“GODZILLA” And The Masquerade Of Modern Hollywood Storytelling


GZA_1SHT_MAIN_ONLINE_INTLThe great jazz guitarist, Greg Porée, once noted, “Los Angeles hires the world’s greatest musicians to play the worst shit.” 

I feel like Hollywood does the same with actors. The combined talents of the individual actors that make up the cast of 2014’s GODZILLA would, in any other place other than Hollywood, warrant some serious attention. But here, the sound of paychecks being cashed drowns out even Godzilla’s monstrous roar.

I will admit, however, that the film — while offering a truly dimensionless script and uninspired dialogue –does harken back to those all-star Hollywood disaster films of my youth: THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THE TOWERING INFERNO, EARTHQUAKE… And in so doing, it does stir some nostalgic memories for me, but mostly of the worst elements of those films. I was also, I should add, a huge Godzilla fan as a boy. All monster films, really, but Godzilla held a special place, so much so that familiar pangs of youthful anticipation crept in from time to time while watching my old, familiar friend recreated.

However, my adult needs are a bit different and I have avoided the majority of monster films that have been tossed out of Hollywood for several decades now. There’s a life that has been stripped from these tales, a social consciousness, a humanity. GODZILLA does indeed have some truly visceral moments and when seen in 3D, those moments can be enhanced greatly. But there’s no heart to this tale. Whatever Godzilla and the other monsters destroy, be it buildings or lives, it all feels hollow, a pretense that squanders the potential of cinema. Open-mouthed expressions of fear and loss do not take the place of actual emotions. The only actor in GODZILLA whose performance seemed to rise above the others for me was Elizabeth Olsen. Wherever she took herself, it transcended the movie despite the fact that they gave her appallingly little to work with and was only a minor character with no real story arc. Sadly, the fact that she was able to nonetheless be present in her performance, shone a light on all the grey, washed-out, lifeless areas of the film in stark contrast. For a movie that seemed to consciously want the characters’ stories to build up to and justify the monsters’ ultimate showdown, they did a shockingly poor job of using that time to create anything with resonance.

I don’t know if director Gareth Edwards wanted the film to retain some of the “cheesy” storytelling qualities that had become part of the landscape of Japanese monster movies, but I maintain that the original GODZILLA (GOJIRA, 1954) stands up as a far stronger, more impactful piece of cinema than this 2014 revisitation.

With all the technological tools at their disposal, it will never cease to amaze me how good writing does not seem to hold the same level of importance, the same value. Why is it so difficult to combine these two things into one? We either have groundbreaking special effects (GRAVITY) OR we have good screenwriting (not GRAVITY). Rarely do the two come together in modern Hollywood cinema.

It’s a shame as the teaser trailer for the film actually gave the impression that GODZILLA might have been a truly cinematic and interesting take on the genre. A deep-rooted social nightmare culled from the subconscious. A film with a little more vision behind it, a sense of tone, a more authentically involving experience. Turns out, the trailer just utilizes the single best moment in the film, the one moment that hinted at what might have been. It also, like Elizabeth Olsen’s performance, reminded us just how weak and uninspired the rest of the film was.

 

“GODZILLA” And The Masquerade Of Modern Hollywood Storytelling

“STAR WARS” Versus My Ever-Growing Cynicism


With the arrival of the first teaser trailer for the new STAR WARS film (not due out till December 2015), I am reminded of just how little faith I have in both big-budget Hollywood cinema and the STAR WARS franchise itself.

Truth be told, on its face, there’s nothing in the teaser trailer that should make me immediately concerned. It looks cool. It’s a teaser. There’s not much to go on except that it feels like it has a chance of at least being better than George Lucas’ Prequel Trilogy. But of course, there’s too little to tell for sure. The good thing is that George Lucas did not write or direct this version, so perhaps it won’t be god-awful.

