Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Oblivion

I don't understand Hollywood sometimes.

Take the case of Joseph Kosinski, director of the new big-budget Tom Cruise sci-fi actioner, Oblivion.

How did Kosinski rise to such a prominent position of creative authority; how did he become so important to how an evening of entertainment goes for millions of people?

Here's how:

He directed television commercials. One of his TV commercials, for the video game Gears of War, was apparently so good it won an award. An award for a TV commercial.

Within months he was given the assignment to helm the big-budget Tron remake. The Tron remake successfully looked like a stylish TV commercial, and its entertainment value lasted about a minute, also like a TV commercial.

The film grossed $400 million worldwide, which sounds like a lot until you take into account that the studio only gets half that, which is $200m. They spent $170m to make the lousy thing, and at least another $80m to market it.

So they're fifty million dollars in the hole.

Sure, they'll climb out with home entertainment sales and TV rights, but only by the skin of their teeth.

Any reasonable business would have concluded that hiring Joseph Kosinski to commandeer the Tron remake wasn't the savviest decision in the world.

Yet he's been tapped to direct remakes of Logan's Run and The Black Hole, and this year we're stuck with the awful Oblivion, based on a graphic novel he co-wrote. Said graphic novel didn't sell any copies -- some dispute it was ever published -- but allowed the producers to say the movie was based on a graphic novel.

For all the good it did them. Oblivion has grossed $200m worldwide in its first two weeks, meaning it will fall short of Tron's $400m, but since it cost slightly less it will also crawl out of the hole by the skin of its teeth.

And I have no doubt that, like Tron, it will somehow be good for Kosinski's career.

It's just puzzling.


Anyway, I suppose the reason I'm bitter about Kosinski's success is because I just sat through Oblivion, and what jumps out is how cynical it is. Not in its worldview, but in its shoddy, thoughtless construction.

The movie follows Tom Cruise playing another character called Jack -- this time, Jack Harper.

Jack is one of the few survivors of an alien attack that supposedly wiped out the Earthbound population. Now the only living things on the planet are the aliens, who huddle in caves for the most part. (So much for advanced technology I guess!)

Jack lives in orbit with his partner and lifemate Victoria -- and no one else. He gets all his orders via telecom from a massive orbital facility he has never visited. He has no long-term memories because they were supposedly wiped in case he ever fell into alien hands. His job is to repair robotic drones on the surface who hunt and kill alien skulkers all day long.

Can you guess what the twist is?

Let me rephrase: is it possible not to guess what the twist is?

Of course Jack Harper is not working for the remnants of humanity, as he supposes, but for their alien enemy. The pitiful band of garbed-head-to-foot enemies he stalks -- don't want to give away the twist by showing your face, would you? -- are actually the remnants of humanity.

If you don't know this five minutes into the movie, I don't know how I could ever communicate with you in a meaningful way.

Tragically the movie takes two hours to slowly unspool its twist, and everything leading up to it is sheer padding.

So I'm forced to come to an uncharitable conclusion. Joseph Kosinski, who just wanted to direct TV commercials and make a pleasant living off it, suddenly found himself in charge of billion-dollar Hollywood franchise films through no particular merit -- or fault -- of his own, and he's been scrambling to catch up ever since.

One way to catch up is to toss off a hastily conceived science fiction tale -- I don't know, something about the post-apocalypse, and there's aliens, and there's a twist in it somewhere -- turn it into a graphic novel and pitch it to studios while your name is still being bandied about in boardrooms.

In a way that was smart of Kosinski. He's kept himself busy, and he's kept himself paid.

But we're the ones who suffer for it. We, the moviegoing audience.

Because if you're a studio, and you're going to make a movie based on a graphic novel, shouldn't someone, somewhere, inside the studio or out, have to think the graphic novel is good?

And if you're going to give a guy a directing career, shouldn't he have to do something good at some point?

Good writers and directors can make bad films.

But at least, with them, we have a fighting chance.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 24

How Much I Enjoyed: 14

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Upstream Color

Shane Carruth is an interesting guy.

He wrote, directed, edited and starred in a little 2004 movie called Primer, about two computer engineers who build a time machine in their garage. Primer, a damn good film, won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance.

Though it didn't make a mainstream splash, everyone in Hollywood loved Primer, including guys like David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh, who offered to do everything they could to help Carruth with his next effort.

That effort was A Topiary, a would-be film that... aw heck, wikipedia tells this part of the story more concisely than I ever could:


The film (which Entertainment Weekly described as "a sci-fi epic about a group of kids who build a giant, animal-like creature") stalled, and in early 2013, Carruth told EW that it was "the thing I basically wasted my whole life on."

Everything I've gathered tells me A Topiary was weird; very weird. And as much as Hollywood loved Primer, they just couldn't get behind a totally bizarre sci-fi script which might not even be sci-fi, nor might it be comprehensible to human beings.

Carruth then went looking for private investment, but the script was so weird, he couldn't get that either.

So he went back to the drawing board and wrote a script he could finance and shoot himself, just like Primer. That script became Upstream Color, and it stars himself and indie-actor Amy Seimetz.

She's wonderful; expressive and withdrawn at the same time. I wish she were sitting beside me now so she could tell me what the heck Upstream Color is about. Because I have no idea.




Here's what I think it's about: Seimetz is a graphic designer who gets abducted by a menacing guy performing biological experiments on worms in his shabby apartment. The menacing guy force-feeds a worm to Seimetz, who then becomes a pliant slave unable to resist any of the menacing guy's commands, which are fortunately limited to emptying out her bank account.

After the menacing guy abandons Seimetz, she finds herself drawn to a field outside the city, where an inscrutable middle-aged man performs surgery on her in a trailer home, taking big snakes out of her body and transplanting them into the body of a captive pig...

Okay, I'm losing you here, aren't I?

Sorry.

It might not do much good to keep recounting the plot, so let's fast-forward to the end.

Seimetz and eventual love interest Carruth end up shooting the inscrutable man, locating dozens of other worm victims, and carting the whole troupe to the inscrutable man's pig farm, where they each find the pig into which their worms were transplanted. They pet their pigs lovingly, and we fade to credits.

Yeah, it's a hard flick to get your head around.

What's remarkable is how little explanation is offered. What sparse dialogue exists is entirely, one hundred percent non-expositional, thereby escaping the typical Hollywood cliche of over-exposition, but falling into the innovative quandary of leaving its audience entirely in the dark.

I saw a screening of the movie in Los Angeles which was followed by a Q & A with Carruth himself. The first question from the audience was prefaced with the phrase, "I'm not going to ask you to explain the plot, because I understand it's supposed to be open to interpretation, but..."

And here's the thing. Carruth seemed confused by the caveat. He apparently didn't think the movie's plot was difficult to follow. He thought we should all understand what happened in a literal, mainstream Hollywood kind of way.

But none of us did.

So I have to consider Upstream Color a failure, a Kubrickian or Malickian experiment -- by accident! -- without the staggering visuals or underlying thematic profundity.

Thinking back on Primer, the second half of that movie got pretty confusing as well. But I always wrote that off to the craziness that ensues whenever people start travelling back and forth in time. Also, half the point of the movie was that we shouldn't travel back in time or our lives will unravel in confusing fashion.

But I'm not sure what the point is here. We shouldn't get worms put in us and fall victim to a biological cycle spanning several species and existing beyond our imagination. Or our lives will unravel.

Not exactly a timeless message.

I'm sorry I didn't understand Upstream Color better. I'm sorry I didn't like it more, and I'm sorry it's not going to do more for Carruth's career.

The next project he's working on is called Modern Ocean, which sounds a lot more like Upstream Color than Primer.

Personally, I wish Carruth would totally sell his soul to Hollywood and just make Primer 2: Back to the Garage!

But I'm kind of shallow that way.

SCORE

How Accomplished:  24/100

How Much I Enjoyed:  13/100