Movie Reviews - 2013 postsSunday April 14, 2013
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.