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.

Interview: Red Army Writer-director Gabe Polsky

Gabe_PolskyMV5BMjIxMDYwMTg3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDQ1NzQ0MzE@._V1_SX214_AL_These days, Russia and the West seem to be more at odds than any time since the end of the Cold War. Which makes Gabe Polsky’s terrific new documentary Red Army all the more relevant and fascinating.

No, it’ not (directly) about the actual Soviet-era military, and yes, it’s about hockey, and no, you don’t need to know or like hockey to appreciate it.

Red Army looks at the Soviet Union’s HC CSKA Moscow hockey club of the 1980s, which, due to its alignment with the Soviet Army, was often known as the “Red Army” team. It’s also the Olympic team the United States famously defeated in the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics–the “Miracle on Ice.” (That match’s outcome, so patriotically triumphant in America, is shown in the documentary from the other side, with the dejection of the defeated Soviet players.) The film introduces us to the history, style, and interpersonal ups and downs of the Soviet hockey team through the eyes of its legendary captain Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov.

Polsky has been making films for years with his brother Alan (including producing Werner Herzog and Nic Cage’s awesome Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans and co-directing the recent indie The Motel Life), but this is his first time directing solo and his first documentary,

I sat down with Polsky last month in Chicago to talk about Red Army, his own personal connections to the Soviet Union and hockey, the nature of sport as a conveyor of culture and the beauty of Russian hockey compared to the North American game, and what film making advice he got from Werner Herzog.

Red Army is playing in theaters in select cities.


46It wasn’t until after I’d seen the film that I learned about your very unique, personal connection to the subject.

Gabe Polsky: My parents are from the former Soviet Union Ukraine–they came over in 1976, so I grew up in the Glencoe suburb of Chicago. It was the end of the Cold War, and it wasn’t that cool to be the son of Soviet immigrants, so I was trying to assimilate.

I was a very serious hockey player—I wanted to play at the highest level; I was very competitive. I got my hands on a VHS tape where I saw the Soviet Union play hockey for the first time. It was mind-boggling and confusing. I was thinking, Why don’t we see more of this, why don’t we play this way? It was the most creative demonstration of sports I’d ever seen. It was amazing, and they were dominant. They’re passing ten times more and weaving – it was beautiful, like art.

redarmySo I got curious about my own background because I wanted to know more about this team and how they came to be. And I was confused—we live in such a free society, but why is our hockey so confining and limiting and aggressive and sort of dull? Whereas they live in a terrible, brutal society, but their hockey is free and open.

I went to Yale and played hockey, was a political science major. As I started doing films I did some research and realized the story of the hockey team was really the story of the rise and fall of the Soviet Union—it was a very deep and profound story about not just hockey but friendship and betrayal and the nature of patriotism.

It’s about Russia and its relationship with the West in the past and the future. It really puts a face on who the Russian people are and their experience.

We tend to see sports as entertainment, but they are so deeply woven both into and out of our culture and values.

Polsky: It’s exactly the same as with the arts—the idea that sports communicate ideas to us just like movies do. It tells us about the society and the individual. When you look at an individual and see how they play sports, you can tell a lot about who they are as a person. It’s the same with a team—they’re always communicating ideas. The Soviet leaders knew that, that you can communicate a lot of things through sport—it’s like poetry, reading between the lines.

red-army-hockey-photoAmericans don’t usually think of Soviet Russia and think of creativity and artistic beauty.

Polsky: In sports and in hockey in particular it was a creative revolution. That’s so important to look at and study. We go to sporting events because we want to see something amazing, something magic, like collective passing and beautiful movement, which doesn’t exist in American hockey.

That’s why people don’t like American and Canadian hockey—there’s nothing interesting to watch, there’s guys hitting each other, you don’t know what the hell is going on. When you watch this movie, it’s self-evident that these guys were masters of the game.

The film really captures the cost of perfection, the sacrifice of time and family life.

Polsky: They do it by choice, but if you want to be great, you don’t’ really have a choice. It’s a competitive world—you’ll never be great if you’re being forced to do anything. These guys loved it, but at a certain point they looked at the guys in the NHL and thought, “These guys are making tons of money, they get to go out at night.”

RED ARMYWhen doing the interviews with Slava Fetisov and his teammates, you seem to run up against the stereotypical Russian stoicism.

Polsky: Absolutely, but you can also use that as a strength in the film. They can be hard, but you can push that and get things. Not everything has to be verbal—it can be what they don’t say and how they react to things. That is who they are. You gotta work around those issues and use it to your advantage.

Post-Cold War, we Americans tend to have such mixed-up impressions of the Russian people and their culture.

We’ve gone from assuming all Cold War Russians were cold, cruel Communist robots to assuming they’re all corrupt, greedy criminals or macho thugs like Putin.

So it’s powerful and instructive when Fetisov speaks of the “pride and soul” of Russia and how he longed to get back there.

Red-Army-Archive-24-copy-940x622Polsky: Even now, today, this movie is just as relevant. People don’t really know who Russians are—we read all this crazy stuff in the media, but we don’t know who these people are, their experiences and how they live and their history. This movie brings to light this history and the people and what shaped them on a human level.

Slava laughs at how we Americans assume these things. He gets very upset because he is a politician, when we assume that we’re always right about everything, that we know everything. I’m wondering what other people in other countries think of us, of America. Do they look at us too like these aggressive gangsters?

There are so many challenges and issues and problems in Russia. It’s gotten terrible, the relationship between the US and Russia. Slava wants to help out and achieve stability and for his country to thrive and for people to be happy. He’s gonna do whatever he thinks is right to achieve that.

MOV_RedArmy_2458_0You produced Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans and now he’s a producer on your documentary. He’s such a master documentarian—did he give you any tips?

Polsky: Just from his work. You don’t have to talk and get specific tips, but it would be a crime not to say that he was influential, just through his work. I borrowed from him mentally. I appreciate film makers who get at very deep truths in strange ways, like Herzog.

I showed him the film and he was one of the first people who was just immediately supportive and appreciative. He said this was a very special movie and deep—he kept saying that, “deep” – he’d say, “it’s about men and friendship.”

Obviously from a guy like that who doesn’t bullshit, I was really taken by that. He said if he could help, let him know so I told him I’d be honored if he’d be an executive producer and guide me through the distribution process.

Screening Of Polsky Films' "The Motel Life"Honestly, people weren’t immediately supportive; some festivals weren’t. That was really hard on me because I thought I’d made a great movie and really put my heart into it and I know it’s great. I humbly say that. And for some reason there were a couple festivals that dismissed it.

Werner said, “Don’t worry, it’s an insane grotesque world.” He once said, “You can’t be a film maker if you don’t understand the heart of men.” I know it’s a simple thing, but really it’s the essence of what a good filmmaker is. That’s ultimately what this movie is, about the Russian soul of men.

Interview: Black Sea Director Kevin MacDonald

black-sea-poster Kevin+Macdonald+Black+Sea+Screening+NYC+vvFO02svu-xlThe old saw that January is a new-movie wasteland, a dumping ground for studio rejects and misfires, is slowly eroding.

Sure, in January the crap-to-cream ratio is still tilted toward crap, as any scan of the Cineplex marquee attests.

But each year there seem to be a few more small, genre gems–well-made little films that probably would not have stood a chance against the blockbusters of summer or the holiday event and prestige flicks.

Black Sea is one of this year’s worthwhile dead-of-winter genre flicks. Written by British playwright Dennis Kelly and directed by Kevin MacDonald (Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland, The Eagle), the action-thriller stars Jude Law as a present-day commercial submarine captain who, after getting laid off from his underwater salvage job, gathers a crew of British, Australian, and Russian submariners. Their secret heist mission: Head to the Black Sea and use a dilapidated Russian submarine to search for a lost German U-Boat supposedly full of Nazi gold that sunk during WWII.

As directed with a sharp eye by MacDonald and featuring a terrific multi-national cast that includes Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, Black Sea is that rare genre film that respects its genre’s tropes but never lazily leans on them; that aims for authenticity and character-driven narrative logic without sacrificing genuine tension and thrills.

Another writer and I sat down with MacDonald earlier this month to talk about Black Sea, the Russian response to the film, and how to shoot a low-budget submarine movie on a real submarine.

Black Sea is playing in select theaters.


black-sea-leakYou just got back from doing press and a screening of the film in Russia? What did they think of it?

Kevin MacDonald: There’s this massive antipathy against the West right now due to the whole situation with the Ukraine. They’re very anti-Western, so it was interesting watching this film with them. It’s a big market for the film because we have all these Russian actors in it—three of them turned out to be some of the biggest stars in Russia, which I hadn’t quite realized.

The actors were very sensitive—when I cast them, they didn’t want to play stereotypical criminal Russian characters in Western films. But I pointed out to them that in this film they aren’t as bad as the Brits… or the Australians. The Russian press was all over me about Russian stereotypes. They didn’t like the fact that the sonar operator was wearing a fur hat with the red Russian star in the middle—they said, “That’s such a stereotype!” But actually I didn’t want to use that hat, the Russian actor wanted to. Blame him! [Laughs]

There’s a little oddity about this film. The place they go to pick up this submarine and bribe an admiral to get it is Sevastopol, which is the main city in Crimea, which has been taken over by the Russians since we shot the film. There was quite a lot of sensitivity about that, since the character was supposed to be a Ukrainian admiral. We were going to go back there later and get shots of a real submarine in the Ukrainian navy submerging, but we couldn’t go back because of the invasion—the Ukrainian Navy ceased to exist.

22267801_Still_Black Sea_3Despite our Western ideas about Russian corruption and greed, in your film the Russians turn out to be some of the more honorable characters.

MacDonald: They have more in common with the Brits than they don’t, because they’ve all been sailors their whole lives. But it’s more because they’ve all been thrown on the scrapheap.

These are blue-collar working-man guys with skills that are no longer needed or wanted. I think that happens as much in Russia, even more so than it does in America or Europe. It’s more about the 99% and the 1%. What drives this film’s characters isn’t just about getting rich, it’s about wanting to get back at these fuckers, at the bankers, at the guys who screwed us over and made us lose our self-respect.

It’s not the most noble of causes, going after the gold.

MacDonald: What interests me is that as characters they are very flawed because they’ve been warped by their anger at the system. If the film is about anything in the end, it’s about how instead of worrying about getting rich or getting respect, you should pay attention to your family and be a good dad.

black_sea_2-620x413That’s why we didn’t want to personify the evil corporation. You can’t point and say, “That’s the guy behind it all who’s getting rich.” It’s about what greed and wanting desperately to get your self-respect back do to individuals.

Society values rich people, so that desire drives these characters, but you have to realize that isn’t necessarily true. It’s more complicated than going off and getting rich. It’s about how money and greed destroys you, whether it’s gold or whatever. That applies to these men as well as the bosses. It’s probably unhelpful in terms of making a mainstream movie – there’s no clear villain. The villain is within.

That’s part of why I love sea stories and films—when you put your characters out on a ship, you strip away all the societal noise and isolate them, so themes and issues like that really scream out.

MacDonald: That’s one of the reasons why I got Dennis Kelly the playwright to write this, because there’s something theatrical about being on a boat or submarine where you’re in one place and you have to account for everyone in that place all the time. It gives you a very intense social interaction under pressure, observing human behavior under stress in a different environment.

The other thing that’s interesting that I only realized as we were about to start making this film was how many other submarine films have the idea of the Captain Ahab character, who starts off or goes crazy. The idea of that single-minded obsession that starts to endanger everyone’s lives when they start behaving irresponsibly. Something about that myth sits so well with this genre.

media_black_sea_20141002It’s much harder to rationally, reasonably resolve conflict when you’re always in each other’s faces with nowhere else to go.

MacDonald: You can’t say, “Let’s  all go have a good night’s sleep on it and come back to it in the morning.” [Laughs]

Or go take a nice, calming walk outside.

Having never been underwater in a submarine, I can’t imagine how much you must have to mentally block out the idea of where you are, how close to death you are.

MacDonald: Jude actually went on a Royal Navy nuclear submarine for five days. There’s something about being in that confined space, underwater, somewhere where you as a human being shouldn’t be. You can only exist thanks to technology, so that technology becomes part of you, as important as an arm or a finger.

It intensifies everything, it makes emotions and anxieties concentrated. I think that’s one of the reasons why a drama on board a sub is so fantastically intensified and tense. Almost anything that happens on a submarine has a tension inherent to it because of where you are.

thumbnail_1201Every genetic, instinctive bone in your body is screaming, “I don’t belong here.”

MacDonald: It makes you really want to trust your crew. You weren’t born into a crew, but you are reliant on them and them on you, and if something goes wrong, you’re all going to die. But of course when that great of a trust is necessary, it makes you start to think, “Can I really trust him?” The seed of doubt is there and the paranoia sets in.

Did any of that claustrophobic anxiety from the characters in the story spill over into the actual film shoot? You worked with a very small crew…

MacDonald: This isn’t a very big, expensive movie. The crew was not large. Not many people would be foolish enough to make a low-budget submarine movie. [Laughs] We shot for two weeks in a real submarine, so that was a tiny crew of just six or seven down below, then makeup and hair and stuff were up above on a platform, floating offices with toilets and stuff.

We were shooting in corridors in that real submarine and there’s just no room at all, you have four people just crushed in next to each other. That definitely changed how the actors felt—they understood what it was like to be in that situation.

But it also affects what you can do with the camera and how you can move the actors. A lot of the tools you’re used to having as a director, you just can’t use. That really frustrated me while shooting, but I realized as I was cutting the film together that it has the benefit of making it feel real. You know that camera has to be there because it can’t be any further out because there’s a metal wall. That contributed to the sense of tension and claustrophobia.

black sea 2So when we moved on to shooting on the sound stage, I had designed the sets so we could move the walls out, but I decided not to do that. I tried it the first day, removing walls and moving the camera out and around, and it just felt so completely wrong—it was obvious to everyone instantly.

So we put everything back and treated the set like the real submarine. You couldn’t cheat. The environment totally dictates how the film feels in terms of film making.

Did you do any story boarding?

MacDonald: I did for the big underwater scene. That was the first time I’d done story boarding and pre-visualization. It’s so difficult filming underwater. You can’t really communicate with the actors, so it’s much easier to just show them the visualization and say here’s the shot I want to get.

The other thing we played around with a lot through trial and error was how often we’d see CGI shots outside of the submarine. At first we did lots of complicated camera moves around when showing the sub in the water. But again that felt wrong because we were so restricted inside the submarine, so we reduced the complexity of the camera movements even when we did have the complete freedom to do more, like with outside shots of the submarine.

Of course there’s something artificial when you’re going for naturalism inside the submarine and then suddenly the camera is outside the submarine and you think that’s impossible—the camera couldn’t be there.

3514206044But you desperately needed those shots in terms of the rhythm of the editing and storytelling, you needed those moments of pause. In a regular film you have those interstitial moments, those shots of houses and trees, that act as pauses.

I remember talking to Danny Boyle about what was the hardest thing about making a science fiction film like Sunshine. He said when you do a sci-fi or space movie, you realize you’re given nothing for free.

Normally you make a movie and you say, “Oh, look at that sunshine streaming in, isn’t that lovely?” Or leaves, or people in the background—all that stuff you didn’t plan and didn’t pay for. But when you make a movie in space or underwater, you have to create every single thing. It was novel for me—I’ve never done anything like that.

I always complain about too much CG because the actors never feel fully emotionally committed to a green screen, but what you said is true, too—if the CG camera movements are too inventive and impossible, a voice in the back of your mind is saying, “Well, this couldn’t really be happening.” It further disconnects you from the fictional experience.

MacDonald: I think that’s really true—that’s one of the problems with CG. When anything is possible, nothing matters.

The eleven-year-old in us loves to see it, but…

MacDonald: But it doesn’t truly connect psychologically. It’s not true.

download (2)I love how in Kelly’s script we not only get to know the characters, but their actions and motivations logically drive the plot progression.

MacDonald: It’s definitely an unusual genre film—there’s a lot going on, a lot of things that wouldn’t be in a normal genre film, in terms of the writing.

Dennis is very good writer—his series Utopia is a big hit in Britain. He’s got a way of taking bits of reality—like Hitler and Stalin in 1941—and creating a plausible story based on a nugget of truth. He takes that and builds something. Then he adds in conspiracy and mythology and Nazi gold and combines it all, truth and mythology and fantasy and genre.

It doesn’t follow any one genre. There’s the submarine genre, the horror-movie whatever, a bit of Aliens in there in terms of the look, and there’s a morality tale as well, like Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It’s got bits of all these things. That’s what I loved about the writing—he’s so free with grabbing bits and influences, but it’s not post-Modern in a Tarantino way. It’s more messy and human.

The moments that I love best are the little character bits, what they want to do with the money, their relationships with their wives and kids, and the little bit about these guys being “penguins”—awkward and inadequate on land, elegant and sleek in their environment in the water. That’s a lovely piece of writing. The ability to write and make a film that’s hopefully exciting and tense but also has other stuff going on—that’s what he’s really good at.

download (1)I don’t know how exactly Kelly constructed his script, but at least it feels like the actions and events come from the character’s motivations and the consequences of their behavior.

So often in big genre films, you feel it’s the other way around—someone decides they want this scene or that action beat and then spend all their time pushing and twisting the characters and plot to get to those big scenes.

MacDonald: Well, that’s what you do when you have a bigger budget. [Laughs]

My Not-So-Shameful Love of Wahlberg’s The Gambler Remake

250Every now and then, killing time before a screening, some of us Chicago critics will try in vain to plan a sort of group Underdog Movie Marathon/Series. (I was going to say “sleepover,” but those implications are too horrifying to comprehend). The idea is that each critic shows a film they genuinely love—not ironically as “a bad movie,” but honestly enjoy on its own merits—but that everyone else hates.

The concept usually breaks down because we’ve found no matter what woe-begotten, critically-nuked, box-office disaster you proudly haul out as your favorite movie underdog, someone else in the group also likes it, and where’s the fun in that?

I mention this because while the remake of The Gambler from director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed), starring and produced by Mark Wahlberg, is not getting completely critically stomped, it’s not all that appreciated, either.

Those who like it tend to give it a pass as a “not as bad as you’d expect” genre flick, and it’s been largely ignored at the box office by audiences who can’t get past the “Mark Wahlberg gambling movie” poster. And I mention it because I’m not sure The Gambler is a great, unappreciated gem—it might actually be a somewhat shallow, laughably preposterous and grandiose piece of overly-macho chintz that only I alone truly love.

But I do love this film. A lot. I know I might be loving it for all the wrong reasons; dazzled by its aggressive style; seduced by its torrent of smarty-pants speechifying; and perhaps personally relating to its pompous, narcissistic themes for all the wrong dime-store, bull-crap, pseudo-philosophical reasons. I love The Gambler like a Vegas show, or perhaps more appropriately, a Vegas casino: I willingly give into the illusion of depth and importance and all those flashing lights and amped emotions, even as I know all the fun is probably just covering up a seedy, hollow deception.

Producer Wahlberg put himself in the James Caan “Axel Freed” role from the 1974 version, which was directed by Karel Reisz and written by James Toback as part self-aggrandizing autobiographical ode to Toback’s own gambling addiction and part riff on Dostoyevsky’s semi-autobiographical novella The Gambler.

THE GAMBLERThis time out the character is named Jim Bennett, but he’s still a college lit teacher who romanticizes his gambling as a philosophical-literary exercise in self-determination and is in way too deep of debt to unsavory, violent underworld characters.

However, the remake is not about a man with a self-destructive gambling addiction; it’s about a smart, once-talented, over-privileged, trust-fund asshole who sees self-destruction as the only way out of the trap of his seemingly cushy existence.

That’s not much of a rah-rah theme for the Cineplex, nor do I think some supposedly “intelligent” critics even grasped it—they were too preoccupied with snarking out “Marky Mark as a lit professor” jokes or treating the film as yet another 12-step cautionary tale. It doesn’t help The Gambler’s commercial potential that the main character, Bennett, is a sardonic jerk who’s not too busy destroying himself at the blackjack and roulette tables every night to verbally slash at everyone else around him (especially his students) with his two-sided, razor-sharp self-loathing.

In fact, part of the film’s appeal is how much you want to punch Bennett in the face. I say it every week, but the more we only think of “movies” as escapism (or maybe uplifting education), we’ve become conditioned to want to “like” our film characters. Bennett is not likable, nor is he particularly admirable, no matter how hard he tries to ennoble his drive toward oblivion in lofty speeches about truth and being yourself and wanting more than complacent hypocrisy from your life.

THE GAMBLERBennett’s addiction isn’t gambling, it’s self-destruction—a cleansing suicide by Fortuna. He knows he’s not truly a genius, only an intellectual con man hiding behind hyper-Hemingway-ized “whatever” machismo. (Layered on like plate armor, at times Bennett’s self-loathing gets so thick, so humorously sharp-edged that it feels like a separate character in the film.)

He’s wasted what talent he had and can’t stand himself or the privileged economic and social status that won’t let him truly fall. He lives in abject fear of being forever suspended in mediocrity—the very words “life plan” are banal poison to him.

In both the ’74 and ’14 films, the main character hits up his mother to bail him out of his debts. In the original, mother is an earnest, caring doctor played by Jacqueline Brookes. In the remake, she’s Jessica Lange in full decadent-wealth mode, sliding from tennis courts to bank branch offices with the imperial, serpentine malice of a survivor. But the bigger difference is how Bennett loses his mother’s bail-out money: In the original, Caan’s Axel uses it to carefully place bets he’s sure will pay off, climaxing with him hitting a 3 on an 18 at a glamorous Vegas blackjack table—a stunning miracle of hot luck he crows as a cosmic coronation.

This time around, Wahlberg’s Bennett sets out to deliberately blow every last bit of Mom’s cash at a seedy desert casino, dumping it off 10 grand at a time amidst overweight dead-enders with their oxygen tanks strapped to their motorized chairs. Unlike Axel, Bennett feels no guilt over taking his mother’s money—just the opposite, he wants nothing more than to burn the loan and permanently remove her from his life.

Bennett’s obsessive gambling—or more specifically his reckless shell-game running up of debts and then more debts to pay off those debts—is the only way he sees out of traps like his mother’s money or even his own lazy talent. As fun and cool and sexy-seedy as the trip is, The Gambler is driving toward a singular point: Bennett’s careful maneuvering of himself into a corner neither his family’s money nor his over-educated bellicose charisma can get him out of.

1412622331000-XXX-GAMBLER-MOV-JY-3178--67830468The entire plot of The Gambler is Bennett working very hard to get to the point where, with all his vicious creditors watching, his existence comes down to a single spin of the roulette wheel. In what he sees as the purest method available, he lets the universe decide his worth and his fate, daring it to snuff him out or free him. So is it really gambling if you want to lose?

If all this sounds oppressively, depressingly heavy, it’s not at all. Director Wyatt is mostly along for Wahlberg and Monahan’s ride, but he has a clean, confident visual style that sometimes sports the shiny, chrome-thin decadence of false ‘80s Playboy fantasies, but stops just short of too-showy. Dancing around visual and thematic influences from films like O Lucky man, Naked, Leaving Las Vegas, and Drive, the exposition-free Gambler plays fast and smart, never slowing down to wait for the viewer as it rides a torrent of Monahan’s words; a brilliant supporting cast of character actors; and Wahlberg’s riotous smug petulance.

The Gambler is not a perfect film–it’s never as light or nimble enough to carry all those existential speeches effortlessly, nor is it always cohesive in pace, performance, or purpose. But it’s often hilarious, even self-satirizing in a dark, mean way. (There’s a wickedly funny scene with Richard Schiff in a jewelry store.) Wyatt’s sleek, Brit-pop visions of “secret” LA aside, the film belongs to Monahan’s never-ending rush of words. Each new declarative speech—spit out with easy intensity by Bennett or one of his antagonists—viciously, thematically cannibalizes the one before.

THE GAMBLERSome of those lacerating soliloquies are ranted by Bennett in his lecture hall as he muses with increasingly energetic venom about Shakespeare and Camus to disinterested students for whom he mostly musters only bored disdain.

Put aside your preconceptions about Wahlberg and you’ll find that while this may not be a great performance, it’s a fantastically entertaining one—a pale, stone-faced vampire-ape in skinny, cool, dark suits and scowling under unruly hair and perfect sunglasses, Bennett’s smarter-than-thou smirk and self-indulgent boy grin weaves beautifully in and out of hammy defiance and childish narcissism.

But the film’s best scenes of verbal daring-do are when Bennett gets his once-rich, white ass chewed up by the film’s supporting cast, especially John Goodman and Michael K. Williams, both of whom have a ball kicking the callow pretty-boy around. As Frank, a high-end loan shark who’s part leg-breaker and part Bad Buddha consciousness expander, Goodman gets the best bits—all bald head and bare-chested bulk, he’s a joy to watch as he dispenses world-weary life wisdom alongside casual, resigned threats of apocalyptic violence.

But Williams’s Neville also expertly subverts The Wire and Boardwalk Empire actor’s usual criminal-menace typecasting: his “non-standard lender” character looks at Bennett with annoyed awe, unsure whether to marvel at the magnificent bravado of Bennett’s stupidity or have the idiot killed. (“Is this some existential situations and shit?” asks Neville with a charmingly dismissive chuckle.)

THE GAMBLER(Only Brie Larson’s character—the standard wise, alluring ingénue on hand to act as a potential life preserver for the drowning man—gets left out of all the fun. Larson [Short Term 12] is a fantastic actress, but her typical sexist sidelining thanks to Monahan’s throwback He-Man posturing is the biggest strike against the film.)

The Gambler sometimes teeters on the verge of cartoonish grotesquery, but still, those words… all those wonderful, arch, posturing words. Like David Milch’s Deadwood scripts, there are times Monahan’s screenplay seems so in love with its faux-Shakespearean, pseudo-intellectual self that it feels like a ‘70s drum or guitar solo—its monologues are at first technically impressive, then run toward silly before pushing past into something like transcendence through ridiculous excess.

I’m still not sure all those strengths and weaknesses add up to anything genuinely good, or if under all the film’s lofty yapping and “deep thoughts” table gazing, it’s really just a sleazy bag of tarted-up cheap thrills—a bad undergrad paper with a sexy cover page and too much reliance on the thesaurus. But I’m a self-admitted word slut, and even though it may be my own form of self-indulgence, I do love watching The Gambler—or at least listening to it strut by.

A Mouse Goes Into the Woods and…

MV5BMTY4MzQ4OTY3NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjM5MDI3MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_I do struggle with my sometimes unreasonable hatred of Disney. My seething loathing for the Mouse does not come easy. I wrestle, almost daily it seems, with what often feels like an irrational, petty, personally embittered war on a media conglomerate that apparently provides so much happiness, and joy to so many people, including many of my friends and relatives of all ages—even at times, yes, to myself.

This is probably as good a time as any to warn you that this year, with The Avengers 2 and Star Wars 7 coming out, you’re probably going to hear me retread and rehash all my crazy-guy-on-the-corner anti-Disney rants until even those few of you who are still hanging around will be begging for me to please STFU about how Disney ruins everything with it’s perfectly cross-marketed, demographically aimed, shined and polished pop-culture gems.

But you could at least make the argument that when it comes to things like Marvel superheroes, Star Wars, the Muppets, or Toy Story, Disney is selling products that are pop-culture baubles to begin with. Don’t get me wrong—I have much love in my 11-year-old self’s heart for most of those things, but they are pretty much exactly the sort of enjoyable lightweight diversions that even I have to admit Disney does a pretty amazing job of re-imagining then re-packaging.

I hope we can all agree that Stephen Sondheim musicals do not fall into that same bucket of enjoyable fluff. I’m no Sondheim scholar or even a super-fan, but I do know why I love his music and several of his musicals: his often discordant, hook-resistant, complex song-writing subversively paints a world (often populated by misguided dreamers and creators) that is dark, introspective, and morally layered—not to mention painfully, often tragically ironic.

Disney doesn’t really do deep discord. Or complex. Or subversion. And while Disney will sometimes play at a sort of “lite” darkness (Hellooo,  Miss Malificent), it rarely does honest introspection, real moral ambiguity, and certainly not ironic tragedy. No matter which way it bends and weaves through decades of changing tastes and trends, for the most part Disney does escapism. It does fairytales.

Into-the-Woods-Lilla-CrawfordDisney also does Disney, which is to say, The Mouse likes to hang on to what it sees as all its toys. (We’ll talk about the company’s successful greed-drenched, control-freak lobbying to extend copyright periods some other time.) Disney likes to believe it runs the Fairytale Market—if someone is going to “do” fairytales, whether straight or ironically, Disney and its lawyers and money men would strongly prefer it be Disney.

Sondhiem’s Into the Woods, with its book by James Lapine, came along in the late ‘80s, at a time when the Disney Fairytale Factory was on the ropes—in part because of declining creative quality on the studio’s side, but also because the American culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s had, on the backs of assassinations, Vietnam, and Watergate, steered away from escapist children’s fantasy.

In the midst of all that, in 1987, Into the Woods all-sang to Baby Boomers about what had become of them; from the fairytales of their childhoods, to the hopeful ideals of their young adulthoods, to the cold, harsh realities (political, personal, and moral) of early middle age; of parenthood and livelihoods; of living—or dying—with the choices you made in your heady, hopeful, reckless youth, and the brutally pragmatic choices you’re forced to make as an adult.

Drawing on Bruno Bettelheim’s 1976 The Uses of Enchantment, a Freudian study of the role fairytales play in mapping out our cultural and psychological contours, Sondheim’s musical also helped usher in a whole genre of fairytale deconstruction. (Though Rocky and Bullwinkle got there first 20 years earlier.) Of course, the original tales had always been dark, often even gruesome—in bringing some of that back, Sondheim not only undermined the Disneyfied versions, but also used the tales as entries into modern existential crises.

woods01_2991544bTwenty-seven years later, “adult” retellings of classic fairytales have become de rigor, even rote, with many of them churned out by Disney itself—like any conquering empire, Disney is brilliant at absorbing and co-opting the cultural forces that once aligned against it.

So by the time Into the Woods makes it into theaters today, audiences are more than familiar with post-modern revisionism of fairytales by way of projects like Disney’s Once Upon a Time, Tangled, Enchanted, and Malificent, as well as dozens of other non-Disney works like Shrek, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Ever After,  almost all of them owning their very existence to Sondheim’s decades-old musical.

When Disney announced it had hired Chicago director Rob Marshall to helm a film version of Into the Woods (with Lapine writing the screenplay), Sondheim fans and purists squealed with distrust (no doubt in an atonal minor key). Their not unreasonable fear was that Disney would “Disney-fy” the musical, strip out its sexual sub-plots, concoct a happy ending for a musical about the great lie of happy endings, and generally make the whole thing family friendly for the holidays.

Disney and Marshall didn’t do most of those terrible things—while a few plot and song points were softened for the screen, they left in the Big Bad Wolf’s leering double-entendres (though they neutered him slightly by having the character played as a zoot-suited Tex Avery cartoon by Johnny Depp, himself a once-rebellious creative eccentric now tamed into Disney’s lovable “pet weirdo”), and they kept the musical’s darker, more melancholy and introspective second act.

But while Disney maintained Sondheim’s grimmer elements on paper, the film version (directed with impressively mediocrity and inoffensive cinematic blandness by Marshall) does stack the deck on screen with charming stars: In addition to what amounts to an extended cameo by Depp, there’s Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, and of course Our National Acting Treasure Meryl Streep, as well as Emily Blunt and James Corden and youngsters Lilla Crawford as Red Riding Hood and Daniel Huttlestone as Jack.

All these very attractive, very likable folks help to not only sell Into the Woods on the lobby poster, but also provide a soothing, edge-smoothing element of audience comfort. Their characters may not all make it to live happily ever after, but the on-screen deaths of Beloved Well-Known stars never quite wound that deeply or resonate that emotionally—somewhere in the backs of our mind, we know the Star Lives On.

INTO THE WOODSAnd all these stars are good enough—they all give it their best and most of them acquit themselves nicely. A few— Blunt, Corden, and Kendrick, the latter two of whom have professional musical theater experience—are even better than good enough. (Kendrick’s “On the Steps of the Palace” is a particular highlight.)

(Depp, on his second big-screen Sondheim go-round after Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, still doesn’t have the voice or the training for this stuff.)

I don’t buy into this culturally agreed-upon delusion that everything Meryl Streep does is perfect and award-worthy and brilliant (did anyone actually watch Iron Lady?), but nor do I dislike her. As the Witch—the narrative and thematic lynchpin of the story—Streep holds the center not with voice and brass verve, as Bernadette Peters did on Broadway, but by simply being Meryl Streep, Beloved Acting Icon.

Which is The Disney Way: Everything is about casting buzz and pretty personalities and pleasant surfaces. Everything is “perfect” on paper, if not always in presentation. Which probably, more than anything, gets at my ongoing frustration with Disney—it’s not just the marketing blitzes and emphasis on branding, it’s how Disney’s corporate credo of pleasing/selling to as many people as possible as often as possible never leaves room in any of these big projects for anything messy or truly creatively energetic, original, or innovative. Disney does not fail, and so it rarely allows any creative risk, or anyone to do anything that might not appeal to nearly everyone. (Captain Jack Sparrow is the exception to the rule.) You want to cast the Witch in your big holiday musical? Then you consult your spreadsheets and go out and get the Best-known, Most Lauded Actress of a Certain Age.

into-the-woods-9All of which makes Into the Woods the film perfectly adequate, perfectly entertaining on a perfectly not-too-challenging level. Marshall, who has never impressed me as a director with much in the way of vision or originality, sets everything up and gets it all down on celluloid with a perfunctory, journeyman’s soft hackery. It suggests either he doesn’t quite understand all the layers of Sondheim’s work or that the dictates of doing a big holiday “family” film for Disney that’s intended to haul in both box office and awards hardware didn’t allow him to express his understanding. And so the cast is nice, the sets are nice, the songs are nice, and it’s all good enough.

We can wish all we want for a bolder director than Marshall, maybe someone with the mastery of sound and vision necessary to capture more of Sondheim’s spirit on screen; someone who would do more than just set up the pretty, talented actors on the impressive sound stage sets and let them sing well enough.

But there’s something else that keeps Into the Woods the film from fully tapping into the genius of Into the Woods the stage musical; something that very few film directors—be they Rob Marshall or Tim Burton—could overcome. Sondheim creates theater. His musicals are not just made for the stage, they are about the stage. In them, the juxtaposition of the first-hand reality of the theater space and the theatrical artificiality become part of the theme—when making a musical about witches and giants and beanstalks and magic cows and enchanted hair, stagecraft is not just a necessary tool, it becomes part of the commentary on the nature of the story.

INTO THE WOODSWhen you watch Into the Woods on stage, that Milky White is a stuffed cow on wheels, or the giant’s legs are obviously fake, or Cinderella’s birds are dangling on strings, or Rapunzel’s hair hides a secret rope, aren’t just funny visual jokes; they’re also part of the tapestry Sondheim is weaving about the intersection of fantasy and reality. They say to the audience, you are watching theater, and like these fairy tales we’re deconstructing, the creation of live theater is about using the absurd, silly, and obviously “unreal” to cleave into reality.

We see this throughout Sondheim’s works, whether its Georges Seurat painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” on a transparent skein between himself and the audience in Sunday in the Park with George, or Sweeney Todd’s razors squirting fake stage blood across his victims’ necks before he pulls a lever to drop them back down to the main stage floor. Sondheim is fascinated by how the audience interacts with and ingests art, myth, and, yes, fairy tales; how the creation of art shapes our perceptions of reality, and he uses the stage itself as part of that argument.

Because of that, any film adaptation of a Sondheim musical is already going to be in the hole thematically once it moves its action off the stage and onto the set (not to mention the obligatory addition of lots and lots CGI spectacle), but Into the Woods is triply hampered. First by the aforementioned fact that the deconstruction of fairytales, once daring and dazzling in the late ‘80s, is now old hat, the stuff of night-time soap operas on network TV. Second by Marshall’s inability to fan any new creative life into the proceedings.

into-the-woods-wolf-redBut thirdly because the point of Sondheim’s Into the Woods is that fairytales are important instructive tools for childhood, packed as they are with moral and cultural coding they to pass on to a new generation, but that becoming an adult means having to come to grips with how life’s realities don’t always have happy endings. That thesis is what makes the second Act of Into the Woods resonate on stage.

The second half of Into the Woods is a little shaky when it comes to forward motion and a compelling story—it’s a problem that often afflicts musicals. In musical theater, songs work best when they have a strong forward drive, a memorable point and purpose to go with a powerful tune. Songs in the first half of musicals are often gleefully aspirational or at least belt out with anguished enthusiasm the existential challenges the characters face. The second halves of musicals are usually about the characters working to resolve those plot and character conflicts, and so the songs tend to focus inward, become more introspective, less memorably propulsive. Which is why, with the exception of second acts’ opening numbers and finales, if you list your favorite songs from a dozen musicals, the majority of those songs will come from those productions’ first acts.

INTO THE WOODSWhat carries Into the Woods through its second act on stage is that tension between the fairytales we know and the very un-fairytale realities we’re all too familiar with. But that tension is mostly missing from the film, and so things start to wander and drag a bit.

Part of it is that the film doesn’t have an obvious break after the first act to help the audience “reset” for the darker second half. And part of it is that, as mentioned above, removing the musical from the physical stage also removes some of its thematic power—all those cheesy stage props like Milky White, the birds, or the giant’s wife are no longer intentionally fake, so they no longer visually support the second half’s deconstructive themes.

But also, American grown-ups’ taste in and consumption of culture and entertainment over the past couple decades years has steadily slid back into our childhoods. We no longer look back on our youth with wistful nostalgia—we simply, Peter Pan-like, never leave it. Adult culture is increasingly dominated by children’s and young adult literature and movies based on the TV shows and comic books of our childhood (including a devotion to Disney products)—in an effort to “maintain a childlike wonder,” some of us never really grow out of fairytales; we simply haul them with us into adulthood.

Shows like Disney’s Once Upon a Time, or more recently Galavant, may feature adult fairytale characters doing adult things to each other, but the shows retain a magical, dreams-come-true fantasy take on reality. We take in so much escapism in our entertainment today—and so little other than escapism and entertainment—that much of the resonance of Sondheim’s deliciously sour message is lost on us. How can we dissect fairytales from a grown-up distance if we never leave them behind?

into-the-woods-05Into the Woods the film looks and sounds very nice, but because it is carefully crafted to please, to fit inside the Disney world, it never fully takes us into those dark, dangerous, risky woods where you can both gain and lose everything.

In the end, despite Sondheim’s undeniable brilliance and those amazing songs and that pleasingly talented cast, the film plays more like an artifact than affecting art. It’s a nice little curio, a keepsake trapped inside a celluloid globe. As pretty as it is, it never really touches us.  In Disney and Marshall’s hands, with all those pretty stars out front, Into the Woods becomes just more fairytale escapism, another attraction at the Magic Kingdom.

“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