Lost in the Movies: April 2014

Reading Spielberg

Revised 4/30: Good news - I've just received an update from publisher John Pruzanski, offering readers of this blog a 20% discount on the guide (click on the link to access the discount page).

When I was 7 years old, I fell in love with "the movies" - no longer harboring affection for just certain movies, but for the cinema as a whole. There were several factors in this infatuation, but the biggest factor may have Steven Spielberg. In this, I'm hardly alone and therefore it's appropriate that I join around 70 other contributors to take part in the massive Take 2 Guide to Steven Spielberg e-book compilation. This incredibly rich tome spans nearly 800 pages, and collects contemporaneous reviews from authors like Jonathan Rosenbaum (did you know this famed Spielberg skeptic actually offered a rave review of Schindler's List on its premiere? I didn't, until I scanned these pages), extensive blog entries, interviews with the filmmaker, and material written exclusively for this volume. Publisher John Pruzanski selected six of my pieces for inclusion: on Jaws, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, The Lost World, and Lincoln, plus a dual review of Schindler's List and Munich and a piece on the DreamWorks cartoon How to Train a Dragon which mentions Spielberg's influence.

The Hero We Didn't Know We Needed: a conversation with Jared Drake, director of Visioneers & the upcoming Mack Luster

For a brief moment in the dystopian comedy Visioneers (2007), disgruntled office worker George Washington Winsterhammerman (Zach Galifianakis) plunks himself down in front of the television, hoping to smother his ever-growing anxiety with a soothing escape. Instead, he's confronted with the televised antics of a deranged action hero, Mack Luster (Ryan McCann), valiant and violent opponent of "Chayos" (the film's name for the free-floating unease destabilizing this placid world and causing people to literally explode). Assaulting rather than protecting the innocent (the "villains" include a terrified old lady and a little girl with ice cream), Luster provides an amusing subversion of 80s action hero cliches. He's a grinning, muscled-up do-gooder who clearly believes his antisocial actions represent some glorious triumph over evil.

This scene (which you can watch on YouTube) was tangential to the rest of the film, yet Luster's over-the-top antics proved popular with viewers and stuck with the film's director Jared Drake. Drake decided to spin the character off into his own story, Mack Luster, but with a twist. No longer simply the symbol of a world gone crazy, the Mack Luster of this new project will be the only sane person onscreen, a reminder of what was valuable and lovable about 80s action heroes. He's a throwback to an age of older, less self-conscious American icons and his sincerity make him a fish out of water in the present - albeit one we sympathize with. Drake plans to turn the Visioneers version of Luster on its head, preserving the "awesome cheese" quotient while encouraging us to laugh with, rather than at, our hero by the end of the movie.

I was contacted by Jared as he prepared to launch his Kickstarter campaign; while I haven't been doing many interviews lately, this concept - and Drake's intentions behind it - piqued my curiosity (plus Jared grew up in the Twin Peaks hometown, a bit of synchronicity given my slew of upcoming Peaks and Lynch). Via a 90-minute Google chat, we discussed his film Visioneers, his decision to place an 80s icon in the present and the philosophy behind that, and why he's chosen crowdfunding and sees it as the future of filmmaking (this was one of the most fascinating parts of the discussion for me - I believe that when it comes, the next Easy Rider or Star Wars-type game-changer will drop online, not in theaters). If you'd like to support the Mack Luster campaign, or just find out more, it launched today:

Son of Man

The best depiction of Jesus Christ onscreen is also, alas, one of the least-known (type its title into IMDb, and you'll wade through five higher-ranked results). Dennis Potter's feverish 1969 teleplay Son of Man depicts the most famous and celebrated figure in the history of the world as a dirty, half-mad prophet trembling in the wilderness and bellowing at his followers, with nary a miracle in sight (when Jesus performs an exorcism, the woman in his arms appears to die). Yet as depicted by a fully-committed Colin Blakely, this ferocious wild man is among the most charismatic and compelling Christs I've ever seen: fascinating in his forceful delivery and admirable in his consistency, responding to slaps, goads, and outright torture with a determination to practice what he preaches by "loving his neighbor." Given that these neighbors include the cunning high priest Caiaphas (Bernard Hepton) and the flagrantly cruel and condescending Pontius Pilate (Robert Hardy), this is no small order. This Jesus gets no relief, no reward - there is no happy ending, no Easter Sunday resurrection following the Good Friday execution. He moans those famous words, "Why have you forsaken me?", expires, and the lights dim while the camera pulls back.

The Wolf of Wall Street

It's hard to place Martin Scorsese's mercurial The Wolf of Wall Street, a (mostly?) true tale of the corrupt, greedy, and eventually imprisoned financier Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). Hard to place in several ways - most obviously, the film's tone embraces straightforward rise-and-fall dramatics, social satire, and broad comedy, while the slipperiness of its moral outlook, both conventionally disapproving and hedonistically exuberant, has been elsewhere duly noted. More intriguingly, the film seems to float above history: while it begins identifiably in the late eighties (Jordan Belfort's first day as a licensed broker is even alleged to be Black Monday) and occasionally touches down on specific cultural phenomena (like Steve Madden's bobble-headed girl ad campaign) at no point does the film really riff on a zeitgeist. Technological and fashion changes are often present as details but aren't foregrounded as in Goodfellas; also unlike that film the soundtrack is an alternating mashup of hip-hop, rumba, and whatever Scorsese feels like playing in a particular moment, rather than a reflection of character and/or cultural development. Most of all, I can't really place the purpose of the movie. That's not necessarily a terrible thing: spry, termitic filmmaking is often more successful than the heavy-handed elephantine approach. Yet here this makes for an enjoyable but occasionally alienating and mystifying viewing experience. I liked The Wolf of Wall Street, particularly certain sequences worthy of Scorsese's legendary oeuvre, but I didn't love it. On first viewing, it seemed a film of many accomplishments but little depth.

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