erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2011 posts

Saturday January 21, 2012

Movie Review: Young Adult (2011)


Mavis Gary is one of the most original characters American cinema has produced in years and Charlize Theron totally embodies her. So where’s the buzz? The film, and Theron, had caché among critics last summer but landed with hardly a noise in December. Maybe Paramount pushed it poorly; “Young Adult” has never appeared in more than a thousand theaters. Maybe critics haven’t shouted loudly enough. Some of them seem put off by the film’s dark humor, too. Is the audience as well? When Patricia, Paige and I saw the movie in a small, downtown Seattle theater with two dozen other people, I got the feeling we were the only ones laughing.

But man were we laughing.

The Concept
A writer of a series of young adult novels centering around the solipsistic machinations of high school girls, Mavis lives in a high-rise condo poster for "Young Adult"overlooking the Mississippi river in downtown Minneapolis. Nights are for drinking (and one-night stands), mornings are for hangovers (and regret), afternoons are for coffee with friends, or cadging bits of overheard dialogue from teenage girls—such as the Office Depot clerk who mentions her “textual chemistry” with a boy, which Mavis then includes in her next book.

But the routine is getting old, a new “Waverly Place” book is due, and after staring at the blank page of “Chapter One” in her computer she distracts herself with email. Along with the usual spam and Facebook crap, there’s a message, “Look who’s arrived!,” with a picture of the new baby of Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), Mavis’ high school boyfriend, who still lives in her hometown of Mercury, Minn. And it dawns on Mavis: this is the solution to her misery. Not to have a baby of her own but to win Buddy back. She’s 37 but it’s as if she’s still involved in the machinations of high school girls. It’s as if she never grew up.

That’s the film’s tagline, by the way: “Everyone gets old. Not everyone grows up.” Why doesn’t Mavis?

When We Grow Up
You can blame what she calls “Y.A.,” the young-adult novels she’s been writing for ... 10 years? Fifteen years? They’ve stunted her. Her imaginative world has never left high school.

You can blame her beauty, which is otherworldly (this is Charlize Theron, after all), and which, even at 37, allows her to get away with shit mere mortals can’t. “Guys like me are born loving women like you,” says Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), one of the guys she ignored in high school, when she returns to Mercury. It’s not necessarily a compliment. To either one of them.

You can blame alcoholism. More on this later.

Mavis may also be a victim of the American myth of “getting out,” embodied, most notably, in the early songs of Bruce Springsteen: It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling outta here to win, etc. This is exactly what Mavis did. She saw Mercury as a town full of losers, so she pulled out of there to win. She made it all the way to the big city, to Minneapolis, but discovered another dead end. It’s a familiar story: She escaped Mercury but can’t escape herself. The look of disgust on her face isn’t just for what she sees around her—the sad little malls, the sad little people—but for the sad little person inside her.

She knows this, too, deep down. She’s not dumb. The opposite. “Young Adult” is a movie about delusions, and Mavis’ are whoppers, but she maintains them through her own deeply skewed internal logic. She maintains them because she can argue so well.

When Matt reminds her that Buddy Slade has a wife, she counters, “No, he has a baby. And babies are boring.” When Buddy says he feels like a zombie from all the sleepless, new-baby nights, she seizes upon it. “It’s a pretty strong statement to make,” she tells Matt later. “A zombie is a dead person, Matt.” Finally when she makes her play, and Buddy, astonished, tells her, “I’m a married man,” she responds sweetly, as if they were talking about an addiction, “I know. We can beat this thing together.”

It’s hilarious and awful and delusional, but what she’s offering is actually enticing— and not just because Charlize Theron is offering it. Family means responsibility, which means roots, which means being stuck in one spot for the rest of your life. It’s a trade-off everyone makes. Mavis is offering Buddy what age and responsibility tend to restrict: possibility and freedom.

It’s a Shame About Mavis
Even so, every one of her scenes with Buddy is excruciating. During her road trip to Mercury, she rewinds the same ancient mixed tape, the one that reads MAD LOVE, BUDDY on the spine, so she can listen, over and over, to “The Concept,” an awful, early-’90s college-radio song by Teenage Fanclub. It’s their song. Yet when Buddy’s wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), drumming for the all-mom band “Nipple Confusion” at the bar, Champion O’Malley’s (“Where everyone’s a winner”), launches into the band’s opening song, it’s, yep, the same song. One senses that this is now a song Buddy shares with Beth—as he shares a life with Beth. Mavis senses this, too, and for a second she pulls away in anger and disappointment. For a second, there’s clarity. Then she looks over at Matt. He’s eyeing her sympathetically, feeling sorry for her, which, to Mavis, is the exact opposite of the way the world is. She feels sorry for them, not the other way around. So she narrows her eyes and leaps back in. She leans close to Buddy, and shouts, happily, over the music, “I think this song was playing the first time I went down on you!”

She’s delusional about her career, too. A few years earlier, she was written up in the Mercury paper: a “local girl makes good” kind of thing. But in an exchange with a clerk at a local bookstore, it comes to light that: 1) she doesn’t get true author credit on her books; the Waverly Place series creator, “Jane Mac Murray” (the F.W. Dixon of Y.A.), does; and 2) the series isn’t popular anymore. What her publisher wants from her is the last book in the series so he can end it. After which Mavis will have ... what exactly? Not much. She’ll have spent a dozen years writing someone else’s books.

Most importantly, she’s delusional about the way people view her—particularly the people of Mercury. She assumes envy: for her looks, for her career, for the fact that she got out of Mercury in the first place. This envy sustains her. But after Buddy rejects her advances at the baby-naming ceremony (“You’re better than this,” he says with finality), she has a climactic scene with Beth and guests out on the front lawn, in which she spews a rambling, drunken, expletive-laden diatribe against the entire town. Then she beseeches Buddy: “Why did you invite me?” Meaning: Why am I here if you didn’t want to change your life for me? And that’s when her world gets upended. Buddy tells her he didn’t invite her; Beth did. She felt sorry for her. They all do. That look Matt shot her at Champion O’Malley’s? That’s how they all feel. It’s obvious she’s having some kind of mental breakdown. Hey, they just want to help.

There’s been talk of a supporting-actor nomination for Patton Oswalt, but I don’t see it, to be honest. He good, but he doesn’t blow me away the way that Charlize Theron blows me away. The range she displays—from full-on bitchery to abject, near-naked vulnerability—is stunning.

But I do love their scenes together. They have chemistry, and sharp conversation, and both are blunt in a way that the nice folks of Mercury are not. In high school, they had lockers close enough to each other that he remembers the heart-shaped mirror inside hers; but she only remembers him as “the hate-crime guy,” as a victim of a brutal, homophobic jock attack in the woods, which garnered national media attention until it came to light that he wasn’t gay after all. Since it was no longer a “hate crime,” just a horrendous one, it was no longer a story, and the press stopped caring. But Matt carries the reminders. He still walks with crutches. He pisses sideways. He’s a shattered physical reminder—to us—how awful high school was; and he’s a verbal reminder–-to Mavis—how awful she was. He mentions the heart-shaped mirror inside her locker. “I think you looked at that mirror more often than you looked at me,” he says.

After the front-lawn debacle, Mavis flees to Matt’s house, which he shares with his sister, Sandra (Collette Wolfe); and as she stands there, vulnerable, askew, fruity beverage spilled over the front of her frilly white dress, he tries to break down her quixotic quest. Why Buddy? he asks. He’s a good man, she responds; he’s kind. “Aren’t other men kind?” he asks. She restarts: “He knew me when I was at my best,” she says, meaning high school. “You weren’t at your best then,” he says. “Not then.”

It’s a great scene. Mavis idealizes her high school years but Matt implies she’s better now, and I tend to agree. Throughout the movie, there’s little that is sympathetic or representative about her—she’s an awful person on an awful mission: a “psycho prom-queen bitch,” in the words of one of Beth’s friends—but there is something representative about her situation. Life didn’t pan out for her. That’s most of us. She lives alone. She’s lonely. Like many. Like Matt. You could say the very thing she’s holding onto—the image of her perfect, high-school prom-queen self—is the very thing she needs to let go if she’s going to have any chance at happiness. And she does. She finally breaks down, and falls into Matt’s arms and into his bed. The whole thing is clumsy and human and thus has a kind of beauty; and when she wakes up the next morning, with Matt’s arm flopped across her waist, echoing the one-night stand Mavis had at the beginning of the movie, we wonder, “What now?”

In Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” the chorus goes:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

So we’re wondering. Has Mavis forgotten her perfect offering? Has the light gotten in?

Achin’ to Be
Upstairs in the kitchen, she runs into Sandra, gets a cup of coffee, and breaks down further. She’s an open wound now. The walls that protected her are finally gone.

Would “Young Adult” have been as good a movie if it had continued in this direction? I doubt it. The way it ends feels exactly right to me. It feels like a continuation of an earlier, key scene when Mavis, at her parents’ house, wonders why her mother still hangs the wedding photo of Mavis and her ex-husband. Mavis has excised that failed marriage from her life and her mind. It’s part of her non-perfection. But her mother, Hedda (Jill Eikenberry), has her own illusions to maintain—Mavis’ room looks exactly like Mavis left it two decades ago—and, as they sit at the breakfast table, Hedda makes excuses. There’s a pause. Then Mavis offers a non sequitur.

“I think I might be an alcoholic,” she says.

Wow, I thought. But the confession goes nowhere. Her parents deflect it away. Maybe it’s too much reality for them. Maybe they’re unaware of who their daughter really is. Maybe it’s a “not nice” conversation to have at the breakfast table, and this is a nice town, after all, where everyone’s a winner, and so the moment passes—a moment that could’ve been the first step on Mavis’ road to recovery.

Something similar happens at the Freehauf breakfast table. Mavis is breaking down and opening up. She says she doesn’t feel fulfilled. She hates her life. “I need to change, Sandra,” she says. Then Sandra responds:

“No, you don’t,” Sandra says.

Sandra, it turns out, is a Mavis wannabe. She’s the less pretty girl who wants to be the very pretty girl, or at least hang with her, which is what she’s finally doing. Mavis Gary is in her kitchen! She wants to get out of Mercury, too, the way that Mavis did. She still believes in the Springsteenian myth of the town full of losers. “Everyone here is fat and dumb,” Sandra says. “They don’t care what happens to them because it doesn’t matter what happens to them,” she says. “Fuck Mercury,” she says.

Mavis’ reaction? A kind of whoosh. A long exhale. “Thank you,” she says. “Whoa.” Her worldview, upended the day before, is back in place. She doesn’t need to change. It’s the town that’s screwed up. The ironic kicker is that when Sandra asks to come with her to Minneapolis, a trip she hasn’t had the courage to make on her own, Mavis, restored to herself by Sandra, and feeding off of envy again, is sweetly condescending. “You’re good here, Sandra,” she says.

I.e., with the losers in this town. Where everyone’s a winner.

Free to Be, You and Me
Throughout the movie, in fast food joints and park benches, Mavis has been writing her final “Waverly Place” novel, about Kendall and her high school battles, which mirror Mavis and her current battles. One wonders how the novel might’ve ended if Sandra hadn’t opened her mouth. Instead, the Buddy figure in the story winds up dead, “lost at sea,” we’re told, while Kendall, glorious Kendall, graduates high school and leaves town knowing her best days are ahead of her. She leaves town thinking what Mavis probably thought 20 years ago when she left Mercury: “Life: here I come.”

That’s the last line. In the movie theater, I couldn’t stop smiling.

Most of us go to the movies for wish fulfillment. We want to maintain our illusions—that good conquers evil and love conquers all—but by having Sandra bolster Mavis’ illusions, screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, the team who gave us “Juno,” refuse to bolster ours. We want to believe in self-help notions of progress and betterment, and dramatic notions of resurrection after a fall, and “Young Adult” doesn’t play this game. Mavis’ delusions, close to being killed, are actually made stronger by the end. And over the closing credits we hear Diana Ross sing the following:

Well, I don't care if I'm pretty at all
And I don't care if you never get tall
I like what I look like, and you're nice small
We don't have to change at all

It’s from the quintessential album of 1970s-style possibility and betterment, “Free to Be, You and Me.” But what’s the promise of that last line? The one thing that can’t be promised. The song’s implication is that, though we change, we can still hold onto the best, unchanging part of ourselves—the part of me that likes you, and the part of you that likes me. It’s a sweet thought, but it’s also the thought that propels Mavis on her psycho-bitch misadventures. What is Mavis saying to Buddy throughout this film if not what Diana says at the end of the song? “I don't want to change, see, because I still want to be your friend—forever and ever and ever and ever and ever.”

I assume all of this is too cynical for most moviegoers. I assume that’s why the movie hasn’t done better. To me, it felt like a breath of fresh air. To me, after the supercharged lies of most movies, it felt a little like life.

Posted at 07:10 AM on Jan 21, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Sunday January 15, 2012

Movie Review: War Horse (2011)



That’s what I kept thinking while watching Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse.” I sat in the theater, twisting in my seat, unable to believe how bad it was. Have I changed that much? Has Steven? Does he need a good screenwriter nowadays—Tony Kushner in “Munich,” say—to keep his Poster for "War Horse" (2011)worst instincts in check? He didn’t get that here. Instead he got the guy who wrote “Billy Elliott” (Lee Hall) and the guy who wrote “Love Actually” (Richard Curtis) and together they made mythic mush. They made sure no stock character went unstocked, no melodramatic moment was not without its further melodramatic pause, and no sun set that didn’t set on the title character. Robert Redford in “The Natural” only wishes he could’ve been suffused with this much magic-hour light.

“War Horse” is basically “Black Beauty” for boys. The horse, beloved by his first boy, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who names him Joey, is nonetheless, through poverty and tragedy and war, passed from one owner to another, from one story to the next, until he winds up back ... back home. Where he gets to pull a plow up a hardscrabble, rock-strewn British mountainside. I guess we all have our definitions of home.

“This is a stubborn one, hey?” the vet says as Joey is being born. So he is. But with a calm voice, a gentle hand, and a ready demonstration, he’ll go above-and-beyond for you. And he’ll show that bastard landowner, that bastard Major, those bastard Huns, what a little old-fashioned gumption can do.

Do directors have the maxim, “Make the movie you want to watch”? I think Steven’s done that here. More’s the pity. He’s made a movie that’s part John Ford and part “Saving Private Ryan,” with all the hokiness the former implies and all the grittiness the latter implies, and the two don’t mix. The John Ford hokum was tough enough to take in a John Ford movie.

Steven, particularly in the early, pre-war scenes, keeps giving us that John Ford shot: from below, with boldly drawn principles in the foreground, behind a canvas of blue sky and puffy clouds.

One of the John-Ford shots from Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" (2011)

Sometimes we get a Fordesque sense of the curvature of the highlands in Devon, England. It’s as if we’re about to walk off the ends of the earth—which, you could argue, is what happens to Albert and Joey. It’s a good shot but it’s somebody else’s shot. When did Spielberg feel the need to make other’s people movies?

The story: Joey is a horse trapped by the foolish circumstances of men—a drunk tenant farmer; both sides of a horrific war—but saved by a few gentle souls: first Albert, then Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), who hasn’t realized how mechanized war has become. He thinks the cavalry still matters. There’s a nice set piece, a charge of the foolish brigade, in which the British, swords pointed forward, surprise and overrun a German army encampment and chase them into the woods ... where machine guns await to slaughter them. It’s supposed to be a surprise, these machine guns, but anyone who knows anything about history is wondering why they haven’t shown up yet. The surprise is that the cavalry made it that far. The further surprise is that when Spielberg does his “Gone with the Wind” pullback shot of all the dead officers and horses, there’s no messiness to it. They dot the landscape, equidistant from one another, like designs in a patchwork quilt. It’s almost pretty.

In this manner Joey winds up behind enemy lines and in the benevolent hands of the stars of recent indie or foreign movies: Gunther (David Kross, the reader of “The Reader”), who is shot for desertion; and Grandfather (Niels Arestrup, the Corsican gangster of “Un Prophete”), who lives ... in Holland? In Alsace? He has a windmill but speaks French. He also has a granddaughter, Emile (Celine Buckens), who is supposed to be sickly, brittle-boned or something, but seems the picture of health. She seems Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet.” Until the Germans arrive and rape her and take the horse.

Kidding. They just take the horse.

His new benevolent handler, Friedrich (Nicolas Bro), takes a second to admire him before adding ominously, “It’s a pity they found you.” Then we get a pullback to a collection of weak, decrepit horses, then a further pullback to a pit of horses that have literally been worked to death pulling heavy artillery up muddy hills. It’s a kind of horse holocaust, recalling “Schindler’s List,” but it leads to the film’s most risible scene.

Throughout his time in continental Europe, Joey has had a companion, a tall black horse named Topthorn. Early on, Joey teaches Topthorn how to take the harness, thus saving his life. And when the lead horse pulling German artillery finally succumbs, and is shot, the German commander demands that Topthorn replace him. But Topthorn is partially lame and won’t last long, so Friedrich offers up Joey instead. He’s overruled. But not Joey. He rears up, bucks off his holder, gallops to the front of the line and makes such a show of things that the commanders acquiesces. Joey sacrifices himself for Topthorn! Then he looks back at Topthorn and gives him a nod as if to say, “I got your back, mate.” It was so absurd, several people in the theater laughed out loud.

Worse? It’s a meaningless sacrifice. Despite his principled stand, Joey never becomes starved and decrepit like the other horses, he remains strong and magnificent. It’s still Topthorn who succumbs; and it’s Joey who’s set free in the chaos of battle. But there is no “free” in war. After a nighttime gallop through the German trenches—a good, harrowing scene—Joey becomes entangled in the barb wire of No Man’s Land, and, thus trapped, lies down. To die?

By this time it’s 1918. We’ve already cut away from Joey so Spielberg can show us Albert, now a doughboy, and still carrying around a torch for, and a drawing of, his beloved horse. But it’s an unnecessary cutaway. It’s there so Spielberg can give us his big WWI battle sequence as companion piece to his big WWII battle sequence at the beginning of “Saving Private Ryan.” It furthers Spielberg’s magnificence rather than Joey’s.

Joey entangled in barb wire? It’s how the movie should’ve begun. A British doughboy in the trenches looks through his binoculars and sees something moving in No Man’s Land but can’t quite make it out. Is it a soldier? A Brit? A German counterpart does the same. Both realize at the same time: No, it’s a horse! and the Brit thinks, “I wonder how it got there.” At which point we get flashback to Devon, etc. Or doesn’t Spielberg do flashbacks?

Instead we get this scene chronologically, when the audience knows it’s a horse, knows it’s Joey, and we’re waiting for everyone else in the film to catch up. Both sides try to call Joey to their side, not realizing how entangled he’s become, until, with a “Sod it,” the British soldier (Toby Kebbell) enters No Man’s Land with a white flag, meets his German counterpart (Hinnerk Schönemann), who brings wirecutters and better English, and the two share a kind  of “Joyeux Noel” moment of brotherhood amidst the madness. It’s a nice scene that doesn’t involve too much bullshit.

No, Steven saves the best bullshit for the end.

Albert’s been gassed, see, and blinded (temporarily—it’s Spielberg), and Joey’s been injured and due to be shot, and they’re like 50 yards from each other and don’t even know it. Meanwhile, the Brit doughboy makes Joey’s case, talking up his miraculousness, but the Army Doctor (Liam Cunningham) is busy and  unaccommodating, and Sgt. Fry (Eddie Marsan) is given his orders and raises his gun and points it at Joey’s head. In that moment, before a familiar whistle is heard that startles Joey, that reminds him of Devon, England, a whistle that’s repeated twice more until the crowd of soldiers parts, miraculously revealing Albert, the man we already knew was there, and Albert makes his case that the horse is his, that it has white hooves and a white diamond-shaped mark on its forehead, which can’t be seen for all the mud, but which is slowly, miraculously revealed even though we know that that, too, is already there; before all of this miraculous bullshit, in that cinematic moment when Sgt. Fry raises his gun and points it at Joey’s head, I had but one amused thought:

I dare ya.

Posted at 06:51 AM on Jan 15, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Thursday January 12, 2012

Movie Review: The Artist (2011)


“The Artist” is a silent film about the death of silent film. It uses old technology to tell a cautionary tale about those who cling to old technology. It’s part “Singin’ in the Rain,” part “A Star is Born,” and resurrects the international language of film—silence—by starring two French actors in a tale of Hollywoodland USA. It uses the era’s aspect ratio (1.33: 1), its opening-credit title graphics (drop shadows), its tendency toward broadness and melodrama. It is beautiful, funny, and tres, tres charmant.

Is it also a cautionary tale of Hollywood today? It reminds us that in the constant battle between technology and personality, technology tends to triumph. I suppose that’s a cautionary tale for all of us.

Poster for "The Artist" (2011)George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a hammy but loveable silent film star, who, in 1927, is at the height of his powers. His latest, “A Russian Affair,” is being screened before a rapt audience in Hollywood, and he stands backstage looking resplendent in tuxedo and tails. Afterwards, he hogs the stage, does a soft-shoe number, then introduces his fuming leading lady, Constance (Missi Pyle), only after his leading dog (Uggie). Insatiable, he hangs out on the red-carpet for a post-screening Q&A, where a flapperish fan, and budding actress, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), gets pushed from behind the ropes and into the limelight. She and Valentin share a moment, which winds up headlining Variety the next day: WHO’S THAT GIRL?

It’s a very “Singin’ in the Rain” set-up: Hammy man, shrewish leading lady, peppy upstart. There’s a premier where the hammy man blocks the shrewish lady from the spotlight only to wind up with the peppy upstart. His next film feels like a virtual remake of the first (“The Dueling Cavalier” follows “The Royal Rascal” in “Singin’”; “A German Affair” follows “A Russian Affair” here), suggesting the mass-produced, disposable quality of the genre. Then talkies come along.

The big difference is whom the peppy upstart threatens. In “Singin’” it’s the leading lady, who, with her high, screechy, ditzy voice, can’t make the transition to talkies. In “The Artist,” for more complicated reasons, it’s the hammy man.

The day after the premier, Peppy winds up on the set of “A German Affair” and meets cute with Valentin a second time. He has to dance with her, briefly, for a dinner party scene, but forgets himself as he begins to fall in love. Later, Peppy winds up in his dressing room, smells his jacket, and does a great bit where, her own hand emerging from his jacket, she makes a pass at herself. At this point he enters the room. Rather than make the pass she wants him to make—and he wants to make—he acts the gentleman (he’s married, you see) and gives her industry advice: “If you want to be an actress,” he says, (or mouths), “you have to have something the others don’t.” Then he draws a mole on her cheek.

Cue montage: her rise from chorus line to maid roles to third-billed star to, finally, a starring role in a talkie called “Beauty Mark.” At the same time, he’s eschewed the talkies (“If that’s the future, you can have it!” he mouths), and leaves his secure position with Kinograph Pictures to independently produce a silent adventure film, “Tears of Love,” which happens to open the same day as “Beauty Mark.” He watches it from the exit row of a near-empty theater. Outside, he’s greeted by long lines waiting to see Peppy Miller’s talkie.

Five things ruin him: “Tears of Love” bombs as the stock market crashes as his wife divorces him. That’s three, and he accepts all of them with something like grace. But now he’s broke. But isn’t he still a star? Couldn’t he make the talkies the studio wants him to make? He could but doesn’t. I guess that’s stubbornness, or ego, which would be the fourth thing. The fifth is booze. He drinks himself into oblivion.

It’s a long decline. Too long, really. He winds up in a second-story walk-up. When he runs out of booze, he pawns his tuxedo. Eventually he auctions off everything. “Congratulations!” the auctioneer tells him. “You’ve got nothing left!” We see him watch the new Peppy Miller talkie, “Guardian Angel,” with the rest of the great unwashed, pass out in a bar from drink, then screen his old films alone in his apartment (footage courtesy of Douglas Fairbanks’ “The Mark of Zorro”). Eventually, enraged at his new station in life, he sets fire to his old films but the smoke quickly suffocates him. It’s up to his faithful dog to run down the street and bark at a cop (Joel Murray) to save him. The headlines the next day read: SILENT FILM STAR SURVIVES FIRE. He’s not even a name now. He’s something from back then.

But he’s more to Peppy, who’s been following him all this time (she bought most of the items at the silent auction), and who brings him to her mansion, which looks a lot like his old mansion. She also pitches a talkie starring the two of them to the studio heads at Kinograph. But his downward spiral isn’t over. When his finds all of his old items in a storage room in her mansion, he cries out, returns to his burned-out walk-up, and puts a gun in his mouth. She, meanwhile, races in her car to get to him. Like the barking dog alerting the cop, it’s a great bit of silent melodrama—the cutting back and forth between the two—but then we read the title card, “BANG!,” and our heart sinks. Really? They’re going to do that? Nope. The bang is her. She’s crashed the car into a tree outside his walk-up. He checks out the noise, their eyes lock, they meet, kiss, etc. She saves him, and, as in “Singin’ in the Rain,” musicals save his career. The End.

As I said, it’s a charming movie. It’s an homage to the silent era—as “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies,” which starred the same stars, Dujardin and Bejo, and was written and directed by the same writer-director, Michel Hazanavicius (Bejo’s husband, bastard), was a kind of homage to, but more critique of, the early, western-imperialist Bond and OSS 117 movies.

At the same time, “The Artist” is more than mere homage.

One of the things the movie does well is play off the concept of silence. The first words we hear, or see, are Valentin’s from “A Russian Affair.” His character is being tortured by some futuristic gizmo and he declares, “I won’t talk! I won’t say a word!” We’re never sure why Valentin’s wife can’t abide him other than her line, “Why do you refuse to talk?” We’re never sure why he doesn’t make the transition to talkies other than his comment, “No one wants to see me speak.” See me speak. Love that.

Then there’s the dream—perhaps the film’s most memorable scene. After being shown sound, the greatest technological change the movies will ever see—a change so stark that everything up to that point, with the exception of a few comedies, will be relegated to the dustbin of cinematic history—Valentin returns to his dressing room. He drinks from a glass, sets it down. It makes a noise. It startles him, and us, and he tries it again. He hears the clock. He hears his dog. He goes outside. Suddenly everyone and everything in the world is making noise—even a feather landing on the ground—except for him. He’s trapped in silence.

So why doesn’t he talk? The easy explanation occurs near the end, when we finally hear him speak. He says, “With pleasure,” but he says it with Dujardin’s French accent: Wis plezhaire. Some may assume this is why he didn’t leap into talkies. He’s French. Except a French accent was hardly a barrier to success back then. Charles Boyer and Maurice Chevalier were both big stars in the early days of Hollywood.

Besides, this explanation feels reductive. It makes Valentin’s dilemma small and personal when there’s something truly universal in it. Valentin is a man trapped in old technology. He’s made silent by new technology. We’ve all been there—or will be there. New technology comes along and an entire profession is told, “We don’t care what you have to say anymore.”

Charming? Oui. Homage? Oui. Relevant? Oui aussi. Pour tout le monde.

Posted at 07:27 AM on Jan 12, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Monday January 09, 2012

Movie Review: Warrior (2011)


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.

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

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


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?

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.

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.

Posted at 09:12 AM on Jan 06, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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