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.

Interview: The Gambler Director Rupert Wyatt

250Rupert-Wyatt-Gambler-Premieres-Hollywood-Part-_NT14pWeuUslI went into The Gambler with every bit of trepidation you’re probably feeling right now as you look at that poster: “Eh, Mark Wahlberg? Gambling movie? Remake?”

But I found this new version of The Gambler, sharply written by William Monahan (based on James Toback’s original 1974 script) and vividly directed by Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) absolutely riveting, more due to the script’s intelligence than its gambling scenes. (The film spends almost as much time in the classroom as it does at the gaming tables.)

Wahlberg, who produced the film, is in the James Caan role as Jim Bennett, a burned-out, self-loathing college English professor who spends every spare moment and dime gambling on cards, sports, roulette wheels, you name it.

Naturally, as in the original film, his self-destructive drive lands Bennett in deep financial trouble with various underworld figures, including Michael K. Williams and John Goodman (both brilliant), which in turns further strains his already chilly relationship with his wealthy mother (Jessica Lange). Along the way down, Bennett also inadvertently stumbles into a possibly redemptive relationship with a student (the always excellent Brie Larson).

I hope to write further at length about The Gambler in the near future, but for now let me say that even though the film is getting hammered by critics and ignored at the box-office, for whatever it’s worth, I personally loved the film a lot–it’s one of my favorites of 2014.

I sat down with The Gambler‘s Rupert Wyatt in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk about what he as a director brings to a “for hire” project like this; how the remake is fundamentally different from the 1974 original; and how you make and sell smart, challenging films in the current Film Industry climate.

The Gambler is playing now in theaters everywhere.


markwahlberg_thegambler_727I have to tell you, when we had a morning screening a few weeks ago, I almost blew it off. I was busy, it was an inconvenient time, and honestly I felt like I knew what the film was going to be and wasn’t that interested.

But I went and came out of the screening electrified by how much I loved it.

Rupert Wyatt: It’s a different film. It’s interesting the way people’s preconceptions of what this movie is are different from what the movie really is.

How did you get involved in the project?

Wyatt: I was working on my own thing—coming off Rise of the Planet of the Apes I was focused very much on my own work, something I’m going back to right now. It was taking longer than I hoped to get up and running, but I’d heard about this script, heard about how good it was. I live in LA, so I’m kind of in the belly of the beast—when scripts go around town and to agencies, you get a notion of what’s good or not.

This project kept coming up, and then I heard Mark was involved and wanted me to read it. He’s an actor I’ve always respected and found really intriguing, because he’s obviously a movie star, but there’s something about him I find quite alluring because he’s a very still actor. Some people read him as understated, but I love that—I think he’s like a Spencer Tracy or even Brian Cox who I worked with on The Escapist, where they really underplay things very well, but you’re still drawn to them.

So I eventually read the script and fell in love with it because it was something I could see. There were other projects I’d read that I liked the idea of and what I could do with them, but I wanted to rebuild them. But that’s hard in the case of this and those projects, where they’ve already been originated. So it’s a different aspect of one’s career. As a filmmaker, I love building things from the ground up, but on this film and Apes, I came on and worked basically as a tailor—you put your stamp on it, but it’s already been built.

THE GAMBLERTo that end, with William Monahan’s script written and Wahlberg driving the project, what do you bring to the film as the director?

Wyatt: It’s all about the transition to the screen. In this case, I wanted to do very little in terms of what was on the page with the characters and character interactions. But we did make changes with situations and physical circumstances.

For example, John Goodman’s character Frank was to first meet Mark’s character Jim at Dan Tana’s, a well-known LA restaurant. I understood what Bill was doing there, because it represented to a certain extent who he perceived Frank to be, the particular kind of old-school person who goes to Dan Tana’s.

I thought it would be more interesting and subvert the essence of that character a bit more if I put him in a schvitz in a spa. And that might make Jim more uncomfortable—it’s hot and sweaty and he’s being grilled. As a filmmaker to come in and make those changes, it’s always a very intrinsic thing to directing. But you’re still coming in and taking something that preexists and making the transition, rather than me sitting in front of blank page saying, “Okay, I’m going to put this in a Russian spa.”

The film is very stylish, but unlike so many over-styled films these days, I felt the stylism really worked to enhance the story. I also noticed how much architecture figures into the film visually.

Wyatt: It’s interesting you picked up on that, because I love LA for its diversity. I made a rule with Greig Fraser, our director of photography, that if we had a palm tree in the shot we’d move the camera. Because I just didn’t want the preconception of what Los Angeles can be, but instead seek out the more interesting parts of it.

I like to tell stories that are as inherently visual as possible, especially with a script like this that is so dense and verbose. To put Jim, who’s at a really, really tenuous place in his life, in a house that is literally on sticks, so there’s a danger of his world crumbling around at any moment, I think that is as much a part of storytelling as the language that comes out of his mouth.

the-gambler-e1415134019112The original film with James Caan feels like such a personal howl from James Toback. Did you have any trepidation about remaking Toback’s tale of his own addiction?

Wyatt: There was no trepidation in that I knew very early on from reading the script that this was not going to be treading the same ground as the original—if it had been, I probably wouldn’t have taken the job. For me the point of remakes is coming at things from a fresh angle. The fundamental difference between the two movies is that the original Karel Reisz movie is a study in addiction, born of Toback’s own experiences.

This one is much more of a quest—a guy who’s looking to get out and is using gambling as a means to escape. It’s not about a guy who’s circling the drain and unable to escape his demise. I wouldn’t have been able to tell the story of addiction in a way that other filmmakers or storytellers perhaps could have because I don’t have that personal experience.

To me, your film didn’t read as a cautionary tale about addiction but rather it’s about a process of self-destruction—Jim lets fortune decide his fate, taking all responsibility off him—the universe decides whether he lives or dies.

Wyatt: There is the great myth of the samurai where the samurai chooses the place of his own death. There’s conformity to that in that it affords the samurai a certain element of control even though it means self-destruction. There’s a great book, The Dice Man [1971, by George Cockcroft writing as Luke Rhinehart]–it’d make an amazing film—about a guy who lives his life by the role of the dice. If he rolls a two, he’ll make himself a cup of coffee—if he rolls a six, he’ll go downstairs and kill the gardener.

It takes all elements of free-will out of the equation. That to me was Mark’s character—a guy who says, “I’m going to bet my life, because all these things I have, that people aspire to have, they don’t make me happy, so I’m going to blow it all up, put it all on black. And I might die in the process, but hopefully it will be my escape valve and afford me a better life.” That to me is quite an aspirational story, even though it seems an odd thing to say. It’s a guy who’s looking for his own freedom.

goodmanIt’s such an exhilaratingly smart film and a very literary script. So how do you make this kind of film in the current Hollywood landscape and get people to see it?

Wyatt: Get Mark Wahlberg to be in it. That’s a glib answer, but I think in this day and age, especially with the new studio world, we are an exception to the rule. It’s a sad indictment on how mainstream movie-making is going, and why we’re seeing this amazing migration toward long-form television, which I think is the breeding ground of really, really interesting storytelling. It’s kind of where the novel was a century ago. Great cable TV like Deadwood or The Wire; that platform is allowing filmmakers to do things that were happening in the ‘70s in American cinema.

Whereas modern Hollywood is finding itself in this amazing crosswords where the firework displays of big tent-pole movies are now the majority, and there will be tipping point, a moment where people just turn away. There are still great films being made, they’re just being made out of the mainstream.

In some ways, what’s been afforded me with the rare opportunity to make this movie, to make a challenging film in the mainstream, is a testament to Paramount and Mark as a movie star who’s prepared to take his value and put it into something that is a tough sell. It isn’t necessarily what mainstream audiences are searching out, but hopefully we’re a breath of fresh air.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Battle of the Battles for the Battle

Hobbit_BOTFA_Intl_posterTrust me, I well know that books are not movies and movies are not books—I’m fully aware of (and fascinated by) the differences in how the two mediums tell stories and create meaning and experience.

And I also know that in this age of Internet tribalism, Hel hath no impotent, squealing fury like a fan who feels the movie on the big screen doesn’t quite match his or her version of the beloved, sacred source material. I know you’re supposed to address the film that was made, not the film you wanted made.

Which is to say that I don’t think The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies—Jackson’s final visit to Middle Earth and the closing chapter in his two-trilogy, six-film, nearly 20-year Tolkien filmmaking journey—is a bad movie. I was somewhat bored by it, but these days I’m more often bored than thrilled by big-screen CGI martial whiz-bang.

Obviously many of you are out there enjoying the film fully, dutifully enthralled by it, and most critics follow the same lines when “reviewing” films like The Hobbit—they focus on how well they’re paced, do they hold together, and most importantly for your two and a half hours and 10-plus dollars, do they entertain enough?

(Also it should be noted, critics and fangirls/boys alike have a subconscious desire, a need to like films that close out much-anticipated but highly problematic films series like Armies with The Hobbit—or, say, Revenge of the Sith with the Star Wars prequels. It’s pop-cultural survivalism: We want so much to like these closing films, to have this beloved, drawn-out, multi-year endeavor end on a positive note, that we cling with hope to mantras like “Well, it was better than the first two.” There’s too much emotional investment in the previous films and the source material, and it’s too depressing to accept that these films aren’t all that great.)

Hobbit-Battle-of-Five-Armies1As a life-long Tolkien lover, my personal problem with The Battle of the Five Armies, and the Hobbit films in general is that there is no sense that anyone involved with the films—not Jackson, his co-writers and producers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, or the studio brain trust at Warners ever truly asked and answered, “How is The Hobbit fundamentally different from The Lord of the Rings?” (Other than one has a dragon and the other has Ents.)

Instead, in this fearful Industry age of known, bankable properties, big budgets, big spectacle, and painfully milked franchises, the only question anyone seemed to care about was, “How can we make this as much like Lord of the Rings as possible?” Give the people what they want: Action! Huge CGI battles! A couple ruggedly handsome Aragorn stand-ins! And Legolas! Legolas! Legolas!

The irony is that in the 11 years since Return of the King closed out Jackson’s first trilogy, the film business has changed drastically in part because of the success of Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series (both Warner Brothers/New Line franchises). I and so many others—including both old Tolkien fans and new converts—loved the LOTR films because not only did they make High Fantasy cool again, but they completely upended and breathed fresh, sincere life into the notion of the big, blockbuster action-adventure film. They felt honest and filled with creative integrity—made out of earnest love for the material, not the materialistic.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUGBut since then, every big film must be based on a proven popular property with instant “poster recognition;” extended into a multi-film franchise; and should, if possible, feature as many massive CGI battles and as much sweeping, jaw-dropping, eye-popping wowsa as budgetarily possible.

The success of Jackson’s LOTR films helped foster that paradigm, and now his Hobbit films feel almost solely, soullessly born of it. Victims of their forbearers’ success, they feel like product created to cash in on trends, not set them—creatively, they follow, not lead. At best, they garner an “ahh” of recognition, not the “oooh” of true surprise and delight.

It may be a few decades before all the behind-the-scenes details slip out in Industry tell-all books, so much of this is just speculation. But Jackson gave every indication beforehand that didn’t want to direct The Hobbit films himself. In part because he know what a huge, Herculean, exhausting undertaking such a thing is, but also, I think, my facetious accusations aside, because he knew he didn’t have the same affinity for the source novel as he did LOTR.

the-hobbit-bofa-4-the-hobbit-3-battle-of-five-armies-trailer-analysis-concluding-middle-earth-with-a-bangPerhaps Jackson did know The Hobbit was different, and he knew the differences didn’t play to his strengths. So he tapped Guillermo del Toro to helm the prequels, but after doing plenty of writing and pre-production designing, del Toro dropped out as years of legal wrangling over rights issues kept postponing the start of shooting.

Peter Jackson the person says he identifies best with the hobbits and would most want to live in the Shire, and I believe him. He loves his hobbits and their cozy hobbit holes—he captured the Shire perfectly in Fellowship, and the opening dinner party sequence of Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey might have worked if it hadn’t been so painfully and perfunctorily drawn out.

But Peter Jackson the filmmaker can’t quite put his trust in Tolkien’s gentle tone and doesn’t seem able to find that more fable-like gear. His instincts, so on point for LOTR, are completely off for The Hobbit, perhaps out of disinterest or distraction, perhaps due to the dictates of a greedy studio. So Jackson, I’m sure with Warners’ encouragement, began altering The Hobbit films more and more to play like a second LOTR go-‘round.

battle of the five armies headerAnd once Warners decided The Hobbit would have to be three films (and no matter what Jackson claims, I find it exceedingly hard to believe that the pressure to split two films into three did not come directly and forcefully from the studio accounting department), why did each have to be well over two-hours long? Why not make three tight, neat, effective 105-minute films?

In part, I suspect, because the longer running times make audiences feel like they’re experiencing an epic event, something bigger—and longer—than just any old run-of-the-mill action movie, and therefore not just worth their extra 3D-cash, but demanding of it.

Some of it may also be Jackson’s inadvertent ego—humble as the hirsute little Kiwi filmmaker may remain, he’s now the guy who’s made some of the highest-grossing films of all time, and that makes it difficult for others and even him to say to himself, “maybe this all isn’t completely necessary.”

(This raises the literally billion dollar question: Would del Toro have found the right, different gear for The Hobbit? Had he not bailed out, would his Hobbit films have better served Tolkien’s novel? It’s safe to assume they still would have put their emphasis on action-adventure first and foremost, and of course Jackson would still have executive produced them, but nuance is everything, and, giant robot vs monster movies aside, del Toro can be a much more nuanced, adult, and often more insightful fantasist than Jackson. He may have approached the material with a much different, more layered tone.

1415309431601_Image_galleryImage_The_Hobbit_The_Battle_of_(But of course, this can only ever be a great, lost “What if”… Given the current rate at which franchises are rebooted and remade, I suspect I may still see yet another screen adaptation of The Hobbit and LOTR in my ever-ticking-down lifetime, but I doubt it will involve del Toro.)

Contributing to the beauty and brilliance of the LOTR films was that New Line/Warners never cared much about them as they were being filmed in the late ‘90s—they’d been budgeted cheaply (three big films for the price of one big one), had no stars, and were being shot literally on the other side of the world in the pre-Skype age, making it much more of a hassle for studio suits to pop in for meddling set visits and panic-button meetings.

That is certainly not true of The Hobbit films—Warners knows exactly what is riding on the films, exactly how important their financial success is to the studio in the post-Potter era, how much they must appeal to everyone who loved the LOTR films, and therefore how they must push the exact same market-tested buttons.

Which is why the Tolkien’s aged and embittered greybeard Thorin Oakenshield becomes Richard Armitage’s much younger, hunkier Aragorn look-alike, and the book’s bit-player Bard (Luke Evans) gets a much bigger role (and a family of adorable moppets to protect!). And while there’s no doubt women are under-represented in Tolkien’s novels, the addition of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and her ill-fated romance with Kili (Adian Turner) feels opportunistic—whatever female empowerment is gained by showing an ass-kicking female elf is offset by the obvious effort to gin up another Aragorn-Arwen-style love story in order to pander to a desired demographic.

Hunk TalkAnd of course there’s Orlando Bloom’s Legolas. Lots and lots of Legolas; way too much Legolas in this third and final film. And always with the now de rigueur “cool Legolas fighting move,” which in each film is bigger, more outrageous, and sillier than the last, until at this point, as the elf warrior runs in mid-air up falling pieces of rubble, the effort to top previous feats simply destroys the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.

(The LOTR films worked very hard to ground the world of Middle Earth in a rustic authenticity, but Jackson has been increasingly willing to trade that realism away for cheap thrills.)

I joked about Desolation of Smaug that you come for the giant fire-breathing dragon and stay for the Laketown politics, but in Armies Smaug is dispatched in the first 10 minutes, before the title credits, and Jackson spends an unfathomable amount of the film’s remaining time fussing around with skeevy, conniving Laketown bureaucratic assistant Alfrid (Ryan Gage) and his greedy slapstick antics.

(Seriously, you get the sense that rather than The Hobbit, Jackson would have much rather have made just one Pythonesque comedy: Alfrid: The Woeful Comic Misfortunes of Laketown’s Bumbling Deputy.)

Such non-canon padding, dictated by the decision to make three Hobbit films instead of two, doesn’t just hurt the film because it’s such distracting, time-wasting side business. It’s more than just boring; the filler requires Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens to overstrain weak character motivations and plot threads until they nearly snap in order to squeeze out one more fight sequence (or dull romantic side street—I’m looking at you Kili and Tauriel).

battle-of-the-five-armiesI’m more of two minds about the filmmakers’ addition of the Sauron/Dol Guldur/White Council material—on the one hand, it’s so blatantly shoe-horned in to tie The Hobbit closer to LOTR, with more Elrond (Hugo Weaving), more Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), more Gandalf (Ian McKellan), more Saruman (Christopher Lee), more Nazgul (CGI phantoms), and of course more Sauron (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). And part of me loves that sort of sweeping, epic, mythic, good-versus-evil stuff on a grand scale.

But unlike LOTR, The Hobbit isn’t supposed to be an epic film about good-versus-evil on a grand wizard/elf scale. Tolkien wrote a quiet fairytale about how a one quiet, little hobbit has his horizons forcefully broadened and has to deal not just with dangerous adventure but horrific, pointless bloodshed and loss. It’s supposed to be Bilbo’s story, not Sauron’s.

And yet, despite the title, this final film in The Hobbit trilogy continually pushes Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins into the background. There is very little of the hobbit in The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, and the absence of Bilbo from the film’s narrative is more than just an annoyance—it robs the adaptation of everything that made Tolkien’s novel so special, so charming. Biblo’s personal tale has become, on the screen, much more Thorin and the dwarfs’ story, and even they have to step aside in its final act to make room for sexy fan-favorite Legolas and his circus-elf tricks.

HBT3-fs-346534.DNG(None of this is a knock on the actors—most of them are doing a fine job by this point, whether they’re new to the franchise or dusting off their old LOTR robes. But these days, even more so than a decade ago, the mostly British Commonwealth actors know what they’re getting into when they sign on for a multi-film blockbuster CGI action franchise.

(They know what is and is not expected of them as performers and what depths and nuances their character will, or more likely will not, have. They show up, do their thing as best they can, passionately emoting in front of green screens, and hope their performances aren’t entirely swallowed up in the spectacle. And yes, I enjoyed Billy Connelly’s bawdy Dain despite myself–I can’t resist Connelly’s lovable Scottish brogue.)

What’s most egregious is that with Bilbo having to cede most of his screen time to Thorin, Bard, and Legolas, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ends up being much more martial; all about the battle rather than about Bilbo’s reaction to it. As in Jackson’s LOTR films, there are massive marching armies of CGI orcs, stunning martial spectacle and giant battle beats (including leaping elf warriors, walking troll catapult/tanks, and big heroic Aragorn-esqe charges). The abandoned town of Dale gets re-jiggered into a mini Minas Tirith, complete with innocent families and children under siege. And it all winds up with a big, protracted dwarfo-e-orco throw down on a frozen lake between Thorin and Big Bald Baddie Bolg (John Tui).

HBT3-fs-341051.DNGTolkien wrote The Hobbit after having fought in The Great War and seeing the futility of a senseless war fought primarily out of misguided and arbitrary alliances, historical claims, and petty greed. In contrast, Lord of the Rings was written after World War II and it is a very different book, especially in how Tolkien, post-Hitler, views the sometime need for a “Good War” to put a stop to a Great Evil whose quest for deadly power threatens the entire world. LOTR is pro-war; The Hobbit is very much not.

Like Return of the King, The Battle of the Fire Armies is, as its subtitle suggests, a war film. But where Return of the King earned its battles–the LOTR trilogy is essentially about the march to war–the massive martial excess of Battle of the Five Armies feels forced and artificial, super-sized just so it feels more like Return of the King.

In re-reading parts of The Hobbit last week, I was reminded how little emphasis Tolkien puts on wars and fighting in the novel—despite his first-hand experience, being properly British, the author politely, reservedly never dwells on the shock and horror of war. His novel doesn’t linger over exciting battle scenes, strategic details, or grand heroics—instead we hear of the entire War of the Five Armies only in hindsight from Bilbo’s sorrowful point of view.

It’s also obvious that what truly mattered to Tolkien, where his prose loved to dwell, were the many scenes of comfort and security around the hearth of a protected home, be it Beorn’s or Elrond’s, or Bilbo’s own Bag End. In his post-war adulthood, Tolkien cared more about appreciating a safe, warm peaceful place between the adventures. Of course he enjoyed weaving tales of all the heroic figures and the battles they fought to make that peace possible, but he knew better than to emphasize them over the simple pleasures of a pipe by the fireplace.

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIESThese days films—especially big “event” films—are seen as entertainment only, and in order to entertain big audiences, that means either big love or big war. (Or preferably both.)

Constant fighting and giant battles sell giant numbers of tickets, and unlike the LOTR films, these Hobbit films feel driven only by that need to sell tickets. That’s why I ultimately dislike them and mourn the wonderful opportunities they missed. It’s not so much the choices Jackson made, but why, apparently, he made them.

Tolkien wrote with sad resignation about how the Age of Man, with its increasingly industrialized world (including its warfare), was slowly pushing aside both the epic myth and magic of the elves and the pastoral simplicity of the Shire and its agrarian hobbits. With Battle of the Five Armies, it’s clear these new Hobbit films are made by and for men, not hobbits.

Interview: The Imitation Game‘s Writer Graham Moore and Director Morten Tyldum

TheImitationGame-BCpair 3During World War II, British mathematician Alan Turing and a secret team of cryptologists eventually succeeded in using an early electronic computing machine to crack the seemingly uncrackable German Enigma machine code and help bring the war to a swifter close.

In 1952, Turing, his immeasurable contribution to the British war effort still a state secret, was arrested and charged with gross indecency under Britain’s laws against homosexuality.

It is that tragic juxtaposition of Turing’s professional and private life that has made him a posthumous hero to both computer scientists as well as gay-rights activists. It’s also what drew young screenwriter Graham Moore to Turing’s story.

Moore’s script for The Imitation Game is based on Andrew Hodges’ book Alan Turing: The Enigma, and takes its name from the famous Turing test that measures how well an artificial intelligence can mimic human thought and behavior–an especially resonant notion for Turing, who not only had to mask his sexuality, but is suspected by some to have been somewhere on the autism spectrum.

Sliding back and forth in time between Turing’s war experiences, his teen years in school, and his questioning by police in 1952, The Imitation Game is directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) and stars Benedict Cumberbatch in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance. The film also stars Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, and Charles Dance.

Another writer and I sat down in Chicago a few weeks ago with both writer Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum about their film and both its historical and human subjects.

The Imitation Game is currently playing in select theaters and will be expanding wider in coming weeks.


csm_The_Imitation_Game_ac48e5e39eGraham, how did you end up writing this biopic?

Graham Moore: In a lot of ways, I wanted to write about Alan Turing my entire life. I was a huge computer nerd when I was a teenager; I went to Space Camp and computer programming camp. My parents were like, “Who are you, where’d you come from, who are your real parents?”

Among nerdy awkward computer-y teenagers, Alan Turing is sort of this patron saint. He is this tremendous inspirational symbol of this sort of secret queer history of the Second World War, the secret history of computer science that has been whitewashed out of the official record.

I always wanted to write about him, and then I actually met our producers Nora Grossman and Peter Heslop randomly at a party one day after I had moved to LA and become a writer. I heard Nora talking in the kitchen, saying, “Oh, I just optioned this book,” and I asked what was it about, and she said, “this mathematician, you’ve never heard of him… “ and I said, “I know a little bit about math, who is it? and she said, “Alan Turing,” and I instantly pounced on her and began this totally insufferable twenty minute monologue. “Oh my god, I know everything about Alan Turing, please let me do this, I’ll do this for free” and so on. And she started backing away from me like, “Who is this psycho, who invited him?” They brought me on, and we started working on the screenplay, and that screenplay found its way to Mr. Morten Tyldum.

Was this your first major screenplay?

Moore: It was not the first one that I’ve written, but it is the first one to be produced. It was relatively early, and it was the first one that I had gotten really any notice in the industry. I would call my agents and say, “Hey I am going to write this story about a gay mathematician in the 1940s,” and they were like, “No, you’re not,” that it was career suicide, or that no one would make the story. But I just think it’s the most important story, and it needs to be told and it needs to be told on screen. We were so grateful after we had a couple drafts and would show it to people, and we got the movie made, which has been tremendous.

How much of the math covered in the film did you guys personally understand?

Morten Tyldum: We definitely had experts. I thought I was good at math… but… [laughs]


Moore: Well, compared to Alan Turing …

Tyldum: That’s the thing, that it is incredibly complicated. I wanted to try and understand how the machine worked. So we had this lecture, and everybody who was going to explain the machine had panic in their eyes, because it’s so complicated. When they started to explain it, that panic went over to us, and me and Benedict [Cumberbatch] looked at each other like, “Holy shit…” You get real lost.

I think Alan Turing is as important as a philosopher as a mathematician in many ways. His ideas about what it means to think, what it means to be alive. He was obsessive about artificial intelligence and artificial life—I find those ideas a lot easier to grasp onto. He was a great humanitarian. Those ideas are very fascinating to me.

It’s one thing to understand it, but the other challenge is that you are trying to be accurate to the process of cracking Enigma, but at the same time make it into a thrilling, engaging scene. But the things that are in the movie are true. Enigma was un-crackable—it was brilliant, so you have to find the human flaw in the system. You have to lock onto that. That is Turing’s genius.

How does the story of Turing and his fellow code breakers reflect your own experience in making this movie?

Moore: When we were making the movie we were like this band of obsessives, very committed people freezing half-to-death in the south of England.

Tyldum: It was a small budget movie, and I think it was very relatable. We had this tremendous time pressure—we shot the whole thing in eight weeks. It became this very tight-knit family that was on a mission, because everyone wanted to do justice to this man. Everyone was super-prepared, and we had all of these phenomenal actors who wanted to come on board. They were super-dedicated, and everyone wanted the other to shine, even if they were off-camera doing off-camera acting—they really delivered great performances.

THE IMITATION GAMEHow did you approach the suggestions that Turing was Autistic to some degree?

Tyldum: Benedict made a very deliberate choice not to act it that way. It can be read as a type of autism, but what does that mean? First of all, we didn’t want to put a label on it because that goes against everything the movie is trying to celebrate. He was unique, and because he was unique, he was able to think unique ideas and unique thoughts that nobody else had.

Moore: Anytime you diagnose someone after the fact, it’s murky, and we didn’t want to do that. But at the same time, we heard all of these famous stories from people in Bletchley Park where he’d be in the middle of a conversation and someone said something that he already knew, he would just turn around and walk away. He was only engaged in conversations to the point that someone was giving him information—he has this voracious appetite for information. He was just a completely unique individual as Morten said; I think that’s what we were going for.

Tyldum: He was hard to work with, but he also came with a sense of humor. There are things that I wish we could have gotten in the movie, like that he was allergic to pollen. He liked to bike around with a gas mask on. He was odd, but he didn’t care.

Moore: The thing with the bike makes me think that he had this mind that was constantly moving, constantly inventing stuff, and that’s what Benedict did such a wonderful job at, showing this mind that’s going so much faster than his mouth could ever express. I remember there was something that Benedict said on day one of rehearsals. “I don’t think Alan Turing had Asperger’s; I think that he’s physically capable of understanding the thoughts of feelings of other people, I just think his mind is on something more important, he’s just thinking of something else.” But then when he gets to the more tender scenes with Joan [Knightley], when he does latch on emotionally, he is passionate and emotional and sweet and caring. It’s this full range of emotional expression.

Turing-arrestedThis is a very British story, both in its triumphs and its tragedy, but Graham, you’re American, Morten, you’re Norwegian.  Was it a disadvantage or liberating to not be British? 

Tyldum: It’s a huge responsibility. There’s part of it which is challenging because you have to really do your research, and you have people saying, “how open with emotion will he be?” because they’re British, and it’s the 1940s. And at the same time it’s nice to be an outsider, because the movie is about outsiders looking in. I think being outsiders ourselves looking in actually helps to clarify that point.

We didn’t want to be bogged down by a dusty history lesson, which it easily could have been. It could have sort of embraced the Britishness of it, but that would have been too much; it would have been insanely boring. [Laughs] I think we gave it a spark that liberated it a bit, and hopefully that will give it a wider audience.

You have that obligation to be true to what happened, which we were. And at the same time, we have an obligation to really spread his legacy wide. He deserves a big audience; the world needs to know what he did and his staggering achievements. It was important for us to have humor in it and make it a thrilling story.

We wanted to tell the story as a mystery: Who is Alan Turing? Because that’s how it is for most people, how it was for me when I came to this project. We wanted it to be a puzzle, as he was obsessed with puzzles—so you puzzle him together.

How did you both balance Alan’s personal journey with the story of how his work with others changed the course of the war?

Imitation-Game-2-Vogue-31Oct14-pr_bMoore: I think one of the things from the beginning of the process of working on it that really felt like it unlocked the story for me, felt to be the core of the story for me, was this concept of the imitation game, and the idea that in the imitation game, you have this amazing connection and inspiration between his very extremely complicated and difficult mathematical and theoretical and cryptographic work and his personal struggle.

The idea of the imitation game as he proposed it is we are only what we can convince what we are; we are human to the degree that we can convince someone else that we are human. For a statement like that to come from a closeted gay man in Britain in the 1950s is remarkable.

And that statement is the underpinning of his other cryptographical and computational work, for his computer science and AI work, and it’s a statement that I think could only have been made by a closeted gay man. I think only a man going through that could see the world in such a different way, and have such a new attitude on it. And that linking of the personal of the mathematic and cryptographic was the core for both of us.

In regards to the devastating end of Turing, what were you thinking was most important when it came to landing the story on a certain note, but dramatically respect it?

The-Imitation-Game-Lenigma-di-un-genio-primo-poster-italiano-del-biopic-con-Benedict-Cumberbatch-2Moore: Yeah, the final scene between Alan and Joan was the scene we did the most number of drafts of; I think we did 10 or 20 drafts of that. Because we knew what we were building towards, and we knew that Alan Turing’s story has a tragic end.

And we knew that we wanted to approach that sensitively and delicately and portray what happened to him and the tragedy of that; we really wanted to watch this vibrant, brilliant mind slowly be extinguished under this terrible medical treatment, under societal pressures and the public shaming that happened to him.

Tyldum: And the key thing is we wanted to make a scene where Joan tells him what we ourselves today want to tell him on his last day. That is for me the core of that scene—if somebody could sit down and say those words to him, which nobody did. “This is what you did.”

Interview: Foxcatcher Director Bennett Miller

MV5BMTQ2MjQxNjYxOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzIwODUxMzE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Director Bennett Miller has been collecting praise for his smart, restrained film-making since his debut documentary The Cruise in 1998, through his Oscar-nominated Capote in 2005, and 2011’s Moneyball.

Miller’s latest film, Foxcatcher (written by E. Max Frye and Capote writer Dan Futterman) is yet another look at real-life characters, this time the Olympic-medal-winning wrestlers, brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) and their tragic relationship with John du Pont (Steve Carell), a member of the wealthy du Pont family and a fanatical financial supporter of U.S. Olympic wrestling. Both Schultz brothers and other wrestlers lived on du Pont’s Pennsylvania Foxcatcher farm while training for the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Quietly, broodingly examining themes like the subculture and psychological currents of wrestling; Reagan-era patriotism among the super-rich; how ambition, obsession, and ego fuel the American Dream; and even the power of guns and the military industrial complex in our nation’s psyche, the film is brilliant, one of the best of the year. And while you’ll hear a lot about Carell’s astounding performance and physical transformation, Tatum and especially Ruffalo both also completely vanish inside their characters, in part thanks to Miller’s nuanced, minimalist approach.

Miller is one of my favorite directors working today, so I was thrilled when I and another writer got to sit down with him in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk about Foxcatcher and his approach to film making and storytelling.

Foxcatcher opens today nationwide.

(Spoiler warning: The following interview contains references to the film’s conclusion, based on the real events of 1996.)


4a4d05eafce65cbc6dd983f9cffbc3a962e378b1All your films have centered on real people, real stories. What draws you to a subject?

Bennett Miller: You’d think I’d have a stock answer by this point, but I really don’t. Now that I’ve made four films, I can look back and begin to notice patterns, but going into a project I never think about that.

Looking back I’d say I’m attracted to outsider characters. I’m attracted to people who are in worlds where they do not belong, people from different worlds trying to operate together. Every one of my films has a person where he does not really belong with some great ambition. That only occurred to me recently when someone pointed it out. I’m attracted to these outsider characters.

What was it about the world of wrestling that caught your attention?

Miller: Just that it’s a weirdo sport, it’s a subculture. People who wrestle belong to a sect. I knew nothing about wrestling, I don’t know anybody who wrestles, and it just seemed like a weird, odd thing. I was of course drawn in by the story, the oddity of one of the wealthiest men in America having this sect move onto his property with some declarative goal, some huge, patriotic ambition, and it ending tragically, that was all just too much to resist.

WireAP_451032a832da43ea820f9bb936a2b228_16x9_992Of course, once I started researching and getting to know about wrestling, I realized that it’s an amazing sport, and I began to understand why it’s not a popular sport, and I think it has something to do with the fact that it’s hard to understand and appreciate.

It’s not like boxing where it’s pretty clear what’s going on, not that boxing doesn’t have its nuances. It’s really more like chess, and you have to be trained to grasp what’s going on to appreciate the sport, but you also need to learn about the fraternity and the community of wrestlers and the common virtues that they share, the absence of material reward.

You’re not going to get rich or famous off wrestling, period. Therefore the reasons to pursue this, possibly the most difficult sport in the world, have to be for intrinsic values of it, and that’s fascinating. Who does that? Not for the extrinsic award, which is more the interest of someone like du Pont, who is just going to take this sport of fraternity and virtue and try to exploit it for his own personal gain.

DuPont feels like a collector, a dilettante buying his way in.

Miller: It’s very similar to what his mother did. She had her stable of horses, and he had his stable of wrestlers, and they both compete and win ribbons.

What I love about the film is that it starts out examining the mysterious motivations behind this event, but in the end these characters feel even more unknowable to us.

foxcatcher-cannes-2014-4Miller: I do think about learning without concluding. The film doesn’t tell a story so much as it observes a story, and I think there is a temptation to make conclusions along the way, to put a point on things, and this is not that.

The film restrains itself from simplifying with conclusions, good or evil, with labels. The moment you make a conclusion about something, by definition you’ve stopped thinking.

Everything that we might know about these themes that are woven throughout this story, from class and wealth and entitlement… I didn’t want to just regurgitate an attitude about any of these things, but to look at where the rubber hits the road with these classes, and try to observe in an unflinching way something that isn’t always easy to look at. Because we want to get there and have that opinion about it, but my feeling is that if you can discipline yourself to not react like that and to look past things, then there are discoveries to be made that are otherwise obscured by the polarizing impulses.

When researching all the lurid and sensationalist stuff that was written in the media about this story 18 years ago, how did you sift out the human connection?

foxcatcher-bandireMiller: It was from talking to everybody at length, over long stretches of time. Conversations that began eight years ago and continued through the edit, with Mark Schultz, with Nancy Schultz, with Nancy’s kids, with the police who worked on the estate, with the son of John’s mother’s chauffeur who was paid to be John’s friend, with the many, many wrestlers who were down at Foxcatcher farms, who were close to Dave.

Just dozens of people, and just cultivating relationships with all of these people. At any moment I could just call them up and in certain cases, meet. I flew around going wrestling tournaments where all these guys meet.

Carell and Ruffalo are so unbelievably good, but what struck you about Channing Tatum, who’s also fantastic, that made you want him as your lead?

Miller: I offered him the part to him eight years ago after seeing A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. I offered him the part before there was a script. I saw that film, and I said, “Holy shit. This guy is electric, and dangerous, and dangerous in the way he doesn’t even realize himself, and he’s a fully realized character, who can’t possibly understand how the world is seeing him.” And it was a role that he was playing that was really not similar to Channing at all. This is eight years ago, out of the gate. He really had an extraordinary performance in that film, and physicality. I offered him the part then.

It took six years to get to day one of principal photography on this film, and in that time, other roles came along, and his career had taken a totally different path. But to be honest I didn’t really watch much of those films, but I was convinced that whatever that was in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, I’m sure it’s still there.

FOXCATCHERAnd when it was time to get the film going again and I revisited it with him, his level of commitment, seriousness, and intelligence about it was all very convincing. All of those other roles were just way-off in my periphery, I didn’t even look at it.

Mark is the center of the film, and yet he is more withdrawn and silent than Dave and John, on whom the story eventually turns. Was that a challenge?

Miller: It seemed sort of, in a way, obvious. It would have been possible to have made this film without Mark Schultz at all, it could have simply been the Dave Schultz and John du Pont story. In fact many involved with the story itself were surprised that Mark was even featured in the movie at all, much less the center of it.

But as I researched the story, it just seemed clear that this relationship between du Pont and Mark, followed by du Pont and Dave, followed by what happened, was the story. And understanding these characters through the Mark and du Pont relationship seemed to make sense. And the fact that he is animalistic and not communicative is also part of the film, it’s also part of the point, it’s another theme in the movie of male non-communication.

FRANCE-ENTERTAINMENT-CANNES-FILM-FESTIVALOne of Foxcatcher’s key creative forces is Megan Ellison, producer of True Grit, Killing Them Softly, Zero Dark Thirty, Spring Breakers, Her, American Hustle, and The Master. Was her influence on Foxcatcher different from your previous collaborations with producers?

Miller: When you work with Megan, there’s no possibility of being at odds with competing interests. If you’re working in film, you have to be financed, which means that there is a collaboration with an entity that has separate interests. Your interests cannot be identical.

Everybody wants a great movie, but that’s not the whole of it. Nobody wants to lose money, but with Megan—she doesn’t want to lose money either—but once she commits to something, the governing principle comes from her desire for it to be everything that it’s meant to be. That’s it.

We were meant to release this movie last year, and we needed a few more months. I think we were all prepared to bear down and get it done, and it was Megan who made the decision that the film would benefit, despite some additional expenses, from more time to gestate. That is the mark of a producer. She actually led that. It also can be crazy-making if the competing interests of those who have a financial stake in the film are broadcasting their anxiety over creative decisions. Doesn’t mean you’re gonna give in, but I think the process is truly exceptional with Megan because your interests are the same.

Did the film change during that extra post-production time?

FOXCATCHERMiller: The way I make all of my films so far has been very similar in that it’s a process of experiment and discovery from beginning until end, and you’ve got three major periods to get it right: In the conception with development and writing, the shooting, and post-production.

Throughout all three stages, in the engineering of the film, every beat is constantly being challenged and questioned, but the initial conception of the film, the character and the spirit of it, I think remained consistent.

But how it materialized, and how it was to incarnate, is what is explored and discovered. But it really did begin with that feeling that you have for a film when you walk out of it. That’s what you get possessed with, and you’re looking for a way for that to materialize. The whole process remains fluid from beginning to end. It’s really constantly questioning, blowing it up, putting it back together.

In terms of film making, style, and storytelling, your films always seem to pull back from giving the audience what it wants or expects. Is that something you’re very conscious of and working towards?

Miller: Yeah, without a doubt. The austere style that observes but not tell. I think the other thing is boring, I really do. I don’t need to see one more romanticized version of any story ever for the rest of my life, I really don’t. I don’t need those tingly feelings. I think that we can all do with a healthy dose of disillusionment. Disillusionment isn’t a bad thing, it means enlightenment.

FOXCATCHEREntertainment is entertainment, and there is absolutely a value and a place for it, and I don’t condemn any of it, but for me, personally, what I find satisfying is to be challenged and to see something that’s provocative and truthful and is not putting me on and pushing my buttons, selling me some romanticized shtick that makes me feel sweet and tingly about something.

This is not the main reason or the motivation for this story, but a part of the added interest for me that it was a story that was covered by the media. The news trucks raced down to Du Pont’s mansion, and there were also a couple of books written about it. And the version that does enter into the airwaves has a particular nature to it. It is a sensational thing that we can consume like potato chips.

But when I started researching and flying around and meeting everybody who had anything to do with the story, I discovered, A) the aspects of the story that were completely neglected in any coverage of it, and B) the things that really only cinema can convey. Cinema can shine a light where no other medium can, and so it’s not just the story or the facts, but it’s a three-dimensional complex of art forms that can realize a story.

chilling-first-trailer-for-foxcatcher-with-steve-carell-3I’m thinking of something that one of Dave Schultz’s friends said to me yesterday at a screening at Philadelphia with Dave Schultz’s widow and the prosecutors and many of the wrestlers who’d lived on the farm.

I started getting people’s responses from the movie, and one of Dave’s really close friends said to me that he was there the day of the shooting, and though he knew the story inside and out, for him the film made it more real than what happened, because cinema is experiential.

Interview: America the Beautiful 3 Director Darryl Roberts

ATB3Poster2-1149624495827MV5BMTUzNDQzOTE5OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjE2NTAzOA@@._V1_SY317_CR17,0,214,317_AL_A couple years ago I spoke with local Chicago documentary film maker Darryl Roberts about his film America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments, the second in his ongoing series about our modern culture’s ideas of and obsession with beauty and our sometimes warped self-images.

Roberts’ latest documentary is America the Beautiful 3: The Sexualization of Our Youth. The film examines the effect Internet pornography and sexualized advertising and marketing, as well as things like changing standards of sexual content on television and the growing popularity of beauty pageants for the very young have on the still immature minds and psyches of the younger generation, including what Roberts sees as a rise in sexual assault, teen pregnancy, and depression and suicide.

I sat down with Roberts in Chicago last week to talk about America the Beautiful 3: The Sexualization of Our Youth. I think his new film raises serious concerns and questions that we as a society should be thinking about. However, I have issues with some of his film’s connections and conclusions, several of which I brought up with him in our interview below. (One point I did not have time to ask him about was a segment of the film that examines and praises the work of the Parents Television Council.)

America the Beautiful 3: The Sexualization of Our Youth is playing at select theaters across the country. Screening dates and details can be found at the film’s website.


Pageant-Girls-p193o8rbgmsf21pll1t781oe7j6pYour first two films were about our societal standards of beauty and our obsession with dieting. How do you chose your topics and what brought you to this new one?

Darryl Roberts: I talk to and listen to a lot of young people about what’s affecting them. Either I look and see or they tell me through a newsletter I send out to several thousands of high school and college students. They respond and I hear different issues.

This one was weird. It came from a different source. I was thinking about the celebrity culture, Rhianna, Beyonce, Kim Kardashian, and I thought it must be tough being a kid today in this sexualized world that’s so different from when I was growing up. And that got me thinking about my best friend from childhood, Saveen. So I searched for him on the Internet and found out he’s a registered sex offender.

That started the process and sent my mind in a certain direction. I found the American Psychological Association report “The Sexualization of Girls.” It talked about how the amount of sexualized advertising is creating a mental health crisis among young girls. From there, I knew this would be the topic of this film.

I’m fascinated by the effect, good or bad, that the Internet, social media, and increasing online interaction is having on us as a society, especially on the next generation. But when it comes to pornography, what do you feel is the difference for today’s younger generation? Is it amount, or the type, or its availability?

darryl-robertsRoberts: I can speak from my own personal experience. When I was 15, I was strung out on pornography. Every two or three weeks I’d be fortunate enough to be home at the right time to sneak the Playboy out from under my father’s bed. You couldn’t buy Hustler, Penthouse, or Playboy in a store—they had wrappers around them.

When I was 16, I had a mustache and beard, so I could get into an X-rated movie theater at State and Lake, called the Shangri-la. But porn then was the equivalent of a Playboy movie now. I perceived it as loving and all it made me want to do is have sex with my girlfriend.

But today it’s not just the accessibility, but the “gonzo” porn. It makes you not respect women and look at them as if they’re not human. That’s the difference.

So you feel it’s an overload, a lack of self-imposed moderation in our culture today? Your film raises some very disturbing questions about the effect of pornography on an immature brain.

Roberts: When you talk about overload and all of it, what I’ve come to believe the answer is what we don’t have in America, which makes us different from Europe and Canada. You don’t see those stats with STDs and teen pregnancy, I think it’s because we’re based on this puritanical foundation. Adults and parents don’t have a clue as to what it means to have a healthy sexuality.

A teenager today is being overloaded, coming across those images with their hormones raging. They’re searching, and they don’t have a parent who can step in and lay a foundation as to what it means to have a healthy sexuality. When you search, you’re going to find something.

AR-141129942.jpg&updated=201411192102&maxw=1024&maxh=1024Imagine if, when you’re 11, you’re taught what it means to have a healthy sexuality. Then you have a personal filter with which to gage everything you see. Then some of this porn won’t be okay with you, it won’t fit into the construct of your values system. That’s how I think young kids could get through the overload and cope, but it’s not happening.

But even though the media, sexual, and pornographic landscape is so very, very different for teens today, couldn’t we also ask if today’s youth, having grown up on the Internet, are better at processing and putting it all in perspective?

Yes, some of the people in your film appear to be cautionary tales about warped perspectives, but those sorts of messed-up people have always been around. Young wanna-be starlets going to Hollywood to be movie stars and ending up doing porn isn’t a new tale. On the more positive side, some of the more-activism-minded young people you talk to in the film are incredibly aware and articulate for 12-year-olds.

Roberts: I felt exactly like you, but as I continued to think about it… and I thought what has gone wrong in our society where 12-year-old girls have to be worried about raising money for rape awareness. That shouldn’t even be in her mind.

But can’t that also be seen as positive and empowering, that young people today talk about these issues, address them, and work to fight them? I just feel like every single older generation in history has freaked out about the things the younger generation knows and has to cope with. Maybe this is a rare case of me being Pollyanna-ish, but I want to believe that the next generation is smarter and more socially enlightened about things like positive sexuality versus negative objectification and abuse. And I don’t think we can say just yet, after only 10-15 years of the Internet and social media if the negative effects are greater than the new positive effects.

america-the-beautiful-3-cali-linstrom1Roberts: I see it so clearly now, the Internet is making them less communicative with each other. For them now, texting and Facebook is like when we were growing up and meeting at a coffee shop. Their definition of a friend is electronic now, which I think makes them emotionally more distant. And think about where that’s going to keep going over the next 30 years.

I absolutely agree that humans need real, in-person interaction, that things like reading body language and learning social skills are important. But I also feel that the next generations will slowly figure that out and adjust.

Roberts: I think we’re screwed. I’m around college students all the time, and I don’t see them doing any of this soul-searching. Because our culture devalues aging, they assume their way is how it should be and our way is just old.

Oh come on, we all felt that way about adults 30 years ago when we were in our teens and 20s.

Roberts: That’s true [laughs]

I always worry when I catch myself saying and thinking along the nostalgic lines of, “Well, when I was a kid, things were nicer” and your film does do a lot of that from your own personal perspective. I know any documentary needs personal angles, personal stories to entertain and engage the viewer emotionally, but there is always the danger of drawing broader cultural conclusions from a handful of individual, emotional cautionary tales.

DarrylRoberts: As I get into these films, I really think about the past a lot because I’m seeing the struggles our youth are having. I like the personal stories.

But isn’t there a danger that we, being emotional beings, tend to believe things with our hearts instead of our heads? Emotional anecdotes feel more “true” to us than actual statistics, most of which tell us that our society, our civilization is actually improving with each generation.

Roberts: I look at statistics as being not devoid of reality, but devoid of what’s real. For example, there’s a statistic out now that teen pregnancies are on the decline. But what you haven’t heard is that statistic is going down because the age group 15 to 17 is becoming more abstinent, so on a weighted scale, they’re bringing it down. But what they don’t tell you is that from 11 to 14, that teen pregnancy statistic is rising. This is why I don’t really like statistics, I like to capture what’s really going on in a society.

My point is that as a society, I don’t think it’s wise to try to give the impression that what we’re doing, with safe sex, is working, when in reality, teen sex is rising in the youngest part of that demographic. That says something’s wrong. So the stat sounds positive, but when you look at reality, you see there’s a problem if the older people are doing it less, but the younger people are doing it more. That is a problem in our society.

But I always wonder if all the horrible things we see and hear about today on the Internet and 24-hour cable news, are they really worse than things were in the past  or are we just hearing about it more, more aware of it, and maybe people are more open about talking about and reporting once “silent” issues like harassment, rape, abuse, depression, etc.?

200568951-002Roberts: Let’s say you have 100 people who have the tendency to be a bully. Maybe in the past a third of them would actually have the balls to bully somebody. Now, thanks to the Internet, not 100 but 200 of them will just do it. Now you can be a coward and do it. Before you didn’t have a way to be a coward, you had to come out and do it. So cyber-bullying is really big now.

Maybe, but it seems as if in the past 5-10 years, everyone, including young people, have developed coping skills for dealing with online bullies, trolls, and assholes. Aren’t kids today learning and teaching and supporting each other more? Don’t many of them learn at a much younger age than we did to just shrug and ignore it?

Roberts: But some people kill themselves over it.

But depression and suicidal reactions to bullying existed before, we just didn’t hear about it all the time. People didn’t feel comfortable talking about their depression or their having been bullied.

2013-09-30-Cali2Roberts: You think it’s just the same and all the Internet is doing is letting us see it’s there? You don’t think it’s amplified?

I do think it’s amplified by the Internet—whether we’re talking about pornography or bullying–but I don’t know if that amplification is as great or as destructive as we folks in our 40s and 50s feel it is.

I know the Internet didn’t create any of this, it didn’t create bullying, or depression, or pornography. Maybe you’re right about the overload, maybe there will be long-term societal damage from that overload. But I feel like that alarm’s been raised by every older generation for eons.

And I think the next generation, the one growing up on the Internet from toddler-hood, is teaching itself to adapt to it and deal with it all in more perspective, talking about it, fighting it, and with more of a healthy dismissal of it, than maybe us middle-aged folks are.

Interstellar’s Quantum Love and Other Cosmic Horses#*t

MV5BMjIxNTU4MzY4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzM4ODI3MjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Christopher Nolan loves his daughter very much. He would like you to know that his parental love for his daughter is super large. Larger than your love for anything you might love in your lesser, non-blockbuster-making ways.

Once a cold, calculating director, Christopher Nolan now believes in love, and his love for his daughter is so big that it transcends time and space. His love is so big that he had to make a film about it. But not just any film.

You see, Christopher Nolan’s love for his child is so immeasurably powerful and life-changingly epic that he had to make a really huge film. No mamby-pamby quiet meditation on life and parenthood. No naturalistic, small-scale capturing of the reality of human interaction. Leave that stuff to the independent whiners and pikers with their out-of-focus grainy navel-gazing.

Chris Nolan don’t play that game no more. Chris Nolan made The Dark Knight. Chris Nolan made Inception. So when he makes a movie that explores the power of the human heart by exploring the boundaries of human imagination, he does it on a grand scale.

The kind of awesome box-office-exploding film making that puts fat asses in extra-wide theater seats by the billions. The kind that cost $165 million dollars and is full of mind-blowing imagery and fist-pounding excitement and adventure. A film full of love. And exploration. And danger. And hope. And science stuff. That runs almost three hours and must be seen on the biggest screen possible.

To show us all how much he loves his daughter, Christopher Nolan had to make Interstellar. We will now take a moment of silence to thank Christopher Nolan for letting us pay for the privilege of experiencing (preferably on IMAX) his cinematic vision and its nearly-ungraspable humanistic scope and philosophical depth.

interThat done, we should probably also take a moment to point out that Christopher Nolan’s ode to the power of both familial and romantic love; his visually stunning paean to the American pioneer spirit of exploration and adventure; his plea for a renewed belief in the importance of scientific invention and understanding; his mind-blowing journey to the unseen space-time shores beyond our comprehension and imagination; is, per production dollar spent and running time endured, one of the most insultingly stupid affronts to your sense and sensibilities you’ll see this year. Cinematically, Interstellar is an impressive film. In every other respect—character, story, theme, ideas—it’s dumb as a bag of zero-gee space hammers.

But hey…. Christopher Nolan loves his daughter. Love! So shut up.

Interstellar is set in a near future where apparently bad stuff has happened that has returned America to its rural Eisenhower-era ways. Everything’s dusty. Crops have failed, so farmers are the future, or something like that, but the future is dying. The federal government seems to have been rolled back to the local level.

interstellar-03Energy is apparently in short supply for everything except reading lamps and pick-up trucks. For reasons unclear—other than the folksy charm of baseball being returned to its idealized halcyon roots of Mom, Apple Pie and, Chevrolet—the New York Yankees are now a traveling exhibition team that plays in small-town sandlots. In other words, it’s the sort of big-movie, pandering, easy-feel notion of America the way many social conservatives imagine it should be: rural, folksy, down-home, family-centric, and science-free.

Though he’ll eventually take us literally across the galaxy, Nolan isn’t interested in showing much of Earth other than a single small town, specifically the farm of an astronaut-turned-dirt-farmer-turned-back-to-astronaut with the very Right Stuffed name of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, giving this great-looking cosmic cheese-platter payday exactly the amount of his attention and talent he knows it deserves).

Much to the chagrin of his loving, science-minded daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), Coop is enlisted by NASA (which operates in secret out of a hidden underground science bunker on a budget it apparently procured by taking back cans) to answer a mysterious call from presumably some higher alien intelligence, blast off with astronauts Brand (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and Romilly (David Gyasi) and fly through a wormhole that’s been set up near Saturn (again presumably by the aliens).

interstellar-04Their mission is to find out what happened to previous NASA expeditions sent through the wormhole and hopefully find a new suitable future home to which they can migrate the human race and save it from extinction on the dying Earth. (Apparently, despite the global economic and environmental collapse, NASA had a whole bunch of interstellar rockets just laying around, like that box of old cellphones you keep under your desk.)

Meanwhile, left back on Earth, Murph grows up into Jessica Chastain, Space Scientist, while resenting Cooper for having left her. (He literally runs out the door, jumps in his truck, and drives off to Secret Underground NASA, as if he suddenly decided to go to Vegas for a weekend rather than across the galaxy for decades. Secret NASA seems to only be an hour or two’s drive from the Cooper Farm, but once he runs off, Coop can’t be bothered to go back and visit his family before blasting off into space.)

interstellar-15(Also, Coop’s wife died years earlier, as wives and moms so often do in these kinds of Spielbergian cinematic vision quests. Dead mom-wives make family members left behind seem so much more poignant and strong, so much deeper. And their absence also lets widowed Dad have a noble stirring in his spacesuit for a pretty, younger scientist-astronaut.)

Coop also has an older son, but Coop, the Nolans, and the film have very little use for him, other than as an embittered, narrow-minded, paranoid thematic prop to be deployed later for narrative effect. No wonder he grows up to be sullen, creepy Casey Affleck.

o-INTERSTELLAR-TV-SPOTS-facebookThat’s no knock on the younger Affleck, who is a fine actor, but the Cooper son is not unique in his shallow utilitarian nature. There are no real, human characters in Interstellar—everyone is there to act as an avatar of a larger idea or ideal.

Cooper is the loving, protective father with the can-do American spirit of exploration and adventure (multiple times his yee-haw pilot skills save the day when pre-programmed flight science falls short); Murph is the future hope of scientific curiosity and imagination; John Lithgow is on hand as Coop’s baby-sitting father in law, so Coop’s children aren’t entirely abandoned; Michael Caine’s Professor Brand, the head of Secret NASA, is The Wise Elder who recites the same Dylan Thomas poem over and over. Bill Irwin voices a cool robot that is on hand to represent cool robots.

And Hathaway’s younger Brand is… well, her character is Love. That’s it. That’s her entire purpose in the film. Hathaway is Hollywood’s current embodiment of romantic, sometimes tragic love, with those big sad eyes full of hope and pain, and so her character is included in Interstellar just so she can give a big speech in the middle about the Power of Love. About how love is not simply a chemically-created genetic survival instinct, but literally a scientifically measurable, quantum force that can transcend time and space.

interstellar-17No, really, she says that. For pure movie-magic stupidity, this is right up there with George Lucas trying to convince us that the Force really runs on Midicholrians in the blood stream. Nolan has always approached human behavior as something that, while complex, can still be categorized and explained, and Interstellar feels as if the director, flummoxed by his own love for real people in his life, sets out to find a cosmic spreadsheet he can fit the powerful emotion into, to make it part of the greater formula of life.

All of Interstellar’s characters are laid out in that same spreadsheet, each of them carefully assigned traits and motivations that neatly fit into the film’s larger panorama. Nolan is so in love with his concepts and constructions that his characters almost always feel like just another collection of components. They don’t act, speak, or behave like real, people, but as simulacra; their feelings quantified, their arcs classified and cataloged.

There are only three types of characters in Interstellar: farmers, scientists, and astronauts (four if you count the highly symbolic baseball players in the background), and each type is painted with broad, easy, thin strokes. There’s hardly a line of dialogue in the film that sounds like it was uttered by a human being in natural conversation with another. Instead, everyone converses in platitudes and pronouncements and fierce declarations of intent. And Dylan Thomas poetry. Lots of Dylan Thomas poetry.

interstellar-30Interstellar is also a film that purports to celebrate science, the quest for discovery, the curiosity of exploration, and the triumph of rational thought and knowledge over superstition and fear. At one point the film pointedly trots out a near-future school teacher who insists the Apollo moon landings were staged. The message is clear: See what happens to us as a society when we abandon scientific thought? We get giant crop-destroying dust storms that make everything really dusty and reduce the mighty New York Yankees to playing ball in Little League lots.

But as things progress and the plot manipulations demand it, the Nolan brothers start tossing around increasingly ridiculous science (much of it having to do with the poor, abused Theory of Relativity) purely for the sake of keeping the short-attention-span audience goosed with regular doses of oooh-aaaah action scenes and awwww tear-duct sucker-punches.

(Between the black holes, worm holes, tessaracts, and gravity boogeying across the fifth dimension, it’s as if they let McConaughey re-color the Laws of Physics during a smoky lunch break.)

interstellar-matthew-mcconaughey-anne-hathaway-david-gyasiWorst of all, after having Cooper give science and rational thought plenty of that sweet, sweet McConaughey drawling lip service in the first half, in the film’s second half one of the characters who represents “pure science and rational thought” turns out to be a bad guy. Not just a bad guy, but a full-blown mustache-twirling bwahahahaha movie villain—in part because he supports a scientific, rational solution. So yeah, suck it, science. The heart wins! Love wins! The head loses. Science loses. Again.

When pressed on fact that even the “science” they fudged for the sake of narrative expediency and entertainment value, the Brothers Nolan would probably fall back on that hoariest of Hollywood excuses: “Well, it’s more of a fable than reality, and the most important thing is engaging the audience in the story.”

Except that even as an edifying, heart-felt fable, Interstellar is still full of space poop. The Nolans love them a good puzzle-box as Inception proves, but they get way too much respect as “storytellers” when in fact their idea of story is just that cool (cold) puzzle box that, no matter how artificially complex, fits neatly together, with all questions answered, all endings plausibility-stretching happy and hopeful.

minor-issues-aside-interstellar-was-excellent-spoilers-review-ff83f632-652b-4ab7-b10f-612cb812c22bInterstellar’s larger narrative is suitably impressive only for its size, reach, and scope as it roams across space, time, and other dimensions. It’s a massive, stunning achievement in epic geek movie making—it’s totally cosmic, man—but it still feels utterly contrived and, despite all the tears, soulless.

Once you’ve stumbled out of the theater and back into the harsh light of reality, none of it makes a bit of sense, nor is it really supposed to—Nolan’s plot points and exposition exists simply to support the tale he wants to tell (about a father’s love for his daughter, in case you hadn’t hipped to that yet) and to cheat out the film’s cheap, shallow emotional beats. Ooh, farmers are important! Oh, space exploration is good! Ooh, loving your children (at least one of them) is nice!

In practice, the film itself is plenty entertaining and gripping, and when critics and audiences flail over themselves to praise Interstellar, that’s what they’re praising: its strange planets (one all gray water and giant tidal waves, the other layers of gray frozen clouds) look amazing and mostly holds your attention for a long two hours and 45 minutes. We are a generation raised by Spielberg and now roaming through non-stop media entertainment 24/7, not just susceptible to this sort of wide-screen string-pulling, but craving it. We live to be constantly seduced by spectacle, steadfast in our collective cultural belief that the cinema must be a constant dream factory, pumping out illusion to keep our restless consciousness from tumbling into existential despair.

bgLike Inception, Interstellar is loudly jacked up on contrived threats and races against time, perpetuated by increasingly silly imaginary “rules.” (Interstellar ends up being as accurate and believable in its notions of space-time as Inception is on the science of dreams.)

Of course it’s a mainstream film and thus requires a certain amount of goosed-up drama, danger, and conflict, but Nolan is so clinical about it, so brazen and sterile, even when injecting into it his seemingly newfound appreciation for “selfless” love. (Fueled with the overwhelming arrogance of a true explorer—or film maker, Cooper’s idea of love is purely selfish. He’s willing to sacrifice the future of humanity to see his daughter one more time.)

Nolan’s ideas are comic-book shallow, which would be fine if Interstellar just wanted to be a comic-book movie, but it wants to be so much more, mean so much more. There’s lots of talk about exploration and the pioneer spirit, about the stars and wonder, but by the end you understand that Nolan’s enthusiasm isn’t really for real science, it’s for that mythical American West idea of just going out and doing something big somewhere new. The only reason Nolan wants to build a bridge to the future is so people can bungee jump off it.

interstellar-imageDespite the sledgehammer repetition of Thomas’ verse, Interstellar has no internal grace or vision of its own—it’s all borrowed pomp and parade, no poetry. For all its pretensions of being “about something important,” Interstellar is yet another dazzling fun ride tricked out to feel like both a science lesson and a life sermon.

Those seeking even the pop-lite existential melancholy and inward yearning of “Rocket Man” or “Space Oddity” are instead treated to very expensive, very epic and exciting rollercoaster and log flume rides. It’s EPCOT Center in space. In love.

Fury: The War Rages On

fury-poster-brad-pittLet’s start at the end.

Stylistically and thematically, the closing credits of writer-director David Ayer’s WWII tank film, Fury, starring Brad Pitt, are some of the most fascinatingly jarring of recent years.

The proceeding film is an often brutal, gruesome look at the psychological cost of war, namely the anger—yes, the fury—that some long-time soldiers eventually fill themselves with to physically and emotionally survive and keep fighting, even in a war that’s almost won. Well-constructed with visual drive and inward determination, Fury is exciting and moving but most often mournful over the loss of not just life but innocence that war—even a “Good War”—demands.

But Fury’s end titles are a grating, shocking montage of WWII scenes; of humans fighting and dying in battle, the jumble-hacked screen drenched in a blood-red tint. They feel like horror-film credits—the sort of glaring, gash of dread ferocity you’d find following a teen slasher flick. And that has to be intentional on Ayers’ part.

While his movie does its best to deconstruct and subvert the more hollow “honor” and “glory” of too many war films, it still stars our beloved Brad Pitt, and even as the film works to snuff any sense of celebration or entertainment thrill from its very exciting battle scenes, it still can’t avoid a few war-movie clichés, including noble speeches and heroic deaths.

The credits are, however, an impressive slap in the face just as the film ends, reminding us of Ayers’ operating thesis amid the film’s gripping entertainment value and gritty faux-realism: War is a true horror show that can, out of necessity, turn even the most good-hearted and best-intentioned of humans into monsters.

Ayers—who famously wrote the bad-cop Training Day and wrote and directed 2012’s underrated good-cops End of Watch—himself served in the Navy and prides himself on his immersion in and fictional documentation of the camaraderie of closed-off macho-male cadres (including the non-stop ball-busting banter). He’s fascinated by the price any warrior must pay, the moral lines that have to be crossed, and the myths and aggrandizement bought into to rationalize the transgressions.

In that respect, Ayers sometimes teeters between exploitative film making for the sake of macho, bad-boy fantasies and having searching for meaning amid the gun play. And while his Sabotage earlier this year with Schwarzenegger mostly pandered to action-flick genre shallowness, his films like End of Watch and now Fury are genuinely interested in what all that violence means. And what it costs those in professions that demand it.

fury-brad-pitt-imageThe R-rated Fury doesn’t shy from the gore, and on first glance you might dismiss the film as simply a “men on a mission” war flick dunked in indulgent blood letting. But Ayers makes all those spilled blood and guts count; Fury rolls steadily ahead under his surest direction to date with the film maker in control of his violent imagery. That imagery includes pieces of faces splattering the inside of a tank, limbs and heads blown off, eyes stabbed, and men on fire, but Ayers is careful to pay for every gruesome visual, firmly showing us what all that death means to those still living, including the men who caused it.

One of those men is Pitt’s Sgt. Donald “Wardaddy” Collier, commander of a Sherman tank crew that’s been fighting and killing Germans together for years. It’s spring of 1945, and everyone but Hitler knows the war is over, but Collier and his men must make that final push on into the Fatherland, well past their frayed and tattered physical and emotional endurance, still both protected and trapped inside their tank, a cramped, claustrophobic place they’ve named “Fury” but call home.

Each man in Collier’s crew has, since North Africa, found a way to cordon off themselves from the horrors they’ve witnessed and committed. That includes Shia LaBeouf as a Bible thumping gunner who masks his pragmatic cynicism with scripture; Michael Pena, who, as the tank’s driver prefers to find his faith in a bottle; and Jon Bernthal as the loader, a shaved redneck ape hiding behind backwoods base simplicity. Foul-mouthed and as likely to turn their anger and frustration on each other as on the Germans, the vets are joined by the film’s “through the eyes of a newcomer” plot device, Logan Lerman as Norman (“normal”), a wet-everywhere clerk shoved in with all these cold-hearted killers.

Lerman’s a terrific young actor who’s played the “new kid” role a few other times in films like the wonderful Perks of Being a Wallflower as well as the Percy Jackson franchise and The Three Musketeers. But as Fury’s Ishmael, Norman is more than just the audience’s point-of-view entrance point into the front-line tank crew.

fury-brad-pitt-logan-lerman-shia-labeoufAt first, he faces blistering rejection by the tight-knit team (his inexperience can get them killed), but step-by-step he’s taught harsh lessons—usually intentionally by Collier, who has no compunction about executing prisoners in order to teach his new soldier how to not just kill, but embrace it. We watch Norman become more like the hardened Fury crew until he’s firing away while shouting “Fuck you, fucking Nazis!” with the rest of them.

Bernthal and Pena are both also good in the film, working with the usual war-movie cut-out characters, but it’s LaBeouf who steps up and forcefully reminds us that, beyond the Transformer movies and moronic headlines, he’s still a tremendous actor, the kind who seems to effortlessly lose himself in a character with a mix of naturalism and thespian skill.

Fury is, however, ultimately a “Brad Pitt movie,” and as usual Pitt steps up and does fine, grizzled work. (Though they share a war and a Southern accent, despite critics’ lazy comparisons, Collier is not just Pitt dusting off his cartoonish Aldo Raine from Inglourious Basterds.) We don’t learn much about Don Colliers the pre-war civilian, but that’s Ayers’ point: that man doesn’t exist anymore; there is only sad, tired, angry Wardaddy.

But since, for the most part, the film is trying to stay in the Cineplex mainstream, its early hints at Collier’s cold-hearted brutality—hell, his outright war crimes—are soon swept aside for a more palatable protective and flawed father figure with an iconic square jaw and firm gaze. (And a shirtless torso that suggests there was room for a Bowflex machine inside the tank.)

The rare time we see Collier acting like a normal human being is during a sedate domestic interlude designed specifically for that purpose, wherein he and Norman take R&R in the apartment of a German woman (Anamaria Marinca) and her niece (Alicia von Rittberg). The scene is calculated to coax some distant memory of “why we fight” civilized decency out of Collier, complete with piano playing and fresh eggs. But as the rest of the crew arrive, it also serves as an ugly reminder that the Americans are a conquering force, treating, with barely contained aggression, all food, shelter, and females as theirs for the taking.

fury 2(An aside: As Ayers ratchets the tension up in that apartment scene, Pena’s character makes a series of typical male wisecracks about women and drink. Though intended as jokes by the character, the comments are not supposed to be funny in the context of the film’s moment, thick as it is with the threat of rape—instead they play as cruel, even chilling.

(Except to the preview audience I saw the film with, which, during this scene and others, howled uproariously at what it saw as gallows humor comic relief. We are programmed to be entertained and amused at all times, even if it means missing the point.)

Quiet interludes aside, Fury works best in its powerful and effective battle scenes—for all his interest in things like the Evil Men Do in the Name of Good and Can a Crooked Man Walk a Straight Path, Ayers remains an action director at heart, albeit one with artsy aspirations. While some non-battle sections of Fury fall back on cheap Bible quotes, brotherhood themes, and an annoyingly “this is how you should feel” obtrusive musical score, the actual fighting crackles with terrifying and compelling energy even as the screen fills with smoke and haze.

But just as he never lets the film’s gore spill for its own sake, Ayers also never lets the audience truly celebrate an exciting battle scene. His action beats are visceral but never video-game voyeuristic, and while the crew of the Fury may come out on top, the fight itself is so loud, so nerve-wracking, and won at such brutal costs, what thrills we’re allowed feel less like entertainment and more like edification.

As a film, Fury has its issues—Ayers has a lot to say and does so with a lot of energy, but while this is a major step forward, he’s yet to get it all working completely in tandem in a film. So, like its titular tank, Fury sometimes thematically starts and stops, lurching and stalling between its desire for realism and its adherence to war-movie clichés. (Not to mention its taste for poetic visual symbolism—like white horses and pretty roadside war orphans—that sometimes works, sometimes wobbles.)

03FURY-master675Still, I keep returning to those closing credits and how they perfectly, shockingly underscore what I think Ayers is trying to say with Fury and with and about all its violence.

Unlike pieces of propaganda trash like this year’s reprehensible 300: Rise of an Empire, Fury is not out to glorify fantasy war for teenage boys, nor is it trying to add yet another layer of reverent varnish to our cultural memory of the Greatest Generation. (It also eschews any cheap patriotic sentimentality.) It’s main thesis is more interesting than just that war is hell, and it does its best to avoid earnest 21st-century hand-wringing over the psychological trauma combat inflicts on its participants.

Instead, Fury is about just that: fury. No matter what “good” reasons there may be for going to war, ultimately it comes down to someone having to kill other human beings, and unless you’re a sociopath, ideology can only provide so much moral cover for killing in the name of national interests. Ultimately for soldiers like Collier and his men to survive they wear their rage like armor, becoming engines of angry destruction aimed at Berlin. (In what feels like a script cheat and plot device designed to let “Good Germans” off the villainous hook, Collier narrows his hatred of his enemy to the S.S. in particular, making them feel a bit like ginned-up “Movie Bad Guys” more suited for an Indiana Jones movie.)

Regardless of what characters survive to the finish of the film, its closing credits remind us that in order to do so—in order to win—the “good guys” had to let themselves be consumed by the very fury that carried and protected them. To that end, all of Fury’s on-screen graphic violence feels not just justified but necessary.

Gone Girl, Gone

gone-girl-poster-ben-affleckHeading to the press screening of David Fincher’s Gone Girl, I was, as usual, running late. But as I rushed from bus to cab to dashing down crowded Chicago streets, I reassured myself that even if I was five minutes late, I had a pretty good sense of what I’d miss in that opening: a series of blue-gray, pre-dawn shots of a quiet Mississippi river town in Missouri; empty streets, silent houses, shuttered downtown businesses, the blackish river creeping by, etc. All set to a low-key, subtly ominous score that forebode trouble on Main Street, Heartland, USA.

As it turned out, I made it to the screening on time, and sure enough, I was pretty close in my guess. (There’s also a chilling thematic aperitif just before the river town montage.) The opening is very well done, but how did I know what it would be? Because I’ve seen dozens of suburban tales of violent, domestic intrigue—Murder in the Cul-de-sac, Guilty by Suspicion, that sort of thing. I’ve read Gillian Flynn’s 2012 best-selling novel. And I’ve seen all of David Fincher’s films.

Which isn’t to say that Gone Girl isn’t a near-immaculate version of all that or that the movie doesn’t have plenty of devious pleasures. But it is to say that if you’ve read Flynn’s book, or seen a Fincher thriller, or really any tale of small-town murder and/or nefarious domestic scheming, you’ll have a pretty good idea going in of exactly what Gone Girl will deliver with impeccable, almost frustrating precision.

At Fincher’s hand, with Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike starring and Flynn adroitly and economically adapting her own novel, the book’s Midwest Gothic tale gets the shiniest of Hollywood-noir glosses—visually and tonally, we’re firmly in Fincher-land, although for the sake of what Fincher knows is mass-market entertainment-value and artistic and thematic slumming, let’s call it Fincher-land Lite… FincherBurbia?

In Fincher-land the wood grains are rich and darkly polished, shot on rich, darkly polished digital by Fincher’s long-time cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club, The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). (Someday Fincher is going to fulfill his artistic dream and his cinematic destiny and make a Ken Burns-sized documentary entitled Richly Grained, Polished Wood in Shadow: A Chiaroscuro Study in Ten Parts.) In Fincher-land even the rust, rot, and moral decay is burnished in deep, evocative shades—heady, beautiful Platonic Ideals of rust, rot, and moral decay that form a gorgeous Pottery Barn Noir.

Flynn’s script is compact, tight, and efficient, and as in the book, the plot twists and puzzles are carefully parceled out to keep the viewer happily locked in for the whole trip, and Fincher’s direction is equally mannered, crafted to a fine hum. In diving into the eerie small-town Missouri tale of Nick Dunne (Affleck) and his suddenly missing wife Amy (Pike), the film Gone Girl (like Flynn’s novel) plays as a good old-fashioned Hitchcockian page-turner. Fincher has however, with his now-trademarked craftsmanship, created yet another of these “entertainments” that tends to feel as echoingly hollow as it is visually and narratively compelling—the triumph of the slick aesthetic.

gone-girl-01_1485x612That said, if you haven’t read the book or seen the flick yet, here is where we bid you a fond adieu. Because much from here on out is going to be spoiler-ish And as those who’ve read/seen Gone Girl know, on both page and screen, it’s a tale that rides and compels on its plot twists.

If indeed his intent is to create a satiric puppet show about the deadly domestic void behind most romantic tales, Fincher couldn’t have found two better actors for the endeavor than Affleck and Pike. Both have always given off a sheen of Old-Hollywood marquee-attractiveness while carefully cultivating guarded, even sealed-off personas on (and off) screen.

To be clear, I’ve always stood in full praise of Ben Affleck—he is and always has been a singularly talented and grippingly watchable actor, often using his paradoxical combination of natural, boyish charm and distant old-school poise to mask deeper currents. Hatas gonna hate, and over the past couple decades, prior to Argo’s Oscar success, it was cheap, easy sport to pick apart Affleck’s role choices and to fall back on lazy dismissals of him based on an artificially created tabloid-media shallowness. (To be fair, for a long while, Affleck had an impressive track record for picking stunningly crappy projects. Though the two usually hauled out against him for the sake of a lazy laugh —Gigli and Jersey Girl—are not nearly as bad as people like to pretend.)

As a long-time member of the Affleck Fan Club (even when it seemed membership consisted solely of Kevin Smith and myself), I can’t help but smugly sneer at everyone now putting aside their “Batffleck” Twitter jibes and pretending to be suddenly shocked the actor is so good in Gone Girl. (Even as they try to diminish his natural talent by suggesting that Affleck’s own guarded emotions and past history with the media neatly inform Nick’s own tabloid trials.)

david-finchers-gone-girl-4-tv-spots-and-a-clipMaybe if everyone hadn’t been so busy enabling and feeding the tabloid distraction machine with the easy snark, they might have noticed the subtle depth of Affleck’s work in films like Hollywoodland, State of Play (a test-run for Nick Dunne’s pre-judged guilt), and The Company Men. As with those roles, Gone Girl stars Affleck the Dark Movie Star. His Nick is all dour disappointment and sullen disassociation, tucked tightly behind the glib politician’s need to please and be liked.

Likewise, Rosamund Pike has long quietly impressed with great work in good films like The Libertine, Pride & Prejudice, An Education, and Barney’s Version, and is often the best thing in other, mixed-quality films. Like Affleck, Pike sometimes seems hampered by her classical good looks—her face appears so pristine, so ideally proportioned that the actress turns up her haughty demeanor in hopes of subverting her own beauty. At other times, her porcelain-doll face and relentlessly clear eyes can start to drift into the Uncanny Valley—sliding from Grace Kelly into something more alien; a femme fatale-bot giving off the sort of low-register subconscious warnings that make the animal hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

On paper Pike is an obvious fit for Amy Dunne. That cold, other-worldly manner and the effortless shift from the pleading fear and vulnerably of a frail ice princess to the silent ferociousness of a cornered feral cat well-serve Amy’s squirming, seductive, and deadly duplicity. Unfortunately while Pike’s increasingly wild-eyed performance is (like most of the film) completely enjoyable, it further undermines the actual character of Amy, turning her into even more of a cartoon; a bottle-blonde Hannibal Lecter. First Flynn’s script, then Pike’s performance, and finally Fincher’s direction steadily strip away all the humanity from Book Amy, who at least felt like a real person (albeit a real crazy person). Movie Amy winds up yet another of Fincher’s unknowable freak-show ciphers, which, sadly, is how we prefer our movie villains.

(In fact,gone_girl_17 Pike’s portrayal of Amy in Gone Girl comes off so inhuman, so terrifyingly calculating even from the early halcyon flashbacks, that it reminds me of why I only grudgingly accept Anthony Hopkins’ iconic Lecter—I get a kick from its obvious, Gothic-fun value, but find it less interesting than the deceptive humanity and charm Brian Cox brought to his more subtly sinister Lecktor [sic] in Mann’s Manhunter.)

The rest of the film’s cast is equally well-chosen, face by terrifically appropriate face: Kim Dickens (Treme) and Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) as the investigating police (Dickens is especially good); Carrie Coon as Nick’s sibling support system; Neil Patrick Harris as a fastidious, fussy former Amy paramour; and Tyler Perry as superstar lawyer Tanner Bolt.

(The best thing about Perry’s genuinely great performance isn’t that he disarms the anti-Medea wags, but that Bolt is a refreshing change of pace in Fincher-land: a full-blown cynic who gleefully embraces, owns, and delights in his cynicism and the cynical world he swims in.)

But this is where my mild dissatisfaction with Gone Girl (despite having a decent enough time watching it) may feel churlish. Throughout the film, from the lighting to the direction to the acting in major and minor roles, all that seemingly laudable Fincher attention to detail takes what was already a rather shallow contraption to begin with in Flynn’s novel and shines it all to near blinding familiarity. There are surprises in the film (especially if you haven’t read the novel), and there are shocking scenes, and Affleck (and Pike to a lesser extent) masterfully holds our attention. But in the end, the film feels like the blandly beautiful McMansion Nick and Amy rent: clean, picture-pretty, and well comported, but devoid of anything interestingly sloppy or raw.

3029156-poster-p-1-gone-girl-trailerEven when a hair (or drop of blood) is out of place in Gone Girl, it’s meticulously out of place—to be fair, that perfectionism suits a story in which everything, everyone, every event and emotion has been carefully crafted by some onscreen character to achieve a desired effect.

In fact, that’s the most interesting thing about Gone Girl: its subtext about the artificiality of not just present-day new media (professional witch-burner Nancy Grace gets a much-deserved pillaring), but of how nearly everyone in the film is constantly creating a “brand” or “story” about themselves, tweaking their persona and presentation to sell themselves to someone. Your life is a lie you first tell yourself, suggests Gone Girl, then you try to find other interested “readers” who will buy it. (In exchange, you reciprocate and agree to buy their lies.)

Fincher-land’s icy aesthetic and philosophy often invites comparisons to Kubrick, but Kubrick always took a gods’-eye remove from humanity—his mis-perceived misanthropy was the unblinking, curious gaze of the alien observer. Fincher’s slick and shiny version more often feels like the lazy formalism and moral detachment of a one-time commercial director who, no matter how heady the subject matter, still prefers the surfaces and the suggestion of a vast hollow below. (When it comes to a lack of faith in humanity, Fincher makes his idol Hitchcock look like Capra.) In Fincher-land the human condition is dim and beyond that, unknowable–not that you’d want to. (Though his view of it is rarely dreary or dull—Fincher’s particular brand of artifice has little time for mundane naturalism).

In that sense, in Fincher’s Gone Girl Nick and Amy become yet another of his studies of someone consumed by someone else’s (often deadly) delusion/story: David Mills made a part of John Doe’s psychopathic tableau in Seven, Nicolas Van Orton caught up in The Game, Fight Club’s Narrator trying to sort out his role in Tyler Durden’s increasingly extreme narrative, Robert Graysmith slowly entrapped by his search for The Zodiac Killer in Zodiac.

gone-girl-12Fincher doesn’t so much see hearts of darkness in his characters as a void. Humans are shells; playthings jerked along by a cruel fate born of deadly curiosity and troublesome ennui, trapped by their obsessions, cornered by the things they fear most.

Most Fincher characters look long into the abyss and find… just the abyss, all nothingness and nihilism. (We’ll leave out Benjamin Button because… well, because who knows what the hell Fincher was thinking there.) They’re maneuvered into hunting and fighting demons, but in the end the demons hold no special meaning, belong to no epic adversarial legions, impart no grand truths. They just are; we just are. Enjoy your popcorn.

It’s no surprise that Fincher’s most-lauded film, The Social Network, centers on Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg as a quizzical sociopath—exactly the kind of person who sees a massive social-media network as a legitimate replacement for actual, emotional human interaction. With Social Network and then The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Netflix’ House of Cards (which he executive produces), Fincher was finally able to move away from stories about protagonists struggling against nihilistic sociopaths and simply make the sociopaths his heroes. The giddy appeal of Gone Girl is you’re not sure which sort of Fincher film you’re watching—are some of these “heroic” characters manipulative, malicious sociopaths? Or all of them?

All of this doesn’t sound much like the sort of film “critics” are calling a great “date night movie” and yet audiences are flocking to it on date nights, making it Fincher’s highest grossing release. That’s understandable–both the book and flick Gone Girl do bang-up jobs of keeping the readers/viewers neatly skewered on that meat hook of omg-what-next fascination. But watered-down satire of modern marriage aside, Gone Girl is not constructed to get at anything other than a rippin’ good, gruesome yarn—yet another grim fairy tale about Our World Today, complete with a nutty-mean witch at its heart. Sure it’s a lurid funhouse, but just as you know all the spooky tricks going in, you can still get a hoot out of the ride.

gone-girl-2(The glaring exception to all this clockwork thriller craft: the plot-spinning, head-scratchingly cheap, second-half pivot the film inherits from the novel. Amy’s sudden decision to return to Nick is silly on the page, but at least there it has plenty of motivational buttressing from previous chapters’ internal currents.

(On film, streamlined to keep things moving forward, the moment is played off by Pike as a clichéd literal “eye-opening” change of heart. You can feel Fincher, Flynn, and even Pike convincing themselves that by this point they’ve earned some cheat points and agreeing to toss their hands in the air and say, “Yeah, it makes no sense, but oh well, whatever!”)

But the main reason Flynn’s novel and now Fincher’s film succeed so well in the mainstream is their relentless plucking at our cynical chords about love and marriage. Nick and Amy’s tale peels back the fairy-book dream of the happy couple; of the heroic husband striking all the right brave, hopeful poses while desperately trying to get his beloved wife back.

Eventually in Gone Girl, love and matrimony reveal themselves as codependent addictions every bit as self-destructive as booze or smack in films like Days of Wine and Roses, Sid and Nancy, Drugstore Cowboy, or Leaving Las Vegas. (Best Sweetest Day date movie evah.) In Romance According to Nick and Amy, after the passionate battle of courtship, marriage becomes an uneasy detente in the face of mutually assured destruction, each side peering through binoculars at the other across a king-sized DMZ.

And we love it, gleefully smirking over how effed up the characters are, even as we see a bit of ourselves in them. Like Clarice and Hannibal, Mills and John Doe, the Narrator and Tyler Durden, Greenwood and the Zodiac, or the viewer and Frank Underwood, we’re not just drawn to dangerous characters because of some easy bad-boy, bad-girl flirtation with danger or desire to be scared, but because fictional characters like these, and like Nick and Amy in Gone Girl, allow us to simultaneously pass judgment on “evil” (or at least naughtiness) in fiction while secretly embracing the nastier impulses and desires within ourselves; our own brokenness. We have met Nick and Amy, to paraphrase the possum, and they is us. We are Nick, willingly laying down to an uneasy sleep each night next to not only a creature that might kill him but his own murderous impulses.

gone-girl-1At his best, Fincher is fascinated by this never-ending, oft-denied dance within us all—even when his explorations of the darker side of the human condition fall short of really saying anything (as in Gone Girl). Despite its sometimes gory, sometimes sexy shenanigans, Gone Girl never feels truly transgressive, subversive, or satirical in the ways Fincher’s films like Seven, Fight Club, and Zodiac reached for. But at his most commercially opportunistic, the director still milks the shadows for entertainment value and cheap thrills.

One of the major changes from page to screen is in the film’s final scene, bookended with its opening, in which Nick, through troubled voice-over, muses over what’s going on in his wife’s head (more specifically, he speculates on smashing her skull open with a rock to peer inside her brain). Both the book and the film alternate between Nick and Amy’s versions of events, and its Nick’s unraveling of the missing-girl puzzle that drives the story.

But when it comes right down to it thematically, the book is primarily Amy’s tale—she carries the written narrative both forward and backward as she speaks directly to the reader; it’s her psychosis we find so mesmerizing. And it’s Amy’s voice and her unsettling, threatening concerns about her future with Nick that closes the novel.

But the film Gone Girl is all about Nick; his trials and tribulations in the public eye and the media court; his quest for the truth; his take on the bizzare events unfolding around him. As it becomes yet another of Hollywood’s Man’s-eye Movies, it’s naturally Nick (and Affleck the Hollywood Star, not Pike the British indie queen), who gets the film’s final word, speculating on what may come for Amy and himself. Once again, Amy, a fascinating character on the page, is shoved into the “Movie Villain” Tupperware.

Flynn’s book also stirred controversy over its perceived misogyny—after all, it can be argued Amy is purely a fictional validation of every “my ex-girlfriend is a crazy bitch!” argument; a femme fatale for the Internet Age. Though a case could be made that she also functions as id catharsis for some female readers/viewers enjoying a little anti-cheating husband payback: “Sure, she’s insane and horrific and goes too far, but…” (

And yes, Flynn’s script preserves a condensed version of the novel’s famous “Cool Girl” soliloquy, even if Pike’s Movie Amy is a very different kind of “cool” girl; emphasis on the freeze, not the fun.)

gone-girl-10As is so often the case with these sorts of pop-cultural concerns, the problem isn’t so much the character of Amy, but the eventual popularity of the book and film. As I’ve said before, we can’t praise the power of film as art, especially as popular art, and not accept that powerful, popular art can and does have an effect—a slow, steady drip drip drip into the cultural subconscious.

Gone Girl is silly, sick-fun pulp noir and is easily enjoyed as such—as is intended—but as popular as the book and film are, and given that—like Fatal Attraction more than 25 years ago—they will be with us in the pop-culture firmament for many years, the character of Amy sadly reinforces some guys’ (and gals’) stereotypical image of the “crafty, unhinged, deadly woman spurned.”

Pike’s Movie Amy is so much of a cartoon villain, it’s hard to imagine anyone taking her seriously as a gloss on real human female behavior, any more than we think Hannibal Lecter is an accurate representative of British psychiatry. (Oddly, this year’s other popular film about what motivates a villainous female, Maleficent, attempts the exact opposite, showing the maternal, loving, and caring side of a cartoon villain.)

But then, for all his evil, Lecter is still a privileged white male character, and as we once again wade through toxic filth like currently raging online controversies, we’re reminded that when it comes to villainizing women in our current pop culture landscape, we (especially stupid young white males soaked in a warped sense of victimized entitlement) don’t always shower ourselves in glory.

gone-girl-14-600x421Such hand-wringing aside, both Flynn and Fincher know what their tale is, what it needs to be (a wickedly fun night at the theater), what bells need to be rung, what strings need to be tugged to keep a mainstream audience not just on the hook, but enjoying hanging there.

The writer and director know this is trash, but it’s never allowed to be messy. Instead, its carefully packed into securely tied garbage bags and placed neatly on the suburban curb. What happens to it after that is someone else’s problem.

Interview: Kill the Messenger Director Michael Cuesta

kill-the-messenger-postermichael cuestaIn 1996 the San Jose Mercury News published (in print and on the nascent World Wide Web) a series of investigative articles entitled “Dark Alliance” by journalist Gary Webb.

In the articles, Webb stated that in the ’80s the CIA not only supported cocaine smuggling out of Nicaragua in order to fund its clandestine war against the Sandinista Government, but the Agency also turned a blind eye to the spread of the Los Angeles crack epidemic.

Soon after its publication, other newspapers, including the Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times began attacking Webb’s story, trying to poke holes and discredit his reporting.

A passion project of its star and producer, Jeremy Renner, the new drama Kill the Messenger follows both Webb’s investigative legwork and publishing triumph and his subsequent fall from grace as his character and integrity are attacked by both the CIA and other news organizations. The gripping film is not so much about vast, shadowy conspiracies, but a view from within an individual of the self-destructive cost of a personal, passionate pursuit of the truth. (Webb’s claims would eventually be vindicated by a 1998 CIA report, and in the 2000s, several of the newspapers that had attacked him and his story published mea culpas.)

kill_the_messenger_4_largeStarring Renner as Webb and written by Peter Landesman (based on Webb’s own 1998 book Dark Alliance and Nick Schou’s 2006 book about Webb, Kill the Messenger), the film Kill the Messenger is directed by Michael Cuesta, whose work includes the 2001 feature film L.I.E., extensive directing duties on Six Feet Under, Dexter, and an Emmy for Homeland).

The film also features Michael Sheen, Andy Garcia, Ray Liotta, Barry Pepper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt, Paz Vega, Oliver Platt, Richard Schiff, and Michael K. Williams.

I spoke with Cuestra last month in Chicago about his film, working with Renner, and how he went about telling the real Gary Webb’s story.

Kill the Messenger opens this weekend in select cities.



The interesting thing about Webb’s story is that it wasn’t so much the CIA that tried to crush him as it was other newspapers.

Michael Cuestra: The CIA is part of it, but it’s much more about other journalists, the papers, and the bigger media monster that was created in the ‘80s, when it became more for-profit.

kill-the-mes-6All those papers that wrote disparaging stories poking holes in Gary’s investigation didn’t print the story when it should have been investigated in the ‘80s.

So I saw it as those papers being really jealous that they missed the scoop or were afraid or were diverted and they didn’t dig. So it took a guy like Gary at a smaller paper that wasn’t really part of that conglomerate.

This took place in the early years of the Web, when everyone thought it would really open up investigative journalism. Instead, the film feels almost like a eulogy for investigative journalism.

Cuestra: Gary and the Mercury were the first to use the Internet, using it for that story. It was Gary’s idea to do that, letting the readers into his notebook and all his sources. Gary was very much a watchdog and was encouraged to dig as deep as he could. They brought him to San Jose because he had a reputation of going after corruption and government scandal. He was hired to do exactly that.

The film does have a swan-song feeling for investigative reporting. I did approach it like that. We don’t have those guys anymore, and I wanted to present Gary as kind of rock star with that cock-of-the-walk swagger. He was the end of an era.

But he was also really a stickler for detail, spending hours at night going through archives and old files. He checked everything—he was that guy. Especially in the first half of the film, I wanted to get that rhythm, of the cop on the beat. I approached it almost like a procedural.

killthemessenger-firstlook1-fullThat’s the challenge of a journalism movie, like any film about writing–you might have a big story and big themes, but you still have to figure out how to show the legwork, the research, and the actual writing.

Cuestra: That was tough, but it was obviously my job. The original script didn’t have the writing process, so I wanted that moment of catharsis when after all his investigation, he finally gets to sit down and write the story.

I added that scene in, where he sits down and puts on The Clash and gets to writing. He was a rock guy, and you can see his excitement for writing; he’s making the painting. I wanted to bring the audience into that process and make it exciting.

How did you and Renner go about creating a character version of Webb that was compelling on the screen but still true to the real-life person?

Cuestra: It’s really about two film-making techniques.

For me, I want to make the character as complex and real as possible. It’s not about being entertaining, but being completely truthful in the scene and not over-characterizing anything. I’d worked with Jeremy before, so we could work together to make his performance real and not just a character.

messengerThen as a film maker you work to structure the film as a dramatic piece, using the real-life facts as story beats—for example Gary getting this mysterious call from this woman, Coral Baca (Vega), that sends the story off to the races.

That’s the way you put a movie together—once you have the performance, it’s my job to structure it, subtly, to figure out the movement of it all. Get his performance into the path of the story beats, where the story needs to go.

For example, the third act of the movie slows down a little bit because Gary goes into Purgatory, getting further and further away. He’s alone in this. I always wanted the film to come from him and his point of view.

How do you then capture that intention through visual style and camerawork?

Cuestra: It’s the subjectivity of it; it’s from inside, it’s his story and what happens to him as a result of his investigation. That was always the intent, to keep the camera on his shoulders, so to speak. The camera should reflect his feeling.

So the first half is more optimistic; it’s looser, scrappier, focused on Gary. That was a conscious effort by myself and my Director of Photography Sean Bobbit—we would discuss the script every morning and go through each scene.

Kill_the_Messenger_reviewThen the second half of the film gets bigger as a bigger thing is imposed onto Gary, and the film and the camera becomes more omniscient. There’s something else surrounding Gary that’s way more powerful than him, so the swagger starts to get stripped away and he starts to get lost in an open ocean, in uncharted waters.

The battlefield gets wider and wider, and I put more and more space on the screen—he’s alone. He knows he’s going there, and he chooses to go there.

It’s Gary’s journey, and the film has to tell his story as best it can. It’s all about getting the audience to feel what it’s like to carry that burden; that drive and passion to get at the truth. And the cost of it, the sacrifice.

“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