Movie Review: Theeb (2015)
“Theeb” (“wolf” in Arabic) is a rare beast: an art film that is also a harrowing adventure story. You think its joys will be in the small details, in how tactile it feels, and in the fact that it’s about a Bedouin boy named Theeb learning the ways of men in the Arabian peninsula in 1916. One assumes slice-of-life, episodic and educational. Then you’re on the edge of your seat. The movie contains foreshadowing even though it all comes as a surprise. There’s an assuredness in every frame even though it’s writer-director Naji Abu Nowar’s first feature.
We start in voiceover, with life advice that mixes the idealistic and the realistic:
In questions of brotherhood
Never refuse a guest
Be the right hand of the right
When men make their stand
And if the wolves offer friendship
Do not count on success
They will not stand beside you
When you are facing death
These words echo as the movie plays out. We know Theeb means wolf, but we know Theeb isn't the wolf. So who is?
Is that Lawrence?
Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, extremely effective in his first role) has a mass of curly black hair atop an adorable face that is often furrowed with curiosity and concentration. When we first see him he’s being schooled by his older brother, Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen, Eid’s cousin), on how to shoot a rifle, and later, when two strangers come to their father’s home, on how to slit the throat of a lamb. The strangers are an Arabian guide named Marji (Marji Audeh), and a British officer, who is blonde, bearded and taciturn (Jack Fox). For a time we wonder: Is this Lawrence? Are we getting the Arabian side of the “Lawrence of Arabia” story?
Our view is Theeb’s view, which is the child’s-eye view. He knows things are happening but not why. He knows Hussein is to lead the two men to the “Roman Well” but nothing beyond that. He tags along anyway. The men are a day’s journey out before they realize the boy has followed them.
There are subtle tensions. The Brit, Edward (for Thomas Edward Lawrence?), gets angry when Theeb plays with a small box he’s carrying, and the three men are constantly looking for thieves and enemies. But which enemies? What’s the mission? And seriously, is that Lawrence?
We relax slightly when we get to the Roman Well—a hole in the ground surrounded by rock and sand. “Where are they?” Edward wonders, as he pulls up the well bucket. “They’re coming,” his guide says. But he’s wrong. Edward drinks, then starts back. The water is red with blood. The men they were to meet are at the bottom of the well. In a second, everything is charged. “We’re being watched,” Marji says.
“Lawrence of Arabia” wasn’t the only movie on my mind as I watched this one. I wondered whether Theeb would be like Zushio in Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sansho Dayu”: the privileged son who falls from grace into the harsh realm of men. I thought of “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Shane”: movies where violent sounds, particularly gunfire, explode off the screen. Here, it’s the lamb’s bleat as Hussein cuts its throat; it’s the gunshot that tears through Edward’s chest as he’s drinking from a bota bag. Guess he’s not T.E. Lawrence after all.
Even then we don’t even know who the enemy is. Germans? Ottoman officials? Thieves? But we keep calculating. With Edward and Marji shot, how will they get back? If their camels are stolen, how will they get back? The lowest point is after Hussein is shot and Theeb runs and falls into the well. Even if he escapes, what then? He’s a small boy in the middle of the desert in violent times; and as we hear several times in the film: the strong eat the weak.
Is that home?
“Theeb” deserves to be seen, and it deserves to be seen in a theater. Cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler (Ulrich Seidl’s “Paradise” movies) makes the desert a force in the film. One shot of the night sky makes you mourn for the loss of all of your city stars.
It’s a movie that’s not just about the loss of life; it’s about the loss of a way of life. Hussein is a pilgrim guide—taking worshippers through the desert to Mecca. But he’s being replaced by the “iron donkey,” the railway that cuts through the desert. So even if Theeb gets back, what is back? What is home to a Bedouin? What is the point of a pilgrim guide in a world of the iron donkey?
'San Andreas' Doesn't Exactly Shake Up Box Office
“Give the people what they want... old-fashioned apocalyptic porn.”
