Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Zemeckis

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

December 31, 2012 at 7:30 am

Flight, Wreck-It Ralph, and the triumph of the mainstream

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At first glance, it’s hard to imagine two movies more different than Flight and Wreck-It Ralph. The former is an emphatically R-rated message movie with a refreshing amount of nudity, drug and alcohol abuse, and what used to be known as adult situations, in the most literal sense of the term; the latter is a big, colorful family film that shrewdly joins the latest innovations in animation and digital effects to the best of classic Disney. On the surface, they appeal to two entirely separate audiences, and as a result, you’d expect them to coexist happily at the box office, which is precisely what happened: both debuted this weekend to numbers that exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. (This is, in fact, the first weekend in a long time when my wife and I went to the movies on two consecutive nights.) Yet these two films have more in common than first meets the eye, and in particular, they offer an encouraging snapshot of Hollywood’s current potential for creating great popular entertainment. And even if their proximity is just a fluke of scheduling, it’s one that should hearten a lot of mainstream moviegoers.

In fact, for all their dissimilarities, the creative team behind Flight would have been more than capable of making Wreck-It Ralph, and vice-versa, and under the right circumstances, they might well have done so. Flight is Robert Zemeckis’s first live-action movie in years, after a long, self-imposed exile in the motion-capture wilderness, and the script is by John Gatins, who spent a decade trying to get it made, while also slaving away for two years on the screenplay for Real Steel. It’s a handsome movie, old-fashioned in its insistence on big themes and complex characters, but it’s also a product of the digital age: Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump, whatever its other flaws, remains a landmark in the use of unobtrusive special effects to advance the story and fill in a movie’s canvas, and their use here allowed Flight to be brought in on a startlingly low budget of $31 million. At his best, Zemeckis is one of the most technically gifted of mainstream directors, and in some ways, he’s an important spiritual godfather for Wreck-It Ralph, whose true precursor isn’t Toy Story, as many critics have assumed, but Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Similarly, Wreck-It Ralph is the product of a canny, often surprisingly mature set of sensibilities that only happens to have ended up in animation. Along with the usual stable of Pixar and Disney veterans, the creative team includes Rich Moore and Jim Reardon, a pair of directors whose work on The Simpsons collectively represents the best fusion of high and low art in my lifetime, and they’ve given us a movie that appeals to both adults and kids, and not just in the obvious ways. It’s full of video game in-jokes that will fly over or under the heads of many viewers—a reference to Metal Gear Solid represents one of the few times a joke in a movie had the audience laughing while I was scratching my head—but this is really the least impressive aspect of the movie’s sophistication. The script is very clever, with a number of genuinely ingenious surprises, and there are touches here that go well beyond nerd culture to something older and weirder, like Alan Tudyk’s brilliant Ed Wynn impression as the villainous King Candy. (The cast, which includes John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, and Sarah Silverman, all of them wonderful, is a modern version of the Disney trick of recruiting old pros like Ed Wynn and Phil Harris to bring its characters to life.)

It’s tempting to say that it all comes down to good storytelling, but there’s something else going on here. Last year, I predicted that the incursion of Pixar talent into live-action movies would represent a seismic shift in popular filmmaking, and although John Carter was a bust, Brad Bird’s work on Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol indicates that I wasn’t entirely off the mark. This weekend’s top two movies are a sign that, at its best, Hollywood is still capable of making solid movies for adults and children that come from essentially the same place—from good scripts, yes, but also from studios and creative teams that understand the potential of technology and draw on a similar pool of skilled professionals. This is how Hollywood should look: not a world neatly divided into summer tentpole pictures, Oscar contenders, and a lot of mediocrity, but a system capable of turning out mainstream entertainment for different audiences linked by a common respect for craft. The tools and the talent are there, led by directors like Zemeckis and backed up by studios like Pixar and Disney. This ought to be the future of moviemaking. And at least for one weekend, it’s already here.

Super 8 and the problem of secrecy

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A few years ago, Robert Zemeckis created a bit of a stir when he defended the trailers of Cast Away and What Lies Beneath, both of which revealed crucial plot points, by saying that audiences really want to be told everything that happens in a movie. Moviegoers, he said, don’t like to be surprised; before they buy a ticket, they want to know exactly what to expect. And as depressing as it sounds, he was probably right. The fact is that trailers have always given away too much information—like the classic trailer for Casablanca, for instance, which shows Bogart shooting Major Strasser. It’s refreshing, then, when a director like J.J. Abrams refuses to disclose basic information about a movie like Super 8, out of a desire to protect its secrets. But it’s also a little disappointing to see Super 8 at last, only to discover that Abrams really had no secrets to protect.

I should preface all this by acknowledging that Super 8 is a film of considerable merits. It’s beautifully directed and photographed. The score by Michael Giacchino, who is rapidly becoming the most versatile composer in Hollywood, hits all the right notes. The cast, especially of younger kids, is uniformly appealing, and the script deserves a lot of credit for grounding the story in a detailed suburban canvas, even if most of the characters are affable stereotypes. For most of the movie, Abrams is emulating Spielberg in all the right ways—not simply his visual style and tone, but his interest in children and the lives of small towns. It isn’t clear how much of this reflects Abrams’s own sensibility and how much is just a skilled pastiche, but either way, it results in a movie that feels a lot more textured and humane than your average summer blockbuster. As a result, for most of its length, it’s a pleasure to watch, and it’s obviously the product of a lot of thoughtfulness and care.

Which is why it’s all the more underwhelming, at the end, to realize that all that atmosphere and ingenuity and mastery of tone was in service of a story that, frankly, could have been predicted in detail by anyone who had seen the marketing materials. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this—there can be something quite satisfying about seeing a familiar story cleverly told—but it makes the hype about the movie’s “secrets” seem more than a little silly. And after Cloverfield, which was infinitely more interesting as a trailer than as a movie, and Lost, which essentially abdicated its responsibility to resolve most of its mysteries, it raises serious questions about Abrams’s seriousness as a storyteller. Abrams has emerged as one of the most likable popular directors in a long time, but it’s hard to shake the sense, as I’ve said before, that his approach remains that of a gifted television writer and producer—and, I hate to say it, a shrewd marketer.

It might seem shortsighted to judge Super 8 by the standards of its marketing campaign. Ten years from now, I expect that it will still be watched and enjoyed—especially by kids—long after its teaser trailer has been forgotten. But the emphasis on secrecy has implications for Abrams’s future as a director that can’t be easily dismissed. Much as some researchers have recently argued that reason evolved, not as a means to the truth, but as a way to win arguments, it’s become increasingly clear that Abrams regards mystery, not as a means of protecting genuine secrets, but as a marketing strategy—which implies that he doesn’t understand how powerful a movie’s real secrets can be. A great director, like Spielberg, can tell us very clearly, before we’ve even entered the theater, what kind of movie we’re about to see, and then proceed to surprise us with revelations of plot and character. Abrams, for all his talents, hasn’t managed to do that yet. One day, perhaps, he will. But only if he gets past secrecy for its own sake.

Written by nevalalee

June 15, 2011 at 9:23 am

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