Who you gonna call?: Sony, “Ghostbusters” and intelligent rebooting

Ben Fritz, in his article for the Wall Street Journal about Sony naming Tom Rotham its new head of movies, made an interesting observation. He said the difference between Rothman and outgoing Amy Pascal is that Rothamn is known as a hard-nosed businessman who clashes with talent, whereas Pascal had been a talent-friendly, go-with-your-gut kind of studio head. I don’t know if Pascal is more David Selznick or Irving Thalberg, but it’s an interesting observation because it comes amid a gradual tightening of the Hollywood belt. The Journal also reported DreamWorks Animation is cutting back on its features. And Adam Goodman, Paramount Film Group president, is getting ousted from his company during a review of its “creative organization.” The question–especially at Sony–is how this will impact creative control. There is always the old artistic integrity angle, but that’s been in the picture business since silents. I’m worried about something newer: the “Ghostbusters” reboot.

There have been a few people who have suggested that an all-female Ghostbusters team sounds a bit like a gimmick, which is not all that odd considering there were complaints at the notion of earlier “Ghostbusters in high school” reboots. But gimmickry in the casting isn’t the real danger of this rebooting. We all knew there was going to be some recasting–Bill Murray’s lack of commitment coupled with the death of Harold Ramis cinched it. No. There’s something else slithering below.

For the horror fan (which writer-actor Dan Aykroyd clearly was), the original “Ghostbusters” was more than a clever comedy. Author Barbara Hambly, in her essay “The Man Who Loved His Craft,” noted that the film’s gruesome and comic mixture was “marvelously Lovecraftian.” She’s right, of course. From the awakening of an inter-dimensional god to the alien geometry of an apartment building in New York–designed by a Babylonian witch cult in the 1920s no less–“Ghostbusters” was Loveraft-lite, Lovecraft for the masses before his name was so commonplace. Cthulhu even popped up in a couple of episodes of the animated “The Real Ghostbusters.” It is that horrific heritage that the filmmakers should be focusing on.

There’s no question that it’s possible to have a smart (and “marvelously Lovecraftian”) “Ghostbusters” with an all-female squad. But, quite frankly, it’s also possible to have an smart reboot with the Ghostbusters in high school. It just has to be handled intelligently, with a respect for the creative talents involved and the source material, even the eldritch sources.

I don’t mean to sound like a die-hard fan, one who refuses to see anything if his precious characters are so much as touched, because I’m not. I have no problem with as major an overhaul as an all-female Ghostbuster squad. But I do have a problem with a “Ghostbusters” that becomes so caught up in its efforts to appeal to an emerging fanbase or some idea of what sells that its loses touch with what made the film great in the first place: gruesome fun (and alien geometry, of course). If studios want to cater to fans of an established franchise, that’s what they should be shooting for: intelligent, rather than convenient, rebooting.

Now, about that “Blade Runner” sequel…

Nobody asked for it: My roundup of films for 2014

Dear cinema: I’m sorry. My favorite piece of media all year was easily the first season of “True Detective.” There was no big piece of movie making I was really looking forward to. But there were some surprises, and I’m happy to admit it. Rather than hand out my own “awards” for film of the year–best screenplay and strangest accent and the like–I’ll let these mini reviews do the talking. These are the more “awards season” flicks (I did see “Horrible Bosses 2,” but it did not find its way onto the list). My favorite few are at the top, and then it trickles down from there more or less.

“Birdman”: Unquestionably my favorite film of the year. The entire cast is standout, from Keaton’s raw performance to Edward Norton’s honest professionalism to Emma Stone’s frustrated young woman–in the same mold as her frustrated young woman in Woody Allen’s “Magic in the Moonlight,” but utterly different. Writer-director Alejandrio Inarritu’s script may appeal more to show biz folks than the rest of the country, but it’s a fine and funny script nevertheless. Neither the jazz percussion score nor the long, long camera shot that is the film get tired, as they shift from spacious to claustrophobic flawlessly and grant the film a dream-like elegance.

“American Sniper”: If the consistently inconsistent criticism of “American Sniper” is any indication, it’s a tricky movie. It also happens to be a very good movie, one of the best of the year. Eastwood’s direction is solid and sensitive, complex and compassionate, triply so considering the subject. And Bradley Cooper’s performance is exactly what I have come to expect from him: physical, professional and powerful.

“Gone Girl”: I don’t necessarily go for the “thriller of the year,” but I’m happy to do so this time around. Haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on the intricate script, but it’s enough to say that both leads were outstanding–Rosamund Pike as a quad-plicitous sociopath and Ben Affleck as a schlubby, dishonest everyman caught between opportunity and survival. The supporting cast is just as good; Tyler Perry shines as a media savvy lawyer, Neil Patrick Harris is perfect as a creepy ex, and Carrie Coon is great as Affleck’s sister, probably the only truly selfless character in the film.

“Calvary”: I really wanted to love something that could be described as a “non-supernatural religious thriller,” but it turns out I can merely like it. The photography is beautiful, and Brendan Gleeson is beyond likeable as a deadpan priest. However, some of the bone-dry humor doesn’t translate well across the pond, and the ending sank in as unsatisfying. Still, it’s not like the Coen brothers made a movie this year, and it’s always nice to see Dylan Moran working.

“Fury”: It can’t be the best war movie of the year–that’s already “American Sniper”–but “Fury” is good old fashioned movie making at its modern best. Although not necessarily as deep as he thinks he is, writer-director David Ayer makes an honest effort to consider how men deal with the horrors of war, and he manages to hit all the war picture tropes fairly well along the way, balancing between action packed and meditative moments, as well as gritty and beautiful photography. Brad Pitt has grown into these world-weary roles quite well, and Shia LaBeouf’s eccentric warrior priest comes across as the most interesting person in the tank. But the real star? The tense, tight editing of the battle sequences.

“Noah”: Although not my favorite Darren Aronofsky film, there is still enough Aronofosky in it to make it worthwhile. It’s a message picture, heavy on environmental awareness, but with enough brooding from Russel Crowe and Ray Winstone (the cast is thoroughly watchable) to make it worth a glance for the philosophical set. I think it’s a testament to the Aronofsky’s vision that he’s still recognizable, despite the film being his most reliant on CGI to date–the recount of prehistory, from creation to the first murder, is unmistakably his.

“Under the Skin”: At once the most boring and most fascinating movie of the year, “Under the Skin” seemed to forget that the point of movies is to move, but it remembered that cinema is, at the end of the day, a visual medium. The film was basically a series of vignettes in which Scarlett Johansson drove around Scotland with the most passive aggressive scowl in the universe for 20 minutes at a time, ending up in some outrageously inventive visuals–locked in a room that swallowed naked men, or shedding her black skin in the middle of white, swirling snow. Director Jonathan Glazer helmed some of Radiohead’s music videos, so I suppose no one should be surprised.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”: A Wes Anderson movie for Wes Anderson movie fans, of which I am one, but while I liked “Grand Hotel,” I still feel a little disappointed. I’m not sure what I can complain about: the cast is great, the mood is charming, and the photography and visuals—perhaps the best aspect of the picture—are respectively smart and gorgeous. But it’s almost too much Anderson, and I long for just a touch of restraint.

“Magic in the Moonlight”: I’ve already sort of mentioned it, but while Woody Allen’s latest effort is pleasant entertainment, it ain’t great movie making. Perfectly cast–Emma Stone is delightful as a clumsily American medium, and Colin Firth is almost too obvious as a stuffy English academic–and probingly witty, the film suffers on the visual side. I doubt Allen cares too much about making converts at this point though.

“Interstellar”: I don’t go to Christopher Nolan for content per se. At best, I go to him for concepts, and “Interstellar” had nothing short of the future of the human race and its place on the space-time continuum on the menu. The movie asked some interesting questions, but I’m not sure about the answers it offered. Still, Nolan is never short in the technical department. “Interstellar” sports some spectacular visuals, but it’s Hans Zimmer’s sensitive, subdued score that won my heart. It was easily the most emotional part of the journey.

“Boyhood”: Every year, someone makes a big mistake in cinema. This year, it’s either me or the countless critics who have heaped enough praise on this picture to drown a toddler. Maybe I’m missing something. I’m happy to admit Richard Linklater’s gimmick of filming over a 12-year period is genius, but the film itself is overlong, unimaginatively shot and sports a jerky, uneven narrative. That said, the supporting cast is the most interesting part of the picture, and Patricia Arquette does the heaviest lifting as far as acting goes.

Looking back at this list, it seems I thought this year was a year for actors. Since I’ve already mentioned philosophical whodunnit “Calvary,” I might as well mention thoughtful genre flicks “Stonehearst Asylum” and “Edge of Tomorrow” since they all have Brendan Gleeson. Three films, all of which were good, and all of which featured fine performances by the man. He was obviously the anchor of “Calvary,” and his bookend appearance in “Stonehearst” and central spot in “Edge” gave the films sullen gravitas.

Up next: “The Homesman.” Still to see: “Whiplash,” “The Judge,” “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” “Mr. Tuner,” “Big Eyes,” “Foxcatcher,” “Inherent Vice”… Anything I’m forgetting?

The lunatics are redefining the asylum: A critical analysis of “Stonehearst Asylum” (2014)

Poor Edgar Allan Poe. The man is arguably our greatest literary treasure, but he sure does get hijacked sometimes for atmospheric purposes. His name adds legitimacy to projects and his works are in public domain, so it’s seen as a win-win for everyone, except maybe Poe, whose tense and psychological tales are often poorly exploited. Not so in “Stonehearst Asylum.”

On the surface, “Stonehearst Asylum” is based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” a brilliant piece of black comedy. While it would have been possible for a fine thriller to come out of that story, director Brad Anderson and screenwriter Joe Gangemi have used it as a springboard for a critical meditation on the nature of sanity.

Fresh from Victorian Oxford, Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) arrives at remote Stonehearst Asylum to gain experience under the eye of the facility’s head doctor, Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley). Newgate also seems interested in comely patient Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale). We eventually learn why, but to anyone who sees her in a corset partway through the picture, it should be fairly obvious. In a move that shouldn’t surprise any genre fan–whether they’ve read the Poe original or not–Newgate discovers Stonehearst is being run by its mad. Lamb is a former army surgeon, imprisoned for a gruesome killing, and his staff is a collection of madmen and murderers.

“Stonehearst Asylum” is worth watching for many things. It sports clean photography and a cast of veteran British actors. It also opts for atmosphere over jump scares, which is laudable in itself. But it is how the character of Lamb is handled that gives the film its most interesting element.

Lamb is a savior of the insane. His name symbolically links him to the character of Christ. The people in his charge are social undesirables of the highest order. “You will find most of our patients are here because they are embarrassments to their families, outcasts,” Lamb says to Newgate during his initial tour of the asylum. The tour is a pivotal scene not only because it introduces us to Lamb, but also because it introduces us to the asylum. Anderson resists the urge to shoot the asylum like a character, opting instead to shoot it like a piece of landscape. Long hallways and tall staircases are used to create a sense of space and depth. Lamb is carefully singled out in these introductory shots, a white lab coat in a sea of darker costumes. He moves toward the camera, stopping when he reaches a prominent position in the frame. The distinction is clear: Stonehearst is a piece of property, Lamb’s kingdom.

In a making-of featurette, Anderson describes Lamb’s vision of Stonehearst as an elaborate, admirable utopia. Gangemi calls the asylum an upside-down world. They’re apt descriptions. Like an out of control R. D. Lang, Lamb believes that the socially accepted and understood notions of psychological health are constraining. “We’re all mad,” he quips to Newgate. “Some are simply not mad enough to admit it.” Lamb’s philosophy is completely contrary to that of Dr. Benjamin Salt (Michael Caine), the previous head of Stonehearst Asylum. Salt says that the mad must be broken like animals to be made men again; Lamb asks why cure someone who thinks they’re an animal and make a miserable man out of a perfectly happy horse.

Lamb refers to his Stonehearst as a “grand experiment,” one where both the roles and the conception of sane and insane are flipped. In one of the more thrilling moments of the film, an escaped orderly flings himself off a cliff rather than be caught by Lamb’s thug. In normal society, madmen commit suicide, but in Lamb’s kingdom of the mad, it is the sane who kill themselves. Either way, it is the surrounding culture that decides what is psychologically wrong (“Suicidal tendencies are not uncommon among the seriously deranged,” Lamb notes when the death is brought to his attention).

A more balanced version of this utopia is hinted at by the end of the film, in which the “mad” and the “sane” work together based on ability rather than social conception. It’s a more stable union than Lamb could have envisioned. But before it can happen, the original experiment–and its Lamb–must be sacrificed. In a key scene, Graves confronts Lamb about the death of a patient, Millie (Sophie Kennedy Clark). Millie had been improving, and Graves initially praised the progress under Lamb. That praise vanishes when another patient kills Millie. Lamb tries to comfort Graves, telling her that Millie is in a better place. “No,” Graves responds. “This was supposed to be a better place.” It is only when Lamb is shocked out of his ownership of Stonehearst–Kingsley returns Lamb to the military swagger he had before he became the asylum head–that the experiment is over and a truly better place can be made.

Larry can you hear me?: A critical review of “The Signal” (2014)

Did you ever have the feeling you were watching three films in one? Then the odds were you were under the influence of some really good illegal substances, attending a really bad party, or just watching “The Signal.” I rented this film because the front cover looked like a still from a Stanley Kubrick film. In fact, the back cover promised a cross between Kubrick and David Lynch. That’s a tall order, a dangerous promise. Does “The Signal” live up to it? No. No it does not.

In the beginning, we’re introduced to a cadre of sexy teens seemingly on vacation (Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke and Beau Knapp). But it seems they’re really chasing down a hacker who spoiled their school careers at MIT; there’s even some hacking footage, right down to computer screens with green digits being reflected in eyeglasses. Then we’re back on the road again with some muscular indie rock playing on the radio. And a little later we’re saturated with bloom lighting looking at landmarks. Some people might be starting to wonder if they’re watching a coming of age road trip movie by mistake or if something more unsettling than a blurry JEPG of a car is going to pop out of the screen eventually. I suppose it is sort of unsettling to have someone email you a recently taken picture of your car while you’re driving it, but there is nothing in the acting, cinematography or soundtrack that suggests the characters care, so why should we?

A little more than 20 minutes in, said sexy teens find their way to the hacker’s cabin in the middle of nowhere, and things go from bad to worse. We end up in a sterile facility operated by a mysterious government agent type in a puffy white hazmat suit (Laurence Fishburne). This is where the film finally takes off because, quite honestly, I don’t care if said sexy teens make it to California or fix their permanent records at school or whatever. In hindsight, I don’t really mind the sleepy first act because it only proves what miserable bores these characters are. The only interesting thing that’s ever happened to them is being abducted. So what I care about is how someone totally average reacts when he’s been kidnapped by a shadowy organization, much like the one Fishburne works for. There are some interesting paranoid set pieces here: Thwaites’s madcap chicken scratches on his bed, Thwaites talking to Knapp through a vent–or is he talking to himself?–the contrasting photography of Thwaites and Fishburne during the interviews, which creates a sense of distance and is probably the smartest set of shots in the film. And, of course, Fishburne experimenting on the cow.

I won’t go into the third act. Suffice to say that all the intrigue that evolved during the psychological horror part of the film is exchanged for what is superficially a superhero movie, complete with one character using robot arms to strike the ground, creating seismic waves that knock down enemy soldiers, in slow motion. Yes, there are enemy soldiers. And crazy townsfolk as well. Dorothy, how did we get here?

I ought to like “The Signal.” It features two actors from my favorite contemporary horror shows: Cooke of TV’s “Bates Motel,” whose alliance with the revamped Hammer studios is rapidly making her one of my favorite scream queens, and Fishburne of TV’s “Hannibal,” who has the unique distinction of playing both Jack Crawford and Cowboy Curtis. If the film is worth any kind of re-watching, it’s largely for Fishburne’s deadpan performance, and his interactions with Thwaites and the crazy townsfolk. As for Cooke, she’s in a coma for a lot of the movie, so there aren’t many opportunities for her to emote.

“The Signal” is not a bad film–it looks pretty enough, editor Brian Berdan is a pro and writer-director William Eubank’s heart is clearly in the right place–it’s just not very compelling. I suppose the big problem I have with it is there’s no particular statement it’s making. There is a reveal, but we all knew there was going to have to be one eventually, and it’s fine for what it is. The whole thing is probably a parable about the power of the human spirit or something. Which is, I suppose, a statement of sorts. Just one that’s sloppily executed with unlikable characters.

But why am I so caught up on the film making a statement, you ask? Why can’t it function as a psychological paranoia piece or a sci fi actioneer? Or even a teen road tripper? To which I respond: yes, why can’t it? Because “The Signal” cannot. It cannot make up its mind what kind of movie it wants to be. If it can’t make up its mind, the least it can do is teach me something. Unfortunately, the only thing that “The Signal” taught me is that Laurence Fishburne is left-handed.

What’s it all about, Alan?: Meaning in the modern era

Having recently graduated, I was re-watching a video of Alan Watts outlining the similarities between music and life. It spoke to me as I was navigating the university system, so I thought it might be a nice piece of circular framing to watch it now that I’m on the job market. But this time around, the video jived with me for more than that–and I don’t just mean Watts’s resonant delivery. This time around, I also heard it as a commentary on meaning.

Meaning is something that’s being kicked around the realm of philosophy lately (like that’s somehow new). There was an interesting editorial in the New York Times about the problem of manufactured meaning, and I scanned an article in an issue of Philosophy Now in a Barnes and Noble that had a similar subject about the current generation and its lack of both a sense of meaning and philosophical training.

I didn’t buy the magazine. I’m sorry, Barnes and Noble. And Philosophy Now.

But in both these cases, the articles were decrying the philosophical toll that existentialism seems to have taken on the thinking of the modern era. Existentialism has become the dominant philosophic dogma in the industrial world. Like any dominant dogma, this does not mean that the world is populated with little Sartres any more than Catholic-dominated medieval Europe was populated with little Saint Augustines. It simply means a shallow understanding of existentialism–pop existentialism, if you will–is the assumed philosophy. One needs look no further than Coca Cola’s Superbowl hashtag, #makeithappy, to see how deep the ideal runs: life is what you make it, so make it happy. A noble cause perhaps, but therein lies an interesting bit of cognitive dissonance.

There is a curiously self-destructive element to existentialism. Even people who remove the purposeful absolutism offered by other philosophical constructs in favor of the relativism of existentialism still seek meaning. Maybe meaning, and the quest for it, is what makes us human: “homo sententia,” if you’re feeling fancy. So despite being post-meaning, existentialism still encourages it. There is no meaning, so go ahead and invent it. But as soon as you invent meaning, you’ve got it. And so does everyone else.

Everyone is free to find their own meaning, but once we’ve found it, we tell ourselves that it really matters. After all, there’s got to be something more to meaning, or else people with seemingly high minded quests for meaning, artists and scientists and the like, would be on equal ground with suicide bombers, serial killers and champion bowlers. But if we agree that all meanings carry the same weight, then these various quests for meaning are equally valid because none of them matter. Still, I somehow doubt that anyone–an artist praising God through architecture, a secular scientist looking for a cure for cancer, or our friend the serial killer–really believes that their work does not matter in the grand scheme of things.

Still, existentialism is hard to get back into the box. Culturally, we have matured in an environment that fosters relativism and favors no philosophy. My own generation is in on this (YOLO anyone?). But that doesn’t mean the search for meaning itself goes away. So how do we reconcile our thirst for meaning in a post-meaning age? It’s about then that I put on the Alan Watts.

Being a bit of a fatalist, I find that Zen philosophy is something that resonates quite well with me. Eugene Herrigel, in “Zen in the Art of Archery,” came to the conclusion that Zen archery was not about the archer hitting the target but for the archer to see himself as part of a process that also involves a bow, an arrow, a target, and all the space between. Meaning isn’t relative to the individual. It’s relative to the situation. The difference lies in the approach. In pop existentialist philosophy, the meaning is made in the moment; in Zen, the meaning is found in the moment. And in something as cosmically encompassing as Zen, that’s a very long moment indeed.

In this way, Watts’ statement that life is like music to which we are supposed to dance is far from the pop existentialist interpretation of “carpe diem.” Someone who is singing to a piece of music is fulfilling a role. In Zen, meaning in the moment is not about creating meaning, but finding your place in a tapestry that is infinitely larger than yourself. There’s no need to manufacture meaning–the universe supplies all the meaning you need as long as you play your part.