erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2011 posts

Tuesday August 02, 2011

Movie Review: Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

WARNING: SPOILERS

During the climactic battle sequence in “Cowboys & Aliens,” in which Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) leads a rag-tag team of Indians and outlaws in an attack on an alien spaceship ensconced in the desert, while Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) and Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), having freed the town captives within, crawl deeper into the spaceship to blow it up, I was thinking the following:

Hey, there are nine lights on this side of the theater while the other side has only eight. Is that right? Yep, only eight. Where’s the missing one? Five before the exit sign on each side. That’s not it. But four after the exit sign here and only three there. And there it is. The top light is out. They should fix that.

Not a good sign.

The movie opens in a scabby section of the American Southwest, pans right, and, boom, up pops Lonergan. Movie poster for "Cowboys & Aliens" (2011)He’s in a panic and in pain. He reaches for his right side, where he’s bleeding, when he notices the high-tech metal bracelet on his left wrist. He claws at it, uses a rock to try to bash it off. Captive animals, tagged and released into the wild, come to mind.

Then three grubby men ride into view, take him for an escaped outlaw, and get ready to kill him for the bounty. “It’s not your lucky day, stranger,” the clan leader says. That “stranger” part is correct, since Lonergan doesn’t even know his own name, but the rest? The reverse. Lonergan attacks and kills all three, takes their boots, belts and guns, and heads off into the nearby town of Absolution to fix himself up.

Not a bad open, I thought. A classic western stranger. A new “man with no name.” Plus Daniel Craig is cool and intense in the usual Daniel Craig way.

In Absolution, he keeps running into interesting characters played by interesting character actors: Meacham (Clancy Brown), the town preacher, and moral authority of the film; Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano) the spoiled son of Woodrow, who likes to shoot up the town; Doc (Sam Rockwell), the town saloonkeeper and everyman, who doesn’t know how to shoot a gun and thus can’t defend himself or his Mexican wife; and Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine), sighing, and trying to keep the peace.

I was even beginning to enjoy myself. I’d always liked the whole “cowboys and aliens” concept. As soon as I heard it, I thought: Of course. If aliens land, why would they only land in the 20th century? Why couldn’t they land earlier when we were truly, hopelessly outmatched? Pit them against grubby men with Colt revolvers. Combine the classic “stranger” narratives of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The movie, I knew, had a low Rotten Tomatoes score, 44%, but, in the darkened theater, I was beginning to think the critics were wrong.

Then the movie began to go wrong.

At one point, Meacham says to Jake, “I’ve seen good men do bad things and bad men do good things,” which is a bit too all-encompassing for the circumstances. It’s the movie announcing its theme as subtly as a fifth grader writing a theme paper.

There’s a snatch of dialogue between Doc and his wife that suggests an unnecessary, unwelcome backstory. These begin to multiply. Col. Dolarhyde spoils one son but ignores the other, Nate Colorado (Adam Beach), an Indian orphan from a long-ago attack whom he’s raised without love or attention. Sheriff Taggart has a grandson who keeps tagging along and taking up valuable screen time. Doc is taught to shoot a gun.

Plus Jake is not only not “a man with no name” but a man with several pasts. He’s an outlaw who led a gang that robbed gold from Dolarhyde. No, wait, he abandoned that gang for the woman he loved, a former whore. No, wait, he finally remembers the following scene. He comes home, splashes gold pieces on the kitchen table, and his wife, the former whore, objects.

She: You gotta take it back.
He: Like hell I will.
She: That’s blood money!
He: That’s gonna get us what we need!

Of all the scenes to remember, he has to remember the one with such lousy dialogue.

After aliens attack and lasso townsfolk from their spaceships, and Jake downs one such ship with the high-tech gadget on his wrist—he and his wife were taken before, we find out; he escaped—a posse is formed to track the wounded alien. Dolarhyde wants his son back, Doc his wife, the boy his grandfather, so they do what they know, form a posse, even as they’re unsure what they’re tracking. Is it a demon? Is God punishing them? They have no clue what’s going on but they act as if they’re familiar with the tropes of the genres. The whole alienness of the situation should’ve increased tenfold. They should’ve gotten on their knees and prayed to God. They should’ve clung to Meacham, the preacher, and begged for understanding.

Is all the good dialogue in the movie Meacham’s? As they ride along, slowly, Doc complains about his life as if he were a twentysomething liberal arts grad, and suggests, from the evidence, that there’s either no God or one who doesn’t care about him. Meacham responds: “You’ve got to earn His presence; you’ve got to recognize it; then you’ve got to act on it.” Wow. That’s pretty good for a preacher in the middle of a posse. So who’s the first to die? Meacham, of course. “We’re screwed now,” I thought.

Indeed. The aliens, it turns out, are merely scouts after our gold, and they’re kidnapping our people to see what it takes to kill us, all of us, but that’s not the problem with the movie. The problem with the movie is this: When deciding between doing what’s true for the characters or what furthers the clichés of the genre, the filmmakers, director Jon Favreau and his six screenwriters, always opt for the latter. They’re not interested in the perspective of their 19th-century characters; they’re only interested in the perspective of their 21st-century audience. Dolarhyde and Lonergan are assholes not because life is hard but so they can redeem themselves in the end. The town’s name is a giveaway. The theme Meacham stated earlier is a giveaway. Lonergan, always on the verge of leaving, always has to return as if it’s a surprise. Doc, like Sgt. Powell in “Die Hard,” has to shoot to kill at just the right moment. Dolarhyde has to bond with the boy; he has to come to an understanding with Nate; he has to save the Indian chief so the two, in the midst of battle, can give each other a nod of understanding.

It’s all so false and awful that the difference between the number of lights on each side of the theater suddenly seems like a fascinating area for your mind to go.

Posted at 07:52 AM on Aug 02, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Friday July 29, 2011

Movie Review: Buck (2011)

WARNING: SKITTISH SPOILERS

Of Buck Brannaman, the subject of Cindy Meehl’s documentary “Buck,” and a man who spends 40 weeks a year traveling the country giving seminars on horses, one of the talking heads in the doc says, “God had him in mind when He made a cowboy.”

Buck certainly fits some of our preconceptions. He doesn’t talk much, particularly for someone who talks for a living, and he’s got an aw-shucks manner, particularly for someone who’s often in the center ring. He ambles rather than walks. He’s married with children but spends most of his days alone and carries that solitude with him. He knows horses, and through horses, people. He does rope tricks. He drinks his coffee black. He’s named “Buck.”

Poster for the documentary "Buck" (2011)He also expands our definition of what it means to be a cowboy.

“I was watching ‘Oprah,’” he begins at one point, then pauses and manages a crooked smile. “I don’t know if I should admit to that.”

He “starts” horses, he says, he doesn’t break them. His approach is discipline without punishment, empathy without sentimentality. Horse people come to his seminars skeptical and leave stunned. Their tough love doesn’t work. Their soft love doesn’t work. But Buck gets in the ring and in five minutes their horse is following him around like a dog. He takes an unfocused horse and focuses him. He takes a skittish horse and calms him. The advice he gives goes beyond horses.

  • “Make it difficult for the horse to do the wrong thing and easy to do the right one,” he says.
  • “You can't just love on them and buy them lots of carrots. Bribery doesn't work with a horse. You'll just have a spoiled horse,” he says.
  • “When you’re dealing with a kid or an adult or a horse, treat them the way you’d like them to be, not how they are now,” he says.

He has a great, empathetic description of what a horse is allowing you to do when you ride it. On his back? By his neck? That’s where he’s attacked. So when you climb on him to ride him, he’s trusting you enough, or respecting you enough, to allow you into this vulnerable spot. Respect that.

He talks about the different kinds of feel—by which he means communication. “Everything’s a dance,” he says. “Everything you do with a horse.”

Horses can sense, I’m sure, his gentle spirit, as surely as Robert Redford, another talking head in the film, sensed it. They met when Buck was an advisor on Redford’s film “The Horse Whisperer.” Redford talks about filming a particularly difficult scene in which the film’s injured horse is supposed to go up and nuzzle the daughter, played by a young Scarlett Johansson, on cue. It’s a trick horse, a trained horse, but not a horse affiliated with Buck, and they spend all day and can’t get the shot. Then Buck suggests his horse. They get the shot in 20 minutes.

So who is this real-life horse whisperer? Someone who starts rather than breaks horses? He's someone who was almost broken himself.

“When something is scared for their life, I understand that,” he says.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw Buck some Saturday morning in 1970. He and his brother, rodeo stars who could do rope tricks blindfolded, were in a “Sugar Pops” commercial back then. And like another child star back then, Michael Jackson, Buck was controlled by, and abused by, his father. “He beat us unmercifully for not putting on a perfect performance,” Buck remembers. Buck’s mother would sometimes act as a barrier between the rage of the father and the vulnerability of her sons, but she died when Buck was young and he knew then that he was truly alone in the world. We get this story by and by. How a gym teacher in high school saw the marks on Buck’s back. How he alerted the authorities. How Buck wound up with a foster family in Montana that was raising 23 kids, and the father immediately gave him gloves and put him to work on the farm, and how that’s just what Buck needed. A purpose. The gloves were so special he didn’t even put them on when handling barb wire.

Buck Brannaman is a great subject for a documentary but “Buck” isn’t a great documentary. It’s a good documentary, a worthy documentary, a movie I’d recommend you see rather than whatever tentpole crap Hollywood is trying to erect this week, but it doesn’t feel as dense or as deep as it should. We get various scenes of Buck calming and controlling horses, but near the end we get a horse, in Chico, Calif., I believe, that can’t be calmed. It’s a spoiled horse, a mean horse, and Buck manages to work with it for a time in the pen; but when he’s away the horse attacks another cowboy, bites him in the head, draws blood, and it’s decided to put the horse down. Buck returns. He helps load the horse onto a truck. He chastises the horse’s owner. The horse’s owner talks to the camera about having to put her horse down. Then she and her horse leave.

That’s it?

Hollywood, I suppose, has conditioned us for a better ending—isn’t Buck supposed to save the day, as cowboys have been doing in movies since the silent era?—but the doc raises our expectations, too. Buck helps horses. That’s what he does. Horses with people problems. That’s what this horse is. So why is this horse beyond help? Why doesn’t he talk to us about this horse? It’s the emotional climax of the film but it’s not tied enough to the subject of the film. Meehl needed to tie that knot tighter.

And where’s his brother? We see photos of the two together, as adults, but no word from or about him.

Even so, see “Buck.” As he says about his methods: “It’ll make you better in areas that you didn’t think related to horses.” Bring the kids.

Posted at 07:10 AM on Jul 29, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Monday July 25, 2011

Movie Review: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

WARNING: SUPER-SOLDIER SPOILERS (WITH VITA RAYS!)

Steve Rogers: Why me?
Dr. Carl Erskine: “Why me?” The only question that matters.

Superhero movies used to be embarrassments, sketchy shadows of the comic books they were based upon, but slowly—in part because of CGI, in part because a generation of comic book readers landed in Hollywood—the movies actually began to improve upon the source material. Take Superman. In the comic book he put the “S” on his chest because he was Superman. Duh. In “Superman: The Movie” (1978), that thing on his chest is his Krpytonian family crest. It’s Lois Lane, after her “Can you read my mind?”-reveried first date with the dude, who thinks up “Superman”—thus saving us all the embarrassment of watching this modest man give himself that immodest name.

Like that.

Poster for "Captain America: The First Avenger" (2011)The first issue of Captain America was published in March 1941, a fertile period for superhero creation, but hardly a time when a lot of deep thought went into origin stories. Make the dude strong and get him out the door, basically. Captain America’s origin was eight pages—about seven and a half pages longer than Superman’s—but Steve Rogers was almost an afterthought in it. We get Nazi subterfuge in “peace-loving America”; then FDR introduces Army officials to the head of the FBI, J. Arthur Grover, who drives these officials to a curio shop run by an old woman—no, wait! A beautiful young woman—who takes them through a maze of doors until they find themselves in a modern laboratory, where, a caption tells us, “A side door opens...and a frail young man steps into the laboratory.” That’s our hero. Page 4. Prof. Reinstein inoculates this Army reject with “a strange seething liquid,” which turns him superstrong, which leads a Gestapo agent to kill Reinstein, which ... etc. Thus Captain America, the only super-soldier, is born.

But who is Steve Rogers and why did they choose him for this all-important experiment?

Why him?

The question that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby didn’t care about in 1941 is the question that’s central to “Captain America: the First Avenger,” written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (“The Chronicles of Narnia”) and directed by Joe Johnston. And the way they answer it is why the movie is as good as it is.

I wasn’t holding out much hope, to be honest. Johnston has directed quite a few busts (“The Rocketeer,” “Jumanji,” “Jurassic Park III,” “The Wolfman”) and Chris Evans usually plays snarky hotshots rather than stolid boy scouts like Steve Rogers. Marvel Studios, meanwhile, which started out so well with “Iron Man” and the second version of “The Hulk” in 2008, has since given us “Wolverine,” “Iron Man 2” and “Thor,” none of which was great and one of which—sorry, Logan—was downright awful.

It’s March 1942 and Steve Rogers (Evans) is trying to enlist in the Army but keeps getting rejected—four times now—for chronic ailments, like asthma, not to mention his stature. He’s the “before” part of a Charles Atlas ad: five-foot nothing and 98 pounds of weak. Ah, but he’s scrappy. At a movie theater showing newsreel footage of Nazis marching through Europe, he tries to quiet a rude dude and winds up fighting him in a back alley. Knocked down, he keeps getting up, only to be punished again. “You just don’t know when to quit, do you?” the rude dude says. As it is with American heroes. Our guys tend to have no specialized knowledge—we don’t know no kung fu, man—we’re just able to take a punch and keep coming. Think Rocky Balboa and John McClane. Think Indiana Jones and Cool Hand Luke. Steve is like that; he just doesn’t look like that. Yet.

In the midst of a double-date with his friend James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) at the World Expo ’42, he spots yet another Army recruiting station and goes for his lucky fifth. Lucky for him, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), the Silver Age renaming of Dr. Reinstein, is listening in the wings. He likes what he hears, and, over the objections of Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), OKs the skinny kid for the experimental super-soldier program.

Why Steve Rogers? Erskine is a German scientist, Jewish one assumes, who developed a prototype of the super-soldier serum back in Germany but was forced to use it on a bully, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who is turned into the Red Skull. Erskine realizes that the serum not only makes a man stronger but amplifies what’s inside him. A bully becomes a megalomaniac. A weak man like Steve Rogers? “A weak man,” he tells Steve,” knows the value of strength, the value of power.”

I could raise an objection here, and did so, silently, in the theater. I thought of a line from college: “The worst taskmasters are former slaves.” I thought of myself, a skinny Steve Rogers-type most of my childhood, and of my many subsequent resentments. Did Steve have none? Was he that good?

Let’s face it: the real reason Steve Rogers is a small, skinny kid is because that was the comic-book-buying demographic in 1941, and those kids wished to thrill—a la Shazam—at the magical transformation from meek to masterful. The real reason Captain America has a boy sidekick, Bucky Barnes, is because every superhero had a boy sidekick back then—because, again, that was the comic-book-buying demographic. The real reason the Red Skull is a villain is because villains with heads like skulls were a comic-book carryover from the lurid pulps of the 1930s.

The goal of the movie, then, is to update these 70- and 80-year-old tropes for the modern age. Thus Schmidt turns into the Skull because the super-serum prototype wasn’t quite ready. Bucky Barnes is no longer a boy sidekick but Steve’s friend: the big kid in the neighborhood who rescued him; the soldier in Europe whom Captain America rescues. And small and skinny? “A weak man knows the value of strength.”

But just because Erskine approves doesn’t mean Steve is a go for the project. Col. Phillips is a soldier and wants a soldier—a real soldier, not some 98-pound asthmatic—to be the first super-soldier. The back-and-forth between Phillips and Erskine is wonderful—particularly in the scene where Phillips lets loose a dummy grenade amid the candidates and only Rogers falls upon it—because Jones and Tucci are so good. The amused warmth in Tucci’s eyes; the hardened authenticity in Jones’ face. We should, in fact, pause to contemplate Tommy Lee Jones for a second. Time and again, he is asked to play the guy tracking or getting in the way of the ostensible hero, yet we love his character all the more for it. Because his character has character? Because he’s a man with a strict adherence to his job but not to his point-of-view? Because if you give him enough evidence, he’ll change? Worth an essay, one day.

Another trope in constant need of update is the convention of the superhero costume, which goes back to ... who knows? Some element of the strong man in the circus, with his outside undies, along with the tights of Hollywood’s Robin Hood, which inspired the comic strip “The Phantom,” which inspired everyone else. It’s a convention that hasn’t aged well. If you acquire superpowers, why would you put on a brightly colored, skintight outfit? What kind of freak are you? So modern cinematic superheroes, playing to a cooler crowd, either get rid of the outfit (X-Men), give it utility (Batman) or provide a comic version as a bridge to the final version (Spider-Man).

“Captain America” goes the “Spider-Man” route. After injection and transformation, and the subsequent death of Dr. Erskine by a spy from Hydra—the deep-science wing of the Third Reich, run by the Red Skull—Phillips, still not on board, rejects Steve for an overseas mission. But a visiting Senator, impressed with Steve’s heroic run through New York to nail the Hydra spy, and, more, with the subsequent positive press from his heroics, puts him on a tour to raise war bonds, a la the heroes of Iwo Jima in Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” where, flanked by dancing girls, he wears a star-spangled outfit and decks an actor playing Adolf Hitler. A comic book is even created: “Captain America.” Same one created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Nice touch.

And that’s the costume he’s wearing, trying to entertain the troops in Italy, when he leaps into action to save the 107th and Bucky Barnes. Bonus: the Howling Commandoes come along, led by the moustachioed Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough, “Buck” Compton from HBO’s excellent “Band of Brothers”). No Sgt. Fury, of course, who, in the comics, led the Howling Commandoes. Sgt. Fury became Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D., and, while that chronology worked in the ’60s, a mere 20 years after the end of WW II, it’s more problematic 70 years removed.

Interestingly, we never see Captain America battle the Nazis. He and the Howling Commandoes are always fighting Hydra—that Marvel Comics organization promising that if you cut off one head, two more will rise to replace it—and these scenes are super fun, with Captain America leaping off tanks in the Mighty Kirby Manner, riding his motorcycle over fences like a super Steve McQueen, and flinging his shield, that great shield, so that it banks off walls and takes out robots and armored men, then flies back to its master’s hand.

More important, we never lose sight of the skinny kid beneath the muscles. Cap is successful not just because he’s superstrong but because he’s always trying harder than anyone else. The dialogue with the rude dude at the beginning is even repeated with the Red Skull at the end. We never lose sight of the fact that Dr. Erskine’s serum may create the power, but it’s the man he chose who creates the hero.

“Captain America” does it all well: from the death of Bucky Barnes, to the final battle with the Red Skull, to Cap’s inevitable immersion in ice. They take their stolid hero and surround him with vibrant character actors like Jones, Tucci and Weaving—does his German accent remind anyone else of Werner Herzog?—as well as Hayley Atwell, who makes a lovely, tough Peggy Carter, Steve’s eventual love interest, with whom, before the final battle, he shares a soft, first kiss. (Suggested title for the sequel: “Captain America: 90-Year-Old Virgin.”)

But does the ending work? Cap commandeers the Red Skull’s plane, heading to bomb New York (giving us 9/11 overtones), and ditches it in the Arctic. He and Peggy share good-byes over the radio. They talk of a dance the following week. “I’d hate to step on your ...” he says, followed by the crackle of static. “Steve...” she says. “Steve...” she says. We get shots of VE-Day celebrations. We get the Howling Commandoes drinking a pint to the Captain, followed by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Tony’s father, finding the Red Skull’s cosmic cube. We get a shot of kids in Brooklyn playing Captain America with a painted garbage can.

Should it have ended there? It could have. “Avengers,” next year, could thaw him out.

Instead Steve Rogers wakes up in a neat bedroom. A nearby radio broadcasts a game between the Dodgers and Phillies at Ebbets Field, while a woman, looking WAC, enters to check on him. We know something’s amiss before he does. Ebbets Field? The Dodgers left there in ’56. He figures it out because the game being broadcast (or rebroadcast) is a game he actually attended back in ’41. So he breaks out of the room, out of the building, and into modern-day Times Square, where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) informs him he’s been in suspended animation for 70 years. “I had a date,” he says, trying to fathom all he’s lost.

But wouldn’t the above have worked better solely from his point-of-view? He’s piloting the plane, talking to Peggy, ice and snow appear before him, a crash. Then white (with echoes of her voice) ... followed by white (and silence)... followed by white. Then waking up in the room to the Dodgers game.

What would we have lost that we needed? This way, the movie could’ve ended with a visit to the grave of Peggy Carter (1920-2001). She’s British, but a soldier, and let’s have her buried in Arlington Cemetery. And that’s where you end your movie about World War II's supersoldier: Cap, at her grave, kneeling, then standing and looking around; and the camera pulling back and showing us the white markers of all the fallen soldiers.

“Captain America: The First Avenger” is a top-tier superhero movie, reminiscent of the first “X-Men” or “Spider-Man” in the joy it provides. Its ending, though, should’ve been a little more like its hero. It should’ve tried just a little harder.

Posted at 08:15 AM on Jul 25, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Saturday July 23, 2011

Movie Review: Tabloid (2011)

WARNING: SPREAD-EAGLED SPOILERS

Last May, after seeing the Seattle International Film Festival screening of Errol Morris’ new documentary, “Tabloid,” about Joyce McKinney and the 1977 Mormon sex-in-chains case, my friend Ben and I found ourselves disagreeing about the main subject, McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming, who, like Robert McNamara in Morris’ “The Fog of War,” more or less indicts herself in her talking-head interviews. I found her initially amusing, then increasingly sad, then turn-your-head-away nuts. Ben thought she was acting the whole time. He thought she just wanted the spotlight, even Morris’ spotlight, and would do anything to get it.

Poster for Errol Morris' "Tabloid" (2011)Ten steps outside the theater, something happened that made one of us change our minds.

Are you familiar with McKinney? I wasn’t. The main characters in the drama are all American but the crime itself, if it was a crime, happened in Britain, where it became a tabloid sensation.

Basic facts: McKinney, a former beauty queen, met Kirk Anderson, Mormon, in the American west in the mid-1970s. The two were apparently engaged. Then he disappeared. Did he leave or was impelled to leave by others? She hires a private investigator, Jackson Shaw, to track him down and the trail leads to Ewell, Surrey, where he’s doing Mormon missionary work, and she, Shaw, and a pilot, along with her friend Keith “K.J.” May, travel to England to retrieve him. After both Shaw and the pilot return to the states, citing differences with and concerns about McKinney, she and Anderson wind up in a cottage in Devon. Did he go willingly or was he kidnapped? He’s tied to a bed and they have sex. Was it kinky sex or rape? Days later, when he finally files a report of kidnapping and rape, the British tabloids go mad. “There was something in that story for everyone,” says Kent Gavin, a photographer for The Daily Mirror, citing, among other items, the words “sex,” “beauty queen” and “spread-eagled.” He adds: “It was a perfect tabloid story.”

So the question: Which version of events is correct? Was it a story of star-crossed lovers (her version) or was it kidnapping and rape (his version)? Was it a love story, as she claims, or a porno story, as the tabloids trumpeted?

Here’s Morris in the documentary “Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary” (2008):

This idea that there is no such thing as absolute truth, that truth is subjective—there’s truth for you, there’s truth for me, everybody has their own truth—for me, that’s nonsense talk. There’s a real world. We inhabit that real world. Things happen.

But we don’t get that definitive point-of-view in “Tabloid.” Morris brings in a third party, a reformed Mormon, to get us into the Mormon mindset; and of course we have McKinney herself, older and overweight now, as the film’s main talking head, giving us her mindset, such as it is. But Morris doesn’t seem interested in parsing the matter any further than he does.

Perhaps for this reason: No matter the truth, her version of events, the supposed romantic version, the version without a crime, is actually creepier than his.

The documentary begins with Super 8 footage of McKinney, probably in the late ‘70s, wearing a long, white dress and a post-Farrah shag, walking on estate grounds and reading from a book. It’s her book. She reads: “Once upon a time, there was a beautiful little princess—the most beautiful princess in all of the land.” As a talking head, she refers to her former kidnap victim, whom she hasn’t seen in more than three decades, as “My Kirk.” She calls their story “a very special love story” and says, in a little girl’s voice, “I wanted to give him lots of babies in my tummy.”

Ick. Nails on a chalkboard. Immediately. It’s a glimpse into that crazy, gauzy, romantic fantasy world of women that would send most men screaming from the room.

Her romanticism is also at odds with her own reality. In that reality, as the tabloids back then uncovered, and as Morris implies, McKinney made the money for this misadventure in the porn business. Bondage photos. Was there prostitution as well? Unknown. But at the least she uses the promise of sex to further her goals. Shaw helps her, he says, because she’s good-looking and wears a see-through blouse. “Totally see-through,” he adds with a randy smile. Then there’s K.J., the eunuch in the story, at her beck-and-call. What is he hoping for?

Think of the irony. She uses sex to bend men to fit her fantasies, which are romantic, and winds up a plaything in men’s fantasies, which are about sex. She wanted “Once upon a time...” and wound up with “McKinney and the Manacled Mormon.”

For a time, she revels in the tabloid attention. Then the attention goes elsewhere. What happens then?

Well, in 1984, McKinney tries to reestablish contact with Anderson, who is now married with children. He gets a restraining order.

There’s home footage of McKinney in 1986 suffering from a kind of agoraphobia. She can’t seem to leave her home. She thinks people are out to get her.

But she gets a dog, a pit bull named Booger, whom she loves, and who dies in the 2000s. She can’t bear this loss. So she hires a Korean doctor to have her dog cloned. It’s an expensive but ultimately successful procedure and headlines are made around the world. She’s reunited with the dog she loves, as she wasn’t with the man she loves, and, in her little girl’s voice, talks up the joy of having five little Boogers running around.

All the while, my friend Ben, sitting next to me in the theater, laughed and laughed. I sat silent, sickened.

Morris, I thought, was taking advantage of this woman’s mental state without the benefit of any kind of artistry. He was throwing this mess on the screen, spread-eagled, for everyone to see.

At least that’s what I argued with Ben as we made our way out of the theater.

Then it happened.

Ben’s making his points, about what kind of person McKinney is, how she’s an actress, how she just wants the spotlight, and a passerby says, “She’s right over there.”

Ben looks up. “Who?”

“Joyce McKinney.”

We walk over to a crowd forming a half circle around a short, fat woman. And, yes, it’s Joyce McKinney, the woman we’ve just watched talking on the big screen for 90 minutes. She’s still talking, still complaining, but this time about Errol Morris. He promised, she says, that the documentary would be an exposé on the tabloids and the Mormons, and instead she got this, which is more an exposé of her. Once again, her tale wasn’t being told properly. Once again, she needed to right this wrong.

On and on she went, a modern, solipsistic Joseph K, railing at the forces against her. After two, three minutes, Ben and I finally turned away and made our way out of the crowd. Both of us were silent now. Finally he said, shaking his head, “You’re right. She’s nuts.”

Except I don’t know if I was right. Or honest. I assumed I was sickened by McKinney’s deteriorating mind when it may have been far shallower than that; it may have been her deteriorating looks.

Once upon a time she was a beauty queen, blonde with an OK face and a good body, and she used that to her advantage. She got men to do things for her because of that advantage. But time took it away. Yet there she was, still talking, still presenting her case, as if she still had that power. And it’s her very insistence that she still has that power that reminds us of the shallowness of that power. If it had been Angelina Jolie outside the SIFF screening, we would’ve been captivated and maybe even sympathetic. That’s awful... what he promised you... what he did to you... Instead some short, fat, dumpy woman was yakking away. About something. As if we cared. In a way, nothing reveals how nuts she is more than this fact: She thinks we still care even though she looks like she does.

I saw “Tabloid” before the British-tabloid cellphone-hacking scandal broke. No doubt that scandal has been good for Morris’ film. It’s also, I believe, fostering the sense that we, as a society, have got the bad guys—Brooks, Hinton, “News of the World,” Murdoch—on the run now. There’s a sense that we’re finally past this crap. We’re not. We still want it, we just don’t need Murdoch and company to deliver it to us anymore. It’s their mode, not their content, that’s outdated. I saw this after the SIFF screening, as Joyce McKinney, that fat, lost loon, complained about Errol Morris and the tabloid press and the Mormon church. No one said a thing. In the two minutes or so that I was there, no one tried to communicate with her. Instead, one by one, people took out their smartphones and began filming.

Joyce McKinney, then and now

McKinney: with boobs, with boogers.

Posted at 07:57 AM on Jul 23, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Wednesday July 20, 2011

Movie Review: Horrible Bosses (2011)

WARNING: EOE SPOILERS

There’s a moment when “Horrible Bosses” has a chance. It’s near the beginning of the film and Nick (Jason Bateman), arriving horribly early to work, is telling us in voice over about his family history. His grandmother, whom he’ll later call Gam-Gam to comic effect, came to this country with a few bucks and worked her entire life and wound up saving two thousand dollars. That sucks, he says. “The key to success,” he tells us, “is taking shit. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last eight years.”

Hey, I thought. Maybe we’ll get some interesting back-and-forth here on how to get ahead in America. Kissing ass? Hard work? Ruthlessness? Connections? Luck? Why do some get ahead and others do not?

poster for "Horrible Bosses" (2011)Then Nick adds: “The only hitch: I work for Dave Harken.”

Ah, I thought. Less systemic, more personal. Too bad.

There’s another moment, actually, when things might’ve worked out, too.

Our trio of dudes, Nick, Dale (Charlie Day) and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), are lamenting their current states of employment at the local pub. Nick’s boss, Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey) strings Nick along on a promotion, getting him to work weekends and apologize for coming in “late” at 6:02 a.m., then, a la Dick Cheney, gives himself the promotion. In the movie’s parlance, he’s the TOTAL FUCKING ASSHOLE boss. Dale’s boss, Dr. Julia Harris, (Jennifer Aniston), a dentist, sexually harasses him (she’s EVIL CRAZY BITCH), while Kurt’s boss, after his company’s kindly patriarch, Jack Pellit (Donald Sutherland), passes away, is Jack’s son, Bobby (Colin Farrell, in comb-over mode), who wants to fire fat people, do blow off hookers, and run the company into the ground. He’s DICKHEAD COKEHEAD SON.

Over drinks, our trio decide they should find new jobs.

That’s when they run into Kenny Sommerfeld (P.J. Byrne), a high school classmate who went on to Harvard and a big career at Lehman Bros. Kenny greets them happily, then talks up his current situation, which, years after the Lehman collapse, which was the bellwether for our current economic collapse, is still without work. Then he asks for money. They’re kind; they actually give it to him. But he says it’s not enough. So if they ante up more, he’ll take them into the bathroom for blowjobs. They’re shocked and appalled, he’s pleasantly insistent, but finally he’s shooed from the bar—a known nuisance, unknown by his former classmates who frequent the joint.

The scene is shorthand for how bad the job market is and how stuck each of our protagonists are in their current crappy jobs with their current horrible bosses. It’s played for laughs—this is a comedy, after all—and it is funny...ish. But it’s not meaningful because it’s not relatable.

What a missed opportunity. I know quite a few people who are stuck in crappy jobs, and/or with horrible bosses, so, if anything, the movie should be relatable. Why isn’t it? Because it’s a slapsticky, pushing-the-same-damned-envelope comedy about hapless attempts at revenge on three caricatures rather than three human beings. It pretends to be about here and now but it isn’t. It pretends to be about you and me but it isn’t.

Admittedly, some things in the movie work.

I like the way the revenge plot comes about: haphazardly. They joke about it over drinks, then different characters take turns carrying it until suddenly it solidifies. It becomes a thing before the characters know it’s a thing.

I like the fact that, for all their angry talk, none has it in him to kill anyone.

Jamie Foxx has a good cameo but the racial stuff there feels old.

We get a few laugh-out-loud lines (“I can’t walk around this neighborhood with that Disney-ass name”), and some great line readings, particularly by Bateman (Nick: “I was drag-racing.” Cop: “In a Prius?” Nick [Pause]: “I don’t win a lot.”).

But “Horrible Bosses” doesn’t mean anything because it’s not about anything. The bosses aren’t really bosses and the friends aren’t really friends. After it was over, I wasn’t amused or angry; I didn’t feel cheated or uplifted. It contained just the right ingredients to make me feel nothing at all.

Posted at 06:49 AM on Jul 20, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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