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by Bill Gibron

11 Nov 2007

Many have never heard of him. Others only know selected works—the ‘80s effort Santa Sangre, the consistently mentioned “midnight movie” El Topo - but even for those who claim an intimate knowledge of cinema, director, poet, agitator, self-described “deity” Alejandro Jodorowsky remains an enigma. This could be due to the fact that the filmmaker has only helmed seven projects in the 50 years he’s been in the business (that’s right, seven in half a century behind the camera). Part of the problem is also that Jodorowsky remains a vehemently idiosyncratic artist. Like many Latino moviemakers, he lives his works and is only driven to create when the passion (and the fiscal possibility) strikes him. The final issue with his covert career is the lack of access to his major films - Fando y Lis, El Topo, and The Holy Mountain. Only the first title has ever appeared on DVD, the other two considered “lost” due to ongoing animosity between the director and infamous ‘70s business bully Allen Klein. Now, with all wounds apparently healed. The recently released Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky box set provides a chance to see the works that loom largest in the auteur’s considerable legend.

In the grand tradition of fellow experimentalists Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, Alejandro Jodorowsky is, at his heart, a surrealist. He works in the weird and fashions out of the freakish. Like all artists working within said medium, the Chilean-born Renaissance man loves to break convention as he embraces the recognizable. In fact, it’s safe to say that Jodorowsky is the most arcane avant-gardist ever to take up the genre’s mantle. Typically, a surrealist tackles the real world from a ridiculous yet recognizable avenue. But Jodorowsky isn’t content to simply shock and confuse. His is an aesthetic of contradiction, the juxtaposing of the sacred with the profane, the beautiful with the grotesque, the simple along with the complex. Out of said incongruities, he hopes to unlock the secrets of love, desire, death, evil, happiness, hate, terror, wisdom, God, man, the Devil, and the bifurcated nature of spirituality and physicality. Sometimes he succeeds in stunning fashion. But even his missteps are fabulous in their fascination.

After beginning life as a performance artist and theatrical “terrorist” (part of the Panic Movement—inspired by the god Pan—in early ‘60s France) Jodorowsky’s move to film was seen as a way of extending his influence beyond the simplicity of the stage. After fooling around with a work about a lady who sells substitute heads - La Cravate - he went off to tackle his first full-length project; a quasi-adaptation of a play written by Fernando Arrabal. While neither was completely successful, they proved that Jodorowsky had an eye for cinema and could really tell a story visually. Anyone who was lucky enough to see Cravate may recognize Thomas Mann’s 1940 absurdist effort The Transposed Heads. Using players from his Panic productions, and an obvious bow to Marcel Marceau and the mime movement that was popular during the time, the scant story was saved by the unique visual approach the director brought to the project. Resembling the German Expressionism of the early 20th Century with the precision of a painter like Chagall, the colorful, confusing tale remains something visually sumptuous, but rather empty and vague.

Fando y Lis, on the other hand, was prepped as Jodorowsky’s grand statement of social perception. In Arrabal’s play, the title couple is searching for a kind of literal nirvana, a place where he can live free and she can escape her life of handicapped helplessness. The magical city of Tar is basically a metaphor for acceptance and, all throughout the film, Jodorowsky drives that direct point home. This helps explain the movie’s vignette-oriented approach. Across an amazing monochrome wasteland, the pair are poked at, prodded, perverted, played with, and made to feel equally ashamed of their desire to live outside the surreal norm, while wholly trapped in a universe of unexplainable horrors and happenings. Sex plays a major role in the narrative, as many of the people our leads meet seem locked in a lustful lewdness that brings out their worst, most abhorrent behavior. Even Fando gives in, beating the helpless Lis mercilessly and abandoning her for sequences at a time. In the end, his act of brutality is meant as a kind of consciousness cleansing, a way of showing the supposed hero what a bad man he really is.

Of course, that’s just one interpretation, and Fando y Lis is a movie that can mean many things to whoever sees it. Because black-and-white deadens the dimensions in the imagery - color both corrupts and clarifies your standard visual responses - much of the movie feels flat. Not lifeless, mind you, just strangely similar, almost repetitive. Fando and Lis argue, one or the other looses their temper, a oddball collection of people enter into their psychological space (old ladies playing cards for lychee nuts and the sexual favors of a male prostitute, a holy man who worships a nauseatingly naked female), and then its time to ease on down the tarmac path toward happiness. When viewed with the films he would go on to make, Fando y Lis is best described as a mangled minor masterwork. It lacks the resonance that would come when Jodorowsky dropped the pretense and shot straight from his psyche. It also offers incomplete characters whose flaws are much more memorable than their finer moments. Visually, there is no denying the talent - Fando y Lis announces a major motion-picture player. But it would be his second film that solidified the director’s status as a surrealistic God.

Believe it when you hear it - El Topo is brazenly brilliant, a true motion-picture masterpiece of epic and undeniable proportions. All the legends you’ve heard, all the myths made up about the film’s founding the midnight movie craze are completely legitimate. Everything promised in Fando y Lis is present and perfectly built upon in what is, in essence, a spaghetti western sans the saddle sores. While he touched on it some in his first film, El Topo begins the clear contravention of organized religion and the meaningless morality given to the ethics of good and evil. Forged in two parts, the first centering on the viability of violence, the second scourging the reward of benefice, what we have here is a personal journey amplified into a statement of cosmic consensus. Jodorowsky himself plays the lead—a gunslinger whose life is empty inside—and he pours on the preposterous visuals and stunningly imaginative imagery with grace and gratuity.

When we first meet “The Mole” (the translation of El Topo), he is harboring a young naked boy - perhaps, as a protégé, perhaps for something more salacious. It is never explained, and Jodorowsky likes it that way. Soon, a choice must be made and, with it, comes the first-half condemnation of our lead. Working his standard scattered narrative approach perfectly, our hero must find the four greatest gunfighters in the desert and defeat each and every one. Many have likened this half of the film to the Old Testament, with El Topo taking on the four main prophets in the Biblical text. Others simply see it as a regular rite of passage, with each foe representing an element of the main character’s consciousness that he must confront and conquer. In each battle, El Topo twists the rules to his own ends. When he finally falls, it’s not by the hand of any of the masters. No, he is double crossed by the faith of his own heart, and the woman who pledged her undying love for saving her.

Now it’s true that Jodorowsky is tough on women. Some would even argue that he’s a clear-cut misogynist who views the female as festering and wicked, only capable of tricking men and then using their failing feminine wiles throughout the rest of their sad, sexually repressed life. But for every act of abuse, for every slap in the face, or tableau where overweight grandmothers draped in lingerie strut and fret like fools, we have characters who try to countermand that image. The dwarf girl, who helps El Topo after he is mortally wounded and left for dead, represents the one area that Jodorowsky tends not to mock - the maternal instinct of a caring woman. Throughout the second act of the film, when our hero goes from sinner to savior, desperate and willing to do anything to build a tunnel into town, the little lady by his side is grace and giving personified. Jodorowsky was obviously influenced by Fellini and his Satyricon-era style. Human oddities, disfigured and disturbing in their limbless, twisted deformities, are prevalent in the director’s work and, if you were to ask him why, he’d probably say, “They are interesting to look at, no?” In fact, a great deal of what he does as a filmmaker exists solely because it looks good locked in a timeless frame of celluloid.

Because of its clear narrative focus - unlike Fando and Lis, who never really get anywhere during their journey - El Topo is a series of cause-and-effect story sequences and visionary vibe. It’s not surprising to learn that Jodorowsky became an early ‘70s sensation, championed by none other than John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The ex-Beatle, a man of principle and awareness totally tapped into the fading remnants of the generation he helped form, felt a kinship with the director. Using images straight out of the counterculture’s cookbook (including the notorious self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quang Duc), Jodorowsky was purposefully taking the piss out of the era’s symbols and icons. This went down well with a musician who spent the first half of his solo career primal screaming the Fab Four out of his system. Thanks to the influence of Allen Klein (in charge of the business operations of the Beatles’ Apple Corp), El Topo got attention—including some much-needed press and distribution in the United States. This led to the film’s frequent showings at midnight and, thus, the resulting legend. Even better, when Jodorowsky was looking for financing for his next project, Klein and the Lennons gladly stepped in.

What they got was almost more astounding than El Topo. The Holy Mountain - an unambiguous bashing of faith, church, God, enlightenment, and Eastern theology - became a serious scandal. While Jodorowsky was no stranger to bad audience reactions (the first screening of Fando y Lis turned into a riot, and the director had to be smuggled out of the theater to avoid the angry mob), nothing could have prepared him for the denouncement he received when the final cut premiered at Cannes. Condemned as blasphemous and sacrilegious, critics and crowds couldn’t get past the striking similarity between the lead thief and a certain Jesus of Nazareth. Even worse, Jodorowsky went on to strip his Messianic character – literally - having the actor playing the part more or less nude throughout the film’s opening act. By making our substitute savior a criminal, a con artist, and a partaker of perversion (he is helped along by an armless and legless dwarf who enjoys kissing his carrier on the mouth), the director was obviously arguing for the corruption buried inside Christianity. When our figure of faith finally meets the Alchemist (played by Jodorowsky himself), all he wants to know is the secret of turning shit into gold. How shocking!

But it’s not just religion that gets a reaming here. Our maverick moviemaker is out to undermine capitalism, the law, government cronyism/incompetence, pop culture, the police force, war, and the sovereignty of the state, all in one fell swoop. He does this by creating the council of immortals - eight enterprising people of power who represent the planets within the solar system. For a fee, including complete obedience and a rejection of material things, the Alchemist will provide a path to enlightenment and a chance to replace a similar group already residing on Lotus Island. There, they will supposedly live forever, free from all the issues they themselves create in the typical, tainted social structure. With this road-movie plotline in place, Jodorowsky is free to indulge his every visual whim, resulting in, hands down, one of the most sumptuous and sublime optical experiences ever captured on film. As if in reaction to everything El Topo stood for, the filmmaker purposefully avoids the elements that made said movie so shocking.

The Peckinpah-like bloodshed in Topo, grue flowing freely and effortlessly from various violated bodies, is now a striking psychedelic array of rainbow humors. The ample nudity is presented pristinely, lacking the down-and-dirty qualities that made his whacked-out western so erotically charged. The former subtle slaps at religion are now big, bold, brash bombshells, like the skinned goats substituting for Christs on a procession of crosses. Once we get to the moment of clarity, when temptation tries to thwart our pilgrims from their progress, Jodorowsky goes all out, mixing swinging ‘60s jet-set cool with a graveyard setting to up the sacrilege. Of course, it’s not surprising to learn that all the events of the last 90 minutes are meant as a kind of cinematic in-joke. The final bits of dialogue in the movie pull the rug out of the previous pomp and circumstance, operating like an affecting “F-You” from Jodorowsky to anyone who would take him seriously as a sage. While it lacked the personal touch of a strong lead character (unlike El Topo himself, the Alchemist and his charges are fairly interchangeable), The Holy Mountain proved that his previous efforts were no fluke. Jodorowsky was a filmmaker to be reckoned with. All he needed now was a mainstream success.

It was to come in the form of Dune. In 1975, the filmmaker gathered together an eclectic crew including H. R. Giger (for design), Pink Floyd (for musical score), and French comic book artist Jean Giraud. His goal - bring Frank Herbert’s incredibly popular sci-fi allegory to the big screen. Hoping to cast famous faces (Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen, Mick Jagger as his son Feyd) and to once again revisit some familiar narrative themes (Dune definitely matches a certain Messianic story), Jodorowsky was eager and excited. Then that old familiar foe – money - reared its ugly halting head, and it wasn’t long before the entire production was shut down and sold off. Bitter over this turn of events and the way Klein was carrying out their business arrangements, Jodorowsky started shunning the spotlight. He made a couple more films in the next 30 years - a 1980 children’s film entitled Tusk, 1989’s well-received Santa Sangre, and 1990’s The Rainbow Thief. Several times he tried to jump start a sequel to El Topo, this time following the child of the main character (he wanted to call it Son of El Topo or Abelcain). Yet aside from an appearance in the 1994 documentary about his career, La Constellation Jodorowsky, he stuck to comics and graphic art.

Because of his lack of output, Jodorowsky has since been marginalized. He’s been considered a fluke, a one (or, in the case of Mountain, two) hit wonder, a difficult creator who can’t understand a need to compromise for his craft. Instead, he remains staunchly defiant, even allowing his movies to fall out of print until the issues with Klein could be resolved. What this has meant, sadly, is that audiences for over 30-plus years have been deprived of some of the most amazing motion pictures ever created. Visually stunning, deeply personal, and philosophical without being preachy or intellectually obtuse, both El Topo and The Holy Mountain are merely fables formulated out of fever dreams, one man’s attempts to depict a crisis of the soul via pictures and predicaments. Unlike the work of some surrealists, who seem to be tossing random images at the camera for the sake of their own oddness, Jodorowsky tries to tie everything together, giving his apparent arbitrariness a lasting heft that transcends the art form’s tricks. His films can be hard to look at, even more appalling in their approach, but there’s also a beauty and an elegance generated by his frequently fractured dynamic that’s impossible to avoid.

