Oh, lovely catastrophe! Oh, sweet, sweet mayhem! 2012 director Roland Emmerich looks at our planet again and asks, "How do I destroy thee? Let me count the ways."
If you've been keeping count, then this film is the third time that the mass-casualty minded director/writer/producer has put a star-studded ensemble cast into cataclysmically dire straits.
In 1996's Independence Day it was Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum saving humanity from utter annihilation by invading alien hordes. In 2004, he turned a good chunk of the population into popsicles with an accelerated Ice Age in The Day After Tomorrow; and now he's back in 2009 with 2012, where John Cusack races to save his family from impending--well, let's just say it's the Mayans fault this time. Sort of.
A brief prelude sets up the basics. In 2009, a massive solar flare, larger than any ever recorded, slams an unprecedented level of neutrinos through the Earth, destabilizing its core and setting in motion the eventual separation of the Earth's crust by the year 2012 (the planetary alignment predicted by the end of the Mayan calendar won't help, but if that matters then you're thinking too much).
Realizing this means the end for humankind, a U.S. government scientist, Dr. Adrian Helmsley (spellcheck crippler Chiwetel Ejiofor), brings the bad news to his superiors, who quickly put together a plan. Soon the very wealthy are paying billions to be a part of that plan, and anyone with a pang of conscience who might think of revealing the terrible truth to the world, soon find themselves with a severe case of dead.
As doom day draws near, we meet Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a washed-up writer and semi-absent father of two. Jackson bristles that his son gets along better with his ex-wife Kate's (Amanda Peet) new boyfriend more than him. The new boyfriend, Gordon (Tom McCarthy), worries that Kate is still a little too attached to her erstwhile husband. Jackson gets the kids for a weekend camping trip to Yellowstone only to find his favorite spot blocked off by the military, and a steaming wasteland where the lake used to be. Fortunately, Jackson has the good luck to pitch his tent near an RV housing a pirate radio station run by Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), a not-so-nutty conspiracy theorist who informs Jackson they are camped on what is very soon going to be the world's largest volcano.
Later, when the cracks in the sidewalks begin to open into gaping fissures, Jackson hires a pilot and races to rescue Kate and the kids (and Gordon, too) with the idea that they can fly back to Yellowstone and find Charlie Frost who, while more than a little crazy, has been right about everything.
If you can't figure out where it goes from there, then let me be the first to welcome you to the world of patently crowd-pleasing cinema.
Written by Emmerich (with Harald Kloser), 2012 is the Everest of his Irwin Allen-inspired films. Allen created a sort of genre of his own with the big budget disaster epics The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure back in the '70s. Utilizing ensemble casts comprised of semi-current stars and veteran character actors, those films were epic morality plays set against some crisis that joins disparate, yet archetypal, strangers in the common cause of survival. The quality of Allen's films is arguable, but it's the template Emmerich once again uses for 2012.
It's as silly and divorced from common sense as anything Emmerich has ever done, but it mostly works because he's is trying to beat himself at his own game. There is a palpable foreboding that pulls you in, simply because the audience is dying to get a look at what kind of delicious mayhem ensues in three years time.
As much as any apocalyptic movie that sets up a date for The End, 2012 invalidates itself on New Year's Day 2013. Still, everyone has December 31, 2012 noted in their calendars now. It's a cross-cultural signpost on which to hang a couple of hours of mass chaos; and Emmerich commits to upping the ante on every crazy idea he ever had for killing as many people as possible while stretching suspension of disbelief to the absolute limit.
And gorgeously so. Abandoning the monochromatic look of The Day After Tomorrow, and the purposefully lo-fi special effects of Independence Day, 2012 is a vibrant cacophony of massive destruction dressed in the best FX work of any of Emmerich's films. Cities are torn to pieces, super volcanoes are born and 30,000-foot tsunamis claim the land. But the best part is that he can stage these huge action sequences without them devolving into the quick-cutting, spatial nightmares someone like Michael Bay is so known for. Sure everything is getting blown all to Hell, but it's all so wonderfully composed (by Oscar-winning cinematographer Dean Semler), you never lose sight of where Emmerich wants your eyes to be; especially when it involves a highly unlikely escape. The attention to detail is often stunning. Unless you have a 100-inch flat panel and a sound system that can kick-start a dying sun, then 2012 can really only be fully appreciated in a theater.
While the performances for this kind of film (i.e. a dumb one) are mostly an afterthought, some of the casting choices are actually what take 2012 from pointless masturbation to being an enjoyable endeavor. Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Cusack and Amanda Peet play it straight and turn in good performances, particularly Ejiofor. He has great presence and the talent to take a stock character and make it breathe.
I've kind of grown up with Cusack, and it's surprising to see how well he works in this kind of flick, since he hasn't been in a straight-up action movie since Con Air. He plays Jackson Curtis like an older version of the deadpan, loveable loser roles that largely defined his early career. Cusack's inherent charm goes a long way in making you root for Jackson and his family.
2012 is, of course, a big budget, B-movie burger with double cheese. It has almost no reason to exist except to be blasted onto a gigantic screen for audiences that already know what they are going to get and who instinctually know every beat, even when they don't realize it. Emmerich knows this, and the resulting embrace of his penchant for optimistic extinction-event films makes 2012 a lot of fun. It might be the best Roland Emmerich movie I've ever seen. Take that how you will.
Art & Copy
I've never had much of a soft spot for advertising. And sales people? Forget about it. As a man, the closest I'll ever get to feeling like a woman is when a dude in a suit walks up and starts asking me what I'd like to drive off the lot today. The hard sell. It's a breed, I imagine; one that has populated the offices of every entity born to take a product and get as many people to open their wallets for it as possible.
At best, I view what they do as a necessary evil of a capitalist system, and at worst Bill Hicks can get a laugh out of me when he begs people in advertising to please find a tall building and jump.
Art & Copy is a documentary that widened my admittedly myopic view of the advertising industry. Director Grant Pray (with writers Gregory Beauchamp and Kirk Souder) chronicles the history of commercial advertising from the era when copy writers and art departments were separate entities (and must have been like an episode of Mad Men) to the shiny modern present where visual art and commerce are more conjoined than ever. The film employs a largely "talking head" format, interviewing various luminaries in the industry as they recount the rise of influential firms and the often iconic ad campaigns they produced.
Noteworthy interviewee's include the foul-mouthed, hard scrabble New York ad man George Lois, who is most responsible for the rise of MTV due to his buzz phrase, "I Want My MTV!," and Lee Clow; a San Francisco bohemian who subversively decides the whole industry would grind to a halt without underdog artists. He's also partly responsible for the rise of Apple computers due to his game-changing 1984 Superbowl commercial.
The reason they are noteworthy to the film is that they represent the two extremes of an industry that has one singular goal. Be it a product, a service or a person: sell it. Through their recollections, and those of others, we discover the impetus of many of the most iconic television and print advertisements ever produced. From the minimalist black and white print ads that made the VW Beetle a huge seller in the '60s, to the roto-scoped digital slickness of modern iPod commercials; the film reveals the ideas, decisions, conflicts, and personalities behind campaigns that have woven themselves into the cultural fabric. I bet you didn't know that the Nike slogan "Just Do It" was inspired by a death row inmate's last words.
Art & Copy takes a larger view as well. Bookended by scenes with a third generation billboard installer who has never been out of work, the film sketches out the enormity of the money generated by advertising ($544 billion a year) and the increasingly complex technological infrastructure that ensures that ads reach their intended targets.
In the '70s, the average person might have been exposed to 1,000 advertisements a day. Now it's closer to 5,000; and every new technology has the potential to be a vessel for even more bombardment. Throw in some corporate synergy and the near-biological nature of capitalism and the film begins to give you a picture of the unavoidable (and somewhat creepy) ubiquity of advertising in everyday life.
There are some interesting stories and big ideas in Art & Copy, but, sadly, the presentation of them is so matter-of-fact that they ultimately lead to tedium, particularly if you are a neophyte to the history it depicts. The interview format doesn't help it rise above the level of a History Channel documentary, though I got a couple of nostalgia bursts from seeing old commercials from my youth.
The main problem is that this movie may be speaking to an audience that might be more fascinated (or less contemptuous) than I am. At first I thought it was the lack of scenes juxtaposing the factoids and reflections against the bustle of a real, working ad agency. Then they go behind-the-scenes at a working ad agency and it turns out that young office drones aren't very exciting, either. It's too bad, really, because there is surely a way to construct something exciting from this material.
Art & Copy is a good-looking film, with some nicely composed interspatial shots that give the eye something to appreciate as you read the dry facts. While, as a portrait Art & Copy at least looks artfully made, the result is a stoic picture in a dull frame.
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