Sunday, July 03, 2005

War of the Worlds (2005)


I write this part of the review almost a year later, in March of 2006, after the Oscars, which I don't care about, and didn't follow, though I was surprised to see the director Spielberg's Munich nominated (so invasive is Oscar-talk, even living in Paris I hear who's nominated). This all got me to thinking about pictures and boxers—specifically, the combination.

It seems impossible not to conclude Little Swinging Steven did not have in mind, in delivering this '06 one-two, his earlier knockout success of, what, Jurassic Park and Schindler's List? But like all mythic combinations, or just plain knock-out punches, they are cemented into being in one transcendent moment, typically never to be equalled. It was known that Joe Frazier had a devastating left hook; it was made mythic when he flattened Ali with it. So too has it been known that "The Batt'lin' Jew from Da Broken Home" can put together films that alternately tickle flabby intellects and satisfyingly spasm the rictus of the masses.

Under this thesis, War of the Worlds would be what we call the set up.

It is a kind of hobo production, awkwardly raced along the rails of the 9/11 Express, bumming on the sideboards of a flaming boxcar, and pointing back at the the horrific scene behind—the smoke, the dust, the collapse. This becomes embarassing only in rare moments during the ride, such as when one is left to imagine the army of prop-folk who must be in charge of showering the set with those gauzy white garmets, dropped not from heaven, but from overhead catwalks and hydro-electric cranes, in a sound stage, shielding their eyes from the kleig lights and listening for the walky-talky squak that will say, "Stop!"

I continue to be haunted by Tom Cruise, in his waning moments as America's Number One Box Office Draw, bark-honking the name "RA-CHEL!" He did this throughout the movie, dipping that pip-squeak trumpet of his into its most urgent moral register to convey--what? Parental authority? Parental terror? The moral barricade crumbling as it tries to hold back a riot of panic, and the knowledge of death?

I can come up with these explanations of the sound as a mental excercise, (explanations for its genesis, its import, not explanations of its effect, which haunts me in the way of a painful, prolonged annoyance); but at the time of viewing, all I could hear was self-righteous preening—the preacher leaning on his best biblical bit, his favorite soap-box affectation. In the movie theater (or theatre, as it is frequently spelled on the American West Coast) the effect was not harrowing, but distancing. An actor clearly exhausted of invention, exhausted of meaning. I can shout scared/scary when I have to, too; but is it art?

Something so self-conscious about the absolute elocution of every letter, the way he kept shouting, "Rachel": in his phony earnestness, every half-sound is augmented until the little tendons that had silently, translucently swayed between the primitive noises of this old name are made thick and sinewy and—"RE-AH-CH-HELL!!"

(The sound scrambled out by Cruise in a performance con furioso, con problémente, con confusiamento, at the brittle moment of his own public collapse—collapse of innocence, collapse of untainted appeal—he may go on to make more money, but he will do so unmasked.)

I saw this movie three times, (on the third showing I snuck out of the theatre at the moment Tim Robbins is met); mostly this was due to an intermittent work situation where I was commuting between Burbank and La Jolla at the peak hours of after-work Los Angeles traffic, and chose instead to sit said traffic out in a cool theatre; but also because this movie trafficked very effectively in apocalypse imagery, and if not for its inexplicable and astounding blunders, could have been truly great. Even with said flaws, this flick determinedly wiggled its way into a place very near if not exactly in my heart by effecctively proving a long-held theory of mine, or an idea of mine, having to do with bending digital efffects not toward fanciful money-shots, but toward the convincing portrayal of the end of the world. My idea was based on accurate depictions of distance and scale, atmosphere, etc. And the mute incomprehension of an apocalypse, no handy narrator or even narrative. Certainly the first awful appearance of the alien vehicle fulfilled all my intuitions, and added the enormity of sound in a way I could only have dreamed of in a mainstream movie. All this terror stayed with me even after the planting of an unnecessary airplane fuselage (yeah, we get it, "Let's roll"), the ho-hum man's-inhumanity-to-man minivan melee, the "Missing" posters, unbelievable because so obvious amd sophmoric "(it's about 9/11, get it?"); also, my trembling admiration could withstand, just barely, the grafted hokum of father-son man-love, up to the point of the painfully bad (bad taste, bad acting, bad staging) moment where son's skinny frame wiggles out of daddy's releasing grip, all on a fireball slope of damp grass.

Certainly after September 11th, Katrina, and the Tsunami, our visual familiarity with Armageddon has taken on a new sophistication (faces of terror as they run from collapsing World Trade Tower, or even more chillingly, faces of laughing surprise running from a wall of water, an instant before they are engulfed). And the best parts of this movie appropriately and satisfyingly face up to that new familiarity. But the bogus sentiments and unnecesary pandering that underpin these great set pieces knock the film from the perch it should occupy. Dammit.

A major divergence from our interests, from believability, from necessity, occurs at the killing of Tim Robbin's kook; the incredulity and irritation of this is expanded by the non-suicide suicide bomber success of Cruise while dangling in a set of silver 'nads tucked up in the tripartite crotch of the shiny mechanical beast, (that no one died when the cage is dropped onto the naked branches of a serious black oak does not raise an eyebrow, for we are now suddenly, firmly in familiar, superhero fantasyland); but no admiration could survive the stupefying ending, with a self-pitying "hero" remaining aloof from a family waving thankfully under the pristine protection of their natty Boston brownstone, while about the feet of all the windswept leaves of autumn whirl. Gag.


