John Carter and The Hunger Games

So, it’s Friday afternoon and Disney’s spring tenpole picture, the Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) directed John Carter has been open for a few hours now.

Going strictly by my Twitter feed (which is very film news and film nerd heavy), no one is talking about it. No one.

In the last few days even, the only talk I’ve seen about it has been retweets of kind words from Andrew Stanton’s twitter feed.

I haven’t seen it yet, but by all accounts (including our own 3-star review by Will Goss) it’s an all right movie. I’m debating between an afternoon screening today, or just waiting until Monday, but it’s not the story that makes me want to see it, it’s the fact that I want to support Andrew Stanton, whose work I enjoy. (Also, for what it’s worth, when big pictures like this fail, even if you’re not a fan of them, they really hurt mid-level pictures. The dirty secret of Oscar time is really the fact that tentpole pictures used to pay for “cerebral” movies that didn’t make their box office back, but now they barely make any money on their own.)

The big problem with John Carter is that I have no idea what it’s about.

Dude goes to Mars and there is a war of some sort and Earth is, of course, next.

Yes, that’s standard. But what the hell is it about, really?

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“The Sweatbox” & Glen Keane: Disney Feature Animation at a Crossroads

As you might expect, Disney is a bit of a love-hate obsession with this OW writer. Last week, some brave soul risked (financial and legal) life and limb to post The Sweatbox on YouTube. It’s since been removed, but that toothpaste isn’t going back into the tube.

If you’re asking yourself what the hell The Sweatbox is, there is a good reason you’ve never heard of it.

It’s a feature length documentary shot by Trudie Styler, wife of Sting, chronicling the six year process of Walt Disney Feature Animation Studios making what would eventually become The Emperor’s New Groove, which began life very differently as Kingdom of the Sun before the WDFA chiefs, Thomas Schumacher and Peter Schneider, made a few crew changes.

For years now, The Sweatbox, has been locked away in a Disney vault, becoming one of those holy grail-type films that people had kind of given up on ever seeing. Disney had honored the bare minimum of its contract for the film, showing it a handful of times at festivals and then stuck it away in the vault. The word was that it was not a very flattering look into the making of the sausage. In fairness, the making of most films is a battle of attrition, and The Sweatbox caught that in all of its bloody awkwardness, casually putting Disney’s storytelling and creative process on trial through the consternation of Sting and his furrowed, chess-playing, letter-writing brow.

It’s hardly a rare tale at all, especially in the animation industry, especially at Disney. It happened to varying degrees on The Lion King before they found the Hamletesque version of the story as well, and even at Pixar on Toy Story 2, Ratatouille and Wall-E. Live action is no different, especially in Classic Hollywood. The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, How Green Was My Valley, they all had major changes in casting, director and script. Casablanca and Jaws were being filmed during the day and written at night so they could film more the next day.

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Rainbow (aka Passerby #3) – Shin Su-won (2010)

When the vanguard films of the first South Korean wave hit in the early 2000s, most of us were caught off guard, unaware that such a place like Chungmuro–a center of great filmmaking, where melodrama wasn’t a negative and voice over wasn’t a crutch–even existed. The quirkiness of My Sassy Girl, the magic realism of Il Mare, the intensity of Chingu–these were new experiences, something American and European films, which were still stuck in a cycle of vacant gun play and artless conversation films, didn’t offer.

Somewhere it went all wrong, though. Maybe it had been all wrong from the start. Maybe the sudden and intense interest allowed years of great films to float to the top all at once, to be consumed as if they all came out in a single year. But even if it were all wrong from the beginning, there was still a change somewhere between My Sassy Girl and Oldboy winning the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Shin Su-won’s Rainbow (aka Passerby #3) seems to remember a time when there was still joy left in filmmaking, but that spirit has since been exercised to near death. Rainbow offers a bleak and thoroughly depressing look at the inner workings of the popularity-or-bust film industry that once, even if briefly, thrived with a real sense of Korean identity, which has since given way to a sanitized version of itself for a globalized world.

Films, now, are made or not made by committee, and within that committee, directors are met with reams of statistics on what is likely to be commercial, and any popular whim that occurs requires the production to completely change at a moment’s notice.  More often than not, their projects are not given the green light to go ahead, which is where we find Ji-won (Park Hyun-young), a director about to turn 40 who caught the filmmaking bug a little too late in life and still hasn’t made her debut yet.

After resigning from her job to pursue her new dream, Ji-won has found little more than a brick wall to run face first into with each new project she begins. Her husband is frustrated with her lack of progress, and her son, the socially awkward Si-yeong (Baek So-myeong), is even less supportive, openly taking out every flaw in his life on his mom. I would have gotten a mouthful of lava soap if I said any of the things that Si-yeong says in the film to his mother, but Ji-won’s meek character allows it, just as it allows her to be stepped on at work, where, even after making a major artistic breakthrough, finding the voice and the kernel of a story she had been so desperately looking for for so long, she is cheered on with a smile into changing her script to better fit the marketing plan. To make it more popular.

As a film, Rainbow has a tendency to oscillate back and forth between empathy with Ji-won, as she goes through her creative process trying to remember what drew her into filmmaking in the first place and trying to free her artistic wings, to a multi-layered frustration that is so deeply rooted in the film that it threatens to spoil it. Every character comes from a place of frustration: Ji-won’s frustration at seeing younger filmmakers than her begin their productions, her husband’s frustration at having to share a wife with a so-far fruitless endeavor, her son’s frustration at being a poor guitarist and the subject of senior bullying, and even her producer’s frustration at not receiving material from Ji-won that she can do anything with.

In fact, it’s a surprise that this film was even made, it’s so critical of the film industry. But it puts a voice to the frustration that I think a lot of people feel when it comes to Korean film in the last five or six years, since American studios started buying up remake rights.

The saying goes that there are two things you never want to let people see being made: laws and sausages. But the ways in which a film comes to be made–or, worse not made–is often more uncomfortable to witness. Almost every reason for a film to be made is a bad reason, and almost every reason not to make a film is a good one. But it’s a sickening truth to realize, to live in a world where this is so. Shin Su-won captures the spirit of that thought, but the underlying problem remains. Film going is a casual experience for a far greater percentage of the population, and that’s who will always get served first, but they already have the rest of us, and they know it.

Bringing Out the Dead – Martin Scorsese (1999)

It all started out downhill for Bringing Out the Dead, Martin Scorsese’s film about an insomniac paramedic suffering through an existential crisis, starring Nicolas Cage, and written by Paul Schrader. It was Schrader’s involvement that seemed to doom it from the very get go, leaving it wide open to the sort of Taxi Driver comparisons that no film could live up to.

Cosmetically and thematically, the two seemed to be so similar that Bringing Out the Dead was thought to be a sequel, either in fact or in spirit. God has given the world a lot of lonely men, and the old, pre-Giuliani New York where Scorsese plied his trade had more than its quota.

Paramedic Frank Pierce (Cage) doesn’t seem to have always been one of God’s lonely men, though. There was a time when he was a healer, a guide, almost a priest tending to and healing his flock on the overnight shifts in the West Side neighborhood he grew up in. He speaks of a time when saving a life was almost an out of body experience, one he got as much good out of as he life he pulled back from beyond. His hands had moved with speed and skill that didn’t seem to derive from him. He was a conduit, designed to save lives. But he hasn’t saved anyone in months by the time we meet him. By the look of his eyes, he hasn’t slept in just as long.

A paramedic in a slump is something entirely different than Mattingly in a slump, but this has become something more than a slump for Frank. He is almost resigned to the fact that the power that used to guide his hands has left him. Central to his problem is the specter of a young homeless girl named Rose who died under his care that is haunting him, taking over the face of everyone he sees. It’s the guilt from her death is killing him, or, at the very least, killing the people he can no longer save.

Frank’s is a very Catholic guilt, an all out systemic blitz on his soul, or what he thinks of his soul, that has penetrated him so deeply that it’s literally causing him to stop functioning. Catholics (especially lapsed Catholics) are in some manner essentially beasts of burden for their own guilt. It’s a familiar theme, especially for Scorsese, who built his career on the Catholic misery in Mean Streets and Raging Bull. It’s heavy, wracking weight is no less a burden because of how well essayed it is in art. Frank’s guilt has become a parasite, eating from the inside out, blunting his senses for everything but the ability to spot another broken soul, like Mary (Patricia Arquette), who father is the first body and soul he has rejoined in months, but is ultimately a wasted effort. It’s a cruel move to allow this man to save someone beyond actual saving, only prolonging his misery, not his life. Frank reads it in his eyes, and entertains Mary’s father’s misery in his head as if it were his own, which only further wracks him with guilt. But an essay on Catholic guilt sure doesn’t sell any tickets.

Along with the Taxi Driver comparisons, the film was never sold right. Selling a film right is everything, as we’ve just seen with John Carter, and Dead suffers from one of the worst, most ambiguous trailers you’ve ever seen, smooshing together every element from the film so that you don’t know if it’s a ghost story, a horror story, a drama or a comedy. While it’s all of those things in the decompressed space of the film’s running time without being confusing, the short trailer cannot handle such an overload of genres tugging us in this direction and that direction and the other. But external issues aside, Bringing Out the Dead suffered more acutely from a few of its own very real problems. Chief among them was the use of a needledrop score consisting of The Clash, Johnny Thunders, the Stones and UB40 laid over the wall-to-wall shag carpeting of Van Morrison’s T.B. Sheets. Scorsese needed a helping hand with his soundtrack, someone to reign his excess in, but never found that helping hand. In stead of atmosphere, or aural cues, the film’s soundtrack becomes a din, like someone playing the radio loudly in the next room while you’re trying to watch this film.

Bringing Out the Dead is a film that critics and Scorsese fans like a lot more than average moviegoers. I worked at Blockbuster when this came out and it was barely touched on the rental shelves, which I had trouble with, reconciling my love of the film with the general indifference, even hate. The division line isn’t an artsy-fartsy line drawn in the sand, I don’t think, I think it’s just that you have to want this film. Directors have their cheerleaders, and Scorsese has more than most. But having to want a film is not the ideal way to go into it, even if it does allow you to overlook flaws more effectively, and this film has a seemingly equal ratio of flaw to brilliance.

Marriage is a Crazy Thing – Ha Yu (2002)

A fall afternoon. A blind date. Two people, meeting over orange juice and coffee. Polite smiles, banal conversation, a dull movie that she’s already seen. This is the perfectly benign set up for Yoo Ha’s Marriage is a Crazy Thing.

But as the alcohol flows and the right articles of clothing come off, something else entirely happens: they begin to actually speak to each other. There is a self-awareness to how absurd the situation is, and the talk goes on, they both unveil the ugly-yet-playful side of their personalities.

I don’t like either of the characters: Yeon-hee (Uhm Jung-hwa), a serial dater who has some financial independence but values financial security so much that she can’t find Mr. Right; and Joon-young (Kam Woo-seong), a part time English lit professor whose career is stuck on the launch pad. He has no financial freedom or independence but is also a serial dater, and possessed the rare combination of being deeply sullen and supremely cocky.

So, then, why do I like this film?

Marriage is a Crazy Thing is among my favorite Korean films–one of the first I ever saw–but I’ve never truly been able to figure out why that is. The film has always had an asterisk next to it in my head, and in the past I’ve likened it to three-chord rock bands that aren’t technically good but just have something–some spark, some elusive glimpse that is hard to pin down–to them.

A few months ago, film critic Kartina Richardson wrote a post on Mirror Film about the various problems one encounters when writing film criticism. Her starting point was about race and color, but (being a white male) I latched on to a different part of her essay. “I never want to discuss cinema in a leaden and academic way, but what other way is taken seriously?” she asks. “Emotional discussion of film is often dismissed as juvenile,” she says. And she’s right. And it’s absurd. Why should films be reviewed differently than they are viewed?

Film is a thoroughly emotional medium.

Movies are meant to make you feel, or they fail. They can also make you think. But while a film that can make you only feel is fine, a film that only makes you think seems to be missing something: a soul, a center, heart, a point of view. Whatever you want to call it, it’s the emotional element that is missing from otherwise good films, such as Syriana or, for me — though some will disagree — Barking Dogs Never Bite or A Single Spark, that keep them from reaching a certain level, from really digging in under the skin and into the vital organs.

When I go back and read over the bad reviews I’ve written – either the ones I didn’t write well, or the movies I didn’t like – the thing missing in them is generally an emotional point of view. Now, the catch to that is that emotions are also the easiest thing to manipulate in film. The mainstay of South Korean drama: the melodramatic tearjerker, for instance. But they can’t be manipulated clumsily. If we see the strings of manipulation, we can cut them off and be free of them.

