Movie Reviews - 2000s postsThursday November 27, 2008
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.