--Birdman in “Birdman”
“San Andreas,” the new-fashioned apocalyptic porn starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a helicopter pilot sent to save all the pretty girls during a massive earthquake in California, didn’t exactly shake up the box office this weekend: It grossed $53 million, which is the seventh-best opening of the year: $2 million behind the opening weekend for “SpongeBob,” and $16 million behind the opening for “Pitch Perfect 2.” Apparently the people want college girls singing more than The Rock flexing. Or maybe we’re just tired of apocalyptic porn. (We are until we aren’t.)
The other opener, Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha,” which has garnered protests from groups upset that it focuses on white people (Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams) in a mostly non-white state (Hawaii), not to mention protests from critics who think it’s just not very good (17% on RT, Crowe’s lowest-rated film), grossed only $10 mil and finished in sixth place.
In between those two?
- “Pitch Perfect 2” grossed another $14 mil for second place, a domestic total of $147, and a worldwide total of $228.
- “Tomorrowland” dropped 58% in its second weekend (not good) and is at $63 domestic/ $133 worldwide.
- “Mad Max: Fury Road” added $13.6 to a $115 domestic/ $248 worldwide total.
- “Avengers/Ultron” added $10 mil to $427 domestic, $1.32 billion worldwide. “Ultron” is now the sixth-highest-grossing film of all time worldwide. Its domestic total is 10th, and the highest since “Dark Knight Rises” grossed $448 in 2012.
Anyone see “San Andreas”? I’ve been busy with SIFF. (Among the recommended movies there: “Theeb,” “Meeting Dr. Sun,” “The End of the Tour,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “The Connection,” “Being Evel.”)
Have helicopter, will save.
In 1996, David Foster Wallace Already Knew the Dangers of the Internet
“As the Internet grows, and as our ability to be linked up [grows] ... at a certain point, we're gonna have to build some machinery, inside our guts, to help us deal with this. Because the technology is just gonna get better and better and better and better. And it's gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. Which is all right. In low doses, right? But if that's the basic main staple of your diet, you're gonna die. In a meaningful way, you're going to die.”
-- David Foster Wallace talking to David Lipsky in 1996, as recounted in Lipsky's book, “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace.”
Quote of the Day: 'If I understand the history correctly...'
“If I understand the history correctly, in the late 1990s, the President was impeached for lying about a sexual affair by a House of Representatives led by a man who was also then hiding a sexual affair, who was supposed to be replaced by another Congressman who stepped down when forced to reveal that he too was having a sexual affair, which led to the election of a new Speaker of the House who now has been indicted for lying about payments covering up his sexual contact with a boy.
-- Prof. Orin Kerr of the George Washington University Law School in The Washington Post.
Movie Review: Slow West (2015)
We don’t quite get Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smith-McPhee) when we first meet him. He’s a thin, doe-eyed boy searching for his Scottish love in the American West of 1870. At night, he stares up at the stars and names the constellations. He’s polite, speaks French, and says things like “I come in peace” when no one would doubt it. The question isn’t whether he’s peaceful, it’s how someone so innocent survived for so long. In voiceover, Silas Selleck calls him “a jackrabbit in a den of wolves.”
We don’t quite get Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) when we first meet him, either. He’s tough-looking, dirty, and clenches a cheroot in his teeth like the son of Clint Eastwood. He shows up at a crucial point to kill the man who’s about to kill Jay, and somehow he knows all about Jay’s mission and strikes a bargain. He’ll protect him during the journey: $50 now, $50 then. But how did he find Jay, and how does he know about the girl, and why does he care enough to do this?
Answers come by and by. Most answers anyway.
Sprinkle my salt on wounded gut
It turns out that Jay’s Scottish love, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), along with her father, John (Rory McCann, who played “The Hound” in “Game of Thrones”) is wanted for murder. Dead or alive. Question: Is this for crimes in the states or for the crime they committed accidentally in Scotland—the death of Jay’s father, a Scottish lord? More, don’t they know they’re wanted for murder? And if they do know, why are they building a home? Wouldn’t you want to keep moving?
That’s the early big reveal anyway: Silas is after the reward money ($2,000), and he’s using Jay to get to Rose.
The bigger reveal is that Rose doesn’t love Jay. He’s just a hopeless romantic, with the emphasis on hopeless. Writer-director John Maclean (of The Beta Band) is rather cruel to him in this regard.
Example: After various adventures, mostly attempts to shake Silas’ old gang, led by the fur-coat-wearing and silently menacing Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), Jay and Silas come upon the Ross homestead: a picturesque cabin surrounded by a field of corn. But the place soon becomes a shooting gallery as Silas, Payne and his gang, and yet another bounty hunter, all converge at the same time to try to claim the reward. Still thinking himself the hero, Jay rushes into the cabin to rescue Rose. Instead, not realizing who he is, she shoots him in the gut.
More: As he lays there, bleeding to death, he can only watch as the woman he loves, still unaware of his presence, kisses her lover, a tall, strong Native American warrior. The house shakes from the gunfire, causing the salt on the shelf above him to fall and spill over his wounds. I burst out laughing when it happened. At the same time I wondered: Is it overkill? Of course it is. It's cruel and unusual. But having been a hopeless romantic in my youth, I don’t have much tolerance for the species.
Besides, Maclean allows Jay a moment of grace. He does it with all of his victims, now that I think about it. He doesn't forget them. He allows them one last moment.
A long time ago
“Slow West” got a lot of buzz coming out of Sundance, where it won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, and it’s mostly well-made. Fassbender is particularly good. His performance reveals what’s missing with all of those Clint Eastwood westerns. Silas actually has mixed feelings about Jay. He takes delight in him at times. He takes delight. Eastwood’s characters never do—or not in a way that seems delightful. I miss that when it's not there. I love it when it's on screen. (See: Morgan Freeman watching Rita Hayworth in “Shawshank.”)
At the same time, “Slow West” is so jokey, or inside-jokey, it’s meta—from the salt in the wound to the anthropologist studying disappearing Indian cultures who disappears with most of Jay’s stuff. “In a short time,” he says, “this will be a long time ago.” He's telling this to Jay but it's Maclean winking toward us.
The most jokey element, certainly the most incongruous, is Jay himself. In my review of “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” I wrote that the central joke is how the main character (Seth MacFarlane’s Albert) is really a 21st-century man stuck in the 19th century West. Here, too. Jay is too soft to exist when and where he is. He just isn't in on the joke.
The Annotated Kyle Smith: What the NY Post Critic Gets Wrong About George Clooney, and Why
The following appeared in yesterday's New York Post under the headline “Face It, George Clooney Sucks.” The Post is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who is famously conservative, while the actor George Clooney is famously liberal. The piece is written by Kyle Smith (conservative, semi-famous), while the comments in bold are mine (liberal, not famous):
It's time for Hollywood to face facts: George Clooney is not a star. Because...?
If you matched them up head-to-head, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson would crush him — and I don't just mean literally. Ah, this is about box office. I've written about George Clooney's lack of box-office clout, too, a year and a half ago. I was just less of a douche about it.
Clooney's latest is the gargantuan flop “Tomorrowland” — a $190 million bomb (not including $100 million or so in worldwide marketing costs) that looks like it's going to gross a little more than half of that at the North American box office. It'll be interesting to see how it does internationally, but, yes, it's not a hit in the U.S.
It's delicately being referred to as an underperformer because no one in Hollywood wants to hurt the fragile petals of Clooney's feelings. Isn't that the usual Hollywood euphemism: “underperformer”? I'm asking not telling. BTW: “fragile petals”? That's an example of the douchiness.
