Thursday, June 20, 2013

Cosmopolis: Welcome to Delillo's World ***

Cosmopolis is the first Don Delillo novel to get a proper adaptation from Hollywood.  Delillo stands as one of the great American novelists of the past fifty years with classics looking deep into the fringes of America's troubled soul.  His canvas ranges between the epic to the small scale story:  Underworld covered the entire Cold War, while Libra focused on the JFK assassination.  Cosmopilis, one of his shorter novels, takes place over the course of one day.  Directed by David Cronenberg, watching Cosmopolis at times feels like a long piece of drone music heading towards an inevitable anti-climax

The film follows Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), an ultra rich Wall Street "Master of the Universe" type as he controls his shrinking world from the confines of a high tech limousine.  From the beginning it's clear he's facing a crisis.  As the day unfolds he consults with tech experts, post-modern gurus, a rapper, meets his wife, mistress, and a call girl.  Cronenberg imagines a much angrier version of Occupy Wall Street with protesters launching violent assaults on Wall Street traders.  Like the characters in Poe's The Masque of the Red Death, who live in decadence as a plague decimates the population, Eric cannot escape a confrontation with the have-nots.  And he does not avoid them, in fact he seeks a confrontation.  When a guru calls the protesters "unoriginal" he replies,"What's Original?"  While history repeats itself, or at least the pattern returns, what else can the elite do but sit back and reflect on how the peasants will react this time around.

Pattinson's quite effective.  He's like Louis XIV riding around town making philosophical statements about random topics.  He reminds me of the Delillo's protagonist from his debut novel Americana, a young TV executive who has everything decides to leave it all behind for a vanity project.  There's a self-destructive element to Eric in his quest to experience desire, fear, and violence.  The climax of the film comes right out of Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground with Paul Giamatti (Benno Levin) personifying alienation   The scene plays as if Eric as represents the 1% versus Benno as the 99 percent's avatar.  Both characters have an obsession with the decay of the body and its philosophical implications.  Most film goers will not like their confrontation, but I've seen few with more intensity.

I liked Cosmopolis because of its great juxtaposition and attempt to make sense of the modern world through the eyes of some truly flawed characters searching for some meaning amid all the sound of fury of the 21st century.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Evil Dead - The Remake

Once again, a beloved cult classic gets the full Hollywood treatment.  Back in 1981, Sam Raimi made the original Evil Dead with college friends on a shoestring budget.  Horror fanatics adored the over the top effects featuring killer trees.  The original combined elements of Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  The reboot takes itself way too seriously and despite its willingness to push the envelope in terms of gore, there's little else to enjoy.

The plot's pretty basic.  Five twenty-somethings unknowingly unleash evil spirits who possess them and gory mayhem ensues.  Nobody in the cast distinguishes themselves in the mundane opening scenes.  The friends are gathered to guide Mia (Jane Levy) through her detox - adding a more somber tone to the proceedings.  In fact, the whole film can be read as an allegory of addiction and the terror of recovery.

Once the demons are unleashed things literally go to hell.  I cringed a few times at the creative use of sharp objects and a trusty nail gun - those old cabins always have an exotic knife collections and rusty farm utensils predating the steel plow. Once the spirits are unleashed the film relies solely on shock value.  Director Fede Alvarez makes a promising debut with the material at hand (he has facility with the gross out factor) - minus the campy fun of Raimi's b-horror.

The lack of humor isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Horror remakes are smart marketing and give young directors a chance to deliver a unique spin on a classic film.  Many remakes are improvements on the originals like David Cronenberg's The Fly or Phillip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  But those that stay too close the source material are forgettable.

Watching The Evil Dead I kept thinking of the Joss Whedon's The Cabin in the Woods, which took the same premise in a totally different direction.  In a word, Cabin in the Woods, for myself, made Evil Dead feel like a retread of cliches.  Without the gore, there's little to offer except banality.  I suppose that's enough for hardcore horror fans.  Stephen King once wrote the "gross-out" marks the lowest common denominator when it comes to shocking audiences. I agree.       

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Movie Review: Star Trek: Into Darkness

With Star Trek: Into Darkness J.J. Abrams treads a fine line between honoring the history of the franchise and moving things in a new direction.  The results are merely satisfactory.  Once again the film is centered around the Kirk/Spock relationship.  Kirk is coming into his own as a Captain of the Enterprise, while Spock acts as his trusted first officer. Zachary Quinto is growing nicely into the role of Spock. Abrams brings the right combination of a jokey script with solid action scenes bordering on overkill at times. Unlike most sequels, which usually take chances, the writers played it safe and stuck with the winning formula of the first one: an emphasis on action and character development - in this case another Kirk/Spock bromance.  New characters are introduced: Dr. Marcus (Alice Eve) as a possible love interest for Kirk, her scheming father Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), and Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch).  All trekkers cannot forget Ricardo Montalban in the original series episode "Space Seed" and the the 1982 film, Wrath of Khan as the genetic superhuman.  As a villain, Khan's cunning flamboyance proved a match for Kirk.  Cumberbatch, known for portraying a 21st century Sherlock Holmes, turns Khan into a colder, and even a sympathetic antagonist at times.  Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek envisioned a future with humanity overcoming conflict, racism, economic equality, and most importantly - man's warlike nature. But, ironically, nearly every episode involved violence (usually against an "other" alien civilization).  But everybody's kicking ass in Abram's Trek universe.  In the new version it looks like the Federation will act more like a scared superpower instead of Roddenberry's multinational utopia.

Movie Review of Lincoln: The Mystic Chords of Memory

About halfway through Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln discusses the principles of Euclid with two young officers manning the telegraph room while on a late night jaunt. Before leaving he gives both a kindly pat on the shoulder; a simple gesture displaying Lincoln's compassion and world weariness - therein lying the heart of the film.  We see Lincoln thinking, rationalizing, cajoling, joking, and bearing the world on his shoulders as the Civil War ends. Spielberg's Lincoln succeeds what all the best historical films often fail: it balances individual moments while capturing the grand sweep of history.

Tony Kushner's screenplay covers the final four months of Lincoln's presidency. Lincoln stood at the height of his powers.  By 1865, with the defeat of the Confederacy inevitable, Lincoln was determined to define the war's legacy as one of freedom and emancipation, ideas enunciated in the Gettysburg Address.  Other crucial questions lingered: What would be the legal status of freed slaves?  How to incorporate the southern states back into the union?  There's something endlessly compelling about the course of wars and how leaders and peoples react to them.  Nothing is more dramatic.  But when it comes to the aftermath  things get messier and often less interesting.  Americans pride themselves on remembering the Civil War and the endless list of bloody battles.  That's fine.  Reconstruction is another story.  The years after the war were replete with complicated politics, missed opportunities, tragedy, and few triumphs.  Overall, politics took on a more corrupt and ignoble course.  In that vein, the film has a strong undercurrent of tragedy.

Daniel Day Lewis once again carries the film in a way few actors do these days.  Lewis conveys Lincoln's wisdom, whimsical, and tragic nature.  As a reader of Lincoln biographies, I've always had a fascination with Lincoln's mystical power to connect with individuals and people on a personal basis, and at the same time appear distant, otherworldly.  In Janusz Kaminski's cinematography Lincoln appears ghostly with a gentle, white light trailing him symbolizing in Lincoln's words the "mystic cords of memory."

Although surrounded by an all star cast, the film tends to lag when Daniel Day Lewis is absent.  Sally Field as Mary Todd is sympathetic as a much maligned first lady.  At times, Lincoln has a Hall of presidents type feel, with bombastic debates in the congress with actors in their 19th century garb.  Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens combines grouchiness with idealism.  Prominent actors appear in many roles, but one gets the sense they were just happy to be part of the project.

Lincoln's been a subject of American cinema since its inception.  From D.W. Griffith's civil war epic, Birth of a Nation to Ken Burn's documentary, The Civil War, he's a presence.  My personal favorites are Young Mr. Lincoln starring Henry Fonda (1939) and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940).  Henry Fonda played Lincoln like as a Christlike folk hero, while Raymond Massey played him as a prophetic statesman.  Elements of these Lincolns appear in Lewis's interpretation.  What separates Spielberg's film is its fascination with political process, namely, passing the 13th amendment to abolish slavery.  The decision to focus on the machinations of politics place Lincoln in the company of thoughtful historical epics in the vein of A Man for all Seasons, which in I think will serve the film well in the long term because both ennoble their subjects without the hero worship.