Surrealism, by its very nature, sets itself up for constant criticism. There are those people who simply do not respond well to such a mannered approach to ideas, as well as the seemingly impenetrable insularity of it all. For them, Alejandro Jodorowsky will be the poster boy for the problematic, a man obviously obsessed with death, sex, God, and man. If you take away the various visual elements, the sense of narrative experimentation and nonlinear logistics, all you’d have left is one man’s arrogant interpretation of the world around him. Thanks to surrealism and, at the same time, the counterculture movement he functioned within, this director managed a kind of miracle. He took nonsense and seriousness, reality and the ridiculous, and managed to find a way of having a crackpot combination of them all equal intelligence and insight. The proof of such an artistic triumph is located here, in this collection of brazen borderline masterpieces. If one walks away from his films, it should be an appreciation of one of medium’s forgotten renegades. He may not have been the first, but he is definitely one of the medium’s best - and most baffling.

by Bill Gibron

11 Nov 2007

So Jesus was a seagull. Or in deference to all devout Christians out there, a bird can be a messianic figure once it has a Trial of Billy Jack-like spiritual reawakening. Guess all those sacrosanct sightings in bagels, Danishes, and pizza slices aren’t so silly after all. For anyone old enough to recall the whole Godspell/Superstar revivalism of the early ‘70s (as clear a mea culpa for the preceding ‘60s as any culture can create), Jonathan Livingston Seagull was a plain-speak Bible combined with The Unexpurgated Guide to Water Fowl. It was, to paraphrase Woody Allen, EST with Feathers. Today it would be dismissed as New Age heresy—or perhaps, a literal fine-feathered soup for the easily enlightened soul—but back when flares were fashionable and people were feeling powerless against a corrupt government machine, this was Deepak Chopra with wings.

Joseph Campbell would be proud of the mythos manufactured here. Constantly taking off on his own, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is one disgruntled bird. He wants to fly faster, travel farther, and ignore the outdated laws of The Flock’s dictatorial elders. He’s a rebel, and he’ll never ever be anything but undeniably good. Instead of picking at garbage for sustenance, he’d rather try out new dangerous wing patterns and partake of internal monologues. As a result, he soon finds himself outcast from his feathered family. On his own for the first time, he drinks in the initial freedom. He travels across an unnamed nation, experiencing the vastness of the far off horizons.

But as the realities of a life alone start to sink in, Jonathan stumbles. Soon, he finds himself in a surreal world where lives are measured in centuries, not years, and where reincarnation allows his kind to transcend their body and teleport through space. After learning more about his special spiritual powers, Jonathan returns to The Flock. He wants to spread the Word about the world outside their landfill living conditions. He even takes another non-conformist seagull under his wing. Tragedy tests both of their mantles. It’s all part of being one with the cosmos and discovering your inner self.

Author Richard Bach, writer of this unquestionable cultural phenomenon that drove many a stunned student directly to the water pipe, was lambasted for cookie-cutter literary sloppiness and a far-too-liberal interpretation of man’s secular status in the cosmic hierarchy - but that didn’t hurt his bank account any. Every matriculating freshman found this best-selling bird book smack dab in the middle of the required-reading list, while older generations, desperate for some post-sexual revolution respite, tucked into the novel’s altruistic excess like highballs at an open bar. As with most fads, it quickly faded, but just to put a cap on the craze, writer/director Hal Bartlett brought the fable to the big screen.

If you can tolerate the touchy-feely foundation of Bach’s backwards belief system, and then Zen hit maker Neil Diamond’s sonic take on same, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a stunning artistic experience. It is, without a doubt, one of the more visually magnificent movies ever made. Oscar-nominated for its outstanding cinematography (by Disney True-Life Adventures photographer Jack Couffer) and editing (vast sweeping vistas courtesy of Jack P. Keller and James Galloway), it is a sumptuous optical wonder, a nature-based work of cinematic art. You can stuff your CGI – this is scope sans unnecessary visual tweaks. 

When we first meet the title character, he is soaring majestically through cotton soft clouds and over hyper-realistic seashore settings. It’s the Garden of Eden as clear California dreamin’. As slow motion waves crash against abandoned beaches, our hero hovers and dives, sun setting slowing to produce a perfect orange glow. It’s just incredible. Jonathan Livingston Seagull actually plans on using this image-based bravado for the vast majority of its storytelling—and we’re willing to buy it, up to a point. Indeed, the minute Mr. “Song Sung Blue” opens his pipes to pitch operatic, we start to shrink from the conceit. There is technically nothing wrong with Diamond’s score. It’s never pop songy, but it does get mighty saccharine and silly at times.

When the birds begin to speak, however, all bets are off. Since the book allowed the interaction between the avian characters to be semi-subjective in nature, it was an easier premise to buy. But when given the voice of a slightly irritating nebbish, Mr. Seagull becomes spoiled. There are several times throughout the course of this film when you wish a parent or down-covered pal would walk up to our hero and smack him upside the beak. If you’re going to anthropomorphize a creature, why make him so gosh-darned whiny and borderline insufferable?