Here’s a peek at the trailer for those who haven’t seen it yet:

If you know anything about me, then you know I have very little respect for the choices George Lucas made in the second half of his career. Whoever George Lucas was in the 70’s, that filmmaker died and was replaced by something else entirely by the 90’s. The Prequels were some of the worst-written, worst-executed films I’ve ever seen. Consumed by his love of technology, Lucas single-handedly stripped the STAR WARS universe of any semblance of actual life. Great actors giving wooden performances against an endless sea of green-screen and truly uninspired dialogue and plot manipulations. The films felt like an exercise in how to avoid everything that allowed the Original Trilogy to touch such a social and cinematic nerve.

star-wars-episode-iv-a-new-hope-limited-edition-20060720073933447-000But for me, the greatest travesty was Lucas’ insistent manipulation of the Original Trilogy. Not because the films were great films, but because they are a part of our culture, our social landscape; they are a bookmark and a window into life and art and technology in America at that time. They are films that strongly affected a lot of people and had a lasting impact on our culture. They not only act as a historical signpost, however, they are the stories we pass down from generation to generation. When someone creates a work of art, a work of storytelling, and the time and placement is just right that it strikes a resonant chord — in this case across the globe — I’d like to think that holds some value. In a culture known for tearing down the old to make way for the new, it is far too easy to lose sight of the importance of the past, of history.

Honoring and recognizing the value of such things is not impeding progress, but acknowledging where we come from, our roots, and therefore, our selves. We as people feel the need to return to and share those artistic, creative experiences that move us, that remind us of our shared humanity. Whether it’s listening once again to a favorite piece of music, looking even more deeply into a beloved photograph or painting, re-reading a favorite book or re-experiencing the emotional, visceral journey of a film. We also have a need to share those experiences with the people in our world who know us, who mean something to us, and in so doing, we offer them something of who we are, something that can not be translated into words.

As I’ve discussed in the past, Lucas’ desire to alter these films is not unique and not in-and-of-itself a bad thing, but his desire to rid the world of the Original Cuts is because it eliminates the past and alters not only our ability to revisit and share those precious human moments, but strips us of our opportunity to gain perspective and insight from them.

I’ve been attacked before for being too “precious” about art, but I’m afraid cinema is an important art for me and I do believe that art is, yes, precious. Anytime I sense it being devalued — and in the U.S. it is consistently trivialized — I feel the need to speak out as these attitudes reflect a cultural and political direction that I believe warrants some serious attention. I believe our art holds value beyond just being entertaining in the moment. I think anytime we attempt to rewrite history, as Lucas has tried to do with the Original Trilogy, we risk losing something of great value and importance.

I’ve had folks argue with me that what Lucas did was no worse, no more egregious an act than putting out a picture of the Mona Lisa with a mustache on her. The point being that art is not so precious that it cannot be mocked or altered to make another statement entirely. And I do agree with that sentiment. The difference for me is that you are altering a copy of the Mona Lisa. The original, thank the heavens, is still on display for anyone to take in at the Louvre in Paris. Sans mustache. If Lucas gets his way, the Original Trilogy, as it was seen by millions upon its initial release, would be wiped from the face of the earth for all time. No, it’s true, civilizations won’t fall as a result, but something would be lost nonetheless. And a message would be sent to future generations that technology and means usurps art and artistic inspiration. It is the “imperfections” in our art that also reflect us back at ourselves as much as the intentional aspects of those creations.

For more on Lucas and his self-obsessive desires, check out my earlier post SELF-PROCLAIMED BARBARIAN: THE ALTERING OF OUR CULTURAL & ARTISTIC HERITAGE.

But for the moment, back to the new STAR WARS film.

I have far less concern for what director JJ Abrams does with the next installment of films. They will, I’m certain, reflect our current cultural and social upheavals right back at us. They, like the Originals, will be a signpost. Whether or not I personally like the films is, of course, irrelevant to the bigger picture. After all, I’m one of the folks that was NOT impressed with what Abrams did to the STAR TREK franchise. Sure, some of the action scenes were intense and the concept was a pretty decent slight-of-hand for opening up the STAR TREK universe to new stories via the Original Series’ characters, but the films played more like any other contemporary action film and less like STAR TREK. The characters and stories had been homogenized. Only the names remained the same.