The failure of this supposed tentpole release is yet another sign that Clooney, who has been headlining movies for 19 years, just doesn't sell tickets. If his movies took in a dollar's profit for every magazine cover and breathless infotainment tidbit on him, they'd earn more money than they actually do at the box office. Clooney is on the cover of magazines because he sells magazines. It's called the free market. And if he doesn't open movies it's because not many actors open movies anymore. Characters open movies: Iron Man, Captain America, Katniss. (You could add “The Rock”; he's more character than actor.) Also because Clooney tends to make serious movies that open small. He's an adult in a kiddie culture.
Stars like Johnson get fans excited enough to actually go to the movies. Clooney doesn't. That's a stretch, too. I like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson but he hardly opens movies. His three biggest hits are the three latest “Fast/Furious” films, where he's a supporting player. When he's the star, the movies do so-so: “Hercules” ($72m), “Pain and Gain” ($49.8), “Tooth Fairy” ($60).“ Don't even get me started on ”Doom“ ($28). Maybe things will change for him with ”San Andreas,“ but even there what's opening the film will be the spectacle: the apocalyptic porn, to quote ”Birdman.“
One role for which he was perfect — Danny Ocean — has created a lot of value for movie studios. Apart from the three ”Ocean's“ movies, the only other time he ever toplined a major hit was ”The Perfect Storm“ in 2000 — a movie whose star was a wave. Clooney wasn't pictured on the poster of that one and barely featured in the ads. Except in (sic) those four films, audience interest has been sparse. And ”Gravity.“ If you count the ”Fast/Furious“ films for Johnson, you have to count ”Gravity“ for Clooney.
From ”One Fine Day“ (1996) to ”Batman & Robin“ (1997) to ”Solaris“ (2002) to ”Intolerable Cruelty“ (2003) to ”The Good German“ (2006) to ”Leatherheads“ (2008) to ”The Men Who Stare at Goats“ (2009) to ”The Ides of March“ (2011) to ”The Monuments Men“ (2014), if Clooney was the main attraction, the movie was somewhere between a disappointment and a flop. Agreed. And most of those films were not only box office disappointments but critical disappointments. ...
Of his 25 starring movies, four made a significant amount of money — that's a .160 batting average. That ain't cleanup hitter. That isn't even big-league. If Clooney were a shortstop, his only prayer of staying on the team would be if he were the owner's son. First rule of Hollywood: Most movies lose money. So the baseball analogy doesn't quite work. Or to make it work, you need to give us other batting averages.
It's not like Hollywood lacks for stars, defined as ”people who actually sell tickets.“ Again, look at Johnson: His notorious flop ”Hercules,“ from last year, still managed to gross $73 million in North America, $243 worldwide. Johnson is an odd choice to make this case. In the early 2000s, he was all but annointed the next Arnold Schwarzenegger and it never happened. He had muscles and personality, but the box office didn't arrive until he was attached to established vehicles, notably ”Fast/Furious.“
That's better than any of Clooney's movies has done since ”Ocean's Thirteen“ eight years ago. Except for ”Gravity,“ which grossed $716 million worldwide.
Johnson's ”Journey 2: The Mysterious Island“ didn't land him on the cover of GQ — but so what? It banked $335 million worldwide. Clooney has only starred in two movies that did better than that in his entire career (the first two ”Ocean's“ films). And ”Gravity.“ And Johnson landed on the cover of GQ in Oct. 2003 for ”The Rundown.“ Which underperformed at $47.7 million.
By contrast, Johnson's three ”Fast and Furious“ films are by far the three highest-grossing entries in that seven-film series. True, I think his addition helped that series financially. Plus I prefer him to Vin Diesel. But if you give The Rock ”Fast/Furious,“ you gotta give Clooney ”Gravity.“ Which you're not doing. (See: douchiness.)
