erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2012 posts

Saturday January 12, 2013

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)


Does it or doesn’t it?

That’s what I wanted to know last month and I couldn’t get a straight answer from the myriad critics and commentators and clowns who had seen the film. They all disagreed. Detractors called it morally reprehensible. Advocates brought up the fact that the U.S. government under Pres. George W. Bush did in fact torture people, as if that were the controversy. But this was the controversy:

Does “Zero Dark Thirty” suggest that torture led to the intel that led to Osama bin Laden?

If so, I argued, then it disagreed with the facts as we knew them.

Zero Dark ThirtyI finally saw the film the other day, and I left the theater thinking it did something worse: it dramatized not just the efficacy of torture but its necessity. Yes, it makes torture look pretty awful, and the Americans who torture become depleted as well. But torture becomes the thing that needs to be done in order to achieve the film’s goal, which is getting Osama bin Laden. It’s how our heroes get their hands dirty, unlike those folks back in Washington, D.C., who sit behind desks. This is a conceit of many Hollywood action movies. The audience shares a knowing wink with the heroes on the screen. We’re all adults here; we know how the world works. Think of the way Pres. Lincoln bribed lame-duck congressmen to pass the 13th amendment in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” To do good, you need to do a little bad. Except this time it’s torturing people.

But I saw no direct link between that torture and the intel to get bin Laden.

Then I got home, read some of the commentary, particularly Glenn Greenwald’s in The Guardian, and realized I’d missed it. There is such a link. Suddenly I had sympathy for all of those critics who couldn’t give me a straight answer last month. An hour after seeing the movie, a movie in which I’d searched for this very thing, I couldn’t give myself a straight answer.

So I went to see the movie a second time.

This particular story
One wonders why screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow went with this particular story. They had so many options.

They could have made the movie about the U.S. Navy Seal team, Team Six, that actually went into Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed bin Laden. Instead they’re the tail-end of the film and we hardly get to know them. They’re virtually interchangeable. They’re scruffy and wear fatigues and—for much of their time onscreen—night goggles. They seem like insect creatures in an alien land. We don’t see their faces. Is that the Aussie dude from “Warrior”? Or is that the other bearded guy? Or that third bearded guy? The assault on the compound is fascinating for how dull it is. Bigelow doesn’t use quick cuts or pulse-pounding music. It is not triumphant. Far from it. It’s done with a whisper, professionally, almost in real time. Back in Afghanistan, there are congratulations, and shouts of joy, but also a 10-year-long exhale. The ending, with Maya (Jessica Chastain) on the military plane being asked where she wants to go, and stopping, and tears welling up, is like the ending of “The Graduate” or “The Candidate.” What do I do now? We don’t know who we are anymore.

The movie begins with a minute of blackscreen audio from Sept. 11, 2001. We hear screams. We hear conversation between someone in the towers and a 911 operator. “I’m gonna die.” “No, ma’am, stay calm.” “It’s so hot, I’m burning up.” Then just the operator: “Can anyone hear me?” Then it’s two years later and we’re at a black ops site where old-hand Dan (Jason Clarke) and newbie Maya are torturing Anmar (Reda Kateb) to get information about the next attack.

It’s a long movie, 157 minutes, and in each segment Maya partners with a different person, or group of people, in the intelligence/military community, to get bin Laden. Maya is the driving force, the laserlike focus, but mostly it’s the others who gather the intel. Dan gets Anmar, after two years, to give up the name “Abu Ahmed,” a nom de guerre, which Maya carries with her through the years, through rumors of his death and arguments with Jessica (Jennifer Ehle, Rosemary Harris’ daughter), who thinks bribery trumps ideology, until Debbie (Jessica Collins), a newbie in the Pakistani office, finds Abu Ahmed’s real name in an old file. Maya then convinces Dan, back at Langley, to get a Kuwaiti contact to find the family, whose phone is then tapped. She convinces Larry from Ground Branch (Édgar Ramirez of “Carlos” fame) to use his limited resources to search for the son who keeps calling from phone centers near Islamabad. It’s another analyst, Jack (Harold Perrineau), who brings the news that this son, surely Abu Ahmed, has bought a cellphone, and they’re able to track its signal; and in this manner, and despite the fact that this man always calls at odd hours and on the move, they manage to get a photo of him, which their Pakistani sources use to track his movements through the city. Which is how we wind up at the complex in Abbotabad.

But is bin Laden there? Now that debate begins, mostly in D.C. Maya’s there for it, of course. In a meeting with the CIA director (James Gandolfini), never named but obviously Leon Panetta, others, including Dan, offer weak probabilities, 60 percent maybe, that bin Laden is in the compound. Then Maya pipes up. She’s 100 percent certain. After a second she amends it to 95. Not because absolute certainty is impossible but because she knows it scares the shit out of her colleagues. The director smiles. He likes her toughness. We like it, too, or we’re supposed to, but Maya never annoyed me more than at this moment. There’s a scene in the second “Godfather” movie, the Hyman Roth birthday-cake celebration on a rooftop in Cuba, in which Michael correctly predicts the Cuban revolution. It’s a cheap device: having fictional characters get real history right with the 20/20 hindsight of screenwriters.

Eventually they follow Maya’s lead, we meet Seal Team Six, and … you know.

The facts as we know them
Did you miss the link between torture and bin Laden in that synopsis? I missed it the first time I saw the movie because I forgot how Abu Ahmed’s name was first introduced. I thought Maya came armed with it. Instead it emerged after two years of torture.

Last month I said such a link would dispute the facts as we know them. I said it would be a lie. In the movie, Dan keeps telling Anmar, “When you lie to me, I hurt you,” and I think critics and pundits are saying the same thing to Kathryn Bigelow. When you lie to us, we hurt you.

But is it a lie? Last week, Acting CIA director Michael Morell wrote an internal memo in which he talked up the film’s inaccuracies. In so doing, he actually muddied the waters. He said the film’s impression that enhanced interrogation techniques were key to finding UBL is false. Then he wrote:

As we have said before, the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well.

In refuting the film’s falseness, he actually lays bare its truth.

In The Washington Post, meanwhile, Jose Rodriguez, Jr., a 31-year CIA veteran who headed up some of these programs, says that both the film and the film’s critics get it wrong. Enhanced interrogation did lead to intel that led to bin Laden. But it wasn’t the kind of interrogation shown onscreen. They waterboarded with small plastic water bottles, for example, not rusty buckets. He also objected to the Jessica subplot. Maya’s friend and rival, Jessica, thinks she has a mole in al Qaeda and agrees to meet him at a U.S. military outpost in Afghanistan. She’s portrayed as giddy, almost silly, baking a cake for his arrival. It’s as if it’s a date. She’s worried he won’t show. When he does, she’s worried that the guards at the gates will scare him off, so she gets them to stand down. Then she, and he, and several military officers are blown up. The character, says Rodriguez, is based on a real CIA officer. He writes: “The real person was an exceptionally talented officer who was responsible for some enormous intelligence successes, including playing a prominent role in the capture of al-Qaeda logistics expert Abu Zubaida in 2002. Her true story and memory deserve much better.” Not knowing this agent at all, I agree. The movie’s long as is, and this makes it longer, and it’s all telegraphed. Why make her seem like such a giddy girl on a date, for example? To make Maya look better? Does she need that? Doesn’t she have “100%”? Doesn’t she have “motherfucker”?

Yet the larger point remains. According to both of these CIA officers, enhanced interrogation, or torture, led to intel that led to bin Laden.

But is this right? Senate investigations are now being called to find out what Bigelow knew and when she knew it; what Bigelow was fed and how. At the moment, the truth isn’t out there.

But even though we don’t know the truth at the moment, is the movie still wrong?

The lesson of the Central Park Five
To me it’s wrong because of what we learn in “The Central Park Five.” That documentary, which was also released in select cities in 2012, is about five kids, ages 14 to 16, who confessed to the infamous assault and rape of a jogger in Central Park in 1989, but who were innocent of the crime. Why did they confess? They got tired. They got worn down. They wanted to go home. After 14 to 30 hours of interrogation, none of it enhanced, the police were able to get innocent people to confess to horrific crimes. They got misinformation and it led to tragedy. The real rapist continued to rape and kill for another few months before he was caught. These boys were put away for 5 to 10 years. Nobody won.

In “Zero Dark Thirty,” we never have the wrong people. We always have the right people. And they always break. The movie’s right about that. Everyone breaks. Innocent people probably break sooner.

Mark Boal recently defended his film at the New York Film Critics Awards ceremony. He said: “I think at the end of the day, we made a film that allows us to look back at the past in a way that gives us a more clear-sighted appraisal of the future.” What’s that appraisal? I would say it’s this: Torture works. It’s a little immoral and a lot effective, and it prevents great tragedies. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, we get our hands a little dirty. But in the end we got bin Laden and that’s what matters. Because we never torture the wrong people.

A few years ago, I wrote an article on a civil rights lawyer named Robert Rubin. One of his cases involved a man named Hady Omar, whose story goes like this:

On Sept. 11, 2001, Omar’s flight from Florida was grounded in Houston, but he made it back to Fort Smith, Ark., and his American wife, Candy, in time for the FBI to pick him up the next day. He was targeted for: a) being Egyptian, and b) buying his plane ticket from the same Kinko’s in Boca Raton that one of the hijackers used. The FBI had questions but Omar wasn’t worried. The next day he took a lie detector test, passed, but instead of going free, the INS took him, in shackles, across state lines, to an office in Oakdale, La., then to a prison in New Orleans, then to a federal penitentiary in Pollock, La. There, while someone videotaped him with a camcorder, he was ordered to strip. There was a body cavity search, and jokes were made, and guards, including female guards, laughed. Finally he was placed in shackles in a 10-foot by 10-foot cell. He told officials he didn’t eat pork so he was served pork twice a day. His hot water was turned off so he stopped bathing. Days turned into weeks turned into months. He lost 20 pounds. He had thoughts of suicide. Finally, after 73 days without charge, he was freed. By then he’d lost his job and many of his friends—the front page of the Fort Smith paper on Sept. 13 featured a four-column photograph of Omar being led away in handcuffs under the headline: “Terror Strikes Home.” He and Candy were forced to sell their car and furniture; they moved in with her father. That’s when Rubin got involved.  

Hady Omar got “lawyered up,” as they say in the movie.

Boal and Bigelow don’t show authorities incarcerating and interrogating men like Hady Omar, but it would’ve been easy to do so. There’s a perfect moment for it. When Debbie finds Abu Ahmed in a file folder, Maya wonders aloud why the information never got to her. There’s a discussion of all the misinformation flying around after 9/11. It’s implied that this misinformation came from other countries, probably Pakistan, who pretended to help but hurt. It would’ve been the perfect moment to bring up the innocent people who wound up in the detainee program. But for some reason Boal and Bigelow didn’t want to allude to that story.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…
So how was the movie?

“Zero Dark Thirty” can be a slog. We never get to know our main character because she has no personality besides getting bin Laden. Most of the others are background figures. The most intriguing is Dan, who does his job well, and who has something of a thousand-yard stare in his eyes. He goes back early. He says he’s seen too many naked guys. It’s gallows humor. Jason Clarke does a great, understated job with the role.

I’ll say this: “Zero Dark Thirty” goes for veracity and mostly achieves it. But it screws up in this most important area. It misrepresents the efficacy of torture. It does so, at the least, by withholding information from us. And when you withhold information from us, we hurt you.

Posted at 08:15 AM on Jan 12, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Tuesday January 08, 2013

Movie Review: Anna Karenina (2012)


I was worried I’d be bored with it since I already knew the story: Russia, married woman, affair, train. But I became intrigued by the purposeful staginess and theatricality from director Joe Wright. Or was that in the screenplay by Tom Stoppard? Of course it was. That’s a Stoppard staple.

It begins in a theater, on stage, with the words “Anna Karenina” on the curtain. I expected such theatricality to fall away, as it tends to in movies, and it does, at times, and we’re “in the scene” rather than “in the scene of the scene.” But it takes awhile to do this and the theatricality almost always returns—sometimes at Anna Karenina (2012) by Joe Wright and Tom Stoppardunexpected moments, such as at the end when Anna (Keira Knightley) is trapped by love and jealousy and society and doesn’t know which way to turn until she sees a way out. It was unexpected at this point in the story because I’d already equated this theatricality with the airs, theatricality and stagecraft in 19th-century Russian high society, of which Anna, here, was no longer a part. So why remind us? Someone with more time on their hands can go scene-by-scene and suggest why this scene dropped the cinematic illusion and this scene maintained the illusion. I’m sure Wright and Stoppard had their reasons.

I got tired of the contrivance, to be honest. I’ve never been a fan of it. I suppose I think it’s the job of the storyteller to put me in the story and it’s my job, as listener or viewer, to take myself out of it. There’s a tyranny and pomposity to this kind of post-modernism as well as pointlessness. It’s weak tyranny. I will tell you when and where you will be taken out of the story, thereby weakening the story. I search for engagement with the story rather than removal from it. I object to the author’s strong hand on the back of my neck.

That said, there were times when the contrivance worked. I’m thinking of the moment Vronsky’s horse falls off the stage during the race—that was powerful—or when Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) gives up Moscow society for his country estate and leaves the suffocating artifice of the stage for the cold, harsh reality of the Russian winter. He turns, steps outside, and it’s as if we can breathe again. It’s as if we didn’t realize how much we were suffocating until that moment.

My Anna
It’s been decades since I’ve read “Anna Karenina”—final quarter of college, spring 1987—and I’d forgotten a lot of it. Levin, for example. Completely. Even though he’s half the story. He was my guy back then—in love, searching for meaning—but I found him harder to take here. I’m older, of course, and harsher. I watched his dull, youthful stabs at love and rolled my eyes. I almost felt like Levin’s Marxist brother, Nikolai (David Wilmot), who, dying, rails against the privileged classes, saying, “Romantic love will be the last illusion of the old order.” In 1987, that line would have pained me, as it no doubt pains Levin. Now I just shrug: “Maybe.” But I lack Nikolai’s conviction for what comes after. I saw the mess Nikolai’s brethren made of it.

At the same time, I was charmed by the flirtation, and the held-breath, of the game of blocks Levin has with his unrequited love, Kitty (the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, with whom I was also charmed), later in the movie. By this point he’s suffered, she’s suffered (she loved Vronsky), and they’ve both matured. He’s in her parlor, visiting, and there are blocks there, and they play a game, almost like “Wheel of Fortune,” in which one side asks a question or makes a statement using only the first letter of each word, and the other side tries to guess what it is. In this way, this safe way, they reveal their feelings. DNMN, for example, from Levin, means, “Did No Mean Never?” referring to his earlier marriage proposal. TIDNK, she says, meaning “Then I Did Not Know.” And now? he asks. She asks, via the blocks, for his forgiveness for the way she was. He responds with these letters: ILY. No translation needed. That’s a sweet moment, and recalls the various wordgames from Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”

In Tolstoy’s novel, I remember having more sympathy for Anna and less for Karenin, who seemed a prig to me. But as the movie progressed, I found myself less and less sympathetic with Anna, who gives up her child, etc., for her one great love, Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of “Kick Ass” fame). But Vronsky is, for the most part, shallow and callow. It’s a game to him, until it’s not, and Anna seems a fool for falling in love with him as completely as she does. Meanwhile, her husband, Karenin (Jude Law), publicly cuckolded, seems a decent, moral man who mostly tries to do the right thing.

Kundera's Anna
Our sympathies here are no small matter. Milan Kundera, in the last pages of his book of essays, “The Art of the Novel,” writes the following:

When Tolstoy sketched the first draft of Anna Karenina, Anna was a most unsympathetic woman, and her tragic end was entirely deserved and justified. The final version of the novel is very different, but I do not believe that Tolstoy had revised his moral ideas in the meantime; I would say, rather, that in the course of writing, he was listening to another voice than that of his personal moral conviction. He was listening to what I would like to call the wisdom of the novel. Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work.

But what is that wisdom, what is the novel? There is a fine Jewish proverb: Man thinks, God laughs. … Because man thinks and the truth escapes him. Because the more men think, the more one man's thought diverges from another's. And finally, because man is never what he thinks he is.

Maybe the movie needed more drafts. By the end, Anna, never particularly likeable, is insufferable. She’s mad with love, mad with jealousy, mad with loneliness. She thinks she can go out into high society again, and pretends it doesn’t matter what people think. It’s a shock when it does. By this point, I began to feel sorry for, all of people, Vronsky, who has to put up with her histrionics. Finally she sees her way out. She met Count Vronsky on a train and ends her life beneath one. It’s this story in a newspaper account of the time—woman throws herself beneath train—that led Tolstoy to write “Anna Karenina” in the first place.

“Anna Karenina” looks beautiful, is filmed gorgeously, and I loved Matthew Macfadyen as Oblonsky. But the story’s dilemma is truly the dilemma of another time and place. Attempts to bring the story to our time should bring some of its wisdom with it.

Posted at 07:06 AM on Jan 08, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Monday January 07, 2013

Movie Review: The Central Park Five (2012)


If they’d made a feature film rather than a documentary about the Central Park Five—the five teenagers who were convicted in the brutal assault and rape of an investment banker jogging in Central Park on the evening of April 19, 1989—Jack Klugman, who recently passed away, and who played Juror No. 5 in Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men,” wouldn’t have been a poor choice to play Juror No. 5, Ronald Gold, in the 1990 trial of three of the five. At the least, his casting would have highlighted the difference between the U.S. justice system in its ideal and its reality. In “12 Angry Men,” Juror No. 5 is the second man to come over to Henry Fonda’s side on the movie’s ultimate path toward justice and a “Not guilty” verdict for the black man wrongfully accused of a crime. In the 1990 trial, Juror No. 5 was the lone holdout, the reason the jury deliberated as long as it did (10 days), on the court’s ultimate path toward injustice and a “Guilty” verdict for the five black kids wrongfully accused of a crime. The movies, even serious movies like “12 Angry Men,” are still so much wish-fulfillment fantasy. Hooray for Hollywood.

As for why did Juror No. 5 changed his mind and voted to convict? It’s the same reason, ironically, the Central Park Five confessed to the brutal rape in the first place.

14 and 15, mostly
I remember the Central Park Jogger case well. I remember hearing about it on Sunday morning talk shows, sitting in the living room of my father’s house in South Poster for "The Central Park Five" by Ken BurnsMinneapolis in April 1989. I’d just spent a year abroad in Taipei, Taiwan, and was preparing for grad school at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, but the thing I was doing most that spring? Dating a girl. A girl who liked to jog at night. As a result, the thought of random acts of violence, particularly gang rape by packs of kids, self-professed “wolf packs” engaged in the sport of “wilding,” terrified me. I never even thought to ask if it was true. It was on the Sunday morning talk shows, after all.

“The Central Park Five” by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, begins with an audiotape confession. “I’m the one that did this,” it says. It’s chilling. Questions immediately present themselves. If these five kids didn’t do it, how did they get accused in the first place? How was this injustice done?

In ordinary ways, it turns out. In ways that will feel familiar to any viewer of “The Wire.”

The five were in Central Park that night. Raymond Santana, Sr. remembers sending his son there. He told him there was too much trouble on the corner, that the park was safer. This parental concern ruined Raymond Jr.’s life. Raymond Sr. knows it. You can see it in his eyes. He lives with it every day.

I’d forgotten how young the kids were—if I ever knew. Korey Wise was the oldest at 16. Raymond Santana, Jr. and Kevin Richardson were the youngest at 14. Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam were both 15.

They each became part of a gang of kids, anywhere from 25 to 32 in number, who, that evening, messed with people on the north side of the park: throwing rocks at cars; knocking over cyclists; beating up a homeless person. Each of the five, in the doc, claims he wasn’t doing any of the messing; each professes a kind of shock that this behavior was even going on. But they stuck around and the cops came, and Kevin, Yusef and Raymond Santana, among others, were detained at the Central Park Precinct and questioned about the incidents. They were about to be released when a homicide detective working on a rape case across the park telephoned. “Hold onto those guys!” he said.

A homicide detective was working the case because the jogger was in coma; she’d lost three-quarters of her blood. They didn’t think she was going to make it. But at least they had suspects. They had 25 to 32 of them. Within a day, five had confessed.

Why the innocent plead guilty
There was an article in The New York Times the other day about a rape case in West Virginia in which DNA evidence now suggests that the man who had been convicted of the 11-year-old crime, the 19-year-old who had confessed to it back then, didn’t do it. Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project condemns the prosecution. An assistant prosecutor fights back. “Raping an 83-year-old lady is about as bad as it gets,” he says. “Why would someone plead guilty and say they were sorry several months later if they really had no participation in it?”

That’s what we want to know watching “The Central Park Five.” Why would these kids, if they didn’t do it, confess to this horrific crime? The answer we get sheds a little light on the world. It helps explain not only the Central Park case but the West Virginia case. It explains why Ronald Gold finally voted to convict. It explains why we went to war in Iraq.

The detectives interrogated the kids for 14 hours, 20 hours, 30 hours. They said they’d already been fingered by other kids in the gang. They said, “Hey, these other kids say you did it. Now we know you didn’t, but…” They offered them deals. They demonstrated anger and conviction. They didn’t let up.

“I just wanted it to stop,” one of the Central Park Five says.

“I just wanted to go home,” says another.

They were 14 and 15 years old and thought if they confessed to parts of the crime—the holding the woman down, say—they’d be able to go home. Instead they walked out of the police station and into a media maelstrom. Feelings were hot. Grandstanding took place. Donald Trump placed an ad in the local papers demanding the return of the death penalty. Members of the mainstream media called the boys “sociopaths” and “mutants.” Even many in the black community went along. “Many of us were frightened by our own children,” says Rev. Calvin O. Butts III.

All of this created a momentum for conviction. Yet without their videotaped confessions, which were quickly recanted, there was no evidence linking them to the crime. The New York Police Dept.’s own timeline placed the boys about a mile from the ravine at the time the rape took place. The trail of matted grass from the path to the ravine was only 18 inches wide, meaning they’d had to walk it single-file. Most telling of all, despite the ferocity of the attack, they’d left none of their DNA behind: not in the woods; not in the woman. The police had DNA, yes, but it was someone else’s. “I felt like I’ve been kicked in the stomach,” prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer told a colleague when she discovered this.

But the case continued; it had momentum. At the trial, on the stand, the police denied that they had coerced confessions; they denied making deals. And they had the confessions. “It was hard to imagine why someone would make up [a guilty plea when they were innocent],” Ronald Gold, Juror No. 5, says in the doc. He was the lone holdout for conviction. He says the other jurors even called him a rat for holding out. So, he says, “I went along with it in the end.” He says, “I was wiped out.” He voted guilty for the same reason the boys lied about being guilty. He got worn down. He just wanted to go home.

A modest nod
Most of the Central Park Five got 5 to 7 years. Korey, the eldest, was put away for 10 years. He was still there, at Riker’s Island, in 2001, when he crossed paths with Matias Reyes, who had been arrested in August 1989 and convicted shortly thereafter on multiple rape charges. He was known as the East Side Rapist. He did horrible things. He also raped and assaulted the jogger that night in Central Park. When he saw Korey still in prison for his crime, something in him stirred, and he confessed, the confession we hear at the beginning of the doc. When his DNA was compared with the DNA found at the scene, it was an exact match.

In December 2002, when the state of New York vacated the convictions of the five, I was working as a freelance writer in Seattle. I was probably working on a story for Washington Law & Politics. I was plugged in. But unlike April 1989, I don’t remember hearing about the case. “These were five kids who we tormented, we false accused, we pilloried in the press, we invented phrases for the imagines crimes” says historian Craig Steven Wilder. “And then we put them in jail. And when the evidence turned out that they were innocent, we gave a modest nod and walked away.”

“Central Park Five” is a straightforward, well-researched, powerful documentary, although I would’ve like a subtler ending. I also would’ve liked more on what led to the term “wilding,” which never existed until the police mentioned it in connection with this crime. How did it come about? David Dinkins mentions Emmett Till as historical reference point but no one brings up the Scottsboro Boys? That’s what I kept thinking. I kept thinking that for all the distance we’d traveled, we hadn’t gone that far.

But this is really less a story of race than coercion. It’s about the powerless, yes, but it’s a warning to the powerful. When you’re powerful, and committed, and you go searching for something, you’ll find it. You’ll find it because you’re powerful and committed. Even if the thing you’ve found is the wrong thing. Even if the thing you’ve found is the opposite of the thing you were searching for. Here, for example, we went searching for justice.

Posted at 06:20 AM on Jan 07, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Wednesday January 02, 2013

Movie Review: Django Unchained (2012)


The slaughter of Native Americans? The rape of Nanjing? The near-genocides of Josef Stalin or Pol Pot? What is the next historic horror Quentin Tarantino will turn into a spaghetti-western-style revenge fantasy? In the 1990s, QT gave us three complex, pulpy crime stories (“Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Jackie Brown”), and in the aughts three female revenge fantasies (“Kill Bill” I and II and “Death Proof”), and now he’s given us two revenge fantasies of an historical nature: the rising up of the historically downtrodden. “Inglourious Basterds” showed us Jews killing Nazis, including Uncle Adolf, once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France. Now, in “Django Unchained,” a freed slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), kills slavemasters in the deep South—or more specifically, as it’s scrolled across the screen in big 1950s type, M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I—in 1858. “Two years before the Civil War,” QT adds helpfully.

It’s a great idea. History is nothing but groups of people being fucked over, while the movies are all about wish-fulfillment fantasy. So why not meld the two? The Bible is full of revenge fantasies as well. Maybe that’s the next direction? “Quentin Tarantino’s The Bible.” That’s a title he’d dig. He’d dig it the most, baby.

The more-or-less true story of the bounty hunter
Question: Who holds the power in a Quentin Tarantino story? More than the one with the weapon, it’s the one with the story. His movies are conversations punctuated by violence, and the one who holds the floor holds the power.

Poster for Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" (2012)This is apparent more than halfway through “Django Unchained” when Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) momentarily loses the conversational thread to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz actually looks confused at the dinner table. Someone is telling a story and it’s not him. He should know that when the talking is done a gun will be pointed at his head, since that’s how he usually ends his stories. It’s really this, getting one-upped in storytelling, more than the dogs tearing apart the runaway slave d’Artagnan (Ato Essandoh), that later bothers Schultz. That’s why he: a) insults Candie, and, b) shoots and kills him. He must know he’ll die as a result. But he has to do it. The man can’t abide getting one-upped in storytelling. I’m sure Tarantino, an inveterate storyteller, feels the same way.

The storytelling is what’s right with “Django.” It also indicates where Schultz, or QT, goes wrong.

The power of Schultz’s stories is that they’re more-or-less true. In the beginning, he really is interested in buying the slave, Django, from the slave traders who are moving Django and four others across Texas in 1858. He comes upon them in the middle of the night, driving his absurd little stagecoach with the large plaster tooth bobbing comically on top. The tooth is subterfuge, since he hasn’t worked dentistry in five years. But he is interested in buying Django for a fair price. He’s a bounty hunter, tracking the three Brittle brothers (great name), but he’s never seen them. Django has. That’s why he wants him. But the two white men, the slave traders, aren’t interested in his long-winded story, nor his fancy-pants European vocabulary, and they try to cut his story short, not to mention his bargaining, at the point of a gun. That’s our first shootout. Schultz kills one, leaves the other beneath his own horse, but still pays for Django. Because his story is true.

His next story is even better because every element of it, in the telling, seems crazy, but in the end it all pulls together.

Schultz rides into Daugherty, Texas, accompanied by, as everyone says, “a nigger on a horse.” That freaks them out right away. Then he actually brings Django into a saloon, which is closed for another hour. When the saloonkeeper flees, he pours himself and Django beers and tells him of his plans. He says he’s against slavery, but, for the moment, somewhat guiltily, he’ll use it, and Django, to get the Brittle brothers and the bounty on their heads. After that, he’ll set Django free. Deal? By this time the sheriff, Bill Sharp (Don Stroud), shows up, and Schultz, while explaining matters, shoots and kills him in the muddy Texas street. Now everyone’s freaking. But rather than attempt to escape, Schultz nonchalantly returns to the saloon, keeps telling his story to Django, and let’s opposition forces, led by the local Marshal (Tom Wopat), gather outside. When the Marshal demands he give himself up, he first exacts the concession that no one will shoot him on sight; that he’ll get a fair trial before being hanged by the neck. The Marshal reluctantly agrees. So he walks outside into the gauntlet of guns, unarmed but with a story. Their sheriff? Bill Sharp? He isn’t who they think he is. He’s a wanted man, with a bounty on his head, and Schultz is a court-appointed bounty hunter, and that’s why he killed him. He has the piece of paper in his pocket to prove it. “In other words, Marshal,” he adds, trumping everyone, “you owe me $2,000.”

Nice. And the main reason it works is because it’s true.

The mostly false story of the Mandingo slaver
In this manner, Dr. King Schultz and Django move through the Midwest and South telling stories, killing men, collecting bounties. Sometimes the stories aren’t enough, as when Django kills two of the Brittle brothers in the presence of Big Daddy (Don Johnson), who then gathers a posse, an early version of the Ku Klux Klan, to kill the nigger and the nigger-loving German. But King knows when his stories aren’t enough and he’s ready for them, with dynamite (patented in 1867, but whatever). The purpose  of the Kluxers is comic relief. Before they ride, they complain about the hoods with the eye slots. How they can’t see. How they can’t breathe. Can they just not wear them? It’s the funniest part of the movie.

King even tells Django a story around a campfire. It’s the story of Brynhildr. It resonates because Django’s wife, who was whipped by the Brittle brothers and resold into slavery, is named Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). She was raised by Germans, speaks some German. That’s an interesting coincidence, by the way. The slave that the native German bounty hunter needed to collect a bounty has a wife who speaks German. Here’s another: Schultz learns, by and by, that the slave he bought and freed also turns out to be the fastest gun in the South. Too many coincidences like these can get in the way of a good story. We begin to question the things we’re hearing or watching. Where was that chain gang of slaves going at the beginning of the movie anyway? How did Dr. King Schultz find them in the middle of the night in the middle of Texas? And how did he find them coming the other way? If he was pursuing Django, wouldn’t he be catching up to them? Too many coincidences make us wonder if the storyteller is a bad storyteller; or if he’s just lying to us.

The power of Schultz’s stories in the first half of the movie is that they’re true. He goes wrong—and you could say Tarantino goes wrong—when he begins to lie.

Schultz and Django, partners now, discover that Broomhilda has been sold to Calvin Candie, of Candieland (great name), in the deepest part of the South: M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I. How to get her back?

Schultz gives a quick reason why they don’t rely on some version of the truth. I forget what it is. I also don’t understand why they don’t use the story he uses in the end: He’s German; he misses speaking German; might he, perchance, buy the slavegirl who speaks German? Calvin Candie isn’t an unreasonable sort. He’s also a bit of a slave to Southern hospitality. I’m sure he would’ve acquiesced to this request for a fair (or unfair) price. Using this scheme, Schultz wouldn’t even have had to bring Django with him to Candieland. And since the heat between Django and Broomhilda is what tips off the house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who alerts his master, leaving Django back in town, or up North, might have averted the bloodbath that follows.

But that’s the thing. Schultz, the storyteller, is interested in averting bloodbaths. Tarantino, the storyteller, is not. In fact, he needs the bloodbath or the movie isn’t a Tarantino movie. It’s just full of words. It’s not cool. A few years ago, in “Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!,” a documentary about Australian exploitation movies, Tarantino said the following about how the low-budget thriller, “Patrick,” nearly influenced “Kill Bill”:

I always remember that actor. I thought he was amazing-looking in that movie with his eyes just wide open and everything, and in the original script [for “Kill Bill”] I had it written like that. Then I showed it to Uma and she goes, “I'm not going to do that,” and I go, “Why?” and she goes, “You wouldn't have your eyes open like that if you were in a coma! That's not realistic.” I go, “Actually I never thought was it realistic or not, it's just Patrick did it, alright, and it looked really cool.”

That’s always been the problem with Tarantino. Given the choice between realistic and cool, he always goes for really cool.

The battle of the remaining storytellers
So Schultz concocts the false story, the made-up story, of wanting to purchase a Mandingo wrestler, while his companion, Django, a freed slave, is his advisor in the matter. Eventually they’re uncovered. The rest of the movie becomes, in a sense, a battle of the storytellers.

First, Calvin Candie, discovering the subterfuge of Schultz and Django, doesn’t just go into the dining room with guns cocked; he goes in there with a story. It’s a story meant to reassert white superiority over the Negro. It involves a hammer, and a skull, and dimples in an area of the skull, and it ends with the hammer coming down.

After Candie and Schultz have been killed, our next storyteller is Stephen. By this point, Django has killed many white folks, which, yeah, you don’t do in M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I, and the question becomes what to do with him. The white folks have the same old ideas: lynching, castration, dogs. But Stephen has a thought. Lynch Django and he becomes a legend for everything he’s already done. But force him to live out his days in subservient toil, for, say, the LeQuint Dickey Mining Co. of Australia, until he dies old and frail and useless, well, that will lessen his legend. It will change the trajectory of his story. That’s how he even puts it to Django. He imagines the day when Django finally keels over from overwork in the mines and tells him, “And that will be the story of you.”

And it might have been. But “Django Unchained” isn’t just a revenge fantasy. It is, to use the German, a bildungsroman, in which our protagonist, Django, mentored by Dr. King Schultz, moves from the darkness of slavery and into the light of absolute, fuck-you freedom. From Schultz, he learns about bounty hunting and guns. He learns how to dress and how to kill. And by the end, he’s learned how to tell a story, too. Sold to the Aussies, he uses this power. He tells them they’ve been lied to by the folks at Candieland, who claimed Django was a slave; he tells them that there is bounty-hunting wealth beyond imagination back at Candieland if they just want to go back and claim it. This story has the advantage of being mostly true, and the other slaves, too dim and scared to lie, corroborate it. So the Aussies, straight out of an Ozploitation movie, set Django free and die. And Django returns to rescue Broomhilda and put a final end to Stephen, the house nigger, and to Candieland itself. He blows it up, puts on his sunglasses, and rides off into the sunset with his girl.

And that, says Tarantino, is the story of him.

The story of the storyteller
So what’s the story of Tarantino? It’s changed over the years, hasn’t it?

First, it was the story of the videostore clerk who became a hot screenwriter and director. Then it became the story of the auteur who employs favorite or forgotten actors. He started with Travolta in “Pulp Fiction,” moved onto Pam Grier and Robert Forster in “Jackie Brown,” and never really stopped. “Django Unchained” gets its name from the great spaghetti western “Django,” starring Franco Nero, so we get Nero, of course. He’s the dude at the bar at the Cleopatra Club who asks Django how his name is spelled. “The ‘D’ is silent,” Django says. “I know,” Nero says with a proud smile. Another cool, false moment for QT.

Other forgotten actors in “Django” include the aforementioned Don Johnson, Tom Wopat and Don Stroud; Dennis Christopher of “Breaking Away” as the Cleopatra Club owner; Lee Horsley of TV’s “Matt Houston,” and Ted Neeley, Jesus Christ Superstar himself, as one of the trackers whose hounds tear apart the runaway slave d’Artagnan. Neeley hasn’t acted on screen since 1985.

More recently, though, the story of Tarantino for me is the story of the auteur who never really lived up to the promise of “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction”; who, when given the choice between realistic and cool, always goes with cool, no matter how false it may be. He needs to learn the lesson of Dr. King Schultz. When you tell your story, try to make it more-or-less true. Make it so true that you can end it, and trump your enemies, with a piece of paper rather than a gun. Because in the end that’s cooler.

Posted at 07:39 AM on Jan 02, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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Saturday December 29, 2012

Movie Review: This is 40 (2012)


I laughed a lot during “This is 40,” Judd Apatow’s comedy of middle-aged angst, but he needs to rein in his performers. Or himself. Too many times it felt like people were doing bits, for which they had commitment, for which their commitment to the bit was the whole point, rather than simply being characters in a story that was moving forward. As a result, the story didn’t move forward. It stalled. The movie clocked in at 134 minutes. You could watch “Annie Hall” in that time and still have 40 minutes left over for pizza.

poster of Judd Apatow's "This is 40" (2012)Here. At one point, Pete and Debbie’s daughter, 13-year-old Sadie (Maude Apatow), has a dust-up on Facebook with classmate Joseph (Ryan Lee), which Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) become aware of. Debbie subsequently runs into Joseph at the school when she’s having a bad day and lets him have it. She calls him a little hairless wonder, compares him to Tom Petty, says his hair looks like a Justin Bieber wig on backwards. Then she adds:

So next time you think about writing something nasty on my daughter’s Facebook page, just remember me. Remember me. I will come down here, and I will fuck you up.

A few days later, when Pete is having a bad day, he runs into Joseph’s mom, Catherine (Melissa McCarthy), things escalate, and we wind up with this:

If he insults my daughter again, I’m going to hit him with my car. Got it? In fact, if you insult my wife again, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to show up at your house when you’re sleeping, and I’ll take your iPad and your iPod or your iMac and I’ll shove them up your fucking iCunt.

Eventually everyone is called into the principal’s office, where Pete and Debbie play dumb, or sweet, or innocent, or all three. Now it’s Catherine’s turn, or Melissa McCarthy’s, to push the envelope. She threatens Pete and Debbie:

I’d like to rear up and jackknife my legs and kick you both in the jaw with my foot bone.

She insults the principal:

Fuck you, Jill. You’re a horrible woman. This is why everybody hates you. This kind of shit. Ineffective. Bullshit hair. And I’m glad your husband died. Because you’re a fucking asshole. He probably killed himself.

As a result, Pete and Debbie get away with it, leave with smirks, and it momentarily draws them closer together. I like that idea, the awfulness of grown-ups, but none of it feels real. It feels like performers trying to outdo each other at a celebrity roast. It feels like comedians pushing the envelope.

During one of his denials, Pete says this: “That’s ridiculous. Who talks like that?”

People in Judd Apatow movies.

People like us
Let me add that it is a pleasure to see a movie about a couple who shares the same bathroom. They’re tired of each other. They know each other’s bad habits. She sneaks cigarettes, he cupcakes. She shaves off years, he hides bankruptcy woes. His father (Albert Brooks) keeps asking for money, her father (John Lithgow) is rich and distant.

It is a pleasure to see a movie where parents argue with their plugged-in children over screen time. Where they get rid of the Wi-Fi. Where they take away the iToys. Where Sadie, arguing with her father over her obsession with J.J. Abrams’ “Lost,” brings up his obsession with “Mad Men,” and how stupid that show is, which the father momentarily defends until he realizes how absurd the whole thing is and makes a frantic hand-washing gesture before ending the discussion.

A lot of it felt like life. But it felt like life as viewed through a privileged L.A. prism. Which it is.

Debbie is turning 40 and feels unattractive, but she’s only unattractive because she’s working next to Megan Fox, the real Megan Fox, who plays Desi, an employee in Debbie’s clothing boutique. That’s an L.A. problem. That’s a consequence of living in and working among stars in Hollywood. People like Fox don’t exist anywhere else. They may grow up in South Dakota or Minnesota or Tennessee but they all wind up in the movies and away from the rest of us. They turn two-dimensional. Anywhere outside of L.A., Leslie Mann at 40 is the hottest girl in town.

Every one of their complaints, in fact, their “real life” dilemmas, could be followed by a “fuck you” from the rest of us.

  • Debbie’s turning 40 and looks like Leslie Mann?
  • She’s stuck with a husband who looks like Paul Rudd? And who cheats on her with cupcakes?
  • They have financial woes but live in that house?
  • They have financial woes because he loaned $80,000 to his father?
  • They have financial woes because her boutique business, at which we rarely see her working, is only breaking even?
  • They have financial woes because in the middle of the global financial meltdown he left a well-paying job at Sony to start his own record label, at which he signed favorites from his youth, like Graham Parker, who never sell anymore, even though he knows that the entire music industry is going through the digital toilet? And we rarely see him even working at this place? Or breaking a sweat? Or going to clubs to check out new acts?

All together now: Fuck you.

Apatow calls this a sequel of sorts to “Knocked Up,” which grossed $148 million in 2007 ($171 million today), because Pete and Debbie showed up there as cautionary tale to Ben and Alison (Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl), and because a few other folks from that universe make it into this one. Not Alison and Ben. They’re referenced, but vaguely.

Instead we get the soft-talking Jason (Jason Segel), who is now a personal trainer, creating “Bodies by Jason,” and who soft-talks Megan Fox’s character into, we imagine, bed. There’s also Jodi (Charlyne Yi), who also works at the boutique, and who blames the missing $12K on Desi. Turns out she’s the thief. During the big reveal she gets to overcommit to her own bit. Another 30 seconds down the drain.

Despite these overcommitments, Apatow gets good performances from his actors. Both Mann and Rudd feel natural and effortless—although Rudd’s late-movie anger didn’t do it for me. Albert Brooks has most of the funny lines that feel like lines someone (someone funny) might actually say. Lena Dunham and Chris O’Dowd and Jason Segel do a lot with small moments. Even Megan Fox, now seemingly relegated to playing the hot, obtuse girl in middle-aged comedies (“Friends with Kids”), gets off some good line-readings. I was impressed.

I was also impressed with the acting of Apatow’s daughter, Maude, who totally seems like a semi-privileged, somewhat smart teenage girl here. This is her third movie. She played Sadie before in “Knocked Up” and Mable in “Funny People.” In each, her sister plays her sister, and her mother plays her mother, and all three are written and directed by her father, who always inserts a handsome dude into his role as husband and father: Rudd here, Eric Bana, whom the “Knocked Up” boys talk up as the great Jewish hero of “Munich,” in “Funny People.” It’s got to be a joke around the Apatow household. Who do we get next time, dear? Hell, it might make a good idea for a screenplay.

Again, I laughed out loud at “This is 40.” It’s a movie that tries to cut through the shit. But Apatow overindulges. He needs greater commitment to his characters and less to their bits.

Posted at 10:17 AM on Dec 29, 2012 in category Movie Reviews - 2012
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