Now it’s true that Abrams was never a STAR TREK fan so he allowed himself some freedom to reimagine these characters and their world from a “fresh” perspective. And perhaps if his STAR TREK films actually felt “fresh,” I would have gone along for the ride without so many criticisms. But the problem was, for me, that the films felt like a recycling of other more recent films. Both in plot and execution.

Luckily, I have read that, unlike STAR TREK, Abrams WAS a fan of the Original Trilogy of STAR WARS films. So maybe he will be more able to maintain the “feel” of that universe, to stay true to its core nature. Assuming he wants to do so. And it would not be horrible if he wanted to change it, put his own stamp on it, re-imagine it. But if it feels just like one of his STAR TREK movies only with the names changed from Captain Kirk to Luke Skywalker, then I will be bowing out. And I’m certain no one will miss me at the ticket-counter. The films will do blockbuster business regardless of my feelings or reaction.

But my fear is that Abrams will not so much introduce a new generation to these characters and to this world, but that he will strip that world bare and offer something far less “human” to that new audience. Something more manufactured, something that undermines the creative exploration behind storytelling, the subconscious, the heart.

“STAR WARS” Versus My Ever-Growing Cynicism

The Perfection That is “Sherlock” Returns


Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 11.42.31 AMShooting on Season 4 begins in January.

Such good news!

And it looks like there will be a SHERLOCK “special” in addition to the season’s 3 regular episodes. I’m not sure what qualifies as a “special,” but any more of these two together qualifies as special-enough for me.

I just finished turning my girlfriend, Emily, on to the series (seasons 1-3) and I have to say the second time around for me was as good if not better than the first! It’s also nice to now have my own Watson to share the show with. Or perhaps she’s my Sherlock. Either way, we’re in this together now and that makes me very happy indeed.

It’s a rare TV series that fires on all cylinders, but this is one of them. The chemistry between Cumberbatch and Freeman is already legendary. Truly. There are very few characters and relationships on TV whom I actually yearn to revisit regularly. This is one of the ones I believe will be a part of my life for a long time to come. I look forward to seeing them anywhere, anytime. And I miss them when they are absent. Not since the original STAR TREK have I felt so “at home” in a show.

Every moment in this world is glorious. Glad there’s more on the way.

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The Perfection That is “Sherlock” Returns

“SNOWPIERCER” May Be Terry Gilliam-Inspired, but It Lacks His Emotive Heart


MV5BMTQ3NzA1MTY3MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzE2Mzg5MTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Joon-ho Bong’s latest film, SNOWPIERCER is a mildly entertaining affair. It’s a fun sci-fi tale with some action and a cast of assorted characters, some more entertaining than others, but the film as a whole left me wanting.

I enjoyed two of Bong’s previous films, THE HOST and MOTHER. Both dark films with an unusual humor embedded at their cores. A unique combination of styles that seemed to work for me in those films.

SNOWPIERCER owes the inspiration for much of its landscape and characters to filmmaker Terry Gilliam. So much so that one of the characters is actually named after him.

But SNOWPIERCER never hit the level of wit or whimsey that Gilliam so organically produces. I was surprised to read so many outright glowing reviews from top critics who all seemed to relish this film as being both extremely intelligent and full of terrific action sequences. It’s certainly not a dumb film, especially compared to the usual breed of contemporary Hollywood actioners out there, but the film has a better premise than it does execution. At least for my tastes.

snowpiercer-poster-octavia-spencerAn unusual international cast was brought together for the film and, while that would seem in concept to be one of its attractions, I actually found it to be rather distracting as I could feel the filmmakers pulling the cast together. It felt less a natural ensemble than a calculated decision. And some of the actors, like Octavia Spencer, felt quite out of place to me. More a screen-test than a performance. I felt the actors sitting in their makeup chairs, I felt the wardrobe stylists picking and choosing, cutting and fraying. I even felt the sets being built and the extras being directed. In other words, something kept me from buying into the world of this film. There was something self-conscious about it all for me.

