Movie Reviews - 2000s postsFriday September 20, 2013
Movie Review: Michael Clayton (2007)
What’s nice about the title is that it makes us ask the question almost everyone in the movie asks: Who is Michael Clayton?
- Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton): Who’s this guy they’re sending here? Clayton? I never heard of him. ... Who is this guy?
- Michael (George Clooney): I’m not the enemy. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson): Then who are you?
- Don Jeffries (Ken Howard): What the hell’s going on? Who are you?
Michael’s brother, Gene (Sean Cullen), a cop, has a spin on this question that echoes Arthur’s spin:
You got all these cops thinking you’re a lawyer. And you got all these lawyers thinking you’re some kinda cop. You got everybody fooled, don’t you? Everybody but you. You know exactly what you are.
He does. He says it early in the movie but near the end chronologically:
I’m a janitor. ... The smaller the mess the easier it is for me to clean up.
“Michael Clayton” is about a big mess.
Good at work, bad at life
First, let me say what a pleasure it is to watch a movie as smart as this one. I had to work to keep up. I missed some of the shorthand.
Me: Wait, what’s he saying?
Patricia: That it’s a bribe; that he’s taking the money to keep quiet about Arthur and U North.
Most of the characters use shorthand: Michael, Arthur, certainly Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), the head of the prestigious New York law firm, Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen. (“This is news? ... Fifteen years in I gotta tell you how we pay the rent?”) It’s not a Michael Mann style shorthand, which tends toward the working class and criminal class. It’s a white-collar shorthand. It’s for movers and shakers who can’t be bothered with extra words or with people who don’t know how the world works. It’s for a different kind of criminal class.
Unraveled, the story is pretty simple. Michael, the fixer for his firm, attempts to clean up a mess caused by Arthur Edens, the firm’s star litigator, who, in the midst of a 12-year, $3 billion class-action lawsuit—in which he and the firm have represented U North, an agrochemical firm—goes bonkers. He goes off his meds (literally) and strips down (literally) in the middle of a deposition while declaring his love for one of the plaintiffs, Anna (Merritt Wever). He becomes professionally muddled as he develops moral clarity.
That’s what Michael is trying to fix. Oddly, we don’t hear from the plaintiff’s attorneys. The folks at Kenner, Bach are mostly worried about their client, U North, run by CEO Don Jeffries and GC Karen Crowder. They’re worried about professional liability. They’re also worried that the stink from this incident will warn off a big London firm with whom they’re trying to merge. (Sidenote: According to DVD commentary from writer-director Tony Gilroy, a few scenes were filmed at the New York offices of Dewey Ballantine, which, that year, merged with LeBoeuf, Lamb to become the megafirm Dewey & LeBoeuf, which, five years later, went bankrupt. They got too big during a global recession. All mergers aren’t necessarily good ones.)
That’s what Michael is working on professionally. He’s also got his hands full personally:
- He and his younger brother, Timmy (David Lansbury), an alcoholic, have lost their restaurant/bar, which is being auctioned off.
- His owes $75K to people who aren’t a bank, and they want it now.
- He’s divorced, with a kid, and he has a gambling problem.
Basically Michael is good at his job but bad at his life. He’s good at fixing other people’s problems but not his own. He enjoys gambling with everything but his career, where he’s risk-averse. Way back when, he took the easy route. He gave up litigation for fixing. He’s morally compromised, financially bankrupt, and 45. On the plus side, he looks like George Clooney.
Is it too much, by the way? An alcohol addiction and a gambling addiction? Bankruptcy and the mob? Mergers and murder? Not murder from the mob, either, but from the agrochemical company. The moneylenders are sweethearts in comparison.
Anna or the memo?
So why did Arthur begin to lose it? Two reasons. There’s Anna, whom he loves, or professes to love; and there’s a smoking gun, United Northfield Culcitate Internal Research Memorandum #229, in which an in-house scientist basically owns up to everything the plaintiffs are alleging. Their product kills.
Curious about a couple of things:
- How did Arthur get this memo?
- How did the plaintiff’s attorneys not find it after 12 years of discovery?
- What did Arthur do once he found it?
Because, I assume, if you’re the defense lawyer in this situation, you bring the memo to your client. You tell them, “Look at this.” You tell them, “We’d better settle, fast.” Did he do any of this? Or was he already losing it?
More: Which came first, Anna or the memo? Anna obviously represents something clean to Arthur, just as the memo represents the dirty, dirty aspects of his job. That’s why he’s reaching out to her. He’s desperate to be clean again. I assume his need for Anna is a consequence of the awfulness of the memo but I could be wrong. Maybe he was infatuated with her first. You never know.
A bit of applause, by the way, for Tom Wilkinson. This movie was released in 2007, two years into my job as editor of a legal trade publication, and I remember thinking, “This guy is the senior litigator of a New York law firm? Please.” All of that vulnerability in his eyes? No.
Then you get the scene in the alleyway and this dialogue:
Michael, I have great affection for you and you live a rich and interesting life, but you’re a bag man, not an attorney. If your intention was to have me committed you should have kept me in Wisconsin, where the arrest report, the videotape, eyewitness reports of my inappropriate behavior, would have had jurisdictional relevance. I have no criminal record in the state of New York, and the single determining criterion for involuntary commitment is danger. “Is the defendant a danger to himself or to others?” You think you got the horses for that? Well, good luck and God bless, but I’ll tell you this: The last place you want to see me is in court.
For the last lines you see steel in his eyes. And I thought, “There’s my super lawyer.”
Anna is to Arthur as X is to Michael
Questions remain. Two anyway.
This is a movie about moving pieces in which our protagonist is mostly playing catch up. Arthur is on the move and Michael is trying to catch up to him. U North already has, in the guise of its own fixers, who aren’t as nice as ours. They murder Arthur and make it look like a suicide. Afterwards, Michael commiserates with Marty Bach at a high-end bar. He wonders if he’s partly responsible. Did he push Arthur too far? Bach goes bah, more or less. He assumes it was all an accident. He wants to say something else, something horrible, but can’t quite do it. So Michael does it for him. “We caught a lucky break,” he says.
Is that what drives Michael for the rest of the movie? That thought? Marty Bach is an interesting character, and Sidney Pollack, who may have missed his calling by becoming a director, plays the crap out of him, but he has a failing. He’s had the answers for so long he assumes he has the answers. He doesn’t. He’s distant from the Arthur situation and incurious. Michael, our protagonist, can’t let it go. Arthur’s death is too convenient for everybody. Maybe, as a fixer, he can spot a dirty fix when he sees one.
So is this why he calls Anna? It’s the phone call that sets the third act in motion but he doesn’t have much of a reason to make it, does he? He’s never met Anna, he doesn’t know what she thinks of Arthur, and he’s certainly got enough troubles of his own. It’s kind of a logical glitch in the plot. This, and stopping by the field at dawn to commune with the horses. You can make arguments why he does both things, but both are more necessary to the plot than to Michael. They’re convenient.
But let’s go with it. Let’s say he makes the phone call because he can’t let go of the nagging thing inside him and he stops in the field because it’s there, it’s beautiful, it’s dawn, and there are horses. The horses are themselves. They are pure in this way that humans are not. We take on roles. As Arthur had Anna, Michael has the horses.
These two actions, which kinda sorta make sense, are related. The first sets U North’s fixers on him. (They figure out he’s figuring out Arthur didn’t kill himself.) The second rescues him from U North’s fixers. (Although as careful as they are with Arthur, they’re just as sloppy with Michael.)
But I guess I do have another question. It has to do with the $80K.
1970s movie, happy ending
Michael figures out Arthur was killed, he figures out why—all those copies of Memorandum #229—but at the office he gets the $80K from Kenner, Bach, “a bonus” it’s called, while objecting to the notion, floated by Marty Bach’s right-hand man, Barry (Michael O’Keefe), that it’s shakedown money. Yet he certainly acts as if it is, doesn’t he? He’s investigating Arthur’s death, gets the answer, then he gets the check and lets Arthur go.
He admits as much at the end, setting up Karen Crowder:
I’m not the guy you kill, I’m the guy you buy. Are you so fucking blind that you don’t even see what I am? I sold out Arthur for 80 grand. I’m your easiest problem and you’re gonna kill me?
He seems to believe this. But does he believe that Mary Bach believes this? That Marty Bach knew U North killed Arthur, Michael figured it out, so the money is keeping Michael quiet? That interpretation seems off. Or am I being naïve?
Either way, great ending. Happy ending. “Michael Clayton” strives to be a ’70s movie but it still gives us a happy ending. In the beginning Michael was morally compromised and financially bankrupt. By the end he’s financially solvent and morally assuaged. Nice trick. Plus he still looks like George Clooney. Once more around the block, cabbie, with feeling.
Movie Review: Chronicles of Riddick (2004)
“Riddick,” starring Vin Diesel, the third in the “Riddick” series, and the first since “Chronicles of Riddick” in 2004, opens tomorrow. Here's a look back at my 2004 Seattle Times review of “Chronicles.” At the time, Vin Diesel seemed to be the new Rock, or Hunk, or Lump; but the movie grossed only $57 million and Diesel went on to other things, including, sadly, serious drama. In 2009, mostly forgotten, he returned to the “Fast and Furious” franchise, which is all he's done since. Until this most unnecessary of sequels.
Don’t think you have to see “Pitch Black” in order to understand its sequel, the sci-fi/action film “The Chronicles of Riddick.” I saw “Pitch Black” two weeks ago and I still didn’t get “Riddick.” The terms come at you—excuse me, Vin—fast and furious. Necromongers. Furyans. The Purifier. The Underverse. Crematoria. Of course these terms could’ve originated in one of Riddick’s other showcases: a 2000 TV production; a 30-minute animated feature being released this month; or the “Riddick” video game. It’s a whole other universe out there. Let’s not go.
Is it Gene Roddenberry’s universe? “Pitch Black” borrowed heavily from “Alien,” and now “Riddick” is boldly going where Capt. Picard has gone before. Basically Riddick is fighting a race similar to the Borg of “Star Trek The Next Generation": aliens that destroy planets and assimilate survivors. The Borg were more mechanized, though, so scarier. The Necromongers (awful name) have a quasi-religious bent. “Convert now or fall forever,” they say. Not exactly “Resistance is futile.” Necromonger iconography is dark Egyptian, although some wear chain-mail like medieval knights, while others borrow the long leather coats of Nazi S.S. officers. Apparently planets are being assimilated into a very large wardrobe department.
It’s five years after “Pitch Black” and Riddick (Vin Diesel), who just wants to be left alone, is being pursued by mercenaries, or mercs, and suspects his old pal, Imam (Keith David), of fronting the money. He confronts him (with a blade) and learns that Imam’s planet is about to be taken over by Necromongers. Will he help? “Not my fight,” he responds. Then it becomes his fight. In the ensuing onslaught he’s captured and the Necromongers are curious about him, particularly the Lord Marshall (Colm Feore). Riddick’s a Furyan, see, and it’s been prophesied that a Furyan will overthrow the empire.
Before the audience can blink, though, or distinguish among the various Necromongers, Riddick escapes and is then recaptured by the mercs, who take him to Crematoria, a subterranean prison planet. There he becomes reacquainted with “Jack,” who, in “Pitch Black,” was a 12 year-old tomboy. In the intervening years she’s blossomed into a tall, ass-kicking French model (Alexa Davalos). We should all have such puberties.
“Riddick” wants to be epic but feels stunted, as if hemmed in by an adolescent boy’s imagination. It introduces too many characters, including Thandie Newton as an over-the-top, Lady Macbeth schemer, and Dame Judi Dench, of all Dames, as an ambassador from a ghost-like race. The villains, meanwhile, have a huge, absurd Achilles heel. Resistance is recommended.
Movie Review: Spider-Man (2002)
WARNING: RADIOACTIVE SPOILERS
Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” which, in 2002, became the first film to break the $100-million opening-weekend barrier, and thus ushered in the frantic age of superhero moviemaking we’re all stuck in, owes a lot to a movie that set an earlier opening-weekend record ($40 million) back in June 1989: Tim Burton’s “Batman.”
There are a lot of similarities. Just as Burton filmed a scene in which the hero is viewed as a figure of horror (the opening rooftop scene), so does Raimi (the warehouse/burglar scene). In “Batman,” a city-wide celebration with parade balloons and the popular R&B singer of the day (Prince), is ruined by an attack from the hero’s grinning, insane arch-nemesis (the Joker); same with “Spider-Man” (Macy Gray; the Green Goblin). Raimi uses the same composer, Danny Elfman, who scores the movie in a similarly ominous manner. “What are you?” the petty crook asks in the beginning of “Batman.” “I’m Batman,” Batman replies. “Who am I?” Peter Parker asks us at the end of “Spider-Man.” “I’m Spider-Man,” he answers.
Both superheroes also fit our dictionary definition of a superhero: They: 1) have a secret identity, 2) prowl the night in search of crime, in order to 3) cleanse themselves of a past tragedy.
The similarities end there. Spider-Man fights out of guilt, Batman out of revenge. Spider-Man is colorful and glib, Batman dark, silent and brooding. Spider-Man has the proportionate strength of a spider, Batman … um … knows martial arts and stuff. Peter Parker is poor and struggling to survive; Bruce Wayne is rich and struggling to remember where things are in his house.
I’ll take both Spider-Man and “Spider-Man.” But then, I’ve always been a Marvel guy.
Improving the origin
This is a fairly faithful adaptation of the comic book. It’s bright, colorful, quick. It has a Stan Lee ethos as opposed to a Frank Miller ethos. It doesn’t lose its sense of humor. It doesn’t lose itself in the dark.
Tobey Maguire is your Steve Ditko-era Peter Parker, though a little sweeter, a little less mopey, and with the ability to shoot webs out of his wrists rather than out of web shooters attached to his wrists. He webslings through the high-rises of Manhattan and trash-talks the crooks and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) calls Peter “Tiger” even though it’s 2002 and not 1966. In MJ’s fall from the Queensboro Bridge we get echoes of Gwen Stacey’s fall in Spider-Man #121, and in the Green Goblin’s death by glider we get echoes of Gobby’s death by glider in Spider-Man #122. Spidey calls him Gobby. Our hero is happy as Spider-Man and unhappy as Peter Parker, and he learns that with great power comes great responsibility, and that’s pretty much how it works.
Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp even improve upon the origin. In Amazing Fantasy #15, when the petty thief (forever known as “The Burglar”) runs past Spider-Man, we recognize that Spider-Man’s refusal to help is the act of a selfish jerk. “From now on I just look out for number one—that means—me,” he tells the cop, then swaggers away. Peter’s not us here; he’s other. In the movie, the petty thief rips off the wrestling promoter who has just ripped off Peter Parker. “I missed the part where that’s my problem,” the promoter tells Peter when Peter complains. This allows Peter, 30 seconds later, to throw the words back at him. “You coulda stopped that guy easy,” the promoter complains. “I missed the part where that’s my problem,” Peter tells him.
Here’s how brilliant that is. When I saw “Spider-Man” in a crowded movie theater in 2002, moviegoers, who obviously didn’t know where the story was going, who didn’t know this was going to be the saddest moment of Peter Parker’s life, actually laughed. They’d been trained to expect put-down quips from their action heroes, and this was a better quip than most. Haw! Told him! The laughter was indicative. We identify with Peter here. He’s not other; he’s us. Thus when the horrible lesson is imparted, it’s imparted to us, too. With great power comes great responsibility. It’s a lesson our popular culture doesn’t deliver much.
And yet ....
Testing around the fix
OK, here’s the difficulty in improving upon stories, and allow me a quick metaphor. For a number of years I was a software test engineer at Microsoft’s Xbox Studio, and whenever we, in Test, filed a bug, and the developers fixed it, we had to test around the fix. Because whenever anything is fixed in computer coding, something else can easily get broken—it’s all so intertwined. I would argue this is true beyond coding. I would argue it’s true in storytelling as well, and it’s certainly true in telling Spider-Man’s origin. Koepp and Raimi fixed one problem, the problem of “otherness,” but in the process what gets broken? The street smarts of everyone around Peter Parker.
This guy is ripping off a wrestling promoter and his escape route relies upon … an elevator? Really? And what to make of the promoter? He has a fan-favorite wrestler, Bonesaw (Randy Savage, who died in 2011 at the age of 58), and this little pipsqueak with the arachnid fixation defeats him. Pipsqueak not only stays in the ring with Bonesaw, he beats him. He knocks him out. What a godsend! If you’re a wrestling promoter, this is the guy you’ve been waiting for all your life. And what does our guy do? Find out who he is? Sign him to a contract? No. He cheats him. He relies upon a technicality to save himself $2900. He makes an enemy out of the kid who could be his goldmine.
And, hey, just how long is Bonesaw in that ring anyway? There’s a line of guys waiting to fight him. That doesn’t seem fair. And if the point is to stay in the ring with Bonesaw (to earn the $3,000), and it’s thus in the promoter’s interest to have Bonesaw throw combatants out of the ring (so they don’t pay the $3,000), what’s the point of a cage match? You can’t throw anyone out of the ring in a cage match. And when Peter shows up, and is introduced as “the terrifying ... the deadly ... the amazing Spider Man!” why do boos rain down on him? He’s this scrawny thing in a silly mask. Shouldn’t everyone laugh? Wouldn’t that have made for a better scene? He shows up, they laugh, and he beats Bonesaw quickly in a non-cage match. Wouldn’t that have been a better way to handle it?
And when Spider-Man later appears as a crime fighter, doesn’t the promoter, who saw Peter’s face, connect the dots? Doesn’t he track him down? And do the kids at Midvale do the same? Hey, remember how Parker beat Flash that one day? Doing flips and shit? Then punching Flash like right across the hallway? Like with one punch? And, hey, didn’t that happen right after we went to the science museum and saw all those freaky spiders? And ... right! ... wasn’t one of them like totally missing? Like tour-chick said there were 15 and MJ goes, dude, 14, and tour-chick goes like whatever? I bet something freaky happened with that spider and Parker is totally Spider-Man!
Yeah, the tour chick. All in all, there’s entirely too much shrugging going on in the movie. “Here are 15 genetically designed superspiders.” Nope, 14. “Huh. I guess the researchers are working on that one.” Then Peter wakes up with perfect eyesight and simply goes: “Weird.” He wakes up totally buff and just flexes in the mirror. Then checks out his package? Where’d that come from? Who thought that was a good idea? And when this heretofor nerdy kid beats up the toughest bully in school with moves that Jackie Chan couldn’t make in his dreams, how do the other kids react? “Jesus, Parker, you are a freak.” Or go this route: Imagine you’re an 18-year old kid who gets bit by a spider and wakes up the next day superstrong and superagile And you look down at your hands and see black things, like tiny black razors, coming out of your skin; and you flex your wrists and out comes superstrong web filaments, meaning these things are being produced inside your body. At what point do you begin to freak out? At what point isn’t your reaction simply “Wahoooooo!”
For my final problem with “Spider-Man,” I have to return to Batman for a second.
“The Dark Knight,” for me, has the same problem that every other “Batman” movie has. It’s not about Batman. I think Heath Ledger is just phenomenal and the character of the Joker is beautifully written. He has a particular philosophy that he carries throughout the movie. He has one of the best bad guy schemes. Bad guy schemes are actually very hard to come up with. I love his movie, but I always feel like Batman gets short shrift. In “Batman Begins,” the pathological, unbalanced, needy, scary person in the movie is Batman. That’s what every “Batman” movie should be.
I add this not only because I’m not a huge fan of “The Dark Knight,” but because bad guy schemes are something most moviegoers don’t look at. The villain leads us all on a chase, and it’s fun, but most moviegoers don’t stop to ask: Wait, what was the point of the chase? Why is he doing this? What does the guy want?
What does Norman Osborne, a.ka., the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) want? He starts out just wanting to save his company, Oscorp, from losing a big military contract. General Slocum (Stanley Anderson), who apparently can speak for the entire Pentagon, acts as if creating a genetically superior man is like inventing a better brand of pistol and is ready to pull funding. He acts, to be honest, like a studio exec ready to mothball his predecessor’s projects. “I never supported your program,” he tells Norman. “We have my predecessor to thank for that.”
So Norman does what he does and becomes the Green Goblin. Then he kills Slocum and the competition. As a result, at the next board meeting, he announces, “Costs are down, revenues are up, and our stock has never been higher.” The board’s reaction? “We’re selling the company ... The board expects your resignation in 30 days.” Instead they get theirs at World Unity Day.
Now up to this point the Green Goblin’s schemes have been pretty straightforward. He even annunciates what they are to his more timid alter ego: “To say what you won’t. To do what you can’t. To remove those in your way.” So why go after Spider-Man? Sure, he encounters him at World Unity Day, and Spider-Man is trouble for him—rescuing that doofy kid from the balloon, as well as MJ from the balcony—but he hardly keeps him from his goal. Gobby still kills the members of the board who would sell Oscorp. Yet for the rest of the movie, the Goblin’s bad guy scheme involves Spider-Man. This is how he puts it:
There’s only one who can stop us. Or—imagine if he joined us.
So for the rest of the movie he offers a hand to Spider-Man; and when it’s rejected, he tries to kill him. He tries to kill those Peter loves. What remains unanswered in the above quote is this: Stop us from what? Join us TO what? The Goblin has no goal, no scheme, other than to recruit and/or kill Spider-Man. But that is supposedly a means to an end. We just don’t know what the end is.
Here’s a question: If the Pentagon had a more far-sighted general, or if Oscorp had a less greedy board of directors, would the Green Goblin have even been necessary?
Guilt > Revenge
There are other problems. Even at the age of 12, the J.Jonah Jameson/Peter Parker dynamic never made much sense to me. Peter has something everyone wants (photos of Spider-Man), but he sells them for a pittance to J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), who uses them to turn the city against Spider-Man. What the hell, dude? C’mon, Brainiac, act like a Brainiac.
And do we need some explanation for why our guy is quiet/polite as Peter and glib/bratty as Spider-Man? Or do we just make the assumption that the mask allows him to finally let out what he’s held back all these years?
But for all that, and for all the complaints above, “Spider-Man” still works. For starters, it’s expertly cast by Lynn Kressel and Francine Maisler. A few years ago, shilling for MSNBC, I wrote a top 5 list of the best superhero casting and put Maguire second, after Christopher Reeve and before Hugh Jackman. I mean, casting handsome leading men to play heroes is a no-brainer. But casting a nerd to play a nerd? That’s refreshing. Dafoe is a bit undone by the “Alien”-like Goblin mask but Franco makes a good, believable son for him. And Dunst? Cliff Robertson? Rosemarie Harris? J.K. Simmons? Perfect, perfect, perfect, perfect. Simmons provides levity and Robertson provides heart and pathos. He provides the lesson. Or The Lesson.
A year before that top 5 list, I did another list, the 10 great superhero scenes (circa 2007), and the death of Uncle Ben was no. 8 on my list. I wrote this:
Outside there’s a crowd and flashing lights. Then something pulls Peter toward the crowd and he sees what everyone is rubber-necking: Uncle Ben lying bleeding to death. In the comic book, Peter is simply told his Uncle Ben is dead. Here he gets to speak to him. At first this worried me. “Oh crap,” I thought, “He’s gonna blah blah blah and then die. It’s gonna stink.” But Cliff Robertson delivers. Peter’s voice seems to call him from a faraway place and he looks confused and scared to be where he is, then grateful, grateful to see the face of his nephew. He says his name once, twice, a gurgle in his voice. Then he slips away.
At that point, as the cops talk up the carjacker/Burglar, Peter’s eyes fill with rage and he’s this close to becoming Batman. But then he tracks the guy, captures him, holds him high; and in the spotlight he sees the dude’s doofy hair and stupid face, and his eyes fill with something besides revenge. He knows now. He knows he’s partly to blame. He was given this gift, this power, and it allowed him to act less than noble—less noble than his Uncle Ben would have wanted; and in the act of squandering this gift, his Uncle Ben died, and he’ll carry that knowledge and that guilt with him for the rest of his life.
This is why Spider-Man resonates more than Batman. Revenge is a loutish emotion, a wish-fulfillment fantasy emotion, which is why it’s so popular at the movies and in the comic books. Revenge suggests that there’s something wrong with the world but not with us, but Peter Parker, all of 17, knows better now. Guilt is not only more complex, it’s more universal. Few of us walk around every day with revenge in our hearts; but all of us are guilty.
Movie Review: The Specials (2000)
I threw up in the early morning hours after watching “The Specials.” Unrelated, I’m sure.
Who was it that told me this movie was good? Any of you? This is me shaking my fist at whoever that was.
I’m not much of a fan of one-joke movies, and I’m not much of a fan of movies in which the chief metaphor is Hollywood-related, and “The Specials” is both. It’s about a team of low-budget, B-list superheroes played by a group of B-list actors and actresses and filmed in a low-budget manner. It’s written by James Gunn, who would go on to write the two “Scooby Doo” movies, and directed by first-time director Craig Mazin, who would go on to direct “Superhero Movie,” and it has a tinny, flimsy quality. It feels like something filmed in rooms with wood paneling. There’s no comedic rhythm and less comedy. The heroes’ super-powers are never on display. It’s anti-special.
One of the leads is Jamie Kennedy, a kind of break-out star amid the young and loutish in the late 1990s, who has never said one thing that made me laugh. He keeps his string alive here. He plays Amok, blue-skinned and dickish. His bit is to say rude, unfunny things, particularly about women. It’s how we imagine Jamie Kennedy is.
Another of the leads is Rob Lowe, fresh from “West Wing,” who plays a good-looking, two-timing superhero named The Weevil. It’s how we imagine Rob Lowe is.
And so on. Fresh-faced Jordan Ladd, daughter of Cheryl, plays fresh-faced new member Nightbird, with bird-like superpowers (including laying eggs), who has admired the Specials ever since she was a kid. Thomas Haden Church is The Strobe, the nominal leader, who takes seriously the role-model aspect of superherodom, while Paget Brewster plays his wife, Ms. Indestructible, who is growing weary of her husband’s blowhardness, and is thus having an affair with The Weevil in the backseats of cars.
Kelly Coffield of “Mad TV” plays Power Chick, who is raising Alien Orphan (Sean Gunn), who is bald and green and bendable. The bit goes nowhere. Judy Greer is one of the few bright spots as the super-cynical Deadly Girl, who is offered a gig with The Femme Five by Sunlight Grrrll (guest star Melissa Joan Hart), whose ‘90s-feminist name she dismisses with a deadly reaction shot. The movie’s screenwriter, James Gunn, gives himself one of the best bits, playing Minute Man, who is forever correcting folks that his name is pronounced my-NOOT (as in small) rather than MIN-it (as in time). Oh right, there’s U.S. Bill, too. Mike Schwartz. He says nothing funny and does nothing memorable.
I liked the notion of the Specials as “the 6th or 7th greatest superhero team in the world,” and I liked the line about “a holocaust of stretchy people” and the commercial for the Specials’ action figures actually made me laugh out loud. This is the plot point for the first half of the movie: the idea that the Specials don’t get Oscars, they get action figures. But then the commercial is unveiled, and Minute Man’s action figure is black (minority representation was needed), and one hero has Richard Dawson’s head (the company had leftovers from “Hogan’s Heroes”), and Ms. Indestructible’s doll has enormous boobs, and ... etc. It’s a disaster and pretty funny.
