Review: “District 9” (2009)
WARNING: OBVIOUS METAPHORIC SPOILERS
“District 9” is as stupid from the left as “Transformers 2” is from the right.
“Transformers 2” is about sleek, metallic aliens who ally themselves with the U.S. military, and, despite the meddling of a petty bureaucrat, help protect the planet. The aliens stand tall, talk bland, ring hollow. They’re glossy and soulless. They’re basically metaphors for weaponry. That’s why the film feels of the right.
“District 9” is about slimy, crustacean-like aliens who ally themselves with a petty bureaucrat to protect themselves from the military. They scavenge, disregard property rights, spray gang graffiti. They’re soulful but gritty. They’re obviously metaphors for an oppressed minority. That’s why the film feels of the left.
These metaphors don’t reveal each film’s stupidity, just its politics. The stupidity comes, particularly for “District 9,” from adherence to the metaphor.
We quickly learn, for example, that 20 years ago an alien ship appeared over, not New York or D.C. or Paris or Beijing, but Johannesburg, South Africa. My thought: Cool! Plays off our movie assumptions. For three months nothing happened, the ship just hovered, and when we finally cut our way in we found the aliens malnourished and afraid. Interesting. They’ve traveled the galaxy but seem to have contracted a disease or something. So we transport the remainder of these aliens, over a million strong, into a neighborhood below, District 9, where they quickly become just another despised minority in just another slum on our planet. Um... Wait a minute.
Here’s where the metaphor overtakes logic. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp wants the aliens to be a despised minority so that’s what they become. And that’s all they become. Despite the fact that they’re aliens and—I can’t stress this enough—the existence of aliens changes everything. It’s a Copernicus moment.
So the craft hovers over Joburg. I like it. But the U.S. government, not to mention the E.U. and Russia and China, leave everything to petty South African bureaucrats and private military contractors? Please. Blomkamp and I are both cynical, we’re just cynical about different things.
Do we learn anything from these aliens—about their galaxy and home planet and technology? Apparently not. Does the aliens’ existence change the religions of the world, or our various views of God, in whose image we are supposedly made? Apparently no. Does it alter the U.N.? Foreign relations? Our planetary defense systems? Nope. The only thing that happens, apparently, is the ho-hum, the paperwork, the disgusted shake of the head that these creatures live in our midst.
In this way the film is in line with Blomkamp’s short films, including “Tempbot,” in which functioning robots become metaphors for office drones. Our big, modern problem, in other words, is our tendency to reduce the extraordinary (aliens, robots) to the mundane and subservient. That’s Blotkamp’s calling card and it’s a good calling card. It feels true because it’s what we’ve done with ourselves. The fact that we exist at all, in the forms we exist, is itself extraordinary, and we should be humbled and grateful for the opportunity no matter how we view this opportunity: as a fluke, a temporary aberration in a gigantic void, or as something central and eternal to existence. Instead we reduce it in the ways we reduce it. Life is big and we make everything small.
So I agree with the calling card. But Blotkamp mangles it in order to make it fit this longer format.
Again: It’s 20 years after the arrival of aliens—now disparaged as “Prawns”—and they’re about to be relocated from District 9 to a newer ghetto: District 10. The man put in charge of this relocation, Wikus Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), is the son-in-law of one of the higher-ups. He’s gloriously unsuited for the task but takes to it with the enthusiasm of the obtuse functionary he is.
Yet at the exact same hour—in one of the film’s many fantastic coincidences—two aliens, apparent leaders or captains, have finally developed the fuel necessary to get their ship going and return them to their planet. Until, that is, Wikus stumbles upon the fuel and gets sprayed in the face with it. Then it does what fuel often does when it’s sprayed in someone’s face. It begins to mutate him into an alien.
Once Wikus’ secret is out, the military-industrial complex he works for, MNU, carts him to a secret lab, where their scientists have been dissecting and experimenting on aliens, and where they learn that his Prawn-hand can fire advanced alien weaponry, which human hands can’t. They figure this information is worth billions. Believing, I suppose, that the melding of human and alien DNA gives them an “in” they didn’t have with their previous experiments, the scientists plan on dissecting Wikus. But he breaks free. Because they never sedated him. Why sedate someone you’re about to cut open?
There’s tons of this stuff. Nobody’s smart in this movie. Wikus, a bore from the start, keeps his cellphone, not realizing that MNU can track him with it; but then MNU doesn’t do a particularly good job of tracking him with it.
In another fantastic coincidence, Wikus flees back to the same shack where he got sprayed in the face, and the alien there, “Chris Johnson,” lets him know what happened. The only way the metamorphosis can be reversed, he says, is with more fuel, but alas it’s gone. But wait! Wikus knows where it is! He’s seen it—back in the lab—and the two of them, like in a mismatched buddy movie, grab some alien weaponry and storm the lab.
In any film this cynical it’s almost required that one of the heroes be monumentally naive. As if the only way to be good in such a world is to just not know. And the one who doesn’t know here is “Chris Johnson.” Who should know. For 20 years he’s seen how humans have treated him and his family and his friends. And yet, in the lab, when he finds the carcasses of fellow aliens who have been experimented on, he slows and stares. And stares. And stares. We’ve seen this before, in movies with human characters, so, though he’s a CGI alien, we know what he’s going through. He’s shocked, shocked that human beings do this, and even when the military barges in and engages in a firefight with Wikus, he stands in the crossfire, just staring. So dumb. That’s naive moment no. 1.
Here’s naive moment no. 2. Back at his shack, Chris decides that, rather than converting Wikus to a human, he’s going to use the fuel to immediately leave the planet and return in three years. He’s seen what humans do and can’t let them continue to experiment on his fellow aliens. Fine. The problem? He tells this to Wikus. Who promptly knocks him out and takes his ship. Unfamiliar with alien technology, attacked by his own military, and not very bright to begin with, he crashes the thing.
More fighting. In the end Wikus backs the Prawns against the humans, allowing Chris to escape, and the chief military villain is torn apart by Prawns.
A few years ago I wrote a piece for MSNBC on the history of alien invasion movies, and “District 9,” fits with a particular subgenre: the crashlanders: “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “E.T.,” “Starman.” Aliens who are essentially lost children, pursued by government forces, and trying to find their way back home. But, watching, I was reminded less of these (good) movies and more of absurd b-pictures from the ‘70s, such as “The Thing with Two Heads,” starring Rosie Grier and poor Ray Milland. A white bigot’s head on a soul brother’s body! This one's “The Thing with the Alien Arm”: A bigoted bureaucrat sprouts an alien arm! It’s integrationist literature: “Prawn Like Me.”
The faux-documentary style of the film, generally used for exposition, wearied me, too. What does it mean that we frame more and more of our stories through this extra media lens? And what kind of awful documentary are they making in the future anyway? Who, in that world, needs to be told all the details of when aliens arrived on earth? Oh right, I forgot. That moment wasn’t extraordinary, it was a nuisance. My bad.
Blomkamp leaves the ending open. Will the aliens return? Will they return angry? If so, none of the talking heads seem worried. The final shot is Wikus, completely transformed into an alien, thinking of his wife. It’s supposed to be poignant but it made me feel like a crashlander. I just wanted to go home.
"Goddamn Fox would give Wolverine webshooters and a bat cape!"
Via Jeff Wells' site, a mash-up of (yet again) the angry bunker scene in "Downfall" with (this time) the online disaster of the "Avatar" trailer.
Most of this stuff bugs me because it's dissing what doesn't exist yet—wait for the movie, people—but I'm posting the link for these lines:
Lt.: Sir, you expect a miracle from Fox Studios.
Hitler: Goddamn Fox would give Wolverine webshooters and a bat cape!
“Breaking Away” Lesson of the Day
Learn a foreign language. Even poorly.
Worst Wedding Day Ever
I guess I wasn't paying enough attention watching the second episode of "Mad Men," but it took a while for the other shoe to drop. Maybe I was distracted by all the tension involved in the wedding plans. Last season Roger Sterling left his wife for a young thing and now his daughter didn't want the golddigger at her wedding—why should she?—and Roger was drinking too much, and the wife, the original wife, was calm and coy, and so the date of the wedding skipped by me. It wasn't until the episode was two-thirds over that the tumblers fell into place. Odd how the mind works. Appropos of what exactly I suddenly woke up.
"Wait a minute," I asked Patricia. "They didn't say the wedding was November 23rd, did they?"
"November 23rd. 1963."
"The day after Kennedy was assassinated."
"They've just given this poor girl one of the saddest days in American history to have her wedding."
That's part of the sad fun of "Mad Men." Waiting for history to catch up with its characters. To overwhelm them.
ADDENDUM: I wrote the above without realizing that history, or time, had caught up with the final Kennedy brother. Godspeed, Senator.
Review: “Inglourious Basterds” (2009)
WARNING: SPOILERS ARE A-BOOMIN’
Here are the problems with Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” It distorts history to a degree no filmmaker has ever done with World War II. It makes the Allies as morally repugnant as the Nazis. It introduces fascinating characters only to kill them off, and, in doing so, doesn’t give us near enough of the Basterds themselves. George Will once dismissed football as nothing more than “committee meetings punctuated by violence,” and one could say that “Basterds” is nothing more than tableside meetings (over milk, over strudel, over scotch) punctuated by violence.
But I loved it. Tarantino’s films open my mind—in a way that few films do—as to the possibilities of storytelling. You can do that? I think. That’s allowed?
The opening title card should’ve been a giveaway: “Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France,” it read. Tarantino’s telling a story here. He’s not interested in history. Or the only kind of history he’s interested in is cinematic history. Everything else is a prop.
Watching, I kept wondering what he was up to. Why is he aping Sergio Leone in the opening scene? We’re in Nazi-occupied France not the Old West. Why the Mike Myers cameo and the David Bowie music and the Sam Jackson narration? Doesn’t he want to ground this thing in time and place?
No, he doesn’t want to ground this thing in time and place. That, it turns out, is the exact opposite of what he wants to do.
The opening scene give us the first of those dramatic tableside confrontations (over milk), while introducing both the villain, Col. Hans Landa of the S.S., known as the Jew Hunter (Christoph Walz), and the heroine, Shoshanna Dreyfuss (Melanie Laurent), who is last seen running across the countryside, the blood of her family splattered all over her body.
Then we get the Basterds and their raison d’etre: killing Nazis. The team consists of Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), known as Aldo the Apache, and 8-10 Jewish soldiers, most of whom are interchangeable. I thought we would get their exploits piecemeal but Tarantino takes us from introduction to legend in 30 seconds. These guys open heads with Louisville Sluggers and whoop it up. They carve swastikas into flesh. They scalp heads. The violence, oddly, is both felt and cartoonish. I can’t think of another filmmaker who can do both at the same time.
As a screenwriter, Tarantino is almost a playwright. He’s not interested in moving from place-to-place. He’s interested in getting us to a place, an enclosed place, and having his characters talk. And talk. And talk. And then shoot guns. Each scene begins like “My Dinner with Andre” and ends like “Taxi Driver.”
The rest of the movie is quickly set up. Shoshanna, passing as a gentile, runs a cinema in Paris, where she’s pursued by a young German private, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a cinephile who, it turns out, is his country’s Sgt. York: a sharpshooter who single-handedly killed over 200 enemy soldiers. “Nation’s Pride,” a film starring himself, has been made about the experience, and Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, is setting up its premiere in Paris. But Zoller, trying to impress Shoshanna, gets them to change venues to her cinema, where, with her black lover, she plans on burning to death members of the German high command using old, explosive, 35mm film reels stored in the basement. This plan becomes even more important when she learns Adolf Hitler himself will be there. “Getting to whack ol’ Uncle Adolf,” as Raine says later in the film, “makes this a horse of a different color.” Indeed.
The Allies, learning of the premiere (sans the Hitler part), launch their own plan, “Operation Kino,” and dispatch film historian Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) behind enemy lines, where he’s to rendezvous with both the Basterds and Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a German actress and double agent. But “Kino” goes awry during a dramatic tableside confrontation (over scotch), and some of our most memorable Basterds are killed. Meanwhile, von Hammersmark, Cinderella-ish, leaves a telltale shoe at the scene, alerting Col. Landa to her likely double-agent status.
But so what, right? We know the plan won’t work. Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and Bormann are all at the premiere, and it’s June 1944, and this isn’t the way they go. Hitler and Goebbels kill themselves in their bunker in April 1945; Bormann, it’s assumed, died trying to escape the Red Army in May 1945; Goering killed himself with cyanide after being sentenced to death during the Nuremberg trials in 1946. We know they won’t die here. At the same time we wonder how Tarantino will handle it. How will he let the Nazis get away but still make it satisfying for us?
Here’s how he handles it: He kills them all. In June 1944. He changes history.
Watching, you think: OK, it’s a double of Hitler, right? It’s a stand-in whose face Sgt. Donny Donowtiz (Eli Roth) machine-guns into a bloody pulp. It’s not supposed to be the real Hitler.
But then the movie ends and you realize it wasn’t a double. In this movie, Hitler died, and World War II ended, in June 1944. What fun!
Then you think: Tarantino can’t do that, can he?
He can and did.
You could argue that Hitler’s merely a prop to him, a movie villain, the way that, say, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a movie villain. He can kill him any way he wants. And this is the way he wants. This is the way that suits his story rather than history.
Or you could argue on a deeper level. The greatest villain of the 20th century escaped our clutches. Yes, he took the coward’s way out in that bunker—and it was a coward’s way out—but we didn’t begin to get our revenge for all of the death and destruction he caused. The movies have recreated that moment, that horribly uncinematic moment in the bunker, time and time again, but they’ve always played by Hitler’s rules. They always gave him the end he chose. Until Tarantino. Who machine guns his face into oblivion in June 1944.
The audacity is almost breathtaking. That’s why all that other stuff helps—the oversized pipes and Mike Myers cameos and David Bowie music. The film is a 20th century hodgepodge. It’s not history. The only history Tarantino cares about is movie history. That’s the one he gets right: From the flammability of early film, to the great 1943 French film “Le Corbeau” that Shoshanna is advertising on her movie marquee, to having German actor Emil Jannings, who won the first best-actor Oscar, and who is best remembered today for his incredible performance in “The Blue Angel” with Marlene Dietrich, show up at the premiere of “Nation’s Pride.” Initially I thought this unfair to Jannings. But after the movie I did a little Internet research and discovered, big surprise, Tarantino was right: Jannings supported the Nazis. He made Nazi films. He actually died in 1950, but he gets it here too in that crowded Parisian theater in June 1944. Auf Wiedersehen.
Some are objecting to the moral equivalency of “Inglourious Basterds.” The greatest cruelties we see in the movie are the cruelties the Basterds visit upon the Germans. But Tarantino told us he was making a spaghetti western set during World War II, and he didn’t lie, and spaghetti westerns are all about moral equivalency. When I first saw “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” I thought, “OK, who is ‘the Good’ again?” Because no one in the movie seemed good to me. There was just cool and not cool. Same with Tarantino. He’s never been interested in the good, only the cool.
