Movie Reviews - 2010 postsMonday November 07, 2011
Movie Review: Haevnen/In a Better World (2010)
Susanne Bier’s “In a Better World,” the English-language title for the Danish film “Haevnen,” which won the Oscar for best foreign language film at the 2010 Academy Awards, attempts to give a more adult answer to the dilemma Hollywood has spent 100 years exploiting: What do ordinary, law-abiding citizens do when confronted with bullies and psychopaths? How does a man face brutality without becoming brutal himself?
These films are now called vigilante films, since, in them, ordinary citizens go beyond the law to set things right (see everything from “Death Wish” to “Harry Brown”), but they were once simply called westerns. The hero that emerged, often John Wayne, didn’t have to worry about going beyond the law because there was barely a law. He also shot second. (He was eminently fair.) There was also no blood, no rape, no none of that. Hays Code.
In “Haevnen,” Elias (Markus Rygaard), buck-toothed and braces-wearing, is the picked-upon kid at his local school, whose hallways are ruled by Sofus (Simon Maagaard Holm) and his crew of toadies. They block entranceways, demand obeisance, and hurt and humiliate those they don’t like. Elias, sweet-natured, is a favorite target.
Then Christian (William Jřhnk Nielsen), Danish, but recent of London where his mother died of cancer, arrives on the scene. He’s no bigger than Elias, and both are smaller than Sofus, but he moves through life with an intense glare. The first day he scopes out the scene like a little Clint Eastwood, stands up to Sofus (for which he gets a soccer ball in the nose), and the next day, when Sofus follows Elias into the boys’ room to further pick on him, Christian follows and attacks Sofus with a bike pump and a knife, leaving him bloody and moaning on the floor. It’s like John Foster Dulles’ 1950s foreign policy of massive retaliation except in a Danish middle school.
School officials, absent or impotent for the reign of Sofus’ terror, now, of course, get involved. The knife is particularly troublesome—it’s apparently the Danish equivalent of bringing a gun to school—and parents are called and admonished; but both boys stand firm, the knife is never found, and Sofus’ reign ends. Half an hour into the film.
That itself is intriguing. In the typical vigilante film, you get your moment of revenge in the third act, not the first, and it pretty much ends the movie. Now we’re left wondering what’s going to happen next. (At the same time, it doesn’t mean we didn’t thrill to the beating of Sofus, the little shit, any less than we thrill to the revenge perpetrated against any number of cinematic bullies. First or third act, the desire for justice of a violent nature is still there.)
I suppose that’s the question of “Haevnen”: Can we have a justice that’s not violent? That’s within the law? That’s adult?
Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), the father of Elias, attempts to find out. Well, he doesn’t attempt to find out. It’s less proactive than that. He just finds out. Kind of.
Anton spends half his time as a doctor-without-borders in sub-Saharan Africa, treating the sick and the injured. The latter group, increasingly, is filled with pregnant women whose stomachs have been slit open. Why? Who could do such a thing? Turns out, the local chieftain, Big Man (Odiege Matthew), who bets compatriots on the gender of the unborn babies of passing pregnant women. Cutting them open is a way to settle the bet.
It’s in Denmark, though, that Anton finds his bully. One day, chaperoning his two boys and Christian near the docks, Morten (Toke Lars Bjarke), Elias’ younger brother, pulls away and gets into a fight with another boy over a swing. When Anton tries to break it up, the father of the second boy shows up, belligerently objects to Anton touching his son, and slaps Anton in the face several times. It’s a shocking moment—for both us and the kids. It’s also shocking for Anton, who keeps his cool but cools off his injured cheek (and injured spirit?) with a swim in the family lake at dusk.
In a better world, Anton would forget about the incident. Unfortunately, now his son thinks him a coward. So after the boys have tracked the bully, Lars (Kim Bodnia), to his workplace, Anton shows up, with boys in tow, and confronts him. Except Lars feels no shame, just maliciousness, and again slaps Anton repeatedly. It’s an interesting scene. Anton is confrontational but peaceful, and shows no fear, and questions every move Lars makes. Afterwards, outside, he claims that Lars showed himself to be a big jerk not worth anyone’s time or attention. He says Lars lost. But Christian annunciates our thoughts: “I don’t think he thinks he lost.”
This sets up the second half of the movie: Anton, in Africa, dealing with an injured Big Man, and Elias and Christian, in Denmark, scheming against Lars. In his grandfather’s garage, Christian finds old fireworks and uses their gunpowder to create a bomb with which to blow up Lars’ car.
In the end, retribution against Lars is premeditated and comes with complications (Elias is caught in the blast), while retribution against Big Man is impulsive and ... without complications? Anton treats Big Man for an infected leg for several days, but when Big Man makes a joke about a girl who dies on Anton’s operating table, Anton loses it and shoves him and his entourage—two unarmed men—into the courtyard. The two men flee, while Big Man is left helpless on the ground. The citizens gradually close in on him and tear him apart.
If there are complications for Anton’s actions, they are internal, within Anton, never external. At no point, for example, do any of Big Man’s men take revenge. Because they wanted Big Man gone, too? Who knows? It’s all left hanging. Does Anton feel less culpable about Big Man’s death because it wasn’t by his own hands? Does he feel disappointed in the citizens who tear him apart? Does he revel in the revenge, as most of us, from the safety of our theater seats, do?
Every answer “Haevnen” offers is dissatisfying. Most, one imagines, are purposefully so, but the movie is dissatisfying in other, seemingly unintentional ways. How, for example, does Christian become a 10-year-old Clint Eastwood in the first place? Solely through the death of his mother? He apparently learns his lesson—or a lesson—about his violent ways by almost causing the death of Elias. But how long does the lesson hold? And does Anton feel any culpability here? If he’d simply stood up to Lars, or called the cops on him, the boys wouldn’t have felt the need to take action themselves. What’s the better world of the title: one in which Anton stands up to Lars or one in which Lars doesn’t exist?
The cinematography is gorgeous and the acting excellent—particularly William Jřhnk Nielsen’s astonishing turn as Christian, for which he was nominated best actor at the Danish Academy Awards. But “Haevnen” still feels weak for a best foreign language film winner. We watch for two hours and no insight, great or small, comes.
Movie Review: “Morning Glory” (2010)
WARNING: THERE ARE NO SPOILERS IN A MOVIE THIS OBVIOUS
In “Morning Glory,” an enthusiastic, workaholic TV producer, Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams), lands a gig with a floundering national morning news show, “Daybreak,” and does whatever she can to turn the show into a success.
In “Morning Glory,” an enthusiastic, workaholic actress, Rachel McAdams, lands the lead in a floundering star vehicle, “Morning Glory,” and does whatever she can to turn the movie into a success.
Becky succeeds. The way she succeeds is part of why Rachel fails. Shame. It’s been a while since I’ve seen such a likeable talent turn in such a funny, nuanced performance in the service of such crap.
As the movie begins, Becky is the producer of “Good Morning, New Jersey,” which has just been bought by a conglomerate, and in the reshuffling everyone expects her to get promoted. Subordinates wear T-shirts reading, “Way to go, Becky!” and Becky wears a T-shirt into her boss’s office reading, “Yes, I accept!” Instead of getting booted up, of course, she gets booted out. Cue box of personal items and crying subordinates, still wearing their “Way to go, Becky!” T-shirts, in the parking lot.
That’s not a bad scene, actually. They telegraph it, but something about those T-shirts in the parking lot forgives the telegraphing.
No, the first real red flag of the movie is subsequent to that, when Becky’s mother (Patti D’Arbanville, “Lady D’Arbanville” Cat Stevens fans) has a heart-to-heart with her. She tells her it’s time to give up on her dreams. She tells her those dreams used to be cute but now they’re just ... embarrassing. She tells her to stop now, please, before her life becomes tragic.
