erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2011 posts

Monday January 09, 2012

Movie Review: Warrior (2011)

WARNING: TRAILERS. I MEAN SPOILERS.

Was any 2011 film more ill-served by its trailer than Gavin O’Connor’s “Warrior”?

Here’s the trailer:

A few months ago I was at a theater where this played; and when the ringside announcer cries, “This is impossible! The two men fighting for the championship ... are BROTHERS!?!,” several people in the crowd laughed out loud and shouted sarcastically at the screen. Worse than the awfulness of the line itself—how it dumps in your lap the very thing that needs to be built up slowly (the impossibility of the story)—it’s a third-act revelation. The people who created the trailer are letting us know everything that’s going to happen in the movie except for who wins that final fight: the military brother or the schoolteacher brother. Which you can guess if you factor in Hollywood’s underdog tendencies.

So I wrote off the film. As did most of us. It opened the weekend of September 9th and grossed $5 million. Its total domestic take was not quite three times that number, $13 mil, meaning word-of-mouth wasn’t great. By the end of October it was gone.

Then last Sunday the New York Times critics picked their Oscar nominees and there it was. Both A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis chose Tom Hardy, the military brother, among their best actor nominees. Scott included the film among his five best picture nominees.

Best picture? The “brothers fighting for the championship” movie?

I had to see it.

Its value, I’d argue, lies somewhere between what Scott says and the trailer implies. It’s a formulaic fight film, yes, but it’s got a personal touch. It builds slowly. It’s about relationships: the drunk father and his two unforgiving sons. It aspires to John Avildsen’s “Rocky,” which, remember, won best picture in 1976. Hardy is a good actor. 

But best picture?

Warrior (2011)It begins with its best scene. Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte, of course), a former fight trainer and alcoholic, a thousand days sober, returns home at night to find a young man sitting on his front stoop with a brown paper bag around a bottle. “Tommy?” he says in that Nolte growl. It’s his son, estranged. He hasn’t seen him in ... 10 years? More? Not since the mother left with Tommy and headed west and wound up in Tacoma, Wash., where she died of cancer and he joined the military. Now he’s back from Iraq, going by his mother’s maiden name, Riordan, rather than Conlon. He seems to want something from the old man, too, but can’t forgive him. He slumps through the old man’s small, Pittsburgh apartment like a tinderbox, looking at pictures, asking questions, ready to explode. He doesn’t. He just smolders.

In Paddy’s apartment, Tommy also sees photos of his older brother, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), now married to Tess (Jennifer Morrison), the smoking hot neighborhood girl, and working as a high school physics teacher in Philadelphia, and that’s where the film goes: to Brendan teaching his students, who call him Mr. C., and Brendan patiently letting his daughters paint his cheeks “like a princess,” and Brendan pumping iron in the gym prior to leaving for his second job as a bouncer. Except he’s not a bouncer. He’s making money as a Mixed Martial Arts fighter in parking lot rings next to strip clubs. Turns out he was once a professional MMA fighter, trained by the old man, but his strip-club fighter is a little like Rocky Balboa’s with Spider Rico: a victory, sure, but hardly impressive.

Certainly not as impressive as when Tommy visits his local gym, and, in a sparring match, beats down the local golden boy, “Mad Dog” Grimes (Erik Apple) in 20 seconds—which is filmed by one of the locals and becomes, as they say, “a YouTube sensation.”

For his strip-club fighting, Brendan is suspended from teaching without pay. Unfortunately, the local banker tells him he’s underwater on his mortgage and if he can’t come up with the payments the bank will repossess. He only has a few weeks. That’s why he was fighting in the first place.

Hey, turns out there’s a MMA big tournament in nearby Atlantic City: 16 fighters, single-elimination, $5 million winner-take-all purse. Tommy’s YouTube video helps him make the cut, while Brandon, whose suspension for MMA fighting pushes him toward MMA fighting, trains with a top-notch local, Frank Campana (Frank Grillo); and when Frank’s boy, Marco Santos (Roan Carneiro), goes down, Brandon asks for his slot. Frank gives it only reluctantly.

At this point, nobody outside of them and us knows Tommy and Brendan are brothers. They have different last names, after all. All that’s known about Tommy is the YouTube video, along with another video, in which, seen via helmet cam, Tommy pulls the door off a tank to rescue several soldiers in Iraq. To be honest, we don’t know much more. We see him talk to a girl in Texas, the widow of a friend, a Marine. That’s about it. We know he doesn’t forgive his brother for choosing the father (or the local girl) over him and his mother. We know he doesn’t communicate well and forgives even less. We know he smolders until heat waves emanate off him.

In the elimination rounds, Tommy clobbers his opponents in seconds while Brendan gets clobbered for two rounds only to win with a come-from-behind tap-out in the third. Then it’s just them.

It’s at this point, right before the championship match, that the media figures it all out. Hey, Tommy is Tommy Conlon, the son of the man who’s training him, and the brother of Brendan Conlon, the man he’s fighting for the championship. Wow! (Which raises a point: Why did no one in the media, or in PR, realize that the trainer of one fighter was the father of another fighter? Why wasn’t that a story before Tommy’s lineage became known?)

The bigger reveal is that Tommy’s AWOL. He fled after a friendly-fire incident in which he and his buddy, the husband of the woman in Texas, were shot by U.S. planes. His buddy was killed. He’s fighting for her. He wants to get money to her. That’s just the kind of guy he is.

Forget for a moment the implausibility of it all—the “this is impossible... two brothers” line from the trailer. What else rings false about the movie?

We know why Brendan fights. He needs to save his house. But why does Tommy fight? For the widow in Texas? Surely he knows he’ll be exposed by a national tournament in Atlantic City. It’s a wonder he even makes the cut in the first place. Yes, a wonder.

But it’s the bit about Brendan’s house that really gets me. The bank is going to foreclose on him in a matter of weeks? What super efficient bank is this? It takes most banks months, possibly years, to actually foreclose in this economy. Plus the fact that he’s underwater on his mortgage means nothing if he wants to stay there, right? How does the shifting value of the house make the current payments harder? Does he have an adjustable rate mortgage? And wouldn’t current low interest rates help him in this regard?

Admittedly, both leads—Hardy from England and Edgerton from Australia—are good at playing Americans, but there’s too little behind Edgerton’s eyes and too much behind Hardy’s. In this way, Hardy is both reserved and over-the-top: a neat trick. To be honest, the actor who impressed me most was Frank Grillo as Frank Campana. At first I assumed they’d grabbed a real-life MMA trainer from somewhere, maybe the guy who was their technical consultant, because he seemed so real; then Grillo begins to project things that no walk-on, no non-actor, can. It’s a great supporting performance.

So no best-actor nom for Hardy from me. Best picture? Not even close. A.O. Scott’s got rocks in his head.

But the movie is still better than its trailer implies.

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Posted at 06:50 AM on Jan 09, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2011   |   Permalink  
Friday January 06, 2012

Movie Review: Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol (2011)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Turns out super agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) likes to do the same thing I like to do after a hard day’s work: hang out at the pier in downtown Seattle and drink a beer or two with friends. Of course he’s just eliminated a few bad guys to maybe save the entire planet while I’ve just eliminated a few bad words to maybe save an article, but we’ve all got our jobs, right? Besides, he’s not really hanging out in downtown Seattle; he’s in Vancouver, B.C., which has played the role of Seattle more often than Tom Cruise has played Ethan Hunt. More poorly, too. Water taxis my ass.

Poster for "Mission: Impossilbe--Ghost Protocol" (2011)This is the fourth installment of the “M:I” series, based upon the 1960s TV series with the kick-ass theme music, and they’ve all been pretty good. Each has had its stellar director: 1) Brian De Palma, 2) John Woo, 3) J.J. Abrams,  and now 4) Brad Bird. Each has had its incredible stunt. And each has been forgettable.

There’s a mission. Does it go awry? Is Ethan accused? There’s a chase scene on foot through a crowded third-world market. There’s a girl. Is she in danger? Can she be trusted? Can anyone on the IM Force be trusted? Ethan’s been betrayed before, remember: by Jim Phelps (Jon Voigt) in the first, Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) in the second, and ... was it John Musgrave (Billy Crudup) in the third? Does it matter?

Evil Swedish genius
The good news is there’s no mole within the Impossible Mission Force this time around. Score one for employee screening. Agents have secrets, sure, but no one’s selling out to America’s enemies. They’re a team finally.

The better news is this team and its enemies seems assembled from the 2009 Spirit Awards. They grabbed Jeremy Renner, who was disarming IEDs in “The Hurt Locker” that year, to play William Brandt, the analyst with a sad secret. They took the gorgeous inner-city schoolteacher from 2009’s “Precious,” Paula Patton, for their Jane Carter, the agent whose last bungled mission led to the death of her lover. Finally, Michael Nyqvist, the first Mikael Blomqvist of the “Dragon Tattoo” movies, which was released in 2009, gets to play Kurt Hendricks, the evil Swedish genius who wants to start a global nuclear war as a way to cleanse the world’s palette.

Evil Swedish genius. When was the last time anyone had to use that phrase?

So, yes, there’s a mission, and, yes, it goes awry. The IM team is supposed to steal Russian nuclear launch codes, or something, from the Kremlin, but Hendricks gets there first, then blows up the Kremlin. The IM Force is implicated, and thus disavowed, and then their secretary (Tom Wilkinson) is shot in the head by Russian police, so they have to save the world without the usual bells and whistles—although the bells and whistles they wind up with are pretty damned good.

Yes, there’s a great stunt: a Spider-Man climb using sticky gloves (blue is glue, red is dead) up the side of the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa in Dubai, 163 stories tall. Just removing the glass window that allows Ethan outside causes vertigo in comic-relief agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg). In us, too, when director Brad Bird gives us a peek over the edge.

Yes, there’s a foot-chase through an international market, also Dubai, with Cruise running in that peculiar upright motion of his; and, yes, there’s a mission in a swanky hotel, in Mumbai, India, that allows for tuxedos and cleavage, and, yes, a final fist fight between hero and villain amidst raising and lowering automobiles in a Mumbai garage as the fate of San Francisco, and possibly the world, hangs in the balance. It’s got all that.

But what makes this “M:I” movie work for me is the opposite of the old antiperspirant slogan: we get to see ’em sweat.

My favorite moment is a throwaway. The Kremlin’s been blown up and Ethan’s caught up in it. He sees the explosions, he begins to race away, but unlike in most movies, it catches him and the screen goes black and silent. Then he wakes up in a Russian hospital with one wrist hooked to an IV and the other handcuffed to his hospital gurney. A Russian cop, Sidorov, (Vladimir Mashkov), attempts to interrogate him but a nurse wheels him away. In the process, Ethan gets hold of a paper clip. Sidorov follows, has a brief conversation with a subordinate, and when he turns Ethan’s gurney is empty. Shocked, he looks out the window and finds Ethan, despite being banged and bruised and shirtless, way out on the ledge, and eyeing a trash bin three or four stories below. In most action movies, Ethan would just make the jump and continue on his way. Here, Sidorov sees Ethan’s potential escape route, judges its impossibility, and, when their eyes meet, shrugs and nods toward the trash bin in a kind of “Go ahead” gesture. I laughed out loud.

The movie has a few such moments—the opposite of action-hero stoic—and they’re welcome to see. But “Ghost Protocol” is still an action movie and thus mostly forgettable.

Plus the plot, like most action-movie plots, doesn’t really hold up. Before the movie even begins, IMF fakes the death of Ethan’s wife, which provides cover for Ethan’s slaughter of several Serbian assassins, which gets him inside a Russian jail so he can gain intel on Hendricks, whom they’ve already targeted. So why doesn’t he recognize Hendricks when they walk past each other in the Kremlin?

And how about that moment in the end? The IM team is sharing beers in that pier in Seattle, which is really Vancouver, B.C., and Benji looks around at all the people strolling about, including probably me, and wonders aloud over their ignorance. The poor fools, he says, don’t know that they were this close to getting blown up. And they don’t know they were this close to getting blown up because the various governments involved are effectively covering things up and the media is ineffectively doing its job. The missile that landed in San Francisco Bay? Space debris. The Kremlin in shambles? An accidental gas leak. In this universe, both media and government tamp down fear rather than raise it. There’s no Donald Rumsfeld or FOX-News raising threat levels. I suppose what feels false here isn’t that the media is incompetent; it’s that, in its incompetence, it’s anodyne rather than vaguely hysterical.

The true villains
But let’s pretend it’s possible for a Russian sub to shoot a nuclear warhead at a major American city and no one outside of government—such as the scientific community, with access to all the data they have—would figure it out. Who benefits from our ignorance? Government? Media? Put it another way: What would happen if all of those people strolling about in downtown Seattle, including probably me, knew we had been this close to the end? Wouldn’t we suddenly get serious and focused? Wouldn’t the awful cultural flotsam fall away like scales from our eyes, and we would see the world clean and cold? And in our newfound seriousness, wouldn’t we have less time for things like ... oh, I don’t know ... “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol”?

So who benefits from our ignorance? A good argument can be made for Paramount Pictures and Tom Cruise Productions. Someone should send Ethan to investigate.

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Posted at 09:12 AM on Jan 06, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2011   |   Permalink  
Saturday December 31, 2011

Movie Review: My Week with Marilyn (2011)

WARNING: THE PRINCE AND THE SPOILERS

We’re getting more of these, aren’t we? Let’s call them starstruck movies. They’re not “All About Eve” or “The Artist”—cautionary tales in which a star and an ingénue/flunky become rivals or switch places. No, here, as in “Funny People” in 2009 and “Me and Orson Welles” in 2010, the flunky never rises, and the relationship remains unequal, and eventually—with the exception of “Funny People,” which features a fictitious star—the star goes away, as stars always do. Stars are meant to be seen from a distance, not close up. One can get blinded that way. Why Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), the titular possessive in “My Week with Marilyn,” is always blinking his eyes, almost shielding them, in the presence of the titular object of his desire.

So what do we learn from these kinds of films? That the very famous are not like you and me. That they’re often horrible to you and me. But look, look at what they create. Isn’t it worth it? In the end?

Colin, a 23-year-old recent Oxford graduate from money and power, is enamored of the movies and decides he’s going to make it in Poster for "My Week with Marilyn" (2011)the movie business “on his own.” So he loads up his sports car, drives to London, and, showing the persistence of a man who is too rich and powerful to have been beaten down by life, hangs around the offices of Laurence Olivier Productions until he’s given small tasks. When Laurence Olivier himself (Kenneth Branagh) shows up, he recognizes Colin, and directs the head of production, his flunky, to find Colin a job. Which is how Colin becomes a “third,” or third assistant director, or, more properly, gofer, on Olivier’s new film, “The Prince and the Showgirl” co-starring Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams).

This was Monroe’s serious actress phase. She was already the biggest movie star in the world, which is what she’d always wanted, but it wasn’t what she wanted. Now she wanted to be taken seriously. So she got married to a serious playwright, Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), started a production company with a serious photographer, Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper), and studied method acting under the ultra-serious Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), wife of Lee Strasberg, who ran the Actor’s Studio, where actors such as Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift were taught how to act seriously. Oh, and she decided to make a movie with Sir Laurence Olivier, generally regarded the greatest actor in the world.

Problem? Olivier is a classical actor, not method. And the movie they’re making together isn’t a serious film, it’s a light comedy.

Bigger problem? They don’t click.

He’s professional, she’s unprofessional. He’s impatient, she’s confused. He’s ready, she can’t read a line, even during a table read, without conferring with Paula Strasberg. During takes with Olivier and Dame Sybil Thorndike (Dame Judi Dench, who is, as always, delightful), she is forever forgetting her lines. Is she nervous? On drugs? Stupid? Distracted by Strasberg? Confused by method acting? All of the above? The movie never clarifies the issue. “Use your substitutions and make it work for you,” Paula tells her. “Just be sexy: Isn’t that what you do?” Olivier tells her.

When she begins to hole up in her dressing room, it’s young Colin who’s sent to fetch her; and it’s young Colin, with his innocent, starstruck face, to whom she begins to confide—even as the wall of people surrounding her and protecting her crumbles. Her publicist, Arthur Jacobs (Toby Jones), returns to the states. Her husband, with whom she fights, returns to the states. Who can she choose to help prop up the wall? “Are you spying on me?” she asks Colin at one point. “Whose side are you on?” she asks him at another point. His answer, after a momentary pause, is the one she wants to hear: “Yours, Miss Monroe.”

Off they go. He shows her Oxford (or is it Eton?) and the delighted schoolboys surround her. They visit his godfather, Sir Owen Morshead (Derek Jacobi), the official librarian at Buckingham Palace, and she asks silly, Monroe-esque questions. They have a picnic near a stream and they wind up semi-skinny-dipping. In the water, she kisses him and he looks on, amazed, as if he’s watching it all rather than participating in it. One night she has a breakdown, asks for him, and they wind up spooning in her bed, clothed. He wakes to find her taking a bubble bath and acting coquettish. Acting like Marilyn Monroe.

