Who Guards Against the Guardians of the Galaxy?

hr_Guardians_of_the_Galaxy_46Let’s be clear at the start: I enjoyed The Guardians of the Galaxy. Quite a bit, thank you. I had much of the good-times happy smiles with it, and I laughed a whole lot, often heartily and with great joy. It’s a totally entertaining lark (with a bit of heart), and if you like fizzy, funny, sci-fi action and you haven’t already, you should probably go see it—you’ll have a nice late-summer blast.

Keep that in mind, because later in this piece, it’s going to increasingly seem like I did not like Guardians of the Galaxy; that I blame it for some very bad things. Not true. Remember: Liked it. Had fun.

Of course you knew I was going to have a big “But…” However, after catching a second viewing of Guardians last night, I will say my “But…” is smaller than before.

I don’t think I need to tell you guys that I increasingly have issues with big-studio, big-budget, big-action, big-CGI, big-franchise, big-box-office blockbusters. Often that’s because the films that get shoved off that particular production line start to all feel the same: all just slightly above mediocre, all carefully packaged so you don’t so much notice the mediocrity but instead smile contentedly, dazzled by all the sparkly familiarity.

But several times a year there are big, expensive, VFX-laden, hyper-marketed tent-pole genre films that frustrate me more because as they suffer for their formulaic bloat, I see down inside them the smart, compelling films they could have been if they weren’t birthed through a studio-committee process intent on sanding off any edgy or unconventional originality that might hurt ticket sales in a key demographic. (Last year it was World War Z; earlier this summer it was Godzilla.)

la_ca_0415_guardians_of_the_galaxy_006In that respect, Guardians of the Galaxy bothers me more than most, even as I delighted in watching it more than most. Seeing it the first time, I could almost literally feel the two halves of my conflicted film-going soul separating and floating out to each side, like Angelic Pinto and Demonic Pinto on Tom Hulce’s shoulders.

I watched in utter, giddy glee as Chris Pratt’s “aw jeeze” space-rogue Peter Quill danced and lip-synced to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love;” I laughed constantly at the non-stop bickering between Quill and his misfit bad of cosmic screw ups as they fly around… um, fighting some bad people to keep them from getting a thing that does something something purple energy.

I was charmed by the film’s sweet idea of found family; I marveled (no pun intended at all) at the comedic, anarchic drop-ins director James Gunn and his co-writer Nicole Perlman peppered the film with (delivered almost perfectly by Pratt and his co-stars Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, and yes, Vin Diesel in his best performance since The Iron Giant).

But through all that summer cinematic party time, a part of me was frustrated that I had to dig all those happy moments out of what still felt like a big, dumb, lumbering franchise film weighted down by all the usual unnecessary CGI and over-long action scenes that studios insist mainstream audiences want, must have in their “blockbusters.”

guardians_of_the_galaxy_02In a film as effervescently irreverent as Guardians, all that extra… stuff… feels all that more intrusive so I resent it even more. This is a film about anti-authority types, made by an anti-authority director, but within the confines and sometimes stifling weight of big-studio, franchise blockbuster machine.

Director James Gunn—whose past films include the grinning B-movie gross-out Slither and the much darker, meaner costumed-hero satire Super—is a silly subversive at heart. (Not for naught did he get his start writing for Troma Films.) But while I give Gunn (and Pratt) much of the credit for everything I loved about Guardians, it feels like he had to push his way into and through the film, asserting his winning style through whatever chinks in the proscribed formula he could find.

(In the same way, Joss Whedon had to force himself around all the sharp structural corners and clunky narrative barricades of The Avengers—a film I once loved and still adore, but one that, with each subsequent viewing, works best as a strung together series of great and often hilarious character moments rather than an entire film.) (And given his experience with writing scruffy crews of space outlaws—Browncoats unite!—I wouldn’t be surprised if Joss took an un-credited swipe or two at the Guardians script.)

guardians_of_the_galaxy_01Lest you think I’m over-romanticizing the plight of the original-minded writer-director working in the new Marvel/Disney super-verse, remember that earlier this summer Edgar Wright (co-creator of films like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, and last year’s World’s End) was dismissed from his writer-director duties on Marvel/Disney’s Ant Man mere weeks before shooting was set to start.

The exact dynamics of that parting remain cloaked in “he said/they said” legal non-disclosure-land, but the gist of it was that Wright, working for the first time with a major studio on a blockbuster franchise property, had turned in multiple drafts of a presumably Wright-ian script that did not conform closely enough to what is now Hallowed Marvel/Disney Superhero Blockbuster Law. Marvel/Disney wants creative voices, but those voices better stick to the hymnbook.

Gunn, like Whedon before him, walked the line, or rather he, like Quill, charm-danced his way down it. For example, there’s plenty of ‘80s fizz coursing through Guardians, from Quill’s treasured Walkman (filled with “Awesome” ‘70s pop rock) to Gunn’s clear affinity for Buckaroo Banzai, Big Trouble in Little China, and the animated Heavy Metal feature.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-Chris-Pratt1After all, who’s Pratt’s Peter Quill but the sad, lonely little boy who gets swept up into a world of space adventure and emerges 26 years later a grown-up cross between Jack Burton, Han Solo, and Andy Dwyer? What geek child didn’t dream of such a thing? (And yes, Chris Pratt is lovable, lunk-headed comic wonder, but then Parks and Rec fans have known that for years.)

There’s plenty more good stuff in Guardians, from hilarious performances by Saldana and Bautista to the endless soft-hearted charm of the Diesel-voiced tree creature Groot. And Marvel fan-boys and –girls can revel in a huge haul of comic-continuity nods: we meet the Kree, Ronan the Accuser, the Collector, Thanos, the Nova Corps, the Infinity Stones/Gems/Gauntlet, and even Cosmo the Russian Space Dog, and we take a stunning tour inside Knowhere, the outpost inside a dead Celestial’s skull. (We even see a little flashback to a Celestial in action.) Oh, and yes, there’s a certain foul/fowl Cleveland denizen who’s trapped in a world he never made.

gaurdians-of-the-galaxyBut if you want to see where Guardians both succeeds and shows its seams, where my Angelic Self hoots loudly even as my Demonic Self grimaces, look to its two most crowd-pleasing, non-Pratt elements: the CGI character of Rocket (voiced by Cooper) and the steady use of Quill’s beloved ‘70s tunes to create kitschy-cute ironic-earnest moments.

Rocket, a genetically engineered space raccoon with seriously sociopathic self-loathing identity issues, is the film’s buzz-hook: A cute, smack-talking critter that favors big guns and bigger bombs. And most of the time, with Cooper giving him a bit of a New Yawk ‘tude, he’s the riot he’s intended to be.

But as you watch Rocket’s antics, they can’t help but feel somewhat forced, stilted, as if to say, “Here you go; we know you’re gonna love this fuzzy little nutcase because we’ve carefully built our marketing campaign around the obvious, hilarious visual incongruity of a raccoon with a machine gun.” Yes, Rocket is amusing, but eventually you start to feel as though you’re laughing more at the idea of him, as if he’s more pull-string action toy than character.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Trailer-Groot-Rocket-PrisonThe same dichotomy plays out with the toe-tapping ‘70s pop songs that spring up for musical-visual interludes every 10 minutes. I love ‘em—I’d gladly watch a 45-minute version of Guardians that’s just the song scenes. But I’m also aware Gunn goes to that well over and over and over again. It always works, but by the end you can’t help but warily feel a little manipulated for easy effect.

Lighter on its feet than most superhero action flicks, or at least as light on its feet as it can be while wearing the clunky anti-grav boots of big-studio franchise, Guardians of the Galaxy would have been twice as good if it were 20 minutes shorter, spent half as much on CGI, and cut down its action beats by two thirds. It doesn’t need all those things—the film’s greatest strengths are its cast and characters and their quips, and in its loose, lovably irreverent tone. All those charms are only slowed and diluted by extra-long fight and chase scenes. Except none such austerity in the face of two-hour overkill is allowed under the current blockbuster paradigm, currently executed most effectively by Marvel/Disney.

XXX GUARDIANS-GALAXY-MOV-JY-0704.JPG A ENTAs far as marketing and box office, as usual you have to stand in open-mouth appreciation at how well the Marvel and Disney hype machinery works. Over the course of the past year and especially the past few months, with a series of irreverent trailers set to those grin-inducing ‘70s tunes, they’ve made everyone—not just the fan-boys and geeks—not just want to see Guardians asap, but feel as if they had to.

Much about Guardians feels constructed to tap directly into fan-boys’ and -girls’ excitement not so much about Star-Wars-type space-adventure movies, but about their nostalgic memories of being excited about new summer action movies. And we are more than happy to participate in that symbiotic relationship. We love feeling like we have to be there opening day—yes, it takes us all back to the Good Old Summer Days when you arrived half a day ahead of time to stand in line for hours to see a Star Wars, Indiana Jones, or Batman movie. A part of us jumps at the opportunity to participate in the hype, no longer entirely sure how much of our enthusiasm is genuine and how much is being artificially goosed by the studio marketing department.

guardians_of_the_galaxy_03(I’ve heard a lot of praise tossed at Marvel/Disney for taking a “risk” on a film starring characters of which only a sliver of comics fans were previously aware. First, what does that say about “big” films these days? It’s a “risk” to make a movie that isn’t based on an already well-known property, franchise, character, game, or toy?

(Second, with the success of Marvel’s whole Avengers Phase One plan, they and Disney have a mammoth publicity platform on which to play. Sure, few people knew who the Guardians were a year ago—Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning rebooted the current comic-book version around the same time of the first Iron Man film—but once Marvel/Disney green-lit the project, they made sure to pre-sell it with furious purpose. It’s like a cupcake maker deciding to try a new cherry-licorice flavor, but first getting a guarantee to stock it from every 7-11 in the country.)

I know the main argument for Guardians—half of me makes it to my other half: Hey, we all had a wonderful time. What’s the problem? Why can’t we just have a little fun for a change? Because that’s not how it works in the real world. In the real world, every time Marvel and Disney’s impeccable movie-making process turns out another product (ranging from watchable to enjoyable); every time their marketing armies crank the fan-boy and –girl anticipation up to 11; and every time one of these films hits another box-office home run, the machine gets stronger, more determined, less flexible, more unstoppable.

And every time that happens, the fighting chances decrease of there being another Big Trouble in Little China or Buckaroo Banzai or Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World; of truly original and joyfully idiosyncratic genre films making it to big screens.

guardians_of_the_galaxy_ft-17415_r-dad80a6264839a6d7f064aac3a35b296eb13b545-s6-c30It’s easy to forget, nearly 40 years and five sequels and prequels and billions of merchandising sales later, that the first Star Wars was an independent film, rejected by nearly every studio, and—for better or worse—made with nothing but passion and blind devotion by a singularly obsessed creator.

Of course, the next Star Wars film is being currently made by Disney, which paid an Emperor’s sum to own the entire franchise for one reason and one reason only: The property potentially adds massive riches to the 2015 shareholders’ report.

I like Guardians of the Galaxy overall. I absolutely love many specific things about it. And that part of me is glad James Gunn made it. But that other part of me wants to believe that maybe James Gunn had—still has—his own even more subversive, more irreverent Star Wars-type obsessive film idea kicking around somewhere inside his creative mind. Something odd and original and full of rough edges and strange, satiric corners that don’t fit into a corporate franchise formula.

Two summers ago, director Colin Trevorrow and his writing partner Derek Connolly made a terrific little low-sci, low-budget quirkedy called Safety Not Guaranteed. When I talked to Trevorrow about the film, he was buzzing with ideas for future projects. Next summer (after having been on the short list to direct the new Star Wars sequel), Trevorrow is helming Jurassic Park 4, Jurassic World, co-written by Connolly, and starring none other than Chris Pratt.

I’m happy for Trevorrow’s big opportunity, and I hope it’s a terrific film and a great success for both him and Pratt—I have plenty of faith it can be. Maybe it’ll be the best Jurassic Park film yet. But if given a choice, I’d much rather have seen the small, personal, weird indie sci-fi film Trevorrow, Connolly, and Pratt might have made.

guardians_of_the_galaxy_04I can’t help but worry that the success of Guardians of the Galaxy further strengthens not just the Marvel/Disney factory but the studio-agreed-upon financial and creative blueprint for summer blockbusters, making it that much more unlikely that we’ll see Gunn’s quirky, passionate dream project—or Trevorrow’s, any other genre director’s.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go listen to “Come and Get Your Love” and picture Pratt’s joyous space sashaying for about the umptieth time today.

Interview: I Origins Writer-director Mike Cahill and Star Michael Pitt

i-origins-poster1Michael+Pitt+Mike+Cahill+Origins+Screening+2odjSkySYh8lThree years ago, writer-director Mike Cahill and his collaborator, writer-actress Brit Marling, helped lead a new sub-genre of science fiction with their breakout film Another Earth: intensely thoughtful and intelligent, smaller-budget films that aren’t afraid to raise complicated existential issues.

Cahill’s sophomore feature I Origins may have a somewhat larger budget and more expansive locales (including India) and an even richer visual palette, but Cahill, writing solo this time, doesn’t back off the Big Questions–instead, he dives in even deeper.

I Origins is the story of Ian Gray (Michael Pitt, Funny Games, The Dreamers, Boardwalk Empire), a molecular biologist specializing in ocular evolution. Around the same time Gray falls in love with Sofi, a highly spiritual young model (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), he and his research partner Karen (Marling) also make a huge scientific breakthrough.

But a series of tragedies and coincidences eventually lead Gray down a path that challenges his adherence to scientific fact over spiritual faith and could change humanity’s understanding of its very existence.

Two other writers and I sat down with Cahill and Pitt a few weeks ago in Chicago to talk about the challenges they faced in making a film that enthusiastically and earnestly tackles tough fact vs. faith questions.

I Origins is playing now at select theaters.

_________

i-origins-image-michael-pitt-astrid-berges-frisbey-2[Michael Pitt joins us a few minutes late, just back from the gym.]

Michael, you were boxing? Is that something you do all the time, or is it preparation for a film?

Michael Pitt: I try to sweat a little bit. Sweating is good for the brain, I think. I’m a little addicted to it.

Cahill: How long does it take you to start sweating?

Pitt: If you know what you are doing, about three minutes. I can get you drenched. I’m lazy, so the reason I box is that I can get to that sweating in a few minutes. I don’t have time to work out for an hour and a half. Jump rope for three minutes and you will sweat.

I Origins asks and wrestles with some big questions about science, faith, love, and death. 

Mike Cahill: We ask questions, but we try to frame them in an interesting way. Since the dawn of civilization, humans have been trying to construct narratives that make us feel peaceful. We don’t ask questions with our films and leave it wide open—it’s very precise in that the audience members put themselves there, and put their beliefs on the table as well. That’s part of the experience.

The film makes you start to see art, religion, and science as organizing metaphors for the human condition.

Cahill: Totally. It’s how we understand it all. The existential task is that it’s our responsibility to give meaning to life, otherwise it’s fucking chaos. Whether that meaning is true or not, who cares?

3033077-inline-i-2-iris-scans-and-reincarnation-filmmaker-mike-cahill-spills-origins-story-for-i-originsThe film deals with those weighty subjects but never feels heavy-handed or pretentious.

Cahill: When wishing to tackle ideas that are universal, you are dancing on the delicate edge of pretension; right on the border. Post-modernism has taken hold of the arts; painting, photography, music. I think that since Warhol, postmodernism has defined a generation of hipster-ism and young people and cynicism and irony and cool in an ironic sense.

It’s very untouchable and delicious and wonderful—and it’s also a dead end. If you as an artist are interested in going to something sincere, earnest, and emotional, it’s risky.

Pitt: It takes a lot of courage, especially in my generation and the generation coming up right behind us. It’s like, have the balls to care about something and take something seriously. At the end of the day, what are you holding onto?

I feel everything is about being ironic. And a lot of times when I sit face to face with an artist who is doing that, I see someone who is afraid to be real. Do you know what I mean? It’s a scary thing to put yourself on display. It’s an easy thing to say you don’t care. It’s a brave thing to say, “This is important to me.” Because people are going to challenge that. And that’s okay.

film-review-i-origins-cee5fb04ad66884bCahill: You might have that breakthrough, where you make someone feel. It’s like gambling. You risk it to go there. It is dangerous. You’re saying, “This is meaningful, this endeavor is important.” Hopefully.

It’s captured in that difficult dance that one does. In the scene where Ian says, “Have you ever met someone who fills that hole inside of you and when they are gone, you feel painfully vacant,” and he’s being fucking sincere, and gets caught up in that moment and he gets knocked down. For me, that was important that he goes there, so that we can go there. If we just ended on that, we would not have gotten away with it.

When Karen says, “Maybe the eyes really are the window the soul.” And he says, “Soul? Is my wife really using the word ‘soul’” Again, if you ever allow your characters to step over the edge into earnestness and sincerity and something that means something and opening their hearts and are vulnerable, we allow them to do it with a chain so that we can pull them back quickly.

Pitt: With the Internet, like Twitter and Facebook, it’s about making comments, it’s all a joke, and no one is taking it seriously. And I have smart friends who are doing all of this silly stuff; making comments that don’t mean anything, and that is why they are interested—it’s stupid, or a joke.

You are spending hours of your time doing something that is kind of a silly thing that you don’t take seriously, like watching a silly reality show. I catch myself in it, too. And it becomes about watching a train wreck.

tumblr_mxl94k1ZxA1stf63po1_500I just think that a little seriousness is in order. I don’t think you should take yourself too seriously, but I am very interested when I see someone who is passionate about an idea and is going to put themselves out there knowing that it is going to be criticized. And that’s okay.

Sarcasm and irony is best when it is intellectual. There is definitely a place for that. And a lot of stuff that I did- you can reach a dead end where it is like, “What do you believe in? What are you talking about?”

Or are you just doing it to make a point or just score cheap, easy points.

Cahill: Like that scene in Children of Men where they carry the baby out in that long shot. It’s beautiful. That’s an earnest moment in a film. It’s so easy to quip at that. But (Alfonso Cuaron) is risking to get us to feel the power of birth and newness and a new soul and what that means and how essential that is.

Ian is rational to a fault, yet still searching for something, or at least open to it. It’s fascinating to watch him balance faith and fact, spirit and science. 

Cahill: I have to give it to Michael for constructing that character. Ian is a guy who believes in facts and the scientific method and testing things, and only at the end of that process will he believe in something. Yet he follows a bunch of numerical elevens to get on a bus. That doesn’t seem to make sense as a person on paper, but it somehow resonates with real life about a person who is 95% one thing and 5% something else.

013_aIO_02664.JPGIn constructing that character, we talked about it a lot; how there’s something itching at him, and there’s a resistance to it, but he knows it’s there. And part of his attraction to Sofi was that she saw that, and like a string coming out of a suit, she started pulling on it and the seams started unraveling.

So that’s engaging for me—the idea of taking a Dawkins-esque, resistant person who believes that religion is dangerous and putting them in a situation where love and fate are the only things they hold onto.

Michael, how did you prepare for the role on both the scientific and spiritual sides?

Pitt: Normally I’m a big fan of researching and the throwing it away. We were talking about boxing. When you train as a boxer, you’re practicing a punch in super slow motion. And you’re getting that muscle memory, so that when you get in the ring you don’t think about it.

Acting is very similar to that—repetition, repetition. Get those things inside of you, forget about them, so that when the director pushes you into this world, you react. Hopefully you’ve done your work before. It’s usually the best when it’s second nature. It’s very time consuming.

Cahill: I got to witness Michael go through that process. We went to Johns Hopkins University and learned how to extract DNA and whatnot. There is a rhythm to it and mannerism to like pipetting saline solution, and Michael said to the real scientists, “Don’t show me how to do it, just do it and let me observe you for a while.” And he just watched and sucked it up like sponge. So all the scientists who watch the move are blown away by that mannerism.

_MG_2508.CR2Michael, you’ve acted for an impressive list of directors, including Bernardo Bertolucci and Michael Haneke. How does working with Mike fit into your experiences?

Pitt: I’ve been blessed to be able to work closely with some great directors, but I’m now trying to actively work with filmmakers who understand where film’s going and are changing things. Mike definitely is a filmmaker like that—he’s trying to do difficult things. I don’t see that very often with new filmmakers.

Less experienced filmmakers, I find, either they get so tied to the script that they get lost and forget that cinema is about capturing the moment, or they are so loose that they have no vision. Whether Mike is aware of it or not, it’s amazing that he’s got both.

The two love stories in this film are very different. One is emotional and passionate, the other more pragmatic and mature. Did you intend the film to advocate one over the other?

Pitt: People usually think one or the other.

Cahill: It’s more revealing about yourself. Because the movie doesn’t take a side. It just presents them as two valid, beautiful types of love. And maybe it’s something that many of us potentially have experienced; those different shades.

13901-1Do you think it’s possible to have both in one person?

Pitt: In my opinion is that there is someone out there with both, but it may take you forever to find them.

Cahill: My wife’s like that!

Transformers 4 is the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America

MV5BMjEwNTg1MTA5Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTg2OTM4MTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_No, I’m not being facetious. This isn’t winking satire. I’m stone cold Steve Austin serious: Transformers: Age of Extinction is quite possibly the single most important cinematic document so far about how America fever dreams itself into continued existence in the 21st Century.

For the most part, critics have been baffled and stymied by Michael Bay’s seemingly never-ending Transformers action-toy film franchise. Each entry feels bigger, louder, longer, dumber than the last; each one earns more than the last worldwide; and each time out, critics, pundits, fan boys, and anyone concerned about the death of cinema, the death of culture, or just the death of alien space robots that turn into cars has repeated sounded off about the movies’ spastic visual cacophony and narratives that—to the extent they exist—weave in and out of logic and coherence.

And yet, the films keep coming back. Unwavering, unrepentant. We can make snarky jokes about plot holes, and pacing problems, and product placement, and the fetishizing of both girls in jean shorts and American muscle cars until we’re blue in our intellectualized faces and it will make no difference.

Transformers director and maestro of Bayhem, Michael Fucking Bay—the perpetual bad-boy idiot bro-savant—didn’t become Michael Fucking Bay because he stays up at night worrying about what critics and fan boys think of his movies. No, he stays up at night banging hookers on the hoods of solid gold sports cars filled with cocaine because his films have become giant temples of crazed cash-making wretched genius excess. Read more »

Interview: Third Person Writer-director Paul Haggis

Paul+Haggis+Third+Person+Premieres+LA+IAVDNomvzOYl third-person-posterPaul Haggis spent two decades in the trenches writing for sit-coms like Diff’rent Strokes, One Day at a Time, Who’s the Boss, and Facts of Life and TV dramas such as LA Law, thirtysomething, and Walker Texas Ranger.

But ten years ago, Haggis broke out big as a film writer, with back-to-back Best Original Screenplay Oscars for Million Dollar Baby and Crash (which he also directed).

Since then, he’s written more scripts for Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima) and the rebooted James Bond franchise (Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace) as well as written and directed In the Valley of Elah and The Next Three Days.

Haggis’ latest film, Third Person, returns to the multiple plot-line structure of the Oscar-winning Crash, with three seemingly separate stories unfolding in three cities:

  • In Paris, an author (Liam Neeson) tries to write while juggling the emotional needs (and tragedies) of his ex-wife (Kim Basinger) and current lover (Olivia Wilde).
  • In Rome, a shady businessman (Adrien Brody) is drawn to a gypsy woman (Moran Atias) and her dark (and sometimes darkly comic) quest to ransom her daughter back from a crime lord.
  • And in New York, a once-popular actress (Mila Kunis) struggles to find even menial employment and regain custody of her son from his artist father James Franco.

I spoke with Haggis a few weeks ago in Chicago about writing about the writing process in Third Person; his own approaches as a writer and director; and writing about broken, “impossible” people struggling with love, forgiveness, and redemption.

Third Person opens today at select theaters. Read more »

Edge of Tomorrow: Cruise, Again and Again

edge-of-tomorrow_tom-cruiseI once reveled in mocking and deriding Tom Cruise for the obvious reasons: the shallow All-American Super-Jock swagger; the intense self-deprecatingly positivity; the mish-mash of film choices from soggily pretentious Oscar-lickers (Born on the Fourth of July, Rain Man, The Last Samurai) to cloying, image polishers (A Few Good Men, Jerry McGuire) to silly popcorn pandering (The Firm, Mission Impossible, and of course Interview with the Vampire).

Even when the actor took otherwise admirable steps to try something relatively daring with Eyes Wide Shut and Vanilla Sky, it still felt like the ridiculously handsome and charismatic quarterback slumming it in the theater department’s avant-garde spring production. (Like Glee’s Finn, without all the overdosing.) (To be fair, Kubrick reduced Cruise to a prop, but Kubrick reduced nearly all his actors to props.)

In the midst of this came the one truly brilliant Tom Cruise performance—the only post-Risky Business role that shows actual acting ability, as opposed to the usual wind-up charm masquerading in dress-up costumes as “Serious Acting!”

That was in P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, and of course the irony there is that Cruise is so genuinely good in it because he appears to show us a glimpse of what I suspect is the Real Thomas Cruise Mapother IV: A vicious, insecure huckster constantly attacking at full speed to hide the dark emptiness within. In other words, his best came from simply letting slip the carefully constructed mask for a moment.

(The Runner Up would be his hilarious–and once again, I suspect self-revealing–Tropic Thunder cameo as a profane mad-dog studio exec.)

And of course there was the whole Scientology thing that frankly became so entwined with Cruise’s career and persona that it was impossible to tell if he was an actor who benefited from a made-up, sci-fi, long-con “religion” or a made-up, sci-fi, long-con “religion” spokesman posing as an actor to boost his sales of L. Ron’s starter kits. Read more »

Maleficent: Witches Be Crazy

maleficent-posterLast summer, upon surviving The Lone Ranger, I felt I’d finally come to some sort of Zen-like epiphany about these giant Disney marketing events masquerading as “movies”: They aren’t really films at all; not in any classic sense of what cinema is, what it means.

My weary separate peace with these packaged, pre-sold, cross-promoted, brand-leveraged, multi-quadrant, ledger assets hinges on the acquiescence that it’s okay to give up and just accept them as some sort of “promotional entertainment.”

In the most darkly brilliant of marketing feedback loops, they are driven by and then exist solely to perpetuate brand identity: namely that “Disney Magic.” Which of course, in turn, strengthens the corporate bottom line across all fields of merchandizing, broadcasting, and theme parking.

Look here what I went and wrote last summer about The Lone Ranger:

They are large. They are aggressively marketed spectacle. They are amusement rides built around merchandizing shelves. They are corporate ambition wrapped in franchise dreams. But they’re not bad films, because they’re not really films.

In trying to sub-categorize these behemoths, I’m desperately hoping to work some sort of mid-life end-run around the creeping cynicism that has all but engulfed my enjoyment of just about any expensive studio action-adventure-fantasy “entertainment” that revolves around big-star stunt casting and an overdose of hollow CGI “dazzle.” Read more »

Interview: Cold in July Writer-director Jim Mickle

MV5BMzg2MzM2NTk5M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjcwNjc4MDE@._V1._CR5.1875,2.622161865234375,801,1192.9090881347656_SY317_CR19,0,214,317_AL_cold-in-july-poster1-405x600Last fall I chatted with writer-director Jim Mickle about his cannibal-family horror film We Are What We Are.

As we discussed the style of that film, Mickle (who comes off incredibly nice and intellectually and artistically curious) mentioned that his next film was set in the ’80s and had a very different, more neon, visual palate.

That new film, the thriller Cold in July, is out now and it’s terrific; another great cinematic growth spurt for Mickle, who with his writing partner Nick Damici, also made 2010’s acclaimed vampire film Stake Land.

Based on the 1989 novel by Joe R. Lansdale, Cold in July weaves the taut Texas tale of quiet family man Richard Dane (Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall) whose shooting of an intruder in his home makes him the target of the dead man’s vengeful father, Russel (Sam Shepard), himself a newly released felon.

But little in Cold in July is exactly what it seems, including the film itself. As he struggles with having killed another human, Dane’s understanding of the incident widens to eventually include political and police corruption, a gruesome crime ring, and Don Johnson having a ball as a charming and colorful good ol’ boy bounty hunter named Jim Bob. Meanwhile, the film serves up a solid mix of humor, tension, and, yes, some horrific violence.

When I spoke again with Jim Mickle a few weeks ago on the phone, we talked about the appeal of Lansdale’s novel, getting into an ’80s thriller Southern Fried Noir groove, and working with veteran actors like Hall, Shepard, and Johnson.

Cold in July opens today in select theaters. Read more »

Interview: For No Good Reason Director Charlie Paul and Producer Lucy Paul

For-No-Good-Reason-poster1Lucy+Paul+No+Good+Reason+Portraits+Toronto+0KixNey0u7xlMost Americans know English artist Ralph Steadman through the splatter-mad satiric illustrations he did for Hunter S. Thompson’s books and articles, most famously 1971’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

That was certainly the case with me when I attended a Steadman (splatter) signing in London in 1986. But from there I came to love Steadman for his acidic political, social, and artistic radicalism–almost in spite of his place in the HST Gonzo mythos. Here was an artist who kept moving, searching, and changing, all while still poking, prodding, and attacking.

The new Steadman documentary For No Good Reason from husband-and-wife team Charlie (director) and Lucy (producer) Paul naturally explores the expected debauched Thompson tales, but it also focuses on Steadman’s work as a political and social cartoonist-commentator in the ’60s before and the ’90s after the Hunter adventures.

no-good-reason4Best of all, Charlie Paul set up a digital camera above Steadman’s work table a decade ago and collected, frame by frame, stop-action documentation of the artist’s controlled-madness painting and drawing style.

The result is a fascinating look at how Steadman creates intricately layered artistic order and meaning out of what often starts as a wild splash of ink on the page.

For No Good Reason is hosted by Johnny Depp, who has taken on the role–with genuine devotion, it seems–of the Keeper of Hunter’s Gonzo Legacy, and it features interviews with folks like Jann Wenner, Terry Gilliam, and Richard E. Grant, as well as plenty of archival footage of Steadman and Thompson. But at the documentary’s heart is Steadman’s art–the film not only beautifully captures his process but it lays out his legacy, even in the face of the artist’s own doubts.

I sat down with Charlie and Lucy Paul in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk about their film and our shared love of Ralph Steadman’s work.

For No Good Reason opens today in select theaters. Read more »

Interview: Actress-turned-nun Mother Dolores Hart

Dolores-Hart_cover0When you interview someone for an arts piece, there are numerous competing agendas at play, including:

1) What you, the interviewer, personally want to know, are curious about.

2) What you think is important for others to know.

3) What the average reader would probably find the most interesting, what will make the interview “pop.”

4) What will drive the highest readership/clicks/sales. (Hint: breaking news about new projects or revealed secrets, or a mid-interview meltdown of either subject or interviewer, or cats and nudity.)

5) What the subject is interested in talking about, what gets them excited.

6) What message the subject or studio’s publicity team wants you to help spread. (Not always the same as #5.)

So when I was offered the opportunity to talk to Mother Dolores Hart of the the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, I knew what the “story” was, the “big hook”: In the early ’60s Hart was a young, attractive actress on the rise, having famously starred with Elvis (in Loving You and King Creole), had a box-office hit with Where the Girls Are, and garnered acclaim for dramatic work in films like Wild is the Wind and Francis of Assisi.

dolores-hart-2-240But–and this is where the “big hook” comes in–in 1963, Hart answered what she felt was a higher, unavoidable calling and gave up her very promising Hollywood career and entered the Regina Laudis monastery as a Roman Catholic nun.

And so that became the story: Pretty young actress (who kissed Elvis!) becomes a nun. I even put it in the headline of this interview in hopes of getting you to read it.

Hart, now 75 and prioress of the Abbey of Regina Laudis, has been doing a promotional tour for the past year in support of her autobiography The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey From Hollywood to Holy Vows, as told to her lifelong friend Richard DeNeut.

The first half of the book is the typical Golden-Age Hollywood memoir, full of stories about Hart’s rise to fame, the mercurial personalities of producers, directors, and fellow actors, and of course, Elvis.

But the second half is set in Regina Laudis and details not just the questions of devotion and faith one struggles with when entering a religious life, but also the day-to-day life and activities of cloistered nuns, both sacred and mundane. (On the other hand, Hart remains a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.) Read more »

Interview: Blue Ruin Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier

Jeremy+Saulnier+Blue+Ruin+Photo+Call+Locarno+G7ZYQ0X29-8lBlue-Ruin-Poster-thumb-300xauto-46903At a time when we’re about to be overrun for the season by loud, dumb, nonsensical, pointless action bloat at the box office, a small, quiet, brutal film like Blue Ruin reminds us why genre still matters.

Funded in party by Kickstarter, Blue Ruin shows how something as simple and familiar as a rural revenge story can still sing out afresh in the hands of true original talent.

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, Blue Ruin stars Saulnier’s long-time friend Macon Blair as Dwight, a hirsute homeless man whose wide, sad eyes suggest both present-day confusion and past emotional calamity. When he’s told the man who murdered his parents is getting out of prison, Dwight is driven from lost befuddlement to vengeful purpose, but never as successfully as superhuman heroes in action movies.

Blair is an impressive find in front of the camera–his Dwight is a stumbling child, both when covered in Manson-like hair and beard or cleaned up to reveal the weak chin of a department-store middle-manager.

But the film’s impressively solid, character-driven story and quietly compelling pensive tone is the work of second-time writer-director Saulnier, who simultaneously dives head-first into the revenge-thriller drama while completely subverting the genre’s often-shallow emotional tropes.

I sat down with Saulnier in Chicago last week, and we talked not just of our shared love of thoughtful and original-minded genre films but also our loathing for big, soulless, cruel violence-orgies like last summer’s abhorrent White House Down.

Blue Ruin is now playing in select theaters and is also available on demand. Read more »

“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
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