list crews in 11 countries, the end credits run 16 minutes.

Alcon Entertainment, the remakers of “Point Break,” is preparing a sequel to “Blade Runner.” The Hollywood Reporter, Variety and Australian newspapers tracked the making of the second “Point Break”: a “sequel” to the first film, to be set in Southeast Asia with Swayze, was announced in May 2007; one year later Jan de Bont was supposed to direct it in Singapore and nearby locations; in September 2009 he exited “Point Break 2,” replaced by the future director of “Kick-Ass 2”; five years later action star Gerard Butler “pulled out of the hotly-anticipated Point Break remake.”

A troubled production trajectory might have dented the new “Point Break” with more than lapses in dialogue. Larger faults date back to the original.

I admit it’s trivial to point out that on the remake’s December 25, 2015 release date, the only Mumbai building with 100 floors or more is the unfinished residential World One. And as scripted or delivered, I think that “100 million uncut diamonds” would far exceed “the entire month’s yield from the company’s mines.”

Nor does this disconnect between a line of dialogue and a line in the press notes really matter in the 2015 film: after quitting extreme sports, Utah earns his GED, goes to college, and graduates from law school– all within three years. His character in the 1991 film somehow goes to “law school” on a “football scholarship.” He finds Bodhi’s “passports to Sumatra.”

A serious flaw in the first film is how the protagonist was conceived and cast. A two-act parody titled “Point Break Live!” staged by New Rock Theater in Los Angeles made that point cleverly. Variety reported in June 2008: “the Keanu Reeves character, Johnny Utah, is cast from the audience at every show, in an effort to reproduce Reeves’ peculiar opaqueness. The chosen actor is provided all of his or her lines via cue cards.”

What’s Utah doing in the plot on screen? He’s there to moralize about two callings at odds: as a seeker of peak moments facing great risks in sublime nature, versus a public servant upholding laws. Both paths lead to self-sacrifice, one cooler than the other. “The only law that matters is gravity,” divulges Bodhi, as he steps off a precipice and disappears in a thundering cascade. (He only gives that catchy line in the trailer.) Utah the lawman leaps in pursuit. Bodhi earlier reveals he knew Utah was secretly gathering evidence against him. “Then why’d you let me in?” asks Utah. “Because I thought I could save you,” answers Bodhi.

The 1991 film and the 2015 film both have scenes where Johnny Utah empties his gun by firing in the air instead of at Bodhi. He lets him get away and lies about it to the FBI. And at the end of both films, he lets Bodhi surf a towering wave that’s sure to drown him. A shot or two later Kathryn Bigelow shows Johnny tossing his FBI badge into the waves on an Australian beach. By contrast, Core has him accept his new “fast-tracked” badge on a river bank, below the Angel Falls in Venezuela.

Can either “Point Break” speak to its time? In 2011 Michael DeLuca advised the Hollywood Reporter: “`Point Break’ wasn’t just a film, it was a Zen meditation on testosterone-fueled action and manhood in the late 20th century and we hope to create the same for the young 21st!” He is not listed now among the 16 or so producers of the remake.

Andrew Kosove is one of those producers. At a press roundtable he commented on the times in which each film was made. He pointed out the first film was preceded by “12 years of Republican administrations and Ronald Reagan and Wall Street Go-Go 80’s.” “Twenty-five years later, we’ve experienced a level of wealth consolidation, globalization, and corporate power across lines and countries that were inconceivable in 1991.”

Kosove over-reaches to claim relevance for this entertainment property. A clue to the dubious coherence of the script, if not the marketing, is another line in the trailer that’s not in the film: Utah alerts his colleagues that Bodhi aims “to disrupt the international financial markets.” Good luck finding any hint of that agenda in the film itself.

Utah spells out Ozaki’s formula to the bureau: “Anyone who could find the perfect line existing through each one of these [eight] ordeals, he believed, would achieve nirvana.” Bodhi later corrects Utah’s read on his distinctive quest: “We’re not here to reach enlightenment, to find nirvana. We’re here to try to save this place by becoming one with it. And to do that you need to be able to let go of your sense of self, completely.”

Make an offering of your very being. Recurring dialogue quasi-ecstatically equates “perfect” and “beauty” and “death.” A Nietzsche-adrenalized martyr to Mother Earth, Bodhi exits “Point Break” rhapsodizing: “Isn’t death beautiful?”

Unseriously, take my city: “Chi-Raq”

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on December 13, 2015

Chi-Raq
directed by Spike Lee
written by Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott
scored by Terence Blanchard
acted by Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix, D.B. Sweeney
presented by Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions
running time: 127 minutes

 

Turn yourself in if you shoot a child in Chicago and no one on the street tells the police what they saw. That’s the takeaway from “Chi-Raq,” Spike Lee’s misfiring R-rated 124-minute public service announcement. “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY” pulses a red letter alert on a black background.

You might decide his first shot-in-Chicago film also shows us: satire doesn’t heal a city, citizens do. Lee’s scattershot directing and character-building fail to realize his urban sociologizing and black-on-black scolding.

“Chi-Raq” opens with a promising rap number titled “Pray 4 My City” performed and co-penned by Nick Cannon. Lyrics appear on the screen, less like subtitles, more like a sing-a-long: “Please Pray For My City… Too Much Hate In My City… Dey Die Every Day In My City… And Y’all Mad Cuz I Don’t Call It Chicago. But I Don’t Live In No Fuckin’ Chicago. Boy, I Live In Chi-Raq.”

After gunfire erupts at Da End Up club on North Milwaukee Avenue where her rapper boyfriend Demetrius “Chi-Raq” Dupree (Nick Cannon from NBC’s “Caught on Camera with Nick Cannon”) is on stage taunting and threatening enemies. After his gang rival Cyclops (Wesley Snipes wearing an eyepatch) torches the apartment where she is making love to Chi-Raq later that night. And after an 11-year-old girl is shot in a gang drive-by. That is when Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) decides to do something.

Lysistrata’s book-loving flatscreen-lacking neighbor, Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), tells her to Google Leymah Gbowee, the leader of Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace who shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for ending a civil war in her country. Here Lee inserts a clip from “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” a documentary by Abigail E. Disney and Gini Reticker. One tactic some women tried was stopping having sex with their men. In “Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War: a Memoir” written with Carol Mithers, Gbowee admits: “It had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention.”

A sex strike might work on the south side of Chicago, figures Lysistrata, who’s never heard of her namesake in the title of a bawdy Greek play by Aristophanes. Gbowee’s book never namedrops “Lysistrata.”

The original Lysistrata organizes the women of Athens and Sparta to stop making love to the men of Athens and Sparta in order to stop them from making war. “If only we may stir so amorous a feeling among the men that they stand firm as sticks, we shall indeed deserve the name of peace-makers among the Greeks,” she proclaims. “It is much to be regretted that the phallus element should be so conspicuous in this play,” annotated barrister-at-law turned Aristophanes translator Benjamin Bickley Rogers in a 1911 London edition of “Lysistrata.”

The 2015 Lysistrata convinces women of color to quit sex with members of the Spartans and Trojans until these two Chicago gangs cease shooting. Montages of television news clips report women marching in solidarity around the world: Athens, Copenhagen, Delhi, Istanbul, Lahore, Montreal, Paris, Santo Domingo, Sao Paulo, Tokyo and Da Republic of Brooklyn. As if all those women seek to end gang gunfire in their cities too.

A gang-free variant of this gambit figured in the September 30, 2015 episode of ABC’s family comedy “`black•ish” when ad exec dad Dre (Anthony Anderson) announced his intent to buy a handgun to defend the home front in his largely white upper-middle class suburb. “I hope that gun is more important to you than sex,” countered his anesthesiologist wife Bo (Tracee Ellis Ross).

Samuel L. Jackson plays the fly Dolmedes, no doubt getting the highest per capita cut of the costume budget. Addressing the audience, this strutting old-school sage kicks off his running commentary by explaining why his patter and the lines of other characters will rhyme: “In Da year 411 BC, before Baby Jesus Y’all, Da Greek Aristophanes penned a Play satirizin’ his DAY. And in the style of his Time, ‘Stophanes made dat Shit Rhyme.” He decodes “BC” as “before Baby Jesus Y’all.” (This is the way Lee reproduces the dialogue in the film’s press notes.)

“Chi-Raq” co-screenwriters Lee and Kevin Willmott depart from Aristophanes by adding seven of these direct addresses to viewers. That’s parabasis Y’all. In the most disconcerting instance, Dolmedes is flanked by a black gangbanger and a white cop. Both fire countless rounds at the audience. In the original play actors hurled no spears through the fourth wall.

Aristophanic touches appear in the end credits of in “Chi-Raq.” Bit players are named Althea, Apollo, Hecuba, Oedipus, Olympia, Pindar and Tereus. Aristophanes likewise christens members of his chorus with “fancy names,” as classicists call them. Two characters in Lee’s film meet at a coffee shop not located in Greek Town named Deus Ex Machina. Englewood vernacular replaces the Attic and Doric dialect used by Aristophanes.

Lee’s “No peace, no piece” and “No peace, no pussy” slogans sound like Aristophanes’ “No more money, no more war” when Lysistrata leads women to occupy the Acropolis and deny menfolk its treasury to fund warfare. Lee’s counterpart is the Illinois Army National Guard armory on South Cottage Grove Avenue– where in World War II the University of Chicago processed and stored uranium for the Manhattan Project. I doubt Lee could secure access to film in the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago on South LaSalle Street.

Deploying “Lysistrata” for anti-war agendas long after the Peloponnesian War is not new. Seattle’s Negro Repertory Company, part of the Federal Theatre Project, staged a “Lysistrata” adaptation set in Africa. After one performance on September 17, 1937, the Works Progress Administration closed the play. Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson described a July 2013 staging of “Lysistrata” that was “framed as an entertainment for and by American soldiers, posted in a place where the U.S. is embroiled in a long, bloody war (Iraq? Afghanistan?).”

“Iambic hexameter verse is integrated with rap-style couplets,” wrote Berson. Lee’s rhetorical device of choice is chiasmus and its kin antimetabole, signifying-style tropes of transposing reversals of words that is used in rap and earlier African-American discourses. He borrows his epigram for “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986)– “women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget”– from Zora Neale Hurston.

“You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man” is a famous example in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself” (1845.) “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, the rock was landed on us,” observed Malcolm X  in his March 29, 1964 speech in Washington Heights, New York. Lee honed that line for Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X” (1992): “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us.”

The Lysistrata Project launched in 2003 by two actresses in New York City coordinated public readings of “Lysistrata” in 59 countries to protest the Iraq war. A 2004 spin-off staged in Cairo was set in Baghdad. Women occupy the Ministry of Oil, standing in for the Acropolis, and deny their husbands intercourse until Iraq and the U.S. declare peace.

“Chi-Raq”– advertised as a “searing satire of gun violence in America”– is not Lee’s first foray into satire. He opens “Bamboozled” with Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), an African-American Harvard-educated television producer, articulating a 36-word dictionary definition of “satire.” He delivers this voiceover while brushing his teeth and shaving his head, on his way to work at the offices of Continental Network System (CNS) in Manhattan.

New Line Cinema’s press notes list this 2000 film as a “blistering satire” and a “biting satire” based on a “searingly satirical script.” Lee acknowledges “A Face in the Crowd” (1957) and “Network” (1976) as precursors of his sharp critique of the mass culture industry in New York City. The DVD repositions “Bamboozled” as a “searing parody of American television.”

Frustrated he cannot air authentic African-American fare, Delacroix schemes to get fired. It’s the only way he can get out of his CNS contract. He pitches a purposefully offensive minstrel series featuring blacks in blackface in a watermelon patch. CNS senior vice president Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) loves it.

“Our aim is to destroy these stereotypes,” Delacroix tells his incredulous assistant Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith). “The good Reverend Martin Luther King did not enjoy seeing his people beaten on the six o’clock news. However, white Americans needed to see that in order to move this country to change. They need to see this show for that exact same reason.”

The scheme backfires in a big way. America loves the retro show. In repurposed news video, President Bill Clinton sits at his desk in the Oval Office watching the premiere. He claps and says, “I like this.” Delacroix’s career takes off. Black activists picket CNS.

Sloan’s brother, Big Blak Africa (Mos Def, wearing a shirt reading “The African Hellacaust”), belongs to the Mau Mau cell of militants who respell “black”– per “ole slave owner Webster”– as “blak.” Lee recycles the name of a 1950’s Puerto Rican gang in Brooklyn borrowing from the 1950’s uprising in Kenya. “Right here in Harlem, in New York City, we need a Mau Mau,” declared Malcolm X in a 1964 rally for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Lee renders the Mau Maus as gun-toting fools swigging 64-ouncers of Da Bomb Malt Liquor advertised on Delacroix’s show. They kidnap his Juilliard-trained tap dancing star Manray (Savion Glover) and threaten to execute him on the internet. A court order lets networks air a live “Dance of Death” feed at 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Black-on-black killings in the film’s climax are tragic, not comic. Even if Delacroix’s exit line is “Keep them laughing.”

Lee ends one draft of his “Bamboozled” screenplay (an extra on the DVD) with different dialogue. “My God, what have I done?!” Delacroix gasps in his dying breath. “CUT TO: ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE OF MALCOLM X. MALCOLM X: You’ve been had. You’ve been took. You’ve been led astray. Run amok. You’ve been bamboozled.” Those lines come from a speech Lee scripted for Denzel Washington in the title role “Malcolm X” (1992). Barack Obama worked Lee’s lines into speeches while campaigning in South Carolina in 2008.

Delacroix’s fatal failure to manipulate the white-owned media turns “Bamboozled” into a cautionary tale about satire itself. “Chi-Raq” reprises those risks as political entertainment. Lee’s co-writer Kevin Willmott earlier scored mixed success in two satires with hooks to African-American history.

Willmott scripted and directed “Destination: Planet Negro!” (2013), which received its world premiere at the Black Harvest Film Festival in Chicago. In 1939 black scientists propose solving the “Negro Problem” by rocketing to Mars. A time warp diverts their spaceship and a baffled trio (Willmott plays one of the voyagers) lands on the outskirts of contemporary Kansas City. President Obama, baggy pants and the use of “nigga” all inspire satiric commentary.

More successful is “C.S.A– The Confederate States of America,” a faux documentary Willmott wrote and directed in 2004 that’s billed as a Spike Lee Production. Its counterfactual history conceit is the South won the War of Northern Aggression. Slavery is unabolished. The premise is reminiscent of “It Happened Here,” a 1964 film by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo positing a German occupation of Britain in 1944.

“The following program is of foreign origin,” states an opening disclaimer for “C.S.A– The Confederate States of America,” as broadcast “uncensored” by fictional Channel 6 Confederate Television in San Francisco. “The content does not reflect the view of this station and may be unsuitable for children and servants. Viewer Discretion is advised.”

Willmott’s make-believe BBC documentary satirizes many PBS tropes. Archival photos show the Confederate flag raised at Iwo Jima and planted on the moon. There’s a sepia clip from a 1915 D.W. Griffith epic titled “The Hunt for Dishonest Abe.” A TV sports clip shows a pro football team named the New York Niggers. Willmott inserts TV ads for the Slave Shopping Network and the weekday afternoon show Better Homes & Plantations.

Calibrating tone is a challenge for satirists. Not everyone in “Bamboozled” is a target, of course. Lee aligns with anti-CNS picketers Rev. Al Sharpton and Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. appearing as themselves, while mocking the Mau Maus for their tactics and the way they dress and speak.

Cochran later served as Lee’s counsel when TNN, owned by Viacom Music and Entertainment Group, announced rebranding the “first television network for men” as Spike TV in 2003. “It’s clear when you say ‘Spike,’ everybody knows who you are talking about,” Cochran argued in Manhattan State Supreme Court. Lee lost. Sharpton joined Lee for the New York City premiere of “Chi-Raq” at the Ziegfeld Theater and exhort the audience: “60 years ago today– December 1, 1955– Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus; we refuse 60 years later to give up our community to gun violence.”

Lee’s 1996 drama “Get on the Bus” listens to a busload of a dozen Los Angeles men heading to The Million Man March in Washington, D.C. An end credit declares the film’s independence from the white media bedeviling “Bamboozled”: “This film was completely funded by 15 African American Men.” Including Cochran. “Why is it that white people still control what gets on the air?” wonders Wayans in the press kit for “Bamboozled.”

“This could all be a setup,” riffs Mike (Steve White). “This could be like a conspiracy, man… This could be like the trains into Dachua and Auschwitz… this is some apocalypso type shit about to happen maybe man.” The unprecedented assembly of African-American manhood could be a target of opportunity for some crazed white official with his thumb on a thermonuclear trigger. Mike’s slight smile and jokey manner imply he’s not really serious about all this. It’s a knowing nod to paranoid theories circulating on talk radio and in barber shops.

Other socio-political opinions in Lee’s work fall less clearly under the rubric of teasing. When is Lee ridiculing the rhetoric voiced by one of his characters, and when is Lee ventriloquizing through another character as his mouthpiece with zero irony or parody?

Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) is a character in “Chi-Raq” modeled on Father Michael Pfleger, senior pastor of the Faith Community of St. Sabina. Father Corridan refers to black-on-black crime as “self-inflicted genocide.” At the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Lee used that same loaded phrase when interviewed by Deadline Hollywood: “I would just be irresponsible as a filmmaker to not comment on this self-inflicted genocide, which is happening.”

Would Tel Aviv cops or community activists ever phrase Jew-on-Jew homicide like that? The ill-chosen line recalls how a white detective in “Clockers” refers to the black housing project in his Brooklyn precinct as a “self-cleaning oven.” That 1995 film by Lee is unambiguously not a satire. In neither film does blackness trigger or target killing. Yet Lee’s and Pfleger’s rhetoric implies a parallel between Spartan versus Trojan gunfire and Hutu slaughter of Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994.

“Three places you’re going to end up: county morgue, or county hospital or county jail,” Father Corridan counsels Chi-Raq. “People downtown don’t give a fuck about you… It’s privatized now to capitalize… You’re hanging from a tree. You’re not even costin’ them money. You making them money, and nobody’s going to hear your bitchin’ because this is the new legal form of lynching.” (Miss Helen earlier claims the opposite: “So many people shot, hospitals going broke.”)

If Lee thinks it’s nonsense to say tax-funded agencies in Cook County are capitalist enterprises making profits off the misery of the black man, “Chi-Raq” inflects those lines with no undertone or overtone of satire. In reply to my email asking about the politics articulated by Cusack’s character, Pfleger says they were “taken almost Word for Word” from his Sunday sermons and various conversations with Lee and Cusack.

An end credit for “Chi-Raq” honors Pfleger as “Spiritual Advisor/ Consultant.” On November 20 he updated his Facebook profile picture with a “Chi-Raq” flag. Lee told Chuck Todd on MSNBC that Pfleger is “a real-life living saint.”

“Just got back from Praying with Spike and crew and cast for his movie. Today is Day 1 of Filming… I believe God is using Spike in a powerful way,” was Pfleger’s June 1st post on Facebook. Cast member and southside native Harry Lennix was a guest speaker at Pfleger’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration on January 18th.

Lysistrata’s boycott succeeds, notwithstanding a major diss of her tactics by the Commissioner of Public Safety (Lennix): “Who do you think you are, Rosa Parks? What a damn farce.” Is Lee caricaturing Chicago activists, like the Mau Maus in “Bamboozled”? Or thinking wishfully for an unlikely outcome?

At a formal signing ceremony where everyone is dressed in white– except Chi-Raq, still garbed in Spartan gang purple and wearing a necklace with a miniature gold hand grenade– Chicago Mayor McCloud (D.B. Sweeney) proclaims: “We the United Federation of Gangsters for the State of Drillinois decree: Every Fortune 500 country has signed the peace accord, ensuring that every person in the hoods of America of employment age is guaranteed a job, and I don’t mean no minimum wage either. New hospitals and mental health facilities will be built by the United States Government. And finally, there’ll be a much needed trauma center on Chicago’s south side. Lysistrata, this is what justice looks like.”

The plot at this point forgets Lysistrata’s original goal of peace between two Englewood gangs. Previously the commissioner informs the mayor: “She wants world peace.” As for the promised Emmet Till Memorial Trauma Center, on December 17th the University of Chicago’s hospital announced plans to create a level 1 adult trauma center.

No one can accuse “Chi-Raq” of taking gangs seriously. Or “organizations,” as they prefer. By contrast, “Clockers” offers ethnographic detail on the day-to-day economics of street dealing. Turf pride and drug profit do not matter to Lee in 2015, or they’re deemed unfit for either satire or more serious treatment. A nihilist implication is nothing is at stake.

Lee and Willmott do not dignify the Spartans and Trojans with motives. The men of Englewood are reduced to their dicks once Lysistrata succeeds in “literally shutting down the penis grid,” as a strip club owner bitches. Mounting an armory incursion to unlock the chastity belts of Lysistrata’s army, the foiled and dumbstruck Old Duke (Steve Harris) wonders: “What is the true meaning of life?” It dawns on Miss Helen: “You don’t know.”

Why do they shoot each other? What causes this black man to kill that black man? I think the only gang-related death occurring in the film’s time frame is due to bad aim, an off-camera shooting of 11-year-old Patti. “Niggas Can’t Shoot So Babies Get Whacked,” testifies Cannon in “Pray 4 My City.” At least “Chi-Raq” is conscientious about portraying the public rites for mourning and memorializing victims. Lee casts local family members for non-speaking roles, and beautifully recreates terribly sad events based on news reports.

A Spike Lee Joint, as this filmmaker likes to label his works, typically contains black history lessons scored by Terence Blanchard with eloquent orchestral arrangements. “Bamboozled” is especially diligent in documenting blackface minstrelsy and cooning in popular culture. Elder characters often raise the consciousness of unschooled characters, as Miss Helen does with Lysistrata. Miss Helen presides over a neighborhood meeting place called the House of Common Sense and Home of Proper Propaganda, named after a Harlem bookstore frequented by Malcolm X.

But “Chi-Raq” teaches little. Selective statistics compare American death tolls in Chicago, Iraq and Afghanistan. These are supplied on both the screen and on the soundtrack. Pfleger recites, with rewrites, his July 6th Facebook post about city shootings on the Fourth of July, 2015:

“Independence Weekend…….10 KILLED and 53 SHOT….and some are saying well it’s a little better than last July 4th…..REALLY????? so that becomes the standard? Tell that to the Families preparing Funerals this Morning or to those sitting in Hospital Rooms Praying for Recovery….. Let’s just Face it Chicago is out of Control…..Guns are everywhere and the 1st line of defense….Jobs are nowhere….People feel they are held hostage ….Black Life does not Matter…..and too many of our Communities have been abandoned……..while folks Downtown are still mad about a title of a Movie…..Give me a Damn Break….THIS IS Madness! maybe we need to do like the folks in Katrina and get up on our roof s and write HELP!!!!!!!!. Happy Independence…….SMH”

Most still photos of the local dead seen in marches and funeral services are authentic. For the opening montage in “Clockers” crime scenes are staged, as Lee explained to a BBC site: “To do that sequence we recreated real homicide photographs.” His first shot is an forensic close-up of a bloody entry wound. These are the corpses of young black males. Lee opens another film set in New York City, “Jungle Fever” (1991), with an onscreen text: “In memory of Yusuf K. Hawkins,” a 16-year-old African-American shot by whites on August 23, 1989.

Ancient lore relates Dionysius I of Syracuse wanted to know how politics worked in Athens, so Plato sent the tyrant the work of Aristophanes. Unsurprisingly, the once topical playwright does not afford Lee a handle on the city that likes to call itself the city that works. Democratically elected representatives are irrelevant in the local political cosmos Lee sketches.

Billboards for fictional 6th Ward Alderman Hambone are framed within five shots. “He’s the one who tried to block us from having a block party, and he’s also the one who tried to make ‘Chi-Raq’ ineligible for tax rebates and exemptions for shooting in Illinois,” Lee tipped the Boston Globe.

David Moore was the 17th Ward Alderman who initially blocked– and later OK’ed– a city permit for St. Sabina Church’s annual block party. Lee was co-host of the June 13th event. On July 27, 4th Ward alderman Will Burns backed a “No Tax Break for Chiraq” resolution introduced to the City Council Finance Committee. The day before, Pfleger posted on Facebook: “why not have a Hearing on what we need to do to stop this Genocide in our City? If you ask me this nothing but an Orchestrated Distraction to keep us from facing the REAL issues that contribute to the Violence.”

Other Democrats are only good for yuks. Dolmedes cracks about President Bill Clinton’s ejaculate on an intern’s dress. “The President of the United States of America called me a motherfucking sorry-ass, punk-ass biiitch,” the mayor complains to his commissioner. “Oh yes, it seems the First Lady has taken the oath and what’s worse, my wife has taken the oath.” Lee shot a TV spot of Rev. Jesse Jackson on a Harlem street talking about drugs during his 1988 presidential campaign.

A statue of the late Mayor Harold Washington, the first black elected to sit on the fifth floor of City Hall, is glimpsed in “Chi-Raq.” A Michael Jordan statute is treated reverently as well. Basketball fan Lee gives the legendary athlete a fraction more screen time.

When Lee was working on “Malcolm X,” he passed through Chicago on February 15th, 1992. Columbia College’s film department sponsored a question-and-answer session at the Music Box Theater. Fans urged him to come back and make films about Washington and Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party who was shot dead by police in 1969.

Lee ends “Chi-Raq” with an urgent onscreen “Wake Up.” He reprises the on-air signature of radio dj Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) from Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” Jackson calls his character “the voice of the community” on Stuyvesant Street in Brooklyn. He utters the first words of that  1989 film: “Waaake up! Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! Up ya wake! Up ya wake!… Get up, get up, get up, get up. Get on out there.” (In Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” Jackson’s character orders a mortally wounded Southerner: “Wake the fuck up! Wake up, white boy!”)

Black architect Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) delivers a morning volley of “Wake up”’s to his daughter in Lee’s “Jungle Fever” (1991). “Wake up!” is the order voiced by Laurence Fishburne’s campus activist character that punctuates Lee’s “School Daze” (1988). “Delacroix, wake up brother man,” prompts his white boss in “Bamboozled.” “I want to wake America up,” Delacroix later tells 18 white writers around a CNS conference table.

“What’s that `wake up’ thing that’s at the beginning and the end of some of your movies? Is there any meaning behind it?,” asked a member of the audience at Lee’s Music Box Theater event. According to a transcript of a recording, Lee answered: “You don’t know, huh? It means `Wake up!’… There’s a meaning behind it. It’s not random. It means `Wake up!’” There was a follow-up question: “Are there any subliminal messages in your films?” Lee’s retort: “The guy’s screaming `Wake up!” I don’t think that’s subliminal.”

Aside from film students suspecting a subtext in “Wake up!”, will Chicago get “Chi-Raq”? After his trailer drew fire, Lee tweeted: “GOOD MORNIN’ CHICAGO. A Few Chosen Words From Me, Spike Lee” with a Vimeo link. “Don’t get it twisted,” he repeats five times in the first minute and a half of this defensive video.

If “Chi-Raq” is a satire, as Lee insists, who are we supposed to laugh at, thereby bettering society or our grasp of its ills? Gangbangers with bad aim, or their lovers who borrow a gag from a Greek play? Or is Lee deploying our laughter towards a priest leading marches of mothers of the slain, a mayor boasting he’s married to a bi-racial ex stripper, or a National Guard general wearing Confederate flag underwear?

Lee’s most legible scene is not at all satiric. A melodramatic last-minute revelation by Miss Helen leads to another equally unexpected revelation by Chi-Raq. About her 10-year-old daughter Pam “shot through her left eye by a stray bullet” at the now demolished Cabrini Green projects, she recounts: “Back then it was a violation of the gang code to murder children.”

Miss Helen tells Chi-Raq his late father once did the right thing to redeem his wrong-doing. Her charged words bind the son to the father: “He tried to be a good man. You can be a good man. Be a good man. Be a good man. Be a good man. Be a good man. Be a good man. Be a good man.” If only her saying it could make him so. Her incantation is a disquieting echo of a slave training film titled “Be A Good One” in Willmott’s “C.S.A– The Confederate States of America.”

Where does Spike Lee see himself? In a self-critical turn he twice plays an everyman standing just beyond the yellow police tape at black-on-black homicides in “Clockers.” His work shirt is embroidered with “Dicky” the first time; in a similar bit at the end, he wears a different shirt that identifies him as “Chucky.” Detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) arrives and asks what happened. “Look, I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t here so I really can’t talk intelligently about it.”

Yet intelligently perceiving and provoking is what Lee attempts in many films, including “Chi-Raq.” “It is a very intellectual movie,” noted Ji Suk Yi, the social media contributor on WLS-Channel 7’s “Windy City Live.” Val Warner, the co-host of this weekday morning show, appears three times in “Chi-Raq” as a Channel 7 reporter.

“I was an instigator as a kid,” Lee informed a Playboy Magazine interviewer in 1991. “I just like to make people think, stir ‘em up. What’s wrong with that?” He defended himself in a 1990 op-ed piece the New York Times headlined “I Am Not an Anti-Semite”: “I think it’s reaching the point where I’m getting reviewed, not my films.” Ten years later he shared with Director’s Guild of America Magazine: “People seem to think I walk around in a perpetual state of black anger. I find that hilarious.”

“You get older and realize you can’t rant and rave 24/7,” Lee admitted to the New Statesman in 2007. “You have to pick and choose what you rant and rave about.”

Black-on-black criticism has preoccupied Lee since his indie debut “She’s Gotta Have It.” It continues in “School Daze,” set in a black college with the motto “Uplift the Race.” Self-segregating cliques of students spar over their differences in hair, airs, class, clothes and skin tone. Lee’s self-critique can entail casting himself in unbecoming roles, as he does in both films but not in “Chi-Raq.”

Wearing his “Crooklyn” hat, however, he makes a cameo in “Drop Squad,” a feature he executive-produced through his 40 Acres And A Mule Filmworks production company. Radical blacks abduct and deprogram assimilated blacks in this 1994 indie directed by D. Clark Johnson, expanded from his 1989 short “The Session” based on a story titled “The Deprogrammer.” Like “Bamboozled” and “Chi-Raq,” “Drop Squad” satirizes blacks betraying their own kind and those who would redeem them by any means necessary.

Lee appears as himself in a television commercial for the General Otis fried chicken franchise he directs. Confederate flags decorate the signage and packaging. At the store’s counter, Lee steps between two church women in their Sunday choir robes, and makes a reflexive pitch to the camera: “Announcer, school these sisters” about the new Gospel Pak special.

Eriq La Salle plays Bruford Jamison, Jr., the black exec at a white advertising agency who hires Lee. Bruford screens the spot at a family gathering. They don’t get it. “But, ma, it was a parody!” he insists in desperation. “We used to march to get away from stuff like that– what’s wrong with you boy?” scolds an aunt.

Bruford’s sister contacts the D.R.O.P. Squad, an underground group that stages interventions for “Deprogramming and Restoration of Pride.” Kevin Thomas at the Los Angeles Times called this “a reprehensible, indefensible dramatic device.” Bruford is kidnapped by blacker-than-thou militants. Strapped into a barber shop chair, the insufficiently black Bruford is subjected to several weeks of sleep deprivation and browbeating with Black History Month materials. Small glasses of water are tossed in his face.

Misrepresented People” is the Stevie Wonder song kicking off “Bamboozled”: “We have been a misrepresented people… you must never be a misrepresented people.” Lee is ambivalent about self-inflicting images that could damage the African-American community. Jada Pinkett-Smith comments in that film’s press notes: “basically this film points the finger at ourselves and says we need to be responsible for what types of things we write and what types of roles we take.”

“You are selling your own people death,” rails single mother Iris Jeeter (Regina Taylor) in “Clockers” when accosting dealers. She does her best to keep them away from her 10-year-old son. “To me, a lot of difficulties we face as African-American people go back to the Black family,” Lee argued in a Jet Magazine cover story from 2012. “Look at the alarming rate of young Black men killing each other and in prison. I think a lot of that can be tied to the fact that daddy’s not home.” Father/son redemption is central to Lee’s “He Got Game” (1998). It almost comes as an afterthought in “Chi-Raq.”

Another diagnosis surfaces in “Lisa Trotter,” a 19-minute “Lysistrata” adaption set and shot in Los Angeles in 2010. Director Hawthorne James, writer Sam Greenlee (“The Spook Who Sat by the Door”) and lead actress L. Scott Caldwell are Chicago natives. Splitting “Lysistrata” into a first and a last name contemporizes Aristophanes’ lead character as the homonymous “Lisa Trotter.” She organizes a sex boycott at a sports bar, and tells her multi-ethnic co-conspirators: “The only way our men have to prove their manhood is to gangbang and make babies.”

Lee keeps coming back to “brothers killing other brothers.” Rescuing the black community from itself is a challenge he shoulders. Last year’s “Da’ Sweet Blood of Jesus” is his weirdest iteration; its black-on-black bloodletting is vampiric. Semi-automatics are a bigger threat than incisors, though. The Baptist preacher at Lil’ Peace of Heaven Church reminds his flock: “You don’t need no AK-47. You need Romans 8:21.”

“We’re the only race that shoots and kills themselves… It’s time we point the finger at ourselves,” sings Chicago-native Kevon Carter in “Chi-Raq.” “What’s the use of saying `Black Lives Matter‘ if we’re going to kill ourselves?” Steve Harris, an actor in the film with local roots too, adds: “What we are seeing now is self-destructive stupidity.”

Lee’s critique throws no light on the trigger-pullers. Like the one who put seven bullets into King Louie (Louis Johnson Jr.) on December 23rd at 83rd & Pulaski. Fifteen shots missed. This Chicago rapper– “To Live and Die in Chicago“– survived.

Six years ago, he introduced the expressions “Chiraq” and “Drillinois.” On the day the film titled “Chi-Raq” opened, December 4th, King Louie uploaded a rap video titled “Fuck Spike Lee.

On December 28th this survivor told CNN: “The devil’s working overtime, that’s what’s going on in Chicago… Pray for our city.” “I Can’t Fall A Victim To Satan,” raps Nick Cannon in the beginning of “Chi-Raq.” Shooters are demonized, as a matter of fact. To paraphrase that convalescing artist who lives in Chicago, fuck satire.

Ultimately, this film is unserious about African-American murder and manhood, although the filmmaker is decidedly not. Lee sees an intractable tragedy on the south side of Chicago, and divines no fix and delivers no uplift. The humor dehumanizes. Ineptly, this ostensible satirist inflicts a farce on the city.

 

©2015 Bill Stamets

Saga of a Surrogate: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2”

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on November 22, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Directed by Francis Lawrence.
Written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, from an adaptation by Suzanne Collins.
Produced by Nina Jacobson and Jon Kilik.
Acted by Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci.
Distributed by Lionsgate.
Running time: 136 minutes.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and for some thematic material.

 

by Bill Stamets

After an act of self-sacrifice to save the life of her younger sister and then surviving a civic blood rite, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is recruited to serve as an icon of insurrection in “The Hunger Games,” a four-film series (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015) adapted from three novels (2008, 2009, 2010) by Suzanne Collins. “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay– Part 2” concludes a dystopic saga preoccupied with statecraft conducted by spectacle.

For a primer on political ethics, Katniss figures as a stand-in and standard-bearer. Caught in the apparatus of appearances, she will fake looks that turn into the real things.

Much blood is shed, mostly off-camera, in this young-adult franchise that’s rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America. Teen-on-teen killing and tyrannicide share the screen with a chaste wartime romance. Francis Lawrence, who also directed the second and third Hunger Games films, now resolves these plot lines in a disquieting civics lesson and, for a coda, a domestic idyll from the madding crowd. A polis is redeemed and a new family begins.

Downplayed in this installment: satirizing the eccentrically coiffed and coutured elite found in the earlier films, where an oleaginous TV host, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), preens as a regime toady. Screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong prolong the running time to 136 minutes, thanks to superfluous action sequences. Like that chase in a sewer wherein naked mutant amphibian-faced flesh-eating albino bipeds pursue Katniss and comrades.

The four films comprising this serial link chronologically, free of cliff-hanger endings to bridge episodes. Flashbacks are limited to incidents within the storyline and lifetimes of characters. They live in a society using a calendar with no days, months, years or centuries identified. Geographically, viewers get no bearings, as if the action occurs in terra incognita. Historically, there is one national anniversary.  No ancestors are named. Nor are any books, creeds, myths or faiths ever mentioned.

Seventy-five years ago in the English-speaking nation of Panem, the 13 Districts rebelled against the Capitol. Parallels to the 13 colonies once in transatlantic revolt against King George III are nonexistent. The word “existant,” however, appears on an edict glimpsed in the first Hunger Games film. The Latin blog Pathetic Mistranslations mocks the semi-literate Latinate legalese penned on that parchment. Imperial Rome seems to inspire the naming of characters in Panem. Chariots play a ceremonial role in this country named after panem et circenses (Latin for bread and circuses), as Roman satirist Juvenal termed governance by mass distraction. When the one-percent over-indulge, waiters serve a blue beverage to induce vomiting and permit more fine dining.

Panem’s defining `circus’ is the legacy of the quashed revolt, as recounted in an official video narrated by President Snow (Donald Sutherland): “When the traitors were defeated, we swore as a nation we would never know this treason again. And so it was decreed that each year the various districts of Panem would offer up, in tribute, one young man and woman to fight to the death in a pageant of honor, courage and sacrifice. The lone victor, bathed in riches, would serve as a reminder of our generosity and our forgiveness. This is how we remember our past. This is how we safeguard our future.”

The Treaty of the Treason adds: “In penance for their uprising, each district shall offer up a male and female between the ages of 12 and 18 at a public `Reaping.’ These Tributes shall be delivered to the custody of The Capitol. And then transferred to a public arena where they will Fight to the Death, until a lone victor remains. Henceforth and forevermore this pageant shall be know as The Hunger Games.”

The first film, titled “The Hunger Games” and directed by Gary Ross, begins with Katniss from District 12 dutifully attending the Reaping with her 12-year-old sister Prim (Willow Shields). Prim is picked in the lottery. Katniss volunteers to take her place, as the rules permit. This is just the first brave move by Katniss to protect Prim. In “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay– Part 2” Prim disobeys an emergency evacuation order prior to a bombardment in order to rescue her cat. Katniss redoubles her original efforts and rescues both Prim and her cat too. Prim’s cats always hiss at Katniss, who trash talks back. Yet throughout the series she is saving them.

The Hunger Games air live every year. Without commercial interruption, it would appear. In this one-channel country, must-see TV from the Capitol comes with onscreen alerts stating “Mandatory Viewing.” Indeed, the tagline for the latest film commands “The world will be watching.” “What if everyone just stopped watching?” wonders Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss’s hunting pal and prospective love interest, in the 2012 film. “No one watches and they don’t have a game. It’s as simple as that.” Not really. It will take more than a hypothetical viewer boycott to unplug the grotesque broadcast.

“The Hunger Games” DVD contains an interview with David Leviathan, co-author of the novel “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and an editor at Scholastics Inc., who relates how Suzanne Collins first got the idea for her story: “One night she was flipping channels on TV, flipping between war coverage and reality TV.”

As for the screen adaptation, Leviathan continues: “We knew that the violence was there as a critique of violence… This is a book that could so easily be made the wrong way, and you really had to be careful to find the right people who would make it exactly the right way, in that it would not become the thing that it’s criticizing.”

Lionsgate president of production Alli Shearmur assumes the risk of depicting adolescent slaughter: “They are forced to compete in this manner, so if we’re celebrating them killing one another, we’re doing exactly what the Capitol is doing. So as a movie, if we shot it that way, we’d be shooting it very cynically and we’d not be shooting it or telling the story that in any way conveys we understand Suzanne Collins’ novel.”

Director Gary Ross, interviewed on a “The Hunger Games” making-of featurette, deals with the quandary of manipulating imagery about image manipulation: “I could never let you feel that this was staged in any way… if you shoot it like a slick glossy Hollywood movie with like very groovily choreographed camera moves… if you loose that sense of verite then you really loose the feeling of reality… You’re turning into the Capitol; you’re not examining the Capitol anymore.”

“The phrase I always had on the set was `this feels too much like a movie,’ `I don’t want this to feel like a movie,’ ‘It’s too much like a movie,'” recalls Ross. “But that was my mantra.” He says he aimed to distance his “verite shooting style” from the seamlessly designed showcase of sacrificial murder as packaged for Panem audiences in the Capitol and the surrounding Districts.

“The games don’t mean anything,” claims Katniss in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” “They only mean to scare us.” She fearlessly outwits the Capitol. In the first film, she and her fellow Tribute from District 12, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), threaten to commit suicide together by swallowing poison berries on camera, instead of one killing the other. For tactical reasons and authentic feelings, their alliance segues into a romance. The next time they find themselves in the giant domed arena, new allies help her escape to the subterranean rebel stronghold.

Omnipresent cameras throughout Panem let President Snow monitor Katniss’s public appearances on the traditional post-game tour. Victors travel to each District to greet increasingly resistive citizens. “Fear does not work as long as they have hope, and Katniss Everdeen is giving them hope,” Snow notices. “She’s become a beacon of hope for the rebellion, and she has to be eliminated.”

Rebels hack into Panem’s signal to air their own propaganda videos called “propos” by their creator, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Formerly the Head Gamemaker for Snow, this turncoat now manages the image of the insurgency. My favorite scenes in the third and fourth films show Katniss learning how to play a mascot uniting “the masses” of the Districts.

Going off script, she inadvertently generates the best footage yet. “I couldn’t have staged it better myself,” marvels Plutarch. “And whatever she’s doing, we conceived it,” says rebellion President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). “It was our plan all along… I want everyone to know whatever game she’s playing, she’s playing for us.” Katniss will ultimately outplay Snow’s would-be successor.

A Hunger Games survivor with PTSD tells Katniss: “You’re… a little hard to swallow. The whole tacky romance drama. And the defender of the hopeless act. Even though it’s not an act, which makes it even more unbearable.” Once the invasion of the Capitol starts, Plutarch will deploy a Star Squad to upload video of Katniss in action. She schemes to assassinate Snow on her own: “No more cameras, no more propos, no more games.”

Back in the second film, Katniss is coached: “From now on, your job is to be a distraction so people forget what the real problems are.” Politics by distraction is deconstructed by the fourth film. “If we die, let it be for a cause and not a spectacle,” urges a rebel commander. Once Snow is deposed, the interim leader proclaims: “Welcome to the new Panem… our free Panem… more than a mere spectacle.”

Staging the public execution of a tyrant looks right and righteous for the last reel, but  Kandiss the archer thwarts that populist payoff. A few scenes earlier, before rebel forces overtake the Capitol, Snow instructs its privileged residents: “Our enemy is not like us. They do not share our values. They have never known our comfort and our sophistication. And they despise us for it.”

Snow’s rhetoric for demonizing citizens of the outlying Districts sounds like certain diagnoses of Islamicist resentment of Western secular democracy and urbanity. Two days after Islamic State issued its communique regarding “the Blessed Paris Invasion on the French Crusaders,” French president François Hollande declared: “France is at war… The barbarians attacking it want to disfigure it.” Targeted are “our values, our youth and our way of life.”

The global entertainment known as The Hunger Games imagines grassroots guerrilla freedom-fighters. Toss in a few unprincipled Machiavellian players to boo. Unsaid or unclear are “our values.” What freedoms do all the martyrs in the series foresee?

Plebeian citizens of the thirteen districts are uniformly garbed in drab homespun browns, greys and blues. In the Capitol individualism is trivialized as idiosyncratic ornamentation. Manifested in outlandish hairstyles, makeup, clothing and jewelry. As if self-fashioning evidences self-governing. We see these over-served people do little– other than watch their Hunger Games on unbelievably big screens.

Making things work: The Martian, The Walk, Sicario, 99 Homes

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on October 6, 2015

Four new films– “The Martian,” “The Walk,” “Sicario” and “99 Homes”– are factually informed fictions of efficacy. Each one is a tribute to ingenuity in many guises. Characters obey laws of physics on Mars and atop the World Trade Center, and break other laws in Mexico and Orlando.

Four filmmakers impart distinct agendas to plots about making things work. Towards what ends? Getting home to Earth, walking on a wire between the Twin Towers, assassinating a narco-cartel CEO, and profiting from foreclosures to recover a home of one’s own. Apart from the pragmatics of technique and teamwork, the writers and directors are moralizing– more or less intently– in their respective narratives.

“The Martian” is set in an optimistic near future of robust funding of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) by Congress. Ares III, the third mission to Mars, goes awry. Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind in a blinding dust storm after his malfunctioning sensors transmit no vital signs. “The Martian” details the dire task at hand. “He needs to go home home,” as earthling Elliot (Henry Thomas) explains in Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982). To survive, Mark will re-engineer more than a Speak & Spell toy.

Director Ridley Scott (“Prometheus”) directs a science-is-really-cool screenplay that Drew Goddard adapted from a techie novel by Andy Weir titled “The Martian.” The son of particle physicist, Weir says he began his computer science career at age 15 at Sandia National Laboratories in his hometown of Livermore, California. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), located in Livermore, figures in the book and the film. He later wrote code for the real-time strategy game “Warcraft II” and worked as an Android programmer.

Weir begins his novel, originally posted as a online serial in 2012, with Mark writing: “LOG ENTRY: SOL 6. I’m pretty much fucked. That’s my considered opinion. Fucked. Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life and it’s turned into a nightmare… So yeah, I’m fucked.” Or, as Val Kilmer’s character turns the phrase upon departing Mars in Antony Hoffman film “Red Planet” (2000): “Fuck this planet!”

“The Martian” splices themes of two films about voyagers imperiled by vehicular collisions. In “Gravity,” directed by Alfonso Cuarón, debris from a decommissioned Russian satellite hits a NASA shuttle in a nearby orbit. In the Indian Ocean a stray shipping container breaches the hull of a yacht in “All Is Lost,” directed by J.C. Chandor. The mechanics of surviving lend urgency to both of these 2013 releases.

As Mark verbifies in “The Martian”: ”I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.” Damon also played an intrepid tech improviser in Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” (2013), a sci-fi film set in 2154 about the ultimate in class-based health care. Its costly access is literally orbital– limited to residents of Elysium, a deluxe space station circling Earth. Terminally ill, Damon’s character engineers a life-saving treatment for other doomed commoners.

Earth is “vastly overpopulated” reads an opening title in “Elysium.” That updates the opening voiceover of “Red Planet,” set in 2050, stating “we had begun to overpopulate” our planet in 2000. The fix was to terraform Mars, then move there.

Wernher Von Braun proposed we colonize Mars in an October 24, 1960 speech in Dallas. The former German rocket scientist had joined NASA when the agency was created two years earlier and took over the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Man has learned to live and multiply so proficiently that if he keeps it up for another 500 years he won’t have a place to sleep because there’ll be `standing room only’ on this planet,” Braun told the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Under the headline “Colonies on Mars Seen Answer to Birth Boom,” the Associated Press reported: “Dr. Wernher Von Braun said Monday the United States could put a man on Mars and keep him alive longer than a native in the tropics could exist in the Arctic.”

Mars colonization is underway in John Carpenter’s “Ghosts of Mars” (2001), set in 2176, and Andrzej Bartkowiak’s “Doom” (2005), set in 2046. In the latter two films archaeologists inadvertently unleash lethal pushback by indigenous life forms. Visitors from Earth are not attacked, though, in Byron Haskin’s “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” (1964) and Brian De Palma’s “Mission to Mars” (2000).

Mark is the only sign of sentient life on Mars in “The Martian.” His psyche is a cypher to NASA’s director of Mars missions back on Earth. Before making radio contact with the marooned Mark, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) observes: “He’s 50 million miles away from home, he thinks he’s totally alone, he thinks we gave up on him– I mean, what does that do to a man, psychologically? What the hell is he thinking right now?” In one of too many simplistic cuts, the next shot answers. Mark is blasting vintage disco music.

Weir is not into nuance. “The only reason I write is to entertain,” he admits in a Google Talk. “I never have a point. I never have a moral. I never want to do anything other than make the reader go `Cool!’ and that’s it.” In the last scene of “The Martian” Mark is back on Earth briefing fledgling astronauts on what to do when things go wrong on another planet: “You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem. Then you solve the next one. And then the next. If you solve enough problems you get to come home.”

It was not all about engineering when Mark worked on his homecoming. Trained as a botanist, he found a way to grow potatoes on Mars. Besides exchanging emails with NASA and JPL, he got one from the president of the United States. “The coolest one. Coolest, though. The coolest one I got was from University of Chicago, my alma mater,” he shares. “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So technically, I colonized Mars.”

Mark figures he must be the first Martian. And in a further flight of theorizing– with nothing to do with orbital dynamics– he decides under international law he’s a pirate to boot.

“The Walk” salutes a trespasser. The lengthy tagline for the film is: “Twelve people have walked on the moon. Only one has ever, or will ever, walk in the immense void between the World Trade Center towers.” That one risk-taker receives an affirming paean fixated on his methodical planning to lessen the odds of gravity putting him in an early grave.

With civic sentiment on his sleeve, Robert Zemeckis directs a screenplay he co-wrote with Christopher Browne based on “To Reach the Clouds,” the 2002 book by Philippe Petit. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays this French-born wire-walking artiste who put on an illegal show 110 stories above lower Manhattan on August 7, 1974.

Philippe regularly addresses the camera for garrulous and self-congratulatory exposition, in contrast to Mark voices his log entries with sarcastic self-deprecation in “The Martian.” A charming trickster, Philippe is more introspective, make that narcissistic, than Mark and his skills are more screen-friendly. I cringed at the sight of his footwork during his playful walks between the Twin Towers, even though Alan Silvestri’s uplifting score dispenses with anticipated notes of suspense.

The press notes bill “The Walk” as “A love letter to the World Trade Center.” (So call “The Martian” a valentine by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.) Philippe’s feat may feel like a Paris-accented segment from the old ABC show “Wide World of Sports” show, but Zemeckis packages his parting message with patriotic tropes familiar from his allegorical one-man saga “Forrest Gump” (1994).

“The Walk” renders the World Trade Center as monuments by indirectly referring to their ruins. The death of the Twin Towers is implied by valorizing the date of  August 7, 1974 as their birth in the eyes of New Yorkers. Last reel shots of uniformed NYPD and FDNY responders to Philippe’s stunt evoke their comrades at that same address on September 11, 2001.

Philippe imagines he’s transformed the Twin Towers: “They’re different.” His girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) wonders, “So did you bring them to life?” One local boasts: “Now every New Yorker I talk to now says they love these towers.” Philippe changes his citizenship. “I was proud to become a New Yorker,” he narrates. He also cherishes his special visitor’s pass to the observation deck of the World Trade Center. Its expiration date is filled in as “Forever.”

Zemeckis closing shot embraces a sun-burnished World Trade Center, circa 1974, with a slow fade to black. Martin Scorsese’s coda to “Gangs of New York” (2002) likewise frames the World Trade Center in an elegiac light. The takeaway line from “The Walk”: “Look at that. We did it. We showed the world that anything’s possible.” Not only can someone do what Philippe did on a wire, but others can do what al-Qaeda did with two Boeing 767s.

“Sicario” takes on the post-9/11 targeting of so-called narco-terrorists by the United States. Covert operators play a tough and dirty game of offense against drug cartels in northern Mexico. Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners” and “Incendies”) directs an incisive, screenplay by Taylor Sheridan for a unsettling procedural. Cinematographer Roger Deakins indelibly surveils the unforgiving borderlands infiltrated by traffickers of drugs and migrants. Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson suffuses the vexed terrain with an ominous thrum. Adrenaline-driven scoring cues kinetic action sequences.

The film’s title predates by many centuries the creation of the Office of Homeland Security on September 20, 2001 and the Homeland Security Council that convened five weeks later. Scholars of antiquity variously identify the Sicarii as first-century Jewish dagger-men (from the Latin sica for small dagger) as we’ll as assassins, insurrectionists or terrorists. In the 1980’s Colombian cartels deployed hit men called sicarios (paid assassins).

“Is Narco-Violence in Mexico Terrorism?” ask anthropologists Howard Campbell and Tobin Hansen in the Bulletin of Latin American Research. Defining “narco-violence” as “intra-cartel, inter-cartel, cartel vs. government” violence, the co-authors weigh their wording: “Yet, if narco traffickers were labelled ‘terrorists’ then militaristic counter-terrorist measures might become more politically acceptable to the general public.” If “Sicario” has any agenda, it is precisely to complicate that issue.

I recall hearing “terrorist” and “Homeland Security” maybe once or twice in “Sicario” but the dialogue includes no serious or sustained points using either expression. Nor does Sheridan’s screenplay draw on items like this one posted at FoxNews.com in 2013: “Mexican cartels hiring US soldiers as hit men.” Five years earlier one cartel reportedly put up a banner (a narcomantas) over a Mexican thoroughfare that read: “Members and Ex-members of the Military, Los Zetas Wants You. We offer good wages, food, and benefits for your family. …We pay in dollars. We offer benefits, life insurance, and a house for your family and children. Quit living in the poor neighborhood and riding buses. You choose, the latest model car or pickup truck. What more do you want?” (Original in Spanish.) Militarization has reached the point where narcotanques is a new coinage for heavily armored “narco-tanks” that travel openly on Mexican highways in cartel convoys.

For a Mexican point-of-view on cartel violence, two realist dramas portray local victims: “Miss Bala” (2011) by Gerardo Naranjo, and “Heli” (2013) by Amat Escalante. “Sicario” contains a side storyline about a cop in northern Mexico. The film’s ending at his son’s soccer game– with a timeout for the nearby sirens and automatic weapons fire–  is a compelling, if dispiriting, masterstroke by Villeneuve. The players and bystanders soon turn their attention back to the game.

Villeneuve affords his viewers the perspective of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, “Edge of Tomorrow”). She is an FBI agent leading a kidnap-response-team. The opening scene takes her to a suburban Arizona house where tortured and executed corpses wrapped in plastic are hidden inside the walls. After a northern Mexican cartel is implicated, Kate’s supervisor introduces her to Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, “No Country For Old Men”). He has indefinite ties to the Department of Defense and is accompanied by a Colombian “consultant” named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, “Traffic”). Bearded commandos just back from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan will join Matt’s operation, a less than transparent task force with sketchy oversight.

Kate is brought onboard for the sake of inter-agency protocol. Her presence somehow ensures a mission that will end at the mansion of Sonoran drug lord will go “by the book.” All she is supposed to do is sign a paper saying so when it’s over. Until then, it’s her duty to watch. And so that’s what we do too.

One night at a U.S. military base right by the border, a soldier asks Kate: “Want to see something?” He takes her to the roof and points south. Is it fireworks or a firefight?

“Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything we do,” Alejandro advises Kate. During the questioning of detained Mexicans, she cannot figure out the objective: “What are we looking for?” Matt simply instructs: “Just keep watching.” Later she’s told: “Learn, that’s why you’re here.” Like a shrewd screenwriter, Matt maneuvers the diegesis. What Kate– and Villeneuve’s viewers– need to know comes by a slow reveal, knowledge allocated for a controlled panic.

Kate’s eyes and ears take in more than she can  square with her training. Alejandro and Matt lead her deep into compromising muck of tactics. They prove to be highly effective in taking down a cartel CEO notorious for such atrocities as dropping a prosecutor’s daughter in a vat of acid.

“Sicario” has no Socratic dialogue about the war on drugs. Villeneuve and Sheridan are hardly running a seminar here to sort out ideas of a just war, the just use of force, and force short of war.  Nonetheless, their mise-en-scene articulates the fog of this awful war. High stakes call for extra-legal measures, implies “Sicario.” Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) posed a similar rationale for assassinating Osama bin Laden in the war on terror.

Alejandro’s parting tip to Kate, more vulnerable than ever to a sicario aiming at her: “You should move to a small town where the rule of law still exists.”

“99 Homes” maps inter-locking interests in Orlando, Florida where bankers, judges, sheriffs, county commissioners, real estate agents and eviction crews oversee the misery of one-time homeowners downscaled into debt refugees. Director and editor Ramin Bahrani and his co-writer Amir Naderi offer a drama of discovery founded on wide-ranging research. “I’m going to figure it out,” states their protagonist at the start of his learning curve.

As in “Sicario, “99 Homes” shows an exemplar of efficacy schooling another character and the audience in the workings of the world. Here a loaded vocabulary of “predatory lending” and “toxic credit” replaces terms prefixed with “narco” in “Sicario.”

Rick Carver (Michael Shannon, “Take Shelter”) of Rick Carver Real Estate evicts Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield, “The Amazing Spider Man”) then hires this young carpenter and single dad to evict others. At a Chicago screening, Shannon said Garfield met a man in Florida who did that. Then he had to evict his best friend, who later forgave him after finding work on an eviction crew himself.

Driving though a residential area, Rick asks, “What do you see out there?” Dennis replies, “I see homes.” Rick sees more: “I just saw nine opportunities to make money in the last five blocks. There were three properties without mailboxes. One with an overgrown lawn and no car in the drive. Two with white signs taped to the windows. And three with shiny new floor knobs and lock boxes. If you can get attuned to seeing those kinds of opportunities, then maybe you can up get off your hands and knees and really start working for me.”

Heading to the posh home of hedge fund manager with a foreclosed mortgage, Rick advises Dennis: “Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open and maybe you’ll learn something this time.” Dennis indeed learns, and it makes him ill. Like Kate in “Sicario,” he cannot reconcile ethics and efficacy.

“99 Homes” and “Sicario” critique intricacies of political economy, whereas Newtonian logistics underwrite the plots of “The Martian” and “The Walk.” Consumers play a role: “99 Homes” faults self-deluded homeowners with unreasonable goals and “Sicario” blames cocaine users.

The screenplay by Bahrani and Naderi is less blunt than “Kill Bankers”– the message a foreclosed Floridian spray painted on his living room wall. Less loquacious than Philippe in “The Walk,” Rick spells out his life philosophy with allusions to the deluge, bilge pumps and drowning-in-debt. After asking Dennis if he goes to church, Rick declares: “Only 1 in a 100 is going to get on that ark, son. And every other poor soul is going to drown. I’m not going to drown.” He lectures to his conflicted employee: “America doesn’t bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners. By rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners.”

Bahrani’s drama “At Any Price” (2012) observed an Iowa farm family in crisis. “During the six months I spent with farmers in the American Midwest,” he related in his press notes, he kept hearing a “mantra” among farmers pressured by agribusiness: “Expand or die.” That capitalist imperative fits a Sonoran drug cartel and Rick Carver Real Estate too.

Bahrani ends “99 Homes” with Dennis undermining a key deal for Rick by admitting to fraudulently filing a backdated document for him at the Orlando court house. He knows enough how things work to make the right thing happen. In her last scene in “Sicario” Kate likewise plans to make a break. “I want to tell everyone what you did,” she tells Alejandro. “That would be a major mistake,” counters this quite efficacious sicario. Villeneuve takes that chance and tells us.