Interview: The 33 Director Patricia Riggen

the33_1sht_main_dom_2764x4096_largeThe-33_Patricia-RiggenMexican director Patricia Riggen’s drama The 33 tells the story of the 33 men trapped 2,300 feet underground for 69 days in 2010 following a cave-in at the gold mine they were working in the Atacama Desert near Copiapó, Chile.

The men survived for 17 days on nearly non-existent food rations before being found by a surface drill, but then had to wait another 52 days before being rescued.

The film stars Antonio Banderas as Mario “Super Mario” Sepúlveda, the charismatic miner who became a news star during the live coverage of the months-long rescue process. It also features Lou Diamond Phillips and Oscar Nunez (The Office) as two of his fellow survivors; Juliette Binoche as María Segovia, the sister of one of the miners (Juan Pablo Raba) and a headstrong force in getting the Chilean government to try to find and rescue the miners when the mining company would not; Rodrigo Santoro (Love Actually, 300) as a conscientious government minister; and Gabriel Byrne and James Brolin as two of the engineers working to free the men.

Another writer and I sat down with Riggen last month during the Chicago International Film Festival to talk about the challenges of shooting the film, including working for a month inside a real mine, and telling a story where everyone knows the outcome.

The 33 opens everywhere this Friday, November 13.


33-BA-04986rYour subject is a recent story of survival where most everyone already knows the outcome. How did you and the screenwriters approach the story creatively?

Patricia Riggen: The biggest challenge is everyone knows the ending. The first thing was to try to give the audience a glimpse into what they didn’t know. The beauty of it was that the real miners were part of the project. In the past there were movies and books that never included them, so they never benefited from their experience.

This time the producers signed a rights deal with them. They were with us, and I sat with each of them privately behind closed doors, and they poured their hearts out and told me things that probably they had never told anyone. In order to get the real story, the untold story that was not reported because they didn’t share the conflicts and the things they were ashamed of with the news reporters. The news put forward their best face.

Then I made two decisions about how to proceed. Underground, shooting in a dark cave with 33 guys, how do I make it artistic? So my director of photography found Caravaggio as a reference. I knew his paintings, but when I saw them as a reference for us, I thought, “you don’t need anything to make a beautiful movie” These men are semi-naked, with beards, thin, worn, against a black background—it was beautiful.

I knew as an independent movie we weren’t going to be able to afford repeated takes—you can’t bring the drills in again and again. That’s impossible on a film this size. We were working under harsh desert conditions, so I decided to shoot it very news documentary style, hand-held, very immediate. Just grabbing what’s happening. Really following the action. We’d get on the radio and say, “The drills are coming!” and we’d set the cameras and tell the actors, “Okay, you have to grab it when it breaks through the rock because it’s only happening once.”

A11A5373.CR2When you talked to each miner privately, what were some of the things you learned for the film that weren’t well known?

Riggen: There are a couple of things that come to mind. For instance, the handling of the food box is something that they didn’t ever talk about before. There was a sense of shame around the behavior of some of them down there in those early moments. I had to conduct a little bit of a private investigation because they were worried about what the others might say. That was a very traumatic incident down there, how they mishandled the food rationing at first.

And then there were the problems later on with Mario, when he got really famous and suddenly there are book rights. Mario was strong and charismatic personality—he became famous on the news, and was getting offered financial things that he wasn’t telling them all about. For the first 17 days they thought they were going to die, but suddenly the world comes in, and the promises of fame and fortune broke them apart while they were still trapped. The impact of the world’s attention on these guys who were still going to be down there for 50 days. They were fighting, they expelled Mario from the group, but then they came back together and solved their differences. These kinds of things weren’t in the news at the time.

635736315268562061-xxx-33-fp-021-mov-dcb-74776706-5The news story in real life became as much about Chilean nationalism as the miners themselves. How did you approach that aspect of the real events?

Riggen: From the beginning, we wanted to be as faithful and truthful to the real event and the real characters as possible. We didn’t want to take this event and use it as inspiration to tell some other story. We really wanted to tell this real story. Every step of the way I really considered, “is this truthful or not?” So within that reality, Chilean are the most nationalistic people on earth. They used the flag a lot, and so it factored into the iconography of the mine event. They do their football chants. I kept it realistic and didn’t over-do it, but it’s there, it’s part of their identities.

This a much larger and more challenging undertaking than your past films. 

Riggen: Below ground, I had a cast of 33 men at all times inside a mine, and then above ground I had hundreds of extras every day, with 10 principles below and 10 principles above. There were two completely different crews in two different countries, so it was like shooting two movies completely separately, since the miners only interact with their families on the first and last day. So I shot two movies.

shootingWhere did you shoot the underground scenes?

Riggen: I shot in two salt mines in Columbia. We looked at Chile, but Chilean mines are very dangerous and very deep, so it would have been impossible to shoot in those. So we started considering a stage. But we are an independent movie with a very tight budget. With a set we would have only had about 200 feet of mine, so we would have had to shoot everything, all the action, in just two rooms. So we looked elsewhere and got very lucky because Columbia has these two fantastic salt mines. They were horizontal, so you’re still under a mountain, but you don’t go down, you go in. We were a few miles in, but at least we weren’t down.

So I decided to take on the danger of shooting in a mine. Mines are real, they’re alive, and they tend to collapse. But it gave us amazing production value. We could drive vehicles for miles and miles. We had to bring in cable from other countries into Columbia to accommodate us in there—we couldn’t bring a generator, so we had to run in miles of cable. It was like lighting a city.

Wp-los-33-pelicula-588-300x200The whole atmosphere inside a mine is very particular—you can’t eat anything, no fires, you can’t touch this or that. We had the head of the mine with us, looking after our safety. At times he would say, “Everyone move away,” and they would bring in ladders and tools to deal with a rock that was going to fall on our heads. That was the reality of our experience.

We shot in a very different style than above ground. Above ground, we shot in Chile, in the Atacama Desert, just a few miles from the original mine collapse. It was beautiful—there was nothing there, so we built everything above-ground scenes from scratch.

How did the 33 actors playing the miners react to the conditions of shooting the film in an actual mine? Could they come and go to the surface during the day?

Riggen: Oh no, no. We shot 35 days, 6 day weeks, 14 hour days inside the mine. We went in in the morning and left at the end of the day. It was tough for everyone, but really hard for the actors and crew. But I think it really informed them of what a miner goes through. There’s no sunlight, no day or night down there.Time stops when you’re in a mine. It’s dangerous and you feel the fear. But at the end of the day it was enriching for all of us, but especially for the cast to feel both what being a miner is like, but also the sense of community they formed.

We were trapped in our own way—we had to do this movie. The actors were always covered in full body make-up every day–oil and dirt–and while the real Chilean miners were always hot, our mines were cold. We had to spray them with water the whole time—the salt mine sucked all the humidity out of the air. They couldn’t eat, they were all dieting. It was hard.

the-33-_b-2-560x231In addition to the central story of the trapped men, there are also a number of other issues involved here, including the role of the government, the mining company, the safety issues, the questions of he workers’ rights, and compensation and responsibility.

Riggen: It was very difficult to figure out what story to tell. The point of view would change everything. This story could have been told from so many different angles. It could have just been about the technical rescue with the drills and the equipment failures, or it could have been about political or social issues surrounding the injustices miners suffer.

I ended up putting in a little bit of everything, but one of the things I told the producers early on was that the most important point of view was inside—those guys were the ones who endured the worst, so they have to be our first point of view—we have to experience it through them. So they would be the basis of how we see the movie, not through the government or the rescuers.

But then I didn’t want to leave out the families. Maybe because I’m a woman, people say I gave the wives and mothers that space in the story, but the truth is the women were the force behind this rescue. If they hadn’t been so strong and determined—they never gave up, they were in the government’s face the whole time. They really forced the government to act.

the-33-prayer-pictureI did want to give some attention to the rescue, because the government did do the right thing. In other countries, like Mexico, China, Russia, and Bolivia, trapped miners are sometimes abandoned, but the Chilean government did the right thing, so it was important to show that.

Finally, what the movie is about in many ways is the power of everyone coming together with the same goal and really do the impossible.

The Great Lie at the Peak of Everest

everest-posterIn recent years I’ve often used the term “spectacle” as a critical slur when it comes to CGI scenery over substance.

But there’s reason I get on my soapbox about moviegoers’ increasing addiction to grand cinematic (usually CGI) imagery, and it’s not just because a growing number of popular films spend so much time and budget on money-shot visuals and so little on characters, story, or themes. It’s because spectacle doesn’t just dazzle, it seduces. And in that seduction, it can deceive, delude, and betray.

Anymore I cringe when I hear some hack refer to Hollywood as “The Dream Factory”—not because I don’t think films shouldn’t ever contain hope and inspiration or even escapist fantasy or stress-relieving comedy. It’s because those things should always be earned and supported by strong, multi-dimensional films.

But if you let children vote for what they want for dinner, they’re gonna choose candy and cupcakes most nights. And in the past 50 years, corporate Hollywood has come to increasingly let the audiences’ box-office vote become the only voice the Industry listens to. So we’re not getting escapism and empty-calorie dreams once in a while for dessert—we’re getting them for nearly every (at least mainstream Cineplex Hollywood) meal.

We’re all aware of this when we watch a Jurassic Park or Avengers or Fast and Furious movie. Think of those as Hostess snack cakes—everyone knows what’s in them when they buy and eat them; everyone knows they’ll get a sugar rush and later a stomachache. The problem is that our steady diet of empty cinematic calories, usually in the form of awesome CGI grandeur, has numbed us to our own addiction. We ingest so much spectacle, we’re no longer consciously aware of what it does to us.

5c4ccae1-0f5f-478f-985d-d7ce8d88c9cf-2060x1236Which brings us to this fall’s Everest, a sometimes thrilling, sometimes shattering dramatization of the 1996 deaths of eight climbers on Mt. Everest due to a sudden deadly storm and a series of human errors.

The new film version is not based on Jon Krakauer,’s 1997 book Into Thin Air—in fact, it often noticeably points a finger not so much personally at Krakauer, (who, of course, was in the ill-fated climbing group) but at how the lucrative spotlight his Outside magazine article could provide, thus pushing the commercial expedition leaders to take more risks in order to avoid the PR disaster of not getting their paid charges to the top.

Everest has its strengths, including a naturally gripping second half and uniformly solid performances from folks like Emily Watson, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Jake Gyllenhall, Robin Wright, and especially Jason Clarke as Rob Hall, the New Zealander owner of and lead guide for Adventure Consultants, and Keira Knightly as Rob’s worried, pregnant wife Jan back home.

But its primary strength is also its greatest weakness: stunning, jaw-dropping images (some real moving footage, some computer-animated still photos, some pure CGI) of the top of mountain, captured in roaming, reverent helicopter shots that, of course, could not have been taken from any helicopter. Hollywood just happens to love films like Everest (and this season’s The Walk and even The Martian) because people leave the theater and set aside things like weak pacing or shallow characterizations and instead rave to friends, “Omg, you have to (pay a lot more to) see this in 3-D on IMAX!”

death-on-the-mountain-4-stories-more-shocking-than-the-everest-movie-609290And it’s true—on IMAX in 3-D those shots of the mountain from Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, cinematographer Salvatore Totino, the visual effects team, and mountain-climber and second unit director of photography Kent Harvey (who was filming on Everest this past April when avalanche killed around 20 climbers and sherpas and shut down the mountain for the year), don’t just fill the giant several-story screen and nearly your entire field of vision, they fill your being. You gawk and gasp in the dark at how G-D big the mountain feels on the screen, as if the entire weight of the Earth is towering over you. It has such mass—historical, metaphorical, cultural, even spiritual–you can almost sense a gravitational pull at your soul from that towering, threatening mass of stone and snow set against a brilliant blue sky.

That overwhelming wowsa effect becomes both the film’s appeal and its problem. In fact, that very appeal is the problem. Because as those interested in Everest climbing in the past 20 years or specifically the ‘96 tragedy know, one of the biggest dangers in ascending the peak these days is that the route is over-crowded with hundreds of people paying sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars to guides to get them, usually in massive groups of dozens of climbers, to the top and back down during a very narrow window of weather compatibility.

635781677285450154-Everest-Review-EMGN2The first commercial expeditions to the summit began in 1993, and one of the main points of Everest is supposed to be that within a few years the combination of increased climber traffic, the relative high-attitude inexperience of many climbers, and the growing competition for paying customers among expedition companies all contributed—along with the storm, of course—to the 1996 deaths.

The film’s script by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy spends its first half hammering home (with some expository clumsiness) all the physical dangers of climbing Everest, from the shifting ice shelves and crevasses to the deadly cold and lack of oxygen in the “death zone” above 26,000 feet. And yet we’ve all known people who, if you tell them how dangerous something is, light up with a renewed desire to do it. That same effect is at work in Everest: the more the film’s characters inform us of the risks, the more thrilling the viewing experience becomes. And yes, the second half of the film—when things start to go wrong—is plenty riveting.

Everest-Gallery-03Narratively, Everest is centered around three primary characters: Clarke’s clear-eyed and calm leader, Hall; Brolin’s blustery Texan blow-hard, Beck Weathers, whose swaggering Lone Star braggadocio may have gotten him in over his head; and Hawkes’ sad-sack and seemingly frail postal worker Doug Hansen, making his second and final attempt at the summit after failing the year prior. (Although he’s arguably the biggest star on the poster, Gyllenhall’s Scott Fischer, a grinning, laid-back dude guide, has mostly a tangential presence.)

(Normally I’d feel squeamish when negatively short-handing these characters based on real people, some of whom died on the mountain. But I’m not here to evaluate Everest on its accuracy, particularly in terms of the motivations and/or missteps of the real-life victims—especially when over the past two decades there’s been plenty of hand-wringing and finger-pointing among the survivors as to who did or did not do what. No, let’s be clear here: I’m not talking about the real Hall, Weathers, Hansen, or Fischer, or their real-life actions. I’m only talking about a movie and actors playing those characters as written in a Hollywood script, and what that movie is intentionally and unintentionally saying to us.)

maxresdefaultdEverest spends much of its first half making cases for why each of these men wanted to reach the summit: Weathers perhaps out of some need to pit his ego against something slightly bigger; Hall making his fifth ascent in order to build his expedition business; and Hansen seemingly in order to achieve some sort of personal goal (to feel he’s accomplished something important) and be an inspiration to young grade-school students back in his hometown. Needless to say, each of those three main characters runs into trouble near the top.

(There are *SPOILERS* ahead, in case you haven’t seen Everest, read Into Thin Air, or don’t know how to work the Google or a Wikipedia.)

The film clearly suggests that despite his yearning spirit, physically Hansen had no business being on the mountain, and that Hall tragically let both his desire to build a good ascent-record reputation for his Adventure Consultants and his personal empathy and sense of responsibility for Hansen’s situation lead him to make risky decisions that eventually led to both his and Hansen’s deaths.

everestOnscreen, Hansen’s is handled silently and disquietingly quickly—it’s almost off-handedly haunting. On the other hand, Hall’s slow, frozen fate on the side of the peak—all while still in radio contact with both base camp and his wife via satellite phone—is a drawn-out, heart-rending gut-punch thanks primarily to Clarke and Knightly’s powerful performances. (Keira frickin’ Knightley: Just plain great in everything.)

Weathers, however, miraculously survives being left for dead overnight on the mountain—awaking (frostbitten and disoriented) to somehow walk back down to camp on his own. In many ways, it’s because of Weathers’ triumphant survival—not the deaths of Hall, Fischer, Hansen, and three other climbers—that Everest exists. Weathers’ amazing story sticks a bit of feel-good uplift on the end of the otherwise horrific tale. No one these days is going to make a big film full of big-name stars just to have the last act be “and then they all died.” In general, we don’t go to the movies to be scolded—we go to be inspired and affirmed.

AA44_FP_00007R.jpgIt’s Hall and Hansen’s deaths and Weathers’ survival that lay at the heart of the deeper, existential problem with the film Everest. Everything on the script page says the film should be a searing, angry expose not just of the dangers of commercial overcrowding on the mountain, but of the arrogant, reckless need of some (often rich) people to prove something to themselves by paying someone else tens of thousands of dollars to spend weeks leading them up a mountain so they can stand for a few minutes in a place they have no business whatsoever being. This film should scream, “This is stupid! Do not try it at home!”

And yet, of course those soaring, terrifying looks at the mountain—all that 3-D IMAX splendor—undermine any such message. That’s the almost invisible effect anymore of big-screen movie “magic”: No matter what a script may be trying to tell our heads; our hearts, our souls, our eyes are being stunned and swept away by all that visual splendor. And in general, humans tend to feel and believe what our eyes and hearts (not our heads) tell us. Yes, the starkly beautiful scenery is there to remind us why climbers go for it, but in movies the images almost always commandeer the ideas.

JS71340861Hall, Hansen, and Fischer’s lonely deaths should support the argument that climbing Everest just to do it, just because it’s there, is not just foolish but wastefully destructive. Instead, the film puts an emotional beat on Hansen’s plea to Hall to help him reach the top “for the children,” to inspire them to go after their “impossible dreams.” In doing so it wraps Hansen’s death in tragic, misguided nobility instead of pathos.

Meanwhile, Weathers’ Texas-sized will to live (as personified by Brolin’s bigger-than-life presence… and head) can’t help but underscore the opposite message: There is something in the human spirit that needs to test itself against the biggest most daunting natural challenges, where the greater the danger, the richer the emotional reward.

I doubt anyone involved in the making of Everest wants it to play as an advertisement for climbing Everest. But their cautionary intentions are repeatedly subverted by the film’s staggering vistas. On the big screen there is a siren quality to that image of the mountain; so majestic, so imposing, so crystal-clear in its pristine CGI form, spread out over the IMAX. It cannot help but dare you to want to defy it. Something so daunting cries out to be conquered—even if you are paying someone else to help you become the 4,000th person to do so.

The film’s poster may say, “The most dangerous place on earth,” but the similarity to Disneyland’s motto isn’t far off: the accompanying image of the peak says, “I want to be there.” And somewhere someone will watch Everest and—despite all the death, despite the many corpses of climbers that line the route as warning signs—come away thinking, “I need to do that.”

The Hollow Weight of Black Mass

MV5BNzg0ODI3NDQxNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzgzNDA0NjE@._V1_SX214_AL_We’re all familiar with the Big Pivot the Cinematic Industrial Complex makes over Labor Day, when suddenly the theaters are no longer stuffed with superheroes and exploding action vehicles (starring Good Actors Paying for New Homes in Southern Europe), but instead begin to fill with Important Meaningful films about things (starring Good Actors Doing Serious Acting).

But whether their subject is Transforming Super-powered Race Cars or Exploring Human Nature and the Quest for Truth, the questions remains the same when approaching the new seasonal slate of films: Why is This Thing Here? Or more importantly, Why Am I Expected to Spend Two-plus Hours Watching It?

The answer to the first question is simple: To win awards. I know that sounds crass and cynical, and I know very well that many really talented and artistically sincere writers, directors, and even actors make truly amazing films because they share a desire to say something with their cinematic work—not, to get awards. (Though most will admit after a drink or two that awards are certainly nice, in terms of gratification and appreciation, but they also come in handy when lining up future passion projects.)

Film Review Black MassBut very few writers, directors, or actors (with the exception of Mel Gibson Before the Fall) make their beloved creative projects on their own dime—it takes a studio and lots of (usually overseas) financing to get Johnny Depp into a bald wig. But there’s not that much sweet hot cash to be made on a serious, grown-up movie—even the most successful ones at the box office still don’t offer a huge return on investment; not compared to the mounds of filthy lucre that can come with a big, dumb, action-adventure blockbuster smash.

So yes, when we seriously ask “why” these types of films (about things other than superheroes, cars, and dinosaurs) get made (that is, financed), it’s because a studio and financers felt there was some prestige to be gained (to help all creatives involved sleep better on their giant piles of superhero-movie cash), and these days creative prestige is measured in awards.

While we serious grownups may praise fall and winter movies for their more serious, grown-up topics, in the end, many of them are, in their own special more serious, grown-up way just as shallow and calculating as summer movies about exploding dinosaurs and aliens. Like summer movies, many prestige films have a primary purpose that is not necessarily to make the best film possible in order to really say something insightful and important. Instead, it’s to win awards.

091615_f2f_mass_640This isn’t true of every “prestige” film that comes out between Labor Day and Christmas—there are, in fact, some very good films coming out this fall that showcase the powerful creative and thematic intent of the filmmakers, and that may also happen, along the way, to get nominated for some awards. But there are others Big Serious Important films coming out that feel as if either that creative and thematic intent got lost amid the push for Award Hardware, or worse, that it may have never been fully there in the first place.

Which brings us to Black Mass, the fall season’s first Big Serious Important film. As I’m sure we all know, it tells the mostly true story of not just psychopathic South Boston gang leader James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp, doing Serious Acting in the aforementioned bald wig), but also of his too-cozy take-and-take relationship with the FBI, by way of Bulger’s childhood friend-turned-FBI agent James Connelly (Joel Edgerton). Directed by Scott Cooper from Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworths’ script (based on the book by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill), Black Mass sports compelling performances from Depp and Edgerton.

maxresdefault (6)(It also features a rogues gallery of solid and sleazy supporting actors including Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, and Peter Sarsgaard, as well as Kevin Bacon, John Morris, Adam Scott, and Corey Stoll.)

But the film also plows through and eventually stalls out amid a truckload of Goodfella-era gangster-movie familiarity. There’s a lurking sense of inevitability in Black Mass, not just because most viewers know how Bulger’s story eventually ends, but because we know how these sorts of movies go.

We know exactly what happens when the hapless goon or hopeless patsy gets in a car with the Bad Guys or when someone tries to cross the ambitious and paranoid Mob Boss on a deal. We sit and watch and say, “Oh, this is gonna be one of those scenes”—which doesn’t mean we don’t still get a lurid thrill of disgust from it, but we can’t pretend to be surprised.

maxresdefault (7)Yes, there’s a sometimes hilariously wide swath of South Bawstahn accents on display from the film’s international cast. And yes, the pile of prosthetic make up glued to Depp’s actorly noggin is equal parts effective and distracting. And yes, there’s lots of violence—some of it shocking, some of it disturbing. But as the bodies pile up (most of them under Whitey’s favorite buryin’ bridge), there’s a diminishing sense that all the violence and deaths don’t add up to anything—they feel like they’re there because they’re gangster movie tropes, not because they say much about Whitey or the film’s intended points.

Which of course gets at the larger problem with Black Mass—the reason it falls into the bucket of Awards Bait for Awards Bait’s Sake. The film doesn’t have much to say about anything other than Whitey was Evil and Depp is Really Doing a Lot of Acting About Him. To be sure, all that “evil” and all that “acting” go a long way toward keeping Black Mass engaging and even entertaining throughout most of its running time. Depp’s Bulger is all mesmerizing Dark Prince; quiet, tightly-coiled reptilian menace with those scary blue snake eyes peering out of a pale and sharp-edged face.

movies-black-mass-still-06But somewhere around the midway point, as the film’s story starts to shift from what an evil villain Whitey is to how deeply connected and corrupted the ambitious-loser Connelly is becoming, you start to sense that you’re watching it all purely as morbid entertainment—as viewing experiences go, at its core it’s no different than watching free-range dinosaurs eat tourists. And doesn’t have much more to say other than “it sucks to get eaten by a dinosaur, or a Boston criminal.”

There’s a surprising lack of human nuance and insight from director Cooper, whose previous films Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace focused on character and behavior first and foremost. Which is why I’m beating up on Black Mass (despite its undeniable watchablity) as an example of a sort of hollow increasingly prevalent Awards-Season drama. Depp clearly wanted a thick, meaty, dark and dangerous role he could sink his actor teeth into, but I’m sure he also wouldn’t mind finally winning an Oscar and laying down a new coating of Actorly Importance over his past decade’s resume of increasingly pointless Tim Burton weirdos and Disney pop-culture paydays.

black-mass-johnny-deppAnd yet, Depp still ends up playing Bulger like one of his Disney/Burton caricatures—a weirdo outsider, The Other, someone with no real connection to us average human beings. No one’s denying Depp his acting chops or his ability to still command onscreen attention (he did a fine job playing another famous criminal, John Dillinger, with much more emotional complexity in Public Enemies), but here he’s leaning just as much on the notion of Bulger as some sort of freak-show oddity or monstrous creature as he is on the hair and makeup department.

With Depp’s evil Whitey at the center of Black Mass, it seems as if Cooper and his writers are unable to wrestle the film back toward more complex ideas. In fact, the film’s focus on its fascinatingly terrible (the skull-faced and vicious Bulger) and venally tragic (the stone-faced and stupid Connelly) protagonists leaves it blind to a possible, richer, and certainly more daring and dangerous path.

I’m not going to prosecute Black Mass on its historical accuracy and lack thereof—like any biopic drama, there are quibbles to be had with the narrative shortcuts and creative liberties taken—many of them recently raised by Bulger’s literal partners in crime.

62951But I do feel the film’s obsession with Whitey the Psycho and Connelly the Fallen Agent ignores what may have been the more interesting and important story. Despite Connelly’s collusion with Bulger—turning a dumb eye to the criminal’s abuse of his position as a (mostly useless) FBI informant as well as Bulger’s murder of cohorts—there are suggestions that the Bureau itself was possibly much more complacent, even conspiratorial in later covering up its association with Bulger.

Awards Season dramas tend to focus on sexy, seductive, or sleazy “bad apple” individuals like Bulger and Connelly, while letting institutions and authoritative systems off the hook. (The exception is this season’s much better, much stronger and more powerful Sicario which bravely and exhilaratingly aims right at the System.)

black-massAfter all the acting and the killing and the darkness, Black Mass doesn’t little more than further burnish Bulger’s legendary, otherworldly evilness. Just like those summer-movie amusement park rides fall theater-goers love to sneer at, you still go into the tunnel, gawk and scream at the bogeyman at the center, and then leave the theater thinking, “Wow, what a monster; what a rush, huh?”

Lost in Movies’ Magical Moments! Or How I Didn’t Spend My Summer

4529339-avengers-age-of-ultron-collageOh hey, look, it’s officially the end of the summer movie season.

I had a half dozen clever ways into this piece, but let’s cut to the chase (scenes, literally): I didn’t write much about this summer’s big blockbuster “air-conditioning-and-popcorn” movies.

I didn’t write much about the summer’s small art-house indie films, either, for a variety of reasons I’m working to remedy, but in part because even as I near 50, I’m still somewhat conditioned and programmed to focus first on the big-name, big-box-office summer action movies. They get “stuck in my craw,” and when I couldn’t write about them this summer, for reasons I’ll elaborate on here today, I found myself unable to write about much else until I cleared the flue. Or craw… or whatever this metaphor was about…

Since my youth, I’ve been told (by studios and entertainment media, in the past couple decades by online social media, and always by myself) that Summer Movies are “special;” that if they’re not always cinematically deep, they’re culturally, seasonally, personally important. Most of all, Summer Movie Season (and the upcoming Awards Season) is intentionally, collectively branded by the studios and the Grand Entertainment Marketing Machine as Something We Are Supposed to Care About (i.e. “Spend Our Money On”).

In past summers I’d written about the nostalgic pull of the “idea” of these big summer movies, more about getting excited about them than watching the films themselves–all of it keyed directly into the warm emotional glow of my 10-16-year-old self’s rose-tinted memories of lining up on summer sidewalks to see films like Star Wars, Empire, Raiders, E.T., and even, in a rare case of my young-adult self successfully capturing that childhood thrill, Burton’s first Batman (which I saw in my early-20s rather than my teens). Right up until the last five years (not coincidentally, around when I began to write about film professionally), I could still muster something like that excitement and giddy anticipation for the Summer Movie Season, all of it, again, fueled almost purely on nostalgia, not reality. “Chasing the experience,” we call it.

102751926-jurassic-world-super-bowl-trailer-1.1910x1000These days I don’t feel much of that anymore. Yes, it bubbled up a bit in recent years for the new Star Trek and Avengers movies, franchises with deep ties to my childhood faves. (Those and the upcoming new Star Wars are just about the only releases I still find myself seeking out and watching trailers for. Otherwise—and I promise a full-length rant on this someday soon—I think trailers and the over-attention paid to them these days are one of the Interweb’s many cultural blights—a case of the marketing tail wagging the filmmaking dog.)

What I usually feel now when approaching Summer Movie Season is some varying degree of jaded curiosity, usually run through with thick strains of hope or dread, depending on the new movie’s franchise, filmmakers, or corporate brand identity.

The reasons for that are numerous; some of them personal, some of them professional, none of them all that revelatory or interesting. Yes, I’m getting older. I’ve seen a lot of summer action and sci-fi and fantasy films over the decades, and yes, a lot of superhero movies since 1990. It’s not so much that my tastes have become rarefied as they’ve gotten numbed. I love warm, comforting, fun wades through the nostalgia bath as much as anyone, but for various Industry reasons (that I’ll touch on in a sec), that warm nostalgia bath of genre familiarity (or “high brand awareness”) is almost all we get anymore, and at some point the relaxing bath starts to feel like slowly drowning.

Part of me still enjoys the Marvel superheroes, and dinosaur-sized visual effects spectacles, and Mission-Impossible action flicks, still dutifully trots out to the theater to see them on the big screens. But no matter how much each successive entry in those summer sub-genres is “newer” and “bigger” and “more more-y!” their songs remain essentially the same, and they’re songs I don’t need to hear every weekend from every new big-budget genre film.

MIRNSo unless a summer action film really nails it, really just puts the pedal down and roars tightly and perfectly through the tropes (ahem, a little more on Mad Max: Fury Road in a bit), I don’t really care anymore. Nor does “show me something new” mean “show me something bigger and louder and with more 3D IMAX pixels”—it means show me new ideas, new ways to telling these old tales, something unique, something original and weird. (And sadly, as I’ll discuss below, simple things like well-realized characters and storytelling and solid filmmaking craft are rare enough these days to qualify as “unique.”) (Last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy nudged up against some of that craving for new flavors, thanks to director-writer James Gunn’s off-beat exploit-indie sensibilities and musical taste, but in the end, it remained mostly Marvel-Disney superhero product.)

But it’s not just that I’m getting old and jaded and I’ve seen it all before. There are larger financial forces at work in recent years. As has been written about and discussed at length both here by me and all over the media, the Film Industry’s economic model is (like the world’s entire economic system) stuck in a death spiral, desperately chasing larger and larger profit margins to make up for dwindling theater attendance, and so pounding any “mainstream” movie release into a soft, mushy, mass-digestible pulp—a mushy pulp that must come with strong pre-release “brand awareness.”

Yes, I’m weary of these films, and very weary of writing about them, but no, it’s not all my fault—the films are getting worse for the most part, even as they’re expertly marketed with military precision to score bigger and bigger opening weekends. (As audiences are increasingly conditioned to respond to marketing as the thing itself, not the thing selling the thing. Getting excited to be sold to is now the point, not the process. Exhibit A: ComicCon.)

150608103918-jurassic-world-training-780x439But the problem for me as a writer this summer was that I’ve said all this, over and over in recent years. I don’t know how many more times I can pound the pulpit about all these subjects when it comes to today’s crass, commercial, and content-vacant versions of Popcorn Entertainment.

About the decay of simple narrative structures in the age of video-game storytelling, about the erosion of anything that resembles character development, about the drug-addled addiction to visual CGI spectacle. A couple summers ago, I wrote about Depp’s Lone Ranger reboot in which I pointed out that these really aren’t anything like movies anymore—they’re just “entertainment property events,” not films. Every time I sat down to write about one of this summer’s new blockbuster entertainment property events, I found myself shrugging and thinking, “Eh, just re-read the Lone Ranger piece.”

Sure, I can still break down and analyze the strengths and weaknesses and cinematic features and failings of an individual film like Avengers: The Age of Ultron, Jurassic World, or Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation (to name the summer’s three biggest action films—none of which I ended up writing about). I can do it in my sleep with one critic’s notebook tied behind my back. Which is the problem, natch: It just puts me to sleep on any sort of level of personal, writer-ly, critical engagement. I’m glad other talented film critics are still out there, fielding every one of these pop flies with insight and acumen, but I’m not sure I want to do it anymore.

Yes, the mostly entertaining Jurassic World was a meta-commentary on the notion of blockbuster films as theme parks. Yes, the mostly entertaining Mission: Impossible is yet another example of how the exploding international film market is driving the plots and settings of these huge films. Yes, the mostly entertaining Avengers 2 was… well, yet another testament to the unholy, unstoppable marketing and box-office power of Disney and Marvel.


But I’ve said all these things before, about other, similar summer movies. Going forward, I find myself more interested in thinking about these sorts of films in groups and trends, rather than as individual efforts—most of which are, usually, eh, pretty okay for what they are, give or take a Fantastic Four here or there… and there’s no more boring piece to write or read than the “eh, pretty okay for what it is” piece.

For example, I kinda half liked all three of those big, successful, popular movies. That is to say, I had a decent time in the air-conditioned theater for the two hours-plus of their running times. But now, several months after most of their releases, I’m very hard pressed to recall much about any of their particular plot mechanisms or main characters.

(Yes, Mission: Impossible was only a month ago, but its plot is the most nonsensical and irrelevant, and its characters the most blandly undefined of the three, so it feels even with the others. Seriously, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has been a Major Movie Character now for almost 20 years on the big screen, and I defy any of you to tell me a single Hunt character trait other than “he’s intense, runs hard, and is the best at what he does”—which is to say, “he’s Tom Cruise.”)

mission-impossible-rogue-nation-motorcycle-explosion_1920.0-e1433808025568Quick, conjure up some of the most memorable, already insta-iconic images and action set pieces from those three films, this summer’s biggest. Then without thinking too hard (or consulting Wikipedia), try to recall the particular plot dynamics around those stunning visuals and stunt gags.

Remember when all the Avengers hurled themselves across the screen in epic slo-mo at the start of Avengers 2? Why exactly were they doing that? Or when Iron Man donned his Hulk Buster armor to punch out the Hulk? Why were they fighting? Or when Black Widow scooped up Cap’s shield off the road? Someone tell me from memory why they were in the middle of that particular car chase? Or when Ultron levitated an entire Eastern European city hundreds of meters into the sky? Do you remember now, four months later, specifically what he was up to? (Har, har.)

Jurassic_World_posterHow about Jurassic World, which admittedly had a somewhat more linear plot than the other two? (People come to see dinos, corporate greed cuts safety corners, dinos get loose and eat people.) Even I fell in love, pre-release, with that artificially iconic (heavily marketed) shot of Chris Pratt on a motorbike, leading his semi-trained Raptor Pack off on a hunt at full macho speed. But while I can give you the vague context of that scene, in my memory it doesn’t connect in any meaningful way to the film’s overall plot (what plot there was).

Or really, just about any action scene from Mission: Impossible, a mostly well-crafted action film that, to be fair, makes few bones about the fact that it exists solely as a series of thrilling, death-defying set pieces that have little or no real narrative purpose? (And which, like Jurassic World, is willing to overuse a familiar soundtrack that gooses up almost Pavlovian levels of viewer excitement.) Pop quiz, hot shots: Why was Hunt hanging off that plane? Or holding his breath in that goofy underwater tank? Or so awesomely racing that motorcycle along desert roads?

The answer, of course, to every one of those questions above is “Because it looked cool and was thrilling.” Which is also going to be any remaining “fans’” of these movies answer to “Why do you like this movie?”

Oh, I’m sure some of you who loved and paid closer attention to those moves this summer than I did can answer most of those plot questions. I know I’m jaded; I know I don’t bother to try much anymore with these films. But they’re giving me no reason to not be jaded, no reason to try. I sit down, I watch the stream of magical, dazzling movie moments for over two hours, I smile semi-fondly and appreciatively, and then I leave the theater and quickly forget almost entirely about the whole experience.

king-kong-1976When I was 10-11 years old, I spent most of 1977 obsessed with two films: Yes, Star Wars, but also, right before that, the Christmas 1976 Jeff Bridges/Jessica Lange King Kong remake from Dino DiLaurentis. (The one where at the end he climbed the World Trade Center—Kong, that is, not Dino.) One of those films went on to become the most culturally ubiquitous fantasy phenomenon of a generation. (Until that snot-nosed upstart Harry Potter came along.) The other, not so much.

But for a time, I really and truly loved that King Kong movie—I collected every one of its Topps trading cards, I listened to the LP soundtrack on repeat, I replayed over and over all my favorite scenes in my head, I did countless drawings of a goofily disproportioned giant ape battling giant snakes and Army helicopters—all of which turned out to just be warm up for my complete and total Star Wars immersion half a year later.

But the point is, I get it if you’re sitting there reading this, thinking, “But I really, really love these new films.” Kong was not, is not a good movie, but I treasured it, poured over it, I made it my own in my head. I know there are people out there who feel the same way about Avengers 2 and Jurassic World—I see the blogs and Tumblr pages filled with gifs and drawings of their favorite scenes and lines of dialogue and fan fic about the characters—other than the more advanced media technology, not one bit different from the beloved images on my Kong and Star Wars trading cards.

Aside from the fact I’m now 38 years older, the big difference today is that movies like Avengers, Jurassic, and M:I feel like they’ve eliminated the “middle man”—that is, the actual “functional cinema” part. They feel constructed entirely of trading card or gif moments, those raw materials of “bits” or “gags” or “cool visuals” strung together in as loose or prosaic fashion as possible to make something that for two-plus hours vaguely resembles a “film” in name only.

urlThere’s no core to them, no heart, no sense of authorship. (Again, another critique I feel I’ve been writing over and over for years, even decades.) Given how they work so hard to satisfy on their non-stop surfaces, I suspect both Avengers 2 and Jurassic World are films their die-hard fans love, but eventually come to find they don’t really like.

The Avengers and its little brother The Man of the Ants feel especially constructed out of a series of those fun or exciting character, humor, or action moments. In fact, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe of feature films, alongside the companion TV series, is feeling increasingly like one big serialized soap opera. The films don’t feel like “features,” they feel like episodes, each one carrying through on the plot points, characters, and themes of its predecessor while perpetually setting up—usually through those now-famous post-credits scenes—the Next Big MCU Film.

I’ve been saying for years now that the Marvel films have become director-proof—a point fairly well proven this summer by Payton Reed’s direction of a perfectly likable, nice, pointless Ant-Man movie. (Which is no knock on Reed, whose Down With Love I get a fizzy kick from.) These Marvel film productions now run mostly on their own, on a perfected, well-oiled factory assembly line. Sort of like Iron Man’s army of empty, remote-controlled Iron Man suits. And if Disney has its way—and it usually does—the factory conveyor belt will continue forever and ever.

FRD-DS-00253.0And present-day younger viewers don’t notice or mind because, raised on video games and the Internet (and watching movies from filmmakers often raised on the same) this is what they’ve come to expect from their big movies, it’s how they consume and process them—as often disjointed bits and moments. I know how Grumpy Old Man that sounds—this damn Internet! Those kids and their video games! But I’m trying my best to examine this as a cultural shift—I just keep failing at the whole “non-judgy” part.

Which brings us to Mad Max: Fury Road, one of the few summer action films I did write about this summer, and the only new one I flat out loved. Because it felt like it was made by a grown-up—in fact, a 70-year-old grown up—who understands how film and cinematic storytelling is supposed to work to enthrall, entertain, and create meaning. I can tell you the plot of Fury Road, and yes, it’s a pretty simple one. (“We have to drive here, now we have to go back there.”)

But also Fury Road is rated “R.” On seeing it earlier this summer, that baffled and annoyed me, as there really isn’t anything in the film to garner an R rating. But in hindsight, deserved or not, that R rating may have saved George Miller’s film. (And this, I suspect, is why he didn’t fight it.) At some point the studio looked at the new R-rated Mad Max film and sighed, “Well, it can only make X amount at the box office with that rating. Let’s leave it be.” Had Mad Max been rated PG-13, as its content would seem to merit, my guess is the concerned studio would have picked and badgered it into a million nonsensical disjointed little pieces as they worked day and night to figure out how best to cram it full of elements that better “potentialize” it for teenagers.

In the end, I know the equation that drives most of these non-Max films, on both side of the theater seats. Those aforementioned super fans aside, most summer movie goers don’t care how cohesively a film is constructed, whether the narrative makes sense, or the characters are multi-dimensional. They don’t care how well the moments and set pieces are integrated into a larger storytelling effort. They want just one thing: For all those “fun” “exciting” “thrilling” moments we’ve been talking about to keep them sufficiently entertained for two or more hours in the air conditioning.

heres-how-the-insane-vehicles-were-created-in-mad-max-fury-roadThat doesn’t mean every bit has to work perfectly, but in the end, the average viewer wants to feel that whatever aggregate entertainment the movie served up, however choppily or stupidly, with or without any sort of cinematic artistry, was enough to keep them from getting restless in the theater for the amount of time they had to sit there. That it was “worth it” as entertainment. That “entertained” > “bored.” Studios know this and construct most of their films accordingly.

I get it. I understand the reasons behind that system. I understand why lots of people are perfectly happy to watch and love these movies. But maybe I’m finally, fully realizing I’m not 11 years old anymore. I just know I’m having a very hard time anymore caring or writing much about the big dumb “entertaining” movies that system is producing. I think Summer really is over.

(Oh wait… when does that new Star Wars movie come out? Winter? Okay, we’re good, then…)

Interview: Jurassic World Co-star Omar Sy on His New Film Samba

Samba-movie-poster (1)omar-syIn just a few years, Omar Sy, a French-born actor of Senegalese descent, has starred in the biggest French film of all time, The Intouchables, won a Best Actor César Award for the role, co-starred in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past (as Bishop), and is appearing in what is now the third-biggest (and still climbing) film of all time: Jurassic World (as Barry, the raptor trainer).

Sy (pronounced “see”), who first gained fame in France as an TV improv comedian, has also re-teamed this summer with his Intouchables co-writers-directors, Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, to play the title role in Samba. It’s an engaging, entertaining, often funny and moving French film about a positive-thinking, hopeful Senegalese illegal immigrant living in Paris, whose efforts to avoid deportation bring him together with a lonely, burnt-out former corporate lawyer named Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

Another writer and I sat down with Sy in Chicago last week to talk about Samba.

Samba is now playing in select theaters.


There’ so much in the film about the nature of work, between working-class immigrants like Samba and Alice and her executive-level burn out. What did you bring to this movie personally in terms of your attitude towards work?

Omar Sy: Because of my own experience from my parents and some of my friends and some of my family working in manual labor, I took from that. When I was younger, I used to do things like the sort of labor Samba does. So I tried to relate through that. The movie brings the question for me of, “Where are we putting the work in our lives? How important is it to work?” The opposite thing with the character of Samba is that he’s ready to do anything in terms of working, including the tough labor. And Charlotte’s character Alice has a different type of work and gets sick working. This balance shows how society is divided and complicated in our relationship to our work.

samba_3-620x370There’s that idea of embracing your work, being happy in it.

Sy: Embracing work because you have no choice. On the other hand, if you chose it, and because you chose it, it’s supposed to make you happy because you had the choice. But the other side has no choice, you do it to live and survive. There’s no question about whether or not you enjoy it or it makes you happy. The connection we have with work are different and where we put that in life is interesting, how we do our work, not everyone has the chance to choose what they do in life.

At the center of Samba is the unique relationship that your character has with Gainsbourg’s Alice. What did you learn from working with her–what was different in how she prepared for performances compared to what you do?

Sy: I learned from her way of focusing on things. Coming from a comedian’s background, my way to focus is always to get away from the scene. The more serious the scene, the more I need to do some jokes to be alive before scenes like that. But she’s so quiet and focused on what she has to do, and it’s so different. So maybe I’ve learned to come down before doing a scene now. She is so intense and so in the moment that it made things easier for me, just to look at her and her eyes, and see how truly into it she was, and I just have to react. She is an amazing actress. It was easy to be in the moment with her.

samba_4-620x324Samba and Alice have begin as friends, but have that delicate tension. How did you two create that dynamic?

Sy: The directors wanted to have a kind of awkward love story, and I think life helped us because she was kind of intimidated, and I felt the same. We maybe used that in our characters to give that feeling. It was something special for me to act with Charlotte Gainsbourg, and the fact that the directors and I were already a team, so she was new in the group, maybe that helped in the beginning. And we kept that until the end.

You play Samba with a lot of hope, but there’s always this sense of his darker past, for example the scars on his back. Was it important to keep that in there?

Sy: Of course. I had to because even if we wanted to add some comedy in it, we tried to tell the truth. The truth is sometimes really hard, and dark. And the fact that I spent time with people who went through that before shooting, I had the responsibility to represent them in a realistic way, so I couldn’t avoid the dramatic side of their life, and how it is hard for them. I had to consider that and take it, and try my best to show that. Which is why the scars are there.

samba_6-620x414You were born and raised in France and French society. Was it tricky to play a character who’s only been in the country for a decade, who is an outsider still sometimes confused by the culture?

Sy: It was a challenge for me as an actor to play someone far from me. That’s why it was interesting for me to meet those people, and to take on this responsibility to try to be like them, and to show how different from me they are. Their way of talking, walking, and looking at other people. It’s difficult for them, to look someone in the eyes for a long time, their eyes are always going all over, because they didn’t feel comfortable focusing here. It’s difficult for them to feel at home, even after ten years. It was interesting as an actor to try to show that and find that balance.

They see things very differently, like a train station, for example.

Sy: Of course. For us, a train station just means travel. For them, it’s danger. And maybe the last minute in the country because they could be arrested at any moment. It’s a lot of stress.

How does working on a set with Toledano and Nakache set differ from those of bigger blockbusters, like Jurassic World and X-Men: Days of Future Past?

Sy: There are no dinosaurs [laughs]. It’s different mostly because I know Olivier and Eric really well, and we’re used to working together. It’s also a French-speaking set, so it’s really different. I haven’t done that many American movies. But the sets have the same way of working. They have the passion and fun to do what we want to do, and we are really happy to do what we do in life. We are trying to enjoy each moment.

1204619_Samba (1)With the critical and financial success of The Intouchables, how was making Samba different from that film? Was it easier with more resources and time?

Sy: Yes, of course, and I think that’s why I think it was the right time for them to do Samba, because of the success of The Intouchables. They could finance the movie and have time and the money to do it very well, and have this good cast. I’m really happy for that. I think Olivier and Eric are so generous and so smart. After Intouchables  a lot of directors could take any subjects or commercial film – but they decided to do this. That’s why I was excited to do it — I think it was a good, good move.

We’ve heard about immigration in France, and around the world, since we were young. We all come from immigrant parents – my parents come from Senegal, Eric’s parents come from Morocco, and Oliver’s parents come from Algiers. We are part of it, and it was important for us, and a lot of people, to talk about that, and explore the personal side of that political issue, because I think everyone is affected by immigration. These are just people trying to have a better life, so we want to learn about them and give them names.

You’ve mentioned previously that for the past three years you’ve been living in America, and learning the English language. What perspective have you gained about how Samba‘s issues of race and class play out in America?

Sy: It’s difficult to compare, because it’s a different story. For example, the United States doesn’t have colonies; a lot of immigrants in France are from colonies, so it is a different type of immigration. The race issues are different also, because black and white here with slave history.

Omar-Sy (2)Along with the idea of trying to blend in, there’s an idea about identity within Samba. There’s a particularly intriguing scene in which Samba is told by his uncle what he should be wearing so that he can fit in, to not look like an outsider, but to look like a regular citizen. As an actor, what is most important to you when it comes to creating an on-screen identity?

Sy: I think for me, the fact that being an actor is that you have to let the space for the audience to decide. That’s why you have to stay behind your character, because it’s the space for the audience to decide what they want to see. The thing with art, the audience has to find its space. When you see a painting or a photo, if you don’t find your space, or the artist is saying what you have to see, it’s not art. So for me, it’s just letting the space. I don’t say, “I want do that, I wanna be that,” I let the audience decide. At this moment, what I want to say and talk about now, there are no plans. Even if I wanted to do plans, it’s a difficult to be predictable because things change very fast. It’s just in the moment to try do what I want to do, and I have the luck to different things. So, I want to do all of that.

Where Were Sullen, Bitter, Grumpy, and Cynical in Inside Out?

Inside_Out_Second_PosterGrowing up, we ‘70s kids had three revolutionary social-emotional concepts rammed down our impressionable youthful minds by pop culture and the public school system (or both, in the case of Sesame Street and the multi-media, post-hippie, self-empowerment Free to Be You and Me):

  • Be yourself, no matter what other people think
  • Nurture and maintain your Inner Child all your life
  • Get in touch with your feelings

(Tied for fourth place were “Don’t go in the water” and “May the Force be with you.”)

Those messages arrived in sharp, reactionary, post-‘60s contrast to the stoic American Pioneer culture of our parents and grandparents, whose hard-bitten mantras (at least in my rural Midwest) were more along the lines of Don’t stand out, Grow up and be responsible, Work hard, Bury your hardships (and a large number of your family members) and move on, and Keep your damn feelings to yourself. In fact, much of 20th-century literature, film, and television was a steady Modern, then Post-modern, effort to undermine exactly those repressed and repressive societal and emotional restraints.

All of which, in part, helps explain why adults (ranging from college kids to post-grad media hipsters to young parents of their own young children) have lost their damn minds this summer in over-the-top praise of Pixar’s (admittedly well-crafted and highly entertaining) animated feature Inside Out. Or, to put it less fairly, “Just what we need: Another kids film that makes adults bawl over a ‘lost’ youth they’ve never really grown out of. Don’t you have to fully leave childhood before you can miss it?”

Okay, I’m being overly snarky about Inside Out, so I want to be clear on two points: Yes, it’s a delightful film, and No, I’m certainly not saying we as a culture should go back to being stoic, emotionally closed-off lumps of repression. But I can’t help but feel that as a culture (and with all the sweeping hypocritical generalities that statement entails) our “embrace your emotions” pendulum may now have swung about as far to the touchy-feely left as it needs to, with poor Inside Out as Exhibit A.

Granted, I have my—ahem—issues with Pixar’s corporate Parental Overlord, Disney. Anymore, whether Pixar is turning out terrific works of solid visual craftsmanship and storytelling excellence (WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3, and now Inside Out) or sub-par belches of corporate earnings obligation (Cars II, Brave, Monsters University), I admit to having trouble seeing any of it, good or bad, outside the lens of Disney/Pixar marketplace branding. Sure, everyone’s happy to see Pixar on the artistic rise again after several years of sliding—which also means some of this summer’s overly-effusive praise for Inside Out from critics and fans feels like relief that a beloved creative company is back on track; more rooting support than honest reviewing. But today even the animation company’s best stuff no longer hums with vital, unique, creative independence—it all feels to my jaded soul like “Pixar” the Disney brand, not Pixar the weird and wonderful fount of creative innovation.

While I enjoyed watching Inside Out (though the middle third dragged for me as the film fell into all-too-familiar and unnecessary “action quest” narrative hoop-jumping and pointless spazzery), I can no longer turn off the part of my cynical film-mind that asks how much of all this “wonderment” is driven by genuine creativity and how much is shaped by demographic necessity.

sfhfmuzdahnewnnjr7zzAnimated kids films (not to mention superhero movies) that also appeal to adults are a powerful box-office common denominator—they hit, as they say in the Industry, all four quadrants (young, old, male, female). After all, although most of us may have grown up into very different adults with very different lives, interests, and tastes, we all seem to share a sort of culturally imagined “childhood”—not necessarily our real, individual childhoods (and all the unique fears and hardships they may have included), but the simplified one Disney—feeding off our yearning for nostalgia—has been very carefully and powerfully constructing and selling us almost all our lives.

Also, today’s adults under 40 have grown up almost entirely within Disney’s (and later Dreamworks’ and others’) animated-feature Renaissance/Box-Office Bubble—this is a generation that doesn’t just see (usually CGI) animated feature films as “acceptable” adult fare, but as essential. More often with movies like Inside Out, the question isn’t “Is there enough sophisticated humor to amuse parents who have to take their kids?” but “Amid all these grown-up references and themes, are the actual kids going to enjoy any of this?”

I don’t have children myself, but I have nieces and nephews, and I know that for the first six to eight years, they are mostly non-discriminating in their movie tastes—they are just as likely to watch Brother Bear a dozen times in a row than Finding Nemo. (Disney knows this all too well, which is why The Disney Channel is deliberately designed as an early-childhood addiction delivery system.) When younger children express a preference for “better quality” kids films, it’s often simply because they’re mirroring the tastes modelled by the adults around them. (I’m not complaining—that’s how I turned my young niece into a Lord of the Rings fan and my nephew into a Packers fan.)

(I recall a conversation with a prominent Chicago film critic who said he started showing his child Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey at a young, impressionable age, noting that not only did the kid love it for its graceful visual majesty, but that its deliberate pacing–which has defeated many adult viewers–helped build the child’s budding attention span. Hell, if you can get a youngster to watch Kubrick, you might even have a shot at getting them to sit still long enough read one of those… whattyacallem… book thingees…)

Now, 26 years after The Little Mermaid and 20 years after Toy Story, we have an adult generation that does not see animated “kids” movies as any sort of “lesser” genre; that is culturally hard-wired to embrace animated films. If ever there was a time ripe and a field fertile for a major animated film company to move beyond the kids movies and into animated adult fare, this is it. And yet adult animation lovers in America are still being fed basically the same animated kids feature formulas. Sure Pixar has those formulas (which Inside Out follows seamlessly) polished to perfection, but when animation—trapped by the lucrative marketplace it created—steadfastly refuses to grow up, that perfection becomes a limitation. Children’s animation is a big and serious business, but as much as adult viewers now take animation seriously as cinema, big-budget, big studios rigorously avoid doing anything serious with it.

maxresdefault (3)Take Inside Out, for example. The film does an admirable job of painting, with pleasing and entertaining strokes, a nuanced and sophisticated metaphor for how our emotions and memory function. Nuanced and sophisticated, that is, for a young audience.

But as hard as the film works to explain why we need sadness in our lives, why life can’t be all joy all the time, in the end what does it give its large adult audience but yet another feel-good happy ending? Inside Out may be about the delicate mixture of joy and sadness in our lives, but of course it makes sure that the film itself falls squarely into the “Joy” column when all is said and done. Because it’s a kids movie. Meanwhile, adults may cry bittersweet tears of recognition at what they feel is a candy-colored representation of their own pre- (and perhaps post-) adolescent inner life, but they leave the theater with big smiles.

Those of us who grew up on Old Yeller, The Yearling, Where the Red Fern Grow, and Sounder might argue that not all kids movies have to have typical “happy” endings. (But good lord, did anyone in literature or film have a pet that lived back then?) Chalk it up to the last wave of cultural influence from that post-pioneer, pre-Depression-era “life is hard” mindset. Notice how after WWII, most animal companions in popular culture, like Lassie, Flipper, Gentle Ben, and Benji, never died?

And of course, Disney itself perpetuates a pantheon of imaginary (often animal) friends who never get old, never die, and will never leave you. Nor you them. Inside Out features a heart-rending scene in which the beloved childhood imaginary friend Bing Bong must be left behind to fade from pre-adolescent memory. The irony is, however, that Bing Bong aside, Disney and Pixar’s beloved characters never have to leave us, even as adults. The Toy Story films may wring pathos from the idea of children out-growing their toys, but in reality, we adults never really have to leave Buzz and Woody behind. At least not as long as the merchandise keeps selling and the sequels keep ringing up box office.

Meanwhile, as we adults continue to clutch our Pixar plushy toys, despite the variety of Asian anime that vibrantly covers every possible range of genre and emotional impact, no one in Hollywood seems able to even imagine an animated feature film for adults that deals in actual cathartic tragedy or true sadness. And to be fair to Hollywood, it’s not like we are clamoring for darker, more adult fare. The film industry may pursue happy adolescent fare because, as noted, it rings bigger demographic bells, but we’re also addicted to the sugar. Ask most anyone over 20 why he or she goes the movies, and you’re likely to hear “entertainment” “fun” “to escape and not think about all the real-life sucky stress and stuff I have to deal with daily.”

(For a brief, deluded moment, I thought Lava, the Pixar short that opens Inside Out, might dare to sneak in something like heavy pathos, as the lonely singing Pacific Ocean volcano slipped silent and solitaire under the sea, his hopeful sung-plea for love unheard by the nearby, oblivious “female” volcano–don’t ask; I do not understand volcano gender and genitalia. For a second, I thought, “Wow, that’s a really powerful, painful, and emotionally real look at how some people miss what they see as their last shot at a supposed ‘happy’ life by a mere flicker of fate.” Needless to say, the musical short for kids did not end that way. This is also why no one is asking me to write children’s books or films.)

Again, I want to stress that this is not entirely a knock on Inside Out in particular—it’s a fine film, and I can get behind the supposed educational benefits it may have for its younger viewers. (I’m not as flibbertly flutterly gob-smacked by the “incredibly creative imagery” other adults are swooning over in the film–maybe my personal bar is set a little higher by my consumption of genuinely imaginative visual work through more daring anime, online art, and truly jaw-droppingly innovative comic-book work. I thought Inside Out’s visuals were cute and clever, but not especially ground-breaking or mind-blowing.) If the film does help create a “growing mindset” in children (the idea that being aware of how you think and grow and develop mentally and emotionally can give you a cognitive boost), then more power to it. And as someone forever fascinated by how our minds work—including our emotions and memories—I appreciated Inside Out’s admittedly simplistic visual metaphors.

However, I’d hope that when the inevitable sequel comes along, focusing on the film’s main character Riley in puberty, we see the film’s lovable “Emotion” characters put into a larger context alongside things like Intellect and Reason. (After all, what is the survival of puberty and entry into adulthood but the process of learning to use Intellect and Reason to overrule unruly emotional needs and outbursts?) But I’m not holding my breath…

INSIDE OUT(Personally, I also wanted to see more in the film about just how malleable and flat-out untrustworthy our memories are. I’d have loved a shot of “memory marbles” stacked together on the Long-term Memory racks getting soft and mushy and eventually squishing together into one. For example, the way most of your adult memories of your childhood birthdays tend to get pressed together into one sort of “Super Birthday Memory” that stands in for them all.

(Or, in a more adult film made for people my age, a visual representation of how shaky that Long-term Memory Vault gets over the age of 40. How memory marbles sometimes fall off the rack and roll out of sight, and suddenly you find yourself completely unable to remember Paul Rudd’s name for almost half a panicked hour. Or just more of a sense of how all our memories are lies we tell ourselves; made-up little shorthand fantasies, artist’s renditions we concocted—and often revise—to represent our past experiences of reality. A cognitive professor once told me there’s technically no such thing as a “false memory,” because our brains treat all memories are equally “true” whether they conform to “real facts” or not. Which is also to say, they’re all equally false.)

Still, all of Inside Out’s educational strengths and entertaining humor are supposed to be for kids. Should grown-ups over 25 really be gaining insights into their own inner emotional lives from primary-colored cartoon characters? Stepping back from it, there’s a level of absurd incongruity to adults trying to gain insight into their human emotional landscapes that’s similar to when Jurassic Park movies use that intentionally silly DNA cartoon character to explain why there are Giant F**king Dinosaurs Trying to Eat You.

Inside Out is a wonderful, funny, lovely, laudable kids’ film. Come the fall and winter, the theaters will fill in part with Oscar-y “prestige” films for “grown-ups,” and most likely one of them will win Best Picture over Inside Out. But whatever happens, for a large number of culturally literate, cinematically savvy adults, Inside Out will end up being their “favorite” film of the year—the one they go back and watch over and over, with or without children present. Which should make us wonder if we aren’t wholeheartedly embracing adult-oriented films anymore because Hollywood makes so few of them, or is Hollywood tailoring and marketing more and more kids’ films to adults because that’s what we told it we want? When we complain that Hollywood doesn’t make movies for grown-ups anymore, maybe we’re the ones who first need to grow up.

Tomorrowland: If You Don’t Like This Movie, You’ll Kill Our Future

tomorrowland-poster-george-clooney1 (1)Disney’s Tomorrowland—directed by Brad Bird, written by Damon Lindelof, and starring George Clooney—is a plea for a New Frontier of imagination; for positivity in the face of seemingly overwhelming negativity, fear, and pessimism.

It is that rare giant, tent-pole summer blockbuster that asks—nay, begs—us to set aside the doom and gloom of disaster movies and Apocalyptic dystopias (darn you, Mad Max!) and be more creative and constructive humans. To turn away from fear and apathy, roll up our metaphorical (and literal) sleeves, and get to work envisioning and building the bright and shining jet-pack future we once dreamed of.

All of this nifty messaging is (barely) disguised as a young-adolescent action-adventure tale full of sci-fi flights of nostalgic retro-futurism fancy, noble scientific elegance, and can-do inventive spirit.

It’s packed into a two-hour-plus film chock full of “dazzling, entertaining fun and excitement,” complete with spectacular visuals, crackerjack action scenes, an antique steampunk rocket ship hidden in the Eiffel Tower, and George Clooney proving he can be effortlessly charming even when playing an (only on the outside!) embittered, curmudgeonly crank.

Oh, and Bird, Lindelof, and Disney would also like you to know—and this is made crystal clear in the film itself—that if you do not get on board and believe fully and guilelessly in all this relentlessly aggressive dream of a gleaming (fully Disney-branded) future, then you—with your dull, gray cynical, critical thinking—are officially Part of the Problem. You are, in the metaphoric philosophy of the film, feeding the wrong wolf; giving mental energy or emotional sustenance or whatever to the Bad Wolf of despair and darkness instead of the Good Wolf of hope and light, because, like the Witches of Oz, the wolves are fighting for control of our future, which I guess, whoever wins, will be ruled by our Future Lupine Overlords…

tomorrowland-image-jetpack-3-600x316Oops, I suppose with those last bits of snark, I’ve already killed part of our future. Clubbed yet another Baby Seal of progress… or fed it to a Bad Wolf, or Bad Polar Bear or something. Terribly sorry about that. I feel just awful that you and all your children will now suffer due to my failure to Get On Board With the Plan.

Because yes, as much as I fully support a forward-looking philosophy that puts its energy behind a more enlightened future, I have a small problem with being de facto villainized for not shutting up and being suitably, obediently amazed by a big, long, disjointed, expensive, summer kids blockbuster the Walt Disney Corporation is insisting I be amazed by.

That said, most film geeks want to if not get on board with then at least give a pass to Tomorrowland director Brad Bird. His first film, 1999’s The Iron Giant, remains a straight-up masterpiece and possibly the last kids film I truly, unequivocally, personally adored. I’m not quite as fond of his subsequent animated work for Pixar—The Incredibles and Ratatouille—but I appreciate them as solidly pleasing, well-crafted Pixar movies (even as they further fleshed out what appears to be Bird’s growing, mildly annoying promotion of pseudo-Ayn Randian Objectivist philosophies—a trend absolutely present in Tomorrowland), and I really enjoyed his crackerjack first live-action film, 2011?’s Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol.

tomorrowland-image-thomas-robinson-600x399Mildly creepy and creeping themes of exceptionalism aside, Bird is a creative retro-positivist reformer—a term I just completely made up in order to lump him alongside such comic book creators as Kurt Busiek and Geoff Johns.

Busiek and Johns (who is now the Chief Creative Officer at DC Comics and as such helps create and write several DC superhero TV shows) both rose as writers of superhero comics in the mid-‘90s, at a time when the dark and gritty subversive deconstruction Alan Moore and Frank Miller had introduced to comics in the ‘80s had become lazy, hackneyed cliché.

Johns at DC and Busiek at Marvel both rejected all that violent “realism,” instead focusing back on the glorious and deeply nostalgic Golden and Silver Ages of comics. They championed a throw-back style of superheroes who may have still been flawed and facing tough personal and public challenges, but ultimately stood for right and good and fought to save a brighter future everyone could believe in, not fear.

Bird is certainly playing at a similar game in Tomorrowland—the film is not so much envisioning a better future as it is an ode to a pre-Vietnam, pre-Watergate, pre-counterculture past when the early ‘60s, Space Race, Camelot-fueled notion of tomorrow was still bright and gleaming, filled with shining spires and Jetson-styled flying cars and jet packs—it’s pure nostalgia for a lost future.

tomorrowland-image-hall-of-invention-600x399In fact, the movie’s plot is rooted in the 1964 Worlds Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York, where, not so coincidentally, Uncle Walt first unveiled the “It’s a Small World” world-peace and animatronic puppet-horror ride. In fact, the Small World ride itself plays a small-but-pointed role in Tomorrowland, one of many small-but-pointed reminders that our future, like our childhoods, is well and fully packaged, presented, and owned by The Walt Disney Company, a multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate.

On its energetic, visually spiffy surface, Tomorrowland is a sci-fi adventure film in the very Spielbergian vein of such beloved (by others, not so much myself) ‘80s pre-teen Saturday matinee entertainments as The Goonies, Explorers, or even Disney’s own ‘70s precursor to the sub-genre, Escape from Witch Mountain.  (No, most of the film’s action does not take place in retro-futuristic Tomorrowland, but right here, right now in regular old present-day Earth.) As such, the film (like J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 a few years back) feels as much fueled by middle-aged fondness for those movies as by Disney Corporate goals.

tomorrowland-image-raffey-cassidy-thomas-robinson-600x399Meanwhile, the actual plot is far too convoluted to explain, even if I had fully understood it—the addition of the visionary city of Tomorrowland’s time/space extra-dimensional element means the flashback-laden story line takes on extra layers of loops of utter narrative confusion.

There’s something about young, pre-Clooney Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) visiting the ’64 World’s Fair and discovering Tomorrowland, a dazzling, futuristic parallel dimensional think tank for incubating the future-making ideas of the best and brightest creators, inventors, innovators, and dreamers. And for showing off lots of CGI futurescapes and anti-gravitational frolicking. In the Brigadoon-like Tomorrowland, not only is young Frank’s prototype jetpack development encouraged, but he also meets a snooty-creepy grey-eyed little British girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) and develops a crush on her.

Jump to present day Cape Canaveral, Florida, (coincidentally close to Disney World) where the meandering plotline is picked up by a spunky young woman named Casey (Britt Robertson). A precocious forward-thinker of indiscriminate “older teen” age (but possessing that most important attribute for young action-adventurers in “family” movies: a dead/absent mom), Casey rejects the resigned negativity of her teachers (asking instead, of our seemingly broken future, “How do we fix it?”) and focuses her do-good energy on sabotaging the dismantlement of Canaveral’s rocket launch pad (representing the downsizing of America’s space exploration). Because short-circuiting demolition cranes is much more fun than petitioning Congress to restore NASA funding.

tomorrowland-image-britt-robertson-600x316(Though, to the film’s credit, at no point is Casey given even a hint of the usual requisite “cute boy” romantic interest. I have plenty of cranky issues with Tomorrowland, but happily give it a genuine hurray for small, almost casual victories over convention.)

To make the rest of Tomorrowland’s very long story short, Casey is also contacted by (an un-aged) Athena, given a tantalizing glimpse of Tomorrowland (in what turns out to be a sort of three-dimensional, immersive Carnival Cruise-like commercial), and sets out to find the now Clooney-aged Frank, who was long ago exiled from Tomorrowland for having done something with something that’s going to do something that really isn’t very well explained. Whatever it is, it means they have to get back to Tomorrowland to reverse it, but they’re being chased by (very inappropriately, for a kids film) smiling, deadly robots that are a cross between Terminators and Men In Black Ken dolls, and so on, and so forth, and The Eiffel Tower, and Hugh Laurie, and… plot!

For his part, Clooney seems admirably—I guess—committed to the film and his role in it, occasionally mugging it up, but often playing Frank with a seductive balance of bitterness and true-believer charm. (While the patented Clooney smile and eye-twinkle could still sell iWatches to the Amish, here he’s a little grayer, more wrinkled, and wearier—it feels like the actor’s slowly edging his way toward Gregory-Peck-as-Atticus-Finch territory.)

tomorrowland-image-george-clooney-2-600x316Clooney remains a personal favorite, as much due to my openly admitted Hetrosexual Man-Crush on the actor as for his talent and often-subversive, ‘70s-indie-film-loving choices. But a word of warning to George, should he continue to sublet his star power to the synergetic Disney Marketing Machine: My Hetrosexual Man-Crushes are not life-long appointments. They can be revoked. If you don’t believe me, just drive your four-wheeler down to Sumrall, Mississippi, and ask a certain Mr. Favre.

If all this sounds like a jumbled collection of less-than-whole parts, lay some of the blame on screenwriter Damon Lindelof, whose Hollywood career remains an impressive lesson in failing upward. After all, Lindelof is the “genius” behind stranding Lost on an island of incomprehensibly convoluted and cobbled together plots and themes, and who, when brought in to help “fix” the screenplays of films like Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness, and World War Z, bungled, botched, and generally wrecked their third acts so badly he’s become the Jack Kevorkian of script doctors.

tomorrowland-image-george-clooney-3-600x316Besides its narrative ADD, the film feels confused about its audience. Clearly, Bird wants his message of forward progress to take seed in the minds of young people, the upcoming generation that will have to fix or fall to many of the planet’s current ills.

Yet Tomorrowland seems too weirdly violent and intense for very young kids—the movie’s various robot characters randomly disintegrate police officers, get suddenly and shockingly hit by cars, and in one particularly disturbing sequence undergo a variety of dismemberments that, artificial lifeforms or not, would feel more at home in an Evil Dead or Resident Evil flick. (The scene climaxes with our plucky heroine Casey going at one of the subdued ‘bots with a baseball bat, channeling a super-aggro rage that’d make Al Capone proud.)

On the other hand, all this action (including the “artificial” violence) is presented with the sort of gee-willikers cornball tone that’s guaranteed to turn off older teens. As far as the youth viewership goes, that leaves a rather narrow Disney Channel 10 to 13 year old demographic, but in fact the (lighter than expected) audience turn out at Cineplex opening weekend was almost two-thirds adult, not kids. In marketing hindsight, that makes perfect sense—all that ‘80s nostalgia and “think positive” finger wagging (not to mention Mr. Clooney’s appeal) play more naturally to grown-up kids than real kids.

tomorrowlandconcept2In the film, some sort of giant machine zaps ideas into the heads of the Earthbound, imagination-bound masses, a thinly veiled sci-fi metaphor for mass media, news, reality TV, the Internet, and more. But 15 minutes watching the Disney Channel (as it seems all children between the ages of 3 and 13 are required by law to do) makes it clear just who is leading the pack when it comes to using multi-media, cross-channel content messaging to create a self-serving cultural groupthink that suits corporate goals.

Just as the vision of Tomorrowland shown to Frank and Casey is a commercial for a hopeful future, the film Tomorrowland is yet another commercial for Disney and its philosophy of culture as a capitalist commodity, as so much of Disney entertainment product is. Bird, Lindelof, and story-credited Jeff “Doc” Jessen (Entertainment Weekly’s one-time Lost expert) may feel they’re helping bring the future back, but as with Joss Whedon’s Avengers films, whatever personal, powerful, and pure-hearted intent they had, their film’s message is continually co-opted and corrupted by Disney’s overarching, over-reaching presence.

tlMaybe Tomorrowland’s mantras should be heard by everyone, of all ages (even if it tends to set up adult pragmatism as something of a straw man). But truly effective messages of optimism succeed and influence in the long run by leaning into the worldview and aesthetic of the audience that needs to hear them and working through specific, real-world obstacles, not by pandering and peddling facile slogans that would feel more at home in motivational speeches and hang-in-there cat posters.

What Disney has done so terrifyingly perfectly over the decades is make sure that audiences always see its product first as quality entertainment, not corporate propaganda—for example, taking your kids to a Disney theme park isn’t about spending a Space Mountain-load of cash on Disney goods and services, but helping your progeny experience a magical joy and wonder that is an essential part of childhood. (And now, it seems, visiting Disney’s real-life Tomorrowland parks helps save the future! Bonus!)

And what is the film Tomorrowland and its fantastical future construct Tomorrowland, but a both a metaphor for the inspirational power of illusionary simulacra (in the form of an extra-dimensional “theme city,” no less) and a two-hour ad for the Tomorrowland sections of Disney’s theme parks? It is, like so much Disney product, a plastic, mass-produced form of animatronic awe and wonder. We consumers are trapped on the ride, forced to watch the forever happy puppets sing their song over and over and over until it’s stuck in our heads.

Tomorrowland_(film)_157(Even an extended scene in the film that’s set in a geeky sci-fi memorabilia store welcomes life-long Star Wars fans to a Brave New Entertainment World in which R2D2, Darth Vader, and The Millennium Falcon, like the Muppets and Marvel superheroes before them, are now promotional, merchandising cogs in the Massive Mouse Machine.)

Setting corporate hypocritical greed aside and looking at Tomorrowland from a purely entertainment angle, what’s most disappointing for a film that wraps itself in such lofty aspirations is the movie’s eventual acquiescence to exactly the sort of disheartening reliance on shallow attention-getting tropes as every “negative” or “dark” film it seems to be poo-pooing. Despite all the characters’ talk of a future built on unbounded aspirations and the filmmakers’ proscribed insistence on having “old-fashioned, gleeful fun,” the movie itself spends most of its second half solving its narrative and thematic conflicts with that most reliable and corrosive of mass entertainment programming: a whole bunch of fight scenes and big explosions.

The bad guys (whose primary crime is having somewhat reasonable alternate theories about how best to save the future) eventually get blown up, smooshed flat, or beaten into system failure with ball bats. “We believe in the power of ideas,” says Tomorrowland, “and we’re going to punch you in the face until you do too.”

Our Burning Skull: The Dark, Brutal Ritual of Mad Max: Fury Road

11089030_660780600694131_276166915544558716_oMention the Movie Summer of ’82 around fan boys of a certain age, and you’ll be met with a mix of ecstatic exhortations and hushed reverence.

Quickly someone will begin reciting the litany, the ode to what is considered the Greatest Geek Summer Ever: Blade Runner, E.T., Poltergeist, Conan the Barbarian, Rocky III, Tron, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tron, Pink Floyd The Wall, The Thing, Night Shift, and of course, the summer ’82 American release of the 1981 Australian action-sequel The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2).

Imagine what that was like back then; getting off work from your crappy summer job and going to the air-conditioned theater every weekend to see another of those films for the first time. (Or later in the summer, for the second or third times.) (Or likewise, the Summer of ’83, as more homes started to get cable TV and premium movie channels for the first time only to find those Summer of ’82 films playing non-stop. A very important alternative for those geeks under 17 who lacked “cool” parents to take them to R-rated movies in the theater.)

If you talk to (mostly male) film critics and genre fans over the age of 35, they’ll effuse rightfully over the amazing quality, or at least daring and influence of those Summer of ’82 films. (The 30th anniversary a few years ago produced a tsunami of gushing blog ink.) They (myself included) will bemoan the fact that, coming as it did in a glorious cinematic DMZ between the fading independent American film spirit of the ‘70s and the coming Rise of the ‘80s Summer Blockbuster Franchise and the Dawn of the Soulless Excessive Blockbuster, 1982 was the last time you could see that many truly impressive, universally enjoyable films in one summer. A seeming last oasis before “popular entertainment” and “box-office hit” didn’t automatically equal “bland, branded, over-hyped and over-marketed commercial studio product.”

MMIOf course, the (yes, somewhat mixed) quality of those films aside, the primary reason they were so important and influential was that when we first saw them, those of us who revere them now were between the formative ages of 10 and 20 years old. That Summer of ’82 landed in the middle of our still-growing, still-shaping, post-Star Wars adolescent brains with a mind-melting whoop wallop and holler. Maybe we—and American studio moviemaking—would never be the same, but also, in this Age of Nostalgia, our taste in movies never grew up much after that.

Jaws and Star Wars gave birth to the Industry idea of the lucrative Summer Blockbuster a few years earlier, but for many of us the notion of Summer being some sort of four-month-long magical movie-going time was born that Summer of ’82. Every Movie Summer since has been looked forward to with a yearning anticipation that is, at heart, simply a desire to be 15 years old again and to get from a summer of terrific films the same heady, eye-opening, world-view-changing rush and buzz we remember from ’82. We don’t mourn and bemoan the loss of decent summer films these days so much as we miss being a teenager and being able to react to, embrace, and both lose and find ourselves in films that really mattered to our raw, excitable, still-forming sense of selves.

Which brings us back to this current Summer Movie Season, which in most respects feels an awful lot like nearly every Summer Movie Season of the past decade. But it also brings, this weekend, the return of George Miller’s (if not Mel Gibson’s) Mad Max with the stunning, all-out, non-stop, pedal-to-the-metal thrill ride Mad Max: Fury Road.

rs_560x415-141211084917-1024.Mad-Max-Charlize-Theron.jl.121114The geeks can (and most certainly will) argue over whether Fury Road is a reboot, a remake, a sequel, or that latest marketing buzzword, a “re-envisioning” of Miller’s own prior, Gibson-staring franchise that included the original 1979 Mad Max, 1982’s The Road Warrior, and 1985’s Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

Miller himself calls the film “loosely connected” to the prior trilogy, meaning stop worrying about it because it doesn’t matter. It’s enough that Fury Road, with Tom Hardy now in Gibson’s role as Max Rockatansky, is a Master Class in just about everything a middle-aged fan boy—one who still holds hallowed that Summer of ’82—could ever want in a present-day Summer Action Film.

Miller’s Fury Road (co-written with Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, gorgeously shot by John Seale out of retirement, and perfectly edited by Jason Ballantine and Margaret Sixel) is crafted with an almost-fanatical sturdiness, satisfying visual and narrative balance and pace, and (finally among action films) some care and attention to creating spatial context and relationships amid even the most crazed and chaotic scenes.

It’s essentially a two-hour car chase, as Hardy’s laconic, grunting, growling Max plays second-hero to Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, a one-armed, bald and burnished Amazon warrior gone rogue to free the broodmare wives (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoë Kravitz, Riley Keough, Courtney Eaton, and Abbey Lee) of the film’s villainous warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played the heavy in Mad Max 36 years ago).

Mad-Max-Fury-Road-Jumping-To-Car-WallpaperDesperately seeking a fleeting hope in Mad Max’s desert world of “fire and blood” (with Africa’s Namib Dessert standing in for the post-Apocalyptic Australian Outback), Furiosa stows Joe’s wives in a massive, shambling “war rig” tanker truck, accidentally picks up Max along the way (he’d been held captive as a literal “blood bag” for one of Joe’s scrawny, pale, bald “war boys,” Nicholas Hoult’s Nux, who’s also swept along for the ride), and off everyone goes across the sand and dust with hordes of Joe’s vehicular forces (as well as other random motorized Wasteland tribes) in hot pursuit.

And that’s the whole film: A short, expository intro; a ridiculously well-done 30-minute car chase with a parade of wild, spikey, stacked together, mutant vehicles; a brief respite; another equally impressive, chase; another few moments of quiet to catch our breath; and then a final, all-out, 30-minute climactic race to the finish, complete with Cirque du Insane acrobatics atop waving attack poles. That’s all, beginning to end, a straight narrative race down Fury Road that almost never stops moving. No fuss, no fancy flourishes. Nobody makes many grand statements or tosses out amusing quips.

Film Review-Mad Max: Fury Road(At one point, Immortan Joe addresses a thirsty, throng of his ragged, damaged dependents with a grand, amplified speech so audibly garbled—in part due to Joe’s ragtag sound system and in part because the aging, ravaged Joe must wear a grotesquely stylized breathing mask—that we can barely understand a quarter of the words.

(Which is Miller’s intent—having created plenty of these kinds of bro-quotable speeches in the past, such as Dr. Dealgood’s “This is the truth of it” intro in Thunderdome, the director knows they’re all really the same pile of self-serving fascistic crap. You don’t need to hear the specifics of Joe’s speech to know what sort of dictator’s demagoguery he’s spewing to his desperate followers.)

Along the way there’s plenty of diesel and dust, steel and stone, iron and rust, skulls and chrome. And a seemingly endlessly creative parade of mostly-practical (CGI-free) fist-pumping, heart-jumping, jaw-dropping action stunts and epic End of the World imagery. Still, the film’s R-rating remains a mystery to me. There’s no bad language (hell, there’s barely any language at all—this could pass as the world’s loudest silent film); no gratuitous nudity, even from Joe’s winsome brides; and relatively little blood, gore, graphic violence or dismembering. I don’t think even a single head rolls, which puts Fury Road a few dozen battle notches below the MPAA-sanctioned Lord of the Rings/Hobbit movies, all of which are PG-13.

madmax2If there is a single, spurious reason for Fury Road’s R-rating it’s simply in the film’s relentless, kinetic intensity, revved up and raced across a brutal dead-future landscape where hope is as rare and fragile as green vegetation. And really, isn’t that what upsets us today more than red blood or bare boobies? The notion that we have well and truly deep-farked our future.

Yes, despite its seemingly single-minded narrative track, as it accelerates along, Fury Road does have some things to say about some things. 1979’s Mad Max may have been born amid Oil Wars and fears of nuclear annihilation, but 36 years later, Miller’s bleak hellscape all too easily accommodates our updated dread of a planet maimed by man-made climate change.

“Who killed the world?” Joe’s rebellious brides repeatedly demand, but we know it wasn’t some evil movie villain, a sneering Bond baddie or a hulking Lord Humongous. And yet, in a future seemingly done in by environmental rape and pillage, the gas-guzzling, atmosphere-scorching automobile—even in all its hilariously jury-rigged forms—remains at the center of a civilization that can’t let go of—and in fact, has raised to the level of religious worship—the very thing that helped destroy it.

Fury-Road-Guitar-680x388(But hey, all that ecological hand-wringing aside, the cars of Fury Road are a freaky riot, seemingly welded together in Survival Research Labs out of JG Ballard’s wrecks and Mark Pauline’s mangled imagination. They rumble and rage along, through massive dust storms and under moon-lit nights, like great iron sailing ships on a sea of sand and rock, complete with fearless war boys hurling harpoon-like lances at their fuel-injected prey.

(It’s also a propane-spewing hoot to see how Miller’s Mad Max aesthetic, which once inspired Burning Man’s playa-rolling art cars and its Department of Public Works’ shaved and Doc Marten-shod post punks, now in turn draws its visual inspiration from 20-odd years of Black Rock City’s annual parade of fire-breathing technological and aural insanity. Best in that Burning-Man-fueled fever-dream marriage of music and madness is Immortan Joe’s rolling rock and ruin “Goof Wagon,” sporting a half dozen thumping taiko drummers, a Metallica-sized wall of speakers, and a bungie-dangling guitarist screaming and spitting out both chords and flames.)

mad-max-fury-road-vehiclesFrom a feminist perspective, not only is the plot driven by Furiosa’s quest to free Joe’s brides from their reproductive enslavement as breeding stock, but from a purely dramatic angle, this is the immeasurably terrific Theron’s film, her still, quiet, piercing eyes doing all the heaviest lifting for a character who knows better than to ever show anyone anything.

Though Hardy is a fine actor and his thick, pub-brawl face is perfect for the role, Max spends much of the film (literally) dangling off the side of its plot, his butt saved as often if not more often by Furiosa than the other way around. In fact, Max is partially here to pass a franchise spin-off torch to Furiosa—the next Mad Max film is reportedly going to titled Mad Max: Furiosa.

Yet for all her action-film bad-assery, Furiosa’s more important contribution to Fury Road is as the story’s sole torch-bearer of even the smallest seed of hope, a thread also woven through the film’s running commentary on gender roles in this most desperate and deadly survivalist future. The hope Furissa clings to is that of a “green place” somewhere out there where she and the ex-brides can not only escape the merciless world ruled over by Immortan Joe and his warlord peers but where they can begin to re-grow a saner civilization.

Mad-Max-LadiesAgain and again, even as he races his war wagons down the deadly Fury Road, Miller makes a point to brush up (sometimes viciously, natch) against the theme of childbirth as societal rejuvenation (not Joe’s subjugation), of females ultimately as creators, not destroyers, of the future. (If that’s not on the nose enough for you, the film’s heroes eventually meet up with a group of tough-but-friendly older biker women, one of whom is literally carrying a box of heirloom seeds as she searches for earth clean enough to plant them in.)

Compare that to Hoult’s character of Nux (as in “null” or “nil”). Nux and his fellow male teenage and young-adult war boys adorn themselves and their rides with real and stylized skulls. (All are tattooed and branded with Joe’s death-head skull logo.) They’re raised only to drive and fight and die in glory for their warlord Joe. Given the suicidal chance to sacrifice themselves, these lost boys ecstatically spray their mouths with silver (to represent the “shiny” chrome of their mythic dreams) and embrace their greatest hope: that as they hurl themselves into battle, they die a warrior’s death and find their reward in Valhalla.

Mad-Max-NuxThus, the world according to Mad Max: Women = life, Men = death. (Warrior Furiosa is, like her counterpart Max, the outlier.) Miller’s dirty, dusty dystopic says, “We’ve seen what men made of the world…” (“Who killed the world?” the brides cry, their biological futures once controlled by men), “Maybe it’s time to let the women try to fix it.”

Equally as rich as Fury Road’s feminist themes (with a script consult from Vagina Monologues playwright Eve Ensler) and its ruminations on both redemption and rebellion, is the film’s heady overload of ritual and religion. Not only do war boys like Nux live under the belief-yoke of a totalitarian warrior theology constructed to keep them willing to die for someone else’s cause, but even more than in Road Warrior and Thunderdome, Miller seems fascinated by the rigid tribal belief systems that hold together his post-Apocalyptic world’s desperate civilizations. Everything is ritualized, so much so that a good portion of the film’s otherwise spare dialogue seems to be filled with characters’ recitation of the mantras they cling to in order to face each new day in a life of pain amid the otherwise hopeless Wasteland.

Mad-MaxConversely, Max, ever the nomadic loner, is considered “mad” not just because he’s a berserker fighter or because he’s haunted to the edge of sanity by flashback visions of what and whom he’s lost, but because he’s rejected all the cruel, merciless attempts by people like Lord Humongous, Autie Entity, or Immortan Joe at holding tribes together with blood-soaked ritual and war-mongering romance. Nor can he afford to indulge in the sort of near-delusional hope that Furiosa clings to behind her hard, stern armor. Instead, Max puts his faith only in pure, selfish survival–and his “Pursuit Special Interceptor” jacked-up muscle car–and tries to keep moving.

All that ritualization and familiar repetition isn’t just interesting and entertaining world-building—in a way it’s also weirdly comforting to us film fan boys who’ve been wandering the summer cinema wastelands for decades in search of something to give our inner-teenage fan boy selves meaning and purpose. Now in his 70s, Miller, like John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Romero, is something of a geek patriarch, a Moses in the wilderness.

mad max fury roadIn this age of endless ‘80s remakes (in fact, the Poltergeist redux is coming up in just a few weeks), to finally have a new Mad Max film that takes us directly back to that 15 year-old agog at the dark, glorious wonders of that Summer of ’82 is almost Bradburyian in its sweet, dangerous thrills. (For more meditations on how the Road Warrior’s macho mythology warped a generation of young men’s sense of manhood–all of which makes Fury Road’s Furiosa all the more impressive and important—check out 2011’s brilliant, beautiful, and often baffling micro-budget indie Bellflower.)

Decades ago Miller’s Mad Max films almost single-handedly birthed a genre and an aesthetic. Too often when creators come back years later to the tropes they helped shape, they find themselves lost behind the culture, trapped by the formula they pioneered, unable to keep up with where the genre went over the years without them. But returning to Max’s world after nearly 30 years, Miller feels completely in control of not just the clear-eyed ferocity of his action, but of his messages, chained as they may be under all that propulsive iron and rust and wacked-out, napalm-snorting excitement.

Mad-Max-ExplosionUnlike so many action franchises and remakes these days, there’s no sense that Miller has returned to his Outback Wasteland to fill some marketing department’s demographic ledgers–he made Fury Road because he wanted to, because he felt he had something to say and still felt he knew how best to say it on the screen. Yes, of course Mad Max is cranked-up entertainment first and foremost, often drawing cruel humor from the desperate, demented mishaps of its antagonists. But dark (and perhaps prophetic) as it may be, Miller’s ritualized, survivalist future makes sick, simple sense in its single-minded savagery—it’s civilization burned down to its bone.

A Furious Affair: My Strange Affection for This Very Strange Franchise

PHaRoB0Baft1db_1_mLast year I spent a considerable amount of time, mental energy, and words (so many words) going after big, dumb, bloated, ridiculous action franchises like Transformers and even Guardians of the Galaxy, a film I genuinely enjoy, but can’t help but see in the context of the ever-growing Marvel/Disney Empire that seeks to dominate the entire pop-culture landscape.

The Fast and the Furious franchise (whose entries, thanks to the creative sway of the Universal marketing department, are sometimes titled Fast & Furious, or just Fast 5, or Furious 7—I suppose one of these days the ampersand will get its own title: The & and the &), are just as big, dumb, bloated, and ridiculous as any of those other action movies… and yet… I’ve always had a soft spot (right in the middle of my skull, it seems) for these F&F flicks.

Furious 7, the entry latest in the series (written by series regular Chris Morgan but directed by horror maven James Wan instead of the franchise’ directorial savior Justin Lin, who helmed 3-6), is bigger, dumber, more bloated, and ridiculous than the last. With each movie, the Looney Tunes laws of physics get bent further past breaking; the cars get louder; the bikini bottoms get smaller; and there are even more muscle-bound bald men (hey, evil Jason Statham!) speechifying about loyalty and family. (And family. And then some other stuff about family. And, wait, yes, let’s talk about family just a little bit more. ‘Cause family is important, you know.)

And yet… Despite my not being much of a “car guy,” what ultimately endears me to these movies is they aren’t great movies, but they have no delusions about themselves. They know exactly what they’re for and what they’re very good at, and while all involved in front and behind the camera seem to really enjoy doing it and take pride in it, they never seem to think they or their films are all that important as anything other than loving odes to those two most American ideals: cars and explosive mayhem.

Furious-7-Diesel-Statham(The F&F franchise’s exception to this perceived humility is its grunting star, Vin Diesel, who I know gets the joke, but either his muscled-up ego can’t bring itself to admit it, or, as I prefer to believe, he’s taken to simply playing in public a WWE-type wrestling character called “Vin Diesel” who says, with thick tongue firmly in cheek, things like Furious 7 will win Best Picture.)

Compare that to Transformers’ dark maestro of destruction, Michael Bay, who thinks he’s so inhumanly brilliant at orchestrating on-screen chaos that it must all somehow matter, even if it’s about giant space robots punching each other. Like Bay and Transformers, so many action films feel, at their core, mean—cynical, arrogant, and anti-life. The Fast and Furious films and their characters certainly walk (and drive) with testosterone-loads of swagger, but they always do so with a knowing, self-aware wink and an odd sort of warmth.

(When Dwayne Johnson’s giant-sized Agent Hobbes returns to the fray to save the day at the end of Furious 7 after sitting out most of the film, Michelle Rodriguez’ Letty asks, “Did you bring the cavalry?” To which Hobbes—holding a BFG yanked off a predator drone he knocked down—replies with that special faux-macho gleam in his eye that Johnson always plays so perfectly, “Woman, I am the cavalry.”)

Furious-7-Dwayne-JohnsonAs seriously as these F&F films like Furious 7 take all their talk about family and friendship and their “ride or die” credo, they don’t take their action seriously—the increasingly wild and unbelievable car stunts are central to the films’ appeal, but the movies don’t act like it.

Unlike say Bond or Optimus Prime, Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and company always howl their way through their completely cray-cray four-wheel escapades (which in the new film include driving cars out of planes, leaping them from skyscraper to skyscraper, hurling them off cliffs, and just plain smashing them into each other headfirst in some sort of 8-cylinder joust-turned-failed-game-of-chicken) with complete and utter “oh holy f**k!” disbelief.

It’s a subtle distinction (to the extent anything in these films is subtle), but it makes all the difference—with the characters’ eyes popping out of their heads in stunned, self-impressed mix of pants-pooping terror and glee over the insane stuff they’re doing, it gives the audience permission to not just suspend disbelief but to embrace that disbelief as part of the cartoon fun.

Parachuting-cars-in-Furious-7-trailer-screen-shotFor example, the highlight of Furious 7 is the aforementioned dumping of a half dozen reinforced muscle cars out of a military para-drop plane, and every damn thing about the stunt and its ginned-up supposed narrative purpose is utterly stupid and contrived, and yet… the scene is absolute, howlingly giddy fun, both visually (come on, who doesn’t want to not just see cars freefalling thousands of feet, but see it from behind the drivers’ seats?) and because the actors sell every adrenaline-rushing, nutty moment of it.

With moments like that, The Fast and Furious movies have gone from relatively lean and gritty crime films in the early part of the series to total fantasy films over the course of the last four films. (Except instead of dragons, there are cars and instead of giant cave trolls, there’s Vin Diesel.)

At some point around the fourth film (when, their non-F&F careers not going as well as hoped, Diesel and Paul Walker returned to the franchise), the car stunts didn’t just get bigger, they began to so obviously ignore all known laws of physics and reality that it fundamentally changed not just the tone of the films, as semi-angsty hand-wringing over moral and legal melodramas took a back seat to plain old silly, jaw-dropping spectacle. It also changed how we process the action on the screen. We no longer watch the films’ car shenanigans as if at a live thrill show and think, “Wow, it’s amazing what they can do with these vehicles”—instead, we get a big, dumb, goofy grin on our faces at the sublime silliness of it all, feeling more like kids coming up with new, impossible things to do with our Hot Wheels collection.

fast-and-furious-7_625x300_51414995625Despite all this wacky, imaginary fun, there’s also a very real reason for the change in the F&F franchise, especially entries five through seven. 2001’s The Fast and the Furious was an all-American story of the LA streets (both street racing and street crime) and only 30% of its overall box-office earnings came from overseas.

That ratio shifted over the course of the next couple films as the movies themselves played to foreign markets (most obviously The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, which was the first film in the franchise to earn more overseas than in North America) and Hollywood studios like Universal began to make overseas marketing and release a bigger business priority. By the time the old gang got back together for the fourth film, 2009’s Fast and Furious, the domestic-foreign receipts had flipped: since then, North American ticket sales for the films make up only a third of the international totals.

More than anything else, that simple box-office ledger tilting (itself part of a larger, decade-long paradigm shift in how Hollywood does business these days), accounts for the different look and feel of Fast Five, Fast & Furious 6, and now Furious 7.

Furious-7_Emirates-PalaceThe bigger, wilder, unrealistic action sequences (which feel more like ‘70s and ‘80s Bond films than car-racing flicks) play better in foreign markets; the films’ core cast, which had always been impressively multi-cultural (and, more pragmatically, allowed it to tap into multiple demographic profit streams), became even more international, with characters signing on from South America, Asia, Israel, and, in Furious 7, South Africa; and the films themselves began globe-hopping (to Rio, London, and Spain) with the same “we know this doesn’t make a lickspittle of narrative sense” wink to the audience as they approach their car hopping. (Even when Furious 7 returns to LA for its finale, the return to old-school F&F roots now comes with with predator drones and high-stakes computer hacking.)

Like all these F&F trends, Furious 7 takes that globe-trotting to even greater nonsensical heights—quite literally, para-dropping those cars out over the Caucasus Mountains and then detouring to Abu Dhabi where the cast gets to play fancy dress up in gowns and tuxes and jump an expensive sports car from high-rise to high-rise in what feels like the ultimate Top Gear fevered wet dream.

_1422836923Both quests come from an egregiously tacked-on subplot that has absolutely nothing to do with the film’s core story (and includes roping Kurt Russell into the proceedings as a shadowy, sardonic CIA guy who looks like a foam Spitting Image Kurt Russell puppet), but, also like all those F&F trends, Furious 7 looks square at the audience and says, “Yeah, we know, it’s too much, right? But isn’t it fun?”

All of this makes Furious 7 and the Fast & Furious franchise some of the most loveably weird films imaginable. (And we haven’t even touched on the serie’s chronological recon that means films 4-6 actually take place before film 3.) Tim Burton only wishes he could concoct movies that seem to simultaneously fly apart in all aesthetic, thematic, and narrative directions and yet hold strong and steady to their core creative and entertainment values.

Of course, what makes Furious 7 even more of an oddity than the rest is the unfortunate (and all-too ironic) real-life death of Paul Walker in a fiery (off-set) sports car crash halfway through filming of Furious 7. And yet, how Furious 7 handles Walker’s death—and the removal of his character, Brian O’Conner, from the narrative going forward—is touchingly in keeping with the franchise’s overall approach. It’s not hard to imagine another action franchise simply rolling back and writing O’Conner out of the story with some sort of crassly tragic, off-screen death (a la Charlie Sheen/Harper’s fate in Two and a Half Men).

Fast-Furious-7Instead, the F&F filmmaking family seems to have bent over backwards to give Walker and O’Conner a proper, dignified, and respectful send off, using previously unseen footage of Walker from earlier films and the actor’s own real-life brothers as body doubles with Paul’s face CGI’d onto them.

The result isn’t entirely seamless (especially as we viewers can’t help but morbidly scan for the trickery), but it works better than expected both visually and narratively. Maybe the decision to keep Walker and O’Conner in Furious 7 was ultimately a financial one (some studio bean counter probably crunched the numbers and figured it was cheaper to finish the film with a few narrative fixes and visual slights of hand than try to rework the script from the start), but it never feels like that.

That’s because, at the film’s very end (SPOILERS AHEAD, if you care about spoilers in a film that’s entire plot is “cars do crazy stunts and things blow up”), the film makes the admirable, non-exploitive choice not to kill O’Conner off (despite plenty of red-herring feints in that direction), no matter how much easier and more logical it would make the franchise narrative going forward. Instead they give the character a graceful, kinda dopey/kinda lovely coda on a beach that retires O’Conner from the franchise so he can devote himself to his growing family.

fastfurious7-directorsBut here’s the fascinating part: Dom naturally gets to preside over the closing send off, and yet as his growls his voice-over platitudes about O’Conner and his family, the veil drops and it’s very clearly Diesel, not Toretto, talking about Walker, not O’Conner. As O’Conner (or rather, CGI-enhanced older footage of Walker) literally drives off into the sunset, Furious 7 makes no pretense about who it’s sending off, right down to a final montage of Walker/O’Conner scenes from all his past F&F films.

The clip reel’s overt nod to Walker’s death is completely outside the film’s narrative and the parameters of a big, dumb action film—it’s a huge international action franchise stopping everything to say to its audience, in a way that feels much more sincere than just fan service, “We know, we’re there with you. One of our family is gone, and we miss him.” It’s totally sappy, totally manipulative, and it totally works—you’ll find yourself asking, “Why the hell am I tearing up at a damn Fast and Furious movie?”

Interview: Maps to the Stars Screenwriter Bruce Wagner

maps-stars-68541Bruce+Wagner+Maps+Stars+Premiere+52nd+New+n7eilrZCgAzlFor over two decades, novelist and screenwriter Bruce Wagner–writing from Los Angeles, the epicenter of “corrosive” pop-culture excess–has been using Hollywood and our celebrity culture not so much as satirical grist but as a doorway toward greater spiritual understanding. Think of it as seeking Nirvana by passing through the hottest flames of Kardashian Hell.

Wagner’s written nine novels, including Wild Palms (a serialized graphic novel that was turned into TV mini-series in 1993 by Oliver Stone), 1996’s I’m Losing You (the film version of which Wagner himself adapted and directed in 1998), and 2012’s Dead Stars.

Like his novels, Wagner’s recent screenplay for David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars is set amid Los Angeles and the Hollywood culture and is populated (by way of several interwoven narratives) with a variety of desperate, damaged individuals seeking not just fame and fortune, but some sort of redemption. Directed with sun-bright detachment and unsettling naturalism, it’s another terrific, boundary-pushing work of cinema from Cronenberg, following 2012’s Cosmopolis.

normal_Mia_Wasikowska_003John Cusack plays Dr. Stafford Weiss, a successful New-Age Spiritualist Guru-huckster whose wife Christina (Olivia Williams) manages the lucrative career of their teenage son Benjie (Evan Bird), a famous child actor just out of rehab.

Benjie’s mysterious (and literally scarred) older sister Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) has just returned to town, and her attempt to find closure with her family hooks her up with both relatively grounded limo driver Jerome (Robert Pattison) and high-strung, aging actress Havana (Julianne Moore). Additionally, there are a couple ghosts on hand–Benjie is haunted by the spirit of a young fan who died of cancer, and Havana is taunted by the ghost of her actress mother.

I spoke with Wagner a few weeks ago by phone about the screenplay, the toxicity and spirituality of popular culture, and how he works to find illumination between its sacred and profane extremes.

Maps to the Stars opens today in select cities and is available on demand and iTunes.


6d75fac4-deda-11e3-_701884bSome may be confused about how Maps to the Stars is or is not connected to your 2012 novel Dead Stars. Which came first, and is one an adaptation of the other?

Bruce Wagner: Maps to the Stars was a script I wrote over 20 years ago and showed to David Cronenberg 10 or 12 years ago. He wanted to make it and flew to New York and met with Julieanne Moore a decade ago, and she wanted to do it. But at that time, David wanted to shoot the entire film in Los Angeles, but the cost was preventative. So he went on and did A History of Violence and other movies.

Then a few years ago, David was at Cannes with Cosmopolis and showed this script to Robert Pattinson. Robert signed on, and Julianne was still available, and that was how we were able to get John Cusack. The financing was such that we were only able to have one American star, but by that time Julianne had duel citizenship, British and US. We adjusted things so that we only shot five days in Los Angeles. And David, at 70, with his long career, had never shot a film on American soil, ever.

Map-To-The-StarsDead Stars is confused with Maps to the Stars for obvious reasons, starting with their titles, but Dead Stars was an absolutely corrosive book that I wrote a few years ago, and none of the characters in Maps to the Stars are in Dead Stars. However, Maps to the Stars is very much an apotheosis of all of my novels—it contains the sacred and profane, people in extremis, which is generally what I’m drawn toward. But Maps is really a family melodrama, a fever-dream of a movie.

You’ve mentioned how writing Dead Stars was a sort of cleansing of toxins for you. Do films like this act as a sort of cultural cleansing? Flushing out the worst of our toxic celebrity obsessions?

Wagner: It was certainly cleansing for me when I wrote it, but it may be more toxic for viewers than cleansing [Laughs]. I’ve always maintained that I write about the sacred and the profane. If one only writes about human depravity, then that in itself is a depraved act. It’s bad faith. So I really do work toward if not redemption, then some kind of light or illumination in everything I write.

maps-to-the-stars-2Maps to the Stars is no different—it begins as a kind of corrosive, almost anthropological essay about show business, but it ends in a far different way, a liberation for the doomed characters. Mia Wasikowska’s character, who’s schizophrenic and mutilated from a fire she was in as a child, turns out to be the most sane character in the film–she wants to break a cycle of bad faith that her parents began.

The movie is not really a commentary on or exploration of the morays and manners of Hollywood as it a kind of excavation of the human spirit. It’s a look at the worst and best of us. People may find that hard to believe, but that’s really where I write from. I like to expose the worst of our inclinations and juxtapose that with the best of our intentions.

In that sense, it seems to echo Greek tragedy, where a child like Orestes, Electra, or Antigone sacrifices him or herself to put an end to their parents’ cycle of sin and violence.

Wagner: Very much present for me was this notion of sanity—Agatha gets sane when she throws away her medication. One gets a sense that she has not fully escaped the cycle, but she does perceive that she must smash that template. I think that what she does is noble.

MTTS_STILL-17.jpgAlong those lines, it sometimes seems that celebrity and fame form our modern culture’s most powerful mythology–an as such, it almost functions as our present-day conduit toward spirituality.

Wagner: Of course Warhol said everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, but I think the new model of that mantra is that in the future–which is now–everyone will be famous all the time. I think fame has a really interesting place in our being human. The desire for acclaim is not new—the attention one calls to self. An old Buddhist text said that the desire for acclaim is so strong that in many ways it’s a more difficult hardship to overcome than poverty or disease. This particular Buddhist text I was reading said that even the most reclusive of cave monks will have the desire to be known the world over as the most reclusive of cave monks.

I’ve always written about extremes–extreme poverty and extreme wealth, extreme fame and total anonymity. Those poles illuminate for me, so I’ve always thrown myself headlong into the abyss of both ends. Both of them are bottomless pits. I and David wanted Maps to the Stars to be entertaining, so there’s a lot of humor in it. But at the end of the day, its not funny. We were thrilled that Julianne was nominated for a Golden Globe, but it was under comedy or musical.

Bailey's Quest-445.cr2Our movie is difficult to categorize because it begins as a kind of corrosive and raucous comedy, but by the end it’s a full-blown tragedy. I don’t make comments about Hollywood or show business—I try to observe the human comedy and tragedy. And because I was essentially raised in this town, it’s my backdrop; an extraordinary laboratory to observe and record human behavior.

But this movie is not anecdotal. I don’t write as a memoirist, I try to write as an artist who draws on deeply unconscious things. In many ways, I’m every character in the movie. I’m John Cusack’s character, the megalomaniac New Age spiritualist; I’m the young man, the prodigy and drug addict; I’m Julianne’s character, the desperate actress who is losing her grip and  feeling the death of her career – I’m all of those.

Since I spend most of my time studying and thinking about popular culture, I sometimes wonder if I ascribe too much cultural (and even political) influence to it. But I do keep wondering what impact all this pop culture we’re all immersed in now 24-7 on the Internet and cable TV is having on how we view, understand, and interact with our world.

maps-to-the-starsWagner: We give as much attention to Bruce Jenner’s transition as we do to a Jordanian pilot being burned alive. It all becomes part of this insect-life-like news cycle, but that will have to sort itself out. I don’t see the times we live in as being better or worse than any other times, it’s just a new time in which everyone is linked in a way that is almost absurdly collective.

I think we’re in the middle of a storm right now, and you can’t really assess the damage or be hopeful until there’s a pause in the storm. But we’ve always been in this storm. One always has to keep in mind that the world is composed of dualities. Our universe is constructed with a night and a day, and if you settle into that equation, then the mess in between the extremes gets a little easier to deal with because it’s more dreamlike. Everything informs this equation of opposites, and most of the time we live in the spaces between those opposites.

“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf