erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2013 posts

Sunday May 19, 2013

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, Frances Hawith 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.

Including you.

Bastard child
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.

Gerwig love
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.

Posted at 09:02 AM on May 19, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Saturday May 18, 2013

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.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013)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.

Posted at 11:31 AM on May 18, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Monday May 13, 2013

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. The Great Gatsby (2013) posterOne 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.

Why ‘Great’?
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.

Posted at 07:21 AM on May 13, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Saturday May 04, 2013

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.

Iron Man 3 posterTony 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.

Posted at 11:26 AM on May 04, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Friday April 19, 2013

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 Oz, the Great and Powerfulthe 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.

Posted at 10:46 AM on Apr 19, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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