The rest of the movie—in which The Strobe finds out about his wife’s infidelity, disbands the group, then gets them together to battle giant ants who have taken over the Pentagon (which we never see, of course)—contains jokes like this:
Deadly Girl: Has anyone noticed that Mr. Smart has an enormous package?
Mr. Smart: My father, too, had a large penis.
According to IMDb, “The Specials” was filmed in 18 days. It shows. According to IMDb, it’s also only 83 minutes long. Mercifully.
Movie Review: Superhero Movie (2008)
Surprise! There are actually a few funny moments in “Superhero Movie.”
At one point, for example, after he’s bitten by a genetically created dragonfly that gives him the proportionate strength of a dragonfly (although such nerdlinger lines are sadly never tossed around), Rick Riker, this movie’s Peter Parker (Drake Bell), has a nail from a nailgun accidently fired at him by his Uncle Albert (Leslie Nielsen). He catches it. “How did you do that?” Uncle Albert asks. Trying to maintain his secret identity, Rick says, “It’s … easier than it looks.” At which point, Uncle Albert shoots a nail at the leg of Rick’s friend, Trey (Kevin Hart), who screams in pain and crumples to the ground. “No, I don’t think so,” Albert says.
Mostly, though, “Superhero Movie” is filled with jokes about farts, humping animals, pubic hair, blow jobs, and whatever stupid people were glomming onto in 2008: MySpace, Tom Cruise’s YouTube rants, etc.
Shame. Is there a movie genre begging to be spoofed more than the superhero movie? The western got “Blazing Saddles,” the disaster pic “Airplane!” and the cop drama “The Naked Gun.” Mike Myers spoofed ‘60s spy thrillers with “Austin Powers” and “Star Trek” was sent up with “Galaxy Quest.”
But the superhero genre that’s been dominating the box office for most of the 21st century? Crap. Not even “Not Brand Ecch!”
The timing of “Superhero Movie” was off, too. It was released in March 2008, when 2002’s “Spider-Man” was the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time, and so, with brief forays into “Batman Begins” (to explain Rick’s orphaned status) and the X-Men series (a Prof. X figure nonsensically tries to recruit Rick), it mostly just spoofs “Spider-Man.” Nerdy kid gets stung by dragonfly, develops super strength. There’s a Flash Thompson character, Lance Landers (Ryan Hansen), a Norman Osborne character, Lou Landers (Christopher McDonald), who becomes the villainous Hourglass, who often uses time-related puns in his threats to the city. Instead of M.J. next door, it’s J.J., Jill Johnson (Sara Paxton), who wants to be a dancer instead of an actress. Uncle Albert gets shot by a crook; Aunt Lucille (Marion Ross) is there with ponderous advice; and with great power comes …
Rick: Great responsibility?
Albert: I was gonna say bitches, but if you want to be a virgin all your life.
The movie is best when it’s spoofing the tropes of the genre. Dragonfly and the Hourglass get dizzy midfight when the camera keeps spinning around them. Rick, in love, watches J.J. in slow-motion … until Lance pushes him: “Watch where you’re going in slow-mo, dipshit!” All of the names are alliterative in the Mighty Marvel Manner, while the Dragonfly gets into a shoving match with a Human Torch figure over who gets to stare broodingly over the city from a specific gargoyle perch. But that’s more Batman/Daredevil. That’s Frank Miller stuff. Should’ve been raining, too.
Leslie Nielsen, two years before his death, still has that great deadpan delivery. Brent Spiner helps as Dr. Landers’ craven assistant.
But most of the humor is lowest-common denominator stuff. Dr. Stephen Hawking (Robert Joy) complains about his lack of sex, makes an “ass…stronomy” joke, and gets pushed into a hive of bees. Aunt Lucille makes jokes about pubic hair and blowjobs, then becomes the butt of the longest fart joke I’ve seen on film. The longest. Apparently they were going for the record. Even the Farrelly Brothers were grossed out. They said, “Take it down a notch already.”
“Superhero Movie” was written and directed by Craig Mazin, who previously wrote “Scary Movie 3” and “4,” and went on to write “The Hangover II” and “III,” as well as the abysmal “Identity Thief.” One gets the feeling this is his A game.
On the plus side? The great modern superhero movie parody is still waiting to be made. Opportunity, kids.
Movie Review: Hollywoodland (2006)
“Hollywoodland” begins with a point-of-view shot of soaring through clouds, a la Superman, then quickly plummets to Earth and Hollywood, Calif., on June 16, 1959, the day George Reeves, TV’s most famous Superman, was found with a bullet in his head. Did he kill himself? Was he murdered? Was it an accident?
The movie suggests all three. It’s less detective story than character study. It’s the story of two men, neither of whom is super. Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is a marginal private investigator scraping by in Los Angeles in 1959, and George Reeves (Ben Affleck) is a marginal actor scraping by in Los Angeles in the early 1950s. Neither is happy where they are. Both insinuate themselves into situations where they’re not wanted: Simo into the Reeves investigation, Reeves into the tabloid photos of more famous stars. Both men rely on the pocketbooks of older women. For Simo, it’s Reeves’ mother, Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith), who refuses to believe the official police report that her son killed himself. For Reeves, it’s Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of MGM executive Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), with whom he has an affair throughout the ’50s.
Both men are looking for an opportunity, too: their chance, their shot. Only Reeves really gets it. He just doesn’t recognize it.
A never-ending battle
From 1939 to 1950, George Reeves appeared in more than 50 films, ranging from Pool Player #1 in a sex hygiene short to the male lead in the World War II-era “So Proudly We Hail!” He also had a bit part in the biggest movie of all time, “Gone with the Wind,” playing Brent Tarleton, one of Scarlett’s early suitors. It was all so close. But by 1950 he was 36, and grasping at what he could. One offer was a dual role in a TV show about a comic-book superhero in cape and tights. He went with it, assuming it wouldn’t be picked up. It was.
He found the “Adventures of Superman” ridiculous. Basically he got trapped by circumstances into playing a character he didn’t like and then got trapped by that character since no one could see him as anything else. There’s a great scene where he’s with friends at an early screening of “From Here to Eternity,” in which he has a supporting role. But this is a year into the six-year run of “Adventures of Superman,” and as soon as he appears onscreen, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and jawing with Burt Lancaster, the crowd buzzes, then titters, then various wags shout out Superman-related lines: “Faster than a speeding bullet!” etc. It breaks the mood, and Fred Zinnemann, the director, turns toward the projection booth and makes a scissors motion. Most of Reeves’ work winds up on the cutting-room floor.
You’re this, the world was telling Reeves, and only this. And then he wasn’t even that. The show wasn’t picked up for a seventh season, a directing deal fell through, and Reeves was left to scramble. Would he take a role in professional wrestling? We watch 8mm footage of him trying out moves but betrayed by body and age. He leaves Toni for a younger woman, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney)—who, ironically, has the same “L.L.” initials as all of Superman’s girlfriends—and suffers recriminations from both women. Leonore thought he was a star but he’s fallen. Toni stomps on him there.
“Have you seen yourself, George?” Toni says to him. “Your face is going. Here. Your eyes, your hair, your stomach. You think no one notices?”
Then she gets mean:
Toni: You want publicity? You’ll get it. I’ll say you’re a red. And a faggot. A lush. Nobody can call that a lie.
Reeves (angry): You know what? You never helped me. You never helped me. You could’ve talked to Eddie. You could’ve gotten me something but you didn’t! Because you liked me where I was in a fucking red suit! You liked that! Well, that’s not who I am, you understand? Goddamn you.
Toni (sweetly): But George, that’s all you were good for. 10 year-olds and shut-ins. That was the best you were ever going to be. I knew that. Why didn’t you?
Sure, Diane Lane is stellar, but has Ben Affleck ever been this good? At this post-Bennifer point in his career he was coming off a string of laughable movies, including “Gigli,” “Surviving Christmas,” and his own turn as a superhero, “Daredevil.” He was trapped, all of which was good prep for playing Reeves, and he brings a matter-of-fact pathos to the character. The irony of Reeves’ existence weighs upon his mighty shoulders. Reeves plays the world’s most powerful man even though he has no power. The final irony, about the speeding bullet, comes too late.
If Superman is wish fulfillment for kids then George Reeves is identification for adults. Most of us never wind up where we want to be. Most of us assume roles (pharmacist, plumber, real estate agent) that define us and trap us. Then even that role, through age, circumstance, and technological advances, is taken away from us, too.
Not truth, not justice
The Reeves half of “Hollywoodland” is powerful and reverberates long after the movie is over. The other half, the fictional half, is boilerplate. Simo is not a nice man, but through his research into Reeves’ life and death he comes to an epiphany. He takes the lesson of Reeves’ life and applies it to his own. But what’s the lesson? Be happy where you are? Don’t lie so much? Don’t string your clients along? Don’t show up drunk at your kid’s school?
That’s part of the problem with the movie. Sure, Simo scrambles after his next best chance. But he scrambles because he has to make a living. So where does the epiphany leave him? Not scrambling? Going into a different line of work?
“Hollywoodland,” written by Paul Bernbaum and directed by Allen Coulter, was going to be called “Truth, Justice and the American Way” until Warner Bros., putting out their own Superman movie that year, intervened. But elements of the original title are still in the movie. To corral Reeves’ mother as a client, Simo taps the lurid headline about her son’s suicide and says, “You need a headline this big … only with the truth.” Except he doesn’t believe it’s the truth. When another client, who has long suspected his wife of adultery, kills her with three bullets to the head, heart and groin, he tells Simo, “I hope you’ve learned the meaning of justice.” Except it’s not justice.
So not truth and not justice. Just the American way.
Movie Review: Superman Returns (2006)
This is one ballsy movie. No pun intended.
In 2006, Bryan Singer, with nothing but success behind him (“The Usual Suspects,” the “X-Men” movies), directed the Superman movie he always wanted to see: a continuation of the Christopher Reeve version that jettisons the awful ’83 Richard Pryor vehicle and the ’87 Golan and Globus abomination, and adds intrigue and depth to where we left off in ’81.
He picks up on the storyline. In “Superman II,” Superman beds Lois. Now, six or so years later, she has a child. Hey, could it…? It could.
He returns Jor-El (Marlon Brando) to us. The Salkinds taketh, Singer giveth back.
He picks up on the Jesus metaphor. Superman dies, is reborn, and ascends. Well, he flies anyway. “I am with you always,” Jesus said at the end. “I’m always around,” Superman says at the end.
We get some of the great lines from the first movie—“Statistically speaking, of course, it’s still the safest way to travel”—as well as the resounding John Williams score in all its iterations. For a moment, as Superman and Lois flew around town, I thought, “OK, so everything but ‘Can You Read My Mind.’” But then they pass Lois’ house, and the camera focuses on their hands, holding in flight, and we get a strain, a suggestion; then suddenly the whole thing wells up again as her love for him wells up again. Because you don’t get the love theme until you get the love.
All of this is ballsy for obvious reasons. We live in a throwaway culture and Singer was involved in the greatest recycling project in movie history. Hollywood gears its product toward 12-to-14-year-olds and Singer was determined to make a sequel to a movie released 25 years earlier. He ignored the original’s third and fourth iterations as if he could rewrite movie history. “You can’t repeat the past,” Nick told Gatsby, to which Gatsby responded “Why, of course you can!” Singer is Gatsby in this regard.
And, like Gatsby, his project was doomed.
Start with the casting. Brandon Routh makes a good Clark Kent/Superman but he has the misfortune of following the greatest superhero casting ever. Routh is actually several years older than Christopher Reeve was when Reeve was cast as the Man of Steel, but he looks younger. Except it’s supposed to be six years later. Is Superman aging backwards? Like Benjamin Button?
The casting of Lois Lane is worse. Kate Bosworth was 22 when they filmed this. And she has a 5-year-old? From a consummation six years earlier? That’s some awkward math. She should’ve been in high school instead of, you know, reporting for The Daily Planet and shacking up with Supes in the Fortress of Solitude. We have laws, dude.
Kidder and Reeve were adults in a gritty adult world—New York in the 1970s—but these two look like kids and act like kids. Why the world doesn’t need Superman? Really, Lois? She can’t even let go of her anger to be the star reporter she is. The biggest scoop of the year—Superman returns—shows up on the Daily Planet rooftop and she frowns her way through the interview. Her first question is about where he’s been all this time. He says there was a chance Krypton was still there. “I had to see for myself,” he says.
Imagine you’re a reporter. What’s your follow-up?
- “So was it still there?”
- “What about kryptonite? Were you in danger?”
- “Why didn’t you tell anyone you were leaving?”
This is Lois’ follow-up: “Well, you’re back. And everyone seems to be pretty happy about it.”
That’s not even a question. Then we get this awful dialogue:
Superman: I read the article, Lois.
Lois: So did a lot of people.
Superman: Why did you write it?
Lois [upset]: How could you leave us like that? [Throws up hands.] I moved on. So did the rest of us. That’s why I wrote it. The world doesn’t need a savior. And neither do I.
I’m not sure who’s being more childish here. Lois assumes her pain is the world’s, her resentments ours. And him. He can’t get past the fact that she wrote the article? That she was angry that he left for five years without a word? What is he—a Vulcan?
It gets worse when they’re about to fly together:
Lois: You know my… Richard. He’s a pilot. He takes me up all the time.
Superman: Not like this.
Who knew Superman was so insecure? You can feel his insecurity throughout the movie. He basks in the applause from the baseball crowd and listens to news reports about himself with a smile. He’s the mightiest being on the planet, the savior of the world, and he’s checking press clippings. Does he Google himself? Read the comments below YouTube clips? “SuperDORK more like! Go back to Krypton, Creepton. LOL.”
He spends so much time worrying about what Lois is thinking and feeling, and with whom she’s thinking and feeling it, he doesn’t put together the fairly obvious pieces of the plot. Let’s see…
- Lex Luthor is out of jail.
- Kryptonian crystals from the Fortress of Solitude are missing.
- The east coast has suffered a massive blackout that includes cellphones.
It’s even Clark’s job to be covering the blackout story. It’s the story Lois wants, it’s the one Clark gets, but it’s still Lois who uncovers it. She finds its epicenter, finds the boat, “The Gertrude,” anchored there, slips aboard with her son, then comes across Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) brushing his teeth. “Lois Lane?” he says with a mouthful of toothpaste. It’s one of the few times Luthor makes us laugh in the movie.
No obvious metaphor here. Keep moving.
I hate carping like this. I actually think “Superman Returns” is one of the better cinematic incarnations of the Man of Steel, so I want to say the positive. But I keep returning to the things that bug me.
I love it when Lois tells Superman “I forgot how warm you are.” That’s so evocative. This notion that the Man of Steel, instead of being cold like steel, is warmer than us. As if he absorbs more of the sun than we do. Then this:
Superman: What do you hear?
Superman: I hear everything.
You’re immediately struck by the burden of that. But it backfires. You think: Wait. If he can hear everything, why spend so much time being Clark Kent? Why is he hanging at a bar with Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) and Bo the Bartender (Jack Larson, the Jimmy Olsen of the 1950s)? Why isn’t he out saving all of the people he can hear being beaten, murdered, and raped? Why save some dingbat in a car or bother to stop that bank robber—a guy so stupid he: 1) robs a bank; 2) in Metropolis; 3) the day after Superman returns? And if you’re going to stop the dude, why walk up to him and allow him to keep firing? Bryan Singer wants to show us that even Superman’s eyes are invulnerable but he could’ve done it without making Superman seem like an ass.
There’s a nice scene when Supes lands with a sonic boom—boom!—on the new Krypton continent in the Atlantic Ocean, and fissures develop. And yet … I mean, if he can hear everything, surely he knows where Luthor and his men are. He can hear them breathing. They’re there, there and there. Pick them off. Instead he lands dramatically, with the fissures, and lets his enemies gather.
And how does he not feel all of his powers draining away? If I landed somewhere, and lost 99% of my power in two steps, I think I’d know it. Don’t even get me started on the horror of watching Superman get his ass kicked. There are a lot of painful moments in these movies—the post-reveal dialogue with Lois in “II,” being upstaged by an unfunny Richard Pryor in “III,” all of “IV”—but, for me, the beating of Superman in “Superman Returns” might be the most painful. It’s so brutal, I wouldn’t be surprised if it killed the movie at the box office. Who wants to re-watch a helpless Superman getting his ass kicked by Luthor and his men? Nobody. Superman returned but we didn’t.
OK, then how about the airplane rescue scene? Wow, right? And an homage to the helicopter scene in “I.” Yet why does the original work and the homage not? Is it that the helicopter scene is about revelation (the first appearance of Superman) while this is about return? Is the original rooted in the everyday, the gritty, while this feels like so much CGI? And did the landing have to be in the middle of a baseball stadium? The length of the scene doesn’t help. In “Superman,” from the moment he turns into Superman to “Statistically speaking… ” takes about one and a half minutes of screentime. In “Superman Returns,” it takes five and a half minutes of screentime. It just keeps going.
Second-to-last son of Krypton
I like him lifting the kryptonite-laden continent on his shoulders, like Atlas, pushing it into space, then falling back to Earth. The scenes at the hospital are good, too. But it still takes Lois forever to tell him Jason is his son. She should’ve told him as soon as she entered the room. Hell, she should’ve told him as soon as he returned from Krypton. Seriously, what kind of woman withholds that information? From both men? And that’s your heroine? It’s not a bad idea, certainly, having Lois marry Richard White (James Marsden), but it ruins the greatest love triangle in superherodom. Lois loves Superman and ignores Clark because she doesn’t see what’s super in him. It’s the story every man tells himself about every unrequited love. It’s poignant in that way. Here, Lois kinda loves, or certainly appreciates, Richard White, to whom she’s married, but really loves Superman, who’s always around. Sometimes he’s just outside their house, listening in. Right. That’s a little less poignant.
So let me end with two scenes I appreciate without qualification.
The first is the scene outside the hospital, where Ma Kent (Eva Marie Saint) stands with the crowd, unable to visit her dying son because no one knows he’s her son. That’s heartbreaking. It’s also reminiscent of what gay men went through in the age of AIDS. No way Bryan Singer didn’t make that connection.
The second is the moment Superman tells a sleeping Jason something Jor-El told him as a baby—as Kal-El slept on Krypton for the last time:
You will be different. Sometimes you'll feel like an outcast. But you'll never be alone. You will make my strength your own. You will see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father and the father the son.
It brings cohesion to the whole Donner/Singer enterprise, and to this movie in particular. Superman traveled to Krypton to discover he was its last son. Then he traveled back to Earth to find out he wasn’t. He went searching for Krypton but found it in his own backyard.
The son becomes the father.
Movie Review: The Hunting of the President (2004)
The extent to which Eric Alterman’s famous rejoinder “What Liberal Media?” is correct is indicated by how many leftists are flocking to the documentary form to get their message across. In the last few months we’ve seen leftist critiques of corporate pathology (“The Corporation”), McDonald’s (“Super Size Me”), the Bush Administration (“Fahrenheit 911”), and the Iraq War and the mainstream media (“Control Room”). Waiting in the wings are docs about FOX News (“Outfoxed”) and senior Bush advisor Karl Rove (“Bush’s Brain”). if the mainstream media were truly liberal, wouldn't folks just turn on their TV sets for this? Wouldn't we just wait for Katie Couric to report?
Now there’s “The Hunting of the President,” a documentary about what Hilary Clinton famously called “the vast right-wing conspiracy” against President Clinton. It was written and directed by Nickolas Perry, who helped edit several Clinton promo films (“A Place Called America”), and Harry Thomason, a Clinton confidante who directed several Clinton promo films (“Legacy”; “Hilary 2000”). Objectivity is not expected.
Were Clinton’s enemies at best unethical and at worst illegal? The film starts in Arkansas, where Larry Case and Larry Nichols were freelance operatives who provided lurid details to visiting big-city journalists. About L.A. Times reporter Bill Rempel, who helped break the “Troopergate” story, Case brags: “I pulled him in like a trophy trout.” The troopers themselves, according to the doc, had suspect motivations, ranging from money to revenge, while their unofficial stage-manager, Cliff Jackson, was an Arkansas lawyer and former Clinton classmate, who was supposedly motivated by envy.
In D.C., meanwhile, billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife funded “American Spectator” magazine and The Arkansas Project, both of which fanned the flames of rumor and innuendo long enough to attract the interest of the mainstream media. In this way, Troopergate led to Paula Jones. Then Vincent Foster died and a scandal was born. Then there was the whole Whitewater wrangle, which never went away despite the fact that journalists complained to their editors, “There’s no there there.”
It was Whitewater that caused Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint Special Counsel Robert Fiske, a moderate Republican lawyer, to investigate the matter. When Congress reauthorized the Independent Counsel Act six months later, Fiske was pushed out, replaced by Ken Starr, who was less moderate.
Indeed, in the doc, Starr’s team comes across as bullies, threatening and urging people to lie under oath.
Unfortunately, most of “Hunting” still amounts to “he said-she said.” What’s new here? Mea culpas from the press, and commentary from former “Spectator” star David Brock (“Blinded By the Right”), who gives insight into the inner-workings of Clinton’s enemies.
The last third of the film is devoted to its most important issue: How this right-wing mudslinging came to dominate the post-Watergate, post-cable TV media. The most damning talking head may be Dan Moldea, author of several books debunking conspiracy theories of both the left and right, who calls the press coverage of the Vincent Foster case, “The most corrupt act of journalism I have ever seen.”
Poet W.H. Auden once referred to the 1930s as “a low dishonest decade,” and it’s not a bad epitaph for the nineties either. We were not a serious people. President Clinton had personal failings, many of his opponents were noisy buffoons, and the press listened to them and we all tuned in. Meanwhile, enemies gathered elsewhere.
-- Originally published in The Seattle Times, 2004.
Movie Review: Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust (2004)
Daniel Anker’s “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust” is essentially split into two parts: how Nazi Germany was presented on Hollywood screens before the war (barely), and how the Holocaust was depicted on Hollywood screens after the war (ditto). But the question that haunts the documentary is this: to what extent can the Holocaust be recreated or depicted at all? Yes, one must never forget. Yes, one must bear witness. But how do you turn the great tragedy of the 20th century into entertainment?
The first example of how badly this can go was an episode of the television show, “This is Your Life,” from May 1953. The guest was the first Holocaust survivor to be interviewed on national television: Hanna Bloch Kohner. Why was she chosen? The documentary doesn’t say, but this article by Kohner’s daughter, Julie, makes it clear: Hanna’s husband was the agent for Ralph Edwards, the host of “This Is Your Life”; and once he heard Hanna’s story, and no doubt saw how pretty she was, the show found a way, as narrator Gene Hackman tells us, “to package the Holocaust for mass consumption.”
Here’s what Edwards says in his smooth, pleased-with-itself, radio announcer’s voice:
Looking at you, it’s hard to believe, that during seven short years of a still short life, you lived a lifetime of fear, terror, and tragedy. You look like a young American girl out of college, not at all like a survivor of Hitler’s cruel purge of German Jews.
Special guests/reunions include a fellow concentration camp inmate:
It was your friend and companion from four concentration camps. Now fate was kind to her, too, for she lives here in Hollywood: Eva Hertzberg, now Mrs. Warner Forsheim!
Worst of all? This conversation:
Edwards: You were each given a case of soap and a towel, weren’t you, Hanna?
Hanna [laughs slightly]: I don’t remember the soap.
Edwards: Well, you were sent to the so-called showers. [Hanna bows head.] Even this was a doubtful procedure because some showers had regular water, others had liquid gas. And you never knew which one you were being sent to. You and Eva were fortunate, others were not so fortunate, including your father and mother, and your husband, Carl Benjamin. They all lost their lives at Auschwitz.
It’s not just the words but the voice. He could be selling cars or hot dogs between innings of a baseball game. Instead he’s telling us of a tragedy so great, of cruelty so institutionalized and mechanized, that it obliterates the possibility of God. Tone is so at odds with subject matter as to seem the work of a madman.
“You were sent to the so-called showers...”
American moviegoers got their first sense of the Holocaust in May 1945, when the newsreels showed graphic footage of the concentration and extermination camps, including, as historian Michael Berenbaum says here, “the bulldozers of Bergen-Belsen shoveling the bodies into mass graves.” Such footage also appeared in Orson Welles’ “The Stranger,” from 1946, about a Nazi war criminal living in Connecticut, but Anker ignores the film. Instead we get the two 1947 films on anti-Semitism, “Crossfire” and “Gentleman’s Agreement,” along with a clip of “The Search” (1948), starring Montgomery Clift as an American GI trying to unite two Auschwitz survivors. We get “Singing in the Dark” (1956), starring Moishe Oysher as a Holocaust survivor with amnesia, but not “The Juggler” (1953), starring Kirk Douglas as a Holocaust survivor in Israel. “Exodus,” the big-budget, All-Star cast film from 1960, goes unmentioned, too.
Generally, in the first few decades after the war, Hollywood dealt with the Holocaust only when its hand was forced by other media. The popularity of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” as both book and Broadway play, led to the scrubbed1950s movie version, starring model, and WASP, Millie Perkins. Television showed us “Judgment at Nuremberg” before Stanley Kramer directed his Oscar-nominated version.
Then came “Holocaust,” the nine-hour miniseries from 1978 that followed in the wake of “Roots,” and to which, we’re told, “One in every two Americans tuned in.” It went abroad, to West Germany, where it was shocking news to a younger generation, and where it led the German government to extend statute of limitations on Nazi war criminals. “In Germany they told a joke,” Berenbaum says, “about the docudrama ‘Holocaust.’ They said it had more impact than the original.”
Objections came. “TV and Theresienstadt are not compatible,” wrote Elie Wiesel in The New York Times. He called the project morally objectionable and indecent. Others complained about the soap-opera nature of the storyline, and to the fact that there were any commercials at all. “It’s not that it was bad,” says Rabbi Wolfe Kelman in a clip from an NBC Special Report, “Holocaust: a Postscript.” “It’s that it wasn’t good enough.”
But it led to the documentary “Kitty: Return to Auschwitz” (1979) and the feature film Sophie’s Choice” (1983) and to yet another mini-series, “Winds of War” (1988). And all the while, questions. Can you bear proper witness without being graphic? Can you be graphic without being exploitative? Steven Spielberg argues for “graphic” (during histrionic scenes of “Winds of War”) even as film critic Neal Gabler praises Spielberg for his restraint in “Schindler’s List.”
The debate in “Imaginary Witness,” unfortunately, isn’t at a high level. “Schindler’s List” is treated as the pinnacle in Holocaust depiction—the acclaimed, Oscar-winning film from Hollywood’s most popular director—but the doc never delves into its controversy. David Mamet, for one, in his essay, “The Jew for Export,” called it melodrama. He said it was destructive and its lesson a lie:
Members of the audience learn nothing save the emotional lesson of all melodrama, that they are better than the villain.