Hell, even Johnson's dumb ”Tooth Fairy“ movie did better than most of Clooney's. ”Tooth Fairy“ grossed $60 million U.S., $112 worldwide. Eleven of Clooney's films have done better domestically; 11 have done better worldwide.
If the success of ”Gravity,“ which grossed more than Clooney's five preceding live-action star vehicles combined, is any indication, any producer hiring the actor for his movie would be best advised to kill him off in the first 20 minutes. (Sandra Bullock, on the other hand, has top-lined four hugely profitable films in just the past six years.) True. But she was box office ”meh“ (basically 1996-2009) until she wasn't. Now that would make an interesting article: the box-office turnaround of Sandy Bullock.
Clooney isn't ”America's Leading Man“ (Vanity Fair, in 2006, breathlessly promoting his flop ”The Good German“) or ”The Last Movie Star“ (Time magazine, 2008, breathlessly promoting his flop ”Michael Clayton“). ”Breathlessly.“ Beware of writers lugging adverbs.
Clooney isn't even a movie star. He's just a guy who keeps getting highly paid to make movies nobody wants to see. The overall point is correct: Clooney's box office is less than one would expect from his status in the culture. But (one more time) it's mostly a consequence of the types of movies he chooses to make, who his audience is, and who goes to movies and why. You know this, Kyle. Or should. Or maybe you have blind spots to those who enrage your corporate masters—as you did in your review of Steve Coogan in ”Philomena."
I'm sure I'll see more of you soon.
George Clooney waits patiently while Kyle Smith pleases his corporate masters.
Movie Review: Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains (2014)
We know going in that Kurmanjan Datka (played by the lovely Elina Abai Kyzy for two-thirds of the movie) will unite the 40 tribes of modern-day Kyrgyzstan and become legendary. But as the movie begins, our heroine is just a small, unwanted girl in a 19th-century, mountainous, patriarchal society who doesn’t even get to choose her own husband. So how does she do it? How does she attain power?
Turns out the way Corazon Aquino and Isabel Peron attained power: through the death of their husbands.
Second question: What does she do that’s so legendary? According to the film:
- When she’s a little girl, and her father wants a male heir, it’s prophesied that 1) he won’t get it, and 2) his daughter is worth 100 boys. “Our country will need her tomorrow,” the cave-dwelling seer says. And outside a tiger growls in the high grass.
- As a young woman, she brings water to a wife falsely accused of adultery when no man in the village will help.
- In a massive breach of cultural mores, she leaves her first husband, who is rich and weak. And in the river she crosses, a tiger swims.
- When her second husband is assassinated, and she is targeted by his enemies, she rides her horse off of a cliff and into the river below. Both she and the horse survive. Yes, there’s a tiger there, too.
- When tribesmen are ready to abandon the notion of unity that her husband had been fighting for, she gives the speech that inspires the tribal leaders to fight for their land. And they win.
- When Russian soldiers arrive from the North, she gives the speech that inspires the tribal leaders not to fight for their land. And they’re annexed by Russia.
- When one of her sons is captured for killing Russian soldiers, she attends the hanging and does nothing to prevent it.
- At the beginning of the 20th century, she gets her picture taken by Russian officer Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, who later became leader of Finland.
That’s about it. According to the film.
Hold ‘em, fold ‘em
I mostly went to see “Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains,” which played at the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival, because I knew so little about the country.
Kyrgyzstan is, to put it mildly, interestingly situated. Its people look like Asians, dress like Mongols, practice Islam, and are forever menaced by Russia. According to title cards at the beginning of the film, the country was united in the 9th century but slowly broke apart. It took Kurmanjan to unite it again. I think.
There’s still a lot of things I don’t quite get. Her arranged marriage turns out to be with a weakling, who .... can’t seal the deal on honeymoon night? Is that the implication? And does he send Fatty to take over or does Fatty do this on his own accord when hubby can’t break a stick by the fire? And does Fatty rape her, or is he stopped when she throws water in his face?
The real Kurmanjan fled to China, initially, but in the movie she simply returns to her family, who are ostracized for her impertinence; tribal chiefs are summoned to pass judgment. The local feudal lord, Alymbek Datka (Aziz Muradillayev), also arrives, and he passes judgment: He likes this feisty woman; he takes her for his wife.
But everyone’s got a boss. Apparently the Datka reported to the Kokand khanate, which was made up of the modern-day stans: Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and southern Kazakhstan. When Alymbek tries to unite some of the Kyrgyz tribes, he’s assassinated. Then Kurmanjan rallies the troops and they win independence. Then the Russians arrive and they lose independence.
That’s pretty much the movie, and from an outsider perspective it doesn’t quite gel. Kurmanjan is legendary because she allowed Russia to annex their land? But it makes sense in this way, and please forgive the puny analogy, but it’s all I’ve got. For me, whenever I’ve been promoted in a corporate environment, it often feels like I have less power. I should feel the opposite but don’t. The higher I go, the weaker I feel. Maybe here, too. She rose to a level where the opposition was Russia, and to fight Russia was to invite extermination. So she didn’t. She knew when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.
How a country portrays itself
“Kurmanjan Datka” is not a very good movie but you admire the effort it took to make it. (The Guardian has a good article on why “Queen of the Mountains” was made and the controversies surrounding its production.) And its two leads do have a movie-star presence. Elina Abai Kyzy is beautiful, while Aziz Muradillayev has something of Chow Yun Fat in his calm manner and amused eyes.
Plus it’s always interesting to see how a country portrays itself—particularly one that has had little opportunity to do so.
Bob on Bob: My Father's Memories of Bob Feller
Apparently I've gotten my father to not only read Joe Posnanski but add comments. For Memorial Day, Joe, who is not exactly known for being pithy (and we're all the better for it), wrote a simple paragraph on Bob Feller and his WWII service, to which my father added, in the comments field, a pertinent trivia question: In 1941, the year Ted Williams hit .406 and Joe DiMaggio had his famous 56-game hitting streak, who led the league in hits? Obviously not either of those two.
I'll let him give the answer:
The answer is Cecil Travis, Washington Senators shortstop, and, at 28, a nine-year veteran. His lifetime average at that point was .327, which tied him with Honus Wagner for the highest among shortstops.
Now the sad part: He spent four years in the Army in World War II, froze his feet in the Battle of the Bulge and had three mediocre part-seasons when he returned home, still ending at .314, the highest among AL shortstops.
Unlike Feller, he didn't say what the war cost his baseball legacy. He was modest to a fault, claiming that he was a good player but not good enough for the Hall. Some people disagreed, among them Feller and Ted Williams, but he never received a single vote for the Hall of Fame!
(BTW: On Poz's site, check out the guy below my father's post who crunches the numbers and surmises that Travis probably would've made the Hall if not for the interruption.)
Believe it or not, all of the above is throat-clearing. What I really wanted to post was what my father emailed me yesterday morning:
Two connections I had with Bob Feller: I was at Shibe Park in Philly on the night that, according to his autobiog, “Strikeout Story,” was the game in which he had his best stuff ever. If memory serves he had 13 or 14 strikeouts after five innings, set to break his record of 18, but he slipped coming off the mound and had to leave the game. The only player he didn't strike out was an outfielder named Barney McCosky, who was a hitter in the Cecil Travis vein.
Secondly, he cost me my job as an usher at Griffith Stadium in Washington. As usual, when he pitched there were more than the usual number of fans in attendance, and because of the crowd size I was assigned to sit along the left field foul line, on the field, to collect any foul balls. A fan behind me complained that he couldn't see over my cap, so I jokingly gave it to him to wear. Apparently Clark Griffith noticed the usher out of uniform and ordered that he be cashiered.
Anyone who thinks my father should write more about his baseball memories, raise your hand. Mine's already up.