Quote of the Day
“Has there ever been a more decent, upstanding, all-American president, with his dog and his family and his Apollo Theatre song solos, treated more shamefully by his opponents? I’d be more horrified by the abuse if I wasn’t sure it was backfiring.”
Movie Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
WARNING: SPOIL YOU, YOU SPOILING SPOILERS
I believe in Lisbeth Salander.
The movies offer us a new ass-kicking heroine every other week, it seems: Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Zoe Saldana. Even Natalie Portman tried her little hand last year. Even 12-year-old Chloe Moretz.
I don’t believe in any of them. But I believe in Lisbeth Salander.
She’s not fighting men three times her size in hand-to-hand combat. She takes them down with guile and tools and fury and ruthlessness. She either meticulously plans and strikes or just grabs a golf club and strikes.
One of the great moments in the Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (“Män som hatar kvinnor”) occurs near the end, with the golf club, after Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) rescues a tied-up and tortured Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), and then, on her own, chases down Martin Vanger (Peter Haber), the neo-Nazi serial killer and general sick fuck who was torturing him. Let me repeat that. The bad guy was torturing him and she came to the rescue. Then she didn’t wait for him to recover to go after Vanger. To be honest, he’d just slow her down.
The girl who laid down and died
Here’s how original this concept is. In the 1996 movie “12 Monkeys,” directed by the unconventional Terry Gilliam, Bruce Willis plays a man from a dystopian future sent back to attain an apocalyptic virus in its pure form so an antidote can be made; Madeline Stowe plays the 1990s psychiatrist who initially thinks he’s crazy but realizes he’s telling the truth. Her world will end and almost everyone she knows will die. And they’re chasing the bad guy through the airport when Willis is shot by airport security. What does she do? Does she go after the bad guy who has the virus that will kill five billion people, including probably herself? No. She cries, kneels beside the man, and cradles his dying head in her arms. When the man dies, all movement dies with him—even with the fate of the world at stake.
Barely anyone said shit about this idiocy. It seemed natural to them. Hero falls, girl falls with him. That’s the way of movies.
Here’s what I imagine Lisbeth would say: “Madeline Fucking Stowe.” Here’s what I imagine Lisbeth would say to the movie industry, who perpetuate this kind of storyline: “Fuck you, you fucking fucks.”
So I was worried how Hollywood would handle this aspect of the story. Obviously director David Fincher makes daring movies, but the actor now playing Mikael Blomkvist, Daniel Craig, happens to be the latest James Bond, the ultimate action hero, who rescues women and saves the world. That’s his job. Is it allowable, culturally or legally, to have the current James Bond rescued by a mere wisp of a girl who then tracks down the killer on her own? Because he’d just slow her down?
The girl who does the tattooing
Fincher’s version of “Dragon Tattoo” is like a speed-reader’s version of the Swedish version and it still clocks in at more than two and a half hours; but it’s an improvement in many ways. It gives us a better sense of Lisbeth’s inner life, as well as a better sense of her relationship with Blomkvist and why she becomes distant in the sequels. It also doesn’t stick Harriet Vanger out in the Australian outback; it sticks her right under our noses.
Plus David Fincher’s signature gloom is all over it.
The novel is difficult to adapt cinematically because it really begins with three storylines:
- Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) is taunted by the murderer of his beloved niece, Harriet, 40 years after her disappearance.
- Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) loses a libel suit brought by an industrialist.
- Computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) loses her longtime legal guardian for one who demands sexual favors.
The connections between the storylines are initially tangential at best. Vanger investigates Blomkvist, via Salander and her computer-hacking skills, before hiring him to look into the disappearance of Harriet. Then, for almost an hour, Blomkvist and Salander follow separate paths. He traipses about in the cold of the Vangers’ various estates on their private island in Hedestad, digging into the past and searching for Harriet’s killer, while she deals with her new legal guardian, Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen, the bad uncle of “Winter in Wartime”), a fat man who demands oral sex before allowing her access to her own money. When her computer is destroyed in an attempted subway robbery and she needs to buy a new one, he invites her to his home where he incapacitates her, ties her up and rapes her.
This is another scene I worried about in translation. The Swedish version is pretty graphic. And while the director of “Se7en” can obviously get pretty graphic, I wasn’t surprised, after the drugging and the tying up, that the camera began to pan out of the bedroom and down the narrow hallway, away from the shutting bedroom door. Yes, I thought. Leave the horror to our imaginations.
Which is exactly when Fincher brings us back into the bedroom for the brutal rape scene.
Did it seem more horrific in the Swedish version? Because I wasn’t expecting it or because it was more horrific? I remember Lisbeth limping home afterwards. We’re disappointed in her, this tough, smart girl who allows herself to get into that situation—until she reveals the camera in her bag and acts out her exquisite revenge. Fincher doesn’t give us the limping home; he reveals the awkward moments immediately after the rape. They’re in Bjurman’s place, after all. He has to untie her, after all. We see him slumped in the kitchen nook with something like guilt in his posture. “I’ll drive you home,” he offers, pathetically. When she slams the door, he thinks he’s gotten away with it.
I wonder what Bjurman thinks when Lisbeth calls and agrees to return to his place for more money. That she’s desperate? An addict? That she liked what he did? That his perversion fits into hers? Instead, he’s tasered, tied up, stripped and sodomized. He’s forced to watch a video of the initial rape and threatened with its internet upload if anything ever happens to her. Finally, she tattoos the following on his chest: I AM A RAPIST PIG. “Lie still,” she says, getting out the needle and promising blood. “I’ve never done this before.”
It’s the tattooing that makes the moment indelible. Up until then, her logic is Old Testament: an eye for an eye. But tattooing him adds something. The movie is about awful people who hide in plain sight, and Lisbeth is making sure they don’t hide too well. She’s handing out nametags. She’s branding scarlet letters.
The girl who is offered a purpose in life
What to make of the Vanger family tree? It’s a backstory better suited to novels. Henrik’s brother, Harald, is a Nazi who still lives in Hedestad, as does his daughter Celia (Geraldine James), while another daughter, Anita (Jolie Richardson), lives in London. Harriet’s father, Gottfried, also a Nazi, died the year before Harriet went missing, while Harriet’s brother, Martin (Stellan Skarsgård), now runs the company. “I’m quickly losing track of who’s who here,” Blomkvist says. Amen.
Of this crew, Martin is the one we see most often, and who’s played by the best-known actor, and who seems a decent sort. Which means, of course ... There’s a dinner over at his place with Celia and Blomkvist, and it’s one of the few moments where the harsh, Northern lighting of Sweden, which Fincher revels in, gives way to a softer, warmer lighting. It feels almost cozy in Vanger’s place—particularly with the harsh weather outside. One can even hear the wind howl. Or cry? Like a distant scream? It’s a subtle bit but people who know the story know it’s not the wind.
Blomkvist does well digging into a 40-year-old, missing persons case. The day Harriet disappeared there was a parade in town, and there’s a picture for the local newspaper of Harriet in the crowd. Blomkvist goes to the paper, retrieves the rest of the photos, digitalizes them, and creates a crude film in which it’s apparent that Harriet sees something, or someone, that stuns her. Another girl is taking her own photos behind Harriet. Might she have taken a shot of what Harriet saw?
The old inspector on the case is still alive. He tells Blomkvist that Harriet’s case is his “Rebecca case,” which is an unsolved murder case. There are several of those. There’s also a list of names and numbers written in the back of Harriet’s Bible: “Magda 32016” and “BJ 32027” and the like. Eventually the web becomes wide enough that Blomkvist feels the need for a research assistant.
Two reaction shots from this movie stay with me. When the Vanger family lawyer, Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff), suggests to Blomkvist that they hire the girl who did the background check on him, Blomkvist responds, “The what?,” with a mixture of surprise and annoyance. He’s used to being the investigator, not the investigated. That’s the first one. Then when Blomkvist goes to recruit the girl, which finally brings our disparate storylines together, Lisbeth is wary of him until he says the line: “I want you to help me catch a killer of women.” Her reaction isn’t the blank one in the Swedish version. It’s the look of someone who is finally offered a purpose in life.
The girl who can hack into your soul
Now that I think about it, there’s a third reaction shot I love. It’s earlier in the movie. Lisbeth is meeting her boss, Armanasky (Goran Visnjic), and Frode, in a conference room in a corporate high-rise, where her mohawk, tats, boots and attitude don’t begin to fit. She asks, without worry, sitting at the other end of the long, gleaming conference table, if something was wrong with her initial report on Blomkvist. There wasn’t. They just want to know if there was anything she chose not to include. She turns away, offering her profile, and that great swoop of a mohawk, before adding, “He’s had a long-standing sexual relationship with the co-editor of his magazine.” Pause. “Sometimes he performs cunnilingus on her.” Pause. “Not often enough, in my opinion.” By now she’s staring back at them, chewing her gum, gauging their reaction. Frode, a proper gentleman, looks away. “No,” he admits, “you were right not to include that.”
This raises a point. Once they see how good Lisbeth is, why don’t they just hire her as their investigator? Remove the middleman by hiring the middleman. As good as Blomkvist is, he’s still 20th-century: forced, like all of us, to rely upon interview and instinct to uncover the truth. Lisbeth is 21st century. She can hack into your computer and see your soul. I love the bit where Blomkvist attempts to show her something on his computer, and her impatience with his tentative movements is palpable. It’s all she can do not to grab the mouse and drive.
As for how Hollywood handles the golf-club scene? The breadth of the investigation forces hero and heroine to split up—a trope that, in thrillers, usually plays to the detriment of the heroine. Not here. Alone in Martin’s house, Blomkvist figures out Martin is the longtime serial killer just as Martin comes home. But he manages to get out of the house. Then Martin sees him and calls out to him and invites him in for a drink. Later, when he has a gun on him, when he’s about to torture and kill him, he asks why he accepted the offer, knowing what he knows, then answers his own question. “The fear of offending is stronger than the fear of pain,” he says, amused by human nature. He taunts him about Lisbeth: “I like that one. I can’t thank you enough for bringing her to me.” He’s in the process of suffocating Blomkvist when Lisbeth arrives, swings the nearest weapon, a golf club, and takes off half of Vanger’s face. Vanger flees and Lisbeth attends to Blomkvist for a second before asking a kind of permission: “May I kill him?” she asks. I forget if she waits for a response. Probably not. It would just slow her down.
The girl who rides off into the sunset
Was it worth it? Making this U.S. version so soon after the Swedish version? Fincher’s a better director, no doubt, and the acting is a little better. The script is tighter but misses the creepier elements of the serial-killer investigation. The bit with the cat is a good addition, but... I don’t quite see the point, to be honest. Other than to get Americans, who don’t read subtitles, to see the fucking thing.
As for what happened to Harriet Vanger? It’s not Martin. When he had the upper hand, he confessed to everything but not that. So there’s more unraveling to do, another half hour, really, and Fincher almost, almost, goes the route the novel went. When Harriet turns up alive—in Australia in the Swedish version, in London under her cousin’s name in the U.S. version—and we realize that she did this to save herself from her awful, abusive brother, my reaction was something like disappointment. Wait, I thought. She knew what her brother was and yet let him do what he did for 40 years?
That, it turns out, is Lisbeth’s reaction in the book:
“Bitch,” she said.
“Harriet Fucking Vanger. If she had done something in 1966, Martin Vanger couldn’t have kept killing and raping for thirty-seven years.”
The Swedish version ignored these lines—they didn’t want to disturb the happy reunion between Henrik and Harriet—while Fincher merely alludes to them. “Harriet Fucking Vanger,” Lisbeth says at one point. But she doesn’t go further. Too bad. That’s key to me. Harriet Vanger is pretty but passive. She warns no one, passes out no nametags. She’s no hero. Most heroes, our stories tell us, are men. Most heroes, our stories tell us, save the day and ride off alone in the end.
One out of two.
Quote of the Day
“As a smart man once wrote after being locked up, the thing about jail is that there are bars on the windows and they won’t let you out. This simple truth governs all the others. What prisoners try to convey to the free is how the presence of time as something being done to you, instead of something you do things with, alters the mind at every moment. For American prisoners, huge numbers of whom are serving sentences much longer than those given for similar crimes anywhere else in the civilized world—Texas alone has sentenced more than four hundred teen-agers to life imprisonment—time becomes in every sense this thing you serve.”
--Adam Gopnik in the article, “THE CAGING OF AMERICA: Why do we lock up so many people?” in the January 30 issue of The New Yorker
Oscar Watch: Why the Best Picture Nominations are (August) Wilsonian
I find it interesting that the movie with the most Academy Award nominations, “Hugo” with 11, is directed by an American but set in France, while the movie with the second-most nominations, “The Artist” with 10, is directed by a Frenchman but set in America. Artistic tips of the hat, as it were.
The nine nominees are also Wilsonian, as in August, in that almost every decade from the 20th century is represented:
- 1900s: Hugo
- 1910s: War Horse
- 1920s: The Artist, Midnight in Paris
- 1930s: The Artist, Hugo
- 1950s: The Tree of Life
- 1960s: The Help
- 2000s: Moneyball, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
- Contemporary: The Descendants
Too bad we couldn't have added this one:
- 1970s: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
I can't think of other 2011 movies—decent ones—that would fill out the other decades. I'm not talking brief flashbacks, such as in “Moneyball,” with a young Billy Beane in the 1980s. I'm talking something longer and deeper (and uncut).
Another question: Which of the above films is least nostalgic about the period it portrays? “Midnight in Paris” cautions against nostalgia but still gives us rip-roaring times with Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Marion Cotillard. “The Artist” is a very relevant movie, I would argue, but its raison d'etre is a form of nostalgia. “War Horse”? It's nostalgic for John Ford movies. “The Help”? Paints pretty pictures of a brutal period; of the great American tyranny.
No, the above film least nostalgic about its time period is “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Probably why it didn't get nom'ed.
Who could forget all those crazy times in Mississippi, 1964?
Oscar Watch: Has “The Artist” Already Won Best Picture?
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the DGA is the best single predictor of the Academy Award for best picture. Here are the DGA's award winners since 1990. The DGA feature-film achievements that didn't go on to win best picture are highlighted in bold:
- 2011: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
- 2010: Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
- 2009: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
- 2008: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
- 2007: Ethan and Joel Coen, No Country For Old Men
- 2006: Martin Scorsese, The Departed
- 2005: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain
- 2004: Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby
- 2003: Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
- 2002: Rob Marshall, Chicago
- 2001: Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind
- 2000: Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
- 1999: Sam Mendes, American Beauty
- 1998: Steven Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan
- 1997: James Cameron, Titanic
- 1996: Anthony Minghella, The English Patient
- 1995: Ron Howard, Apollo 13
- 1994: Robert Zemeckis, Forrest Gump
- 1993: Steven Spielberg, Schindler's List
- 1992: Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven
- 1991: Jonathan Demme, The Silence of the Lambs
- 1990: Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves
Seventeen-for-21. If we predicted that well, Vegas wouldn't let us in.
Each discrepancy has an explanation. Blame homophobia for 2005, xenophobia for 2000, Harvey Weinstein's hefty push for “Shakespeare in Love” for 1998, and who knows what in 1995. Opiephobia? Howard didn't even get nom'ed by the Academy for “Apollo 13,” which is much better film than the eventual winner, Mel Gibson's “Braveheart.”
I suppose the question is: How Francophobic is the Academy? Un peu? And for those who are, well, Hazanavicius has Harvey Weinstein and his heft on his side. To me that means done, over and out. La course est terminee. Felicitations, M. Hazanavicius.
First Bejo, now the DGA.
Movie Review: Shame (2011)
WARNING: TOP-OF-THE-HEAP SPOILERS
In “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” it took Daniel Day Lewis four words to get women into bed: “Take off your clothes.”
Piker. It often takes Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), the protagonist of “Shame,” no words. He’ll just look at a pretty girl on the subway, suggest with his eyes, smolder a bit, wait for the tension to mount, and she’s ready. He’ll sidle up to his hyperactive boss, David (James Bade Dale of “The Pacific”), who’s trying to make the pretty one at the bar, say one or two words, and suddenly she’s casting him the kind of glances most men don’t receive in a lifetime.
Normally such a character would be wish fulfillment. Not here. Fassbender, impeccably groomed, is in almost every shot of “Shame” but it’s writer-director Steve McQueen’s movie. He sets the tone, which is moody, atmospheric, full of dread. Every day for Brandon is another day of desperately needing sex but desperately not needing the contact that goes with it. There’s something inside of him that can’t be fulfilled. In this, he’s like all of us, but his need is greater and the moments he’s satiated shorter. The title of this movie could be the title of McQueen’s first movie: “Hunger.”
“Shame” is more portrait than story. It’s a snapshot from a life. Brandon has a business-type, investment-type job in New York, which he apparently does well even though he’s rarely thinking about. He’s a sex addict so he’s always thinking about his next fix. In the toilet stall at work? In his bathroom at home? Via online pornography, magazines, DVDs? With Prostitute A, B, or both? With this girl at the bar or that girl on the subway? At that straight club? At that gay club?
There’s a cool exterior to Brandon, an unknowability and mystery that’s obviously appealing. Who is that man behind the scarf? But the cool exterior hides ... what? His sexual need and what else? A few books line the shelves of his high-rise condo, including, I was happy to see, Don DeLillo’s “Underworld”; but one can’t imagine him reading it. How could he sit still that long?
His careful routine, the veneer of respectability hiding his monstrous shame, is upset when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), shows up at his place. She’s a free spirit, a singer at posh bars, and later we hear her rendition of “New York, New York,” the triumphant ode to Manhattan that’s played after every Yankees victory; but she delivers it slow and sad, from the perspective of someone who isn’t A-number-1, top of the heap. It’s a beautiful moment in the movie, one of several moments Mulligan gives us. I still think of the way she bounces with delight on the subway platform after Brandon agrees to hear her sing. She wants to be part of his life—that’s her need—but it conflicts with his need. At one point, she alludes to their fucked-up childhood, and one wonders if there’s more there than the usual fuckedupness; if there wasn’t abuse of some kind. But we never get specifics. We get vapors.
She sleeps with his boss, his married boss, at Brandon’s place, and he can’t deal with it and goes running. She hangs too close to the tracks on the subway platform and he pulls her back. They’re both self-destructive but hers is sloppy and showy—there are scars on her wrists—and his is secretive and shameful and infecting every aspect of his life. She wants to pull him into the light but he reacts with anger. “I’m trying to help you,” she says. “How do you help?” he responds through clenched teeth. “You come here and you’re a weight on me.” After the movie, Patricia said he reminded her of me in this moment. That’s one thing I have in common with Brandon. We both feel easily trapped. We both live life in the exit row.
He makes a feint at respectability. He goes on a date with an attractive co-worker, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), and reacts to the dinner conversation as if it’s all new and amusing to him. A back and forth ... with words? He admits his longest relationship was just four months. He admits that that’s how he likes it. She doesn’t flee. Maybe, after the usual, first-date bullshit, this straightforwardness is refreshing. Maybe it’s the scarf and the Ewan McGregor smile. All those small charming teeth.
Was he always interested in Marianne as more than just another lay? Or did that idea only emerge when Sissy found him jacking off in the bathroom and found live sex girls on his home computer? After that, he tries to get rid of it all—the magazines, the DVDs, the computer itself—as if getting rid of the evidence of his need will get rid of the need. He wants to be clean again and he sees Marianne as the path to cleanliness. But when they finally fall into bed together he can’t get it up. For a moment we think this is his fate—to overdo it and then be unable to do it—but after she leaves we get a quick cut of him banging a prostitute in the same room, so that’s obviously not the problem. The problem is the cleanliness and the respectability. He can’t have it with any kind of meaning. He can only have it in a way that leaves him unfilled and seeking it again. It’s as if the disease is protecting itself from him. His disease needs to keep him hungry. It’s saying: You’re married to me.
“Shame” is a snapshot from a life because there’s no real resolution. There’s not even a program he enters. That would be too afterschool special. There’s just need and heartache and awful need again. Sissy tries to kill herself but she’s tried to kill herself before. Brandon binges on sex but no doubt he’s binged before. It leaves him exhausted and crying but the thing inside him won’t come out. Sexaholism used to be a punchline to me—who isn’t addicted to sex?—but Steve McQueen shows us the difference as well as the similarity. The difference is in volume and the similarity is in almost everything else. The similarity is in trying to get this thing out of us. The similarity is in the lack of resolution or resurrection. In the end, Brandon is back on the subway, and there’s that girl again, and now she’s ready; and the hunger is always ready.
Who Were the Oscar Frontrunners Last Summer?
I took these screenshots July 4th on the “In Contention” site, which is devoted to all things Oscar. I wanted to see how far-ranging their predictions were. Who was considered a front-runner back then? Who had the buzz? And whose buzz proved short-lived?.
From the photos alone you get a sense of the evanescence of buzz. “J. Edgar” as leading best picture contender? Spielberg touted for his direction of “War Horse”? Where does this buzz come from? Publicists? Why aren't we shooing this shit away? More: Why do we need to talk about anything we haven't seen? What's the point in it? Not to get too Yoda here but all of our lives we look away to the future, to the horizon. Never our minds on where we are. Hmm? What we are doing.
This is IC's tally:
- Best Picture: 7 of 9. They missed “The Help” and “Moneyball.” They thought “Ides of March,” “J. Edgar” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
- Best Directing: 3 of 5: Picking Eastwood and Spielberg, missing Malick and Allen.
- Best Actor: 3 of 5. Missing Bachir and Pitt. Was there really a time when Jeremy Irvine was touted as best actor?
- Best Actress: 2 of 5. No Viola, Rooney or Michelle. Back when people still thought highly of “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” Well, some people.
- Best Supporting Actor: 2 of 5: Missed Hilly, Nolte and Von Sydow for Broadbent, Brooks and P.S. Hoffman
- Best Supporting Actress: 0 for 5. Fun! Including two performances (Tomei and Watts) that barely left a mark.
In the acting categories alone, they were 7 for 20.
This is not to slam IC, which has good writing, even if the site itself has gone over to Hitfix; it's not to slam the work of the artists who didn't make the cut, since we can argue about that forever. (Charlize, honey, you wuz robbed!) It's just a reminder, I guess. I like thinking about what we once thought about. That's my Yoda problem. All my life I've looked back into the past. There's less money in it but greater clarity.
Movie Review: The Help (2011)
WARNING: EAT MY SPOILERS
In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Katharine Hepburn does it to Virginia Christine. In “Mississippi Burning,” Gene Hackman does it to Brad Dourif. In “The Help,” it’s Allison Janney to Bryce Dallas Howard. They’re the somewhat-enlightened white people who berate the less-enlightened white people in movies about civil rights. They’re the white people who make the white people in the audience feel good about themselves.
Apparently Jim Zwerg wasn’t enough.
The Janney moment occurs near the end of “The Help” and it’s a wholly unnecessary scene in which Charlotte Phelan (Janney), mother of the film’s protagonist, Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), does a 180. For most of the movie, she’s had one goal: marry her daughter off. “Your eggs are dying,” she says early on. “Would it kill you to go on a date?” At the 11th hour, suddenly she’s OK with her daughter being the way she is and getting a job in New York and being a modern woman and all; and she apologizes for the way she’s been for most of the movie and most of her life: cowardly and overly concerned aboout societal matters. And to make it up to her daughter, she berates the movie’s villainess, Hilly Holbrook (Howard), a classic “mean girl” from one of the most connected families in Jackson, Mississippi, in language that will end any connection between their families. “Get your raggedy ass off my porch!” she says.
We’re supposed to cheer. Some people probably did. The bad person has been told off, and Allison Janney, whom we loved on “West Wing,” is someone we can love again. And we get that nice mother-daughter feeling going.
Years ago, “In Living Color” did a spot-on satire on Hollywood movies about civil rights. It was mostly lampooning “Cry Freedom,” I think, and a bit of “Mississippi Burning,” both of which focus on well-meaning whites and the problems they encounter (losing jobs and homes, etc.) as they stand up to racism. The black folks around them are being beaten and killed, sure, but it’s the white folks we worry about because it’s the white folks we focus on. Black folks are non-entities: walk-ons in their own story.
“The Help” is an improvement on this kind of historical myopia since it actually gives half-time to its title characters. Okay, 45 percent.
It’s 1962 and Skeeter Phelan is returning from college to her hometown of Jackson, where she lands a job ghosting a household-advice column for The Jackson Journal. (Aside: The actor who plays the editor, Leslie Jordan, steals the scene; he’s so authentic I assumed he was a local.) Catch: Skeeter doesn’t know from household advice; she was raised by a beloved maid, Constantine (Cisely Tyson), who has mysteriously disappeared, and initially she has nowhere to turn. But eventually she relies upon the people who do know housework: the black maids who bus in from the outskirts, and raise the kids and cook the meals and clean the floors of the white folks in town. From this initial contact, she gets an idea for a book. What is it like to raise a child who then becomes your boss? What is it like to leave your own child to care for another? Her editor in New York, Elain Stein (Mary Steenburgen), who has suggestions of a “Sex and the Single Girl” lifestyle in her few moments on screen, is open to the idea, but doubts she’ll get any Southern black maid to trust her and talk. It’s the North reminding the South how the South lives.
Even so, one voice slowly emerges: Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who works for Hilly’s friend, Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly), raising the little girl that Elizabeth can’t or won’t. You could call Aibileen the soul of Skeeter’s book just as she is the soul of the movie. Davis is able to portray a bone-deep sorrow few actors can. She has a dignity about her but it’s never the proud, Hollywood kind meant for oppressed minorities. In the roles I’ve seen her in—“Doubt,” “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and this—her characters are often skittish and distracted, as if they were thinking of other, sadder things. Most likely they are, since the movies are never wholly about them. The things she’s thinking about are the things Hollywood doesn’t portray: her life. But through Skeeter’s eyes, we do get a portion of that life.