Still, every time I left the theatre, my hands were trembling. I wonder if the Medeval'er felt the same way before the Memling altarpiece? The power of confronting our own doom. Imagining our own death. By alien attack.

from original review


N.Y. Times columnist Frank Rich wrote this week what I'd planned as an opening for this EVENING OUT.


Viewed at The AMC Burbank Town Center 6, (the stepchild of the adjacent AMC 8 in the Burbank Center Mall, and the Behemoth AMC 20 next door to that).
Friday 4:45PM show on the Fourth of July Weekend


N.Y. Times columnist Frank Rich (Mel Gibson wants his intestines on a stick) published what I had hoped would be my opening line in this latest EVENING OUT.


Both Steven Spielberg and President George Bush made emotional pleas for our support and trust this week by invoking the memory of September 11th, 2001.
Both Steven Spielberg and President George Bush invoked the memory of September 11th, 2001 this week, making emotional pleas for our support and trust. Or, shamelessly invoking the memory of September 11th, 2001.


As interesting as the movie itself, the politics of filming an apocalypse specifically designed to employ 9/11 imagery...

....uh that's not very interesting.


Why does every review of a Steven Spielberg movie become NOT a referendum on the man’s career, but a self-conscious homage to a career, written with an extraordinary level of auteurist deference—as though the critic were dealing with a completely unique level of artistic achievement that could only be matched if Alfred Hitchcock or Walt Disney were brought back to life to direct the next Batman. Improbably, every mainstream review has to contractually acknowledge Sp.’s “mastery” or “unmatched” cinematic talent. Really? Like Julia Roberts being told onscreen in every one of her movies she is beautiful. A sort of lazy brainwashing is going on here…

Departing from this practice, or amplifying it, I suppose, one review posited prominent credit was due Spielberg's production team; the producer & cinematog of course, but also Art Director and Costume Designer, (and I thought this was interesting because this movie seemed to miss the mark in those areas, though less grossly than in what ultimately must be the director/writer’s purview), and in its broadmindedness, it hinted at a break from the monolithic view that Sp. is some sort of lone artist laboring in the humid cloud of his own greatness.

How did we get to this point? Is it just nec. that every area of human endeavor have a “greatest” practitioner? A numero uno? The Michael Jordan, the Michael Schumacher (ick—please, J.M.Fangio), the Lance Armstrong, the Muhammed Ali? Typically these assignations are absent a deeper debate about what actually constitutes greatness, or what areas one must excel all competitors in order to prove superiority: or even the usefulness of such a concept as a #1; all these subtlties are tossed in favor or a convienient, least controversial proclamation: "The greatest actor of all-time, Marlon Brando," etc. In movie direction, it is increasingly impossible not to fear that the criteria for greatness has been reduced to who has had the most hits. “Schindler’s List” gave enough White Elephant cover to protect Sp.’s supporters from accusations of pure profiteering. That people claiming to be professional movie critics continue to recite these encomiums is unsettling.

Spielberg's "genius" is simply his ability to make a movie with minimal studio interference, at EVERY stage of the game. The power, or clout, if you will, allows him to take on a project with a strong (in the sense of "clear") original intent, then shepherd (or ram, esp. at the 11 months this movie took from start to finish) this concept through the Hollywood process. "Saving Private Ryan:" vivid violence, circa WWII; "War of the Worlds:" street-level experience of alien armaggedon; "Jaws", "Jurassic Park", etc. There must be lots of filmsters that show up at the start of a project with a plenty clear idea of what they want to do. Then everyone with a little bit of power gets to tweak it. Spielberg's gift is he can stick to his plan, and his best plans contain a clearly focused, do-able concept. When this concept allies the latest advances in cinema sp/fx and a simpleton's intuition of the contemporary zeitgeist, big box office numbers often result. When the concept is weak ("Minority Report" The Raider's sequels, "Goonies"), or the zeitgeist faulty ("Always,") or when both misfire ("The Terminal"), problems may ensue.


I will force myself a moment of empathy: it must be tough to have every film inspected as a barometer of "Who We Are."


Empathy over: he clearly relishes this role, and it buys him a hell of a lot of mileage with nearly every critic out there: these critics often have half-baked or very faulty ideas about what constitutes zeitgeist at any given moment, and seem all-too-happy in their confusion to cede leadership on such important pop-cultural issues to the hip, fingers-on-our-pulse Spiel-man. Perhaps the close association, the auteurian association between S. Berg and his movies ("They're really personal statements, y'know,of a personal vision"), is more appropriate in his case than for any other Hollywood filmaker, because he does have so much control. Movies often get discussed in the context of their cultural significance, but tellingly, the issue of ownership will inevitably overlook the studio/distributor apparatus as the real "author" of the work. True singular control over "vision", etc., is really only the purview of Spiel, (and I guess somebody like Lucas, too, though he stays put on his farm, scared by the big city folk, and continues to raise repetitive crops of convoluted legerdemain).