erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2000s posts

Friday December 19, 2014

Movie Review: Please Teach Me English (2003)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Comedies don’t travel well, but since I taught English abroad—Taiwan, late 1980s—I thought Kim Sung-su’s South Korean comedy, “Please Teach Me English,” might work for me. And it does, for the most part, but I doubt I needed the ESL experience to appreciate it.

The comedy is pretty broad. At times it’s really broad. There are bells and whistles: thought balloons popping up on screen, cartoon versions of the lead character, a video game takeoff of ESL. It’s fun. But it goes on about a half hour too long. In the boy-meets-girl playbook, it plays like this:

  1. Girl meets boy
  2. Boy is a jerk
  3. Boy becomes less of a jerk
  4. Girl becomes more of a jerk
  5. Girl does something so awful I lost all interest in her
  6. Boy gets girl

If I were the filmmakers, I might have lost step 5.

A financial Sophie’s Choice
It begins well. Slow-motion panic enuses at a government office in Seoul when an American shows up to complain about his electricity bill. Please Teach Me EnglishEveryone ducks out of the way, unsure of their English ability, and afterwards at a restaurant/bar they all play spin the bottle to see who in the office will take English lessons to deal with foreigners in the future. The bottle lands on our heroine, Na Yeong-ju (Lee Na-yeong), who might be one of the few people in Asia who doesn’t want to learn English.

But off she goes, meets the cute boy, Park Moon-su (Jang Hyuk)—the smooth “playa” in her class whom the cute blonde teacher, Catherine (Angela Kelly), dubs “Elvis” for his sideburns. He eminates nothing but disinterest, not to mention a lazy kind of loutishness, but she’s smitten anyway. She does whatever she can to land him.

Since this is Asian cinema, there’s pathos amid the comedy. Years earlier, Moon-su’s mother faced a kind of financial Sophie’s Choice: She had two children, couldn’t afford both, so she gave up the daughter, Victoria. Now Victoria is a successful attorney in New York and coming to visit for the first time. That’s why Moon-su, a shoe salesman, is taking the ESL course—so they can talk between the tears.

Of course, just when our romantic couple is about to get together (step 3, above), Yeong-ju finds the photo of the pretty Korean girl in his wallet, assumes it’s Moon-su’s girlfriend rather than his long-lost sister, and retreats. He pursues. She retreats again. And again. Then she does step 5. Corralled into translating for mother and daughter, and still assuming Victoria is the girlfriend rather than the sister, Yoeng-ju tells Victoria that the mother and Moon-su both hate her and never want to see her again. It’s a pretty horrible moment. But then she goes the other way—flinging herself in front of Victoria’s cab to tell her the truth—before running away again, pursed by Moon-su, who, in a nice bit, if one that goes on too long, finally corners her on a subway and slips on her feet the red shoes she’s always wanted while professing his love for her. Applause from the people in the subway. Cinderella wins, even though she was a total jerk 10 minutes earlier.

War in somewhere
It’s not bad, not great, but what recommends the movie for me is its take on English and America: from the colorful and confusing corporate logos swirling around Yeong-ju as she rides the bus, to the Hollywood SWAT team that, in Yeong-ju’s nightmare, bursts in on their class and demands they answer a question in English at gunpoint: What is your favorite movie?

But my favorite moment was when Yeong-ju was watching CNN as a way to improve her English. A western correspondent in fatigues was reporting from abroad. The headline? WAR IN SOMEWHERE. Nothing says “America” more than that.

SLIDESHOW


  • START: What does Na Yeong-ju want? To live in a world where she won''t have to speak English. 

  • The world doesn''t cooperate. 

  • But at least in ESL class she meets a cute boy. 

  • Unfortunately, he''s a jerk. 

  • Fortunately, she's goofy. 

  • But there's all those damn western girls around. (Psst: They put out.)

  • Meanwhile, ESL is as scary as a video game. 

  • Or a SWAT team nightmare. 

  • But is anything as scary as U.S. foreign policy? *FIN*

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Posted at 07:41 AM on Dec 19, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Sunday May 04, 2014

Movie Review: Spider-Man 2 (2004)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Is “Spider-Man 2” the greatest superhero movie ever made? I’ve stated so in the past, but we’ll see how I feel at the end of this review.

The movie is based upon one of the classics of the Silver Age of Comics, Spider-Man #50, “Spider-Man No More!,” written by Stan Lee and drawn by John Romita and published in July 1967, in which our hero, tired of losing as Peter Parker as often as he wins as Spider-Man, dumps the Spidey costume in a back alley and gets on with his life. It’s all going fine until he spies an old security guard being roughed up by hoods and comes to his rescue. Why does he save him? Because the old man reminds him ... of course! … of Uncle Ben! How could he forget? Indeed. How could Peter forget the man who raised him but lost his life because Peter was too busy making money as Spider-Man to stop a simple thief? That’s like Adam and Eve forgetting the snake. And that’s the main problem with Spider-Man #50.

Spider-Man 2Director Sam Raimi and screenwriter Alvin Sargent, working off a story by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and famed novelist Michael Chabon, go a slightly different route. Just as their first movie, “Spider-Man,” internalized Spidey’s webs, making them part of his physiology rather than a weekend Peter Parker science project (thwip!), so “Spider-Man 2” internalizes the “No more!” part. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) gives up being Spider-Man because he actually loses his powers. He never forgets his Uncle Ben.

Forget him? Shit. He’s haunted by him.

Worst. Party. Ever.
This is the superhero movie, by the way, that most reminds me of the period when I was collecting comic books: roughly 1973 to 1977. It’s Gerry Conway’s Spider-Man. No Spider-Mobile, thank god, but Pete’s got the tenement walk-up, the rent is due, and he’s failing his classes. Everything that can go wrong, does. In the movie, he’s fired as a pizza delivery guy, then forced to take J.J.J.’s crap pay so J.J.J. (J.K. Simmons) can turn the city against him. Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is losing her house, Harry Osborn (James Franco) is obsessed with revenge, and M.J. (Kirsten Dunst) is dating a handsome astronaut, who just happens to be J.J.J.’s son, John (Daniel Gillies). You wonder when Pete’s going to break.

He does in bits. He’s web-slinging through the city and suddenly ... no web. He looks over a tall building and feels vertigo. But he still turns into Spidey to save: 1) the city from Otto Octavius’ botched fusion reaction experiment; and 2) Aunt May from a bank-robbing Doc Ock. But the third time? Bupkis. No web, no grip, no nothing. “Why is this happening to me?” he says. His doctor, tapping his noggin, tells him the problem is “up here.”

Later, up there, Pete debates a ghostly Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson):

Uncle Ben: You’ve been given a gift, Peter. With great power comes great responsibility.
Peter: No, Uncle Ben. I’m just Peter Parker. I’m Spider-Man no more.

Cut to: a goofy montage of everything going Pete’s way, backed by Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”

But to get back to his earlier question: Why is this happening to him?

Back in 2004, I assumed it was the weight of all of it: Harry, Aunt May, J.J.J., M.J., Aasif Mandvi. But it’s not. It’s just M.J.

The clue comes early, during a kitchen table conversation with Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina). “If you keep something as complicated as love stored up,” Octavius tells him, holding hands with his wife, “it can make you sick.” And so it does.

The final straw is a brutal one. J.J.J. hires Pete to photograph a big event for his son. Harry’s there, drinking, being an asshole, and obsessing over “your friend, the bug.” M.J., now a successful model and actress, is there, too, on the balcony, cold and distant, and Pete, at the 11th hour, and against all logic, tries to save the day with 19th-century British poetry. For some reason it doesn’t work. “I don’t know you,” M.J. says. She tells him that John—who will get her drink, thank you—has seen her play five times, Harry twice, Aunt May once. Him? Never. “After all these years,” she says, “he’s nothing to me but an empty seat.” After that, in short order, 1) a drunk, belligerent Harry accuses Pete of stealing his father’s love and letting him die, then 2) slaps him repeatedly (where are those Spidey reflexes when Pete needs them?), before 3) John Jameson announces his engagement to M.J. as everyone cheers. And even that’s not the low point. The low point is when J.J.J. shouts, “Parker, wake up! Shoot the picture!” and a stunned, heartbroken Peter, with the sting of his best friend’s slaps still on his cheeks, is forced to photograph the engagement announcement of the woman he loves to another man.

After a day like that, you’d lose your powers, too.

Nobel prize, Otto
Even so, how stupid is Peter Parker? He only goes after M.J. once she’s gone. And with poetry? My god, that’s dumb. Pete’s dumb, J.J.J. is oblivious, and everyone else is brutal. Seriously. The problem with Peter Parker isn’t the weight of being Spider-Man; it’s that he chooses lousy friends.

Even as just Peter Parker, life’s still screwed up. When he tells Aunt May he’s the one responsible for Uncle Ben’s death, she simply walks away from him without a word. When he saves a kid from a burning building, a fireman deflects his heroics by saying, “Some poor soul got trapped on the fourth floor.” When the skinny daughter of his Russian landlord brings him milk and cake, their time together is awkward and cringeworthy.

So how does Spidey get his groove back? It begins with Aunt May. She can’t afford the mortgage anymore so she’s moving into an apartment. (BTW: Shouldn’t Uncle Ben have paid off this mortgage, like, years earlier? What was he spending his money on? Booze? Broads? Gambling? Forget Pete’s parents; that’s the retcon story I’d like to see.) As Pete’s helping with the move, or at least standing around like a goober, Aunt May gives this speech about the missing Spider-Man. It’s basically a Gipper speech:

I believe there's a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride—even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.

Hey! Every emotion Pete’s trying to sort through in this movie! What a coincidence.

By the way: Does Aunt May know? That he’s Spider-Man? You almost get a glimmer of recognition earlier when he yells “Hang on!” as she’s clinging to the side of the building while he’s battling Doc Ock.

Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) in Spider-Man 2

More than terrified: A look that says, “Wait a minute, I know that voice ...”

It’s like she recognizes the voice beneath the mask. You get a glimmer during her Gipper speech, too. I mean, why say all this to Peter Parker, mousy NYU science student? Because of his cowardice at the bank? Is she trying to make him a hero? With this speech? “Peter, be a hero because it sucks.” Either she knows he’s Spider-Man or it’s bad storytelling.

Then we get more “I’m ready, you’re not”/ “No, you’re ready and I’m not” from M.J. and Peter. Seriously, these two. Seriously, M.J. It’s not just going hot and cold with Pete. It’s not just calling Peter “a great big jerk” and not inviting him to the wedding. It’s the idiocy with the kiss. In the first movie, Spider-Man kissed M.J. upside-down in the rain (you remember), so M.J. is trying to figure out who Spider-Man is by kissing guys. Or at least two guys. First, it’s John, her fiancé, and that makes tons of sense. He’s only the son of the man who has made a career making a villain out of Spider-Man. Is she even thinking? Then she tries to kiss Peter at the coffeeshop. Because Spidey and Peter are connected by the photographs? Because Peter “changed” just as Spidey “retired”? Who knows? Who knows what goes on inside that woman’s head?

But that’s the moment we begin the rest of the movie: As M.J. is puckering up, the car comes crashing through the coffeeshop window, Doc Ock appears and takes M.J., saying, “I’ll peel the flesh off her bones,” snap snap. Then Pete loses his myopia, turns back into Spidey, battles Doc Ock on an elevated train, battles him by the river, and M.J. sees who Spider-Man really is. Wedding with John? Nope. She’s a runaway bride. “Go get ‘em, Tiger.” The End. 

Can I complain before we get into the end? How much of an idiot Doc Ock is, too? At the coffeeshop, he needs Peter to contact Spider-Man. Yet if not for Pete’s Spidey powers, which Ock doesn’t know about, he would’ve killed him. Twice. Once when he sent the car through the window and the second time when he slammed him into the wall and it fell on top of him. Smart, Otto. Nobel prize, Otto.

And look, I get Sam Raimi’s background as a horror director, and it led to that great scene in the hospital room where Octavius’ arms take out the surgery team. But, dude, what’s up with all the screaming women? It’s half the movie.

SLIDESHOW: The Terrified Women of Spider-Man 2


  • Ock's wife is our first terror victim.

  • Then the nurses at the hospital get into the act.

  • Ah, the old fingernails stand-by.

  • Ock terrifies the secretary pool ... or excites them. Is it a supervillain outside or the Beatles?

  • Hey, this one can act! Hire her.  

And what’s with all of the gratuitous shots of pretty women? Who does a girl have to fuck to not be in this movie?

hot girls in Spider-Man 2

But we still get a great ending.

The great ending
The battle sequences throughout the movie are amazing. They stand up 10 years later. Up and down skyscrapers? My god, it’s a comic book brought to life.

But the elevated train sequence elevates things a notch.  

Spidey keeps getting knocked off the “el” and slinging his way back on. Doc Ock grabs two passengers and throws them to the winds but Spidey saves them. You almost hear Ock’s “Bah!,” his great unspoken “Bah!,” as, fed up with nickel and diming it, he destroys the train’s controls and leaves it shooting like a bullet through Manhattan. Maskless at this point, Spidey can only save the passengers by exhausting himself, at which point we get our greatest version of the superhero pieta: Spidey, supine, passed over the heads of the passengers and into the safety of the train compartment. “He’s ... just a kid,” a man in a Mets cap says, and that says it all. If Peter Parker’s secret is that he’s truly powerful, Spider-Man’s secret is that he’s truly vulnerable. He is just a kid. Back in 2007, when I wrote a “Top 10 Superhero Movie Scenes” list for MSNBC, that scene landed at No. 3.

But it gets better.

At the river’s edge, Ock is using the tritium he got from Harry to recreate the botched fusion reaction experiment. He thinks it’ll work this time but it doesn’t. Same deal: small sun, huge gravitational pull. What to do? Spider-Man tries to appeal to the humanity inside Doc Ock by revealing his own: He takes off his mask. For a moment, it works. “Peter Parker,” Ock says, smiling. Then he remembers an earlier line and relays it again with amusement: “Brilliant but lazy.”

Can I pause to compliment the casting here? We get the best J.J.J. and the best Aunt May we’ll ever get. Molina is not only our best Spider-Man villain, but, I’d argue, one of the best superhero villains of all time. And that’s tough competition: Heath Ledger’s Joker, Ian McKellen’s Magneto, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, Sam Jackson’s Mr. Glass. But I’d put Molina top 5. He not only terrorizes the city and us, he wins back his humanity. The way he says, “You’re right,” to Peter after Peter repeats Aunt May’s self-sacrificing words to him. It’s lovely to watch an actor think on screen. Molina helps make the movie.

But what really makes the movie is The Shot. It’s the culmination of 100 years of superhero-making.

From the Scarlet Pimpernel to Zorro to Superman to Spider-Man, there’s been a girl. The girl loves the hero but dislikes, or is disappointed in, or doesn’t even acknowledge, the hero in his secret form. It’s the classic love triangle of superherodom and a solace for unrequited lovers everywhere. I.e., she rejects the nerdy me (Clark) because she doesn’t see the real me (Superman). She rejects me because she fails to see what’s super in me. The superhero love triangle plays upon our deepest, saddest fantasies. And here, in one scene, the girl finally gets it. The disconnect is connected. The two men become one.

Kirsten Dunst, bless her heart, pulls it off. A shocked intake of breath, a camera close-up as myriad emotions cross her face, ending in a small, grateful smile. It all makes sense now.

That scene, by the way, was No. 1 on my list of the “Top 10 Superhero Movie Scenes.”

M.J. in the window
So: Is “Spider-Man 2” the greatest superhero movie ever made?

IMDb.com users certainly don’t think so. They give it a 7.4 on a scale of 0-10. That’s 1.6 less than “The Dark Knight,” of which I’m not a huge fan. It’s in the 10-20 category of superhero movies.

All superhero movies have faults. They have to. They’re absurd. Spider bites don’t turn us into spider-men, gamma radiation doesn’t turn us into hulks, men from other planets don’t develop god-like powers because of Earth’s sun. Plus the movies make their own mistakes. The Joker’s machinations are impossibly complex, Hulk has daddy issues, Superman joins the anti-nuke movement.

The faults of “Spider-Man 2” are more numerous than I remembered: Peter is stupid with poetry, M.J. and Harry are both bitter, and who doesn’t find out Peter is Spider-Man? Probably just Aasif Mondvi. But everything else works. Even 10 years later, the battle sequences are stunning.

We even get an ending as ambiguous as “The Graduate.” Remember it? Yes, M.J. is a runaway bride, and yes, she shows up at Peter’s tenement walk-up, and yes, they finally, finally kiss. Then she lets Spidey be Spidey. He hears a siren, he knows what he has to do, and she says, a la M.J. in the ‘60s comic books, “Go get ‘em, Tiger.” So off he goes, web-slinging through the canyons of Manhattan, wahoo. But instead of ending right there, Raimi cuts back to M.J. in the window, worried and filled with doubt. This is the burden she carries now. Because the man she loves risks his life every day.

Or maybe she’s simply anticipating the disaster of “Spider-Man 3.”

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Posted at 07:18 AM on May 04, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Friday March 21, 2014

Movie Review: Sin City (2005)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s a little like Fox News, isn’t it? Grizzled old white dudes and babes. Moral righteousness leading to torture. A mangling of the English language. Prostitution.

I’m looking at you, Greta van Susteren.

I’ll give “Sin City” this: It’s the most comic-booky of movies. Entire shots look like comic panels. There’s a beautiful, hand-drawn simplicity in the look even as there’s confusion about the directors. The movie was “shot and cut” by Robert Rodriguez, but it was “directed” by Rodriguez and Frank Miller, the writer-artist of the “Sin City” graphic novels, while Quentin Tarantino is listed as a “guest director.” Sin City posterApparently, he did one small, forgettable scene.

For all these hands, not to mention the three-plus storylines, there’s cohesion here. It’s all of a piece. It connects and interconnects. But it’s putrid. It reveals a sick society. Not the one in the movie but the one that watches the movie.

Cool and cruel
“Sin City” worships at the twin altars of cool and cruel. Its heroes are cool, with scarred faces and overcoats swirling like capes in the wind, and they speak in the sentence fragments of Mickey Spillane: “Just one hour to go. My last day on the job. Early retirement. Not my idea. Doctor’s orders. Heart condition.”

They’re also cruel. It’s not enough to kill the bad guys; they need to torture them first. I’m reminded of Nathan Zuckerman’s line from Philip Roth’s novel “Zuckerman Unbound.” It’s 1969, and in the wake of MLK and RFK and someone taking a potshot at his old professor through his study window, Zuckerman thinks, “Blowing people apart seemed to have replaced the roundhouse punch in the daydreams of the aggrieved: only annihilation gave satisfaction that lasted.” Now even annihilation isn’t enough. Now you have to tie them to a tree and cut off their arms and legs and summon the dogs.

We get three stories about grizzled, tough men fighting an almost superhuman corruption on behalf of a sexy, female purity.

In the bookending stories, Hartigan (Bruce Willis), a cop with the proverbial day to go before retirement, plus a heart condition, risks it all to save an 11-year-old girl, Nancy, from the clutches of a deranged child molester/torturer, Roark Jr. (Nick Stahl), who just happens to be the protected son of U.S. Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). Hartigan succeeds, but his partner, Bob (Michael Madsen), has been bought, and shoots him and leaves him for dead. “An old man dies, a little girl lives,” Hartigan thinks. “Fair trade.” Except he’s not dead. More on that later.

In the second story, superstrong Marv (Mickey Rourke), with a face as blunt as the old Spider-Man villain Hammerhead, is enjoying a night with a beautiful blonde named Goldie (Jamie King) on a heart-shaped bed. She’s in color, he’s not. (Most of the women in this thing are in color.) Goldie smells like angels ought to smell. She’s the perfect woman. A goddess. So says Marv in voiceover. Then he wakes up beside her corpse, framed for the murder. The rest of the story is less to clear his name than avenge Goldie’s killer. It was one night with a prostitute but Marv is in love.

He gets intel from his parole officer, Lucille (Carla Gugino), nekkid, va-va-voomy, gay. “She’s a dyke but god knows why,” Marv tells us. “With that body of hers she could have any man she wants.” Right, but she doesn’t want. This attitude permeates the movie.

He gets intel holding a man’s head in the toilet. “It was Connelly!” the dude sputters. “But he won’t talk.” CUT TO: Marv holding a man’s face on the ground as he drives his car around town. To us: “Connelly talks. They all talk.” This attitude permeates the movie.

The villain? A supersilent cannibal named Kevin (Elijah Wood), who eats prostitutes with the movie’s true villain, Cardinal Patrick Henry Roark (Rutger Hauer), the most powerful man in the state. His brother is a U.S. Senator because of him. He owns the cops. And he’s got a taste for flesh. Or souls. “He ate their souls,” Roark says of Kevin. “And I joined him. They were all whores. Nobody cared for them.” Ah, but one man did. He cared for Goldie, and for her twin sister, Wendy, who visits him on death row after Marv tortures and kills Roark, and is then framed for all of Kevin’s crimes. Question: With Roark gone, who’s running things? Or does a corrupt system continue on automatic without a corrupt man pulling the levers?

In the third story, prostitutes, in the midst of a truce with corrupt cops, kill a woman-beater, Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Torro), who has wandered into their territory. Oops, he’s a cop. A hero cop. Question: How come nobody knows this? His picture was all over the media and not one person recognized him? Read a newspaper, for Chrissake. The rest of the story concerns the lengths Dwight (Clive Owen) will go to destroy the evidence before the cops find out.

Finally, we return to Hartigan, who is framed for child molestation, spends eight years in solitary where his only solace are the letters of 11-year-old Nancy, then gets out when the letters stop coming. He searches for her. Guess what? Not only is she the superhot dancer at the bar they all attend (Jessica Alba), but this is what the bad guys wanted: for him to lead them to her. Because Roark, Jr. has unfinished business. In an attempt to regrow the balls Hartigan blew off, Roark Jr. has turned hideous and yellow, more Ferengi than human. As a child molester, too, one wonders what he wants with Jessica Alba in full womanhood. Moot point. By the end, to Nancy’s relieved, half-smiling face, Hartigan rips off his balls with his bare hands. Then she and Hartigan get away. But Hartigan knows there is no “away” for Nancy as long as he’s alive. So he tells her some nice words, sends her on her way, and thinks the “Fair trade” line again as he puts his gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger.

Not feeling it
That’s how it goes down in Frank Miller’s world: the grizzled (Hartigan, Marv, Dwight), with ailments (heart condition, hallucinations, plastic surgery), protect the sexy (Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Jaime King, Brittany Murphy) from the sick and powerful (cannibals, child molesters, woman beaters). Viewers get to think themselves heroes while indulging in torture. In this way, it’s a good Bush-era film.

At one point, Dwight thinks up this prose-poem to Miho (Devon Aoki), the sword-wielding protector of prostitutes:

Deadly little Miho.
You won’t feel a thing unless she wants you to.
She twists the blade.
He feels it.

But we don’t. Which is how we can watch crap like this.


  • In Sin City, the grizzled ...

  • ... protect the sexy ...

  • ... from the sick.

  • In Sin City, the grizzled ...

  • ... protect the sexy ...

  • ...from the sick.

  • Grizzled ...

  • ... sexy ...

  • ... sick.

  • It's nicely art-directed anyway.

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Posted at 07:23 AM on Mar 21, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Friday March 14, 2014

Movie Review: 300 (2007)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Comic-book writer/illustrator Frank Miller creates worlds so cruel, so full of the awful dog-eat-dog laws of nature, that his protagonists are allowed to be both cruel and seething with moral righteousness. Which we, sitting in the dark, get to experience, too.

I’m sorry, but what kind of asshole likes a movie like “300”? What kind of asshole creates a movie like “300”? How weak do you have to feel inside to want to imagine a world like this? Or be in it.

There’s an early scene in which a 7-year-old boy slams another 7-year-old boy to the ground. He pins his shoulders down with his knees while he wails at the other kid’s face with punches. The boy on the ground is helpless but the boy on top keeps punching until with one final punch, delivered in thrilling, cinematic slow-mo, the blood—as Monty Python said of Sam Peckinpah’s scenes—goes pssssss.

300The boy on top is our hero. He will grow up to be King Leonidas of Sparta (Gerard Butler). And what he’s doing here, pounding the other boy into submission, is, by the story’s logic, necessary. He’s learning to be a man.

“Fascistic” is an overused word but I’d use it here. There is, at the least, a whiff of eugenics in the film. Defective babies in Sparta are discarded, dashed against the rocks, but one, a grotesque hunchback, Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), survives, and grows, and tries to join Leonidas’ men, the 300, in their stand against the Persian army in 480 B.C. Unfortunately, Ephialtes can’t physically do what needs to be done to be a soldier. He would be a weak link among the 300. So he becomes a weak link outside the 300. He is tempted by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), the giant, androgynous King of Persia, with moaning women and soldier’s armor; and Ephialtes betrays Leonidas and the 300, leading to their downfall. In this manner, the cruelty of the world shows us we should be cruel first. The betrayal of Ephialtes, the hunchback who should’ve been killed at birth, reveals the wisdom of Sparta’s eugenics policy.

“Hitler” is an overused comparison, but .... OK, not Hitler. Nothing compares.

Except what was Hitler but a failed artist who created an ideal the opposite of himself?  A small, dark, weak man, he extolled the tall, blonde and strong: the ubermensch. And what is Frank Miller but a successful artist who has created an ideal the opposite of himself? A thin, frail, ugly man, he extolls the thick, powerful, and beautiful: the superman. Yes, I know: Most comic book creators are similar (the weak creating the strong), but with this difference: They tend to create worlds and situations in which mercy is a necessary quality. With great power comes great responsibility, etc. Frank Miller creates worlds and situations in which cruelty is a necessary quality. With great power comes the greater responsibility to crush the life out of people.

Some Spillane-ing to do
When we first see Leonidas as man and king, he’s roughhousing with his son and teaching him generic lessons about respect and honor, while his wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey of “Game of Thrones”), watches with a benevolent smile. Then a messenger arrives from Persia, the strongest city-state in the world, asking for a token gesture that Sparta will submit to the will of Xerxes. Gathering all the wisdom and diplomacy he’s learned through all of his years of soldier training, Leonidas shouts “This! Is! Sparta!” before kicking the messenger (a Negro) and his men (wearing kufiyas) into a giant pit. Thus war is declared.

Except, whoops, Leonidas doesn’t have the authority to declare war. Democracy and all. He needs to ask the Ephors, leprosy-ridden, lust-ridden priests who live high atop a wind-swept mountain, to recommend to the Spartan council, vacillating old men, that war be declared. But the Ephors have been bought by Persian coin, as has Theron (Dominic Wests of “The Wire”), who runs the Spartan council. So what’s a soldier to do? Leonidas listens to his wife, who says, “Ask yourself, ‘What should a free man do?’” Then they have slow-motion sex. Then he gathers his 300 men for an epic battle at the Hot Gates.

Who’s memorable among the 300 besides Leonidas? There’s the Captain (Vincent Regan), who brings along his full-grown son, Astinos (Tom Wisdom), who is given shit by Stelios (Michael Fassbender). That’s about it. Oh, and Dilios (David Wenham). He’s our narrator. He will be the one-eyed survivor who tells the tale, sings the song, of the 300. And what distinguishes the only distinguishable characters from one other? Not much.

Has there been worse dialogue in a movie? At one point, the Queen gives us this Bush-era bumper-sticker slogan:

Freedom isn’t free at all. It comes with the highest of costs. The cost of blood.

After Astinos is beheaded in battle, we get this exchange:

Captain: Heart? I have filled my heart with hate!
Leonidas (nodding sagely): Good.

Meanwhile, Dilios goes for the noirish sentence fragments that Frank Miller loves:

There’s no room for softness. Not in Sparta. No place for weakness. Only the hard and strong may call themselves Spartans. Only the hard. Only the strong.

Even Mickey Spillane rolls his eyes.

So the Persians need to enter Sparta through a small strip of land, the Hot Gates, where their numbers are meaningless. That’s where Leonidas makes his stand. And he does, and they do, and the dead pile up. We get a lot of slow-mo battles, a lot of slow-mo blood splurging, a lot of hoo-ahs. The Persians send slaves, then their warrior class, then rhinos, elephants, and misshapen creatures. Nothing works. Until Ephialtes shows Xerxes the hidden path, and the 300 are traduced and outflanked. But their name lives on. Or at least their CGI-created abs.

The many against the few
Living on is a big part of it. Even as they battle, they fight over the meaning of the battle. They fight over the spin:

Xerxes: The world will never know you.
Leonidas: The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant. That few stood against many. And before this battle was over, even a god-king can bleed.

Which he totally does.

So that’s the meaning of the 300: the few standing against the many. But what’s the meaning of “300”?

It’s the many (moronic moviegoers) standing against the few (anyone with a brain). Thing made a mint: $210 million in the U.S., $456 million worldwide. It remade the month of March as potential blockbuster territory. And it’s still popular! Its current IMDb rating is 7.8. Compare this with “West Side Story” at 7.7, “The Hurt Locker” at 7.6, “An American in Paris” at 7.3.

It helped make a B-picture star out of Butler, and launched Zack Snyder’s directorial career. Without it, would we have gotten two of the worst movies ever made—Miller’s “The Spirit” and Snyder’s “Sucker Punch”?

It’s huge in the gay community, too. Do the chest thumpers know that? It’s basically gay porn. It’s beautiful, nearly naked men in high-camp situations.

But its larger meaning is the stuff at the beginning of this review. It’s the fascistic tendencies, the love of blood and cruelty, the easy soldierly morality. “300” took the usual action-movie wish-fulfillment fantasies and turned them up to 11, as in 9/11, as buff British actors played the brave western heroes and haughty minority actors played the bribing, thieving, butchering Ay-rabs. Sure, the 300 lost. But their sacrifice spurred the reluctant majority to final victory. In this regard, it’s like “The Alamo,” but with John Wayne and Richard Widmark clad in undies and capes and shouting “Hoo-ah!” in the rain. It’s a great cultural artifact of a warped society: ours.

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Posted at 05:44 AM on Mar 14, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Tuesday February 18, 2014

Movie Review: No End in Sight (2007)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Charles Ferguson’s “No End in Sight” is the doc Fox News doesn’t want you to watch. It’s the eraFox News doesn’t want you to remember. It’s a time of massive, chest-thumping hubris, swagger, and general loutishness, and it’s all reflected here.  I’ve watched it three or four times now. I’d make every American watch it if I could. This is our story. We made it happen. I know: not you. Not me, either. But we’re still part of the country that made it happen. It’s still on us.  

Ferguson begins his doc near the end and ends it near the beginning, and both scenes, both quotes, are devastating.

The first is from Nov. 8, 2006, the day after the 2006 midterm elections, when Donald Rumsfeld finally stepped down as U.S. Secretary of Defense. His joie de vivre gone but his hubris undiminished, Rumsfeld said the following:

The great respect that I have for your leadership, Mr. President, in this little-understood, unfamiliar war, the first war of the 21st century. It is not well-known, it was not well-understood; it is complex for people to comprehend. And I know with certainty that, over time, the contributions you've made will be recorded by history.

Rumsfeld was right. The war was complex and little-understood; but it was little understood by him, and by Bush and Cheney and Wolfowitz and Bremer. No End in SightThey simplified it. They Hollywoodized it. They thought they were in one movie (John Wayne, WWII) when they were in another (“The Battle of Algiers”).

He was also right in this way: the contributions he and Bush and the others made have been recorded by history.

Henny penny
What’s always surprising about “No End” is how little it deals with the lead-up to the war: the bogus reasons we attacked in the first place: WMD, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” the conflation of al Qaeda and Iraq. This is awful stuff, criminal stuff, but Ferguson gives it maybe two minutes of screentime. Because worse stuff came later.

First, we didn’t have a plan for post-war Iraq. Not really. We didn’t prep for it. We didn’t study.

But at least the State Department crammed and came up with recommendations: “The Future of Iraq Project.” Unfortunately, under NSPD-24, control for post-war Iraq was given to the Defense Dept., and Donald Rumsfeld, who promptly ignored State’s hard work.

Rumsfeld also ignored the recommendations of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, who, before the U.S. Armed Services Committee, suggested we would need several hundred thousand soldiers to keep the peace in occupied Iran, rather than the 100K or so Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz recommended as part of their newer, sleeker military. Criticized by Bush loyalists, Shinseki was immediately proven right.

The war proper began on March 20, 2003, and was effectively over by early April when Baghdad fell. But then the looting began.

Rumsfeld joked about it. “Stuff happens.” “Henny Penny, the sky is falling.” The “vases” thing. But it was real and it was—this word again—devastating. Iraq’s national museum wasn’t protected. Its national library and national archives were burned to the ground. Imagine if a country invaded the U.S. to save us from our own dictator and then stood around while our national archives and museums were looted? There goes the Spirit of St. Louis. There goes the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Americans might get pissed off. They might begin to wonder about their liberators.

“We’re Marines,” says Lt. Seth Moulton, one of the doc’s many effective talking heads. “We can certainly stop looting if that’s our assigned task.” But it wasn’t. It was the opposite of their assigned task.

Then came general lawlessness: kidnappings, rape, murder.

But at least we had a good team going in: ORHA, the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, led by former Gen. Jay Garner, and including Col. Paul Hughes and Ambassador Barbara Bodine. Sure, when they arrived, the buildings had been stripped bare. “We had no phone lists,” Bodine says here, adding, “But we had no phones for a while, so ...” But at least they were smart and dedictated and knew something about the country they were in.

Except ORHA was then replaced by the CPA, the Coalition Provisional Authority, and Garner was replaced by L. Paul Bremer, who, like most everyone else suddenly in charge, had never been to Iraq, had no postwar reconstruction experience, and had never served in the military. Of course he spoke no Arabic.

As head of the CPA he made various disastrous decisions, such as granting foreign contractors immunity from Iraqi law (consider that for a moment), but Ferguson doesn’t even get to this stuff. That happened later. The more disastrous moves occurred within a month of his appointment. Before he even set foot in Iraq, he issued the following orders:

  1. He stopped the formation of an interim Iraqi government
  2. He created a policy of De-Ba’athification
  3. He disbanded the Iraqi military

The first edict meant the country remained occupied while its own people had no voice. So it was somewhat humiliating.

The second meant permament unemployment for 50,000 people—the very people who knew how to make bureaucracy and government work. So it made everything more inefficient at a time of great inefficiency. It also humiliated the people involved.

The third edict, disbanding the military, was, according to Ferguson’s doc, the worst of these decisions. In a time of anarchy and general lawlessness, the Iraqi military was one of the few organizations that could uphold the law and stem the chaos. Instead, we scattered them. We put 300,000 soldiers out of work. It humiliated the people involved.

And they had guns.

Reality-based
It’s horrific to watch. We get one bad decision after another. Our postwar Iraq experience is almost a test case in what not to do. It should be studied in this manner.

Maybe there was some rationale for these decisions, but the main architects of the war, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Bremer, et al., refused to be interviewed for this doc. Only Walter Slocombe, Bremer’s right-hand man, officially the Senior Advisor for Security and Defense to the CPA, bothered to show up. I’m sure he regrets it. He comes off horribly. Initially he’s smirking. Then he’s defending his awful, awful decisions. His eyes get shifty. By the end, he seems a hollow man.

So do I, to be honest. You know how devastated Father Vogler looks at the end of “Amadeus” after hearing Antonio Salieri’s long condemnation of God and man? That’s how I always feel at the end of “No End in Sight.” The doc is a testament to the dangers of hubris, of ignoring evidence, of having already made up your mind. Again, it should be required viewing. Because we may have moved on from Iraq, but a great portion of the country, a powerful portion, haven’t moved on from this mindset.

They were, in fact, bragging about this mindset even as people were dying. In 2004, an unnamed Bush aide, later identified as Karl Rove, told Ron Suskind the following in The New York Times Magazine:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

“No End in Sight” is, I suppose, a judicious study of the actors of the Iraq War, and the new reality that the Bush adminstration tried to create there. It failed miserably, obviously, and that failure had consequences, massive consquences, for millions of lives, even as Rove and others have gone on to create “their own reality” elsewhere. Even as Rove’s 2004 taunt has become the central precept of the GOP and Fox News.

Ferguson ends “No End in Sight” with Pres. Bush’s words in his 2003 State of the Union address, in which he said the following about the impending war:

We will bring to the Iraqi people ... food ... and medicines ... and supplies ... and freedom.

The audience applauds.

Bush 2003 state of the union address

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Posted at 08:25 AM on Feb 18, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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