It’s like a dream—almost literally. I used to write down my dreams, and this is one I had nearly 20 years ago about one of Marilyn’s many would-be replacements:

Madonna came to town.  I was supposed to greet her.  I was her greeter? She was over at my father's house partially undressed and we made out on the couch.  I was worried about her because she seemed so unstable and sad.  I wanted to sleep with her but I needed to protect her.

That’s Colin’s dilemma, too. In a sense it’s every man’s dilemma (the battle between protect and fuck) but the movie doesn’t do much with it. The movie doesn’t do much with him. Does he remain the Olivierian professional or side with Marilyn? Does he protect her or sleep with her? Can he protect her while sleeping with her? He’s in nearly every scene but we get no sense of his inner life. Is there no roar there? She wants to pretend they’re 13-year-olds on a date. What does he want to pretend?

Worse, the movie thinks it’s presenting a version of Marilyn we haven’t seen before when it’s the Marilyn we’ve seen all too often before: screwed-up and pill-popping and user and used. It focuses on Marilyn, the star, versus Norman Jean, the lost little girl, as if this dichotomy is new. “Shall I be her?” she says at Buckingham Palace. “I’m not her,” she confides to Colin. “As soon as people see I’m not her, they run,” she says. Yet, even in private, she keeps acting like “her.”

“My Week with Marilyn” isn’t a bad movie but it’s not a particularly interesting one. He’s not that interesting, she’s not that interesting, and, in the process, a not very interesting movie gets made. Oh, but look at her light up the screen, Olivier says after all that trouble. Just look. He’s amazed. The movie is amazed. In the end, the movie is as starstruck about Monroe as Colin.

No tagsPosted at 09:18 AM on Dec 31, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011   |   Permalink  
Wednesday December 21, 2011

Movie Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

WARNING: EXTREMELY LONG AND INCREDIBLY FULL OF SPOILERS

Extremely loud and incredibly close describes most movies coming out of Hollywood but not “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.” It’s called that, I assume, because that’s the way Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a 10-year-old with inconclusive Asperger’s syndrome, perceives the world. He’s frightened of its noises, frightened of its people, sees dangers everywhere. He’s a worst-case scenario guy—like me, I suppose—but 50 times worse. Walking on a dock: What if he falls through? Walking over a bridge: What if it falls down? Swinging on a swing: What if it breaks?

Of course, he, like most of us, never saw this one coming: What if a group of people purposefully fly airplanes into tall buildings and they come crashing down?

Oskar’s dad, Thomas Horn, Jr. (Tom Hanks), a jeweler, tries to focus his son’s mind by sending him on treasure hunts. He makes up stories. He tells him there was once a sixth borough of New York City but it floated away and the only evidence remaining is somewhere in Central Park—which, itself, was once part of that sixth borough until the people of New York, working together, dragged it to its current location. He’s an ideal dad who practices tae kwan do with Oskar, creates games like Oxymorons—in which the goal is to come up with more oxymorons than your opponent (“Original copy!”)—and encourages Oskar educationally, where he shines, and socially, where he doesn’t.

Movie poster for "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (2011)Unfortunately, on the morning of September 11, 2001, Thomas happens to have a business meeting on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center.

The movie opens to blue; then we see something flapping in front of it. A flag? No. Is that a shoe? Is it a body falling? Is it a body falling on the sky-blue day of September 11, 2001?

Yes.

Most of the action takes place a year later. In voiceover, which is used throughout, Oskar tells us that if the sun blew up we wouldn’t realize it for eight minutes because that’s how long it takes for light to travel to Earth. So for eight minutes, we’d still feel its warmth; we’d still see its light. And that’s how he feels about his father. And he fears that, after a year, his eight minutes are almost up. (This is a beautiful analogy, by the way.) So for the first time since that awful day, “The Worst Day” he always calls it, Oskar enters his father’s closet, which his mother (Sandra Bullock) hasn’t altered. He smells his sweater. He finds old film his grandfather took. And on a top shelf he spies his father’s camera, which, as he pulls it down, also pulls down a blue vase, which falls through the air and explodes on the floor. In it, he finds a small envelope, and inside the small envelope he finds a key. “Black” is written on the envelope. What could it mean? What could it open? What was his father trying to tell him? It’s the final treasure hunt.

After a neighborhood locksmith tells him that every key opens something, Oskar goes in search of that something. He figures “Black” is a name; and in the phone book he finds 472 Blacks, some of whom live together, and decides to ask each of them if they know anything about his father and/or the key. His phobias have intensified since 9/11—tall buildings, subways—so for the first Black on his list, Abby (Viola Davis), in Brooklyn, he steels himself, shakes his tambourine (which he uses to calm his nerves), and crosses the Brooklyn Bridge. She lives in a beautiful brownstone, where it appears to be moving day. She’s distracted, knows nothing about his father or the key, but he barges in anyway, asks for water, asks about an elephant postcard he finds in one of the moving boxes. Turns out she’s not the one who’s moving. A man, whose face we never see, is. It’s her husband and they’re separating. When she breaks down and cries, Oskar offers her this: “Only humans can cry tears, did you know that?” He tells her she’s beautiful. He asks, “Can I kiss you?” When she smiles and says it wouldn’t be appropriate, he asks to take her picture. At the last instant, she turns away, tears streaming down her cheeks. The Worst Day killed his father, which is why he’s there, but for her this is the worst day. What he’s doing feels awkward and awful. It almost feels like a home invasion.

More importantly, throughout, I couldn’t get past this thought: Why not phone?

Did I miss something? Are these the Blacks in the phone book without phone numbers? Did his father tell him to never use the phone in his treasure hunts? He certainly has a phone, and he’s an extremely logical kid, and he’s calculated that if he visits two Blacks every Saturday it’ll take him three years to complete his task, whereas, with the phone, he could finish it up in two afternoons, three tops. Instead, every Saturday, off he goes, meeting people and hearing their stories.

This is obviously the point. What matters is the face-to-face interaction. What matters is the journey. But the journey is so illogical, given the storyline, I couldn’t get past it. Oskar, with his Asperger’s mind, wants to think of every person, every “Black,” as a number in a gigantic equation, but after a time he realizes they’re closer to letters, and those letters spell a story, and those stories are messy. He wants a neat answer but everything just gets messier. That’s the point, too, but I still couldn’t get past the illogic. Dude, just pick up a phone.

After a time, Oskar is aided in his search by his grandmother’s renter (Max von Sydow), who showed up three weeks after 9/11, and who is obviously Oskar’s grandfather, Thomas, Sr. As a German teenager, he was caught in the firebombing of Dresden, which strangled all speech from him forever. He has YES and NO tattooed into the palm of each hand—like Robert Mitchum’s LOVE and HATE knuckles in “Night of the Hunter”—and writes everything else down. He also abandoned his family when Thomas, Jr. was young. He was a bad father. Now he’s trying to be a good grandfather.

It’s a relief when he joins the search. It’s tough to occupy the stage alone, and it’s particularly tough for a 10-year-old; and while Thomas Horn does an amazing job for someone who’s never really acted before, who came to fame winning $31,000 on “Teen Jeopardy,” his character, Oskar, is often too precocious to be believed and too annoying to be liked. Kids are often bratty, and Asperger’s kids have their own brand, but there was a tinny quality to Oskar’s flame-outs. When, in voiceover, he lists off all the things that make him panicky, in an increasingly panicky voice, it just doesn’t work. When he tries to tell his story to his grandfather, his secret story, the one he’s been keeping from us about the answering machine and the six voice messages his father left on 9/11,  he gets extremely loud and panicky about it. That, too, feels off.

Eventually, when Thomas, Sr. senses he’s hurting Oskar more than helping him, he abandons the search, and the grandson, as he abandoned the son, but Oskar keeps going. And eventually he finds the answer to the mystery of the key. It’s a good answer because it’s not Oskar’s answer. It doesn’t satisfy him but it satisfies us—in part because we get to watch Jeffrey Wright, the most underutilized great actor in Hollywood, act for a few minutes.

As for the horror of the sixth answering-machine message? It’s both less and more horrifying than we imagined. In content, it’s simply Thomas, Jr., calling again, knowing he’s about to die, and repeating, over and over again, to his son, whom he’d hoped to talk with, “Are you there? ... Are you there? ... Are you there?” It’s a kind of echo, repeated so often, but it also echoes back throughout the movie, since that’s what the son is now doing. Oskar’s search is his own query, his own “Are you there?” to his father.

Why is this horrifying? Because Oskar was there, in the room, listening to his father leave this message, but too panic-stricken to pick up. He asks forgiveness of the adult to whom he confides the story, and of course it’s granted, and Oskar feels relief—it’s a helluva thing for a 10-year-old boy to be carrying around—but afterwards the movie forgets it and I couldn’t. I thought: That’s going to weigh on Oskar more as he ages. He’s going to realize that in his father’s last moments he could have spared him some anguish, could have been that voice, the last voice he communicated with, before he went into the abyss. But he couldn’t and didn’t. It’s not a matter of the need for forgiveness; it’s a matter of overwhelming sorrow that will never end.

“Extremely Loud” is supposed to be a tearjerker so I was surprised it didn’t jerk more tears out of me. It took about 50 minutes, and Sandra Bullock’s “It doesn’t make sense” speech, before I teared up. The second time was during her flashback to 9/11. I guess it was mostly Sandy who made me cry. She’s also the tidiest aspect of the untidy end. Where was the mother during all this? How could she let her son traipse around New York, going into strange homes, in a fruitless search? Isn’t she smarter, more caring, than that? Yes. Yes, she is.

A lot of talent went into this. It was written by Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” “The Insider,” “Munich”), directed by Stephen Daldry (“The Reader,” “The Hours”), and adapted from a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer (“Everything Is Illuminated”). Both Hanks and Bullock nail it. The kid mostly works. I never tire of Max Van Sydow or Jeffrey Wright. It’s about the aftermath of an event none of us will ever forget. Yet it doesn’t quite coalesce. The mother’s 11-hour revelation retroactively covers up some of the false notes, but not all of them, and a tinny taste lingers. The movie wants us to believe in something, in all of us messy, multihued people, with all of our sad stories, making our way in the world. It wants to say that we all care about each other. But the world doesn’t care this much. It doesn’t have this much patience with us, no matter how much prep work goes into it. It’s more cruel than this. A warning should be flashed at the start of the film: Kids, don’t try this at home.

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Posted at 07:43 AM on Dec 21, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011   |   Permalink  
Tuesday December 20, 2011

Movie Review: Melancholia (2011)

WARNING: “LENNY BRUCE IS NOT AFRAID” SPOILERS

Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” didn’t make me melancholic but it did make me nauseous. I began to feel it halfway through the film, that awful shipboard unsteadiness, that burp that brings up more than a burp and has to be swallowed down and grimaced through, but I attributed it to the stomach flu going around, or some symptom of a thyroid problem I’ve been having lately, or maybe something I ate. Pho? Christmas cookies? Which of you betrayed me? It wasn’t until the next day, after reading the IMDb message board for the film, that I realized it was von Trier and his damned hand-held camera. Of course. Same thing happened to me while reviewing “Dancer in the Dark” in 2000. Douchebag. Get a fucking tripod.

“Melancholia” has two acts of destruction preceded by a beautiful overture of destruction. In part one, titled “Justine,” the wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), at the palatial estate of Justine’s sister and brother-in-law, Claire and John (Charlottes Gainsbourg and Keifer Sutherland), is destroyed due to Justine’s melancholic tendencies. In the second part, (“Claire”), the earth is destroyed when a heretofore unseen planet named Melancholia crashes into us, and, as a young Alvy Singer once said, that’s the end of everything. Poster for "Melancholia" (2011)The overture, backed by the prelude to Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” contains beautiful, slow-motion, stop-action shots of the moment before our doom. None of them, interestingly, correlate to the reality of the second act. They’re just gorgeous dream images from a time when life existed.

So what do the two parts have in common other than character and setting? Is it that Justine’s melancholia is as unavoidable as the planet Melancholia? That all attempts to buck her up are as futile as, say, Claire’s desperate attempt to go into the village as Melancholia looms upon us? Is the second part, in other words, mere metaphor for the first? Or is it mere perspective for the first? “Mere” being the operative word.

The wedding reception begins sweetly. An absurdly long, absurdly white limousine attempts to park in a small space by the woods. Everyone gives it a go—inept driver, amused groom, laughing bride. When bride and groom finally show up at the estate, looking beautiful, they are chastised by two severe-looking people, Claire and John. One wonders who these people are and why they’re such a drag. Don’t you cut bride and groom slack on their wedding day? Isn’t this their day? Aren’t the rest of us poor background players to the main event, which is them?

Few at the reception see it this way. Her employer and his best man, Jack (Stellan Skarsgård, Alexander’s father), who runs an ad company, attempts, right there at the wedding reception, in the middle of a toast, to get her to come up with a tagline for a new campaign, whose photo is based upon the awful, besotted folks in Bruegel’s painting “The Land of Cockaigne.” Her father, Dexter (John Hurt), with rakish charm, holds forth at a table full of “Bettys,” but allows an opening for the mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), to loudly express her distaste for what they’re there to celebrate: love and marriage. “Enjoy it while it lasts,” she toasts the handsome couple. “I myself hate marriages.”

(Irony alert: “Enjoy it while it lasts,” is the tagline for von Trier’s film.)

The groom, Michael, is a non-entity. He’s sweet but can’t hold up the weight of all the awfulness around him. Worse, he has no friends to protect him, just a silent mother and father. Many things are planned—by both the wedding planner (Udo Kier) and Claire (whom we discover, in the second act, has a desperate need to plan the inconsequential)—but Justine either avoids or sabotages these absurdities. Sweetness drains away. All the guests stand around waiting for the cutting of the wedding cake, but Justine is upstairs taking a bath. So is her mother in another room. John, who has paid for the entire affair, gets so frustrated he tosses the mother’s belongings out on the front steps, where they’re retrieved by a servant. Those who stay (the mother), shouldn’t; those who don’t stay (the father), should. Add the groom to the latter group. Justine avoids sex with him only to do it out on the estate grounds with a petty ad-agency functionary whom she despises, and suddenly he’s at the front door with the luggage and the parents. The end comes with neither bang nor whimper. “I guess we’ll take off now,” he says. “Things could’ve been a lot different,” he says. “But Michael,” she responds, “what did you expect?” She is who she is, her family is who they are, you can’t stop their trajectories. The destruction was inevitable. He leaves her, forlorn and beautiful, standing in her wedding dress. The evening is a total disaster.

In part two, we get the real disaster. A nearby planet hidden by the sun, and called Melancholia—possibly because of its tendency to avoid other planets—is, in its erratic orbit, supposed to pass close to Earth. It’s the astronomical/celestial  event of the millennia, and John, at his palatial estate, is excited, but Claire is worried. He warns her to stay off the Internet, where worriers go to worry. Meanwhile, Justine, nearly catatonic with depression, shows up, sleeps for days, then can’t enjoy her favorite food. “It tastes like ashes,” she says of the meatloaf, before breaking down in tears.

Later, we get a better sense of the enormity of her melancholia. “The earth is evil,” she tells Justine, as she anticipates disaster. “We don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it.” She’s convinced that we’re the only life that exists, and once we go, hallelujah. That’s her attitude. Consider it the opposite of the upbeat attitude of Selma (Bjork) in von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark.” For Selma, life is brutish and short yet she has a song in her heart. For Justine, life should be better, easier. She’s smart, with access to wealth, and she’s beautiful. (The movie is Rated “R” for “graphic nudity” but, for the scene with Dunst, please make that “stupendous nudity.”)  She has all that but no song in her heart. Just ashes.

As Melancholia gets closer, John continues to get excited, Claire continues to fret, Justine wakes up. We’re stuck with the three of them—a sad fate—because von Trier never leaves the estate. Of course, it turns out that John and the scientists are wrong. Once he realizes it, confirms it, he takes the way out—barbiturates—that Claire prepped for herself, leaving her only fretting. Justine, meanwhile, is amazingly calm, perhaps because this is the ending she wanted or anticipated or is used to. Melancholia has crashed into her may times before, after all; now she simply has company. When the end finally comes, von Trier makes it beautiful. It’s the end of the world as we know it and he feels fine.

It’s tough to express final judgment on a movie responsible for literally making you sick, but here’s a go.

The two parts of “Melancholia” are interesting enough but they’re two still parts. If you’re creating a story about a disastrous wedding, why do a story about the end of the world as well? Perspective? And if you’re creating a story about the end of the world, why focus on this family? Metaphor?

I can posit connections between the two parts, in other words, but overall I feel a bit like Willard confronting Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now”: I don’t see much ... connection at all, sir.

No tagsPosted at 06:30 AM on Dec 20, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011   |   Permalink  
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