You can almost hear actor James Franciscus balk during the voice-over. He can’t believe some of the lumbering lines he’s given. Luckily, everyone else is much less grating. Richard Crenna, Juliet Mills, Hal Holbrook, and Dorothy McGuire all do a bang-up job of making us believe these motionless entities are actually conversing (this is 1973, remember—a tad too soon for F/X moving mouths). While it may have been possible to make this film without all of Bach’s TM-laden psychobabble, it does help deliver the movie’s main point. Without it, we’d have 100 minutes of lovely landscapes and little else.

Thematically, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is stuck in supporting something best described as ‘nice guy non-conformity’. Our amiable albatross wants desperately to teach The Flock what he knows—about flying, about living, about avoiding eating your meals out of a massive rubbish heap. But according to our mighty author, people…sorry, gulls are the winged version of sheep—easily led and dumb as dirt. Jonathan must have a near-death epiphany, followed by a full-blown psychedelic freak-out, before he learns the power of one…bird. The sudden shift into New Testament territory begins when our hero delivers his sermon on the mount…of garbage. Then he resurrects a fellow gull who flew too close to a hazard, Icarus style, and cracked his plumed coconut. Sadly, there is no Passion like scourging. This was 1972 after all.

During the final fifteen minutes, we keep waiting for the cast of Disney’s Tropical Tiki Room Revue to step up and start singing “Could We Start Again Please.” It all gets very heavy handed and meta-metaphysical, trying to be every dogma to all mankind. Yet buried inside all the self-reflection and actualization is a kindly missive about being yourself and avoiding the corrosion of conventionality. So if you simply give the story its dated wacky packaging and enjoy the sights, you’ll get a great deal out of this preachy pictorial. Jonathan Livingston Seagull may argue for unrealistic altruism, individual sacrifice and the quest for freedom, but he remains—at least in film form—a pretty inconsistent pigeon to carry such a heavy handed communication.

For those of us fond of our formative years, reflecting with a new sense of personal perspective on everything and everyone that made those glorified days important, a few instrumental entities are bound to fail the significance test. Mood rings, space food sticks, and George McGovern do indeed become less momentous in the light of a three decade space time update. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is another such artifact. As a film, it has a visual power that’s destined to endure. As a philosophy, it gives the Reverend Moon and his group marrying followers a real run for their money.


by Bill Gibron

9 Nov 2007

Because of their high profile in the entertainment business and a talent track record of near mythic proportions, it’s easy to forget what Pixar meant to the technological end of the artform. Granted, they are the leading light when it comes to pushing the creative boundaries of CGI, using invention and aesthetic depth to deliver definitive examples of the post-modern genre. From Toy Story to Ratatouille, Finding Nemo to the upcoming Wall-E, they’ve provided a platform for some of the most wonderful, most awe-inspiring cinematic spectacles since pen and ink hit paper. Yet it’s the tools with which such visions are realized that will remain the company’s strongest legacy, a selection of software and applications that allowed everyone else to explore this infinitely fanciful environment of expression.

More than the inherent charm of seeing the medium in its infancy, or the overwhelming value of tracing it’s growth into the juggernaut it is today, the 13 wondrous works offered as part of the Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 1 (new to DVD from Disney) are perhaps one of the most amusing and insightful history lessons ever offered. Utilizing the added capacity of the digital format, John Lasseter and his merry band of pranksters are on hand to guide us - via commentary and added content – how a purchase by Apple’s Steve Jobs in the early ‘80s transformed a small tech concern into one of the biggest cartoon conglomerates ever. Along the way, we see how each new mini-movie illustrated and expanded some significant corporate progress, and how a string of industry eyes only promo reels became the cutting edge of a whole new way of bringing manmade movement into the 21st Century.

It all began with The Adventures of André and Wally B (1984). Made under the auspices of Lucas Films, it was the then unformed Pixar’s first production. Wanting to showcase two different innovations in the burgeoning bitmap realm – a pointillism inspired program used to create realistic landscapes and the introduction of the tear drop shape for characters – the story of an alien robot and the bumblebee tormenting him was under five minutes of simplistic action. But it was the proverbial giant step in both form and function. Next up, shadow and physical reality were explored in Luxo Jr. (1986). Named after the desktop lamp on animator Lasseter’s drawing table, this complicated comedy involving a hyperactive fixture and its befuddled father became the recognizable face of the company. Even today, Pixar uses the loony light as its mascot and logo cue.

But it was the story of an unwanted unicycle that made Red’s Dream (1987) the first legitimate animated film for the company. Hoping to combine semi-realistic character modeling (a rather freakish clown) with a true emphasis on story and emotion, the amazingly effective piece became a rallying cry for taking the company into the realm of full length feature moviemaking. Of course, there were obstacles along the way, and Tiny Toy (1988) would be used to address many of them. Winning an Oscar for its clever combination of design (the company’s initial foray into dealing with anthropomorphized playthings) and detail (for its time, the rather monstrous baby was a technical marvel), it proved that the untried novices could definitely play with their most established peers.

Knick Knack (1989) and Geri’s Game (1997) would confirm said status. Both were narrative based, utilizing software advances and new programming paradigms to realize their goals, not visa versa. Similarly, both advanced the concept of the media’s seemingly inexhaustible creative elements. While the former film dealt with a group of souvenirs, and one particularly perplexed snowman, the latter was a single character tour de force that indicated the medium’s malleability as a traditional means of storytelling. Many of the problems solved and trials survived helped the company make the leap, resulting in the first real masterpiece of the fledgling medium, Toy Story (1995).

What followed then was a series of tie-in efforts, films made to accompany the next big screen release from the sudden producer of blockbuster popcorn fare. For the Birds (2000) followed the adventures of some snotty little fowl, while Mike’s New Car (2002) took character’s from the hit movie Monsters, Inc. (2001) and gave them a small showcase all their own. Jack-Jack Attack (2005) did the same with The Incredibles 2004), while Mater and the Ghost Light (2006) expanded on the Route 66 mythology that Lasseter used to make the 2006 masterwork Cars. The remaining efforts – Boundin’ (2003), One Man Band (2005), Lifted (2006) – were all commissioned to complement a theatrical title, offering audiences a chance to experience the ‘short film before the feature’ novelty, just like their grandparents did decades before.

Along the way, Pixar also produced four Luxo-based pieces for Sesame Street. Dealing with simple concepts like “Surprise”, “Up and Down”, “Light and Heavy”, and “Front and Back”, the kid-friendly facets argued for the company’s overall approach. And when viewed all at once on this amazing DVD, you get the real impression of craftsmanship being channeled and challenged in a way that few formats have been capable of balancing. It may have been a 50/50 split in technology and talent at the beginning, but over the years, the outside the box thinking used by the brains behind the scenes have meant that Pixar established the benchmarks used within a burgeoning artform, instead of trying to live up to them.

Indeed, everything that’s right – and wrong – about CGI today is encompassed in this baker’s dozen of definitive films. While Pixar could never be accused of pandering, watching the crazy critter musical extravaganza of Boundin’ belies what most misguided mimics believe defines the production company’s most successful facets. Similarly, the recycling of favored characters matches the constant sequelizing of the entire Shrek/Ice Aging of the genre. Of course, the lushness of the backdrops, the Autumnal feeling behind Geri’s chess match (it practically reeks of fallen leaves and far off campfires) is also indicative of Pixar’s presence. In fact, in an effort to best the big boys, some overdo the detail. A film like Fox’s Robots may seem like a perfect amalgamation of everything innately good inside the format until you see how far out of whack the minutia vs. amusement ratio really is.

Throughout the commentary tracks offered (only Jack-Jack Attack is missing said conversation, and Mike’s New Car has a couple of company kids – grade schoolers – mindlessly riffing away), the members of the Pixar staff, the old stalwarts and the acknowledged new guard, ascertain the sense of freedom and creative license given by the company and the decision to go digital. For them, CG was not all cold, sterile passionless processors (though the 25 minute behind the scenes documentary The Pixar Shorts: A Short History, will flabbergast you with how horribly old fashioned the first company supercomputers were) – it was a means to a much more magnificent ends. In light of the current overabundance of substandard 3D animation, it’s clear that many wannabes missed this part of the presentation. Now, thanks to The Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 1, everyone has access to the instructions. The ability to utilize them properly? Luckily, that remains a trade secret.

by Bill Gibron

9 Nov 2007

For the weekend of 9 November, here are the films in focus:

Fred Claus [rating: 7]

Fred Claus is the perfect post-millennial holiday film. It’s funny, smart, wicked, warm, and above all, completely clued-in to our growing crass commercialization of Christmas

Christmas is a mess. It’s not sacrilegious to say it. Between the remaining religious significance, the retail desire to cram the celebration down our throats earlier and earlier, and the ‘ME! ME! ME!’ sense of materialization and entitlement, it’s hard to figure out a proper yuletide reaction. There is still a lot of inherent magic in the holiday, but there’s an ever increasing amount of grief, gratuity, and groveling too. Alt-rock darlings Low provide the perfect analogy to the season with their Gap Ad special – a cover version of the classic “Little Drummer Boy”. Applying a shoe-gazing slowness to the track, and amplifying the angst by using a single sample from Goblin’s soundtrack for the George Romero zombie stomp Dawn of the Dead, they captured the sullied season in a nutshell. Oddly enough, David Dobkin’s Fred Claus is a similarly styled mixed message. It takes the standard Noel and gives it a good old tweak in the tinsel.  read full review…

P2 [rating: 6]

Sometimes a hoary old cliché can come bubbling back to life if handled in a respectful and direct manner – and this describes P2 perfectly.

Since the earliest days of cinema, the woman in jeopardy has been a narrative staple. From the perils experienced by Pauline to the quid pro quo of Clarice Starling’s interaction with a certain serial killer, the seemingly helpless female has been perfect thriller protagonist fodder since nitrate was first silvered. They get the audience interested, tweaking both the paternal and maternal instincts among viewers. Some have even suggested a much meaner, misogynistic explanation for such story structures. Ever since the slasher film in the ‘80s, gals have been garroted for reasons that have remained insular and disturbing. Even when eventually empowered, there tends to be a viciousness toward our heroine that’s almost inexcusable. Even in cases like P2, where our lead is obviously much smarter and more controlled than our craven psychopath, there’s a backwards blame game being played that just doesn’t seem fair. read full review…

Sleuth [rating: 5]

Constantly upstaging the rest of the cast, and reminding us over and over that we are watching a stogy, old fashioned stage play, Branagh’s loopy lens is indeed the best part of Sleuth. Everything else is just plain pointless.

The true star of Sleuth, the remake of the 1970’s cat and mouse thriller, isn’t its up to date A-list cast. Michael Caine, playing the role originally essayed by Sir Laurence Olivier, is a decent enough heavy, and Jude Law, inhabiting Caine’s old part, is an equally adept dandy. Together, they forge a unique performance unit that literally grabs the screen. Nor is it the work of playwright/literary lord Harold Pinter. While off his typical linguistic game by a few disadvantage points (he is adapting another’s work, after all), his exchanges percolate with the type of tongue twisting that makes theater types gush. Nor is it the sterile modernity of Tim Harvey’s production design. It may look like Caine’s Andrew Wyke lives in a funhouse version of Hitler’s bunker, but it’s really a contemporary ruse, a way of making the conventional seem unreal and daunting. read full review…

Lions for Lambs [rating: 4]

For all its studied sturm and drang, Lions for Lambs is superficial, piecemeal, and woefully unprepared to argue its points.

There are basically three levels of debate. The first type is often called the slam dunk, the common sense position (racism is wrong, children should be protected) that rarely gets a legitimate rebuttal. If and when it does however, the opponent typically looks foolish, battling against an established maxim than no one really challenges. Then there are the unwinnable clashes - conversations about abortion, God, musical taste, etc. – that even King Solomon himself couldn’t resolve. It could be because there are too many internal facets to each side to successfully maneuver, or it might have something to do with how personal the positions really are, but no one can ever win during these discussions, no matter the side.  read full review…

by Bill Gibron

9 Nov 2007

LIONS FOR LAMBS (dir. Robert Redford)

There are basically three levels of debate. The first type is often called the slam dunk, the common sense position (racism is wrong, children should be protected) that rarely gets a legitimate rebuttal. If and when it does however, the opponent typically looks foolish, battling against an established maxim than no one really challenges. Then there are the unwinnable clashes—conversations about abortion, God, musical taste, etc.—that even King Solomon himself couldn’t resolve. It could be because there are too many internal facets to each side to successfully maneuver, or it might have something to do with how personal the positions really are, but no one can ever win during these discussions, no matter the side.

And then there are the arguments at the center of Robert Redford’s surprisingly inert Lions for Lambs. Floating somewhere between the obvious and the impossible, this anti-war diatribe wants to be as fair and impartial as its left leaning capacities will let it—and it wants to accomplish this by using the mightier pen, not the far more cinematically interesting sword. Scribbled—literally so—by Kingdom writer Matthew Michael Carnahan and wearing its well meaning intentions as far out on its sedentary sleeves as possible, this is a thinking man’s thriller, except both the brain and bravado are hardly engaged. We are meant to see the three intertwining stories here as all possible paradigms surrounding the War on Terror. Sadly, not a single one adds up to a moment of significant clarity.

We first meet seasoned Washington reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) as she prepares to meet Senator Japser Irving (Tom Cruise). He has set aside an entire hour for a one-on-one “interview” over a new military strategy in Afghanistan. It turns out to be more of a con job than a confab. At the same time, a wise old college professor named Stephen Malley (Redford) is having a meeting with one of his more promising students, Todd Hayes. He hopes to convince the boy to do more with his college career, and his options afterward, than merely selling out and seeking a cushy, cash heavy career. He does this by explaining what happened to a previous pair of outstanding underclassman, Ernest Rodriguez and Arian Finch. They took Malley’s words to heart—and ended up joining the Army. Now serving in Afghanistan, we see how the new policy in the Middle East, as outlined by Irving, has the duo dealing with issues they never anticipated. In the end, all involved must decide which side of the fence they reside on, and how that determination will affect their ethos, and their life.

From the above description, Lions for Lambs should be a barn burner. From a more than competent cast to a whirlwind approach to the subject (think Babel by way of the John Birch Society), the idea of paralleling fates tested with those behind the scenes marginalizing said destinies has enough aesthetic potency to plow through any number of clichés or jingoistic jolts. And for a while, one gets the impression that this film will pull it off. Redford, who deservedly won his directing Oscar for the pristine Ordinary People, gives us impressive set-ups, complicated cross cuts, and a feeling that we are about to enter a Category 5 human hurricane of politics, personalities, and philosophizing. All we have to do is ride it out and enjoy the metaphysical life or death experience.

And then the storm never comes. Instead, it just drizzles for 90 minutes before turning dull. What should be aggressive comes across anemic. All the high minded ideas being tossed around like buoyant buzzwords end up aimed squarely at the smallest percentages of the lowest common denominator. For all its studied sturm and drang, Lions for Lambs is superficial, piecemeal, and woefully unprepared to argue its points. It’s high school level forensics, novice division vs. big time verbal firefights. The most compelling element of the storyline—the gifted if disenfranchised young men who decided to use the military as a means of making a difference (their logic is suspect at best)—is marginalized by a movie that wants to pound us over the head with “Bush is Bad” pronouncements until we acquiesce. While such a sentiment may be valid, it could be handled in a far more rational manner. Indeed, all the animosity Cruise and Streep spit at each other over the media coverage of the war and the GOP response to same could very easily apply to Redford and Carnahan as well.

You see, Lions for Lambs might appear to play fair, but if one could glimpse behind this Wizard of Fixed Odds’ curtain, they’d see a bunch of high minded hippies holding “Down with LBJ” placards. This is a movie using Vietnam as a slightly skewed way of describing our current Middle East policy, and while the analogy might have some play, the conclusions are clearly light years apart. No Asian country plowed two commercial airliners into our New York skyline, and while the Domino theory had very little long term regional resonance, our current thickheaded policy in Iraq has put us in a catastrophic Catch-22 dilemma. We can’t win, but we can’t leave—at least, not cleanly. As some pundits have suggested, we are no safer than when our bedeviled President declared “Mission Accomplished. But the fear of post-evacuation havoc has us so spooked, we can’t see a logical way of leaving.

Lions for Lambs plays these particular cards, and Cruise is so expert at delivering these carefully crafted swindles that you wonder if Scientology automatically disqualifies an actor from seeking higher office. Unfortunately, his cohort in conversation (for the first time in her career, Streep is a cipher here) constantly low balls his ludicrous pronouncements. Instead of challenging him, she keeps waiting for Irving to step on his own dicta. It never happens. It’s the same when Malley takes on Hayes. Redford is dermabrased and ready to dig in. He’s got his conceptual combat boots on. But as the role of up and coming idealist, Andrew Garfield is as blank as a fart. Watching his vacant, disconnected performance, one’s not sure if he’s playing a slacker, or simply inhabiting the personification of sloth. He is intellectually dead, emotionally sparse, and above all, unworthy of the movie’s championing.

Which, of course, leads us back to Rodriguez and Finch. While their storyline sinks along predicable military missteps, there are some genuine moments between the characters. As played by Michael Pena and Derek Luke, we get a real sense that both are the kind of individual who deserve our motion picture attention. They don’t come across as forced and feigned—though, again, their rationalization for becoming grunts leaves a lot to be desired—and we sense in them the gravitas missing from almost every other aspect of the film. By the time we’ve reached the anticlimactic conclusion to the other two tales (Cruise and Streep at stalemate, Redford and Garfield purposefully vague) we find ourselves wanting more of the dedicated duo. In a film filled with half-assed heroics, they remain the only victors.

This is why Lions for Lambs is so inexcusable. It shouts the loudest, pounding its flimsy fists on the desk for ineffectual dramatics. In a season which has seen equally limp interpretations of our life and times (In the Valley of Elah, Rendition), Robert Redford and his well meaning company of civil shills have a big fat, slightly damaged, diatribe to sell you. It doesn’t get great mileage, and isn’t very dependable, but if you like your positions on the retractable side of extreme, this overly verbal vehicle will get you to where you want to go. It’s stagey and talky, more off Broadway than broadminded, and there will be some who cotton to such expositional exercises. If you want to see superstars yak on endlessly however, Inside the Actors Studio is still on—and it’s a lot more politically astute than this overdone discussion group. 

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