Still, since there are few wars less morally equivalent than World War II, it makes sense people are objecting. Americans, Jewish-Americans, lock Germans into movie theaters and machine gun them and burn them. The Germans claw at the doors, like Jews clawed at the doors in the gas chambers. The Germans in this movie are Jews, and the Jews are Germans. Some people in the audience want to feel morally superior but Tarantino doesn’t let them. He only wants to feel cool and victorious.
The question with Tarantino, as always, is: How much is he playing with us? The Jew Bear (Roth) knocks out a Nazi’s brains and the Basterds cheer like they’re watching a movie. The Germans watch a movie about Pvt. Zoller and they cheer at each Allied death. We watch this movie and cheer as each German is slaughtered. Or do we? I certainly had mixed feelings. At the mangling of history. At the moral equivalency. Once the Germans became Jews, how can you cheer for their deaths? Tarantino gives us nothing clean. Every gift he gives is smeared in blood.
It’s surprising how much of the movie is subtitled, isn’t it? An American movie? A Hollywood movie? “Any of you Americans speak another language?” von Hammersmark asks snidely at one point. Nope. Our language expertise is limited to catch phrases and hand gestures. To finger food. As in real life. Yet Tarantino casts international actors with international tongues and American moviegoers attend en masse: $38 million opening weekend. He gets away with what everyone says you can’t get away with. Why not? He’s the man who ended World War II in June 1944.
That cast, by the way, is wonderful. Melanie Laurent as Shoshanna plays it straight, Brad Pitt as Aldo Raine plays it for laughs, and Christoph Walz as Col. Landa, who won awards at Cannes and who will probably be up for an Oscar, plays it in-between. And it all works. It all meshes together. I was also impressed with Michael Fassbender as Archie Cox, who, particularly in his British duds, reminded me of a young Laurence Olivier, and the knee-weakeningly beautiful Diane Kruger, who, like Laurent, plays it straight.
Bottom line, “Inglourious Basterds” is a fun movie. It’s fun to watch and it’s fun to talk about afterwards. Getting to whack ol’ Uncle Adolf makes this a horse of a different color. Indeed.
Packed House for Basterds
Early estimates have Quentin Tarantino's “Inglourious Basterds” making $37 million over the weekend—$14.3, $12.9 and $10.3—but it'll be interesting to see if it's not higher. Patricia and I went last night, Sunday night, at 6:30, to one of the day's dozen shows at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle, and the place was packed. I haven't seen a theater that crowded in a while—let alone on a Sunday night when everyone was supposed to be home and getting ready for the workweek. They applauded at the end, too.
UPDATE: $38 million: $14.3, $13, $10.6. Not a big leap but a hop.
The Reverse Debate Idea
The [Bush] aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
—from Ron Suskind's New York Times Magazine article, "Without a Doubt," October 2004
So it goes. So it continues. We thought this was a Bush administration thing but it's obviously a Republican thing. One can see their entire strategy in the above quote. They lie about one thing until it gains traction in the mainstream media, until it becomes a talking point, until it begins to get refuted by responsible sources ... and then they'll lie about something else. The bigger the lie the better. Repeat the lie often enough and people believe it. The point isn't to debate, it's to distract. It's to misread and mislead. It's to accuse the oppositon of being like yourself so the opposition has trouble responding. Democrats are the ones who are fascistic, bullying, and fomenting a civil war? Maybe Dems should accuse Republicans of being vacillating and overly compromising. Maybe that way we can at least have a reverse debate.
Truly, there's such awfulness here, such mind-numbing goo, that anyone with a heart can't help but turn away in disgust. Which is also part of the gameplan.
The more I think about it, the more I like the reverse debate idea. The point of accusing someone of what they aren't is to make them more of what they are. To a fault. So you accuse compromising Dems of being fascists and Nazis, which makes them even more compromising. So you accuse uncompromising Republicans of being wishy-washy and vacillating—of being hippies, say—in order to make them even more uncompromising. It won't help us get anything done but at least it'll stick them through the looking glass for a while. For a change.
Gun Nuts and the People Who Support Them
Frank Rich's Sunday column in The New York Times is called "The Guns of August," which was the title of Barbara Tuchman's 1962 account of the beginnings of World War I, which was a favorite book of Pres. Kennedy. He gave copies to the prime minister of England and the U.S. ambassador to France, among others.
Rich's column is less about the long and intricate European windings to war than about the same homegrown violence—the culture of it and the cultivation of it—that led to Pres. Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. It's about American gun nuts and the people who support them. Not just the bigmouths of Fox News and far-right radio but elected officials such as Sen. Tom Coburn (R, Ok.), who, when asked if he was troubled by the rising threats against the U.S. government, blamed the government:
“Well, I’m troubled any time when we stop having confidence in our government,” the senator said, “but we’ve earned it.”
Rich reminds us that Coburn did the same thing in supporting the Barr amendment to the Comprehensive Anti-Terrorism Act of 1995. He said people in this country were worried more about their own government than terrorism:
Terrorism in this country obviously poses a serious threat to us as a free society. It generates fear. But there is a far greater fear that is present in this country, and that is fear of our own Government. We should not further that fear. We should not do anything to promote further lack of confidence in our own Government. Public officials must recognize that our citizens fear not only terrorism, but our Government as well.
Then there was Rep. Phil Gingrey (R, Ga.) who told Chris Matthews on MSNBC that he saw no reason to discourage citizens from carrying unconcealed weapson to public debates about health insurance. In fact, he seemed to encourage it. He seemed to revel in it.
Rich is worried and so am I. He's worried that Pres. Obama is compromising too much with forces that don't compromise and so am I. But mostly he's worried about the rise in the rhetoric of violence and so am I.
I wish I could say something insightful about all of this but I've got nothing. Thoughts are welcome.
“Breaking Away” Lesson of the Day
It’s not so much Brooks Barnes’ argument on the front page of The New York Times this morning (“Starring in Summer’s Big Hits, Virtually Nobody”), it’s how he defends his argument.
The argument itself is a no-brainer. Yes, not many stars are in the summer’s big hits. Yes, for the most part, characters-driven movies (Harry Potter, Optimus Prime), and concept movies (“Paul Blart,” “The Hangover”), trump star-driven movies.
But Barnes proves his point by comparing this summer to 2000 and 1990. Why not be mathematically correct and focus on 1999 and 1989?
Because then he’d highlight how little has changed. The big summer movie of 1989 was “Batman,” which, while it had Jack Nicholson in the Joker’s role, was, again, a characters-driven movie. People went more for Batman than Jack. A decade later, the big hit of 1999 was “Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” the fourth film in the series that, you could argue, marked the beginning of the end of the star-driven movie.
Barnes also overdoes his argument—which doesn’t need much overdoing—by lumping together, or having executives lump together, all of the star-driven movies that disappointed at the box office this summer, including Adam Sandler’s “Funny People” and Johnny Depp’s “Public Enemies.” The problem? Both were directors’ films rather than stars’ film. They were perceived that way and marketed that way. And they were serious films, and serious rarely does well in summer. And “Public Enemies” didn’t do that poorly—it’s near $100 million domestic—which, even adjusted for inflation, is the sixth-highest-grossing Johnny Depp film. As famous as he is, Depp is still more actor than star to me. If he’s playing a character people like—Captain Jack—sure, they come out in droves. Otherwise, it’s “Dead Man.”
This raises another point. Weren’t star-driven movies always characters-driven movies? Fans went to see Bogart being Bogart, Redford being Redford, Cruise being Cruise. When they deviated from those roles, box office dropped.