Gabler talks up “the casualness of the violence” in “Schindler’s List,” a rework of “the banality of evil,” Hannah Arendt’s phrase from the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1963. But, to me, “The Pianist” (2002), directed by Roman Polanski, a survivor, gets at this much better than Spielberg, a suburban kid from Arizona, ever did.
“The Pianist,” unfortunately, is a blip here, in part because it’s not a true Hollywood production, and the doc, per its title, focuses on Hollywood. I wanted to go beyond Hollywood. I wanted to see what other countries were doing. I wanted clips from “Ostatni etap,” a 1948 black-and-white Polish drama about a woman sent to Auschwitz, and “Nuit et brouillard” (1955), the powerful, half-hour documentary from Alain Resnais and poet Jean Cayrol, which was the only Holocaust documentary produced anywhere in the world during the 1950s. “Shoah” (1985), Claude Lanzmann’s 9 1/2 hour documentary-to-end-all-documentaries, goes unmentioned as well.
According to Wikipedia, 174 narrative films worldwide have been made about the Holocaust in some form—focusing on survivors, a search for Nazi war criminals, or recreating the camps themselves—and I could’ve done with a five-minute survey of some of these, and less talk from, say, Prof. Annette Insdorf, who always sounds excruciatingly helpful in explaining the most obvious thoughts.
“Imaginary Witness” is a good beginner’s guide to its subject. It’s not that it’s bad; it’s that it’s not good enough.
Movie Review: Hancock (2008)
It’s the stupidity, stupid.
“Hancock” has a great premise. What if a superhero isn’t a super guy? What if he’s a bit of a drunk and a jerk? What if he causes as much damage as he tries to prevent?
It’s got a great star in Will Smith. You can almost see him turning down, or off, his usual cinematic charm. His Hancock stumbles around in perpetual hangover. He can barely keep his eyes open. What for? What does the world have to offer? What does he have to offer the world? More trouble. Better to shut it out with sleep or drink.
But the movie still fails because everyone in it is stupid. I mean everyone.
Presumably all of Los Angeles knows who Hancock is. He seems to be the only superhero in this universe. Yet everyone in the city acts as if they don’t know what this means. Gangbangers shoot him in the back of their car, prisoners surround him thinking 30-to-1 odds are in their favor, and civilians keep calling him an asshole even though they know this is his trigger word. That’s most of the movie, really: other characters acting surprised when the superhero turns out to be super.
Our main secondary character, Ray (Jason Bateman), is stupid. Sure, he decides to pay back Hancock, who saved his life with the stunt on the railroad tracks, by using his public-relations expertise, such as it is, to help Hancock’s image problem. And it works, more or less. He brings the two groups, Hancock and his public, closer together in mutual admiration. At the same time, he’s pitching an idea to corporations, that All-Heart thingy, that’s slightly insane. He’s offering corporations nothing for something: an unknown do-gooder symbol in exchange for profits. Somehow he gets into boardrooms to make this pitch. Given human nature, let alone corporate nature, there’s more Hollywood wish-fulfillment fantasy in his pitch than in any superhero movie ever made.
Mary (Charlize Theron), Ray’s wife, is stupid. She doesn’t want Ray to find out that she too is super, and thousands of years old, and Hancock’s former wife/lover/whatever; so when Hancock, suffering amnesia but inevitably drawn to her, gets too close, she blasts him through the wall of their house. “If Ray finds out about me,” she tells him, “you’re dead.” Then she blames the subsequent gaping hole on Hancock’s sneeze. Subtle. Not to mention another white woman blaming a black man for something she did.
Hey, should we go there? Talk about the missing racial element? Talk about the stories we don’t tell when we whitewash our history?
For most of the movie, Hancock doesn’t know who he is. All he knows is he woke up in a hospital in Miami with tickets to see “Frankenstein,” starring Boris Karloff, in his pocket. He had a concussion. There was no one there to claim him. This is supposedly why he acts the way he does—drinking and all. “What kind of bastard must I have been,” he says at one point, “that nobody was there to claim me?” He’s a super man feeling super sorry for himself.
Then Mary reveals herself and tells him who he is; who they are. “Gods, angels,” she says. “Different cultures call us by different names. Now all of a sudden it’s a ‘superhero.’” Which explains nothing, of course. Do they come from this planet or another? If this one, how are they the way they are? Hancock doesn’t ask. Instead, lonely, he asks, “Are there more of us?” “There used to be, “ she says.
You see, each god/angel/superhero has a partner, and he and Mary were partners. They were inevitably drawn to each other through millennia. But the more time you spend with your partner, the more mortal you become. It’s their kryptonite: togetherness.
At one point, she details the scars on his body. That one came in like 32 B.C., the other when they were attacked in 1850, and finally the blow-to-the-head as they were on their way to see “Frankenstein” in 1932. There, in the hospital, she decided he was better off not knowing, and without her, which is why she abandoned him there. At the same time, it hardly explains her anger now. “I have put up with your bullshit for the last 3,000 years!” she says. What bullshit? Weren’t they in love? Did they fight? Was he a drunk even then? We never find out.
More to the point: Were the two most recent scars the result of racially motivated attacks? How could they not be? An interracial couple in America in 1850? Going on a date in 1932? In Florida? Did they not know where they were and surrounded by whom? But the movie doesn’t raise the issue of race. Racism isn’t escapism. Our racial history is the nightmare from which we are trying to awake ... by going back to sleep.
Even more to the point: The filmmakers missed it: the real story.
The real story isn’t a broken-down Hancock in 2008 “finding himself.” The real story is Hancock, a black man in the American South in the 1930s, waking up in a hospital and wandering off to who knows what. Let’s say his powers return. Let’s say he’s attacked by a group of white men who don’t want this nigger on their streets. Does he kill them? Does word get out, in whispers, in the black community and the white community? When does he begin to identify as black? When white people keep calling him that? When they try to lynch him and castrate him? When black people take him in and feed him? Does he try to stop the lynchings? Does he take on Jim Crow? The Ku Klux Klan? Hitler? Does he know about Emmett Till or the Montgomery bus boycotts or the Nashville sit-ins or the Freedom Rides? Hollywood in 2008 wants to believe you can make any character black, yellow, red or white, and you can, but not if you’re getting deep into American history. That changes everything.
Instead, they ignore the history. Instead, they give us more stupidity. Three prisoners who have already had decisive run-ins with Hancock decide they weren’t decisive enough. They think they can still beat him. “He took your power,” Red (Eddie Marsan) tells the other two, “and now you’ve got to get your power back.” Guess what? They do this just as Hancock is losing his power. Great timing. And it leads to our final, decisive battle, in a hospital, where Hancock, superpowerless, fights back with the help of Mary (ditto), and Ray. The sprinkler system comes on, and we get slow-mo, and operatic music that suggests an ultimate sacrifice is being made.
It isn’t. Hancock isn’t a character but a property, and the people in charge need him alive for potential sequels. So in the end it’s suggested he winds up in New York, a continent away from Mary, who stays with Ray in Los Angeles. Hancock becomes the true superhero we need, or want, or think we want. Again and again and again and again. As if we were running from something.
Movie Review: The Spirit (2008)
“Pardon me, but is there a point to this? I’m getting old just listening to you.”
That’s the riposte, and one of the wittier ones, of The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) to his arch-nemesis, The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), who, at this point, is in his underground lair dressed up like a Nazi and expounding on how death defines everything we are, and how he, and only he, has developed a serum that can cheat death. He’s already given this serum to beat cop Denny Cole, lying in the morgue, who becomes the Spirit. Now he’s given it to himself. He and the Spirit are “two of a kind,” as he likes to say throughout the movie, but soon there will only be him. Because he plans to chop up the Spirit, dispense his body parts globally so they cannot reform, and then drink the blood of Heracles, the greatest of the demi-gods, to become a god himself and rule the world. Mwa-ha-ha-ha!
It’s also what I thought throughout the movie: Pardon me, but is there a point to this?
Writer-director Frank Miller employs the slick, comic booky/digital background technology he and Robert Rodriguez used in “Sin City,” along with a vibe that’s both cartoony and unfunny, in order to showcase ... nothing. No wit, no humanity, not even a good story. Just a dead, stupid hero who doesn’t know why he is, and who, in numerous voiceovers, offers Mickey Spillaneish valentines to a city, Central City, that, because of the digital background technology, we never really see:
My city, I can not deny her. My city screams. She is my mother. She is my lover, and I ... am her Spirit.
Your mother and your lover? Dude.
Does anyone else get claustrophobic in these digital-background movies? “Sin City,” “300,” this? The world isn’t the world. It’s reduced to this small, awful space where these small, awful things happen, which the filmmakers pump full of their hyper-masculine, hyper-sexual hyper-meaning. The men beat each other to pulps, the women, smart and sexy, watch and calculate, and everyone thinks themselves the center of the world. Because they are. Because the world has been reduced to this.
That’s the awfulness, isn’t it? Frank Miller doesn’t let us outside of his imagination and his imagination is small and dirty. It’s appropriate that our first set piece is the swampland outside Central City, because that’s what Miller’s imagination feels like to me. There, The Octopus clangs a toilet over The Spirit’s head and laughs, and when The Spirit doesn’t join in, when none of us join in, declares, in full Sam Jackson bore, “Come on! Toilets are always funny!”
Pardon me, but is there a point to this?
The Octopus has an egg phobia. He references it several times, and shoots one of his minions, the odd, bald creatures he and his partner, Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), have created, because he talks himself into a situation in which he winds up with egg on his face, and—full Sam Jackson bore again—“I don't like egg on my face!”
Because I’m getting old just watching you.
“The Spirit” is a movie made by, and for, people who suffer a kind of cultural analgesia; who feel nothing. All the characters are that way: The Spirit, The Octopus, Silken Floss, Sand Serif (Eva Mendes). Many beautiful women fall in love for one beautiful man, the Spirit, but no one else feels anything. When The Spirit falls off a skyscraper but is saved when his coat catches on a gargoyle four stories up, a crowd gathers. They point out that he looks ridiculous. Then they mock and insult him. Then they encourage him to jump. They shout: “Jump! Jump! Jump!” Is this what human beings are like in Frank Miller’s mind? That even passersby are assholes wishing death upon strangers? Maybe that’s why you fall in love with cities rather than people. You can anthropomorphize the city into anything you want.
Throughout the movie, Denny is pursued by Death, whom he sees, in his mind or soul, as a beautiful woman (Jamie King) who longs to enfold him in her arms, a la “All That Jazz.” The story—cop returned from the dead, more powerful than ever—has strong elements of “Robocop,” while the plot hinges upon the oldest ruse in the book: switched packages. “Hey, I didn’t want this blood of Heracles!” “Hey, I didn’t want Jason’s Argonaut armor!” In this way the movie is derivative but apparently not of its source material. I never read Will Eisner’s “The Spirit,” either the Golden-Age version or the Harvey Comics 1960s update, but apparently it had some soul and wit. It had spirit. Miller’s movie doesn’t. Early on, the Octopus decapitates a cop and throws his head at the Spirit. Is this supposed to be funny? Like the toilet? Like the Nazi outfits? Like Sand Serif photocopying her ass as she’s blackmailing a man to kill himself? Which he does?
Pardon me, but is there a point to this?
I’ve felt that way about everything Frank Miller has done: the graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One; the movies Sin City and 300. Miller worships at the twin altars of cool and cruel. His cool heroes are cruel to the ones who are cruel to the weak, which means his heroes, and by extension his readers or viewers, get to be cruel and moral. That’s the point to him: revenge as moral imperative. “The Spirit” is the Harvey Comics version of this rain-splattered, blood-splattered ethos, which is why it rings particularly off-tune. But even in-tune I find this ethos reprehensible. I get old just thinking about it.
Movie Review: Spider-Man 3 (2007)
WARNING: UNFORGIVING SPOILERS
Has any final installment of a trilogy sucked as badly as this one? Has any third movie betrayed the legacy of its first two movies the way this one does?
Hell, forget the first two movies; how about the source material? Spider-Man is Spider-Man because of one horrible moment: His Uncle Ben is killed by a petty thief that Peter Parker, with all his powers, couldn’t be bothered to stop. It’s one of the great psychological motivations in superherodom. Spider-Man fights crime not because it’s right, like Superman, and not for revenge, like Batman, but from guilt. Because he didn’t bother to stop the guy who later killed Uncle Ben.
“Spider-Man 3” undoes all of this. It pins Uncle Ben’s murder on the petty thief’s partner, Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), who later becomes the Sandman.
Did anyone on the set question this? Did anyone say, “Uh, dudes, if another guy is responsible for the death of Uncle Ben, what does this do to Spider-Man’s origin? His guilt? His raison d’etre?”
Undoing Spider-Man’s origin absolves Peter Parker of his original sin, the sin of doing nothing; of thinking that with great power comes a lot of kick-ass fun, bro. It turns him into someone else.
So, five years later, I went looking for a culprit for “Spider-Man 3”; and possibly, hopefully, a mea culpa.
There are entire threads out there in which geeks and outsiders hash it out and bash each other’s theories about what went wrong with “Spider-Man 3.” Some blame producer Avi Arad for insisting that Venom be added to a storyline already weighed down with the New Green Goblin and Sandman and evil Spider-Man. Some blame fanboys who whined about wanting to see Venom in the first place. Some blame the actors for going through the motions. Some blame director Sam Raimi.
Me, I searched for cast/crew differences in the “Spider-Man” movies. Who worked on the third movie, which sucked, who didn’t work on the first two, which were great?
- 1: Directed by Sam Raimi
- 2: Directed by Sam Raimi
- 3: Directed by Sam Raimi
- 1: Film Editing by Arthur Coburn and Bob Murawski
- 2: Film Editing by Bob Murawski
- 3: Film Editing by Bob Murawski
- 1: Screenplay: David Koepp
- 2: Screenplay: Alvin Sargent. Story: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Michael Chabon
- 3: Screenplay: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Alvin Sargent. Story: Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi
Wait. Ivan Raimi?
Yes, Sam’s older brother. He’s an emergency room doctor with many screen credits ... on his younger brother’s movies. According to IMDb.com, he helped develop the stories for the first two “Spider-Man” movies, too.
But those are your culprits. Sam and Ivan. We know because they’ve already confessed. They confessed in the form of bragging.
This is a part of an interview Sam Raimi did with Wizard Entertainment Group in 2007:
We felt that the most important thing Peter has to learn right now is that this whole concept of him as the avenger, or him as the hero… He wears this red and blue outfit. With each criminal he brings to justice, he’s trying to pay down his debt of guilt he feels about the death of Uncle Ben. And he considers himself a hero and a sinless person, versus these villains that he nabs. So we felt it would be a great thing for him to learn the less black-and-white view of life, and that he’s not above these people, that he’s not just a hero and they’re not just the villains. That we’re all human beings and we all have, that he himself might have, some sin within him, and that other human beings, the ones he calls the criminals, have humanity within them. And that the best we can do within this world is to not strive for vengeance but for forgiveness.
Look at the quote again. These words:
He considers himself a hero and a sinless person, versus these villains that he nabs.
The whole point of Peter Parker is that he knows he’s sinned. He knows the fault lies within himself as with others. By making someone other than the Burglar the killer of Uncle Ben, you actually remove his original sin, which is the greatest original sin in comic book history.
In other words, Sam and Ivan removed Spider-Man’s original sin in order to deliver the lesson that none of us are without sin.
Then there’s this line:
The best we can do within this world is to not strive for vengeance but for forgiveness.
Vengeance? When does Spider-Man ever strive for revenge? In the first two movies, which Sam Raimi supposedly directed, when does he ever seethe with revenge?
Just one moment. It’s in the first movie, when he’s going after the petty thief who killed Uncle Ben. At this point, he’s this close to becoming Batman. But that’s before the realization that he could’ve prevented it all, the realization that makes him Spider-Man.
So why did Sam and Ivan insist Peter (Tobey Maguire) learn a lesson he’s already learned? More to the point, how do they do it? How do they make a character who isn’t naturally vengeful, vengeful?
Two ways. First, they undo the moment that makes him Spider-Man, by placing the blame for Uncle Ben’s death on Flint Marko. Then they infect him with symbiotic black space goo. It lands in Central Park from outer space (I know), adheres to Spider-Man’s uniform (right), and turns it, and his soul, black.
This goo makes him do crazy things. He styles his hair like a little Hitler, struts down the street like an ass, and takes advantage of his landlord’s daughter, Ursula (Mageina Tovah), by allowing her to bake cookies for him. That’s not a metaphor, by the way. She’s literally baking cookies for him. And he has the nerve to eat them in the hallway of his rundown building. With milk.
The goo also makes him web-sling after Flint Marko/Sandman with a vengeance. And he gets his revenge. He kills him, or thinks he kills him, and sneers this final bon mot: “Good riddance.”
Later in the movie, Aunt May will tell Peter that revenge is like a poison. “It can take you over,” she says. “Before you know it, it can turn us into something ugly.” That’s the grand lesson the Raimi brothers wish to impart. Unfortunately, it’s not the grand lesson the movie imparts. Because her words describe revenge less than the symbiotic black space goo. It has taken him over. It has turned him ugly. It has made him eat the cookies that Ursula baked for him. Peter Parker? He’s still a nice guy. So what’s the real grand lesson here? Don’t get infected with symbiotic black space goo?
Should I even get into the whole Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) subplot?
Peter and MJ come together at the end of “2” but at the beginning of “3” they already looked bored with it. Or she does anyway. Hanging in that web hammock in Central Park and looking at the stars? Again? How about we have sex for a change? Or once? How about I bake you some cookies?
Pete and MJ aren’t helped by the fact that he’s oblivious and she’s a bit of a bitch. He’s superhappy and the superhappy are always tough to hang around. He’s so superhappy he kisses Gwen Stacey in front of MJ and doesn’t think it’ll bother MJ.
But by this point her life has begun to turn. She’s on Broadway in a musical, “Manhattan Melodies,” singing some 1940s-era song while descending a long staircase in a long gown. (Wait, what year is it again?) The critics are merciless. Oddly, the producers listen to the critics and fire her. When she emerges from the theater in the middle of the day, it’s to applause, and for a second, being her, she actually thinks it’s for her—the third-billed, recently fired star of a tired musical. Her face darkens when she sees the applause is actually for Spider-Man, that lout of a boyfriend, who just, what, saves people’s lives? As if.
So she holds back. She’s actually in the process of leaving Peter, as she left Flash Thompson, and Harry Osborne, and as she left John Jameson standing at the altar like a schmuck. This is what she does. She runs away from one man and into the arms of another.
This time the arms belong to Harry (James Franco) again, who, because he bonks his head and develops amnesia like a third-rate character in a soap opera, doesn’t remember that his father was the Green Goblin, that his best friend is Spider-Man, and that he thinks his best friend killed his father. Instead he’s happy-go-lucky, and he and MJ make omelettes while listening to Chubby Checker and dancing the Twist. (Wait, what year is it again?) Then they kiss. She: “I didn’t mean to do that!” Me: Yes, you did.
Up to this point, the relationship of Pete and MJ is falling apart on its own. But for the rest of the movie, external forces will act upon them to break them up completely.
First, her kiss, like a reverse Prince Charming’s, awakens Harry’s memory, his inner Goblin, who counsels, vis a vis Peter, “Make him suffer. ... First, we attack his heart!” Which he does. Not by wooing MJ—that would be too simple—but by threatening her. We never find out what this threat is. Break up with Peter or I’ll kill you? Break up with Peter or I’ll kill Peter? How come she doesn’t say, “Dude, my boyfriend’s Spider-Man. Screw you and your sad-ass air-board. What, was Rocket Racer having a sale?”
Instead, threatened, she breaks up with Peter, who is already coming under the influence of the black space goo. So he shows up at MJ’s singing waitress gig and steals the show as a 1940s-era jive-talking asshole. (Wait, what year is it again?) Then he decks a bouncer. Then he decks her. Much later, as per usual, she’s the bait in the final epic battle above Manhattan; and at the very end, with Harry dead and the black space goo gone, Peter and MJ get together for a final slow, sad dance. Are they a couple again? Are they saying good-bye? Who knows? Who knows if they’re even right for each other. They didn’t seem right for each other at the beginning, and so much has happened since then.
All of this is part of another grand lesson the Raimi brothers wish to impart: a man puts his woman before himself. The odd thing? Peter usually does this. He just doesn’t do it in “Spider-Man 3” because the Raimi brothers want to impart this lesson. So they make Peter superhappy and thus oblivious to the pain of others. The rest gets tangled up in space goo.
The conflict they wanted was there, too, if they’d just looked hard enough. Every person, every situation, contains a paradox, and Peter’s is in the contradictory sayings of Uncle Ben. On the one hand: With great power comes great responsibility. On the other: A husband puts his wife before himself. So to whom is Peter ultimately responsible? I’d go with the woman in the burning building over MJ reading a scathing review, but that’s just me. But at least you have something for Peter to work through. At least you don’t have to turn Peter into what he is not in order to show us that he should be what he is.
That final, sad, slow dance? It’s the last time we see these characters in this incarnation. I’d say “Good riddance” but that would be too vengeful.
I went looking for the culprits for “Spider-Man 3” and found them. I also went looking for a mea culpa. I found it, too. Kind of.
Here’s Sam Raimi in 2009, when it seemed he still might make “Spider-Man 4”:
I think having so many villains detracted from the experience. I would agree with the criticism… I think I’ve learned about the importance of getting to the point and the importance of having limitations, and I’m hoping to take that into a production where I’m actually allowed to explore with more of the tools to pull it off with a little more splendor.
Everyone thinks that’s the problem with “Spider-Man 3”: too many supervillains. But that’s not the real problem. You could actually do something cool with too many supervillains. I bet there’s a writer-director right now, maybe Joss Whedon, who is thinking of ways to turn this collective wisdom (too many supervillains ruin a movie) on its head.
No, the real problem is that Sam and Ivan had reductive lessons to impart and they imparted them in spite of their characters, not because of them. They imposed them from above. Their characters were A, and they changed them to F or Q, in order to show us that we should all be A.
To do this, they tore apart what is organic and meaningful in Spider-Man’s story (the Burglar; with great power comes great responsibility), then stuck it back together through artificial constructs and reductive lessons (space goo; forgiveness > vengeance). They’re like children who, having removed the wings of an insect, construct papier-mâché versions and stick them on and expect the poor thing to fly. It doesn’t. It fucking falls.
Here’s the final fall. It’s the big moment of forgiveness. Harry’s dead, Eddie Brock is gone with the space goo, and Spider-Man and Sandman square off. With words. Words written by Sam Raimi and his brother, Dr. Ivan Raimi. Enjoy:
Sandman: I didn't want this. But I had no choice.
Spider-Man: We always have a choice. You had a choice when you killed my uncle.
Sandman: My daughter was dying. I needed money.
[Flashback: Flint knocks on Uncle Ben’s car window with a gun]
Sandman: I was scared. I told your uncle all I wanted was the car. He said to me, “Why don't you just put down the gun and go home?” I realize now he was just trying to help me. Then I saw my partner running over with the cash... and the gun was in my hand...
[Flashback: the Burglar shakes Flint’s arm, causing him to shoot Uncle Ben.]
Sandman: I did a terrible thing to you. I spent a lot of nights wishing I could take it back. I'm not asking you to forgive me. I just want you to understand.
Spider-Man: I've done terrible things too.
Sandman: I didn't choose to be this. The only thing left of me now... is my daughter.
[There’s a pause. A long, long pause.]
Spider-Man: I forgive you.
Sam Raimi: I didn't want this. But I had no choice.
Me: We always have a choice. You had a choice when you made Flint Marko responsible for the death of Uncle Ben.
Sam: I thought I was teaching a lesson about sin, and revenge, and forgiveness.
Me: Revenge? You think you’re telling Batman’s story here? Do you even know which character you’ve spent a decade filming?
Sam: I was scared. Then I saw my agent running over with the cash... and the pen was in my hand...
[Flashback: Sam and Ivan talk about the story while Ivan performs surgery.]
Sam: I did a terrible thing to you all. I spent a lot of nights wishing I could take it back.
[Flashback to the “Spider-Man 3” premiere and the horrified faces in the audience.]
Sam: I'm not asking you to forgive me. I just want you to understand.
Me: I've written terrible things, too...
[There’s a pause. A very short pause.]
Me: ...but not this terrible. Fucker.
Oh no! I'm about to turn into what I'm not so I can learn I should be what I am!
Movie Review: The Dark Knight (2008)
WARNING: WHY SO SPOILEROUS?
I only saw “The Dark Knight” once in theaters, at a preview screening a few days before its July 2008 opening. Afterwards I wrote an MSN piece about it, “The Smart Knight,” which included the following lines:
There are better superhero movies out there... But “The Dark Knight,” directed by Christopher Nolan, is the smartest superhero movie ever made.
My point: Once Batman stops being a vigilante and becomes a glorified cop he becomes absurd—a cop in a bat suit—and descends into camp. “The Dark Knight” ensured this wouldn’t happen by reinforcing his vigilante status and taking an axe to the bat signal. Even so, fanboys jumped on me for implying that other superhero films might be better than “The Dark Knight.”
Now that I’ve actually seen the movie a second time, four years later on DVD, I’d like to apologize to those fanboys. I was wrong in the above quote. “The Dark Knight” isn’t the smartest superhero movie ever made. In fact, it’s pretty stupid.
Battle for the soul of Gotham
The battle between the Batman (Christian Bale) and the Joker (Heath Ledger) is nothing less than a battle for the soul of Gotham City. Batman wants order, the Joker chaos. “Some men aren't looking for anything logical,” says Alfred (Michael Caine), in one of the movie’s most famous lines. “Some men only want to watch the world burn.”
How does the Joker do this? He commit acts of terrorism. He tries to get the citizens of Gotham to reveal that they’re as ugly inside as he is.
First, he announces he’ll kill one person every day until the Batman takes off his mask and turns himself in. What happens? When Gotham’s district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) holds a press conference saying we don’t give in to terrorist demands, the people lash back:
Reporter: You’d rather protect this outlaw vigilante than the lives of citizens?
Man 1: Things are worse than ever!
Cop: No more dead cops! [Other cops applaud.]
Man 2: He should turn himself in!
The Joker wins.
Then when a Wayne Enterprises employee, Reese (Josh Harto), is about to reveal Batman’s true identity on television, the Joker decides Batman’s too much fun. So he demands the death of Reese in an hour or he’ll blow up a hospital. What happens? All over Gotham, people start taking potshots at Reese. It’s up to the Batman, disguised as Bruce Wayne, to save him.
The Joker wins.
Finally, in the film’s climax, the Joker loads hundreds of barrels of explosives onto two ferry boats—one filled with criminals, one filled with civilians—and gives each boat the other’s detonator. At midnight, he says, he’ll blow up both ferries. If one boat blows up the other first, however, that one will be allowed to continue safely on its way. What happens? The ferry full of citizens votes to blow up the ferry full of criminals but no one can push the button. Meanwhile, one of the criminals (former wrestler Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister), 6’ 5” and glowering, demands the detonator, and tells the ship’s captain: “I’ll do what you shoulda did 10 minutes ago.” Then he tosses it overboard. Midnight passes, by which time the Joker’s been defeated, and everyone’s safe. Our best side has been revealed.
