Sunday, March 25, 2012

Andrew Stanton's Women

Why so many bad reviews? John Carter was great—I thought so, at least. If you're planning on seeing any Hollywood movies this month, I recommend this one, especially since its been struggling at the box office and Disney could use the dough. Wait, I take that back: Andrew Stanton could use the dough. This was, from where I stand, Stanton's fourth great movie in a row, and it wasn't even distributed by Pixar. It's an even more impressive transition from animation to live-action than Brad Bird's Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol last winter, also a good flick, but I'd say with John Carter Stanton has pulled off an even greater feat: he's made me a believer in action/fantasy epics again (after being disappointed by some high-profile losers, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time being one of them). And contrary to what the majority of the critics are saying about John Carter ("less is more!"), I would argue that, in this case, less is definitely not more. Filmmakers like Stanton need to command a lot of space—a lot of depth of field—to tell their stories, and therefore any critic who snipes "too much!" is being unreasonable. Disney granted Stanton a $250 million budget and, bless his heart, he has put every single cent of that budget to good use.

I want a sequel, too. I want to see more of these characters, especially since it will give me a good excuse to read those Edgar Rice Burroughs books (which, had I read them beforehand, might have led me to appreciate Stanton's film even more). This is not one of those director-for-hire Disney 3-D hackjobs like Tim Burton's atrocious Alice in Wonderland; no, this, despite being a big-budget studio flick, was also a very personal project for Stanton, who not only directed it by co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon (who, after this and Spider-Man 2, is officially the best writer in the business when it comes to adapting adventure serials to the big screen). That John Carter is not doing very well at the box office right now cannot be due to the quality of the film (which is superb) but more to, well, its vague title and its even vaguer ad campaign. Perhaps it's also because the film's big-named, Academy Award-nominated stars (Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Thomas Hayden Church) mainly provide the voice talents for the CGI characters, whereas the two lead roles are played by two young unknowns: the charming Taylor Kitsch (yeah, weird name, I know) as John Carter of Virginia, and the pleasantly surprising Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium.

Studying Collins' performance, I began to notice a trend in Stanton's work: his recurring use of strong, ambitious female characters in each and every one of his movies. They are always like the men: energetic idealists who want to make a difference in their lives, have adventures, go somewhere, be somebody. They have dreams. They have passions. They even have goofy fantasies, and the first time I noticed something unusual about the Dejah character was during the sequence in which she first meets John Carter, after he rescues her from a death-defying fall (one of about three in the movie—yes, I counted). While Carter sets her down and then springs up into the air to return to the action in the sky, Dejah is down on the ground, staring up at him while Carter's allies, the Tharks (a race of Green Martians with tusks on their faces), begin swarming around her. Looking up at Carter with stars in her eyes, Dejah squeals to the Thusks, "You may take me prisoner!" That's her way of saying, "I want to bang that guy, like, right now."

But Dejah is not merely one of those Disney princesses who fangirls over a handsome man. She's good with a sword, is capable of taking care of herself, inspires Carter to fight for what he believes in and gripes at the thought of her father (Ciaran Hinds, in an inspired casting choice) reducing her to the role of a good wife in an arranged, politically-motivated marriage to some hawkish douchebag. She'd rather be with, support and—this is key—be able to fight side by side with a man she actually loves and admires, all of this delicately conveyed by Lynn Collins in a free-spirited performance that is one of the movie's most unexpected surprises.

Also, she's incredibly easy on the eyes. Um...

Stanton seems to have thing for Disney princesses with attitude. You'll remember that in A Bug's Life (1998), his first film as a director (though in actuality he co-directed it with John Lasseter), Stanton characterized Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) as an insecure princess who wasn't sure if she was ready to be queen yet, but then drew inspiration from a plan by Flik (Dave Foley) to rally her colony against pillaging Grasshoppers by mounting the construction of a giant bird. Atta also had a younger sister, Dot (Hayden Manetierre), who made every effort to help Flik and Atta in an attempt to expedite her maturity in the time before her wings grew.

Another subversive female character in John Carter is Sola (voiced by an unrecognizable Samantha Morton), a Thark who becomes one of Carter's sidekicks purely by accident. She begins as the runt of the female Tharks—the only one without a baby to take care of—given the humiliating task of tasking care of the "white worm" Carter by Sarkoja (Polly Walker), the bitchiest of the Tharks' mothers. Because she has no children, Sola realizes her life is meant for other things, and she not only begins to join Carter in his pursuits, she also begins following the example of her father, Tars (voiced by Willem Dafoe), who wants to keep her out of harm's way but is proven wrong when she herself tells him how committed she is: "Your blood flows through me."

