Once you get past the atmospheric whiz-bang of Oblivion, which is 30 seconds after the movie starts, you search for emotional resonance and find none. Director Joseph Kosinkski (who created an as-yet-unpublished graphic novel that the movie is based on) fancies himself some sort of grand cinematic architect. But what he seems to miss is that movies only go so far when they’re more concerned with the aesthetic than the spiritual.
In some cases, this is OK — like Tron: Legacy, Kosinski’s last film, which takes place inside a computer world and at least made a furtive gesture toward a richer interior world (“Digital jazz, man!”). But there is nothing of the sort here. Oblivion is all style — everything is off-center and close-up and clean and sleek angular and glass and reflections — and no substance. But even that’s giving it too much credit. Kosinski clearly has put a lot of effort into creating a fastidiously beautiful film, except it’s vapidly fetishistic. There are so many shots of faces and ships and weapons and robots from oblique angles that you’re left wondering if you’re watching a movie or a big-budget ad for some weirdo luxury good.
Unfortunately, you spend more time dwelling on the film’s aesthetics because the story is so creatively barren. The plot — Tom Cruise is on a desolate, scorched Earth repairing drones and killing aliens until EVERYTHING TURNS OUT TO BE LIES! — would be worth investing in if it hadn’t been told countless times over the past 20 years. Watching Oblivion is like playing cinematic seek-and-find — a game easy to be distracted by because of the lack of anything that resonate in the film. Everything from the direction to the score to the set design is hollow and derivative. And rather than worry about, well, anything we pass the time by asking how many pieces of other sci-fi movies we can spot masquerading as this “new” movie. For what it’s worth, I picked out: Wall-E, Moon, ID4, Star Trek IV, Aliens, The Matrix (1-3), Prometheus, Planet of the Apes, Spaceballs (yes, Spaceballs), Solaris, and I Am Legend. And that’s just off the top of my head.
Oblivion isn’t a bad movie — there’s some solid acting here from Cruise and Olga Kurylenko, and, hey, it’s not in 3D! — but it is insulting. In 2013, moviegoers have better access to the cinematic past than ever before. To craft a sci-fi picture from a veritable greatest hits package of films from the past two decades and expect no one to notice is the height of arrogance. It would be excusable if the final product added something to the genre. Instead, Now That’s What I Call Sci-Fi! — excuse me, Oblivion — is perhaps the emptiest movie Hollywood has released in years, which is saying a lot. But what else could anyone expect from a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy?
Photo: The Bubbleship rests on its launch pad at Skytower in Oblivion, an original and groundbreaking cinematic event from the visionary director of TRON: Legacy and producers of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. (Universal Pictures)
Yesterday, Architectural Record published a piece I did on the film Gut Renovation and an interview I did with the director, Su Friedrich. While the film is billed as a documentary, it plays more like a diaristic work, capturing one person’s on-the-ground, as-it-happens experience with the mother of all gentrification projects: Williamsburg. As I write in the piece, the film is by turns aggressive and meditative, an expression of grief for the unique civic tapestry that Friedrich believes has been unwoven by of the forces of urban evolution—and a memorial to what was lost.
I interviewed Friedrich at Film Forum (where Gut Renovation opens today) on February 25. We spoke for 30 minutes, and because of space limitations the interview was truncated for publication. So I thought I would publish the entirety of our conversation (with some slight editing for grammar and to excise side discussions) here. Be sure to head over to Arch Record to read the published piece.
One of the things that struck me about the movie is that it’s presented as a documentary but it’s almost closer to a diary film rather than a traditional documentary. Was there ever the impulse to make it something bigger, like how your experience in Williamsburg spoke to a larger condition in Bloomberg’s New York?
Oh, taking on the whole city. No. (laughs) I mean, I feel like the labor of documenting Williamsburg and trying really hard to keep my personal story in the picture but not have that overpower the story of the neighborhood was really difficult. And so then to extend beyond that to what’s happening on the Upper West Side, what’s happening on the Lower East Side, was maybe a Ken Burns, eight-hour-long film. But I didn’t feel like I could really extend… So I think the hope was more that if somebody is hearing about Williamsburg but they’re living on the Upper West Side, the Lower East Side, they can kind of by extension think about what’s happening in their neighborhood.
And how did you keep the balance between your experience and the neighborhood’s?
