What’s up with “Tomorrowland”?

While I usually try to focus on writing here, I will admit to a deep and abiding love of film. I love watching movies at home and in theaters, obscenely large container of popcorn at the ready. I even read movie news and gossip. What’s got me excited today, though, is the upcoming film Tomorrowland.

First of all, Hugh Laurie has been cast as the villain. For anyone who has ever seen Laurie cheerfully playing the misanthropic title character on an episode of House M.D., the thought of Laurie playing the bad guy should make you gleeful. Second of all, Brad Bird has been attached to direct. You probably don’t recognize the name, but Brad Bird is the guy who wrote and directed the exceptional animated films The Incredibles and The Iron Giant. He’s also the man who directed Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocal, arguably the most visually interesting of the Mission: Impossible films. Also attached to star is George Clooney. I’ll admit I’m a little less excited by this casting choice. The last time Clooney made a film that was even remotely interesting looking to me was the 2006 film noir homage film, The Good German. Still, he’s shown himself capable of delivering excellent performances (O Brother, Where Art thou?, for example) and maybe this will prove to be a similar vehicle for him.

So far, details about the project have been pretty closely guarded, but the following plot snippet has made its way out to us courtesy of casting sheets and entertainment site Hitfix:

“A teenage girl, a genius middle-aged man (who was kicked out of Tomorrowland) and a pre-pubescent girl robot attempt to get to and unravel what happened to Tomorrowland, which exists in an alternative dimension, in order to save Earth.” (source Hitfix)

The Hitfix article, by Drew McWeeney, postulates that this description may just be part of a misinformation campaign. Personally, I hope that’s true, not because the description doesn’t pique my curiosity, but because Brad Bird so consistently delivers films that I find engaging and original. I’d rather be blown away by something largely unexpected. Then again, I’d go see a movie based around the plot snippet. I guess I win either way.

Why People Should Cut George Lucas Some Slack

Originally posted 7-29-2012

Over the last fifteen years of so, George Lucas has come under increasing and increasingly vitriolic fire from people claiming to be “fans” of his work. Let me admit up front that I found Star Wars Episodes I-III to be inferior to the original trilogy in raw storytelling terms. Much of those weaknesses could have been avoided with more focus on character development and less on visual effects. Did those scripts need another pass or three? Absolutely. Have the various changes and amendments to the original trilogy made it worse? It’s debatable, but that’s not really the point. What the question all really boils down to is whether or not a creator can or should retain creative control over properties once those properties become available to the public at large. I say, yes, the creator can and should retain creative control over the work. Here is why. I’m about to do the same thing.

I self-published a novel a few years ago and I’m presently closing in on the finish line for the sequel to it. The people that read and loved that original novel have my eternal gratitude. It’s been their persistent and heartfelt interest in those characters that has kept me going back to the keyboard to chip away on the new novel. That gratitude does not, however, extend to leaving that original novel in its original form. Since I wrote that novel, I have consumed millions of words of writing. I’ve read close to a dozen books on the craft of writing. Finally, I’ve set down hundreds of thousands of words of my own writing in the form of blogs posts, articles, reviews, and a new novel. The point is that, while creative works often remain static, our understanding and abilities as creators in our chosen fields do not remains static. I am a far, far better writer now than I when I wrote that first novel. I can understand its flaws, and why they exist, well enough to make a serious effort at repairing them.

More important to me, as the author, is that I feel a responsibility to that book and its characters. I honed it and shaped it as well as I could at the time, but I can see where I took shortcuts and where I shortchanged the character development in favor of skipping ahead to the big drama scenes. I did the kinds of things inexperienced writers do on their early works. Would that book have benefited from another pass or three before I made it available? Absolutely. Should I not take that pass or three now because people have read the original? I can’t think of a single good reason why I should refrain from taking another pass at it.

I’ll grant you, I’m not George Lucas. My fan base is small. I haven’t sold millions of copies of one version of my book just to say, “Wait, no, this new one is going to be the definitive version.” I can see how that would aggravate fans. On the flip side, though, I’d like to believe that George Lucas has enough integrity as an artist that he at least believes he’s bringing his creative works closer to what he meant them to be in the first place. It’s not a question of whether or not he’s succeeding. It never was. It’s a question of whether he remains the controlling creative voice in his properties. I say that he is and that he is doing nothing more than exercising his due rights. If you don’t like it, that is your prerogative, but express it by not buying his movies. Stop burning the man in effigy. Stop browbeating him in forums, columns and blogs. In short, cut George Lucas some slack.

A Few Thoughts on Batman and the Aurora Shooting – An Addendum

Originally posted 7-27-2012

Up until a few days ago, I had never heard the name Charles Hurt. Apparently, he is a staff writer for the Washington Post. I don’t normally read the Washington Post, as I live halfway across the country. Otherwise, I might have realized that this is the same paragon of intellectual prowess that wrote such stunning pieces as “Obama’s South Side Thuggery” and “’Islamist Firster’ president not what he claimed.” One of his most recent pieces, however, was about the Aurora shooting. Well, that’s what it was about in theory.

In practice, the entire letter was spent blaming the violence on Christopher Nolan, Warner Brothers and Sean Penn. Sean Penn? Seriously? Let me say up front, I don’t care for Sean Penn. I don’t enjoy his movies. I think he is a self-congratulatory tool. I act on these sentiments by not watching or buying movies in which he participates. Yet, for all that, I remain mystified by Penn’s inclusion in this list.  As near as I can tell, the only reason he appears on this list is because he has left-wing politics and Charles Hurt doesn’t seem to like people with left-wing politics.

Hurt singles Penn out for acting in violent films, but nary a word for conservative actor/politician Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose on-screen body count undoubtedly exceeds the combined totals of Nolan, Penn and Christian Bale. Nary one word directed at conservative Jerry Bruckheimer, who has served as executive producer on some of the most violent films of the last 20 years. How about conservative Chuck Norris? He never shied away from a big body count in his movies. Nope, those guys have politics Hurt likes, so they get a pass. Singling out Penn, who didn’t even appear in The Dark Knight Rises, was just a cheap shot at someone Hurt doesn’t like.

I’m going to set aside the political elements of Hurt’s screed and just consider who he blames or, more accurately, who he doesn’t blame. Nolan, Penn, and Warner Bros. all come under fire. Oddly, the person who doesn’t get blamed, and barely gets mentioned, is James Holmes. You know, the guy that actually pulled trigger (as near as anyone can tell). To read Hurt’s take on the events, you’d think that Holmes was a just robot carrying out instructions from the diabolical minds of Nolan, Penn, and the corporate person that is Warner Bros.

The absurdity of this stance is mind-boggling. James Holmes is clearly a man with some kind of mental illness. That he fixated on Nolan’s films is tragic, but ultimately irrelevant. He was clearly going to carry out violence, with or without the influence of any particular movie. I am forced to wonder, though, if Hurt would have been so quick to assign blame if Holmes had picked a film made by or starring a staunch conservative. It’s possible, but I sincerely doubt it.

A Few Thoughts on Batman and the Aurora Shootings

Originally posted 7-23-2012

Last week the unthinkable happened and our country was forced to confront another mass shooting. James Holmes, a 24-year-old PhD student in neuroscience, attended a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. After the movie began, he put on riot gear and opened fire at the audience, killing 12 people and injuring another 58. Holmes was arrested outside the theater and reportedly identified himself as “the Joker.”

In years gone by, there would have been an immediate backlash against the film, Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Entertainment and pretty much everyone else associated in any way with The Dark Knight Rises. Pundits would decry the violence as one more example of how violence in the media leads to violence in real life. There would be boycotts and maybe even protests outside of theaters.

I remember the backlash against Marilyn Manson following the Columbine shootings in 1999. It seems J.D. Salinger’s book, Catcher in the Rye, will forever be tainted by Mark David Chapman’s possession of the book at the time of his arrest for the murder of John Lennon. A fact used, directly and obliquely, as a justification for repeated attempts, both successful and unsuccessful, to ban the book. Given our cultural history of using tragedy as excuse to vilify books, music and films, one might expect The Dark Knight Rises to receive similar treatment. Yet, any outcry has been muted enough that it doesn’t even register on the cultural radar.

Maybe that means that, finally, we’ve evolved enough as a society to distinguish between artistic works and the sickness of minds that use those works as excuses for violence. I’d like to believe that is the case, but I don’t. I believe that Batman, generally, and Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the Batman story, specifically, have taken on an iconic status in our culture. While we may be willing to savage our icons, as a society we tend to draw the line as defiling our icons. Blaming Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises for the action of James Holmes would be too much like defiling Batman.

It seems equally probable to me that, had Holmes identified himself with some more obscure and less-beloved film property, the film and its filmmaker would be standing in the center of firestorm of blame and vilification. Pundits would decry, boycotts would start, and protests would ensue. Defile an icon, no, destroy a minor filmmaker we don’t know by name, sure.

The irony is that Batman, for all our adoration of the character and the films, is not a warm and cuddly figure. If you were going to choose a figure from the world of entertainment to scapegoat for inspiring violence, you’d be hard pressed to find a more suitable candidate. On the surface, he appears to have more in common with those he opposes than with those officially sanctioned to protect the public. He intentionally operates outside of the law and in secret, like a criminal.

He doesn’t drape himself in the colors of the American flag while rescuing women and children from burning building, as Superman does. He doesn’t fight for truth. He isn’t gifted with great power, so we can dismiss the notion of great responsibility. He doesn’t even fight for justice. Batman’s mission is plain and simple; vengeance against a criminal underworld that stole his family.

He is a fundamentally dark figure. When you strip away the cool gadgets, what you have left is a man whose primary tools are fear and violence. More to point, all those cool gadgets serve not to limit his use of fear and violence, but to make his use of fear and violence more effective. All in all, Batman looks like the poster child for media-inspired violence. But, the analogy does break down.

Unlike James Holmes, Batman follows three simple, but absolutely inviolate, moral rules:

  1. Protect the innocent.
  2. Do not kill.
  3. No guns.

It is these rules that allow us to embrace Batman and his mission. We know, at the end of the day, that Batman may beat an enemy into unconsciousness. We also know that if he beats someone unconscious, that person probably did some pretty awful things first and they will ultimately wind up in police custody. Batman will never get fed up one day and pick up a sniper rifle. Most importantly, he would never intentionally put the innocent in harm’s way.

While whatever sickness afflicting James Holmes’ mind may have latched onto the Batman films as an excuse for his terrible acts of violence, the association is incidental, not causal. If it hadn’t been The Dark Knight Rises, it would have been something else.  I am sympathetic to Nolan and everyone else involved in this incarnation of the Batman franchise for having their hard word tarnished by association with the Aurora shootings. Yet, I also find myself a little grateful that Batman and The Dark Knight Rises are big enough and iconic enough that people are unwilling to reflexively blame the work of art for the act of violence.

The families of the dead and injured victims of this horrific act deserve something better than cheap, pot shots at a movie as an explanation for what happened. They deserve our sympathy and our empathy, but what they need from us all, as a culture, is a willingness to examine how a bright, seemingly well-adjusted, graduate student could get so far gone without anyone noticing.

Movie Reviews – John Carter

Originally posted 6-21-2012

Adaptation from book to film has a checkered history at best. For every soaring success, such as The Green Mile, there is a crushing failure, such as the unmitigated travesty of the Ethan Hawke/Gwyneth Paltrow version of Great Expectations. I’ll grant you that The Green Mile had an edge with the virtually unassailable power of Tom Hanks to draw an audience, but it went deeper than that. Director Frank Darabont captured the oddly hopeful spirit of a novel set on death row and used it to perform an alchemical transformation that gave us an extraordinary film. So where does the John Carter adaptation fall on the scale between soaring success and unmitigated travesty? It sits somewhere in the middle.

This is a bit shocking, since director Andrew Stanton is the man that both wrote and directed the mega-hits Wall-E and Finding Nemo. Both of those films delivered perfect pacing with just the right amount of sentiment mixed in to drive home the messages of transcendent love in Wall-E and family in Finding Nemo. Perhaps it was the transition from animated film to live action, but a number of things broke down in the transition from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels to the finished John Carter film.

To begin with, the titular hero of the film, played by Taylor Kitsch, diverges in inexplicable ways from the John Carter of the novels. While both are Civil War veterans and quasi-immortal, neither ages, the filmic version is portrayed as being an unenthusiastic combatant that considers war shameful and says that he is not for hire. The Carter of the novels was not only an enthusiastic warrior, but took great pride in his prowess and considered war to be his calling in life. It is central to who he is as a character. Perhaps Stanton felt a more faithful portrayal would make Carter too unsympathetic, but it forced changes to the material that seemed to strip away much of what made the Barsoom novels fun to read.

For example, the entire first Barsoom novel focused on the complex and violent relations between three warring nations on Mars. There was more than enough there to satisfy any science fiction fan: alien creatures, epic battles, and a weird fusion of archaic and futuristic technologies. Rather than adapt this novel, Stanton chose to introduce elements from the second and third Barsoom novels, including a fourth group of aliens that he took so many liberties with that they are nearly unrecognizable save for the name. While Stanton’s enthusiasm for the books shows through, the attempt to cram all of these bits and pieces, along with extensive changes to the core material, left the film something of a muddle.

The pacing is erratic at best and drags for much of the first hour, where we are given an extremely lengthy introduction to the Carter character. While character building is good, Carter is a fairly one-dimensional character. The introduction to him could have been done just as easily, and probably more effectively, in half the time. The action picks up after the first hour, but comes and goes unpredictably, never really establishing the building tension that a good, action-based film requires.

The dialogue throughout the film is painfully weak. Much of this can laid at the feet of Burroughs himself, who wrote dreadfully stilted dialogue, but Stanton and the rest of the scriptwriting team has to take some blame for not simply rewriting the dialogue to sound a little more natural.

Where John Carter does shine is in the visual effects department. Though the film has taken some criticism for the jumping scenes, all in all it is visually stunning. The Martian landscape is rendered in vibrant colors and the airship sequences are unbelievably good. The CGI rendered Tharks, a multi-armed, green, Martian species are convincing enough that I did not immediately damn them to burn in the same hell as Jar Jar Binks.

The cast did what they could with the material they had. Taylor Kitsch gives an honest attempt at bringing the Carter character to life, but is hamstrung both by the limits of the script and the apparent limits of his experience. Kitsch has yet to really master conveying the inner world of a character without the aid of dialogue, which a character like Carter needs onscreen. The beautiful Lynn Collins, portraying the Martian Princess Dejah Thoris, works hard to bring some depth to a character that was originally written solely to be an object for John Carter to save. Willem Dafoe lends his voice to the Thark leader Tars Tarkas and gives what was probably the best performance of the film. Dominic West and Mark Strong play the villains of the tale and deliver their stock bad guy dialogue with what looks to be a bit of glee.

Overall, the film was too long and the story was too convoluted to create a strong narrative thread that could carry the viewer through. It was, however, a visually gorgeous film and probably worth sitting through just to see how the visuals play out. The action sequences were acceptably interesting to watch. While I probably wouldn’t buy this one, I would certainly rent it to watch once.

My Score: 2.5 stars