Christmas Crazy: Christmas on Mars – Wayne Coyne (…of The Flaming Lips) (2008)


There may be no more odd person ever to be set upon this planet than Wayne Coyne. It’s the genuine strangeness of a brain that fires its synapses in a different manner all together. It’s only a brain as strange as his that could claim credit to this kind of output, for Christmas on Mars is nothing but a series of strangeness.

It’s Christmas Eve on the newly colonized Mars and everything is going wrong for the colonists. Their oxygen and gravity generators are failing and it’s leaving everyone on edge as the colony’s first baby is due. In the oxygen deprived basecamp, Bethlehem 2055, people start having visions of the baby’s horribly wrong future — in the most horrible vision, the baby is born only to be left to be crushed to death by an oncoming marching band… who all have vaginas instead of heads, or, as Adam Goldberg’s psychiatrist puts it: “this vaginal-headed marching band from hell”. The colonist who has this vision, the man who was set to play Santa Claus later that night, promptly commits suicide by rushing out of the air lock.

Into the mix lands a Martian, played by Coyne. He says nothing, he just observes and wanders as the station’s crew slowly lose their sense of hope for their futures.

With it’s mix of 50s atomic age camp and oddball Flaming Lips style, it’s somewhat of a surprise that Christmas on Mars turns out to be something of a sincere nativity play, albeit an atheist interpretation of it. There is nothing traditional about it, but you wouldn’t want there to be. It’s not a film that was made for reverence or silence. It was made to celebrate to, and talk over, and to get drunk with friends to, which is basically how all Christmas movies should be anyway.

Ender’s Aftermath: “Ender’s Game” Comes Out to Little Fanfare


So the Ender’s Game opening weekend came and went with little fanfare or trouble from the Orson Scott Card boycott. It also came and went with little money for the prospective franchise opener, bringing in less than $30m in North America.

The boycott had been proposed on social media earlier this summer as fans became aware of the Mormon author’s staunch and vocal opposition to gay marriage.

Boycotts never seem to work at anything but calling more attention to the thing you wish people would ignore. But with Ender’s Game, it was always going to be a hard sell even before Card’s words got them into trouble.

It’s a boycott I have plenty of sympathy for because Card’s anti-gay stance is repellent and harmful, but it’s not one I followed through on. I plunked my $14 down, but I did it for writer-director Gavin Hood and for Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford and Hailee Steinfeld (and, by the way, for the bit-part actor who had the fortune to be named Han Soto in a Harrison Ford movie).

(After writing this post, I finally saw this piece on The Wrap that claims Card only earned the $1.5m option fee with no box office backend, meaning the boycott was pointless — but no one said anything until the day before it opened for some incredibly dumb reason.)

A while back in Vision Thing, Steve made this point:

…the commercial success or failure of Ender’s Game will still be a verdict on the viability of [Orson Scott Card’s] name as a brand. If the film tanks, Hollywood will learn the lesson that anti-gay rhetoric has passed into the realm of box-office poison. If the picture does OK-to-strong business, the moral will be that the general public really doesn’t mind a little beating up on the sissies – meaning that Card (and other content providers who share his noxious ideology) will continue to be considered for future paydays.

So now that we have part of the verdict — the film was not John Carter-level box-office poison but was not strong either — we may be even farther away from an answer than we were before we began. This is an unknowable middle: was this a repudiation of Orson Scott Card, or was it just lousy word of mouth for a big budget film with little-to-no direct action set pieces? How many casual movie goers even know Card’s name, let alone his stance? (And the more awful question: how many people still agree with him?) Continue reading…

Happy Birthday to Roy Neary and Co., Close Encounters turns 35


Thirty five years ago today, Steven Spielberg’s jaw dropping b-movie classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was released in theaters. No one knew what the hell a close encounter was, but they quickly learned as they watched Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) and Gillian (Melinda Dillon) search frantically the kidnapped little Barry (Cary Guffey), culminating in the stunning 30 minute light and sound finale, affectionately known as “the light show”.

Since I started making stupid all-time lists (not all that long ago because they’re really stupid), there have been two mainstays at the top: #1, Fanny and Alexander, and #2, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Numbers 3-10 have fluxed wildly depending on the mood I was in when I wrote the list out, but #1 and 2 have remained the same. They’re not films that seem to have that much in common on their face, but they share similar themes of family and abandonment, and are both just slightly left of reality as we know it. Close Encounters has its aliens, Fanny and Alexander has its ghosts and mysticism. Of all of the great films that have been made and that I’ve seen in my life, I’ve always found it funny that a TV movie and a B movie are at the top of the heap for me, but it’s been persistent. Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player is never far behind in the list (#3 right now), and I’ve always loved Criterion’s description of it, that Truffaut was drunk on the possibilities of cinema.

The same idea goes for Close Encounters. Just off of the impossible success of Jaws, Spielberg had the backing and leeway to be drunk on the possibilities of B cinema. As it ended up, he was more the puppet master of the film than its director. It’s an incredibly manipulative film (especially playing out the scares and scary light of kidnapping of a cute little kid), but its manipulative in the best way possible. This week in THR’s writer’s roundtable, Michael Haneke rightly cited the Auschwitz gas/shower scene in Schindler’s List as being unbearably manipulative in the worst possible way, but, perhaps because there is less at stake in Close Encounters, Speilberg’s manipulation comes off more as a gentle nudge in the right direction for the maximum amount of experience than anything else. It’s perfectly acceptable to manipulate in B cinema. Sleight of hand, and devious editing and blocking are part of the experience. The goal is to thrill you and sometimes the suspension of disbelief needs to be stretched to the point right before it breaks before you can achieve that.

Stretching the bands of the suspension of disbelief is Spielberg’s real talent in the filmmaking world. Even though he’s had them snap on him (1941, for example), they’ve snapped remarkably few times for a man who has been making high end blockbusters for 40 years. Guy’s like Michael Bay and Paul W.S. Anderson don’t even bother with playing with the suspension of disbelief. You just have to ignore the ridiculousness in their films. If you don’t, then fuck you. Whereas you walk out of the theater or turn off the DVD really feel like E.T. or T-Rex exist out there somewhere. It makes Spielberg’s films, especially the ones made before 1985, easy to appreciate wholly without any reservations.

Bob Balaban is another great story of the film. Literally, through the publication of the diary he kept during shooting, Spielberg, Truffaut & Me, that chronicles his experiences with the film: from panicking about not actually knowing the French he said he did, the uncomfortable stay in India, and being the bearded one constantly getting mistaken for Dreyfus, who was often standing next to him, clean shaven and thus invisible.

In producer Julia Phillips’ bridge-burning autobiography, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in the Town Again, stories of the film are dished as well. She speculates about whether Truffaut’s hearing aide was just for show so he could escape conversations, and the real childlike nature of Spielberg when a kiss she gives him outside of the Alabama zeppelin hangar where “the big set” was housed embarrasses him so much.

George Lucas was so afraid that Star Wars would not gross anything and he’s be ruined, he traded Spielberg 2 1/2 points on Star Wars for 2 1/2 points on Close Encounters. Lucas has probably done pretty well off of those points with Close Encounters‘ $300+M gross, but not as well as Speilberg did on Star Wars‘ $1+b gross over the years. Somewhat surprisingly, Spielberg took his name out of contention to direct the new Star Wars film being written by Michael Arndt. After Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, maybe they needed a long break from working together.

With each new viewing the film only grows in my mind, especially for its masterly special effects, done by a team led by effects whiz Douglas Trumbull, not to mention the fact that almost everything is a set (designed by Joe Alves), including the dark side of the moon, which had to be built in a zeppelin factory, and even extended out of the bay door with duvetyne, the blue screen of the day: practical, easy to optically “paint” over. Today it would have been a green screen and digital paint, as would every one of the space ships. No one would have wondered, “how did they do that?” But 35 years later, I still sit with wonder for this film.

We’ll just pretend the 1980 special edition never happened.

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?

Continue reading…

Solaris – Steven Soderbergh (2002)


With Steven Soderbergh’s imminent retirement (to be a painter) apparently back on, I thought it was time to go back and take a look at the only film of his I genuinely loved, the George Clooney-starring remake, Solaris.

Yeah, yeah. A remake. Sacrilege, I know.

But spare me, Salman Rushdie. Solaris is not the typical Hollywood-out-of-ideas remake that we’ve become so used to in the last few years. It’s a genuine attempt to carve something new out of an old, beloved film while not disturbing the primary work. Tarkovsky’s 1972 original was a bold and brilliant reply to Kubrick’s 2001, putting a deep Eastern European thought process into the science fiction films that had always existed in science fiction writing. But it is a film that is not without its flaws, whether they were on purpose or not.

On its face, it’s a simple film: recently widowed psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is summoned to a ship orbiting the planet Solaris when the crew members begin experiencing something unexplainable and unbearable. “I could tell you what’s happening,” explains Snow (Jeremy Davies), “but I don’t think that would tell you what’s really happening.”

So what is happening? As the scientists orbiting Solaris try to study it, it is reacting to their thoughts. Indeed, the planet is a shit-stirrer, and begins messing with the crews minds, conjuring up physical replicas of the people on Earth they apparently miss the most. For the crew leader Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), who eventually sends the panicked message for Kelvin to join them, it is his son.  And he cannot bear it any longer. By the time Kelvin arrives, Gibarian is dead, suicide, leaving his replica son to wander the ship alone.

Gibarian’s son is not the only visitor of course. Shortly after arriving, Kelvin gets his visitor: his dead wife, Rhea (Natascha McElhone).

It’s a brilliant concept, one that makes you stop dead in your stride and instantly makes you think 1, who would Solaris conjure for you? and 2, what the hell would you do if it really happened?

Kelvin proceeds to freak out, breaking his otherwise-logical persona, and sticks the Rhea replica into a escape pod to get rid of her. To his immense surprise, he is soon greeted by a second Rhea replica, who has the same innocent, vacant child stare as the first replica. This one, though, he keeps. Getting rid of a second one is an unbearable thought now that he has had time to regret the possibility of it being the real Rhea.

One can’t help but accept his decision. It’s the same I would have made, and probably you too.

It’s all in the eyes, I think. Natascha McElhone’s ghostly perfect eyes, like piercing globes in and of themselves. Some eyes are the window to the soul, some are enough to keep you busy on their own. Hers are the latter. You can swim in her eyes and get lost along the way. These eyes reel Kelvin in the first time they met, and they’ve done it all over again as they are reunited.

Solaris must be beside itself, giggling. Poor humans. Poor stupid humans.

Clooney was probably miscast here as Chris Kelvin, but both the star and the director were hot off of their last collaboration, Ocean’s 11, when they began pitching this. It’s the kind of picture that goes into turnaround or doesn’t even get bought without a major star attached. Everything about is extravagant  even though the film itself is understated and darkly lit. Soderbergh’s — I mean Peter Andrew’s photography is sumptuously understated, artful, wonderful, giving us just enough of a glimpse of Steve Arnold and Keith P. Cunningham’s lavishly beautiful — and as expensive — sets without setting us into a whole new world, like Kubrick and Tarkovsky did before, or Lucas, or Danny Boyle before. It’s slick, angled and polished. Wood doesn’t seem to exist, with stainless steel and synthetic fabrics and fibers taking over every corner of the architecture and interior design of both the buildings on Earth and in space. It’s everything we always assumed the future is going to be, but probably will not. But it’s also not the point of the story. The point of the story is humanity. The biggest, greatest human flaw, even: emotion.

The film’s concept of a sentient planet as a most dreadful wish fulfiller is greater in our heads, though, where we can control what Solaris sees, not Soderbergh, where we can tailor the exploration to our own experiences.  but still, the driving paranoia Kelvin comes to experience because of — that he may have actually remembered Rhea wrong — is what gives this film its emotional bite.

It’s a superior play on the concept that anything we would have come up with in our own heads, I think, because we simply would have wallowed in the good times and never wondered if they were being remembered wrong. Or I would have. But Kelvin gets physical hints that he was remembering things wrong, hints that haunt him. Hints that would haunt us, should we have gotten them instead of the bliss of reunification. They hit Kelvin deeply enough in the end that the residual force hits us squarely enough to actually make us wonder what we have remembered wrong in our daily lives. Was Rebecca Solowitz really that great in fifth grade that I should still think about with regret 20 years later? Was I actually that good a baseball player or were there just no one better in the travelling team try outs? Was Nirvana really a good band?

Damn you Soderbergh. Damn you Tarkovsky. Damn you Lem.

You brilliant bastards.