Well, through a lot of hard work in the editing. You know, it was close to two years of editing, interrupted with having to move. But I spent a long time doing a rough cut that was about two-and-a-half hours, then I spent about eight months getting that down to the 81 minutes. But, you know… And there’s a lot of trial and error and there’s also bringing in other people to say, “Well, how’s it going?” And one example of taking out the personal was, I had a lot of footage when we were looking for a house and when we were doing the closing and all that stuff. And a friend said, “People know how to buy a house, they know what a closing is. You don’t have to include that. That’s not germane to the story.” So it went away. So there was a lot of juggling and talking to people and seeing how things balanced out.
Were there other parts you didn’t include with the people who were displaced? That’s some of the more powerful, or visceral stuff, is the people who are losing their stores. Were there more scenes like that that you just couldn’t include?
Well there… A little bit. There’s the old stationary store on Bedford that closed out, and there was a woman who ran a really fantastic video store, Irene, and heir’s had already been closed out before then but she was still living in the neighborhood. So there are other characters, let’s say, I spoke with. But, again, when you’re trying to cover that much ground you have to make choices. So I thought, Well, if I have Harry the auto mechanic, Frank and Eddie, the forklift guys, and the butcher, Peter, then they also sort of represent the larger community of let’s say business owners and the same thing with the industry. So there wasn’t any major storyline that got left out other than what’s in the film.
You have a few moments where you’re taking some footage of the developers who are walking around and people who are showing you an apartment, but it’s kind of striking that there aren’t more moments of that other side, that developer side. Did you talk to more people, or was it something that wasn’t really in the scope of what you were trying to accomplish?
Meaning did I interview developers about what they were doing?
Yeah, I guess I could have just said, Why isn’t it more balanced? If it’s going to be a documentary, some people might see this and think, “Oh, it’s just one angry person who was kicked out of her neighborhood.”
Right. Somebody could say that. People have said that. But you know, I don’t think… The question of what a documentary can or should do is kind of contested and discussed. Some people would say it has to be objective and other people would say it never can be because we all come from someplace, some position. So… And I’m also not the maker of conventional documentaries. So I didn’t really set out to say, “I’m going to look at both sides of this and see what the developers have to say.” But I did spend enough time reading things that they said, reading their brochures, hearing them do their sales pitches that I thought, “Why would I give them more time to sell this false argument to me?” And I can show, in whatever fashion I do, that I at least think that what they’re selling is a false argument and if somebody wants to find out what they think they can just go online and listen to it or read about them. And I think it would actually be kind of dishonest of me to have tried to make it objective or try to make it balanced because I was not objective and I was not balanced. I was quite angry about what the city had done, had decided to do to the neighborhood, and I was also very sad about what was happening and I knew lots of people who were really, really upset and I wanted… And, you know, in a way it’s sort of also about telling the story of the people who don’t get their stories told. And it’s not a personal thing. It’s not like I want everybody to know how I feel. It was, “I know lots and lots of people who are really flipping out and who are going to have to leave, who don’t know where they’re going to go and all we’re hearing is, ‘Oh this great thing is happening’ and ‘Oh these fabulous buildings’ and who’s telling the story of these other people.” Continue Reading →
Oz the Great and Powerful — Disney and director Sam Raimi’s take on L. Frank Baum’s indelible fantasy land — is billed as a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, but because Warner Bros. owns the rights to the 1939 film and all that was created for it, like the ruby slippers, Disney can’t out and out call this what it so desperately wants it to be. (The New York Times has an interesting rundown of what changes had to be made because of copyright issues.) So what we get is this reductive Wizard origin story that quickly becomes a fair-use greatest hits package of story beats and allusions to the classic movie that shall not be named.
