erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2009 posts

Monday December 14, 2009

Review: “Invictus” (2009)

WARNING: SEPARATE-AND-UNEQUAL SPOILERS

Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” begins with a rugby team—the national rugby team of South Africa, it turns out, the Springboks—practicing on lush green fields bordered by a sturdy, iron fence. Just across the street, black kids are playing on scabby, dusty fields bordered by a cheap chain-link fence. So it goes. Then a caravan approaches on the road between them, and, as it continues past, the black kids cheer while the white players stand in stony silence. It’s February 11, 1990, and Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), unseen in the caravan, has just been released after 30 years in prison on Robben Island. The scene is basically a metaphor for the divided country: At that moment, Mandela is the only one traveling in the divide between the two separate and unequal societies.

Four years later Mandela is elected president of South Africa. On his first full day on the job, he takes a 4 a.m. walk with his security team then shaves. We see him staring at himself in the bathroom mirror, white foam covering half his face, doubt in his eyes. His face is basically a metaphor for the country: half-white, half-black, unsure of what lies ahead.

By the end, as two pairs of hands, one white and one black, hold aloft the World Cup trophy, I couldn’t help but think I was back in 1959 watching a Stanley Kramer movie.

It’s a shame that Eastwood underscores this particular point so much because there’s a lot I liked about, and learned from, “Invictus.” I didn’t follow Mandela’s career after he was released from prison, and, as an American, I knew nothing about rugby. I got to learn something of both.

Mandela in his first days in office is reminiscent of Barack Obama in his first days in office. The outgoing power structure, who excluded, expect similar treatment from the incoming power structure, but Mandela keeps offering inclusion. His openness, his forgiveness, is, yes, immediately pragmatic—the Afrikaners, Mandela tells his aide, Brenda, still control the police, the army, the banks—but it’s hardly soft. “Forgiveness liberates the soul,” Mandela says at one point. “It removes fear. That’s why it’s such a powerful weapon.” Forgiveness as a weapon? I’m sure Dirty Harry would have a quip about that—“It hardly beats a Magnum .44”—but Clint hasn’t been Dirty Harry for a while. His revenge/forgiveness motifs have evolved.

Others in South Africa are not so willing to forgive. The Springboks have long been viewed as a symbol of Apartheid. Black fans root against them and black kids refuse to wear their jersey. As a result, the National Sports Council, now run by blacks, vote unanimously to change the teams’ name, colors and emblem. They are going to eradicate the bastards and stick it to the Afrikaners. Until Mandela shows up and reminds them that by acting in such a manner, “We prove we are what they feared we would be.” His argument wins the day—just barely—and afterwards, in the back of the limo, his aide argues with him over expending his political capital in this manner. “So this rugby is a political calculation?” she asks. “It is a human calculation,” he answers. That’s a nice line. One of many nice lines early in the film.

There is already a backlash against the initial raves for Morgan Freeman. Many movie fans are understandably wary that, in the wake of Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin and Sean Penn as Harvey Milk—i.e., in four of the last five years—yet another “real life” performance will win the Oscar for best actor. At the same time, Freeman is impeccable here. He is rail-thin and fragile, burdened by the affairs of state, and yet lit from within. He is, as ever, beautiful to watch, in a role that’s worthy of him.

But we begin to lose him halfway through as the focus shifts to the Springboks. He has team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) over for tea and talks to him about inspiration. The World Cup arrives in South Africa, and the Springboks, expected to fare poorly, particularly by a snide sports reporter (the nearest thing to a villain in the movie), begin to win, and, in that winning, begin to unite the country. These rugby scenes are fascinating to me because, except for a small training session the team gives to shantytown kids—in which it’s explained that the ball can’t be passed forward, only sideways or backward—the games happen without explanation. Yes, much of it is familiar. It’s another sport played on a rectangular field, with two goals, a ball, and a time limit. But the subtleties are lost, and Eastwood doesn’t help. For a time I didn’t even know if there was a clock, since Eastwood never cuts to it. The team simply, suddenly, raises its arms in victory. “We win!” Really? Oh, good. Then they play France in the rain and appear to be losing. No, they suddenly raise their arms in victory. “We win!” Really? Oh, good.

In this manner the Springboks reach the finals against a fierce New Zealand team.

Allow me to play the nattering aide in the back of the limo for a moment. “Invictus” might have worked better if Eastwood hadn’t spent his artistic capital on the irrelevant. After a great introduction of Mandela’s security detail, in which the white guards may have once incarcerated the black guards, these guys are mostly played for laughs. They deserve better. We get two red-herring attacks on Mandela (the van at the beginning, the airplane before the finals) and both could’ve been dealt with more subtly. We didn’t need to cut between the van and Mandela, for example; just show us the van squealing to a sudden stop in front of Mandela. That would’ve worked. Similarly, why get us into the cockpit of that airplane? That just confused.

Eastwood also goes for the estranged-daughter subplot again (see: “Absolute Power” and “Million Dollar Baby”) and spends too much superficial time with the Pienaars and their black maid. He spends too much superficial time on all manner of racial politics. During the finals, in shots worthy of Ron Howard’s “EdTV,” Eastwood gives us white people in white bars, and black people in black bars, all watching the same thing, all becoming united by the screen. He gives us a black scrounger edging closer to white cops listening to the game, being shooed away, edging closer again, and finally, in victory, being tossed in the air in celebration. Fans spill out into the streets, whites and blacks, celebrating together. White and black hands hold the trophy aloft. It’s all too much the same. It’s all too much.

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Posted at 06:37 AM on Dec 14, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Monday December 07, 2009

Review: “Up in the Air” (2009)

WARNING: UNCOMMITTED SPOILERS

Halfway through Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) explains the delicacy of firing people, and thus putting them between jobs, this way: “We are here to make limbo tolerable.”

Bingham is good at this because he enjoys limbo. He lives in limbo. The previous year he was on the road 322 days and in a voiceover he tells us that everything we hate about travel he loves: the recycled air, the bad sushi, and, mostly, the lack of connection. The other handful of days he spends in the home office in Omaha, Nebraska, where he stays in an apartment that has the blankness of a motel room. There’s nothing unique about it: no pictures, mementos, nothing that says Ryan Bingham except for the fact that there’s nothing that says Ryan Bingham. Bingham gives self-help seminars, too, across the country, entitled “What’s in your backpack?,” where he tells the audience to imagine everything they own in a backpack (photos, dishes, couches, cars), and to feel the weight of all that on their shoulders; then he encourages them to burn it all, starting with the photos. He tells them to do the same with their relationships, tossing in a joke about not necessarily burning them, but adding a warning that those relationships are the heaviest things they own. Life is better, he suggests, by traveling light and alone, as he does. He’s Nathan Zuckerman without the angsty Jewishness. He’s happy.

He’s also a prick.

On the one hand I liked it: a Hollywood movie makes their main character a truly unlikable person. His job is to travel around the country and fire employees at companies where the bosses are too cowardly, or too uncaring, to do it themselves. And he’s good at his job. “Anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world sat where you are right now,” he says to the distraught, the broken, the angry. “And it's because they sat there that they were able to do it,” He tells people that this is their chance to follow their dreams. It’s a smart ploy. Most of us wound up working at places we didn’t imagine, doing things we don’t enjoy. The subtext of his message is basically: You and I both know I’m doing you a favor.

But at this point in the story Bingham seems too smarmy and self-assured to be good at his job. Even in the act of firing people, he still has that small George Clooney smirk on his face. One wonders why he hasn’t been busted in the nose yet.

Soon he and all the other corporate downsizers are called back to the home office at Integrated Strategic Management (ISM), where they’re introduced to Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a business-school grad, who’s come up with two strategies to increase efficiency and profitability. The first strategy will take Bingham off the road; the second will downsize him.

ISM’s biggest expense is travel. So why not, in the Internet age, fire employees remotely? There’s a logic, and a kind of horror, to it. The act of firing someone is inhumane. Companies make it moreso by having a stranger do it. ISM makes it moreso by having a stranger do it remotely. One wonders where the inhumanity ends.

Not at her second strategy. For a century businesses have tried to figure out how to replace the skilled (and compensated) with the unskilled (and uncompensated). This strategy, in fact, may well define American business in the 20th century, and it’s a morally bankrupt, bottom-line, and, I would argue, dead-end strategy. And now it’s Natalie’s. Bingham has a skill. He knows what to say to keep the newly fired calm and get them out the door. So Natalie works on a flow chart, which can be given to the unskilled, who can then they say what Bingham would have said. At a fraction of the cost.

In this way employees would not only be fired remotely, and not just by a stranger, but by a stranger working robotically off of a flow chart. Its inhumanity makes Bingham seem humane. Which is why we begin to warm to him.

Fortunately Bingham demonstrates to Natalie, in front of their boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), that she knows nothing about firing people. Unfortunately Gregory sends the two on the road together so she can learn. Basically Bingham will teach Natalie what he knows, she’ll translate that knowledge to the flowchart, and Bingham will become expendable. Another reason we begin to warm to him.

The two meet bickering and continue bickering, with Bingham, the older and more articulate, always winning the day. Their greatest arguments are personal, not business. He successfully argues against marriage as another unnecessary connection, the heaviest thing in that backpack (“all the arguments and secrets and compromises”), and she seems distraught, comically distraught, that she can’t defend it. In a lesser film the two would get together but thankfully we hardly get a glimmer of that here. She’s got a boyfriend—we see them briefly kissing good-bye at the Omaha airport—while he’s got a fuckbuddy, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a female version of himself whom he met in Dallas earlier in the film. There’s a great scene where they compare and contrast gold cards as foreplay. “We’re two people who get turned on by elite status,” she says.

In a Miami hotel lobby, Natalie finally breaks down, sobbing that her boyfriend broke up with her via text message (“That’s like firing somebody over the Internet,” Bingham deadpans), and collapses into Bingham’s arms—just as Alex arrives for another session. Instead the three gets drinks and talk over relationship expectations: Natalie’s (high) and Alex’s (low). They talk about settling or not settling. In Natalie’s description of her ex, one senses, not the love she argued for earlier, but a grocery list of positives she wants in her cart. Jason Reitman nicely refuses to underscore the point.

Then they crash a company party, where they drink, dance, go out on a boat, get stranded, arrive on the beach at dawn with their pantlegs rolled up and carrying their shoes. Bingham and Alex begin to seem like a couple. They begin to act tender with one another.

In his travels Bingham’s got his eye on a prize: 10 million miles, and super-elite status, on American Airlines. He’s also recently carting around a cardboard cutout of his sister and her fiancé, so that, like the gnome in “Amelie,” or like Flat Stanley, they can be photographed against various famous backdrops. It’s a cute thing for their wedding. Bingham photographs them, grumbling all the while (what a thing for his backpack!), but, as he warms to Alex, he warms to the charms of the task; and when the wedding approaches, he asks Alex along.

These two, used to super-elite status, acquiesce to the humble digs of this northern Wisconsin town. He reconnects with his sisters, shows Alex his old high school hangouts, and talks the fiancé, who gets cold feet, into commitment—a first. It changes him. So much so that in Vegas, giving his usual self-help seminar about the backpack, he smiles to himself, abruptly leaves the podium, and hops a flight to Chicago, where Alex lives. He’s ready, as the film’s poster says, to make a connection.

All the while I’m thinking: Really? This is it? This film, which I’ve heard so much about since the Toronto festival, and which is a clear front-runner for best picture, is going to take a guy who’s nasty and make him nice, empty and make him full, single and make him en couple?

Cue record-scratch. Because when Alex opens her door she’s surprised but not in a good way. Then we see kids running up the stairs behind her. Then we hear a voice calling out: “Honey? Who is it?” And Bingham’s face falls.

And I’m thinking: Niiiiice.

A second later I’m thinking: Wait. So why did Alex act the way she acted in Miami and Wisconsin? Like she was falling for him? It could be that I misread her, as Bingham misread her. She wasn’t concerned he wasn’t interested; she was concerned he was. I’d have to see the movie again to suss this out. At the same time it’s undoubtedly true that, since Miami, Bingham and Alex became less raunchy fuckbuddies than charming couple. Which is movement away from what Alex supposedly wanted Bingham for.

On the return flight he gets his 10 millionth mile; it feels hollow. Then an employee that Natalie fired, backing up a threat, kills herself, and Natalie quits and her program is dismantled. Bingham is on the road again. But is it what he wants? Can he acclimate others to limbo if he no longer enjoys it himself? One of the last shots is Bingham, at the airport again, staring up at the arrivals and departures board. It makes us think of all of our arrivals and departures in life—with jobs, friends, family; life and death. Staring up at the board, though, is something we’ve never seen Bingham do. He always knew where he was going before.

“Up in the Air” is a good, smart movie that’s getting the traction it’s getting because it’s timely. Unemployment, in the wake of the Global Financial Meltdown, is at 10 percent, and this is a movie about firing people. In fact, except for a few semi-famous faces (J.K. Simmons, Zach Galifianakis), the faces of the fired, explaining their feelings abut being fired, are the recently fired. “The filmmakers put out ads in St. Louis and Detroit posing as a documentary crew looking to document the effect of the recession,” IMDb tells us. “When people showed up, they were instructed to treat the camera like the person who fired them.” A good touch. A moral touch.

The movie also has smart, sharp dialogue. It’s a movie for adults. It treats business as it should: as an amoral, possibly immoral, enterprise. There’s always talk of company loyalty (to American Airlines, for example), when companies are loyal to no one. I laughed out loud when Natalie began her initial presentation to ISM employees: “If there’s one word I want to take with you today it’s this: GLOCAL.” Only at a company where everyone is worried about keeping their jobs would everyone not laugh at that. But I’ve heard worse in real life.

Should the movie have focused more on Natalie’s second strategy—replacing the skilled with the unskilled—or would such a focus have inevitably gotten too preachy? I suppose it’s enough that it’s dramatized. In the end, Bingham’s skills at downsizing aren’t downsized. His boss tells him, “I need you up in the air,” which is where the movie, appropriately, leaves him and us.

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Posted at 07:29 AM on Dec 07, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Wednesday December 02, 2009

Review: “Red Cliff” (2009)

WARNING: HEN DUO SPOILERS

John Woo’s “Red Cliff” is work. The movie is based upon the Battle of Red Cliffs, which took place in 208 A.D. and helped bring an end to the Han Dynasty. The period that followed, the Three Kingdoms, while short (approximately 70 years), has been romanticized in Asian culture via operas, novels, even TV shows and video games. As a result, most people in Asia know about this battle and its main characters. They don’t need them explained any more than we would need someone to tell us who Robin Hood and his Merry Men were.

But for us poor westerners? Friar who? Little what? It’s tough keeping everybody straight.

OK, so Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) is an imperial minister/general who intimidates even the Emperor of the Han dynasty into getting what he wants, which is full-fledged battle against rebel warlords Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen), and a battle quickly ensues against Liu Bei’s army, which includes master strategist Kong Ming (Takeshi Kaneshiro), grizzled, bad-ass fighter Zhang Fei (Zang Jinsheng) and...what’s the name of the other warrior? The one who can’t save Liu Bei’s wife but saves his baby by tying the kid to his back so both hands are free to fight off a half-dozen of Cao Cao’s soldiers? That’s a cool scene. Love the way he says to the baby, “Wo men zou” (literally: “We go”) before the fight begins. But in protecting the peasants, Liu Bei loses the battle and his army heads south where... Wait a minute. Only now, when Kong Ming shows up hat-in-hand, does Sun Quan consider rebelling against Cao Cao? I thought he was already doing it. And yet in this scene he’s still dithering. In fact he leaves the final decision to his viceroy, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) at Red Cliff, but at least that’s the title of the film, and at least that’s the star of the film, so hopefully we’ll stay put and won’t have so many new characters to memorize. Ah, no such luck. Even here we’re introduced to the he spunky younger sister of Sun Quan, Sun Shangxiang (Wei Zhao), an ex-pirate named Gan Xing (Shido Nakamura), and Xiao Qiao (Lin Shiling), the wife of Zhou Yu, who seems delicate and self-satisfied in that annoying way of Chinese cinematic heroines (pouring tea, practicing calligraphy), and who may be the real reason Cao Cao pushed for battle in the first place. Cao Cao saw her once when she was a child, and even then she was beautiful, but did he really engage his million-man army against these rebel provinces for her? And why is his name pronounced “Chao Cao” when it’s spelled “Cao Cao” in the subtitles? And why is Kong Ming listed on IMDb as “Zhuge Liang”? That’s not even close.

The movie didn’t need to be this much work. It clocks in at 2 1/2 hours but the original was twice as long, and released in two parts, over a six-month period, in Asia. Thus a lot of exposition has been removed, particularly, I assume, from the first battle, the Battle of Changban, with all of its peasants fleeing, etc. These cuts add to, rather than detract from, the confusion for western audiences. We’re introduced to too many characters too quickly, and not enough of it sticks.

I didn’t know I was watching a truncated version until after I’d watched it, and, of course, I immediately felt cheated—in the same way I felt cheated when I found out that the pre-“Sgt. Pepper” Beatles LPs I listened to in the states weren’t the same ones the Beatles produced and released for British audiences. At least there I knew enough to blame the greedy bastards at Capitol Records, but who to blame here? Summit Entertainment, the international distributor? Magnet Releasing, the genre arm of Magnolia Pictures, which was the U.S. distributor? Was it a western decision or an eastern decision? Or did the twain meet? Businessmen, after all, speak an international language. Worse, while cutting so much, they still added footage. That scene in the beginning where Cao Cao intimidates the Han Emperor? That’s for westerners. Its use of sudden, extreme close-ups, indicating extreme emotions, is right out of schlock 1970s-era Hong Kong cinema, and, initially, I assumed John Woo meant it as homage. But did he even direct this additional scene? Now everything is in question.

Despite all of that, “Red Cliff” is worth watching. It might even be worth seeing this bowdlerized version even if you plan on someday, somehow, seeing the uncut Asian version. The movie is truly epic.

Its story is as simple as any in Hollywood. A group of benevolent underdogs take on a corrupt, brutal establishment, and, against impossible odds (a 50,000-man army vs. a million-man army), win. And it’s true? No wonder they keep retelling it.

In fact, this is how popular the underdog story is: Even when they don’t need it, they use it. In the second battle of the film, in which Sun Shangxiang lures Cao Cao’s army into Kong Ming’s elaborately devised tortoise defense—where soldiers, hiding behind almost-man-sized shields, are placed in the pattern of an intricate tortoise shell, trapping and dispatching those lured inside—even here, rather than having the many (the good soldiers) slaughter the few (Cao Cao’s soldiers), the many stay in formation and let the superlative few—Zhang Fei, Gan Xing, Zhao Yun, Zhou Yu himself—take on dozens at a time. It’s tough letting go of the underdog motif.

As cool as these battle scenes are—and I particularly like Zhou Yu yanking an arrow from his shoulder, running at the horse-bound archer, and then spinning and plunging the same arrow into the back of the archer’s neck—my favorite moments in the film are how the two sides strategize. Woo cuts between the solitary general, Cao Cao, matching wits from afar with the group dynamic of, mostly, Kong Ming and Zhou Yu. Will Cao attack by land? What’s the best way to get 100,000 free arrows? Early on, Kong Ming dispatches Sun Shangxiang to spy for him and she sends back word, via pigeon, that Cao’s men are dying of typhoid...just as these dying or dead men are sent down the Yangtze, on rafts, by Cao, so that the peasants and soldiers on Kong Ming’s side will strip the bodies of valuables and catch typhoid themselves. Pretty smart. Cao is a worthy adversary. That’s part of the fun of the film. The typhoid epidemic even leads to the withdrawal of Liu Bei and his army. Meaning Sun Quan’s men were basically lured into a war and then abandoned. Meaning now the odds are worse. Meaning they’re even bigger underdogs than before. Let the final battle begin.

How many genres are included in this one movie? It’s obviously a war movie. It’s also a martial arts movie, since Zhao Yun, Zhang Fei, Gan Xing, and Zhou Yu are all masters. And don’t forget romance. Xiao Qiao is a kind of Helen of Troy here. She’s the face that launched a thousand CGI ships down the Yangtze River.

Weather plays a key role in each battle, and Kong Ming either reads weather well or controls it. To get 100,000 arrows, they need fog and they get fog. For the final battle, they need the winds to shift and the winds shift. They also need an elaborate tea ceremony, which is where Xiao Qiao, who turns up at Cao Cao’s camp at this key moment, comes in. She’s carrying Zhou Yu’s child, and one wonders if they will come to the same fate as Liu Bei’s wife and child at the beginning of the movie. Can both survive this time? Neither? Xiao Qiao has hinted that the child will be named Ping An, meaning “peace,” and so the question of their survival is also metaphoric. Will peace be born after the final battle?

Epics are tough to do (see “Pearl Harbor,” “Troy,” “Australia") but John Woo, whom Hollywood wasted, pulls it off spectacularly with his first Asian film in 15 years. He gives us a worthy melodrama, featuring interesting, boldly-drawn characters, on a wide and expansive canvas. The main characters aren’t dwarfed by the canvas and the canvas doesn't seem irrelevant because of our focus on the main characters. There’s balance between the two.

Here's an example of that balance. This is how Zhou Yu is introduced, and, to me, it rivals the great character introductions in movies. Before the two rebel armies have been unified, Kong Ming and Zhou Yu sit before Zhou Yu’s army, and the former watches them display, in that expert, martial-arts manner, this formation and that formation. “The goose formation,” Kong Ming whispers to a compatriot. “Unfortunately outdated.” He seems worried. Zhou Yu, whom we haven’t seen yet in full view, overhears his comment and seems annoyed. Nearby a boy plays a flute. Everyone stops and listens. Everyone is mesmerized. Everyone but Zhou Yu. His seat is now empty save for his goose-feather fan, and suddenly, quietly, he’s standing before the boy, holding out his hand. “Gei wo,” he says. (“Give it to me.”) The boy does. Then Zhou Yu takes out a knife...and carves a slightly bigger hole at one end of the flute and hands it back. The higher pitches were slightly off.

I would’ve liked more of this. Thankfully there is more.

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Posted at 06:39 AM on Dec 02, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Monday November 30, 2009

Review: “Twilight” (2008)

WARNING: AWKWARD, LONGING SPOILERS

I actually know Forks, Wash., or towns like Forks, Wash., since Patricia’s mom used to live in Joyce, Wash., further north and east on the Olympic peninsula. We used to go there every August for the Blackberry Festival. Patricia’s mom organized the local art show at The Grange, Patricia’s brother, Alex, a marine biologist from Port Townsend, was sometime-judge in the blackberry pie contest, and Patricia herself sometimes helped out at the cotton candy stand. The highlight was always a noon-time parade down main street, or the only street, Agate Beach Road, filled with vintage '30s cars and vintage '30s men (VOFWs) and usually something high-schooly. We watched near the Joyce General Store, which sold candy I thought ceased to exist in 1968. There were no vampires.

But it’s a brilliant conceit that a vampire clan would hang out on the Olympic peninsula to avoid the sun—which, in this universe, doesn’t destroy them but merely turns their skin all sparkly. The peninsula also works as a hangout for the Cullens because, well, it’s isolated, there’s game in the forests, and it’s already full of weirdos. The peninsula’s the place Washingtonians go when Walla Walla gets too crowded.

Bella (Kristen Stewart), our heroine, arrives in Forks from Phoenix, Ariz., cactus in hand, in March, because her mother and her new husband, Phil, are heading to Florida for spring training. Phil, according to the mother, is “a minor league baseball player.” Since Bella is 16 or 17, her mother would have to be, what, 32-35 at the youngest? Which means she’s either a cougar (to go with the Native American wolf packs), or Phil needs a new job. Generally if you don’t make the bigs by 30 you don’t hang around.

For a new girl in town, Bella does surprisingly well. In fact, she has to do little. Her father gives her a truck, the kids flock to her, she’s popular just by sitting there and, um, not knowing what to say or, um, maybe not caring what to say. The other kids fill her in on the Cullens, who seem good-looking and aloof, like Duran Duran in 1983, and she and Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) exchanged slow-motion, smoldering looks, like they’re in a “Hungry Like the Wolf” video. She also winds up sitting next to him in biology class. Biology. At first he ignores her, can’t seem to stand the smell of her, but then he’s charming and curious, and before you know it they’re in love, and before you know it she figures out that he, and all of the Cullens, are vampires. It takes about a week? Doesn’t say much for the rest of the folks in Forks, does it? Or do they already know and accept it as part of the usual peninsula weirdness? “Cassandra Starlight here used to be named Peggy Jones until she hit 54 and decided to change it, Zeke’s got a bumper sticker on his pickup saying ‘My real president is Charlton Heston,’ which he put on during the Bush years, and Dr. Cullen and his family? Well, they’re vampires. But kindly folk.”

It's been much-written, but, yes, Edward is the dream boyfriend for teenaged girls who are curious about but afraid of sex: He and Bella can’t have it because he might lose control. He might literally want to tear her apart. So romantic! There’s also a “gift of the magi” quality to their relationship: She loves him enough to become a vampire, he loves her too much to make her one, and so there they are, staring into each other’s eyes, longing. If anticipation is greater than consumption (see: “The Tao of Pooh”), then theirs is one great relationship. But it’s still a teenaged relationship, and, even though he’s a 100-year-old teenager (he became a vampire during the influenza outbreak of 1918), it’s full of awkward, teenaged conversations. Let me speak for the adults in the audience: Thank you for those moments when the camera pulls back, the music wells, and we just see them talking. It's lazy writing, sure, but still appreciated.

What else about Edward appeals to teenage girls? Basically he’s James Dean (the brooding, handsome, tortured loner) but superfast and superstrong and with the ability to read everyone’s mind but hers. So she’s as much mystery to him as he is to her. She’s mysterious and he’s curious. One wonders if that’s why he loves her in the first place. If true, it seems like an unromantic reason to me. I only love you because I don’t know you.

Their relationship also allows her, for all her spirit, to be the damsel in distress. No ass-kicking girl here. The good and bad vampires, the wolf packs, could tear her apart before she could blink so she gets to be rescued without guilt. Feminists, of course, are up in arms, but is this the secret desire of girls, as rescuing (particularly if you’re superstrong) is the secret desire of boys? This is not to discount lines like Edward’s: “I don’t have the strength to stay away from you anymore.” I know that has its appeal, too.

The movie does a good job with the locale, by the way. The kids go to La Push and Port Angeles, they reference Kitsap County sheriffs, and the men drink Rainier beer and watch Mariners games. There's a lot of cloud-cover and drizzle. It’s all very Pacific Northwesterny.

“Twilight” isn’t as horrible as I thought it’d be and it’s kind of fun to watch with a girl, or even a woman, to see what she likes about it. That should be its appeal for boys. Most of us are like Edward—we have no clue what you’re thinking—but the big question is if “Twilight,” by giving us that clue, is helpful, or just slowly, vaguely horrific.

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Posted at 08:30 AM on Nov 30, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Saturday November 21, 2009

DVD Reviews: 1 Win, 1 Loss, 1 Tie

I've been down with a cold for the last five days and wimping out when it comes to movie choices. Last week Patrick Goldstein mentioned that when he's sick, which he is, with the H1N1 virus, he goes for the comfort food of old John Wayne westerns. Not sure what my cinematic comfort food is. Woody Allen? Bogart? I nearly watched “The Insider” again last night but instead went with “Visions of Lights,” the 1992 documentary on the history of cinematography, since I didn't know if I could last the length of “The Insider.” BTW: I'd love to see an expanded version of “VoL.” I could watch cinematographers talking about their craft a good while longer.

I've also been catching up with a few cinematic also-rans from this past year that, if I weren't sick, I probably wouldn't have bothered with. As I said: wimping out. Wasn't as bad as I thought: 1-1-1:

  • The Win: The Taking of Pelham 123, with Denzel Washington and John Travolta. Didn't do particularly well with critics (53% from the-ones-who-matter), and did equally so-so with audiences (opening third, behind “The Hangover” in its second week and “Up” in its third, with $23 million, on its way to $65 million domestic—which, by the way, is less than “New Moon” took in yesterday). Jeff Wells over at Hollywood Elsewhere, a fan of the new “Pelham,” has been thrashing around ever since at the idiocy of both critics and audiences. He even recently recommended it for best pic. I wouldn't go that far but it's a good movie: tense, fun, surprisingly relevant. The critics probably turned against it in comparison with the '73 version, and that was certainly my reaction upon seeing the trailer in May. I wrote: “I’m a fan of the original, so this hypercharged version, with cars crashing and malevolent, tattooed villains spouting threats, just makes me feel sad and wish for 1973 New York.” Which may have been the problem, box-office wise: the car crashes were designed for kids, the actors for adults, and the twain didn't meet. It also loses me near the end—you're a civil service dude, Denzel!—but it's a good movie with solid, fun performances. Not best pic but worth renting. Put it this way: It's fun watching actors acting.
  • The Tie: Valkyrie: This one did slightly better with critics-who-matter (57%) and slightly better with audiences ($83 million domestic, $200 million worldwide), but as a story it suffers from what “Inglorious Basterds” did not: we know how it ends. Some too-dramatic flourishes by director Bryan Singer (the Wagner record; the cry before execution) but, given the aforementioned, you still get sucked in. Plus the cast is a who's who of British actors you like to see in movies: Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branaugh, Tom Hollander. Also impressed with German actors Christian Berkel and Thomas Kretschmann in small parts. Kretschmann looks like he could play Liam Neeson's younger brother in some future movie. (Check it out.) As I watched, I remembered more about the assassination attempt on Hitler—even the day it happened—and I'm surprised they didn't bring up why it didn't succeed. From what I remember, the table under which the bomb was placed was just too thick and protected those above it.
  • The Loss: The Land of the Lost: I went in thinking it couldn't be as bad as critics (21%) and audiences ($65 million worldwide) thought it was and came away wondering how any critic could've given it a positive review. I mean I'm sick but not that sick. I also wondered what they could've done to make it work. What if they'd kept the kids kids? What's the point of turning the two characters into adults? And aren't the characters played by Will Ferrell (who always makes me laugh) and Danny McBride (who never does) too similar anyway? And who wants Will Ferrell in a romance? Yes, I got two or three belly laughs out of it (as I said, Will Ferrell makes me laugh), but most of the movie is startling unfunny and as slow-moving as a Sleestak. Don't be like me. Don't rent it thinking, “It can't be as bad as everyone says.” It is. If you're sick, it'll make you sicker.

Oh, and if anyone's got thoughts on movies to watch when you're sick, by all means...

Addendum: Meant to give a shout-out to my main companion—after Jellybean and Patricia, of course—during this sickness: E.L. Doctorow, whose book, World's Fair, I'm reading again after 20 years. I'm loving it. It feels, in tone, similar to Willa Cather's My Antonia. There's not much greater praise than that...

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Posted at 11:12 AM on Nov 21, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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