As for the action sequences? They were serviceable, but never visceral enough to get my adrenaline going.

Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 12.41.41 PMAnd the only character/actor in the film who actually elicited some emotion and reaction from me, dies pretty early in the tale, leaving me with a ragtag group of oddities that never quite gel into the community I wanted to feel they were. Chris Evans, as the leader of this troupe, never manages to own the film in the way some leading men can. And it’s always fun to see the likes of John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and Ed Harris but, like most of the cast, they felt more prop or type than actual characters. They served a purpose, but rarely told a story.

I was initially excited to see a film that, though I had heard little about it until recently, had garnered such favorable reviews from such a wide swath of critics. So perhaps my expectations were just a tad too high going in. Or perhaps my bar for such fare is simply set higher than most. One thing the film DID succeed at, however, and I would be remiss in omitting this from my commentary, is that as an ex-smoker, SNOWPIERCER really made me remember the deep, visceral pleasure of inhaling tobacco smoke. Never did one simple cigarette look so thoroughly irresistible.

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“SNOWPIERCER” May Be Terry Gilliam-Inspired, but It Lacks His Emotive Heart

The Fearless & Fearful Journeys of John Coltrane & the Grateful Dead


Brody-Coltrane-Free-Jazz-690Music means so many different things to so many different people. There is such a wide variety of styles and approaches that to discount any form is to diminish the over all power of the art itself.

In reading Richard Brody’s piece in the New Yorker, Coltrane’s Free Jazz Wasn’t Just “A Lot of Noise,” I started thinking about my introduction to musical styles and landscapes that had not always been a part of my vocabulary. In my case — and this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who reads this blog — it was the Grateful Dead who kicked open many, if not most, musical doors for me.

The concept of “free jazz”, as it’s often called, is one that eludes many and oftentimes is used as the main illustration as to why one might not like jazz.

“The idea, roughly, involves playing without a set harmonic structure (the framework of chords that lasts a pre-set number of bars and gives jazz performances a sense of sentences and paragraphs), without a foot-tapping beat, and sometimes even without the notion of solos, allowing musicians to join in or lay out as the spirit moves them. Lacking beat, harmony, and tonality, free jazz cuts the main connection to show tunes, dance-hall performances, or even background music to which jazz owed much of whatever popularity it enjoyed.”

It was through the vast and varied musical explorations of the Grateful Dead that I was opened up to many different forms of music. The Dead were not only a band that encompassed almost every style of American music from sea shanteys to jazz, from cowboy songs to blues to disco and beyond, they were also musical explorers oftentimes taking their audience into realms of dark and light that challenged the outer edges of sound. Music of the soul.

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My bother-in-law, after being dragged to a Dead show by moi, exclaimed when it was all over, “They did things with their guitars no one should ever do.” For him, the deepest spaces didn’t consist of music, but of noise. It wasn’t transcendent or emotional, it was confusing and wrong. And though I didn’t share his opinion or reaction, I understood it. I wasn’t always open to those particular musical spaces. But like learning a language one might not believe they will ever attain fluency in, with regular exposure, connections begin to take place, circuits in your brain start to piece things together in a way they hadn’t initially and one day you realize that you understand what’s going on, it’s now inside of you, a part of you!

Very exciting stuff, indeed. The Grateful Dead were all about these musical explorations. They also simply loved music. All kinds. So their shows weren’t just playing songs or just exploring free jazz concepts, they were a grand tapestry of all of the above, weaving in and out as the moment and emotions and inspiration dictated. A true musical journey that, if you could find your way in, offered so much in return for your simply showing up with an open mind.

Many people in my world have extremely limited views of what they consider “music” and what they consider having musical value. It saddens me often as it is never easy or fun to have people demean and degrade something that moves me so deeply. Though I understand that it oftentimes comes from either an inability or a lack of desire to understand what is taking place. It requires one to let down their defenses and go to places that may seem vulnerable or frightening or that might challenge one’s sense of self-worth if that journey feels like a struggle at first, if you feel outside of the experience. It is oftentimes easier to discount its value than it is to admit you don’t get it or that there is something yet to be learned. Not connecting to something, not understanding it, is an opportunity to learn, to expand. And while that should in theory be exhilarating and attractive, it can also push buttons and elicit fear, anger and frustration.

My girlfriend was told by a close friend of hers when we first started dating, that she should leave me because I liked the Grateful Dead. My head spun when I heard this and yet, it was also familiar. This wasn’t the first time I’ve run across people who have such intense reactions to this particular type of music, and to the fact that it is so wildly popular and successful, that there is an outright rejection not only of the music itself, but of the people who connect with it.

The truth is, you do not have to connect with all forms of art to recognize that it has value. I don’t know, if it wasn’t for the Grateful Dead, I may never have found my way in to free jazz forms. To me, like to so many others, it might just sound like noise. But it doesn’t. It’s not. And for that I am so very thankful because the joy I receive from these inner musical journeys are downright life-affirming. It’s what allows me to maintain my faith in humanity. If we can create that, if we can explore those spaces, then we are capable of more than we know as those spaces feel like the tip of an iceberg that goes far deeper than we can ever imagine. For me, it brings us closer to what it means to be human, to have a consciousness in a universe whose very existence is beyond our grasp. That can be both a frightening and an exhilarating invitation.

For me, the combination is downright irresistible.

The Fearless & Fearful Journeys of John Coltrane & the Grateful Dead

Bless the Brits: MASTERS OF CINEMA Calls it Like It Is


Bless the Brits.

Here in the States, we seem to pride ourselves on our right to be ignorant. But the British MASTERS OF CINEMA series of DVD and Blu-ray releases, like THE CRITERION COLLECTION here in the U.S., cares about the integrity of the work it puts out there. MOC takes it to the next level, however.

In reading through the booklet that came with the region-free Blu-ray of Murnau’s CITY GIRL, I came across the following page:

City Girl inside coverThat’s right. I am clearly not the only one who finds it intolerable and unacceptable when people dramatically alter the intended experience of art that so many people worked so diligently, creatively, skillfully and proudly to create. I’ve literally gotten into heated arguments with friends and family who pride themselves in simply not giving a shit.

Walk into any restaurant, bar, coffee shop, etc. with a TV on (and they ALL seem to have TV’s these days, which I find egregious, but that’s another story), and you will see images that are stretched or squeezed by folks who could either care less or, worse, don’t even seem to notice! For me, it’s more than a pet peeve. It’s a spotlight on an attitude toward art and creativity that I think puts this country culturally and educationally behind many others.

It’s also the language that MOC chose to use that brings such a joyous grin to my face: “The above images are a distortion and corruption of the original artwork, which travesty the integrity of both the human form and cinematographic space.” 

MOC doesn’t stop there, however. The bottom of the page adds a SPECIAL NOTE addressing the horrific use and overuse of “motion-smoothing” which many, if not most, HD TVs now have as their default setting. I have been preaching for years now against the atrocities of this technology that makes everything look like it was shot using a soap opera video camera. Yes, motion smoothing (aka frame interpolation), too, is both a corruption and a travesty. Even if you don’t care. Ignorance or apathy do not make good arguments in favor of anything.

Once you grossly distort an image, you are no longer experiencing the work as it was intended, therefore it no longer reflects the creativity, artistry and, possibly most importantly, the humanity that was shared and expressed via the artist or artists behind the work. You are, in essence, removing the storytellers from the storytelling. What you are left with, in such a case, is something that is false, a poor imitation prone to misinterpretation.

So thank you to MASTERS OF CINEMA for not only giving a shit, but for being willing to call it for what it is. And for the desire to educate. Something that has become somewhat of a dirty word here in the States.