A rural circus magician/con man (James Franco, at his two-note best) — conveniently working under the stage name Oz the Great and Powerful! — gets sucked up into a tornado, spit out into Oz, and is instantly pegged as a savior Wizard of legend by Theodora (a woefully miscast Mila Kunis), one of the local witches. (Evanora (Rachel Weisz, who makes the most out of a nothing character) and Glinda (Michelle Williams, who brings some class to the film) round out Oz’s occult population.) He goes on a quest to prove he’s the legendary hero, hits the Yellow Brick Road, meets up with some strange characters (a flying monkey bellhop — not to be confused with the evil flying baboons, you know, because copyright — and a damaged China doll, the film’s one undeniable success), Munchins and pike-axe-weilding sentries show up…
It’s all so achingly familiar, even if Raimi tries to give us something new here and there. The opening credits and introduction to Oz sequences are both keen and beautiful, while China Girl is such a fully realized Ozian rendered so brilliantly that its creation almost single-handedly justifies the film. He even attempts to bend the familiar (the Emerald City is fleshed out to a dizzying degree, the Yellow Brick Road starts from Glinda’s castle and not Munchkinland) into some revisionist take on the land of The Wizard of Oz. But those pieces never coalesce and Oz just lies there, either because Raimi is helplessly enthralled or hopelessly imprisoned by the worst type of shallow sentimentality. Continue Reading →
By no means could anyone confuse Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance with what they might call “quality cinema.” Tonally it’s all over the place, narratively it’s confused, and technically it’s fairly incompetent. But whoever said camp had to adhere to accepted norms of excellence?
This second installment in the Ghost Rider franchise, a weird reboot after the tepid 2007 Ghost Rider, throws itself completely and utterly into the kitsch deep end. Nicolas Cage (Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider) transmutes from one iteration of Nicolas Cage to another — a southerner (like his character in the first film), a man burdened with great horror (like in Face/Off), someone worried about bees (like in the Wicker Man remake) — over the course of 95 minutes. The plot, Satan (Ciarán Hinds) tries reclaiming his progeny, has the feel of a long-delayed Rosemary’s Baby knockoff, except with Satan being chased by a biker whose skull is on fire. There’s the weird religious order (that has a fortified compound full of guns and NSA-level surveillance tech, naturally) led by a monk (Christopher Lambert) who spent too much time obsessing over the Strong and Illustrated Men at some circus sideshow. Satan’s earthly minions, of course, are all politicians and business executives. Ghost Rider makes puns (“Road kill,” he says after killing someone on a road.) Ghost Rider stares longingly into the eyes of criminals for uncomfortable lengths of time. Ghost Rider vomits fire. And, in the pièce de résistance, Ghost Rider pees fire — twice, once while looking over his shoulder and giving us a slow motion “Oh, yeah” nod. Continue Reading →
The next time anyone complains that there aren’t enough movies with female lead characters, I’m going to direct them to Entertainment Weekly for their answer. Because according to EW and writer Adam Markovitz, a strong, independent female who refuses to be corseted by gender roles is gay. Or could be. She could definitely be gay maybe.
In an insipid attempt at provocation, Markovitz contributes the post Could the heroine of Pixar’s ‘Brave’ be gay? to EW’s PopWatch blog. (h/t Roger Ebert) After opening with a forced parallelism of gay pride parades and kids going to see Brave, Markovitz writes:
The two events don’t seem to have much in common at first glance. But it’s quite possible that while watching Brave’s tomboyish heroine shoot arrows, fight like one of the boys, and squirm when her mother puts her in girly clothes, a thought might pop into the head of some viewers: Is Merida gay?
Actually, the first thing most people will think — at least I did — was: “Merida’s cool! I wish I were that comfortable with myself as a teenager.” She’s a great role model for kids, especially girls. She’s independent, demands respect, is headstrong but responsible, athletic, smart, clever, and complex. There’s a bit of Belle from Beauty and the Beast in Merida, but she’s mostly a unique creation in the Disney universe. But since she eschews a dainty princess existence for a rough-and-tumble adventurousness, this somehow makes her kinda-sorta a lesbian. “Her love of unprincess-like hobbies, including archery and rock-climbing,” Markovitz writes, “is sure to strike a chord with gay viewers who felt similarly ‘not like the other kids’ growing up.” Or she will strike a chord with the millions of straight kids who are “not like other kids” or the millions of straight adults who grew up feeling different than other kids or people who like rock climbing. Continue Reading →
“Do you want to go to the movies by yourself or do you want to go to the movies with your friends? You want to go with your friends.” — Mark Zuckerberg as quoted in the New York Times
A few days ago, I was out to dinner with some friends and one of them mentioned how he can’t go to movies by himself. The reasons for this were personal and valid. But his stance took on a different feel when I found out later that this person not only can’t see a movie in a theater alone, he also can’t watch one at home if he’s by himself.
I found this self-imposed requirement fascinating — and odd. I go to the movies alone a lot. I’ve been doing it since I was in high school (amazingly, no other 17-year-old wanted to see Eyes Wide Shut with me when it was released), and I like it. It’s a more controlled moviegoing experience — I can’t account for the gesticulating nerds or the texting teenagers, and I’m afforded a bit of an isolation bubble by going stag. But more than that, it gives me an opportunity to experience and reflect on what I’m seeing in a more substantive way than seeing a movie with a group of people. Seeing a movie with someone who really loves movies and can really watch them is fantastic, but seeing movies in a group can invite stress that distracts from what I’m watching. The more variables, the less controlled the environment, and the more chance there is to be taken out of the movie. (I’m someone who needs to be immersed in what I’m watching.) That’s not to say I hate going out with a group of friends to see a movie. Watching The Muppets with a giant group of family members and Rise of the Planet of the Apes with a hardcore clan of Apes fans were fantastic moviegoing experiences. But so was watching Drive (the first time) and The American alone. Continue Reading →
(Note: A version of this was originally published at The South Wing on February 28, 2009. The site is no longer active and is being reprinted her for archival purposes.)
Stop into the multiplex, shell out $11 to see this year’s Oscar-nominated pap, indulge in some butter-drenched popcorn, and take a glance at the posters for upcoming films: A close-up of an overweight mall cop; thescratched-up goalie mask of the iconic slasher from the Friday the 13th franchise; an airbrushed, plastic Renee Zellweger sitting atop a Louis Vuitton suitcase.
Such is the current, sorry state of poster art in America. Even the fatuous comedian and dude’s dude Dane Cook openly eviscerated the poster for his movie My Best Friend’s Girl, a truly awful piece of work . The poster, that is. Though the same could probably be said for the film itself.
In his book Art of the Modern Movie Poster: International Postwar Style and Design, New York Times writer Daver Kehr writes that “The emphasis now is not on execution, but on concept and communication.” Yet Kehr is only half right: the emphasis is, now, completely on communication. Today’s posters give you the barest of information–the stars, the release date, some pithy tagline. Execution and concept no longer matter when it comes to selling a movie.
Continue Reading →
Earlier this week, filmmaker, writer, editor, publisher, and professor Adolfas Mekas died at the age of 85. He was an important voice in the burgeoning underground scene in New York in the 1950s and ’60s, first as co-publisher along with his brother Jonas of Film Culture magazine then as a filmmaker — his film Hallelujah the Hills is an important work of the early ’60s avant-garde. While Jonas immersed himself in the NYC art and film scene, making films and co-founding Anthology Film Archives, among other accomplishments, Adolfas headed upstate to co-found the film department at Bard College in 1971, and he taught there until the early years of the 21st century.
In 2007, I interviewed Adolfas about his brother for my arts journalism thesis project, which focused on Jonas’ 365 Films project and his importance to film culture (digital and otherwise). Adolfas was extremely gracious with his time and spoke freely and candidly about a host of topics: Jonas, his departure from Bard, the difference between film and cinema, what constitutes cinema in the digital age, and on and on. Despite only knowing each other through a brief email exchange, he spoke with me as if we went way back, something I always appreciated.
The plan for the interview — and the 4,000-word magazine-ready piece I wrote as my thesis — was to get it published after I graduated. That never happened. So rather than have this interview languish on a hard drive, I share it here as my own way of remembering this titan of American cinema.
As the 2011 iteration of Cannes rages on (Boos for Malick! A standing O for The Beaver! von Trier calls himself a Nazi!), there’s been a steady drip of hints, teases, and early reveals of films hotly anticipated and otherwise. The first footage from Tin Tin (as well as the initial poster art, which I might come back to talking about) bowed yesterday, for example, and today the first poster for Walter Salles’ adaptation of On the Road spread across the social networks. According to Collider, the poster originated from a LiveJournal user (these still exist in 2011?) who Twitpic’ed it from Cannes.
Now, as a rule, I tend not to get too enthusiastic about this kind of early art. Partly because it might be fake (the quality and set-up of the photo of the poster makes me suspicious of its legitimacy), partly because this will likely not reflect anything beyond an early “Hey, how you like this?” feeling out of the market.
I hope either of these are right in this case because this poster is boring and generic and disappointing. Is this an adaptation of Kerouac or Nicolas Sparks? The whole into-the-wide-blue-yonder approach to this poster is obvious and easy, and the title treatment — just about center, simplistic font — gives it a cheap paperback quality. Also bothersome is the desaturated, Hisptamatic palette. By this point, that aesthetic is so overused and devalued that to use it here screams slapdash and creatively empty.
So what should this first poster have been? Something abstract and off-kilter to connect this movie (which has many people uneasy about how it will interpret a classic piece of American literature) to its askew, Beat roots. Take a look at Kerouac’s idea for what the cover of his book should’ve looked like. Everything is about propulsion and movement, from the angled title treatment to the way his name travels down the road/page as if it were being seen from a speeding car (not unlike the opening credits of Kiss Me Deadly). The Penguin Classics cover from a (relatively) recent edition of the book is also about propulsion, albeit in a more general (and boring) sense. Look again at the Cannes poster and everything feels static. There’s a suggestion of dust being kicked up by the car on the lower right, but it looks more like a Hipstamatic-style artifact. No, nothing is moving — not the car, not the clouds. Even the road is straight, flattening everything out and further eliminating any sense of moving in space.
If it were me designing this poster (and thank God it’s not — my design skills are terrible), I would strip this down to its barest essentials: the road, the title, and some hint of a release date. (I’m not sure why Walter Salles’ name is on the Cannes poster; he’s not exactly a household name with any kind of selling power.) I would start with an image not unlike Robert Frank’s photo of a darkened road, which so caught Kerouac’s attention, from his series The Americans. Then I’d place the title, etc., on the road itself, positioned a la the opening scroll of Star Wars to give it some kind of spatial existence while also giving the art itself a feeling of motion.
Like I said, I hope this first poster is just an early, tossed-off attempt to reiterate that this adaptation is really, actually, honestly happening (after decades of starts and stops). Because then that next poster will be the one that really gives us a sense of the tone and attitude of the film. But if this is actually the direction the filmmakers and producers are going, that would be a real shame.
While we’re on the topic of Jekyll and Hyde ad campaigns, I present The Adjustment Bureau. Incredibly, the poster on the left is the one-sheet for this Philip K. Dick adaptation starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Terence Stamp (!), and Roger Sterling. It looks like a cool, fun movie, but not in this poster. This poster screams Photoshop. It screams thrown together. It screams run-away-from-this-as-quickly-as-possible-because-we-didn’t-think-enough-of-the-movie-to-put-more-than-five-minutes-into-the-poster-design. According to the IMP Awards, the poster was created by The Cimmaron Group, which is surprising since in the past they’ve come up with some knock-out one-sheets for the likes of Little Fockers, Big Mommas Like Father, Like Son (don’t even get me started on that title), Invictus,War of the Worlds, and Superman Returns. (Stray observation: There’s a lot of WB product on their IMP Awards page. Maybe they’re a preferred vendor…)
Meanwhile, the poster on the right is far more engaging because it’s more minimal and mysterious. You look at the image and wonder about the movie, you want to know more, whereas when you look at the one-sheet you wonder “What were they thinking?” and want to scrub the image from your brain as quickly as possible.
The only thing I can figure is that Cimarron was trying to tap into The Adjustment Bureau’s pulpy, noir-ish, B-movie spirit with the one-sheet. But how did it go so wrong? It looks like a rough draft, a template for some bigger idea that never materialized. Just look at Damon and Blunt. They look like they had their picture taken at some theme park novelty keepsake photo stand. Meanwhile, the shadows on the buildings are meant to feel ominous and instead come off like refugees from the bowdlerized Eyes Wide Shut orgy scene. (A few commenters on the IMP Awards page rightly commented that there is also a failure of perspective. Spot on.) The only thing that works — albeit not the way intended — is the tagline. If nothing else, Damon and Blunt look like their making a mad-dash escape from this Photoshop nightmare.
Contrast that with the poster on the right. It’s subtle and engaging, tapping into those same pulp/noir/B-movie impulses in a far more elegant way. The lighting is what makes this poster soar, though. The contrasts on the hat and face, creating an ominous tone accentuated by the tagline gives you that off-put feel that Dick’s stories tend to convey. But it’s not a great poster, either, because it’s too busy. The image and central text with the movie’s URL are strong enough to carry the weight. Yet there’s the title treatment, release date, and top-bill cast tucked into the top-right corner, almost like an afterthought. It’s distracting and feels tossed off, which compromises an otherwise decent poster.
But, really, how good is it? It’s OK at best — relative to the offensiveness of the one-sheet, this poster looks like a masterpiece. In the end, though, The Adjustment Bureau is a failure of marketing. I just hope that’s not a reflection of the quality of the film product.