Something is happening, surely, with moviegoers and their loyalty to stars, but the discussion the topic deserves wasn’t on the front page of today’s New York Times.
Review: “In the Loop” (2009)
WARNING: EASY-PEASY-LEMON-SQUEEZY SPOILERS
I think war is unforeseeable.
That’s the big joke in “In the Loop,” a British comedy about the insane and petty circumlocutions and politicking in a ramp-up to a U.S.-led war in the Middle East that will otherwise go unnamed. All jokes in the film stem from this one.
Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the minister for international development, is on a bland British radio show, dealing with the bland issues in his field; then he’s asked about the impending war, says the above line, and all hell breaks loose.
“He did not say ‘unforeseeable,’” says Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the hilariously profane Scottish director of communications at Number 10 Downing Street. “You may have heard him say that but he did not say that.” And there’s our modern political world in a nutshell. You didn’t hear what you heard. You didn’t see what you saw. Or turn it on its head: You know (ex: WMDs) what you don’t really know. You can probably divide politicians into these two camps. You can probably divide people into those two camps. Those who know what they don’t know, like Tucker, and those who don’t know what they know, like Foster. The former are full of passionate intensity while the latter lack all conviction.
Foster, lacking all conviction, backtracks while talking to Tucker:
Foster: I don’t think war is unforeseeable.
Tucker: What is it then?
Foster: I don’t know. Foreseeable?
Tucker: No. No!
The beauty is that Foster is right on both counts. In general, war is unforeseeable, since so many factors going into its creation. On the other hand, this war is foreseeable, since the big dog, an unnamed U.S. administration, is hell-bent on having it.
Which leaves Foster nowhere to go. He’s stuck on the tiny island of his statement and winds up spouting gibberish to reporters the next day:
Look. To the plane, in the fog, the mountain is...is unforeseeable, but then it is suddenly very real and...foreseeable.
Because his original line is perceived as anti-war, he attempts, in this follow-up, to sound more martial:
To walk the road of peace sometimes we have to be ready to climb...the mountain...of conflict.
Disaster. But within the U.S. administration, he’s suddenly seen as both anti-war (the original statement) and pro-war (the follow-up), and both sides try to use him for their purposes. An anti-war general, Miller (James Gandolfini), talking with an anti-war assistant secretary of state, Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), predicts, “You’re going to use him like a little meat puppet.” Meanwhile, Linton Barwick (David Rasche, doing a pitch-perfect Donald Rumsfeld), tapes the “mountain of conflict” line onto computers all over his department.
U.S. officials request Foster’s presence in D.C. for planning sessions, but even as he arrives with a go-getting assistant, Toby Wright (Chris Addison), he’s kept out of the loop. Most of the activity within the film, from Foster and almost everyone else, is to try to get in the loop—but only for the sake of being in the loop. So that one appears powerful. So that one appears to matter. Once there, though, and once called upon: disaster. No one, in the end, can use Foster because all of his energy is spent trying get to a place of consequence in order to act in an inconsequential manner.
“In the Loop” is good satire, necessary satire, but parts of it feel like weak tea. I went in with the highest of expectations (critics were comparing it to “Dr. Strangelove”), and they weren’t met. Don’t know whether to blame the expectations or the film. In other sharp, political satires (“Strangelove,” “Wag the Dog”), the characters (“Buck” Turgidson, Pres. Merkin Muffley, Stanley Motts) felt vivid in a way that these don’t, and it was a kind of “Ah ha!” moment when I discovered that the film was a spin-off of a British TV series, “The Thick of It,” about the inner workings of the British government. The film made me want to watch the series, but the fact of the series made me realize why the film seems small-screen.
I still admire it. I still recommend it. It’s sharp, it’s funny, it’s right. One of my favorite moments comes late in the film, when the pious Linton Barwick bumps heads with the profane Malcolm Tucker, in, all of places, the U.N. Meditation Room. Barwick, unable to swear, calls Tucker “a useless piece of s * * t,” pronouncing the last word, “ess-star-star-tee.” Tucker, unable to not swear, counters, “You are a boring old eff-star-star-CUNT.”
I roared. Brilliant.
Link of the Day
A piece on the joy of walking your dog, called "One Night in Dog Heaven," by my friend Jim Walsh. Not many writers are able to pull the eternal and the mystical from the quotidian as well as Jim. Excerpt:
Master, I know I am low on your priority list but please deliver me from this godforsaken prison of human stasis and let me run wild. You hold the key to me being the best I can be, the unbridled creature I was born to be. Let me hump a few friends and strangers, chase a few leaves I have mistaken for pheasants and overall be so in the moment that I make all the Zen people look like multi-taskers.
Dying for Tomatoes
So Patricia and I were driving home after two days of camping with my sister's family at Moran State Park on Orcas Island. The plan was to buy tomatoes, etc., on the way home, which is why, after the ferry-boat docking at Anacortes, Wash., P and I left Highway 20 and headed south toward La Conner, home of the tulip festival in April. It was after 6 p.m. and most stands were closed, and most of those stands just sold blueberries and raspberries anyway. We were on Samish Road, a two-lane highway (one lane heading north, one heading south), when we spotted a more-promising stand to the left. I slowed the car, put on my turn signal, and was beginning to turn...when the car behind us barreled past us in the left lane, the lane I was turning into. If I'd turned a second earlier he would've slammed into the driver's side of our car going 50 and we'd be dead.
It shakes you up. It's such a nothing moment and an everything moment. It shouldn't have nearly happened but it did (nearly happen), and some part of me keeps imagining the wreckage in the silence after the crash, and the people who came upon us, and the gawkers. It's like something out of an old drivers ed movie. Sudden death. Because we were looking for tomatoes and the guy behind us couldn't wait.
The promising stand, by the way, was closed.
Quote of the Day
"I like to be the good guy because the good guy gets to kill the bad guy."
— my nephew, Ryan, 6, talking about playacting, but encapsulating the schizophrenia at the heart of our culture, during a walk around Mountain Lake on Orcas Island.
The Wobbly Legs of "G.I. Joe"
After busting out gangbusters on Friday with a $22 million opening, "G.I. Joe" hasn't fared particularly well. It was the only film, among the top 20 grossers Saturday, whose percentages dropped, and they dropped by 18 percent. Its studio's Sunday estimation was off by $1.5 million—indicating enthusiasm, such as it was, was waning even more than they thought—while it was one of only three films whose percentages dropped Tuesday. And while the other two, "Orphan" and "Funny People," dropped by 1 percent, "Joe" dropped by 7 percent. "Joe"'s torso may be buff, in other words, but his legs are weak.
The lowest-grossing film for any film to open in over 4,000 theaters is "Mission: Impossible III," which wound up making $134 million, domestic, back in 2005. "Joe" is now at $67 million. Fingers crossed.
Old Critics vs. Young Critics
I understand why Drew McWeeny of Hitflix is upset. If you’re part of a group, and an outsider disparages the group, you rally ‘round even if you tend to agree with the outsider. When I lived abroad and someone said something negative about the U.S., my back went up even if I tended to agree. Hell, even if I agreed completely. It’s a human reaction.
So older movie critics (A.O. Scott, Jeff Wells, Roger Ebert) have disparaged the tastes of younger moviegoers, and WcWeeny, a younger movie critic, has sided with “young” rather than “movie critic” and fought back. It’s understandable. Not being young, I read the above pieces and merely nodded. A.O. Scott’s article felt particularly spot-on. He was describing my feelings about the current state of movies and popular culture. He was describing the reality I was seeing. “Delicate, exotic flower, released into art houses” is the quote of the year.
At the same time, this debate isn’t really about “G.I. Joe” or “The Hurt Locker.” It’s about “Transformers 2.” That’s the one that hurts. That’s the one that feels like a final insult to movie critics—no matter their age.
Other no. 1 box-office hits of the year could be explained away. “Dark Knight” was good. “Spider-Man 3” and “Dead Man’s Chest” and “Sith” were crappy sequels to good movies, and, one assumes, moviegoers went for the good movie and wound up seeing the crappy sequel. C’est la vie. C’est la mort. Movie critics knew that we were far from the days when “The Graduate” or “The Godfather,” or even “Rain Man” or “Saving Private Ryan,” could be the no. 1 movie of the year, but at least moviegoers hadn’t lost their minds.
But the mindnumbingly stupid “Transformers 2” was sequel to the mindnumbingly stupid “Transformers”... and people still went to see it. And they didn’t stop seeing it. It didn’t have great legs but it had better legs than I’d hoped. I wanted it to fall off a cliff but it just rolled down a steep hill like a happy idiot, babbling grosses all the way. It’s knocking at $400 million domestic right now.
At one point in his piece, McWeeny argues that the perceived direction of our culture is off-limits to critics. That you talk about the film and that’s all:
I don't care if anyone agrees with me. Ever. ... I don't think the job of a critic is to rail against what is popular, or to insult the taste of the viewing public, or even to question it.
I’d argue that none of this takes place in a vacuum. Everything matters. What we see, what we eat, the sites we click on, all affect us and our culture. I know I’m part of all this, not apart from it. If this air gets polluted it pollutes me, too.
I have no doubt that the 14-year-olds who flocked to “Transformers 2” will be the 15-year-olds, and the 20-year-olds, and the 46-year-olds who will blanch when they see it one or six or 32 years from now. Doesn’t matter. It’s already pulled in tons of money. That reality’s been made and can’t be unmade. Other movies just like it—violent movies based on toys, but for everyone— will be produced and marketed to us and to the people coming behind us. And on and on, world without end. Until it ends. And it won’t end when Decepticons try to turn off the sun; it’ll end when we all become as blisteringly stupid as the stories we absorb.
The latest news? Warner Bros. plans to develop a movie around Legos. Here’s hoping the Eiffel Tower survives.
Quote of the Day
"Conservatives love to pretend they're the disability community's knights in shining armor when it suits their political purposes. In years past, they tried to co-opt us in the abortion debate by making both subtle and explicit claims that every gimp would be snuffed out in the womb were it not for them staying the liberals' murderous hand. The right has now adapted the tactic to the health care debate, portraying themselves as the defenders and protectors of us meek and vulnerable cripples who dwell in the shadow of a tyrannical and cruel government.
"I won't win any Pulitzers for this sentence, but they can take their false magnanimity and go fuck themselves...
"The only reason I'm able to live a life with any measure of dignity or independence is because of a government health plan. ... We need health care reform. I need it. Trig needs it. Kids and adults with every kind of disability need it.
"What we don't need is a bunch of screeching ideologues attempting to cynically exploit us for purposes of maintaining the status quo."
—Mark Siegel, the 19th Floor.
Read the whole post and pass it along.
- My friends Andy and Joanie moved from Seattle to Hanoi earlier this month—with two young kids—and Andy's blogging about the adventure. And the life. Check it out.
- Great, simple and sarcastic piece by Nate Sliver over at FiveThirtyEight.com on the difference betwen the Canadian (single-payer) and the British (nationalized) health-care systems. Even I understood it. The funny thing, of course (or not-so-funny thing), is that Obama isn't proposing either. He's proposing a government option that would compete with private insurance. And even that simple plan has the wackos up in arms. Or carrying them. Maybe it's time to move to Hanoi.
- Meanwhile more revelations on the people who got us into this mess—the Bush administration—which most of these nutjobs supported, and would probably continue to support. So, yes, it turns out Karl Rove, and the White House, were involved in the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys. I mean how bad were these guys? It's not even funny anymore. I just get sick to my stomach.
- Andrew Sullivan's taking a break. He's right. Godspeed.
- Mark Seal's article in Vanity Fair about the making of "The Godfather" is a couple of months old but I only got around to reading it last night. Great hilarious stories and revelations. About who had mob connections and who didn't. About which lines were ad-libbed. (Would you believe: "Take the canoli"?) About the difference between frying and browning garlic. About the long list of actors considered for the role of Michael: Robert Redford, Martin Sheen, Ryan O'Neal, David Carradine, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. You read and realize all over again what a series of accidents any movie is. To this day Al Pacino doesn't know why the movie connected with audiences, but he adds, with great matter-of-factness, something that's close to the truth: "I would guess that it was a very good story, about a family, told unusually well by Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola." Mikey.
The Courage of His Cliches
Via Jeffrey Wells’ site, here’s Stephen Sommers, director of “G.I. Joe,” on movie critics:
I don't think the mainstream critics are relevant [when it comes to G.I. Joe]. They have criticized themselves into irrelevancy. ... I make the kind of movies critics love to hate. They love dark and depressing movies.
And here’s a list of movies that garnered a 90 percent or better rating from top critics on Rotten Tomatoes over the last few years:
- “Ratatouille”: 100%
- “WALL-E”: 97%
- “Hairspray”: 97%
- “The Bourne Ultimatum”: 97%
- “The Incredibles”: 95%
- “Casino Royale”: 95%
- “Spider-Man 2”: 95%
- “Iron Man”: 92%
- “Enchanted”: 90%
- “The Dark Knight”: 90%
An argument can be made that “The Dark Knight” is “dark and depressing,” but I don’t think that’s the kind of film Sommers is talking about. We know what he’s talking about. And of course he’s wrong. The numbers show he’s wrong. But he’s got the courage of his cliches.
Just as right-wing politicians have labeled Hollywood “liberal” when its product is most decidedly not, so Hollywood executives have labeled critics “elitist,” and lovers of things “dark and depressing,” when the reality is both more complex and more simple. Good critics love good movies. In whatever form they come in.
The Most Banned Movies Ever! ... Maybe
A few days ago The Independent ran a short piece on the most controversial films in...history? Or just 10 banned films? If the former then “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974) is the most banned film ever (11 countries), while Singapore, no surprise, is the banningest of all countries, preventing seven of the ten listed films from arriving on their chewing-gum-less shores. A bigger surprise, at least for me, is the second banningest country, Ireland, which refused “Chainsaw,” A Clockwork Orange,” “Life of Brian,” “Freaks” and “The Evil Dead.” And who’s Italy to ban “Last Tango in Paris”? Have they seen some of their own films?
I’m also curious what constitutes a ban. Not every film is distributed abroad, so... Do distributors have to begin inquiries before the ban is announced, or are some governments more proactive in their banning? Refusing before it’s offered, as it were.
This list includes two best picture nominees (“A Clockwork Orange” and “The Exorcist”) and one best picture winner (“All Quiet on the Western Front”), and it was this last one that intrigued. Which country, you might ask, banned the peace-loving, war-hating “All Quiet”? Why Germany, of course, after the Nazis took power. In fact, according to The Independent...
During its brief run in German cinemas in 1930, the Nazis disrupted the viewings by releasing rats in the theatres.
Another reminder of what democracy isn’t. Disruption—whether with actual rats or with the kind Rachel Maddow talks about here.
Review: “Julie & Julia” (2009)
WARNING: SPOILERS DELICIEUX
Has a movie ever been made, in which past and present are juxtaposed, where the present is not found wanting? “The Godfather—Part II,” “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” “Lone Star,” all say, more or less, the same thing: We suck.
“Julie & Julia” says it, too, although, one asssumes, unintentionally. It’s less the point of the juxtaposition than a consequence of it.
Sure, there are similarities to the title characters' stories. Off-hand comments by husbands push each onto their respective journeys. Julia Child (Meryl Streep), unsure what to do with her life in France in 1949, learns French cooking and, in collaboration with two French chefs (OK, one French chef), writes a French cookbook for Americans that sweeps the nation. Julie Powell (Amy Adams), unsure what to do with her life in Queens in 2002, spends a year cooking all 524 recipes in the Julia Child cookbook and writes a blog about it that sweeps the blogosphere.
Those are the similarities. Here are the differences.
Julia Child begins by looking inward: What do I want to do with my life? Julie Powell begins by looking outward: My friends have successful lives; why don’t I?
Julia Child spends years, literally years, writing and rewriting and testing her cookbook, before a publisher finally agrees to publish it. Julie Powell spends months, literally months, blogging about Julia’s recipes before she’s written up in The New York Times and offers for book deals come flooding in.
The great impediment to Julia’s cookbook involves the national tragedy of her time, McCarthyism, which ensnares her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), and spins the couple from this to that foreign service assignment in this and that country. The great impediment to Julie’s blog is either her own self-absorption, which ensnares her husband, Eric (Chris Messina), and spins him away from her for a night, or the national tragedy of her time, the 9/11 attacks, since her day job is to listen to and direct complaints and ideas about the fall of the twin towers. But she feels she’s above it. In fact, the whole point of her blog is to avoid that day job; to avoid the national tragedy of her time.
Most importantly, Julia Child has a joie de vivre that’s infects even the most dour French merchant and brightens any room. Julie Powell has a solipsistic petulance that infects even the most supportive of husbands and drags down any conversation.
As a result, you want to be with the former and you want to run from the latter. You care about the former’s story, less so the latter’s.
Location helps. Paris in ’49, c’mon. Plus that wonderful relationship with Paul. Plus all that wonderful food. Plus Meryl. No modifier necessary. She’s always good, but you watch her in a role like this and you’re amazed all over again. A reviewer wrote that she inhabits the role, and she does. She takes a real person, who has been caricatured for decades, and humanizes her by moving toward the caricature rather than away from it. There’s a triple joy here: the joy Julia brings into the room, the apparent joy Meryl has playing her, and the very real joy we have watching her play her. I didn’t want those scenes to end.
We learn a lot about someone we thought we knew. Eric, Julie’s husband—who looks like every boyfriend that ever appeared on “Sex and the City”—delivers a key line: “Julia Child wasn’t always Julia Child.” And she wasn’t. But a file clerk with the OSS? Who knew? It’s where she met her husband, a designer, and after the war he got stationed in Paris and she looked for something to occupy herself. “Shouldn’t I find something to do?” Meryl says in that high sing-song. She wanted to have children but couldn’t, which the movie deals with touchingly and efficiently. A glance in the park and a letter from her sister. Not a word spoken but a lifetime said.
She was a fighter. She had to fight her way into Le Cordon Bleu, she had to fight her way through drafts of the cook book, she had to fight the feeling it wasn’t worth it. She was all about taking the time to make it right, but we get a sense of where things are heading for our poor country when executives at Houghton Mifflin turn down her book as too imposing, too difficult for 1950s American housewives. Housewives, they implied, wanted quicker meals. But you speed up the timeframe and the meal isn’t the same. You speed up the timeframe and the life isn’t the same. We get 10 years of Julia’s life and one of Julie’s. Julia’s life is spread out like a ten-course meal while Julie’s is crammed into a Stouffers bag. Maybe that’s part of the reason Julia objected to Julie’s self-imposed year-in-the-life. The point isn’t to cram into; it’s to open up.
“Julie & Julia” is more than two hours long and I wanted more. I wanted to see how Julia got on TV. I wanted Julia, in her 90s, to appear at some moment in Julie’s life. I wanted more Julia, obviously, and more Meryl, who should get another Oscar nomination for this, and maybe, finally, that elusive third statuette. Our time comes off wanting, sure, but it is. But in that wanting, in that juxtaposition, a truer path is revealed. There’s no way our culture will take this truer path—the momentum is all in the other direction—but it doesn’t meant you and I can’t.
A.O. Scott Testifies!
Future "At the Movies" co-host A.O. Scott's piece on the increasingly infantilization of the American movie-going public isn't bad but he really hits his stride in the second half. Everything below is just dead-on:
Wolverine, Captain Kirk, Harry Potter, Hasbro — those trademarks and secondary merchandising opportunities will reliably get kids into the theaters. But the examples of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” “Public Enemies” and, perhaps, “Funny People” are widely taken to mean that artists like Denzel Washington, John Travolta, Michael Mann, Johnny Depp and Judd Apatow may not have the same guaranteed pull. Never mind that “Public Enemies” has actually done pretty well after a slow start, and that the running time, subject matter and tone of “Funny People” make it hard to compare with “Knocked Up” or “Happy Gilmore.” Conventional wisdom is always happy to ignore such nuances.
This may be because any reduction in the clout of stars or the autonomy of directors redounds to the benefit of the companies that own the copyrights and distribute the goods. ... Middle-aged actors and critically lauded directors look like extravagances rather than sound investments. Forty is the new dead. Auteur is French for unemployed. “The Hurt Locker” — the kind of fierce and fiery action movie that might have been a blockbuster once upon a time — is treated like a delicate, exotic flower, released into art houses and sold on its prestige rather than on its visceral power.
The box office numbers don’t lie, but they don’t tell the whole story either. The weekend grosses, widely guessed at on Thursday night and breathlessly reported by the middle of Sunday afternoon, record the quantity of tickets purchased, but they cannot register the quality of the experience. The aggregate of receipts shows that a lot of people like going to the movies, but not necessarily that they like what they see.
Commercial success may represent the public’s embrace of a piece of creative work, or it may just represent the vindication of a marketing strategy. In bottom-line terms, this is a distinction without a difference. A movie that people will go and see, almost as if they had no choice, is a safer business proposition than one they may have to bother thinking about. In this respect “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is exemplary. It brilliantly stymies reflection, thwarts argument, arrests intelligent response. The most interesting thing about the movie — apart from Megan Fox’s outfits, I suppose — is that it has made nearly $400 million domestically.
There is nothing else to say. Any further discussion — say about whether it’s a good movie or not — sounds quaint, old-fashioned, passé. Get a clue, grandpa.
Or go see “Up,” the only hugely successful movie of the summer that engages genuinely adult themes. It’s about loss, frustration, disappointment. And it offers one of the season’s most pointed and paradoxical lessons. If you want to make a mature film for mature audiences, make sure it’s a cartoon.
How the French Feel Watching Americans Blow Up the Eiffel Tower
This weekend we get to see how dumb these guys are. And by “these guys” I mean 12-to-18-year-old boys. “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” opens today in—Jesus!—4,007 theaters? My god. Enough of this. Wait til next week for “District 9.” Go out and play already. With a G.I. Joe, sure, just play. Just don’t hurt us anymore, kids.
The movie didn’t screen for critics, of course, but it did open earlier in the week in France, where the following review appeared in Le Monde. First my crappy English translation, then the French:
The distinctive feature of “G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra” is that it was inspired, not by a comic strip or a video game—that’s become routine in Hollywood—but by children’s dolls; by toys to whom the film gives life. It goes withou saying that their origin myth is particularly poor.
You can’t say Stephen Sommers' film has much consistency. These G.I. Joes are special troops devoted to preventing a mad scientist and a rich and megalomaniacal arms merchant from becoming the rulers of the world—helped in this by hardened and cruel veterans who have at their disposal the most up-to-date and extreme technologies of death and destruction. (They destroy the Eiffel Tower!]
This production, consisting of shamelessly borrowing from everything in the universe, from comic strips to martial arts films to the inventions of the Matrix saga, contains numerous action scenes that are particularly confusing.
The use, ad nauseum, of digitalized special effects and infantile humor, quickly give this G.I. Joe the feel of a big cartoon.
La particularité de G.I. Joe Le réveil du cobra est de s’inspirer, non d’une bande dessinée ou d’un jeu vidéo, ce qui est devenu la routine à Hollywood, mais de figurines pour enfants, de jouets à qui le film a pour objectif de donner vie. C’est dire à quel point la mythologie d’origine est particulièrement pauvre.
On ne peut pas vraiment dire que le film de Stephen Sommer lui donne beaucoup de consistance. Les “GI Joe” constituent une troupe spéciale vouée à empêcher un savant fou et un riche et mégalomane marchand d’armes de devenir les maîtres du monde, aidés en cela par des combattants aguerris et cruels, disposant des technologies de mort et de destruction les plus récentes et les plus radicales (ils pulvérisent la tour Eiffel !).
Cette production, constituée d’emprunts éhontés à toutes sortes d’univers, de la BD au cinéma d’arts martiaux en passant par les inventions de la saga Matrix, contient de nombreuses scènes d’action particulièrement confuses.
L’usage ad nauseam d’effets spéciaux numériques et un humour infantile donnent des allures de gros dessin animé à ce G.I Joe. Le Réveil du cobra.
“Star Trek: Confusion”
OK, this is a funny video: A nice take on all of those “Star Wars” parallels in the new “Star Trek” movie. A nicer take on how all of our action films are being made from the same glop.
Don't You Forget About Me
My friend Adam wrote a funny and heartfelt tribute to John Hughes. 18 months ago. He beat the rush. Another way of saying he meant it.
I have to admit I wasn’t a huge fan. Of the movies he directed I liked “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Of the movies he wrote, add “Mr. Mom” and some of “Home Alone.”
Did he devolve? In his first films, teens were the smartest people in the room. In his latter films, kids were. Imagine if he’d kept going.
Maybe if I’d been a teen when “Breakfast Club” came out in 1985 it would’ve meant more to me. But I was 22 and it already felt reductive. I couldn’t stand Judd Nelson’s character, and I couldn’t stand that the filmmakers (Hughes) seemed to like Nelson’s character more than the others. I loved the Beatles, too, but Hughes' John Lennon references felt cloying. "When I was a kid, I wanted to be John Lennon." “After all, he was the Walrus.” Please.
No doubt “Pretty in Pink” and “Some Kind of Wonderful” would make a great double bill, if only to test their double standards. Same set-up, different genders. In the first, a girl has two possible boyfriends: the nice, popular rich kid and the goofy friend; she winds up with the nice, popular rich kid. In the second, a boy has two possible girlfriends: the nice, popular rich kid and the goofy friend. He winds up with the goofy friend. Girls are so shallow.
“Ferris Bueller” would make a great double bill, too, but with a non-Hughes film also starring Matthew Broderick: “Election.” Bring your kids. Scare them. You see, this is this guy when he’s a teen, and here he is again 13 years later. Boo! Both films are actually fairly accurate as to how each age perceives itself. In high school, you know it all, or feel like you don't have anything else to learn. Stuck in adulthood, you’ve never felt so dumb, and wonder why you didn't learn more when you were younger.
One wonders what he thought. We’ll all be in that spot. Fuck, this is it. I should’ve... Here’s my main thought about a man whose films fetishized youth: 59 is too young.
Review: “Funny People” (2009)
“Funny People” is a naturalistic comedy the way that musicals about singers and dancers are naturalistic. It makes sense when those guys sing and dance, and it makes sense when these guys—stand-up comics at various stages of fame in Hollywood—are funny. That’s what they do. They don’t laugh much, either. They might nod and say, “That’s good,” but they don’t laugh. We do, though. I did. Harder than at any movie I’ve seen this year.
Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a stand-up comic turned world-famous movie star, who, at the outset, learns he has a rare form of leukemia, and there’s little chance he’ll survive.
Confronted with his own mortality, he retreats to his Malibu mansion and watches, on five televisions, five versions of himself at various stages of his career. In the center image he’s young and doing stand-up comedy, and this makes him smile wistfully. The next time we see him he’s making a guest appearance at one of the local improv clubs. But his material is unfunny and solipsistic: “Who’ll make you laugh when I go?” etc. He hasn’t told anyone yet that he’s dying so maybe this is his way? Maybe he can only be serious through comedy? But it merely leaves an uncomfortable silence in the room. In true improv fashion, though, he tries to riff off that silence. “You hear that?” he whispers. “I think I can hear the freeway.” He’s pushing into the uncomfortable in search of the humorous but doesn’t find it. The amateur following him, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), whose own material isn’t working, does. He comments upon the weirdness of the George Simmons appearance, and everyone laughs, and by the bar you see Simmons’ face fall. He’s become the butt of the joke rather than its teller.
In the parking lot the two encounter each other—Simmons has been crying in his SUV—and while Ira acts the fan (“We kinda grew up on your shit”), Simmons is both complimentary and insulting, and he offhandedly offers Ira a gig writing jokes for him before insulting him one last time and driving off. The next day Ira’s at home. He has two roommates. Mark (Jason Schwartzman) is making big bucks on his crappy “inner city” sitcom, “Yo, Teach!,” while Leo (Jonah Hill), who had a more successful set at the improv club, is getting millions of hits on YouTube with his trojan-horse kitten videos. Meanwhile Ira is working the deli counter at Otto’s grocery store. Until George Simmons calls. George is serious about the writing gig, which he offers to both Ira and “the triple XL version of you”—Leo—but, with hardly a glance back at Leo, Ira says his friend is too busy but he’ll take it himself. He fucks Leo over, in other words. This is this world.
Ira now enters Simmons’ world, where his job is not merely to write jokes but to be Simmons’ friend. But Simmons is where he is because he’s quick and brutal, and now he’s quick and brutal and rich and famous, and used to getting his way, and Ira is none of these things. It’s a tough go. He becomes the guy who holds Simmons’ hand while he’s falling asleep; the one who, with a perfect 2:2 babe-to-Jewish-schlub ratio, winds up alone. He’s also the guy who writes Simmons’ lines for a MySpace appearance but uses the material himself when forced to open. Apparently all’s fair in love and stand-up.
And he’s the guy to whom Simmons reveals his disease. One wonders: “Doesn’t Simmons have anyone else?” The short answer is no. He’s rich in money, poor in friends. The anti-George Bailey.
The trailer makes the film’s characters out to be fairly heartwarming but they’re not. It makes it seem that Simmons’ brush with death makes him a better person but it doesn’t. After Ira enters his life, George contacts friends and family he’s lost touch with—including Laura (Leslie Mann), the girl who got away a dozen years ago. When the experimental drugs work and the disease goes into remission, he is determined to get Laura back—despite her husband, Clarke (Eric Bana), and their two girls. Like most things in life, George gets what he wants. And like most things in life, he fails to appreciate it. Laura, ready to leave her husband, shows George and Ira footage of her eldest daughter singing a song from “Cats” at a school function. While Ira is overwhelmed, George spends his time checking his blackberry. As soon as he does, we know he’s doomed. Many things happen in the interim, but this is the true reason Laura retracts her offer and stays with her husband. Why risk everything on such a selfish prick?
On the ride home George tears into Ira, and that ends that. Life returns, more or less, to where it was at the beginning. George is not sick, Laura is with Clarke, Ira is working the deli. But we do get some small reconciliation. George shows up at the deli, apologizes, and he and Ira talk stand-up. They spitball ideas. They feed off each other, and the camera pans back and the movie ends. It’s a sweet scene.
Everyone keeps saying that Apatow’s films go on a half-hour too long, and they do, but it’s interesting why they do. Most films give us superclean plotlines. The filmmakers assume we know where the third act is going and take us there without the stickiness of life. Apatow is all about stickiness. He knows that any kind of change, particularly positive change (toward responsibility), is full of starts and stops and stutter-steps. One of the most off-handedly funny things “Funny People” gives us is the George Simmons oeuvre—crap comedies like “Merman,” “My Best Friend is a Robot” (with Owen Wilson) and “Sayonara, Davey!”—and we see scenes from, I believe, two of them. In “The Champion,” Simmons is stuffing his face in a hot-dog-eating contest and the camera pans to the audience where a young boy shouts out, “Dad! This won’t bring Mom back!” (Even writing it down makes me laugh.) In a longer scene, from “Re-Do,” Simmons plays a man who wishes to be young again but is turned into a baby by a wizard. It’s Simmons’ head on a baby’s body. You might’ve seen the footage making the internet rounds a few months back. At one point he gets into an argument with his son (Justin Long) and then comes to this realization: “You know, it took me becoming a baby to realize what it means to be a man. ... Now let’s go find that wizard!”
This is devastating satire on the schlock psychology and easy epiphanies of Hollywood movies, and it’s what Apatow’s fighting against. He knows there are no easy answers. He knows comedy isn’t heartwarming. “Funny People” is an anti-Hollywood movie. It's an anti-movie movie. It's like Eisenhower's farewell address. It's a warning from inside.
The Rise of Something Anyway
From Richard Kuiper's Variety review of “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” which was not screened for most critics:
Playing more like a highlights reel from an established franchise than a movie intended to launch it, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” interrupts its barrage of CGI action for only the barest minimum of anything resembling character development. Still, young auds switched on to precisely this sort of entertainment should turn this futuristic, military-themed pic into a significant worldwide hit...
No they shouldn't.
"I Know, Captain, a Thousand Questions..."
...or 50 anyway. This is a Facebook meme but I'd rather you read it here than on Facebook. There's usually an intro but you get the idea. There are questions and I answer them. You can, too, if you like.
1. What time did you get up this morning? 6:00 A.M.
2. How do you like your steak? Medium rare.
3. What was the last film you saw at the cinema? "Funny People." Recommended. Highly.
4. What is your favorite TV show? "The Wire"
5. If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be? Paris
6. What did you have for breakfast? Coffee. Joe's O's with blueberries.
7. What is your favorite cuisine? If I had to pick one I'd go Italian, but Thai and Indian are close.
8. What foods do you dislike? "Honey?! What foods do I dislike?!"
9. Favorite place to eat? Cafe Presse.
10. Favorite dressing? What Patricia makes.
11.What kind of vehicle do you drive? 2000 Specialized Crossroads.
12. What are your favorite clothes? What Patricia likes
13. Where would you visit if you had the chance? I do have the chance.
14. Cup 1/2 empty or 1/2 full? Both answers are correct.
15. Where would you want to retire? Someplace to warm my cold, cold bones.
16. Favorite time of day? Early morning. Before the world is up and causing problems.
17. Where were you born? Minneapolis, Minnesota
18. What is your favorite sport to watch? Baseball. There is no second.
19. Who do you think will not tag you back? Irrelevant.
20. Person you expect to tag you back first? Irrelevant.
21. Who are you most curious about their responses to this? Sorry.
22. Bird watcher? No. But I love people who have that kind of knowledge and passion, who do the thing for the doing of it.
23. Are you a morning person or a night person? Morning.
24. Do you have any pets? Jellybean, the cat. Who's crazy.
25. Any new and exciting news you'd like to share? I'm going to L.A. tomorrow. Don't know if it's "new" or "exciting" or "news," but there you go.
26. What did you want to be when you were little? Fireman, policeman, baseball player.
27. What is your best childhood memory? Best as in happiest? Happiest then or happiest in memory? Whichever way, I'm not sure. Rehoboth? Bedstefar? Kickball? Camera Day? Fireflies? Charlevoix? It was a pretty good childhood, considering.
28. Are you a cat or dog person? Dog, generally. But condo life is tough for a dog. I feel bad enough cooping up Jellybean.
29. Are you married? No.
30. Always wear your seat belt? Pretty much.
31. Been in a car accident? Fender benders. Not for a while, though. Knock wood.
32. Any pet peeves? Many. Here's one: Capable people who stand on escalators, who don't walk up or down. Here's another: How about using your turn signal? And before you enter the intersection. To quote George: "We live in a society!"
33. Favorite Pizza Toppings? Pepperoni, sausage.
34. Favorite Flower? Whatever Patricia likes.
35. Favorite ice cream? Sebastian Joe's Angelica (hazelnut + coffee)
36. Favorite fast food restaurant? Probably Dick's. Every once in a while I get a craving for a Big Mac. But probably a Big Mac circa 1972.
37. How many times did you fail your driver's test? Didn't.
38. From whom did you get your last email? Nathalie.
39. Which store would you choose to max out your credit card? I wouldn't choose to max out my credit card.
40. Do anything spontaneous lately? Bought a gelato on the way home from the movies. Hazelnut and coffee.
41. Like your job? Yes. Even before I was just happy to have a job.
43. What was your favorite vacation? When I was a kid: Rehoboth. As an adult: Probably the trip through Europe with Joan.
44. Last person you went out to dinner with? Patricia.
45. What are you listening to right now? Traffic on Boren. Jellybean meowing for dinner. Patricia getting a phone call. It's a wonder a person can think in here.
46. What is your favorite color? Blue.
47. How many tattoos do you have? I'm clean.
48. How many are you tagging for this quiz? Irrelevant.
49. What time did you finish this quiz? 5:36 P.M.
50. Coffee Drinker? Yes, but that's an odd last question. Shouldn't 49) be last? Shouldn't this one be earlier? Not to be an editor or anything.
Krugman: "Government involvement is the only reason our [health care] system works at all"
Please don't buy the various anti-government scare tactics. It's b.s. You probably know it's b.s. Listen to Krugman:
Private markets for health insurance, left to their own devices, work very badly: insurers deny as many claims as possible, and they also try to avoid covering people who are likely to need care. Horror stories are legion...
Most Americans do have health insurance, and are reasonably satisfied with it. How is that possible, when insurance markets work so badly? The answer is government intervention.
Most obviously, the government directly provides insurance via Medicare and other programs. Before Medicare was established, more than 40 percent of elderly Americans lacked any kind of health insurance...
The vast majority [of Americans under 65], however, don’t buy private insurance directly: they get it through their employers. There’s a big tax advantage to doing it that way, since employer contributions to health care aren’t considered taxable income. But to get that tax advantage employers have to follow a number of rules; roughly speaking, they can’t discriminate based on pre-existing medical conditions or restrict benefits to highly paid employees.
And it’s thanks to these rules that employment-based insurance more or less works...
So here’s the bottom line: if you currently have decent health insurance, thank the government...
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard