Movie Reviews - 2011 postsTuesday November 29, 2011
Movie Review: The Descendants (2011)
Everyone says that comedy is tragedy plus time, but in “The Descendants” writer-director Alexander Payne removes time from the equation. A woman—a mother, wife and daughter—is dying in a hospital bed, having spent the last year of her life cheating on her husband, and we find ourselves laughing out loud. Payne creates comedy out of tragedy as it’s happening.
Fifteen minutes in, I admit, I thought Payne was flubbing it. I thought the critics who were touting “The Descendants” as a best picture contender had blown it. Then the movie began to work and didn’t stop.
Matt King (George Clooney) is a self-professed “back-up parent” in Hawaii who suddenly has his hands full when his wife, Liz (Patricia Hastie), suffers a head injury during a boating accident and goes into a coma. Meanwhile, his 10-year-old daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), is sending nasty text messages to friends. When he goes to retrieve his 17-year-old daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), from the Hawaii Pacific Institute, a kind of summer reform school, he finds her drunk and playing midnight golf and unsympathetic about mom in the hospital. “Fuck mom!” she shouts.
At which point, Matt, in voice-over, wonders how he always winds up with such self-destructive women.
If there’s an oddity to the movie—beyond the removal of time from the comedy/tragedy equation—it’s that almost everyone seems to think Liz will wake from her coma. After 21 days of nothing, they all seem to assume she’ll be fine. The guy who was driving the boat when she had the accident, Troy (surf champ Laird Hamilton in a surprise, low-key cameo), says he visited her, prayed with her, and saw her hand move. Her best friend Kai Mitchell (Mary Birdsong) puts make-up on her. Both children act as bratty as ever, as if mom is simply on vacation.
By this point, though, Matt knows Liz won’t wake up, and, per her living will, she will soon be taken off life support, and it’s up to him to break the news to everyone. The first person he tells is his 17-year-old, Alex, who is too busy talking on her cell and complaining about the leaves in the backyard pool to listen to him. So he tells her while she’s gliding along in the pool. For a second, she looks stunned; then she dives beneath the surface and her face crumples and she swims powerful strokes as if to get away from the bad news. When she surfaces she’s gone maybe five feet. “Why did you tell me in the goddamned pool!” she cries. It’s a great scene with a great actress. Who is this? I thought.
Matt screws up the second telling, too. Alexandra has just given him tit for tat—her bad news for his. “You really don’t have a clue, do you?” she asks, then drops the news that will propel the rest of the movie: “Dad, Mom was cheating on you—that’s what we fought about.” The family lives in Hawaii, and Clooney spends most of the movie in baggy shorts and shirts and sandals. Even his face has a kind of bagginess to it. He’s still movie-star handsome but there’s a layer of puffiness there that you won’t find in “Ocean’s Eleven” but probably see every morning in the mirror. After Alex drops her news bomb, Matt, in a kind of daze, struggles to put on his sandals, then does a kind of run/shuffle for blocks. It’s quite funny, but so inappropriate that one doesn’t feel like laughing. Yet. Is he, like Alexandra, simply running away from bad news? Is he running to the house of the man who cuckolded him? Neither. He winds up at the Mitchells, Kai and Mark (Rob Huebel), who are in the midst of their own absurd argument about cocktails (nice touch) to find out what they know about the affair. Turns out they know it all. Kai continues to defend Liz, how she was lonely, etc., but Matt isn’t having it, and he angrily breaks the news. “You were putting lipstick on a corpse!” he shouts, which causes Kai to break down. Something about her crying, as with his running, tickles us, and, though it was still quite inappropriate, I burst out laughing. The gates were open—for both Matt and me. He was free to find out about his wife’s lover and I was free to laugh.
Good thing. The movie keeps getting funnier. It also gets more poignant.
Matt has three tasks: 1) to find his wife’s lover, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard); 2) to tell Liz’s loved ones that she’s dying so they can say their good-byes; and 3) and to preside over the sale of a huge tract of undeveloped land that his family has owned for generations. The buyers are either a Chicago developer, who put in the highest bid, or a Hawaiian developer, who will keep the money in Hawaii. Various cousins in baggy shorts, shirts, and flip-flops, all of whom will come into millions, as will Matt, have their say—including Beau Bridges as Cousin Hugh, seemingly channeling his brother Jeff’s Dude. Some of the cousins don’t want to sell at all.
Of these three tasks, the third task provides some background on Hawaiian history, and gives us some spectacular shots of undeveloped coastal land, but it’s not particularly intriguing. The second task is a tough one, and poignant, and will resonate with most moviegoers, but dramatically it’s a dead end. It’s the first task that drives the movie.
When Alexandra questions why he’s seeking his wife’s lover, Matt merely seems confused. “I just want to see his face,” he says at one point. To punch him? To tell him the bad news so he can say his good-byes as well? Matt doesn’t know himself, so the movie doesn’t know, so we don’t know. What will happen when they meet? Will it feel true? Will it resonate? Can it do both? The possibilities aren’t multiple choice and the impulse is universal because Matt doesn’t know what drives him.
On this task and others, Alex insists upon coming along, which means Scottie has to come along. The fourth member of their group, or troupe, as in a comedy, is Alex’s friend Sid (Nick Krause), a laid-back dude, part-stoner, part-stupid, with a blissed-out face and a wide smile. When he first meets Matt, he hugs him.
Sid (smiling): What’s up, bro?
Matt (not): Don’t ever do that again.
When Matt breaks the bad news to Liz’s father, Scott (Robert Forster), Sid doesn’t know enough to stay in the background. The mother, Alice (Barbara L. Southern), teeters out, and it’s apparent she’s not all there. Alzheimer’s, one assumes. She doesn’t know her son-in-law, she doesn’t know her grandchildren. When Scott talks about visiting Elizabeth in the hospital, she thinks he’s talking about Queen Elizabeth and gets excited, causing Sid to laugh out loud. Confronted, Sid compounds his error by continuing to smile and insisting that Alice must be joking. Right? “I’m going to hit you,” Scott says matter-of-factly, and then: Pow! Next scene, Sid isn’t smiling. More laughter.
But there’s redemption in “The Descendants,” too. On another island, in pursuit of Scott Speer, Matt can’t sleep, Sid can’t sleep, and they have a midnight talk in the living room. Sid insists he’s smarter than Matt realizes. “You are about a hundred miles from smart,” Matt answers. But as the talk deepens, we learn, with Matt, that Sid’s father recently died. At first, Sid says this with a shrug that attempts nonchalance. Then he owns up. “November 24th,” he says. “Drunk driver. Actually, both drivers were drunk.” Up to this point, Sid has been a picked-upon figure, comic relief, yet he’s never used his own recent tragedy as a means to sympathy, or as a kind of justification for boorish behavior (“Hey, my own dad died, too!”), or as a way to muscle in on the Kings’ tragedy. He allows their tragedy to be itself. He may not be smart, but he’s something.
So is Scott. In the hospital room, he lambastes his son-in-law for his stinginess. (In an earlier scene, Matt, in voiceover, mentions that he, like his father, never spent what he didn’t make himself. “Give your children enough to do something,” he says, “but not enough to do nothing.”) Scott thinks if Matt had just bought Liz a better boat, she’d be alive. He’s angry about it. He calls Matt names, and calls Liz a faithful, devoted wife who deserved more, and for a moment Matt rises up, about to shatter his father-in-law’s illusions. The he calms down and says, “Yes, she deserved more,” and leads the kids out into the hallway, where Sid says, “That guy is such a prick! Was he always like that?” Even as Matt admits as much, he sees, and we see, through the door, Scott, burdened with a wife with Alzheimer’s, saying good-bye forever to his beloved daughter. A prick, yes, but a loving man who is losing everything. We all have that which humanizes us.
Does Brian Speer? That’s the question for most of the movie. Liz, in love, wanted to leave Matt for Brian. Is he the “more” she deserved?
Information comes in pieces. Matt discovers Brian is renting a cottage from one of his cousins. Then he discovers Matt has a wife, Julie (Judy Greer), and two boys. Then he discovers that when the sale on the undeveloped land goes through, Brian, brother-in-law to the Hawaiian developer, will make millions selling it for him.
Is that why Brian was sleeping with Liz? To get close to Matt and his deal?
Matt doesn’t find out until he gets close to Brian, on the cottage porch, where he tells him, “Elizabeth is dying. Oh yeah: Fuck you.”
Inside, they have this nice exchange:
Brian: It just happened.
Matt: Nothing just happens.
Brian: Everything just happens.
He wasn’t using her to get to Matt. But did he love her? When Matt asks him directly, Brian hesitates; and in that hesitation Matt has his answer. Brian was never going to leave his wife and family for Liz. He was just fucking her. It’s an answer 100 times sadder than if he’d broken down and cried. It speaks to Liz’s self-delusion and loneliness. Later, when Matt agrees with Scott that Liz deserved more, he means not just more than himself but more than Brian Speer.
The news also allows Matt to find it in himself forgive Liz.
Three times during the movie he speaks to her comatose figure . The first time it’s practical and family-related. “Please, Liz, just wake up,” he says, his hands full with girls he can’t control. “I’m ready to be a real husband and father.”
The second time, after he finds out about the affair, he lets loose his anger. “Who are you?” he shouts. “The only thing I know for sure is you’re a goddamned liar!”
The final time, after this bargaining and anger (mixed with denial and depression), we get acceptance. We get forgiveness and love. He kisses her parched lips. “Good-bye Elizabeth,” he says. “My love, my friend, my pain, my joy. Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye.”
We think that’s the ending—and it would be a good ending—but we continue on to a scene where Matt and his two girls silently release Elizabeth’s ashes into a Hawaiian bay, possibly where the accident occurred, then place leis on the water, which we see from below.
We think that’s the ending—and it would’ve been a good ending—but we get another scene. Scottie’s on the couch watching “March of the Penguins,” narrated by Morgan Freeman. Matt joins her with two bowls of ice cream, strawberry and mocha chip. They share a blanket. Is it the same blanket Liz used in the hospital? Alex joins them, and, without smiles, with eyes fixed on the TV, all three share bowls of ice cream and the blanket. Earlier in the movie, Matt compared a family to a Hawaiian archipelago: connected, but separate, and forever drifting apart. Here, for an ordinary moment anyway, we see them together. We think that’s the ending, and it is, and it’s a good ending.
What I’ve relayed isn’t exactly funny but the movie is. The script helps. The character of Sid helps. The character of Scottie, creating her “sand boobs” helps. George Clooney helps. A bit too much? At times, he plays it a bit “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”—as in this scene where he first spots Brian’s cottage:
Shailene Woodley, who isn’t funny, is a revelation. There’s not a false note in her performance. Is there buzz for a supporting actress nom? One hopes.
As for the land deal? Matt, as sole trustee, ultimately nixes it, screwing over Brian Speer, but one wonders if it’s a necessary subplot. You could cut out the whole thing and the main storyline wouldn’t change. At the same time, you’d lose something ineffable. Part of it is Hawaiian history, as I said, and part of it is the movie’s title. But it’s more. Yes, these are the descendants, this King and his two girls, and all of their cousins; and they’ve been entrusted with this great wealth; and the question is what they do with it. Most of us aren’t going to come into millions, like the Kings, but the dynamic, the dilemma, the perspective, still resonates, because it’s universal. All of us are descendants. All of us are entrusted with this great wealth—the wealth of the world. And the question is what we do with it.
Movie Review: Hugo (2011)
WARNING: CLANDESTINE SPOILERS
For most of its 50-year history, 3-D movies have been famous, or infamous, for propelling cinematic objects at its audience. Martin Scorsese turns this idea on its head. He begins “Hugo,” his first 3-D movie, as well as his first children’s movie, by propelling his audience at cinematic objects.
We begin with an extended shot inside of the Montparnasse train station in the 14th arrondissement of Paris in 1931. It’s crowded, as train stations are, but the camera keeps moving through hordes of people getting on and off the train. If the tendency in a traditional 3-D movie is to duck out of the way of thrown objects, the tendency here is to bob and weave through the crowd. It puts us in the scene. It feels like magic.
Magic is key to “Hugo” and—Scorsese would argue—to cinema. Maybe we don’t always feel it now. Maybe we’re all a little too jaded in the 21st century with our iPhones and iPads. So Scorsese takes us back to a time when we didn’t need 3-D technology to flinch away from something onscreen—we did it anyway, in 1895, with the black-and-white, 48-second film “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” by the Lumiere Brothers. He reminds us that movies were not only magic but created by magicians; that books were once precious, and thus magic when in your hands; and that being whole in body and spirit after the Great War and during the Great Depression was so rare it was a kind of magic, too.
(Remember that train arrival, by the way. It returns.)
“Hugo,” I should mention at the outset, is completely charming, hugely entertaining, and genuinely educational. Almost everyone who sees it will be educated. Even I, at 48, was educated.
The title character, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), is a 10-year-old orphan who lives inside the clockwork at the Montparnasse train station. He life is both dodgy and an adventure: He steals to eat, steals equipment to fix the clocks, and is forever on the run from the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his growling Doberman Pinscher. We can’t help but wonder how he got there. And why he stays there.
From behind the clocks at the station, he peers, generally out the number “4,” at the goings-on of the station: the attempts of Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) to woo Madame Emille (Frances de la Tour); the attempts of the Station Inspector, with his squeaky metal leg, to merely speak to Lisette, the flower girl (Emily Mortimer), or to capture another urchin and send him off to the orphanage. He sees the monumental Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee) sitting inside his book shop and the quiet Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) dozing in front of his toy/repair shop with a tool nearby. Which is when he makes his move.
Bad move. Méliès was merely laying a trap for him, this boy, this THIEF, who had already stolen half of Méliès’ tool collection. He demands that he empty his pockets. But Hugo’s pockets merely contain bits and pieces: flotsam. Plus a notebook with words and diagrams and drawings. When Méliès sees it he gasps in recognition before turning even frostier. Hugo pleads with him to give it back but the next day Méliès shows up with ashes wrapped in a handkerchief.
The notebook, which isn’t really destroyed, is one of the few mementoes Hugo has of his father (Jude Law), a clock keeper and repairman. In a brief flashback, we see the father buy an automaton from a museum and attempt to fix it—to bring it back to life. Then he dies in a sudden fire and Hugo is adopted by his drunk Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone); he is taken to the Montparnasse station and put to work. Then Claude, too, disappears. (He drowns, we find out later, in the Seine.) But Hugo keeps working. He keeps all the clocks going so no one will investigate, find him alone, and put him in an orphanage. You could say he’s a boy trapped in time.
After the scene with the ashes, Hugo’s spirit is revived by Méliès’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), another orphan, but a happy one with a home. She’s a precocious lover of books and words (“clan-des-tine”), who talks up fantasy worlds such as Oz, Neverland, and Treasure Island. But she wants an adventure of her own and she sees Hugo as the key. One day he offers her one: He takes her to the movies. Specifically, he sneaks her into the movies.
Isabelle: We could get into trouble...
Hugo: That’s how you know it’s an adventure.
Before they’re tossed out, they see Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock tower in “Safety Last,” an indelible cinematic image, and one Hugo will repeat before the movie is over. Afterwards, she tells him Papa Georges doesn’t allow her to go to movies, though she’s not sure why, and he tells her how his father loved movies, and once saw a film where a rocketship went right into the eye of the moon. The father said it was like seeing his dreams in the middle of the day.
Their adventure, and friendship, deepens, and he show her where he lives. “I feel like Jean Val Jean,” she says, of the steamy metal works, where, behind the scenes, Hugo has been attempting to do what his father couldn’t: fix, or bring to life, the automaton. He believes if he fixes it, he will receive a message from his father. One thing stands in his way: a keyhole in the shape of a heart.
Somehow Isabelle has that key.
The automaton is poised to write, and, wound up, that’s what it does. Unfortunately what it writes is gobbledygook: a “c,” a “4,” an “r.” When it stops, it’s Hugo who breaks down. He cries and confesses that in his heart he thought if he fixed the automaton his father would come back to life.
Which is when the automaton begins writing again, faster and faster, and it becomes apparent that it’s not writing at all. It’s, as Hugo says, drawring. What does it drawr? A rocketship in the eye of the moon.
This does seem like a message from Hugo’s father. But at the last instant, the automaton adds a final touch—a name: Georges Méliès.
I assume a few people in the audience will know the answer to this mystery. They’ll know that Georges Méliès, a former magician, was an early innovator of cinema who created hundreds of films in the 1900s and 1910s, including “Le voyage dans la lune,” with the rocketship in the eye of the moon. He also created the automaton. Those who don’t know his cinematic background will enjoy uncovering the mystery along with Hugo and Isabelle, who are schooled by Prof. Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), an early film historian, and all three will attempt to reunite the volatile Méliès with his past—to fix him, in Hugo’s words—all the while outrunning and outsmarting the Station Inspector and his Doberman Pinscher.
That’s basically the rest of the movie and you can guess how it goes. “Happy endings only happen in the movies,” Hugo says earlier. And he’s right. At least here.
I could go on. The art and set direction of “Hugo” are incredible—those great puffs of steam behind the works—and the acting is wonderful: from big people with small roles to small people with big roles. Chloë Grace Moretz makes anew the smart girl with the precocious vocabulary, and Asa Butterfield, with his intense blue eyes, wears pain the way other actors wear a scarf. You feel, even in happy moments, it never quite leaves him. Sacha Baron Cohen, meanwhile, gives us a villain who is actually sympathetic (and still comic), while Michael Stuhlbarg brings his innate gentleness, previously cloaked in a schlemiel (“A Serious Man”) and a gangster (HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”), to a true gentle man.
Even the source material is rich. “Hugo” is based upon the 2007 children’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick. Initially I wondered if all the movie history was in the book, or if Scorsese, with his love of film and film history, added it. But it’s not only in the book, it's in the author. Brian Selznick, born in 1966, is first cousin twice removed to David O. Selznick, the producer of “Gone with the Wind.”
All of which is fascinating. But what I want to talk about is Hugo’s dream.
After the above scene with Isabelle and the automaton, Hugo sees Isabelle’s heart-shaped key on the train tracks in the station. He looks up, he looks down, then leaps onto the tracks. He fingers the key. He sees it as the answer. But at that moment a train is arriving and Hugo, lost in thought, doesn’t see it coming until it’s too late, until the train leaps the tracks and careens through the station and bursts through a wall and falls onto the ground outside, a story below. Which is when Hugo wakes up.
As he’s feeling himself to make sure he’s all there, he begins to change. His flesh becomes metal, and his torso becomes ribs of metal, and his face turns into the calm, expressionless (but somehow very expressive) face of the automaton. Which is when he wakes up again. A dream within a dream.
Each dream takes less than a minute but initially I felt a little cheated—as I often do with dreams in movies. But I gave this one a pass. I remembered the line “Movies are like dreams in the middle of the day” and thought this scene was building on that theme.
It was. And more.
Later in the film, at its climax, Hugo is taking the automaton to Georges Méliès but is finally caught by the Station Inspector; and in their struggle, the automaton goes flying in the air and lands on the train tracks... just as a train is coming. As the automaton is the key to everything, Hugo leaps onto the tracks to save it. But this is where his courage leaves him. He embraces the automaton but can’t move. He’s as frozen as the automaton. It’s up to the Station Inspector, acting as deus ex machina, the redemptive engine of himself, to pull both boy and robot to safety.
You think back to the dreams: The key is on the tracks; the boy and automaton are one.
But there’s more. Remember the Lumiere Brothers’ “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” which Hugo and Isabelle see while researching early film history? The people cowering from the oncoming train on the movie screen? That’s like this scene. That’s like his dream. The train on the screen leaps into Hugo’s dreams and reality.
But it wasn’t until I got home and researched the Gare Montparnasse that I found the true coup de grace. Because in 1895, the same year as “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” a train did jump the tracks at the Gare Montparnasse; and it did careen through the station and burst through a wall and fall onto the ground outside, a story below. There’s a famous photograph showing that fallen train.
This is deep resonance. We get echoes upon echoes, involving dreams, history, film, and film history. The movie keeps doing this, too: the ashes of Hugo’s notebook; the ashes his father came to; the ashes Méliès’ early films were reduced to. On and on. The movie resonates so much it has a beat, a pulse. It’s alive.
Movie Review: Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
Saying “Transformers 3” isn’t as bad as “Transformers 2” is like saying the cold that put you in bed for a week wasn’t as bad as the pneumonia that put you in bed for a month. You still wouldn’t want to wish either on a friend.
“Transformers” movies have dominated the box office for four years now. The first, in 2007, grossed $319 million domestic and $709 worldwide. The second grossed $402 million domestic and $836 worldwide. This one grossed $369 million domestic and $1.12 billion worldwide. It’s hard for me to type sadder numbers.
Let’s step back a moment. What are we talking about with these movies? What are they about?
They’re about mechanical creatures, some giant, some small, who can transform into any mechanical thing on Earth: semi-truck, flat-screen TV, whatever. The good ones (Autobots) want to protect Earth; the bad ones (Decepticons) want to take it over. A few people, led by everyman Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf), attempt to help the Autobots.
In each movie, Witwicky has an insanely hot girlfriend: Megan Fox in the first two movies, supermodel Rose Huntington-Whiteley in this one. It’s the unlikeliest of matches, particularly if like lightning it strikes twice, but then none of the movie is logical. The hot women are there to draw more of the teen-boy crowd, or more of the boy-man crowd, who like to look at giant robots battling and pretty women pouting. In this one, Carla (Huntington-Whiteley) first shows up, filmed from behind, wearing panties and a man’s dress shirt like in that 1980s Brut cologne commercial. (“Honey, I was just thinking about you.”) Director Michael Bay gets even less subtle in a scene where Witwicky meets Carla’s boss, Dylan Gould (Patrick Dempsey), a rich, handsome somethingorother, who will become the movie’s chief villain, in league with the Decepticons. Dylan is showing off one of his vintage automobiles to Witwicky and commenting upon its curves, which he calls sensual. In a typical scene, Dylan would look Carla up and down as he did this. That would be the asshole thing to do. Here Bay does it himself. While Dylan talks, Bay’s camera pans up Huntington-Whiteley’s body. Making Bay the asshole? Making the audience the asshole? I wish it were a comment on our loutishness but it’s just another example of our loutishness—or Bay’s. Why not an up-the-skirt shot while he’s at it? Or is he saving that for “Transformers 4”?
The giant robots are from a distant planet in a distant time, but on Earth, they’ve adopted well to not only 20th and 21st century technology (cars; flat-screen TVs) but 20th and 21st century pop culture. Some speak with British accents, some with Scottish brogues, some trash talk American-style. They know “Star Trek,” “We are Family” and “Missed it by that much.” The comic relief ones anyway. The main transformer, Optimus Prime, has a bland, stentorian voice, pronouncing the blandest of sentiments (“It is I, Optimus Prime!”) as if he were the hero of a 1950s television show, or, more to the point, a voice a kid might imagine when playing with his toys.
Because that’s what these things are: toys. Before he became a right-wing nutjob, Michael Medved wrote a book called “The Golden Turkey Awards,” in which he gave out awards, Golden Turkeys, to the worst of the worst in movie history—Worst actor, Richard Burton, for example—but my favorite Golden Turkey was for worst credit line. In an early, silent version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” we got this credit line: “Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.” To which Medved wondered: Additional dialogue? To Shakespeare?
I thought of this during one of “TF3”’s opening credits: “In association with Hasbro.” Hasbro. Creator of Mr. Potato Head and the Easy-Bake Oven. We’re playing with toys here. No, not even. We’re watching others, rich folks, play with toys. We’re paying money to watch rich folks create stories out of 30-year-old toys. We’ve spent nearly $3 billion on this, just in theaters, thus far.
So what’s the plot of this one? Apparently the Prime before Optimus, Sentinel Prime (voice: Leonard Nimoy), in the last days of the Autobot-Decepticon War, attempted to escape with a device that might’ve won the day for the Autobots. But he was shot down, drifted in space for a while, then crashlanded on our moon circa 1958. Just in time for the space race.
Actually, he was the reason for the space race. That’s why JFK, sneaky bastard, gave his “We choose to go to the moon in this decade” speech. We needed to beat the Russians there so Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (sneaky bastards) could explore that alien space ship and get what they could. So we did. So they did.
That’s our history-skewing backdrop. Eventually we get to Sam Witwicky, the everyman protagonist nobody cares about. He’s living in a beautiful well-lit apartment in D.C. with a supermodel girlfriend and a couple of small, comic-relief Autobots, but he’s got nothing but complaints. Three months out of college and he can’t find a job. Carla teases him about this. His comic-relief parents, when they show up, tease him about this. He doesn’t think it’s funny. “I saved the world twice and I can’t even get a job!” he says. He’s got a medal from Pres. Obama (handed to him dismissively), but no one is impressed. It’s all still top secret. Plus he can’t blame his inability to find work on the Great Recession since the “Transformers” movies are all about escapism and the Great Recession is exactly what we’re trying to escape. Might as well have Fred Astaire dance in hobo rags during the Great Depression. (“Easter Parade” was in ’48.)
Here’s a suggestion: Sam might want to temper his job-interview personality. Basically he brings his saving-the-world intensity to the job interview. He puffs up, talks big, offers nothing. It might help, too, if he could remember the name of the job interviewer. But who can blame him, right? It’s a Japanese name and those Japanese names sure are weird and funny.
Mostly, though, Sam just wants to matter again.
Hey, why doesn’t he join the military? Doesn’t he see himself a soldier? Isn’t the film’s most memorable line something Charlotte Mearing (Francis McDormand), Director of National Intelligence, tells him to get rid of him? Doesn’t she say, “You are not a soldier. You are a messenger. You've always been a messenger”? So why not show her, damnit, and become a soldier for real?
Because it would upset the balance of the movie. Everyone is a type here. Mearing’s a bureaucrat (and wrong), the soldiers are soldiers (and move heroically in slow motion), and Witwicky is the intense everyman with the hot, hot girlfriend who gets mixed up in this shit. He can’t go beyond the bounds of his narrow character any more than Optimus Prime can sing like the Pointer Sisters.
Meanwhile, an investigation at Chernobyl turns up a slithery Decepticon named Shockwave (voice: Frank Welker), which leads to the uncovering of the NASA cover-up, and the Chernobyl cover-up (also caused by Transformers), and a demand from Optimus Prime to retrieve both Sentinel Prime and the advanced Autobot technology from the moon.
Except this is all a plot by an injured Megatron (voice: Hugo Weaving), hanging out at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro, to regain power. From this we get betrayals human (Dylan Gould) and Autobot (Sentinel Prime). Sentinel Prime then addresses the U.N., demanding that all remaining Autobots (but not Decepticons) leave Earth. Within 24 hours, Congress, cowardly as ever, succumbs to these demands and the Autobots are forced to leave. Their ship is then shot down by the Decepticons, leaving a trail of smoke reminiscent of the Challenger disaster. At which point, the Decepticons take over the world, or at least Chicago, and set up the advanced Autobot technology in order to transport their dead planet, Cybertron, into our solar system. But against all odds, Sam Witwicky and a rag-tag team of mercenaries go in, along with Special Forces, along with, eventually, the Autobots—who were never killed, who faked the launch—and eventually the good guys, who stand for freedom, beat the bad guys, who stand for tyranny, and Sam and Carla run to each other and kiss. It’s up to Optimus Prime to deliver the movie’s last thrilling lines:
In any war, there are calms between the storms. There will be days when we lose faith, days when our allies turn against us. But the day will never come that we forsake this planet and its people.
It’s toys. Sam is the boy playing with his Transformers and G.I. Joes and army men. The buildings are Legos. Carla is his sister’s Barbie. The bureaucrats are whatever: Troll dolls. And Sam makes them all fight and makes the buildings topple. He provides sound effects. Pkschuh! He provides the dialogue. Which explains a lot.
Except it’s not so innocent. There’s a sheen of adult (right-wing?) paranoia and loutishness on top of this childplay.
Question: Who do we trust in these movies? What groups or institutions?
Parents? They’re daft and comic relief.
Government? Bureaucrats are always wrong.
The U.N.? It allows villains to speak there.
Congress? It’s weak, betrays friends, and capitulates on a dime.
Presidents? JFK was a liar and Obama was dismissive.
The Apollo program? It began as a lie and it ended as a lie. Buzz Aldrin even shows up to lie to us some more. Saddest guest appearance ever.
No, it’s just one group we can trust: Soldiers. That’s it. Army men. They’re the only ones. You can even trust them with your hot, model girlfriend and they won’t look at her twice. They’re that trustworthy.
This is a worldview so infantile and paranoid it borders on the psychotic.
“Star Wars” was infantile (good vs. evil, etc.) but it was also expansive. It opened up a universe to Luke Skywalker and us. You found friends everywhere. And the force was with you.
“Transformers” is infantile but shuttered. Everyone you meet is a jerk, an ass, an idiot or in league with your enemies. You trust army men and Optimus Prime and that’s it. Because no one is with you.
And somehow this thing has grossed $3 billion worldwide.
“We were once a peaceful race of intelligent mechanical beings,” Optimus Prime tells us at the beginning of “Transformers 3.” “But then came the war.”
We were once a race of semi-intelligent human beings, I thought at the end of “Transformers 3.” But then ... But then ...
Movie Review: J. Edgar (2011)
WARNING: THE FBI ALWAYS GETS ITS SPOILERS
Biopics are tough. Take a life that has no discernible story arc, create one, and stuff it into two hours of movie time. Fun.
“J. Edgar,” written by Dustin Lance Black and directed by Clint Eastwood, doesn’t do a poor job of it, but it does a familiar job of it. We get the famous figure at the end of his life reflecting on the life. As in “Chaplin,” the intermediary is the biographer, or, in J. Edgar’s case, the biographers. Black also adds a twist at the end but I wish it were more of a twist. I wish it reflected on the entire life, the entire memoir, rather than a small portion of it.
First, let me say I was fascinated by the early stuff: Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s home being bombed by anarchists in 1919 and the “Palmer Raids” in response, and the general fear of Bolsheviks and anarchists along with the deportation not only of foreigners but of U.S. citizens like Emma Goldman (Jessica Hecht). It’s a time period we don’t see much in the movies, yet it felt familiar to me. It’s the same arguments, the same overreactions, we’ve had since 9/11. You get the feeling that what Hoover tells us in voiceover at the end of the movie—“A society unwilling to learn from the past is doomed; we must never forget our history”—is precisely what Clint Eastwood is telling his audience. Learn you history, punks.
In 1919, J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a prim, proper, legal functionary within the Bureau of Investigation, who, as he survives the various scandals of the Harding-era Justice Department, including the Palmer Raids, rises to power. In 1921, he is appointed deputy head of the Bureau. In 1924, he becomes its acting director. Finally, under Calvin Coolidge, he becomes its director—the sixth in the Bureau’s short history. (It was created in 1908.)
There’s a good, paranoid sense we get from DiCaprio’s Hoover. He assumes he’ll be bounced from his post at any minute—as easily as he bounces others—and thus scrambles to hold onto power. Should this have been underlined more? This fear of others doing to you what you do to others? The Golden Rule turned on its head? Hoover worried about being fired on a whim because he fired others on a whim. He knew the value of loyalty because he was disloyal. He sought the awful secrets of others because he knew the awful power of his own secrets. He was paranoid and combative because he assumed the world would act as unscrupulously as he did, which is why, in the end, he beat it. Because the world wasn’t as unscrupulous as he was. He had it at an advantage.
And didn’t. He was a closet case, trapped in homophobic times (OK, more homophobic times), without even a sympathetic family to fall back on. When he objects, later in the film, to having to dance with actresses like Ginger Rogers and Anita Colby, his mother (Judi Dench) reminds him of a neighborhood boy, “a daffodil boy,” she calls him, who killed himself after his secret came out. “Edgar,” she says, “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil son. Now I’ll teach you to dance.” It’s a sad, effective scene.
Hoover does have a long-time companion, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), a law school graduate who quickly becomes the No. 2 man at the FBI, even though he mostly helps Hoover, a) keep an even keel, and, b) with his clothes. There’s an odd moment at Julius Garfinkel & Co., a D.C. department store. The store’s clerks inform Hoover his credit is no good since someone named John Hoover has been bouncing checks, leaving the Director of the Bureau of Investigation sputtering that he is himself and not someone else. Funny stuff. At which point Clyde vouches for him and a new line of credit is established. Giving up both “John” and “Johnnie,” he signs his name, momentously, J. Edgar Hoover. Ah! The legend being born. Unfortunately, the careful viewer will have noticed, in an earlier scene, a desk nameplate already reading “J. Edgar Hoover.” But Eastwood needs to film his momentous moments.
From there, it’s battling both gangsters and Hollywood’s glorification of gangsters. Hoover turns James Cagney, the charismatic bad guy of “The Public Enemy” in 1931, into the charismatic good guy of 1935’s “G-Men.” He pushes for labs, and forensic science, and the creation of a national database of fingerprints. He federalizes the bureau and lobbies Congress to make kidnapping a federal offense so he can involve the bureau in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. He sells his agency—putting “Junior G-Man” badges in Post Toasties cereal and pushing for “Junior G-Men” comic books—while demoting anyone who steals his spotlight, such as Melvin Purvis, one of his best agents. Was this the first governmental mass-media campaigns in the U.S.? Was it propaganda? One gets the feeling an entire movie could be made about this issue alone. One wants a first-rate documentarian to take a stab at J. Edgar Hoover’s century.
Eastwood’s stab feels ... weak and misdirected. We’re watching two storylines here: The aged Hoover in the 1960s, on a mission to discredit Martin Luther King, Jr., detailing his own early history as justification. As the story he’s telling moves from the 1920s to the 1930s, so 1960s Hoover moves through various events of that tumultuous decade: JFK assassination, MLK Nobel Prize acceptance, Nixon inauguration. We assume the two stories will meet—we’ll get the 1940s and ‘50s—but the past, oddly, never gets out of the 1930s. We hear nothing about WWII, the creation of the CIA, and the rise and fall of McCarthyism. That’s a big gap. That’s too much history, dismissed.
DiCaprio, who does a good job, is still an odd choice. Over the years, Hoover has been played by Broderick Crawford, Ernest Borgnine, Vincent Gardenia, Ned Beatty and Bob Hoskins, actors with weight and heft and bulldog faces. Even a 1987 TV biopic, which covered Hoover’s early years as “J. Edgar” does, cast Treat Williams, who is dark and bulldogish, in the role. DiCaprio ultimately seems too light and pretty for the role.
And the point of it all? Clyde Tolson, whose old-age makeup is even worse than Hoover’s, tells his long-time companion that parts of the history he’s been dictating are bullshit. Hoover claims to have captured various gangsters but didn’t. He claims to have arrested Bruno Hauptman but didn’t. His story is false. This is the twist from Dustin Lance Black that I liked, and would’ve liked more if the falsehoods had been spread throughout Hoover’s reminiscences rather than sprinkled into a brief period in the mid-1930s. But one understands why they did it this way. Making the whole thing a lie would’ve risked alienating the audience. Moviegoers may want to see lies but not those kinds of lies. They want to see fiction but don’t want to be told they’re seeing fiction. That would just ruin the experience.
Even so, imagine the lesson. Done right, it could have reminded the audience to be wary of storytellers—not just Hoover telling his story but Eastwood telling Hoover’s. Truth, after all, is one of the first things to go in a Hollywood biopic. “J. Edgar” may be a movie about an unreliable narrator, but the movies themselves, from “Birth of a Nation” to “JFK,” are our greatest unreliable narrator.
Movie Review: Margin Call (2011)
WARNING: There are three ways to review a movie: Be first, be smarter, or use SPOILERS.
Let’s talk irony.
“Margin Call” is about the immoral (or at least amoral) actions of a group of executives at a powerful, Goldman-Sachs-like New York investment bank, who realize, during a 36-hour period circa 2008, that if stock market trends continue the losses on their books will be greater than the entire value of their 107-year-old company. So during several hushed, middle-of-the-night meetings they must decide what to do.
The employee who created the program that reveals this gap is risk management executive Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), but—and here’s the first irony—he was fired, along with 80 percent of his floor, at the beginning of this 36-hour period. He’s been with the company 19 years, but someone taps on his door, and he’s taken to an office where two young women, HR folks, express condolences and lay out a severance package. After it’s done, they nod toward a burly security guard by the door. “This gentleman will take you to your office so you can clean out your office,” one says. Then he’s walked out the building as if he’s a common criminal.
This is the thought that scene is intended to evoke: “Awful!”
This is the thought it evoked in me: “Pikers!”
A month earlier, my domestic partner, Patricia, had been fired from Microsoft after 10 years on the job. She did good work, put in long hours, but her boss, two years ago, slowly began to squeeze her—making impossible demands, holding back on approval for projects and then blaming her for not meeting milestones—until, at her annual review this September, she was let go. That was the injury but here are the insults: 1) She received no severance package; and 2) she was escorted, not back to her office, but to HR, where she was told not to contact anyone at Microsoft except HR. Then she was escorted from the building. A week later, the personal items from her office finally arrived. She didn’t even get to box them up herself. Her personal items included an unopened 10-year anniversary gift/card she’d received from Microsoft last spring. “On your tenth anniversary, we would like to thank you for your incredible commitment to Microsoft,” the card read. It was signed: “Steve Ballmer.”
That’s the big, unintended irony of the opening scene. Hollywood thinks it’s showing us an immoral act from a soulless institution, but the soulless institutions of the world have already shown us much, much worse.
“Margin Call” is a smart, relevant, powerful film that is also curiously isolated. The terms we’re used to hearing about the global financial meltdown—“toxic asserts,” “mortgage derivatives,” “subprime mortgage loans”—are rarely enunciated. The reasons Eric Dale and 80 percent of his floor are let go at the beginning of this 36-hour period are never mentioned. Things just happen. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the global financial meltdown began here, with this 107-year-old investment bank, rather than with policy decisions dating back to at least 1999 and probably earlier.
The movie is so compact in terms of time and place that I thought it was based upon a play: off-Broadway, I imagined, fall 2009. It’s actually an original screenplay by first-time director J.C. Chandor, who, at times, feels like he’s channeling David Mamet with his blunt, vague dialogue. (First words: “Is that them? ... Are they going to do it right here?”) His characters remind me of characters from a play, too. Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) immediately comes off slick and fierce but that doesn’t mean he’s disingenuous or doesn’t have a moral code of his own. Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) is appalled by what he’s asked to do but that doesn’t mean he can’t rally the troops to do that very thing.
It’s a simple story. Eric Dale is fired, Will Emerson commiserates in his way (without outward sympathy), while Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who worked under Dale, offers him an awkward, heartfelt farewell by the elevator. At the last instant, probably because of this show of heart, Dale gives Sullivan a zip drive. “I was working on something but they didn’t let me finish it,” he says. As the elevator doors close, he adds, “Be careful.”
That night, after his regular work, and while his colleagues are decompressing at a Manhattan bar, he begins to fiddle with the model. He punches in numbers. What they reveal is so awful he phones his friend, Seth (Penn Badgley), to bring in their new boss, Will, who brings in his boss, Sam Rogers, who alerts executives Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) and Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), the woman responsible for Eric Dale being fired in the first place. When they get the news, they call in the bank’s CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who arrives, like a deus ex machina, in a helicopter that lands on the roof. But he’s not a deus ex machina. “The cavalry has arrived,” one man says. But he’s not the cavalry, either.
Chandor is good with moods: the hushed, ominous wait at 2 a.m., which Tuld cuts through with his 3 a.m. arrival and his no-bullshit questions and his ultimate decision to kill rather than be killed, to SURVIVE, as he says, which leads to 4 or 5 a.m. bleariness as you wait out the dawn, and the day, and the only questions that remain: Will we do this thing? Can we do this thing? Eric Dale is searched for (in Brooklyn), Jared Cohen tries to pry Will away from Sam (and fails), and different people have quiet conversations in which philosophies are revealed; but ultimately we’re just waiting to see if the company can survive, and, if it can, what this means.
It’s a Goldman Sachs moment—knowingly selling toxic assets—and Sam rallies the troops to do this, just as he rallied the troops after the mass layoffs the day before. What he said about their fired colleagues on day one, in fact, could apply to the toxic assets at the end of day two: “Now they’re gone. They’re not to be thought of again ... You are all survivors.”
It’s merciless but true. The company takes what would’ve killed it and lets it loose in the economic ecosystem, where, even in diluted form, it will kill others. Maybe you.
As they do this, they affix blame elsewhere. Here’s John Tuld to Sam:
You and I can't control it, or stop it, or even slow it, or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot money if we get it right and we get left by the side of the road if we get it wrong.
Here’s Will Emerson to Seth on the drive back from Brooklyn:
The only reason that [most people] get to continue living like kings is cause we got our fingers on the scales in their favor. I take my hand off and then the whole world gets really fuckin’ fair really fuckin’ quickly and nobody actually wants that. They say they do but they don’t. They want what we have to give them but they also want to, you know, play innocent and pretend they have know idea where it came from. Well, that’s more hypocrisy than I'm willing to swallow. So fuck ’em. Fuck normal people.
Others can’t affix blame elsewhere. At the end of the day, Sam, the good soldier, looks weaker from the purging and tells Tuld he wants out. He says he’s tired of the game. He says he should’ve gone into ditch digging. How far have we fallen when Kevin Spacey plays our moral exemplar?
Ditch digging, ironically, is where we last see him: digging a hole in the front yard of the home he used to share with his ex-wife, to bury their old dog, who died of a tumor as Sam was rallying the troops. It’s one of the few moments in the movie where we’re not in a corporate high-rise so it feels a bit out of place. It’s dirt and grass rather than steel and glass. And yet it feels exactly right. It feels like the last few years. Something beloved is being buried in a place where we no longer live.