If Skeeter is a progressive in racial matters, Skeeter’s childhood friend, Hilly, is the regressive. At a time when the civil rights movement is gaining strength, with marches in Albany and Birmingham and Washington D.C., she’s lobbying for a state law requiring separate bathrooms for black maids. “They carry different diseases than we do,” she says.
Hilly’s fears and prejudices lead to the ultimate in just desserts. When she fires her maid, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), for using the family toilet on a rainy day, then talks trash about her so she can’t get other work, Minny returns with a peace offering: a chocolate pie. But it’s not a peace offering because it’s not wholly chocolate. Hilly, who didn’t want to put her ass where Minny put hers, winds up eating ... no nice way to say this ... Minny’s shit. Literally. Minny planned on keeping this fact a secret, but Hilly is so awful, and Minny so volatile, that they have the following exchange:
Minny: Eat my shit.
Hilly (shocked): Excuse me?
Minny: I said eat... my... shit.
Hilly (still shocked): Have you lost your mind?
Minny: No, ma’am but you is about to. Cause you just did.
One wonders to what extent a black maid could say “Eat my shit” to a white woman in early 1960s Mississippi, let alone make it literally come true, without losing more than an income. The movie suggests that Hilly is so embarrassed by the incident that she’ll do anything to keep it under wraps. But wouldn’t she want revenge? And if she couldn’t tell the truth, what’s to stop her from makin’ up a little ol’ fib? She’d hardly be the first Southern belle to do so.
(Aside I: When did Bryce Dallas Howard become the villainess de rigueur of Hollywood? Not only Hilly here but the worst girlfriend in the world, Rachael, in “50/50.” Who knew the daughter of Ron Howard, Hollywood’s Mr. Nice Guy, had it in her?)
(Aside II: Does anyone else think of this movie as the battle of the Gwen Stacys? Howard and Stone, squaring off here, have both played Spider-Man's girlfriend: Howard in a bit part in “Spider-Man 3,” and Stone as the main squeeze in “The Amazing Spider-Man” this summer.)
(Aside III: OK, nerd hat off.)
Post-pie, Minny finds work on the outskirts of town with an ostracized white girl with a heart of gold. Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) is from Sugar Ditch, Miss., and is viewed as white trash by the girls in town, particularly Hilly, who once dated Celia’s husband, Johnny (Mike Vogel). Basically Celia is too dumb to be racist, to know all of the things you are supposed to do or say, or not do or say, with the help, and this, combined with a childlike enthusiasm, makes her adorable. She’s the other good white girl in town, and Minny teaches her how to cook, clean, sass other women. Apparently she knew none of these things. One wonders what she was she doing for the first 20 years of her life.
Meanwhile, Yule Mae Davis (Aunjanue Ellis), Minny’s replacement in the Holbrook household, asks Hilly for a $75 loan so she and her husband can send both of their kids to college. OK ... Where to start with this? She asks Hilly for a loan? To send two kids to college? At a time when it took the National Guard to send James Meredith to the University of Mississippi? And she’s shocked when Hilly says no?
Later, while vacuuming, she finds Hilly’s engagement ring behind a couch, pockets it, pawns it, and is eventually arrested. This is the awful, unjust incident that sends all the other black maids in Jackson into the arms of Skeeter and into the pages of “The Help”: the fact that someone who stole something got arrested for it.
But never you mind. The book becomes a huge success, the maids get royalties, Skeeter gets a job in New York, and Hilly, awful Hilly, gets hers. Everyone—from Charlotte to Aibileen—tells her off. It’s a happy ending. How could it be otherwise? It’s now Mississippi 1964. What could possibly go wrong?
Oscar Reaction: Cieply and Barnes, Seemingly Disconnected
It's been a while since I voiced disagreement with the New York Times' resident movie-industry writers Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes but they had a line in their latest piece about the Academy Award nominations (“Nine Films Vie for Best Picture”) that stopped me cold:
“In a seeming disconnect, only one best actress nominee, Viola Davis of 'The Help,' appeared in a film nominated for best picture.”
Really? A seeming disconnect? The Academy is male dominated and tends to nominate movies that are male dominated. Best pictures have historically featured leading men, not leading women. Don't they know this? I wrote the following for MSNBC seven years ago:
In the first 15 years of the Academy (roughly 1928-43), the woman who won best actress appeared in that year’s best picture three times: Luise Rainier for “The Great Ziegfield” in 1936, Vivien Leigh for “Gone with the Wind” in 1939, and Greer Garson for “Mrs. Miniver” in 1942. ...
Did women’s stories suddenly seem silly and unimportant after D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge? Perhaps. Because the next time a best actress appeared in a best picture wasn’t until 1977: Diane Keaton for “Annie Hall.” During that same period, 15 best actors starred in best pictures, and to this day, best pictures tend to be testosterone-filled enterprises: “Braveheart” and “Gladiator” and the like. It’s the Academy’s way of telling women their stories don’t matter. I’m surprised there’s not a bigger outcry over this.
True, I'm discussing winners and Cieply and Barnes are discussing nominees; and true, in the previous two years, with best picture nominees swollen to 10, more of the films of best actress nominees wound up among the best picture nominees: three in 2010 (“Black Swan,” “The Kids Are Alright,” and “Winter's Bone”) and three in 2009 (“The Blind Side,” “An Education” and “Precious”).
But these are historic anomalies. The previous year, only one best actress nominee, Kate Winslet, had her film, “The Reader,” among the best picture nominees. In 2007? One again: Ellen Page for “Juno.” 2006? Helen Mirren in “The Queen.” 2005? Zilch. Nada. Bupkis.
It is a seeming disconnect that women's films are ignored in this manner. But Cieply and Barnes should know that it's been a seeming disconnect since around World War II.
Meryl Streep may look shocked, but she knows, as Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes apparently don't, that the films of best actress nominees tend not to garner nominations for best picture. Of the 14 films for which she's been nominated best actress, only one* has been nominated best picture.
*Answer in the comments field below.
And the Nominees Are ... : The Box Office
The expansion of the best picture nominations from five to 10 in 2009 was all about box office. (See this chart.) Academy tastes and popular tastes no longer meshed, or studios stopped distributing quality films, or quality films no longer attempted popular appeal, or quality films only appealed to oldsters who waited for the DVD to become available on Netflix. It can get pretty tricky, in a chicken-and-egg kind of way, when you attempt to break down why the system broke down.
But it did. While the nominees for best picture historically included a top-5 film, and often the No. 1 movie of the year (see: 1967 to 1977), by the mid-2000s the nominees couldn't even crack the top 10. Between 2004 and 2008, the highest-grossing best picture nominee in terms of box office ranked as follows: 22nd, 22nd, 15th, 15th and 16th.
So in 2009 the Academy decided to double the best-picture nominees to get popular films such as “The Dark Knight” involved. How has this worked?
Well, its first year, the whole thing was probably unncessary, since “Avatar,” the highest-grossing movie of the year, the decade, and all-time in terms of both dometic and international box office, would've been nom'ed anyway. But “Avatar” did get nom'ed. As did “Up,” the No. 5 film, and “The Blind Side,” at No. 8. Three films in the top 10! That hadn't happened since 1997.
In 2010, the No. 1 movie, “Toy Story 3,” was again nominated best picture. As was No. 6, “Inception,” and No. 13, “True Grit.” Still working.
This year? A different story.
The No. 1 box-office hit? The last “Harry Potter,” which wasn't among the nominees. The remainder of the top 5 is strewn with the latest iterations, or regurgitations, of pop-cultural junk food: “Transformers,” “Twilight,” “Hangover” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Pixar couldn't even help since their 2011 offering, “Cars 2,” while a box-office hit at No. 8, was never a critical hit and never an Academy consideration.
This is where this year's nominees—nine with the new rules—wound up in terms of domestic box office:
|BO Rank||Movie||Distributor||Dometic BO||Widest Dist.|
|57||Midnight in Paris||SPC||$56,446,217||1,038|
|128||The Tree of Life||FoxS||$13,303,319||237|
|136||Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close||WB||$10,737,239||2,630|
I spend a lot of time looking at box office but even I was shocked by the numbers. Less “The Help” being the highest-ranking best-picture nominee at No. 13 than the rest of it. “Moneyball” is really the second-highest-grossing film among the nominees? “The Artist” is really only at $12 mil?
“Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” grossed more than all but two of these films?
In other words, a few years after irrevocably altering historic Academy parameters for the sake of popularity and TV ratings, we're right back where we started from: no No. 1s, no top 10s. It's like a reverse of Al Pacino's famous line in “Godfather III”: Just when the Academy thinks it's brought us together, we're pulled apart.
And the Nominees Are ... : A Comparison
Arguing with the Academy over its nominations is like arguing with your grandparents over politics. Even if they could hear you, there's not much point in it. You'll never agree.
Or will you? I'm curious how my 2011 Oscar nominations compared with the Academy's:
- BEST PICTURE: Four of five. I would've assumed “Tree of Life” not making the cut rather than “Young Adult.”
- BEST DIRECTOR: Three of five. I'm fine with their choices. It's a tough category. As best picture used to be before the New Happiness.
- BEST ACTOR: Three of five. I'll take my five.
- BEST ACTRESS: Two of five. Grandma likes biopics more than I do. And she thought that Charlize Theron was just mean.
- BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: One of five, the likely winner, Christopher Plummer.
- BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: One-half of five, Jessica Chastain, but for a different movie. I went “Taking Shelter,” they went “The Help.” I trended young, as AMPAS used to in this category.
- BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Three of five. But I'm fine with their choices. Well, I would've gone Diablo over Woody, but you know how much Grandpa likes Woody. Plus that Diablo was just mean. And didn't she used to be a stripper or something?
- BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Four of five. They went “Ides of March,” I went “Captain America.” I stand by the good Captain.
So more agreement than not in the non-acting categories (14 out of 20), and more not than agreement in the acting categories (6 1/2 out of 20). Particular disagreement with supporting and with women.
Overall, though, in a squeaker, I find I do agree with the Academy more than not: 20 1/2 out of 40.
“Charlize was just mean in that movie.”
And the Nominees Are...
I'm not a fan of the snubbed meme but “Young Adult” was snubbed, man, massively snubbed. It was the best picture of 2011 that didn't get ... what ... anything? Not even Charlize Theron? Not even Charlize Theron. No Diablo Cody, no Jason Reitman. Nothing. Please see it anyway. It was just one of the best movies of the year.
And if you'd asked me which was more likely: that “War Horse” wouldn't get nominated best picture or “The Adventures of Tin Tin” wouldn't get nominated best animated feature, I would have bet $1,000 on the former.
“The Artist” has 10 noms. Does that lead? No, “Hugo” with 11. “The Descendants” has five noms. It feels like it's “The Artist”'s to lose right now.
Other surprises? Pleasantly, both Terrence Malick (for best director) and “The Tree of Life” (for best picture) were nominated. Albert Brooks was not. No Leo DiCaprio or Michael Shannon, either. No...
Here, let's take it category by category:
- The Artist
- The Descendants
- Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
- The Help
- Midnight in Paris
- The Tree of Life
- War Horse
What percentage of the vote did you need again to make this list? And by how much did “War Horse” and “Extremely Loud” squeak over? And by how much did “Young Adult” not? “War Horse,” Jesus. It's a horrible lie of a film. But its main character was brave ... was brave ... was brave ...
- Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris”
- Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”
- Terence Malick, “The Tree of Life”
- Alexander Payne, “The Descendants”
- Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”
No Bennett Miller. A bit of a surprise. No David Fincher, who got the DGA nod. Malick instead. Good for the Academy. All the nominated directors' films were nominated best film, but it still feels like a two-film race: “The Artist” vs. “The Descendants.”
- Demián Bichir, “A Better Life”
- George Clooney, “The Descendants”
- Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
- Gary Oldman, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”
- Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”
Demian! Bro. Now we have to all see that movie when it arrives. Oh, it came and went? Last July? Apologies. Lo siento. Put it in your queue, Netflixers. Quickly, quickly. No Leo nod for “J. Edgar,” no Fassbender for “Shame,” no Michael Shannon for “Take Shelter.” Somewhere, Vinny cries.
- Glenn Close, “Albert Nobbs”
- Viola Davis, “The Help”
- Rooney Mara, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”
- Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”
- Michelle Williams, “My Week with Marilyn”
Did I happen to mention yet that my choice for best actress of the year, the whole fucking year, Charlize Theron in “Young Adult,” not even nom'ed? She should've gained 40 pounds for the role. Admittedly, thankfully, it's a stacked category this year, but two of the frontrunners, Streep and Williams, didn't do much for me. Plus I'm tired of these statuettes going to biopic (rhymes with myopic) portrayals. Well, clears the field for me. Makes rooting interests easier. Go Viola!
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
- Kenneth Branagh, “My Week with Marilyn”
- Jonah Hill, “Moneyball”
- Nick Nolte, “Warrior”
- Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”
- Max Von Sydow, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”
I guess the narrative will be that Max von Sydow, a surprise, nudged out Albert Brooks, a perceived front-runner. But in a certain sense I still don't know what Jonah Hill is doing on this list. Or Kenny B for that matter. Or, hell, Nolte. When did that push begin? Can we see Oscar ad budgets for each film?
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
- Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”
- Jessica Chastain, “The Help”
- Melissa McCarthy, “Bridesmaids”
- Janet McTeer, “Albert Nobbs”
- Octavia Spencer, “The Help”
Where's Shailene Woodley? Where's Evan Rachel Wood? I'd take off Bejo (much as I enjoy seeing her on the red carpet) or McCarthy (much as I enjoy a comedic role being honored; but let's face it, she won it for the heart-to-heart at the end).
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
- Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris”
- J.C. Chandor, “Margin Call”
- Asghar Farhari, “A Separation”
- Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”
- Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, “Bridesmaids”
Farhari is a pleasant surprise here. I like the “Margin Call” shoutout. Deserved. Diablo, you wuz robbed.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
- George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon, “The Ides of March”
- John Logan, “Hugo”
- Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”
- Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, “The Descendants”
- Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, “Moneyball”
I still would've given it to “Captain America” over “Ides of March.” I'm serious. You try to adapt a 70-year-old comic book, see how far you get.
Enough for now. Thoughts?
And the Winner Should Be...
And the winner should be...
Terrence Malick's “The Tree of Life”
Because: The dinosaur, which bothers so many, is exactly the point. The movie focuses on a boy and a family in Waco, TX, in the 1950s but it includes the beginning and end of time. It enfolds religion with science. In doing so, it attempts to answer the question that Job, and all of us, ask of God: Why do you allow such suffering? In the Old Testament, God answered, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth?” Terrence Malick takes us there. No other movie has this scope or this ambition. Few ever have. This is what movies were meant to do.
Chance: In hell. Probably won't even get nom'ed.
- Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”
- Terence Malick, “The Tree of Life”
- Bennett Miller, “Moneyball”
- Nicolas Winding Refn, “Drive”
- Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”
And the winner should be...
Terrence Malick, “The Tree of Life”
Because: For the reasons above. For the patterns of life. For the intermingling of science and religion. For reminding us that nature is what we are while grace is what we aspire to be.
- Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
- Michael Fassbender, “Shame”
- Gary Oldman, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”
- Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”
- Michael Shannon, “Take Shelter”
And the winner should be....
Because: He showed his age, his lighter side, his rage, his humor. Because he was interested and interesting.
Chance: Pretty good. Some say Pitt, some say Clooney. They could be the tomato-tomatah of this year's Oscar race.
- Juliette Binoche, “Certified Copy”
- Viola Davis, “The Help”
- Rooney Mara, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” *
- Charlize Theron, “Young Adult”
- Mia Wasikovska, “Jane Eyre”
And the winner should be....
Because: She created one of the most original characters to come out of Hollywood in years—and she did it flawlessly. Because she made us care about an awful, awful person. Because while her character's personality was an outlier, her situation was representative and sympathetic. Because she made us laugh. Because in the end she was just like us: she didn't change.
Chance: The buzz, stronger this summer, is currently elsewhere. But make no mistake: this is a stacked best actress roster.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
- Paul Bettany, “Margin Call”
- Michael Lonsdale, “Of Gods and Men”
- Brad Pitt, “The Tree of Life”
- Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”
- Jeffrey Wright, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”
And the winner should be....
Because: He embodied a character, who, in the few years between living a lie and dying of cancer, lived. Because the joy in him was passed on to us. Because that's a rare gift.
Chance: He's the frontrunner.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
- Jessica Chastain, “Take Shelter”
- Mélusine Mayance, “Sarah's Key”
- Judi Dench, “My Week with Marilyn”
- Evan Rachel Wood, “The Ides of March”
- Shailene Woodley, “The Descendants”
And the winner should be....
Because: She dipped beneath the surface of the pool and broke down and broke our hearts.
Chance: Not good. But a nom would be nice.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
- J.C. Chandor, “Margin Call”
- Diablo Cody, “Young Adult”
- Étienne Comar and Xavier Beauvois, “Of Gods and Men”
- Terrence Malick, “The Tree of Life”
- Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, “Bridesmaids”
And the winner should be....
Terrence Malick, “The Tree of Life”
Because: “The nuns taught us there were two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow. ... Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. ... Nature only wants to please itself. Gets others to please it, too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”
Chance: I think it'll have to accept being slighted, forgotten, disliked.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
- John Logan, “Hugo”
- Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, “Captain America”
- Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”
- Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, “The Descendants”
- Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, “Moneyball”
And the winner should be....
Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, “Moneyball”
Because: The movie is based upon a true story about a group of misfit ballplayers who get together and do well, and against all odds ... win nothing. They don't win the World Series. They don't go to the World Series. They're always stopped. So the big question for anyone watching with any knowledge of baseball history is ... how do they end it? They ended it with a man who was bloody from being first through the wall. They ended it with a guy who hit a homerun and didn't know it. They ended with the hero caught in a moment of indecision and tension but possible epiphany and release. They ended it in a place that allowed us to carry something beautiful and fragile from the theater.
Chance: Good. Although that would be two years in a row for Sorkin. “The Descendants,” I assume, is the big competition here.
Your results may, and should, vary...
My 2011 Oscar Nominations: Clooney, Streep Snubbed!
After the Oscar noms come out tomorrow morning we'll have the usual endless talk of how the Academy snubbed this or that actor or director. Not a fan. The very nature of the conversation is snubbing someone, since it implies that one of the nominees isn't good enough to have been nom'ed in the first place. If the conversationalists owned up to it ... But they never do. They talk as if the Academy left off this or that front-runner when it had an infinite number of open slots.
Here are my choices in the eight main Oscar categories. As always, this is preference not prognostication. I guess I snubbed Meryl Streep and George Clooney, didn't I, for the likes of Mia Wasikovska and Michael Fassbender. I also chose Brad Pitt twice. What's the opposite of snubbing? Hugging? Spooning? I found the two screenplay categories the toughest to complete, because Original Screenplay had too many possibilities and Adapted too few. I got to four quickly but the fifth required work.
Feel free to post your rooting interests, or anyone I've missed, below. I'll post my winners later today.
Best Supporting Actor
Best Supporting Actress
Best Original Screenplay
Best Adapted Screenplay
* Review of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” posted later this week. I have yet to see “Albert Nobbs.”
The Most Filmed Character, Cont.: IMDb's Help Desk
Remember this post about the most filmed character ever? Of course you do. You're an avid reader.
In my search for the most filmed character, I wound up settling on Santa Claus (814 times) and Jesus Christ (350 times), but was curious if it was possible to sort IMDb's archive for a more comprehensive and accurate list. Wouldn't this be worthwhile? Wouldn't it tell us the kinds of stories that matter to us? And wouldn't this give us some indication of who we are as a people?
I suggested as such when I wrote IMDb's Help Desk.
Here's the answer I received:
Thanks for your message. I am afraid we do not have this feature, sorry.
The IMDb Help Desk
What marvelous things IMDb could do with its database. What it's doing instead.
Movie Review: Young Adult (2011)
SPOILERS: HERE I COME
Mavis Gary is one of the most original characters American cinema has produced in years and Charlize Theron totally embodies her. So where’s the buzz? The film, and Theron, had caché among critics last summer but landed with hardly a noise in December. Maybe Paramount pushed it poorly; “Young Adult” has never appeared in more than a thousand theaters. Maybe critics haven’t shouted loudly enough. Some of them seem put off by the film’s dark humor, too. Is the audience as well? When Patricia, Paige and I saw the movie in a small, downtown Seattle theater with two dozen other people, I got the feeling we were the only ones laughing.
But man were we laughing.
A writer of a series of young adult novels centering around the solipsistic machinations of high school girls, Mavis lives in a high-rise condo overlooking the Mississippi river in downtown Minneapolis. Nights are for drinking (and one-night stands), mornings are for hangovers (and regret), afternoons are for coffee with friends, or cadging bits of overheard dialogue from teenage girls—such as the Office Depot clerk who mentions her “textual chemistry” with a boy, which Mavis then includes in her next book.
But the routine is getting old, a new “Waverly Place” book is due, and after staring at the blank page of “Chapter One” in her computer she distracts herself with email. Along with the usual spam and Facebook crap, there’s a message, “Look who’s arrived!,” with a picture of the new baby of Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), Mavis’ high school boyfriend, who still lives in her hometown of Mercury, Minn. And it dawns on Mavis: this is the solution to her misery. Not to have a baby of her own but to win Buddy back. She’s 37 but it’s as if she’s still involved in the machinations of high school girls. It’s as if she never grew up.
That’s the film’s tagline, by the way: “Everyone gets old. Not everyone grows up.” Why doesn’t Mavis?
When We Grow Up
You can blame what she calls “Y.A.,” the young-adult novels she’s been writing for ... 10 years? Fifteen years? They’ve stunted her. Her imaginative world has never left high school.
You can blame her beauty, which is otherworldly (this is Charlize Theron, after all), and which, even at 37, allows her to get away with shit mere mortals can’t. “Guys like me are born loving women like you,” says Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), one of the guys she ignored in high school, when she returns to Mercury. It’s not necessarily a compliment. To either one of them.
You can blame alcoholism. More on this later.
Mavis may also be a victim of the American myth of “getting out,” embodied, most notably, in the early songs of Bruce Springsteen: It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling outta here to win, etc. This is exactly what Mavis did. She saw Mercury as a town full of losers, so she pulled out of there to win. She made it all the way to the big city, to Minneapolis, but discovered another dead end. It’s a familiar story: She escaped Mercury but can’t escape herself. The look of disgust on her face isn’t just for what she sees around her—the sad little malls, the sad little people—but for the sad little person inside her.
She knows this, too, deep down. She’s not dumb. The opposite. “Young Adult” is a movie about delusions, and Mavis’ are whoppers, but she maintains them through her own deeply skewed internal logic. She maintains them because she can argue so well.
When Matt reminds her that Buddy Slade has a wife, she counters, “No, he has a baby. And babies are boring.” When Buddy says he feels like a zombie from all the sleepless, new-baby nights, she seizes upon it. “It’s a pretty strong statement to make,” she tells Matt later. “A zombie is a dead person, Matt.” Finally when she makes her play, and Buddy, astonished, tells her, “I’m a married man,” she responds sweetly, as if they were talking about an addiction, “I know. We can beat this thing together.”
It’s hilarious and awful and delusional, but what she’s offering is actually enticing— and not just because Charlize Theron is offering it. Family means responsibility, which means roots, which means being stuck in one spot for the rest of your life. It’s a trade-off everyone makes. Mavis is offering Buddy what age and responsibility tend to restrict: possibility and freedom.
It’s a Shame About Mavis
Even so, every one of her scenes with Buddy is excruciating. During her road trip to Mercury, she rewinds the same ancient mixed tape, the one that reads MAD LOVE, BUDDY on the spine, so she can listen, over and over, to “The Concept,” an awful, early-’90s college-radio song by Teenage Fanclub. It’s their song. Yet when Buddy’s wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), drumming for the all-mom band “Nipple Confusion” at the bar, Champion O’Malley’s (“Where everyone’s a winner”), launches into the band’s opening song, it’s, yep, the same song. One senses that this is now a song Buddy shares with Beth—as he shares a life with Beth. Mavis senses this, too, and for a second she pulls away in anger and disappointment. For a second, there’s clarity. Then she looks over at Matt. He’s eyeing her sympathetically, feeling sorry for her, which, to Mavis, is the exact opposite of the way the world is. She feels sorry for them, not the other way around. So she narrows her eyes and leaps back in. She leans close to Buddy, and shouts, happily, over the music, “I think this song was playing the first time I went down on you!”
She’s delusional about her career, too. A few years earlier, she was written up in the Mercury paper: a “local girl makes good” kind of thing. But in an exchange with a clerk at a local bookstore, it comes to light that: 1) she doesn’t get true author credit on her books; the Waverly Place series creator, “Jane Mac Murray” (the F.W. Dixon of Y.A.), does; and 2) the series isn’t popular anymore. What her publisher wants from her is the last book in the series so he can end it. After which Mavis will have ... what exactly? Not much. She’ll have spent a dozen years writing someone else’s books.
Most importantly, she’s delusional about the way people view her—particularly the people of Mercury. She assumes envy: for her looks, for her career, for the fact that she got out of Mercury in the first place. This envy sustains her. But after Buddy rejects her advances at the baby-naming ceremony (“You’re better than this,” he says with finality), she has a climactic scene with Beth and guests out on the front lawn, in which she spews a rambling, drunken, expletive-laden diatribe against the entire town. Then she beseeches Buddy: “Why did you invite me?” Meaning: Why am I here if you didn’t want to change your life for me? And that’s when her world gets upended. Buddy tells her he didn’t invite her; Beth did. She felt sorry for her. They all do. That look Matt shot her at Champion O’Malley’s? That’s how they all feel. It’s obvious she’s having some kind of mental breakdown. Hey, they just want to help.
There’s been talk of a supporting-actor nomination for Patton Oswalt, but I don’t see it, to be honest. He good, but he doesn’t blow me away the way that Charlize Theron blows me away. The range she displays—from full-on bitchery to abject, near-naked vulnerability—is stunning.
But I do love their scenes together. They have chemistry, and sharp conversation, and both are blunt in a way that the nice folks of Mercury are not. In high school, they had lockers close enough to each other that he remembers the heart-shaped mirror inside hers; but she only remembers him as “the hate-crime guy,” as a victim of a brutal, homophobic jock attack in the woods, which garnered national media attention until it came to light that he wasn’t gay after all. Since it was no longer a “hate crime,” just a horrendous one, it was no longer a story, and the press stopped caring. But Matt carries the reminders. He still walks with crutches. He pisses sideways. He’s a shattered physical reminder—to us—how awful high school was; and he’s a verbal reminder–-to Mavis—how awful she was. He mentions the heart-shaped mirror inside her locker. “I think you looked at that mirror more often than you looked at me,” he says.
After the front-lawn debacle, Mavis flees to Matt’s house, which he shares with his sister, Sandra (Collette Wolfe); and as she stands there, vulnerable, askew, fruity beverage spilled over the front of her frilly white dress, he tries to break down her quixotic quest. Why Buddy? he asks. He’s a good man, she responds; he’s kind. “Aren’t other men kind?” he asks. She restarts: “He knew me when I was at my best,” she says, meaning high school. “You weren’t at your best then,” he says. “Not then.”
It’s a great scene. Mavis idealizes her high school years but Matt implies she’s better now, and I tend to agree. Throughout the movie, there’s little that is sympathetic or representative about her—she’s an awful person on an awful mission: a “psycho prom-queen bitch,” in the words of one of Beth’s friends—but there is something representative about her situation. Life didn’t pan out for her. That’s most of us. She lives alone. She’s lonely. Like many. Like Matt. You could say the very thing she’s holding onto—the image of her perfect, high-school prom-queen self—is the very thing she needs to let go if she’s going to have any chance at happiness. And she does. She finally breaks down, and falls into Matt’s arms and into his bed. The whole thing is clumsy and human and thus has a kind of beauty; and when she wakes up the next morning, with Matt’s arm flopped across her waist, echoing the one-night stand Mavis had at the beginning of the movie, we wonder, “What now?”
In Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” the chorus goes:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
So we’re wondering. Has Mavis forgotten her perfect offering? Has the light gotten in?
Achin’ to Be
Upstairs in the kitchen, she runs into Sandra, gets a cup of coffee, and breaks down further. She’s an open wound now. The walls that protected her are finally gone.
Would “Young Adult” have been as good a movie if it had continued in this direction? I doubt it. The way it ends feels exactly right to me. It feels like a continuation of an earlier, key scene when Mavis, at her parents’ house, wonders why her mother still hangs the wedding photo of Mavis and her ex-husband. Mavis has excised that failed marriage from her life and her mind. It’s part of her non-perfection. But her mother, Hedda (Jill Eikenberry), has her own illusions to maintain—Mavis’ room looks exactly like Mavis left it two decades ago—and, as they sit at the breakfast table, Hedda makes excuses. There’s a pause. Then Mavis offers a non sequitur.
“I think I might be an alcoholic,” she says.
Wow, I thought. But the confession goes nowhere. Her parents deflect it away. Maybe it’s too much reality for them. Maybe they’re unaware of who their daughter really is. Maybe it’s a “not nice” conversation to have at the breakfast table, and this is a nice town, after all, where everyone’s a winner, and so the moment passes—a moment that could’ve been the first step on Mavis’ road to recovery.
Something similar happens at the Freehauf breakfast table. Mavis is breaking down and opening up. She says she doesn’t feel fulfilled. She hates her life. “I need to change, Sandra,” she says. Then Sandra responds:
“No, you don’t,” Sandra says.
Sandra, it turns out, is a Mavis wannabe. She’s the less pretty girl who wants to be the very pretty girl, or at least hang with her, which is what she’s finally doing. Mavis Gary is in her kitchen! She wants to get out of Mercury, too, the way that Mavis did. She still believes in the Springsteenian myth of the town full of losers. “Everyone here is fat and dumb,” Sandra says. “They don’t care what happens to them because it doesn’t matter what happens to them,” she says. “Fuck Mercury,” she says.
Mavis’ reaction? A kind of whoosh. A long exhale. “Thank you,” she says. “Whoa.” Her worldview, upended the day before, is back in place. She doesn’t need to change. It’s the town that’s screwed up. The ironic kicker is that when Sandra asks to come with her to Minneapolis, a trip she hasn’t had the courage to make on her own, Mavis, restored to herself by Sandra, and feeding off of envy again, is sweetly condescending. “You’re good here, Sandra,” she says.
I.e., with the losers in this town. Where everyone’s a winner.
Free to Be, You and Me
Throughout the movie, in fast food joints and park benches, Mavis has been writing her final “Waverly Place” novel, about Kendall and her high school battles, which mirror Mavis and her current battles. One wonders how the novel might’ve ended if Sandra hadn’t opened her mouth. Instead, the Buddy figure in the story winds up dead, “lost at sea,” we’re told, while Kendall, glorious Kendall, graduates high school and leaves town knowing her best days are ahead of her. She leaves town thinking what Mavis probably thought 20 years ago when she left Mercury: “Life: here I come.”
That’s the last line. In the movie theater, I couldn’t stop smiling.
Most of us go to the movies for wish fulfillment. We want to maintain our illusions—that good conquers evil and love conquers all—but by having Sandra bolster Mavis’ illusions, screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, the team who gave us “Juno,” refuse to bolster ours. We want to believe in self-help notions of progress and betterment, and dramatic notions of resurrection after a fall, and “Young Adult” doesn’t play this game. Mavis’ delusions, close to being killed, are actually made stronger by the end. And over the closing credits we hear Diana Ross sing the following:
Well, I don't care if I'm pretty at all
And I don't care if you never get tall
I like what I look like, and you're nice small
We don't have to change at all
It’s from the quintessential album of 1970s-style possibility and betterment, “Free to Be, You and Me.” But what’s the promise of that last line? The one thing that can’t be promised. The song’s implication is that, though we change, we can still hold onto the best, unchanging part of ourselves—the part of me that likes you, and the part of you that likes me. It’s a sweet thought, but it’s also the thought that propels Mavis on her psycho-bitch misadventures. What is Mavis saying to Buddy throughout this film if not what Diana says at the end of the song? “I don't want to change, see, because I still want to be your friend—forever and ever and ever and ever and ever.”
I assume all of this is too cynical for most moviegoers. I assume that’s why the movie hasn’t done better. To me, it felt like a breath of fresh air. To me, after the supercharged lies of most movies, it felt a little like life.
AARP Card Minus One
I'm 49. I've run out of room. I'm bumping my head against it. But maybe these minstrels will soothe my jangled nerves.
All week long Seattle has been celebrating with an extra coat of frosting on the city. It's nice what they'll do to make a Minneapolis boy feel at home, but it is beginning to feel a bit like the relatives who overstay their welcome: Initial joy followed by fun followed by “Oh yeah, this” followed by “Really?” followed by “Seriously, dudes.”
Here's to joy and fun.
Seattle University, Sunday, January 15, 2012
Quote of the Day
“Many would argue, if they ever had cause to think about it, that one Bad News Bears movie was enough. But no nine-year-old baseball-loving boy in 1977 would agree, not even one who had, unlke me, seen the first movie. The sequel came out that summer, after Little League season had ended all over the land, and who wouldn't want the season and the summer to somehow go on and on?
”The makers of the Bears sequel keyed in on this need to go on and on. Really, the premise of another Bears movie couldn't have been otherwise: there would have to be another game. But whether by design or happy accident, or some combination of the two, the sequel not only centers on the idea that the season can go on but continually frames it as an urgent question: can the season go on? It is, in a way, the prototypical sequel. Its plot mirrors the very question of its exisence. One story has ended. Can there be another?“
I think ”Breaking Training“ one of the worst baseball movies ever made; but Wilker's short book, with its asides to the American myth of the road, the catchphrases of ”Happy Days,“ Jimmy Carter's ”malaise“ speech, the ”USA! USA!" chant, and the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, and how they all intertwine with this horrible, horrible movie, is something close to a work of art.
Trailers: Two Best-Foreign-Language Contenders
I was at the Egyptian Theater Saturday for “A Dangerous Method,” which was good, and saw the usual slew of trailers. These are the ones I made mental notes to see.
“In Darkness,” directed by Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa,” “Three Colors: Blue”), and Poland's official candidate for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 2012 Academy Awards:
“Footnote,” written and directed by Joseph Cedar, winner of best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, and Israel's official candidate for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 2012 Academy Awards:
It's that time of year. For the next three months, the only good new thing in U.S. theaters will be the 2011 foreign language leftovers. Which are often the best movies of the year.
UPDATE: Both films have made the best-foreign-language-film shortlist.
Golden Globes Better than the Oscars?
Two days before the Golden Globes, Slate published an article by Tom Shone, the author of Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer, on how the Golden Globes isn't cheap cousin to the Oscars; it's better than the Oscars.
The piece is classic Slate, i.e., contrarian, but Shone's argumentation is sloppy, like GG acceptance speeches, and for a second I thought about responding. Then I read the comments field and realized several readers had done the work for for me.
A reader named Josh B. writes:
Mr. Shone isn't comparing apples with apples. It's easier to reward the right people and films when you give out twice as many awards. For instance, in 1988, the Globes didn't choose Tom Hanks in Big over Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (which is what the author implies in his list at the end of the article). Rather, both Hanks and Hoffman won acting Globes that year, but in different categories.
Then Ben F. writes:
You also conveniently forgot a few [Golden Globes' picks]:
- “Avatar” and James Cameron beat “The Hurt Locker” and Kathryn Bigelow
- “Evita” and Madonna beat “Fargo” and Frances McDormand
- “Scent of a Woman” beat “Unforgiven” and “Howards End”
I think both groups make poor choices. Oscars tend to be self-serious while the Globes tend to be star worshiping.
Makes one almost not-wish for the death of comments fields.
Shone also ignored such recent, weak, GG best-drama winners as “Babel” in 2006 (over “The Departed”), and “Atonement” in 2007 (over “No Country for Old Men”). I might add that Shone's opening, in which he imagines a world in which the Golden Globes has the authority of the Oscars, is similar to the opening of a 2005 article I wrote on the National Society of Film Critics. I'm not suggesting plagiarism, of course. I'm merely suggesting that even contrarian articles might not be very original.
Movie Review: War Horse (2011)
That’s what I kept thinking while watching Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse.” I sat in the theater, twisting in my seat, unable to believe how bad it was. Have I changed that much? Has Steven? Does he need a good screenwriter nowadays—Tony Kushner in “Munich,” say—to keep his worst instincts in check? He didn’t get that here. Instead he got the guy who wrote “Billy Elliott” (Lee Hall) and the guy who wrote “Love Actually” (Richard Curtis) and together they made mythic mush. They made sure no stock character went unstocked, no melodramatic moment was not without its further melodramatic pause, and no sun set that didn’t set on the title character. Robert Redford in “The Natural” only wishes he could’ve been suffused with this much magic-hour light.
“War Horse” is basically “Black Beauty” for boys. The horse, beloved by his first boy, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who names him Joey, is nonetheless, through poverty and tragedy and war, passed from one owner to another, from one story to the next, until he winds up back ... back home. Where he gets to pull a plow up a hardscrabble, rock-strewn British mountainside. I guess we all have our definitions of home.
“This is a stubborn one, hey?” the vet says as Joey is being born. So he is. But with a calm voice, a gentle hand, and a ready demonstration, he’ll go above-and-beyond for you. And he’ll show that bastard landowner, that bastard Major, those bastard Huns, what a little old-fashioned gumption can do.
Do directors have the maxim, “Make the movie you want to watch”? I think Steven’s done that here. More’s the pity. He’s made a movie that’s part John Ford and part “Saving Private Ryan,” with all the hokiness the former implies and all the grittiness the latter implies, and the two don’t mix. The John Ford hokum was tough enough to take in a John Ford movie.
Steven, particularly in the early, pre-war scenes, keeps giving us that John Ford shot: from below, with boldly drawn principles in the foreground, behind a canvas of blue sky and puffy clouds.
Sometimes we get a Fordesque sense of the curvature of the highlands in Devon, England. It’s as if we’re about to walk off the ends of the earth—which, you could argue, is what happens to Albert and Joey. It’s a good shot but it’s somebody else’s shot. When did Spielberg feel the need to make other’s people movies?
The story: Joey is a horse trapped by the foolish circumstances of men—a drunk tenant farmer; both sides of a horrific war—but saved by a few gentle souls: first Albert, then Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), who hasn’t realized how mechanized war has become. He thinks the cavalry still matters. There’s a nice set piece, a charge of the foolish brigade, in which the British, swords pointed forward, surprise and overrun a German army encampment and chase them into the woods ... where machine guns await to slaughter them. It’s supposed to be a surprise, these machine guns, but anyone who knows anything about history is wondering why they haven’t shown up yet. The surprise is that the cavalry made it that far. The further surprise is that when Spielberg does his “Gone with the Wind” pullback shot of all the dead officers and horses, there’s no messiness to it. They dot the landscape, equidistant from one another, like designs in a patchwork quilt. It’s almost pretty.
In this manner Joey winds up behind enemy lines and in the benevolent hands of the stars of recent indie or foreign movies: Gunther (David Kross, the reader of “The Reader”), who is shot for desertion; and Grandfather (Niels Arestrup, the Corsican gangster of “Un Prophete”), who lives ... in Holland? In Alsace? He has a windmill but speaks French. He also has a granddaughter, Emile (Celine Buckens), who is supposed to be sickly, brittle-boned or something, but seems the picture of health. She seems Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet.” Until the Germans arrive and rape her and take the horse.
Kidding. They just take the horse.
His new benevolent handler, Friedrich (Nicolas Bro), takes a second to admire him before adding ominously, “It’s a pity they found you.” Then we get a pullback to a collection of weak, decrepit horses, then a further pullback to a pit of horses that have literally been worked to death pulling heavy artillery up muddy hills. It’s a kind of horse holocaust, recalling “Schindler’s List,” but it leads to the film’s most risible scene.
Throughout his time in continental Europe, Joey has had a companion, a tall black horse named Topthorn. Early on, Joey teaches Topthorn how to take the harness, thus saving his life. And when the lead horse pulling German artillery finally succumbs, and is shot, the German commander demands that Topthorn replace him. But Topthorn is partially lame and won’t last long, so Friedrich offers up Joey instead. He’s overruled. But not Joey. He rears up, bucks off his holder, gallops to the front of the line and makes such a show of things that the commanders acquiesces. Joey sacrifices himself for Topthorn! Then he looks back at Topthorn and gives him a nod as if to say, “I got your back, mate.” It was so absurd, several people in the theater laughed out loud.
Worse? It’s a meaningless sacrifice. Despite his principled stand, Joey never becomes starved and decrepit like the other horses, he remains strong and magnificent. It’s still Topthorn who succumbs; and it’s Joey who’s set free in the chaos of battle. But there is no “free” in war. After a nighttime gallop through the German trenches—a good, harrowing scene—Joey becomes entangled in the barb wire of No Man’s Land, and, thus trapped, lies down. To die?
By this time it’s 1918. We’ve already cut away from Joey so Spielberg can show us Albert, now a doughboy, and still carrying around a torch for, and a drawing of, his beloved horse. But it’s an unnecessary cutaway. It’s there so Spielberg can give us his big WWI battle sequence as companion piece to his big WWII battle sequence at the beginning of “Saving Private Ryan.” It furthers Spielberg’s magnificence rather than Joey’s.
Joey entangled in barb wire? It’s how the movie should’ve begun. A British doughboy in the trenches looks through his binoculars and sees something moving in No Man’s Land but can’t quite make it out. Is it a soldier? A Brit? A German counterpart does the same. Both realize at the same time: No, it’s a horse! and the Brit thinks, “I wonder how it got there.” At which point we get flashback to Devon, etc. Or doesn’t Spielberg do flashbacks?
Instead we get this scene chronologically, when the audience knows it’s a horse, knows it’s Joey, and we’re waiting for everyone else in the film to catch up. Both sides try to call Joey to their side, not realizing how entangled he’s become, until, with a “Sod it,” the British soldier (Toby Kebbell) enters No Man’s Land with a white flag, meets his German counterpart (Hinnerk Schönemann), who brings wirecutters and better English, and the two share a kind of “Joyeux Noel” moment of brotherhood amidst the madness. It’s a nice scene that doesn’t involve too much bullshit.
No, Steven saves the best bullshit for the end.
Albert’s been gassed, see, and blinded (temporarily—it’s Spielberg), and Joey’s been injured and due to be shot, and they’re like 50 yards from each other and don’t even know it. Meanwhile, the Brit doughboy makes Joey’s case, talking up his miraculousness, but the Army Doctor (Liam Cunningham) is busy and unaccommodating, and Sgt. Fry (Eddie Marsan) is given his orders and raises his gun and points it at Joey’s head. In that moment, before a familiar whistle is heard that startles Joey, that reminds him of Devon, England, a whistle that’s repeated twice more until the crowd of soldiers parts, miraculously revealing Albert, the man we already knew was there, and Albert makes his case that the horse is his, that it has white hooves and a white diamond-shaped mark on its forehead, which can’t be seen for all the mud, but which is slowly, miraculously revealed even though we know that that, too, is already there; before all of this miraculous bullshit, in that cinematic moment when Sgt. Fry raises his gun and points it at Joey’s head, I had but one amused thought:
I dare ya.
Michael, We Hardly Knew Ye
If “Don’t trade with the New York Yankees” isn’t No. 1 on the list of Erik’s Unwritten Rules for Baseball GMs, it’s because the following is No. 1 on that list:
- Don’t trade to the New York Yankees something they desperately need.
The 2012 Yankees desperately needed front-of-the-line starting pitching. So what happened yesterday? Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik traded Michael Pineda, one of the best young pitchers in baseball, to the Yankees, for catcher/DH Jesus Montero, one of the top hitting prospects in the nation.
Many fans will say what Jayson Stark said last night on ESPN: “This is one of those deals where both sides got something they were specifically looking for.” Mariners needed hitting and got it, Yankees needed pitching and got it. Done and done.
But you can’t play the game of even-steven with the Yankees. If your goal is not only to improve your team but eventually get to the World Series, you have to go through the Yankees. Playing even-up in trades doesn’t do that because the Yankees can spend you into the ground. You have to keep from them what they need. Like starting pitching. Like Michael Pineda.
Worse, the M’s almost had Jesus Montero in July 2010 for half a season of Cliff Lee. Apparently Zd didn’t seal that deal because Yankees GM Brian Cashman refused to throw in Ivan Nova or Eduardo Nunez. Instead he dealt Lee to Texas for first baseman Justin Smoak. Which means in the scheme of things he traded Michael Pineda for Justin Smoak. Which is a bad trade.
I was high on Zd for awhile. But after Lee, Doug Fister and now Pineda, I’m beginning to wonder. I hope I’m wrong.
Good-bye, Michael. We hardly knew ye.
Why Stephen Fry was Perfectly Cast as Mycroft Holmes
“When I had lunch with the unnaturally clever actor Stephen Fry, for instance, he said it was no big deal that he was an actor, a novelist, memoirist, television personality, talk-show host, and amateur magician who in his spare time had written the script for a Christmas pantomime at the Old Vic, and who, when his friend Emma Thompson's book was swallowed by her computer, resurrected the lost chapters by single-handedly repairing the hard drive (he dabbles in technology on the side). Fry suffers from manic-depressive disorder--also in his spare time, he researched and hosted a television series in which he explored his and others' experiences with the illness--and I think one of the things that distresses him is that no one else is as smart as he is. But he would never put it that way; he claims it's all a fluke.”
--Sarah Lyall, “The Angle Files: A Field Guide to the British,” pg. 147.
Movie Review: The Artist (2011)
“The Artist” is a silent film about the death of silent film. It uses old technology to tell a cautionary tale about those who cling to old technology. It’s part “Singin’ in the Rain,” part “A Star is Born,” and resurrects the international language of film—silence—by starring two French actors in a tale of Hollywoodland USA. It uses the era’s aspect ratio (1.33: 1), its opening-credit title graphics (drop shadows), its tendency toward broadness and melodrama. It is beautiful, funny, and tres, tres charmant.
Is it also a cautionary tale of Hollywood today? It reminds us that in the constant battle between technology and personality, technology tends to triumph. I suppose that’s a cautionary tale for all of us.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a hammy but loveable silent film star, who, in 1927, is at the height of his powers. His latest, “A Russian Affair,” is being screened before a rapt audience in Hollywood, and he stands backstage looking resplendent in tuxedo and tails. Afterwards, he hogs the stage, does a soft-shoe number, then introduces his fuming leading lady, Constance (Missi Pyle), only after his leading dog (Uggie). Insatiable, he hangs out on the red-carpet for a post-screening Q&A, where a flapperish fan, and budding actress, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), gets pushed from behind the ropes and into the limelight. She and Valentin share a moment, which winds up headlining Variety the next day: WHO’S THAT GIRL?
It’s a very “Singin’ in the Rain” set-up: Hammy man, shrewish leading lady, peppy upstart. There’s a premier where the hammy man blocks the shrewish lady from the spotlight only to wind up with the peppy upstart. His next film feels like a virtual remake of the first (“The Dueling Cavalier” follows “The Royal Rascal” in “Singin’”; “A German Affair” follows “A Russian Affair” here), suggesting the mass-produced, disposable quality of the genre. Then talkies come along.
The big difference is whom the peppy upstart threatens. In “Singin’” it’s the leading lady, who, with her high, screechy, ditzy voice, can’t make the transition to talkies. In “The Artist,” for more complicated reasons, it’s the hammy man.
The day after the premier, Peppy winds up on the set of “A German Affair” and meets cute with Valentin a second time. He has to dance with her, briefly, for a dinner party scene, but forgets himself as he begins to fall in love. Later, Peppy winds up in his dressing room, smells his jacket, and does a great bit where, her own hand emerging from his jacket, she makes a pass at herself. At this point he enters the room. Rather than make the pass she wants him to make—and he wants to make—he acts the gentleman (he’s married, you see) and gives her industry advice: “If you want to be an actress,” he says, (or mouths), “you have to have something the others don’t.” Then he draws a mole on her cheek.
Cue montage: her rise from chorus line to maid roles to third-billed star to, finally, a starring role in a talkie called “Beauty Mark.” At the same time, he’s eschewed the talkies (“If that’s the future, you can have it!” he mouths), and leaves his secure position with Kinograph Pictures to independently produce a silent adventure film, “Tears of Love,” which happens to open the same day as “Beauty Mark.” He watches it from the exit row of a near-empty theater. Outside, he’s greeted by long lines waiting to see Peppy Miller’s talkie.
Five things ruin him: “Tears of Love” bombs as the stock market crashes as his wife divorces him. That’s three, and he accepts all of them with something like grace. But now he’s broke. But isn’t he still a star? Couldn’t he make the talkies the studio wants him to make? He could but doesn’t. I guess that’s stubbornness, or ego, which would be the fourth thing. The fifth is booze. He drinks himself into oblivion.
It’s a long decline. Too long, really. He winds up in a second-story walk-up. When he runs out of booze, he pawns his tuxedo. Eventually he auctions off everything. “Congratulations!” the auctioneer tells him. “You’ve got nothing left!” We see him watch the new Peppy Miller talkie, “Guardian Angel,” with the rest of the great unwashed, pass out in a bar from drink, then screen his old films alone in his apartment (footage courtesy of Douglas Fairbanks’ “The Mark of Zorro”). Eventually, enraged at his new station in life, he sets fire to his old films but the smoke quickly suffocates him. It’s up to his faithful dog to run down the street and bark at a cop (Joel Murray) to save him. The headlines the next day read: SILENT FILM STAR SURVIVES FIRE. He’s not even a name now. He’s something from back then.
But he’s more to Peppy, who’s been following him all this time (she bought most of the items at the silent auction), and who brings him to her mansion, which looks a lot like his old mansion. She also pitches a talkie starring the two of them to the studio heads at Kinograph. But his downward spiral isn’t over. When his finds all of his old items in a storage room in her mansion, he cries out, returns to his burned-out walk-up, and puts a gun in his mouth. She, meanwhile, races in her car to get to him. Like the barking dog alerting the cop, it’s a great bit of silent melodrama—the cutting back and forth between the two—but then we read the title card, “BANG!,” and our heart sinks. Really? They’re going to do that? Nope. The bang is her. She’s crashed the car into a tree outside his walk-up. He checks out the noise, their eyes lock, they meet, kiss, etc. She saves him, and, as in “Singin’ in the Rain,” musicals save his career. The End.
As I said, it’s a charming movie. It’s an homage to the silent era—as “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies,” which starred the same stars, Dujardin and Bejo, and was written and directed by the same writer-director, Michel Hazanavicius (Bejo’s husband, bastard), was a kind of homage to, but more critique of, the early, western-imperialist Bond and OSS 117 movies.
At the same time, “The Artist” is more than mere homage.
One of the things the movie does well is play off the concept of silence. The first words we hear, or see, are Valentin’s from “A Russian Affair.” His character is being tortured by some futuristic gizmo and he declares, “I won’t talk! I won’t say a word!” We’re never sure why Valentin’s wife can’t abide him other than her line, “Why do you refuse to talk?” We’re never sure why he doesn’t make the transition to talkies other than his comment, “No one wants to see me speak.” See me speak. Love that.
Then there’s the dream—perhaps the film’s most memorable scene. After being shown sound, the greatest technological change the movies will ever see—a change so stark that everything up to that point, with the exception of a few comedies, will be relegated to the dustbin of cinematic history—Valentin returns to his dressing room. He drinks from a glass, sets it down. It makes a noise. It startles him, and us, and he tries it again. He hears the clock. He hears his dog. He goes outside. Suddenly everyone and everything in the world is making noise—even a feather landing on the ground—except for him. He’s trapped in silence.
So why doesn’t he talk? The easy explanation occurs near the end, when we finally hear him speak. He says, “With pleasure,” but he says it with Dujardin’s French accent: Wis plezhaire. Some may assume this is why he didn’t leap into talkies. He’s French. Except a French accent was hardly a barrier to success back then. Charles Boyer and Maurice Chevalier were both big stars in the early days of Hollywood.
Besides, this explanation feels reductive. It makes Valentin’s dilemma small and personal when there’s something truly universal in it. Valentin is a man trapped in old technology. He’s made silent by new technology. We’ve all been there—or will be there. New technology comes along and an entire profession is told, “We don’t care what you have to say anymore.”
Charming? Oui. Homage? Oui. Relevant? Oui aussi. Pour tout le monde.
The Return of the Disagreeables
wo years ago, I entitled a blog post about the three New York Times film critics’ annual Oscar picks “The Disagreeables,” since its critics, A.O. Scott, Mahnola Dargis and Stephen Holden, agreed on only four nominees out of 45 slots. Three were “Hurt Locker”-related and they all wound up with Oscars: best pic, best director, best original screenplay. The fourth was Colin Firth, best actor, for “A Single Man.” Missed by a year.
A week ago Sunday, The Disagreeables returned in an equally disagreeable mood. Of the now-40 slots (five each for eight categories: best picture, director, actor, actress, plus the two supporting and screenplay options), they agree on ... three and a half. Each has both Christopher Hampton (“A Dangerous Method”) and Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (“Moneyball”) nominated for best adapted screenplay. Each has David Cronenberg (“A Dangerous Method”) nominated for best director. The half is Brad Pitt for best actor, whom they all choose but for different roles. Scott goes “Tree of Life,” Dargis and Holden “Moneyball.”
Since agreement is boring this is how you want it. My disagreement with the Times has to do with placement. They line them up in order of status within the Times—Scott, Dargis, Holden—when I’d put Holden between the other two because he seems the middle-ground between Scott’s adamant populism (“Warrior” and “Bridesmaids” as best-picture nominees) and Dargis’ equally adamant minimalism (“Mysteries of Lisbon” and “Poetry” as best-picture nominees).
Even Scott’s attempts at being outre seem conventional compared to Dargis. For best supporting actor, he chooses, among others, Jonah Hill (“Moneyball”), John C. Reilly (“Cedar Rapids”), and Andy Serkis (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”). Dargis counters with another “Cedar Rapids” player, Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Clay Davis from “The Wire”), adds the little-mentioned but quite good Jean-Pierre Darroussin from “Le Havre,” and tops it off with Cosmo the dog from “Beginners.” This last is either a bit of a cheat or payback for the fudged 1927 Oscar vote.
Two categories I’d like the Times to add for next year? Best documentary and best foreign-language film. New York gets so much more of both of these than the rest of the country. It would actually be nice to see their picks there.
I’ll do my list soon. I'll have to. The real nominees are only a few weeks away.
I can haz Oscar nom?
Quote of the Day
“Perhaps the master of the British art of telling stories against oneself is the writer and playwright Alan Bennett, who is about the closest thing Britain has to a national treasure. He seems genetically incapable of being pleased with himself. When asked by the actor Ian McKellen in 1987 whether he was gay or straight, he responded that it was like asking a man crawling across the Sahara Desert what sort of water he preferred, Perrier or Malvern.”
--Sarah Lyall, “The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British,” pg. 154
Oscar Watch: Have the DGAs Whittled Us Down to Five Best-Picture Candidates?
- Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris”
- David Fincher, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”
- Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”
- Alexander Payne, “The Descendants”
- Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”
Why do the DGAs matter? Because, for those who still care about this kind of thing, the DGAs are the most accurate, single predictor of which film will win the Academy Award for best picture. In the 63 awards seasons we've had since the DGAs began in 1948, the DGA has accurately predicted the Oscar winner for best picture 50 times. In this century it's happened every year except 2000, when the DGA chose Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger”) and the Academy went for “Gladiator”; and 2005, when the DGA again chose Ang Lee, who won the Oscar for best director, but whose picture, “Brokeback Mountain,” lost to somethingorother.
A little history among the nominees.
This is Woody Allen's fifth DGA nomination. Previously, he'd been nominated for “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” He won for “Annie Hall.” Same as with the Academy.
Fincher has been nom'ed twice (“Benjamin Button” and “The Social Network”) and never won. It's the first nom for Hazanavicius. Payne was nom'ed for “Sideways” in 2004.
And it's the eighth feature-film nomination for Scorsese: “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas,” “The Age of Innocence,” “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator” and “The Departed.” He won for “The Departed.” Little-commented-upon: the DGAs screwed him over for “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas” first.
Question 1: Why is there such synchronicity between the DGAs and the Academy? Does the DGA try to predict the Oscar winner? Or does the Academy, which is dominated by actors, follow the DGA's lead, as actors follow the lead of a director during filming? Or is it something else entirely?
Question 2: Has any picture won the Oscar for best picture without its director being nom'ed for a DGA? I.e., are we now down to five best-picture candidates?
Here's a quick check:
- In 1989, when Oliver Stone won the DGA for “Born on the 4th of July,” Bruce Beresford, whose “Driving Miss Daisy” was the eventual Oscar winner, was NOT among the DGA nominees.
- In 1968, when Anthony Harvey won the DGA for “The Lion in Winter,” Carol Reed, whose “Oliver!” was the eventual Oscar winner, was NOT among the DGA nominees.
- In 1967, when Mike Nichols won the DGA for “The Graduate,” Norman Jewison, whose “In the Heat of the Night” was the eventual Oscar winner, was NOT among the DGA nominees. (He was a “finalist” who didn't make the cut to “nominee.”)
- In 1952, when John Ford won the DGA for “The Quiet Man,” Cecille B. DeMille, whose “The Greatest Show on Earth” was the eventual Oscar winner, was NOT among the DGA quarter-finalists. (He was among the DGA's 18 “nominees,” but that's a bridge too far.)
- In 1948, when Joseph Mankiewicz won the DGA for “A Letter to Three Wives,” Laurence Olivier, whose “Hamlet” was the eventual Oscar winner, was NOT among the DGA quarter-finalists.
So there is precedence but not much: five times in 63 years. And never since 1989.
Thoughts? Does it feel like we're down to “The Descendants” vs. “The Artist”? If so, whom would you choose?
And who's missing from among the noms? Some say Spielberg and “War Horse.” Others say Bennett Miller and “Moneyball.” I say where's Terrence Malick?
Movie Review: Warrior (2011)
WARNING: TRAILERS. I MEAN SPOILERS.
Was any 2011 film more ill-served by its trailer than Gavin O’Connor’s “Warrior”?
Here’s the trailer:
A few months ago I was at a theater where this played; and when the ringside announcer cries, “This is impossible! The two men fighting for the championship ... are BROTHERS!?!,” several people in the crowd laughed out loud and shouted sarcastically at the screen. Worse than the awfulness of the line itself—how it dumps in your lap the very thing that needs to be built up slowly (the impossibility of the story)—it’s a third-act revelation. The people who created the trailer are letting us know everything that’s going to happen in the movie except for who wins that final fight: the military brother or the schoolteacher brother. Which you can guess if you factor in Hollywood’s underdog tendencies.
So I wrote off the film. As did most of us. It opened the weekend of September 9th and grossed $5 million. Its total domestic take was not quite three times that number, $13 mil, meaning word-of-mouth wasn’t great. By the end of October it was gone.
Then last Sunday the New York Times critics picked their Oscar nominees and there it was. Both A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis chose Tom Hardy, the military brother, among their best actor nominees. Scott included the film among his five best picture nominees.
Best picture? The “brothers fighting for the championship” movie?
I had to see it.
Its value, I’d argue, lies somewhere between what Scott says and the trailer implies. It’s a formulaic fight film, yes, but it’s got a personal touch. It builds slowly. It’s about relationships: the drunk father and his two unforgiving sons. It aspires to John Avildsen’s “Rocky,” which, remember, won best picture in 1976. Hardy is a good actor.
But best picture?
It begins with its best scene. Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte, of course), a former fight trainer and alcoholic, a thousand days sober, returns home at night to find a young man sitting on his front stoop with a brown paper bag around a bottle. “Tommy?” he says in that Nolte growl. It’s his son, estranged. He hasn’t seen him in ... 10 years? More? Not since the mother left with Tommy and headed west and wound up in Tacoma, Wash., where she died of cancer and he joined the military. Now he’s back from Iraq, going by his mother’s maiden name, Riordan, rather than Conlon. He seems to want something from the old man, too, but can’t forgive him. He slumps through the old man’s small, Pittsburgh apartment like a tinderbox, looking at pictures, asking questions, ready to explode. He doesn’t. He just smolders.
In Paddy’s apartment, Tommy also sees photos of his older brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), now married to Tess (Jennifer Morrison), the smoking hot neighborhood girl, and working as a high school physics teacher in Philadelphia, and that’s where the film goes: to Brendan teaching his students, who call him Mr. C., and Brendan patiently letting his daughters paint his cheeks “like a princess,” and Brendan pumping iron in the gym prior to leaving for his second job as a bouncer. Except he’s not a bouncer. He’s making money as a Mixed Martial Arts fighter in parking lot rings next to strip clubs. Turns out he was once a professional MMA fighter, trained by the old man, but his strip-club fighter is a little like Rocky Balboa’s with Spider Rico: a victory, sure, but hardly impressive.
Certainly not as impressive as when Tommy visits his local gym, and, in a sparring match, beats down the local golden boy, “Mad Dog” Grimes (Erik Apple) in 20 seconds—which is filmed by one of the locals and becomes, as they say, “a YouTube sensation.”
For his strip-club fighting, Brendan is suspended from teaching without pay. Unfortunately, the local banker tells him he’s underwater on his mortgage and if he can’t come up with the payments the bank will repossess. He only has a few weeks. That’s why he was fighting in the first place.
Hey, turns out there’s a MMA big tournament in nearby Atlantic City: 16 fighters, single-elimination, $5 million winner-take-all purse. Tommy’s YouTube video helps him make the cut, while Brandon, whose suspension for MMA fighting pushes him toward MMA fighting, trains with a top-notch local, Frank Campana (Frank Grillo); and when Frank’s boy, Marco Santos (Roan Carneiro), goes down, Brandon asks for his slot. Frank gives it only reluctantly.
At this point, nobody outside of them and us knows Tommy and Brendan are brothers. They have different last names, after all. All that’s known about Tommy is the YouTube video, along with another video, in which, seen via helmet cam, Tommy pulls the door off a tank to rescue several soldiers in Iraq. To be honest, we don’t know much more. We see him talk to a girl in Texas, the widow of a friend, a Marine. That’s about it. We know he doesn’t forgive his brother for choosing the father (or the local girl) over him and his mother. We know he doesn’t communicate well and forgives even less. We know he smolders until heat waves emanate off him.
In the elimination rounds, Tommy clobbers his opponents in seconds while Brendan gets clobbered for two rounds only to win with a come-from-behind tap-out in the third. Then it’s just them.
It’s at this point, right before the championship match, that the media figures it all out. Hey, Tommy is Tommy Conlon, the son of the man who’s training him, and the brother of Brendan Conlon, the man he’s fighting for the championship. Wow! (Which raises a point: Why did no one in the media, or in PR, realize that the trainer of one fighter was the father of another fighter? Why wasn’t that a story before Tommy’s lineage became known?)
The bigger reveal is that Tommy’s AWOL. He fled after a friendly-fire incident in which he and his buddy, the husband of the woman in Texas, were shot by U.S. planes. His buddy was killed. He’s fighting for her. He wants to get money to her. That’s just the kind of guy he is.
Forget for a moment the implausibility of it all—the “this is impossible... two brothers” line from the trailer. What else rings false about the movie?
We know why Brendan fights. He needs to save his house. But why does Tommy fight? For the widow in Texas? Surely he knows he’ll be exposed by a national tournament in Atlantic City. It’s a wonder he even makes the cut in the first place. Yes, a wonder.
But it’s the bit about Brendan’s house that really gets me. The bank is going to foreclose on him in a matter of weeks? What super efficient bank is this? It takes most banks months, possibly years, to actually foreclose in this economy. Plus the fact that he’s underwater on his mortgage means nothing if he wants to stay there, right? How does the shifting value of the house make the current payments harder? Does he have an adjustable rate mortgage? And wouldn’t current low interest rates help him in this regard?
Admittedly, both leads—Hardy from England and Edgerton from Australia—are good at playing Americans, but there’s too little behind Edgerton’s eyes and too much behind Hardy’s. In this way, Hardy is both reserved and over-the-top: a neat trick. To be honest, the actor who impressed me most was Frank Grillo as Frank Campana. At first I assumed they’d grabbed a real-life MMA trainer from somewhere, maybe the guy who was their technical consultant, because he seemed so real; then Grillo begins to project things that no walk-on, no non-actor, can. It’s a great supporting performance.
So no best-actor nom for Hardy from me. Best picture? Not even close. A.O. Scott’s got rocks in his head.
But the movie is still better than its trailer implies.
Quote of the Day
“It seems to me that a Democratic president who gets us health care reform and tough new financial protection for consumers, who guides the economy through its roughest period in 80 years with moderate success (who could do better?), who ends our long war in Iraq and avenges the worst insult to our sovereignty since Pearl Harbor (as his Republican predecessor manifestly failed to do, despite a lot of noise and promises); a president who faced an opposition of really spectacular intransigence and downright meanness; a president who has the self-knowledge and wisdom about Washington to write the passage quoted above, and the courage to publish it: that president deserves a bit more credit from the left than [Thomas] Frank is willing to give him.”
--Michael Kinsley in his review of “Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right,” by Thomas Frank, which is as critical of Pres. Obama as Frank's previous book, “What's the Matter with Kansas?,” was critical of Kansas.
It's the End of the World as Lars von Trier Knows It and the National Society of Film Critics Feels Fine
I’m bummed that my favorite critics’ group, the National Society of Film Critics, chose one of my not-favorite films of 2011, Lar von Trier’s “Melancholia,” as its best picture of the year; but you could see it coming.
“Melancholia” is the favorite of a certain type of non-narrative-leaning critic with a touch of doom about them. Plus, despite lauding them on MSNBC.com in 2005, the NSFC and I haven’t agreed on much in the past 10 years. They went with “Capote” over “Brokeback Mountain” or “Munich”; “Pan’s Labyrinth” over “United 93”; “There Will Be Blood” over “No Country for Old Men”; “The Hurt Locker” over “Up” or “A Serious Man.”
I can see why “Melancholia.” I admit its five-minute overture is one of the most beautiful opens in movies. I just didn’t like the movie because: 1) I don’t believe in half its characters; 2) its two parts don’t add up to a whole; 3) its misanthropy seems adolescent; and 4) its hand-held camera made me literally nauseous. But I can understand why some misanthropic, form-over-content, iron-gutted critics would dig it. It’s right in their wheelhouse.
Giving me a reason for dying, with characters I can’t relate to, is easy. Giving me a reason for living, with characters I can relate to, is tough. I’ll go with “The Tree of Life,” their no. 2 pick, any day.
“Melancholia” star Kirsten Dunst, who was also named best actress by the NSFC.
2011 Cinema: Looking Back to When We Looked Ahead
Before we look back at the top 10 movies of 2011—or forward to all of that 2012 cinema that isn't spoiled yet by viewing—let’s look back to when we looked ahead: to what we thought might be good in 2011.
In this post last March, I listed off 18 films I was excited about for the upcoming year. They make up the movie posters that have been fading in and out in the upper left ever since.
Of those 18, I saw 12:
- Captain America
- Of Gods and Men
- The Housemaid
- In a Better World
- The Tree of Life
- Uncle Bonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
- Win Win
I still haven't seen six of them:
- The Conspirator
- Gainsbourg: vie heroique
- Le noms des gens
- One Day
Of the ones I saw, four or five will be among my top 10 movies of the year. That’s not bad. I was excited about “The Tree of Life” and it delivered. I was worried “Bridesmaids” would be ordinary, a la “Horrible Bosses,” but it wasn't. I hoped “Moneyball” would be more “Social Network” than “Blind Side” and it was.
By the time “The Conspirator,” “One Day,” and “Super” arrived with their lukewarm reviews I couldn’t be bothered. The best foreign language film, “In a Better World,” wasn’t, while the 2010 Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, “Uncle Bonmee,” which most critics loved, and which has wound up on top 10 lists, I found not only incomprehensible but tedious. It opened up nothing in me. I’d love to read a good review that explains why it’s meaningful.
And what did my early-warning-system blog miss? A lot: “Drive,” “Hugo,” “Margin Call,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and “Buck.” Among others. Which is the way we want it. The future should be surprising no matter how often, and how much, we try to preempt it.
Movie Review: Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol (2011)
WARNING: SPOILERS THAT WILL SELF-DESTRUCT IN FIVE SECONDS. GOOD LUCK, READER.
Turns out super agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) likes to do the same thing I like to do after a hard day’s work: hang out at the pier in downtown Seattle and drink a beer or two with friends. Of course he’s just eliminated a few bad guys to maybe save the entire planet while I’ve just eliminated a few bad words to maybe save an article, but we’ve all got our jobs, right? Besides, he’s not really hanging out in downtown Seattle; he’s in Vancouver, B.C., which has played the role of Seattle more often than Tom Cruise has played Ethan Hunt. More poorly, too. Water taxis my ass.
This is the fourth installment of the “M:I” series, based upon the 1960s TV series with the kick-ass theme music, and they’ve all been pretty good. Each has had its stellar director: 1) Brian De Palma, 2) John Woo, 3) J.J. Abrams, and now 4) Brad Bird. Each has had its incredible stunt. And each has been forgettable.
There’s a mission. Does it go awry? Is Ethan accused? There’s a chase scene on foot through a crowded third-world market. There’s a girl. Is she in danger? Can she be trusted? Can anyone on the IM Force be trusted? Ethan’s been betrayed before, remember: by Jim Phelps (Jon Voigt) in the first, Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) in the second, and ... was it John Musgrave (Billy Crudup) in the third? Does it matter?
The good news is there’s no mole within the Impossible Mission Force this time around. Score one for employee screening. Agents have secrets, sure, but no one’s selling out to America’s enemies. They’re a team finally.
The better news is this team and its enemies seems assembled from the 2009 Spirit Awards. They grabbed Jeremy Renner, who was disarming IEDs in “The Hurt Locker” that year, to play William Brandt, the analyst with a sad secret. They took the gorgeous inner-city schoolteacher from 2009’s “Precious,” Paula Patton, for their Jane Carter, the agent whose last bungled mission led to the death of her lover. Finally, Michael Nyqvist, the first Mikael Blomqvist of the “Dragon Tattoo” movies, which was released in 2009, gets to play Kurt Hendricks, the evil Swedish genius who wants to start a global nuclear war as a way to cleanse the world’s palette.
Evil Swedish genius. When was the last time anyone had to use that phrase?
So, yes, there’s a mission, and, yes, it goes awry. The IM team is supposed to steal Russian nuclear launch codes, or something, from the Kremlin, but Hendricks gets there first, then blows up the Kremlin. The IM Force is implicated, and thus disavowed, and then their secretary (Tom Wilkinson) is shot in the head by Russian police, so they have to save the world without the usual bells and whistles—although the bells and whistles they wind up with are pretty damned good.
Yes, there’s a great stunt: a Spider-Man climb using sticky gloves (blue is glue, red is dead) up the side of the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa in Dubai, 163 stories tall. Just removing the glass window that allows Ethan outside causes vertigo in comic-relief agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg). In us, too, when director Brad Bird gives us a peek over the edge.
Yes, there’s a foot-chase through an international market, also Dubai, with Cruise running in that peculiar upright motion of his; and, yes, there’s a mission in a swanky hotel, in Mumbai, India, that allows for tuxedos and cleavage, and, yes, a final fist fight between hero and villain amidst raising and lowering automobiles in a Mumbai garage as the fate of San Francisco, and possibly the world, hangs in the balance. It’s got all that.
But what makes this “M:I” movie work for me is the opposite of the old antiperspirant slogan: we get to see ’em sweat.
My favorite moment is a throwaway. The Kremlin’s been blown up and Ethan’s caught up in it. He sees the explosions, he begins to race away, but unlike in most movies, it catches him and the screen goes black and silent. Then he wakes up in a Russian hospital with one wrist hooked to an IV and the other handcuffed to his hospital gurney. A Russian cop, Sidorov, (Vladimir Mashkov), attempts to interrogate him but a nurse wheels him away. In the process, Ethan gets hold of a paper clip. Sidorov follows, has a brief conversation with a subordinate, and when he turns Ethan’s gurney is empty. Shocked, he looks out the window and finds Ethan, despite being banged and bruised and shirtless, way out on the ledge, and eyeing a trash bin three or four stories below. In most action movies, Ethan would just make the jump and continue on his way. Here, Sidorov sees Ethan’s potential escape route, judges its impossibility, and, when their eyes meet, shrugs and nods toward the trash bin in a kind of “Go ahead” gesture. I laughed out loud.
The movie has a few such moments—the opposite of action-hero stoic—and they’re welcome to see. But “Ghost Protocol” is still an action movie and thus mostly forgettable.
Plus the plot, like most action-movie plots, doesn’t really hold up. Before the movie even begins, IMF fakes the death of Ethan’s wife, which provides cover for Ethan’s slaughter of several Serbian assassins, which gets him inside a Russian jail so he can gain intel on Hendricks, whom they’ve already targeted. So why doesn’t he recognize Hendricks when they walk past each other in the Kremlin?
And how about that moment in the end? The IM team is sharing beers in that pier in Seattle, which is really Vancouver, B.C., and Benji looks around at all the people strolling about, including probably me, and wonders aloud over their ignorance. The poor fools, he says, don’t know that they were this close to getting blown up. And they don’t know they were this close to getting blown up because the various governments involved are effectively covering things up and the media is ineffectively doing its job. The missile that landed in San Francisco Bay? Space debris. The Kremlin in shambles? An accidental gas leak. In this universe, both media and government tamp down fear rather than raise it. There’s no Donald Rumsfeld or FOX-News raising threat levels. I suppose what feels false here isn’t that the media is incompetent; it’s that, in its incompetence, it’s anodyne rather than vaguely hysterical.
But let’s pretend it’s possible for a Russian sub to shoot a nuclear warhead at a major American city and no one outside of government—such as the scientific community, with access to all the data they have—would figure it out. Who benefits from our ignorance? Government? Media? Put it another way: What would happen if all of those people strolling about in downtown Seattle, including probably me, knew we had been this close to the end? Wouldn’t we suddenly get serious and focused? Wouldn’t the awful cultural flotsam fall away like scales from our eyes, and we would see the world clean and cold? And in our newfound seriousness, wouldn’t we have less time for things like ... oh, I don’t know ... “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol”?
So who benefits from our ignorance? A good argument can be made for Paramount Pictures and Tom Cruise Productions. Someone should send Ethan to investigate.
Quote of the Day
“Mantle's might inflicted damage on bats, balls and egos. ... Billy Pierce, then pitching for the White Sox, recalled a July night at Yankee Stadium in 1959 when Mantle KO'ed a rookie outfielder with a line drive. '[Jim McAnany] went to catch the ball, and it hit him right in the chest,' Pierce said....
”'Just to the right of the breastbone,' McAnany said. 'I just went down like I was shot. It knocked me off my feet.'
“Jim Kaat of the Minnesota Twins sought divine intervention when he fell behind on The Mick. 'Two-and-oh on Mantle, Earl Battey would wave his arms and make the sign of the cross.'”
Happy New Year! Five Days Late
Happy New Year!
I know. I’ve had a cold.
Being in the publishing business, I’ve been living in 2012 for a while now (I’m up to July), but I like the idea of fresh starts and New Year’s resolutions, even though most of them go the way they go. There’s a great, small Danish bakery, Nielsen’s, a block from where I work, and one day in January, two or three years ago, in the depths of the Global Financial Meltdown, as I was waiting for my mid-afternoon latte and happy-hour nosh (most likely a custard-filled snitter), I asked the barista how business was going. I was worried about them, as I was worried about all small businesses in the area. She admitted that things were pretty slow. “But they should pick up around February,” she added. Februrary? I wondered. Had she heard something I hadn’t? “Why February?” I asked. “That’s when most people give up on their New Year’s resolutions,” she said.
We are what we are. But I still like the idea of resolutions even though I don’t write down the New Year’s variety. Maybe my resolution for next year is to write down my New Year’s resolutions.
The ones floating about my head for this year involve getting serious about French again, or Chinese, which is still better than my French, or writing this or that long unfinished project, or reviewing and ranking every superhero movie or baseball movie. They involve reading more, and reading more fiction, and traveling more, and...
Unfortunately, there’s only so much time in the day. In this way, the resolutions contradict one another. They jostle one another for my attention. Me! Choose me! I doubt I can do superhero movies and baseball movies. I can’t study French and Chinese. Things get left behind. Most things. Life sweeps us along.
It’s all about time and interest. I have too little free time and too many interests. I suppose I’ll worry the year when my interests become manageable. It’ll indicate a decided lack of interest in things.
So here’s to the New Year. Here’s to the illusion that we have all the time in the world.