A similarly fiercely-committed heroine in Stanton's filmography is EVE (Elissa Knight) in WALL-E (2008), who constantly reminds WALL-E (Ben Burtt) that she has to complete her "directive" before she can move on to anything else. And after her "directive" is fulfilled, she is instrumental in helping WALL-E bring the humans back to Earth, as well as shaking WALL-E back to life just when it seems he's been deactivated for good. It is even implied that she and WALL-E will be instrumental in making Earth a great planet again.

Stanton, likes James Cameron, is one of those wise mainstream Hollywood filmmakers who not only loves, appreciates and understands the women in his films, but makes them equal to the men; as the Nostalgia Chick once commented on Cameron's women, "The girls are actually there. They don't make a big deal out of being female; they don't hold their ovaries in triumph whilst they kick @$$; they just happen to be female and find themselves in these ridiculous situations, whatever they might be... they're well-written because they're people first, not ladies. And I think that's the best way to see more of the same: write people. Not tokens."

That, I believes, describes Stanton's work to a T, and might even apply in some ways to arguably the most famous female protagonist in Stanton's work: Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), the Blue Tang fish in Finding Nemo (2003) who suffers from short-term memory loss but nevertheless proves to be an invaluable influence on Marlin (Albert Brooks) in his quest to find his son. Although Dory is severely lacking when it comes to memory, she still has her instincts, and still possesses the ability to sense when a situation has gone right and when her life has actually started to make a difference in someone else's, as summed up in this, the film's most beautiful speech:

"Please don't go away. Please? No one's ever stuck with me for so long before. And if you leave... if you leave... I just, I remember things better with you. I do. Look: P. Sherman, forty-two... forty-two... I remember it, I do. It's there, I know it is, because when I look at you, I can feel it. And—and I look at you, and I... I'm home."

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Verhoeven on The Last Express

Kind of late to be making a post about this, but whatever.

Faithful readers of my blog will recall that back in April 2010, I was thrilled by the rumor that Paul Verhoeven was working on adapting Jordan Mechner's 1997 computer game The Last Express into a major motion picture. This remained a mere rumor until October 2011, when - if you watch the video above, specifically at the 6:40 mark - Verhoeven confirmed that he has, indeed, been engaging in talks with Mechner to adapt The Last Express into a movie. He is even considering filming it in 3D.

Um... got a Donate button, Paul? Because I will happily give you as much money as possible to ensure that this guaranteed masterpiece gets made. Just sayin'.

Friday, March 2, 2012

My problems with the Second Edition of Joseph McBride's book on Spielberg

Since the original 1997 edition of Joseph McBride's biography of Steven Spielberg is still, I think, the best book on Spielberg around, I went ahead and checked out the Second Edition of McBride's book that came out recently. There are parts of the new edition I like very much - he mounts an unexpected and very enlightening defense of Amistad, declares A.I. to be the masterpiece that it rightfully is, and waxes poetic about Catch Me if You Can, The Terminal and, surprisingly, even Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (he sticks up for the "nuke the fridge" gag). He also does some good research on Spielberg's track record as a DreamWorks mogul.

So, you'd think this would be a very welcome edition, preferable to the first one. But it's not. I'm very disappointed to see that McBride considers a majority of Saving Private Ryan "a serious letdown" and that he has chosen to side with the age-old argument that every scene after the D-Day sequence is an anticlimax. He thinks the movie is "damaged" by its refusal to adopt a firm stance on warfare (why does it need to?). He appears sympathetic to Jonathan Rosenbaum's infamous review of the movie, in that he wonders if Spielberg is glorifying war, more than he is painting a horrorific picture of it. When he describes the scene in which Mellish is stabbed upstairs by the Waffen-SS soldier while Upham is downstairs cowering, he claims that it's a clumsy allegory for the Holocaust because Upham is a Gentile, despite the fact that Spielberg has specified in interviews that he identifies most with Upham. Strangest of all, McBride does not go into detail about the scenes featuring Miller and Upham's crisis of conscience when they decide to let "Steamboat Willie" go. McBride makes no mention of this pivotal subplot at all.

In fact, the entire chapter on Saving Private Ryan feels rushed and unorthodox. McBride does not lend very much weight to arguments in defense of the film; it's like he's committed to some strange cause of erasing the movie from public memory. To me, this a cardinal sin to commit as a biographer. We're all entitled to our opinions, obviously, but since nobody has written a more well-read biography on Spielberg than McBride I think he owes a little more to his readers. Why not consider some of the more thoughtful defenses of the film out there - the ones by Jim Emerson, Matt Zoller Seitz, Roger Ebert, etc.? Why not refer to what Quentin Tarantino said, about how even he believes the movie changed his opinion on war movies in general? Why not make note of the fact that so many WWII veterans saw the movie and adored it? Like it or not, Saving Private Ryan is one of the most important achievements in Spielberg's career as a director; it's a little unwise of McBride to be marginalizing it, regardless if he has reservations with the film or not.

And my problems with the new edition of McBride's book don't stop there. He is surprisingly damning of War of the Worlds, which he dismisses as "ugly". To be sure, he praises it as a technical marvel and says some nice things about Tom Cruise's performance, but then whines that "the characterizations are thin" and that the movie does not work as an emotional experience or as a communication of post-9/11 paranoid feelings through the medium of the Hollywood blockbuster. I completely disagree with all of this.

McBride also doesn't really do justice to either Minority Report or Munich, films which he likes but doesn't seem to love much. He thinks that Minority Report sometimes gets distracted by having "too many action scenes," and holds to the argument that it falls apart in the last scenes, believing they're too good to be true. He doesn't go into any detail over why the movie ends the way it does. Why not consider if maybe John and Lara's triumph at the end of the film is a bittersweet one? Why not also consider the dubious (but still thought-provoking) theory which the IMDB commentator LoneStranger and others around the Internet have suggested: that the whole ending of the film may or may not be an illusion? Mind you, I get the impression that McBride likes the movie (he seems to admire how timely it was at the time of the signing away of the Patriot Act), but his enthusiasm for it is not on the level of someone like Roger Ebert's.

As for his writings on Munich, I expected more... much more. McBride goes into painful detail about the enemies Spielberg and Tony Kushner made in Israel when they chose to release the film, but whatever acclaim he may have for the movie feels muted. As with War of the Worlds, he argues that it works on a technical level but not on an emotional level. He sides with Todd McCarthy, in complaining that Avner, Carl, Robert, Hans and Steve are not well-rounded characters. But I would counter that each of the characters have individual moments in the film where they come alive (Carl's point about Israel's anti-death penalty policies; Robert's "soul" monologue; Hans' regrets about the way he treated the Dutch woman; Steve's paranoia after failing to assassinate Salamei; Avner's tortured reconnection with his wife back home).

Bizzarely, McBride also argues that Steven Bauer's portrayal of Avner in Sword of Gideon (1986) is superior to Eric Bana's. To that I say, "WTF?" To be sure, I only saw Sword of Gideon once, but I remember Bauer's performance being more than a little ham-fisted and the movie itself being very badly photographed and directed. Whereas Bana's performance in Munich is subtle, moving, and - if you ask me - completely relatable. I should probably make note of the fact that McBride comletely ignores the often-mentioned sex scene between Avner and his wife. Had McBride read Matt Zoller Seitz's online defense of this particular scene, I'm sure he would not have ignored it.

After some time, I began to notice a recurring theme in McBride's criticisms of Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, War of the Worlds and Munich: McBride has a bit of a problem with Spielberg as a director of violence. He seems to prefer Spielberg as a director of magic, comedy and occasional heartbreak, not as a director of sequences in which people are gruesomely slaughtered (with the notable exceptions of Schindler's List and Amistad). From what I recall, the only "action" movies McBride actually praised in the first edition of his book were Duel and Jaws, and I think it's because those were simple 70's-era portrayals of themes like man vs. machine, man vs. nature, etc. But I do remember in his first book that McBride was also incredibly annoyed with the action/violence in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Jurassic Park. To be fair, his panning of The Lost World Jurassic Park in this new edition is much fairer game, but...

Maybe I'm off-base, but I suspect McBride's criticisms of Spielberg's more recent forays into violence stem from a political objection of some sort. He is obviously a very liberal writer, and perhaps he holds firm anti-war beliefs that prevented him from fully appreciating something as neutral as Saving Private Ryan. Perhaps the scene in War of the Worlds where Ray is driven to murder Ogilvy rubbed him the wrong way, and colored his perceptions of that entire film in general. I could be wrong, of course, but I think that's why he goes into great detail about only some of Spielberg's latest films, in this new edition, and sort of hurries past the others. Because of that, I'm hoping some brave biographer will publish a book of his or her own to challenge McBride's views of these films, perhaps even in such a way that he'll consider reevaluating his positions on said films in the inevitable future edition of his book.