Bless the Brits: MASTERS OF CINEMA Calls it Like It Is

“ALL IS LOST” Is Everything “GRAVITY” Could Have Been And Wasn’t


MV5BMjI0MzIyMjU1N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTk1MjQxMDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_It took me a little while, but I finally caught up with ALL IS LOST. I was curious about the film at the time it came out, but didn’t make it into theaters to see it and hadn’t found the right night to sit down and watch it streaming at home. Until last night.

I’d heard quite a lot of mixed responses to the film from friends and that probably added to my procrastination. I should know better. My tastes are not always in sync with my friends and I oftentimes end up loving films others downright hate.

ALL IS LOST had me on the edge of my seat from first frame to last. I know there are those who thought the limited dialogue was more a gimmick than anything else, but I wholeheartedly disagree. There is dialogue in the film where dialogue is needed and appropriate. But this is a film about a man alone in the middle of the ocean. And in his own mind. Part of the strength of the film is in Robert Redford’s character’s apparent calm in the face of terrifying realities. He is, of course, not calm inside and writer/director J.C. Chandor takes us through these subtle gradations in character via his impeccable direction. 

The film opens with a voiceover that sets up this character’s emotional arc. We enter into the story with an understanding that this is a man who refused to see the reality of his situation until it was too late. What kind of a man he is, what his relationship with his family was, with other human beings… This is established wonderfully in the opening statements. This moment in his life is not the first time he has miscalculated or refused to see the truth of himself or the world around him. More to the point, this is a culmination of the life and perspective he has so carefully constructed. It is also the greatest moment of truth and realization. Both this man’s strengths and weaknesses are on display throughout the journey that is this film. A man alone. A man who does not freely or easily reveal his emotional inner core, and is more likely to try and control it.

all-is-lost-robert-redfordALL IS LOST builds tremendously to Redford’s nameless character’s emotional outcry and therefore gives that moment so much more power and resonance. This is an internal journey using external forces as its catalyst. And I for one was completely engrossed.

I should also add that I have a deep fear of the ocean and boats. I have gone sailing on many occasions (my father had a sailboat) and, though it was almost always fun and exhilarating, I had to fight down a measure of sheer terror to partake in the experience. ALL IS LOST tapped into that fear for me to such an extent that I was actually talking back to the movie, something I never do. My heart was pounding as my personal nightmares unfolded before me on screen.

Coming out in the same year as GRAVITY, the two films can be seen as companion pieces. One in the vastness of space, the other at sea. The difference for me is where GRAVITY relies on horribly-manufactured and seemingly insincere verbal interaction and backstory, ALL IS LOST is not afraid to ask the audience to do some of the heavy-lifting. Chandor clearly understands that it’s what we bring with us as an audience, how we read into the character from our own perspectives, that allows the film to find its power and resonance. Where GRAVITY played more like a one-dimensional video game for me, ALL IS LOST reached for something far more penetrating than state-of-the-art effects. Both films tackle similar outer journeys, but for me ALL IS LOST is the only one that paid attention to the inner journey as well and didn’t rely on cliches and contrivances in order to do it. It is a nightmare that comes to us in the dark of night and pits our inner struggles and fears against our desires and illusions.

ALL IS LOST was a truly harrowing experience for me. I was on the edge of my seat with my heart pounding. Now I watched this on a 65″ screen with 7.1 surround, mind you, so the experience was VERY visceral. If you’re gonna take this film for a spin in a home environment, I suggest you do it this way, if at all possible. Loud. Big. Immersive.

I can’t speak to those who were unaffected or bored by this film. I know you’re out there, but I could not possibly have had a more divergent experience. It took me a while to recover after the film was over. In fact, more than twelve hours later with a night’s sleep between me and the experience, I can still feel it there, in my gut, moving around.

What more could I possibly ask for?

“ALL IS LOST” Is Everything “GRAVITY” Could Have Been And Wasn’t