Really, Mom? Your daughter just got fired through no fault of her own? From a job she was obviously good at? And this is your advice? It’s not like she’s 28 and wants to be a ballerina. She just wants to be a producer. She wants to work in TV. Maybe if you’d given a speech about how it’s 2010, and TV is dying, and you need to look to the future and try something Twitterish or YouTubeish, we would’ve bought it in some respect. Maybe if you’d owned up to how volatile the world seems, and how no job, no profession, no career seems safe in these shifting times, you would’ve connected Becky and her problems to us and ours, in a way that felt meaningful, and we would’ve cared more about the movie. Instead ...
Of course this speech was designed (by screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna, director Roger Michell, and the suits at Paramount) to make Becky more sympathetic. It provides a kind of false tension in the first 10 minutes. She needs to show her mother! And quickly! Which she does. She lands a plum (or plummish) gig as producer of the IBS network’s fourth-place morning show: “Daybreak.”
When she arrives, the doorknobs don’t work, the staff is lethargic, the cohost, Paul McVee (Ty Burrell) is a sex pervert. So she energizes the staff by firing the co-host. But her boss, Jerry Barnes (Jeff Goldblum—always welcome to see), rather than applaud the move, tells her she has no budget for a new cohost. So she has to pick someone already contracted to, but not really working for, the IBS family.
Ah, but there is someone in this category. A legend, actually: Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford, all wrong for the role), a Mike Wallaceish, crotchety, old-school TV newsman, and, according to hunky fellow IBSer, Adam Bennett (Patrick Wilson), “the third worst person in the world.” Through a kind quirky persistence, she lands both the hunky Bennettt (in bed) and the crotchety Pomeroy (in the co-host chair). But while the former is accommodating and tight-abbed in the Hollywood manner, the latter fights and grumbles all the way.
He’s full of himself and his importance. He has ego battles with co-host Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) over who gets to sign off the show—not a bad bit, actually—even though he doesn’t care a wit for the show. He insists on announcing only depressing news, or “news.” He thinks shows like “Daybreak” are contributing to the decline and fall of western civilization.
Problem? He’s right but completely unlikeable. He’s so gruff and serious he makes the real Mike Wallace seem like Richard Simmons in comparison. He’s so gruff he even has a growly voice, which doesn’t work for TV news at all. Listen to Wallace, Safer, Koppel. Their faces may be craggy but their voices are smooth. Harrison Ford? He’s virtually expectorating every word he says. He’s Demi Moore with bronchitis.
Bigger problem? Becky, our heroine, is likeable but wrong. We want her to win, but to win, to get the ratings up so the show isn’t canceled, she has to make her show sillier, which she does with enthusiasm. She puts the weatherman on a roller coaster. She makes him skydive. His horrified reaction makes everyone laugh and he becomes “a YouTube sensation,” whatever that’s worth. Now Colleen wants in on the action. She bakes this, she dances with that, has animals on her show. Animals! And funny things happen with them! Oops, here comes a sku-u-unk...
But it works. By aiming low, by making the fluffy show fluffier, the ratings go up, they get new doorknobs, and Becky is called into the offices of the “Today” show to become their producer. Will she abandon what she’s created, and her team of misfits, to take her dream job? Of course she won’t. This is a movie, not life. So Mike Pomeroy, realizing he’s about to lose the producer who saved the show he never wanted to be on in the first place, makes an impromptu frittata on camera, to show that he’s loosened up; and Becky, about to take the job in the “Today” show offices, sees him do this—because NBC apparently displays all their rivals’ TV shows in their corporate offices—excuses herself, and runs across town to get back to him in time. In time for what? For the frittata? The tension is past. Her choice is made. That was the tension. No, she runs for pretend tension: so she can be in the wings and smile at Mike Pomeroy as he signs off.
Get a room already, you two.
You know what might’ve been a cool movie? “An award-winning TV journalist, Mike Pomeroy (Donald Sutherland), is forced to take a job on a morning news program, where his standards keep getting lowered until his overly enthusiastic producer, Becky (Rachel McAdams), asks for one final humiliation.” Think of it as “Morning Glory” mixed with “Blue Angel.”
Or this? “A likeable, quirky TV producer, Becky (Rachel McAdams), continually lowers the standards of her morning news show to get the ratings up, but it doesn’t work and the show is canceled.”
I know. Neither would ever get made. But in a way the latter one did. “Morning Glory,” a movie that continually lowered its standards to give movie audiences what they wanted, wasn’t what people wanted. It opened in fifth place last November and sank without a trace.
Movie Review: “Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics” (2010)
WARNING: SPOILERS OF STEEL
It’s immediately suspect, isn’t it? “Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics,” produced by DC Entertainment. Most corporations can’t police themselves let alone document themselves. Gonna suck. Gonna sweep shit under the rug.
And it does. We get Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster creating Superman in 1938, and, according to Bob Kane, earning $800 a week a year later, but not being shunted aside in the 1940s by DC, then forgotten, then scraping out an existence while their creation soars to new heights, until, in the 1970s, to prevent bad publicity prior to “Superman: The Movie,” Warner Bros. finally, meagerly compensates the two for changing the world. We get Captain Marvel outselling even Superman in 1940, but not the eight-year-long lawsuit by DC that kills that creation as well as Fawcett Publications. We get editor Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger rescuing Superman in the late ‘50s by inventing Supergirl and Superdog and Supercat and Superhorse and Supermonkey, but no word on how all of this super crap essentially buried the Man of Steel under layers of irrelevance just as Marvel Comics was about to make comic books relevant again.
The first words in the doc don’t help. A dude who turns out to be Neil Adams defends comics through hyperbole. “There is no better medium than comic books,” he says. “It’s the medium.” A second later he defends comics through a kind of quotidian consumerism. “You may not like comic books, you may not respect comic books, but they’re something that people buy for themselves that they want to read.”
Really? That’s your open?
Yet “Secret Origins” isn’t bad. Some shit even stays on top of the rug. Gerard Jones, author of “Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book” (a must-read), talks up the gangster contacts of Harry Donenfeld, along with the near-pornography status of his early pulps, before he and accountant Jack S. Liebowitz partnered with Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson of National Allied Publications and created “Detective Comics #1.” Both Jones and comic book writer Mark Waid, all half-smiles and shrugs, talk up the bondage fixation of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Marston, which was translated to the comics page with breathtaking regularity. Stan Lee and Marvel Comics get their 30 seconds, too, which is 30 seconds more than I thought they’d get, while Denny O’Neil offers a charming, heartfelt mea culpa for taking away Wonder Woman’s powers in the early 1970s: “What I did, in effect, was take the feminist icon and depower her, dial her way down, and then to compound the sin give her a mentor [I-Ching] who is a male, and then, to compound that sin, named that male after one of the classics of Chinese literature.” A grimace and an eye-roll. “Hoo!”
The doc, to its credit, doesn't ignore the bondage fixation of William Marston, Wonder Woman's creator.
Talking heads often make the doc and “Secret Origins” is as packed as the Justice League in this regard: Not just Jones and Waid and O’Neil but Chip Kidd, Neil Gaiman, and Len Wein. We get archival footage of Bob Kane behind the wheel of the 1960s Batmobile (the coolest car ever) and Alan Moore recounting that first phone call from Len Wein offering him “Swamp Thing.” The doc takes us from the mid-1930s and “Fun” comics to the constant reboots of today.
Some of the footage is truly archival. Here’s a kid caught up in early Supermania:
Here’s “Superman Day” at the World’s Fair in 1940:
Chip Kidd, unlike Adams, is charming in his hyperbole:
I think the Fleischer Superman cartoons are a pinnacle of cinematic achievement in the 20th century. I’m sure people will laugh at me for saying that. But they’re like beautiful little poems that I never get tired of viewing.
How good are these cartoons? Near the end of the doc, there’s a nice juxtaposition of Max Fleischer’s cartoon Superman stopping a plane from crashing (in 1941) with Bryan Singer’s live-action Superman stopping a plane from crashing (in 2006), and they’re so similar one wonders if the former didn’t inspire the latter.
The mighty Superman, in 1941 (top) and in 2006.
Unfortunately, Singer isn’t a talking head here. His Superman is being rebooted by Zack Snyder so he’s literally out of the picture.
DC frames their story—correctly I believe—as one of invention followed by stagnation, followed by the next generation’s invention. Thus the company went from messy, creative, 1940s sweatshop to surviving by tiptoeing through the reactionary 1950s to a burst of Julius Schwartz-directed activity just before 1960 (the origin of the modern Flash is particularly interesting), which led indirectly to the resurgence of Marvel, which led DC to attempt, breathlessly, to catch up with stories of poverty and drug abuse from the younger generation (Adams; O’Neil), and which ultimately led to the astonishing reboots and darker visions of Frank Miller and Alan Moore in the 1980s. But the 1990s saw excessive darkness and vigilantism from Miller/Moore acolytes, so Alex Ross and Mark Waid created the “Kingdom Come” series, in which Superman, etc., returned to battle the new amoral superheroes. Post 9/11, apparently, we got a return to the superhero as wish-fulfillment. At least that’s what’s implied here but the modern era is out of my purview. (To me it feels like it’s all one-shots and reboots.)
So much is missing. We get tears, literal tears, on the overhyped “Death of Superman” in 1994 but nothing on John Byrne’s “Man of Steel” reboot or Marv Wolfman’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” maxi-series. We get the 1950s “Adventures of Superman,” the 1960s Adam West “Batman” and the 1970s “Superfriends”; but no mention of the 1940s Superman/Batman serials (two each), the 1960s Broadway musical, “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman!,” nor the 1960s “Superman/Aquaman Hour."
So many issues (no pun intended) are left untouched:
- What does it mean to kill off continuity with reboots and one-shots? Continuity leads to stagnation and the weight of history, but reboots lead to ... what? Frivolity? None of it matters because none of it is the story. It's all imaginary tales now.
- Does the increasing sophistication of comic books, and their marginalization into specialty stores, mean losing younger generations of fans?
- What are sales like these days? Are comic book characters thriving in other media (“Spider-Man,” “The Dark Knight”) even as comic books themselves struggle to survive anemic sales?
- The biggee: Why did superheroes emerge when they did? What were the nearest forerunners to superheroes in the 19th century? In the 14th? In 29 A.D.?
All of which means, I suppose, that the great documentary on Superman, or DC Comics, or the long history of comic books in general, still needs to be written.
Same Bat-time, kids.
Movie Review: “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest” (2010)
WARNING: SPÖILERS III
“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest”? Really? How about “The Girl Who Lies in Bed While a Bunch of Old, Decrepit Hornets Buzz their Last Buzz”? If some trilogies follow the Hegelian pattern of thesis/antithesis/synthesis, the Millennium trilogy goes a slightly different route: thesis, thesis, anesthesia. I felt nothing but sleepy here.
The thesis of the series is in its Swedish title, “Män som hatar kvinnor”: “Men Who Hate Women.” So “Dragon Tattoo,” the first film, gives us not only Martin Vanger, a Swedish Nazi who has been torturing, raping and killing women for 40 years, but, for extra credit, Nils Bjurman, lawyer, guardian, and rapist of our fidgety, feral heroine, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). Both villains get theirs. The second film, “Played with Fire,” brings back Bjurman for a final bow before kicking him to the curb. There are also allusions to human trafficking, but these gets buried when it’s discovered the man running the sex trade, Alexander Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), is Lisbeth’s father, whom fire played, while his blonde, brutish henchman, Ronald Niedermann (Micke Spreitz), is the half-brother she never knew she had. These guys hate, sure, but they overflow our thesis. They’re EOE. They hate everybody.
By the third film? We’re left with Dr. Peter Teleborian (Anders Ahlbom), the director of the institute where 12-year-old Lisbeth was incarcerated after she played with fire. Apparently he was in the second film, too, but I don’t remember him. Apparently he tied up Lisbeth for more than a year of her two-year-stay, and there are allusions he abused her, along with vague, grainy, flashback footage. But he’s a toothless beast now, more pathetic than horrifying. When not the main government witness in a trial to incarcerate Lisbeth again, he jerks off to child porno.
“Hornet's Nest” is less revelation (for us) than attempted cover-up (by the powers-that-be). Because Lisbeth survives that bullet to the brain from the second movie, and her father, Zalachenko, survives that axe to the head from the second movie, the authorities are intent on charging her with attempted murder (of him), and him with ... isn’t it also attempted murder? Of her? So shouldn’t these two charges off-set each other somewhat? Someone, anyway, has a good self-defense argument.
Old, powerful men keep gathering. They talk in hushed tones. They need things hush-hush for the remainder of their sad lives and will do anything to make it so. Example: Zalachenko, from this hospital bed, demands protection from the powers-that-be or he’ll implicate them. He’ll spill the beans. He says to Evert Gullberg (Hans Alfredson), “You have no choice.” To which Gullberg, who reminds me of former baseball manager Bill Rigney, sagely replies, “Life has taught me there’s always a choice” and promptly shoots Zalachenko in the head. Then he goes after Lisbeth. But the door to her hospital room is barricaded, and after one or two feeble attempts, oof, he sits down, an old man on a waiting room bench, to catch his breath. Then he puts the gun to his cheek and pulls the trigger.
“What are these guys trying to cover up again?” I asked Patricia halfway through the film.
“That stuff about Zalachenko,” she replied. “How he worked for them. How they protected him.”
There really is nothing new here. We already know what the truth is. So do the main characters. We’re just waiting to see if the rest of Sweden will catch up. Shocking revelations are made in Millennium magazine: the stuff from the first two movies. Shocking revelations are made in court: the stuff from the first two movies. Basically we get to watch while lawyers and judges watch plot points from the first two movies and agree how horrific it all was.
It’s an odd trilogy, isn’t it? Men who hate women, sure, but also men who nurture women. Or a woman. How many good men does Lisbeth have on her side to offset the bastards? Count ’em off:
- Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), our journalist hero.
- Dragan Armanskij (Michalis Koutsogiannakis), her employer from the first film, who does some investigative work for Blomkvist in this one.
- Holger Palmgren (Per Oscarsson), her first guardian.
- That boxer from the second movie, Paolo Roberto, who kicks ass.
- Plague (Tomas Köhler), the computer hacker, always there to act as a modern deus ex machina, extracting information, as it became necessary, from other people’s computers. This is never more true than at the end of “Hornet's,” when he saves the day and is then forgotten. All credit goes to Blomkvist.
- Finally, “Hornet's” gives us Dr. Anders Jonasson (Aksel Morisse), the surgeon who extracts the bullet from Lisbeth’s brain. She barely says anything to him but he’s quickly smitten. He keeps the police at bay for her. He buys her pizza when she wants it. He gives her gifts: a book on DNA. She nods her thanks.
As for the women? For a trilogy that feels feminist, the women, with the exception of Lisbeth, are kind of lame.
In the first movie there’s Harriet Vanger, who would rather let her brother rape and kill for 40 years than confront him or even warn the authorities about him.
Erika Berger (Lena Endre), the publisher of Millennium, is a wishy-washy mess. In “Hornet's” she gets a few threatening emails warning her not to print the magazine with Lisbeth’s story in it. Then a rock is thrown through her window. What does she do? She decides not to print the magazine with Lisbeth’s story in it. Hardly Katie Graham.
One has higher hopes for Annika Giannini (Annika Hallin), Blomkvist’s sister, pregnant, and a no-nonsense lawyer, but she disappoints, too. She takes Lisbeth’s case reluctantly, grumbling all the while, as a favor to her brother, even though it’s probably the biggest case in the country. Does she do investigative work? Who knows? Everything seems handed to her. Blomkvist gives her Lisbeth’s story, along with documentary evidence of some of the authority abuse she suffered (a DVD of the Bjurman rape), but she doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. When the main government witness, Teleborian, claims the Bjurman rape is part of Lisbeth’s paranoid schizophrenia, Annika doesn’t introduce the DVD into evidence to discredit him. Not immediately. We still have half an hour of film to watch. So she wrings her hands, and whines, until Plague, hacking Teleborian’s computer, delivers the coup de grace: evidence that Teleborian created his diagnosis of Lisbeth before even seeing Lisbeth. Plus there’s all that kiddie porn. Plague hands off to Blomkvist who hands off to Annika, who finally makes her case. Hardly Maureen Mahoney.
Even Lisbeth seems to regress in the third film. Remember the first film? She was almost too interesting there: tough, feral, a computer hacker with a photographic mind who saves the day and vanishes like the Lone Ranger, leaving Blomkvist and us to wonder: “Who was that stoic girl?”
In the second film she begins to let people in—Blomkvist literally—but by the third film, with her hacking skills and photographic mind a thing of the past, she has trouble just saying tack. The “Godfather” trilogy suffered from its Arte Johnson-like ending (an ancient Michael Corleone falling off a park bench and dying), and the Millennium trilogy, which ain’t nearly in the same category, suffers from its almost shrug of an ending. Lisbeth, sure, takes care of Niedermann, who shows up like a Bond villain in the denouement; then she takes a bath. Blomkvist comes by. They exchange awkward greetings. She finally says what she hasn’t been able to say, tack för allt, thank you for everything. Should the movie have ended there? With a close-up of her face? Or his? Instead we get more awkwardness, then a flat, distant shot of Stockholm from the water; then the credits start rolling. Hej dĺ.
For all my problems with the series, the girl with the dragon tattoo, who played with fire, who kicked the hornet's nest, deserved a better ending than this.
Movie Review: “Biutiful” (2010)
WARNING: THE ROAD TO HELL IS PAVED WITH GOOD SPOILERS
The world of Alejandro González Ińárritu (“21 Grams,” “Babel”) tends to be a polyglot of crowded, marginal characters. It’s a world where everyone ekes a living off of each other, and what light there is is fluorescent. Halfway through his latest, “Biutiful,” the sun shines on a family eating breakfast together. “Ah, the sun,” I thought. Then it goes away. The sun is for other people’s movies.
Ińárritu is all about border crossings. At the start of “Biutiful,” Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is facilitating between two immigrant groups, the illegal Chinese and the legal African, in Barcelona. The former make bootleg products in basement factories, which the latter then sell along Las Ramblas or in the Plaza Cataluńa. Uxbal bribes la policia to look the other way.
He’s also clairvoyant. Did I mention that? He can communicate with the recently dead and help them cross that final border to the undiscovered country from which no traveler returns. I should add that never has such a gift been presented in such by-the-way fashion in a movie. Uxbal has an answer to the most profound question in human history—does the individual consciousness survive death?—and he views it like it’s pro bono work, like it’s a hobby. He does it on the side when he has the time.
Despite this gift, Uxbal’s life is no great shakes. He lives in a cramped, basement apartment with his two kids. His ex-wife, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), is bipolar, an addict, and sleeping with his brother. He’s really only a step or two up from the immigrants he’s helping or exploiting. Then he’s diagnosed with cancer and given months to live.
So is this going to be that kind of story? The inconsequential man, forced, by the proximity and sudden inevitability of death, to see the beauty of life? Yes, there’s some of that. Uxbal is a hulking figure for much of the first third of the film. (You realize what a powerful back, and what a huge head, Bardem has.) After his diagnosis, he softens a bit. He visits his clairvoyant mentor, who tells him, “Put your affairs in order.” Both she and he know that the biggest problem for the recently dead is worry over unresolved matters, which get them to linger, to remain where they shouldn’t, and neither wants that for Uxbal.
So Uxbal begins to put his affairs in order. He tries to help the Africans, who are being deported for selling drugs. He tries to help the illegal Chinese immigrants, who live in horrible conditions, by buying them space heaters. He reconnects with Marambra, who still loves him, and he and the kids move into her apartment. They have breakfast together. The sun shines through the window. Life is good.
But life, as short as it is, lasts longer than “good.” The Africans are deported despite Uxbal’s efforts. Marambra goes back to partying, and doing drugs, and she beats the youngest, Mateo (Guillermo Estrella), forcing Uxbal to move everyone back into his basement apartment, which he’s already given to Ige (Diaryatou Daff), the wife of one of his deported Africans.
Most horrific: the heaters Uxbal buys for the Chinese immigrants—made, no doubt, by people under conditions similar to theirs—don’t work properly. Ińárritu telegraphs the moment. Twice in the movie we see the Chinese foreman unlock the doors to wake the workers at 6:30 a.m., but both times we’re inside the room. The third time Ińárritu places the camera outside the room, over the foreman’s shoulder. The door opens and, lo and behold, dozens of dead bodies lying on the floor. Patricia, watching next to me, gasped in horror, but I was only surprised that it was an apparent gas leak. I was expecting charred bodies burnt to a crisp.
So now Uxbal has dozens of deaths on his conscience just as he’s dying himself. How does he deal with the weight of all this? Poorly or not at all. He makes a few motions, feints in several directions, but he’s really too busy dying to do anything proper. He withers, wears diapers, is confined to bed. Ige begins to watch his kids, to feed them. Will she be his savoir? On his deathbed, Uxbal gives her money to pay a year’s rent, so at least his kids will have a place to live for a year, but she uses the money to travel back to Africa and her husband. She abandons his for hers.
Every attempt to put his affairs in order, in other words, leads to chaos and heartbreak. It’s as if a sick God is foiling his every move. One is.
What is it about Ińárritu? He deals with themes I care about but his execution always bores me. His scenes are gritty but peculiarly weightless and airless. He shoves too many characters on the screen, shrinking them to make them all fit. He pisses me off.
I did like two scenes, however, shown both the beginning and end of the movie.
In the first scene, the camera focuses on two pairs of hands, male and female, and we hear voices, male and female, talking about a diamond ring. “Is it real?” she asks. Yes, he answers. She wants to wear it. He lets her. It could be a young couple, postcoital, at the beginning of their journey, but by the end of the movie we know it’s Uxbal and his daughter, Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib), and the conversation is the last he will have in this world.
In the second scene, Uxbal is in the woods eyeing a handsome young man. They smoke cigarettes and have an odd conversation about owls. The man, younger than Uxbal, shorter than Uxbal, seems the dominant one, while Uxbal has a kind of shy, flirtatious love shining in his eyes. Initially confusing, by the end of the movie we know the man is Uxbal’s father, who died when Uxbal was young, which means Uxbal is now dead. This is the afterlife. But it’s almost like a dream, isn’t it, pieced together from life in the way of dreams. Freud once observed that anything we hear in a dream we first hear in life, and so it is with the conversation about the owls. Initially it was Mateo’s conversation to Uxbal. The woods themselves seem culled from a refrigerator drawing of Mateo’s: childish woods beneath the word “biutiful.”
But this is only the beginning of death. In the woods, Uxbal’s father moves away, and Uxbal says “What’s over there?” He follows him. The camera stays behind. And that’s where the movie ends.
Patricia loved it. When the lights came up I looked over and her cheeks were soaked with tears. For a moment it made me question my own nonplussed reaction. But only for a moment.
Ińárritu is all about border crossings but his movies don’t inspire any border crossings in me. They don’t take me any place I haven’t been or want to go. I remain (stubbornly? frustratedly?) on this side, in the place I started.