Movie Reviews - 2010 postsSaturday November 27, 2010
Review: “L'arnacoeur” (“Heartbreaker”) (2010)
It’s a brilliant idea for a movie: Hire a handsome guy, French no less, to break up couples.
Immediately I thought of the unrequited lover who wants a chance, so he hires this French guy, let’s call him Alex (Romain Duris), to wedge himself in-between the girl and the dullard she’s currently dating, pry her away, then cast her adrift, where unrequited can go for it. Or maybe it’s a jilted lover who just wants a good, malicious laugh. Or maybe a girl wants to break up the couple so she can go for the guy. The possibilities seem endless. There’s always some disgruntled person on the periphery of a happy loving couple.
“L'arnacoeur” (“Heartbreaker”), a French romantic comedy by first-time director Pascal Chaumeil, quickly circumscribes the possibilities.
As the movie opens, a French couple is vacationing in the Middle East. He is, yes, a dullard who wants to stay by the hotel pool and watch a wet T-shirt contest, while she actually wants to see the country they’re visiting. To do so she hitches a ride with a rugged humanitarian (Alex), who is bringing medicine to orphans, and they connect, and fall in love, although he insists he can no longer be with anyone. But: “I’ve never felt so alive,” he tells her. “You deserve better,” he tells her. And back at the hotel she promptly dumps her jerk of a boyfriend and gets on with her life.
It’s all a pretty ruse. Later we see Alex getting paid by the brother of the girl, who couldn’t stand the boyfriend. Alex’s contract comes with a money-back guarantee and the brother asks how often he’s had to return the money. “Jamais,” Alex replies. Never. Then Alex walks through the airport in super-cool slow-motion with his team, Melanie (Julie Ferrier) and Marc (François Damiens), while in voiceover he tells us about the gig.
There are three categories of women in relationships, he says:
- Knowingly unhappy
- Unknowingly unhappy
He concentrates solely on no. 3. Drag. Plus he doesn’t sleep with the girls. Dragger. He simply makes them realize that other men, vaguely handsome men, desire them, allowing them to dispense with whatever lame-o they’re currently dating. It’s pretty clean stuff. Rather too clean. Not only do these principles circumscribe possibilities, they actually get in the way of a good story. So they’re abandoned five minutes later to allow us our lukewarm story.
Back in Paris, Alex and his team are contacted by a man named Van Der Becq (Jacques Frantz), whose daughter, Juliette (Vanessa Paradis), is about to marry a rich Brit named Jonathan Alcott (Andrew Lincoln). Can they break off the wedding? Ca depend. They concentrate solely on no. 3s, remember. So first they have to determine if Vanessa is truly happy in her relationship. And how do they do this? By seeing what kind of man Jonathan Alcott is. They determine her emotional state, in other words, through his personality. How enlightened.
Worse, they come off like muckraking journalists rather than true investigators. At one point, disguised as panhandlers outside a fancy restaurant, they see Jonathan, inside, asking for a doggy bag. Ah ha! They assume the pejorative (doggy bag = cheap), rather than the positive (doggy bag = thrifty), but, regardless, we see the punchline a mile off. Jonathan hands them, the poor panhandlers, his food. Doggy bag = charitable.
They take the gig anyway. Alex owes gamblers and needs the money. So much for the principles he told us five minutes earlier. Hey, he lied to us in slow-motion!
The wedding is to take place in Monaco, and, to get close to Juliette, Alex passes himself off as a bodyguard hired by her father. She resists and acts the brat, but he arranges to save her from a car thief in grand, nonchalant fashion, so she allows him to stick around. And everything falls into predictable patterns. She seems to fall for him. He seems to fall for her. But there’s the fiancé, who’s a nice guy, and the mob enforcer, who isn’t.
Comic relief is provided by Marc (who has a Rhys Ifans thing going), and Juliette’s crazy friend, Sophie (Héléna Noguerra). My favorite bit is when Sophie aggressively, sexually attacks Alex in his room and Marc is sent to create a diversion. He does. He knocks her out from behind.
Question: Why do we assume that people are attracted to each other through commonalities? They research Juliette and discover she likes the music of George Michael and the movie “Dirty Dancing” so they create situations where these commonalities can be introduced. Oh, you like Wham!, too? Oh, you like “Dirty Dancing,” too? Thus they bond. But do we simply want mirror images of our own tastes? Don’t looks and personality still predominate?
To its credit, the movie never makes Jonathan a villain. He’s always a nice guy, who always loves Juliette.
In fact, I began to root against Alex. Or maybe I just began to root against the traditional romantic comedy. No, don’t bring the two stars together just because they’re the two stars. No, don’t make the girl fall for the guy who’s spent the entire movie lying to her. Surely, I thought, the French won’t let me down the way that Hollywood does.
They didn’t. Alex’s team fails for the first time, and, in a callback to the open, we see Alex walking through the airport in slow-motion and telling us who he is and what he does. “We only break up couples, we never break hearts,” he says, before adding this poignant code: “My name is Alex Lippi and today I’ve broken my own heart.”
Nice end, I thought.
Except that’s not the end.
Because at the check-in desk he suddenly realizes his life is incomplete and runs back to Monaco, literally runs, a la Benjamin Braddock, to get to the wedding before it’s too late. Juliette, more Julia Roberts than Katherine Ross, doesn’t wait, either. She runs away at the altar on her own. Eventually they run into each other on a beautiful stretch of road overlooking the sea. They catch their breath. They talk. They kiss. It’s meant to be. The End.
Blech. What’ll it cost me to break this couple up?
Movie Review: Inside Job (2010)
I know very little about business and economics but I knew a lot of the information in “Inside Job,” Charles Ferguson’s documentary about the global financial meltdown of ... 2008? Just two years ago? Wow.
Ferguson puts together all of the pieces familiar to me, then adds a couple I don’t know. He clarifies and reminds.
Oh yeah, there’s Pres. Reagan deregulating the S&Ls overnight in 1982, which Ward B. Coe III and I talked about during our Q&A for Maryland Super Lawyers magazine in 2009. Oh right, Brooksley Born, the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, whose attempts to regulate derivatives during the Clinton years were shot down by Larry Summers , and who became the subject of that “Frontline” special I streamed off of Netflix earlier this year. Oh god, there’s Joe Cassano, the idiot head of A.I.G. F.P., and the bete noir in Michael Lewis’ Vanity Fair piece in July 2009. Oh lord, there’s Alan fucking Greenspan and Henry fucking Paulson and Phil fucking Gramm and Richard fucking Fuld and Larry fucking Summers.
It’s old home week. They got the gang back together again.
The little Don Segretti of the global financial meltdown
Except they didn’t. None of the big boys (Greenspan, Summers) agreed to sit for “Inside Job,” just as none of the big boys (Bush, Cheney) agreed to sit for Ferguson’s previous documentary, “No End in Sight,” about our missteps in Iraq after March 2003.
What sticks out in that earlier doc, though, is the he said/he said between Col. Paul Hughes, who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and who seemed to have a sense of what Iraq was and what we should do there, and Walter B. Slocombe, the Senior Advisor for Security and Defense to the CPA, who arrived for a week in May, got his boots a little dusty, and helped make all the wrong decisions. Hughes seems insistent and exasperated, while Slocombe starts off almost jaunty; then, as he is questioned about, and held accountable for, his actions and policies, his eyes retreat, his voice turns tinny, he reveals himself a hollow man. One wonders what lies he tells himself to make it through the day.
The Walt Slocombe of “Inside Job” is the aptly named Fred Mishkin, an American economist who was one of six members of the Board of Governors for the Federal Reserve from 2006 to 2008. Another talking head, Robert Gnaizda, general counsel for the Greenlining Institute (a non-profit working for the disenfranchised in local communities), was aware of the problems with subprime mortgages, with predatory lending practices, with defaults and foreclosures, and he had semiannual meetings with Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, to attempt to address these issues. But only in 2009 did Bernanke admit there were problems that needed addressing.
Of course Bernanke didn’t agree to be interviewed. He’s insulated and unaccountable. Ah, but there’s Mishkin, tanned beyond recognition, proudly admitting he was at the semiannual meetings between Gnaizda and Bernanke. He’s expecting softballs. Instead, Ferguson, off camera, states that Bernanke was warned and did nothing. Mishkin’s response? He collapses. He evaporates into nonsense:
Yeah. So, uh, again, I, I don't know the details, in terms of, of, uh, of, um – uh, in fact, I, I just don't – I, I – eh, eh, whatever information he provide, I'm not sure exactly, I, eh, uh – it's, it's actually, to be honest with you, I can't remember the, the, this kind of discussion.
One almost feels sorry for him, this little Don Segretti of the Global Financial Meltdown, until later in the doc, when Ferguson gets into the conflicts of interest between economics departments and industry: How industry often pays prominent academics to present viewpoints industry wants. Mishkin did this in 2006. He was paid $125,000 by the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce to coauthor a study of Iceland’s financial system and found it stable “with prudent regulation and supervision.” But “Inside Job” actually begins in Iceland, where we’re informed of the deregulation that occurred in Iceland’s banking industry in 2000, leading to insane loans, and, currently, a debt 10 times its GDP. Mishkin owns up to that. “It turns out that the prudential regulation and supervision was not strong in Iceland,” he says. So Ferguson asks the obvious follow-up: What led you to think that it was? Mishkin’s stuttering response? He seeks refuge in the passive voice and second-person point-of-view. He says all of the following:
- “You’re going with the information you have.”
- “The view was that Iceland had very good institutions.”
- “It was an advanced country.”
- “You talk to people.”
- “You have faith in the Central Bank.”
Suddenly you’re disgusted all over again. These are charlatans in prominent positions. They are hollow men. Mishkin was paid more than twice as much as I’ve ever made in an entire year to simply co-author a study...and he couldn’t be bothered with independent research. He said what they wanted him to say.
But that’s not even the worst part of the incident. The worst part is when Ferguson asks him why the title of this study, “Financial Stability in Iceland,” has been changed, in Mishkin’s current CV, to “Financial Instability in Iceland.” As if he foresaw and warned against a crisis whose hand he held all the way to the precipice:
Well, I don't know, if, whatever it is, is, the, uh, the thing – if it's a typo, there's a typo.
In “All the President’s Men,” Deep Throat notices that Bob Woodward is focusing too much on the ratfucking activities of Donald Segretti, and reminds him of the deeper issue: “They cancelled Democratic campaign rallies. They investigated Democratic private lives. They planted spies, stole documents, and on and on. Now don’t tell me you think this is all the work of little Don Segretti?”
So while it’s fun to watch Mishkin hemming and hawing on camera, it’s less important than: How we got here, what happened, where we are now.
How we got here
Rep. Barney Frank talks up the old borrower-lender dynamic—a dynamic that, even three years ago, I thought was still in place. A person borrowed, a bank lent, and the borrower paid back to the lender; and because it usually required decades to pay back, the lender was careful about who was doing the borrowing. That’s the way the world worked.
The world changed in the 1980s when brokers at Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street investment bank, created complex mortgage derivatives called collateral debt obligations, or CDOs. Per my limited understanding: The mortgages were sold from banks to investment banks, who cut them up, bundled slices with hundreds of slices from other mortgages—to spread and thus minimize the risk—and sold them to investors.
So now when you pay your mortgage, you pay, not the bank, but these investors. Of course, since banks sold the mortgages, banks could be less careful about who they loaned to; and since, with all of that bundling and slicing, risk was minimized, risk could be increased. As it was. Which is how you got subprime mortgages: loans being given to people who had no collateral and couldn’t afford the payments, and who would ultimately default. Their entry into the system drove up prices, and their exit from the system collapsed the prices. The exit almost collapsed the system.
We get some back-and-forth on who foresaw the crisis (Allan Sloan) and who didn’t (Alan Greenspan). We get a little on who began to bet against all of the subprime mortgage loans (Goldman Sachs, chiefly), and who didn’t (A.I.G., chiefly).
One of the most telling incidents, about which you could make a good HBO movie, occurred at the 2005 Jackson Hole Symposium, at which you had the usual suspects: Greenspan, Bernanke, Summers, Geithner, and where an IMF economist, Raghuram Ragan, delivering a paper, less on the nitty-gritty of subprime mortgages and CDOs, than on the larger topic of incentives and risk. Here’s narrator Matt Damon:
Rajan's paper focused on incentive structures that generated huge cash bonuses based on short-term profits, but which imposed no penalties for later losses. Rajan argued that these incentives encouraged bankers to take risks that might eventually destroy their own firms, or even the entire financial system.
Prof. Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard:
Rajan hit the nail on the head. What he particularly said was: “You guys have claimed you have found a way to make more profits with less risk. I say you've found a way to make more profits with more risk.”
The reaction to his paper? Larry Summers attacked. He accused Ragan of being a Luddite. “He wanted to make sure that we didn’t bring a whole new set of regulations to the financial sector at this point,” Ragan says.
“Inside Job” is divided into five parts—“How We Got Here”; “The Bubble”; “The Crisis”; “Accountability”; “Where We Are Now”—and should be required viewing for every man, woman and child in the United States. It won’t be, of course. So far it’s grossed $1.8 million, which works out to about 180,000 people. Out of a nation of 308 million. It's barely being seen.
I could've used more on the history of deregulation (the who and how) and on what reforms have been enacted since Sept. 2008 (if any). I also would’ve liked something on the way the crisis has been spun by the anti-regulation right. It’s doing the shit it always does: blaming the opposition for its own crimes. In this scenario, the crisis was caused by government, not the private sector. In this scenario, government is still the problem and the financial industry can regulate itself—give or take a multi-trillion-dollar bailout from the federal government. I wanted Ferguson to take these guys down. (Though he does have a nice back-and-forth with Glenn Hubbard, Chief Economic Advisor during the Bush Administration, current Dean of the Columbia University Business School, and a nasty piece of work.)
The poster for “Inside Job” shows a suited man crossing his fingers atop a pile of money. This is a key metaphor for me. I don’t know much about business and economics, but, to me, here’s what life feels like in a fairly well-off, post-industrial society.
Most of us struggle to find something we’re good at, and for which we can get paid, and, if we’re lucky, we do this thing for 40 to 50 years until we can hopefully retire with a bit of comfort. And while we’re doing this thing, we’re putting our money, bit by bit, into a room, which is where other people, bit by bit, are putting their money, too. So there’s a huge pile of money in this room. Now there’s another group of people who are attracted to this room for the pile of money. They see the pile of money and say, “That’s what I want to do.” They believe they can take that pile of money, our money, and turn it into a bigger pile of money, which will be mostly their money. But while they’re doing this magic act, they don’t want anyone to watch. Because we can trust them. Because they are self-regulating. Because what could possibly go wrong?
Review: “A Film Unfinished” (2010)
As the documentary started, I had a moment of regret.
“Why am I watching this?” I wondered. “What’s it going to tell me that I don’t already know? That conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto were horrific? That evil is banal?”
Here’s the background. At the end of World War II, a 60-minute, silent documentary was found in the German archives on Jewish life in the Warsaw ghetto in the months before the ghetto was liquidated and its inhabitants shipped off to the extermination camps of Treblinka. For 45 years, the footage, among the only known footage of life in the Warsaw ghetto, was treated as fact, as documentary fact, until a fourth reel was found indicating that many of the scenes were staged by the Nazis.
“A Film Unfinished” is Yael Hersonski’s 90-minute documentary on that 60-minute propaganda film.
Thus the moment of regret. “How,” I thought, “can Hersonski make this silent film interesting?”
First, it’s no longer silent. She adds her own narration as well as readings from various diaries, including those of Adam Czerniaków, head of the Warsaw Judenrat (Jewish Council), and Heinz Auerswald, the Nazi commissioner of the ghetto. The victims, along with the perpetrators, have voices again.
Two. She appreciates the power of the human face. She shows us not only the haunting faces in the silent propaganda film but the haunted faces of Warsaw ghetto survivors, “witnesses” she calls them in the credits, whom she films watching the silent propaganda film for the first time. There are five of them: four women and one man. The man has a slight smile on his face at odds with the heaviness of his sigh. The women simply looked pained. “Oh God,” one says, “what if I see someone I know?” Another: “I keep thinking I might see my mother walking.” There’s this tension between wanting to see and not wanting to see, between recovering this past and burying it forever. Will seeing her mother make things better? Or will it make the pain unbearable?
Finally, there’s the mystery. In the opening narration, Hersonski says the Third Reich was “that empire that knew so well to document its own evil,” but one still wonders why they filmed this particular piece of propaganda. What purpose did it serve? The staged scenes tend to feature better-off Jews going about their day: a woman putting on lipstick in her vanity mirror, another woman buying goods at the butcher, couples dining out. The witnesses refute each of these instances. “Most had sold everything.” “They were waiting to die.” “You woke up to find a corpse every 100 meters.”
Czerniaków’s diary details what was being filmed that day, the subterfuge that went into the filming, and then we see the footage. This bris, that ball, this show. The Jews in the show’s audience were held there all day, without food, without bathroom breaks, and ordered to laugh for the cameras.
Initially one thinks the Nazis are doing the obvious: showcasing comfortable people to refute claims of horrible conditions. Except they also showcase the horrible conditions.
We see piles of garbage. People were too weak to go downstairs, one witness says, so they simply threw garbage out the window. “I was 10 years old at the time,” another witness says, “and I was the dominant figure in my family.” She escaped the ghetto several times a week, risking her life, to get food for her family.
We see emaciated people with shaved heads. We see children in rags. We see a corpse every 100 meters. The Nazis filmed it all.
The point of the filming was, in fact, this juxtaposition. Here’s take 1, take 2, take 3 of a well-off woman buying meat at the butcher while children in rags starve outside. Here’s take 1, take 2, take 3 of sated couples leaving a restaurant and ignoring the emaciated woman in rags begging for a handout.
Much of the footage was taken by Willy Wist, a German cameraman who testified during the war-crime tribunals in West Germany in the 1960s, and whose words, read by German actor Rüdiger Vogler, constitute less the banality of evil than the shrug of it. He didn’t know the ultimate purpose of the film; he just filmed it. He says, at one point, “I recall I had to film a mass grave,” and then we see that footage. A makeshift slide was created to deliver the corpses into the pit outside Warsaw. One lifeless, naked body after another slides down and lies crumpled at the bottom. It’s the final solution foreshadowed, and Wist filmed it all because it was his job to film it all. If this seems unforgivable it’s because it reminds us of us. We see a line, we thank the stars we’re on this side of it, and we continue to do what we do.
It may be obvious, as you read this, why the Nazis staged what they staged—the ultimate purpose of their silent propaganda film—but it wasn’t to me watching Hersonski’s doc until about three-quarters of the way in. Was it explained outright? Was it implied? I forget. Hersonski’s narration tends to be quiet and even, and she presents most of the material without editorial comment. In this restraint she shows her artistry. “You’ve got to hold something back for pressure,” Robert Frost once wrote, and she does, and that pressure builds, and eventually, either nudged by her or by some spark in my brain, it hit me, the answer, and I felt a fresh horror wash over me.
The juxtaposition between rich and poor Jews was justification. The Nazis were pretending to document a race of people so indifferent to the suffering of others that they didn’t deserve to live. They were documenting an excuse for extermination.
In that moment of horror, of revelation, one understands the true meaning of propaganda.
It is the powerful blaming the powerless for the crimes of the powerful. The Nazis herded 600,000 Jews into a single zone of Warsaw. They gave them no way to live. They let them starve. They let them die by the hundreds of thousands. Then they staged scenes of supposed Jewish indifference to the suffering of others.
I sat down for “A Film Unfinished” almost regretting sitting down. What else could I learn about the Holocaust that I didn’t already know? But there’s always fresh horror. The redemption, if there is any, is that the Nazis created a document of lies, and, from this, Yael Hersonski created a document of truth. She restores voices, and faces, and meaning.
Review: “Tangshan dadizhen” (2010)
XIAO XIN: SPOILERS
I knew going in that Feng Xiaogang's “Tangshan dadizhen” (“Aftershock”) focused on the Tangshan earthquake of 1976 that killed 240,000 people. I knew the movie set the all-time box-office record in China this year. And that’s about all I knew. So I spent much of the movie trying to figure out what the movie was about.
It begins well. We’re told it’s July 27, 1976 in Tangshan City, a train goes by, and it’s followed by a dragonfly. Then two. Then thousands. The people waiting at the railroad crossings are freaked, astonished, puzzled. “Daddy,” a little girl in a truck says, “why are there so many dragonflies?” The father tilts his head out the window. “A storm must be approaching,” he says.
That’s not bad.
There are early touches that reminded me of early Spielberg. We follow this family, the Fangs, whose two kids—a boy (Fang Da), and a girl (Fang Deng), twins—noisily request popsicles, fight and run from bullies, and share, with mom, the benefits of a new electric fan on a hot, summer day. I'm not sure my mind would’ve turned to Spielberg without knowing this movie set the box-office record in China, but at the least there’s a broadly drawn cuteness here that would’ve fit just as easily into an Arizona suburb.
That night, as the kids are sleeping, and as the mother and father, at his late-night construction job, make love in the back of his enclosed truck, there’s more ominous foreshadowing. The sky turns purple and the little girl’s fish jump right out of the fishtank. The Tangshan earthquake registered anywhere from 7.8 to 8.2 on the Richter scale, and its death toll makes it the most disastrous earthquake of the 20th century. Pipe mains burst, buildings give way, heavy objects—boom—crush people indiscriminately. It’s brutal. People run, but from what? To what? There’s no safety. Mom and Dad struggle to make it back to the kids. At the window, the little girl cries for her mom. Mom cries back: “Lie-le!” (“I’m coming!”) But the father spins the mother out of the way, and to relative safety, just as the building collapses with the kids in it. Pretty horrific. We see them go down like Leo in “Titanic.”
An earthquake can only last so long, though—Tangshan’s lasted 23 seconds—and we’re just 10-15 minutes into the movie. At this point I’m wondering: “What is this film going to be?”
What the film is going to be
When the dust settles, both kids and father are trapped, but alive, so I thought, “Oh, this will be about the struggle to get them out. It’ll be like ‘World Trade Center.’”
Then aftershocks hit and the father dies. The twins are still trapped beneath opposite sides of the same concrete slab, and the mother begs neighbors and workers—those small Chinese men in boxers and flip-flops who can lift refrigerators on their backs—to get them out. To lift the concrete slab, unfortunately, the weight has to go on one side. One child will be crushed in order to save the other and the mother has to choose: Which child do you save? Which child do you kill? It’s an impossible choice. But as the men are about to leave to help others, she shouts, suddenly, and then says, quietly, horrified, “Jao Di Di” (“Save little brother”).
“Oh,” I thought. “So it’s like ‘Sophie’s Choice.’ A mother has to live with the consequences of sacrificing one child in order to save another.”
A moment later, the mother carries her daughter’s broken body and places it next to the father’s broken body. Then she and her son, the only two members of the family to survive, make their way, with other survivors, out to relief stations set up by the Chinese army, who are making their way into the devastated city.
Except the girl is not dead. A rain falls and she rises, blinking one eye. (The other is swollen shut as if she’d just gone 15 rounds with Apollo Creed.) I’m not sure what to make of this resurrection. Her death was greatly exaggerated? Her father’s spirit somehow revived her? We do know that while the concrete slab apparently didn’t crush her body, her mother’s choice, which she heard from beneath the rubble, crushes her spirit. The vivacious and mouthy little girl we knew for the first 10 minutes of the movie is gone, replaced by a blank, mute girl. Ultimately she’s adopted by two officers of the Chinese army, and they rename her Ya Ya, but, speaking up for the first time since Mom’s choice, she insists on being called “Deng,” even as she’s willing to give up the “Fang.”
The boy, meanwhile, has lost his left arm, and he’s about to lose his mother. In one of those really Chinese cultural moments, the mother of the now-dead husband, the grandmother, insists, in that roundabout Chinese way, of raising the child herself, while the boy’s actual mother, with apparently no rights in the matter, acquiesces. But just as the bus is pulling away, the boy’s aunt, finally speaks up and shames the grandmother. At this point we see it all from the mother’s perspective. The bus rumbles down the dirt street. Then it stops. The doors open. And out comes little Fang Da running towards her. It’s a hokey moment but hokey works. I choked up.
Of course I’m waiting, with everyone, for the twins to reunite. But suddenly it’s 1986 and Deng is going off to med school while Da is starting a pedicab business; and then it’s 1995, and Deng has an out-of-wedlock child, a daughter, whom she couldn’t abort because of her own mother’s choice to, in essence, “abort” her, while Da is married and running a successful business but dealing with conflicts between his wife and his mother, the original Chinese martyr. “Oh,” I thought. “This is a decades-long melodrama. Like ‘Giant.’”
And it just continued. The movie takes us from the Tangshan earthquake of 1976 to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 (8.0; 68,000 dead), where the twins, both volunteers, finally reunite (interestingly, off-screen). The movie is about how this family is broken and how it comes together again. It’s also about how Tangshan is broken and comes together again. Reduced to rubble in 1976, it is, by the end, a glittering metropolis. Could it ultimately be about how China is broken and comes together again? The 1976 section ends with Mao’s funeral, with China reduced to economic rubble, and takes us to today, with China a world economic power, and with all of our main characters, with their heavy heartaches, living in relative comfort. They have risen.
And that’s when I finally got it. “Oh,” I thought. “It’s the national story told as one family’s soap opera. Or the national soap opera told through one family. It’s ‘Gone with the Wind.’”
Thus its popularity.
At the same time, setting “the all-time Chinese box office record” doesn’t mean much these days. The record it broke, “Avatar’s,” was set earlier this year, while the record that one broke, “2012,” was set in 2009, while the record that one broke... etc. Box-office records are broken all the time in China now for a reason. More theaters are being built, and more Chinese have the leisure time and disposable income to see filmed stories that solidify national myths: I.e., this is a story about how we got to the point where we could waste our time watching this.
Welcome to the party, pengyoumen.
Review: “Hereafter” (2010)
WARNING: UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY SPOILERS, FROM WHOSE (JASON) BOURN NO TRAVELER RETURNS
“Hereafter” needs a subtler touch than director Clint Eastwood brings. Eastwood has a nasty habit of choosing sides. His is all good, the other is all bad, and doubt and ambiguity are for saps (or, in Eastwoodian, “punks”). This is true if the subject is a San Francisco cop, a lady boxer, or the most important question human beings can ask:
What happens when we die?
Every religion in the world, and half the charlatans, promise to answer that question. Eastwood, and screenwriter Peter Morgan (“The Queen”; “Frost/Nixon”), now do. Without doubt or ambiguity. You got a problem with that...punk?
We get three main storylines. In the first, a pretty French TV journalist, Marie Lelay (Cecile de France), finds her career, and life, sidetracked after she is swept up in a tsunami and dies for an unspecified amount of time. This tsunami is monstrous and terrifying and the best part of the film. After getting knocked out, Marie drifts in the water while a toy bear, floating above her, stares down. We hear a heartbeat until we don’t. The screen goes dark. Then we get blurry images, silhouettes, and mumbling. It’s like that scene in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” when the aliens emerge from their spaceship. Are these silhouettes the living, whom she is leaving, or the dead, who are greeting her? At first I assumed the latter, but then two silhouettes move towards us, and one gives us a sense of resuscitation, and, voila, suddenly we’re back, with someone on a rooftop giving Ms. Lelay mouth-to-mouth. Enjoy that scene. The movie is called “Hereafter” but this is the last glimpse of the hereafter we’ll get.
The second storyline follows George Lonegan (Matt Damon), who, as a child, had a near-death experience, and ever since, whenever he touches someone, zap, he can communicate with this person’s deceased loved ones.
(BTW: Do the communicatees have to be “loved ones”? And are they the deceased who mean the most to this person or the deceased for whom this person means the most? Might George touch my hands, for example, and suddenly be talking with someone I barely knew but who secretly loved me and is just, you know, hanging around? Are there stalkers in the hereafter?)
George’s older brother, Billy (Jay Mohr), a businessman, wants to exploit this talent—he’s developed a website and everything—but George wants to ignore it completely because the after-effects are somewhat deleterious. The connection isn’t immediately broken and he seems not quite there, floating in this middle kingdom, listening to dull radio fully-clothed in bed. “A life about death is no life at all,” George tells his brother. So he’s trying something else: a working-class job at the C&H plant and a once-a-week Italian cooking class to meet people. Mostly, though, he’s alone. Eastwood does alone well but he does it too often here. I think we get three shots of George eating by himself while a guitarist on the soundtrack picks out a few lonely chords.
If that’s not pathos enough, there’s the London storyline, Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren), twin boys who save their pennies, or maybe their ha’ pennies, to pay for a self-portrait for their mum, who, alas, is a drug addict. It’s like something out of a silent melodrama: They care for her with one hand while fending off social services with the other. One morning she sends Marcus on an errand, but at the last instant, Jason, the more talkative, baseball-cap-wearing brother, goes, and I immediately thought, “OK, he’s dead.” It reminded me of the anxiety accompanying the first scenes of the HBO series “Six Feet Under”: Who’s going to die and how? Here we know who; it’s all about how. Ah, bullies: Eastwood’s favorite trope. No wait, Jason runs from the bullies. So he’ll run right into an oncoming car, right? Wrong. It’s an oncoming truck.
Those are our three storylines—all related to death and the hereafter. One assumes they’ll connect eventually. And they do—eventually—but Eastwood's 80 now, and like any 80-year-old he takes his time getting there.
In the meantime: Lelay takes a leave of absence from her weekly news-magazine show to write a revisionist bio of former French president Francois Mitterrand, dead now 10 years, but turns in three chapters on the hereafter instead. She’s shocked that her publishing house isn’t interested, and shocked again when her weekly show, and accompanying Blackberry ads, go to a younger, Asian-y woman. She was so proud of those ads.
Lonegan begins a flirtation with a cute woman in his cooking class, Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), in which each’s interest in the other is obvious. But during prep for a home-cooked meal, his secret, his superpower as it were, is slowly revealed; and when she insists he try it on her, he finds out things she doesn’t want revealed. And there goes that. He’s back to eating alone while the guitarist plucks a few lonely chords.
Marcus, meanwhile, is put into a foster home with well-meaning parents, but he’s quiet, and wearing Jason’s baseball cap, and doing whatever he can to communicate with Jason. This includes visiting charlatans who claim to communicate with the dead.
In this way, each character deals with a perhaps culturally specific response to their association with the hereafter. Marcus gets British charlatans. Lelay, who definitely experienced something when she died, gets the French, the center of modern, progressive culture, who definitively know nothing happens. We just die. C’est tout. And Lonegan definitely communicates with the dead, but instead of treating this as the greatest discovery in the history of mankind, which it is, his brother treats it as a way to make a coupla bucks. So American.
Eventually (there’s that eventually), all three converge at a convention for a dying industry (books) in London. Marcus is with his foster parents, Lonegan, who loves Dickens, is attending a Derek Jacobi reading of “Little Dorrit,” and Lelay is shilling her book in stilted English.
Lonegan, lonely boy, is of course enamored of Lelay, chic Frenchwoman, but does nothing with it. (Welcome to the party, pal.) Marcus, meanwhile, recognizes Lonegan and convinces him to use his superpower to communicate with Jason.
This is the fourth example of communication with the hereafter we have in the film. The first, Lelay’s, is visual but vague, while Lonegan’s two previous encounters—with his brother’s neighbor and with Melanie—are more about helping the living with their personal issues. The dead are so understanding that way. The neighbor’s dead wife encourages him to marry again, to her former nurse, June, with whom he was secretly in love. Melanie’s dead father apologizes for sexually abusing her. None of the living ask the obvious question: Hey, what’s it like to be dead?
Marcus has a bit of Dr. Phil in him, too—he tells Jason to stop wearing his baseball cap and get on with his life—but, bless him, he at least gives us a glimpse of what it means to be dead. Quick answer? It’s fun. “You can be all things and all at once,” he says through Lonegan. “And the weightlessness!”
That’s the shame of “Hereafter.” It posits that none of us, except a chosen few, are interested in what happens when we die, when all of us are interested in what happens when we die. We’re just tired of the answers we keep getting. Including, now, Eastwood’s.
Death is apparently like this, but with smaller heads.