Movie Reviews - 2013 postsTuesday December 10, 2013
Movie Review: Philomena (2013)
The power of Stephen Frear’s “Philomena” lies in the performance and in the message.
A simple woman searches for her long-lost son with the help of an erudite former BBC reporter. Early on, you think the movie is merely an odd-couple road-trip—him, with all his Oxford smarts, learning her simple wisdom—and that’s certainly part of it. You also think the movie is about the journey (them together) more than the destination (what happened to her son), but halfway through we wind up at that destination, and it dead-ends, and we wonder where the story can possibly go. Is there a path? There is. Through there. Then another dead-end and another path. And we keep squeezing through onto these smaller paths, wondering if we’re going to make it out, until suddenly everything opens up into a field, and we stand there for a second, happy, even as we recognize we’ve been there before. It’s Roscrea, the convent in Ireland where we started. At this point the former BBC reporter, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), recites the following stanza to the woman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench):
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
She’s effusive, and asks if he came up with it just then.
Martin (slightly embarrassed): It’s T.S. Eliot.
Philomena (unembarrassed): Oh. Well, it’s still very nice.
It’s the “still” that gets me. It’s the way Dench says it. It’s the way Dench says everything. She reminds me of my mother and Sixsmith reminds me of me. I don’t see me in many movies, and I see my mother less often, so it’s nice to see us up there for a change.
The greater sin
In 1951 Philomena Lee (Sophie Kennedy Clark) met a young boy at a carnival, and after a candied apple knew sin. Her family, ashamed of the out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sends her to Roscrea, where the nuns grill her. “Did you take your knickers down?” they ask. “Did you enjoy your sin?” She signs a document giving the convent the right to put her child up for adoption; then she and other unwed mothers work off what they owe in the laundry room. They’re allowed an hour a day with their child. Philomena’s is named Anthony. At age 3 he’s taken away. She hasn’t seen him since.
Why does Philomena tell her daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), about the half-brother she never knew on the 50th anniversary of his birth? She still considers herself a good Catholic and for years thought that what she’d done was a sin, a great sin, so she’d kept it hidden. But wasn’t keeping it hidden a sin as well? Which was the greater sin? She didn’t know. So her gut decided.
Later, Jane is serving wine at a party when she overhears Sixsmith talking to friends, rather uncomfortably, about his plans for the future. He’d worked for the Blair government but left under a cloud. The cloud actually surrounded the Blair administration but most people just remember the cloud. Sixsmith is thinking about writing a book on Russian history—everyone’s lack of interest is a running gag in the film—so Jane tells him about her mother. He’s dismissive at first. Human interest stories, he says, are for “weak-minded, vulnerable and ignorant people.” Then he realizes the insult.
There’s a lot of this: Sixsmith acting slightly rude and/or academic in that Steve Coogan manner, then slightly abashed in that Steve Coogan manner. Philomena is his opposite. She’s sweet but slightly daft. Mostly it works. As here:
Jane [to her mother]: What they did to you was evil.
Philomena: No no no. I don’t like that word.
Martin [taking notes]: No, it’s good: Evil. [Looks up.] Storywise.
Philomena: Do you believe in God, Martin?
Martin: [Exhales] Where do you start? I always thought that was a very difficult question to give a simple answer to. ... Do you?
Or the scene on the back of the airport cart when she goes on and on about the trashy book she’s just finished despite his complete lack of interest. But he’s polite. He says it sounds interesting and she pushes the book on him. He scans the back cover. “I feel like I’ve already read it,” he says dryly. Beat. “Oh, there’s a series.”
The even greater sin
In scenes reminiscent of Coogan’s mockumentary, “The Trip,” Sixsmith and Philomena drive to Roscrea to find of what they can. The nuns there are distant and unhelpful. The records of what happened to Anthony are gone, too, destroyed in the fire in the 1970s. He later learns the fire wasn’t a fire-fire but a burning of records.
Back in the 1950s, most Irish children were adopted by wealthy Americans, some of the few people in the postwar world who could afford the £100 pricetag; and while the British government isn’t helpful with its records, Sixsmith, who once reported from Washington, D.C., thinks they’ll have better luck with the Yanks. That’s the rationale for flying to the states. It feels unnecessary, but it furthers the road trip and the comedy of manners. In a D.C. hotel buffet, for example, Philomena is overfriendly with the Mexican staff (“I’ve never been to Mexico but I hear it’s lovely.” Beat. “Apart from the kidnappings.”), while Sixsmith isn’t friendly enough. But it’s there he finds the answer to her question. A friend emails an old newspaper photo from 1955 showing a Dr. and Mrs. Hess returning from Ireland with two adopted children, Michael and Mary. A quick internet search turns up Michael Hess, senior counsel in the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, who died of AIDS in 1995. Philomena has found her son only to lose him again.
That’s the dead-end. So where do you go?
To these questions: Did he miss me? Did he think about me? Did he try to find me as I tried to find him? That’s when the trip to the U.S. makes sense. They meet the sister, Mary (Mare Winningham, in a great, thankless performance), who seems to know little about the inner life of her brother, along with a few of Michael’s friends; but in Michael’s lover, Pete Olsson (Peter Hermann), they run into another dead-end. He refuses to talk to them, even after Sixsmith “doorsteps” him. It’s Philomena and her moral authority that wins the day.
She learns that not only did Michael try to find her, he visited Ireland and the convent. He met with the nuns, including Sister Hildegarde (Kate Fleetwood/Barbara Jefford), severe in manner and cat’s-eye glasses. He’s buried there. But they told her they didn’t know where he was, just as they’d told him they didn’t know where she was. They kept mother and child apart. Most movies are about absolutes, good guys and bad guys, so I took all of this with a grain of salt. “I’m sure it’s exaggerated for the movie,” I thought.
Nope. From Sixsmith’s 2009 Guardian article:
Separated by fate, mother and child spent decades looking for each other, repeatedly thwarted by the refusal of the nuns to reveal information, each of them unaware that the other was also yearning and searching.
On the return to Roscrea, Sixsmith is full of righteous anger and condemnation. That’s what the movies are often about, too: revenge. Philomena takes another path, and it’s her path that gives the entire movie meaning.
“Philomena” isn’t perfect. Coogan, who wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope, pushes the differences between the two characters to an unnecessary comic degree. He turns Sixsmith into too much of a Steve Coogan character and makes Philomena more daft than she probably is.
But Dench is perfect. We get several scenes from the 1950s to demonstrate what Philomena lost, but these, to me, are almost unnecessary. We know what Philomena lost. You just need to watch Judi Dench act.
Movie Review: Before Midnight (2013)
September 4, 2012
First, it was great meeting you and your family in Greece this summer. I was only there a week but I had a blast. Your boy Henry is very sweet and the twins are adorable.
Second, it’s a little intimidating writing a letter to a famous novelist such as yourself. I know, I know, there’s Gore Vidal’s line: “To speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer. Adjective is inappropriate to noun.” Even so, it’s intimidating. I never read your books (sorry!) but I did see the movies based upon them (sorry again!). “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” right? With Ethan Hawke as you and Julie Delpy as Celine? Don’t remember much about them, unfortunately. I remember conversations on a train and walking about in Paris and a reading at ... was it Shakespeare & Co.? Those movies were mostly dialogue about everyday matters. Maybe that’s why I don’t remember them. The everyday goes away.
Anyway, apologies about all that, and apologies for this massive presumption, but it’s the reason for this letter. I wish I’d told you this earlier but now this will have to do. Here it is.
Your wife is crazy.
I didn’t think so at first. I thought, “Ah, another couple dealing with the doodads and crises of parenting in the early 21st century.” I even had a little trouble with you at first. I thought you were too delicate around your son. Like you were seeking his approval when it should be the other way around. Then I remembered you were divorced and he lived with his mother, and it made sense. You’re trying to make up for lost time. In this manner, divorce makes children of parents and parents of children.
It was at dinner that I began to see the pattern. Those dinners were a little odd, weren’t they? A little too Woody Allen during his stilted, pretentious period. I liked the kids enough. And I loved Patrick and Natalia. Her line about how we’re just passing through? And you raised a toast “to passing through”? That was nice. Sure, Stefano couldn’t get away from the topic of sex while Ariadni played her usual game of self-satisfied gender politics, but at least you felt the rules in their relationship. No one ever went out of bounds.
Your wife, Celine, kept going out of bounds.
Someone would say how the meeting story of you and Celine was romantic and you agreed and Celine immediately disagreed. Someone would say how your girls were beautiful and you thanked them and Celine immediately disagreed. Remember when Henry was out and about on the island and he called Celine’s phone and she wouldn’t put you on? I’d never seen that before. Another time she asked you some theoretical question—if you’d met on the train today, would you still talk to her?—and dissed your answer. She said, “I wanted you to say something romantic and you blew it.” But whenever you did say something romantic she dismissed it, so I didn’t see how you could win.
She kept cutting into you with these little cuts, about little things: the amount of housework you did, the attention you paid, how self-obsessed you were. Then she’d take out the cleaver and try to lop off your head. Sorry, but it was brutal to watch.
There was such hate in her eyes. That’s the thing. I couldn’t see the love there. Nowhere. You kept trying to make it work and she would come back at you with hate.
She kept reading two or three steps ahead into everything you said. Does she always do this? And is she right? I’m curious. Because you’d say something and she’d make this assumption about what it really meant, and she’d wind up objecting to something that wasn’t even there. Like after Henry left. You were talking about missing him, and missing his years growing up, and how he threw a baseball like a girl because you weren’t around to teach him—which he totally does—but how there was no solution. Henry wouldn’t be allowed to live with you in Paris and you couldn’t move to Chicago to be with him every other weekend because it would disrupt the lives of Celine and the girls. But that’s what she assumed you meant. And the daggers came out.
Have you talked to her about this? This tendency to read three steps ahead? To assume this much? Because it’s not even a good strategy. To attack someone where they aren’t? Every battle that does that, loses. Or does she do this to prevent you from getting there? She attacks where you aren’t to prevent you from going to that place?
Remember that conversation we had about how men always compare themselves to other famous men? Fitzgerald did this by age X and Balzac by age Y and why aren’t I doing that? That felt true. But then she said something like, “Women don't think that way as much.” WTF? That’s the main neuroses, isn’t it? I’m fat, I’m ugly, my hair is too straight. Or too curly. I’m not wearing the right shoes. I’m not Beyoncé or Angelina or Kate. But she probably meant, you know, women outside of show business, because then she said something like, “The women who achieve anything in life, you first hear about them in their 50s, because they were raising kids before then.” So obviously not Beyoncé. She’s talking about someone like Ruth Bader Ginsberg ... who was arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in her thirties. Or Flannery O’Connor ... who wrote “Wise Blood” in her twenties.
No, I know. She was talking about herself. Because that’s what she does. She was laying out the hope that her achievement in life is not being wife to you, or mother to two girls, but something else. Now to me—and I tried to tell her this—but to me the most important thing men and women can do in this life is raise children, and raise them well, but I’m still a fan of maintaining hope for other achievements, too. It keeps us going. In a way, you and Celine regret opposites: You, who have published three novels, regret not parenting enough, and she, mother of two girls, regrets not “achieving” enough. So there’s conflict. That’s inevitable. But you seem to blame you for not parenting more while she seems to blame you for why she hasn’t achieved more. And she blames you without mercy.
I haven’t even told you the worst part yet.
Celine and Patricia and I went on a hike one day. Celine, again, wouldn’t shut up, just went on and on about herself. At some point she talked about some quote someone put on the refrigerator at work with those poet/magnet thingees. Something like, “Women explore for eternity in the vast garden of sacrifice.” Crap, right? She thought it was meaningful. More, she thought it related to her. Not just her mother or grandmother, or any of the women who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago—but her: a pretty French girl born in Paris in 1970. She thinks she’s spent her pampered life in “a vast garden of sacrifice.” She sees herself, despite all evidence to the contrary, as a symbol of oppressed women everywhere. And she sees you—and this was the really weird part—as a symbol of tyrannical men everywhere. She compared you to Dick Cheney and George W. Bush! She said you were a proponent of “rational thinking” but then so were the Nazis during the Final Solution. I mean, holy fuck. I had to walk away at that point.
I probably shouldn’t even have written this letter. I probably won’t send it. I just had to let it out. In the past, you’ve written about your relationship with Celine, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you write about this summer: How you and Celine were in this beautiful place but stuck in this awful situation, which she kept trying to destroy and you kept trying to repair. Maybe they’ll make another movie about it. “Before Dinner”? “Before Dusk”? “Before the Final Solution”?
Anyway, I hope to see you again. Maybe in another nine years? If so, I hope—and this is a bad thing to hope—but I hope you’re on your own. I hope you’re finally free of Celine and that awful, awful decision you made to talk with her on the train to Paris in 1994. Because no man deserves the amount of grief you’re putting up with. To be honest, it’s a little embarrassing.
Movie Review: Oldboy (2013)
Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” (2003), starring Choi Min-sik and Kang Hye-jeong, is the one of the greatest revenge movies ever made. Spike Lee’s “Oldboy,” starring Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen, is not.
The new “Oldboy” is both more grounded and less believable. It’s less dreamlike, less cartoonish, less comic, and packs less of an emotional wallop. It give us more of Joe Doucett (Brolin) acting like a drunk asshole, more of Joe imprisoned in the room, and a greater subterfuge about the love interest (Olsen), but it’s not as good, not as clever, and obviously not as original. It corrects some of the mistakes of the Korean version but makes its own. It shortens the length of the movie by 16 minutes but hardly to its advantage. As the climax looms, we think, “Already?”
Admittedly remaking a classic is a tough gig.
Joe Doucett is an ad executive and alcoholic, who, as the movie begins, blows a deal by coming onto his client’s wife. Afterwards, he gets massively drunk, roams Chinatown, buys a cheap Buddha gift for his 3-year-old daughter, throws up on himself, and knocks on the door of the bar of his friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli). Then a beautiful woman with an umbrella appears, beckons him, and Joe disappears. All that’s left behind is the Buddha.
He wakes in a hotel room with the shower running. He assumes it’s the umbrella woman but nobody’s there. His clothes are gone, there’s no phone, no room service. At first he thinks he’s simply locked in; then, as food and vodka appear, he realizes he’s being kept prisoner in the room. We realize, meanwhile, that the Korean version didn’t give us this. It went right to being imprisoned for two months, as its main character, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), veers between rage and catatonia. Both responses come off as comic. That’s part of the tension in watching: not laughing at this man in his horrible predicament. Spike Lee doesn’t give us this. So there’s less tension.
What does Joe do in his imprisoned hotel room? He drinks, he cries, he jacks off. After this last, gas fills the room, and some time later he finds out via the TV news that his ex-wife has been raped and murdered and the irrefutable evidence points to ... him. He’s now a wanted fugitive.
After a few years he gets serious. He stops drinking, gets in shape, readies himself for revenge. He’s tunneling his way out, a la Andy Dusfrene, but at the last moment gas fills the room again. Except when he awakes, he’s out, he’s free. Where? Korean version: on a rooftop. U.S. version: in a coffin in the middle of a field. OK. And there’s the woman with the umbrella again. OK. It’s amazing how she hasn’t aged. Or maybe this is a different woman.
It’s amazing how he hasn’t aged. Joe actually looks better now than when he went in. He also seems saner. Every one of these points is at odds with the Korean version; every one seems wrong.
He follows the umbrella girl until ... well, now it’s a homeless man, standing in line for free health care, and the volunteer nurse on staff is Marie Sebastian (Olsen), who gets caught up in Joe’s life and story. As does Chucky. As does Adrian (Sharlto Copley of “District 9”), the man who imprisoned him, who sets him on a 48-hour mission to find out the answer to these two questions: who is he and why did he imprison Joe for 20 years? If he can answer these, his daughter, now 23, and a cellist somewhere, will live, he’ll be given evidence to clear his name, he’ll be given, what is it, $20 million in diamonds? Plus he’ll get to watch Adrian put a bullet through his own head. Nice deal. He takes it.
The larger prison
So how else does the U.S. version differ from the Korean version? Well, the owner of the private jail, Park there and Chaney here (Samuel L. Jackson), isn’t tortured by teeth extraction; instead, Joe cuts out bits of his neck and literally pours salt in the wounds. There’s less back-and-forth with him, too. Park and his men keep turning up, Chaney less so.
The backstory of the villain (Adrian/Lee Woo-jin) is also different. Korean version: Lee had sex with his sister at school, Ou Dae-su saw it, told his friend, who told others, and on and on until there was scandal and suicide. So Ou Dae-su, a despicable man, suffers for a crime he didn’t commit. U.S. version: Joe witnesses sex, yes, but between the sister and an older man, who turned out to be the father. Joe didn’t know that then, but he still spread the story, and the girl was still hounded, and eventually the entire family, happily engaging in incest with the father, was forced to flee to Luxemburg, where Daddy finally lost it and killed them all. Adrian was only wounded.
Now before I go on to other changes, let me say, emphatically, to anyone who hasn’t seen the Korean version: Go watch it. Now. It’s streaming on Netflix. If you keep reading this, you will discover one of the great twist endings in movie history. It will be like knowing what Rosebud was. So please, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, leave.
Are we good? Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Another difference is the way the new “Oldboy” presents what happened to Joe/Ou’s 3-year-old daughter. Korea: He gets a slip of paper saying she was adopted by a couple in .... was it Switzerland? She’s out of the picture. In the U.S. version, we see her on television over and over again. She keeps showing up on one of those crappy “unsolved crime” shows, which Joe keeps watching while imprisoned. She grows to be a beautiful 23-year-old cellist. Why this change? One: American children don’t get adopted abroad. Two: the greater subterfuge—and it is subterfuge—is there less to fool Joe than to fool us.
Except ... One of the things I liked about the Korean version is that I suspected briefly who Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong) was. “He should be careful,” I said to Patricia. “That girl is his daughter’s age. She could be his daughter.” I’m careful this way. I’m good with math. But the thought went away. It flashed in my head, and the story picked up, and I stopped thinking about it.
This has happened to me a couple of times watching movies: flashing on the answer, losing it in the story, and then—boom—there it is. When I first saw “The Crying Game,” I thought maybe the dude was a lady; then it went away; then there it was. With Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” I felt a vibe of assassination. I don’t know why. But then it went away. Then boom. It’s almost a kind of subconscious foreshadowing. It’s one of those mysteries of movies, and if you have it you don’t want to mess with it—it’s actually more effective, more resonant, than completely fooling your audience—but in the new “Oldboy” they mess with it. Since the subterfuge is greater, I can’t imagine anyone new to the story engaging in this kind of subconscious foreshadowing.
In both versions, by the way, the villain tells the hero he asked the wrong question: Not why did I imprison you but why did I let you go? But here’s a better question: Why did I let you go after 15/20 years? The length of time, it turns out, is the whole point.
Park’s “Oldboy” is a great revenge fantasy because the revenge isn’t extracted by the man who was imprisoned but by the man who imprisoned him. And the 15 years isn’t the revenge, it simply sets up the revenge. The 15 years is prelude. Enough time has to pass to allow the revenge to happen: to make Ou guilty of the crime that sent Lee Woo-jin’s sister to her death: incest. That’s brilliant. Equally brilliant, equally painful, is Ou’s reaction. He grovels and acts the dog. He literally cuts out his own tongue to please the man who imprisoned him so he won’t tell the daughter what really happened. The dream has become a nightmare; and unlike Ou’s imprisonment, it won’t ever end.
The U.S. version screws this up, too. Josh Brolin is a good actor but he can’t grovel. And Joe certainly doesn’t cut out his own tongue. Instead, even as Adrian kills himself, Joe takes the diamonds, gives most to Marie along with a carefully worded farewell note, and the rest goes to Chaney so he’ll lock up Joe for the rest of his life. Joe is now his own imprisoner. And he smiles at the camera.
It’s not a bad end. It recalls long-held prisoners who want the comfort of the jail cell again. But it doesn’t resonate the way the Korean version resonates.
I think the biggest mistake in Spike’s version was losing the dream/nightmare quality of the Korean film, the horror/comic fable of it all. This version takes itself a little too seriously. Which I guess is what you do when you remake a classic. But it doesn’t serve the final product.
Or maybe it does. We still have the original version, after all, and the U.S. version, despite the talent involved, is no competition. It will fade, disappear from view, leaving only the Korean classic. That’s the one people should see anyway.
Movie Review: The Internship (2013)
Here’s a conversation between Patricia and I during the last five minutes of “The Internship,” starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson:
Me: Why is everyone else cheering? They just lost. They won’t get jobs now.
Patricia: And what’s the stripper doing there?
That pretty much sums up the movie. The few choice jobs in the digital age are gone ... and what’s the stripper doing there?
Has there been a worse year for comedies? Hollywood keeps trying to make us laugh from situations that cause massive social anxiety: identity theft, college admission, Burt Wonderstone. In “The Internship,” it’s obsolescence in the digital age. Wucka wucka.
I get it. Our heroes dream and persevere. They overcome and work as a team and win. But the anxiety is too real while the victory too fake. The filmmakers (director Shawn Levy; screenwriters Jared Stern and Vince Vaughn) have taken the American nightmare, shoved it through the Hollywood dream factory, and this is what came out the other end.
Selling watches in 2012
Billy McMahon (Vaughn) and Nick Campbell (Wilson) are mid-40s watch salesmen who don’t know what time it is. They don’t even know their company has folded. It takes a former customer to tell them that.
Immediate thought. Sales? That’s a transferable skill. They should do well. Hell, if they can sell watches in 2012, they can sell anything.
Except for the movie to work, they can’t get jobs; and because they can’t get jobs, they’re forced to roll the dice as interns at Google, where they join a team of misfits and compete, for a job, against a bunch of other teams, including a team led by a true douchebag, Graham Hautrey (Max Minghella), who has it in for our team of sad-sack misfits. And while our team starts poorly, eventually, in the Hollywood tradition of misfit teams, they come together and begin to win and have a chance. Ah, but team leader Billy lets them down and gives up and walks away. But then he’s called back! At the last second! And they finally win! And there’s the stripper!
So it’s like “Monsters University” but more cartoony. And with a stripper.
Who are these other misfits? There’s the ostensible leader, Lyle (Josh Brener), a nerd who uses hip-hop slang and has the hots for the part-time Google dance instructor Marielena (Jessica Szohr); Stuart (Dylan O’Brien), who can’t bother to look up from his smartphone; Neha (Tia Sircar), a supercute girl who likes nerdy things (cosplay, etc.) but somehow still can’t get a date; and Yo-Yo (Tobit Raphael), the home-schooled son of a Tiger Mother, who pulls at his eyebrow when he feels like he’s done something bad.
I liked Yo-Yo. He felt new.
How do they come together as a team? Do I have to say? Actually, see if you can pick out the most absurd element on their road to victory.
They go partying. Yep. They wind up in a Chinatown restaurant, where Billy orders their meal in Mandarin, and then at a high-end strip club, where they do shots, and get lap dances, and where Neha takes a shower with her clothes on and Lyle hooks up with Marielena, who, oops (she’s so embarrassed!), is a high-end stripper and lap dancer as well as being the part-time Google dance instructor. So if Google paid her more, would she not have to strip? No one raises that point. But of course she’s interested in Lyle! What high-end lap-dancer doesn’t want a serious relationship with Dilton Doiley? Then there’s a fight (over Marielena), and afterwards, as dawn breaks beautifully over the Golden Gate Bridge, our team, recounting its crazy night, comes up with an app that wins the next event.
So: What’s the most absurd element from this crazy night? The Lyle/Marielena relationship? The fight? The fact that Neha was totally cool being in a high-end strip club where women walked around in lingerie sucking on men’s fingers?
For me it’s the Mandarin. It means that Billy is in sales, and he speaks Mandarin, and somehow he still can’t get a job.
Does Hollywood know what year it is?
Cheering for losing
There are cameos by Will Ferrell and Rob Riggle, both playing major assholes, and Nick winds up romancing a beautiful Google executive, Dana (Rose Byrne), who just never had time for a relationship but now suddenly does with a half-hearted Owen Wilson. I could barely watch their scenes together. They were so awful, I just wanted to crawl away.
Sales turns out to be the final event, which is perfect for our team. And at the last minute they nail the sale, the douche is shown up, and everyone at Google, including the other intern teams who have just lost, and thus lost the chance at their dream job, stand and cheer for our team, because that’s what always happens in the real world. Then everything else falls into place. Nick winds up with Dana, Stuart with Neha, and Yo-Yo tells off his tiger mom, who looks proud that he does so. Oh, and Lyle winds up with the stripper. Because that’s what she’s doing there. Because that relationship has no chance of not failing.
Google “shitty movie.”
Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
It’s a rigged game.
I don’t mean the Hunger Games. I mean “The Hunger Games.”
The film’s creators, or possibly author Suzanne Collins (I’m not sure which since I haven’t cracked a spine in the series), rig the first game, “The Hunger Games,” by ensuring that Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) never loses favor with us by never actually killing anyone in cold blood in this kill-or-be-killed world. She triumphs without real blood on her hands.
Now, in the sequel, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the game really is rigged—this time by the other characters, particularly the game’s creator, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He’s using it, and Katniss, as a means to foment rebellion. As a result, once again she doesn’t have to kill in cold blood. Once again, when given the choice between murder and mercy, she goes with mercy. Once again, this never backfires on her.
But there’s a bigger reason why “The Hunger Games” is a rigged game: for a dictatorship, the Capitol comes pretty weak and dumb.
Dictatorship and distraction
Early on, for example, Plutarch gives Pres. Snow (Donald Sutherland) a way out:
Snow: She has become a beacon of hope for them. She has to be eliminated.
Plutarch: I agree she should die but in the right way. At the right time. ... Katniss Everdeen is a symbol. We don't have to destroy her, just her image. Show them that she's one of us now. Let them rally behind that.
The districts are already beginning to rebel. So he suggests a crackdown with public whippings and executions, then show these on television interspersed with shots of Katniss, the supposed rebel hero, shopping, trying on make-up, trying on a wedding dress. “They're gonna hate her so much,” he says, “they just might kill her for you.”
Great idea. So what happens to it?
Barely anything. The troops crack down on District 12, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsowrth, Thor’s brother) tackles Commander Thread (Patrick St. Espirit), and gets a public whipping for it. But guess who comes to the rescue? Katniss. And guess who comes to her rescue? Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). And guess who comes to his rescue? Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). And that’s that. She’s a heroine all over again because everyone saw enough of her bravery on television. So now Pres. Snow wants a new plan, even though it never looks like the first plan went into effect. And that’s when Plutarch reveals that all the previous winners, including Katniss, compete for the 75th Hunger Games. Which is why we get Katniss is another Hunger Games.
That’s one major problem. Here’s another. Early on, Gale says this to Katniss:
People are looking to you, Katniss. You've given them an opportunity. They just have to be brave enough to take it.
Here’s the thing, though. They are brave enough to take it. They are rebelling. The one who isn’t brave enough is Katniss. She keeps pulling back. Sure, Pres. Snow has threatened her mother and sister and hunky hunk Gale, but so what? She has a chance to change an awful, awful world. She just doesn’t grab it. Instead she encourages folks forward, like the old black man, who gives her the third-fingered salute and four-note whistle, and he gets executed before her distraught eyes.
Instead of trying to do something, Katniss plays along with the ruse: that she and Peeta are in love and about to get married and yadda yadda. Why does she do this again? I’ve actually forgotten. At one point, Haymitch tells her this:
From now on, your job is to be a distraction so people forget what the real problems are.
But a distraction to which people? Those in the districts or in the Capitol? Or both? It seems like it should be in the districts but they never seem distracted. They never seem fooled. They never forget who the true enemy is.
I’m sorry, but the more I think about this movie the dumber it gets. If you have dictatorial powers, as Snow does, and control over the media, as this government does, then how can you not besmirch a name? It’s called propaganda. Do we need FOX-News to show him how it’s done?
In 1985 Neil Postman published a book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death, “ in which he argued that of the two great dystopian novels from the first half of the 20th century—Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984”—it was actually the former, whose weapon of governmental control was distraction, rather than the latter, whose weapon was dictatorship, that was the more prescient and more deadly. The point is this: the Capitol has both dicatorship and distraction—and a rebel hero uninterested in rebellion—and they still can’t control her.
Talk about a rigged game.
The most successful formula in movie history
Anyway there goes Katniss into another Hunger Games. Here are the bad dudes from District 1. Here’s a bit of practice. Here are possible allies. Here are the interviews conducted by cloyingly sentimental host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, channeling Jiminy Glick). And off they go.
The acting talent here is amazing for this type of movie. Along with the previously mentioned names, Elizabeth Banks is choice as the gloriously frivilous Effie Trinket; and both Amanda Plummer and Jeffrey Wright are perfect as a half-cerebral, half-crazy Hunger Games team.
So what is it about this movie, this series, that makes it so popular? People talk about what a positive role model Katniss is, blah blah, but I think it boils down to the oldest, most successful formula in movie history: a strong woman having to choose between two men against a backdrop of tragedy. That’s “Gone with the Wind,” “Sound of Music,” “Titanic,” the “Twilight” series, and now “Hunger Games.” And like the “Twilight” series, the final “Hunger Games” is split into two parts: one for 2014, one for 2015.
I hope that distracts you enough that you forget what the real problems are.
Movie Review: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
There's your best actor. Maybe supporting, too.
That’s what I kept thinking watching “Dallas Buyers Club,” directed by Jean-Marc Valée (“The Young Victoria”) and written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack. For a time I was even thinking best picture, maybe, possibly, a candidate anyway, but then the movie lost something in its final third. Was it the battle between Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) and the various government agencies (IRS, FDA and DEA)? Was that too obvious? Was it the absence of Rayon (Jared Leto) after her death? Was it the presence of Jennifer Garner as Dr. Eve Saks? Garner was out of her element here. She came onscreen and the energy just drained away.
But McConaughey? Hoo boy.
Gotta die somehow
He plays a good ol’ boy: a Texas electrician, part-time rodeo rider, and full-time racounteur. The first images we see are of a bucking bull from behind the fence. Since we also hear snorting, we think we’re getting the bull’s perspective, but it’s actually Woodruff banging a girl in the bull’s pen. He looks a bit thin and tired and has a persistent cough. Bad sign. A cough in the first act is like the gun in the first act.
AIDS comes into the conversation quickly via headlines about Rock Hudson. Woodruff is hardly sympathetic:
Woodruff: You hear Rock Hudson was a cocksucker?
Friend: Where’d you hear that?
Woodruff: It’s called a newspaper.
He’s more immediately concerned about a rodeo bet he made that went awry. He’s running from the men he owes money to—nearly a dozen cowboys, from the looks—when he runs into a friend, a cop, Tucker (Steve Zahn), who’s had to deal with this before and won’t protect him now. So Woodruff gets inventive. He decks Tucker. On the ride home, Tucker tries to give him some sound advice about his reckless nature and how it’ll likely get him killed. “Gotta die somehow,” Woodruff says in that smooth McConaughey voice. He says it like he’ll live forever.
A few days later, there’s an accident at work and he’s taken to the hospital, where he’s told by two doctors wearing surgical masks that he has both HIV and full-blown AIDS. His reaction is interesting. “You’re fucking kidding me,” he says. When Dr. Savard (Denis O’Hare) recounts the ways people contract HIV, beginning with homosexual sex, his reaction gets more interesting. “I ain’t no faggot, motherfucker!” The doctor remains calm and gives him 30 days to live but Woodruff is still on the first two stages of the five stages of grief: denial and anger. “There ain’t nothing out there that can kill Ron Woodruff in 30 days!” he shouts.
Over the next 30 days, he’ll go through the next two stages: bargaining and depression. At the library, he researches the disease, realizes how he contracted it (sex with an IV drug user, I believe, but it’s a bit murky), and searches for a cure that doesn’t exist. AZT is the drug bandied about, and trials are being done, but there’s a chance you’re in the control group—the sugar pill group—and he’s not willing to take that chance. So he gets inventive again. At a strip club he sees an orderly from the hospital and bribes him to get him AZT drugs, which he washes down with whiskey and cocaine.
During this period, friends abandon him. There’s a great scene where he goes to his usual bar, orders his usual drink, heads to his usual table of friends. But they’re no longer his friends. They call him faggot. He’s immediately ready to fight them all, and they want to kick his ass, but an interesting dynamic occurs. No one wants to touch him. No one wants to get within 10 feet of him. He’s a like-poled magnet: He takes a step forward and they a step back. He spits on them and curses the place as he leaves. He’ll do this a lot during the movie. I lost track of the number of times he left a room shouting, “Fuck all y’all!”
By the end of the 30-day period he’s left with nothing: no friends, no home (he finds his trailer home padlocked, with FAGGOT BLOOD spraypainted on the side), and the AZT is only making him worse. Plus it runs out. But the orderly gives him an address in Mexico, outside the realm of the FDA, so that’s where he heads. Because Ron Woodruff may be a lying homophobic asshole, but in this movie he never winds up on the fifth stage of grief: acceptance. He thrives at stages 2 and 3: anger and bargaining.
FDA, DEA, etc.
It’s in Mexico that the story really begins. I didn’t know this going in. All of this came as a pleasant surprise for me.
Near death, he’s saved, for the time being, by Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne, in a great cameo), who lost his license in the states, and who counsels against AZT, which destroys all cells, both good and bad. Instead, Ron should concentrate on building up his immune system with vitamins, zinc, and aloe. He also recommends DDC, a less-toxic anti-viral, and Peptide T, a non-toxic protein, neither of which are approved by the FDA. He thinks about all the AIDS sufferers in Dallas and says, “You could make a fortune off this stuff,” and a light goes off. CUT TO: filling his trunk with drugs for the trip back. There he starts the Dallas Buyers Club, modeled after similar clubs in New York. Since it’s illegal to sell non-FDA-approved drugs, he sells memberships into a club, which dispenses the drugs.
He partners with a transexual, Rayon, and soon has lines forming outside the motel room they’ve set up. He also attracts the attention of the usual government agencies: FDA, DEA, etc. A battle is enjoined and lessons are learned. He becomes more tolerant of gay people, for example. He keeps using the epithet “Cocksucker” but now it’s for FDA officials. That’s the journey he takes: from anti-gay to anti-government.
Some have complained, or celebrated, that this makes the movie too Tea Party, but for me it’s just too simplistic. It’s the brash homophobe protecting the poor gay folks who can’t protect themselves. The government gets blamed but not the infamously homophobic Reagan administration. Some of the casting doesn’t help. When I first saw Denis O’Hare as Dr. Sevard, I thought, “Oh, it’s the guy who usually plays a corporate asshole. Nice that he gets to play a ... No, he’s a corporate asshole here, too.” Kevin Rankin, the white-trash dirtbag of “White House Down” and “Breaking Bad,” plays a white-trash dirtbag. Michael O’Neill, who usually plays a bureaucratic douche, plays the main FDA douche. Etc.
But Jared Leto is a revelation and McConaughey is uncompromising in his portrayal. He’s corralled his charm and energy into the service of full-dimensional characters in good movies.
I did like the scene at the end before the district court in San Francisco. Woodruff has sued to use and sell non-FDA approved drugs but loses. It’s the language of the judge that I appreicated—the difference between law and justice:
Mr. Woodroof, there is not a person in this courtroom who is not moved to compassion by your plight. What is lacking here is the legal authority to intervene. I’m sorry.
What do you call that? A liberal judge not legislating from the bench.
I also like the final images: Woodruff riding a bull at a rodeo. You wonder if it’s current, if he’s gotten well enough to do that again, but it’s both flashback and metaphor. This is what he’s been doing the entire movie, and he finally gets thrown on September 12, 1992. He was given 30 days and took more than 2,000.
But then we get another title that dampens the effect of much of the movie: we’re informed that lower doses of AZT, the devil drug in the movie, wound up leading to the cure we currently have. So it was hardly a devil drug; it was just dispensed improperly. It confuses the movie’s clean formulaic lines, suggesting that maybe they shouldn’t have been so clean and formulaic.
But “Dallas Buyers Club” is still a movie worth seeing—for its performances, its energy, the fact that there’s comedy and adventure in a movie about AIDS. It’s also a good reminder of what AIDS and homophobia felt like 30 years ago.
Movie Review: Parkland (2013)
The saddest American day of my lifetime probably occurred when I was 10 months old. We keep telling it again and again. We keep probing the wound. Sometimes I think we like it. It makes us feel something even if that feeling is overwhelming sadness and horror for all that was lost. In this way the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas, is, for Americans, what the Onion Cellar in Gunter Grass’ novel “The Tin Drum” is for Germans: a place to go to cry.
But since we keep telling it, how do you tell it anew?
Writer and first-time director Peter Landesman does just that in “Parkland,” a 90-minute film based on Vincent Bugliosi’s book “Four Days in November.” Landesman doesn’t tell the story from the perspective of the principal characters; he tells it from the perspective of the people whose lives that day were peripherally if monumentally affected: Abraham Zapruder, who shot the 8mm footage of the assassination; James Hosty, from the Dallas FBI office, who had been tracking Oswald, and who, in the aftermath, was blamed and even fingered by conspiracy theorists; Robert Oswald, brother of Lee, whose family name was forever besmirched; and the various doctors and nurses at Parkland Memorial Hospital, who tried to save both Pres. Kennedy that Friday and his assassin two days later.
History’s supporting players
It’s a movie about history’s supporting players starring great supporting actors. Marcia Gay Harden, who won the Oscar for supporting actress in 2000 (“Pollock”), plays Doris Nelson, the supervising nurse at Parkland. Paul Giamatti, nominated in 2005 for “Cinderella Man,” plays Zapruder, a man of enthusiasms, an immigrant who loved America and then unknowingly but unflinchingly filmed one of its great horrors. Billy Bob Thornton (supporting nom for “A Simple Plan” in 1998) is Forrest Sorrels, head of the local FBI office, Jackie Earle Haley (“Little Children” in 2006) plays the priest who administers last rites, and Jacki Weaver (“Animal Kingdom” in 2010 and “Silver Linings Playbook” in 2012) is spooky as the Oswald matriarch, Marguerite, who insists that her son was an American agent who had done a great deed, and that her family would “never be ordinary again.”
Add in James Badge Dale as Bob Oswald, Ron Livington as Hosty, Colin Hanks as Dr. Malcolm Perry, the attending physician, and a couple of former teen heartthrobs—Zac Efron as the resident doctor who first began working on Pres. Kennedy, and Tom Welling as Roy Kellerman, the secret service agent who rode in the presidential limousine—and you’ve got quite a cast. Everyone’s good. A few (Harden, Weaver) are outstanding.
The details make the movie. Zapruder knew immediately. Everyone else is rushing around but he knew. I like the way Dr. Perry, in a board meeting, says “Five minutes” when told he’s needed in O.R. Nothing was ready. Secret service agents had to demand a stretcher and then rush through the narrow hallways to the small operating room. Blood was everywhere and on everyone. Zapruder is horrified by the “undignified end for a very dignified man” but he doesn’t know the half of it. Kennedy’s clothes are cut away during the futile attempt to revive him. Jackie continues to clutch portions of her husband’s skull and brain, as if they will be needed to put him back together. There is a shouting and shoving match in the operating room between Kellerman, who insists on bringing the body back to Washington, D.C., and Earl Rose (Rory Cochrane), the Dallas coroner, who insists on performing the autopsy there, as required by law. The body, in a casket, is then rushed to Love Field and a dozen strong men shakily, almost frantically carry it onto Air Force One. Chairs have been removed in anticipation (“We’re not carrying it below like a piece of luggage!” one man says), but a partition still has to be ripped out by Kellerman to make the turn. There’s such a rushed, frantic quality to all of this, it’s as if they’re making a getaway. It’s as if they’re trying to escape a nightmare. They are and they are.
We also get moments of dignity and solemnity. The last rites, for example; and the crucifix retrieved by Doris Nelson from her locker.
In Landesman’s account, the doctors and nurses come off well, Rose less so, and the local FBI office, where records of a visit by Oswald two weeks earlier were destroyed, not at all. At the same time, one member, Sorrels, in browline eyeglasses and compact fedora, never loses his cool, nor his sense of the enormity of the situation, as he guides Zapruder in the development of his 8mm footage, commiserates with Bob Oswald (“I feel sorry for you”), and gives us one of the film’s few funny lines, as he stands in the operating room while the same doctors and nurses that worked on JFK work on Lee Harvey Oswald:
Sorrels: We need a confession.
Nelson: What if he dies?
Sorrels: We need a confession first.
In the end, the two funerals are juxtaposed: the stately funeral for Pres. Kennedy, attended by all, mourned over by all, while Bob Oswald, with his crazy mother, attempts to bury his brother, whose body no church cemetery will take, who has no pallbearers, and who is hand-buried by Bob and two black gravediggers. It’s a pauper’s funeral on a cold, gray Texas day for the most despised man in the world.
“Parkland,” distributed by Exclusive Media, seems to have gotten a similar pauper’s burial. It was barely in theaters, and unlike Oswald it didn’t deserve this rush job, nor its 47% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a good movie that focuses on the small within the historic. It gives us all the sad details.
Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)
If “12 Years a Slave” is the greatest film ever made about the American slave experience it’s partially because it doesn’t have much competition.
What comes to mind? “Amistad”? Meh. “Roots”? TV. “Mandingo”? Please. The very dearth makes one question what so-called liberal Hollywood has been up to for the last 100 years. The Holocaust ended 80 years after slavery but already has its masterpieces: “The Pianist,” “Schindler’s List,” “Nuit et Brouillard,” “Shoah.” American slavery has “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind.” Insert rebel yell here.
Is it telling that “12 Years” was directed by a Brit (Steve McQueen), and stars mostly Brits (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch)? Is the story of slavery, in other words, still too close to us even after 150 years? It’s our shame and who wants to broadcast their shame? Plus there are practical questions. How will it sell in the South, for one.
Maybe it’s as simple as this: Slavery is long gone but we’re still working through its consequences. We all agree, give or take, that slavery was wrong, but white Americans still disagree vehemently on racial matters. Black Americans, too. It’s the dialogue we either never really have or never stop having. Both.
All of that is partially why “12 Years” is the greatest film ever made about the American slave experience. It also happens to be a very powerful film. Its power lies in understatement, and stillness, and holding onto the horror rather than flinching away from it or turning it into melodrama—as recent films have done with the Holocaust and the Rape of Nanjing. McQueen shows you a man half-lynched, and holds on it and holds on it. Comedians have a phrase for this—commitment to the bit—but McQueen isn’t demonstrating its tragic side. His camera almost feels non-judgmental. It’s a cold camera, the way Stanley Kubrick’s was a cold camera. The heat, the horror, are up to us to provide.
The worst master
The movie is based upon a true story. Or upon an 1853 book that was based upon a true story.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor ) was a free-born African-American living with his wife and family in Saratoga, N.Y., who, in 1841, was traduced, drugged and sold into slavery in Louisiana. There, he had masters both benevolent (Cumberbatch as Ford) and sadistic (Fassbender as Edwin Epps), and the question, going in, and given the title, is how he gets back after 12 years.
Despite the dearth mentioned above, the horrors of slavery in the antebellum South aren’t exactly unfamiliar to us: whippings, lynchings, general inhumanity. But McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley (“Red Tails”; “Three Kings”) still give us unexpected details and subtleties. The slave auction takes place, not outside on the docks, but inside a well-appointed New Orleans home. Half the slaves are naked, and inspected, but there’s little that’s malicious or lascivious about this; they’re inspected the way you would inspect a piece of furniture. They’re commodity. That’s the horror. Not in maliciousness—the sneering and leering lesser filmmakers bring—but in how ordinary it all is.
There’s a surprising freedom within slavery. Solomon, renamed Platt, and passed off as a runaway from Georgia, is allowed to walk to the general store to pick up supplies. He’s allowed to suggest and prove to Ford a means of transporting goods via river raft. He’s allowed to do carpentry work. Then he misunderstands his situation. He talks back to one of the overseers, Tibeats (Paul Dano), and winds up fighting and even whipping Tibeats, who returns with two friends to lynch him. They nearly succeed but for the other overseer, Chapin (J.D. Evermore), who stops them but does nothing to stop Solomon’s pain. He leaves him, half-choking on the rope, and on his toes for hours until Ford arrives and cuts him down.
An argument can be made that the benevolent master, Ford, is actually worse than the sadistic master, Epps, since there is no doubt in Epps’ mind, none at all, that his slaves are anything but his property. So why shouldn’t he treat his property the way he wants? Ford’s different. He knows slavery isn’t right. But he still buys into it. He still purchases Solomon and separates a mother from her children. He may save Solomon from a lynching but when Solomon tells him he’s a free man, illegally brought to the South, he doesn’t help him; he sells him. He has debt, and Platt still has value. That’s what you do in capitalism. You buy low, sell high, and sometimes you cut your losses. He cut Platt.
Solomon makes a few feints at escape. On the first trip to the general store, he ducks into the woods only to come across a lynching. On a subsequent trip, he steals a piece of parchment, uses berry juice as ink, writes a letter to send home. But the man he trusts betrays him and he burns the letter, and, with it, most of his hope.
His demeanor and Latinate vocabulary changes. He avoids eye contact, suffers, ages. One slave, Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), a source of tension between Epps and his wife (Sarah Paulson) because of Epps’ desire for her, asks Solomon to kill her. He refuses on religious grounds. Later, because she dares get a bar of soap, she is whipped—not by Epps (at least initially) but by Platt. Epps forces him and he has no other choice. This is the key to the movie—the shift from the many options of a free man to the one of a slave—and is brought home immediately in the shabby building on the outskirts of D.C. when Northup awakes in chains for the first time. He stands and tells his enslavers his name is Solomon Northup and he is a free-born man. The men nod and crank the chains down until he is on all fours. Then they whip him. Then they whip him again. Then they take his torn and blood-splattered shirt and give him a slave shirt.
If there’s a fault in the film, a void, it may be Solomon’s isolation within the slave community. I don’t know if this is historically accurate—a result of the fact that Solomon is an educated free man living among uneducated slaves—or if it’s because director Steve McQueen tends deal in isolation. In “Hunger,” Bobby Sands (Fassbender) is physically isolated in a British prison; in “Shame,” Brandon (Fassbender again) is psychologically isolated by his sexual addiction. Now we get Solomon in the South.
With whom does he bond? Initially with two other free-born men sold into slavery: Clemens (Chris Chalk) and Robert (Michael K. Williams). The three plot and discuss their options. But on the voyage to New Orleans, Robert develops smallpox, dies, and is tossed overboard; and at port, Clemens’ white benefactor shows up to free him, and Clemens ignores, or can do nothing about, Solomon’s cries for help. No help is forthcoming. He’s alone.
On the Ford plantation, Solomon bonds mostly with Ford. On the Epps’ plantation, he bonds a bit with Patsy but shares the stage mostly with Epps. The other slaves aren’t even flat characters; they’re stick figures in the background. He and Patsy meet Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) at another plantation, who, in classic American fashion, has raised herself up from field slave to domestic servant to someone who is now served; but there’s no bond there, either. It’s a one-off. It’s a lesson. During a cottonwood infestation, he’s loaned to Judge Turner (Bryan Batt), where he harvests sugar cane during the day and engages in silent nighttime sex with (Ashley Dyke), but we don’t hear a word from her. During the funeral of a slave, lost in despair, Solomon begins to sing the blues with everyone else. He joins their song. But he doesn’t bond.
Again, I don’t know if this makes the story more historically accurate. It might even make the story better. But it is a void.
Even so, go. Please. “12 Years a Slave” is one of the best movies of the year about the great American tragedy. The movie’s power lies in its restraint. It holds something back for pressure, as Robert Frost said about good poetry. You can feel this restraint, this pressure, in McQueen’s direction, Ejiofor’s performance, and the soundtrack music by Hans Zimmer. You want release and they don’t give it.
In some respects, the standout performance is Fassbender’s. He’s ferocious not just in his sadism but in his righteousness. There’s no doubt in his eyes. These people are his. When the local sheriff, and Solomon’s white benefactor from the North, show up on the plantation to finally free Solomon after 12 long years, we get no cheap thrills, no sense of vindication from a beaten Epps. The opposite. His righteousness grows. Some government functionary is repossessing his property? Even though he paid for it? He’ll see about this. And off he rides to seek restitution. He’s ready to start a civil war over it.
There are no cheap thrills at the end, either. It’s a happy ending but it’s not a Hollywood ending. Solomon greets his family, including his new son-in-law, after 12 years away, with tears of genuine sorrow. “I apologize for my appearance,” he says. “But I have had a difficult time these past several years.”
Producer Bill Pohlad has said of the film, “We felt there's never been a film about slavery that dealt with it in such an unflinching way.”
Now we have one.
Movie Review: Thor: The Dark World (2013)
For all its battle scenes, for all its moments of light comedy, “Thor: The Dark World” begins abysmally. These are the first words we hear, spoken in voiceover by Anthony Hopkins in full Shakespearean:
Long before the birth of light, there was darkness.
No duh, Odin.
Then we get a battle 5,000 years ago, with, on one side, Malekith and the Dark Elves (which should totally be a band name), and, on the other, the army of Asgard, led by Thor’s grandfather Bor. Yes: Bor. Takes a lot of balls to name a character that.
In this battle, Malekith plans to use “the Aether” to return the nine realms of the universe into darkness, but he’s defeated. But the Aether can’t be destroyed. So what to do? “Bury it deep,” one Asgardian, possibly Bor, says, “where no one will ever find it.”
It’s found. Guess by whom?
Vanaheim, Svartalfheim, London
I’ve never really been a fan of this stuff. Know that going in. Even when I was a teenager in the 1970s and collected Marvel Comics and worshipped at the feet of Stan Lee and Steve Englehart, I never collected “Thor” or “Dr. Strange” or any comic that was too otherworldly or cross-dimensional. Radioactive spider, sure. Gamma bomb and cosmic rays, of course. But Asgard? Verily, it maketh me stiff with boredom.
This is what I missed. There are apparently nine realms to the universe. Asgard is one, Midgard (us) is another. One of the funniest moments in the movie for me, unintentional, occurs early. Titles tell us which realm we’re in: Asgard, Vanaheim, Svartalfheim. Then: London.
So every 5,000 years there’s a convergence in which the nine realms are perfectly aligned, and where travel between realms becomes easier. It’s like wormholes open up or something. This is also the perfect time, if you’re so inclined, to return the universe to darkness. Which is the plan of the reawakened Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). In Biblical terms, he wants to go back to the time before the third verse of Genesis. He wants to return us to the moment before “Let there be light.”
It takes a while for the principles to figure this out. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is too busy quelling disturbances in the nine realms, and Odin is too busy making grand pronouncements and being an ass. Seriously, is that guy ever right about anything? At one point he shouts, “The Dark Elves are dead!” When does he shout it? Right before the Dark Elves attack.
Odin, though, may be right about one thing. Early on, he counsels Thor against getting too involved with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), since humans, at best, live 1/50 of the time Asgardians live. It’s an interesting point. Jane, for example, is upset that Thor has been gone for two years but for him it’s like two weeks. I’m curious how the romance is viewed on Asgard. How often are there interrealm romances? Are there laws against it? Is this a Loving v. Virginia thing? Or a King Edward VIII/Wallis Simpson moment? The movie’s perspective of the romance, though, is decidedly Midgardian: He’s hot, she’s hot, why not?
Thor only actually shows up then because Jane stumbles upon one of those inter-realm portals, pops through it, and, in some starry, rocky land that seems like a bad dream, finds, between two rocks, the Aether, which bonds with her body. That’s why Thor takes her to Asgard. And that’s why she’s in Asgard when the Dark Elves attack.
It’s very “Star Wars”-y, this attack, and even though I recognized it was done well I was bored. Plus I kept thinking: Wait, weren’t the Dark Elves in stasis all this time? So how did they develop the technology to take down Asgard? Did they always have it? Is Asgardian tech stagnating? Are they like Microsoft in this way?
One ship manages to get through Asgardian defenses, the one, coincidentally, carrying both Malekith and his chief warrior, Algrim/Kurse (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who frees the many prisoners of Asgard, which leads to another rousing battle. Rah. Malekith, after bigger prey (Jane and the Aether), is stopped, and scarred, by Frigga (Rene Russo), Thor’s mom, who has powers of her own. Alas, not enough. She’s killed. And even with Asgard totally defenseless, even with the very fabric of reality hanging in the balance, Asgard takes the time for a good old-fashioned Viking funeral: boat, flaming arrow, waterfalls, pomp and circumstance.
Does Odin have a plan to deal with the Dark Elves? I forget. Thor has one, though, involving his friends, Sif, Fandral, Volstagg, Hogun and Heimdall, who are always underused in these movies, as well as his half-brother and chief nemesis Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who was a bit petulant in the first movie, became Hulk’s rag doll in “The Avengers,” and seems to be having a blast here. Thor’s plan is treasonous, requiring escape from Asgard. The big issue is trust: Can Loki be trusted? But that’s actually part of the plan. Thor, Loki and Jane make it into the dark realm for a faceoff with Malekith and Kurse, but Loki betrays him, cutting off Thor’s hammer-wielding right hand, rendering him powerless. Ah, but it’s a Lokian illusion! As Malekith is drawing the Aether from Jane’s levitating body, Thor cries, “Loki—now!” and retrieves his hammer and smashes the Aether into nothingness.
Except ... it then reassembles itself and enters Malekith, who becomes more powerful than ever, and just a step away now from returning the universe into darkness forever. So, yeah, bad plan, Thor.
The final battle takes place in London, Greenwich mean time.
As close to gay porn as mainstream movies get
It’s no surprise that in this epic battle between the forces of dark and light, Thor takes the side of light. What’s surprising is how much the movie embraces the light.
Since “The Dark Knight,” which made a mint in 2008, the trend in superhero movies has been toward the dark, gloomy and tortured. “Thor 2” bucks the trend by going light and comedic. At times it’s almost camp. Its tone is reminiscent of the first “Superman” movie with Christopher Reeve. The hero, tall, handsome and strong, plays it straight, while almost everyone around him, even the chief villain (Luthor, Loki), makes with the jokes. It’s a shame the jokes aren’t better.
They’re not bad. It’s just all a bit broad. I love me some Kat Dennings, playing Darcy, Jane’s cynical, down-to-Earth friend, but she’s on a sitcom now, “2 Broke Girls,” and there’s a sitcomy feel to some of her lines and line readings. Hiddleston plays it better but even his lines aren’t particularly good. Hemsworth as Thor is better than ever—my friend Ward calls “Thor” as close to gay porn as mainstream movies get, and an early torso-washing scene bears this out—but they’re having him do silly stuff. He enters a London apartment and hangs Mjöllnir, his hammer, on the coat rack. It’s amusing for a second. Then you go, “Wouldn’t that bring the wall down? Or the apartment building?” Later, Thor is battling Malekith and gets clobbered into a tube station. The doors to the subway open and there stands a pretty blonde, agog. “How do you get to Greenwich?” he asks. “Takes this train three stops,” she answers. Which he does, while she flirts. Oops, didn’t mean to lean into your broad chest but the train just started, tee hee. All of this while the very fabric of reality hangs in the balance. Shouldn’t he have just called Mjöllnir and gotten on with it? Shouldn’t the writers?
A lot happens in “Thor: The Dark World.” Loki dies but no he doesn’t. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) does the Walter White thing in his tightie-whities. (Or is that the Will Farrell thing?) The universe is saved but for how long? And where’s Odin at the end? Do we care?
I do appreciate the attempt, by director Alan Taylor (“Game of Thrones”), and screenwriters Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, to go light rather than dark with this material, despite the title. They give us some great CGI battle sequences—particularly between Thor and Kurse, and Thor and Malekith. They try to have fun. But in the end the fun bits rarely feel organic to Thor’s story, just to ours, watching. In the end, it still ain’t Joss Whedon.
Movie Review: After Earth (2013)
When the Academy Award nominations roll out in January, you’ll probably hear about Matthew McConaughey in this and Robert Redford in that and Chiwtel Ejiofor in the other, but nary a word about Will Smith in “After Earth.” Shame. It’s truly an astonishing performance. For 20 years, Smith has exuded effortless charm and fun onscreen and here he strips himself of both. He gives us nothing. He’s a lump. Kudos to director M. Night Shyamalan for culling such a leaden performance from such a charismatic actor.
“After Earth” is, in a word, awful. It’s a MST3K-type movie. You watch it with friends and toss jokes at the screen. It’s the only way to survive its 100-minute length.
It’s also a little creepy. It feels vaguely Scientology-y. Story by Will Smith, by the way.
Apparently in the near future we will make Earth uninhabitable (global warming, etc.), so will leave, travel light years, and settle on a new planet, which we will name Nova Prime.
All together now: Nova Prime? That’s the name we came up with? Did we get to vote on it? Were there other options? I’m sorry, but nothing indicates B-grade science fiction to me more than “Nova Prime.” I see a 1950s paperback with a drawing of a handsome man and woman grappling in the foreground, and a rocket ship in the background: 35 cents.
A thousand years later an alien race wants to take over Nova Prime (to rename it?), so they sic Ursas on us, huge, multi-limbed creatures which can’t see us until we exude pheromones; until we show fear. Which, since they’re scary, we do. But one man figures out how to defeat them: Just don’t show fear, yo. That man—and again with the names—is Cypher Raige of the United Ranger Corps (Will Smith). His heroism will eventually make him a general. It will also make him a leaden lump. No fear, but not much of anything else, either. Every bit of humanity is drained from his personality.
It’s a father-son story. Cypher’s teenage son, Kitai (Smith’s son Jaden), is attempting to live up to the old man (as is Jaden), so joins Ranger Corps boot camp. He’s good. He can run faster, jump higher, than the other cadets, but in the field he’s a mess. Basically he’s afraid. When he was 10 he watched as his older sister was slaughtered by an Ursa, and the memory always drags him back to fear. It’s a source of tension between father and son, Stoney and Weepy, because the son wasn’t there and didn’t help; and because the father wasn’t there.
Eventually these two will be the only survivors of a crash landing back on Earth, where, as the injured Cypher tells his son ominously, “Everything has evolved to kill humans.”
Cool! Except, it turns out not everything has evolved to kill humans. That flock of birds just kind of swirls in the air, the gibbons don’t attack until Kitai throws a rock at them, and the bird of prey, yes, captures Kitai but eventually saves his life. Plus evolved jungle cats are more interested in the eggs in the nest than Kitai. But the leeches? They have totally evolved to kill humans.
Besides, the main concern isn’t the animals on Earth but the Ursa that was in a cage in the tail section of the ship, which landed 100 kilometers away. That’s also where the distress signal is located. Since Cypher is injured, he can’t retrieve it. It’s up to the son. It’s a journey in which he will keep doing the wrong thing (despite communication with and counsel from his father) until he does the right thing (without communication from his father). In the end he will live up to his father’s name. In battle with the Ursa, he will reach the still place of the soul and show no fear; because, as the father told him, and as the tagline reminds us, “Danger is very real, but fear is a choice.”
This is seen as a positive, by the way: showing no fear. But if it leads to becoming a leaden lump, what’s the point?
More, how do you show no fear? Here’s Cypher’s counsel:
Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity, Kitai.
Right. As in “Oh my god, that lion might eat me in one second!” People get so hung up on unreal future thoughts like that.
Domestically, the movie bombed this summer. Since “Independence Day” in 1996, Will Smith has starred in 16 movies. Twelve of them have grossed more than $100 million in the U.S. “After Earth”? $60 million. Because movies are real but going to see them is a choice.
Movie Review: Now You See Me (2013)
Is this the moment when movies finally moved too fast for their own good?
“Now You See Me,” directed by Louis Letierrer (“Clash of the Titans”; “The Incredible Hulk”), zips and swirls and spins around its characters so fast that it leaves them behind. It gives us awful dialogue and predictable situations. It goes “Abracadabra!” but no magic happens.
The Four Horsemen
There’s promise at the beginning. Four magicians with different talents are recruited by a mysterious man in a hoodie and reappear a year later as a great Vegas magic act—a one-off but we don’t know it at the time. Amid their various swirls and spins they take a man from the audience (he’s French), ask him for his bank (it’s in Paris), transport him into its vaults, and then transport back, with the money, which is then showered onto the audience. This brings in both the FBI, in the guise of Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), and Interpol, in the much hotter guise of Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent).
The movie becomes theirs. Rhodes, cocky, annoyed, is ready to take down the Four Horsemen, as the act is known, at their next show in New Orleans, but he winds up being taken down on stage, literally, by audience members, who have been hypnotized to tackle whoever says the word “Freeze!” (Anyone who didn’t see this coming wasn’t paying attention.) Meanwhile the Horsemen’s benefactor/manager, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), winds up being bankrupted by his own act. That’s the big trick this time. They take the millions from Tressler’s bank account and disperse it among the audience, all of whom have lost money during the global financial meltdown. It’s Robin Hood with a puff of smoke. After a chase through New Orleans, in which Rhodes is made to look the fool again, the magicians disappear.
The final act takes place in New York, by which time our Horsemen, now famous, the talk of whatever mass media is left, are merely on the edges of the story.
Subplots include a magic-act debunker, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who makes multimillion dollar videos, and who hounds and embarasses Rhodes; the story of Lionel Shrike, a magician who, years ago, attempted to escape from a safe in the bottom of the East River but who was never seen again; and a mysterious organization called “The Eye,” which is like Freemasons Hall of Fame for magicians.
The actors playing the Horsemen play versions of other roles they’ve played better elsewhere. Jesse Eisenberg’s J. Daniel Atlas is supersmart and talks superfast in the manner of Mark Zuckerberg. (One wonders if Eisenberg will ever be allowed to play dumb again.) Woody Harrelson’s Merritt McKinney is a washed-up rapscallion in the manner of Woody Harrelson. Isla Fisher is the girl who used to be with Atlas and now receives the halfhearted, amused attentions of McKinney, while Dave Franco’s Jack Wilder, a pickpocket, is just happy to be there. They’re not bad together, but they disappear—poof!—for most of the movie. Because we need less talk and more swirls and swoops.
I like the “corked” conversation between Harrelson and Fisher. That was fun. Plus we get some not-bad dialogue about magic:
Thaddeus: When a magician waves his hand and says, “This is where the magic is happening,” the real trick is happening somewhere else.
But the focus on the FBI is dull, and the romance between Rhodes and Dray is so forced it almost feels like rape. Laurent is given almost nothing to do. At one point, because Interpol has no jurisdiction in a situation, she’s told to wait in the car. When Rhodes returns she yells at him, “Don't you EVER tell me to stay in the car, EVER!” Right. Sure. OK. But ... why did you wait in the car?
The Fifth Horseman
There’s a lot of chest thumping, arguments over who’s a step ahead of whom, and it all leads up to what’s it all about, Alfie. Turns out the mastermind of it all, the man in the hoodie, is the son of Lionel Shrike. It’s an elaborate revenge plot taken against the safe company that made the defective safe that killed him, the bank in France that I forget what, and Arthur Tressler who did somethingorother.
So who’s the man in the hoodie? The one you least suspect: FBI agent Dylan Rhodes. And at the end, he frames Thaddeus Bradley as the Fifth Horseman, inducts the Four Horsemen into “The Eye,” and goes to France to continue his bad romance with Dray.
“Now You See Me” is an empty, flashy movie, but it’s not all bad. Here’s my favorite part: a bit of dialogue on an airplane. It carries an implicit criticism of the entire movie industry:
Rhodes: What I hate is people who exploit other people.
Dray: Exploit them how?
Rhodes: By taking advantage of their weaknesses. Their need to believe in something that’s unexplainable in order to make their lives more bearable.
Of course “Now You See Me” didn’t exactly make my life more bearable. L’opposite.
Movie Review: Ender's Game (2013)
No 15-year-old should be forced to act distraught and say the line, “I’ve killed an entire species!” but that’s the task given Asa Butterfield at the end of “Ender’s Game,” written and directed by Gavin Hood (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), and adapted from the 1985 sci-fi novel by Orson Scott Card.
Butterfield (“Hugo”) does his best. He’s good throughout but that’s just an absurd line. Plus we don’t feel the genocide. It’s all simulation. Or simulationy.
What to make of “Ender’s Game”? Earlier this year, there was buzz from the usual sci-fi geek corners but sci-fi geeks are beginning to weary me. Their stories are both futuristic and same-old. You watch “Ender’s Game” and go, “Oh, so he’s ‘The One.’ Oh, so he makes friends and enemies like in ‘Harry Potter,’ and they play a game like Quidditch. Oh, and here’s the instinct argument like in ‘Star Wars.” And here’s Harrison Ford like in ‘Star Wars.’”
Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi. You are my pain in the ass.
Bedtime for Bonzo
Story: Fifty years earlier, the Earth was attacked by an alien race, the Yadda-Yaddas, but we defeated them because of one man, Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), who shot his airship straight up their caboose. We’ve been waiting and preparing for the second attack ever since.
Well, “preparing.” As of now, it’s down to Col. Graff (Ford) as the gruff mentor/manipulator, Maj. Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) as the empathetic counselor, and a bunch of kids with good hand-eye coordination. Ender, of course, is the best of the bunch. “He’s The One,” Col. Graff says. Major Anderson isn’t so sure. Plus she sees the boy as a boy and not just a soldier. Why does it have to be boys and girls again, rather than, you know, young men and women? Something about teens being more intuitive and fearless. Not to mention the key Hollywood demographic.
By this time, apparently, Earth is so overpopulated that couples are restricted to two kids. Ender’s parents are the exception. They ask for a dispensation and wind up with him. Their first child, Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak), is too violent. Their second child, Valentine (Abigail Breslin), is too empathetic. Ender, the third, is just right.
Games need to be won; he wins them. Tests need to be passed; he does. A boy bullies him so he beats him and beats him and beat him. Because he’s violent like his brother? No, because it was a tactic to end future conflicts. That’s the answer Col. Graff is waiting for. And off Ender goes into military training.
He’s a skinny kid, too smart for his own good, but he wins over the usual group of multi-cultural geeks away from the fat British kid; then he wins over the fat British kid. He has to deal with a big, tough drill sergeant, Dap (Nonso Anozie) and a bullying platoon leader, Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias). The question with each is: Do their hard outer shells contain a gooey center? Dap, yes. Bonzo, no.
Ender gathers his Hermione (Hailee Steinfeld of “True Grit”) and his various Ron Weasleys (Bean and Alai). The Quidditch here is a zero-gravity shooting game where the goal is to neutralize all of your opponents or make it end-to-end and win. Ender employs the apparently unheard-of tactic of flying across en masse, so the outer portions of the team are neutralized, frozen, but not the inner portions, who make it end-to-end and win. His reward? Bonzo picks a fight with him in the shower. Bonzo winds up in the hospital. This so disturbs Ender he wants out. Or at least he wants to email his sister Valentine.
Me in the audience: Email? We’re still doing that?
Bedtime for 'Ender’s'
There’s boring stuff throughout. Viola Davis is given nothing to do, and she and Harrison Ford have mother-father conversations. “What about his feelings?” she says. “I want him to toughen up,” he says.
When Ender bolts, sorta, Valentine and Graff have this conversation:
Valentine: You just want him to re-enlist.
Graff: I want him to save lives.
Valentine: What about his life?
His life? Aren’t we still worried about the fate of the planet?
More, what about the story? The worst conversations in movies are always the ones urging the principles away from the story. They’re actually kind of an insult to us in the audience. “Excuse me, but I paid to see this story. Could we just continue, please?”
Of course Ender reenlists and commands his teen squad and he meets up with and is trained by Mazer Rackham, who ain’t dead, and who has Maori tattoos on his face. There are battle simulations. In the second-to-last one, he loses. In the last one, he wins and wipes out the enemy’s planet. Yay! Guess what? ’Tweren’t no sim. He really did it. And we get the line I quoted at the beginning of this review.
So how does a boy who feels awful sending a douchebag like Bonzo to the hospital deal with wiping out an entire species? Particularly when he realizes that maybe they weren’t the bad guys after all? That maybe we were the bad guys? He deals with it pretty well, considering. But we’ll find out more in the next movies. If there are more movies. This one isn’t doing particularly boffo at the box office. More like Bonzo.
“Ender’s Game” is the first in a series of novels by Orson Scott Card, who apparently worked where I used to work, University Book Store in Seattle, but who is more famous, or infamous, for his opposition to same-sex marriage. (He has written that homosexuals suffer from “tragic genetic mixups,” among other things.) He lost a “Superman” scripting job because of these views and they may be impacting “Ender’s” box office. Maybe that’s what happens when a man’s stories are set in the future but his mind is set in the past.
I detect no homophobia in “Ender’s,” though. Just same-old same-old.
Movie Review: All Is Lost (2013)
Do all stories about old men and the sea immediately lend themselves to metaphor? It did with Ernest Hemingway and it does with J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”) in his new movie, “All is Lost,” starring Robert Redford.
Starring Robert Redford, I should add, and nobody else. You don’t see one other person in the movie. It’s just him and the boat and the sea. There’s hardly any dialogue, or, I suppose, monologue. We get a bit, at the beginning, of the old man reciting lines from a diary. “Thirteenth of July, 4:15 PM,” he says, and then, “I’m sorry.” He says, “I tried.” He gives the movie its title: “All is lost here—except soul and body, or what’s left of them, and a half-day’s rations.” Then he ends as he began:
To whom is he sorry and for what? Exactly what did he try? We don’t find out. We never even find out his name. He thinks, and reacts, and does, but he doesn’t talk much, not even to himself. The lack of words adds to the tension in the movie. It adds to the sense that we’re suffocating, drowning.
That we’re dying.
Eight days earlier, the old man, whom I’ll call Redford, wakes on his 39-foot yacht, the Virginia Jean, to water pouring into the cabin. In the middle of the Indian Ocean, his boat has struck the side of one of those giant metal containers, apparently filled with shoes, that apparently slid off a ship. He extricates himself ingeniously, using an anchor weight on the other side of the ship container, then patches the hole using homemade glue and something resembling gauze. He tests it. It holds. He pumps out the water. He tires, he eats, he sleeps. He watches the sun set and smiles.
But he’s in trouble. The water ruined his electronic equipment so he has no way to navigate, no way to send an S.O.S. And storms are approaching.
I’m a landlubber who isn’t good with his hands, so I’ll leave it to others to say whether Redford makes all the right moves. He seems to. He seems to make smart moves—using everything he has, everything around him—and it doesn’t matter. Storms are coming and he has a hole in the side of his ship.
It was about this point in the movie that I wrote in my notes, “Metaphor for age?” That’s how “All Is Lost” feels. It’s an Ivan Ilyich movie. The world closes in. Options disappear. No matter how smart you are. No matter what you can do with your hands.
The storm comes, the boat overturns, the mast breaks. Worse, the hole in the side is leaking again. Then the boat pitches forward and he’s knocked out. He wakes to water lapping up to the bed in the cabin. It’s waist high and getting higher. The ship groans under the weight. Once again he looks around. Once again he considers his options. They’ve disappeared. They’ve reduced themselves to one: LIFERAFT. Redford gathers what he can before the Virginia Jean sinks into the ocean.
The Lady or the Tiger?
We watch movies rooting for the protagonist—to live, survive, thrive—but some part of me, the critic part of me, remained aware that for this movie to have any meaning Redford has to die.
Even so, it’s tough to hold onto the thought. He reads an old book, “Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen,” and calculates he’s entering a shipping lane. He encounters two big ships, and tries to signal them with flares, but they keep going. We don’t see anyone on them, they don’t see him. Sharks begin to gather. He’s slowly dying—of thirst, hunger, exposure. His hands aren’t working. He can do less and less. It’s impressive that Chandor and Redford make this interesting throughout. We keep caring. We keep wondering what he’ll do next. We want him to be rescued even though we know he should die.
Amazingly, Chandor satisfies both of these desires.
Redford’s passed the shipping lane, and hope is gone, along with food and water. Then he sees a .. what is it? A small boat on the horizon? Lit up? He wants to signal it but he’s used up all his flares on the bigger ships. So he creates a fire in an old, cut-out plastic container, and feeds the pages of his book into it. He stands and waves. Will the fire get out of control? Of course it will. Will he go into the water? Of course he will. He tries to stay afloat but he’s too tired, too weak, too old, and he sinks. He’s dying just as—no! The other boat, comes over to his raft, attracted by the flames. It flashes its light, searching the dark waters. And something in him, that drive in him, stirs, and he fights and swims up toward that other boat, and we see a hand reach down to grasp his, and we’re reminded—or at least I was reminded—of Michelangelo’s painting of God and Adam on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. And in that moment he’s pulled into the light. The End.
And a second later, the light goes on for us.
We can argue all we want about this ending—is this rescue or death?—but I tend to go with the interpretation that gives a deeper meaning. And the latter interpretation, death, actually encompasses both of our desires. We know the old man should die, and he does; but we want him to be rescued, and he is.
This hasn’t been a very good year for movies, and “All Is Lost” isn’t exactly a fun movie to watch. It doesn’t press our pleasure points throughout the way most movies do. But then most movies leave us feeling tawdry and unsatisfied afterwards. “All Is Lost” left me feeling still, yet exhilarated. It left me feeling this much more aware of the inevitability of diminishing options.
Movie Review: Stories We Tell (2013)
“Who fucking cares about our family?”
Joanna Polley says this with a smile at the beginning of “Stories We Tell,” Sarah Polley’s documentary about the history of her family, her mother, herself. Answer? We do. We particularly care about Joanna and her siblings. They’re fun to hang with. Joanna is beautiful with a twinkle in her eye, half-brother John Buchan has a more mischievous version of that twinkle, Mark is sweet and sensitive.
Who isn’t much fun? Who is often a silent and annoying presence in Sarah Polley’s doc?
One of the documentary’s central conceits is that we all have our stories, and they often differ, even when we’re talking about the same thing. We all have our perspectives and things get mangled in the telling. They get mangled by being processed through us. This is hardly news.
But the story of Sarah and her family is news—for most of us.
Remember the kids’ book “Are You My Mother?” That’s sort of what this is. The search for who the departed mother is (spiritually) becomes a search for who the father is (biologically).
The mother is Diane, a stage actress and free spirit, whom we first see in old black-and-white footage from, one assumes, a 1950s Canadian TV show. “Who, me?” she asks the camera, half self-conscious, half flirtatious. Yes, you.
She died in 1990, at age 55, when Sarah, her youngest, was 11. She had five kids by two men. Scratch that. Getting ahead of myself.
Her first husband, George Buchan, was the kind of man her parents wanted her to marry—stolid, good postwar job—but she found the life stultifying and they divorced. He got custody of the two kids because she’d had an affair. Apparently it was the first time in Canadian history that a mother hadn’t gotten custody of her own kids. This was 1967.
Was the affair with Michael Polley? The doc doesn’t say. Diane first saw him in a play, “The Caretaker,” and went backstage, and yadda yadda. They were both actors but otherwise opposites. She was excitable, he was calm. She liked people, he liked privacy. “Diane would be doing 10 things at one time,” Michael says. “I’d be doing half of one thing.”
Does Michael say this while reading from his memoir at the recording studio? Sarah has him do that. She makes this old man walk up three flights of stairs and makes him reread certain lines over and over. More: She shows how she makes him reread certain lines over and over. It’s an interesting dynamic—the director-child is father to the old man—but it doesn’t exactly show her in the best of lights. On purpose? Does she need certain lines repeated for us, for emphasis, or does she need her father to repeat certain lines for her, for satisfaction? Cut to: director in close-up, silent. Not telling.
Apparently Toronto, where they lived, is a bit like Seattle—full of cold and distant people—so it was a bit of a reprieve for Diane in the late 1970s when she got a gig performing in a play in Montreal. The title was ironic: “Oh Toronto.” Her marriage with Michael was also reprieved by the gig. He showed up, sparks flew. But she hadn’t been faithful to him there. Then she got pregnant. At 42, she considered an abortion but changed her mind. “Amazing, isn’t it?” Michael tells the off-camera director. “How close we were to you never existing?”
But who was the father? There were jokes, when Sarah was young, and Michael participated in them probably because he didn’t believe in them. “Who do you think your father is this week, Sarah?” they’d ask. In her early 30s, a famous actress herself now, she tries to find out. She asks Geoff, the lead of “Oh Toronto,” but he denies it. She asks Harry Gulkin, one of her mother’s friends at the time, who produced the award-winning film, “Lies My Father Told Me,” if he thought Geoff was her father. No, he says. Why? she asks. Because I’m your father, he says.
Sarah reenacts the scene of the revelation. She dramatizes it. She actually makes it undramatic. Maybe that’s necessary or maybe that’s just her. Then we get Harry’s version of Diane, and Harry’s story of his love affair with Diane, and Harry’s subsequent father-daughter relationship with Sarah. A paternity test is done, emails are read, relatives are met, gumlines are compared.
When the news reaches him, Michael is stunned—he raised Sarah by himself from age 11—but ultimately he takes it with a kind of sad equipoise. The kids, too. John says Mark was disappointed in their mother but in the doc he’s actually rather empathetic. He talks about what a scary scenario it is, having someone else’s kid and hiding that fact from the people you’re closest to. “Look at the mess she got into trying to look like everything was OK,” he says.
It’s such a great story everyone wants to tell it: Michael, Harry, the press. Sarah’s against this. She’s against all of it. Which is probably why she made this doc, which attempts to encompass all of these stories—Michael’s, Harry’s, her siblings'—but which she ultimately controls. “I can’t figure out why I’m exposing us all in this way,” she says. We can.
The ending is clogged with those points of view. Michael tells her the story should be funnier. “You see what a vicious director you are?” he says. Harry tells her the very idea of her documentary, encompassing all of these stories, is false. There has to be a singular point of view, he says. “The story with Diane is only mine to tell,” he says.
This echoes something he’d said earlier, for which I was grateful. People tend to treat love as the pinnacle of human existence—“to love another person is to see the face of God,” is how “Les Misérables” puts it—but I’ve always felt there’s a negative aspect that goes unspoken. Harry speaks it:
When you’re in love like that you become utterly selfish. Nothing that’s happening to anyone else matters at all or is a matter of any consideration. You just wind up sort of focused, intense, wanting to consume the object of your love, and nothing else exists.
“Stories We Tell” is delightful when the focus is on Diane, the mother. It is less so when the focus becomes Sarah, the daughter and documentarian. Maybe 10 minutes could have been excised from the end. Or maybe use these 10 minutes to give Sarah’s siblings, rather than Sarah, more screentime. They’re fun, Sarah less so. Which is itself fascinating. Sarah Polley has made a documentary in which she is the least interesting character. There’s something wonderfully Canadian about that.
Movie Review: Captain Phillips (2013)
In 2004, Karl Rove declared that American liberals want to “understand our enemies.” In 2008, Sarah Palin declared that Barack Obama wants to “read terrorists their rights.” Both are not-very-veiled code for the perceived weakness and general softness of the left.
In “Captain Phillips,” directed by Paul Greengrass (“United 93”), written by Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”), and starring Tom Hanks (you know), we come to understand, a little better, our enemy, the Somali pirates, one of whom is read his rights at the end. But there is no sign of weakness here. The opposite. The superorganized, superefficient, massive technological power of the United States of America—aircraft carriers, helicopters, superbuff Navy SEALS, superscope weaponry—is brought to bear on four skinny dudes on a raft. Yes, the Somalis have automatic weapons. Yes, they are holding our title character hostage. Yes, they are often unpleasant.
Even so, the power discrepancy is so great, so absurd, I literally laughed out loud in the theater. Where’s the drama? There’s no drama. One side has everything, the other nothing. It’s such an unfair battle, you begin to wonder who to root for. The weight and power of the response almost seems to justify the crime.
Paul Greengrass tends to make smart action movies about the collision of first and third world: “United 93,” “Green Zone,” “Bloody Sunday.” In these, he never fails to show us a bit of the other side.
So with “Captain Phillips.” The movie opens in Underill, Vermont, in the quiet home of Capt. Richard Phillips (Hanks), who, in spring 2009, is prepping for his next assignment aboard the Maersk Alabama, which is moving hundreds of tons of cargo—food, fuel, water—from Oman to Kenya. Then he and his wife, Andrea (Catherine Keener), drive to the airport. They have a conversation that’s a bit freighted. It comes to us with quotes attached. The kids aren’t trying hard enough in school, he says. The world isn’t like the world they came up in, he says. It will be tougher. Fifty guys are competing for every job. There will be greater competition.
CUT TO: Greater competition. Men in vans, with automatic weapons, pull up in a village in Somalia, and wonder why no one’s at sea. “The boss wants another ship today,” they say. Teams are picked. Sides are chosen. One team leader is hopped-up and wide-eyed. The other, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), casts cool, almost disdainful looks over the proceedings. He’s got a stillness to him. He says little and chooses carefully. At times he looks like the emaciated younger brother of Omar from “The Wire.” In another movie, he’d be the hero.
This is the collision that occurs: between two men doing their jobs.
The first half of the movie is exciting, pulse-pounding, etc., as Muse and Phillips play cat-and-mouse from a distance, then face-to-face. “You know the ship, they don’t,” Phillips tells his crew as the Maersk is being boarded. “Stick together and we’ll be alright.”
The crew hides. They power down the ship and claim it’s broken. Phillips plays innocent in the face of a semi-automatic. One pirate is nearly crippled by broken glass, another, Muse, is taken hostage. In the standoff, they offer the pirates $30K from the ship’s safe and a lifeboat, which looks a bit like the submarine from “Yellow Submarine.” The pirates take both and Capt. Phillips and head back to Somalia.
And that’s when all the drama drains away.
I’m not blaming the filmmakers for this, by the way. “Captain Phillips” is based upon a true story, or at least Captain Phillips’ account in “A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea,” written by Stephan Talty. The movie fudges some details from the book—apparently Phillips was on the lifeboat for five days, not a day and a half; and apparently he was beaten and mock executed after his attempted escape; and apparently he didn’t have a nervous breakdown after his rescue—but overall the movie strives for verisimilitude.
No, I blame the U.S. defense budget. In 2012, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. spent $682 billion on defense, which is $30 billion more than the defense budgets for the next 10 countries combined. Face to face, no one else has a chance. Put it this way: The Somali pirates in this movie got bested by unarmed slacker crewmembers and a 50-year-old man in a light blue polo shirt. What chance do they have against men who trained their entire professional lives for this? They don’t. Remember when the Dream Team—Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, et al.—first showed up in the Olympics in 1992 and beat teams by like 75 points? It wasn’t a question of whether they would win, it was a question of by how much. Same here. You wonder how, not if, Capt. Phillips will be rescued.
Here’s how. U.S. military technology identifies the pirates, the square-jawed negotiator then calls them by name and gets them to agree to be towed. They take Muse on board, ostensibly for negotiations, but there are no negotiations. Instead SEALS take out the three remaining pirates with simultaneous headshots—boom boom boom—and Muse is read his rights. He’s now serving 33 years in a federal penitentiary.
Compare all of this with “Kapringen,” a 2012 Danish film about Somali pirates hijacking a Danish frigate, which was named best Danish film at the 2013 Bodil Awards. Without a military to come to the rescue, it becomes a matter of tense negotiations and threats and inevitable death. It’s about the toll taken and the lessons learned.
What lessons are learned in “Captain Phillips”? Unarmed frigates should be armed? Sail 600 miles rather than 400 miles from the coast of Somalia? Keep a SEAL team on retainer, as one doofus American posted on IMDb about “Kapringen”?
Here’s the lesson I learned: The U.S. military is powerful enough to kill drama. It’s so powerful, the people it’s protecting don’t need to learn lessons. Which explains so much about the current state of the United States of America.
Movie Review: Gravity (2013)
Is “Gravity” the new Hollywood spectacle?
The original kind, created in the wake of television, tended to be overlong, wide-screen, supersaturated Biblical epics. Hollywood studios were trying to give you an experience you couldn’t get in your home. They were trying to get you out of your home and away from your TV set. This type of spectacle was eventually replaced by epic musicals (“Sound of Music,” etc.), which were replaced by director-driven films with sex and/or violence (“Bonnie and Clyde,” etc.), which were replaced by the ascendance of B-movie fodder with A-movie production values (“Star Wars,” etc.). We’re still in this last period, more or less, but Hollywood studios are still looking to give you something you can’t get in your home. They’re trying to entertain you away from your home entertainment system.
“Gravity” is short: 90 minutes. It’s a novella of a movie. It promises, not a cast of thousands, but a cast of two. For much of the movie, in fact, it’s just one. It’s “Castaway” in space.
But it’s still a kind of experience, particularly with IMAX and 3-D, that you can’t get in your home. It’s an event.
But how’s the story?
In space, no one can hear things explode
“Gravity” opens beautifully. We see the Earth, boom, in front of us, huge, and surrounded by the silence of space. Then writer-director Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men”; “Y Tu Mama Tambien”) holds on it. And holds on it. Then, slowly, people and voices come into view. They rotate into view.
It’s the five-person crew of the Explorer, a U.S. ship in orbit. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer tethered to the Explorer, is attempting to fix a motherboard outside the ship. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), astronaut, an old space hand, jets about, filling the vast silence of space with his cynical, amused charm. “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission,” he jokes. He tells well-worn or half-finished stories about his wife leaving him, about New Orleans in the 1980s, about how he’s going to come up short of breaking the space-walk record set by Anatole Somethingorother. He’s a George Clooney character: He knows his business, he knows the score, he’s been broken in some way but charm seeps through the cracks.
For the moment, Ryan is resisting that charm. She lives up her family name. She’s lost in her work.
Not for long, though. The Russians have destroyed one of their satellites, and this has destroyed others, setting off a chain reaction of orbiting destruction, with the Explorer directly in its path. This storm of debris arrives like a silent meteor shower, and Stone is torn from the Explorer and goes rocketing and flipping through space. Earlier, when asked what she likes about being up there, she replied, “The silence.” Here, she finds out how frightening that silence can be. Here, she’s grateful when she finally hears a human voice, Matt’s, in her radio transmitter. He urges calm. He tells her what to do so he can find her. Then he brings her back to the ship.
But the Explorer is no longer a ship, simply more space debris, and the rest of the crew are dead. There’s no radio contact with Houston. They’re alone up there. But Matt has a plan.
See that light over there? That’s a Soyuz space station. They’re going to head over there, Ryan tethered to Matt, Stone to Kowalski, and take one of its capsules back to Earth. But beware the orbiting space debris. By his calculations it will return in 90 minutes.
There are other things to worry about, too. They arrive just as she’s running out of oxygen and he’s running out of jet fuel. (Why does he not run out of oxygen? Isn’t he the one doing all the talking?) Worse, Soyuz is damaged, they bounce off it, and Ryan almost goes flying off into the void, forever, but her feet get tangled in the cords of a deployed parachute. Matt is less lucky. He sees that she won’t make it unless he lets go. So he lets go.
And then there was one.
The roller coaster
Other movies come to mind watching this one. “Alien,” obviously. (Terror in space, female survivor.) “Barbarella,” oddly. (A woman removing her spacesuit in zero gravity.) “Castaway,” as above.
But the dominating influence is Steven Spielberg. “Gravity” is a roller-coaster ride with smarts and art and, well, gravity, but it’s still a roller coaster ride. It’s still skin-of-the-teeth stuff. For 90 percent of the movie, Ryan is staying just one small step (rather than one giant leap) ahead of destruction, until the final, beautiful shots when her capsule splashes to earth, she crawls to shore, and pulls herself up on the land. You almost feel the weight of gravity holding her in place then. It’s a great shot. “Gravity” begins well and ends well, and the middle is a ride. But it’s just a ride.
Within this ride, yes, Cuarón and company do some good work. We get a bit of background. We find out Ryan lost a child, a girl, 4 years old, and when she died much of Ryan’s reason for living died with her. She shut herself off. She almost does that here. In Soyuz, before traveling to the Chinese space station, Tien Gong, she powers down the systems, turns off the air, gives up. She’s ready to die. She’s ready to join her daughter.
Then a knock on the door.
No joke. At first I thought it was one of the cosmonauts—the face looked gigantic and grotesque—but it’s actually Matt, the sexiest man alive, who has miraculously survived. He enters the spacecraft and fills it with his energy. Did you find the vodka? he asks. Well, I finally broke the spacewalk record, he says. Now let’s take this puppy home. It’s a great moment, even if it doesn’t seem reasonable—given the verisimilitude of everything else in the movie—and it isn’t. It’s a dream. A figment. Matt’s dead, she’s alone, but the moment—the dream, the vision, whatever—inspires her to try again. The whole scene is really well-done. I was happy when Matt returned (we needed something), and I was sad he turned out to be a figment, even as I realized it was the right thing to do for the story.
A helluva story to tell
So they do good things within the ride, but is it enough? Is Ryan an interesting enough character to hold the screen by herself for half the movie?
At one point, Matt, or maybe his figment, tells Ryan why she needs to keep trying: You’ll either die, he says, or you’ll have a helluva story to tell.
When you see “Gravity,” see it on an IMAX screen with 3-D. Make it an event. Because for all its spectacle, for all its effects, “Gravity” doesn’t have a helluva story to tell.
Movie Review: Una Noche (2013)
“From the tops of the trees you can see the planes coming in from Miami. Sometimes people come back to Cuba from the outside world. They return like kings: fatter, happier, trusting. They lose that nervous desperation.”
-- Lila (Anailín del la Rúa de la Torre) in writer-director Lucy Mulloy’s “Una Noche.”
Filmed in cinéma véritée fashion, “Una Noche” is a movie about that nervous desperation. It’s about three young people in Havana bouncing here and there, scrimping this and that. Do they have a plan? We assume so. We’ve seen the movie poster. We know what the movie’s about, more or less. But the plan has no center.
It’s a subtle film. Some friends of Elio (Javier Núnez Florían) pick on a gay guy and his face retreats. Is he gay? (Yes.) It’s an ironic film. Raul (Dariel Arrechaga) prostitutes himself to get the money to get the drugs to help out his prostitute mother, who has AIDS. It’s an evocative film. One of the characters mentions you can smell the tourists coming. “They use a soap we can’t get here.”
But mostly it’s about 90 miles.
That’s the distance from Cuba to Miami, from poverty to wealth, from communism to capitalism. It’s the distance to a different kind of desperation.
Lila and Elio are twins—she’s eight minutes older—who have always communicated well, who can almost finish each other’s thoughts. Lately, though, Elio’s grown distant, and Lila follows him around to find out why. She follows their father, too, a military man, and discovers he’s having an affair. She’s teased by other girls for the hair on her arms, and wonders whether she should pluck her eyebrows. She holds off the boys but dreams of first kisses. Despite all this, we don’t really get to know her, and what we do know isn’t that interesting. She’s most interesting in voiceover. All of them are.
We don’t really get to know Elio, either. Lila thinks he has a girl but he has a boy. Except the boy, Raul, doesn’t know it. Of the three, Elio is the most serious. He’s not following after other people’s drams, as Lila, nor sabotaging his own, as Raul, but moving forward. He’s doing it all for love.
That’s an answer to this question: What kind of desperation makes someone get on a small raft and paddle 90 miles across shark-infested waters? It’s not just the beacon on the other side. You need a push.
Raul is pushed by a mistake. There are two classes of people in Havana, citizens and tourists, and he’s seen talking to a tourist, and that tourist—or her father?—winds up in the hospital, so Raul is suspected since no one else is. “In Havana,” Lila says in voiceover, “only a fool runs from the police.” Raul is that fool. And that’s his final push. Elio is then pushed—or pulled—by his love for Raul. Lila discovers their plans and can’t abide Havana without her brother. That’s how all three wind up on this small raft, paddling.
The young and the pretty
One hopes, away from the bustle of the city, that things will calm down and the three will get serious. Instead, on the small raft, their stupidity has nowhere to hide. Raul complains about paddling. He asks for a backrub from Lila, flirts with Lila, tries to kiss Lila. Elio kisses Raul. They fight. Then the shark comes. By then, I’d lost interest. The characters were too stupid, too spoiled, to care about.
I gained some sympathy back again when Lila and Raul finally float, exhausted, to land, and are greeted by white jet skiers. For a second, we think: Miami. But wait, doesn’t the blonde-haired girl look familiar? Isn’t she the one Raul was talking to earlier? Indeed. One of the jet skiers, a tourist boy, leans forward and says, “Are you trying to get to Miami?” and flashes a big grin to his friends. It’s a joke to them, these boat people, trying to get to Miami but winding back in Havana. It’s a kind of horror for us. Elio doesn’t make it.
“Una Noche” is at its best when it gives us flashes of the hectic life in Havana, a city that time forgot, where 1950s cars coexist with knockoff smartphones. (They’ve improved the catcalls anyway. One guy, to a hot girl passing: “I’ll wash, iron and cook for you daily!”) It’s a trapped city and these three try to break free of it. They’re young and pretty, and, like the young and pretty everywhere, just not that interesting.
Movie Review: Rush (2013)
Everyone’s driven by something.
That’s the movie’s tagline. Of course, being a movie, it’s more interested in the “driven” than the “something,” but at least it makes feints toward the latter. It’s written by Peter Morgan and directed by Ron Howard, the team who gave us “Frost/Nixon,” so it should aspire to some kind of meaning. It shouldn’t just be zoom-zoom.
And it’s not. It’s zoom-zoom but it’s also a vague character study in the Peter Morgan mould. Is that enough?
Peter Morgan is big on his dichotomies, isn’t he? He’s particularly big on historical dichotomies of the past 40 years. Thus Idi Amin and Dr. Nicholas Garrigan in “The Last King of Scotland” (2006), Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth in “The Queen” (2006), David Frost and Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon” (2008), and Don Revie and Brian Clough in “The Damned United” (2009). Now, in “Rush,” we get the epic battle between 1970s-era Formula-One race-car drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl).
Ready? Hunt is tall, blond, a sex machine and a party animal. Lauda is short, mousy, with rat-like buck teeth. He’s blunt and friendless while Hunt is friends with everyone. Hunt takes risks, Lauda less so. Lauda is all about calculations and odds, while Hunt is like Han Solo: Don’t tell him the odds! He’s balls out. Lauda keeps his balls in, thank you.
At the start, we get voiceovers from both men about why men in general race cars around tracks: They’re rebels, dreamers, people desperate to make a mark. “I don’t know why it became such a big thing,” Lauda says about his rivalry with Hunt. “We’re just driven.”
These voiceovers occur on August 1, 1976, a rain day full of portent. At which point we flash back six years earlier. Hunt is walking, almost strutting, into a hospital with bloody nose and bare feet. In voiceover, he asks us, as he flirts with one of the nurses, (Natalie Dormer of “Game of Thrones”), why women like racecar drivers.
Uhhh... Cuz you look like Thor?
“It’s our closeness to death,” he answers.
At this point Hunt is only a Formula Three driver. But in the first race we see, he butts heads, and cars, with Lauda. Hunt shows up late, having partied all night, while Lauda shows up early to study the race track. He’s a student and a businessman. He’s careful. Too careful. At a particular turn, he doesn’t take the risk, Hunt does, Hunt wins. Thus begins the rivalry.
This rivalry takes them to the top: Lauda drives for Team Ferrari, Hunt for Team McLaren, in Formula One racing. Along the way, Hunt settles down, kinda, with supermodel Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde, who looks great as a ‘70s blonde), while Lauda meets cute with a German girl, Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), as both flee a party where neither wants to be. He was driven there, she’s driving. He pauses to tell her everything wrong with her car. She scoffs. Cut to: the car smoking by the side of the road. OK, so we see that coming. Then it becomes a riff on the hitchhiking scene from “It Happened One Night.” He tries, gets nowhere. She tries, in her party dress, and a car comes screeching to a halt. Except, nice bit here, the two men, rowdy Italians, bypass her to get to Lauda, the Formula One racecar driver for Ferrari! They’re beside themselves. They even let him drive their car. When Marlene mocks his careful driving, he takes it to another level. All in all, a nice scene.
The focus of the film is the rivalry between Lauda and Hunt in 1976. Lauda, the reigning world champion, starts out strong, winning race after race. Then Hunt begins to win. Will he catch up? That takes us to the day of portent, in rainy Nurburg, West Germany, the 10th race of the 16-race season. Lauda, who measures the odds, who knows that with every race he has a 20 percent chance of dying, and that the rain is increasing those odds, suggests cancelation. The others vote to race. He’s the one who pays. His car spins out, erupts in flames, and he suffers smoke inhalation damage and lifelong scars on his face. He’s done but Hunt continues.
But Lauda isn’t done. Less than two months later, he’s back, and the rivalry plays out on the final race of the season.
On another rainy day, Lauda, mid-race, bows out, deciding it’s not worth it. He sees the face of Marlene, whom he’s married, and whom he told on their honeymoon, “Happiness is the enemy. It weakens you. Suddenly, you have something to lose.” That’s what appears to happen here. He sees his wife’s face, he quits. Meanwhile, Hunt, with a last-minute sprint, finishes third in the race, which gives him just enough points to beat Lauda for the world championship. Now he’s World Champion.
At which point we get one of the odder things I’ve seen in a movie.
Most movie montages are there to set up the third act, a la “Rocky,” but once Hunt wins we get a kind of “Will Success Spoil James Hunt?” montage: partying, sex, blow, and TV commercials. I thought: “Wait, isn’t the movie nearly over?” It is. This montage sets up the epilogue. And the epilogue upsets the rest of the story.
In an airplane hangar, Hunt runs into Lauda, who’s working on his plane, and who waxes poetic about flying. He seems like he’s retired from racing and encourages Hunt to try flying. Then he encourages Hunt back on the track. But Hunt is too busy being a celebrity. They have a serious moment here. Hunt says he feels bad about his part in making Niki race on August 1, 1976. Lauda acknowledges it, in his blunt manner, but adds, “You were equally responsible for getting me back in the car.” I.e., Because Hunt kept winning races, Lauda had to come back from his horrific accident and disfigurement.
And he’s still racing. That’s the thing. Lauda is back on the track and he wants Hunt there, too. He talks about how far both of them have come, in part because of their rivalry, and he wants that rivalry to continue. But Hunt is noncommittal. In an afterword, we’re told he stops racing to become a TV commentator while Lauda wins back the world championship in 1977 and again in 1984. You think, “Wow! That’s a great story. How come we didn’t get more of that story?” In this way, “Rush” is similar to Morgan’s “Damned United.” There, in an afterword, we’re told that Brian Clough, the careful coach, went on to huge success, but the movie focuses on his rivalry with Don Revie, the balls-out coach, because apparently that’s what Peter Morgan likes to focus on. Apparently he thinks such rivalries and dichotomies are more dramatic. Maybe they are. Even so. Something’s missing here. And it’s “something.”
Everyone’s driven by something. It’s a movie, yes, so we get the “driven” more than the “something.” Normally that would be fine. But since the “something” goes away for one man and not the other, that’s the key. But we don’t get it.
Look, “Rush” is a good movie. It’s fun and semi-serious. The acting is good, the production values high. It’s just missing something.
Movie Review: Short Term 12 (2013)
“Short Term 12,” written and directed by Destin Cretton, and based on his 2008 short film of the same name, not to mention his own time working at a foster-care facility, feels natural. The lighting is natural (read: washed out), the dialogue is natural (read: mumbled), the acting is natural (no glam). It’s like a Dogme 95 film without the pretension.
It’s about trouble teens who are helped by troubled staff who aren’t much older than they are. It’s the children leading the children. When do we see anyone over 30 in this thing? I guess when Dr. Hendler (Nora Walters) tells Grace (Brie Larson) she’s pregnant, but she’s only in it for like 15 seconds. I guess when the director of the foster-care facility, Jack (Frantz Turner), appears, but that’s not often. Mostly we just get the kids. It’s almost like a Peanuts cartoon in this regard.
It’s tough to pin down why it’s so good. It might have something to do with its ease and lack of pretension and the feeling it has for its characters. These characters move in a dramatic arc but there’s a cyclicality to the movie, too. Issues are resolved but we wind up back where we started.
The shark and the octopus
We start with storytelling. “There is no way not to tell this right,” says Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), bearded, amused, laid back. “It’s a storyteller’s wet dream.”
Various staff members at Short Term 12 are standing outside and taking a smoke break and welcoming the newest staff member, Nate (Rami Malek of “The Pacific”), when Mason decides to tell his well-worn story. It’s about a big kid named Wesley who bolted on Mason’s first day on the job. He left the premises and got on a bus, and Mason, who was dealing with stomach issues, followed. But the pressure in his stomach grew worse and when he finally confronted Wesley it all flowed south. That’s the punchline. They’re all laughing about it when one of the kids, Sammy (Alex Calloway), redhaired, pale and skinny, bolts from the place and they have to chase him down. That’s Sammy’s thing, by the way: making repeated and fruitless feints at escape.
All the kids have a thing. Luis (Kevin Hernandez) tends to tease Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who tends to burn with quiet rage, while Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), the new girl, is flip, closed-off, doesn’t give a fuck. It’s the job of the staff, Grace particularly, to open them up. Yet at the end of the day, in the quiet evenings she shares with Mason, Grace herself is closed off. Traditional gender roles here are reversed: he cooks; she instigates sex. She’s closed off, a mystery, while he wants her to talk about how she’s feeling.
At the moment, she’s feeling pregnant. That’s one of the things she won’t tell him. There’s other stuff: past abuse issues. She cut herself for a while. Jayden cuts herself, too, and Grace suspects Jayden is also abused. Or neglected? Her father is supposed to pick her up for her birthday and doesn’t, and Jayden cuts herself, and ...
To be honest, writing about it lessens it. There’s a subtlety to it. The revelations are just suddenly there, as if they’ve always been there, and are accepted with a barely discernible nod by the other characters. There are dramatic moments and histrionics, sure, but revelations tend to be made quietly and obliquely. One of the best such moments is a short story Jayden writes and reads to Grace. It’s about the friendship between a shark and an octopus. I won’t spoil it.
In life there are those who close us off and those who open us up, and “Short Term 12” is about a group of people who do the latter for a living; then they go home and do it with each other. You could argue that that’s the big battle: to remain open, and open others, in a world that tends to close us off.
That’s how the movie proceeds until we wind up back where we started: with a smoke break and storytelling and Sammy making a break for it.
Not exactly “Free to Be, You and Me”
I didn’t think I’d like “Short Term 12.” The trailer has a ’70s vibe. Not a ’70s film vibe, which would be great, but a living-through-the-‘70s-as-a-kid vibe, and dealing with the various “Free to Be, You and Me” group activities and unstructured environments that we were placed in. I hated them. They were supposed to be free and edgy and interesting but they were generally dull and chaotic. Sometimes they seemed a step above “Lord of the Flies.” With me as Piggy. But the movie’s not that.
“Short Term 12” is sort of like Grace herself. It sits next to you and quietly works on you without seeming to. After a while, you just find yourself opening up to it.
Movie Review: Salinger (2013)
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I saw it (Seven Gables theater) and what the lousy drive over was like (lousy), and how I was occupied and all before the show (buying books at Cinema Books), and all that Pauline Kael kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, you would probably have about two hemorrhages apiece if I kept this up. You’re nice and all—I’m not saying that—but you’re also sensible as hell. So what you really want to know is this: Is the movie any good?
Not really. If I were in an uncharitable mood I would say “Salinger” is a documentary made by phonies.
That’s too easy, though. “Phony” is almost a worthless word now, thanks to Salinger, and it’s certainly worthless in anything related to Salinger. It’s the “groovy” of Salingerologists.
Besides, it’s not quite right. Shane Salerno’s “Salinger” is too clichéd. That’s better. It’s tabloid. It’s begins OK and ends awful. It doesn’t push the conversation in the direction it seems to be going, it just steeps itself in the evidence. The tabloid mentality never asks what things mean. It just wants dirt, and gets it, and presents it to us, saying, “Look at this. Isn’t it awful?”
Yes. It’s awful.
‘Salinger’: An Introduction
I should add: I’m not a Salingerologist myself but I am familiar with his works. I’ve read the four books countless times and “Hapworth 16, 1924” twice. I spent the summer after college back in the university library looking up and reading the stories he’d published before “Nine Stories”: “The Young Folks,” and “The Varioni Bros.” and the like. I wish I’d done this with a purpose, such as writing about Salinger, but it was more out of haplessness. Salinger was practically the only writer I could read that summer so I had to seek out more of him. Oh. I’m also the guy who outed “Hapworth” when it was about to become a book. I ruined that for everyone. Apologies.
Even so, even with this CV, the doc tells me a lot about the life of J.D. Salinger I didn’t know.
I didn’t know much about his prep school and military school days, and I didn’t know about his weekly poker playing with fellow writers like A.E. Hotchner, and I didn’t know he married a German woman, possibly with Nazi party affiliations, shortly after the war. These things were news.
The doc implies that William Shawn, the editor in chief at The New Yorker, to whom “Franny and Zooey” was dedicated, didn’t start working directly with Salinger until the other New Yorker editors were ready to reject “Zooey” in 1957. Which means Shawn, to whom I’ve given much credit in helping Salinger become Salinger, actually only helped with Salinger’s three most self-indulgent works: “Zooey”; “Seymour: An Introduction”; and “Hapworth 16, 1924.” No wonder he just gets the metaphoric lima bean.
But is that right? We get one mention of it and no corroboration, and the doc doesn’t seem to recognize its significance. Because it means when it comes to Salinger: a) Shawn was late to the party, and b) the other New Yorker editors were ready to reject the work of the most famous, most buzzed-about writer in the country on principle. Because it wasn’t up to their standards.
The doc keeps doing this. It keeps missing opportunities.
The Bulls-Eye Kid
We get footage, for example, of what is assumed to be Daytona Beach, Fla., circa 1948, and people dancing happily on the beach. Then the footage slows ominously to invoke the disconnect that Salinger, returning from World War II, had with those who remained in the states. I thought: a good time to quote from “The Stranger,” a Dec. 1945 Colliers story in which the main character, Babe, returns from war to tell the girlfriend of an army buddy, Vincent Caulfield, how Vince died. As Babe watches an old man walking his dog on the New York streets, Salinger writes:
Babe figured that during the whole of the Bulge, the guy had walked that dog on this street every day. He couldn’t believe it. He could believe it, but it was still impossible.
But “Salinger” doesn’t go into the early works. It doesn’t try to connect the early works to the later works. It hardly goes into the writing at all. So allow me.
In “The Varioni Bros.” (Saturday Evening Post, 1943), the more poetic half of a songwriting duo dies tragically young—prefiguring Seymour Glass. In “A Boy in France” (Saturday Evening Post, 1945), Mattie’s letter to Babe allows him to fall “crumbly, bent-leggedly, asleep”—prefiguring “For Esme With Love and Squalor.”
The doc implies that in the early 1940s The New Yorker wanted O Henry-type stories, alley-oop-type stories, which he was above. Except he wasn’t. He wrote them. “Hang of It” (Colliers, 1941) is exactly that. It’s about a screw-up before World War I whose mean drill sergeant bellows at him, “Aincha got no brains?!” But in the end we find out that the narrator is actually the screw-up, who’s now a colonel, and forever indebted to his loveable old drill sergeant. Alley oop.
The doc implies that the war changed Salinger but not the way it changed his writing, which is what really matters. Think of the sentimentality of “Hang of It,” and then look at these lines from “The Stranger”:
Your mind, your soldier’s mind, wanted accuracy above all else. So far as details went, you wanted to be the bulls-eye kid: Don’t let any civilians leave you, when the story’s over, with any uncomfortable lies.
“Hang of It” is Hollywood sentimentality, “The Stranger” is devoid of it. That’s what war did. It turned him into the Bulls-Eye Kid.
Or did it? Babe has a younger sister, Mattie, prefiguring Phoebe, and Esme, and Franny, and this is how the story ends, with Mattie jumping:
With her feet together she made the little jump from the curb to the street surface, then back again. Why was it such a beautiful thing to see?
Is this sentimentality? A lie? If it is, it winds its way through all of Salinger’s works. His screwed-up characters are forever trapped between an older, male wisdom that is dead, and a younger, female innocence that will inevitably grow up; and even as they aspire toward the former, they soothe themselves with the latter.
It’s also evident in Salinger’s early work. “The Last Day of the Last Furlough” was published in The Saturday Evening Post in July 1944, so a few months before the Battle of the Bulge, and it ends this way. Babe is thinking about Mattie again. He’s thinking of what advice to give her:
It’s a quick business, being a kid. ... But my main point, Mattie ... kind of live up to the best that’s in you. ... If you can’t be smart and a swell girl, too, then I don’t want to see you grow up. [Emphasis mine]
Surely that would have meaning in the doc. Surely you could get some critic or writer to talk about it on camera. Surely writer-director Shane Salerno knows about it.
But not a peep. Just the dirt.
Girls girls girls
Here’s the dirt: Salinger liked young girls (14-21). He often abandoned them as they reached maturity. He didn’t want to see them grow up.
What questions, as a documentarian, might you derive from those facts? Here are some obvious ones:
- Would Salinger have been so fixated on young girls if he hadn’t lost Oona O’Neill (to Charlie Chaplin of all people) when he was 21-23 and she was 16-18? Were all of these other girls attempts to make up for Oona? Was she the Annabel to his Humbert?
- Would he have been so fixated without World War II? Was he, like his characters, trying to surround himself with innocence as a way to overcome horror?
- Some combination of 1) and 2)?
- Or did he come into this world so fixated?
Instead, the dirt. The same sad story, over and over.
There’s Sylvia Welter, German, whom Salinger meets during the mop-up campaign, but their marriage is annulled quickly after they arrive in the states. The doc implies two things about her: 1) that she was young (21 when they married?); and 2) that she had Nazi party affiliations. But these two things don’t sit well together. If she was 21 in 1945 then she was 15 when the war began and 9 when Hitler came to power. Even if she was a member of the Nazi party, what does that mean?
There’s Jean Miller, whom Salinger meets on the beach in Florida in the 1940s, and who may have been the inspiration for Muriel in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” They begin a relationship, platonic, for years, until she’s at college and makes her move. They have a fling. But then she says something, laughs at something, and he freezes and shuts her out. This is a common occurrence for all of Salinger’s friends: something is said or done, resulting in anger, resulting in the end of the friendship. It happened to A.E. Hotchner, too.
There’s his next first wife, Claire Douglas, who may have been the inspiration for Franny, and who was, according to one family friend, a nonentity to Salinger after the birth of their two children, Margaret and Matthew.
Then there’s Joyce Maynard. There’s way too much of Joyce Maynard.
In April 1972, Maynard wrote a first-person New York Times Magazine cover story, “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life,” and the Times put her on the cover. She’s cute. She’s got big eyes, bangs, is grabbing her shoe like a little girl, and she’s looking at the camera with an expression that conveys both a “Who me?” vibe and a “Yes, me!” vibe. It’s like nails on a chalkboard to me, that look, that vibe, and it never goes away. Maynard never goes away. She keeps talking. Apparently Salinger wrote her a letter after the Times piece came out, and she visited him in Cornish, N.H., and stayed, and lived with him, and worked with him, and watched old movies with him (“Lost Horizon,” about a place where people don’t grow old), until that day on the beach when he told her, whew, he didn’t want any more kids, and she told him well she did, and so he said good-bye right then and there. Gave her 50 bucks, told her to take a cab to the airport, bye. Like that. And she hasn’t gotten over it.
The irony? Maynard may have been the perfect choice for Salinger. She really is the girl who never grew up. She keeps living that moment, those moments, and Salerno lets her. Is he letting her hang herself? I don’t know. But I got so bored at this point in the doc. I kept thinking, “We get it.” I kept asking, “But what does it mean?”
But the tabloid mind doesn’t care about that.
Books books books
One of my favorite things in documentaries about artists or craftsman is hearing from other artists or craftsmen in the same field: directors on directors, comedians on comedians, writers on writers. “Salinger” doesn’t give us much of this. We get a bit from A.E. Hotchner and his personal relationship with Salinger; we get a little of E.L. Doctorow (who seems wary), a little of Gore Vidal (who trots out his well-worn lines), and that’s about it. Did the others have nothing to say? Did Salerno not seek them out? The doc has a Hollywood attitude about writers: Who needs them when we can hear from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Martin Sheen and Ed Norton? You know: the stars.
We keep getting documentary clichés. After the same sad story—how Salinger abandoned Hotchner or Maynard—Salerno gives us the same sad shot: the friend or lover, head bowed, silent and bereft. He keeps giving us a stage dramatization of Salinger, a small figure in the foreground, with cigarette going, typing away, while in the background huge images of violent war footage, indicating his state of mind, play out. Salerno does this about a million times.
The other great Salinger mystery, besides the mystery of the girls, is the mystery of his reclusiveness. Salinger abandoned New York for New Hampshire in the early 1950s, then he abandoned publishing altogether in 1965, but the doc makes it clear he wasn’t a recluse in the Howard Hughes sense. He had friends. He went outside. He visited folks in Cornish and elsewhere. If anything, the privacy he craved was less for himself than for his characters. He didn’t want the world to get at them so he didn’t let it happen. He didn’t publish.
But he kept writing.
Now those works will get out. According to “Salinger,” we’ll see the following starting in 2015:
- “A Counterintelligence Agent’s Diary,” a novella, most likely based on his own work during World War II.
- “A World War II Love Story,” most likely based on his marriage to Sylvia.
- “The Complete Chronicle of the Glass Family,” featuring five new stories about Seymour.
- “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans,” about Holden Caulfield.
- A religious manual about Advaita Vedanta Hinduism.
I hope it’s good stuff. I hope it sheds light. I hope it sheds more light than this doc sheds.
Because here’s the thing about a documentary on a subject this big. You want accuracy above all else. So far as details, you want to be the bulls-eye kid.
Instead we got this.
The goddamn movies. They can ruin you. I’m not kidding.
Movie Review: Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013)
According to Casey Affleck, the title is the director David Lowery’s misquotation from lyrics of a song and has no actual meaning.
That’s a bit how I feel about “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” It’s a beautifully atmospheric story that has no actual meaning. It’s inspired by Terrence Malick but it doesn’t inspire like Terrence Malick. It’s about a boy and a girl and a shootout and a prison escape, and how there’s no escape. It’s about men who will do what they can to protect a woman who may not be worth protecting. It’s about love and mumbling. A lot of love and a lot of mumbling. Brando’s diction was Gielgud’s in comparison.
Full disclosure: I’ve been losing my hearing for a few years but it hasn’t really been a problem until now. Until now I just turned up the volume, or leaned forward, or cupped my hand behind my ear like an old man. Last year I went to see about a hearing aid but once you begin to use it you have to use it always. It’s not like glasses, which you can take on and off. The hearing aid would be a thing I’d put in in the morning and take out at night, and that more than anything else soured me. Something else to add to the routine? Another barnacle to my hull? Not yet.
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” has convinced me that maybe I do need that hearing aid. So an aspect of that awful fact may color this review.
Trying to catch up to Ruth
Bob (Affleck) begins the movie trying to catch up to Ruth (Rooney Mara). He spends most of the movie doing the same.
Why is she walking away from him at the beginning? Because, in conversation with others, he used the phrase “on my own.” He has to tell her, “When I say ‘on my own,’ I mean you and me. I always mean you and me.” He says this calmly and sweetly. Then he promises her things: 1) She won’t go to jail; and 2) He’ll work on getting them out of that shack of theirs. Then she drops her bomb. “I think I’m going to have a baby,” she says. He pauses. Then a smile. It’s a gorgeous smile. “We’re going to have a baby?” he says. Again with the we. I liked him here. I like people who run to love. She’s running away from it. She’s already a bit of a pain.
It doesn’t take long before they make their play with their friend Freddy (Kentucky Audley), the son of the man, Skerritt (Keith Carradine), who helped raise them. In a shoot-out with the cops, Freddy dies, Ruth wounds one of the cops, Patrick (Ben Foster), and freaks. So Bob takes the blame. He lives up to promise #1. He surrenders himself with literal blood on his hands (Freddy’s) and goes to prison for Ruth. There, he writes letters to her even as he tries to break out of prison. The sixth time’s the charm. By this point, four-plus years, and maybe 15 minutes of screentime, have gone by. The rest of the movie is prep for his return.
No show to run
Slowly, people take positions, or take up positions around Ruth. Is Patrick using Ruth to get to Bob, or Bob to get to Ruth? In the end, he gets got himself. He falls for her and her daughter. He falls for the woman who shot him.
Ruth keeps watching the door, scared and hopeful Bob will walk in; Patrick keeps hanging around Ruth, hoping Bob will walk in; but it’s Skerritt who gets the walk-in. Bob shows up in the back of Skerritt’s store, an amused, proud look on his face. Lookee what I did. Is he a little soft in the head? He seems to be missing something up there. Maybe love is laid over it. We sing songs about it but it’s a burden.
Skerritt warns Bob away. The house that Bob didn’t get Ruth? Promise #2? Skerritt got it for her. He lets her live in one of his houses, next door to his own, and he doesn’t want Bob hanging around. Bob’s got his dream, of course—to disappear with the girls and settle down and buy a house and open a shop and grow old like Skerritt—and Skerritt’s fine with it except for the getting the girls part. “You got trouble heading your way,” he reminds him. Then he holds Bob’s face down on the wood countertop. He’s tougher than Bob. Maybe that’s why Bob wants to be him. Maybe that’s why we all do. It’s a great scene.
Bad men come looking for him. Big silent men led by a talkative runt named Bear (Charles Baker, Skinny Pete from “Breaking Bad”). Are they bounty hunters? Are they after reward money? Skerritt warns them, too, but eventually he sets the rest of the movie in motion by sending them to where they might find him. They just better not get the girls involved. Famous last words.
There’s an ennui, a dissipation, in the town and in the film. At one point we get this dialogue:
Bob: Who’s running the show?
Skerritt: No show to run. Not anymore.
That’s how it feels. Not much on the shelves here. At Maude’s Bar, where Bob holes up, which his friend, Sweetie (Nate Parker), runs, or owns, there’s even less. It’s barren and there’s rot in the floorboards.
No legendary outlaw
One night, his daughter’s 4th birthday, Bob shows up, sees his daughter through the front window, sees a man with her. It’s Patrick. Does he know it’s Patrick? He leaves anyway. He returns, I believe, to the shack where he and Ruth used to live, where the shoot-out took place, where he buried the money. This time Bear and the men are waiting. Bob gets two, one gets him. He stands over him, disbelieving. “You shot me,” Bob says to Bear. “Why’d you shoot me? I never even seen you.”
He is missing something, isn’t he? He doesn’t know the way the world works. He’s got a romantic streak in him when it comes to Ruth and himself. He thinks he’s a legendary outlaw now but there are no legendary outlaws now. It’s like what Skerritt said about the show: no one’s running it. Bloodied again, Bob flags down a driver, Will (Rami Malek), and on the way to Ruth’s they have this conversation:
Bob: Tell your daddy who you gave a ride to today.
Will (after a pause): Who?
Bob (confused): What?
Will (choosing words carefully): Who are you?
I love that. This, too. When Bob’s in prison, he writes this in a letter to Ruth. It’s about how he keeps himself going:
Every day I wake up is the day I think I’m going to see you. And one of these days, it will be so.
It is. It’s also the day he dies.
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is well acted, beautifully shot, with some good, minimalist dialogue. I liked scenes. I admired the effort. Casey Affleck continues to impress and it made me retroactively miss Keith Carradine, who seems to have made a deal with the devil when it comes to aging. He’s looked about the same for 30 years.
But overall? It doesn’t resonate and I don’t know why. Too much atmosphere? Dissipation? Because it’s a copy of a copy? It’s another story of the outlaw couple, kind of, told in the manner of Terrence Malick, kind of, about a few scattered people at the end of it.
It misses the big conflict, which is dramatized in the scene between Bob and Skerritt: For the good of what you love, you should stay away from what you love. But Bob’s too thick to realize it. It’s the scorpion and the frog, and it’s in Bob’s nature to catch up to Ruth. That’s what he does, that’s what he’ll always do, but it’s not that interesting. In the end, Bob and Ruth are not that interesting. People in love rarely are.
Movie Review: Lovelace (2013)
The first half of “Lovelace” documents how a sexually inexperienced girl, Linda Boreman (Amanda Seyfried), living with her strict parents in 1970 in Davie, Fla., becomes involved in the hard-core porn industry.
The second half gives us the same story but from a degrading perspective.
Sorry. Bad joke. Yet true.
There are certainly intimations of abuse in the first half. That bruise on her thigh. That rhythmic noise in the motel room that doesn’t sound like knocking boots. The too-tight pants and muttonchop moustache of her Svengali-like husband, Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard).
But overall, Linda, soon to be Linda Lovelace, the most famous porn star in the world, a topic on “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite” and the butt of snickering jokes from everyone from Johnny Carson to Bob Hope, seems to be a willing participant in the process. Chuck may come off as creepy and unctuous and vaguely threatening, but many of the other principles, from director Gerry Damiano (Hank Azaria) to producer Butch Peraino (Bobby Cannavale), come off as loveable rogues. Here’s Butch arguing against casting the dark-haired Linda in “Deep Throat”: “People want blonde hair, huge tits, and a nice round ass. It’s the harsh reality of our chosen profession.” Here’s the exchange after actor Harry Reems (Adam Brody) finishes too quickly as a result of Linda’s talents:
Linda: I’m sorry, did I do something wrong?
All men (lust-struck and reassuring): No, no, no ...
At this point, it’s actually comic.
Then in the second half: beatings, guns and gang rape.
Either/or, leaning toward or
This isn’t a bad structure—here’s the story and then here’s the real story—but it leaves our lovable rogues out of the picture, more or less. The beatings are from Chuck. The gun belongs to Chuck. The gang rape is organized by Chuck. These events are seen from Linda’s perspective. But the other guys? Are they what they seem in the first half? What does she really think of Wes Bentley’s short, sweet turn as a photographer who brings out her beauty? Was that real? At the least, the scene made me miss Bentley, whom I’ve barely seen since “American Beauty” in 1999.
I’m also curious if the filmmakers—writer Andy Bellin (“Trust”), and directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“The Times of Harvey Milk,” “The Celluloid Closet,” “Howl”)—chose this structure for more than aesthetic reasons. The “Deep Throat” story, after all, is still a he said/she said affair, and nobody wants a lawsuit. Was Linda Boreman brutalized into fame? Or, once famous (or infamous), did she deny responsibility for her choices by claiming coercion? One imagines it’s some combination of the two, but here, sadly, it’s either/or. Leaning toward or. Fingers are pointed squarely: at Chuck, of course, but also at Linda’s mother (a nearly unrecognizable Sharon Stone), who is puritanical about sex and then unsympathetic about Linda’s plight. It’s not until the 11th hour that she realizes how awful she’s been; what she’s done to her baby.
By giving us the same story twice, too, we also don’t have time for less-well-known aspects of Lovelace’s career, such as the 1975 movie “Linda Lovelace for President,” with Mickey Dolenz. What the hell was that about?
More importantly, why did “Deep Throat” break through? In “Lovelace,” its success is assumed but back in the day Vincent Canby of The New York Times was as baffled as anyone. Here he is in a January 21, 1973 article, “What Are We to Think of ‘Deep Throat’?”:
When I went to see it last summer, mostly because of the Goldstein review, I was so convinced of its junkiness that I didn’t bother writing about it. Still uncertain, I went back to see it again last Sunday. ... Although the audience last Sunday was a good deal more cheerful and less furtive than the one with which I first saw it, the film itself remains junk, at best only a souvenir of a time and place. I’m sure that if “Deep Throat” hadn’t caught the public’s fancy at this point in history, some other porno film, no better and maybe no worse, would have.
A helluva cast
Yes, Seyfried is good in the title role, and, yes, Sarsgaard can probably do the greasily unctuous thing in his sleep. Overall, it’s quite the cast. Besides those mentioned above, add James Franco (as Hugh Hefner), Robert Patrick (as Linda’s father), Chris Noth (as a producer), Chloe Sevigny (as a reporter with one line), Debi Mazar and Eric Roberts.
But what complexity the movie could have—about where we’re going and where we’ve been—isn’t there. The movie becomes an oft-told tale. It’s about a good girl who winds up with a bad guy, then finds her way home again.
Movie Review: The Spectacular Now (2013)
It’s been 32 years since I’ve been the age of the principle characters in “The Spectacular Now” (18), so I don’t know how true their story is today. But this is how true it feels: I was bored during great parts of it. I was bored and extremely uncomfortable during the sex scenes. I felt I should avert my eyes. Kids having sex? Quit watching, Erik. Go to the concession stand already. Pervert.
“The Spectacular Now” is a good movie, and I hope it resonates with kids that age. But 10 minutes in I was thinking, “This is a mistake. This is not a movie for me anymore.”
A loveish story
Sutter (Miles Teller of “Rabbit Hole”) lives in the now, spectacular or not. He lives in the moment. He’s a popular senior in high school who isn’t interested in college—that’s the future—and gets by on easy charm, mild humor and frequent libation. This last sneaks up on us. We first see him getting drunk the night after his girlfriend, the equally popular Cassidy (Brie Larson of “21 Jump Street”), leaves him, so we don’t think twice about it. We’d do the same. But then he’s at work at a men’s store and he sneaks the contents of an old-fashioned flask into his plastic soda cup. After a while, we begin to realize we rarely see him not drinking. How old is he? Won’t this be a problem? For the movie as well? Won’t it become an afterschool special?
To the filmmakers’ credit, it doesn’t. It becomes a love story. Maybe a love-ish story.
The morning after his first binge he wakes up on the front lawn of Aimee (Shailene Woodley, spectacular), who knows who he is though he struggles to remember her. It took a moment for me to register this. “Oh,” I thought. “So he’s in with the popular crowd and she isn’t. She’s the odd, plain girl in school. Shailene Woodley. OK.” The filmmakers do what they can to make this believable—Woodley hardly wears a speck of make-up throughout—but she’s still got those beautiful eyes and that vulnerable, heartbreaking face. But you give it a pass. In the movies, a man can fly and Shailene Woodley can be the unpopular girl.
This, along with his drinking, is the tension that drives the movie: How will Sutter break Aimee’s heart? Sutter’s friend, Rick (Masam Holden), who never had a girlfriend until Sutter set him up, is against the relationship. “She’s a strange choice for a rebound,” he says. At first Sutter denies he’s even interested in Aimee. But he keeps drifting that way. He enjoys being with her, talking with her. Maybe he sees her as a rehab project—as with Rick earlier in the movie? Rick is alone so here’s a girl. Aimee is alone so here I am.
He also keeps drifting back toward Cassidy. They’re like magnets that attract from a distance and repel close up. Sutter has a lot of drift in the movie. At one point, he and his boss, Dan (Bob Odenkirk), have this conversation about Aimee:
Dan: I kinda thought she would be the one to yank you out of neutral.
Sutter: Neutral? What are you talking about? I’m in overdrive!
They’re both right. Sutter’s in overdrive to live in the spectacular now, which is almost a Zen thing, but the spectacular now can also be a road to nowhere. Sutter realizes that in the second half of the movie.
The parent trap
For the first half of the movie, the parents are almost like Charlie Brown parents: unseen. Wu-wurh, wurh wu wu wurh. We get a few scenes with his mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who’s a nurse, and grumpy. Her mom, glimpsed from a distance late in the movie, has a paper route but it’s Aimee who delivers them. She’s against Aimee going away to college for this reason. Because who will do her paper route? I suppose there are such short-sighted parents, but the smallness is spectacular.
The dads? Hers is dead, his is deadbeat. Early on, he lies to Aimee about him—says he’s a pilot—but in reality he doesn’t even know how to contact him. And he’s 18? Eventually, he gets the dad’s contact info from his older sister, Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), forever wearing pearls, and phones him. A meeting is set up but when he arrives, with Aimee in tow, the dad, Tommy (Kyle Chandler, forever playing dads), living in a motel-like apartment, is scattered, distracted, not there. Is he on drugs? Is he an alcoholic? Is he just an asshole? Mostly 2 and 3. He takes the kids to a local dive bar, orders a pitcher, but isn’t exactly forthcoming. Sutter asks about the marriage: What happened between you and mom? “What happened? Things didn’t work out, that’s what happened.” By revealing nothing, he reveals everything. Then the wallop.
Tommy: I don’t live in the past, I live in the now. Do you understand that?
Sutter (scales falling): Yeah.
For some reason, this encounter devastates rather than wakes up Sutter. Obviously he sees himself in his father and doesn’t like what he sees but he doubles down on their very similarities. He drinks more. He drifts over the yellow line. He crashes into the mailbox. He’s responsible for Aimee winding up in the hospital but this doesn’t wake him up. His math teacher (Andre Royo, wasted) will flunk him unless he applies himself so he doesn’t. Everyone is graduating, everyone is moving on, and he’s stuck with a non-diploma.
He’s still got the men’s store, right? Except Dan tells him business is bad and he can only keep one of his two employees; and while he wants to keep Sutter, who is great with the customers, he adds a stipulation. Sutter can’t show up drunk; he can’t drink on the job. A revelation. Dan isn’t as dumb as we thought and Sutter isn’t as sly as he thought. But Sutter can’t accept those terms. In admitting that, he admits, perhaps for the first time, that he has a problem. Then we get this very nice, very deft bit of writing:
Dan: If I were your father, I guess this would be the part where I give you a lecture.
Sutter: If you were my father, you wouldn’t have to give me a lecture.
No bullshit Autumn
“The Spectacular Now,” from the novel by Tim Tharp, was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who also wrote “(500) Days of Summer.” That movie was indie but this is even more so. There is no bullshit greeting-card job here. There is no bullshit Autumn after Summer. There is just autumn after summer. There is just college after high school. There is just the road vs. the road to nowhere.
Stories about addicts tend to be boring because addicts tend to be boring. They fumble, disappoint, betray. Their trajectory is downward and they either hit bottom and bounce or don’t and die. Neustadter and Weber, with director James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”), avoid a lot of these pitfalls. Their story is subtler. Does Sutter rebound? A bit. How? We’re not sure. Dan, with his either/or proposition, helps. So does Aimee. So does Sutter’s mom, who tells Sutter why he’s not like his father: “You have the biggest heart of anyone I know,” she says. But nothing is clear-cut. The story frays a bit but in a good way. The ending is ambiguous. Sutter, disappointed, disgruntled, but taking steps on the road back, shows up at Aimee’s college. She sees him. For a moment she’s happy. Then she’s not. Then ... ?
I hope kids go see “The Spectacular Now.” I hope they learn something. I did. I learned that Shailene Woodley is the real thing. I learned that Miles Teller can play both charming (here) and sad and creepy (“Rabbit Hole”). I also learned that 18 was a long time ago.
Movie Review: Fruitvale Station (2013)
“Fruitvale Station” is a true-life character study but you could argue the character being studied is our own.
It’s based on an incident I hadn’t heard about, or had heard and forgotten, in which, in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, several African-American men were detained by the transit police at the BART Fruitvale station after a fight on the train; and one of the men, Oscar Grant, 22, handcuffed and in the prone position, was shot in the back by a police officer and died later that morning. Several cellphones videotaped the incident. The movie opens with this real-life cellphone footage.
The rest of the movie is a day in the life. A last day in the life.
The last day
Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan, Wallace from the first season of “The Wire”) is a young man at a crossroads. He’s been to prison, recently lost his job, and recently got caught fooling around on his live-in girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), with whom he has a daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). He’s a good father, though, with a charming mix of discipline and allowance. He gives Tatiana the fruit roll-up Sophina won’t but doesn’t let her win games the way his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), will. He makes her brush her teeth before bed. He brushes his own with his finger to keep her company.
On this day, his last day, he tries to get his old job back at a local supermarket, and when that fails he tries to sell some pot to a friend. Waiting to make the deal, he flashes back to prison, to the disappointment of his mother there, and dumps the pot into the ocean. He saves a bit for his friend for the trip up. He turns down the cash offered.
He’s a man who has a code in a society that doesn’t, much. At a near-deserted gas station along the coast, he sees a dog run over by a car that keeps going. After yelling at the guy to stop, he picks up the dog and carries it to the sidewalk and comes away with blood on his shirt. The dog is foreshadowing. It’s a metaphor. There are things that keep getting run over by things that keep going.
Mostly, on this last day, he’s running around trying to get things ready for his mom’s birthday party that evening. He picks up crab at the grocery store, goes to the drug store for two birthday cards—one from him and one from his sister, who’s working late. “Don’t buy me no fake-ass card with no white people on it,” she tells him. Which is exactly what he does.
Oscar is someone who makes things happen. A pretty girl at the supermarket (Ahna O’Reilly) needs fish advice so he calls his Grandma to give it to her. Sophina and her friend need to use the bathroom New Year’s Eve and he brokers the deal with the storeowner who’s closed. He takes the lead with the transit cops at Fruitvale Station, too.
But for most of the day, most of the movie, there’s little driving the story forward except our foreknowledge of how it will end. That can be boring. I admit to being bored. I liked the glimpses of the life but I understood early what first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler was doing. “I wanted people to see a little of themselves in Oscar even if they were outside of that community,” he told The Guardian earlier this year. I am and I did. I still wanted a greater driving force.
In the end, amid the small details of the last day, Oscar makes two big decisions. Should he sell pot when he can’t get his job back? (No, he decides.) Should he tell Sophina that he lost his job? (Yes, he decides.) There are more decisions to make—his money and job problems loom—but all of his decision-making ends with someone else’s decision. If it was a decision.
The first day
You can’t say boo in America anymore without it being politicized—particularly about racial matters—and “Fruitvale Station” is no different. Many are comparing the movie to the Trayvon Martin case, and there are similarities, but just that. The Oscar Grant case, sadly, feels typical: unarmed black man shot by cop, who receives light sentence (two years, probation after 11 months). The Trayvon case was slightly atypical: unarmed black kid shot by citizen (or would-be cop), who wasn’t arrested until weeks later. That’s what made it a national story: the lack of arrest, and the assumptions that went into that lack of arrest. Reverse the colors of the principles—armed black man shoots unarmed white kid—and the structural leniency accorded George Zimmerman disappears.
There are assumptions in the Oscar Grant case, too, at least as dramatized in “Fruitvale Station.” A fight on a train New Year’s Eve, white vs. black, and who gets pulled off? Not the white guy who started it. He isn’t touched. No, the transit cops pull off, isolate, handcuff and arrest Oscar and his friends, despite a decided lack of evidence. The shooting, with Oscar handcuffed and lying in the prone position on the ground, is ambiguous—it occurs off camera—and in real life was ruled involuntary manslaughter. The officer says he thought he was shooting his Taser, not his service revolver.
The great irony is when all this happened: Not just the first day of the new year but the first day of the year we would inaugurate our first black president. It was the first day of the first year of post-racial America.
Movie Review: Oblivion (2013)
What does it say about us?
That’s the point of movies set in the future, right? They tell us a little about ourselves today? That we’ve become dangerously consumerist (“WALL-E”), or dangerously blind to global warming (“Waterworld”), or just plain dangerous (most of them). We’re a violent, selfish people and we destroy the planet in some way. We blow it up, damn us, damn us all to hell. The future world is always out of balance, delivering either too much authority (“1984,” etc.) or too little (“Mad Max,” etc.), and the point of the story is to restore the balance or die trying.
So what does the world of “Oblivion” say about us?
I have no fucking clue.
I guess that we’re resilient. I guess that you can replicate us and replicate us and we won’t lose our soul. Much.
A king of infinite space
It’s the year 2077 and Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his wife, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), live in the pristine Tower 49 high above the sad, dry remnants of what was once New York City. Sixty years ago (or four years from now), an alien race, Scavengers, diminutivized to Scavs, destroyed our moon, which caused massive environmental chaos on Earth; then they attacked us. Smart plan. But we beat them back. We used our nukes and beat them. “We won the war but lost the planet,” Jack tells us in voiceover. He’s still pissed off about it; he thinks it unfair. Most of humanity now lives on Tet, a gleaming tetrahedral space station orbiting Jupiter, I believe, while Jack and Victoria stick around to mop up the remaining Scavs. But in two weeks, they, too, go to Tet. Victoria’s excited. Jack?
Jack has bad dreams. Scratch that. He has good dreams that imply reality is out of joint. He dreams of a beautiful woman, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), and the black-and-white tones of the pre-war years—a time before he was born. He dreams of being with Julia atop the Empire State Building, looking through the viewfinders. They’re young and in love and the world is whole. Then he wakes with a start to find himself in the post-war world living with Victoria, who is British, clipped, and so pristine herself she seems like CGI. They have sex in the pool. The pristine piscine.
Jack has a secret life. While Victoria remains atop Tower 49, he pilots a kind of whirligig spaceship—a future ride at Universal Studios if the movie had done better—to mop up the Scavs, but he doesn’t want to leave Earth. He relives old Super Bowl games, picks up old books. He keeps bringing books and other paraphernalia to a lakeside cabin, where he puts on a Yankees cap, a flannel shirt, and listens to Zeppelin, bro, and broods.
This cabin abuts the radiation zone and is out of range of both Victoria and their boss, Sally (Melissa Leo), who gives them orders from Tet in a scary-smooth honeysuckle Southern accent. “How are y’all doing this morning?” she says. “Are you an effective team?” she asks. Say what I will about the movie, and I will, Leo’s fantastic. I kept flashing back to “Three Days of the Condor,” and the soulless responses of the Major, a wheelchair-bound operative who is supposed to help the hero but doesn’t; who is probably on the other side.
How to find yourself in the desert
Then a beacon atop what’s left of the Empire State Building brings down a pre-invasion spacecraft with five humans in suspended animation aboard. A drone, a flying globe with R2D2 sound effects, kills four of them, even though it’s only supposed to kill Scavs. The fifth human turns out to be Julia. Jack risks his life to save her.
Once Julia awakes in Tower 49, she views both Jack and Victoria with wide-eyed (and full-lipped) suspicion, then asks that they retrieve the flight recorder at the crash site. But she and Jack are captured, not by Scavs, but by remnants of humanity, dressed in Sandpeople-ish outfits, and led by the cigar-smoking Beech (Morgan Freeman) and the dashing Sykes (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of “Game of Thrones”). Beech, intrigued by Jack, tells him three things:
- We didn’t win the war, we lost it.
- Tet is housed, not by us, but by an alien intelligence.
- Jack will find the truth about himself in the radiation zone.
What truth? Later, bro. We need third act reveals, after all.
Of course, let loose, Jack doesn’t go to the radiation zone. He goes to what remains of the Empire State Building, where Julia tells him, yes, they’ve been there before. In the pre-war years. This is where he proposed to her. She’s his wife. They embrace. But Victoria sees this, via the ship’s monitors, and she tells Sally they are no longer an effective team, and Sally sends drones to kill them all. Victoria dies, Jack and Julia escape, but in a damaged ship that crashes in the radiation zone. And what does Jack find there? Radiation maybe? Nope. He discovers ... himself. Literally. He comes upon another version of himself, whom fights and defeats.
Eventually, via Beech, he learns the whole truth. The aliens attacked Earth, not with Scavs, who never existed, but with clones of Jack and Victoria, astronauts from 2017, who destroyed the rest of humanity and have been involved in mopping up operations ever since. Jack, in other words, thinks he’s the hero but he’s the villain. We think he’s the hero but he’s the villain. This is a rather remarkable plot point for a modern Hollywood movie. Writer-director Joseph Kosinski (“TRON: Legacy”) supposedly wanted to make a sci-fi movie in the 1970s vein, and this is an element of it—that Vietnam War era “we know not what we do” malaise—but Kosinski doesn’t stress it enough. He covers it up. He keeps going back to the post-“Star Wars” roller-coaster ride, without which no big-budget movie is produced anymore.
Jack, in other words, or this particular clone of Jack, has to redeem himself, and Beech has a plan: reprogram a drone to deliver a nuke and blow up Tet from within. And after a final battle with drones, Jack does this: He flies to Tet, with a wounded Beech along for the ride, quotes poetry for poignancy and a final “fuck you” for the yahoos in the audience, and presses the trigger. And nothing happens. Well, something happens, an explosion, but the alien technology is much more advanced than we realized, and the damage from the nuke is contained, and the rest of humanity is mopped up by more drones and Jack clones. The End.
Kidding! No, they totally blow the thing up—BOOOOOOM!—and from our planet it looks like beautiful fireworks, and the Ewoks dance. No, the humans celebrate, including Julia, now living at the lakeside cabin.
At this point I was thinking, “Well, at least the hero died. That’s a bit of the 1970s. That’s something in this age of the happily-ever-after Hollywood ending.”
Except: Several years later, in a postscript, Julia and her young daughter (from Jack, obviously) are farming and subsisting by the lakeside when they are visited by a gang of marauding rapists. Kidding! No, they are stumbled upon by the remnants of Beech’s crew, now led by Sykes, who takes Julia as his fifth wife in order (he says) to better propagate the species. Again, with the kidding. No, Beech’s crew shows up, yes, led by Sykes, yes, but with that other clone of Jack, 52 as opposed to 49; and amid voiceover talk of souls being made up of the love we share, unbound by time and death, it’s implied that this clone, as opposed to dozens of others scattered around the planet, this particular clone and Julia live happily ever after.
And there’s your Hollywood ending.
1970s homage, my ass.
An effective team
So what does this futuristic movie say about us in the here and now? Don’t fuck with the moon? Don’t think yourself the hero? The life you save may be your clone?
That’s the biggest problem with “Oblivion.” It tells us nothing about our own time. It resonates not a whit. It has some clever bits, and some nice art direction, and a feint toward more poignant 1970s fare, but mostly it just fills in the modern Hollywood blanks. It feigns preference of the rustic (the lakeside cabin) over the sterile (Tower 49), but is itself as sterile as that tower. Kosinski and Cruise, and screenwriters Michael Arndt (“Toy Story 3”) and Karl Gajdusek (“Trespass”), make an effective team. They mop up well.
Movie Review: Blue Jasmine (2013)
We should enjoy it, shouldn’t we, this tale of one of the 1%, a rich, useless woman, the wife of a Ponzi schemer, who, after her husband is caught and jailed and commits suicide, is forced, horribly, to live like us, and with us, in a small, tacky apartment above the New Central Cafe in San Francisco. She’s forced to do more than shop with friends, and lounge by the pool, and go to yoga and pilates classes. She’s forced to look for a job and a purpose. So we should enjoy her discomfort. We should say: Welcome to the party, pal.
Instead, it’s brutal. It’s painful. I kept shielding my eyes from the screen.
It’s brutal in two ways. First, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is still an awful person. She says the worst, most obtuse things to her sister. She doesn’t fit in, she doesn’t want to fit in, but she has no other choice. She can’t help but be herself but she can no longer afford to be herself. So where does she go? What does she do?
She retreats into the past. She stares into space. She goes slightly crazy. That’s the second way the film is brutal: documenting, in a stunning performance, in a raw, Oscar-worthy performance, a woman’s descent into mental illness.
So we keep bouncing back and forth between these thoughts, these emotions. We think: My god, what an awful person. Oh, but what a shame that that’s happening to her. But my god, is she awful!
Everything you always wanted to know about sexual harassment*
It begins with an airplane, high in the clouds, coming toward us, and a voice saying, “There was no one like Hal.” That’s Jasmine talking to her seatmate, an older woman, who in their short time together hardly gets in a word. Jasmine keeps babbling about herself, and her life, and her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), now deceased, as if there was something positive about it; as if Hal hadn’t ruined her life.
She’s moving, with her Louis Vuitton bags, from New York to San Francisco, and into her sister’s small, cramped apartment, but we keep getting flashbacks to her other life since she keeps flashing back to her other life. She wants to live there. Even though she’s awful there.
One flashback, for example, involves a week-long trip her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), and Ginger’s then-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), took to New York City a few years earlier. Jasmine’s reaction at the time? “I guess I have to see them,” she tells Hal. Ginger and Augie are both working class, and salt of the earth, but Jasmine can’t make the time or the space. The visitors stay at a Marriott rather than with Hal and Jasmine. Hal loans them his car and driver, so that’s something, I suppose. While that’s happening, Ginger, perhaps too coincidentally, sees Hal kiss a stunning woman on Park Avenue, and later, at a party, inadvertently plants the seed that ends it all. She doesn’t tell Jasmine outright; instead she asks: Who is that woman with Hal? I don’t like the way she’s hanging around him. But Jasmine refuses to open her eyes to what everyone else sees.
This continues in San Francisco. She needs to get a job. She needs to get a life. But she can’t imagine doing what Ginger does, cashiering/clerking at a local grocery store (which, FYI Woody, wouldn’t pay enough to raise two kids in San Francisco). So she talks up going back to college. To study anthropology. But to do what exactly?
At least she’s got her high-toned looks, her high-toned clothes. Ginger, ever helpful, suggests maybe design? Interior decorator? She loves the idea! Except doesn’t she need a license? But couldn’t she get one online? But wouldn’t she need to use a computer for that? She doesn’t know how to use a computer. Meaning: she’s never used a computer. So she signs up for a class—this is the hardware, this is the software—while working as a receptionist in the office of a mutual friend, Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg).
Jasmine, computer illiterate, has obviously missed out on a lot. Has Woody? We’re in San Francisco now, but between Ginger’s ex (Dice Clay), Ginger’s current boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), and Chili’s friend, Eddie (Max Casella), we might as well be in New York or New Jersey. Who feels San Franciscan in San Francisco? Worse, Dr. Flicker becomes romantically (or at least sexually) interested in his new receptionist. He takes her out for drinks. One night at work he makes a pass. Is it played for laughs or is it simply played? No one involved—Flicker, Jasmine, Woody—seems to realize the magnitude of the moment. It could be a comedy scene out of “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*” except it’s horrible. Jasmine cries, “This is so ... embarrassing!” but doesn’t seem to realize this is her ticket out. It’s blatant sexual harassment. She could take him for everything. Shouldn’t Dr. Flicker realize this as well? In 2013?
At times, in “Blue Jasmine,” it almost feels like director and actor are at odds. Woody seems to find amusing moments that Blanchett finds tragic. In this battle, if it is in fact a battle, Blanchett wins. Hands down. I can’t recall a better performance of someone slowly losing their mind. Travis Bickle is a piker in comparison.
Crimes and Misdemeanors
From one of her Computer Use 101 classmates, Jasmine accepts an invitation to a Sunday afternoon party (another oddity), meets a diplomat there, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), and pretends to be what she failed to become: an interior decorator. Hey, he just bought a place that needs work! So they go there. She pretends to be the widow of a doctor who had a heart attack. He, of course, is interested in more than her design. He proposes they go to Vienna together. Eventually he proposes.
Meanwhile, she’s convinced Ginger that Chili is no good for her so Ginger has started an affair with Al (Louis C.K.), a sound man, who, rather than meeting her one day, reveals by phone that, oh, didn’t I tell you? I’m married.
At this point I was thinking, “OK, so Jasmine is going to get out of it.” The movie will be the fall and rise of an awful person, who is restored to something like her previous status even as she brings her sister, who was helping her survive, low.
Nope. At the 11th hour, she’s revealed, to Dwight, to be a liar, while Chili shows his worth by taking Ginger back. The final scene is like the first scene—Jasmine talking about Hal—but this time she’s on a park bench, sans make-up, her hair straggly and wet from a shower, and no seatmate. She’s no longer talking about herself with someone simply there. Now she’s just talking to herself. The camera closes in and then the movie fades to black and everyone in the theater exhales.
Questions. The big third-act reveal is that Jasmine caused her own downfall. Hal was seeing another woman, their French au pair, but seriously this time. He loved her, he said. So Jasmine finked on him. She called the FBI about his investments, etc. (The scene where he’s arrested is great, by the way, as he goes from this monumental sense of entitlement to something approaching vulnerability.) But this reveal doesn’t have much bite, does it? I mean, wouldn’t he have been discovered anyway? Eventually? Like Bernie Madoff? Yet Jasmine gets the blame. She gets the blame even from Hal’s son (from a previous marriage), who is now working at a guitar store in Oakland—another nice coincidence. She shows up, and the former spoiled kid from the flashbacks seems content and well-adjusted and accepting his lot in life. Yet he still blames her for finking rather than blaming his father for creating the false world in the first place. Something wrong about this.
We get great performances throughout. Hawkins and Cannavale are so natural, so perfect, I could’ve happily watched an entire movie about them. Dice Clay has gotten good notices but I particularly like how Louis C.K., in a small supporting role, doesn’t adopt Woody’s rhythms, as many actors in Woody Allen’s movies do. His rhythms remain his own.
But Blanchett? Holy god. She’s acting the raw, three-dimensional pain of the world against what feels like a one-dimensional backdrop.
Movie Review: The World's End (2013)
There’s always something wrong with the perfect village.
In “Shaun of the Dead” it’s infiltrated with zombies, in “Hot Fuzz” with murderers, and now in “The World’s End,” the third in the so-called Cornetto trilogy, genre-comedies created by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, it’s been taken over by aliens who replace the village residents, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”-style, with robots.
Each, by the way, is a commentary on some aspect of our sad society.
Zombies? They’re so much like us—who commute daily between soul-destroying jobs and mind-numbing drink and TV at home—that they’re not even noticed at first. The murderers? They take out anyone who threatens their “Village of the Year” title. They do bad merely to appear good. And now? The robots? It’s part of that odd, return-to-your-hometown vibe. Doesn’t everything seem the same and yet ... odd? Clean and quaint and blank and homogenized? That’s why. It’s not you, it’s them.
Each movie also happens to be very funny.
But does each buy too much into the genre? The first and third certainly begin as character studies (young slacker tries to get life together; middle-aged man attempts to relive school-age glories), then become action films. They begin slightly British and end very Hollywood.
I’m free/ To do what I want
Gary King (Pegg) is the self-proclaimed leader of a group of mates who graduated in 1990 with an attempt at the “golden mile” pub crawl and came up three pubs short. Now it’s 23 years later, he has nothing going for him, and he wants a re-do. Where does he realize this? At a 12-step meeting. One assumes (rightly, it turns out) at an AA meeting.
But his friends have moved on and grown up. Peter (Eddie Marsan) sells cars at his father’s dealership, Steve (Paddy Considine) runs a construction company, Oliver (Martin Freeman) is a real estate broker, and Andy (Nick Frost), the old hard-drinking rugby player, has a corporate job and hasn’t had a drink in 16 years. None are too happy to see him. All agree, nonetheless, to take the train to Newtown Haven on Friday at 4:00, where Gary will pick them up. He does—an hour late. He’s driving the same 1989 car, “the Beast,” and wearing the same types of clothes—hipster 1990 clothes: the long trenchcoat, etc. Basically a cooler, darker version of my college wardrobe.
On the drive to the village center he starts playing the 1990 hit “I’m Free” by the Soup Dragons, and Steve’s interest is perked. “I put this on a tape for you,” he says, slowly remembering. Gary’s response is enthusiastic. “Yeah, this is it!” he says. At first, Steve is confused, then dumbfounded, that they’re actually listening to that same tape, and that Gary didn’t have to dig it out; it’s been in his car the whole time. All of the various iterations of technology—CD to MP3—have passed him by. Considine’s doubletake, backed by Pegg’s obtuse enthusiasm, made me laugh out loud, but this back-and-forth is also relevant to the story. More later.
So they begin the crawl, catch up, draw closer, even as Gary, the instigator, remains the outsider. He’s a bit like David Brent, isn’t he? Thick and self-important and sad. Oliver’s sister, Sam (Rosamund Pike), shows up, a one-time source of rivalry between Steve and Gary since they saw her wearing fishnet stockings in their school production of “Cabaret,” and Gary greets her, “Cabaret”-like, with “Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome.” A minute later, she slaps him and hangs an OUT OF ORDER sign around his neck. At another pub he’s reduced to defending his sad life to his mates. “You’re all slaves and I’m free!” he says, echoing, unintentionally, the Soup Dragons.
The evening is dying on the vine for him and he tries to show off in the men’s room to a kid there, part of a gang who remind him of them back in the day; but the kid doesn’t respond to his sad bragging. A fight breaks out and the kid’s head is crushed against a urinal and ... pops off. He bleeds blue ink. He’s a robot. So is most of the town. The homogenization of the pubs in the crawl? That’s why. That bad piece of public art? It’s a sentinel. The crazy man who drinks with a crazy straw? He’s the one who knows.
The robots are easy to kill but quick to reboot, and our heroes’ numbers begin to dwindle. First they get Oliver, then Peter. Gary insists on continuing the crawl so as not to alert them, then because he has nothing going with his life. In the end, at the final pub, The World's End, the alien intelligence—a beam of light with the voice of Bill Nighy—greets them and tells all. Replacing humans with robots is being done less for nefarious purposes than to provide harmony to the universe. Earth? It’s the least-civilized planet. It’s full of fuck-ups involved in the same cycles of self-destruction. Like Gary. So a few robots replace a few humans to keep things running efficiently. Except—and Gary points this out—we’re such fuck-ups, we’re so uncivilized, that the aliens have had to replace almost the entire town. He defends the species, after a fashion:
Gary (to alien): To err is ...
Steve (to Gary): ... human.
Gary: To err is human, so ... (defiant shrug)
He tells them where to go:
Why don’t you get back in your rocket and fuck off back to Lego Land, you fucking cunt!
What I like? It works. The aliens give up without a fight. Nighy sighs, says, “Fuck it, it’s pointless arguing with you,” and the aliens leave, reducing much of our technology in the process. Because, right, all the tech, how interconnected the world has become, from satellites to the internet to MP3s, that was the aliens’ doing. They leave, it falls, and we descend into a post-apocalyptic world, with Gary a kind of Mad Max figure picking fights in pubs with, as his mates, former robots, now called blanks.
What I don’t like? It’s kind of the redemption of Gary, isn’t it? And I never liked Gary.
I like the other guys. I like them getting together again, the rekindling of something, the warmth of old friendship. These are good actors, funny and smart. I like the self-sacrifice of thankless jobs (them) rather than self-aggrandizement and chest-thumping through an empty pop-culture filter (Gary).
I like the Britishness of their friendship. They discuss etymology and Alexander Dumas. You don’t get that much in American movies. They discuss Shakespeare. They have an old phrase, “Let’s boo-boo,” for when it’s time to go, and they recall its derivation. It began when they studied “A Winter’s Tale” and laughed over the stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Then it became something about exiting with Yogi Bear; then it became “Let’s boo-boo.” That’s nice. It’s almost a throwaway, but it’s there and it recalls a history. And it’s smart.
But the movie suggests that the true savior of the world isn’t the self-sacrifice of men in thankless jobs—in fact, they contribute to the problem—but self-aggrandizing fuck-ups like Gary. It dismisses what’s British and holds up what’s American. As an American—not even an Anglophile, more of a Francophile—I object. Or maybe I just object as someone in a thankless job.
Movie Review: To the Wonder (2013)
Is it that’s it’s love? Is that the problem? It’s not taking a hill in war, it’s not taking over a new world, it’s not coming of age. It’s love. Blah blah love.
Is there anything more boring than two people in love? Who are so into each other that the rest of the world, including you and me, fall away? Cease to matter? I mean, dramatically speaking, the point of the love story is to keep the lovers apart for as long as possible. Because when they’re together? Ick.
Terrence Malick doesn’t do this. He begins “To the Wonder” with the lovers together, and in love, and in fucking Paris for fuck’s sake. He begins at the top of the heap. He begins with them heading out to Mont Saint Michel in Normandy off the coast of France. It’s a beautifully constructed island and that’s what they are.
These are the first words we hear, in French, from the unnamed Russian/Parisian Marina (Olga Kurylenko), who is in love with the unnamed American Neil (Ben Affleck):
I open my eyes
Into the eternal light
I fall into the flame
We get shots of her skipping, and running from the camera, and twirling away from the camera. There’s a constant lightness. Light kisses. Light touches. Trees dappled by sunlight. Then more fucking twirling.
I in you
You in me
I’m already bored with it. It feels like bad e.e. cummings to me.
I get it. Malick is interested in transitions, in new worlds. So to go along with the transition between life and death, between Europe and America, between youth and adulthood, he gives us the transition between being in love and seeing the world anew (in Europe), and then falling out of love and back to Earth (in Texas or Oklahoma).
But it doesn’t resonate. Because it’s love or because it’s latter-day Malick? Latter-day Malick seems to have given up on dialogue, on specificity of story. By denying specifics, is he trying to create universality? By denying dialogue, is he saying to the only true life is the inner life?
I mean, what is the problem for Marina and Neil? What is the story?
They meet in Paris, fall in love, move to America with her middle-school aged daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). At first, Tatiana loves it all. She’s like her mother. They dance through the grocery aisles. “Everything is beautiful here,” she says in the grocery store. “Look how clean it is!” CUT TO: Neil, a kind of environmental engineer, measuring levels of toxicity in the soil. There’s lead; there’s cadmium. People are getting sick and dying. That’s the secret of America: It looks clean but it’s not.
Then Tatiana goes to school. She doesn’t like it. She’s a cute French girl with a cute French accent but she doesn’t fit in. We see girls talking, doing cartwheels, and then Tatiana is complaining she has no friends. “We need to leave,” she tells her mother. “Both of us. There’s something missing.” Can she not do cartwheels? Is that the problem?
And what of Neil? Let’s talk of Neil. Who the fuck is Neil? Neil is basically Malick, since this story is based upon Malick’s 1980s romance with Michèle Morette, but he gives himself short shrift here. We get all the thoughts twirling through Marina’s little head but little of what Neil is thinking or feeling. She’s light, he’s heavy. She’s a ballerina, he’s a bear. She represents the evanescence of love, he represents—whether Malick intended it or not—something more stolid.
That’s the thing. The movie is about the inability to hold onto this feeling, this love, whether it’s the love between a man and a woman or between a man and God. Here’s what Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who is losing his faith, tells his parish:
There is love that is like a stream that can go dry when rain no longer feeds it. But there is a love that is like a spring coming up from the earth. The first is human love, the second is divine love and has its source above.
That’s what we strive for: the love that is like a spring coming up from the earth: constant.
Neil actually kind of embodies this. Doesn’t he? At the least, he never seems too deeply in love and thus never seems to fall too deeply out of love. It’s Marina who goes from twirling through all the delights of the world to trashing the house.
Neil has a different problem, also articulated by Father Quintana, who tells his parish the following. It’s the most meaningful part of the movie for me since I felt myself in the words:
To choose is to commit yourself. And to commit yourself is to run the risk of failure, the risk of sin, the risk of betrayal. But Jesus can deal with all of those. Forgiveness he never denies us. The man who makes a mistake can repent. But the man who hesitates, who does nothing, who buries his talent in the earth, with him he can do nothing.
That’s beautiful. That’s enlightening. And it’s Neil. He’s the one who hesitates. Marina’s visa is about to expire, he needs to marry her, but he hesitates and she returns to France.
You know what? I was kind of relieved. I thought, “OK, maybe now we’ll get a story.” No such luck. Neil falls into it with Jane (Rachel McAdams), an old high school flame, who has a ranch but lost a daughter, and they do the love thing for 15 minutes (voiceovers, magic-hour light, fields of wheat), before Marina contacts Neil again and returns. And there goes Jane. What was the point of her?
Now Neil and Marina get married in a courthouse. Now Neil and Marina get married in a church. With Father Quintana? No. His story is still separate, an echo of theirs. The lovers move into a new ranch house. They try to rekindle the wonder. Does it work? Will they get some furniture? It doesn’t work. They don’t get furniture.
She has a beautiful, loud Italian friend (Romina Mondello), who teaches her to be crazy and loud. She meets a carpenter, an echo of Neil, with whom she has an affair at an EconoLodge. The story is unspecific but the places are very specific. Malick does that well. He does America well—like Nabokov in “Lolita.” Flat lands and big sky and loud marching bands and the screech of roller coasters.
Don’t get me wrong. The film is shot beautifully. It’s gorgeous and deep. But the story in the foreground is gorgeous and shallow.
So their love dries up. It’s a stream that goes dry. Earlier Father Quintana says this:
You fear your love has died; perhaps it is waiting to be transformed into something higher. Awaken the divine presence which sleeps in each man, each woman. Know each other in that love that never changes.
That’s what these characters are striving for: the thing that never changes. But of course it keeps changing. Where did they think they were? Where does Malick think he is? How old is he anyway?
This is what Father Quintana says of God:
Everywhere You are present and still I cannot see You.
That’s how I felt about “To the Wonder.” Malick was present in every frame but I could never see his point.
Movie Review: Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013)
Talk about writing history with lightning.
Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) joins the White House staff as a butler in 1957 just in time to watch Ike (Robin Williams) paint and federalize the National Guard in Little Rock. Then “that slick white boy” JFK (James Marsden) shows up with his bad back, cute daughter, hot wife (Minka Kelly), and makes his great civil rights speech during Birmingham, but of course, bam! bam! he’s assassinated, and that leaves LBJ (Liev Schrieber) to dictate civil rights from the toilet and push for the Voting Rights Act and say in a televised speech “We shall overcome.” But of course Vietnam comes along, MLK is assassinated, and Nixon (John Cusack), newly installed in the White House, plots against the Black Panthers, then sits sweating out his last days in office. Ford and Carter come and go, playing themselves in newsreel footage, before Reagan (Alan Rickman), in 1986, insists he will veto any sanctions against South Africa.
Meanwhile, all this time, Cecil’s son, Louis (David Oyelowo), against his father’s wishes, attends Fisk, where he gets involved in the Nashville sit-ins, becomes a Freedom Rider in the Deep South, is hosed down and attacked by Bull Connor’s dogs in Birmingham, then gets beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He’s in Martin Luther King’s motel room in Memphis when Dr. King is assassinated, so of course he becomes a Black Panther, sitting around the dining table in a black beret and dissing his father and Sidney Poitier with his long-time girlfriend, Carol (Yaya Alafia), now sporting a scowl and a huge Angela Davis afro. But he leaves the Panthers, gets a Masters in political science, runs for Congress, and in 1986 leads an anti-Apartheid rally at the White House, where his father, finally retiring, finally joins him in protest.
Meanwhile, all this time, his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) ... Well, she’s not really involved in history the way they are. She’s got her own subplots. She’s proud of Cecil, then bored because he’s never home, then fools around with the local ne’er-do-well (Terrence Howard) and becomes an alcoholic. She’s jealous of Jackie Kennedy for some reason. But she shapes up, mourns the death of her youngest son, Charlie (Elijah Kelly), who inexplicably leaves college to go to Vietnam, then dies of old age right before Obama is elected.
Then Obama is elected.
The most untrue thing
I’m sorry. I knew going in that “The Butler” would be, in Woodrow Wilson’s phrase, like writing history with lightning. The years would tumble, and our main characters would bump up against historic events. I just didn’t know how much. Wilson’s quote referred to “The Birth of a Nation,” and he supposedly added, “My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Of course it wasn’t. And neither is this.
The most untrue thing? The tagline. It reads: “One quiet voice can ignite a revolution.” Whose quiet voice? Not Rosa Parks. Not Dr. King. It’s the butler. It’s Cecil Gaines.
According to the movie, at opportune moments, the various POTUSes ask him about him and his, and what he thinks about this and that, and sometime he says, and it leads them into doing the right thing about race matters. All those boycotts and sit-ins and jail-ins and protests and marches? Dr. King and the SCLC and SNCC and CORE might as well have stayed home.
OK, so it’s not that bad. In fact, at one point, the Nashville sit-ins are juxtaposed with a state dinner at the White House, and I was thinking, “Everything thinks history is being made at the White House. But that’s a nondescript state dinner that’s long forgotten. History is actually being made at that Woolworth’s counter in Nashville.”
But that sense—that history isn’t always made in the halls of power—is forgotten amid Gloria’s infidelities and her inexplicable jealousy over Jackie. Not to mention hanging out in the halls of power. You know what else is forgotten? The March on Washington. Plus the SCLC and SNCC and CORE.
Who do we blame? Is the medium just wrong? Does it try to do too much in two hours? Does it tack on Oprah’s unnecessary subplots and does the son’s Forrest Gump-like tendency to be at every major civil rights moment stretch credulity? I helped write a piece a few years back about a top Georgia attorney, Richard H. Sinkfield, who was in Montgomery during the bus boycotts, helped with the Nashville sit-ins, and was in Memphis when Dr. King was assassinated, but even he was given a breather now and again. No Freedom Rides, Birmingham, Selma, Malcolm X rallies. Right, Louis and Carol also attend a Malcolm X rally in 1965. Forgot to mention that. Thank God it’s not the one where he gets assassinated.
Director Lee Daniels (“Precious”) and screenwriter Danny Strong (HBO’s “Recount” and “Game Change”) move the history parade along at an easy clip, and though they foreground Cecil he still gets lost in it all. He’s supposed to be unknowable but he’s unknowable to us, too. Does he have a thing for the Kennedys? For Caroline? A “Bluest Eye”-type thing. Was the article upon which the movie was based, Wil Haygood’ “A Butler Well Served By This Election,” too schmaltzy? Does the movie spend too much time defending that which doesn’t need defending? Cecil’s lifelong service?
Does it not juxtapose well enough the father’s service to the family versus the son’s service to the cause? Should the first son have been the SNCC student while the second son became the Black Panther? Wouldn’t that have been more logical?
I know. People tried. I know. “The Butler” was hard to get it made in the first place.
Right-wingers, I’m sure, will squawk about “The Butler,” if they haven’t already, since it paints the Dems in a more-or-less positive light, but less so Nixon and Reagan. It also casts, as Ron and Nancy, a homosexual actor (Rickman) and Hanoi Jane (Fonda). Ha! And it ends on the very positive note of Obama’s election. I teared up a bit then. It got me then. I admit it.
But conservatives shouldn’t squawk. The hero, and the movie’s ethos, is ultimately conservative: Do your job, listen to your parents, don’t belch at the dining table, and maybe you too can influence history. It’s a movie for Bill Cosby.
“Domestics play a very big role in our history,” Martin Luther King (Nelsan Ellis) says to Louis in that Memphis hotel room. “In many ways they are subversive without ever knowing it.”
I wish I could say the same of “The Butler.”
Movie Review: Pacific Rim (2013)
What is it? What’s the movie?
Well, it’s a sci-fi action-adventure movie. Specifically it’s giant robots battling giant monsters. If I were pitching it to a Hollywood studio, I’d say it’s Transformers vs. Godzillas.
But what else is it?
Right. Since the battles between giant robots and giant monsters only take up a portion of the movie’s 131 minutes, things have to take place between the scenes in which giant robots battle giant monsters. And what fills these gaps is a soap opera involving stock characters and bits cadged from other movies: the headstrong younger brother whose older, better brother is killed in action, a la “Battleship”; the rivalry with the cocky fellow pilot that ultimately leads to respect, a la “Top Gun”; the Asian girl with a tragic past and fierce martial arts skills, a la every comic book fantasy ever; the tough-as-nails commander leading his team; the bureaucratic, governmental indifference; the impossible odds. But wait! The inspiring speech! The fierce final battle! The sacrifice! The final bit of information rushed in by the comic-relief scientists! The explosion! The hushed breath. Does our hero survive? Wait for it ... Wait for it ...
Yeah, you don’t have to wait.
What I liked (about 10 minutes)
“Pacific Rim” is an awful, derivative joke of a movie but first let me say what I liked about it.
I liked the opening, which, in 2-3 minutes, narrates how the creatures, called kaiju, first appeared in San Francisco and killed tens of thousands, then in the Philippines, then Cabo, back and forth like that across the world, until we created these giant robots, called jaegers, with two people inside them, a kind of left brain/right brain thing, to defeat them. And the men and women who ran the jaegers became heroes. They became pop cultural flotsam. They wound up on talk shows. The rest of us got cocky. We developed kaiju toys and made jokes about them, but then, off the coast of Alaska, they came back stronger than ever and laid waste to the jaeger program. And we began to build walls to keep them out. Even though we would never keep them out.
I liked the further backstory: how the kaiju, who emerged from a kind of extra-dimensional rift under the Pacific Ocean, had actually come here before. Dinosaurs, yo. But the environment wasn’t suitable for them and so they went away. But we, being us, inadvertently heated up on our planet and terra-formed it for them. That’s your global warming message for the summer, kids. Not that it’ll get through.
I also liked the scene where Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), the headstrong younger brother of the deceased soldier-hero, can’t understand why the headstrong commander, Stacker Pentecost (yes, that’s his name, and he’s played by Idris Elba), won’t let the beautiful Japanese girl with the tragic past, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), operate a jaeger with him. So, being headstrong, he grabs his superior officer’s shoulder before he can get away. Pentecost stops. He shoots him a look. This is Idris Elba, after all. And Pentecost tells him this:
Two things. One, don’t you ever touch me again. And two, don’t you ever touch me again.
It’s Elba’s best moment in the movie.
What I didn’t like (and the rest)
I mean, what’s with his accent here? Elba’s British, and he’s doing British, but it’s worse than his American accent in “The Wire.” That’s pretty sad.
How sad of a bad imitation is “Pacific Rim”? When the two pilots of a jaeger are strapped into the jaeger, they communicate with one another via something they call “the drift.” As in: “The drift is strong today.” As in this line from the father-figure commander, to Mori, just before he dies: “You can always find me ... in the drift.” So it’s like the Force except, you know, meaningless.
When did scientists become comic relief in these types of movies? “Battleship” had one. Here we get two: the loud, vaguely Jewish one who tries to communicate with the kaiju via the drift (Charlie Day), and the Dickensian British one, who walks with a cane and is compiling data as to the timing of the attacks (Burn Gorman, Guppy of BBC’s 2005 “Bleak House”). These two are smart, but they bicker, and it’s funny because they’re funny-looking and they think they’re so smart but they just bicker all the time, ha, like eggheads do, man. Using words. But there’s a moment in Hong Kong when they figure out why our final plan of attack won’t work and they need to communicate this information as quickly as possible to Shutterdome, which is the name of the final jaeger station on Earth. Or is it Shudderdome? Or is it a pun on “Shut her down,” since that’s what the leaders of the world wanted to do with the jaeger program? Thank God Pentecost was there, right, to save us all from their cowardly bureaucratic incompetence.
Anyway. They have this info. It’s 2025. They’re scientists who have figured out a way to tap into the brain of a kaiju who just died. So how do they get this information to Shutterdome? Do they phone? Walkie-talkie? Use Morse code? No. They fly there in a helicopter, of course. Then they run to the command station. Then the loud, vaguely Jewish one grabs the microphone to talk to the jaegers who are battling the kaiju. This takes hours rather than seconds, but what’s the rush?
How about the nationalities of these jaegers? You have the Russian one and the Asian one and the Aussie one and the American one. The Asians and Russians go down first, because you know them. The American one is the last one standing. It delivers the final, crushing blow. Hooray for Hollywood.
How about the nationalities of the actors playing these stereotyped nationalities? We get a Brit and a Canadian (Hunnam and Diego Klattenhoff) playing the swaggering Americans, an American and a Brit (Max Martini and Robert Kazinski) playing the swaggering Aussies, a couple more Canucks playing the silent, glowering Russians. Why this shell game? Is it easier to stereotype others than your own? And why didn’t they just make Elba American, too? His American is so much better than his British.
One of the things that began to amuse me as the story continued in its horrifically predictable fashion? It’s a small thing but I couldn’t let it go. Hollywood is still using green teletype in the lower left-hand corner to tell us locations and times of the events onscreen. It’ll type out:
Then it leaves the cursor there blinking for a second. I mean, when did we first see this? In “War Games”? It’s a futuristic movie but this conceit is like something from a 1977 Apple computer.
See: “Writing American Fiction,” Philip Roth, 1961
Anyway. You knew this was going to be this going in. You hoped for better but writer Travis Beacham (“Clash of the Titans”), and writer-director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy”), delivered this.
If you like the idea of giant robots battling giant monsters, you might like “Pacific Rim.”
If you like soap operas about good-looking stock characters acting through the dilemmas seen in other features, you might like “Pacific Rim.”
Otherwise “Pacific Rim” is so derivative, so by-the-numbers, so absurd, it’s as if it’s satire. If we did satire anymore.
Movie Review: Elysium (2013)
Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Borke should sue.
Near the end of “Elysium,” Neill Blomkamp’s long-awaited follow-up to “District 9,” as our hero Max (Matt Damon) battles, struggles and crawls toward unifying our long disunited peoples living on both Earth (third world) and Elysium (first world), the music wells up operatically, with a Mid-East tinge, reminding me , almost exactly, of the music from Michael Mann’s “The Insider.” Specifically it reminded me of Gerrard and Borke’s “The Sacrifice,” which I’ve burned to many a CD over the years. Then it hit me: Of course. The sacrifice. Max won’t make it. And so he didn’t. In order to recreate the universe, Max had to leave it. And in order to leave the movie, the movie had to recreate the music of Gerrard and Borke.
I wasn’t among those long-awaiting this follow-up, by the way. Not much of a fan of Blomkamp’s earlier effort, which, remember, was nominated for best picture that year. In “District 9,” Blomkamp adhered too much to the metaphor. Aliens land and become just another despised minority on Earth? Please. A lot of the movie was original but its racial metaphor was too stark and stupid. It lacked imagination within the metaphor. It trapped us there.
With “Elysium,” Blomkamp shifts his metaphor from race to class. In the late 21st century, Earth becomes too populated and polluted, and so all the rich folks, like out of some Ayn Rand novel, leave the planet for the orbiting satellite of Elysium, where computers cure their diseases and keep them young, and swimming pools and palm trees dot every manicured backyard. It looks like Beverly Hills or Hollywood. Earth? Well, all of Earth looks like East L.A.
Born in East L.A.
We get a bit of backstory first. Apparently Max grew up in an orphanage with a girl, Frey, who grows up to be Alice Braga, a nurse, while Max grows up to be a thief. We meet him, though, as he’s trying to live the straight and narrow.
As his day begins, Hispanic gangsters give him shit for his dayjob, kids beg him for money, and robot cops don’t like his attitude, break his arm, and accuse him of violating parole. When he goes to the hospital, he hooks up with Frey even if they don’t hook up. (He’s interested, her life is complicated.) When he visits his parole officer, it’s a computer-simulation, who says, “Elevation in heart rate detected. Would you like a pill? Would you like to speak to a human?” I like that part. That made me laugh.
What I didn’t like? It’s 2154. That’s 141 years in the future. And what are the barrio boys like? Well, like today. They kinda dress the same, kinda talk the same, have the same kind of tattoos. Apparently gangster tattoos are still a thing in 141 years. Apparently so is line-work at a plant. Max works at Armadyne, lorded over by Elysium citizen John Carlyle (William Fichner—does he ever get to play a good guy?), helping to build the robots that police the Earth, but he could basically be in an auto plant in Detroit. At some point I backdated. So if this is 141 years in the future, what’s 141 years in the past? A hundred, forty, minus one, equals ... 1872. Seven years after the end of the Civil War. Right. A few changes since that period. A few rights recognized. Some things invented: the automobile, the airplane, the rocket ship, the computer, the Internet.
Something else bugged me about Blomkamp’s future. In the barrio of Los Angeles, which is where Max lives, people speak English and Spanish. And on Elysium, dotted by the pampered and supercilious, people speak English and French. I think Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is even supposed to be French. So what do the French have to do with the ultra-wealthy? Isn’t their current society more egalitarian than ours? Well, sure. But you know how it sounds. That French stuff. Like they’re above us. In essence, Blomkamp is relying on a cultural construct to reveal an economic one. It’s like his creative consultant is Karl Rove.
So: One day at the plant, Max, because of a headstrong foreman, receives a lethal dose of radiation poisoning. He’s given five days to live. A simulated doctor tells him, “Please sign this to receive medication. It will keep you functioning normally until you are dead.” Another good bit.
But Max doesn’t want to die. Didn’t the sisters at the orphanage tell him he would do great things? That he was special? Didn’t he always want to visit Elysium? And couldn’t they cure him on Elysium? Like that?
Getting to Elysium is tough, though. Spaceships entering that area are shot down. Only citizens—i.e., the rich, branded as such—are allowed in.
But Max has his underground contacts, particularly Spider (Brazil’s Wagner Moura), who hatches a scheme to exo-skeleton Max up, grab a citizen, and upload his memories into Max’s head. That’ll get him to Elysium or something. They choose John Carlyle. Hey, guess what! Secretary Delacourt has been in contact with Carlyle to reboot the entire Elysium system so that her bete noire, President Patel (Faran Tahir, the villain of “Iron Man”), will lose office. It’s a kind of hacktvisit coup d’état. And guess when Carlyle uploads the reboot program into his head for transport from Earth to Elysium? Right. At the exact moment Max and the other men strike. And so that information, the most important information in the world, goes into Max’s head.
Not that he realizes it. It’s scrambled, encrypted, but he’s chased through L.A. by one of Delacourt’s non-citizen henchmen, the fierce, awful South African Kruger (Sharlto Copley of “District 9”); and in the process he entangles Frey and her daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay), who, whoops, is in the last stages of leukemia, and eventually they all wind up heading to and crashlanding on Elysium.
There are other good moments if you can get past the monumental coincidence of the attack on Carlyle. I like how Delacourt, who orchestrated the whole thing, still blames the crashlanding on President Patel, because he didn’t take Elysium’s defenses seriously enough. But what’s Jodie doing here? She extra arch, her acting over the top. Is that her being French or her being 22nd century? Or her being her?
In the ensuing chaos on Elysium, Kruger kills Delacourt, and he and his men begin a kind of revolution, oddly, or at least they begin to fuck things up, because why not, while Max, who was always just looking out for himself, overpowers guards to look after Frey and Matilda. He makes sure that Matilda gets cured. He does this by killing Kruger’s two men and then battling Kruger himself on one of those futuristic walkways between buildings, with no guard rails, and a thousand-foot drop on either side. (See: “The Empire Strikes Back” and almost every science-fiction movie since.) This is when the “Sacrifice”-like music wells up, and Spider, who has made the trip to Elysium himself, rewrites the code, changing “illegal” to “legal,” a moment that caused outright laughter from the techie crowd at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle. And as Elysium is rebooted as a more egalitarian society, where robot doctors and beds are sent to Earth to cure the sick, and Matilda herself is cured, Max, finally a hero, recalls his childhood one more time, running with Frey in slow-motion at the orphanage, and then he’s gone.
Then what happens?
I’m curious what Blomkamp thought happened. I mean, to me, the movie ended at its most interesting part. I even wrote that in my notes: So what happens? And the answer is that the movie ends. The hero is dead, his heroic deed accomplished, and all people of Earth are now citizens of Elysium. Which means ... what? They all can’t live on Elysium. So what does it mean? How will we fuck it up again? I mean, won’t we? Inevitably?
The art direction of “Elysium” is good, the story is well-paced, and it takes chances with its hero—making him less than heroic until the end. At times, it’s clever. But it doesn’t enlighten. It sheds no light on their time or ours. Like “District 9,” it lacks imagination within its metaphor.
Movie Review: 2 Guns (2013)
We’ll forgive a lot for chemistry, won’t we? We’ll forgive absurd plots and too many explosions and maybe bad dialogue. Well, no, not that, bad dialogue is unforgivable, but that’s a moot point anyway because this movie has good some dialogue, and, more to the point, it has great chemistry between its leads, Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg. They have rapport, and zip, and zing, and one wonders if it’s in the actors, or in the script, written by Blake Masters from the graphic novel by Steven Grant, or does the director Baltasar Kormákur, late of Iceland and “The Deep,” help bring it out, too? Or some combination of all five? Or more? We on the outside can only guess. Maybe they on the inside, too.
Whatever the answer is, Wahlberg is one of Denzel’s better partners in years. I’d say white partners but that’s almost redundant. Hollywood keeps teaming him with the latest dude: Ryan Reynolds and Chris Pine and Russell Crowe and Ethan Hawke and keep on going back, back, back. It’s as if no one thinks that Denzel can carry a movie on his own.
Meanwhile, Wahlberg may have found his niche. I still think he’s a dull leading man and a dull action figure. He’s built an empire on these things, so what do I know, but when he plays the silent leading man he brings nothing to the role for me, no intelligence, no smoulder, no force of his face. “You have to hold something back for pressure,” Robert Frost once said of poetry, and it’s true for our best action heroes, too, you sense something, and sometimes a world, behind their silence, and Wahlberg doesn’t really have that. Any pressure at all dissolves in blank stares and his soft, nice guy voice. But here? Asked to talk a mile a minute? He’s in his element.
A 1970s aesthetic
There’s a very 1970s aesthetic to “2 Guns,” a kind of Stealer’s Wheel vibe: clowns to the left of us, jokers to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you.
Bobby (Denzel), an undercover DEA agent, and Stig (Mark Wahlberg), an undercover Navy Intelligence officer, are our two guys stuck in the middle with each other. The various clowns and jokers include corrupt DEA agents, corrupt Navy Intelligence, a Mexican drug lord and the CIA. It gives us a kind of snapshot as to where we are now, culturally and politically. Our heroes are still basically cops—we haven’t retreated into the antihero aesthetic yet—but they’re ronin cops since the system itself is corrupt. It’s apparently how we feel these days. Or enough of us feel this way that Hollywood is comfortable making a movie on it. Below us? The bad guys? Yeah, they’re bad. Above us? The government agencies policing the bad guys? You can’t trust them, either. So here we are, stuck in the middle with each other.
The fun begins almost immediately as Bobby and Stig arrive in a sleepy Texas bordertown, Bobby checks out the bank across the way, Tres Cruces (Three Crosses), and Stig slips into Maybelle’s Diner to order some breakfast. When they get together—by phone or in person—they disagree on everything: what to eat, what to tip, what Stig is doing winking at the waitress. Then they start a fire and blow up the joint. Why? “Have you ever heard the saying, ‘Never rob a bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties?’” Bobby says to Stig. Stig thinks he’s joking but the line is repeated later in the movie by another character, so it’s a thing, at least a thing in this movie, and that’s why our heroes remove the diner: so they can come back and rob the bank.
What’s the purpose of the bank robbery again? The plot is already convoluted. I think they’re trying to get at the money of Mexican drug lord Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos), who, they know, brings money to this bank daily. They think they’re going to get $3 million or so. Instead they get $43 million. Or as Earl (Bill Paxton), a rogue CIA agent keeps saying, “$43.125 million.” He ain’t letting go of that point-one-two-five. It almost has more meaning for him than the forty-three.
But it turns out Papi Greco doesn’t bank at Tres Cruces; the drug lord is simply making payments to the CIA. Elements at the DEA and Navy Intelligence, including Bobby’s ex, Deb (Paula Patton, still yowsah), and Stig’s superior Quince (James Marsden, still denied leading-man status), learn this, and that’s why Bobby and Stig are directed to rob the place. The DEA is supposed to stop the robbery but they never show. Afterwards, Stig is ordered to kill Bobby but simply wounds him and leaves him in the desert with a bottle of water. Everything comes undone.
When Wahlberg and Washington separate, things get dull—although Paxton is pure joy here. Later, things get convoluted and silly and unbelievable. Our guys torture Papi, then are tortured themselves by same, yet somehow survive and are sent on a mission for the $43 million and .... All the while, they never lose their glibness, their banter, even when hanging upside-down with a bull bearing down upon them. A Naval base is broken into, we get explosions, then more explosions, then the final Mexican standoff in ... where else? ... Mexico. Yawn.
A Tarantino aesthetic
Does the movie owe Quentin Tarantino a residual check? There’s a lot of him here. It has good dialogue, shoot-outs, Mexican standoffs. Not to mention arguing about the size of tips in diners before pulling a robbery. So maybe the movie has an early ‘90s aesthetic. Except Tarantino’s aesthetic was always ‘70s movies.
Here’s a sample of that dialogue I’ve been talking about. Bobby and Stig are awaiting their fate before Papi:
Stig: I told you I didn’t like [Pam], man.
Bobby: Shut up.
Stig: What are you getting mad at me for?
Bobby: Because you talk too much.
Stig: What did I ever do to you?
Bobby: Besides shoot me?
Stig: You – you know what you are? You’re a misanthorp.
Bobby: Misanthrope. I’m a misanthrope.
Stig: Did you know what I meant to say?
Bobby: No, what did you mean to say?
Stig: That you don’t like people.
Bobby: Shut up.
That crackles. Denzel and Wahlberg make it work. Watch it here.
There are other things to like. When they’ve captured Papi Greco and are about to waterboard him in Pam’s garage, the light, on a timer, keeps going out, and they have to wave their arms to get it going again. When Bobby is in the desert, he runs into some citizen border-patrol yahoos who demand to see his papers because they don’t want any Muslims entering the country. After he takes away their gun, he tells them, “As-salamu alaykum.” I like that. It’s an indication that there’s a non-corporate intelligence behind the movie.
Then we get lost in the absurd plot contrivances and corporate explosions. Too bad Hollywood doesn't realize that the best chemistry doesn’t lead to explosions. As-salamu alaykum.
Movie Review: 20 Feet from Stardom (2013)
Over the title credits of “20 Feet from Stardom,” a documentary by Morgan Neville about background singers, we hear Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” Why? Because the colored girls go: Da doo, da doo, da doo, doo da doo doo, da doo, da doo …
How do we describe background singers? What’s their connection to the lead singer? What’s the metaphor?
The most obvious metaphor, or at least the most proper, is the call-and-response of the church, particularly the black church. It’s the minister and his choir. He delivers the sermon and they say “Amen” and “Hallelujah.” He says “Hunhhh” and they say “Hunhhh.” He says “Ho” and they say “Ho.” He says “Hunhhh hunhhh, ho ho,” and they sing “Baby, it’s alright.” This is brought home in the doc by the number of background singers who actually came out of the church; the number who tell Neville, “My father was a minister.”
The other metaphor, equally obvious but less proper, is the pimp and his whores. They dress the way he says. They move the way he says. They follow his lead. “If you wanna be a Raelette,” it’s been said, “you gotta let Ray.”
Sex and talent
I grew up in the heyday of background singers in the early 1970s. Variety shows were big then. The call and response was big. Ray Charles had the Raelettes and Ike Turner the Ikettes and Gladys Knight had her Pips. (Neville, practicing his own brand of gender discrimination, doesn’t mention them. It’s all about the women.)
When did I first see them? On “Ed Sullivan”? “Flip Wilson”? They always looked like they were having more fun than the lead singer. He was often sweating, pained, bearing a burden, while in the background they smiled, slid, shimmied, and made gorgeous noise. They were sexy. Is this where ménage a trois fantasies begin? Ménage a quatre? I remember recently seeing the “Superstar” number from “Jesus Christ Superstar” again, and, yeah, Carl Douglas as Judas is great, but my main thought went something like, “Holy hell, who are those background singers?”
You can’t ignore the sex. “I didn’t set out to be the sex symbol,” says Claudia Lennear, who backed Joe Cocker and the Rolling Stones, and who may have been the inspiration for the Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” “But you posed for Playboy,” Neville responds. Lennear looks thoughtful for a moment, a response on her lips. then just collapses in abashed laughter.
You can’t ignore the talent, either. It’s stupefying. “20 Feet” isn’t really about the history of background singers, it’s about a chosen few who either tried for stardom and fell back or never really tried. “It’s a bit of a walk,” Bruce Springsteen tells Neville. “That walk to the front is … complicated.”
Why doesn’t it work for these women? Different reasons for different singers. Darlene Love got screwed over by Phil Spector, who kept her in the background for decades and put other girls’ names (“The Crystals”) on her recordings. Maybe Merry Clayton, who originally recorded “Gimme Shelter” with the Stones, didn’t make it because Aretha was already there, and maybe Claudia didn’t make it because Donna Summer was already there, and maybe Judith Hill isn’t making it because Beyoncé is already there. And because Hill dresses like she’s in a 1980s MTV video.
But Lisa Fischer? Who backed Luthor Vandross and Teddy Pendergrass and Chaka Khan in the 1980s, and who has toured with the Stones since 1989? What the hell? You’re often dumbfounded by the talent on display here, but for me there was one moment when the singing was so out there, so surreal, if felt like a wave crashing over my head. That was Fischer singing her Grammy-winning song, “How Can I Ease the Pain?” in Japan in 1992. (Video below; stick around to 3:30.) They were obviously trying to market her as another Whitney. Maybe that was the problem. Because Lisa Fischer not making it? That’s a condemnation of the entire culture. It’s like James Joyce getting rejected by publishers (which happened) and Fred Astaire being dismissed as a bald guy who can dance a little (which happened). But somehow Joyce and Astaire broke through. They got breaks. They had perseverance. Something. Whatever it was.
Love and Justice
That “whatever it was” discussion in “20 Feet” is pretty fascinating. Tata Vega heard she was too old, too fat, not right. Fischer talks about her inability to self-promote. “Who can I call to introduce me to such and such?” she says, then wrinkles her nose. “Something about that just feels strange to me.” People who succeed don’t think twice about making that call. We live in a sales culture, not a talent culture. It ain’t a meritocracy, kids.
But we do get some justice. By the mid-1980s, Darlene Love, who backed everyone from Buck Owens to James Brown, was cleaning homes rather than working for Phil Spector. But she returned to music, and about the time Spector was going to prison for murder she was being inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and singing on stage with Springsteen.
What don’t we get? A look at the history before television. We don’t get the ‘40s and ‘30s. We don’t get the Crickets or the Pips or any of the men. We don’t get enough of the ones who became stars. Sheryl Crow? Why her? And does anyone mention Margie Hendricks, the most famous Raelette, who sang foreground in “(Night Time Is) The Right Time,” and who died an early, drug-related death?
Even so, go. “20 Feet from Stardom” is a joy. Because the colored girls go: Doo da doo, da doo, da doo, doo da doo doo, da doo, da doo …
Movie Review: The Wolverine (2013)
The unsurprising thing about “The Wolverine” is that for much of the movie our title character (Hugh Jackman) loses his recuperative powers. It’s unsurprising because that’s the way of superhero sequels. See: “Superman II,” “Spider-Man 2,” “Ghost Rider 2,” and “Iron Man 3.”
The surprising thing about “The Wolverine” is that it’s not a stupid movie, a la “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and the two “Fantastic Four” movies, which are all Fox properties, and Fox is infamous for its loutish, lowest-common-denominator tendencies. See: “I don’t have to explain myself—least of all to you” and any minute of “Fox & Friends.”
Indeed, given the limits of the genre, and the baggage of the character, “The Wolverine” isn’t bad. It has quiet moments of power. It doesn’t rely quite so heavily on the roller-coaster ride. There’s a scene late in the movie when Logan/Wolverine is trying to save a girl (of course), and runs into a band of ninjas. By this point he has his recuperative powers back and initially delivers this hero-ready line: “Is that all the men you brought?” But more ninjas appear on the rooftops, members of the Black Clan, silent and slippery, and they shoot arrows trailing wire at Wolverine, including one dipped in poison, and bring him down. I suppose it’s a “How much can our hero withstand?” moment, a pieta almost, and the poison-tipped arrow recalls an earlier scene in the Yukon with a grizzly bear; but there’s a poignancy to it, as Logan goes down on his knees, struggling against all that’s attached to him and holding him back. It’s a ready metaphor. It’s how life feels sometimes. Really? Another arrow? Aren’t these others enough?
This is the movie that finally takes a step beyond Brett Ratner’s abysmal “X-Men: The Last Stand,” released seven years ago, which cut such a swath through the lucrative franchise—killing off Prof. X, Jean Gray and Cyclops, and taking away Magneto’s powers—that we’ve only had prequels since: “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in 2009, “X-Men: First Class” in 2011, and the oddly titled, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” for next year. No small task getting past all that Ratner screwed up.
Not that “The Wolverine” isn’t without problems.
It opens, as “Iron Man 3” did, with our superhero a king of infinite space were it not that he has bad dreams.
It’s August 1945 and Logan is a POW in a Japanese concentration camp in Nagasaki (one wonders how they captured him) when the U.S. drops the big one. Once the planes are sighted, the Japanese soldiers, renowned for their kindness, set about freeing their prisoners so they have a chance to survive. Seriously, they do that. I’m sure Fox was looking out for its lucrative Japanese box office, but for a corrective read “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. Or any history book. Or see this.
Another kind Japanese officer, Yashida (Ken Yamamura), releases Logan from his iron bunker, then joins other officers about to commit ritual hari-kari. But he’s distracted by the A-bomb blast (nice use of CGI), then saved by Logan, who is burned to a crisp and recovers before Yashida’s amazed eyes. At this point, Logan wakes with a start. He’s in bed with Jean Gray (Famke Jannsen), who died in Ratner’s movie. She’s alluring, he’s confused. Only when he gives in to the allure does he realize that this, too, is a nightmare, and he awakes with a start. Now he’s bearded and scraggly-haired and living in a cave in the Yukon wilderness with a grizzly bear as his only friend, and guilty feelings trailing after him like arrows shot in his back. He killed Jean, the woman he loved, to save the world—or something—so that’s why he’s become a hermit in the Yukon. The movie doesn’t really question this but I do. Dude’s nearly two centuries old and that’s his solution? Hiding? That’s as wise as he’s gotten?
Before we get too comfortable camping with Wolverine, he comes out of the wilderness to deal with a doofus hunter in town, where he is confronted by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a girl with a Valentine-shaped face and a lethal samurai sword, who handles the tavern face-off, then tells Logan to get in her car. He does. She tells him she’s a representative of Yashida, the Japanese officer he saved, who wants to repay him before he dies. To do this, Logan must go to Japan. He does. Some Wolverine. He’s docile here. He’s domesticated. He even gets a shave and a haircut when told.
So how does Yashida (now Hal Yamanouchi), who’s now a powerful CEO of Yashida, the Toshiba of this world, repay Logan, who saved his life so long ago? By offering to end Logan’s life. “You’re a soldier,” he tells him. “You seek what all soldiers do—an honorable death; an end to your pain.”
Does he ever consider this offer? Is it what he truly wants? We never find out. Because unfortunately he’s landed in the middle of a Japanese melodrama. Yashida favors his granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto, making her screen debut), over his CEO-wannabe son, Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), who has promised Mariko to Minister of Justice Noburo (Brian Tee) despite her love for the handsome ninja and archer, Harada (Will Yun Lee).
That night, Mariko tries to kill herself but Logan stops her. Then Yashida dies, which Yukio, who can foresee death, didn’t see coming. Then Logan stays for the funeral (why?), which is interrupted by Yakuza, who try to kidnap or kill Mariko, but Logan again saves her and the two go on the run—she reluctantly, seeming to not want his help, he with bullet wounds in his stomach that don’t heal. His recuperative powers! Gone! Like Yashida said! How?
Long story short: Yashida has willed his entire company to Mariko, not Shingen, which is why Shingen employs the Yakuza to get her. Later in the movie, there’s a moment when Wolverine can kill Shingen but walks away. “You tried to kill your daughter,” he says. “Live with that.” Good stuff. Then of course Shingen attacks again and blah blah blah.
Meanwhile, Harada, the romantic archer, is working with Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a mutant who absorbs and spreads toxins, and who was last seen as a doctor working for Yashida. Who’s pulling their strings? Yashida, of course. The death was a fake, which is why Yukio didn’t foresee it, and in the last act he dons the adamantium Silver Samurai suit to take on Wolverine, chop off his claws, and absorb his recuperative powers. “You thought a life without end has no meaning,” he says to Wolverine. “But it’s the only life that has meaning.”
In the end, Wolverine loses his adamantium claws (tough to watch), regrows his skeletal ones (which never seemed as cool), and wins the day (big surprise). The experience has somehow helped him purge his guilt over killing Jean. He’s also started a relationship with Mariko, now a CEO, but leaves Japan anyway, with Yukio, in a kind of “Casablanca” moment without the resonance. “I’m a soldier,” he says, “and I’ve been hiding too long.” He’s Rick, Yukio is Louis, and the private plane they walk into is the Casablanca fog. Not nearly as cool.
As for all the problems I’ve addressed? There are more.
If Yashida’s plan was to absorb Logan’s life-force, his longevity, why not do it that first night? Viper implants the bug that messes with his recuperative powers, so why not, at that moment, trap Logan and attempt to do what you did in the final act? Why wait?
And does Logan really live forever? He’s obviously aged. He used to be a baby, then a boy, and now he looks like Hugh Jackman at 44. He probably just ages more slowly than us, but he will die someday. So his life isn’t a life without end. He should know that.
At the same time, I do like how the movie gives lie to Wolverine’s central conceit and complaint, which he says early to Yashida: “Trust me, Bub. You don’t want what I’ve got.” Really? Instant recuperation from any injury? Long life? No, I think I’d like to have that. The problem has never been Logan’s power but what he does with it. He’s relies upon it like a crutch. It’s astonishing the number of ninjas who lay hands on him. They’ve trained for, what, a decade or two, he for centuries, yet they’re actually better fighters than he is. He just recuperates faster. His super power has actually made him weaker.
And can he learn a second language? Alive nearly two centuries and he can’t speak a lick of Japanese.
And what’s Canadian about him? He seems wholly, gruffly American. Because he is. He’s Ben Grimm recast.
And why just dream of Jean? What happened to the girl from the ‘70s? Already forgotten? And was there no girl from the ‘50s? The ‘20s? The Gay ‘90s? The 1860s? No, he keeps dreaming of Jean, who, like Jamie King in the godawful “Spirit” movie, and Jessica Lange in “All That Jazz,” represents death. Apparently death is always a beautiful woman. At least for men with limited imaginations.
But somehow the movie still works. Not sure who to credit. Screenwriter Scott Frank has a tendency to work on movies that are better and smarter than they should be: “Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight,” “Minority Report” and “Marley & Me,” among others. Screenwriter Mark Bomback is associated with more loutish films (“Live Free or Die Hard,” the “Total Recall” reboot, the “Race to Witch Mountain” reboot), while director James Mangold has made some not-bad serious films: “Walk the Line,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “Girl, Interrupted.” Jackman is superb as always.
Fanboys will probably be talking up the mid-credit sequence, two years after the events in this movie, when both Magneto (Ian McKellen, with powers) and Professor X (Patrick Stewart, alive again), appear to Logan asking for his help against a new, powerful enemy. Wooooo! Yeah, but not for me. That was cool in “Iron Man” in 2008 but now it’s just a ploy to build toward another “Avengers”-like killing at the box office. It’s sloppy sevenths.
No, the better part of “The Wolverine” is the part the fanboys won’t like—that it’s the least superhero-y of the recent superhero movies. It also feels like some vaguely intelligent people were behind it, and they didn’t mind crediting their audience with some vague intelligence, either. In today’s culture, with today’s summer movies, that’s a welcome change, bub.
Movie Review: Only God Forgives (2013)
Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” is the type of movie critics like to call “Lynchian” but I get the feeling that if David Lynch ever saw it he’d go, “What the fuck was that about?” It’s the type of movie only God could forgive. Well, God and Todd Gilchrist, who gave it a positive review.
It’s all atmosphere. Ponderous atmosphere. Plus eviscerations.
The plot is simple. A scummy American drug dealer in Bangkok, Billy (Tom Burke), with a predilection for young girls, rapes and kills a 16-year-old and remains behind as evidence. A local cop, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), then makes the father of the girl kill Billy. Then Chang chops off one of the father’s hands for making prostitutes out of his daughters in the first place. When Billy’s mother, the family matriarch Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, looking like Madonna by way of New Jersey), roars into town for revenge, she has the father killed and pays two goons to get Chang. Bad move. Chang is not only a cop but a master of Muay Thai and swordfighting; he’s Thai cousin to Kyuzo, the master swordsman of “Seven Samurai,” and he survives the assault, then goes after the bad guys. He kills the killers, kills Crystal, and chops off the hands of Julian (Ryan Gosling), Crystal’s other son, the ostensible star of the movie, who has almost nothing to do here. He sings a maudlin karaoke song to his fellow cops in a very David-Lynch-like bar and the movie ends.
Right. What the fuck was that about?
I like that there are no real good guys and bad guys here; Chang is the closest we have to a good guy. He’s our real protagonist. I like that Julian, our ostensible protagonist, who is even more incomprehensible than his character in Refn’s “Drive,” offers to fight Chang and loses badly. It basically goes like this:
Cop: You know who he is?
[Julian walks up to Chang.]
[Chang turns around]
Julian: Wanna fight?
[Chang sizes up Julian. After 10-15 seconds, nods.]
Then we get the fight. And Julian doesn’t lay a hand on him. He winds up looking worse than Rocky Balboa after the 15th round.
Much of the movie feels like a dream, a—yes—Lynchian dream, complete with red walls and raised red lanterns, but if it is a dreamscape it’s not much different than the supposed reality of the land. Everyone is stoic. Everyone takes 10 to 15 seconds to respond to a question. Do we get 300 words in this movie? 250? Was Refn going for the record?
It’s as if he took everything I liked about “Drive,” one of my favorite movies of 2011, and threw it away, and took everything I disliked about “Drive” and made this movie out of it. It’s not just style over substance; it’s ponderous style over almost no substance at all.
Movie Review: Muscle Shoals (2013)
Having grown up hearing how white performers made a mint off of, or stole outright, black music, it’s fascinating to see, in Greg Camalier’s excellent documentary “Muscle Shoals,” just who was backing some of the great black performers of the 1960s. Wilson Pickett on “Mustang Sally”? White dudes. Percy Sledge on “When a Man Loves a Woman”? White dudes. Aretha on “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”? The same white dudes, a group of guys from or near Muscle Shoals, Ala., called the Swampers. In this doc, they’re variously called “funky,” “groovy,” and, courtesy of Aretha, “greasy” with a z, but the best description comes from a man who never played with them. Bono, U2’s frontman, calls them “a bunch of white guys who looked like they worked at the supermarket around the corner.”
So how did they get together? And why did some of the greatest singers in the world begin to make a pilgrimage to Muscle Shoals, Ala., in order to make music?
It starts with tragedy.
Greasy with a Z
Rick Hall, the founder of FAME Studios, a rinky-dink place in Muscle Shoals, was raised in Franklin County, Ala., after his mother left both he and his father to become a prostitute. Wait, it gets better. He married young but his wife died in a car accident when he was behind the wheel. Wait, still better. Once he made some money, he bought his father a tractor and the tractor eventually killed him.
Like Dilsey, Rick Hall endured. His father instilled in him a drive to make it, to be somebody, as Hall says in the doc. So after his wife’s death, along with several others, he started FAME Studios—Florence Alabama Music Enterprises—and in a few years produced Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On,” which became a Top 40 hit in 1962 and was covered by the Rolling Stones two years later. He found Percy Sledge working as a hospital orderly and produced his song “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which has become one of the great R&B classics. He came to the attention of Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, who sent him Wilson Pickett. Among others, “Mustang Sally” resulted.
Aretha showed up. She’d been misused by her previous record label, Columbia, so Wexler sent her to Muscle Shoals where they recorded “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You),” which went to No. 1 on the R&B chart. But a contretemps occurred between her husband and a backing musician, Hall made it worse, and Aretha cut out for New York to record, with the Swampers, the rest of the album. Yes, including “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”
That was just the beginning. Etta James showed up. The Staples Singers. Duane Allman, Jimmy Cliff, the Rolling Stones. Hell, even the Osmonds.
Some of the best documentaries connect things we didn’t know were connected, and that’s what “Muscle Shoals” does. I didn’t know so much music, so much great and long-lasting music, came out of one small Southern town. Attempts to explain this fact sometimes verge on the mystical. “At different points in time, on this planet, there are certain places where there is a field of energy,” Jimmy Cliff says. I like Bono’s explanation better. Of various musical traditions, he says, “It always seems to come out of the river.” Of the Muscle Shoals sound, he adds, “We felt the blood in that. We felt the pulse of it. And we wanted some.”
Without a pulse
The tragedy of Rick Hall, who’s known so much tragedy, is that eventually everyone leaves Rick Hall. His first backing band split to create their own recording studio in Nashville so he promptly created another, made up of Spooner Oldham, Jimmy Johnson, David Hood and Roger Hawkins, who became the Swampers, made music history, and eventually broke from Hall, too, at the end of the 1960s.
What is it about the end of the ‘60s that led to so many breakups? Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, my parents, your parents.
Like the breakup of the Beatles, the breakup of Hall and the Swampers created disparate sounds, a few good songs, but less magic. Hall produced the Osmonds and Paul Anka, and he wrote, and convinced Clarence Carter to perform, “Patches,” a treacly story-song, which, in an era of treacly story-songs, went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1973. The Swampers recorded the Rolling Stones (“Sticky Fingers”), backed Paul Simon (“Kodachrome”), refused to cut down Lynryd Skynyrd’s rambling “Free Bird” and thus lost the band.
Hall won awards during this period—nominated for a Grammy in 1970, Billboard’s Producer of the Year in 1971—but the doc doesn’t acknowledge that this later music, while popular, was tinny, maudlin and forgettable. It didn’t have a pulse. The subsequent decades are glossed over because not much worthwhile happened. One wonders why. Do even the most talented, the most driven, get only a moment? The river is still there, after all. It keeps rolling. Does Hall not hear it anymore? Or is it something else? All of us only have so much to say and only a moment in which we have the opportunity to say it. Maybe this was their moment.
If so: damn.
Movie Review: The Way, Way Back (2013)
“The Way, Way Back,” a sweet, coming-of-age movie, is just a little too.
Duncan, (Liam James), a 14-year-old forced to spend the summer at his mom’s boyfriend’s beach house, is just a little too silent and slouched. Trent (Steve Carell), the boyfriend, is too much of a macho asshole, while the girl next door, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), is way too pretty and caring. She’s there to notice what’s happening in Duncan’s life and bring him out of his shell. Apparently she has no life of her own. She’s just there to serve the geeky boy’s story. As all pretty girls do.
As a result, the movie is just a little too simple. What exactly does Duncan learn here? Others learn. They learn the world is almost exactly as Duncan sees it.
1 to 10
The movie opens with one of the oddest conversations I’ve heard between an adult and a teenager in the movies.
Trent is driving up to his summer place with his new girlfriend, Pam (Toni Collette), asleep in the passenger seat; his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), asleep in the backseat; and Pam’s silent, awkward son Duncan, awake in the way, way back of Trent’s classic, wood-paneled station wagon. Duncan wants to be alone with his thoughts but Trent more or less bullies him into conversation. He asks if he’s asleep. He wonders how Duncan sees himself. Then he tries to ascribe a number to it. On a scale of 1 to 10, what are you?
Trent: You don’t have any opinion?
Trent: I’m just asking.
Trent: Pick a number.
Duncan: A six.
Trent: A what?
Duncan: A six.
Trent: I think you’re a three …
He tells him he’s too passive and misses opportunities. “Plenty of opportunities at my beach house this summer,” he says. “One day we could become a family,” he says. “So what do you say? Let’s try to get that score up, huh?”
You think: Either this guy is clumsily attempting to get Duncan out of his shell or he’s a massive asshole, belittling the belittled as a way to mark territory that no one is remotely threatening. You hope for the former. You hope for nuance.
Nope. The dude’s a dick. And he becomes more of a dick the more we see him. He continues to bully and belittle Duncan—making him wear a life vest on a boat where everyone else is free of them. He’s petty about board games and vindictive when threatened. He winds up cheating on Pam with Joan (Amanda Peet), and when this becomes known in a too-public argument, he tells Duncan, who repeats that he just wants to spend the summer with his father, that he isn’t doing that because his father doesn’t want him. Nobody wants him. It’s reminiscent of that great scene in Ron Howard’s “Parenthood” when Gary (a young Joaquin Phoenix) calls his father to live with him only to get rebuffed—except it’s not nearly as poignant.
Trent’s daughter, Steph, is an awful person, too, and she doesn’t want to hang with Duncan, who’s quiet and geeky and wears jeans to the beach. At times he seems like a Michael Shannon in training. It takes half the summer before someone suggests he puts on a swimsuit. Duncan’s mom? She’s too busy with Trent and the other adults. Susanna calls their beachside town “spring break for adults” and it is. The grown-ups drink too much, go out on boats; drink too much, sit around a campfire; drink too much, stumble around in the dark. They don’t act like parents. They act like people grasping at some sad, last bit of happiness before they begin the downhill slide. It’s autumn break.
The ultimate big brother
Duncan, 14, with his whole life ahead of him, tools around town on the only transportation available: a pink bike with tassels on the handlebars. He meets Owen (Sam Rockwell) at a pizza joint playing Pac-Man, and again at a water park, Water Wizz, where Owen lives, and where he deals with his own stunted life by being larger than life and joshing with everyone. “You’re going to have to leave,” he tells Duncan, a sad sack sitting by himself. “You’re having way too much fun and people are complaining.” After he gets Duncan a job at Water Wizz, he asks him to break up a couple of kids breakdancing poolside. “Worse-case scenario,” Owen tells him, “they beat you up and you’re horribly disfigured.”
If Pac-Man, break-dancing and station wagons—and with them, the very concept of “the way, way back,” which would be lost on today’s SUV-riding kids—seem more 1980s than 2010s, just wait. We also hear “New Sensation” by INXS. Owen talks through the lyrics to Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero,” then recounts the entire plot of “Footloose” to an uncomprehending teen crowd. One gets the feeling that writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who also play Wizz employees Roddy and Lewis) originally wrote this as a period piece but were forced to update. Maybe they had it in a drawer since the ‘90s. Maybe it finally got greenlit after the success of “The Descendants,” which they co-wrote with Alexander Payne. But it feels set in the past. No one’s texting anyone. Duncan’s mom doesn’t give her smartphone to Duncan so he’ll keep in touch. She can’t, because it’s really the 1980s.
I like how the actors are cast against type. Carell has never played annoying in the macho American tradition, and he’s good at it, but Rockwell steals the movie. The actor who usually plays schitzy and scuzzy is here the ultimate mentor/big brother, setting the shy kid on his own path, building him up and bringing him out. Of course Duncan idolizes him. So did I, and I’m 50.
In a smaller role, Allison Janney shines as Susanna’s mom, Betty, who always has hair askew, a drink in one hand, and an awkward, often embarrassing revelation to proclaim to the world. She’s brassy. But as Susanna’s mom? At the end, from Duncan’s perspective, we see them hug, and Janney, with her big features, towers over Robb, with her delicate features. She’s envelopes her. She makes Robb seem like a delicate French hors d’oeuvre she’s about to devour.
Liam James is good in the lead, too, although he ultimately seems more silent than sullen. He seems too mature. Near the end, his mother finally visits Water Wizz and sees his photo decorating the “Employee of the Month” board. He’s grinning awkwardly, eagerly, as if Owen had just made him laugh. There’s something gloriously geeky about it. It’s probably the first time she’s seen him smile in months. That photo broke my heart in a way the rest of the movie didn’t.
“The Way, Way Back” obviously recalls “Adventureland,” the 2009 coming-of-age comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg: amusement park, summer, pretty girl. It also less-obviously recalls “Mud,” a coming-of-age story set in Arkansas along the White River: kid with family troubles, gloms onto charismatic rebel, helps him with his business.
In “Mud,” though, Ellis discovers the world isn’t full of absolutes; it’s full of shades of gray. Duncan doesn’t learn that here. He doesn’t begin to see the world from an adult perspective; the adult, his mom, begins to see it from his. In the end, she climbs into the way, way back with him. They’re a team again because Trent is such an asshole. But that’s not much of an answer. Earlier, Owen tells Duncan not to let Trent define him, but that’s what the movie does. It constructs its ending, its resolution, in opposition to the awfulness of Trent.
Did Duncan need to learn nothing? A lot of trouble could’ve been avoided, for example, if he’d simply told his mom where he was going every day. “Hey Mom. I got a job at this place called Water Wizz. Pretty fun. See ya!”
I know: Being 14 is rough. I think of Michael Apted’s “Up” series. The kids at 7 are outgoing and lively, then at 14, boom, they all retreat inward, as if shocked and stupefied by adolescence. I was the same. In 1978, when I was 15, our family visited Rehoboth Beach, Del., our summer retreat. On the drive out, Shaun Cassidy’s “Da Doo Ron Ron” kept playing on the radio, and I thought how cool it would be to meet a girl named Jill, like in the song. When it didn’t happen, when I didn’t meet any girls (because I was too skinny and silent and brooding like Duncan), I invented her. I pretended to friends back home, or a friend back home, that I’d had a girlfriend at the beach. Yeah, I was that guy. I look back now and shake my head. Will Duncan, in middle age, look back at this summer and shake his head at anything he did? In the end, it turned out pretty well for him. He made friends, came out of his shell, kissed a pretty girl. Plus his mom realized what a jerk that Trent was. Why, it was almost like a movie.
Movie Review: Identity Thief (2013)
A friend of mine once said of the old “I Love Lucy” show, “It never made me laugh, it just made me anxious.”
“Identity Thief,” the 2013 comedy starring Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman, is that anxiety times 100.
What an awful, awful movie. Awful. You know how sometimes you use movies to lift yourself out of a bad mood? I had the opposite experience here. I sat down in pretty good spirits and got up nearly two excruciating hours later pissed at the world. I remained in a foul mood for 24 hours. That such a thing could be made. That it would gross nearly $175 million worldwide. That the aptly-named Tom Charity of CNN.com and the more aptly-named Scott Bowles of USA Today would both give it positive reviews. That both critics are considered “top critics” on RottenTomatoes.com.
Here: The very premise of the movie provokes anxiety. Most of us don’t work because we like the job; we work to survive, support a family, etc. We are giving up huge swaths of irretrievable time in order to accumulate a little bit of dough. And the notion that a stranger could then come in, pretend to be us, and drain away the one worthwhile thing we’ve accumulated at jobs that drain away our lives …. Well, it’s not a very funny proposition.
So how do you make comedy out of it? “Identity Thief”’s answer is to double down and push the envelope. They make the victim super nice, the thief an embodiment of everything that’s awful in America, and throughout the victim gets further victimized while the thief gets away with almost everything. Ha! Get it?
Nice guy Sandy Patterson (Bateman), an even-tempered accountant in Denver, Col., with a pretty wife (Amanda Peet, wasted), two cute kids and another on the way, has his identity stolen by an overweight, binge-buying, heavy-drinking woman who lives in Florida and goes by the name of Diana (McCarthy). She spends the money to fill the void within her. So she buys $2,000-worth of free drinks for strangers at a bar so she can feel like she has friends. (Awww.) At the beauty parlor, pretty girls and gay men snicker at her obvious lies about a husband and a family. (Awww.) Then she buys fast food and stupid pink shit to fill the void again. Sandy’s doing the family budget on an Excel spreadsheet (they saved $14.03 last month), she’s buying Fiats with his dough, and we’re supposed to feel sorry for her. Because she’s awful, fat and friendless.
She’s also involved with … a drug dealer? Who sics the two best-looking gangsters ever (T.I. and Genesis Rodriguez) on Diana? Plus a bounty hunter (Robert Patrick, always in pursuit)?
By this point, Sandy, needing to clear his name to keep his new job, and getting no help at all from the Denver police, goes to Florida himself to extradite Diana. One thing leads to another and they wind up on the lam together. It’s “Due Date” but even more annoying and less funny. Yes, less funny.
How does Diana not have friends? Everyone within the film seems to find Diana sympathetic and Sandy a jerk when we know Sandy’s a nice guy and Diana is the worst person in the world. She schnookers everybody. She gets a waitress to give her free baby-back ribs and entices a recent widower back to her hotel room, where Sandy is further victimized. The joke is always on him, and he’s representative of us, so it’s never really funny. Or do the filmmakers think we identify with Melissa McCarthy’s Diana? That we’re fat and mean and lazy and feel sorry for ourselves and expect the world to feel sorry for us?
I mean … what the fuck?
Is Seth Gordon the worst director of comedies in Hollywood? He made the 2007 documentary “The King of Kong,” which was great. Since then, he’s directed three comedies: “Four Christmases,” with Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon, “Horrible Bosses,” with Jason Bateman and Jason Sudeikis, and this thing.
Should Craig Mazin stop writing altogether? He helped with “The Hangover Part II” and “Part III” (but not the first, better one), wrote and directed “Superhero Movie,” which couldn’t successfully satirize a movie genre begging to be satirized, and this thing. He’s a millionaire for writing this stuff.
Sometimes I think the people in Hollywood look at us and see this:
“Identity Thief” grossed $134 million in the U.S. They’re right.
Movie Review: Mud (2013)
“Mud,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter”), is ostensibly an adventure story about two teenage boys who stumble upon a charismatic outlaw on an island in Dewitt, Ark., but it’s also a very specific type of coming-of-age story. It’s about how life, if you pay attention, keeps pushing you away from childhood absolutes and toward complexity and relativism.
Ellis (Tye Sheridan), 14, lives along the White River with his taciturn father, Senior (Ray McKinnon, the priest of “Deadwood”), and his mother, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson, “Deadwood”), who wants a divorce. She wants to move away from the river, which is how Senior makes his living. It’s also all that Ellis has known. Neither man is happy about it but Senior accepts it; Ellis refuses. Or he deals with this coming instability by searching for stability.
He finds it in the unlikeliest of places: in a boat in the trees.
A helluva thing
The movie opens with Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) hopping a scuffed outboard motorboat and heading down the White River so Neckbone can show Ellis what he’s found. They jump onto an island beach, head into the woods, walk over a pond full of snakes, and … there it is. Neckbone says that his uncle, Galen (Michael Shannon, in a small role), thinks the boat wound up there during the last flood, which sounds Biblical but is probably just a Southern thing. Then Ellis finds bootprints with a cross in the heel, which also sounds Biblical but is probably just a Southern thing. Then the bootprints disappear in the sand. Draw your own conclusions.
Immediately, next to their motor boat, they see Mud (Matthew McConaughey, in a nomination-worthy performance), a scraggly haired, unwashed, dangerous-looking man smoking a cigarette, fishing, and philosophizing about evil spirits, snakes, and that boat in the trees. “It’s a helluva thing, ain’t it?” he says. Then he argues with them about who owns it.
It feels lucky when they get away but they keep returning, spurred more by Ellis, who’s curious and idealistic, than Neckbone, who’s knowing and practical. When Mud tells them, for example, that he’s waiting on his girlfriend, Neckbone asks if she’s hot. “She’s like a dream you don’t want to wake up from,” Mud says, to which Neckbone coughs out a “bullshit.” Not Ellis. He may be blunt and straightforward but he wants to believe in the very thing that’s disappearing from his life: a love that’s firm and absolute rather than flimsy and disposable.
Wisdom comes slowly. Turns out Mud is wanted by the police. “I shot a man,” Mud says later. “Kilt him. Sorry I didn’t tell you boys sooner.” The man he killed was beating the girl he loved, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), so Ellis is less deterred than spurred by this revelation. Even as Mud’s enemies gather, including the brother and father of the murdered man, along with their many bounty hunters, Ellis acts as go-between for the star-crossed lovers.
When Ellis talks to Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), however, the closest thing Mud has to a father, he hears a less romantic version of the story. According to Tom, Juniper didn’t love Mud. She used him. She’s the reason he’s stuck on that island with nowhere to go. She’s bad news. Ellis listens but doesn’t hear. Then he does. On the day the lovers are supposed to meet, Ellis, keeping an eye out for the bounty hunters, knocks on Juniper’s motel-room door. Nothing. He peers in the window. Nothing. He asks the hotel clerk, who points him down the highway to a bar, where she’s getting cozy playing pool with another guy. Their eyes meet in the dark. He acts as if he’s the one she’s betraying. He is.
“This river brings a lot of trash down it,” says Uncle Galen, who makes his living scavenging the bottom. “You gotta know what’s worth keeping and what’s worth letting go.”
That’s the lesson of the movie, and there’s no easy answer. There’s more with Juniper, for example, and the ultimate truth about her lies somewhere between Mud’s and Tom’s versions. Nothing's absolute. It's all muddy.
And a river runs through it
“Mud,” like the White River itself, has a slow, steady pace that’s almost hypnotic, while its performances are among the best of the year. Everyone seems authentically Southern because the actors are Southern: McConaughey (Texas), Witherspoon (Louisiana), McKinnon (Georgia), the kids. Shepard is a stand-out. At one point, Tom hears that Mud called him an assassin—something about past CIA activity—and he laughs for a second; then, for about five seconds of screentime, which is an eternity, we get nothing but him lost in thought. It’s nice.
Some of the story threads, particularly at the end, could’ve used trimming. Did we need so much with May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), Ellis’ would-be girlfriend? Did Ellis, like Mud before him, need to get snake-bit, too, and did Mud and Juniper need to see each other one last time? Did we need one more shoot-out in the final reel?
The final camera shots recall Terrence Malick, particularly “The Thin Red Line,” but they also recall the movie’s beginning. Instead of two boys in a boat, it’s two men: Mud and Tom. In the beginning, Neckbone and Ellis gazed with happiness at something before Nichols allowed us to see it: the island, where they would have their adventures. He does the same for Mud and Tom. It’s the open sea, and it’s a helluva thing.
Movie Review: The Lone Ranger (2013)
Come back, Klinton Spilsbury. All is forgiven.
Gore Verbinski’s “The Lone Ranger” isn’t quite as bad as 1981’s “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” starring Spilsbury—that would take real effort—but the latter had excuses. It was made in an era before over-the-top heroism once again became the default at movies, and the filmmakers didn’t seem to know what to do with their legendary character—a former Texas Ranger who wears a mask and has an Indian companion and shoots guns, pow pow. So they made him a lawyer, not a ranger, who uses silver bullets because he can’t shoot straight. To be honest, he should’ve been called “The Lone Lawyer.” “The Lone Ranger” feels like false advertising.
Now it’s 30 years later, when we like our heroes any way we can get them. Give us our wish-fulfillment fantasy already. Tell us that story again, Daddy.
So what do director Verbinski (“Pirates of the Caribbean”), screenwriters Ted Elliott (“Pirates”), Terry Rossio (“Pirates”) and Justin Haythe (“Revolutionary Road”), give us?
You don’t want to know.
The Tone-Deaf Ranger
The Lone Ranger, John Reid (Armie Hammer, trying), is a lawyer again. He’s a city boy, a tenderfoot, a dude. He grew up in Colby, Texas, but went away to law school, and apparently became a dim bulb and a naïve priss there. Throughout most of the movie, he assumes that right makes might; he assumes that businessmen represent civilization; he assumes—and this in Texas in 1869, mind you—that power comes out of a law book rather than the barrel of a gun.
He’s a fool.
Guns? “I don’t believe in ‘em,” he tells his older brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), a captain of the Texas Rangers. “You know that.”
Everyone prefers Dan. John’s one-time girl, Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), marries Dan and has a kid (Bryant Prince) by him. Even Tonto (Johnny Depp) recognizes Dan as the true warrior. “I would have preferred someone else,” Tonto tells John after he’s stuck with him. “But who am I to question the Great Father?”
In the first act, John Reid allows Butch Cavendish (William Fichter) to go free. Tonto is about to kill Cavendish but John stops him and Cavendish escapes and this sets up everything else. It sets up the ambush at Bryant’s Gap and the massacre of the Texas Rangers. Because John falls off his horse, Dan has to return for him and gets shot as he reaches for him. John, barely alive, then sees Cavendish cutting out his brother’s heart. Literally.
But that should toughen up our hero, right? That should set him right about the ways of the world and put him on the path to revenge.
Nope. John remains a fool until the last 20 minutes of the movie. His head is dragged on the ground, then over horseshit, then Tonto tells him to wear a mask. “Comes a time, Kemosabe,” Tonto says, “when even good men must wear mask.” The mask becomes a running gag. “What’s with the mask?” everyone asks. When he tells Tonto’s fellow Comanches who suggested it, they bust out laughing. Because they know Tonto is screwed up in the head. He’s a fool, too. For most of the movie, our hero is the fool of a fool.
As for why Tonto is a little crazy? Years ago, as a child, he inadvertently caused the death of his people at the hands of two men: Cole (Tom Wilkinson), now a businessman and railroad representative, and Cavendish, his disreputable flunky. He traded them a watch for information, and that led to a massacre.
Both the Lone Ranger and Tonto, in other words, are created out of massacres they inadvertently caused. They are tragic figures yet the movie treats them as comic relief. “The Lone Ranger” is one of the most tone-deaf movies I’ve ever seen.
Everything and the kitchen sink
What’s special about this Lone Ranger? Silver, the spirit horse, recognizes him as a spirit walker, a man who can’t die, but it’s Silver who’s special. He can ride off rooftops and over trains. The Lone Ranger is buried up to his neck by the Comanche, and covered in scorpions, and Silver licks off the scorpions and pulls him out. Silver is the true hero here. The Lone Ranger is part laughing stock, part chosen one. He only survives because he can’t be killed. Nice trick.
Plot? Cole, giving pretty speeches before the populace, wants to unite the nation via railroad, because whoever controls the rail controls the country. For this to happen, though, the rail has to go through Comanche land, so Cavendish’s gang raids settlements dressed as Comanches, which revokes the treaty, which puts their land up for grabs. Dan Reid, a friend of the Comanche, figured this out. That’s why the Bryant Gap ambush. The Comanches themselves are later massacred—ripped to shreds—by an early Gatling gun while the Lone Ranger and Tonto, nearby, are avoiding a runaway train via handcar—that little railroad see-saw thingee most of us first saw in a cartoon. Once again, the tragic is juxtaposed with the comic to perplexing effect.
Meanwhile, Rebecca, who has lost a husband, is attacked by the Cavendish-Comanches and witnesses her black help being murdered. With her son, she’s taken before Butch himself. Eventually she makes it back to Cole, who has always desired her. But this is a dull subplot and Wilson does nothing with the role.
Meanwhile, Barry Pepper plays a George Custer-like cavalryman, who is supposed to come to the rescue but merely contributes to the slaughter of innocents. Then he doubles down on that slaughter so he doesn’t have to face the first fact.
Meanwhile, Helena Bonham Carter plays Red Harrington, a western madam with a fake ivory leg that masks a gun—like an early version of Rose McGowan in “Planet Terror.” She’s the kitchen sink of the movie.
Meanwhile, all of this is being told, believe it or not, by an aged Tonto in San Francisco in 1933. When the movie began, and I first saw these words on the screen, “San Francisco, 1933,” I had a glimmer of hope. “Oh!” I thought. “Good idea. Wonder what the Lone Ranger is doing in the 20th century?” Except we never find out. Instead we visit an amusement park, where a kid, wearing a mask and a cowboy hat, visits a Wild West exhibit. There’s the mighty buffalo, there’s a grizzly bear, and there, according to the plaque, is “THE NOBLE SAVAGE: In his natural habitat.” The kid peers closer and the Indian comes to life. “Kemosabe?” a wizened Tonto asks. Then, with a few interruptions along the way, he tells the kid the story. It’s like “The Princess Bride” but without any of the charm. It’s kind of creepy.
More, it means that no matter what happens in Colby, Texas, in 1869, Tonto winds up as a sideshow exhibit in San Francisco in 1933.
If you’d given me a week, I couldn’t have come up with a sadder end for Tonto than that.
Movie Review: The Heat (2013)
Joe Friday and Bill Gannon. Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh. Sarah Ashburn and Shannon Mullins.
That’s one small step for two women, one giant leap for Hollywood.
Seriously. Go to the Wiki page on buddy cop movies and search for “female.” You’ll get three movies out of more than 100. One is foreign (Michelle Yeoh in “Police Story 3: Supercop”), one is incorrect (Sondra Locke plays a convict, not a cop, in “The Gauntlet”), and Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in this one. So congratulations are in order. Or “about fucking time” is in order. For all its purported liberalism, Hollywood tends to be behind the curve on so many progressive issues. Like women telling dick jokes.
“The Heat” isn’t quiet about its feminism, either. One wonders whether that, or the comedy, is the best part of the movie. Then one realizes one is talking about both feminism and funny and it’s not remarkable. Suddenly we’re all past that.
Although, honestly, it could’ve been funnier.
The one with the Oscar is Felix
Remember in the mid-1990s when Sandra Bullock played the girl everybody liked? “Speed” and “Demolition Man” and “While You Were Sleeping” and “The Net”? Suddenly she’s playing the middle-aged career woman nobody likes. She played bitchy in “The Proposal” and starchy here. She’s Felix to McCarthy’s Oscar.
Sarah Ashburn is a career-oriented, Ivy-League-educated FBI agent who’s smarter than her contemporaries, mostly men, but she has trouble working well with others. Hell, she has trouble working with dogs. That’s why her boss, Hale (Mexican actor Demian Bichir, who does a lot with a little), isn’t considering her for a promotion. But he will give her an assignment. Nail this Boston drug dealer/killer, Julian, whom nobody has seen, and he’ll think about the promotion.
Unfortunately for her, fortunately for us, she’s teamed with Mullins, a Boston cop who’s her opposite in every way: streetwise rather than schooled; balls-out rather than reticent; cussing a blue streak rather than prissily settling on neutered swear words. This is classic buddy-cop stuff. The point is to take two extreme characters and put them together to round out their rough edges. Each becomes a little more like the other.
Well, kinda sorta. Ashburn learns to work with a partner. She learns to swear and drink and use her sexuality to catch a perp. She learns, after she performs an emergency tracheotomy on a man choking on a pancake, that she’s not always right, either. She might even be wrong about her big case—catching a big-named serial killer. Mullins thinks so anyway. By the end, Ashburn agrees. She thinks she put the wrong man in jail. Based on …? Nothing, really. She just decides it. I think it’s supposed to show that she’s learned humility but it also meant she put an innocent man in the federal pen for a year. She ruined his life. Oh well. Civil lawsuit to follow.
Meanwhile, Mullins learns … what exactly? To be nicer? Kinda sorta?
This is almost always the way in these types of movies. The uptight one loosens up but the loose one doesn’t exactly tighten up. For two reasons. One, the looser, louder one is already more like us, or more like what the average Hollywood exec thinks we’re like, so they don’t have to change much, right? Aren’t they already great? And two, they’re where the comedy generally lies. And you don’t mess with the comedy.
Here’s an example of how delicate comedy is. Ashburn is trying to prove to Mullins that she has friends:
Ashburn: I was actually married for six, seven years.
Mullins: Was he a hearing man?
Not: Could he hear? Not: Was he blind? Neither would be funny. But: “Was he a hearing man?”? That made me laugh out loud.
McCarthy gets off most of the good lines. “Tattle tits.” “Keep your finger out of my areola.” “You’ve got to vent that furnace.” These are lines that wouldn’t work in a traditonal male buddy-cop picture. Well, maybe “tattle tits.”
But that’s what’s good about it. Much of the humor is specific to women. Much of it is also feminist. Some guy disparages Ashburn’s looks and Mullins reams him. “Are you giving beauty tips? Do you own a fucking mirror?” A would-be john (Tony Hale) complains that his wife’s lady parts are a mess after their fifth child and Mullins reams him for it. That’s the point of McCarthy, of course, to ream people. But it shouldn’t be lost on us that in a soliciation case, it’s the john and the pimp who get busted; the prostitute goes free.
Whatever happened to the 90-minute comedy?
“The Heat” is written by Katie Dippold (“Parks and Recreation”) and directed by Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”), but it isn’t up to “Bridesmaids”’ standards. It’s about a half-hour too long, and a lot of the movie is McCarthy going off, most likely improvising, while supporting players are forced to react. The two issues, I’m sure, are not unrelated. Pushing the envelope of comedy means pushing the runtime of movies. “World War Z,” the summer action blockbuster, is actually shorter than this.
That said, “The Heat” isn’t a bad comedy. It feels new because in many ways it is new. It also means that Hollywood has released at least one movie this year that passes the Bechdel Test.
It just could’ve been funnier.
Movie Review: World War Z (2013)
“No time to explain!”
“World War Z” is often a smart, tense, summer action movie, but this is the moment when it loses me. To be honest, it started to lose me earlier, with its focus on the family.
Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) was once an investigator for the U.N. (HBO: dibs on creating that series), but now he’s a stay-at-home dad with two girls, Constance and Rachel, and a working (I guess) wife, Karin (Mireille Enos), and they’re all playing 20 questions in the midst of a traffic jam in downtown Philadelphia when the shit hits. And it hits hard and fast. People are dying, a huge truck is cutting a swath through traffic, but Gerry, using his head, using instincts he’s honed getting into and out of dangerous places, follows the truck out of the jam. I like that. Then he doesn’t use his head. His little girl is scared in the backseat, so, even though he’s zipping through traffic, he turns around to comfort her. Because his wife can’t do it herself? Is she that useless? So he takes his eyes off the road, and bam! Now they’re not moving. “Movement is life,” Gerry says later in the movie, yet here he risks that movement. He risks the lives of both daughters, his wife and himself in order to provide an unnecessary comfort to one daughter for a few seconds.
Focus on the family
He keeps doing this. He’s in contact with his former boss at the U.N., Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena), and knows something swift, global and apocalyptic is happening. (Psst: it’s zombies.) Yet he still stops off at a Newark drug store to get albuterol for one asthmatic daughter. Listen, I’m asthmatic. I use albuterol. But I wouldn’t exactly risk my life for it.
Worst of all? With the world crumbling around them, and people dying, or being turned into zombies, in the billions, Thierry sends a military helicopter to pick up Gerry and his family off a Newark high-rise, then transports them to the U.S.S. Argus, 200 miles off the coast of New York. It’s a post-apocalyptic way station where the remnants of humanity are trying to figure out how to keep the human species going. That’s why Thierry picked up Gerry. He was his best investigator and he needs him to investigate this. They’ve received word that the zombie virus may have started in South Korea, and he wants to send him there, with a Harvard scientist and a Navy Seal team. To find out what they can find out.
“I’m not your guy,” Gerry says. “I need to protect my family,” he says.
Is he shitting us?
I’ve written before about the thankless-wife role. We’re there to see X (the plot of the movie), the man needs to do X, but the wife urges him away from it. She urges him away from the story we’re all there to see. So boring. So thankless. But this is the first time I’ve seen the hero himself reject the plot of the movie he’s in.
And for what? Protecting his family? Doesn’t he get it? Without that international support structure around them, there is no family to protect. The entire U.S. just fell in a day and he wants to protect his family? Do the filmmakers realize how awful and insular Gerry seems at this moment? How selfish? Hell, it’s us out there turning into zombies. How about lending a hand, asshole?
Thankfully, a naval commander (David Andrews) tells him the obvious: that the U.S.S. Argus doesn’t have room for non-essential personnel. And if he doesn’t help save humanity? Well, both he and his family are non-essential.
I have one more family-related idiocy to complain about. By the time Gerry is leaving South Korea for Israel, where they’ve somehow held off the zombie plague, he already knows noise attracts zombies. So guess who calls as he and some Navy Seals are tiptoeing across the airfield to the plane? Right. The Missus. And guess who wakes up and attacks? Right again. Of the many men, only Gerry makes it onto the plane safely. At which point the Missus calls back, worried, to ask why he didn’t pick up. Now pretend you’re Gerry for a moment. What would you say to her? Tell her not to call anymore? “Honey, I should never have given you that phone.” “Honey, that last call you made resulted in the death of six men, and maybe in the last best hope of humanity.” Nope. Gerry just kinda smiles about it, as if the Missus had interrupted an important meeting, and talks about other matters. Because, you know, family.
Smarter than Superman
The movie admittedly does some smart things. First, it takes a dull horror-movie trope, zombies, and asks: Why are they dull? Well, they shuffle along, super slow, arms out. So the filmmakers do the opposite. Instead of super slow, they make them super fast, and as angry as rabid dogs. You watch them spread like a virus. They’re the living embodiment of a virus. So how do you defeat them?
That’s another smart thing WWZ does: It makes smarts matter. Gerry keeps noticing things. In Philly, he notices it takes about 12 seconds for an infected human to become a zombie. In South Korea, he notices one of the Navy Seals, who didn’t become infected, has a long-standing limp. In Israel he sees the same phenomena twice: zombies ignoring, first an old man, and second a bald-headed kid. The kid probably has cancer. So he comes to the conclusion that the zombies’ weakness is weakness. They don’t attack, or even recognize, people who have life-threatening illnesses. “It’s not a cure,” he later tells World Health Organization doctors. “It’s camouflage.”
But they need a test case. Unfortunately, at the W.H.O. research facility in Cardiff, Wales, where he’s crash-landed after the mishap in Israel, all of the life-threatening viruses are kept in B-wing, which just so happens to be Zombie Central. Meaning our heroes—Gerry, Israeli soldier Segen (Daniella Kertesz), and an Italian W.H.O. doctor (Pierfrancesco Favino)—have to sneak over there. We’ve seen this before, right? They tiptoe, inadvertently make noise, run. The latter two make it back safely while Gerry winds up with the deadly viruses in a sealed-off room guarded by a growling, teeth-chattering zombie. There’s no way out. There’s no way to communicate with the other doctors in A-wing, who can see him on closed-circuit TV. So he gambles. After writing a note for the security camera, “TELL MY FAMILY I LOVE THEM” (we know, they know), he injects himself with one of the vials. Then he waits. Then he takes a deep breath and punches open the security door. The zombie sniffs the air, chatters his teeth, but doesn’t recognize him as something to be attacked. He doesn’t see him. Gerry is able to walk right past him and enjoy a Pepsi in the vending area (surely the greatest product placement in years) before he lets all the Pepsi cans clatter on the floor, bringing the zombies running. But they run right past Gerry, who’s walking, almost sauntering, in the opposite direction. Because they don’t know he’s there.
That’s a great moment. Gerry doesn’t win by being stronger (“Man of Steel”), or having more tech gizmos (“Iron Man 3”), or inventing a cure for death (“Star Trek Into Darkness”); he wins by being smart. How rare is that in a summer action movie?
Unfortunately, by this point, director Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland”; “Machine Gun Preacher”), and his four screenwriters (Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof and J. Michael Straczynski), have already blown it.
They blew it with “No time to explain.”
Time to explain
OK, so Gerry has this theory about how to beat back the zombies. He’s seen it in action. Apparently no one else has. No one else has figured out why cancer wards escaped attack, for example. Only Gerry. Because he’s an observer. Stupid, but we’ll let that go.
And there’s really no reason, other than final-act heebie-jeebies, for the W.H.O. scientists to test his theory in B-wing. They could’ve just phoned or radioed another facility, maybe one in Nova Scotia, that might do the same. But at the least they should let someone else know, right, that they have this theory that might save humanity? In case, you know, the zombies get them first? Wouldn’t that be the smart thing to do? But we’ll let that go, too.
But I can’t let go Gerry’s conversation with Thierry aboard Belarus airlines.
At this point, Gerry’s made it into and out of Korea, and into and out of Israel. For some reason, which the movie doesn’t explain, or maybe explains too quickly, he had to go to Israel to find out why it was the one country prepared for the zombie invasion. He couldn’t just phone.
(BTW: Israel was prepared for it? I know we get the 10th-man theory in the movie, but doesn’t this smack of various anti-Semitic “No Jews died in the twin towers” conspiracy theories making the rounds after 9/11?)
But it’s in Israel, of course, that Gerry observes the old man and the bald kid, and when Segen is attacked he cuts off her hand to save her. It’s a gut reaction, and it works, and on the airplane out of Israel, Gerry anesthetizes her and cleans the wound with little bottles of vodka, but Segen is still distraught. She’s a soldier without a hand. “Now I’m just a liability,” she says. And that’s when it all comes together in Gerry’s mind. Liability! Of course! He now has the answer that might save all of humanity.
And what does he do with it? He phones Thierry, so the people on the U.S.S. Argus can begin to combat this plague. So they can begin to save humanity.
No, that would make too much sense. Instead, he tells Thierry the words that made me roll my eyes and give up on the movie:
“No time to explain.”
Right. No time to say these words: “The zombies don’t attack weakness. They don’t attack the terminally ill. They don’t see the terminally ill. That’s their weakness. Exploit it.”
And why doesn’t he have the time to say this? Because it has to be one guy, with one chance, in one place. It’s the only way we know how to tell our stories.
That’s our weakness. And Hollywood keeps exploiting it.
Movie Review: White House Down (2013)
“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.”
-- Me, in my review of “Olympus Has Fallen,” March 25, 2013
And we still don’t.
If “Olympus Has Fallen” was “Die Hard in the White House,” then “White House Down” is … also “Die Hard in the White House.” It’s just not quite so offensive. It’s not patriotism porn.
But that doesn’t mean it’s any good.
Put the left one in
Once again, one man (John Cale, played by Channing Tatum) is in a closed-off location by accident (part of a tour group) when terrorists take over a building (the White House); and just as the terrorists systematically, almost immaculately, wipe out all of the buildings defenses (Secret Service, etc.), he, for the rest of the movie, wipes out the terrorists. There’s a rooftop battle in which the hero’s allies mistake him for the enemy and shoot. There’s a gum-chewing, scenery-chewing computer geek who’s annoying as all fuck out. (Presciently, he’s a hacker formerly with the NSA). There’s a loved one among the hostages (Cale’s daughter, Emily, played by Joey King), who is used by the terrorists as barter. The terrorists also mask their true intentions. In “Die Hard” they pretend to be political when they really want money. Here, they pretend to want money when they’re really political. Most of the outside people keep making the wrong moves but our guy keeps making the right ones to keep saving the day. Because the day must be saved. That’s why we paid our $12.
How does “White House Down” differ from “Olympus Has Fallen”? Hardly at all. Channing Tatum has a lighter touch than Gerard Butler, but then so does a gorilla. No, the biggest difference is who America’s enemies are and what this means politically.
In “Olympus,” the enemies are a North Korean terrorist group, which plans to blow up all of our nukes in their silos, and thus destroy the United States of America (and, one imagines, most of Canada and Mexico) for all time.
In “White House Down,” the enemies are a combination of mercenaries, warmongers, and right-wing racists who despise our African-American president, James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), and who are brought together by the outgoing head of the Secret Service, Martin Walker (James Woods), whose son was killed during a special ops mission designed to uncover nukes in Iran. (No nukes were uncovered.) For most of the movie, even as Walker lays out his subterfuge to the Joint Chiefs about wanting money, we, who’ve had a ringside seat this entire time, assume he’s in it for revenge. But that’s wrong, too. Pres. Sawyer, you see, has made historic peace overtures to various countries in the Middle East, and plans to withdraw our troops from the region. Walker sees this as a betrayal, and, in conjunction, with … wait for it … Speaker of the House Rafelson (Richard Jenkins), who is secretly doing the bidding of the military-industrial complex, they, or more accurately he, Walker, gets set to launch nukes targeting key cities in the Middle East. Because he wants the war to end all wars. He wants the missiles to fly. Hallelujah, hallelujah.
So if “Olympus” is the White House takeover from the paranoid right-wing perspective, “Down” is the White House takeover from the paranoid left-wing perspective.
And only one man, and a little girl, can stop them.
Wake up, Maggie
I need a new word.
You know how sometimes you can laugh and throw up in your mouth at the same time? I felt something similar during “White House Down.” It was a button-pushing moment—I don’t remember which one—that was so absurd that, even as I felt emotion welling up in me, even as I felt tears in my eyes, I burst out laughing.
I think it might’ve been the moment when the Speaker, now President, orders an attack on the White House, and Emily, running from the half-destroyed Oval Office, makes big sweeping motions with the presidential flag to warn them to stand down; and they do. Because of this speck of a girl doing something with something.
Then again, this movie is nothing but absurd scenes. How about the moment when the President of the United States, riding shotgun in a presidential SUV, gets out an RPG and blows away the White House gate so he and Cale can get out? “That’s something you don’t see every day,” one character says—a wink from the filmmakers on the absurdity of their own film. Of course, the two men still don’t get outside. How could they? We need to keep them in the one place, the White House, so they wind up face down in the White House pool, wheels spinning.
How about the moment when super-baddie and former special ops yadda yadda Stenz (Jason Clarke) realizes his buddy is among the first of the terrorists killed by Cale and reacts as if death is unthinkable? That they were going to take over the White House, and nuke Iran, and no one would get their hair mussed except Pres. Sawyer and Iran. And various Secret Service and military officers. And whoever was in the U.S. Capitol. Which is blown up as a diversion.
How about any scene with Killick (Kevin Rankin), the right-wing racist, who sports a full moustache and sleeveless fatigues, and struts around almost bow-legged as he guards the hostages? I guess he’s supposed to be terrifying, or maddening, but he looks like somebody who’s wandered away from a Village People tribute band.
My favorite absurd moment, though, is a line reading from Maggie Gyllenhaal. Was she ever any good as an actress or were we just fooled into thinking she was good? Because she’s awful in this. Aw. Full.
She plays Finnerty, who apparently has a past with Cale (go figure), and who, that morning, interviews him for a Secret Service job. She turns him down, of course. He was a C student, he has trouble with authority, etc. You, basically. When the shit goes down, she’s outside, winds up with the Joint Chiefs and the Speaker, butting heads, and delivering lines like, “Your first act as president … is to blow up the White House?” She’s supposed to be the movie’s Sgt. Powell, the ally on the outside, but she’s too high-level, not working-class enough, and almost everything she says grates like nails on a chalkboard. But that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it is this: After John Cale single-handedly saves the country, and certainly the Middle East, and possibly even the world from massive death and destruction, she, Finnerty, meets him on the White House lawn, and, with all of the press buzzing around, and the White House still smoldering in the background, looks him squarely in the eye and says, “Thank you for everything you did today,” in a tone that my boss would use if I’d just done a pretty good PowerPoint presentation.
Thank you for everything you did today? In that officious tone? Maggie. Hon. Put a little love into it. Or at least a dollop of emotion.
On opening day, we fight back
You want to hear my idea for a paranoid action movie? Here it is.
It’s about a writer-director who makes big-budget action movies in which, even post-9/11, our most beloved landmarks and institutions are destroyed. Let’s make this guy, I don’t know, German. That’s an easy mark, right? Let’s call him … Franz Heimlich. No, too silly. How about … Roland Emmerich? That’s silly, too, but we’ll work on it.
So this German, Roland Emmerich, secretly hates America and the world, which is why, in his movies, he keeps destroying America and the world. His first big movie was an alien-invasion movie in which the money-shot was the White House getting blown up. He called it “Independence Day.” Then he goes on to destroy New York City (“Godzilla”), the world (“The Day After Tomorrow”), the world again (“2012”), and the reputation of William Shakespeare (“Anonymous”), before returning to destroy the U.S. Capitol and the White House (“White House Down”). In his wake, the world lies in ruins, smoldering. He is able to do what Hitler only dreamed of doing.
Best of all? He does it with our help. We pay to see these things happen. Over and over again. Even though none of them are any good. Even though all of them are eventually low-rated (< 7.0) on IMDb.com. But by then he deed is done. By then, he’s in his bunker somewhere, laughing, and covering himself with our money.
That’s the villain of my paranoid action movie.
And the hero? The hero is you. Because you stop going.
Movie Review: The Bling Ring (2013)
After watching Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” at SIFF Uptown in lower Queen Anne in Seattle, my friend Vinny complained that the movie didn’t give us enough outside of the vacuous lives of its girl/gay protagonists, who are obsessed with celebrity and luxury items and combine the two fascinations by breaking into the homes of celebrities (Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan) and stealing shit (jewelry, shoes, panties, pills).
“That’s what’s brilliant about it,” I said. “It doesn’t give us anything else. Just that.”
Seriously, I can’t remember a recent movie where form and content matched so well. You could make the movie and the characters more interesting. You could use better actors. You could create better dialogue and give us a better soundtrack. But there’s a kind of brilliance in immersing us in the awful, dreamlike horror of these empty, empty lives. What is it these kids do? They steal, then they wear what they steal, then they dance and party, wearing what they’ve stolen, and take countless selfies and post them on Facebook and tell their friends where they’ve been. It’s the emptiest of lives but it’s the pinnacle of life for them. How sad is that? They are drawn to the celebrity light as if only that which is filmed is real. They want to be on the other side of the celebrity camera. They want to be the watched rather than the watcher.
They get their wish.
Can you afford me?
Marc (Israel Broussard) is the new kid in school in Calabasas, Calif., an affluent suburb of Los Angeles, and his arrival is greeted by the other kids with vague eyerolls, OMGs, and dismissive critiques of what he’s wearing. A girl in the hallway bumps into him and tells him to watch it. The sense of privilege here, particularly among the girls, is immediate and overwhelming. But Rebecca (Katie Chang) seems nice, if blank. She makes overtures. She invites him to the beach. Why is she so nice to him? Because she feels she can manipulate him? We never find out.
Soon they’re hanging regularly. They smoke pot. They go shopping. The actors aren’t particularly good and their dialogue isn’t particularly interesting because the characters have nothing really to say. “I was always self-conscious that I wasn’t as good-looking as other people,” Marc tells us in voiceover. That’s as deep as it gets. The whole thing feels inert and airless.
They begin to hang with a few others, including Nicki the princess (Emma Watson), her crazy half-sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and balls-out Chloe (Claire Julien, in one of the film’s better performances). They ride around town, listen to hip-hop, flash gang signs, and engage in girl talk:
Girl 1: Bitch, you’re just jealous.
Girl 2: Suck my dick.
They get into clubs even though they’re underage. Hey, there’s Kirsten Dunst. Hey, there’s Paris Hilton. Later, Marc reads that Paris is hosting a party in Vegas. That’s when Rebecca gets the idea. Where does Paris live? “I bet she’d leave her keys under the mat,” Rebecca says. CUT TO: Finding the keys under the mat. That was good. That made me laugh out loud.
Arguments can be made about which is worse: the kids’ celebrity obsession or the celebrity’s own celebrity obsession. Paris Hilton’s place, as portrayed here, is glitzy and filled with reminders of her own status: throw pillows with her picture on them; a wall of her magazine covers; a framed poster of herself wearing a T-shirt reading “CAN YOU AFFORD ME?” One secret room contains nothing but designer shoes. The kids, who return several times, try on clothes and jewelry as if they’re in a store. They fight over outfits. Rebecca tries to take Paris Hilton’s dog at one point. “You can’t take her dog,” Marc tells her.
Rebecca is the engine, Marc the brakes, but the brakes don’t work very well. The more often they get away with it, the more brazen they become. They go to Megan Fox’s home and Nicki practically undulates on the bed. They find a gun in Orlando Bloom’s home and Sam waves it around dangerously, enjoying the power. They find a stash of Rolexes under his bed and hock them with a bouncer at a club (Gavin Rossdale). I don’t know if Coppola intended this but the further they go, the more distant the celebrity names became to me. Eventually they steal from the home of someone named Audrina who was in something called “The Hills.”
As I sat in the theater, watching all this, I wondered whose home I would break into. Jackie Chan’s? E.L. Doctorow’s? And steal what? And why? I liked these people. Why would I take from them? That’s a few steps shy of Mark David Chapman territory, isn’t it? These kids rob whom they love. They want to be immersed in that. They want to be that.
Then they become that.
The lesson of the non-lesson
When the cops come—after the story finally hits the press—they come swiftly and smartly. They’re all rounded up. Of course the kids have been dumb. That’s part of the point.
For a time they get to experience life on the other side of the camera. A few (Marc) are uncomfortable there. A few (Nicki) have lawyers and managers and get interviewed by a reporter from Vanity Fair, who writes the article upon which the movie is based. We get Nicki and her awful mom (Leslie Mann), with her awful vaguely Eastern, me-first homilies, jockeying for position in the interview. “Mom, it’s my interview,” Nicki complains.
The harshest sentences go to the engine, Rebecca, and the brakes, Marc, who each get four years. We see Marc, wearing an orange jumpsuit, and chained to other hardened criminals, taking the bus to LA County Jail. That seems the lesson. You don’t want to be where Marc is at that moment. And the heavy steel door to the LA County Jail is clanged shut. It’s a classic ending.
But it’s not the ending because it’s not really the lesson. Nicki, with her lawyers and managers, gets only 30 days. She’s interviewed about her time in prison, about who she saw there (Lindsay Lohan), about what they were wearing (orange jumpsuits). She spins the whole adventure so it’s about her. “I’m a firm believer in Karma and I think this situation is a huge learning lesson for me,” she says, aping her mom’s me-first, Eastern homilies. “I want to run a non-profit. I want to lead a country one day for all I know.”
That’s the lesson. It’s the lesson of the non-lesson, of nothing learned. It’s all about how you get on the other side of the camera, where real life is.
CAN YOU AFFORD ME?
No, we can’t.
Movie Review: The Kings of Summer (2013)
In sixth grade I read “My Side of the Mountain,” a young adult novel about a kid who gets fed up with family life and carves out an existence in a huge tree in the woods and has all sorts of adventures. I loved it. I was never that brave, or that adept in the wilderness (Indian Guides rather than Boy Scouts), so the furthest I got was a deep shelf in the back of the family garage. I set up a little fortress there, which is where I fled during family squabbles.
Joe (Nick Robinson) is made of sturdier stuff, and, when his widowed father, Frank (Nick Offerman), lays down harsh laws at the beginning of another high school summer, Joe bolts for a clearing in the nearby woods, dragging along his best friend, Patrick (Gabriel Basso), and Biaggio (Moises Arias), the odd kid in school. Together, with tools they’ve stolen from their parents, and supplies they’ve stolen from around town—wood paneling, a slide, window panes and an outhouse door—they build a reasonable facsimile of a very leaky house. And that’s where they spend the summer, having adventures.
Usually these adventures are slow-mo montages backed by a song. They jump off a small cliff and into a river. They punch each other and we watch the muscles and skin ripple. At one point, with machetes, Joe and Biaggio go hunting. They climb a hill expecting to see animals on the other side; instead, it’s a freeway with a Boston Market. Wuh-wuhr. So they buy chicken and bring it back. For some reason, they pretend to Patrick that they caught it and cooked it. Wucka wucka.
For a time, I was thinking that writer Chris Galletta and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts had given us this wonderful gift: a summer movie without super-powered beings or high-tech gizmos. They’d given us a movie about kids who don’t want to watch TV. But TV is never far away because much of the movie has a sitcom feel. The parents are too loopy, the kids too mature—except with each other, when they revert to odd lies and behaviors. Joe, who starts out hapless (he brings a crappy birdhouse to the last day of school, a week late), quickly becomes a James Franco figure: full of empty blather and not much else. There’s a girl, Kelly (Erin Moriarity), a pretty blonde, who seems interested in him. But when he brings her to their hiding place, she goes for Patrick. We don’t blame her. It doesn’t help that at this point Joe is cultivating The Worst Teenage Moustache Ever.
Their adventures in the woods are never that interesting, and the music to back up these adventures is lousy. Honestly, it’s one of the worst indie soundtracks I’ve heard. It’s almost a relief to get out of the woods, which feel increasingly muggy and bug-ridden and claustrophobic, and back to the parents and their search for their kids. Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”) gives us his usual droll line readings. (“It’s clearly a kidnapping,” he says to Patrick’s parents. “They took the kids, and the pasta and the canned goods.”) Patrick’s Mom, Megan Mullally (“Will & Grace”), delivers dingy non sequiturs. Is that the reason for the sitcomy feel? That most of the actors cut their teeth on sitcoms?
In the end, not halfway through the summer, the boys are home, lessons are learned, rifts are mended. “The Kings of Summer” was not filmed before a live studio audience but it might as well have been.
Movie Review: This is the End (2013)
Is the Hollywood-hating, “Left Behind”-loving, conservative Christian crowd checking out “This is the End”? I think they’d dig it the most.
If they did, they’d get to watch that horrible den of liberal iniquity, Hollywood, Calif., turn into a literal hell on earth, while its pampered godless denizens realize not only that they’re pampered and godless but that they have been left behind by God.
They’d get to hear lines like these:
Seth: That means there’s a God. Who saw that shit coming?
Jay: Like 95 percent of the planet?
It’s the Book of Revelation with dick jokes.
On the down side, some of the heathens wind up in heaven anyway. Yes, even the Jews.
Almost everyone in “This is the End” plays themselves, or “plays themselves” in the Jerry Seinfeld/Larry David manner. Jay Baruchel (“She’s Out of My League”) shows up in L.A. to hang out with his longtime friend Seth Rogen (“The Green Hornet”). Apparently he just wants to hang, but after a day of pot-smoking and 3D video-game-playing Seth drags him to the housewarming party of James Franco (“Spider-Man 3”), Rogen’s co-star in the stoner comedy “Pineapple Express.” Everyone’s happy to see Seth, everyone’s awkward around Jay. Jay’s awkward with them, too, and he searches for a place at the party where he might fit in. He doesn’t find it. It’s a good scene, actually. As a perennial not-fitting-in-at-parties dude, I identified. Hell, I do it when I’m not further burdened by the presence of Emma Watson and Rihanna, who, poor girls, probably double the awkward quotient whenever they walk into a room.
At a local convenience store a few blocks away, where Jay is buying smokes, Seth is wary of the tough-talking cashier who demands a man buy something before his daughter uses the restroom. The two stars are riffing on this when the earth cracks open. It’s like an earthquake but bigger, people are screaming, and Jay sees blue beams of light lift half the people in the convenience store into the sky. The father/daughter: yes. The cashier: no. At first I thought UFOs. I didn’t yet know where we were going.
Outside it’s worse, there’s fire everywhere, and, in a panic, Seth and Jay run and stumble back to James Franco’s place … where the party’s still in full swing. In fact, no one believes their story. Then the earth rumbles again and everyone runs outside, where a giant sinkhole opens up on Franco’s front yard, swallowing, among others, Rihanna, Michael Cera (“Scott Pilgrim”), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (“Kick Ass”), and Paul Rudd (“I Love You, Man”). By the time they regroup inside, we’re down to our principles: Jay, Seth, Franco, Jonah Hill (“Moneyball” ) and Craig Robinson (“The Office”). Danny McBride (“Eastbound & Down”), sleeping it off in the bathtub upstairs, joins them the next morning. Emma Watson returns for a mid-movie cameo.
Franco tries to buoy everyone up. “Just because a bunch of people fell into a giant hole doesn’t mean we can’t have fun,” he says. Jay remains unbuoyed: “I don’t want to die in James Franco’s house,” he tells Seth, whining. Seth panics: “We’re actors! We’re not hard! We pretend to be hard but we’re not!”
The longer they hole up the worse it gets outside. Heads roll. Literally. Demons prowl. By the time Jonah Hill gets raped and possessed by Satan (yes), everyone has finally agreed that Jay is right, that they’re dealing with the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelations. But Craig shows them a way out. Sacrificing himself for the others, he ascends to heaven just before being eaten (or something) by a giant demon. Franco tries the same method, is en route, but makes the mistake of flipping off Danny McBride, now the leader of a band of cannibals, and tumbles back to earth to get eaten alive.
Eventually we find out heaven is a bit like (alley oop) James Franco’s party, except with the Backstreet Boys. Heaven gets the Backstreet Boys, hell Rihanna. Something wrong in that equation.
“This is the End” has a few funny moments (“Something so not chill happened last night,” Jonah confesses after being Devil-raped), but a lot of clunkers. There’s an attempt to make a shoe-string “Pineapple Express 2,” for example. We also get the usual push-the-envelope stuff—arguments about jizz on porno mags—and too much Danny McBride, whom I’ve never found funny. The movie, like the Christopher Guest comedies, is 50 percent improv. Unlike the Guest comedies, it’s not that funny. I can’t recommend it.
But I am curious if a movie with this many dick jokes, and with Satan himself portrayed with a big swinging dick, can appeal to the “Left Behind” crowd. Because beyond the jizz jokes, the movie gives them everything they want. God rewards the good and punishes Hollywood. Leaving the theater wasn’t like leaving a typical stoner comedy. It was more like leaving “Saving Private Ryan.” You do a kind of spiritual patdown. You wonder: “Have I been a good person?”
Movie Review: Broken City (2013)
There’s a point in Allen Hughes’ “Broken City” when ex-cop, now private investigator, Billy Taggert (Mark Wahlberg), begins to investigate his own investigation.
Five days before a tight election, Billy is hired by New York City Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe), to follow his wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta Jones), whom he suspects of infidelity. Lo and behold, Billy finds her in a house on the far end of Long Island having a clandestine meeting with Paul Andrews (Kyle Chandler), the opposition candidate’s campaign manager. Then Andrews winds up dead. So Billy asks for, and receives, a clandestine meeting of his own meeting with Cathleen, on the far end of a deserted pier (really?), and she tells him he’s been played for a sap. She was never having an affair with Andrews. She was going to be his snitch, not his snatch. She hates her husband, he’s corrupt, etc., and she was going to bring him down. Now it’s too late. Because apparently she can’t reveal that information to anyone else.
What information? One of the big issues in the election is the Bolton Village housing project, which is where, seven years earlier, Billy, still a cop, shot and killed a young man, Mikey Tavarez, who had earlier been acquitted of the murder and rape of a young girl. The incident roiled the city—white cop, Hispanic kid—but Billy was found not guilty. He lost his job but he walked. Later we find out that Billy’s girlfriend, the budding actress and supreme hottie Natalie Barrow (Natalie Martinez), is actually Natalia Barea, the sister of the murdered girl. So was Billy her boyfriend then? Or did that happen later, as a kind of seven-year-long thank you? Either way: Ick.
Hostetler’s opponent, Jack Valiant (Barry Pepper), sporting a Prince-Valiantish haircut no serious contender for mayor would wear, claims Bolton Village won’t be saved by Hostetler but razed. He claims Hostetler is in the pockets of rich developers like Sam Lancaster (Griffin Dunne), whose company has a contract with the city to redevelop Bolton Village. Lancaster’s son, Todd (James Ransone of “The Wire” and “Generation Kill”), with whom the old man has very public fights, was actually going to meet Andrews before Andrews was killed. Which is why Billy stakes out the Lancaster development company.
It’s late at night but there’s tons of activity. Things are being tossed into overflowing garbage bins, and when Billy sneaks close, he uncovers a box and looks at three papers inside: the first two show the plans to raze Bolton Village; the last is a blueprint of the high-rise they plan to put in its place. Ah ha! These three pieces of paper Billy found could cost Hostetler the election!
Then Billy peeks inside the building, sees Sam and Todd fighting (again), and various men shredding documents.
My question: What the hell are these guys shredding if not the three pieces of paper Billy just found?
All of “Broken City” is like this. It’s a ridiculous, over-the-top movie where everyone has one degree of separation from everyone else, and where Mark Wahlberg, bless his heart, has two acting ranges: kinda blank and kinda angry. Is Billy supposed to be an alcoholic? Once he falls off the wagon, he seems to function fine. Can Wahlberg not do hangovers or regrets, or is that not part of his movie-star persona?
One keeps watching to see if the thing finally makes sense. It doesn’t. The Mayor isn’t just in the pockets of the developers, he is a developer. He has a 50 percent stake in Lancaster’s firm. So the $4 billion the city is paying Lancaster to redevelop (that is, raze) Bolton Village? He gets half. Where is the press in all this? And why doesn’t anyone who’s trying to reveal the information (Cathleen, Todd) reveal it to The New York Times? Why don’t they put it on WikiLeaks? Why don’t they post it on Facebook, or tweet it, or create a Tumblr site? I mean, c’mon. What year are we in?
But Hostetler gets his. When he tries to blackmail Billy with direct evidence that Billy shot and killed Mikey Tavarez in cold blood, which he did (that’s our hero, btw), Billy records the conversation with that shitty Voice Memo iPhone app, and turns it over to Police Chief Carl Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright, wasted), even though it means he’ll go to jail, too. And as Fairbanks leads Hostetler away, the day before the election, he lets him know that his wife was having an affair after all. With him.
Watch “City of Hope.”
Movie Review: Man of Steel (2013)
How do you begin?
That’s what I wondered as I sat in my seat at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle and the lights dimmed. I already knew something of the story from the numerous trailers and TV spots that had been released, teased out, particularly in the last six months. I also obviously knew the story of Superman. We all do. So where do you begin? With Jor-El arguing before the Kryptonian Council, as it’s traditionally done? In Smallville, with the rocket ship approaching and about to change everything, as “Smallville” did it? With Clark on the road, bearded and alone, and the rest of the story coming via flashbacks and a holographic Jor-El explaining the Kryptonian past?
Then I heard a cry and saw a face, Lara (Ayelet Zurer), in the midst of childbirth, the first natural childbirth on Krypton in hundreds of years, and had my answer.
They began as he begins.
People would freak
I liked “Man of Steel.” I’ll say that up front. But a lot of what I liked I knew going in.
I knew, for example, that Superman (Henry Cavill) would be greeted, not with cheers (as he was in 1978 during the helicopter rescue), but with shock and horror. He’d be handcuffed by the U.S. Army and led into interrogation rooms. That’s smart. If such a superpowered being did appear, particularly in a post-9/11 world, people would freak and weapons would be trained on him. Thank God the interrogation rooms we sent him to weren’t enhanced. He might’ve changed his mind about us.
I knew Clark wouldn’t be a journalist with The Daily Planet. We see him hitchhiking on the road. We see him on a fishing boat. We see him doing good deeds, costumeless, bare-chested. That’s smart, too. A mild-mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper? Do such things exist anymore? Might as well make him a photographer at the Chicago Sun-Times. Might as well get him a summer job at Borders Books.
I also figured Lois Lane (Amy Adams) would figure out his secret identity, since, in one trailer, we see her greeting Martha Kent (Diane Lane) at the family farm. And since Clark isn’t at the Planet … This is good, too. In a traditional Superman story, Lois is a bit of a sap. She ignores the man who loves her (Clark) to pursue the man she loves (Superman), without realizing they’re the same man. Hell, Superman was concocted in the first place by a Clark Kent (Jerry Siegel) to stick it to the Lois Lanes of the world. That’s part of its DNA. But here Lois knows his identity before most people know he exists. She’s a true reporter. She tracks down the stories of a superpowered good samaritan all the way to Smallville and the Kent family farm. She gets her story and then doesn’t print it.
I liked all of these elements in theory and in practice. I wanted more of them, to be honest. I wanted more of Clark on the road. I wanted more of Lois’ detective work.
What surprised me, in fact, was how many familiar Superman story elements are still in the movie:
- Kal-El is sent to Earth because Krypton explodes. (Yep, I was wrong about that.)
- Zod and his associates are sent to the Phantom Zone before Krypton explodes. (Although the order is reversed: Kal-El leaves before Zod is imprisoned.)
- Clark grows up on the Kent family farm, perplexed by why he is different, until his father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), shows him the rocket in a silo in the family barn when he’s 12.
- While Jonathan cautions against using his powers (because people will freak), he says, in almost the exact same words Pa Kent (Glenn Ford) used in 1978, “I have to believe that you … were sent here for a reason.”
- After his father’s death, Clark heads north to search for that reason and to discover who he is.
- He finds out who he is via a holographic image of his Kryptonian father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), who tells him the story.
Then aliens invade. Which is also the answer to how you get the mass of humanity to trust such a superpowered being. You present, at the same time, his opposite: those who wish to destroy humanity rather than save it.
The New Adventures of Jor-El
A few things about Krypton.
First, H.R. Giger should sue. Krypton may be alien, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to steal the look of “Alien” as much as this movie does.
Second, we spend way too much time there. The first half hour could be titled “The Adventures of Jor-El, Free-Thinking Scientist of Krypton.” Not only do we get Jor-El warning the Kryptonian Council about the planet’s core and going mano-a-mano with Gen. Zod (Michael Shannon), who stages a coup, but we also get him: 1) under arrest; 2) escaping arrest on the back of a giant dragonfly; 3) buzzing all over Krypton; 4) diving into the baby incubation chamber and stealing the “codex,” onto which the Kryptonian genetic code is imprinted. This last bit is way too dull and science-fictiony for me. It’s introduced, I suppose, as the reason Zod needs to pursue Kal-El across the galaxy. Zod is the keeper of the code and Jor-El hides that code aboard the spaceship sent to Earth and yadda yadda. But I’m not a fan.
I’m not a fan of the whole natural childbirth thing. Krypton is a programmed society, where everyone knows, at birth, what they are meant to do. Zod is programmed to be a warrior, Jor-El is programmed to be a scientist, etc. So why did this one couple, Jor-El and Lara, break free from these constraints to have a natural baby? I do like Zod’s reaction, though, when Jor-El explains all this to him. He screws up his face in moral disgust, as only Michael Shannon can, and shouts, “Heresy!”
Zod himself is a more interesting character here. He’s been programmed to protect Krypton at all costs. That’s why he stages the coup in the first place—because the Kryptonian Council is full of dithering idiots. That’s why he searches for a planet the remaining Kryptonians, warriors all, can inhabit, and lands on Earth. If anything, he reminds me of Michael Corleone. He’s just trying to save the family. But in doing so he destroys it.
Unfortunately, they gave Ayelet Zurer the most thankless task any actress can perform: urging us away from the story we’ve all come to see. “I can’t do it,” she says, about sending Kal-El to Earth to become Superman. “Lara, Krypton is doomed,” Jor-El tells her. “It’s his only chance.” She makes arguments. She keeps stalling. In the audience, I’m less-than-sympathetic. “Let go of the baby, lady,” I thought. “We’re due on Earth already.”
But the cutaway is smart. Kal-El’s rocket zips into our solar system, past the moon, over Smallville … and we cut to Clark in his bearded drifter stage. He’s on a fishing boat, the Debbie Sue, and the first person we see being saved is him. Nice touch. But then an oil rigger goes up and we get a bearded, shirtless Clark saving everybody. Like Hercules, the original Superman.
His childhood we get in flashback.
I know, Captain, a thousand questions…
In a October 2010 post, reacting to an Atlantic magazine article on “Five Ways to Revive the Superman franchise,” I wrote:
We're interested in him because he's all-powerful but being all-powerful is dramatically uninteresting. So we need to either push toward or pull away from his power: weaken him to create a feasible drama, or keep him as is and make his all-powerfulness the drama. I'm inclined toward the latter.
They did the latter. I knew this going in, too. One of the many good flashbacks involves Clark in school, suddenly hearing, and seeing through, everything. He looks around and sees skulls. He sees his teacher’s heart beating inside her body. He hears girls talking: “What a weirdo.” It’s up to his mom to get him to focus. “Think of my voice as an island,” she says. He does. It helps. But they don’t do enough with this. It becomes a plot point when he battles Zod, since Zod suffers the same thing—seeing and hearing everything—so it should’ve given Kal-El a tactical advantage. But he doesn’t take advantage. He just stands there and tells Zod (and us, I suppose) what’s going on.
Does Clark ever wonder why tragedy seems to follow him as Clark? A school bus he’s riding in at 12 goes off a bridge and into a deep river. A highway he’s riding on as a young man is the pathway for a tornado, which takes his father away. I’m 50 and nothing like this has ever happened to me. He gets both of these before he’s 20. Plus, since he grows up in Kansas, he becomes a fan of the Royals. We see him wearing their T-shirt. I nearly cheered. Then I did the math. If he’s 33 at the end, that means he landed in 1980 and probably became a fan around 1990, which means he’s been cheering for a sucky team his whole life. Is that why he’s champion of the oppressed? Imagine if he'd landed in New York and rooted for the Yankees. He might have chosen Zod’s side.
I like wondering about these things. That’s part of the fun. How did Clark land the gig with the U.S. Army in the Arctic outpost? With a falsified record? Way to background-check, guys. Why does the Army invite Lois Lane there? Isn’t that like inviting Seymour Hersch into Area 51? And did Clark know the thing they’d found in the ice, the 18,000-year-old alien spaceship, was related to him, or was it just a nice coincidence? You also wonder how Jor-El’s S-symbol zipdrive is still compatible with 18,000-year-old Kryptonian hardware. Microsoft doesn’t support 10-year old stuff but Krypton’s computers work through eons? And they’re the ones that died off?
Why the supersuit? Jor-El offering it makes more sense than Ma Kent sewing it together but … it still doesn’t make much sense.
Clark had never tried flying before? Man, Jonathan really held him back. That’s a poignant moment, by the way, when the tornado bears down on Jonathan and he shakes his head at Clark—no, don’t save me—and is swept away. At the same time, doesn’t it recall another poignant superhero moment? Just before this, the two are arguing in the car. “You’re not my dad,” Clark says, “you’re just some guy who found me in a field.” The superhero, in late adolescence, arguing with the father who’s not the father, just before the father dies. Where have we seen this?
Uncle Ben: I don’t mean to preach. And I know I’m not your father …
Peter Parker: Then stop pretending to be!
Why did Zod demand the presence of both Kal-El and Lois Lane? What did he hope to glean from the latter? Instead, she simply becomes the instrument of Superman’s escape.
I admit I sighed sadly when Zod first contacted everyone on Earth. I knew, for me, most of the fun stuff was over. I knew the rest would be roller-coaster ride. But I didn’t realize just how many buildings would be wrecked, either by the “world engine,” the Kryptonian device that would “terra-form” Earth into Krypton, or by Superman and Zod as they battled in Smallville and Metropolis. How many times did we need to see these two battling through CGI skyscrapers and parking garages? How much is enough for the dopey fanboys who get off on this stuff?
Even so, throughout all the battles, I was intrigued by one thing: How does one man, Superman, battle a dozen superpowered beings who are his equal? Who may be more powerful since they are trained warriors? What’s the secret to his ultimate success? How do screenwriter David S. Goyer and director Zack Snyder answer that?
Know what? I still don’t know the answer. The Kryptonian spaceship ultimately goes down because Dr. Emil Hamilton (Richard Schiff) turns the doohickey so the whatchamajig can absorb the idontknow … and boom. But why do the Kryptonians die? Aren’t they invulnerable? Or are they on the ship, which is like Krypton, where they can be killed? And how does Superman finally destroy the world engine and save the planet? He appears to just, you know, try really hard.
Is it that simple? Muscle over mind, Superman?
The ultimate question
I should add that everyone, from the Els to the Kents, are expertly cast. Among supporting roles, I particularly liked Schiff, who was always my favorite on “West Wing,” Christopher Meloni as Col. Nathan Hardy, who tackles head on what he doesn’t understand, and Larry Fishburne as Perry White, who, in a great moment, first forbids Lois to work on her “super alien” story because it’s absurd, and, on a dime, changes his mind because she gives up too quickly, and he knows that’s not Lois. I also liked the vulnerability in Dylan Sprayberry, 12-year-old Clark.
Both Shannon and Adams are good in everything, and, at the center of the story, Cavill exudes a lonely decency as Clark and a steely determination as Superman. My one caveat about casting? Lois is the love interest, which means we’re supposed to be attracted to her, and I’m not attracted to Adams. At all. Sorry. Maybe that’s just me.
Other caveats: “Man of Steel” raises interesting questions only to abandon them to spectacle. “You’re the answer, son,” Jonathan tells Clark when he’s 12. “You’re the answer to ‘Are we alone in the universe?’” This is similar to what Goyer has said: “If the world found out [Superman] existed, it would be the biggest thing that ever happened in human history.” As is, you know, the near destruction of human history.
But the movie cleans all this up quickly. Too quickly. Afterwards, everyone just goes about their business. They go back to work at the Planet, they try to take pretty girls to basketball games with ringside seats, and Perry White actually hires a new reporter, Clark Kent, who, I assume, doesn’t have a journalism degree. So why hire him? Because that’s what’s supposed to happen? And why does Clark want the job in the first place? I was hoping he wanted to be near Lois but it’s the same explanation he’s always given—so he can hear about emergencies as they happen—when, no, in the digital age there are other means. And the secret identity thing? With the glasses? Really? When half of Smallville already knows? It’s as if Goyer broke up elements of the Superman myth only to put them together neatly at the end.
But Goyer did this with “Batman Begins,” too, ending with the bat signal, etc., and then breaking it all up again, including the bat signal, in “The Dark Knight.” So maybe he’ll do the same in a Superman sequel. One can hope.
One can hope, in the next movie, it’s not business as usual in Metropolis, that there are people still freaked by what happened, and that, even as some view Superman as a god-like figure, others blame him for bringing near destruction to the planet, for bringing the Kryptonian warriors here in the first place, and search for ways to destroy him or control him. There should be a vocal element again him. The more decent he is, the more vocal they should become. He should be perplexed by this. He should always look at us and wonder whether we’re worth saving. Nothing, in the end, would make him more human.
Movie Review: The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)
Bill Siegel’s “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” starts out with a helluva one-two punch.
The first image we see is archival footage of Ali in 1968 on a British talk show, speaking remotely from the U.S., and it’s all very polite and dull … until it isn’t. American talk show host and producer David Susskind, of whom I knew vaguely and tend to associate with intellectualism and left-wing causes (his was the first nationally broadcast show to feature Americans against the Vietnam War, for example), excoriates the dethroned heavyweight champion. He says he finds nothing interesting or tolerable about Ali at all. “He has been found guilty,” he says. “He is a simplistic fool and a pawn,” he says. He says nastier things about Muhammad Ali than I’ve said about anyone in my life. And Ali? He just sits there, looking uncomfortable. That’s the first punch.
Before Ali responds—if he responds—and how could the Louisville Lip not have responded?—Siegel cuts to November 2005, the White House, where Pres. George W. Bush presents the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, to Ali, then lauds the Parkinson’s-debilitated, three-time heavyweight champion with words nicer than I’ve used about anyone in my life. That’s the second punch.
The obvious question is how Ali went from pariah in 1968 to hero in 2005.
A third punch, immediately following these two, doesn’t quite land. It’s Minister Louis Farrakhan, one of the doc’s talking heads, telling us about meeting Ali after the Medal of Freedom ceremony. When Farrakhan congratulates him, Ali leans in and says, “Still a nigger.” Farrakhan professes shock at this so Ali has to say it again: “Still a nigger.” Then Farrakhan asks the camera, “What did my brother mean?”
It doesn’t quite land because I don’t quite buy Farrakhan’s story. Not what Ali said but that it needed repeating to Farrakhan of all people. Besides, it’s a dull sentiment these days—Malcolm X was saying the same thing 50 years ago (What do you call a black man with a Ph.D.?)—and it raises an unasked question: still a nigger … to whom? Pres. Bush? The white establishment? All white people? There will always be people who view other groups reductively and pejoratively. So … what did Farrakhan’s brother mean?
But that first punch? That one buckles the knees.
Full disclosure: Bill Siegel, a researcher on “Hoop Dreams,” and the co-director of the Academy-Award-nominated doc “The Weather Underground,” is a good friend of good friends. Ten years ago I gave a mixed-review to “Weather Underground” for The Seattle Times, and I’ve felt bad about it ever since. Some part of me thinks I was reacting to the content in the doc—the left’s radicalism that led to the ascendancy of the right, whose crappy world I was living in—rather than the doc itself. But during “Trials” I felt a similar sense of umbrage rising in me. It’s the umbrage of the partially told story.
Fuller disclosure: I’m not a fan of the Nation of Islam. Its origin myth, of the evil scientist Yakub, 6,600 years ago, bleaching the natural black races to create the white race, who was the devil on Earth, was a myth of hatred, but that myth itself has been bleached out of the Nation’s history. No one talks about it anymore. It’s not brought up here, for example. More, the Nation came to prominence in great part because of the eloquence of Malcolm X, who is generally lauded by the Nation … until he breaks with Elijah Muhammad in 1963, leaves the Nation behind, and is then assassinated by Nation members—even if, here and elsewhere, the U.S. government, often the FBI, gets the blame. I get the appeal of the group: clean, upstanding, bow ties. I just have no interest in an organization that has always viewed me, not to mention most of the people I love, as the devil.
At one point in “Trials,” we see an interviewer on ’60s television asking Ali about this: does the champ see him, the interviewer, as the devil? Ali owns up to it. Then he makes owning up to it the point. He says he’s not going to pretend he believes something he doesn’t. He goes on and on about this, but it’s a classic case of misdirection. You want to say: It’s not that you believe or that you own up to believing it; it’s what you believe.
But Ali was good at such misdirection. I suppose a boxer has to be. Plus he was a showman—one of the best. It’s just hard sometimes to parse the showmanship—the bullshit—from the sincerely believed.
Ali, no doubt, believed in the Nation and in Islam. Siegel sheds light on the moment, in February 1964, after Ali beats Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. “I shook up the world!” Ali says. Then he adds, and Siegel underlines the point but including subtitles, “I know the real God!” I’d never heard that part of it before. I’d heard “Shook up the world!” and “Eat your words!” to the press, but not “I know the real God!” One wonders how much this belief helped him win the title. Or whether winning the title helped him believe.
Unlike most docs about Ali, “Trials” focuses less on the ring and more on Ali’s relationship with the Nation and his refusal to serve in Vietnam.
As the Vietnam War escalated in the mid-1960s, draft standards were lowered, and Ali, heavyweight champion of the world, was reclassified 1-A. What had he been classified before? And why? We don’t find out. But his reaction is famous. “I ain’t got nothing against those Viet Cong,” he said.
The authorities circled. The previous generation’s famous black athletes—Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson—were trotted out to condemn him. Ali’s Louisville Sponsoring Group, the 11 white men who had bankrolled him since his gold medal in Rome, worked to get him into the National Guard; but to Ali’s credit he refused the Dan Quayle/George W. Bush route. As a result, the consortium dropped him. Again, to his credit, he called every member of the group to thank them for their help. But now he was isolated except for the Nation. He probably would’ve been eventually anyway. That’s the direction he was heading.
Siegel presents various moments from his years in the wilderness: speaking at college campuses; debating William F. Buckley on “Firing Line”; appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in beard and afro wig and singing a song from his starring role in the Broadway musical, “Buck White,” which he was only doing because he was not allowed to fight. “Your greatest trial,” he’s told, “isn’t in the ring but with the American people.”
I suppose the hatred Ali’s draft resistance caused, and which is apparent in Susskind’s reaction, is not really that hard to understand. Ali was a professional fighter and a braggart. His religion was considered a hate group. Yet he refused to join the Army because he was too peaceful? Who was he kidding?
Yet he won that trial with the American people and with the courts. “Once Ali took the stand [against the Vietnam War],” Siegel has said in interviews, “he didn’t waver. What changed was everything else.”
The doc reminds us he barely won it. He had, as a talking head says, one foot and three toes in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court was going to rule against him, 5-3 (Thurgood Marshall, recusing), in Clay v. United States, and that would be it. But Justice John Marshall Harlan, writing the majority opinion, began to waver. What’s fascinating—and worthy of its own doc—was the politicking behind what should have been a strictly legal decision. Was Ali sincere in his religious beliefs? Was there precedent? What would the result be if they ruled broadly in his favor? So the Court wound up ruling narrowly in his favor. He got off on a technicality: the state’s inconsistent argument regarding the sincerity of Ali’s beliefs.
Watching, one can’t help but wonder what Ali’s legacy would be if he had gone to prison for five years. How would he be regarded today? Would he be awarded the Medal of Freedom at the White House? Would docs like this be made? Or would Muhammad Ali, Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Century, be a mere footnote in history?
“The Trials of Muhammad Ali” is a well-made doc, with, again, eye-opening archival footage. (Another example: Jerry Lewis hosting “The Tonight Show” before the Liston fight and telling the future champ to shut up. “I think you’re a big bag of wind,” Lewis says.)
Siegel also gathers an impressive group of talking heads from the period: Khalilah Camacho-Ali, Ali’s second wife, who, early on, tore up a “Cassius Clay” autograph in his face because that was his slave name; Gordon B. Davidson, the last surviving member of the Louisville group, who is still sharp and dignified; Robert Lipsyte, the great New York Times sports reporter; and various members of the Nation, including Captain Sam, the Miami minister who recruited Clay to the cause. Siegel allows each the space they need to shed what light they have.
At times it’s enough light to illuminate the past. At other times, it’s merely enough to feel our way toward further discussion.
Movie Review: Dirty Wars (2013)
The problem with “Dirty Wars” is the adjective.
The documentary, directed by Rick Rowley, about and starring investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, is concerned with shattering two illusions of the War on Terror: the illusion of cleanliness and the illusion of safety. What the U.S. government is doing in other countries is immoral and thus unclean. And while we may eliminate some enemies we create others. We finish one kill list only to be handed a longer one, which was created going through the first kill list. In this manner we trade short-term safety for long-term insecurity and a war without end.
The doc focuses on the first of these illusions: the illusion of cleanliness. You could feel it in the Q&A after a screening of the doc during the Seattle International Film Festival with guest Jeremy Scahill. The concern of the people who stood up to ask questions was basically, “How do I feel clean again?” but that’s a concern of the privileged. The more widespread human concern, the entire point of civilization you might say, is for safety. The whole point of terrorism, certainly, is to make people feel unsafe, and the whole point of a War on Terror is to give people the illusion of safety. The doc is mainly telling its viewers, certainly its American viewers, that the policies of its government are immoral, and thus unclean, but this requires a level of empathy that most people, certainly in a time of war, don’t have. The doc should have more forcefully told its viewers the more alarming fact that every day they are becoming less safe. They are in a bubble of safety. And one day that bubble will surely burst.
It may burst no matter what we do.
The American Taliban
“Dirty Wars” begins as an investigation by Scahill, the national security correspondent for The Nation, and author of “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army,” into an early-morning raid in Gardez, a remote village in Afghanistan, in which U.S. forces killed five people. The forces aren’t traditional U.S. forces. They’re bearded. The people there call them “the American Taliban.” We’re shown, by the family of the deceased, the patched bullet holes in the wall. We’re told two pregnant women were killed along with a local police commander and a local prosecutor. The family doesn’t understand why it happened. They’re angry. One relative says he wants to wear “a suicide jacket and blow myself up among Americans.” He says, “I want jihad against the Americans.” Scahill, in voiceover, tells us, “I believed the family but that wasn’t enough—for me or anyone else.”
At this point in the narrative, the proposition is we said/they said. But it quickly becomes they said. The U.S. owns up to the atrocity. It tries to pay off the victim’s family. We see a picture of a U.S. military officer, McRaven, in Gardez, offering the family a goat. Scahill wonders who McRaven is. He wonders who “the American Taliban” are. He investigates further and discovers there were 1700 raids similar to the Gardez raid in the three previous months. He just doesn’t tell us what year we’re in. 2009, it turns out.
Scahill keeps pulling on the Gardez thread that reveals the wider, titular war. The “American Taliban” is Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC, a special forces unit created in 1980 in the wake of Pres. Carter’s desert debacle, and now used indiscriminately at the behest of the president. Scahill interviews Matthew Hoh, a foreign service officer who resigns his commission in October 2009 over our failed policy in Afghanistan, and Cpt. Andrew Exum (Ret.), who talks about JSOC and the kill lists of Iraq. You’d start out with 50-200 guys on a list, he says. When you got through that list you’re handed a list of 3,000. How did that happen? Well, you created that second list by working through the first one.
Scahill, in voiceover, chastises himself for missing the JSOC story when he was embedded in Iraq. Then he wonders aloud, “What was I missing today?”
Cut to: footage of Pres. Obama, in black-and-white, slowed down, made grainy, and backed by ominous music.
And that’s where I rolled my eyes.
Everyone’s got their kill list
This is a tough movie to watch as a supporter of Pres. Obama, but this bit, making the ordinary ominous, does a disservice to the subject. It’s something you’d expect from Sean Hannity. It made me doubt the rest of what I was watching.
Not that there’s much to doubt. That’s another problem with the doc. In 2009, 2010 and 2011, Scahill is slowly uncovering what, in 2013, we already know, thanks in large part to Scahill’s reporting. Drone strikes in Yemen? Really? JSOC? You mean the guys who killed Osama bin Laden? The U.S. government targeting U.S. citizens? We’ve been talking about that for months.
Where the doc is helpful is in detailing the extent of it. We’re engaged in secret wars in 70 countries? Scahill focuses on drone strikes in Yemen. He also visits a U.S.-backed warlord in Somalia. “America knows war,” this warlord, Gen. Adde, says approvingly. “They are war masters. … They are teachers, great teachers.”
Even so, my doubts remained. Scahill wants to put a human face on the victims but it often feels like a partial face. He’s shocked, for example, when he sees Anwar al-Awlaki’s name on a kill list, since he knows al-Awlaki is a U.S. citizen, and he can’t imagine America killing its own. Yet Al-Awlaki is also a radical cleric who called for jihad against the U.S. In 2010, he called for a fatwa against a Seattle Weekly cartoonist for declaring May 20 “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day,” and she had to change her address, name, life. Everyone’s got their kill list. But that’s not in the doc. Instead we see al-Awlaki, post-9/11, touted as the moderate imam who can bridge the gap between the U.S. and the Muslim world. But then something happened. We targeted him and turned him into something else. He was clean, and now he’s dirty, and now he’s dead— killed in a drone strike in south Yemen in September 2011. But I doubt he was ever clean. Who is?
The doc is horrified by the mere existence of JSOC, and certainly by the way it’s being run today—as a private army of POTUS— but I flashed back to March 2003 and remembered my arguments against the Iraq War. Invading a country and taking out its leader is fighting the last war, I argued, not this war. Terror groups like al Qaeda are hidden within a country. How do you fight a group hidden with a country? Or many countries? JSOC is one answer. It may not be the answer, or even an effective answer, but it’s a better answer than the one we had in March 2003. A low bar, admittedly.
What do you do?
A day after the doc, I keep turning over its images and ideas in my head. I have nothing but sympathy for the family in Gardez, and nothing but questions about the raid that killed five innocent people there. I question the effectiveness of JSOC. I do believe, as I believed in March 2003, that our actions against terrorists are creating more terrorists. It’s a Hydra head. Cut off one, two more grow.
But I also have sympathy for the movie’s purported villain, Pres. Obama, because I asked the question the doc doesn’t. You’re elected president of the United States. You enter office in the middle of two conventional wars and countless shadow wars against an enemy, or a group of enemies, who may strike us anywhere at any time. What do you do?
Pres. Obama’s answer has been to wind down the conventional wars and ramp up the shadow wars, and the doc focuses on the horror, the immorality, of these shadow wars, and ends there. But this, to my mind, is where the discussion begins. If the shadow wars aren't working, what do you do? What do we do? It’s a question that has no clean answers, no matter how much we may want them.
Movie Review: Out of Print (2013)
“Out of Print” is a documentary about the shift from the printing press to this. It’s not a small shift. So many areas are involved—historical, cultural, sociological, economic, legal, neurophysiological—it would require a series of documentaries to do them right. “Out of Print” is 55 minutes long. It’s the CliffsNotes version of the topic.
Remember CliffsNotes? Dull synopses of great works of literature for students too lazy to read the book. Now students are too lazy to read CliffsNotes. Now they go to websites and cut-and-paste. Maybe they come here. Hey you. Stop that. Stop I said.
From the birth of a written language, possibly in Mesopotamia, to scrolls in 3,000 BC, to codices around the time of Christ, to Gutenberg and mechanical movable type in the 15th century, to the creation of public libraries in the 17th century, to Alexander Carnegie’s gift of public libraries across the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century, the flow of information through a visual representation of language has gotten easier and easier. Now we’ve gone digital. Now we’re all here. Welcome.
As a writer, I’m interested in the economics of this shift. If anyone can write, anyone does. If it’s all out there for free, how does anyone get paid? By singing his didn’t? By dancing his did? (Confused? Visit your local library. Kidding. Google: e.e. cummings.)
As the ground is shifting beneath us, a few are making a mint (Google, Bezos) while the majority are struggling to survive (writers, photographers, libraries, bookstores). This gets a big ho-hum from most. It’s the way of the world, they say. A new technology comes in and wipes out the old professions. We’re all cutters now.
Johnny can’t analyze
But beyond economics, beyond copyright issues and pirating, beyond the digitizing of libraries and the fear of Google and Bezos and where will our libraries and bookstores be in 10 or 20 years (if they be), the biggest issue the doc raises, for me, is this: What is it doing to us? If books are the foundation of civilization, if Gutenberg led to the Renaissance, what is this leading us to?
Kids average 7.5 hours a day in front of screens? What does that mean?
They don’t go to the library to look things up anymore? They just Google it? No duh. But what does that mean? And what is lost? And what—since you can’t Google everything, since everything isn’t under the umbrella of Google yet—are they missing? What are we all missing?
If everything’s easy to find, where’s the joy in finding it? Watching this doc, I flashed back to articles I wrote in the 1990s, and the research I did at the various libraries at the University of Washington, and the nuggets I pulled out. For an article on David Horsey, the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winner for editorial cartooning, I found his early editorial cartoons for The Daily, the University of Washington school newspaper, and it led to this paragraph in the final piece:
Horsey was so successful at the UW Daily that by 1972 they were printing “The Best of Horsey” in their pages; they also interviewed him in the in-bred fashion of college newspapers. Photographs show Horsey bedecked in tight turtleneck, love beads, and, one imagines, hopeless idealism. In a comment that causes the adult Horsey to roar with laughter, for example, his younger self opined, “I can’t see myself spending my life in an office. ... I don’t want to be working for a bunch of fat old men in an office all day long.”
The concern isn’t that Johnny can’t read but can’t analyze. He just extracts data. They all do. The documentary includes a story about a 7th-grade class reading a website about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, and the different ways to save it, and everyone believed it. I was reminded of a recent incident in which a friend, in her 20s, told me that Justice Scalia was retiring. For a second, my hopes were raised. Then I went, “Wait, where did you get this? The New Yorker site? Andy Borowitz?” I shook my head.
On the other hand, I certainly know one kid who’s good with critical thinking. Is he an anomaly? Does it help that he reads big books all the way through?
Hunt and peck
That’s another of the pervasive fears in the doc. In the Internet age, we’re distracted and nibble at bits of information and move on. We visit Facebook and Twitter three times a day, five times, 10 times. We don’t meditate enough with one big, slow source of information: a book. We hunt and peck at the computer screen and come away hungrier than ever.
Unfortunately, that’s what “Out of Print” is like, too. It’s no slow meditation. It hunts and pecks after little bits of information and tosses them to us and we gobble them. But we come away hungry. Worse, it tries to end on a up-note (the children are our future), but, given everything that’s come before, it’s a false up-note. The director, Vivienne Roumani, is a former librarian who now does this. A testimonial might have been interesting.
Here’s my testimonial. For most of my adult life, whenever I found a writer I liked, I tried to read their entire oeuvre. I did this with many writers: Salinger, Irving, Vonnegut, Roth, Doctorow, Morrison, Tolstoy, Baldwin, Updike, Kundera, Mailer. I still think of myself as the kind of person who does this but my last such author was Tobias Wolff in 1997. Since then I’ve read fewer and fewer books, less and less fiction. Maybe I haven’t found the right author. Maybe they’re not publishing the right authors. Or maybe 1997 is the year I got my first dial-up account and went online.
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.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard