Movie Reviews - 2011 postsFriday January 27, 2012
Movie Review: Shame (2011)
WARNING: TOP-OF-THE-HEAP SPOILERS
In “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” it took Daniel Day Lewis four words to get women into bed: “Take off your clothes.”
Piker. It often takes Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), the protagonist of “Shame,” no words. He’ll just look at a pretty girl on the subway, suggest with his eyes, smolder a bit, wait for the tension to mount, and she’s ready. He’ll sidle up to his hyperactive boss, David (James Bade Dale of “The Pacific”), who’s trying to make the pretty one at the bar, say one or two words, and suddenly she’s casting him the kind of glances most men don’t receive in a lifetime.
Normally such a character would be wish fulfillment. Not here. Fassbender, impeccably groomed, is in almost every shot of “Shame” but it’s writer-director Steve McQueen’s movie. He sets the tone, which is moody, atmospheric, full of dread. Every day for Brandon is another day of desperately needing sex but desperately not needing the contact that goes with it. There’s something inside of him that can’t be fulfilled. In this, he’s like all of us, but his need is greater and the moments he’s satiated shorter. The title of this movie could be the title of McQueen’s first movie: “Hunger.”
“Shame” is more portrait than story. It’s a snapshot from a life. Brandon has a business-type, investment-type job in New York, which he apparently does well even though he’s rarely thinking about. He’s a sex addict so he’s always thinking about his next fix. In the toilet stall at work? In his bathroom at home? Via online pornography, magazines, DVDs? With Prostitute A, B, or both? With this girl at the bar or that girl on the subway? At that straight club? At that gay club?
There’s a cool exterior to Brandon, an unknowability and mystery that’s obviously appealing. Who is that man behind the scarf? But the cool exterior hides ... what? His sexual need and what else? A few books line the shelves of his high-rise condo, including, I was happy to see, Don DeLillo’s “Underworld”; but one can’t imagine him reading it. How could he sit still that long?
His careful routine, the veneer of respectability hiding his monstrous shame, is upset when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), shows up at his place. She’s a free spirit, a singer at posh bars, and later we hear her rendition of “New York, New York,” the triumphant ode to Manhattan that’s played after every Yankees victory; but she delivers it slow and sad, from the perspective of someone who isn’t A-number-1, top of the heap. It’s a beautiful moment in the movie, one of several moments Mulligan gives us. I still think of the way she bounces with delight on the subway platform after Brandon agrees to hear her sing. She wants to be part of his life—that’s her need—but it conflicts with his need. At one point, she alludes to their fucked-up childhood, and one wonders if there’s more there than the usual fuckedupness; if there wasn’t abuse of some kind. But we never get specifics. We get vapors.
She sleeps with his boss, his married boss, at Brandon’s place, and he can’t deal with it and goes running. She hangs too close to the tracks on the subway platform and he pulls her back. They’re both self-destructive but hers is sloppy and showy—there are scars on her wrists—and his is secretive and shameful and infecting every aspect of his life. She wants to pull him into the light but he reacts with anger. “I’m trying to help you,” she says. “How do you help?” he responds through clenched teeth. “You come here and you’re a weight on me.” After the movie, Patricia said he reminded her of me in this moment. That’s one thing I have in common with Brandon. We both feel easily trapped. We both live life in the exit row.
He makes a feint at respectability. He goes on a date with an attractive co-worker, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), and reacts to the dinner conversation as if it’s all new and amusing to him. A back and forth ... with words? He admits his longest relationship was just four months. He admits that that’s how he likes it. She doesn’t flee. Maybe, after the usual, first-date bullshit, this straightforwardness is refreshing. Maybe it’s the scarf and the Ewan McGregor smile. All those small charming teeth.
Was he always interested in Marianne as more than just another lay? Or did that idea only emerge when Sissy found him jacking off in the bathroom and found live sex girls on his home computer? After that, he tries to get rid of it all—the magazines, the DVDs, the computer itself—as if getting rid of the evidence of his need will get rid of the need. He wants to be clean again and he sees Marianne as the path to cleanliness. But when they finally fall into bed together he can’t get it up. For a moment we think this is his fate—to overdo it and then be unable to do it—but after she leaves we get a quick cut of him banging a prostitute in the same room, so that’s obviously not the problem. The problem is the cleanliness and the respectability. He can’t have it with any kind of meaning. He can only have it in a way that leaves him unfilled and seeking it again. It’s as if the disease is protecting itself from him. His disease needs to keep him hungry. It’s saying: You’re married to me.
“Shame” is a snapshot from a life because there’s no real resolution. There’s not even a program he enters. That would be too afterschool special. There’s just need and heartache and awful need again. Sissy tries to kill herself but she’s tried to kill herself before. Brandon binges on sex but no doubt he’s binged before. It leaves him exhausted and crying but the thing inside him won’t come out. Sexaholism used to be a punchline to me—who isn’t addicted to sex?—but Steve McQueen shows us the difference as well as the similarity. The difference is in volume and the similarity is in almost everything else. The similarity is in trying to get this thing out of us. The similarity is in the lack of resolution or resurrection. In the end, Brandon is back on the subway, and there’s that girl again, and now she’s ready; and the hunger is always ready.
Movie Review: The Help (2011)
WARNING: EAT MY SPOILERS
In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Katharine Hepburn does it to Virginia Christine. In “Mississippi Burning,” Gene Hackman does it to Brad Dourif. In “The Help,” it’s Allison Janney to Bryce Dallas Howard. They’re the somewhat-enlightened white people who berate the less-enlightened white people in movies about civil rights. They’re the white people who make the white people in the audience feel good about themselves.
Apparently Jim Zwerg wasn’t enough.
The Janney moment occurs near the end of “The Help” and it’s a wholly unnecessary scene in which Charlotte Phelan (Janney), mother of the film’s protagonist, Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), does a 180. For most of the movie, she’s had one goal: marry her daughter off. “Your eggs are dying,” she says early on. “Would it kill you to go on a date?” At the 11th hour, suddenly she’s OK with her daughter being the way she is and getting a job in New York and being a modern woman and all; and she apologizes for the way she’s been for most of the movie and most of her life: cowardly and overly concerned aboout societal matters. And to make it up to her daughter, she berates the movie’s villainess, Hilly Holbrook (Howard), a classic “mean girl” from one of the most connected families in Jackson, Mississippi, in language that will end any connection between their families. “Get your raggedy ass off my porch!” she says.
We’re supposed to cheer. Some people probably did. The bad person has been told off, and Allison Janney, whom we loved on “West Wing,” is someone we can love again. And we get that nice mother-daughter feeling going.
Years ago, “In Living Color” did a spot-on satire on Hollywood movies about civil rights. It was mostly lampooning “Cry Freedom,” I think, and a bit of “Mississippi Burning,” both of which focus on well-meaning whites and the problems they encounter (losing jobs and homes, etc.) as they stand up to racism. The black folks around them are being beaten and killed, sure, but it’s the white folks we worry about because it’s the white folks we focus on. Black folks are non-entities: walk-ons in their own story.
“The Help” is an improvement on this kind of historical myopia since it actually gives half-time to its title characters. Okay, 45 percent.
It’s 1962 and Skeeter Phelan is returning from college to her hometown of Jackson, where she lands a job ghosting a household-advice column for The Jackson Journal. (Aside: The actor who plays the editor, Leslie Jordan, steals the scene; he’s so authentic I assumed he was a local.) Catch: Skeeter doesn’t know from household advice; she was raised by a beloved maid, Constantine (Cisely Tyson), who has mysteriously disappeared, and initially she has nowhere to turn. But eventually she relies upon the people who do know housework: the black maids who bus in from the outskirts, and raise the kids and cook the meals and clean the floors of the white folks in town. From this initial contact, she gets an idea for a book. What is it like to raise a child who then becomes your boss? What is it like to leave your own child to care for another? Her editor in New York, Elain Stein (Mary Steenburgen), who has suggestions of a “Sex and the Single Girl” lifestyle in her few moments on screen, is open to the idea, but doubts she’ll get any Southern black maid to trust her and talk. It’s the North reminding the South how the South lives.
Even so, one voice slowly emerges: Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who works for Hilly’s friend, Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly), raising the little girl that Elizabeth can’t or won’t. You could call Aibileen the soul of Skeeter’s book just as she is the soul of the movie. Davis is able to portray a bone-deep sorrow few actors can. She has a dignity about her but it’s never the proud, Hollywood kind meant for oppressed minorities. In the roles I’ve seen her in—“Doubt,” “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and this—her characters are often skittish and distracted, as if they were thinking of other, sadder things. Most likely they are, since the movies are never wholly about them. The things she’s thinking about are the things Hollywood doesn’t portray: her life. But through Skeeter’s eyes, we do get a portion of that life.
If Skeeter is a progressive in racial matters, Skeeter’s childhood friend, Hilly, is the regressive. At a time when the civil rights movement is gaining strength, with marches in Albany and Birmingham and Washington D.C., she’s lobbying for a state law requiring separate bathrooms for black maids. “They carry different diseases than we do,” she says.
Hilly’s fears and prejudices lead to the ultimate in just desserts. When she fires her maid, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), for using the family toilet on a rainy day, then talks trash about her so she can’t get other work, Minny returns with a peace offering: a chocolate pie. But it’s not a peace offering because it’s not wholly chocolate. Hilly, who didn’t want to put her ass where Minny put hers, winds up eating ... no nice way to say this ... Minny’s shit. Literally. Minny planned on keeping this fact a secret, but Hilly is so awful, and Minny so volatile, that they have the following exchange:
Minny: Eat my shit.
Hilly (shocked): Excuse me?
Minny: I said eat... my... shit.
Hilly (still shocked): Have you lost your mind?
Minny: No, ma’am but you is about to. Cause you just did.
One wonders to what extent a black maid could say “Eat my shit” to a white woman in early 1960s Mississippi, let alone make it literally come true, without losing more than an income. The movie suggests that Hilly is so embarrassed by the incident that she’ll do anything to keep it under wraps. But wouldn’t she want revenge? And if she couldn’t tell the truth, what’s to stop her from makin’ up a little ol’ fib? She’d hardly be the first Southern belle to do so.
(Aside I: When did Bryce Dallas Howard become the villainess de rigueur of Hollywood? Not only Hilly here but the worst girlfriend in the world, Rachael, in “50/50.” Who knew the daughter of Ron Howard, Hollywood’s Mr. Nice Guy, had it in her?)
(Aside II: Does anyone else think of this movie as the battle of the Gwen Stacys? Howard and Stone, squaring off here, have both played Spider-Man's girlfriend: Howard in a bit part in “Spider-Man 3,” and Stone as the main squeeze in “The Amazing Spider-Man” this summer.)
(Aside III: OK, nerd hat off.)
Post-pie, Minny finds work on the outskirts of town with an ostracized white girl with a heart of gold. Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) is from Sugar Ditch, Miss., and is viewed as white trash by the girls in town, particularly Hilly, who once dated Celia’s husband, Johnny (Mike Vogel). Basically Celia is too dumb to be racist, to know all of the things you are supposed to do or say, or not do or say, with the help, and this, combined with a childlike enthusiasm, makes her adorable. She’s the other good white girl in town, and Minny teaches her how to cook, clean, sass other women. Apparently she knew none of these things. One wonders what she was she doing for the first 20 years of her life.
Meanwhile, Yule Mae Davis (Aunjanue Ellis), Minny’s replacement in the Holbrook household, asks Hilly for a $75 loan so she and her husband can send both of their kids to college. OK ... Where to start with this? She asks Hilly for a loan? To send two kids to college? At a time when it took the National Guard to send James Meredith to the University of Mississippi? And she’s shocked when Hilly says no?
Later, while vacuuming, she finds Hilly’s engagement ring behind a couch, pockets it, pawns it, and is eventually arrested. This is the awful, unjust incident that sends all the other black maids in Jackson into the arms of Skeeter and into the pages of “The Help”: the fact that someone who stole something got arrested for it.
But never you mind. The book becomes a huge success, the maids get royalties, Skeeter gets a job in New York, and Hilly, awful Hilly, gets hers. Everyone—from Charlotte to Aibileen—tells her off. It’s a happy ending. How could it be otherwise? It’s now Mississippi 1964. What could possibly go wrong?
Movie Review: Young Adult (2011)
SPOILERS: HERE I COME
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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