erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2009 posts

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.

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.

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...

Posted at 11:12 AM on Nov 21, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Monday November 16, 2009

Review: “2012” (2009)

WARNING: END-OF-THE-WORLD-AS-WE-KNOW-IT SPOILERS

Imagine you’re a divorced father with an 11-year-old son named Noah and you take him and his sister camping in Yellowstone Park, but he’s sullen the whole time because he still blames you for the divorce, and he’s already bonded with mom’s new live-in boyfriend, a breast-augmentation surgeon named Gordon, who’s given him a cool new cellphone with which he won’t stop playing. But imagine during this camping trip the lake that was once there is now all dried up and guarded by the U.S. military, and imagine via the ramblings of a rogue radio DJ you figure out that the earth’s core is heating up, and, days later, via the snide remarks of the kids of the Russian billionaire for whom you chauffer, you figure out there’s a giant spaceship that the best and brightest and richest are all getting on in order to survive this global cataclysm, which is coming, yes, right now, so imagine you return like a madman to your ex-wife’s house and get the kids and the ex-wife, and, yes, even Gordon, and you all pile into your limousine as California shakes and the earth crumbles behind you, right behind you in the rearview mirror, and in order to get away from it all you have to drive around slow grandmas and falling telephone poles and through falling skyscrapers, but you do it, you get your family to an airport, and you convince Gordon, who’s had one or two flying lessons, and is dithering even as the world breaks up, to fly the family up and out, and you all watch in horror as half of California sinks into the sea.

Then imagine you fly back to Yellowstone in Wyoming because the rogue DJ has a map that shows where this giant spaceship is being built, and to get this map you have to drive a camper crazily up an down a small mountain, and then around more falling trees while, again, the earth crumbles in your rearview mirror. But you get the camper back to the airfield in time and you search and search and, yes!, find the map, but, no!, just then the crumbling earth catches up to you and the camper falls into the widening crevices and it looks like you’re toast. But with your family watching, and with Gordon urging everyone to just leave you behind, you somehow crawl out of the crevice, map in mouth, and then run and catch the plane as it gathers speed and takes off with you breathlessly on board and Wyoming literally opening up and bursting into flames below you. But you’ve got the map now so you know where to go to save your family. Holy shit! China!

Then imagine you’re in the Vegas airport, which is where you head even though, let’s face it, it’s closer to the west coast and the disasters you left in the first place, but you don’t have time to think about any of that, you just need a bigger plane, one that can take you and your family (and Gordon) all the way to fucking China, and lo and behold!, you run into your Russian billionaire, who has such a bigger plane, but who needs a co-pilot, which you have, in Gordon, and a deal is struck, and the two families take off in this giant Russian jumbo jet with its large cargo hold filled with expensive automobiles instead of, you know, hundreds of the people below who instead of being saved die horribly as Nevada, too, succumbs to earthquakes and upheavals and destruction.

Them imagine this same plane, damaged during your miraculous takeoff, makes it all the way across the Pacific Ocean but suffers final engine failure and has to crash in the Himalayas, but everyone survives because of two people: 1) the Russian pilot, who gives up his life, and 2) you, because, as the plane is near-crashing-landing, you drive everyone in one of those expensive automobiles out the cargo hold, down a ramp, and onto the snow and ice of the Himalayas at, what, 150 miles an hour, before the final, fiery crash of the plane, but you do it, you do it again, you save your family (and Gordon) again.

Then after the Chinese military drops in and picks up the Russian and his kids—because they’ve paid their way on board the spaceship, leaving you and your family, not to mention the Russian mistress, in the snow-capped mountains to die—imagine you manage, at the last instant, to flag down a Tibetan Buddhist family driving a truck to, quel coincidence!, the same secret spaceship. where they have a family member who’s a guard and who’s allowing his family to stow away on board. And imagine because they’re Buddhist they let you and your family stow away on board, too, and you do, you’re inside!, you’re finally inside the spaceship!, even as the Russian and other billionaires are mere rabble below, about to be left behind in the devastation of earth’s final moments.

Except imagine that the powers-that-be have a change of heart, and decide to let those billionaires actually board the ship, and they lower the ramps, and you and your family, not to mention the Russian mistress and the Tibetan family, who are stowed away in there, are caught in the gears of this lowering and raising of ramps, and though the Chinese guard’s foot is crushed in the machinery you manage to save him, but you can’t save Gordon, poor Gordon, and he’s crushed and gone, allowing you to finally reunite with your family, and with your wife who still loves you.

But imagine the devastation of the earth has created tsunamis that have now reached the mountainous levels of the Himalayas, and they come crashing onto your ship, which isn’t a spaceship at all but an ark, an ark to travel these new oceans. Except, in the raising and lowering of the ramps, something, and not just Gordon, got caught in the gears, and is preventing the final ramp from being raised, and water is pouring in, ocean water, one imagines freezing ocean water, although arguments can be made that this water, too, has been heated enough by the earth’s core so that those drenched in the water, which is you and yours, do not suffer from hypothermia. But now imagine the powers-that-be, aware of you, and aware of the problem with the ramp, need a volunteer to swim down and remove the obstruction, even as they define such a mission as “a suicide mission”; but with a final farewell to your ex-wife, who now loves you, and your kids, who now admire you, you go, you swim down further into the cargo hold, and your son, your formerly bratty son, actually follows, and the two of you remove the obstruction that allows the ramp to close, which allows the engines to start, which prevents the ark from crashing into Mt. Everest and dooming all. Instead everyone is saved. Everyone. Because of you. And guess what? It wasn’t a suicide mission at all. You and your son survive.

And now imagine it’s 27 days later and you’re one of 4,000 people left alive on earth, but everything is stabilizing faster than anyone anticipated, and—better!—it’s discovered that Africa has risen several thousand feet, and is habitable, and that’s where everyone is headed, toward the Cape of Good Hope, ah yes, Good Hope, and for the first time in 27 days the ark doors are opened and people get to breathe fresh air, and you and your wife, who loves you again, and your kids, who admire you again, all of you stand on this platform like a family on vacation and lean on the railing and look out at the placid ocean that you’re plowing through in this brave new world that barely has any people in it, and your son looks up to you and says:

“Daddy? When are we going back home?”

Question: Do you smack the kid around? Or do you smack around the writer-director who wrote that shitty line?

There were many instances in “2012,” particularly in the second half, when I wanted to smack around writer-director Roland Emmerich. To be honest, the first half of the movie isn’t that bad. At least it’s better than I thought this type of movie would be. Emmerich is a good roller-coaster operator and he gives us a helluva ride. Here’s his problem: He thinks he has something important to say about life. And he has nothing important to say about life.

The action-hero father described above is novelist Jackson Curtis, played by John Cusack. When I first heard Cusack was going to be in this disaster flick, this update of “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno” but with an all-star cast fleeing, not a upside-down boat or a burning skyscraper but the entire planet, I blanched. Really? Lloyd Dobler? In this? But he’s the best thing in it. He makes us care. Someone else has written that Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Adrian Helmsley, a scientist who is among the first to figure out that solar flares are heating up the earth’s core, which will cause cataclysmic shifts in the year 2012, are the two best things in the movie, but it’s really just Cusack. Sorry. Normally I love Ejiofor, but the scientist role is a drag role unless you do something like Jeff Goldblum did in “Independence Day”—another Emmerich project—where he always seemed not quite there because he was always two steps ahead of everyone else. Ejiofor doesn’t give us that. His scientist isn’t even particularly smart. He doesn’t figure out what’s happening to the earth’s core (his scientist-friends in India do that) and his timeline for when the cataclysm will occur is off by months or years (which is why the panic at the end). But he cares. That’s his redeeming quality; he cares. And there’s nothing worse, during an environmental cataclysm, than a scientist who doesn’t know science but who cares.

Plus he’s given one of the worst speeches any actor has ever been given to read.

Let me back up. So in 2009 scientists in India discover the earth’s core is heating up, and, in 2010, the President of the United States, Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover), announces the bad news to other world leaders, but everyone keeps it secret. And in secret they build their arks. And in secret they finance the building of the arks by offering the richest people in the world a seat on board. Cost: 1 billion euros per. And in secret they gather the best that humanity has created (this DaVinci, that Picasso) along with the best that God has created (“of clean beasts and of beasts that are not clean, and of fowls, and of every thing that creepeth upon the earth”), to try to preserve something of what has been.

And when do they tell the rest of the world? They don’t. Because they don’t want to start a panic. Which you kind of understand. But still.

Plus anyone who knows about the world ending and tries to tell the rest of the world? They kill them. Boom. Dead. Which you kind of understand. But still.

When the apocalypse finally happens, Pres. Wilson decides to stay behind in D.C.—to go on the air and let the people finally know what’s happening—and the vice-president, well, he dead, and so Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), doing his best jowly Al Haig impersonation, takes charge on one ark. And when it’s discovered that Helmsley’s calculations are wrong again, and, instead of hours, they have a mere 28 minutes before a tsunami hits them in this, one of the highest places on earth, Anheuser orders the ramps of the arks raised, dooming the hundreds of people in the holding area still clamoring to get on board.

And that’s when Helmsley, this simple scientist who can calculate nothing correctly, overrides Anheuser, the cutthroat career bureaucrat who didn’t even tell his own mother the cataclysm was coming, and talks directly, via “Star Trek”-like viewscreens, to the world leaders in the other arks, about those hundreds of people below, and about what it means to be human. And how the best in us involves risking ourselves in order to save others. And how if we begin this enterprise, this brave new world, by an act, not of sacrifice but of selfishness, then we have doomed the enterprise from the outset.

And there is silence. And there is silence.

And all the world leaders say with contempt: “Who the fuck is this guy?”

No, they agree with him. And so the ramps are lowered and the rabble are allowed to board. And the people are saved. And by extension, through this act of sacrifice, we are all saved.

The problem? Those rabble are all the rich fuckers who paid a billion euros a seat and told no one else, including their own mothers, that the world was ending. They’re the richest of the rich, and the selfish of the selfish. And they’re the ones who are going to start our brave new world?

The time for that Helmsley speech was 2010, when every backyard mechanic and carpenter and welder could’ve attempted to build his own ark, for his own friends and family, but the leaders of the world didn’t allow this to happen. The enterprise, in other words, began with the most monumental act of selfishness possible. And nothing Helmsley could say in 2012 could right that.

But Roland Emmerich needs his moment of hope. Even if it makes no sense within the story he’s created. Even if it’s such a lie that instead of raising hope it raises bile.

All of which raises a disturbing question. Most of the movie is about the rush to get to a safe place, the ark, which, yes, is safer than Yellowstone, safer than Vegas. But is it really safe? It’s one of the three vessels floating on the oceans of a dangerously different world, and filled to capacity with rich bastards, politicians, monarchs, bureaucrats and schemers. In some ways, give or take a cute John Cusack family, they’ve managed to gather the worst people in the world into this one place. And some of these people, remember, were nearly left behind in the Himalayas, and so know not to trust the people in charge. Which is who exactly? Who is policing matters? What rules of government are being adopted? Who is ensuring that food is shared, and property isn’t stolen, and women and children aren’t taken? Who is making sure these arks don’t turn into floating versions of “Lord of the Flies”?

I know. It’s just a movie. By which people always mean: It’s not supposed to make sense. It’s just supposed to make us thrill at all of the destruction. So in “2012,” along with everything mentioned above, we get to watch the Vatican crumble, God and Adam on the roof of the Sistine Chapel torn asunder, the Washington Monument collapse, and the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, risen by a tsunami, obliterate the White House. Fun! And if it all feels a bit derivative, well, at least Emmerich, the man responsible for “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” is stealing from himself here. But did his dialogue have to be derivative, too? Did Jackson Curtis, on first meeting the wacky DJ, have to say “I have to get back to...earth”—like Woody Allen to Christopher Walken in “Annie Hall”? Did he have to say, upon discovering their destination was China, “We’re gonna need a bigger...plane”—like Roy Scheider in “Jaws”? Are these homages or lazy writing?

And don’t get me started on the scene where, in the quiet of the cargo hold of the Russian plane, with the world being destroyed below them, Jackson turns to his ex-wife, played by Amanda Peet, and asks, “Do you think people change?”

Do I think people change? I think solar flares change and the earth’s core changes and tectonic plates shift, and, yes yes yes, I think people change, or at least are capable of changing, every single moment of their short, sad lives, but at the moment I just think people die, as they are doing right now below us.

The only one who doesn’t change, apparently, is Roland Emmerich, who keeps giving us this, the dumb epic disaster film brightened by the last, false moment of hope, and who deserves, for the ten bucks and 160 minutes he just cost us, to be smacked around, yes, just a little.

Posted at 07:55 AM on Nov 16, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Saturday November 14, 2009

Review: “The Horse Boy” (2009)

WARNING: SPOILERS

How far would you go to help your child? To grasp at a final straw that may help your child? How far would you go?

“The Horse Boy,” a documentary by Michel O. Scott about a couple living in Texas with their autistic four-year-old boy, gives one answer: Mongolia.

Actually that’s not even the real question-and-answer. The real one is this: How far would you go in your mind to help him with his? Would you go so far as to believe that a visit to shamans in Mongolia, and to the reindeer people in upper Mongolia near the Russian border, would help him with his autism? As uncommon as “The Horse Boy” is, in other words, it’s still a common story. When life throws us a gigantic curveball, and western society/medicine shrugs its shoulders, what cure won’t we try?

Rupert Isaacson, a long-haired Brit, met his future wife, Kristin Neff, a down-to-earth Californian, in India in 1994. For seven years they traveled together before getting married and settling down near Austin, Texas, where she was a professor and he was a travel writer. A son, Rowan, was born in December 2001. A few years later he was diagnosed with autism. It was, says Rupert, narrating the film, “like being hit across the face by a baseball bat.

“We tried everything,” he adds, but the child couldn’t or wouldn’t speak. He had tantrums, inconsolable tantrums, several times a day, some lasting for hours. We watch footage of some of these tantrums, and we both sympathize with the parents and want to get away from the child. And if we, watching one meltdown for 10 to 15 seconds, feel such a tension between sympathy (which moves toward) and flight (which moves away), imagine how the parents, who had to deal with this 24/7, feel. It’s a wonder they didn’t break.

Then one day Rowan ran onto a neighbor’s property and up to a horse named Betsy. Rupert was a horseman himself, a good rider, but he kept Rowan away from horses for obvious reasons. The child is small and fragile and doesn’t know it, and the horse, big and strong, doesn’t know the fragility and importance of the child. Both beings are potentially volatile.

But there was an immediate connection between the two. Betsy’s reaction to the boy was gentle and submissive, and Rowan, on Betsy’s back, calmed down and actually began talking. “This is a nice horse,” he says. Rowan, it turned out, had an affinity with animals, particularly horses, particularly Betsy.

And this is when Rupert makes a giant leap of faith. In his travels, he’d encountered shamans in different parts of the world, and he searches for a place that combines healing and horses. It’s the area of the world where horse-riding began: Mongolia. And off they go.

No easy task. A trip with Rowan to the local supermarket can easily turn into a disaster and now they’re taking him across the world? It doesn’t help that the Mongolian city they land in, far from Rupert’s expectations, is a depressed post-Soviet city; an urban slum.

With a van they soon trek to nearby mountains and visit nine shamans there, who examine the three, and chant, and declare that the problem is an ancestor on Kristin’s side, her mother’s mother, who is clinging to Rowan. They say a black energy had entered Kristin’s womb during Rowan’s birth. Meanwhile, Rowan is crying and crying, Rupert expresses his doubts. “Did I really have his best interests at heart here?” he wonders. Then both parents are lashed by a shaman to release evil spirits.

The whole thing seems insane.

“And then something happened,” Rupert reports. There’s a lot of this. Something is always happening in the doc, and this time it’s Rowan laughing and playing with another boy, the son of their guide, across the steppes of Mongolia. He had never played with other children before. To the parents, it’s a giant step forward.

But for every step forward... The plan is to trek across Mongolia by horse to upper Mongolia, and the reindeer people there, but, on a horse with his father, Rowan throws tantrums in a way he never has on a horse, shouting “Car! Car! Car!,” and much of the trip has to be made by van, where Rowan is consoled by the plastic animals—his horses and cows and pigs—he’s brought along. By the familiar.

Talking heads throughout the doc try to explain to us what autism is (a disorder of neural development), how it manifests itself (obsessive, repetitive, uncommunicative behavior), and what advantages it may have (the ability to focus). It’s posited that some of our most brilliant minds may have been mildly autistic. It’s posited that shamans may be mildly autistic. One of the talking heads, a professor, turns out to be autistic herself, and says she wouldn’t trade it, and the clarity of its focus, for what other folks supposedly have. Another talking head states that we need to move in the direction of viewing autism not as something other than normal but simply as another way of being.

Whatever loftier goals Rupert and Kristin had at the outset—i.e., possibly “curing” Rowan of his autism—are, halfway through the trip, simpler: Rupert wants Rowan to ride a horse by himself; and Kristin wants Rowan to poop properly. There are autistic adults who still shit in their pants, and that’s one of her great fears: cleaning up shit every day for the rest of her life. At bottom is the great fear of the parents of all autistic children: If the child doesn’t learn to function in society, if he can’t interact with others, what will happen when they, the parents, die? Who will care for him then?

Emotions careen with Rowan’s moods. At one point Rupert says, “Don’t put the camera on me. I just want to cry.” The final trek is made, up grassy mountains, and Kristin has a harder time of it than Rowan. The Reindeer people are found. The shamans are visited. Rituals are performed.

The takeaway is this: By the end of the doc, both parents get their wish, and Kristin, back in Texas, says the difference between Rowan before the adventure and after is night and day. Now he poops by himself. Now he plays with other children. So was it the adventure? Was it the shamans? I have a touch of Hamlet in me—There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio... —but ultimately I’m a cynical man who knows people will believe what they want or need to believe. Kristin, down-to-earth, leans toward the adventure; Rupert, always vaguely hippyish, leans towards the shamanism. Both agree the why isn’t so important as the progress Rowan made.

The importance of the doc for the viewer, meanwhile, is, yes, this dichotomy between what we don’t know from science and what we don’t know from religion, and the ways we fill the gaps—the chasms—between the two. The unknowability of what Rowan is helps us reflect upon the unknowability of what we all are.

But its true importance is simpler. We spend 90 minutes with an autistic boy. We watch him at his worst. And in the end, we see him riding Betsy, bareback. by himself. Smiling.

View the trailer here.

Posted at 08:12 AM on Nov 14, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009, Movies - Documentaries
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