Where does Marriage is a Crazy Thing fit into that?

It’s a perfect example of a film meant to be viewed emotionally rather than intellectually. Your brain will only get in the way of the story, which lays itself out almost like a modern fairy tale, but in reverse, where the man is the powerless maiden waiting to be freed from his cell by the one he loves as friends and family around him move on in life, get married, have kids and careers.

Joon and Yeon-hee’s relationship was designed by them to be a weight station along the road, just a temporary stop before their final destination, but they never quite found a way out. They meant to, sure that each would cheat on the other, confident that the other was not fully up to building a real life around, but the thing about it is that they mesh so well, compliment each other so perfectly in their awfulness that it is kind of endearing.

Even after Yeon-hee’s marriage they can’t end it, becoming a weekend couple, when Yeon-hee lends Joon money to move out of his parents’ house, into a small roof room apartment. From the outside it appears that this actually the only way their relationship can truly function.

It’s the apartment, tiny, cramped, decorated by her, but lived in by him that makes all the difference in the world for the film. It’s a perfect stroke from the writer-director, Ha.

So, the somewhat strange conclusion to the question, I think, is that I like Marriage is a Crazy Thing because of its emotional selfishness. The meeting of these two characters in their little roof room getaway sparks some kind of a firewall into existence, where common sense, morality, guilt, conscience, law — or anything related to the brain — cannot penetrate, if only for a small amount of time. When something does finally penetrate it, it is a tide of emotion. It makes a mess, but it’s a true mess. Emotions always are.

Crying Fist – Ryoo Seung-wan (2005)

It’s kind of a curious thing that a sport I really don’t like could end up producing so many films that I do: RockyRaging BullRequiem for a HeavyweightThe Great White HopeKiller’s Kiss. Even Chaplin’s boxing bit from City Lights is among my favorite Chaplin scenes. Ryoo Seung-wan’s gritty boxing film Crying Fist, starring Choi Min-sik and brother Ryoo Seung-beom, easily finds a home in that list.

The fight film is almost always one of redemption, and it’s no surprise when we meet Gang Tae-shik (Choi) and Yoo Sang-hwan (Ryoo) we find them stuck in dead-end paths that call for them to redeem themselves. In Tae-shik’s case, it is his wife and son who he has wronged most, failing them in every possible way, time after time. Tae-shik is the definition of a broken man, the next in line after Rocky Balboa (Sylvester StalloneRocky) and Mountain Rivera (Anthony QuinnRequiem for a Heavyweight). Uneducated, a bad father, an even worse husband, Tae-shik is in throes of dementia pugilistica (punch drunk), but only knows how to box to make back the money he owes. At every step, it seems to be destined that whatever decision he makes is the wrong one. But his actions seem to be only halfway borne from a lack of brains. The rest seems from the deep bitterness of never making it as a boxer or a man.

For Sang-hwan, it’s more himself that he needs to prove something to. He’s gone so far astray that he’s found himself in a prison nightmare for manslaughter after a stick up gone bad. Life on the inside and outside become even worse for Sang-hwan until he finds boxing as an outlet. But boxing is the kind of thing that isn’t an outlet right away. It’s a rededication of lifestyle, but a frustrating one as you realize just how uncoordinated you actually are as you take beating after beating. But it’s easy to argue that Sang-hwan deserves the beatings he takes. He does.

It begs a legitimate question: can boxing really redeem a person? More specific than that, can boxing really redeem these two men?

For both men, it seems like boxing is the Last Chance Saloon. That it is only a lifetime full of bad choices that brings people to the brutal ballet. It seems to have an allure to it, that the training of the body can somehow contain a person’s worst instincts, or at least reel them in a little. It’s a theory that works well as a metaphor in film, though one Mike Tyson seemed to disprove in real life during his downward spiral.

Thus, it’s tempting to look at the two central characters as an old and young embodiment of the same man continually stuck fighting his demons, chasing his own tail around the ring in a never ending battle with himself, but it robs from the individual struggle each is fighting for. In the end they may not find redemption, but redemption is a fleeting thing anyway. Like the beginning of an education in boxing, redemption is a rededication of lifestyle, not something you get your fill of in one go. This is the first step, but there is a second. And a third.