In other words, threatened indirectly in examples 1 and 2, everyone caved. Threatened directly, in example 3, and people behaved nobly.
“Give up the Batman or there’s a one-in-10-million chance you’ll die.” Let’s give up the Batman! “Kill Reese or I’ll blow up one of dozens of hospitals in Gotham.” Let’s kill Reese! “Kill those murderers and rapists or YOU will be killed!” Uh... let’s take a vote.
Worse, despite his experiences with examples 1 and 2, not to mention his whole raison d’etre, Batman, in example 3, is convinced that both the citizens and criminals of Gotham will do the right thing. At one point, he and Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) have this conversation:
Gordon: Every second we don’t [take down the Joker], those people on the ferry get closer to blowing each other—
Batman (low growl): That won’t happen.
As Batman wrestles with the Joker, we get this exchange:
Joker: I’ll miss the fireworks. [One of the boats blowing up.]
Batman (low growl): There won’t be any fireworks!
How does he know? Because he’s the hero? Because it’s the end of the movie? Because it’s time for him to win? The whole thing feels monumentally false.
Yes, you can drill down and say that in example No. 1 the people were asked to give up nothing of their own, just the Batman, so it was easier to cave. Yes, you can say that in example No. 2, the pool of potential assassins was larger than on the ferry boat, so you’re that much more likely to find one, two, or a dozen, willing to kill for a false sense of security. Yes, on the ferry boat they’re fighting for a real sense of security, a do-or-die situation, but it’s still a tough thing to press a button and extinguish hundreds of souls. Most of us don’t have it in us. But what about the other boat? Could no criminal, who might’ve already killed dozens, push that button?
Bottom line. Threatened indirectly, the people of Gotham got scared and flailed. Threatened directly, the people of Gotham got scared and sat calmly. Maybe that’s what happens when you and your children are threatened directly. But I doubt it.
The Museum of the Hard-to-Believe
There’s so much I don’t believe about this film.
I don’t believe the Joker is able to redirect or misdirect Harvey Dent’s anger. Dent has a gun to the forehead of the Joker—the man responsible for both the awful last minutes of Rachel Dawes’ life and Dent losing half his face—and he doesn’t pull the trigger? Instead he goes after the cops who betrayed him to the Joker. He goes after the family of Jim Gordon, the uncorrupt boss of those corrupt cops. He flails.
And what’s up with that whole ‘White Knight’ crap? If Dent is revealed as less than pure, the good citizens of Gotham—if there are any—would give up hope? How many even know who Harvey Dent is?
Don’t get me started on all the traps the Joker springs in this thing.
Oops. Too late.
Here are the various traps the Joker springs on the people and authorities of Gotham:
- He kidnaps and kills one of Gotham’s many Batman copycats, then he hangs the fat corpse outside the Mayor’s high-rise office so it bumps up against the window just as the Mayor is looking out. Nice timing.
- He sends a video of the killing to the TV networks, who broadcast it, along with his demand that Batman turn himself in.
- He gets the DNA of three prominent Gothamites (Judge, Commissioner, Harvey Dent) on a Joker card, kills two of them (bomb, poison), and goes after Dent personally at Bruce Wayne’s high-rise.
- When Dent, pretending to be Batman, is transported across town in a police van, Joker redirects the motorcade into an underpass and attacks it.
- After Batman stops the Joker by upending his truck, a stunt which should’ve killed him but merely left him a tad groggy, the Joker has his men kidnap both Dent and Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and tie them to chairs next to explosives in secure locations equidistant from the Gotham jail. (Thank you, Google maps.)
- At the same time, or a previous time, he plants a man with a bomb in his stomach in the Gotham jail. Is this Plan B? For when the underpass thing didn’t work? Or was Gordon right and the Joker wanted to be captured? Gotta say, for someone who wanted to be captured, he was making a convincing case otherwise in that underpass.
- Plan B works perfectly, though. The jail bomb goes off, killing many but leaving the Joker unharmed, Rachel Dawes blows up, and, best of all, and completely unplanned, Dent loses half his face in the blast that nearly takes his life.
- The Joker gets on a local news show and tells everyone to kill Reese or he’ll blow up a hospital. For some reason, not many policemen guard the hospital where Dent is recuperating. Apparently everyone’s forgotten that the Joker has tried to kill him three times now.
- After turning Harvey Dent into a bad guy, the Joker blows up the hospital.
- Immediately after, he begins his ferry boat threat. When did he load the explosives onto the ferries? Just how many men does he have? And does no one ever see him doing these things?
- And while all of that is going on, he holes up in a construction site, where he’s being watched by police who have been alerted to his location by Batman’s extra-legal surveillance. Except his men in clown masks? They’re really hostages! The hostages? They’re really his men! It’s another trap! Because he knew they’d be able to find him? Why would he think that? Batman had to break the law to find him. Just how many steps ahead is the Joker?
Whew. Breather? No, this is Chris Nolan. Onward.
For a madman, the Joker has to be the greatest organizational planner ever. Even while messing with you in Plan B, he’s apparently thinking ahead to Plan Z. The intricacy of his plans make D-Day seem like a sailboat ride on a Sunday afternoon.
It’s tough out there for a Batman
This is a tough movie to be Batman. In the first, “Batman Begins,” he’s proactive, stalking crooks in the night. Here, he’s back on his heels. He’s reacting more than acting. He’s taking punches.
Is he slower in this one? He was such a ninja in the first movie that both criminals and moviegoers could barely see him. Maybe fanboys complained. That last fight with Ra’s al Ghul on the train was like a battle of shadows, but, ninja-wise, it made sense. Here, Batman’s not only not a ninja, he’s as stolid as Rocky Balboa in the 11th round.
Thank god he’s got so many good people around him. Alfred, for example. After Batman’s first encounter with the Joker, when Bruce Wayne says, “They crossed a line,” Alfred immediately responds, “You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation.” After Batman saves Harvey Dent but loses Rachel and sits despondent over his role in all of this—in inspiring not good but madness—Alfred tells him, “You spat in the faces of Gotham's worst criminals. Didn’t you think there might be some casualties?” Spat in the faces...? Thanks for the buck-up, bro.
Well, at least Bruce has Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who, when shown Batman’s Patriot-Act-like surveillance methods, says, “This is too much power for one man to have,” and “Spying on 30 million people isn't part of my job description.” OK, so no Lucius. But at least Rachel loves him. Oh right, the letter.
Poor dude can’t have a conversation with anyone without it turning into some part of the film’s philosophical treatise. I love me some Michael Caine but almost everything Alfred says is in this vein. Harvey Dent, too. “You either die a hero,” he says during a casual dinner, “or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” When I first heard it, before I knew that Harvey would die a hero and Batman would endure as a villain, it felt false to me. It rang loudly and off key. It announced itself.
Movies are only as good as directors allow them to be
I like some of what Nolan does. I like the idea that Batman inspires people in unintended, dangerous ways. I like that someone nefarious rises to reach Batman’s level of madness. I like the idea of blackmailing Batman to give himself up. That’s smart. But it’s lost in the relentlessness of Nolan’s direction and the Joker’s innumerable plans and schemes.
Yes, Heath Ledger is brilliant. And, yes, this is great dialogue:
Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak. Like me! They need you right now, but when they don’t they’ll cast you out like a leper. You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these... these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.
Ahead of the curve. Great line.
This sets up our ferry-boat ending that depicts how some people don’t drop their moral code at the first sign of trouble. The problem? The Joker’s actually right. Or he’s half right. Moral codes aren’t necessarily dropped at the first sign of trouble, but, generally, we are only as good as the world allows us to be. Batman knows that, too. He should’ve picked up on it. He should’ve said:
Of course people are only as good as the world allows them to be. That’s why I’m here. I’m allowing them that chance.
He should’ve mocked the Joker:
You think you’re telling us something we don’t know? You think you’re bringing us news?
It’s easy to bring the world low. It’s hard to lift it up. Why did you choose the easy way?
But all of that would’ve required a Batman who wasn’t on his heels. It would’ve required a Batman unafraid to take the spotlight from the Joker. And it would’ve required a different ending than our ferry boat/fairy tale ending.
But it would’ve made for a better movie. “Sometimes truth isn't good enough,” Batman says at the end of the movie. And most of the time it is.
Listen, I know I’m talking in the wind here. I know “The Dark Knight” grossed the money it grossed, and has the fans it has, and no argument will sway them from their point-of-view.
So feel free to say it’s just a movie, and fun, and you’re not supposed to think about it too much. I’ll understand. Because I know most people don’t go to the movies looking for anything logical. Most people go just to watch the world burn.
Movie Review: Batman Begins (2005)
BAT WARNING: SPOILERS
Bruce Wayne should’ve truly hated Gotham City. As a young man returning from Princeton, he should’ve voiced his hatred for the city that took away his parents, calling it a cesspool, a place of hopeless corruption. He should’ve flown his Travis Bickle flag and talked about a real rain coming and washing away all the scum off the streets.
If he did, Ra’s al Ghul’s offer to destroy Gotham would’ve had weight. Ghul (Liam Neeson) would’ve handed Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) what he’d wanted since he was a boy, since he saw his parents murdered before his eyes; and in that moment, Bruce would’ve discovered that what he’d always wanted wasn’t what he wanted:
Ra’s al Ghul: You know Gotham is dying. It’s dying from the inside. It’s a cancer. It’s time to put it out of its misery so more good people like your parents won’t die. Are you strong enough for the task?
Bruce Wayne: I... My hatred of Gotham came from the weakest part of me. I see that now. But I’m stronger now. Thanks to you.
Thus Ra’s al Ghul would’ve trained a man to do a task for which the very training made him ill-suited. The filmmakers could’ve worked this into a major theme: that the desire for destruction is borne of weakness, the desire to save comes from strength. And Bruce Wayne was strong now. He was Batman.
Instead we have what we have. Bruce Wayne carries a hatred for Joe Chill, the two-bit mugger who killed his parents, but not for Gotham, the city that created Joe Chill. Ra’s al Ghul’s offer is the offer of a madman. It’s treated as such. None of it resonates.
Carmine Falcone, we hardly knew ye
The last time we saw a cinematic Batman, in 1997, he was saddled with Robin, Batgirl, erect nipples, camp villains, and a lead actor who emanated the absurdity of playing a caped crusader. “Batman Begins” is, as the kids say, way better. It’s Batman modeled on Frank Miller’s dystopian vision rather than William Dozier’s camp vision. It’s dark and moody and realistic.
So why is it curiously unsatisfying?
I blame the relentless direction of Christopher Nolan, who pushes the story along with the same speed and tone throughout. Every scene has the same weight, the same growling intensity: dining, talking, fighting, falling, fighting again. There are no peaks and valleys. It’s a flat-lined film.
There’s also a problem with the villains.
We don’t see Batman until an hour into the movie. The first hour is all about training to become Batman so Bruce can take on the Carmine Falcones of the world. Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the leader of the Gotham underworld, is a nasty piece of work. He’s the one who has Joe Chill killed; and he’s the one who sends Bruce on his mission. He tells him:
You think because your mommy and your daddy got shot you know about the ugly side of life, but you don't. You've never tasted desperate. You're Bruce Wayne, the Prince of Gotham. You'd have to go a thousand miles to meet someone who didn't know your name. So don't come down here with your anger, trying to prove something to yourself. This is a world you'll never understand. And you always fear what you don't understand.
That’s good. And it’s why Bruce goes on his seven-year trek: to find those who don’t know him; to understand the underworld; to face his fears. He does all of this. And he brings it all back to Gotham to face Carmine Falcone ... who is dispatched in like two minutes of screentime.
Really? That’s it?
Turns out Falcone, for whom we’ve waited an hour, is just a pawn. The greater power lies with Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), AKA the Scarecrow, who, with his magic powder and scary mask, makes Falcone mad.
But Crane, too, is a pawn. The greater power lies with ... wait for it ... Ra’s al Ghul, the man who trained Bruce Wayne in the first place. The man who made him Batman.
Batman is thus a product of criminals. Joe Chill gives him the thirst for revenge, Carmine Falcone sends him on his mission, and Ra’s al Ghul trains him to be Batman.
But that’s not the problem with the villains. The problem with the villains is that we wait an hour for an encounter with Carmine Falcone, and, poof, he’s gone. Falcone is more interesting than Ra’s al Ghul, too. That speech above is brilliant. It’s savvy. Ghul? He spews vaguely eastern nonsense.
- “The training is nothing!” he tells Bruce Wayne ... as he trains him.
- “What you really fear is inside yourself. You fear your own power.”
Can I answer that one? I’m not sure about Bruce, but the last thing I fear is my own power. Probably the last thing you fear, too.
Guhl’s logic, as the head of the League of Shadows, is bizarre stuff. Cities are dying so let’s kill them off. He mentions three: Rome, London, Gotham. He says:
The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. We sacked Rome, loaded trade ships with plague rats, burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance.
But Rome survived. So did London. So will Gotham. Shouldn’t someone have mentioned this? “Restore what balance, you self-important twit?”
Most classic superheroes were created by young men in the 1940s, or by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the early 1960s, which means there’s always room for improving their origins. Modern movies usually oblige. That’s not an “S” on his chest but a Kryptonian family crest (“Superman: The Movie”). “A weak man knows the value of strength” (“Captain America: The First Avenger”). “I missed the part where that’s my problem” (“Spider-Man”).
Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer introduce two improvements, or complications, to the classic origin of Batman. Back in 1939, Bruce chose a bat as his symbol because “criminals are a cowardly lot”; Nolan’s Bruce chooses a bat because he is a cowardly lot. As a boy he fell down an abandoned shaft and startled the bats in the caverns under Wayne Manor. It led to a lifelong phobia. As an adult we see him overcome this phobia, standing tall as CGI bats flit all around him. It’s a cool scene but... Doesn’t it recall, a bit much, Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy? It’s bats instead of rats, but both phobias are overcome with willpower. Bruce Wayne just doesn’t grill and eat his.
The second complication borrows from Spider-Man’s origin, which—alley oop—borrowed from Batman’s.
Batman was the first costumed hero to have a psychological motivation for fighting crime. He saw his parents killed before his eyes and is out for revenge. He wants to get the bastards. Twenty years later, Spider-Man was the second superhero to have a psychological motivation for fighting crime, but Stan Lee added a twist. When Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben is killed by a burglar, Spider-Man, seeking revenge, gets the bastard, then realizes the killer is a petty crook he had the opportunity to stop days earlier. So Spider-Man fights crime less for revenge than from guilt. He’s trying to cleanse himself as much as society.
Nolan borrows this idea for “Batman Begins.” The Waynes leave an opera early because young Bruce is afraid of the bat-like characters on stage, and they wind up in a nasty back alleyway where the mugging/killing occurs. If Bruce hadn’t been afraid, he realizes, they wouldn’t have left early. If they hadn’t left early, his parents would still be alive.
Except Nolan doesn’t do much with this. Alfred (Michael Caine) soothes young Bruce’s guilt; and as a young man, training in the ninja arts in the Himalayas, Bruce tells Ghul, “My anger outweighs my guilt.” That’s about the only time the word “guilt” or “guilty” is even spoken in the movie.
Batman is a character obviously associated with anger rather than guilt so I’m not sure why Nolan even introduces the concept. Besides, Nolan’s notion of guilt is Catholic rather than Jewish. He thinks it can be cleansed. Stan Lee (né Stanley Lieber) knew better.
The ghost of William Dozier
So Bruce Wayne spends seven years abroad learning about the underworld and ninja arts, returns to Gotham as an avenger, creates a bat persona, and slowly, with the help of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the weapons developer for Wayne Enterprises, arms himself. “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” the Joker (Jack Nicholson) asked in the 1989 version. That Batman created his own. Nolan’s outsources.
Some traditions are kept: Bruce still slides down the batpole to the batcave, where the batmobile still resides. The batmobile is now like a tank with big wheels, and after one of the best scenes in the movie—Batman’s descent through the bats at Arkham Asylum—we get one of the worst: an extensive chase scene around Gotham. It’s the kind of car chase, common to Hollywood, where the chased performs impossible stunts (literally driving over church rooftops; literally chewing the scenery) only to find several police cars right on his tail. If Gotham cops were really that good, Batman wouldn’t be needed in the first place.
The entrance to the batcave is improved upon. It’s now hidden by a waterfall and a chasm, which requires jet propulsion to leap over, all of which beats the flopping vehicle barrier of the ’66 TV show. But surely any interested party could follow the tire tracks? Hey, they lead here. Hey, it’s under Wayne Manor. Hey, maybe Batman is Bruce Wayne. No matter how gritty and realistic they try to make these guys, there’s always some absurdity sticking out. The biggest absurdity being, of course, a man who wears a bat costume to fight crime.
Second-half plot? In his effort to “restore the balance,” Ra’s al Ghul imports Dr. Crane’s crazy powder to Gotham, where minions pour it into the water supply. The plan is to use a microwave emitter, stolen from Wayne Enterprises, to evaporate the water and cause everyone to go nuts and tear each other apart. Dark and gritty but ... a bit of a William Dozier vibe, no? I can see the ‘60s version of the microwave emitter: silver, with knobs and an antennae, wheeled in by a middle-aged, hipster-dressed minion, while Ra’s al Ghul (Roger C. Carmel) rubs his hands together and whoops it up. There’s also the problem of Ghul reappearing and burning down Wayne Manor. It’s poetic justice, yes, since Bruce burned down Ghul’s Himalayan hideout, but Ghul handles Bruce so easily here it feels a trifle convenient. I get another Dozier vibe. Will Wayne Manor burn to the ground? Can Alfred return from his mission in time to get Bruce out from under the heavy log beam?
There’s a girl. I haven’t mentioned her yet. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), Bruce’s childhood playmate, who grows into a tall, girlishly attractive, forever threatened assistant D.A. She’s disappointed in young Bruce (slaps him when he talks about killing Joe Chill); she’s disappointed in playboy Bruce (“It’s not who you are underneath,” she tells him, in the movie’s most famous line, “it's what you do that defines you”); but after Batman saves her from Dr. Crane, and after he reveals his true identity to her, she shows up in the ashes of Wayne Manor and says she’s never stopped thinking of him. Then she kisses him. Yay! But no. We get this exchange:
Rachel: Then I found out about your mask.
Bruce: Batman's just a symbol, Rachel.
Rachel [touches Bruce's face]: No, this is your mask. Your real face is the one that criminals now fear. The man I loved—the man who vanished—he never came back at all. But maybe he's still out there, somewhere. Maybe some day, when Gotham no longer needs Batman, I'll see him again.
What the hell? Throughout the movie she’s been bitching that Bruce doesn’t care about Gotham the way she cares about Gotham. Now she finds out he cares more, now she finds out that the man she loves is the true avenger of the city she loves, and she still blows him off? And I thought I had problems with women.
The above dialogue might’ve resonated if Bale, as Bruce, had seemed hard, cold and distant around Rachel, but his face and voice actually soften when she’s around. He’s constantly revealing his true face to her. She just doesn’t see it. Neither does Nolan.
Good cast, though. Bale is tall, dark, good-looking, and plays intense and off-kilter well—probably because he’s intense and off-kilter. Still, he’s a straight man here, so, as with 1978’s “Superman: The Movie” and 1989’s “Batman,” you surround him with talent: Freeman and Caine and Wilkinson and Murphy and Gary Oldman, wonderfully plain as Jim Gordon. That’s a lot of Brits. Too many? Who isn’t British in this thing? Batman is. So is Alfred, Ducard, Gordon, Crane, Falcone, Finch, Loeb, Joe Chill, Judge Faden, and Thomas and Martha Wayne. Americans are allowed Fox, Dawes, and Flass (Mark Boone Junior), this movie’s Lt. Eckhardt. “Hey, we need a fat, scummy cop.” “What do we have in Yanks?”
“Batman Begins” is acclaimed among fanboys, and currently has an 8.3 rating on IMDb, but to me it’s mid-range stuff. We push aside interesting villains for dull ones, twiddle our thumbs during car chases, and wait for a girl who isn’t worth it. Nolan misses opportunities even as he maintains a pace that’s overly relentless. It beats erect nipples but it hardly makes my nipples erect.
Still, the Joker card at the end set up the sequel well. Wonder how that went?
Movie Review: Iron Man (2008)
In “Iron Man,” we learn that one man can make a difference.
No, not Iron Man. I’m talking Robert Downey, Jr., who turns one of the most boring Marvel superheroes into one of its most engaging. That frenetic, super-intelligent quality Downey had way back in 1987’s “The Pick-Up Artist”—mouth unable to keep up with mind—has, by this film, been disciplined and tempered. He’s less wild-eyed. There’s a stillness to him as he talks to and over people. His lines are free of bullshit and niceties. They’re lean and clever. “Give me a scotch,” he tells a bartender, “I’m starving.”
Here he is in Afghanistan before the shit goes down:
Soldier: Is it cool if I take a picture with you?
Stark: Yes, it's very cool.
[Soldier poses with a peace sign]
Stark: I don't want to see this on your MySpace page. Please no gang signs.
[Soldier lowers hand]
Stark: No, throw it up. I'm kidding. Yeah, peace. I love peace. I'd be out of a job for peace.
The soldier says the first line, Stark the next three. It’s monologue as dialogue. Iron Man flies rings around people but it’s not nearly as fun as watching Tony Stark talk rings around people. “Iron Man” is a superhero movie, and thus wish fulfillment, but, for me, the wish fulfillment is less the power of Iron Man than the quick wit of Tony Stark. What I wouldn’t give.
Is he too engaging? He makes a great change in this movie—from weapons manufacturer to weapon; from worry-free, playboy billionaire to worried, playboy billionaire—and we like him on either side of this chasm. Worry-free, he tells a Vanity Fair reporter, “Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy,” and it makes sense. There’s something horribly cynical in Stark Industry’s “Freedom Line” of missiles but it barely registers against Downey’s great line readings:
Stark: That's how Dad did it. That's how America does it. And it's worked out pretty well so far.
Until it doesn’t.
His most indelible partner
In Afghanistan, Stark’s humvee caravan is attacked and he’s taken hostage. The scenes are chilling and familiar: the captured, helpless westerner; the gun held to his head; the shouted demands.
Stark loses consciousness clutching at his chest, against which a pool of blood is slowly spreading, and he wakes up in a cave with wires coming out of his chest and hooked up to a car battery. Nearby, a tall, thin Afghani calmly washes his hands. “What have you done to me?” Stark demands in a kind of “Kings Row” moment. Saved you, it turns out. The shrapnel is inching toward Stark’s heart. The battery keeps the shrapnel in place and Stark alive.
Throughout the movie, Downey plays well with others—Rhodey (Terrence Howard), his military buddy, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his gal Friday, and even Jarvis (voice of Paul Bettany), his household-wide computer system—but his most indelible partner is really this tall, thin Afghani. Yinsen (Shaun Toeb), another captive, not only saves him physically but spiritually. The lines he says to him are lean and existential.
First, he gets him going again:
Stark: Why should I do anything? They're going to kill me, you, either way. And if they don't, I'll probably be dead in a week.
Yinsen: Well then, this is a very important week for you, isn't it?
Then, as they work on what’s supposed to be the new “Jericho Missile” for the terrorists, but is really the Iron Man suit to combat the terrorists, Yinsen makes him realize the emptiness of his life:
Stark: You got a family?
Yinsen: Yes. And I will see them when I leave here. And you, Stark?
Stark: [quiet] No.
Yinsen: So you're a man who has everything, and nothing.
Finally, Yinsen sacrifices himself so that Stark, and Iron Man, may live. Stark creates a powerful arc reactor for his chest, which keeps his heart going and powers the Iron Man suit. But the bad guys are closing in, the progress bar is taking its own sweet time (as progress bars in movies do), so Yinsen creates a diversion that lets Tony suit up. Of course Yinsen’s shot. Of course he dies. Dying words in movies are usually lame, but Yinsen’s are poignant:
Stark: Come on, you're going to go see your family. Get up.
Yinsen: My family is dead, Stark... and I'm going to see them now.
Then he gives Tony his raison d’etre: “Don’t waste it.” Afer that, Iron Man, in that clunky original outfit, goes out and wastes him some terrorists.
The incredible shrinking brain of Pepper Potts
A Yinsenian question: Does the movie waste its stellar beginning? “Iron Man” is one of the great superhero movies as of this writing (Spring 2012), but it’s not without its problems. And its two biggest problems are both from the second half.
Here’s the first: Pepper Potts gets stupid.
What happens? She’s so smart initially. “Taking out the trash.” “I hate job hunting.” Then, in the last half hour, she begins to act all flustered and female and running-around-on-high-heels dumb.
After captivity, Tony returns demanding a cheeseburger and a press conference, and while eating the former at the latter he tells the assembled that Stark Industries isn’t making weapons anymore. He’s got his new raison d’etre from Yinsen, he’s seen American soldiers killed with his weapons, and he wants no part of it anymore. Others, notably Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), attempt to wrest control of the company from him, but Tony, even as he creates a newer, better IM suit, stays the course. At one point, suiting up, he tells Pepper, who already knows he’s Iron Man, “I’m going to find all my weapons and destroy them.” She says, “Well, then I quit.”
Really? Does she like Stark Industries as is? Does she like making her living off of weapons that kill millions of people?
But that’s not her rationale. She says, with a loud, tremulous voice, “You’re going to kill yourself, Tony. I’m not going to be a part of it!”
She cares. About him. The millions who die because of his weapons? Whatever.
Don’t even get me started on the push-the-damn-button-already finale:
Iron Man: [under fire] Time to hit the button!
Pepper: You told me not to...
Iron Man: JUST DO IT!
Pepper: YOU'LL DIE!
Iron Man: PUSH IT!
Seriously, you think with his money he could get better help.
The sudden omnipresence of Obadiah Stane
That’s the first big problem of the second-half of the movie. Here’s the second: the sudden omnipresence of Obadiah Stane.
He’s a background figure for most of “Iron Man” ... until it’s revealed that he’s its main villain. The attack on Tony by the terrorists? He orchestrated it. He wanted Tony gone. He didn’t like being in the shadow of this 40-year-old wunderkind who created all the weapons that made him rich and famous. He tries to kill his golden goose. We’ll leave that one alone.
But not this one. Suddenly he’s everywhere. Here’s what he does:
- He goes to Afghanistan, stuns the Ten Rings terrorist leader, and orders him and his men killed and their camp destroyed.
- Then he shows up in LA, where Pepper is downloading his secret “ghost” computer files that reveal all. (Cue progress bar again.) By the time he goes after her, she’s already hooked onto Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Clark Gregg, in a great, recurring role), and that’s that.
- Instead he goes to the lab and berates his scientists for not coming up with the necessary components to make his own iron suit. A great line-reading here from Bridges: “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With a box of scraps!”
- At which point we cut to Tony Stark’s place, where someone is coming up behind him. We assume it’s Pepper with a warning. But it’s Obadiah with the paralyzing doohickey. After which he takes the arc reactor from his chest, taunts him a bit, and leaves him to die.
You’re free to ask, as I did, where the hell Pepper Potts and Agent Coulson are during all of this. Writing reports? In a debriefing? I assumed when they left Obadiah’s that they were going to secure Tony’s place. Instead, they’re driving around town, on what errand, and send Rhodey to meet up with Tony. Rhodey shows up late. Tony, heartless, saves himself.
Basically Pepper and Coulson leave the Stark Industries building only to return to the Stark Industries building, by which point Obadiah has managed to, 1) berate his scientists, 2) get the arc reactor from Tony’s chest, and 3) make the Iron Monger suit operational. Basically Pepper and Coulson do what adults do when racing children: they take baby steps. Otherwise the story wouldn’t have its slam-bang finale.
The CGI battle between Iron Man and Iron Monger goes on too long for me, but I know I’m in the minority. I would’ve ended the fight with “How’d you solve the icing problem?” It’s Tony winning through smarts. Instead he wins with luck.
But the movie ends on a high note: “I am Iron Man.” Can’t get much better than that.
Homage to Stan and Jack and Don and Jerry and Joe and...
Overall, “Iron Man” works as well as it does because it’s got something for everyone. It’s got explosions and CGI fights for those folks, and it’s got wit and energy for me folks. It’s got three gigajoules worth of energy.
But let’s talk smart for a moment. One of my favorite lines is during the scene when Obadiah paralyzes Tony and takes his arc reactor and leaves him to die. Here’s what he says as Tony lies paralyzed:
Obadiah: You think just because you have an idea it belongs to you?
It’s my assumption that one of the screenwriters, Mark Fergus or Hawk Ostby or Art Marcum or Matt Holloway, and/or director Jon Favreau, meant this as an homage to Don Heck, who helped create Iron Man back in 1963, and to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who created almost every decent superhero in the Marvel universe in the early 1960s, and to Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, who started the whole thing with Superman in the 1930s, all of whom never owned their own characters. They had ideas that never belonged to them. The line is a sly, winking homage to all of those salaried, ink-stained writers and artists, wretches all, who did the work and created the heroes and then saw the companies they worked for make millions and billions off of these ideas while their creations were taken away from them; while they were given take-it-or-leave-it offers; while they were pushed aside.
“You think just because you have an idea it belongs to you?” If intentional, that’s one of the great smuggling jobs in movies; if not, it’s still wonderfully resonant. The villain says it to the hero as he’s taking life from the hero, but he’s just restating the bottom line of corporations like Marvel Comics and DC Comics and Paramount Pictures, all of those logos you see before the movie starts. In this context, these entities are the villains. We know who the heroes are.
Movie Review: The Incredible Hulk (2008)
WARNING: PUNY SPOILERS
How do you live down a box-office bomb of gamma proportions? How do you reboot a movie without starting from scratch? “The Incredible Hulk”—the one with Ed Norton—does both. It starts out very, very smart, like Bruce Banner, and winds up kinda dumb, like the Hulk, but it’s still better than its predecessor. Its trajectory is its hero’s trajectory. That happen often?
The box-office bomb of gamma proportions was Ang Lee’s “Hulk” from 2003, and, no, don’t tell me these two movies basically grossed the same amount. They did, of course: domestically ($134m to $132m) and worldwide ($263m to $245m); and if you adjust for inflation, Ang Lee’s movie actually grossed more in the states: $171m to $147m. But the 2003 version came to us fresh. There was excitement about it. It had nothing to live down. The 2008 version came to us with a stink attached, Ang Lee’s stink, and a general used quality about it. Really? That story again? Didn’t we just do this thing?
More and more, that’s how we feel about the movies these days: Really? Didn’t we just do this thing?
Hanging out in Rochina Favela
First, “The Incredible Hulk” is definitely a reboot. None of the actors are the same. Ed Norton replaces Eric Bana as Bruce Banner, Liv Tyler replaces Jennifer Connelly as love interest Betty Ross, and William Hurt replaces Sam Elliott as nemesis Gen. “Thunderbolt” Ross. No one replaces Nick Nolte as David Banner, Bruce’s batshit dad, because they jettison that storyline. No argument from me.
The origin of the Hulk is rebooted. Rather than, as in Ang Lee’s version, David Banner passing on his genetic modification to his son, who accidentally gets an insane dose of gamma radiation while running the same kinds of science experiments his father ran—even though he knows nothing of his father—this Bruce attempts to modify Prof. Reinstein’s WWII-era super soldier formula, which made Steve Rogers Captain America, for the military and under the watchful eye of Thunderbolt Ross. Then he experiments on himself. Oops.
The most fascinating aspect of the rebooted origin? They encapsulate it in the credit sequence. Consider it shorthand: experiment in lab, wink to Betty, oops, Hulking out, Betty bruised in the hospital, Gen. Ross injured and angry, Bruce on the lam and ... done.
This allows the movie proper to start in the same place the last one left off: with Bruce on the lam in Latin America. That’s smart.
Smarter? Our protagonist. He’s a scientist, and, for the first half of the movie, he never stops being a scientist. He’s stopped running in Rochina Favela, the largest shantytown of Rio de Janeiro, where he’s gotten a job at a bottling plant and is tackling his rather unique problem by pursuing both temporary solutions and permanent cures. The latter involves rare flowers and blood samples and microscope slides and never pan out (or we’d have to change the title of the movie). The former involves heart-rate monitors and yoga and martial arts lessons. “The best way to control your anger is to control your body,” his teacher tells him. Then he slaps him. We’ve just seen Bruce watching a TV re-run of “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” in which Bill Bixby, who played David Bruce Banner in the 1970s “Hulk” TV series, gets slapped, so that’s a nice echo. His teacher then tells him to drive his anger from his chest into his stomach. Days without incident? 158.
Unfortunately (OK, fortunately), the bottling plant has the usual volatile elements: an impossibly pretty girl, Marina (Débora Nascimento), who likes him, and a bully (Pedro Salvín), unnamed, who doesn’t. At one point, interceding for Marina, he tells the bully, in his fractured Portuguese, and in a hilarious homage to most famous line of the TV series, “Don’t make me ... hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m ... hungry.”
Gen. Ross is still looking for him, of course. “As far as I’m concerned,” he says with his usual Capt. Ahab tunnel-vision, “I consider that whole man’s body the property of the U.S. Army.” And when some of Bruce’s blood spills on a bottle that makes its way to Milwaukee, Wisc., where an elderly man—our Stan Lee cameo—drinks it and collapses, Gen. Ross is alerted to the whereabouts of Banner, and, per James Monroe’s doctrine, or at least Teddy Roosevelt’s corollary, he sends in the troops. Which leads to a great chase through the shantytown—a chase in which the pursued can’t let his heart-rate get above 200.
Director Louis Leterrier uses Rochina Favela well. In the beginning, we get a great panning shot over the shanties, which seem to stretch on forever. The chase sequence through the shanties is fun. But we’re 23 minutes into this thing. Time to Hulk out already.
Extra credit at Culver University
What’s the worst part of being Bruce Banner? Is it the Hulking out? Or is it that everyone watching—you and I—want you to Hulk out? Everything Bruce is trying to prevent is what we’re there to watch. He’s second billing to his alter ego. If he ever succeeded in curing himself we’d be pissed.
Unfortunately, the Hulk isn’t that interesting, either. He’s just rage in a 10-foot-tall, CGI-created, green monster. He smashes and leaves. We want him to smash, certainly. We want him to take out the bully. He’s the ultimate wish fulfillment for the weak, a Mr. Hyde for the superhero generation. But then what? Run, leap, wake up as Bruce Banner under a waterfall in Guatemala. Oh, the places Hulk takes you.
Holding up his pants, Bruce heads back to the states and Culver University, Virginia, where it all began. He’s been in contact with another scientist, a Mr. Blue (to his Mr. Green), who, to help him, needs more data, and that data is at Culver. So is Betty Ross.
Culver is also where we get our other, requisite Hulk cameos. Bruce’s old friend, Stanley (or ‘Stan Lee’), a pizza shop owner, is played by Paul Soles, who provided Bruce Banner’s voice in the 1966 cartoon; and, to retrieve his data, Bruce bribes a campus security guard, with a pizza. The guard is played by the original Hulk, Lou Ferrigno.
But the data’s gone, expunged by Ross, and Bruce is about to go on the lam again when Betty sees him, intervenes, and they have a few scenes in the rain. The movie slows here, as mushy girl stuff usually does. It picks up again when the couple, betrayed, are set upon by the U.S. Army, including Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), a Russian-born, British-educated soldier with a love of battle, who wants to take on the Hulk, who wants to be the Hulk, and who will become, with the help of Gen. Ross and Mr. Blue, the Abomination. But first, a good chase on campus. Bruce is trapped in a glass overpass, into which they shoot gas canisters, but ... too late.
While this CGI Hulk has more weight and personality than Ang Lee’s CGI Hulk, it’s still pretty boring. Hulk smashes, looks around, is attacked and smashes again. Ross almost incinerates Betty, his daughter, whom Hulk protects, and, after an angry glance, the two fly off to a safe location: a cave under a cliff during a lightning storm. I like Hulk roaring at the thunder. That’s good, impotent rage. I like Gen. Ross being told off by Betty’s now-ex, Leonard (Ty Burrell), and then muttering to himself, “Where does she meet these guys?” It’s a glimpse of the father we don’t see enough.
A rage in Harlem
The third act in New York should be better than it is. Bruce and Betty go there to meet Mr. Blue, Tim Blake Nelson, who gives an inspired, loopy performance as Samuel Sterns, the scientist who will become the villainous Leader. Eventually. In the sequel to this reboot. If there is one.
But Bruce, here, is more acted-upon than acting. The one time he does act, purposely falling from a U.S. Army helicopter to take on the Abomination in the streets of Harlem, it’s pretty dumb. He’s already told Betty he doesn’t remember much about being the Hulk; just fragments, images. So how does he know Hulk won’t cause more damage? How does he know Hulk won’t team up with Abomination to smash? But Hulk is hero. So Bruce drops. And we get our giant CGI battle, which, to me, is as interesting as watching two dudes play a video game. Which is to say: not at all.
I’ll say this for Ang Lee’s version: It gave us that moment when Bruce admits: “You know what scares me the most? When it comes over me, and I totally lose control... I like it.” We should have something like that here. Instead: CGI battle, Hulk wins, leaves. Is the Abomination still alive? What happens when he wakes? Has Gen. Ross learned his lesson? Shouldn’t we get a mea culpa from the son of a bitch?
The end implies that Bruce, via meditation, is learning to control the Hulking out, which sets up “The Avengers” movie but which goes against all Hulkian principles. His eyes open, green and knowing, and the movie ends. Not a bad end, I suppose. Unfortunately, it’s the last we’ll see of Ed Norton as Bruce Banner. They’ve replaced him with Mark Ruffalo, a good actor, who I’m sure will be fine. But some old, Marvel-style continuity would be nice now and again. Some sense that actors matter. Some sense that we’re not all the stuff of CGI.
Movie Review: Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
WARNING: IF THIS BE SPOILERS...
SCENE: Upper floors of the Baxter Building, New York City.
TIME: Hours after the Silver Surfer has destroyed Galactus, destroyer of worlds, and saved the Earth.
ENTER: Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffodd), Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) and Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis). They’re weary and battered and three of the four slump into whatever furniture is available, while Reed Richards stands.
REED: Alright, I know we’re all tired. But now that Galactus and the Silver Surfer are gone, and the Earth is safe again, what are some of the lessons we learned from this latest adventure? Anyone?
[Pause. Everyone looks around.]
SUE: Well, I learned that with great power comes great responsibility!
BEN: Uh... Isn’t that Spider-Man’s thing?
SUE: OK, so not in those words. But ... you know. Like before I was worried that Reed’s and my fantabulous wedding would be too much of a media storm and would affect our lives, and our eventual kids, and we wouldn’t have normal lives? And I wanted Reed to settle down and be a professor and me a housewife somewhere far, far away? After we saved the world, I realized we couldn’t run away from all that!
JOHNNY: Actually, sis: First, you worried you wouldn’t get married. Remember? Only when you were about to get married did you worry about getting married.
SUE: Oh, right.
JOHNNY: That was kind of a drag, to be honest.
BEN: Plus we didn’t save the world, Susie. Surfer dude did.
SUE: I did my part! If it wasn’t for my big blue eyes and full lips, and the love Reed demonstrated for me, Norrin Radd wouldn’t have been reminded of his love for his own woman ... Shallow Bal?
REED: Shalla-Bal. But I don’t think he mentioned her name in this—
SUE: The point is ... Because of me, he was reminded of her, and so he decided to save us. Without me and her, that saving-us part wouldn’t have happened.
JOHNNY: Can I just say: Surfer? Surfboard? Hello! It’s not 1965, people.
BEN: People still surf.
JOHNNY: But it’s so dumb. Just because Jack Kirby read an article about surfer dudes back in 1965 and created this guy doesn’t mean we gotta keep going with it. I mean: surfing outer space? What the hell?
BEN: Me? I just didn’t like how he totally stole our thunder. We didn’t even need our super-powers to save the world. Just Susie’s big eyes.
JOHNNY: Which look totally fake, by the way.
SUE: They do not!
BEN: King Kirby and Stan the Man, back in issues 48 through 50, they let us stop Galactus. Here we’re like walk-ons in our own freakin’ movie.
REED: Plus, if the Silver Surfer could actually defeat Galactus, why didn’t he do it before? How many worlds has he helped destroy along the way?
BEN: I never understood what people see in that guy.
JOHNNY: I never understood why we kept switching powers.
BEN: That was weird, wasn’t it? And of course in the end—poof! Gone.
REED: I think the rationale behind the power-switching was three-fold: One, it allowed for comic relief and hijinks in the middle of the adventure...
BEN: Comic relief when the world is ending?
REED: ...Two, it gave Chiklis face time, which he needs.
BEN: True that.
REED: ...And three, it gave all the fanboys in the crowd a chance to see Sue naked.
JOHNNY: He’s right, sis.
BEN (laughing): Remember what you said, Susie?
JOHNNY (in high-pitched voice): “Why does this always happen to me?”
BEN (laughing): Why does this always happen to me? That’s a good one!
REED: Sorry, Sue. Fanboys want wish fulfillment, and that’s where Johnny and Ben come in—and me, to a certain extent—but...
BEN: But they also want to get their rocks off.
JOHNNY: And that’s where you come in.
JOHNNY: Yeah, like that. But deeper. More chesty.
REED: OK. Any other lessons learned?
JOHNNY: Well, I learned that, sure, being a shallow, hotshot celebrity with hot chicks and a cool superpower is all well and good. But at the end of the day, or the end of the world, whichever comes first, you really want that special someone to cuddle with.
REED: With whom to cuddle.
JOHNNY: Whatever. So anyway that’s why I’m going for the hot military chick.
REED: What’s her name again?
JOHNNY: You know... hot military chick. Captain Something.
BEN: True love.
REED: What do like about her?
JOHNNY: I don’t know.
REED: What do you have in common?
JOHNNY: I don’t know. She’s... She was there at a time when I realized that boffing girls isn’t, you know, fulfilling.
BEN: Poor you.
REED: Didn’t you also learn something about being part of a team, too?
JOHNNY: Yeah. That was weird. Kind of tacked on. And wasn’t that Sue’s lesson?
BEN: What about you, Big Brain? You learn anything?
REED: Well, I learned that some of the officers in the U.S. Armed Forces aren’t very nice.
JOHNNY: Totally! That dude was a major asshole.
BEN: General Asshole.
JOHNNY: He asks for our help and then insults us the whole time?
BEN: He got you so mad you had to brag about yourself. (Laughs.)
JOHNNY: Oh man, that was dumb. I was so embarrassed for you.
SUE: Right, right. The whole “I’m the quarterback and you’re the nerd.” “Well, I’m the nerd with the hot chick and you want my help.”
REED: I know, I know.
JOHNNY: Wait, what was that other line? The lamest line of them all?
SUE: “It’s 15 years later and now I’m one of the greatest minds of the 21st century!”
JOHNNY: That’s the one!
[Everyone but Reed laughs.]
REED: I know, I know. But I couldn’t stop myself. It was as if someone really, really stupid was inside my head making me say those words.
SUE: I know the feeling.
JOHNNY: Me, too.
REED: It’s odd. The whole thing. [He looks around.] It’s as if someone really stupid made us these narrow caricatures, then had us realize we shouldn’t be narrow caricatures. You know. Johnny’s shallow and flip so he has to get serious. I’m too serious, so I have to dance with models and brag about my brain. Sue wants to end the Fantastic Four because of what snarky girls say about her on TV, so...
JOHNNY: God, that was dumb.
REED: I mean, those are our lessons? While we save the world?
BEN: While we watch Surfer dude save the world.
JOHNNY: You’re right, Reed. And the sad thing is, at the beginning, it felt like it was supposed to be our greatest, most epic adventure. Yet it turned into our lamest adventure.
BEN: Probably our last one, too.
SUE: No, Ben. I learned my lesson. That we’re all in this together. Remember?
REED: I think he means something else, Sue.
JOHNNY: We’re getting the boot.
BEN: The re-boot.
REED: Eventually. When the taste of this one has finally left people’s mouths.
JOHNNY: Which should be in about ... 10 years.
BEN: What a revoltin’... shame.
SUE [mockingly]: “I’m one of the greatest minds of the 21st century.”
REED: I know, I know.
Movie Review: Fantastic Four (2005)
WARNING: EARTH’S MIGHTIEST SPOILERS
As you age, you begin to question the legend.
Legend has it that in the early 1960s, beginning with the utterly original Fantastic Four, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby rescued the superhero genre from the cheesy, soporific clutches of DC Comics and made it anew. They gave it continuity: what happened last issue mattered this issue. The characters became human and relatable: they fought; they moped; eventually they separated and divorced. Superheroes had always been wish fulfillment but it was Stan Lee’s particular genius to wed the fantasy (this guy is superstrong and can climb walls...) with identification (...even though he’s a mopey teenager like me!).
That’s the legend and it’s more or less true. What you begin to question is the utter originality of the Fantastic Four. As conceptions go, its wasn’t so immaculate.
Plastic Man, Invisible Man, Human Torch and ROMMBU!
I’m not talking about how DC’s Jack Liebowitz supposedly bragged about the sales of its Justice League of America comic books to Marvel publisher Martin Goodman, who then demanded, of his editor-in-chief Stan Lee, a team of superheroes. I’m talking about the superpowers. Each is derivative of an earlier character. Mr. Fantastic can stretch like Plastic Man (created 1941), the Invisible Girl can turn invisible like the Invisible Man (created 1897), and the Thing is a rock creature like so many of the odd-named rock creations that kept Marvel afloat in their near superhero-less 1950s (Moomba and Krogarr and Rommbu and the like). The Human Torch, meanwhile, borrows both name and powers from the WWII-era creation of Carl Burgos. None of it is very original.
The Fantastic Four’s origin story, meanwhile, is inevitably trapped within the absurdities of its time. In Fantastic Four #1, published in November 1961, Ben Grimm is a test pilot (with a temper) and Reed Richards is a scientist (with a pipe), and they have to travel into outer space fast or else, in the words of Sue Storm, “the commies ... beat us to it!” Why does she tag along? Because she’s Reed’s fiancée, of course. Why does her younger brother, Johnny, tag along into outer space with the three of them? Because he’s the younger brother of the fiancée of the guy who, like, designed the whole rocket ship. Duh! And so all four sneak into the rocket ship at night and launch it, we’re told, “before the guard can stop them.” That’s guard, singular.
Despite the legend, in other words, some of it is pretty hokey stuff. So it’s not wholly the fault of director Tim Story (“Barbershop”; “Taxi”), and screenwriters Mark Frost (“Twin Peaks”) and Michael France (“Hulk”), that their 2005 movie, “Fantastic Four,” sucks.
R-E-S-P-E-C ... Aw, screw it
Story and company make attempts, feints, at updating and modernizing the story in a positive way. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) is now a brainiac scientist (without a pipe) who has gone broke, and who, with his pal Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), proposes to business tycoon and egomaniac Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), late of Latveria, that a cosmic storm may have been responsible for the evolutionary jump in humankind; and another cosmic storm, like the first one, is fast approaching and needs to be studied in space. Doom agrees, but demands a 75-25 split on any profits resulting from their scientific studies, then demands that his current girlfriend, and Richards’ old one, Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), along with her hotshot younger brother, Johnny (Chris Evans), who used to be Ben Grimm’s underling, come along for the ride. And that’s how they all wind up in space together—with Doom this time—to encounter those cosmic rays.
Except ... aren’t the filmmakers cadging the evolutionary bit from the “X-Men” movies? And does it even make sense considering the results? The next step in evolution is... becoming super stretchy? Or invisible? Or a rock man?
There’s an attempt to explain this, too—to wed the power to the personality—but it’s pretty weak connective tissue. Johnny’s a hotshot, so... Sue feels invisible to Reed, so... Dr. Doom tells Reed at the beginning that he’s “always stretching, always reaching for the stars,” so...
But the casting’s not bad, right? In theory? Gruffudd is properly dull and brainy and Chiklis is properly gruff and working class and Evans is cocky and flip and gives us some good line readings. And Jessica Alba... She takes off her clothes a lot. Right?
Alright, screw it, the thing’s just dumb, monumentally dumb. The filmmakers give us a feint at “X-Men”-like respectability but then double-down on dumb. The movie felt lost to me forever when Doom introduced Richards and Grimm to “My director of genetic research...,” and we get a shot of the 23-year-old Jessica Alba sauntering sexily toward the camera. No wonder his company goes under.
Doubling down on dumb
Here. Another example. Let’s say you’re a sexy nurse (Maria Menounos). Let’s say you’re such a sexy nurse that you’re only known as “Sexy Nurse” in the closing credits. And let’s say you have a patient, Johnny Storm, recently returned from outer space, and you’re involved in the fairly simple task of taking his temperature. He flirts a bit, then declares he’s going snowboarding even as you’re read his temperature: 208 degrees! WTF? So what do you do?
- Alert the doctor.
- Take his temperature again.
- Shrug and go snowboarding with him. Totally.
Then on the downhill run, right before your eyes, he bursts into flame, begins to fly a bit, then crashes into a snowbank where the heat from his body creates its own little snowbunny hot tub, which is where he stands, half naked, and invites you in. What do you do?
- Alert the doctor.
- Alert the fire department.
- Shrug, and begin to take off your clothes to join him.
The whole movie is like this. The big early set piece, the introduction of the FF to New York and the world, occurs on the Brooklyn Bridge. Ben Grimm is brooding there because his fiancée, Debbie (Laurie Holden), whom we’ve never met before, races outside in a short nightie to greet him, but runs, stumbles away when she sees the orange, rock man he’s become. Poor Ben! So he’s feeling sorry for himself when a jumper shows up and contemplates the East River. Ben turns to him and growls, “You think you got problems, pal?” (Good line.) The jumper stumbles back in panic, but into traffic, and Ben has to save him, which causes a massive, dozen-car pile-up in the middle of the bridge, which causes a firetruck to crash through the bridge’s barrier and teeter (like the schoolbus in “Superman: The Movie”) over the edge. It takes all of the powers of the Fantastic Four to save the firemen. The reaction to this is two-fold. The NYPD draw guns on the four, particularly on the giant orange rock man; but the NYFD, now saved, burst into applause, and they’re joined by the populace on the walkways, who aren’t freaked by the orange rock-man, or the super-stretchy guy, or the hot invisible girl. Why would they be? They know heroes when they see them. Even if the Thing did create the disaster in the first place.
Then it gets worse.
At this moment, with the four basking in the applause, Debbie suddenly shows up in the middle of the bridge. Was she drawn by the network coverage? Did she just happen to be there anyway? Is she going to ask for forgiveness? Of course not. She’s not supposed to be with him. He’s supposed to be with Alicia Masters (Kerry Washington), who’s blind, see, and so doesn’t mind that he’s an orange rock man. She goes beyond sight, and touch, and senses the good man within the hideous monster. Debbie, that bitch, doesn’t (hence the short nightie on the city streets). So on the bridge, as her fiancé is being applauded by all of New York, she removes her engagement ring and drops it on the pavement and walks away. Poor Ben! He then tries to pick it up but can’t with his giant rock fingers. Poor Ben! He’s trapped in a world he never made!
We have no emotional investment in Debbie and Ben at this point. We barely have emotional investment in Ben. And why is he always shocked when everyone stumbles away from him in panic? Has he forgotten what he looks like? Does he think people are better than they are?
Schtupping Sue Storm
I could go on. The high, reedy voice Doom has even when he dons his mask. The fact that they make Reed Richards quiet and dull rather than talkative and dull. The idiotic dialogue:
Johnny: Sue stop, you're not mum. Don't talk to me like I'm a little boy, okay?
Sue: Maybe I would if you stopped acting like one. Do you even hear yourself? Who do you think you are?
Johnny: Why is everyone on my ass? If you guys are jealous, that's fine; I didn't expect it to come from you, though.
Sue: You really think those people out there care about you? You're just a fad to them, Johnny!
But the dumbest part of the movie has to be the love triangle between Reed, Sue and Victor.
Reed and Sue were a couple in college but apparently he didn’t pay enough attention to her—he thought too much and didn’t act enough—so she left him. And now she’s Director of Genetic Research for Doom, Inc., or whatever it’s called, while dating its CEO, Dr. Doom. All of this is treated semi-comically. It’s used to get Reed Richards’ goat. Hah! Dude, you totally lost the sexy girl cause you think too much! You shoulda nailed that shit. Like daily. Like hourly. Totally.
- She’s dating the CEO? Is that how she got the job?
- She’s dating the CEO even though she doesn’t care for him? Does she always do this? Use her looks to advance her position with powerful men? Should this have been a Sam Peckinpah movie?
- She’s schtupping the CEO? She must be, right, because he proposes. So why didn’t we get that scene? Sue Storm and Victor Von Doom doing the nasty. The whole thing wouldn’t seem so semi-comic then. She wouldn’t seem so sympathetic then.
Seriously, comic-book geeks have to stop with this love-triangle shit between hero, villain and girl if they want the girl to remain sympathetic at all. The only reason Sue Storm remains sympathetic here is because in her moments alone with Doom she obviously doesn’t care for Doom. So why is she with him? Is she playing him? Does she know her own heart? If Reed Richards hadn’t come along with his cosmic-ray proposal, would she have married Doom, this rich man, and become vice president of the company?
Between Debbie, Sue Storm, and Sexy Nurse, women don’t come off well in “Fantastic Four,” do they?
Straw Man vs. Superman
Even if you don’t know the FF, even if you don’t know Ben Grimm from Rommbu, it’s obvious Sue and Reed will get together in this movie. It’s obvious Doom is creepy and vain and fixated on Reed Richards in an unhealthy way. So the love triangle, such as it is, is basically a straw-man subplot: created for the illusion of drama; created only to be torn down. We know where everything is going and it winds up there without anything interesting happening along the way. I suppose that’s where acting comes in. I suppose that’s where good dialogue and plotting and pacing comes in. “FF” gives us none of these.
Let’s look at something that works. Let’s look at, say, “Superman: The Movie.” We know that Superman will save Lois Lane so the question is how he saves Lois Lane. Wait, he doesn’t? She dies? She’s buried alive in her car? Oh, then he reverses the earth’s rotation to bring her back to life? That’s kind of lame.
So why does it work?
Pacing. Acting. Feeling.
Margot Kidder and director Richard Donner actually give us a sense of what it’s like to be buried alive, and choke, and die. It’s pretty horrific. Christopher Reeve gives us a sense of what it’s like to lose someone you love. His later sense of relief, as she bitches about her car, is palpable. It’s touching and funny at the same time.
What does it feel like to burst into flame? To stretch? To turn invisible? We get none of that in “Fantastic Four.” What’s it like to be in love? To lose your love? Sorry, can’t stop now. We’re in too much of a hurry to get to the next uninteresting moment on our fixed path to the inevitable end.
What a revoltin’ development.
Movie Review: Ghost Rider (2007)
At what point did the makers of “Ghost Rider” decide, “Ah, fuck it”? When they hired Nicholas Cage instead of Eric Bana? When Cage began playing Elvis playing Johnny Blaze and no one said shit? When they hired writer-director Mark Steven Johnson, who was hot off his abysmal 2003 version of “Daredevil”?
Or was it when they read the source material?
“Ghost Rider” was part of that awful wave of horror-hero hybrids from Marvel Comics in the 1970s, a wave that began when the Comics Code Authority, which was rapidly losing its authority, allowed traditional horror characters back into comics. As a result, Marvel, which 10 years earlier had reinvented the superhero genre with Spider-Man, X-Men, and the Fantastic Four, was suddenly offering its version of creature-feature night: “Tomb of Dracula,” “Swamp Thing,” “Werewolf by Night,” “Son of Satan,” and, yes, “Ghost Rider,” in which a motorcycle stuntman named Johnny Blaze turns into a superpowerful, hell-spawned demon with a flaming skull, and rides around town doing … whatever it is he does. Does he fight crime or fight the Devil? Or both? I’m not sure because I never read the damned thing.
A friend of mine did. What I thought was schlock—flaming skulls, chains and leather, chopper motorcycles—he thought was cool. This has been the basic disagreement between fans and non-fans ever since. What’s cool? What’s schlock? The makers of “Ghost Rider,” knowing they would never appeal to people like me, decided to double-down on schlock. They give us carneys and cowboys and yee-ha rubes and bounty hunters for the Devil and Eva Mendes doing newscasts in a tight, cleavage-baring shirt and Nicholas Cage doing Elvis doing Johnny Blaze. They give us ripostes that make Schwarzenegger’s seem scripted by Shakespeare:
Criminal: Have mercy!
Ghost Rider (low growl): Sorry! All out of mercy!
The movie is more plothole than story. Young Johnny Blaze (Matt Long) is about to ditch his father and their carney motorcycle act for true love, his sweetheart Roxanne (Raquel Alessi), for whom he carves initials into the only tree visible for miles. Except the cough Dad has? Cancer, dude. Totally. But in walks the Devil (Peter Fonda) with a proposition: Dad’s health for Johnny’s soul. While Johnny is thinking about it, oops, a drop of his blood spills on the contract. Apparently this makes it a done deal. Hardly seems fair to me, let alone legal. Isn’t there a lawyer Johnny could’ve hired? Blaze v. Mephistopheles. Who wouldn’t take that case? The arguments over jurisdiction alone would make a career.
The Devil being the Devil, which is to say devilish, cures Barton Blaze’s cancer but causes him to die in a motorcycle crash the same day. Doesn’t Johnny die, too, at the crossroads where the Devil lives? The contract has now been rushed into effect and the Devil issues a warning: “Forget about friends, forget about family, forget about love. You’re mine now, Johnny Blaze.”
At which point he disappears for 20 years.
During that time, Johnny (now Nick Cage) forgets about family, forgets about love, but gains fame as the Evel Knievel of his generation. He jumps everything—cars, trucks, helicopters—because he doesn’t fear death. Why should he? He doesn’t even know if he’s alive. But in his dressing room, with his friend, Mack (Donal Logue), he broods about second chances. Then he cranks the Carpenters. A nice bit, actually. My favorite bit in the movie.
At this point, Roxanne (now Eva Mendes) re-enters his world as a pushy TV reporter with a push-up bra and a bit of attitude for the way Johnny ditched her. But persistence wins her over again and they make a date. Unfortunately, and from the Dept. of Insane Coincidences, this is the very moment that the Devil’s son, Blackheart (poor Wes Bentley, who once seemed so promising), in defiance of his father, enters the world to take it over. The Devil can’t stop him (for some reason) but Johnny can (for some reason), which is why, instead of the date with the girl he ditched 20 years earlier because he’d become the Devil’s rider, he finally becomes, for the first time, the Devil’s rider. His body starts smoking, Cage starts overacting, and eventually his face bursts into a flaming skull. This initial transformation is long and traumatic but subsequent changes become smoother as the plot necessitates.
As for what brings Blackheart here? For that, backstory.
You see, there was another ghost rider before Johnny, a cowboy in the 19th century who was instructed to bring the Devil a contract claiming a thousand souls in the town of San Venganza. But he knew this contract would make the Devil too powerful so he reneged on the deal and galloped away and hid the contract. And that’s what Blackheart is after: the contract containing the lost souls of San Venganza.
- How can anyone escape the Devil?
- How does anyone hide something from the Devil?
- Is Blackheart related to Daimon Hellstrom? How about Little Nicky?
In his quest, Blackheart gathers minions of his own, ghouls with long dark coats and long scraggly hair who can hide in the elements—there a sand guy, a water guy and a wind guy—and they leave a trail of dead bodies in their search for the contract. When Johnny shows up, Blackheart sics all three minions on him at once. Kidding. That would be too logical. They attack him one at a time so he can defeat them one at a time and lengthen out the movie.
But let’s fast-forward to one of the dumbest scenes in movie history. After his first transformation, Johnny wakes in a church graveyard, where a good-natured Texan named Caretaker (Sam Elliott), whose voiceover explained the San Venganza backstory to us at the beginning of the movie, relays this selfsame backstory to Johnny. You’d never guess it, if you were a moron, but Caretaker turns out to be the original Ghost Rider. And when Blackheart takes Roxanne prisoner in the town of San Venganza, Caretaker whistles for his horse, Johnny whistles for his motorcycle, and both, in defiance of the movie’s internal logic, and without seeming pain, burst into flame-skulled ghost riders and ride across the Texas plains together as “(Ghost) Rider of the Sky” plays on the soundtrack.
Wait, it gets better. At the outskirts of San Venganza, Caretaker suddenly pulls up. He says adios. He says, “I could only change one more time and I saved it for this.” For ... the ride? Why didn’t you save it for the fight? Wouldn’t that have made more sense? Seriously, dude, pull your head out of your ass.
I admit I’m no fan of this character. Ghost Rider gets his powers from the ultimate source of evil yet somehow isn’t controlled by that evil. There should be this ongoing tension between Johnny and the Devil, this “Devil and Daniel Webster” brand of one-upmanship, but we never get that. We don’t get close to that. Instead, we get exchanges like this:
Johnny: I sure wish things could’ve turned out different.
Roxanne: No. This is what you were meant to be.
Cool, schlock, whatever. Did they have to make it so blisteringly stupid?
Movie Review: Katyn (2007)
At the start of “Katyn,” a Polish drama about the massacre of 20,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest in 1940, a group of refugees fleeing the German invasion in September 1939 wait for a train to pass and then set off across a bridge to what they think is safety. Halfway across, they meet another group of Polish refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion. Each warns the other group that they’re going the wrong way. A succinct dramatization of the Polish dilemma.
Unfortunately, melodrama has become the lingua franca of foreign movies dealing with unspeakable, World War II-era horrors. So it was with the rape of Nanjing in both the Chinese film “City of Life and Death” and the German film “John Rabe.” So it was with the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up of Jews in Nazi-occupied France in “La rafle” and in “Oorlogswinter,” that bildungsroman of Nazi-occupied Holland. And so here.
“Katyn,” directed by Andrzej Wajda, was nominated best foreign language film at the 2007 Academy Awards, (it lost to “The Counterfeiters”) so I guess I expected a lot. Or more.
From the refugees on the bridge, two faces emerge: Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) and her daughter Nika (Wiktoria Gasiewska). They’re rushing toward the Soviet side to find Anna’s husband, Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski), a Polish military officer; but the closer they get, the worse the news. The Uhlan, the Polish cavalry, is no more. The invasion is over. Poland is taken. Soldiers captured by the Soviets are let go but officers remain POWs. She arrives at a camp, looking no worse for wear, only to see doctors operating on the wounded, an INRI crucifix missing its Christ, and rows of dead. It’s Nika who spots daddy’s coat with the blue ribbon on it. It’s draped over a body, where a priest is administering last rites. With a trembling hand, Ann removes it and finds the missing statue of Christ. This prefigures future mix-ups involving corpses and clothes but one still wonders why the priest was administering last rites to a statue. A ruse? Was he hiding the Christ figure from the Soviets? I assumed they knocked the figure off its cross but maybe he did to save it.
At the POW camp, we finally meet Andrzej and his more cynical companion Jerzy (Andrzej Chyra). Andrzej is planning on writing down all that happens, recording it for posterity, while Jerzy feels things are more ominous than that:
Jerzy: The future is bleak.
Jerzy: The Soviets haven’t signed the Geneva Convention.
We get a few good, short conversations between the two. When Andrzej mentions that tanks can be rebuilt but trained officers are irreplaceable, Jerzy responds, “I hope the Soviets don’t realize that.” His best, truest line comes shortly thereafter: “Buttons. That’s what will be left of us.” But these conversations don’t build toward anything. Andrzej is honorable and attentive; Jerzy foresees doom. For good friends, they have little to talk about.
In the camp, which is not yet fenced in, Anna sees him, goes to him, cries. She begs him to flee with her in the confusion, but he refuses and winds up shipped to a Soviet camp. She and Nika, meanwhile, are trapped on the Soviet side. One wonders what she was doing in the first place. Who drags a six-year-old across half of Poland, in the middle of a war, to find a military officer?
The German side isn’t any better, of course. In November 1939, in Krakow, Andrzej’s mother (Maja Komorowska ) urges her husband, Jan (Wladyslaw Kowalski), a distinguished-looking university professor, mulling over clippings of his handsome son, to refrain from a university meeting with the S.S. But, as with the son, he does the honorable thing and stands by the chancellor during what he imagines will be a conversation with the Germans. But there is no conversation. The Poles are chastised for opening the university without permission and sent to the Sachsenhausen camp, where Prof. Jan dies of cardiac arrest.
So it goes. Characters are perfunctorily introduced only to die or disappear. Anna escapes from the Soviets with the help of a Russian captain (who has something of Tommy Lee Jones’ sad gaze about him), but then he’s off to the Finnish front. Dasvidania. Anna and Nika make it back to Krakow no worse for wear. There, the General’s wife, Roza (Danuta Stenka), gazes out windows, her stylish hat cocked at an angle.
Then suddenly it’s 1943 and Roza is ordered by the Germans, now at war with the USSR, to denounce the Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest; but, even after seeing horrific footage, she refuses to be used for Nazi propaganda purposes.
Then suddenly it’s 1945, Poland belongs to the Soviet Union now, which claims that the Katyn massacre was a German operation in the spring of ’41, not a Soviet operation in the spring of ’40, and to say otherwise means death. Even so, Roza says it in the town square (“It’s a lie”), where names of the Katyn dead are read through a tinny loudspeaker. Jerzy, who has survived, pulls her away but she shows no gratitude and accuses him of being just like the Soviets. Off she goes into the fog. And in he goes to a bar, where he gets drunk and speaks the truth, then walks out into the night and shoots himself in the head. Do widzenia.
Other characters emerge. Tadeusz (Antoni Pawlicki) is an enthusiastic student whose father died at Katyn and he gets in trouble for tearing down a Soviet propaganda poster. Pursued through the streets of Krakow, he’s aided by Ewa, whom we saw earlier (on the bridge?), but who is now all grown up ((Agnieszka Kawiorska). The two talk movies, plan on meeting the next night at the local theater, share a kiss, but upon departing Tadeusz runs into the pursuing Soviet officers, who chase him into oncoming traffic. Do widzenia.
Meanwhile, Agnieszka (Magdalena Cielecka), of the long blonde hair and the hard, world-weary look, has her hair cut to pay for a tombstone for her brother, another Katyn victim, but includes the year, 1940, making it a Soviet massacre, and for that .... Do widzenia.
Finally, Ann receives Andrzej’s diary, and we get the massacre, which is horrific, in flashback.
These last scenes are powerful but by this point we’ve given up on the movie. I like some aspect of it in theory—characters introduced just to die, approximating the value of life in war and under totalitarianism—but the glue holding it together is still the stuff of soap opera: Anna crying across half of Poland, the cute kids kissing, Roza in her rakish hat gazing. The crime is a double crime: the massacre itself and then lying about it for decades; and the film is a reminder that, unlike western Europe, unlike the French or British or even the Germans, the Poles were not freed in 1945 but continued to live under an occupying force, an oppressive tyranny, for decades.
Even so, it’s a plain movie. Our unspeakable horrors—the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanjing, the Katyn massacre—deserve better.
Movie Review: Hulk (2003)
WARNING: PUNY SPOILERS
The Hulk is the ultimate fantasy figure of the weak and average. One moment he’s a normal dude, Bruce Banner, a scientist; the next moment, he’s a huge, muscle-bound, inarticulate rage machine that can destroy anything in front of him. He is rage personified. He is how we like to envision our own rage. We like to move through the world thinking, “Don’t make me angry; you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry,” when, let’s face it, almost no one is scared if we become angry. Our rage is generally impotent. We destroy nothing in front of us.
So if you’re going to create a movie that taps into the Hulk fantasy, under what circumstances would you have Bruce Banner hulk out? When provoked by bullies? Criminals? Authority figures?
Here’s what causes Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) to morph into the Hulk in Ang Lee’s “Hulk”:
- He thinks about stuff in his lab, then upends a janitor’s pail in the hallway.
- He gets into a fight with his nemesis, Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas).
- He has a nightmare in a sleep-deprivation chamber.
- His father (Nick Nolte) turns into a giant electro-creature in front of him.
Only 2) comes close to what we want.
That’s not even the worst part. Here’s the worst part. Between incidents 2) and 3), Talbot, as battered as Evel Knievel after a bad jump, returns to provoke Banner again in the hope of finding out more about the Hulk gene. He tasers him—once, twice, five times. Then he decks him. Nothing. “Consciously you may control it,” Talbot tells Banner’s supine figure. “But subconsciously? I bet that’s another story.”
Consciously you may control it? The whole point of the Hulk is that you can’t control it. If Bruce Banner could control it, you wouldn’t even have a story.
I’m sorry to harp on this, but of all the stupid ways a modern superhero movie has deviated from the source material, this is one of the stupidest. I’d call it the second stupidest—right after the way filmmakers exonerated the Burglar for the murder of Uncle Ben in “Spider-Man 3” and thus ruined Spider-Man’s whole raison d’etre. Don’t get me started on that one.
I watched Ang Lee’s “Hulk” again recently with the thought that maybe we were all being harsh when we dismissed it back in 2003. It was the movie Lee made between “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain.” How bad could it be?
Awful, it turns out. Horrible. Lee takes a fairly simple story and complicates it with angry, unforgiving fathers, a nothing romance, a non-entity for a protagonist, and zippy split-screens and quadruple screens, popular in 1960s art-house cinema, but here representative of comic panels. Except they just get in the way.
We begin in the mid-1960s with military scientist David Banner (Paul Kersey), against orders from Gen. “Thunderbolt” Ross (Todd Tesen), intent on manipulating the human immune system. After he experiments on himself, his wife tells him she’s pregnant. Oops. And yes, he passes the genetic modification on to his son.
The sins of the father grow worse. He treats little Bruce like a science experiment. He takes away his binky and watches his skin turn vaguely green when he bawls. WHAT HAS BEEN PASSED ON? he writes. He gives him monsters to play with then studies his blood. CONFIRMS MY WORST FEARS, he writes. Before he can cure him, though, Ross fires Banner for ignoring protocol, and in response Banner ... launches a gamma bomb? Is that right? How does a scientist get the authority to do that? And what does that green mushroom cloud have to do with anything? Is it to distract everyone so Banner can return home and kill his son? Instead he knifes the mother right in front of the son. “It was as if she, and the knife, merged,” the older, more bat-shit Banner (Nolte) says, later, in one of the film’s good lines. “You can’t imagine the unbearable finality of it.”
But Bruce, already a bottled-up child, represses the memory (we don’t see the knifing until the third act), gets adopted, and becomes a scientist like the crazy dad he doesn’t remember. We’re nearly 12 minutes in our seats, our popcorn nearly gone, before we see the adult Bruce shaving in his mirror, biking to work, and remaining emotionally unavailable to the best-looking scientist who ever walked the planet, his ex, and lab partner, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly at her most smoking). Yes, “Thunderbolt” Ross’ daughter. Small world.
Smaller world: They’re trying to improve the human immune system, too! Just like David Banner! He killed a monkey in the process, they explode a frog or two. Then Banner’s assistant stumbles, sets off the gamma radiation, and Bruce purposefully takes the brunt of it. Cue muffled g-bomb explosion inside him. Nice effect, actually.
In the hospital, Bruce has two visitors: Betty, who cries, and complains, and doesn’t acknowledge his bravery (which would totally suck); and the new janitor with his crazy hair and mean dogs, who turns out to be Bruce’s biological and bat-shit dad (ditto).
For some reason—repressed memory of the killing of the mother?—Bruce gets really pissed off by the presence of bat-shit dad. In fact, back in the lab, it pisses him off so much he turns into a giant green monster. This occurs without any provocation from anyone and 42 minutes into the film. Talk about a downer.
It gets worse. The crazy father who wanted to save his son from genetic mutation has become the crazier father who wants to save the genetic mutation from his son. In this endeavor he sees Betty as an obstacle (he’s right: she can tame the Hulk) and so sics giant dogs, including a giant French poodle, on her. But Bruce hulks outs and battles them. Then in a quiet moment in her battered car, Bruce, not the Hulk, but Bruce almost chokes her. Nice. Is this why she betrays him to her father (now Sam Elliot), who locks him up? But Talbot’s dickish ways unleash the Hulk again, who escapes and goes bouncing around the American southwest pursued by army helicopters. He winds up in San Francisco, where the battle between a giant green creature and the U.S. military draws many onlookers, zero news cameras and one hot female scientist. When Hulk sees Betty, he goes from a huge, engorged creature to something small, limp, and vulnerable. It’s the anti-Freudian stance. Hulk is angry but innocent. The monster inside us is actually sweeter than we are.
This sets up the final, crazy showdown between the Banners, and the epilogue in Central America. “No me hagas enfadar; no te va a gustar cuando este enfadado.” These 30 seconds are the best part of the movie.
“Hulk” isn’t all bad. I like Bruce’s early admission to Betty, “You know what scares me the most? When it comes over me, and I totally lose control... I like it.” Connelly is good, too. Her flirtations with Bruce are fun, but they run into the blank wall of his character and dissipate.
Other than that, “Hulk” is an overlong, poorly edited, poorly directed, pointless mess. It wants to say something deep and winds up saying nothing.
Even the writing team of James Schamus (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), Michael France (“Goldeneye”) and John Turman (uh... “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer”) disappoint. Early on, before anyone Hulks out, Talbot wants to buy (take over) Bruce and his research team. Bruce refuses. They lock eyes. Then they have the following exchange:
Talbot: You know, someday I’m going to write a book. And I’m going to call it ‘When Stupid Ideals Happen to Smart Penniless Scientists.’
Bruce: Wow, that’s a shitty title.
Talbot: No, the point is—
Bruce: Why not “Smart Scientists, Stupid Ideals”? Isn’t that simpler?
Talbot: Listen, I’m—
Bruce: You call yourself a businessman? You don’t even know how to sell anything.
Kidding. That’s my rewrite. Here’s how the scene really played out:
Talbot: You know, someday I’m going to write a book. And I’m going to call it ‘When Stupid Ideals Happen to Smart Penniless Scientists.’
Bruce, fuming, stares at Talbot, who leaves.
Movie Review: Winter in Wartime (2008)
Have we reached the point where we can only view World War II through the prism of melodrama? Or do only melodramatic foreign-language films about World War II get released in the U.S.? See recent entries: “City of Life and Death,” “John Rabe,” “Le Rafle.”
See also “Oorlogswinter,” or “Winter in Wartime,” which is about a young Dutch boy, Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier), living in a small town in Nazi-occupied Holland. The movie begins in January 1945 so we know, as he doesn’t, that only a few months are left in the war. The Allies are coming. Just hold on, lie low, and you and yours will be fine.
He doesn’t lie low.
His father, Johan (Raymond Thiry, looking remarkably like Sam Neill), is the mayor of their small town—the “Burgermeister” in German (which unfortunately flashed me back to the old Rankin-Bass special “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” and its Burgermeister Meisterburger character). While the position has its privileges, it also has its responsibilities, which Johan takes seriously. He sees himself as a bridge between occupiers and occupied. He makes what friends he can with the occupiers in order to protect the occupied. Early in the film, Michiel, through binoculars, watches his father shake hands with German soldiers to protect neighbors. Michiel thinks him a weakling and a coward as a result.
Seriously, can someone live half their life in occupied territory and still be such a little shit? It’s obvious what his father is doing. It obviously takes courage to do what he does. So we wait for this realization to come over Michiel. It takes most of the movie.
There’s also an uncle, Ben, Oom Ben (Yorick van Wageningen), who returns, bigger and larger than life, to stay with them. He lets Michiel take his suitcase up to the attic, where the boy rifles through it, finding evidence that Ben is with the resistance. At one point, he hears his uncle and father arguing over the matter. Ben wants to start a resistance movement in town; Johan is resistant. He doesn’t want to draw Nazi ire. Michiel can barely abide his father at this point.
My immediate thought: Since the boy is wrong about his father, might he be wrong about the uncle? Surely the uncle isn’t a Nazi collaborator. Surely it’s not one of those kinds of movies.
It’s one of those kinds of movies.
Pity. There’s some good stuff here. Michiel finds a downed Allied pilot, Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower), hiding out in the woods, and brings him food and information and eventually medical attention in the form of his good-looking older sister, Erica (Melody Klaver). Erica is infatuated but no less than Michiel. The film could be retitled “Winter of my British Soldier.”
Jack had killed a German soldier upon landing, or crash-landing, and when the German body is found the Germans take three prominent Dutch officials, including Johan, prisoner. The plan is to execute them unless the true culprit is found. Michiel, of course, knows the true culprit. But he’s been told by Ben that his father will go free; so even when Jack offers to give himself up, Michiel tells him, no, his uncle is handling it.
Except his uncle doesn’t handle it, and, at the last instant, Michiel bikes through the snow to stop the execution. Cue: people holding him back. Cue: Michiel running in slow motion. Cue the order given and the rifles blasting and the officials falling.
Oh, slow motion. How many movies have you ruined?
This should be what the movie's about. Michiel had the knowledge to save his father and didn’t. He even waived off Jack’s attempt to save his father. His father is dead now because of his actions. One wonders how he can ever tell his mother. One wonders how he can tell himself every day for the rest of his life. That’s a heavy weight for a kid to carry.
But we merely get a sense of that weight. Then the plot kicks in, Jack must be saved, Ben is brought in to help save Jack, etc. At one point, Oom Ben says something he couldn’t possibly know, unless ... Michiel rushes up to the attic, rifles through his suitcase again. Nothing. But wait: There’s a false bottom. His uncle is a Nazi collaborator. Cue another bike ride through the snow to try to save Jack and Erica from Ben’s inevitable betrayal.
“Oorlogswinter” is based upon a novel of World War II by Jan Terlouw, a Dutch scientist, politician and author, who would’ve been around Michiel’s age in 1945. He writes children’s books mostly, with various moral dilemmas, and “Oorlogswinter” is one of them. It was made into a mini-series for Dutch TV in 1975.
In most movies, people are what we think they are, but here they’re the opposite of what we think they are—or what Michiel thinks they are. Does anyone think this is a deep commentary on human nature? It’s the adolescent commentary on human nature. So Johan is really a hero, Ben is really a traitor, and the fat bike-shop owner, who has to sponge off the “Nazi” signs written on his shop, is really a loyal Netherlander. Some of the Germans are even nice. When Michiel falls through the ice, it’s a German soldier who pulls him out. When the wheel of a horse cart comes off, with Jack inside, it’s German soldiers who rush to fix it. The world is so complex that way.
Michiel keeps falling in the movie. He falls off his bike in the beginning and is captured by the Germans. He falls through the ice. The horse cart wheel comes off. And as he and Jack are escaping the Nazis on Caesar, Michiel’s horse, they fall in the woods, Caesar breaks his leg, and the horse must be put out of its misery. But Michiel can’t do it. Jack has to do it for him.
This sets up our end. Ben is exposed and tied to a tree. But while Jack is escaping, with Erica’s help, Ben sets himself free and walks off despite the gun in Michiel’s hand. Will Michiel use it? Will he kill his uncle? Oh, will he?
Cue: Slow motion.
Movie Review: X Men: The Last Stand (2006)
WARNING: THREE-MAIN-CHARACTERS-ARE-KILLED SPOILERS
When he took over the reigns of the “X-Men” franchise, director Brett Ratner promised that he and screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn would put nothing on screen that hadn’t first been in the comic books.
If so, they must’ve panned the entire “X-Men” oeuvre for stupid shit. Because that’s what’s on screen.
Here. These are the first words we hear. It’s 20 years ago, we’re in a nice suburban neighborhood, a car pulls up to the Grey household (1769) and Professor X and Magneto (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen), emerge, airbrushed creepily, for this bit of exposition:
Magneto: I still don't know why I’m here. Couldn't you just make them say yes?
Professor X: Yes, I could, but it's not my way. And I would expect you, of all people, would understand my feelings about the misuse of power.
Magneto: Ah, “power corrupts” and all that. Yes, I know, Charles. When are you going to stop lecturing me?
Let’s take a moment to distill that conversation:
Magneto: Hey, do X.
Professor X: I don’t do X. You know that.
Magneto: I know you don’t do X. Quit lecturing me on how you don’t do X.
The movie keeps doing this. It keeps giving us supposedly intelligent people having inane conversations.
The storyline is fine. You could argue the storyline is an improvement. In the first movie, Magneto tries to turn all humans into mutants (a dumb idea, since he despised humanity), and here humans try to turn all mutants into humans (a smart idea, since humans fear mutants). Dr. Henry McCoy, the Beast (Kelsey Grammar), who is now Secretary of Mutant Affairs, arrives at Xavier’s school with the news. “A pharmaceutical company has developed a mutant antibody: a way to suppress the mutant X gene,” he says. “They’re calling it a cure.” Everyone in the room is appalled. Then Rogue rushes into the room:
Rogue (excited): Is it true? Can they cure us?
Professor X (resigned): Yes, Rogue. It appears to be true.
Storm (angry): No, Professor. They can't cure us. You want to know why? Because there's nothing to cure. [To Rogue] Nothing's wrong with you. Or any of us, for that matter.
The X-Men series is often seen as a metaphor for the civil rights movement, or for homosexuality, but this is where that metaphor breaks down. Black is black, gay is gay, but not every mutation is created equally. No one mentions this in the film but here would’ve been a good spot. When Storm gets in Rogue’s face, Rogue should’ve stared back, taken off a glove, grabbed Storm’s wrist; and while Storm gasped in excruciating pain, while her face got all veiny, Rogue should’ve said:
Rogue: I can’t touch anyone. Ever. Because this happens. Get it?
[Lets go and Storm collapses on the ground.]
Maybe if I could control the weather I wouldn’t want to be cured, either. But don’t tell me there’s nothing wrong with me.
Instead we get what we get. Magneto recruits from “the Omegas,” underground mutants who dress goth-style and sport tattoos as if they were disaffected suburban kids. They gather in woods for speeches and lead an assault on Alcatraz Prison, where the mutant, Leech, who is the source of the antibody (mutants temporarily lose powers around him), resides, bald, silent, and vaguely concerned. But Storm leads a team of six mutants (Wolverine, Beast, Colossus, Iceman, Shadowcat) to defend Alcatraz and beat back this army of mutants. It’s a good battle sequence, I’ll give Ratner that, but it doesn’t make up for the stupidity we’ve already been subjected to.
And that’s only one of the movie’s two main storylines. The other deals with the resurrection of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) as the Phoenix.
We knew this was coming. If we’d read X-Men #s 101-108, in which Jean Grey dies and is resurrected as the super-powerful Phoenix, we knew this was coming.
What I didn’t know, since I stopped collecting comics soon after that adventure, and went on to, you know, Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth and E.L. Doctorow and Norman Mailer, was the huge powers of the Phoenix weren’t the result of her death/resurrection. Apparently she’d always had them. Thus that opening scene at the Grey household. Thus the conversation between Professor X and Wolverine after Jean’s body, along with Cyclops’ glasses, are recovered from Alkali Lake. Here’s what we learn in that 30-second conversation:
- When Jean Grey was a little girl, Professor X created a series of psychic barriers to make her think she wasn’t as powerful as she was.
- Because of this, she developed a split personality: the Jean Grey we’ve known for two films; and the superpowerful, superangry Phoenix.
- Professor X isn’t sorry he did this.
- He dismisses, belittles, anyone who questions him on the matter.
This is the tail-end of their conversation:
Professor X: She has to be controlled.
Wolverine: Controlled? Sometimes when you cage the beast, the beast gets angry.
Professor X: You have no idea. You have no idea of what she’s capable.
Wolverine: No, Professor. I had no idea what you were capable of!
Professor X: I had a terrible choice to make. I chose the lesser of two evils.
Wolverine: Well, it sounds to me like Jean had no choice at all.
Professor X: I don’t have to explain myself—least of all to you.
I don’t have to explain myself—least of all to you? Really? That’s the moral exemplar of this series? The man who didn’t want to misuse his powers in the opening scene? The teacher who wouldn’t even tell Wolverine his own story in the second film—who said, channeling Glynda from “The Wizard of Oz,” that Wolverine had to figure it out for himself? Least of all you? Wow.
When I first saw this scene, back in 2006, I assumed that this Professor X, spouting such idiotic dialogue, was a hologram, or maybe Mystique, or was being controlled by some nefarious force, and I remember being confused when the movie kept going on and on until it became clear, no, this was Professor X spouting such idiotic dialogue.
It would’ve been so easy to fix, too. Keep most of the above dialogue—I like the “Sometimes when you cage the beast” line, for example—but give us the mea culpa:
Professor X: I know, I know... Maybe if I hadn’t... But it seemed the only way... God help me, it seemed the only way.
Or scrap this conversation and give us the big reveal in a conversation between Professor X and Magneto:
Magneto (amused): Charles, you’ve always accused me of not living up to your moral standards. You’ve even accused me of evil. Now look at you. Your beloved protégée is a monster. You ... [smiles wider] ... are a Dr. Frankenstein. In trying to do good, you’ve done more evil than someone like me could hope to do in a lifetime.
Instead we get what we get.
Don’t even get me started on the loutish dialogue between Rogue and Bobby (“You're a guy, Bobby; your mind's only on one thing”) or Mystique’s awful lines (“I don’t answer to my slave name”), or how Jean kills both Cyclops and Professor X—really kills them—and then just hangs back, crackling with power, as battles rage, or how Magneto, normally a smart man, sends mutants to kill Leech when their powers won’t work around Leech, or how the good X-Men neutralize Magneto with the mutant antibody, rather than Jean, who’s much more dangerous, or...
“X-Men: The Last Stand” posits Jean Grey as the most powerful, destructive mutant in the Marvel universe, but surely that title belongs to director Brett Ratner. He took a popular series, gave everyone stupid lines, killed off the main characters, then smiled like a chubby three-year-old expecting accolades. What a surprise for him when the world turned angry.
Or is there someone else? Someone more powerful and nefarious? The first two “X-Men” movies, in 2000 and 2003, helped reboot the superhero genre. Since then, the studio that produced and distributed them, Fox, has given us the following: “Daredevil,” “Elektra,” “Fantastic Four,” “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” So maybe Fox is our most powerful and destructive supervillain. The corporation that would make idiots of us all.
Death of a franchise.
Movie Review: X2 (2003)
WARNING: ONCE AND FUTURE SPOILERS
Does any superhero movie have as many good scenes as this one? Let’s count ’em off:
- In the opening, Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), to the pulse-pounding grandeur of “Dies Irae” from Mozart's Requiem in D Minor, poofs in and out of existence, climbs walls, swats secret servicemen with his tail, and comes within seconds of killing the President of the United States with a knife on which a note is tagged: MUTANT FREEDOM NOW!
- The forces of William Stryker (Brian Cox) lead an assault of Xavier’s School for Gifted Children, in which most of the students, even those with powers, flee, but Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the lone adult in the joint, takes out half the special forces. Snkt!
- Magneto (Ian McKellen), incarcerated in a plastic prison, discovers that—thanks to his partner-in-crime, Mystique (Rebecca Romijn)—his slovenly and brutish guard, Laurio (Ty Olsson), has metallic particles in his bloodstream. But what can Magneto do with a little metallic dust? Everything. He levitates Laurio, pulls the particles out of him—killing him painfully in the process—and manipulates the dust into three small metal balls with which, zinging and pinging like bullets, he destroys his plastic prison. Then flattening one metal ball into a platform, he rides it out of his prison while the other two orbit around him as if he were the sun. Brilliant.
- The cops surround the house of the family of Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore), called there by his brother, Ronnie, and proceed to shoot Wolverine in the head, and order the others, Bobby and Rogue (Anna Paquin) and John (Aaron Stanford) onto the ground. Bobby and Rogue comply. John, also known as Pyro, doesn’t. Breathing heavily, looking at his hands, assessing the situation, he says, “You know all those dangerous mutants you hear about in the news? I'm the worst one.” Then he shows them.
As I was writing these scenes down, all favorites, I realized they have something in common. They are moments when mutants let loose; when they no longer hold their powers in check and instead strike back against an unjust world. In each, we, the weak, popcorn-munching audience, who deal with unjustness all the time in our day-to-day, get to thrill at seeing unbridled power used against 1) an unjust government, 2) an unjust army, 3) a sadistic guard, and 4) an unjust world—a world where brothers turn you in to the cops and the cops shoot first and ask questions later.
What else do they have in common? They all involve either a hero who’s almost a villain (Wolverine), a hero duped into villainy (Nightcrawler) or actual villains (Magneto, Pyro). They don’t involve the main X-Men heroes: Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Storm (Halle Berry), Jean Gray (Famke Janssen) and Cyclops (James Marsden), our first, fourth, fifth and sixth-billed stars.
Why? Because these characters are dull. Dull dull dull. Professor X was always dull. Cyclops, too. It’s a problem as old as Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” in which Satan is a fascinating character and God is a bore. But does it have to be so? Professor X has the power to kill everyone on the planet with his mind. We see this power utilized in the film. So how about giving us some of that tension, the weight of that awful power, instead of Patrick Stewart’s bland benevolence?
I remember Storm having a fascinating backstory as a pickpocket in the “X-Men” comic books. That backstory was blown off in “X-Men” and only vaguely alluded to here. On the X-Jet, Storm goes back into the hold to try to draw out their new companion, Nightcrawler, whom they’ve picked up in a run-down church in Boston, and they have the following conversation:
Nightcrawler: You know, outside the circus, most people were afraid of me. But I didn't hate them. I pitied them. Do you know why? Because most people will never know anything beyond what they see with their own two eyes.
Storm: Well, I gave up on pity a long time ago.
Nightcrawler: Someone so beautiful should not be so angry.
Storm: Sometimes anger can help you survive.
Nightcrawler: So can faith.
When I first heard this conversation, in movie theaters in 2003, I thought Storm was implying that feeling pity was beneath her, that she had a larger spirit than that. No. She’s actually saying “Pitying humans is too good for them.” But that’s backwards. When you’re angry with someone it’s because they’re not living up to a certain standard you expect. When you pity someone it’s because they’re not living up to a certain standard ... and you know they never will. You’ve given up on them. Plus her anger, her contempt, comes out of nowhere, as if the filmmakers suddenly realized, “Oh yeah, Storm,” or as if Ms. Berry, post-Oscar, demanded a bit more screentime and wound up with this. But she doesn’t sell it. She never seems angry. She never seems Storm. She just looks slightly sad and way, way beautiful.
Storm. Angry. So angry.
And, hey, is Nightcrawler really implying that most people only know what they see because they don’t have faith? As if most people around the world don’t believe in something unseen? As if most don’t believe in God?
Despite that, and despite “X2”’s loutish, truncated title, designed to appeal to all the exxxtreme dudes playing their Xboxes and watching “XXX,” it’s still a great superhero movie, not only for the scenes above but for the quiet moments before the scenes above. It luxuriates in the language and embraces the mystery. I’m thinking Wolverine and Bobby in the kitchen before the attack; Wolverine and the cat in the Drake household; Rogue looking at Bobby’s old room in the Drake household; and Bobby’s “coming out” conversation with the Drakes (“Have you tried ... not being a mutant?”). There’s that beautiful visual, Bobby’s ice wall coming between Wolverine and Stryker, and the two men, seeing the shadow of the other on the other side, putting their hands on the wall.
I’m a fan, in particular, of the conversation between Magneto and John/Pyro on the X-Jet hurtling toward Alkali Lake. John begins poorly, dissing Magneto’s helmet. Then we get this:
Magneto: What's your name?
Pyro: [staring at his lighter in Magneto's hands] John.
Magneto: What's your real name, John?
Pyro: [summons lighter's flame to his hand] Pyro.
Magneto: Quite a talent you have there, Pyro.
Pyro: I can only manipulate the fire. ... I can't create it.
Magneto: You are a god among insects. Never let anyone tell you different.
It’s that last line. The way McKellen sells it. The scene is our first indication of Magneto’s recruitment technique. What does Professor X offer young mutants? Sanctuary. Safety. Companionship. Tutorial. He helps mutants control their powers, tamp them down. Magneto offers the opposite. All that power you feel within you? Let it loose.
“You are a god among insects. Never let anyone tell you different.”
How does Magneto not have more acolytes? And shouldn’t there be a greater tension between the two camps? Young and scared, they flock to Professor X, but as they mature, as they come into their own, as they abandon the need for safety for the need for power, how can they not throw off the bland father figure, Professor X, for the completeness, the absoluteness, and the absolution Magneto offers? You are a god among insects. Who wouldn’t want that?
So if “X-Men,” the first movie, was about learning and combating Magneto’s plan to turn humans into mutants, “X2” is about learning and combating William Stryker’s plan to kill all mutants via Cerebro and a duped Professor X—who, despite his monumental psychic powers, never seems to see it coming. The final big battle takes place in an old military facility beneath Alkali Lake in British Columbia, and it is, well, a final big battle, with many moving parts, which director Bryan Singer handles well. But I’m a little tired of final big battles. You know there’ll be this, and that, and in the nick of ... and the final escape as ... and then (whew) safety. Did we all make it out OK? Here, Jean doesn’t. But anyone who knows the “X-Men” series knows she’s not just Jean Grey; she’s the Phoenix.
Is it a coincidence that all three patriarchs in this movie—Professor X, Magneto, Stryker—have powerful female sidekicks? Of course Stryker’s sidekick, Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), is there against her will, making her death at the hands of Wolverine all the more poignant. I guess Professor X’s sidekick, Jean, is there against her will, too, isn’t she? We find that out in the next movie. Only Magneto’s lady is hanging with him because she wants to. Let’s hear it for the villains.
I could’ve done with a different final White House scene. Stryker dupes Professor X into using Cerebro to almost kill every mutant on the planet (including himself?), but Magneto, maintaining the dupe, has him target every human on the planet instead. It almost works. Does every human on the planet crouch in pain like Stryker does? What a story! ALL OF HUMANITY ALMOST KILLED BY LONE MUTANT. You’d think then, when presenting himself before the powers-that-be, in this case the President of the United States, who was nearly killed by Nightcrawler before he was nearly killed by Professor X, you’d think Professor X would be a bit more ... apologetic. Abashed. Sheepish. No. Professor X freezes time before POTUS’s speech to the nation and the other mutants arrange themselves around the room in dark, stormy, threatening postures. They present evidence against Stryker, who instigated the attempted Nightcrawler assassination, but offer no mea culpa for the near-global genocide. Instead Professor X says, “We're here to stay; the next move is yours.” Wolverine adds, “We'll be watching.” Oh, and about killing nearly everyone on the planet? Sorry. Won’t happen again. Pinky swear.
The saddest part of the movie, though, is the knowledge that it's the last one with this director. Bryan, we hardly knew ye. And look who you left us with.
Movie Review: X-Men (2000)
WARNING: XAVIER’S SCHOOL FOR GIFTED SPOILERS
Just as “Fantastic Four #1” ushered in the Marvel Age of comics in November 1961, “X-Men,” the movie, released in July 2000, ushered in the blockbuster age of cinematic superheroes. Indeed, it’s fascinating how much movie musclemen followed the path of their comic book predecessors. The whole crazy superhero parade began with Superman in 1938, picked up with Batman a year later, then became bigger than ever under Marvel in the early 1960s. That’s Hollywood’s pattern, too. Superhero blockbusters began with “Superman: The Movie” in 1978, picked up with Tim Burton’s “Batman” a decade later, then became bigger than ever under Marvel in the 2000s.
So why was “X-Men” essentially the “FF #1” of cinema? Why—besides CGI—does the movie work so well?
It’s partly the director. Just as Marvel superheroes were reluctant superheroes, Bryan Singer was a reluctant director. He didn’t know from mutants and didn’t want this thing on his plate. But Fox Studios wanted him, the wunderkind who had directed “The Usual Suspects,” and Singer handled the assignment smartly. As he explored structural ideas for the movie, he realized there was something serious in the material. “It's actually about prejudice,” he told The New York Times in 2000.
Let’s hear it for casting director Roger Mussenden, too. Patrick Stewart was an obvious fanboy choice for Professor X, while Sir Ian McKellen, who had starred in Singer’s “Apt Pupil,” was an inspired choice for Magneto, who had always been drawn taller, darker, younger and stronger. Famke Janssen, literally perfect in a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode, was, again, hubba-hubba perfect for Jean Grey. Anna Paquin, best known for “The Piano,” made a vulnerable Rogue, Rebecca Romijn made a sexy Mystique, James Marsden a straight-arrow Cyclops. Hugh Jackman, the back-up choice for Wolverine, became a star. Really, the only miscast was the best-known cast member. Storm is African, tall and powerful, and Halle Berry, unlike McKellen, can’t make up the deficit. Her Storm always feels like a drizzle.
Does it help that the X-Men aren’t traditional superheroes? They don’t wear masks, don’t “fight crime,” don’t acquire superpowers through some absurd Atomic-age means: cosmic rays or gamma rays or radioactive whatchacalms. They’re mutants, freaks, outcasts. In this way they better represent the latter part of the 20th century. If the metaphor for Superman, the first superhero, is one of melting-pot assimilation, of hiding among the masses in plain sight, the metaphor for the X-Men is one of segregation, of removal from society, of identifying yourself with the maligned subgroup (mutants) over the group (humans). It’s a post-Civil Rights metaphor, and the leaders of the two mutant groups, Professor X and Magneto, can be seen as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X figures, counseling either non-violence and integration or violence and segregation. Magneto’s last line is even one of Malcolm’s more famous lines: He plans to fight the enemy “by any means necessary.”
The first conversation between Prof. X and Magneto, outside U.S. Senate hearings on “the mutant phenomenon,” contains echoes of this philosophical difference:
Professor X: Don’t give up on them, Eric.
Magneto (weary): I’ve heard these arguments before.
Professor X: It was a long time ago. Mankind has evolved since then.
Magneto: Yes. Into us. .. We are the future, Charles, not them. They no longer matter.
One of the strengths of the film is that Magneto actually makes sense. Sure, Professor X is nicer, but is Magneto more practical? Does he see the world more clearly? Wolverine echoes this thought halfway through the film. “There’s a war coming,” he tells Storm. “Are you sure you’re on the right side?”
Singer and screenwriter David Hayter even take the unprecedented step of beginning the film with its ostensible villain, Magneto, in a sympathetic role. It’s 1944, Poland, and Eric Lensherr, a mere kid, is being herded with his parents and hundreds of others into concentration camps (for the strong) or extermination camps (for the weak). Eric’s parents are separated from him, to be executed, and he tries to save them. (See: Jason White, piano, Lois Lane, in Singer’s “Superman Returns.”) It takes six Nazi guards to hold him back and even then he is able to completely warp the large metal gate to the camp. You could say the experience warps him, too. It makes his later hatred of mankind understandable. Hell, you know who he’s like here? Bruce Wayne. Batman. The two have the same story. After their parents are killed, right in front of them, they spend the rest of their lives going after the killers. They just define “killers” differently.
In this manner, in modern-day North America, we’re introduced to the various mutants: Rogue, who can’t touch anyone without killing them; Wolverine, an amnesiac, cage fighting in a dead-end Alberta bar, and whom Rogue serendipitously (a bit too serendipitously) runs into; Cyclops and Storm, who aid Wolverine and Rogue, in battling Sabretooth, Magneto’s envoy.
By this point mutants are known, they’ve been outed in some fashion, so Dr. Jean Gray addresses the U.S. Congress to quiet people’s fears. She doesn’t. The movie lets us believe she’s upstaged by a grandstanding, reactionary politician, Sen. Kelly (Bruce Davison), the Joe McCarthy or Jim Inhofe of this world, but she’s actually just a lousy debater. She even begins wrong:
Ladies and gentleman, we are now seeing the beginnings of another stage of human evolution. These mutations manifest at puberty, and are often triggered by periods of heightened emotional stress.
Advice: If you’re attempting to win people over, it may not be a good idea to suggest that they are at an earlier stage of evolution: homo erectus to your homo sapiens.
Losing argument: “Don't fear us: we are simply more evolved than you.”
It’s actually Sen. Kelly who gets to the point: “You’ve failed to address the issue that is the focus of this hearing: Are. Mutants. Dangerous?”
Gray, despite the glasses, flubs it. She says the question is unfair, that cars in the wrong hands are dangerous, but Kelly reminds her that we license people to drive. Then, though she’s at the podium, he continues framing the debate as he wants it framed. A shame. They could’ve wound up at the same point in a smarter fashion. Something like:
Kelly: Are mutants dangerous?
Gray: Are human beings dangerous? I think it depends upon the human being.
Kelly: But individual human beings can only be so dangerous.
Gray: Unless they have a weapon: a gun, a plane, an atom bomb.
Kelly: Are you saying there are mutants as powerful as atom bombs? [Glances around the chambers.] How does that make you feel? Safe? Would you like to be living next to someone who has the power of an atom bomb? Who could blow up your neighborhood, your city, your country, like that? [Snaps fingers.] Ladies and gentleman, this is a matter of public safety...
It’s a shame “X-Men” came out when it did, in the summer of 2000, a year before 9/11, when we hadn’t been debating civil liberties/civil rights much, when we’d forgotten how reactionary we could be. The movie gives us one loud-mouth senator and a few people with placards (“Human Rights,” etc.), when, let’s face it, if there were mutants among us, with such powers, the legislation to combat them, the time and energy spent in searching for them and incarcerating them in Gitmo-like facilities, would be overwhelming. Look what we did after a few Muslim fanatics hijacked a few planes.
But that’s the set-up. Mutants have been outed, Professor X counsels caution, Magneto prepares for war. He and his crew are plotting, and Professor X and his crew try to figure out the plot, and Wolverine, our eyes and ears in this world, tries to figure out which side he’s on. There are subplots, of course, notably the love triangle between Wolverine, Jean Gray and Cyclops, but this is basically the movie: What’s Magneto’s doing?
The answer to that question, unfortunately, is the lamest part of “X-Men.” Magneto is waging war on humans ... by turning them into mutants.
On one level this makes sense: He’s neutralizing the enemy. He’s turning them into what they fear.
On a deeper, more personal level, it makes no sense at all. If Magneto truly believes that human beings no longer matter, that mutants are the next step in the evolutionary process, then he’s basically giving the enemy a gift beyond compare. “You are a god among insects,” he tells Pyro in “X-2.” So why give insects the power of gods? It doesn’t fit with his personality, it doesn’t fit with his philosophy. It makes no sense.
Losing strategy: “Humans are less evolved than mutants; so to punish them I will turn humans ... into mutants.”
Worse, the movie stacks the deck against him. First, he’s willing to kill Rogue, a fellow mutant, to make his enemies powerful. Then his device doesn’t actually work. It transforms humans, yes, but in an unstable fashion, and they wind up dying a painful death. So the X-Men have to stop him for this reason.
“X-Men” is a good movie, eminently watchable, always entertaining. There are several great scenes: the intro of Wolverine, the train station battle, the climax atop the Statue of Liberty. There’s a star turn by Hugh Jackman. He’s a bad ass, but with a sense of solicitude for Rogue that's charming, and a sense of heat for Jean Gray that's palpable. He gets all the good lines.
But imagine a good revisionist take of the movie, in which human beings are as paranoid as we know human beings to be, governments are as cowardly as we know governments to be, and with a FOX-News-type organization spreading fear and propaganda, governments all over the world, and certainly in the U.S., crack down on the moderate, mollifying forces, Professor X and his students, who are captured, incarcerated, tortured and experimented upon. And in the wings, Magneto, our Batman figure, wearing a cruel smile, waits to save the day.
Movie Review: “Oswald's Ghost” (2007)
WARNING: MAGIC SPOILERS
Norman Mailer gives us the title. “Oswald is the ghost that lays over American life,” he says, with his usual twinkle, near the end of this well-made documentary. “What is abominable and maddening about ghosts is you never know the answer. Is it this or is it that? You can’t know because the ghost isn’t telling you.”
Yet “Oswald’s Ghost” tells us plenty—because it’s less conspiracy theory, or conspiracy debunker, than conspiracy history. It takes us chronologically, and cleanly, through events, and delves into why we began to believe there was a cover-up, and what it means that we now believe there was a cover-up, and how we now act as a result. It sees the Kennedy assassination as the great dividing point of the American century, the break from which we never recovered. John F. Kennedy began his administration with the pro-government rhetoric of his inaugural—“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”—and yet the mystery surrounding his assassination, along with the lies of Vietnam and Watergate, set the stage for the anti-government rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and all of his acolytes, from which we still haven’t recovered.
Is there a story of the last 50 years that’s been told more often than the Kennedy assassination? Yet filmmaker Robert Stone, working for PBS and “The American Experience,” finds footage, and photos, I’ve never seen before. Here’s Oswald in the Dallas police station professing his innocence so matter-of-factly that I began to believe him:
Oswald (in glare of TV lights): I'd like some legal representation, but these police officers have not allowed me to have any. I don't know what this is all about.
Reporter: Did you kill the president?
Oswald: No, sir, I didn't. People keep asking me that. ... They are taking me in because of the fact that I lived in the Soviet Union. I'm just a patsy.
One suddenly wonders: Hey, how did they trace him to the murder of Officer Tippit? How did they find him in that Dallas movie theater? How did they make him the focal point of the worst American murder of the 20th century?
Newsman: Was this the man that you believed killed President Kennedy?
Dallas police: I think we have the right man.
Dan Rather: Confusion reigned inside the Dallas police station.
Abraham Zapruder didn’t help. Instead of showing his film to the American people, he hired a lawyer and sold the rights to Life magazine, which printed individual frames. The film itself wouldn’t be shown on television until 1975.
Oswald’s mother didn’t help. She said her son was being framed, which one expects, but she also said her son was a government agent, which raised spectres.
Jack Ruby certainly didn’t help.
Did Mark Lane? The New York lawyer became the first man to openly question whether Oswald acted alone, in a December 1963 article in The National Guardian entitled “Lane’s defense brief for Oswald.”
Did the Warren Commission? Shouldn’t its hearings have been public? Shouldn’t we have taken our time with the matter instead of rushing out a verdict before the 1964 elections?
Yet, at the time, most Americans accepted the lone-gunman theory. That would quickly change as conspiracy books began appearing, then proliferating, two and three years later: First Lane’s “Rush to Judgment,” then Edward Jay Epstein’s “Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth.” Then it was off to the races.
Initially outsiders were blamed. It was Castro or the KGB. It was the South Vietnamese government, responding to the Diem assassination. Eventually we began blaming ourselves. It was some rogue CIA element. It was some right-wing element that wanted to stay in Vietnam just as JFK was getting ready to pull us out. “And like all those theories,” Mailer says, “it had a certainly plausibility and a depressing lack of proof.”
That didn’t stop New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison, wild-eyed and bug-eyed, and the worst of the conpiratorialists, who went after Clay Shaw, a prominent, closeted businessman. Stone (Robert, not Oliver) includes a fascinating 1967 news report critical of Garrison:
Garrison’s investigation has seemed to concentrate on homosexuals. That of course is an old police trick, and homosexuals have been a particular target of Garrison’s over the years. Even members of his staff have been privately critical of his emphasis on men whose deviation makes them vulnerable.
1968 didn’t help. Both MLK and RFK were assassinated by “lone gunmen.” Both were progressives. How could it not be conspiracy? (But did it have to lead to the inaninities of “The Parallax View”?)
Post-Watergate, the Church Committee detailed all of those early 1960s CIA assassinations of foreign leaders. Was Malcolm X more right than he knew? Was the JFK assassination a case of the chickens coming home to roost?
It’s the Ruby factor that’s always bugged me. He had mob ties. He was a strip-club owner. Yet he killed Oswald, effectively silencing him, out of respect for Jackie? Out of sudden anger? Tie that with the difficulty of Oswald's shot, of squeezing three bullets out of the 6.5 mm Carcano rifle in the time allotted, and of the whole back-and-to-the-left thing, with that final shot, the kill shot, looking, in the Zapruder film, like it’s blasting him from the front, well, you know, maybe there was something to it.
It's Jack Ruby's dog who pushes us back from the brink. Oswald was scheduled to be moved at 10:00 a.m. that Sunday morning. Here’s Hugh Aynesworth, a Dallas reporter:
Ruby slept 'til probably 9:30 or 9:20 something of that sort, and then he drives with his dog down to the Western Union and sent a telegram at 11:17 that morning. Came out and he looked one block up and he saw the crowd there at the police department. Jack Ruby was always on the scene of action, whether it be a fire, whether it be a raid, whether it be a parade, whatever. He had to be there. And he knew some of those cops. The fact that he left the dog in the car indicates to me that he thought he was going down to send a telegram and go back home. He took that little dog everywhere with him.
Few have assumed conspiracy longer and more vocally than Norman Mailer—yet even he comes around. “The internal evidence just wasn't there,” he says. “There were too many odd moments that just didn't add up.” Instead he focuses on Oswald’s mindset:
I think what Oswald saw was that if he committed the crime, if he assassinated Kennedy and he got away with it, then he would have an inner power that no one could ever come near. And, if he was caught, well then, he was quite articulate, he would have one of the greatest trials in America's history, if not the greatest, and he would explain all of his political ideas. He would become world famous and might have an immense effect upon history ...
When he shot Tippit, I think at that point he knew he was doomed because he could no longer make the great speech. If you shoot a policeman forget it, you're a punk. And so after he was caught he did nothing but protest his innocence and say, “I'm a patsy.”
“If you shoot a policeman, forget it, you're a punk.”
“This is not a whodunnit,” says Stone (Robert, not Oliver) in a DVD special features interview. “This is what a whodunnit has done to us.” He adds: “Conspiracy theory is part of the human condition; and it always will be.” Think of the doc as one Stone to correct another.
Is conspiracy the new American religion? The notion that we exist as small nothings for a short span of time in a cosmic eternity is unbearable, and thus we construct meaning out of it. The notion that this small nothing brought down the most powerful, glamorous man in the world is unbearable, and thus we construct meaning out of it. It was our enemies—foreign or domestic. It was the left or right. It was anything—please, God, let it be anything—other than little Lee Harvey Oswald.
Review: “Cadillac Records”
Has any film fudged rock n’ roll history as much as this one? How bad of a storyteller are you when, given the long history of white artists stealing from black artists, you gotta make shit up?
It’s not even subtle shit. “Cadillac Records“ is mostly about the relationship between Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) at Chess Records, and to a lesser extent the relationships between Muddy and Little Walter (Columbus Short), and Chess and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), but more than halfway through the film, rising star Chuck Berry (Mos Def), who is basically credited with inventing rock n’ roll here, is angry that the Beach Boys’ 1963 song “Surfin’ USA” is ripping off his “Sweet Little Sixteen.”
Flags went up. “What happened to the rest of the ‘50s?” I asked Patricia. Then Berry gets busted for transporting a minor across state lines, and, as he’s being led away, he laments the fact that Jerry Lee Lewis gets away with marrying his 13-year-old cousin.
More flags. “Jesus, what year is this supposed to be?” I asked Patricia. “That happened in the ‘50s. And Jerry Lee Lewis didn’t get away with shit. Marrying his cousin ended his career, didn’t it?” Five years later we see Berry getting out of prison, and he sees images of Elvis Presley singing to girls and being declared the king of rock n’ roll on TV.
“Oh, please,” I said to Patricia, who, by now, was getting sick of my yakking. “Are they implying that Elvis became popular while Berry was in prison? That he became king then? I mean, what the hell?”
Some perspective. Berry and Presley, as record charters, were basically contemporaries. Presley’s “That’s All Right (Mama)” was on the air in the south in the summer of ’54, while Berry didn’t go to Chess Records to record “Maybellene” (and “invent rock n’ roll”) until May 1955. Meanwhile, tons of other artists, from Ray Charles to Bill Haley & His Comets, were doing their thing. Forces were at work, and they’d been at work for a long time; and if you wanted to call this thing “new,” and if you wanted to call it “rock n’ roll,” great, but don’t pretend one man invented it — whether that one man is Bill Haley, Elvis Presley or, here, Chuck Berry. I don't know much about music history but I know that much.
More perspective. Berry got busted under the Mann Act in 1959. So why show this after the Beach Boys’ 1963 recording? Why couldn’t the filmmakers show Berry getting busted and then, upon release, have him hear the Beach Boys ripping him off? That’s works just as well with the movie's themes and has the added advantage of being historically accurate.
What a sad movie. It takes a meaty subject — all the talent that congregated at Chess Records in the ‘50s and ‘60s — and makes weak broth out of it. Lord knows I love Jeffrey Wright, but there’s something minimalist in his approach, something that refrains from the spotlight, that makes him seem wrong to play one of the great singer/guitarists of our time. He gets eaten alive in the battle with Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker). He disappears as the movie progresses. Maybe that’s the point. But something feels missing. The performance works and then it doesn't.
But at least when it works, thanks to Wright, it really works. The same can't be said for the rest of the film. I don't get any sense of Leonard Chess: What makes him tick, what keeps him alive. Whether he was ripping off artists or aiding them. Or in what ways he was ripping off artists and in what ways he was aiding them. The portrait's nothing but smeary — as if both enemies and loved ones were involved in the creation of it.
Worse, once the movie starts fudging its history, you don't know what to believe. Chess hires Etta James as a prostitute, then hears her singing in the bathroom? Please. Chess dies of a heart attack two blocks from Chess Records after selling it in 1969? Pretty please.
Admittedly it’s a tough story to tell. So many lives, so many larger-than-life characters, all in one spot. So couldn’t the focus have been the messiness of those lives creating works of near-perfection? That tension? Told without the bullshit and easy answers and finger-pointing? Hell, why not just focus on the heyday? Chicago, 1950-54. Make drama out of that. End with the arrival of Chuck Berry and something “new.”
Wouldn’t that be enough?
One-sentence Review: Rachel Getting Married (2008)
The weight of family history (even if it doesn't involve tragedy) makes family celebrations (even if they don't involve a wedding) a bit of an oxymoron.
Two-Minute Review: The Wrestler (2008)
I have little in common with Randy “the Ram” Robinson, the wrestler of “The Wrestler.” He likes what I don’t (‘80s hair metal), lives where I haven’t (trailer park) does what I could never do (wrestles). And yet I wholly identified with him. Maybe it’s because we’ve both reached a certain age. Maybe it’s that sense of hitting a dead end and being unable to see a way out or back. There’s a scene where, out of necessity, Randy moves from doing manual labor in the back of a grocery store to working with the public in the front. You know why he doesn’t want to do it. He was once a star, and now he’s here, and he doesn’t want people to know he’s here. I even identified with that. It reminded me of after high school, after college, the jobs you didn’t want, the things you didn’t want to have to wear when you had the jobs you didn’t want. It reminded me of this thought: Please don’t let anyone see me here. Most of the jobs our economy creates — when it was creating jobs — are those kinds of jobs. Please don’t let anyone see me here.
“The Wrestler” is a hard movie to watch, and, despite the above, and despite some pretty gruesome wrestling scenes, the toughest part, for me, was watching how needy Randy becomes once wrestling is taken away from him. “The Wrestler” is a perfectly titled movie because that’s who Randy is, and once he’s told he can’t be that he doesn’t know how to live. In life you struggle to find a thing you like and do well, and hope you get paid for it, and for a time Randy the Ram was paid well (in money, in fame, in everything that goes with it) for doing the thing he liked and did well. Then he wasn’t. Falls happen. We don’t know why his did, it just did.
Some have compared this movie with “Rocky” — both are about gentle giants, working class bruisers, who make their living in the ring — but the comparisons end there. “Rocky” is about a guy who never made it but is given a chance. “The Wrestler” is about a guy who did make it…and then has everything taken away. That’s what the movie is about. What do you do when everything is taken away? What do you do when you reach the dead end?
There’s an answer.
Movie Review: Marley & Me (2008)
I went to Marley & Me because Patricia wanted to go, and because we were visiting family and it seemed the kind of film the nephews (Ryan, 5, and Jordy, 7) could see as well, but I expected little. I hadn’t read the best-seller on which it was based. Hadn’t friends told me it was sappy? Didn't it play upon our love of cute puppies? You could argue a yellow-lab puppy on a movie poster isn’t much different than a bikini-clad girl on a movie poster: our covetedness of what’s on the poster is in inverse proportion to the movie’s probable worth.
Yet Marley & Me, shockingly, contains something like the messiness of life. It’s a good life, admittedly, and a life that doesn’t exist much anymore. The main characters, John and Jennifer Grogan (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston), recently married, try to find a place in an industry, newspapers, that’s still thriving in the early 1990s. They’re beautiful and blonde, and live in a sunny state (Florida), but they’re not all sunny. Choices are made but doubts remain. Opportunities are given (a lifestyle column) but original plans die hard.
John wants to be a crack investigative journalist like his friend Sebastian, and he envies the man’s swinging bachelor lifestyle. But Jennifer wants kids. Sebastian, hearing John’s dilemma, suggests a dog, and the couple winds up with the title character, a yellow-lab puppy, the world’s worst dog. Cue misadventures. It’s fun stuff. And who doesn’t love an umanageable dog that’s owned by someone else?
But the movie isn’t really about the dog. Or if it is, it’s about what the dog represents: messiness. Most films excise messiness; Marley & Me doesn’t because messiness is the point.
So John and Jennifer decide to have kids, but she has a miscarriage...on the way to having three kids. It would’ve been easy, as a screenwriter, as a director, to get rid of the miscarriage — it didn’t add greatly to the movie — but they kept it in.
So the neighborhood they live in is dicey — a neighbor is attacked and knifed by her car — and you think, “Ah, this is how Marley shows his worth. He gets the guy preying on the neighborhood.” No. John and Jennifer simply move. To a bigger house in a better neighborhood. Then to an even bigger house in another state. Life keeps happening.
Halfway through, there’s a montage, the “wrote a column about...” montage, that is one of the better examples of the device I’ve seen. Most modern montages borrow from Rocky as a quick way to show the title character improving, but Marley’s montage merely shows life happening and is thus infinitely relatable. Most of us don’t improve the way Rocky improves. (Sorry.) We just wind up in a place where we wonder: “How did I get a spouse and kids and this home and this job? How did I get fat and old? This wasn’t part of the plan.” Marley is like the movie version of that great John Lennon line: Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
There’s a nice scene near the end between Sebastian, now a star with The New York Times, and John, a reporter for a Philadelphia newspaper, meeting by happenstance in downtown Philly. They exchange greetings, John shows a photo of the family, and there it is: Something like envy in Sebastian’s look and voice. Each envies the other’s life but each is happy enough with his own life. There’s a kind of melancholy in this. It’s not that we make good or bad choices; it’s that everyday, by the choices we make, we kill off other ways we might be. There’s great sadness in this.
Am I making too much out of what is, after all, only a dog movie? I don’t think so. Screenwriter Scott Frank is responsible for writing Minority Report, Out of Sight, Get Shorty; director David Frankel not only directed The Devil Wears Prada (another nice surprise) but is the son of Max Frankel, longtime executive editor of The New York Times, and so knows his way around a newsroom. I’m not saying the movie’s brilliant. I’m just saying that in the battle between sappy and true, more often than not, they opted for true.
We had our own messiness just going to the film. The 5-year-old threw a tantrum and stayed home and a lot of the film was over the head of the 7-year-old. Jordy has his own Marley — Seymour, the world’s most underfoot dog — and we worried how he would take the death of Marley. At the least, he seemed to take it better than Patricia, who cried for the last 10 minutes, but we’re not sure. We talked about it on the way to the car, and in the car, but I was beginning to feel the affects of an attack of bronchitis and wasn’t sharp enough or attentive enough to gauge Jordy’s reaction. More messiness. Anyway Jordy was off in his own world. He was busy making other plans. Most likely about the adventures of Lego Indiana Jones on the Wii.
One-Sentence Review: “Slumdog Millionaire”
Proves that the three universals in our world are love, pain and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
Two-Minute Review: Quantum of Solace (2008)
Went to see “Quantum of Solace” last night and there were so many quick-cuts in the first two minutes I felt like Grandpa Simpson: Whuzzat? Hoozat? Whassaguy? There were probably more quick-cuts in those two minutes than in all of “Dr. No.” An old complaint, but the movies keep moving away from a story-telling form to a mere sensory delivery mechanism. The point isn't to know who's in which car which is going where but to experience life as faster and more thrilling than it can ever be. “James Bond,” in a way, has never been more superfluous.
SPOILER ALERT. “Quantum” got mixed reviews (65% on Rotten Tomatoes), which isn't a surprise. The surprise is that so many critics liked it. “Casino Royale” was a good movie, a classic reboot, but this thing is just noise. Bond has become the terminator. Does he ever sleep? He wounds now but the wounds don't seem to hurt. And what exactly to make of the plot? This organization (Quantum?) winds up controlling most of the water in Bolivia in order to...double the price of water. Basically they're Standard Oil. They monopolize a product and then raise the price of the product. A far cry from SPECTRE. Dominic Greene seems the leader of this organization but turns out to be just another flunky. And why should Bond leave him in the desert when he could take him back to MI6 and extract information out of him? What happened to delivering the bad guys to justice rather than torturing them in some random way?
Nice Goldfinger homage with Fields. Great Jeffrey Wright cameo. (For the first time, I wanted to see the Felix Leiter movie more than the James Bond movie.) And Daniel Craig on the motorbike looked more Steve McQueen than ever.
BTW: Did he ever sleep with the Bond girl? I forget. Isn't that awful? I should know but it didn't even register. Someone needs to slow these things down before they become movies for mosquitoes.
Two Minute Review: W. (2008)
Oliver Stone’s W. is like our 43rd president’s greatest hits. Here he is chug-a-lugging at Yale and here he is finding Jesus and here he is failing at oil rigs, and oil drilling, and running for Congress. Here he is choking on a pretzel.
Stone intercuts these familiar incidents with the familiar arguments, dramatized over presidential lunches and Oval Office meetings and cabinet meetings, that led us into Iraq. It’s straightforward storytelling — particularly for Stone. Hell, it’s almost breezy. The two hours go by like that, and Josh Brolin, in the lead, is amazing. He gives us a complex portrait of a very simple man.
It’s a father-son film. “You disappoint me, Junior,” Herbert Walker tells him early on. “Deeply disappoint me.” He tells him, “You only get one bite at the apple,” but W. keeps biting and missing. He drinks, carouses, goes after girls. He can’t find himself. Even after he finds Laura, and Jesus, and helps his father get elected the 41st president of the United States, he’s disappointed. Greatness escapes him. Hell, mediocrity escapes him. You go in wondering if Stone’s portrait of W. will be different from our own image of W. and it isn’t. What you see is what you get. Yes, he’s that thick, that muddled, and yet that certain. The film implies that certain Machiavellian types (Rove, Cheney) manipulate W. into going where he already wants to go (into politics, into Iraq), and it feels true, but it’s not like we’re learning anything here. I learned, or re-learned (did I ever know it?) that W. speaks Spanish but that’s the only time I remember being surprised by the title character.
Since so much of the story is familiar, since, like the subject, there’s not much there there, we might have to wait years before we figure out if the movie is any good. It really is too close to us to gauge. It’s a tragedy, certainly, and the tragedy is that in trying to win his father’s love, or outdo what his father did, or make up for his father’s great loss, W. — yes, aided and abetted by a motley crew — put us on a calamitous national and international path... and yet still can’t think of one thing he did wrong. That lack of introspection is his tragedy. The rest of it is ours.
Two Minute Review: Burn After Reading (2008)
Burn After Reading may be the most depressing comedy I’ve ever seen. I left the theater in a daze. I wanted a shower. I wondered how the Coen Bros. could sleep at night. I wondered how they could keep from blowing their brains out with such a view of humanity.
It’s not that their characters are greedy, grasping, callous and stupid. It’s the smallness of what they’re greedy about and grasping after. Even tragedy elevates humanity because it implies a greatness from which we can fall. This thing? Smallness everywhere. Smallness overwhelms.
So Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) gets canned from the CIA for a minor breach and decides to write his memoirs, always pronounced with a self-important, nails-on-the-chalkboard lilt, and his wife, the coldest of pediatricians (Tilda Swinton), who’s having an affair with FBI man Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), refuses to understand, or care, and files for divorce. Through this process the unfinished memoir winds up in the hands of a pair of gym-club idiots: Linda Litzke (Francis McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). Linda wants cosmetic surgery to stay in the dating game, doesn’t understand why her insurance won’t pay for it, and decides to blackmail Cox to get the money. Chad? What does he want? He’s such an idiot, such a beautiful idiot, he doesn’t even have a plan like everyone else. This makes him my favorite character in the film. At least he’s not grasping after smallness. He’s just gloriously stupid.
Contemplating what everyone else in the film is grasping after can only drive you into depression. Cox wants retribution against the CIA but doesn’t have the discipline to finish his book and winds up half-drunk and watching “Family Feud” each early afternoon. Litzke wants cosmetic surgery — a temporary salve for a not-pretty woman. Pfarrer uses Internet dating to sleep around on his wife, with women who aren’t even attractive, and then crumbles when his wife, with an affair of her own, files for divorce. He’s also happily building something secret in his basement. Turns out to be a laughably pornographic, sad little machine. It’s almost a relief when people begin dying.
Yes, Burn After Reading is well-made. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t have had the effect it had on me. But there’s no one in it with the smallest amount of grace. The Big Lebowski at least had the Dude, but here the Coens took him away, even the possibility of him, and left us bereft.
I’ve always considered myself a bit of a misanthrope but now I know: Next to the Coens I’m a freaking Pollyanna.
Two Minute Review: Religulous (2008)
In the aftermath of the 2004 election, where a simplistic absolutism had once again beaten a more profound relativism, I began to wonder what I was truly certain about in this world. It was almost a childish lament. Man, everyone’s having fun with absolutism but me.
I lived in an age of fundamentalism and here I was, an agnostic, and what could an agnostic, who is basically giving the shrug of all shrugs, be certain about?
Slowly it hit me. I was a fundamentalist of sorts. I was a fundamentalist agnostic. Because not only did I know that I didn’t know, but I know that you didn’t know either. And Billy Graham didn’t know. And the Dali Lama didn’t know. And Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t know. None of us knew. We all had guesses. And for most of the history of the known world, we’ve been killing each other over these guesses.
All of which is lead-in to Bill Maher’s new documentary, Religulous.
Let me state right out that I don’t find Maher off-the-wall funny — the way that, say, John Stewart and Stephen Colbert are off-the-wall funny. He’s hit-or-miss. He’s often too pleased with his own jokes, he’s a bit doctrinaire, particularly on the subject of religion, and his latest advice to Barack Obama — to punch more, to hit back mean and hard — may please Maher, and may even please me, and may even have helped win the 2004 election (which was more about the Iraq War and the War on Terror), but it’s bad advice on winning this election, which is more about the economy and extricating ourselves from the Thousand Crises of the Bush Administration.
So I didn’t expect much from Religulous. But man is it funny.
Maher is also a fundamentalist agnostic. He’s as dismissive of the certainty of atheists as he is of the certainty of fundamentalist Christians. He preaches the gospel of Doubt. That’s my kind of church.
Sure, some of his targets are easy. And he doesn’t really differentiate between the obvious charlatans of religion (a man who claims to be the second coming of Christ) and the people who appear to be fooling themselves (a homosexual who has gone straight and tries to straighten other homosexuals via Christianity) and the myriad true believers he meets. And he gets too certain and preachy in the end.
But the movie will make you laugh.
Stuck between two women at the SEX AND THE CITY premiere
After a spectacular Friday, in which it was estimated that it grossed over $26 million, it looks like Sex and the City has calmed down a bit. The overall weekend estimate is now only about twice its Friday total: $55 million. Still, not bad for a chick flick. In fact, a record.
I was part of that Friday crowd, by the way, sitting between my girlfriend Patricia and her friend Paige in a theater in downtown Seattle crowded with women, most of whom, like their heroines onscreen, came accessorized with fashion and friends. Patricia’s lament when she saw the other women there was like the lament of the Star Wars geek seeing all the light sabers and Darth Vader masks at the Star Wars premiere: “I should’ve dressed up.”
The movie? Not good. Five episodes strung together. Five high-strung episodes. Carrie and Big are about to be married, but he gets momentary cold feet at the altar for which she can’t forgive him. The rest is recovery, licking wounds, gaining the wisdom to forgive again.
What’s the appeal of Sex and the City for women? I assume it’s the two accessories: fashion and friends. The two constant F’s in life when that third F is more inconsistent. It’s another gender's wish fulfillment. When your dream wedding goes kaput and you’re catatonic, your friends care enough to drop everything, and are powerful enough to manipulate everything, to whisk you away to Mexico for a vacation for four. You don’t even need to thank or acknowledge them. What are friends for?
Of course you’re only in this predicament because of one of your friends. One wonders about Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) in this movie. She was always a bit of a bitch, and not in a good way, but here she’s just awful. She avoids sex with her husband for six months, then boots him out when he tearfully confesses (a la Michael Murphy in An Unmarried Woman) to sleeping with another woman. She pressures Carrie into marrying Big (because he owns their penthouse apartment and what does Carrie own?) and then, during the rehearsal dinner, tells Big that he and Carrie are crazy for getting married (because look what happened to her and Steve!). This leads to Big’s cold feet. She doesn’t tell Carrie this for five months and then, when she does, she doesn’t give Carrie the space to forgive her on her own. But friendship is what the movie is about so she’s there for the happy ending.
Ask women with which Sex character they identify and most will respond: “Carrie.” She’s the main character and the least stereotyped of the four. The others: sex-hungry cougar; naive sweetie; workaholic. It’s still not a flattering comparison. In their own ways, both Samantha (Kim Catrall) and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) are much more caring than Carrie. Carrie is as solipsistic in her happiness as she is in her sadness. It’s all about her. She’s also, to be honest, a pretty lousy writer with fairly pedestrian thoughts. In the movie she needs to hire a personal assistant, but, beyond getting a black face in the crowd (Jennifer Hudson's), one wonders why. Carrie’s not writing. And if she’s not writing, what is she doing? Can’t she put her own damn clothes away?
The true accessory in the movie — more than in the show, even — is men. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film where men are so central in theory yet so peripheral in practice. All the boyfriends and husbands are lucky to get in a good line of dialogue. Well, line of dialogue, since most of the dialogue isn’t good, although Candice Bergen as the editor of Vogue gets off a great one about any bride over 40 having trouble avoiding “that unfortunate Diane Arbus subtext.”
I'll admit it was fascinating going to the movie, particularly opening day, but it's a little odd hanging out in the wish-fulifillment fantasies of the other gender for two hours and 20 minutes. Afterwards, I desperately needed a beer and “Baseball Tonight." But I did win a $5 bet with Paige. She thought Sex would do as well as Iron Man's opening weekend. Girls.
Movie Review: Avenue Montaigne (2006)
AVENUE MONTAIGNE did pretty well in American theaters last year — a little over $2 million — which doesn’t surprise since it feels a little like an American film.
A smalltown girl, Jessica (Cecilie De France), gets a job as a waitress at Bar des Theatres in Paris, which caters to the rich and theatrical crowd along Avenue Montaigne, and she gets involved, rather quickly, in several of their storylines: a soap actress, Catherine Verson (Valerie Lemercie), who hopes to get into movies, specifically a new (Hollywood?) biopic of Simone de Beauvior directed by Brian Sobinski (Sydney Pollack); a concert pianist, Jean-Francois Lefort (Albert Dupontel), who is tired of playing concerts; and an art collector, Jacques Grumberg (Claude Brasseur), who is selling his art collection. An early encounter between Grumberg and Lefourt is indicative of what makes the film worthwhile.
Lefort has stepped outside for air — he’s suffocating in the concert world, at one point even telling a visiting Japanese journalist, “I believe in God but I think religion keeps us from God, just as classical concerts keep us from music” — and, on the street, he’s recognized by Grumberg, who is supervising the unloading of his artwork. Lefort looks slightly panicked at the recognition but Grumberg is at ease as his approaches and shakes Lefort’s hand:
Grumberg: You don’t know recognize me?
Lefort: I do.
Grumberg: No, you don’t.
Lefort (laughs, sheepish): No.
Turns out Lefort dined at Grumberg’s apartment after a concert. A beat later, Lefort remembers: “The fabulous blue Braque!” Turns out Grumberg is selling it, along with everything else in his collection. Lefort is now curious, and, seemingly, envious. Why sell everything? Grumberg says, “A collection is like life. When its heart stops beating, it’s over.” He looks around. “I began as a cabbie. I don’t want to end as a museum guard.”
It’s a great line that bears repeating, but when Grumberg does, to his son, the son completes it because he’s heard it too many times. These two are estranged, and, in French fashion, sharing the same mistress. Or, rather, the son’s mistress is the father’s girlfriend.
The son starts out as unlikeable, gets less so. But, oddly, the least likeable character in the film is Jessica, who is supposedly wide-eyed and talkative and honest in a world in which many artists and art collectors are suffering crises of mid- or old-life. It should be them, with their complaints amid comfort, who annoy. Instead it’s her. I’m not sure why, or if I should blame the character or the director or the actress (I didn’t like De France in AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, either), but Jessica, just arrived in Paris and working all day without a place to stay, exudes a sense of privilege at odds with the precariousness of her situation. She doesn’t seem serious enough about her job, which she was lucky enough to get, but loiters, lingers, and tells these artists her not-brilliant thoughts. Maybe it’s because she presumes too much. Maybe it’s because she acts like the center-of-attention when the world shouldn’t care who she is. The movie, you can tell, loves her for it, which makes her all the more annoying. Me, I dug her boss, who’s seen as a bit of martinet, because he takes his work, such as it is, seriously. I like people who take their work, such as it is, seriously. It’s easy for artists to take their work seriously; but people in service occupations? Who have to be nice? To people? All the time? Now that’s admirable. Let’s face it: In a world of Jessicas, the Bar des Theatres disappears.
I also loved Verson, and the messiness of her eating and talking and living (she presumes nothing), but mostly I loved Grumberg and his old-age wisdom and shrug. He’s who I want to become — young mistress aside. OK, with the mistress.
The main conflicts in the film — will Grumberg sell, will Lefort quit, will Verson get the role? — resolve themselves as you think they will. And cleanly. It’s a very clean film that feels like it’s pushing (one might even say pimping) Paris on us. Romance everywhere, etc. In the end the two least likeable characters get together for a smooch over a small cafe table. I don’t know if that’s romance or its opposite but it still feels like too much of a Hollywood ending for such a French film.
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