Movie Reviews - 2013 postsMonday May 20, 2013
Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Various thoughts while watching “Star Trek Into Darkness”:
- What’s the U.S.S. Enterprise doing underwater? And that was the plan?
- Crap, they still have alarm clocks with annoying beeps in the 23rd century.
- Cars, too. Even with transporter devices? Why not just beam to the grocery store? Why not just beam your groceries to you? Why not replicate them?
- Seriously, are there no homely admiral’s daughters?
- You can use a communicator across the galaxy? From Earth to Qo’noS? That seems a bit of a cheat.
- God, Benedict Cumberbatch is good. Is he doomed to play superior beings from now on? Indubitably.
- Wait, did he say Khan … or Kai?
- So if the goal was to start a war with the Klingons, why relieve Kirk of command? Isn’t that who you want in charge? The reckless, think-with-his-gut captain?
- OK, so it’s like “Star Trek: Wrath of Khan” but reversed. Where Kirk does what Spock did and Spock does what Kirk did.
- I wonder how many takes “KHAAAAAAAN!” took? That’s like redoing “Stella!”
- Right, the tribble. Thank God. I don’t think I could’ve taken “Star Trek III: The Search for Kirk.”
But my main thought was of the roller coaster. Seriously, how many Spielbergian, breathless, everything-going-wrong-and-has-to-go-right-at-the-last-second moments are we going to have?
If the first J.J. Abrams-led “Star Trek” reboot reminded me of “Star Wars,” this one reminds me of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Even the cold open gives us our hero, Capt. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), carrying a kind of idol while running from natives with spears. Meanwhile, Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is being lowered into a volcano to detonate a cold-fusion device, and winds up trapped there, as lava laps up all around him. Can Kirk and Spock be saved? Of course they can. Kirk gives up the idol (a kind of map?), which the natives bow before, and he and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) jump off a cliff and swim to the U.S.S. Enterprise, which is hiding underwater, in salt water, against the express wishes of its chief engineer, Scotty (Simon Pegg). At which point, violating the Prime Directive, the Enterprise arises, to the amazed eyes of the indigenous people, which allows Kirk and company to use the transporter to beam Spock, whose protective suit is smoking, back to the Enterprise just in time. All good!
Not really. Even before Kirk is temporarily relieved of command for violating the Prime Directive (by revealing the Enterprise), and Spock temporarily reassigned to the U.S.S. Bradbury for doing same (by preventing the volcano from exploding), we have our own questions:
- Why is Kirk hanging, disguised, among the natives?
- Why did he take what he took? Even he doesn’t know.
- Why is McCoy down there? In case someone needs a doctor?
- Do they have no Prime Directive class at Star Fleet Academy? Did Kirk and Spock skip it? Does Spock not see the logic in it?
- Biggest: Why hide the U.S.S. Enterprise underwater?????
It’s always a bad sign when one of the characters in a movie annunciates the absurdity of what is going on in the movie—as Scotty does here. “Do you have any idea,” he tells Kirk, “how ridiculous it is to leave a starship on the bottom of the ocean?” Preach it, Montgomery.
And that’s just the first, breathless, Spielbergian moment. Others include: 1) the chase from, and capture by, the Klingons; 2) shooting Kirk and Khan from one starship to the next through a field of debris while Scotty is being held at phaser-point; 3) Kirk running and climbing and battling radioactivity to get the ship’s engines online before the Enterprise burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere; 4) Spock chasing Khan all over San Francisco.
All of these scenes are well-done but they’re pointless. The point of the roller coaster is to not think about anything but the roller coaster, which is what most moviegoers want, but it isn’t what “Star Trek” fans want. They want to think. They want it to make sense, and have meaning, and maybe even some poignancy. They want Kirk and Spock to be friends, sure, but not deep friends, not best buddies, before they’ve barely had an adventure together. Episodic TV allows you to build on friendship in a way that movies, even with their interminable sequels, do not.
Sure, Abrams and Paramount toss “Trek” fans some bones (no pun intended). Simon Pegg, who’s quite good, isn’t doing Scottish; he’s doing James Doohan doing Scottish. Anton Yelchin is doing Walter Koenig doing Russian. Similarly Urban and McCoy. We even get a “Damnit, I’m a doctor …” line. No Shatner imitations yet, though. And no Star Fleet sideburns. Shame. If they’re good enough for Neil Degrasse Tyson, they’re good enough for Chris Pine.
The movie, too, is basically a critique of the Bush administration after 9/11. Because we were attacked by one group (al Qaeda), we started a war with another (Iraq). Because Earth was attacked by one group (futuristic Romulans), Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) wants to start a war with another (the Klingons). It’s up to Kirk, giving a speech before Star Fleet at the end, to warn everyone, mostly us, about the dangers inherent in revenge.
But the rest? Uhura (Zoe Saldana), despite the Klingon language skills, is wasted, spending most of her time bitching about Spock acting like Spock. And do we get any rationale for why Spock is doing what he’s doing? Why the relationship with Uhura, and why the anger at Khan, and why does he need Uhura to stop him from killing Khan? Is his half-human side that strong in this alternative universe? And is it because the planet Vulcan is no more? And what of that? How many members of the Vulcan species are left? Wouldn’t this small fact alter his trajectory a bit, get him off the Enterprise maybe, doing something else? Wouldn’t it give him a different girlfriend? (No offense, Zoe.) Doesn’t it make sense for Spock to want to propagate his species now that they’re nearly extinct? Or at least consider doing so? Or at least talk about it with someone?
What was it like for Kirk to die as long as he died? Spock, mind-melding with a dying Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), said he felt, from Pike, four things: anger, confusion, loneliness and fear. No calm? No moving toward the light? Can Kirk confirm? Isn’t that the “Darkness” in the title? Can someone talk about any of this in a meaningful way?
Of course not. That would slow down the roller coaster ride and we can’t have that. “Star Trek” fans, who want to think, are few, and popcorn crunchers, who just want the roller-coaster ride, are many. And as Mr. Spock told us here and in the original “Star Trek II,” and as J.J. Abrams and Paramount executives and all of the numbers-crunchers in Hollywood surely believe, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
Movie Review: Frances Ha (2013)
Halfway through Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha,” Frances (Greta Gerwig) tells a room full of people what she wants in a relationship. She wants to be at a party and be able to lock eyes with that special person across the room and know what the other is feeling; and she and this other person will share that feeling across the room. That’s what she wants.
Near the end of “Frances Ha,” Frances does exactly this. She began the movie living with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), but then there were spats and accusations and anger. Sophie became engaged to Patch (Patrick Heusinger) and moved to Japan, while Frances, an aspiring dancer, with few friends, less money, and nowhere to live, had her dreams shot down. But by this point in the movie, Sophie has broken up with Patch and moved back to New York, while Frances is making a go with second-tier dreams. Her former dance company hires her for office work and she gets a gig choreographing young dancers on the side. This evening is her debut as a choreographer. It goes well. Unlike almost everything else in the movie for Frances, it goes well. At the reception afterwards, the director of her dance company, Colleen (Broadway star Charlotte d’Amboise), is in the midst of telling Frances how impressed she is with Frances’ original, inventive choreography. She sounds it, too. She means it. And Frances? She looks across the room … toward Sophie … and Sophie looks her way … and they’re sharing something … even though Frances is basically ignoring Colleen, whose voice gets more and more distant in Frances’ head. And in my head I’m screaming, “No! You idiot! This is your moment. Don’t give it over to Sophie!” But she does. Because that’s what Frances does. She cares too much about Sophie and too little about everyone else in the world.
I don’t get the acclaim for this movie. People keep calling it the bastard child of Woody Allen and “Girls.”
If the movie is like “Girls” it’s because it’s about girls, in New York, today, and it has Adam Driver in it. He plays a kind of lothario here. His character is more interesting in “Girls.”
If the movie is like Woody Allen, it’s like Woody Allen after his movies became stilted and false. After they became pretentious.
If it’s like Woody Allen it’s because it uses bits from better Woody Allen movies. “Frances” opens with Frances and Sophie having a day in the city, including a play fight in the park. Later, after they’ve broken up, Frances becomes friends with Rachel (Grace Gummer), who’s a bit of a pain herself, humorless and without personality, and the two are walking and Frances tries to start a play fight with her as she always did with Sophie. It doesn’t go well. Rachel yelps and falls out of camera frame and Frances apologizes and they move on.
Lobster scene anyone?
So, yes, “Frances Ha” is a bit like the bastard child of Woody Allen and “Girls.” If Woody Allen weren’t funny and “Girls” didn’t feel painfully true.
I don’t get the Gerwig love, either. Here, and in last year’s “Lola Versus,” she has a self-consciousness about her, a self-awareness that’s not good for a screen actor. Sure, she’s goofy, but …
If a main character is unlikeable I need them to have something else to maintain interest, and Frances doesn’t have it. She’s not that smart, not that talented, not that interested in other people. She’s clueless. Not to mention the worst dinner party guest ever. She can’t ask a question of the person sitting next to her without putting ironic quotes around it. Then she spews about her own life. Then she asks to borrow the Parisian apartment of a couple she just met. Then she leaves. Whew. I would’ve paid $100 for the camera to stay in the room. So I could hear them talk about Frances after she’d gone. It was probably similar to the conversation I was having in my head. Like … who invited her?
The woman she’s enamored of? Sophie? Even more annoying. If Frances is frenetically self-centered, Sophie is confidently so. The two deserve each other. How they got all of these men interested in them I have no idea.
The first boyfriend we see, Dan (Michael Esper), asks Frances to move in with him. But she can’t. Well, she can but she doesn’t want to. She likes living with Sophie. So she gives up Dan for Sophie. Then Sophie gives up her. Sophie finds a place she likes in Tribeca, which she needs to close on now, and does, and does it without Frances, who winds up living with two men: Lev (Adam Driver), who once made a play for her, and Benji (Michael Zegen), who would like to make a play for her. He never does. Dude.
Since “Squid and the Whale,” Noah Baumbach’s titular characters have become more unlikeable: “Margot at the Wedding,” “Greenberg,” now “Frances Ha.” But at least Greenberg interested me. Frances isn’t interesting because she’s not interested. She begins the movie interested in making a career as a dancer (kinda) and being friends with Sophie (totally). She ends it interested in making a career as a choreographer (kinda) and being friends with Sophie (totally). Somewhere this is called character development.
The story of you two
I get it to some extent. Most movies are loud, awful things about people who are prettier and braver than us. They’re wish-fulfillment fantasy. So along comes a movie that seems to be about real people in real-world situations, where there’s no plot, little story, and more character. So it seems like it should matter. But the myopia Frances suffered from at the beginning (Sophie love), she suffers from in the end. “Tell me the story of us,” she asks Sophie in the first five minutes. “Again?” Sophie responds. By the end, that’s my reaction. Again? Along the way Frances realizes this great lesson: “Sometimes it’s good to do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it.” But that’s only a lesson for spoiled children.
I know. I’m getting too old for this shit. The question is: Why isn’t Noah Baumbach?
The title for “Frances Ha” got two things right. It’s about a woman named Frances and it correctly recorded the numbers of times I laughed out loud.
Movie Review: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013)
One of the many ironies of Alex Gibney’s “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” is its title. The phrase isn’t said, as one would expect, by Julian Assange or anyone in the hactivist community; it’s said by former CIA and NSA head Michael Hayden. He’s talking about U.S. government agencies but he’s reacting to the Nov. 2010 release of top secret U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks:
Look, everyone has secrets. Some of the secret activities that nation-states conduct in order to keep their people safe and free need to be secret in order to be successful. If they are broadly known, you cannot accomplish your work. I want to be very candid. We steal secrets. We steal other nation’s secrets. One cannot do that above-board and be very successful for a very long period of time.
Thus the organization that steals secrets has its secrets stolen. And thus the organization that publishes those secrets, that is dedicated to revealing other people’s secrets, becomes, itself, secretive. WikiLeaks, a small nonprofit committed to the free flow of information, winds up demanding that its employees sign Non-Disclosure Agreements. Do we all become what we fight? Do we all stare into the abyss and become the monster? Do none of us get the irony?
Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”; “Taxi to the Dark Side”; “Catching Hell”) does.
The lost boys
This is a great documentary, by the way. Most docs are 90 minutes and drag; this thing is 130 and zips. It constructs the story most of us—or at least I—have been paying attention to only peripherally.
When I became aware of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks in the summer of 2010, I had the feeling he’d been on the world stage for a while, but that moment was basically his debut. He’d made a name for himself in his home country of Australia in the early 1990s, and again, among those paying attention, in Iceland in 2009 with the release of internal documents from Kaupthing Bank detailing suspicious loans to bank owners prior to default. But it wasn’t until Pvt. Bradley Manning, a nice, fucked-up kid from Oklahoma, who was stationed in Iraq and wondered what to do about the confidential—and to him, immoral—information he had access to, that we all knew Assange’s name.
More irony: Manning wouldn’t have had access to such documents without 9/11. Because relevant information was not shared between government agencies prior to 9/11, it became imperative to share it after 9/11. To make us safer. Which allowed Bradley Manning access to the information he uploaded to WikiLeaks. Which, according to some, including Hilary Clinton, made us less safe.
Will the irony never end? The first big Manning-related leak is a video of the killing of Reuters journalists by U.S. soldiers in an Apache Warship half a mile above them. They mistook a camera for an RPG, and the men for terrorists, and killed them along with several children as if it were a video game. It’s appalling what happens; the disconnect of the men doing the shooting makes it more appalling:
- “Light ‘em all up.”
- “Oh yeah, look at all those dead bastards.”
- “It’s their fault for bringing their kids to a battle.”
Yet the man who published the video, Assange, is said to have had a similar kind of disconnect—of the digital variety. He grew up interacting with the world through a computer screen.
The three main players in this story are all lost boys: Assange, Manning and Adrian Lamo, a “gray hat” hacker with Asperger’s, who, prior, was most famous for hacking into the New York Times computer network in 2002. Manning contacted Lamo via encrypted email, and the two wound up chatting on, of all things, AOL instant messaging. When Lamo realized the veracity of Manning’s situation, and the gravity of it, he didn’t know what to do. Wasn’t this a national security breach? But how could he betray Manning’s trust? In the doc, he equates his dilemma to the Kobayashi Maru test from “Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan”: the unwinnable situation that tests how Star Fleet cadets deal with defeat. Ultimately he gave up Manning to the authorities, but he cries on camera for having done so. At the same time, he justifies the action with another quote from “Star Trek II”: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” Apparently he didn’t see “Star Trek III” for Kirk’s spin on the phrase.
Even so, the doc suggests that if Lamo hadn’t outed Manning, someone else would have. Manning wanted the world to know The Big Thing he’d done. One wonders, too, if he hadn’t had his own secrets that needed outing—the dawning realization that he wanted to be, or was, a woman—whether he would have outed the U.S. government’s.
Famous last words
In the aftermath of the WikiLeaks revelations, all three men were (more irony) hidden away or went into hiding. Lamo received death threats from those who idolized Manning and Assange. Manning was arrested by the military police and incarcerated in a small cell in Kuwait, then in solitary at the Mariner Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, where it’s alleged he was subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques such as sleep deprivation. When Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley, a former Air Force Colonel, criticized this treatment of Manning, calling it “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid,” he was forced to resign.
Assange, the main figure here, is probably the least sympathetic. Prior to going global, Assange gave access to Mark Davis, an Australian journalist and documentarian, and Davis lets Gibney use the footage. We see that WikiLeaks, an international, online, nonprofit, was basically two guys: Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a German technology activist. We see Assange becoming international front-page news and how he reacts to becoming international front-page news. “I’m untouchable now in this country,” he says. A month later, in Sweden, he was charged with rape.
“Rape,” even in a worst-case scenario, is probably the wrong word. The sex, with two different women, seems to have been consensual; the use of the condom was not. That’s a crime in Sweden and in Britain, where Assange fled, and from which, for many months, the Swedish government attempted to extradict him. Why no condom? Assange has four children from four different women, so some suggest he has this need to propagate. Others call the women CIA plants or “honeypots,” a computer term for a trap set to “counteract attempts at unauthorized use of information systems.” These women, too, have received death threats. Maybe in the future we’ll all receive death threats.
While Assange’s supporters, with their Guy Fawkes masks, rallied around the world, Assange was imprisoned in Britain, released on bail to a posh estate in the English countryside, then took up residence, away from the authorities, in the Ecuadoran embassy. In this manner, like in a “Sex and the City” episode, the story becomes all about him. There is some indication that if Assange had merely agreed to an HIV test, which the women had requested before charges were brought, none of this would have happened. But he was a high-flying figure then, full of hubris, and he refused. Nick Davies, the great investigative journalist with The Guardian, talks about how Assange didn’t even see the point of redacting the names of Afghanis who had worked with coalition forces. “If an Afghani helps the U.S. military,” Davies says Assange said, “he deserves to die.” In 2010, we see Assange being interviewed by a TV reporter, who asks about the charges in Sweden. Assange cuts off the interview, stands up, removes his mike, and calmly delivers what’s supposed to be a cutting remark. It says more about him than her. “You blew it,” he says.
Bringing the nuance
Does Gibney let the story become too much about Assange and not enough about the ways information is gathered and revealed today? He certainly tries to strike a balance. He talks about how the U.S. government now records 60,000 emails and cellphone calls every second. The number is supposed to shock but I felt the opposite. I actually felt safety in the number.
Watching, in fact, I kept thinking of Neil Postman’s dichotomy again. I kept wondering if people like Assange, and Bradley Manning, and maybe even Alex Gibney, believe we’re living in a “1984” world, where the problem is the free flow of information, when we’re really living in a “Brave New World” world, where the problem is too much information, and where “the people,” for whom all of this is done, and who need to know the atrocities its troops commit abroad, and how the U.S. diplomatic corps really views the dictators with whom it conducts affairs, can’t even be bothered.
Be bothered enough to go see this doc. “There is no history without nuance,” Norman Mailer once wrote, and that’s part of the joy of “We Steal Secrets.” There are so many absolutist positions here: Guy Fawkes protests on one side, U.S. government press conferences on the other. And in the no man’s land between them, Alex Gibney arrives, bringing the nuance.
Movie Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)
In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father, the movie critic for The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticising a movie,” he said, “have at.”
That would be a good opening for a scathing review of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” but this isn’t a scathing review. I actually liked the movie. For all the complaints I’ve heard about the director’s over-the-top, “Moulin Rouge” style, as well as the anachronism of hip-hop in the 1920s and the absurdity of jazz trumpeters on sweaty New York fire escapes, Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” is about as faithful a literary adaptation as you’re going to get. It brings to life one of the great American novels.
The love light in Leo’s eyes
For one, we get to hear, and sometimes see on the screen, F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s words. The movie’s conceit is that after all that’s happened Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is in a sanitarium, and he’s telling the doctor his story, and soon the doctor recommends that Nick, a once-budding writer, write it all down, as therapy, which accounts for the literary tone of the subsequent narration. One can’t, after all, describe the valley of ashes, brooded over by the giant eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, oculist, without sounding written. Let alone “boats against the current.”
Casting helps, too. Neither Alan Ladd (1949) nor Robert Redford (1974) seemed like men who would sacrifice everything for love, but Leonardo DiCaprio has always had the love light in his eyes. He’s Jack Dawson and Romeo, baby. He’s also played charlatan (“Catch Me If You Can”) and obsessed rich man (Howard Hughes, “The Aviator”), and combine them all and you get Jay Gatsby. The one moment he falters is when he turns on Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) with an expression on his face “as if he had killed a man.” We’re supposed to see a hidden Gatsby revealed here. But Leo doesn’t have that in him. There’s anger in his eyes, not murder.
I always imagined Nick Carraway taller than Tobey Maguire but the actor does seem like someone inclined to reserve judgment, a genial type who is the victim of not a few veteran bores. Edgerton is good, too, but… Isn’t his face too working-class for Old Money? He needs to be sleeker. Apparently Ben Affleck and Bradley Cooper were considered for the role. I’d have gone Cooper.
But the casting move that leapt out at me when I first saw the trailer was Carey Mulligan. I always think of Daisy as spoiled and frivolous and kind of awful, yet there’s something inherently sweet about Mulligan. In the film, with her vulnerable eyes, she seems as deeply in love with Gatsby as Gatsby is with her. With this casting move, Luhrmann, the romanticist, turns “Gatsby” into a love story, which it is. But he turns it into a mutual love story, which … Well, we can have our arguments, and it’s been about 10 years since I last read the book cover-to-cover, but “The Great Gatsby” always felt like an unrequited love story to me. It felt like the story of a man who was deeply in love with a woman who was unworthy of that love. (See also: “The Sun Also Rises.”) It felt like the story of a man who takes 99 giant steps toward a woman and the woman who won’t take the one small necessary step toward him.
Gatsby’s great mistake
Or is that step more than small? Luhrmann makes clear that all of Gatsby’s great schemes unravel because, just as his love has demanded much of him, he demands much of his love. He demands from Daisy the absolute: the notion that she never loved Tom. And in that hot New York apartment, where Tom and Gatsby vie for Daisy, and Nick and Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) are forced to watch, she can’t give him the purity of the absolute. “I did love him once,” she tells Gatsby, in words straight from the novel, “but I loved you, too!”
“You loved me … too?”
DiCaprio gives this a great line-reading. You sense the awfulness of that last word. The deflation in him. The realization of how uncentral he was to her even as she was too central to him. She was the blinking green light at the end of his dock; the woman for whom he created and gave up everything.
That’s Gatsby’s great mistake—the need for the absolute—as it’s the mistake of many young men in love, as it was my mistake when I was young and in love. That love is a greedy kind of love. If Daisy had acquiesced to it here, it would have demanded more of her and eventually consumed them in some other way.
But does a more sympathetic Daisy create a problem with the story? When Nick tells Gatsby, “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together,” and when he tells us in voiceover, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and returned to their money…” it feels like he’s talking about a different Daisy than the one we’ve been watching for two hours. It feels like he’s blaming her for the one thing—the hit-and-run, which mostly occurs off-screen—when in the novel he’s blaming her for much more than that.
Tom, of course, is beyond sympathy. He’s the most unsympathetic cuckold in literature. He’s a racist and an adulterer and a meanspirited Old Money bastard fearful of losing his exalted place in the world. He cheats on Daisy with Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), and, in another careless moment, breaks Myrtle’s nose. He doesn’t know or care what other people do, doesn’t know or care what’s going on in the world. When True Love threatens his marriage, he fights back, not because he necessarily loves Daisy, but simply for the fight. To not lose his exalted place in the world. To not lose to New Money.
I had questions watching the movie that I never had reading the novel. Jordan tells Nick, “He threw all those parties hoping she’d wander in one night.” So why doesn’t she? Isn’t that odd? That she’d never check out this Gatsby? I mean, is it the West Egg/East Egg thing? Old Money versus New? Robber barons versus bootleggers? Is she waiting for an invitation like Nick receives? Why doesn’t he send her one?
The story is as much about class (both kinds) as it is about love. It’s about the people who have to be careful versus the people who can afford to be careless. Tom carelessly has an affair with Myrtle, and Myrtle carelessly runs out into the middle of the road to flag him down, and Daisy carelessly runs over Myrtle and keeps driving, and all of this carelessness upends Gatsby’s carefully constructed dream. In the end, Gatsby waits for love and gets a bullet in the back. This is Tom’s carefully constructed moment. He implies to Myrtle’s husband, Wilson (Jason Clarke), that the man who ran down Myrtle was the man who had an affair with her, when it was he who had the affair with her and it was Daisy who ran down Myrtle. Gatsby pays for their crimes. He has his own crimes—his work with gangster/bootlegger Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan), as well as the overwhelming burden of his love—but he pays for theirs.
I don’t buy the sanitarium bit in the movie (Nick seems too level-headed) and I wondered about the lost relationship between Nick and Jordan (although I didn’t miss it), but I liked the ending. Nick finishes his story, this story, and puts it in his briefcase. He looks at the title: GATSBY. Then, in pen, above, he adds a final touch: THE GREAT.
Why ‘Great’? Because Gatsby was worth the whole damn lot of them. Because he thought big, and grandly, about love—a worthy pursuit. The green light blinked on and off but his love was constant.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is great, Baz Luhrmann’s isn’t, but it’s not bad. It’s not bad at all, old sport.
Movie Review: Iron Man 3 (2013)
Well, it’s not as bad as “Spider-Man 3” or “X-Men 3,” but I wasn’t exactly happy leaving the theater.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) begins “Iron Man 3” in a confessional mood, recounting, before we even see anything on the screen, the evening of December 31, 1999, Y2K Day, when, in a grand hotel in Bern, Switzerland, he inadvertently makes enemies. “A famous man once said we create our own demons,” he tells us in the dark, and then we witness the demons in utero: Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a long-haired, bespectacled bundle of hero worship and nerves and spittle, whom Tony promises to meet on the rooftop of the hotel and then blows off; and Maya Hanson (Rebecca Hall), a cute, full-lipped botanist, the reason for the blow-off, who becomes one of Tony’s many, many one-night stands. Both harbor grudges as a result. Both become what they become. Question: Since Tony’s actions here are hardly reprehensible—he sleeps with a good-looking girl and uses subterfuge to avoid a crazy fan—how many other demons has he created over the years? Will we find out in “IV,” “V,” and “VI”? Please no.
Tony ends “Iron Man 3” in a confessional mood, too. Post-credits, we discover he’s been telling this entire story, in Alexander Portnoy fashion, patient to psychiatrist, to his old “Avengers” pal, Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has a few confessions of his own. He tells Tony he’s not exactly a psychiatrist. He also admits he fell asleep two minutes into the story. Wucka wucka.
It’s supposed to be the final joke of the movie but is the final joke on us? We just shelled out $10 to $15 to watch something its creators admit puts people to sleep. How confident in your product do you have to be to do that? How obtuse? How cynical?
There’s a moviegoer born every minute.
An empty suit
In the modern world, it’s post-“Avengers,” and Tony Stark is having anxiety issues. He’s like Hamlet: He could count himself a king of infinite space were it not that he had bad dreams. Like Hamlet, he shuts himself off from the world. Unlike Hamlet, he tinkers with armor in his basement. He’s upping his tech in gee-whiz, CGI ways that probably dazzle the kids in the audience but do nothing for me. Instead of stepping into and out of his Iron Man suit—a bit I always liked—he’s now able to call the various parts of the suit to his body. This new technology is not without its bugs. Cue groin shot. Cue Mr. B saying, “But ‘Football in the Groin’ has a football in the groin.”
Tony’s also working on a virtual suit. Iron Man is walking around, or flying around, but Tony’s elsewhere doing the controlling. Iron Man is simply an empty suit. Hold that thought.
Tony’s other problem is Pepper Potts, and not just because she’s played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Pepper is now running Stark Industries but Tony isn’t paying enough attention to her. That trope. Plus, of course, there’s another suitor, Aldrich Killian, all spiffed up now, with doo-dads of his own. Balls even. He rolls them on a coffee table and suddenly the universe is lit up on the ceiling of Pepper’s office. He presses a button and now it’s a map of his brain. He guides Pepper, who’s starstruck, or brainstruck, the way lothario tennis pros guide the backhands of bored housewives. How confident does he have to be in his product to do that? How obtuse does she have to be not to realize what’s going on?
Elsewhere, a villain named the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) keeps breaking into network television to broadcast his dire warnings to America. His nom de guerre is Asian, his appearance bin-Ladenesque, and thus Saudi Arabian, but his accent is the purest, slowest American. Or Amurican. “Yulllllllll never see me coming,” he annunciates. One wonders what Kingsley is up to here. One figures it out before the reveal.
Elsewhere, bombs are going off and people die. We see it happening in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, which is just called “Chinese theater” here because it’s no longer Grauman’s. We see, too, it’s not a bomb, it’s a dude who heats up and explodes. Another dude, Savin (James Badge Dale of “The Pacific”), is able to regenerate himself through heat. He’s like a molten version of T-2. Plus he slouches on the furniture and chews gum. Cad.
Because Happy Hogan (former “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau) gets hurt in the explosion, Tony issues a warning to the Mandarin, and then broadcasts his home address to the world. Then he prepares for an attack. No, he doesn’t. Why would he do that? In fact, when Pepper wants to leave, for, you know, safety reasons, he argues with her. In front of company: Maya Hanson, returned. Which is when the attack comes and Tony’s Malibu home is destroyed in glorious, slow-mo CGI. God, but we love destruction. The secret guilt at the heart of 9/11.
Everyone in the world assumes Tony, and Iron Man, are now dead, which is why we get that shot, the most unnecessary shot in movies this year, of Pepper walking to the edge of what was once their home, looking over the edge and into the Pacific, and shouting, “TONY!” Men scream up, women down. Mars/Venus. Me, I just screamed internally.
Worst presidential ticket ever
Of course Tony’s alive. He’d ridden out in a battered Iron Man suit to Rose Hill, Tennessee, site of another 3,000-degree-celcius explosion, which he’d planned to investigate. Now he does, sans armor, and wearing baseball caps and down vests to fit in with the locals.
In many ways this is the best part of the movie. In an isolated farmhouse he acquires a partner, a kid named Harley (Ty Simpkins), who starts out properly impressed and then quickly becomes bratty. But his back-and-forth with Stark, with Downey, really, is a reminder of how witty “Iron Man” used to be, and how witless the first half of the movie was. Harley, for example, tries to manipulate Tony into staying by evoking how his own father left him. Stark stares for a second, then says, “Dads leave. Don’t be a pussy about it.”
There’s also a good scene at the site of the Rose Hill explosion, now a memorial, with five human shadows flash-burned into the neighboring walls. Tony, the man of science, says that six people died in the explosion so where’s the sixth shadow? Harley gives him the town explanation, which is a religious explanation. The five victims went to heaven. The sixth, the bomber, went to hell. That’s why he casts no shadow. But Tony doesn’t buy it. By ignoring religion and sticking to science, he finds the answer. Lesson, kids.
We get more reveals. Both Savin and Maya are working for Aldrich, who is working for the Mandarin, whom he calls “The Master.” Once we see Aldrich setting up for another broadcast by the Mandarin, though, the obvious flashed through my mind: The Mandarin’s a front, a fake, and Aldrich holds the real power. As he does. This leads to another good bit, as both Stark and his pal, the vaguely useless Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), question the Mandarin, who’s just a drunk, two-bit British actor. Kingsley is choice in these moments.
What’s Aldrich’s motivation? Yes, he wants to get back at Tony Stark for the horrible, horrible insult of not taking that rooftop meeting, but why does he hate America so? Why does he attack Air Force One with Rhodes’ Iron Patriot outfit, kidnap the president (William Sadler), and string him up, in the Iron Patriot outfit, between two oil rigs for a public execution? To make everyone afraid? And since we’re now in the Marvel movie universe of continuity, where is, I don’t know, Captain America during all of this? The Hulk? Thor? Spider-Man? At the same time, I couldn’t help but think a country that elects William Sadler and Miguel Ferrer as president and vice-president gets what it deserves. That’s got to be the worst winning ticket ever. Did the electorate never see “Die Hard 2”? “Robocop”? Ferrer as the VEEP is also a traitor. That’s another reveal. As if we need another.
The finale throws everything and the kitchen sink at us, and the kitchen sink is the only armor Stark doesn’t wear. He’s a clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk. Pepper, in sports bra, becomes one of the fire people, which saves her when Tony can’t. Bummer: I was hoping she was done. Then she saves Tony. Then Tony, in a epilogue, saves her, and himself, by curing her and finally removing the shrapnel near his heart. Happy Hogan wakes up. Bruce Banner falls asleep. I shook my head.
The hero we deserve
“Iron Man 3” has its moments—the rescue of the 13 people blasted out of Air Force One is the best action sequence I’ve seen in a long time—and the screenplay by Drew Pearce and director Shane Black (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”) raises a few interesting issues. Tony Stark’s first line about creating our own demons isn’t just about Aldrich and Maya; it’s about The Mandarin, too, created by Aldrich, and by extension Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah Khomeini and Manuel Noriega. Each of these men is demonic, certainly, but we make bigger demons of them. We make them threats to us. The U.S. needs its villain du jour as surely as any Hollywood action movie. Then we need our heroes to deal with them.
The hero of the first “Iron Man” is the hero we needed in 2008: a man motivated by both guilt and revenge. The hero of “Iron Man 3” is the hero we deserve today: remote-controlled and disposable; an empty suit.
Movie Review: Oz, The Great and Powerful (2013)
I’ll never be able to watch “The Wizard of Oz” again without thinking that the Wicked Witch of the West (here Mila Kunis, there Margaret Hamilton) only became that way—ugly, green, and evil—because Oz, the great and powerful (here James Franco, there Frank Morgan) fucked her and then dumped her.
Way to shit all over a classic, Disney.
What a sad thing this is. And yet it grossed half a billion dollars worldwide? Way to go, moviegoers.
Too bad. The trailer looked fun and James Franco seemed perfectly cast as Oscar “Oz” Diggs, the charlatan/magician who travels by balloon and tornado to reach the Emerald City in the Land of Oz (no relation). Franco is a good hollow man but here he overdoes it. He hits hard on jokes that need softness and kills them. They fall flat. The movie is littered with dead jokes the way “Magnolia” was littered with dead frogs. Wasn’t director Sam Raimi able to reign him in? Or was Raimi the problem?
The man who loved women
At the beginning of the movie, set in Kansas in 1905, and filmed in black-and-white with the classic 4:3 aspect ratio, Oz is trying to sweet-talk yet another girl, his new magician’s assistant May (Abigail Spencer), by giving her a music box he claims belonged to his grandmother in the old country. He’ll use this routine several times in the movie. Cad. Then he performs his Baum Bros. Circus magic act, which a few locals try to ruin by pointing out the wires holding up the girl. But he silences them. He cuts the wires and the girl still hangs in mid-air. Ta-da! Bad news, actually. A little girl in a wheelchair (Joey King), with wonder and hope and belief in her eyes, asks him to make her walk again. Surely he, a magician, can do it. Everyone encourages him—“Yeah, make the kid walk!”—but he backs off with a few feeble lies rather than one honest bit of truth: I can’t do that kind of magic.
As storms brew in Kansas, as they are wont to do, Oz has more problems with women. The girl, Annie (Michelle Williams), shows up at his trailer but with the news that she’s getting married to John Gale—which, one assumes, is some eventual relation to Dorothy. “He’s a good man,” says Oz, taken aback. Annie says the same thing of him but Oz waves her off. He says he doesn’t even want to be a good man, like the other men of Kansas, and like his father, who died young from hard work. No, he wants to be a great man—like Harry Houdini or Thomas Alva Edison. At the moment, of course, he’s neither. He’s a hollow man.
At this point, the Strong Man’s girl, crying, and with a music box of her own, fingers Oz, and the Strong Man comes gunning for him (grrrr). Oz gets away, barely, with top hat and valise, in his balloon, but right into the path of a tornado. As he goes down, he makes a promise, a kind of foxhole promise, to change, to do great things, although one could argue this is hardly a change. He should’ve promised to become a good man like his father.
Face heel turn
It’s in the land of Oz, of course, that the screen widens and everything turns colorful, and Oz, the man, meets a beautiful girl in a wide-brimmed hat. Her name is Theodora (Kunis). When he tells her his name is Oz, and he’s a magician, she realizes he’s the man her father prophesied: the wizard who would fall from the sky to save them all. He hems and haws but doesn’t deny it much if it’ll get him stuff: a kingdom, riches, Theodora. He gives her a music box. She gives him … well, the camera pans away discreetly.
In Emerald City, Oz meets Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who seems paranoid, then suspicious. She shows Oz the vault of riches meant for the King. But before he can claim it, he has to kill the Wicked Witch. And off he goes, kicking the dirt, petulant. A drag to be around.
Question: When did the character switcheroo become such a movie staple? Your ally is really your enemy, your enemy your ally. Imagine if, in the classic “Wizard of Oz,” the Witch was secretly allied with … the Scarecrow! Or Glinda! Or the Lollipop Guild! That’s how they’d do it now. Your enemy is who you least suspect! Here, even before Oz leaves on his quest to kill the Wicked Witch, we’re wondering if Evanora, or even Theodora, whose heart is breaking from Oz’s callousness, is the real wicked witch. (Psst. It’s Theodora.)
On the Yellow Brick Road, as often happens, Oz gathers partners who are reminiscent of people in Kansas. Early on, we heard him berate his assistant, Frank (Zach Braff), thus: “You’re just a trained monkey!” So in Oz, he saves the life of a bellhop monkey (Braff), who pledges unending support, but who is perpetually disappointed by Oz’s shallow self-interest. The girl in the wheelchair? She pops up as a girl made of china, whose legs Oz glues back together. The magic he can’t do in Kansas he can do here. And Annie? The girl? She’s Glinda, the witch he has to kill. But just as he realizes she’s not the wicked one, Evanora’s forces, those flying baboons, arrive, and they escape, via Glinda’s bubbles, to Munchkinland.
Believe it or not
There, everyone views him as a savior, and Glinda, who knows he’s no savior, encourages him to make them believe. That’s the theme, really: If people believe in the phony, it might become real. But Oz is having trouble. He doesn’t believe in himself. He knows he’s a phony.
That turns out to be his strength. Years ago, a friend told me I needed to write more “from my power.” Whatever it was that I was, good or bad, that’s what I should focus on. This, essentially, is what Oz does as he readies for battle. He realizes he’s not a great man, nor a good man; he’s a cad and a charlatan and a fake. So he uses these attributes to take on Evanora and Theodora, the latter of whom, in the interim, has eaten a poisoned apple, lost her heart, and gained green skin, a cackle and a broom. We first see the transmogrification in shadow. Smart move, because the makeup doesn’t make Kunis look scary, merely odd. Take away the hook nose and pointed chin and she’s ready for the cover of Esquire’s “Green Women We Love” issue.
But even as the people believe in Oz, Oz asks the Master Tinker (Bill Cobbs) to make a balloon with which to escape. Because he’s still a cad and a charlatan and a fake. And after they’ve lured the flying monkeys into the poppy fields, and after they’ve surreptitiously entered the Emerald City, and even as a captured Glinda is chained up like Faye Wray in “King Kong,” Oz fills his balloon with coin and abandons his newfound friends. From a distance we see the balloon floating away. From a distance the Wicked Witch, the woman scorned, destroys it with a fireball. Down it goes. Out pops his top hat, charred. Everyone mourns. Everyone mourns the passing of the traitorous man: their last, worst hope.
Can you see it coming? Can you see the wires? Of course you can.
Manufacturing his own death was part of Oz’s plan. And using the magic of early cinema—an invention of his idol, Thomas Alva Edison—Oz projects his image amidst flames, a la “The Wizard of Oz,” and spooks the Wicked Witch right out of Emerald City. It’s Oz’s now. And there he’ll stay. And there he’ll rule.
Brains, courage, heart
Question: Why does “The Wizard of Oz” work so well? What’s it about?
It’s about a girl who wants to get away from her family farm then realizes there’s no place like home. It’s about people who think they lack certain positive qualities—brains, heart, courage—but who, when the chips are down, demonstrate those very qualities. And it’s about uncovering the deceit of an all-powerful charlatan.
“Oz, the Great and Powerful,” in comparison, is about creating, and propping up, the deceit of an all-powerful charlatan. It’s about getting people to believe in the fake.
That’s the point of Hollywood, too, isn’t it? Getting people to believe in, and spend money on, what’s fake. But to make it truly work, to make moviegoing truly worthwhile, you need a few things “Oz, the Great and Powerful” lacks: brains, courage, and heart.
Movie Review: 42 (2013)
I was wrong about “42.”
I thought Chadwick Boseman was too soft to play Jackie but he often exudes Jackie’s frowning intensity and competitive spirit. When I saw Christopher Meloni playing Leo Durocher I assumed they were going to ignore Durocher getting banned for the ’47 season. Nope, that’s in there. They mention, in a prologue for people who don’t know U.S. history, that World War II ended in 1945 and great ballplayers like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Stan Musial returned to the game, leading me to think, “Wait, Stan Musial wasn’t drafted.” He was. Barely. He served from January 1945 to March 1946. Finally, when racist fans start digging at Jackie, I thought it all sounded a bit tepid considering everything the real Jackie went through. I assumed in our PC times they were sugarcoating this bit of history and keeping the racial epithets to a minimum. Instead, they were saving it all for Ben Chapman.
I was also right about “42.” It looked OK and it is OK. Given its source material, it had a chance for greatness.
Am I the wrong audience for this movie? I know too much about the subject and nitpick. I’m also the right audience: I’m excited just to see someone playing Clyde Sukeforth onscreen.
I almost predicted it. In April 2007, I wrote the following in a piece about baseball movies for MSNBC.com:
Great baseball biopics are waiting to be made if studio execs only get off the schneid. You’re telling me you can’t make an interesting movie out of the life of Satchel Paige or Hank Greenberg or Roberto Clemente? Why not ignore the career for the season? Give us Jackie Robinson from the time he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the fall of 1945, through the ’46 season with the Montreal Royals, and end the film on April 15, 1947, the day he broke the color barrier. Talk about extraordinary pressure! There wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house.
Writer-director Brian Helgeland nearly follows my parameters. He takes us from just before Jackie signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers to the end of the ’47 season. In some ways that’s smarter. In another way, a big way, it’s not. And they don’t fix that other way.
What’s the drama? In most baseball movies it’s about winning. In this baseball movie, it’s about overcoming centuries of prejudice in order to have the chance to win. No one, after all, goes to “42” to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers win the ’47 pennant. Spoiler alert.
We get spring training in Florida in ’46 and a few of the problems there. Apparently there were WHITES ONLY signs. Jackie has to stay with a black family in town rather than with the team. He has to deal with the press, including Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courier (Andre Holland), who traveled and roomed with Jackie in ’46 and ’47.
Does he have doubts? Is he worried he might fail? Who knows? Do we get resentment from other Negro League ballplayers that this rookie, this upstart, this guy who wasn’t even among their best, gets to break the color barrier? There’s an early scene with Dodgers president and part-owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), his assistant Harold Parrott (T.R. Knight), and head scout Clyde Sukeforth (Toby Huss), in which they go over the options. Roy Campanella? Too nice. Satchel Paige? Too old. Jackie Robinson? Just right. It’s a Goldilocks moment.
When Rickey makes his intentions known, he also extracts a promise from Jackie to control his temper, which was imperial, and not fight back for three years. “Your enemy will be out in force and you can’t meet him on his own low ground,” Rickey says, in one of the movie’s many good lines.
But in Florida he’s an isolated man. He wears no. 9 for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ Triple-A team, and does what he does: hits, runs, fields, distracts on the basepaths. He gets in the heads of pitchers. His manager Clay Hopper (Brett Cullen), from Porterville, Mississippi, is delighted. But when Rickey calls Robinson “superhuman,” Hopper tells him not to get carried away. “He’s still a nigger out there,” he says. This leads to chastisement and threat of dismissal and Hopper comes around, as he did in real life, but the scene smells slightly of B.S. And isn’t Rickey’s comment dangerously close to the other side of the racist spectrum? You can’t integrate because blacks are inferior: lazy, shuffling, lacking in mental toughness. No, you can’t integrate because blacks are superior: Their physiques are geared toward athletics. They’re superhuman.
Old white men show up in Sanford, Fla., to shout racist epithets, and a cop interrupts the action because Sanford doesn’t allow integration on the ballfield. He, a cop, actually kicks Jackie out of the game. Afterwards, a redneck-looking guy walks up to Jackie and tells him he’s rooting for him. More bullshit? Maybe it happened. But it feels like it’s in there to soothe Southern white audiences. There were good whites, too.
Whither the ’46 season with the Royals? It’s passed over quickly. We see Jackie hit a homerun in his first game, but please read “Baseball’s Great Experiment” by Jules Tygiel. In five at-bats, with the pressure of the world on him, this is what Jackie did: 1) grounder to short; 2) homerun; 3) bunt single, stolen base, bluff to third, and balk home; 4) single and stolen base; 5) bunt single and another balk home. He went 4-5, with four runs scored and 3 RBIs in a 14-1 Montreal win. Wow. Helgeland actually puts our attention off the field, where Jackie’s wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie of “Shame”), sitting in the stands, suddenly feels sick and has to excuse herself. In the bathroom, a lady in a nice hat suggests the obvious: pregnant? Cue title graphic: “Eight months later…”
So no Montreal Royals championship. No fans chasing Jackie down the street. No line from Sam Maltin of The Pittsburgh Courier: “It was the first time that a white mob chased a black man down the street, not out of hate, but because of love.”
For spring training 1947, Rickey and the Dodgers eschew Florida for Havana, Cuba, to get away from the small minds in small towns, but a few of the Dodgers begin to chafe. A petition goes around, led by Kirby Higbe and Dixie Walker (Brad Beyer and Ryan Merriman), saying they refuse to play with Robinson. Others, notably Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black, who deserves a bigger role one of these days), refuse to sign. It’s all pretty clean stuff. This brand of American racism should be like bugs crawling beneath a wet rock but Helgeland divides everyone into three neat groups: 1) the loudmouth racists; 2) the guys who say “Give him a chance”; 3) the people who come around to this second point-of-view.
Durocher puts a stop to the petition (“You can wipe your ass with it!”) but then baseball commissioner Happy Chandler (Peter Mackenzie), here seen getting a manicure at his desk, puts a stop to Durocher by banning him for the season for an extramarital affair. It’s an odd cameo for Chandler, without whom, it can be argued, none of this would have happened. (The previous commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, supposedly helped maintain the color line.)
The big day, April 15, 1947, arrives. Hey, there’s Ebbets Field! Hey, there’s Jackie going into the locker room. He doesn’t have a locker yet but he’s got a uniform and a number on it, 42, and off he goes, through the tunnel and onto the field, where the press surrounds him, and where some fans boo and others cheer. The national anthem is sung in its entirety. We get his first at-bat, a sharper grounder to third, which the third baseman stabs and turns into a nice play, aided, it’s suggested, by a questionable call from the racist ump. True? Was Jackie’s first hit taken away from him? Here’s Jonathan Eig in his book “Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season”:
Elliott grabbed it and tossed to first for the easy out.
I know: dramatic license. But Helgeland keeps taking dramatic license in ways that are decidedly undramatic. He takes undramatic license. He’s nonconfrontative about the greatest confrontation in baseball history.
Later in the movie, for example, we get a good scene in which Pee Wee Reese visits Branch Rickey’s office—which, in this movie, the Dodger players seem to visit as often as they take showers. The team is about to travel to Crosley Field for a series against the Reds, and Reese, a Kentuckian, has received a hate letter. He’s called a nigger-lover and a carpetbagger, and he’s wondering what to do about it. Rickey smiles. He explains the Greek origins of the word “sympathy.” Then he goes to a file cabinet and removes several thick file folders full of hate letters—all addressed to Jackie Robinson. We’re going to kill you, Nigger. We’re going to kill your son. We’re going to kill your wife. Reese takes in the enormity of it all, and, of course, it leads to the famous incident, perhaps apocryphal, in which, at Crosley, Reese puts his arm around Jackie to quiet the racists.
It’s a good scene. At the same time, one wonders if the hate mail, and the various threats on Jackie’s life, couldn’t have been used to better dramatic advantage. When Jackie walked onto the field, he was risking his life. Every day. The other players knew this. Everyone knew it. According to Eig, when Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater in the movie) stood next to Jackie on Opening Day, his brother chastised him. “What if some sharpshooter missed him by three feet and got you instead?” he asked. Tension was high. But we don’t feel much of that tension in “42.”
Until the Chapman scene.
The famous Reese/Robinson scene. Apocryphal?
Ben Chapman, Alabama born and bred, was a four-time All-Star who led the league in stolen bases four times in the 1930s and retired in 1946 with a .302 batting average and a .823 OPS. He was also baseball’s most infamous race baiter. And his most infamous incident occurred in April 1947 when the Philadelphia Phillies, and its new manager, Chapman, traveled to Brooklyn to meet the Dodgers.
Here’s David Falkner in his book “Great Time Coming”:
From the moment Robinson set foot on the field, Chapman, joined by a number of players, directed an almost unprintable barrage of verbal abuse at him that continued for the rest of the series …
The movie details this abuse. It sets Chapman (Alan Tudyk, in a great performance) on the playing field, where he shouts the following:
- Hey nigger! Why don’t you go back to the cotton fields where you belong?
- Which one of these white boys’ wives you dating tonight?
- We don’t want you here, nigger!
- Nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger!
It’s unrelenting. The tension is thick. You’re waiting for something to explode.
In reality this continued for the entire series, with Phillies players leveling their bats like machine guns at Jackie and rat-a-tat-tatting. Finally, in the third game, Eddie Stanky, the Dodgers’ second baseman, returned volley. He called them all cowards. “Why don’t you pick on somebody who can answer back!” he shouted.
“It was then that I began to feel better,” Jackie says in his book, “I Never Had It Made.” “I remembered Mr. Rickey’s prediction. If I won the respect of the team and got them solidly behind me, there would be no question about the success of the experiment.”
Helgeland condenses this, as he should, into one game, the first game, which the Dodgers won 1-0. The lone run comes in the bottom of the 8th when Jackie leads off with a single, steals second and goes to third on the errant throw, then scores easily on a one-out single. That shuts up Chapman. In the movie. In reality, he kept on. Racism keeps on. That’s what it does.
Worse, Helgeland cuts the tension by having Jackie leave the field after his second at-bat to rage and fume and break his bat in the tunnel to the locker room. “I have to admit that this day, of all the unpleasant days in my life, brought me nearer to cracking up than I ever had been,” Jackie wrote, and that’s what Helgeland is trying to dramatize. Except, again, he undramatizes it. With Jackie slouched against a wall, Branch Rickey shows up like a deus ex machina and gives him another pep talk. He brings up the way Jesus was tested: 40 days in the wilderness, etc. He metaphorically pulls Jackie up, dusts him off, and sets him out into the world again. And only then do we get Eddie Stanky coming to Jackie’s defense. Not by shouting back but by walking over to the Phillies dugout and getting in Chapman’s face.
But it’s still a powerful scene. So powerful even Brian Helgeland couldn’t undramatize it.
Alan Tudyk as Ben Chapman: unrelenting.
Falling in love with a team in defeat
But back to my original question. What do you do about the ’47 season? The Brooklyn Dodgers, against all odds, won the NL pennant. That’s good. In the World Series, though, they faced the New York Yankees, who screwed up our story by winning in seven games. So how do you end the movie?
I had similar thoughts while watching “Moneyball.” I knew Billy Beane’s grand sabermetric experiment resulted in no pennant or World Series for the 2002 A’s. But writer-director Bennett Miller makes not-winning the point. He gives us the Jeremy Brown footage: “He hit a homerun and didn’t even realize it.” He gives us the job offer from the Red Sox. He gives us Beane’s moment of indecision, and his daughter singing for him on CD:
I can't figure it out
It's bringing me down I know
I've got to let it go
And just enjoy the show
Miller gives us something difficult and beautiful to carry with us from the theater. He knows the truth in the Roger Kahn line: “You may glory in team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat.” That line, of course, was written about the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Helgeland doesn’t do this. He tries to end on a moment of false glory: a homerun Jackie hit in late September against a Pirates pitcher, Fritz Ostermueller (Linc Hand), who had beaned him earlier in the season, and which sends the Dodgers into the World Series. Cue celebrations in Brooklyn as Rachel Robinson walks with baby carriage. Cue Jackie, in slow motion, rounding third. Cue uplifting music. But it feels like bullshit even as we watch it. And it is. They try to pass it off as a walkoff homerun when it was a homerun in the top of the 4th. Did this game lead to the pennant? I don’t know. Did Ostermueller really bean Jackie earlier in the season? He did, but with a rising fastball that hit Jackie’s arm, not his head. But it rallied the Dodgers around him. Which it does in the movie. Kind of. Sort of. In Helgeland’s undramatic way.
“42” gets some things right. But Jackie, as a person, is more complex, and more competitive, than his portrayal here. His story is also more important. It’s not about retiring No. 42 in 1997. That’s a bullshit honor anyway. No, his story is important because it’s a prelude to the civil rights movement. It’s almost a blueprint. You turn the other cheek, you act nonviolent in the face of violence, you gain the sympathy of the world. Ben Chapman is Bull Connor, and the rest of us, or the best of us, are Eddie Stanky, fed up, and finally shouting from the dugout.
Maybe next time.
Movie Review: G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)
Beware the peacemakers, for they will try to blow up the world.
Could there be a better message for Easter weekend?
Here’s how it happens. In “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” after Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal almost gets into the hands of terrorists, the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) encourages the nations of the world toward nuclear disarmament, and meets said leaders at Fort Sumter, which most Americans, or at least a couple dozen, will recognize as the place where the first shots of the U.S. Civil War were fired. There, he demands obedience and nuclear disarmament. The other leaders balk. So he launches his nukes. They launch theirs. All of them? Apparently. The missiles are flying. Hallelujah, hallelujah.
Ah, but it’s all a ruse! He blows up his, they blow up theirs, disarmament (and, one assumes, fallout and nuclear winter) is thus achieved, which is when POTUS reveals his new secret weapon, the ZEUS somethingorother! Seven of them orbit the earth and don’t launch weapons so much as drop them. To start the fun, he drops one on London. We watch it blown to smithereens. All of London. Gone. Poof.
I think we’ve finally entered the post post-9/11 movie world. Blowing up landmarks and cities is fun again.
This president, of course, is not the real president. He’s Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), an agent of COBRA, which is the organization that the G.I. Joes fight.
Who are the G.I. Joes? Complicated question for such simple things.
I had a G.I. Joe when I was a kid but it was just called, you know, G.I. Joe. He was a soldier. He had a fuzzy head and a fuzzy beard and no genitalia. Hasbro got clever soon after my childhood, for they came up with a whole slew of G.I. Joes that had little to do with either “General Issue” or World War II. They got names like Ripcord and Roadblock and Heavy Duty and Snake Eyes. Each had a different power and a different backstory, and like “Transformers” they were a TV cartoon in the 1980s (when I was in college), and after the success of Michael Bay’s “Transformers” in 2007, they made the crossover to movies, too, with “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” which didn’t do “Transformers” business but did OK despite horrible reviews.
Most of the Joes from the first movie aren’t back for the second. Here’s who they returned to the manufacturer:
- Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje)
- General Hawk (Dennis Quaid)
- Scarlett (Rachel Nichols)
- Breaker (Said Taghmaoui)
- Ripcord (Marlon Wayans)
Here’s who they took out of the box:
- Roadblock (Dwayne ‘The Rock” Johnson)
- General Joe Colton (Bruce Willis)
- Flint (D.J. Cotrona)
- Jaye (Adrianne Palicki)
- Jinx (Elodie Yung)
Is The Rock supposed to rescue every insipid franchise now? That “Fast and Furious” crap was stagnating; then he showed up in “Fast Five” and its international box office zoomed from $363 million to $626 million. “Fast Six” opens Memorial Day weekend.
Bruce Willis’ General Joe Colton is supposed to be the original Joe, the reason this team, such as it is, is named G.I. Joes. But he’s retired now, as he always is in the movies now, even though he keeps an arsenal in the drawers and closets of his home. Because a well-regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free state, etc.
Palicki? Apparently she played Wonder Woman on TV. Controna? Flotsam. Yung? Jetsam.
But Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) are back, as is, of course, Duke (Channing Tatum), the star, our hero. Who gets killed after 20 minutes. Tatum had better things to do. Smart boy.
Big biceps, big guns, no brains
Each character, or toy, gets a simulacrum of backstory. Roadblock is from “the hood,” to which they return to hide out. Jaye joined the military despite her G.I.-issue father, who didn’t think women were good enough. She showed him. Storm Shadow was betrayed as a child into joining the bad guys even though the betrayal was orchestrated by the bad guys. Etc.
There’s a nice fight scene in the, I guess, Asian mountains, involving ziplines and wires and running along mountainsides like Spider-Man. I thought: “That’s kinda fun.” Bruce Willis gets off a good line about cholesterol.
Otherwise it’s big biceps and big guns and no brains. It’s Ray Stevenson’s awful, awful Southern accent, which is apparently payback (served cold) for Kevin Costner’s British accent in “Robin Hood.” It’s the President of the United States, and the rest of the world, as pawns in a game between two military organizations. The bad guys get the upper hand but the good guys win—even if tens of thousands of nukes detonate in the atmosphere and London is wiped off the face of the Earth. It’s playing Army. Except it’s the filmmakers, including producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura (“Transformers”) and director Jon M. Chu (“Step Up 2: The Streets”), who do the playing while we do the paying. In more ways than dollars.
It’s capture-the-flag again, as it was in “Olympus Has Fallen.” The Joes enter the DMZ and raise a G.I. Joe flag. Ha! When London falls, Cobra raises the Cobra flag above the White House. Bastards! Ah, but when the Joes are triumphant, the G.I. Joe flag is raised above the White House. Sorry, the American flag. Old glory. Stars and stripes.
It’s dialogue for toys:
- “Soon the world will cower in the face of Zeus!”
- “Let’s move! The world ain’t saving itself!”
- “We’re going to find the men who did this to Duke and our brothers. And we’re going to kill them.”
It’s another liberal message from liberal Hollywood.
Beware the toymakers, for they are taking over the movies.
Movie Review: Olympus Has Fallen (2013)
WARNING: U.S. SPOILERS
“Olympus Has Fallen” is patriotism porn. It’s Dick Cheney’s wet dream. It’s like living inside the mind of a Tea Party member for two hours. It seeps into our collective soul and sprouts patriotic dreams malformed by paranoia. It’s ultimately anti-patriotic.
What’s the appeal of movies like these? I don’t get it. At one point, having secured the White House after a bloody, bloody battle in which dozens of Secret Service officers die and the Washington Monument crumbles like the Twin Towers on 9/11 (or like the Washington Monument in “Superman II”), the terrorists, mostly Koreans, lower our bullet-riddled flag from the White House roof and toss it aside like yesterday’s garbage. It flutters to the ground in slow motion. The camera lingers on it as tragic music wells up. Why do the terrorists want to do this with our flag? They don’t. We want them to do this with our flag. So the moment will feel big. So it’ll feel monumental. So we’ll feel the need for revenge. So we’ll feel.
The movie is all about the American flag, really. It opens with the flag flapping inside the movie’s title; then we get a shot of the full Old Glory in slow-mo. Later, yes, the terrorists mistreat our torn flag, and when news spreads that the White House has been breached, and the President and his staff taken hostage in his bunker, the Middle East (no specific countries are mentioned) cheers and celebrates and burns the American flag. At the end, after the good guys win and the bad guy gets a knife to the brain, the last shot is—you guessed it—the American flag, restored.
The flag has greater character development, a greater story arc, than the hero.
Globalization … and fucking Wall Street
This is a “‘Die Hard’ in a …” movie, maybe the ultimate one, since White House trumps boat, plane, even Air Force One, and certainly Nakatomi Towers, but it borrows mightily, almost obscenely, from the original. Terrorists and screaming hostages? Check. Meet-up with villain pretending to be ally? Check. Remote conversation between hero and villain? Check. Hero warning gung-ho would-be allies away from rigged rooftop only to witness death and destruction of same? Check. Girlfriend/wife melting after seeing what her hero-man has been through? Check and mate.
Our hero-man is a Secret Service officer, Mike Banning, played by Gerard Butler, who is making a career out of films like these (“300,” “Law Abiding Citizen,” “Machine Gun Preacher”). Eighteen months earlier, Banning saved the life of the president, Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), whose car was about to slide off an icy bridge. Unfortunately he couldn’t save Asher’s wife (Ashley Judd), so he’s been reassigned to a desk job at Treasury so he doesn’t remind POTUS of that horrible tragedy. One wonders: Was there no one else he could guard?
The attack comes on July 5, the day after, when there are already rumblings along the DMZ, and when the South Korean Prime Minister arrives for a visit with POTUS. That’s when a plane, piloted by impassive Asians (you know), shows up in D.C. airspace and two U.S. jets go to greet it. Unfortunately they’re no match for this newfangled Asian weapon—basically a cross between a sprinkler and a machine gun. We just don’t have technology like that. We only have technology that, you know, can target an ant on the other side of the world and take it out. But we need viable bad guys. Otherwise, how do we know we’re viable good guys?
Mike sees all this from his office and runs into the fray barking orders. “Go on!” he yells to passersby. “Get down!” he shouts to civilians. “RPG!” he warns the Secret Service officers. “NO!” he shouts as they get riddled with bullets. He’s last man standing. Everyone else that could possibly guard the White House, I mean every single motherfucking one of them, dies. Why? Because it has to be just one guy. We don’t know how to do it otherwise.
Meanwhile, Pres. Asher and his team have escaped into his bunker, the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC), and, though it breaks protocol, he brings the South Korean PM and his detail with them. Oops. That detail, including Kang (Rick Yune), and former Secret Service officer Forbes (Dylan McDermott), are the terrorists. Well, not Forbes. He’s just a sell-out. Why does he sell out the President of the United States along with the United States of America? Because, as he says, and please imagine your dumbest voice here, “globalization and … fucking Wall Street!”
Kang, the would-be conqueror, whose mom (or was it his dad?) was blown up by a U.S. mine long ago, is the leader of that Korean terrorist group making all the headlines, and one of the most wanted men on the planet. Amazing that he got into the White House. But then we never had a picture of him. Our intelligence sucks. Stupid intelligence. Good thing we have Banning.
A lone man using violence to achieve justice
You could pretty much write it from here. Banning rescues the President’s son, Connor (Finley Jacobson, in his first non-dog movie), and then, in a game of cat-and-mouse, picks off the terrorists one at a time, sometimes four a time, on his way to the ultimate showdown with Kang.
Meanwhile, Kang’s true goals are slowly revealed. He demands of the acting president, Speaker of the House Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), that the U.S. leave South Korea and the 7th fleet pull back, but this is mostly a ruse. He’s really after the Cerberus code.
What’s the Cerberus code? It’s a three-pronged failsafe to blow up launched nukes. Basically Kang needs the code from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense and the President, all of whom are prisoners in PEOC; and each time he tortures one, POTUS caves. “Tell him!” he barks. Then with a sneer: “But he won’t get the code from me.” The Chairman gets a knife to the throat, while the Defense Secretary (Melissa Leo), in a scene that’s pretty hard to watch, gets punched and kicked and pummeled. I mean, she gets the shit beaten out of her. (Is this some anti-Hilary fantasy?) But she stands tall. Or crawls tall. Until the President tells her to cave. Because “He won’t get the code from me!” Besides, no nukes have been launched, so what’s the point of the code?
It takes most of the movie for the other shoe to drop. He means to blow them up in their silos! All of them! The U.S. will become a nuclear wasteland. Our overly paranoid defense program will become our overly paranoid destruction fantasy. If, that is, Kang can get the final code from the President.
How does he do it? I think he just has it. He just enters it. Still, it takes him awhile to launch the countdown sequence, since he has to allow Banning to get close. Kang’s superefficient team, which took out the entire U.S. military-industrial complex, gets taken out, one by one, by one guy. Then this one guy, battered and bruised and bloody, takes out Kang with the promised knife to the brain and saves the U.S. (and much of Canada and Mexico, I’d imagine) from destruction, and from every wrongheaded move by every other person in the movie. Seriously. The President caves, the Speaker negotiates, the General rushes in. Everyone else makes the obvious wrong move. Why? Because it has to be just one guy. We don’t know how to do it otherwise.
What liberal Hollywood?
So what’s the appeal of movies like these? Is it that favorite Thomas Jefferson quote of nutjobs everywhere? “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” So dimwits watch movies like these and feel a surge of patriotism. How sad. I don’t need movies like these to feel patriotic. I don’t need to see the U.S. being attacked, and the White House in ruins, and the flag fluttering to the ground. What does it say about those who do?
More, what’s the effect of movies like these? Do they make us more paranoid? Bit by bit? Would patriotic paranoids be less fucked-up if Hollywood didn’t exist? Is this the true source of their anger toward liberal Hollywood?
I know: liberal Hollywood. What liberal fucking Hollywood?
Movie Review: Admission (2013)
If Sarah Palin ever wants her revenge on Tina Fey, her bete noire, her impersonator extraordinaire, she should just watch “Admission,” the startling unfunny comedy from writer Karen Croner (“One True Thing”) and director Paul Weitz (“About a Boy”). Fey, le femme forte of left-wing comedy, flounders as badly here as Palin did during that Katie Couric interview. It’s a train wreck of a movie. I laughed about five times during its nearly two-hour runtime.
Change has come to the Princeton admissions office
Fey plays Portia Nathan, an officious admissions officer at Princeton University, the No. 1 college in the country, where, the previous year, 26,241 applied. Fewer than 1500 were accepted. Rough.
It’s Portia’s 16th year on the job, same old same old, but this year change begins to come to Princeton. Witness:
- The Dean of Admissions (Wallace Shawn) is stepping down, and both Portia and her rival, Corinne (Gloria Reuben), are considered favorites for the job. These two, behind tight smiles, make hissing sounds at each other throughout the movie, until they kiss and make up. Kind of. And without the kissing.
- Portia’s longtime significant other, Chaucer scholar Mark (Michael Sheen), with whom she shares a sexless, childless, tea-drinking and poetry-reading existence, leaves her for a bitchy, domineering Virginia Woolf scholar, Helen (Sonia Walger).
- On a run through the various prep schools of New England (Do ivy-league admissions officers do this? Like they’re Willy Loman or something?), Portia stops off at Quest, an alternative school in backwoods New Hampshire, to look at a potential genius student, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), at the request of the school’s founder, John Pressman (Paul Rudd). And, hey, guess what? Turns out Jeremiah is the child she gave up at Dartmouth 18 years ago.
So a lot of changes in her life all of a sudden. Plus Pressman’s cute, is raising a child from Uganda on his own, and goes around the world building dikes and shit for poor people. Much better than a sexless dude who reads Chaucer in bed.
Does she … or doesn’t she?
The drama, such as it is, is this: What does Portia do with this information about Jeremiah? Does she help her biological son, an autodidact with great SATs but lousy grades, get into her impossible-to-get-into ivy-league school? What are the ethical boundaries here?
Actually, the ethical boundaries never come up. John keeps pushing, she is pushed, willingly, and eventually she’ll do anything to get Jeremiah, a kid she would normally reject, into Princeton. I guess she has feelings now. I guess that makes it OK.
She plays political games with the other admissions officers, agreeing, with quid pro quo looks and glances, to accept their favorites in exchange, she hopes, for hers. Doesn’t happen. Corinne can’t accept a D student. So Portia breaks into the Dean’s office, changes his Excel spreadsheet on approvals/rejections, then switches the sticker on Jeremiah’s folder with that of an approved student whom she knows has already accepted Yale. Easy peasy. Remember kids: It’s who you know. Or who gave you up for adoption.
Does the movie ever condemn her for this action? Not really. She’s fired, sure, but there’s no mea culpa. She’s proud of what she did, even when she discovers that Jeremiah is not her biological son. The 1 PM February 14th birthdate? It was totally 11 PM.
Still, she comes to terms with herself. She stands up to her domineering, Erica-Jong quoting mother (Lily Tomlin). She tries to connect with her true biological son, who doesn’t want to see her. But she has John now, and his son, and John—in a subplot whose outcome is excruciatingly transparent—decides not to go to Ecuador to build some yadda yadda, but stays in New Hampshire, where his son wants to stay, and continue to educate a bunch of kids in the snooty, farm-friendly way he’s been educating them.
Listen, if “Admission” were poignant, great. It’s not. It makes a weak argument for education-for-education’s sake, which is sweet and all, but hardly practical. I should know. That was basically my education. You need to be educated in the way the world works, too. You need to know what you’re up against when you leave college. Plus, shouldn’t education-for-education’s sake include one lesson on ethics?
Listen, if it were smart, great. It’s not. Early on, a neighbor, Rachael (Sarita Choudhury), deposits her three kids with Portia without warning, or even asking, then leaves. When she returns they’re crying and she blames Portia. What’s the point of this scene? I think it’s supposed to be: Portia’s no good with kids. What I got out of it? Rachael is a major asshole.
Listen, if it were funny, great. It’s not. You get these kinds of lines during a fight between John and Portia:
Portia: I am so glad you’re going to Ecuador except for one thing.
Portia: I feel sorry for the Ecuadorans!
Paul Rudd isn’t bad. Nat Wolff is quite good as Jeremiah. But Tina Fey gives off nothing. What compelled her to do this?
Movie Review: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)
A horrible man, Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell), performs an awful, cheesy magic act and audiences love it for decades. An even more horrible man, Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), performs an awful, masochistic act, in which he actually inflicts pain on himself, and he steals away Burt’s fickle audience. Humbled and broke, Burt spirals toward bottom, learns humility, meets his mentor (Alan Arkin), reteams with the partner he dismissed (Steve Buscemi), gets the beautiful girl he dissed (Olivia Wilde), and together all four win back the audience by literally drugging them. Audience members were dupes before and now they’re doped.
Some kind of lesson there about what Hollywood thinks of us.
There are a few laughs in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.” Maybe 10. Maybe.
I like the early, good-natured reaction shots from the overly good-natured Anton Marvelton (Buscemi). I like the last absurdly masochistic trick of Steve Gray. Alan Arkin can turn dull lines into something wonderful while Olive Wilde is something nice to look at.
Otherwise I was bored. Otherwise it was gags like this:
- Burt takes a beautiful fan into his bedroom.
- From outside we hear her say, “Oh my god, it’s huge.”
- We cut inside where she’s looking at his bed, which is big.
Director Joseph Scardino is mostly a director of TV sitcoms. It shows. One of the main screenwriters, Jonathan M. Goldstein, is mostly a writer of TV sitcoms, while the other, John Francis Daley, played the lead in the acclaimed TV sitcom “Freaks and Geeks.”
Do we care that the chronology is off? In the beginning we see Burt as a kid being picked on—ironically by Zachary Gordon, star of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”—in 1982. Which means Burt and Anton were born in … 1972? For Carell and Buscemi? Who were born in ’62 and ’57 respectively? As adults, their act takes off and they wind up on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, who retired in 1992. So when they were 20? I guess? Even though they look like they look now? Does anyone care what fucking year it is anymore?
By the time they’re fixtures on the Vegas stage, with tans, hairdos and sequined outfits out of Siegfried & Roy, Burt, the sweet kid, has already morphed into a major pompous asshole. He stays that way for more than half the movie. It’s not funny. He also hates their magic act because it’s the same, the same, the same, yet he refuses to change it until it’s too late; until his “show business” is usurped by Steve Gray’s “reality.”
Do we read the movie as a Hollywood metaphor? Burt Wonderstone is the old cheesy TV show, Steve Gray is the masochism of reality TV, and the old hands are trying to figure out ways to win back their dopey audience.
“I don’t enjoy any of this shit,” says Vegas hotel owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), channeling me.
Movie Review: A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)
“Are you always looking for trouble or does it find you?” John McClane, Jr. (Jai Courtney) asks his father at the end of “A Good Day to Die Hard.”
“After all these years?” John McClane (Bruce Willis), bloodied and battered, responds with his customary smirk. “I still ask myself the same question.”
Oo! Oo! Me! Pick me! I know the answer!
In “Die Hard” trouble found him. In “Die Harder” he went looking for it. In “Die Hard with a Vengeance” trouble definitely went looking for him, but only as a diversion, and then he went after trouble because it played him for a sap. In “Live Free or Die Hard,” I think it went looking for him. I forget most of that forgettable movie. And in this one? “A Good Day to Die Hard”? Man, does he go looking for it. To an embarrassing degree.
Bummer. What made John McClane feel truly, heroically American in the original “Die Hard” 25 years ago was how much he didn’t want to be the hero; how, if Hans had opened the door for him, he would’ve walked out of Nakatomi Towers. That’s Rick Blaine in “Casablanca.” I stick my neck out for nobody. That’s the isolationist streak in the U.S. before World War II. Now John McClane rushes in, guns blazing, where angels fear to tread. The U.S., too.
Did this even have to be a “Die Hard” movie? What’s specific to the character of John McClane here? I kind of miss Holly, the wife who kept leaving him no matter how many times he saved her ass from terrorists. Her presence, with one foot out the door, helped make him John McClane. Unwanted. Ordinary. Like us.
So what’s he up to these days? He’s at a pistol range, working on his expert marksmanship, when a friend comes to him with information. His estranged, ne’er-do-well son, Jack, has turned up in a Moscow prison. John has to go there. He has to right things. He has to rush in.
Hey, he happens to show up outside the Moscow courthouse at the exact same moment his son and Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch), the dissident Russian nuclear scientist and persecuted political prisoner, are being paraded inside for a show trial. Jack is supposedly going to rat on Yuri, claim Yuri paid him to kill a political enemy, but we already know, because we’ve seen the trailer, that Jack is CIA. He’s there to protect Yuri and spirit him out of the country.
Dad, outside, doesn’t know this. What’s the story like from his perspective? He has a fuck-up for a son who’s on trial in Moscow. Then half the courthouse blows up. Then, in the wreckage, he sees his son making a getaway with another guy.
You’re a Dad. What would you do at this point?
You stop the son from making his getaway, of course. You admonish him thus: “Jack! Jack!” You go over generic family squabbles as Russian forces gather. Then when your son pulls a gun on you and drives away (“You shouldn’t be here,” he says), and you see he’s being pursued by, presumably, the cops, you grab a truck and drive like a crazy man through the streets of Moscow to help him. When that truck gets flipped over countless parked cars, and you emerge with a few cuts, you stand in the middle of traffic demanding another vehicle. When a car hits you, and its driver admonishes you for standing in the middle of the street, you get up, coldcock him and take his car. “You think I understand a word you’re saying?” you say to him. Ha ha. To the pursuers, the bad guys, who could be police for all you know, you say, “Knock knock” as you ram them from behind. You say, “Guess who?” as you ram them from the side. When you drive over a woman in her car, crushing her car, and she screams, you say, “Sorry, ma’am.” Ha ha.
Bruce Willis used to have comic timing. What happened? Maybe he knows he’s in scenes that won’t work. Maybe he knows that his character, John McClane, will look like a horse’s ass. Maybe he knows that it’s a bad idea for the hero to spend the first third of the movie coming up to speed. Maybe he knows that all of this is the antithesis of who John McClane is. Or was.
Remember the way he picked shards of glass from his feet in the original “Die Hard”? Remember how you cringed? Nothing like that here. He bulldozes through everything, then emerges a bit winded, a bit cut, maybe limping, but otherwise undamaged. He’s the terminator as an old, bald man. Bummer.
So there are three big reveals in “A Good Day to Die Hard.” OK, two small reveals before one big reveal.
The first small reveal is that McClane’s ne’er-do-well son is CIA. But we know that if we’ve seen the trailer. Which we have.
The second small reveal is that Irina (Yuliya Snigir), the daughter of Yuri, betrays her father to his enemies, Alik (Radivoje Bukvic) and Defense Minister Chagarin (Sergey Kolesnikov), for money. But that’s so like hot girls, right, man? Total fucking betrayers, man.
The big reveal, after Irina and Alik take Yuri to Chernobyl—which Yuri and Chagarin totally caused, by the way—is that Yuri and his daughter are in cahoots. They wanted to go back to Chernobyl. Not to retrieve a file that has information damaging to Chagarin on it. No, they want the weapons-grade plutonium there. To sell on the black market? To blow up New York? Do we ever find out? Do we need to? It’s enough that they’re bad guys and it’s Chernobyl and it’s John McClane and his son to the rescue wahoo.
But what does this mean in terms of story?
It means that Chagarin was sleeping with his enemy’s daughter and didn’t think she’d betray him.
It means that Yuri whored out his daughter to his political enemy to further his interests.
It means the CIA and John Jr. were played for saps, that the political protesters outside are backing the wrong pony, and that Yuri risked everything, many times over, to pull the strings at the last moment, to reveal himself as puppetmaster rather than puppet, chessmaster rather than pawn. On the way to this triumph, there were 12 ways he could’ve died. Then he dies anyway: thrown from a rooftop by John Jr., and grasping at the air in slow-mo, in homage to Hans, before the blades of his daughter’s helicopter chop him to bits. Splat! Then she gets hers in a kamikaze bloodbath as John and John, Jr., leap by, in slow mo, flipping the bird. Classy.
You’re in the movies now and I’m in your cartoon
“A Good Day to Die Hard” was written by Skip Woods, who wrote “Swordfish” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” It was directed by John Moore, who directed the 2006 remake of “The Omen” and the Mark Wahlberg vehicle “Max Payne.” Talent.
What a shame. The original “Die Hard” was set in a high-rise but it was grounded. This is a cartoon. Yippee-ki-whatever.
Movie Review: Warm Bodies (2013)
The problem with zombie movies has always been zombies. They’re boring. They shuffle and groan and travel in packs and eat flesh or brains and get killed by shotguns. Yay. They’re most interesting as metaphors, as in “Shaun of the Dead,” for shuffling, brain-dead commuters working deadening, soul-destroying jobs. Us. We’re zombies before the flesh-eating even begins.
We get a few moments like that in “Warm Bodies,” the new zombie flick written and directed by Jonathan Levine (“50/50”). Our main character, “R” (Nicholas Hoult), is a zombie who shuffles around an abandoned airport with dozens of other zombies. He’s friends with no one except “M” (Rob Cordrey), with whom he shares the usual zombie grunts and grrs at the airport bar before one of them is able to annunciate a word. Generally it’s: “hungry.” And off they go, in search of brains.
But “R” misses days of communication and flashes back to what it was like before. What was it like before? When people could express themselves, and communicate their feelings, and enjoy each other’s company? Flash to footage of busy people walking around the airport, looking at their cellphones, and texting. Zombie nation had already begun.
Holden Caulfield is dead, but in a good way
“R” is so named because that’s all of his name he can remember. He’s also “R” because that’s the sound they make, isn’t it? Arrrr. He’s “R” for another reason as well. We’ll get to that.
If “R” can’t communicate with others he certainly can with us, and the opening voiceover gives us the first of many laugh-out loud moments:
What am I doing with my life? So pale, I should get out more, I should eat better. My posture is terrible. I should stand up straighter. People would respect me more if I stood up straighter.
What’s wrong with me? I just want to connect. Why can’t I connect with people?
Oh right. Because I’m dead.
He’s the angsty, smart, teen zombie. He’s also retro. He hangs out on an old jumbo jet on the runway where he listens to LPs on a turntable because he likes the sound better than CDs or MP3s. It’s mostly ‘80s music: “Missing You” by John Waits, “Patience” by Guns N’ Roses, “Hungry Heart” by Springsteen. He yearns. Then he falls in love.
Out in search of food, they come across a group of well-armed teens stockpiling medicines for the nearby walled city, protected by Grigio (John Malkovich). That’s where R spots Grigio’s daughter, Julie (Teresa Palmer), a bit of a Kristen Stewart lookalike, wearing tight jeans and an army jacket, and falls in love. It helps, too, that he eats the brains of Perry, her boyfriend (Dave Franco of “21 Jump Street”). Zombies don’t sleep, they don’t remember much, but if you eat the brains of another you absorb their memories. That’s what he does with Perry. After that, he protects Julie. He rubs zombie goo on her face to hide her scent from the others; then he takes her back to his place. He plays her records. They begin to bond. And he begins to come back to life. Literally. We get a heartbeat.
Later, when the other zombies see them holding hands, they begin to get heartbeats, too. Zombification, it turns out, isn’t an endgame, which has always been another problem with zombie movies. Here, it’s a kind of purgatory where you have three options: you can become truly dead (shotgun to the head); you can become a “bonie,” a zombie which has ripped off its own flesh, leaving only the superfast skeleton beneath; or you can return to life. You just need to care. You just need to feel a little love. 1980s music? Screw that. The message is all 1960s: What the world needs now…
R and Julie are obviously a humorous update of Edward and Bella from “Twilight”: a love story between a human girl and a classic horror monster. (I’m waiting on the Frankenstein version.) But they’re also, more meaningfully, a modern-day, or futuristic, Romeo and Juliet. They’re star-crossed lovers. Her dad doesn’t like him; his friends want to eat her brains. You know how it is. At one point we even get a balcony scene. That’s why the “R” as well. For Romeo. Or Ralph. Because what’s in a name?
I expected nothing from “Warm Bodies” but it’s witty and charming throughout. And if it moves slowly at times, well, these are zombies.
Movie Review: The Last Stand (2013)
If “The Last Stand” had been set for a December rather than January release, it would’ve been delayed by Newtown.
A dangerous Mexican drug cartel leader, Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), escapes from the FBI, takes a pretty agent hostage (Genesis Rodriguez), and heads for the border in a car that can zip close to 200 miles an hour. The feds are arrogant and keep fucking up, the pretty fed agent is actually a traitor, and the only thing in the way of this damned Mexican and his army of thugs is a small-town sheriff, Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and his misfit deputies, including a former U.S. Marine, now town drunk, Frank (Rodrigo Santoro), and a local boob with a gun fixation, Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville). He’s got a virtual armory on his property. They need it, of course, to take on the paramilitary bad guys. And while they are all wounded except for the pretty deputy, Sarah (Jaimie Alexander), they kill the baddies thanks to these arms and their Second Amendment right to bear them. Even a Granny with a shotgun gets a kill.
Just another liberal message from liberal Hollywood.
The good, the bad, the conventional
Question: How many facelifts can a person have before they can’t see out of their eyes? I get the feeling Schwarzenegger is close. His face used to be impassive in his action movies but now it looks pained. Everything’s so pulled back. What’s left of this man? What becomes an aged action hero most? He can barely walk, he’s no longer Mr. Universe, he’s just … a name. A brand. And judging from opening-weekend box-office numbers, not much of one.
“The Last Stand” got some early good Rotten Tomatoes numbers, I suspect, because its director is Jee-woon Kim (“The Good, The Bad, The Weird”), making his Hollywood debut, and a lot of critics are auteur whores. They’ll back the movie of any director they like.
But the movie is past conventional. There’s economy here, certainly. It all takes, what, two days at most? Most of Somerset, Arizona, is gone for a football game, Sheriff Ray is supposed to have a day off, but trouble’s a brewing. Ray suspects it immediately at the local diner, Irv’s, with its pretty waitress, Christie (Christiana Leucas), when he gives a casual glance around and his eyes, as squinty as Clint’s now, land on two strangers. He asks them some friendly-but-pointed questions and they vamoose. But something’s up. He feels they’re “off.” Since one of them, Burrell, is played by Peter Stormare, who put poor Steve Buscemi in a wood-chipper in “Fargo,” and who’s never played a good guy in his life, it’s not a bad call.
There’s an OK dynamic between Ray and his deputies. He’s a former L.A. narcotics cop, decorated, who lost too many friends and wants the quiet life in Somerset. They live the quiet life in Somerset and want action. They get it. Of course they’re not ready for it, and the most innocent of them all, Jerry (Zach Gilford), dies in a furious gun battle. The bad guys are installing a portable bridge across the Rio Grande for Cortez to zip across. Now they’re just waiting for Cortez to show up in his 200-mph zipmobile.
Kim keeps cutting back-and-forth between the escape in Vegas and the sleepy town, and we get some OK bits. The convoy transporting Cortez is stuck at a stoplight (I guess?) when a giant magnet comes down from a nearby rooftop and picks up the police van. That’s not the OK bit. That’s pretty stupid, actually. Then while all the federal agents rush to the rooftop, like all the cops in Gotham rushing into the tunnels, Cortez and his men take a zipline to another building. Then Cortez changes out of his orange prison jumpsuit and into a designer suit, while his team floods the area with a bunch of guys wearing orange jumpsuits. That’s the bit I liked. Of course they overdo it. They employ a dozen. Why not just one? Why not just the 4 a.m. jogger wearing the colors of the Dutch futbol team? A dozen and you know it’s a set-up; just one and it just may be a jogger.
Off Cortez goes, pursued by a helicopter, with a pretty agent aboard (Kristen Rakes), but he and his men keep blasting through whatever obstacles are between him and Somerset. I guess we know that going in. I guess we watch to see how he breaks through. We wait for the showdown between the sheriff and the druggie. We get it.
It’s in high cornfields, cat and mouse, each in a roadster. It’s pretty cool. Then you think: “Wait. Cornfields? In Arizona?” The final final showdown is on the bridge. Of course. It’s the last stand.
Any bon mots to add to the Arnold lexicon? Not really. Imagine his strong Austrian accent:
- “I’m the sheriff.”
- “You make us immigrants look bad.”
- “My honor is not for sale.”
- “Game on.”
The misfits, along with grandma, do a fine job against the beefy paramilitary dudes, and two of them, the ex-Marine and the pretty one, fall back in love, while Johnny Knoxville, whooping it up like Johnny Knoxville, gets the pretty waitress. The pretty traitor-agent winds up in custody. The pretty agent in the helicopter? Still available, fellas.
Meanwhile, the feds, being the feds, show up late. It’s small-town ingenuity and a veritable private-citizen armory that handle this crisis. When Agent John Bannister (Forrest Whitaker) finally does set foot in Somerset, as the smoke of the finished battle dissipates, Frank says sarcastically, “Here comes the cavalry.” Fuckin’ feds.
In all of this, Arnold is superfluous. He’s even a drag on the proceedings. His main attraction, his body, is withered at 65, while all his deficits (accent, acting, movement) are more pronounced. At one point, in the middle of a gunfight, he stumbles through the glass at Irv’s, where we get this conversation:
Irv: How you feeling, Sheriff?
Irv: No. You got a few years left in you yet.
An FBI agent, a deputy sheriff, and a waitress, respectively.
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