“I’m lonesome drifter with nothing to lose!” sneers Tom Cruise, playing the eponymous role of Jack Reacher (which, every time I hear it, makes me think Jack Reacharound, then giggle with schoolboy glee). This titular tough-guy is the lead in a pulp series penned by Lee Child, but watching this Cruised-up cinematic adaptation, you wonder if they weren’t written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. “There this guy,” an innocent-man-due-to-be-sent-to-death-row murmurs, likely trying to stifle laughter. “He’s kind of a cop, at least he used to be. He doesn’t care about proof! He doesn’t care about the law! He only cares about what’s right!” Here, Reacher is that most ’80s of action heroes: not just a lonesome drifter with nothing to lose, but a man’s man, who can beatdown a gang of bros with his bear hands, catch the eye of every lady who walks by, and mystically divine his way to the bottom of a massive, murderous conspiracy that takes in corrupt cops and politicians, and is presided over by an evil German.
Amazingly, this evil German is played, with hilarious relish, by Werner Herzog, whose voice is officially one of the greatest things in cinematic history; and, when Herzog starts talking about how he commits acts of evil because he can, because these things are here to plunder and human lives are meaningless, the cold existentialism seems like a comic riff on his Grizzly Man persona. In short, it feels like a winning joke, maybe; and then you start wondering if director Christopher McQuarrie - who has previous Cruise-vanity-vehicle experience, writing/producing Valkyrie and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol - isn’t smirking his way through the picture. McQuarrie actually shows his filmmakin’ chops with an opening sequence told entirely free from dialogue; in which a lone sniper shoots a bunch of innocent civilians, providing another cinematic fantasy for future American school-shooters to jerk off to. It’s kind of a grim beginning - it made Dwight Howard cry, apparently - but soon Reacharound kicks into gear, becoming, basically, a very silly procedural filled with fistfights; with only a Lonesome Drifter With Nothing To Lose and Rosamund Pike’s plunging cleavage out to uncover a truth that you may or may not be able to handle.
It’s monstrously preposterous and completely idiotic, but so preposterous and idiotic that it starts to become interesting. Jack Reacher plays as a parody of terrible action-movies; with Cruise, willingly if not knowingly, playing a parody of himself. Or, not so much himself, but how he imagines himself to be: a towering colossus of brute force, who can change the fate of the world with the righteousness of his fury and a dogged pursuit of his own perceived truths. When Cruise walks into a bar, women stop to gawp at him, and the crowd parts as this magnetic, kinetic, alpha male struts through; when, in actuality, all that’s happening is a 5-foot-tall, 50-year-old dude in a mid-life-crisis leather jacket is trying to look cool.
Much has been made of the fact that, in the books, if we can call them such, Reacher is 6’5, 250, verily carved from granite; and that fact illuminates Cruise’s delusional self-conception; the way he would see himself in said man, would see this mythical anti-hero (“You think I’m a hero? I’m not a hero!”) role as a pair of boots he’s built to fill. Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables franchise made a kind of ‘knowing’ joke out of the embarrassment of seeing old men starring in the same old stupid films; but that knowingness instantly made the joke not funny. Jack Reacher, however, has genuine camp potential, not least of all for the fact that the Scientology czar surely believes his character is a reflection of his own virility, and that he, himself, is still the sexiest, smarmiest, most unstoppable, coolest man in the room. As we reach(around) to a tenor of near-parody, Cruise is the biggest joke of all, yet he’s never in on it; his obliviousness to the fact making it even more delightful.
To come out and say ‘I hate watching films in 3D’ is to instantly render yourself some crotchety old coot, yelling at kids-these-days with their hippity-hop and the textin’ and the tweetin’ to get off your lawn dagnabbit. Except, of course, that wearing stupid glasses is no actual piece of technological modernism; this is a carny gimmick from the ’20s that became a popular novelty in the ’50s; its recent resurgence standing symbolic for the complete absence of new ideas in the American studio system. Suffering through a film in 3D is usually an uncomfortable, awkward, unsatisfying, retina-taxing experience; turning every image into a dim fug of rendered pixels, and stifling the eye’s own natural depth perception, which perceives projected images as if they’re in three dimensions, anyway; waking the whole experience both bothersome and pointless. It’s almost unheard of for a 3D film to actually be enjoyable to look at; and I can only think of Werner Herzog’s The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams when trying to come up with a list of films in which the technology seemed necessary, or actually added to the cinematic experience. The Life Of Pi, however, demands being added to this discussion; may, indeed, be one of the most visually-appealing 3D films ever made. Director Ang Lee has a glorious visual device that he uses, several times over, that makes use of the technology in an inventive, vivid way. Positioning the camera ‘underneath’ the water, with a clear view up to the sky, a character then swims through the centre of the frame, as if floating in space; bisecting the two visual plains in a way that could only ever be imagined by cinema, never seen by man.
Lee’s greater visual approach, doesn’t have much precedence in his Oscar-approved career; perhaps, only, the lyrical, surreal, meta-cinematic dreamvisions of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon comparable to the bright, super-saturated, storybook-ish imagery of The Life Of Pi. Lee has long been an artful variation on Steven Soderbergh’s director-as-tourist; adapting his own sensibilities to the project at hand; his run of fin-de-siècle films, The Ice Storm, Ride With The Devil, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, having almost nothing in common, visually. In many ways, this makes Lee only as good as his material; with his recent cinematic triumphs, Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution, coming bookended by a pair of completely repellent pictures, Hulk and Taking Woodstock; each film only, really, as good as the source text that Lee is working from. Here, the 3D presentation - and the eyeball-fatiguing colour-grading - are in service to the story, and, in turn, the greater themes. Adapting Yann Martel’s tall tale to screen, Lee is attempting to create the over-the-top visual excess which matches the yarn: a wild, possibly-fabricated fantasy from an unreliable narrator, who claims to have sailed for 227 days across the Pacific, on a lifeboat he shared with a Bengal tiger. The novel’s central thesis is the cultural function of storytelling; Martel seeing life, itself, as a story, with humans effectively functioning as their own narrators, interpreting reality as they see fit. The Life Of Pi - for all its visual splendor - signs off with a take-it-as-you-want conclusion; audiences free to believe in its bright cinematic daydream, or dismiss it as a pile of horseshit. For me, any film that makes suffering through a 3D screening worthwhile seems like something to believe in.
Sexy Baby is a film-of-these-times, in a profound fashion; a portrait of modern America every bit as trenchant as documentaries-of-the-current-climes like Florent Tillon’s Detroit Wild City, Ben Steinbauer’s Winnebago Man, or Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen Of Versailles. Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus explore how the pornographication of the modern era: where advertising and porn use the same language; where access to extreme pornography is but a few mouse clicks away for any inquisitive way-underage kid; and how the increasingly-mainstream nature of porn is reasserting - if not furthering - the cultural degradation of women. They follow three characters: a career ‘adult entertainer’ looking to go semi-straight as she contemplates motherhood; a sad 20-something who is saving up thousands upon thousands of dollars to get a labiaplasty; and, most interestingly of all, a 12-year-old girl going through her sexual awakening under the all-seeing eye of social-media’s surveillance state. The first two are interesting, but only in a singular way: the pornstar brings a glad dose of domestic reality to her fantasised station, and the vaginally-shamed lass comes across as essentially pathetic, a vacant, empty-eyed figure barely aware that she’s trying to ‘fix’ internal problems by changing her exterior. Far more fascinating —and, instantly, the undoubted star of the film - is Winnifred; a caustically-funny, oh-so-New-York kid who starts out as a rambunctious, theatrical, self-directed, pro-feminist 11-year-old, only to swiftly become a boy-obsessed, Lady Gaga-aping 12-year-old who fills her Facebook feed with a run of increasingly-sexualised “slutty photos”.
Bauer and Gradus aren’t particularly-gifted filmmakers - there is nothing, really, cinematic about their film - but, like so many documentarians, they’re as good as their subject; and Winnifred is a fascinating figure; an astonishing, contradictory, conflicted, coming-of-age kid who oscillates between utter self-consumed obliviousness and moments of piercingly-insightful self-awareness. As her mother pointedly points out, the loaded, conflicted cultural gesture of ‘dressing sexy’- whether it can be a form of feminist self-expression or is always a genderised pantomime in thrall to the male gaze; whether it is a projection of power or a yoke of subservience - is hard enough to work out at 40, let alone as tween; a veritable kid given the empowerment of an online-profile, yet without the foresight to see what the digital grid’s enshrined eternity truly means. Sexy Baby’s ‘star’ is a wildly-conflicted mix of knowing and naïve, her growing-up struggles so profoundly au courant that, sometimes, Winnifred feels like a symbol of an era, if not a spokesperson for a generation. “We make ourselves seem like [we’re] down-to-fuck,” she laments, in a moment of quiet consideration that makes her sound like a budding philosopher. “All this internet stuff kind of traps you. You’ve started this alter-ego that has to be maintained, that has to be ‘real’; so it does shape how you end up, how you actually are."
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