erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2010 posts

Wednesday July 28, 2010

Review: “The Girl Who Played with Fire” (2010)

WARNING: SPÖILERS II

After everything she went through in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” from subway attacks to rape, it’s a shame to see Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) get worse in “The Girl Who Played with Fire.” I don’t mean being shot and buried alive by her own father. I mean having to wear a New York Yankees sweatshirt and cap. Ick.

“Fire” starts out where “Tattoo” left off. Lisbeth is abroad, living in comfort by the peaceful sea, with the money she nicked from the bad guys. But she finds no peace. She has nightmares about her father, who abused her and her mother until she set him on fire when she was 12. That act resulted in incarceration in mental institutions, and a legal-guardian arrangement (specific to Sweden?) administered, first, by the sharp, sympathetic Holger Palmgren (Per Oscarsson), and then, when Holger suffered a stroke, by the horrific and misogynistic Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson), who rapes Lisbeth in “Tattoo” but gets his: she sodomizes him with a dildo and tattoos on his fat white stomach: “I am a sadistic pig and a rapist.” It’s even longer in Swedish.

From her seaside villa, Lisbeth uses her computer hacking skills to track Bjurman and realizes: 1) he’s not submitting the necessary monthly reports on her that will keep the authorities off her dragon-tattooed back, and 2) he’s looking into tattoo removal. So she returns to Stockholm and confronts him at midnight with his own gun. Submit the reports, she tells him. And keep the tattoo.

What she doesn’t know is that someone has already contacted him about her.

In the meantime, at Millennium magazine... Hey, what’s with Millennium anyway? It’s supposed to be one of the last bastions of a relevant print publication in an online world, yet the oldsters leading it, from our man Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) to his lover, Erika Berger (Lena Endre), are super cautious about everything. They meet a kid, Dag Svensson (Hans Christian Thulin), who’s doing an investigative piece on human trafficking and prostitution in Sweden, and he has evidence that links many of these women to public officials, and he’s already done interviews with some of these public officials. Yet the Millennium staff only cautiously welcome him aboard for a two-month assignment? Grow a pair already.

At the same time, one wonders how much of an exclusive Dag actually has, since his girlfriend, Mia, has just published a treatise on the topic. We see the two planning to celebrate its publication by going on vacation. From my notes: “They look young and happy. They’re dead.”

Indeed. Two minutes later, Blomkvist finds them shot in their apartment. The weapon belongs to a lawyer, Nils Bjurman, and the only fingerprints belong to one Lisbeth Salander. When Bjurman is found dead, too, an APB goes out for Lisbeth’s arrest. Quaintly, and oddly for a computer hacker, Lisbeth first discovers this through a kind of “Wanted” poster stapled to a lightpost, then through print newspapers, and only lastly via something called the World Wide Web. It’s like we’re back in 1995.

By this point we’ve already been introduced to some of the bad guys, particularly a stoic, blonde brute named Ronald Niedermann (Micke Spreitz), who recalls the Russian villain in “From Russia With Love.” We see him fight Lisbeth’s sometime-lover, kickboxer Miriam Wu (Yasmine Garbi), as well as middleweight boxer Paulo Roberto (a real figure in Sweden, who plays himself), and Neidermann takes care of both handily. Despite their skills, their blows have no effect on him. Watching, I recalled a documentary about kids who suffer from the genetic defect analgesia, who literally feel no pain, (the doc is called “A Life without Pain,” and it is, no pun intended, painful and heartbreaking), and I wondered if that wasn’t Niedermann’s secret. It is. It's just not heartbreaking.

Meanwhile, Blomquvist has taken up where Dag left off, tracking down johns, but he’s doing it less for the article than to help clear Lisbeth. From one john he gets a name, Zala, and a story. Zala is a merciless, former top agent with the U.S.S.R. who defected to Sweden in the mid-1970s, and was thus protected by the Swedish national police and its intermediaries, including Nils Bjurman. Good start.

So what is our heroine, Lisbeth, doing while her friends are investigating for her and risking their lives for her? Not much. She's all third act, when she confronts Zala and his henchman, Niedermann, in a remote cabin. Zala, the man running the East European prostitution ring, turns out to be Alexander Zalachenko, who turns out to be, a la “Star Wars,” her father, who got played with fire, while Niedermann turns out to be her half-brother. In the end it's all about her.

Lisbeth is a stoic figure who keeps the world at a distance—one of the lessons she learns in “Fire,” in fact, is about letting people in (Blomqvist literally)—so Rapace doesn’t always have a lot to do acting-wise. But I love how alive her eyes become when she confronts her father. Does she enjoy seeing him? Or does she enjoy seeing him diminished? There’s a fierce intelligence in her. “I know you,” she seems to be thinking. “And you don’t scare me any more.”

He should. That night, father and half-brother lead her to a shallow grave. Blomqvist, we know, is making his way toward her and the remote cabin, and, used to the tropes of movies, we wonder when he’s going to arrive to rescue her. I’d clearly forgotten my heroines. Trying to escape, Lisbeth is shot twice by her father, dragged back by her half-brother, and buried alive. I’m on the edge of my seat. Where’s Blomqvist?

Cut to: Blomqvist, at dawn, looking at a map, his automobile pulled off to the side of the road. I nearly laughed out loud. Poor bastard.

Lisbeth isn’t just the girl with the dragon tattoo, or the one who played with fire, or the one who will kick the hornet’s nest in the next movie; she’s the girl who doesn’t need rescuing. She rescues. The movie conventions of 100 years are upended in her.

Thus, after being shot twice and buried alive, Lisbeth digs her way out using the cigarette case Miriam gave her at the beginning of the film, then takes an axe to her father’s head, then scares off Niedermann with her father’s gun. Which is when Blomqvist, the caring man, forever inconsequential in a fight, finally shows up.

Most of “Fire” disappointed me. The plot about the East European sex-slave trade is more-or-less forgotten, as are Lisbeth’s computer hacking skills, while there’s nothing nearly so engrossing as the mystery of the first film: the disappearance of Harriet Vanger and all of those girls. Here, we get no mystery. There’s a bad guy. His name is Zala. Hey, there he is! Worse, for most of the film we’re ahead of both Blomqvist (since we know about Nils Bjurman) and Lisbeth (since we find out about Niedermann’s analgesia). It’s not much fun waiting for your protagonists to catch up with you.

But my girlfriend loved the movie. When I asked why, she talked about how tough Lisbeth was, how calm she remained in battle, and how she wished she could be like her. Lisbeth is wish-fulfillment for women the way Bruce Willis is for men. I like that. I like having a female wish-fulfillment who doesn’t depend on a man, or a dress, or a pair of Manolo Blahniks.

Just lose the Yankees cap, Lisbeth. The Yankees are corporate and imperialist. You’re much more of a Pittsburgh Pirates girl.

Posted at 05:57 AM on Jul 28, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Sunday July 18, 2010

Review: “Inception” (2010)

WARNING: SPOILERS (OR ARE THEY?)

“Dreams feel real while we’re in them,” says Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), early in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” “It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”

In this regard, nothing feels like a dream so much as a movie. In the dark we suspend disbelief. Then the lights go up, the analytic part of the brain starts working again, and we go, “Wait a minute.” Sometimes we don’t have to wait for the lights to go up.

That’s one of the things I loved about “Inception”: the parallels between its form (movies) and its content (dreams). At one point Cobb is attempting to recruit Adriadne (Ellen Page), his latest architect of dreamscapes, to become the final member of his team, his subconscious “Mission: Impossible” force, and they’re drinking coffee at an outdoor cafe in Paris when he tells her that dreams always begin in medias res; we don’t know how we got to a place, we’re just there. Then he asks her: “How did you get here?” She thinks, can’t remember, realizes they’re in a dream, but in the audience I’m thinking, “I know how she got there: the quick cut.” That is: They’re in one spot talking about a topic; then they’re in another spot a bit further in the same conversation. It’s a common storytelling device. We accept it in movies. Hell, we demand it of movies because we don’t want to watch characters walking downstairs, going outside, hailing a cab, being driven to the cafe, getting out, paying the cabbie, getting a table, ordering, drinking, and then continuing their conversation. Just give us the quick cut already. That’s part of why movies are the perfect medium for a story about dreams. Form lends itself to content.

My favorite of these parallels may be the moment Mal (Marion Cotillard), Cobb’s dead wife, who haunts his dreamscapes, and is in fact the most uncontrollable and malignant element within these dreamscapes (hence her name), tries to convince him to stay with her in his dream world. She tries to convince him that what he considers the real world? That’s the dream. Think about it, she says. Some faceless international corporation is out to get you—you think that’s real? As a movie audience, we accept that trope because we’ve seen it before: the subplot that continues to dog the protagonist throughout the plot, adding an extra frisson of tension. But once she mentions how absurd it is, well, it does seem absurd. Because it’s a movie, a Hollywood movie, and most Hollywood movies are absurd. She’s basically the movie critic in his subconscious, saying, “C’mon, man, this is bullshit.”

So is this movie bullshit? When the lights come up, do we go, “Wait a minute”?

In “Inception,” Cobb is an on-the-lam extractor, a man who can navigate other people’s dreams and extract useful information for, say, international corporate rivals. That’s basically where we first see him. Like in a dream, we’re plopped in medias res into a complicated storyline and have to suss it out. Cobb, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Nash (Lukas Haas), are trying to extract business secrets from international CEO Saito (Ken Watanabe). But their real selves are in a dingy room in a Latin American country in the midst of revolution, with IVs strapped to their arms putting them under. In the dream, an elegant party at Saito’s place in Japan, Cobb is betrayed by Mal, his dead wife, whom his unconscious keeps dragging along to gum up the works, but at last he has the information in hand when, no!, he’s forced to wake up because things are getting dangerous for their real selves. Except why the quick-cut to the Japanese kid on the train? We get the answer to that when Cobb and Saito fight in their dingy room and Cobb forces Saito’s face into an ugly shag carpeting. The room, it turns out, is the room where Saito often met his mistress, and he says he always hated that carpet, and the smell of it, and he can’t smell that smell now. So he knows he’s still in a dream. A dream within a dream. That revolution outside? That’s Saito’s subconscious, rebelling, like antibodies, and trying to attack the foreign substance, which is the dream’s architect, Nash. Their real selves are actually on the train, being administered to by the Japanese kid, who wakes the three team members with Edith Piaf’s song “Non, je ne regrette rien.” At first I thought this homage to Ms. Cotillard, who won an Oscar playing Piaf in “La vie en rose.” But it has a deeper meaning. This film is all about regret.

Saito quickly tracks them down. Not to hurt them but to hire them. And he wants something more dangerous that extraction. He wants inception: an idea planted into the mind of a rival, Robert Fisher, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), that will cause him to break up his international corporation, which currently controls one-half of the world’s energy. “Choose your team wisely,” he says to Cobb, in reference to Nash, who couldn’t make carpets smell right, who didn’t get the details right. He’s like the lackadaisical production designer on the Michael Mann set. Fired.

(At the same time, if you extend the metaphor, the real screw-up is the director, Cobb, whose guilt over the death of his wife is so strong he keeps dragging her along into other people’s dreamscapes. Is this a directorly admission that you’ll eff up the production when you bring your personal baggage onto the set?)

For his team, Cobb already has Arthur, his point man, and he quickly gathers the rest: Ariadne, who will design the dream, Yusef (Dileep Rao), who will administer the drugs, and Eames (Tom Hardy), the forger, who can impersonate important people from Fisher’s world in the dreamscape. It’s both a good team Cobb has assembled and a good team writer-director Christopher Nolan has assembled. Ellen Page is whip-smart. Cotillard is both dreamy-looking lost love and dangerous femme fatale. But I may have been most impressed with Hardy. He steals every scene. The scam is Cobb’s, the whole story is Cobb’s, and everyone seems to channel their energy into these, and his, obsessions; but Hardy suggests for Eames a life outside of this story. We don’t have much to wonder about with Cobb but we have everything to wonder about with Eames.

To plant their idea into Fisher Jr.’s mind, they plan on three levels of dreams, each one more dangerous, each one requiring a heavier level of sedation. They need time, too. On the plus side, each level you go down, time speeds up. Cobb and his wife once spent 50 years in a dreamscape together, growing old, creating their world, while in the real world, what, a month passed? Less? But they still need access to Fisher Jr. for an extended period of time without his knowledge. They get it when he books a 10-hour transatlantic flight to Los Angeles. So they book the rest of the seats. Everyone on board is with them. (Question: Has he no security, though? Does one control half the world’s energy and not travel with bodyguards?)

To reiterate, for myself as much as you: They enter his dream, his subconscious, but the dreamscape has been designed by Ariadne, and they, the team, are conscious actors, as opposed to figments of his subconscious like everyone else. But he can’t tell they’re conscious actors.

On the first level it’s raining hard, and they complain about the water Fisher drank on the plane. Nice touch. Then they kidnap him in a taxicab but things quickly go awry. A train, not designed by Ariadne, slams through the middle of a street, and suited toughs, projections, placed in Fisher’s subconscious to protect him from just this kind of attack, engage the team in a gunfight. Saito, along for the ride (for some reason), is shot in the chest, and the team holes up in a warehouse, where they are continually assaulted, and where Cobb tells them that dying in here won’t wake them up up there. They’re too heavily sedated to allow for such a wake-up jolt. So what happens? They will remain here, in Fisher’s subconscious, forever. Scary.

To get down to the next level, they get into a van with their IVs, and Yusef drugs them to sleep. Then he drives furiously through the dreamscape, chased by projections. That’s level 1.

At level 2, they’re at a 1940s-style hotel. At level 3, they’re at a wintry fortress that looks like something out of a James Bond movie or the ice planet Hoth. But every level affects the lower level. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. So if the van at level 1 careens wildly, the world of the 1940s-style hotel tilts correspondingly. This leads to some of the movie’s best visuals, particularly a fight in the hotel hallway that’s turning over and over, as the van, at level 1, rolls down a hill.

At level 3, both Fisher and Saito die, so Cobb decides to go into his own subconscious to retrieve them. Not quite sure how this works, to be honest. But Ariadne, who’s spent the movie sussing out the pieces of Cobb’s tragedy, goes along with him. To level 4.

Cobb is on the lam because he’s accused of murdering his wife. Apparently the two went deep into their 50-year-old dreamscape, grew old together, and she refused to come out. She refused to believe that their dreamworld was in fact a dream. So, for the first time ever, Cobb messed about with inception. He planted an idea directly into his wife’s mind that this world wasn’t real; that they needed to die, under train tracks, to get back to the real world. Which they did. All good. Except that idea followed Mal into the real world, and she became convinced that the real world wasn’t real, and that the two of them needed to kill themselves to “wake up.” And that’s what she does. She leaves evidence behind implicating him. That’s his tragedy. That’s why he’s on the lam and that’s why he can’t see his kids. Non, je regrette tout.

The dreamscape Cobb and Ariadne encounter at level 4 is the world, now crumbling majestically, that he and Mal created so long ago. There, with Ariadne helping guide him toward rationality, he finally faces his past, his regret, and the two retrieve Fisher and jolt him awake at level 3. Cobb then remains behind to retrieve Saito.

Thus, more or less concurrently, you have: Cobb confronting an ancient Saito at level 4; a gun battle at the ice fortress at level 3, where Fisher also confronts his father, and where the idea of breaking up his father’s empire is ingeniously implanted in Fisher’s mind; Arthur figuring out how to jolt the principles awake in what is now a gravity-less hotel at level 2; and it’s gravity-less because, at level 1, the van has been driven off a bridge and is falling in slow-motion into a river. Four cliff-hangers for the price of one. Four Steven Spielberg movies all at once. It’s like a Pixie-Stix IV straight into the veins of the summer moviegoer.

Eventually, at all levels, everyone is jolted awake, and everyone, including Cobb and Saito, wake up on the plane. Secret smiles are shared. Fisher looks like an idea, that most resilient parasite, has gotten hold of him.

Cobb is still wanted for murder in the U.S., of course, but Saito promised that if the mission succeeded he would make it all go away. And he does. At Customs, Cobb is allowed in. “Welcome back, Mr. Cobb.” His father-in-law (Michael Caine) is there to greet him, and he takes him back to their home, where his kids, who, throughout, have remained playful but distant, forever turning their faces away from him, finally turn, smile, and rush into his arms. It’s like a dream.

Is it? If you’re someone who enters dreamworlds all the time, one of the things you bring along, Cobb advises, is a totem: some small object that only you know about. Cobb’s totem is a small metal top, which, he suggests, never stops spinning in the dreamworld. That’s how he tests his reality, his sanity. If it stops spinning, he knows he’s in the real world. And just before his kids turn to him, he spins his totem on the dining room table, then forgets all about it as his kids rush into his arms. The camera doesn’t forget, though. It pans back. The top is still spinning. Still spinning. And just as it maybe begins to wobble, the screen goes dark. The End.

There’s going to be a lot of discussion on this lady-or-the-tiger ending, but the question I’d ask isn’t “Is the ending a dream?” but “Is this ending more effective?” I’d argue that it is. “Inception” is about questioning reality, and an ambiguous end lends itself to this theme, and we carry that feeling out of the theater. At least I did. As I walked in downtown Seattle at twilight on a Friday night, everything seemed slightly off. People seemed odder, buildings less substantial. And why were all these Japanese walking around speaking Japanese? Where was I anyway?

There are parallels, certainly, between “Inception” and “Shutter Island,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s previous movie that included a crazy wife who kills herself and the protagonist’s subsequent retreat from reality. But I felt “Inception” more. With “Shutter,” the craziness is isolated in one character. With “Inception,” it spreads. Like an idea. The sanest person in the movie, in fact, may be Mal, just before she kills herself. Once you navigate to the lower dream levels, who is to say that our level, the non-dream level, is the final level? Aren’t we told, all of our lives, that there is another, higher level? Or levels? Who’s to say that reality isn’t the dream from which we need to wake up? The greatest philosophers have said just that. Most of us have felt just that. Nolan is actually tapping into the sense of unreality that reality has.

Not bad for a summer blockbuster.

Posted at 10:56 AM on Jul 18, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Friday July 16, 2010

Review: “Micmacs” (2010)

WARNING: SPOILERS AFFECTEE

If you felt Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie” (or, in the original French, “Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain”) was too pleased with its own quirkiness, then Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Micmacs” (or, in the original French, “Micmacs à tire-larigot”) is probably not the film for you.

Jeunet is a master visual storyteller. No argument there. In the first two minutes we see a mine-sweeper in the Sahara get blown up, his wife and son receiving the bad news, the wife catatonic at the funeral, the son taken away to Catholic school, the son punished at Catholic school, the son escaping from Catholic school—all with hardly a word spoken.

Then it’s 30 years later. The son, Bazil, is now Dany Boon, late of “Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis” (2008), the most popular film in French history. He’s working late at Matador Video, watching “The Big Sleep” dubbed in French, and repeating the dialogue along with Bogart and Bacall, or Bogart and Bacall’s French dubbers (who, by the way, are fantastique), when he hears gunfire, real gunfire, outside. He goes to the door and sees men in a car chasing a man on a motorcycle—or vice versa. There’s a crash, a gun goes off accidentally, and the bullet goes, pow!, straight into Bazil’s forehead. Down he goes. Out come the opening credits.

Is he dead? Nope. But the bullet is so close to his brain it’s a coin toss whether it’s riskier to operate (and possibly turn him into a vegetable), or leave the bullet where it is (where a sneeze or knock on the head might kill him). And that’s what the surgeon does. He flips a coin and leaves the bullet in.

Thus Bazil is given a new, precarious lease on life, but life does not exactly open its arms to welcome him back. His apartment has already been rented out from under him, his effects have been stolen, and his job at the video store has been given to another. In Jeunet’s world, this no reason to get all gloomy. Au contraire! Instead we get a series of short, Chaplinesque scenes from our new little tramp. Bazil stands behind a subway pillar and mouths along as a girl on the other side of the pillar sings for the coins of passing commuters. He performs a robot dance for the tourists at some brasserie de musee. He cleans his feet via street-cleaner. He eyes a breadline, but, from pride, refuses to get in it, implying to the pretty volunteer that he’s simply waiting for a taxi. Which, of course, is when the taxi arrives, requiring further subterfuge. No bitterness is associated with any of these circumstances. Even as he strains to sleep beneath a cardboard box by the Seine, he merely smiles and waves when a boat, filled with lights and gaiety (and rich bastards), floats by.

But he’s getting a rep, and one day, a man named Placard (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who has spent three-quarters of his life behind bars, brings him to a junkyard, a rather magical junkyard, where, under a “tire-larigot” sign, he’s led through amazingly clean tunnels and introduced to a group of misfits, each with their own talent. La Môme Caoutchouc (Julie Ferrier) is a contortionist who can fit her body into the bottoms of refrigerators, while Calculette (Marie-Julie Baup, who has an Amelie thing going) can calculate weight, height, distance, on sight. Petit Pierre (Michel Crémadès) is a genial puppet/robot-maker who is shockingly strong, while Fracasse (Dominique Pinon of “Delicatessen”) is a human cannonball who claims, vehemently, to have once held the Guiness record for human cannonball flight. Mothered over by Tambouille (Yolande Moreau of “Seraphine”), they’re a kind of French version of the X-Men.

They spend their lives taking the useless and making it useful, and, in a way, that’s what they do with Bazil. More than they know. He’s off on his first junk run, when he stumbles upon the headquarters of the weapons merchants that manufactured the mine that killed his father, run by François Marconi (Nicolas Marié), right across the street from the headquarters of the weapons merchants that manufactured the bullet that nearly ended his life, run by Nicolas Thibault de Fenouillet (Andre Dussollier).

Both men are pieces of work. Marconi (who could’ve been played by Daniel Auteuil) imagines himself a poet while perpetually quizzing his son on the trivia of historical munitions. Fenouillet (who suggests a French James Caan) collects bits of the famous dead under glass: the heart of Louis XVI, the molar of Marilyn Monroe, the vertebrae of Tino Rossi. In a way these bits suggest what’s left of humanity after an explosion. They also suggest a way of life opposite of our heroes. Fenouillet is taking the useful and keeping it useless.

Bazil’s revelation leads to an immediate frontal assault on both headquarters that goes nowhere. But soon he and his French X-Men concoct over-elaborate, Rube Goldberg-esque schemes to bring down the bad guys.

Example. They distract drug dealers in order to fill a mailbox full of water, allowing the drug-filled envelope inside to float within finger reach; then, at the airport, they plant said envelope into the pocket of a deposed African dictator, who is doing business with Fenouillet (illegal arms for Mussolini’s eye, I believe); then, with Fracasse luring drug-sniffing dogs forward with meat, La Môme Caoutchouc, tucked inside a suitcase, cuts the dog’s leash from his unobservant, Robert De Niro-imitating police master, and the dog bolts for the meat—until he smells the drugs in the dictator’s pocket and starts barking. The bad guys are led away. Could this have been accomplished more easily? Yes, but it wouldn’t have been as much fun.

The goal is to keep pricking both men to see if they bleed, and, of course, being men of power and prestige, they react badly to the pricking and suspect each other. The movie might have made more sense if our heroes had merely pushed each industrialist into the other and then gotten out of the way, but it’s our heroes who keep doing the pricking. The contortionist enters Fenouillet’s place via special-delivery box and vacuums up all his prized celebrity parts—leaving behind one hand with middle finger extended. A cache of Marconi’s arms are stolen and dumped into the Seine via coffee pot of bees and the services of the human cannonball (or Bazil). Fenouillet’s place is blown up. By accident? On the news, we’re told, “There were no fatalities.” Of course not. Otherwise our protagonists would be as bad as our antagonists.

The final scheme involves kidnapping both weapons merchants and transporting them to an Arab desert, where Fenouillet, with one of his explosives clenched in his mouth, is put on the shoulders of Marconi, standing on one of his own land mines, and the two men totter, and plead shamelessly, before a silent tribunal of Arab women in burkhas who hold photos of their own mutilated or murdered children before them. The men admit their crimes, offer, in a sense, arms for hostages (“I’m all for terrorism!” Marconi shouts), but it’s our heroes under the burkhas, and the desert is a building site in France. And it’s all being recorded.

How old am I? After that moment I thought: “Oh, they can get this footage to some news outlet.” Instead they upload it on YouTube under the title “Arms dealers fooled,” and it becomes a hit. We see people around the world watching it...and then presumably going back to their 9-to-5. Or watching some other YouTube clip? “California Gurls”? “Nekkid Mom”? “Crazy Snake Attack!”? The arms dealers get more than humiliated—Marconi gets 15 years for illegal arms sales—but YouTube still feels like a small ending to such an elaborate scheme.

Is the set-up too easy? Band of misfits vs. weapons merchants—with the latter vacuous and bitter and the former a little too pleased with its own quirks. Besides, take down Marconi and another CEO rises in his place. Take down his company and another rises in its place. The problem is less the supply than the demand. And there will always be demand, world without end.

At the same time...why not? Sure, weapons merchants are easy targets, but so are terrorists, which is why Hollywood keeps sending one lone man to fight them. Again and again and again. When was the last time Hollywood made villains of weapons merchants? Why, they’re just capitalists. Like the rest of us.

That may be my favorite thing about “Micmacs.” By its French example, it lays bare the claim that Hollywood’s product is anything close to liberal. Merci, M. Jeunet.

Posted at 07:52 AM on Jul 16, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Sunday July 11, 2010

Review: “Exit Through the Gift Shop” (2010)

“Exit Through the Gift Shop” could be an ironic twist on the documentary form, in which the subject is forced to become the documentarian because the original documentarian turns out to be incompetent, and in which the celebration of art (in its street form) becomes a condemnation of the art world (in its gallery form).

Or it could be a hoax. In which case... what? The laugh, rather than being on the art world, is on us? We are the suckers we thought we were watching.

And if the latter, does this make the doc more meaningful or ultimately meaningless?

Let me begin by saying I don’t know from art, let alone street art. I knew of Shepard Fairey through the Obama “Hope” poster and its subsequent AP lawsuit, (and from articles that mentioned his original famous work: the Andre the Giant “OBEY” graffito), but I’d never heard of the others: Monsieur Andre, with his flowing, friendly stick figure drawings; Space Invader, who tucks his Atari-inspired glyphs in out-of-the-way places around Paris; Zeus, painting shadows on the streets. Most of this stuff is fun. I laughed out loud at the chicken-or-egg humor to this graffito: “SORRY ABOUT YOUR WALL —Borf.”

Then there’s Banksy, whose name flashed by during the opening credits. Isn’t the whole thing called “A Banksy Film”? He’s interviewed early, his voice altered, his entire hooded form in silhouette, and lays it all out: “The film is the story of what happened when this guy tried to make a documentary about me... [but] the film is now kinda about him.”

This guy is Thierry Guetta, a French, vintage-clothing store owner living in Los Angeles, who has the habit, possibly from childhood trauma, of filming most of the interactions in his life. In 1999, he was visiting family in Paris, including his cousin, Space Invader, and Thierry and his video camera went on his night rounds with him. The impermanence of street art was thus recorded for posterity. This was Thierry’s entrée into the street-art world.

Soon Thierry lands one of the biggees, Shepard Fairey, and follows him around for 10 months. Then he lands the other biggee, Britain’s super-secretive Banksy, “the Scarlet Pimpernel of the street art scene,” according to Cablestreet, who is famous, or infamous, for his stenciled rats, for putting up his own framed artwork in prestigious galleries, for painting a crack in Jerusalem’s wailing wall through which one can view a Caribbean paradise. When Banksy heads to L.A. and needs a tour guide, Fairey hooks him up with Thierry and his camera.

Thierry’s there, filming, when Banksy stages an intervention into Bush-era America. He blows up an orange-suited Gitmo doll and places it in full view of a roller-coaster ride at Disneyland. Banksy is able to make his getaway but Thierry is grabbed by Disney security and interrogated for four hours. The absurdity of that situation—the heavy hand of the Happiest Place on Earth, along with the obvious Disney/Gitmo connection—is both creepy and hilarious. It’s as if Banksy (and Thierry) get their antagonists to dot the i’s and cross the t’s of the very point they’re making.

All the while, though, there’s something off about the narration from British actor Rhys Ifans. It’s telling us a story, this story, but Ifans, sounding a bit like Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in “A Clockwork Orange,” reads it like he doesn’t believe it. There’s an ironic, sarcastic layer to everything he says. There's something off, too, about Thierry, who, in recent talking-head interviews, wears Civil War-era muttonchops and never seems particularly bright. Halfway through, the bomb is dropped. The doc he's making? He's not making it. He simply puts the videotapes in shoe boxes and never reviews it. It’s not until Banksy asks him to create the doc he’s been talking about that he tries to create the doc he’s been talking about.

And it’s shite: like a caffeinated man flipping through 900 TV channels for 90 minutes. (Or so we’re told: we only get a snippet.)

So Banksy, like some latter-day David O. Selznik, takes over. He’ll put together the doc, based on Thierry’s footage. And what should Thierry do? “Make some art,” Banksy tells him.

He does. “I didn’t want to disappoint Banksy,” he says.

Earlier, Banksy had put together a successful show in L.A.—which included a spray-painted elephant, the so-called elephant in the room of modern society, which led to PETA protests—and it was a hit. Thierry wanted to do something similar. He decided that all street art, from Shepard Fairey's OBEY to Ron English's creepy Ronald McDonald, was really a reaction to the brainwashing of modern society, so he renames himself Mr. Brain Wash, and creates a show, “Life is Beautiful.” It keeps growing and growing. He hires people to help. He sinks more and more of his own money into it. He’s the street artist without the street, and possibly without the art, and one watches horrified that he’s going to bankrupt himself and his family on this whim. Then he gets positive blurbs from Shepard Fairey and Banksy, and his show winds up on the cover of LA Weekly, and one becomes more horrified that his show may actually succeed. And it does. Thierry, now Mr. Brain Wash, and a celebrity in his own right, makes over $1 million selling his not-very-good artwork to not-very-discriminating patrons. He winds up creating the cover art for Madonna’s 2009 CD “Celebration.” We cut to Banksy, apparently interviewing himself, saying, “I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don't do that so much anymore.”

So tables were turned and lessons were learned. The fake had supplanted the real and no one could tell the difference. We are revealed as a society without taste. Gore Vidal once called Tennessee Williams “someone to laugh at the squares with,” and that’s what these patrons are, squares, as is, ha!, Madonna, as is our whole culture. But you and I and the other theatergoers? We know. We’re with Banksy.

Except is the story true?

When the doc screened at Sundance in January, a letter from Banksy was read, which included the line, “Everything you are about to see is true, especially the bit where we all lie.”

So what’s the lie? That Mr. Brain Wash (as opposed to, say, Banksy) created his crap art? That gallery patrons bought it? That a guy named Thierry had a predilection for filming? That a guy named Thierry exists?

And if it is a lie, what’s the point of it? Most of Banksy’s art has a point. Think of that stencil of Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald, skipping hand-in-hand with the naked, napalmed Vietnamese girl from 1972—an image both hilarious and sickening. The best of Banksy’s art puts the blunt reality in the midst of the corporate or government fantasy. But if most of the doc is a lie? It's blurring the lines between fantasy and reality in a way that feels like a giggle rather than a point.

Or is the point of Banksy's art to subvert comfortable norms—from Queen Victoria to art galleries—and the movie theater is one more comfortable norm he’s subverting? His art is designed to wake people up from believing everything they hear, and that includes, in the end, what they hear from him. He's now the man he's warning us about.

When the doc screened at the Berlin Festival in February, Banksy seemed to backtrack on the “lies” issue:

Essentially, I thought it was important to start recording the global phenomenon of street art, because I felt if we didn’t get it on tape a lot of people wouldn’t believe some of the things that were going on. As it turns out, some of the people don’t believe it anyway and they think the film is some kind of spoof. This is ironic because ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is one of the most honest films you’ll ever see. There was no plan, there was no script and we didn’t even realize we were making a film until about halfway through.”

But even this backtrack raises questions. He started recording the global phenomenon of street art? Wasn’t it Thierry?

For me, it’s a little sad if the story is a lie. We already have enough lies in our lives.

Posted at 07:24 AM on Jul 11, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010, Movies - Documentaries
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Sunday July 04, 2010

Review: “The Karate Kid” (2010)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“The Karate Kid” practices what it preaches.

Not the karate, since it’s set in China and that’s kung fu. Nor, really, the idea of using kung fu to avoid fights, since we didn’t buy our tickets to watch someone not fight, thank you. We’re moviegoers and we want our wish fulfillment. We’re Old Testament and we want our just desserts.

No, here’s what it preaches. At one point, Mei Ying (Han Wenwen), a young Chinese violinist who wants to get into the prestigious Beijing Academy of Music, and who is the love interest/crush of our main character, Dre Parker (Jaden Smith), is told by her teacher that she’s playing the music too fast. She needs to slow down and appreciate the pauses.

That’s what the film does. Most summer movies rush to get us onto the roller coaster, then zips us around for two hours. “Kid” takes its time.

It begins in Detroit with a not-bad visual shorthand. Dre is in an empty room staring at the pencil hash marks on the wall indicating how he’s grown over the years. In this way his life is tracked: “Started kindergarten”; “Lost tooth” “First homerun”; “9th birthday”; “Daddy died.” Then his mother (Taraji P. Henson) calls to him and he pencils in the final one: “Moved to China.”

(Caveat: Of course this shorthand only works if you don’t think about it for more than two seconds. “Daddy died, honey. Let’s see how tall you are!”)

On their first day in Beijing, fighting the jetlag, Dre wanders the neighborhood and meets 1) a blonde-haired American kid, Harry (Luke Carberry), who speaks pretty good Mandarin, and who (intentionally?) reminds us of the gang of blonde-haired bullies from the first “Karate Kid”; 2) Mei Ying, who sits on a park bench and smiles at Dre’s various shenanigans, which include sucking at basketball, sucking at ping pong, but busting some good dance moves; and 3) the new gang of bullies, Chinese now, and led by Cheng (a stunning Wang Zhenwei), who may like Mei Ying, may dislike foreigners, or may just be a jerk. But he picks a fight with Dre, who, good for him, stands his ground. Then Dre gets his ass kicked. Harry tries to intervene, saying, “Ta gang li de. Ta bu jrdao ni shr shei,” or, in English, “He just got here; he doesn’t know who you are.” That’s a pretty scary sentiment. One wonders how long the 12-year-old Cheng has been bullying this neighborhood.

How much does “Karate Kid” appreciate the pauses? It makes us wait an hour before we see these bullies get their first comeuppance—when the maintenance man in Dre’s apartment building, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), prevents Cheng and his buddies from putting Dre into the hospital. He does it in the usual Jackie Chan manner: by using his opponents as props; by using his opponents’ need to fight to defeat them. “When fighting angry blind men,” he says later, “best to just stay out of the way.”

Before that moment, we’re mostly getting to know Dre as he gets to know Beijing. He visits the Forbidden City. His mother thinks the hot water in their apartment doesn’t work, but Mr. Han informs him hot water in China works with a switch: turn it on, wait a half hour, take your shower, turn it off. When Dre tells him the U.S. doesn’t have such a switch, he stares at him, then says, “Get switch. Save planet.”

(Caveat: Cute advice coming from, you know, China, where public health, let alone environmental issues, has never been a great concern.)

We’re also getting to know Jaden Smith. It takes a lot for a possibly nepotistic 12-year-old to star in his own film, but he pulls it off. Often he has looks, unconscious looks, that remind us of his father: that slight head shake, for example, while growing increasingly fed-up and angry. What he can’t pull off, and what his father could pull off effortlessly, is that empty bragging thing: that feigning front that lets the audience know the braggart’s got nothing—and yet somehow makes us like the braggart. Jaden tries it that first day at the park, with the basketball and the ping pong, and the humor falls flat.

Jaden is at his best, I believe, when he reminds me, not of his father, but of my nephew, now 9 years old: that almost trapped, desperate look of being unable to explain to grown-ups the injustice of the world. That naked vulnerability. “I hate it here!” he tells his mom. “I want to go home!” When tears well up in his eyes and slide down his cheeks, it’s heartbreaking stuff. Some critics have complained that Jaden, 11 going on 12 now, 10 going on 11 when the movie was filmed, is too young to play the role Ralph Macchio originated at 22 or 23, but the advantage to youth is vulnerability. Dre isn’t on the verge of manhood. He is just a kid.

Despite that, and despite the switch to China and kung fu, this remake mostly follows the path of the original. Bullies gather. Mentor emerges. Mentor says “No such thing as bad students, only bad teacher.” Then he meets the bad teacher, Mr. Li, (Yu Rongguang), who decorates his school with huge, framed photos of himself in aviator glasses, and who physically beats students who dare show mercy to other students. Mr. Han looks both startled and, yes, scared that there are such teachers in the world, so he agrees to teach Dre what he calls “real kung fu.” In the 1980s version, it was wax on/wax off. Here it’s jacket on/jacket on. Same idea. Repetitive task leads to the unconscious physical movements that act as the doorway to the martial art.

Jackie Chan fans, or at least this Jackie Chan fan, has been waiting for years to see him in this kind of role. He became a star in Asia in the 1970s playing the ne’er-do-well student to a crazy or stern taskmaster, often played by Siu Tien Yuen, and now he gets to play that stern taskmaster. He does it well. He’s both stern and concerned. He is stern because he is concerned. He’s teaching not just a one-time thing but a way of life. “Everything is kung fu,” he says. On the window of a train to the Chinese countryside, during a pilgrimage to a Chinese temple, he draws the Chinese character for “chi,” and explains that it means: the eternal essence that flows through life. Dre translates this into pop cultural terms. Chi equals the Force. “You’re Yoda,” he says, “and I’m like a Jedi.” Great line.

This temple is ridiculously beautiful, and a martial arts master mesmerizes a cobra while balancing atop one of the temple’s ornate wings, and later Mr. Han and Dre practice on the Great Wall of China with no tourists or officials in sight (nice gig if you can get it), but despite all of this fanciful stuff the movie works to stay grounded. Most of the training is done in Mr. Han’s cluttered yard, or on a rooftop between drying laundry, and the emphasis keeps returning to the basics: focus, concentration, practice—all of the things you need to succeed in any discipline. The emphasis of the movie, meanwhile, keeps returning to the basics of storytelling: the humanity of its two main characters. When Dre is finally able to punch Mr. Han with force, he looks scared. When Mr. Han’s tragic past is revealed, the movie, rather than being derailed, deepens because of the honesty of Dre’s response. When Dre is injured in the tournament and wants to go back out for the final round, and Mr. Han asks him why, Dre says, “Because I’m still scared.” Another great line. Another great lesson.

The final point of the final round of the tournament is over the top, literally over the top, but the comeuppance of the bad teacher is quiet and dignified and devastating. I walked in hoping “Karate Kid” would be an OK movie; I walked out thinking it was much, much better. It’s wish fulfillment, obviously, but it’s inner-directed wish fulfillment. The point isn’t to decimate your enemies but to better yourself and hope some part of the world follows.

Posted at 07:34 AM on Jul 04, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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