erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2014 posts

Thursday April 17, 2014

Movie Review: Finding Vivian Maier (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Finding Vivian Maier” is the “Searching for Sugar Man” of photography. It’s about the artist who is discovered after the career or the life. It’s about resurrection and redemption: finally coming into the light after years in the neglected dark.

Both movies are also mysteries.

The mystery of “Sugarman” is this: How did the singer/songwriter Rodriguez die in the early 1970s and why was he huge in South Africa and unknown in his native U.S.? The answers to these questions are intriguing. The mystery of “Vivian Maier” is this: Who was Vivian Maier, and why was she content to take tens of thousands of beautiful photographs and never show them to anyone?

The answers to these questions are less than satisfying.

Not a nice person
You know whose name I was surprised I didn’t hear during “Finding Vivian Maier”? Franz Kafka’s.

Kafka, private and reclusive, published only a few things in his lifetime but had written much, much more. On his deathbed, he instructed his friend Max Brod to burn the rest. Brod didn’t. Finding Vivian MaierHe published. The rest is literary history.

Vivian Maier, private and reclusive, was born in 1926 and began work as a nanny in the 1950s because it allowed her the freedom to pursue her art: photography. She took pictures all the time but showed them to no one. Sometimes she didn’t even bother to get the film developed. After she died in poverty in 2009, some of her things were bought at an auction by real estate agent John Maloof, who saw value in it. He developed some of her photos and posted them to flickr. They took off. The rest is photography history.

Here’s another connection: Kafka once wrote, “A writer is not a nice person.”

That was one of the questions we batted about after the movie: Can you be a nice person and a great artist? Or even a crappy artist? Doesn’t art demand both empathy (to understand someone else’s life) and its lack (to use it for your art)? For the street photographer, how close to these strangers can I get? How much of them can I steal without their knowledge or permission? There’s a scene in the early 1960s in Highland Park, Ill., where one of the neighborhood kids is hit by a car. Everyone rushes around trying to help. Vivian? She’s taking pictures with her Rolleiflex.

The Rolleiflex helps in this regard. She can set the shot and take the picture without appearing to take the picture. She can look people in the eye as she steals from them.

For what it’s worth, I love her work. I love black-and-white street photography from bygone eras anyway and hers seems of a high standard. She’s got a good eye and a quick finger. She captures moments and lives. We see a lot of the photographs. But the doc, directed by both Maloof and Charlie Siskel (“Tosh.0,” producer on “Bowling for Columbine”), is mostly about Maloof’s search for her.

Initially, he knows nothing. He just has trunks of negatives and prints and undeveloped film and 16mm movies. He buys more of her things and lays them out before the camera like in a Wes Anderson movie: campaign buttons, for example. She was a pack rat. Later we learn she was a hoarder. And worse.

He discovers she was a nanny and find her former charges, and their friends, and the parents of their friends, who may have been her friend.

They describe her similarly: tall, domineering, to-the-point, political. She wore odd, heavy clothes and hats—like she was living in the 1920s rather than the 1960s—and walked with long strides and stiff arms. She had an odd French accent. There’s some debate about whether it was real or not. One man says yes; a linguist says no. Even we debated it afterwards. I assumed it was fake since she was born in New York, but my friends said no, it was real, since she lived half of her childhood in France with her French mother. We visit France, her mother’s village, Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur in the French Alps, and meet people there, and some part of the mystery is solved. A letter she wrote to a French developer about how she wanted him to print her work. She had high standards and wanted those standards met. This is a great, necessary revelation for Maloof, since he’s a nice person and is plagued by the doubt that Vivian wouldn’t have wanted her work exhibited the way he was doing. But here was proof. He could continue.

That’s hardly a revelation for us, though. We’re watching the doc, so we know Maloof continued with it, so getting a kind of posthumous permission isn’t news. Besides: permission? Did Vivian get the permission to take half the photos she took?

No, greater revelations comes in the final third, while interviewing her charges from 1968 to 1974. Apparently she became worse, and cruel. She force-fed one girl and hit her. She swung her around, then let her go. She brought her to the stockyards to watch animals being slaughtered. Somehow she kept her job for six years.

We lose the thread of her story in the ’70s and don’t pick it up again until the late ’90s. By then she’s homeless, and alone, and lonely. Some former charges—whom she didn’t abuse, apparently—pony up for a small apartment, where she lives until she dies in 2009. A few years later she’s an internationally acclaimed street photographer with exhibitions all over the world. Luck? Happenstance? Was she the one preventing her own success? Once she was out of the way, it came rather quickly.

Some day my Maloof will come
Question: do we get the wrong gerund in the title? Given the power, I would switch it with “Sugar Man”’s, since they actually find him. They interview him. We get a sense of who he is and who he was and why he did what he did. But Vivian? Do we find her? Not really. Too much of her remains unknown and unknowable. We’re left with questions. Why would she print nothing? Why would she show no one? Buddy Glass has a line in “Seymour: An Introduction,” “I always want to publish,” and that’s me, so I don’t get the opposite urge. But I admire it. Sort of.

I admire it for this reason. Besides being redemption songs, “Searching for Sugar Man” and “Finding Vivian Maier” are both wish-fulfillment fantasies for every would-be artist out there toiling in obscurity. It’s the “some day” wish. Some day they’ll know. Some day they’ll see. Some day my Maloof will come and the world will open its arms wide and take me in. And it’s an awful, awful wish. 

Posted at 06:12 AM on Apr 17, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Tuesday April 15, 2014

Movie Review: The Unknown Known (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

One of the first things we hear him say in the doc is a riff on one of his more famous (or infamous) press conferences:

There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. But there are also unknown knowns. That is to say, things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.

What did former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld think he knew but did not? WMD come to mind. Al Qaeda. Tora Bora. Quagmires. Henny Penny. He thought he knew the sky wasn’t falling in postwar Iraq when that’s exactly what it was doing.

But the ultimate unknown known of the doc is Rumsfeld himself, who talks and talks about the thousands of memos he wrote during his public career but gets us nowhere. The Unknown KnownIn the title alone, one senses the frustration of filmmaker Errol Morris, who, in his Academy Award-winning documentary “The Fog of War,” had a more open subject, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of the chief architects of our disastrous war in Vietnam. Indeed, Rumsfeld, with his nitpicky, overly semantic arguments and pleased-with-himself “aren’t I clever?” grins, makes McNamara, the numbers cruncher and company man, seem like the most soulful person who ever lived.

We and they
I’ve spent most of the 21st century despising Donald Rumsfeld and his policies so I didn’t even consider this question before I began watching; but I consider it now: Do I like Donald Rumsfeld by the end of the doc?

I’m frustrated with him, certainly. I get tired of the petty deflections and semantic arguments. We’re there to learn something and Rumsfeld seems forever blocking our attempt to learn something. In a way, Rumsfeld is to Morris as Osama bin Laden was to Rumsfeld and the Bush administration: forever escaping.

There’s this exchange, for example:

Morris: If the purpose of the war was to get rid of Saddam Hussein, why can’t we just assassinate him? Why do you have to invade his country?
Rumsfeld: Who’s ‘they’?
Morris: Us.
Rumsfeld: You said ‘they,’ you didn’t say ‘we.’

Well, he actually said “you.” But onward.

Morris: I’ll rephrase it. Why do we have to do that?
Rumsfeld: We don’t assassinate leaders of other countries.

At this point, I expected Morris to bring up, oh, I don’t know, the coups that the CIA, or “we,” have backed: Iran in ’53, Vietnam in ’63, Chile in ’73. But he doesn’t. He brings up Dora Farms.

Morris: Well, at Dora Farms we’re doing our best.
Rumsfeld: That was an act of war.

In case you’re unfamiliar (as I was), Dora Farms was where the U.S., on March 19, 2003, at the very beginning of the Iraq war, attempted to kill Saddam Hussein with a missile strike. It didn’t work. It might have been faulty intelligence. He might not have been there in the first place.

But it takes a second for the circular logic to filter down.

Wait: So Rumsfeld is arguing we had to go to war because we don’t assassinate foreign leaders—even though we do, or have. But once we’re in that war, all bets are off. Then we can assassinate him.  

No wonder he’s big on semantics.

In and out
We still learn things. He didn’t get along with George H.W. Bush and less with Condoleezza Rice. Morris details much of Rumsfeld’s early career: running for Congress in ’62, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity for Nixon, director of the Cost-of-Living Council for Nixon. Then run-ins with H.R. Haldeman that led to being banished to Brussels. This probably saved him, since, when Watergate blew up, he wasn’t near the explosion. He was one of the last Republicans standing. He became Pres. Ford’s Chief of Staff, then his Defense Secretary, where he argued against détente and for a stronger military. In 1980, probably because of this stance, he was among the top potential picks for Reagan’s vice president. “If that [VP] decision had gone another way, you could’ve been the vice president and future president of the United States,” Morris tells him. There’s a long pause. It’s not a thoughtful pause. It just leads to this: “That’s possible.”

Oh, Don.

In the 1980s, Rumsfeld became the CEO of a Midwest pharmaceutical company but was called back into public service after the bombing of the U.S. barracks in Beirut. Reagan sent him to the Mid-East as his special envoy, which led to the famous (or infamous) footage of Rumsfeld meeting and shaking hands with Saddam Hussein—an image the left made much of during the Iraq War. Not me. You need to meet the world to understand the world. And Rumsfeld did. He said this about the megalomania of dictators in general and Saddam specifically:

You know, if you see your picture everywhere, and you see enough statues, pretty soon you might even begin to believe that [you’re a great leader].

In November 1983, he also dictated this memo to himself. You wonder how the man who said it could have done what he (or we) did 20 years later:

I expect we ought to lighten our hand in the Middle East. We should move the framework away from the current situation, where everyone is telling us everything is our fault and angry with us, to a basis where they are seeking our help. In the future, we should never use U.S. troops as a peacekeeping force. We’re too big a target. Let the Fijians or New Zealanders do that. And keep reminding ourselves that it is easier to get into something than it is to get out of it.

He almost sounds like Pres. Obama here. Cue Danny Elfman’s ghostly (and obtrusive) soundtrack music.

Don and me
That’s part of what’s so frustrating with Rumsfeld. How can someone so serious and studious, who’s a student of history, who dictated thousands of memos to himself and others to clarify his worldview, who was in Congress when the Vietnam War began and in the White House when it ended so badly, who foresaw in the 1980s that it’s easier to get into the Middle East than it is to get out of it, how can such a person preside over our disastrous war in Iraq? And not even see it as a disaster?

Rumsfeld is a tragic figure who doesn’t realize he’s a tragic figure. That’s his tragedy. He’s too busy playing small ball with semantics to see the larger picture.

Maybe that’s why, surprisingly, shockingly, I wind up liking him a little bit by the end. I guess I feel sorry for him. I see his faults. Keeping Morris’ questions at bay doesn’t hide his nature but reveals it. He wins the arguments but loses the war. 

Posted at 06:47 AM on Apr 15, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Wednesday April 09, 2014

Movie Review: God's Not Dead (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I don’t know about God but godawful is very much alive.

Haven’t heard of this movie? It’s already grossed $33 million against a budget of $2 million. Conservative Christians are out in force. Too bad. There are better movies for them to see. Pretty much anything, to be honest, but if they’re looking for something Christian-y, then “Noah” isn’t bad. If they want to be stunned by spirituality and artistry and beauty, then, you know, the usual recent suspects: “The Tree of Life,” “Rust and Bone,” “L’heure d’été.” But these are movies that raise questions rather than give self-satisfied answers. They embrace the mystery rather than have a college freshman solve the origins of the universe.

Philosophy 101
God's Not DeadOn the first day of college, freshman Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), a tall, bland, nothing of a kid, greets his hot blonde Christian girlfriend as asexually as possible, then heads to Philosophy 101, where Prof. Radisson (conservative Christian, and former Hercules, Kevin Sorbo), he of the Mephistophelean goatee, shows the kids a list of famous philosophers, including Bertrand Russell and John Stuart Mill, and asks what they all have in common. Answer? They’re all atheists! So is Radisson! He’s such an atheist he demands that each student write on a piece of paper “God is dead,” and sign it, or they’ll get a failing grade. After some vague screwing up of his face, Josh politely refuses. He feels like it’s wrong. So he strikes a bargain with Mephistopheles. If he can convince a majority of the class, in three presentations over the next three weeks, that God is not dead, he’ll be allowed to continue the class. If he doesn’t, he’ll fail, and his dream of law school will go up in fire and brimstone.

This is the main, awful plot of “God’s Not Dead.” But don’t worry: there are other, awful subplots, too.

For example: A conservative Muslim father makes his super-pretty daughter, Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu), wear a hijab to school, which, when he’s out of view, she takes off and exhales like she’s just been given a new life. Which she has. A year ago, she accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. She lays in bed and listens to Corinthians on her smartphone. How to tell this to Dad? She doesn’t. Kid brother blabs. At which point, amid great histrionics and crying jags, Dad physically beats his daughter and throws her out of the house. Because you know Arabs. I mean the Muslim ones. Not the super-pretty ones who have already accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savoir.

There’s also a nerdy Chinese guy named Martin (Paul Kwo). He’s in the same class as Josh, or “Mr. Josh,” as he charmingly calls him in the manner of the backward Oriental. He, too, likes Jesus, despite, you know, growing up in communist China—represented here by his businessman father riding in the back of a limo. But eventually Martin tells his father about Jesus. He does so in Cantonese even though his father speaks Mandarin. I guess the Lord speaks in many tongues.

Let’s get the rest of this out of the way quickly, shall we? So Prof. Radisson’s put-upon girlfriend, Mina (Cory Oliver), his former student no less, is Christian, too, but her Mom’s in a home with dementia and her older brother, Mark (Christian conservative, and former Superman, Dean Cain), is too busy being an asshole of a lawyer to care. Plus he’s dating this ... entertainment blogger? I was never sure. Her name is Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFache), and she’s, you know, rude and late in the manner of non-believers, and has bumper stickers on her car reading things like “Meat is Murder” and “American Humanist.” (Right? Because I see that “American Humanist” bumpersticker everywhere.) Plus she engages in ambush journalism like Bill O’Reilly but from the left. She tries it, for example, on Willie Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame, who is just trying to worship at the local mall Worship Center. But Willie’s cool with her rudeness. He can take it. He’s also cool with Jesus Christ, the Lord, which she totally doesn’t get. Until, that is, she’s diagnosed with inoperable cancer. At which point her asshole boyfriend dumps her, she can’t write for crying, and, when she tries ambush journalism on the Christian rock group Newsboys, they pray for her and convert her backstage. Then they put on a show before Mina, Ayisha, Josh and Martin, and dedicate their song, “God’s Not Dead,” to Josh, “the defender of God,” while they encourage everyone to text “God’s not dead” to all of their friends, even as, across town, Prof. Radisson lays dying in the street after being hit by a car.

Hallelujah.

Josh vs. Aristotle, Darwin, Hawking
So ... a philosophy professor who makes his students write and sign “God is dead” pledges? Is this based on anything anywhere? Wikipedia calls it a popular urban legend, but I might dispute both “popular” and “urban.” To me, it feels like projection. Philosophy is generally about the search for truth, not shutting down that search. The shutdown comes from absolutists.

The final credits suggest the movie is based upon many legal cases supported by Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly: Alliance Defense Fund), most of which, apparently, it lost.

Josh, of course, doesn’t lose. He defeats his Mephistophelean professor. How? By taking on Aristotle, Darwin and Stephen Hawking single-handedly—like Daniel in the lion’s den. By offering the students, as God offered humanity, free will.

He also uses science to his advantage. Josh says the Big Bang is like “Let there be light” more than scientists will admit, while the creation of life on Earth is more like Genesis 1:21 than Darwin’s evolutionary theories. After that, it’s mostly gotcha moments. Sure, Hawking said what he said about religion, but he also said, “Philosophy is dead,” which totally burns the philosophy professor. The biggest gotcha, though, is personal. Why does Prof. Radisson feel how he feels about God? Because when he was 12, his mom, a believer, died of cancer, so he cursed God, and has kept on cursing God, and wants the world to curse God. Josh, in fact, gets his professor to admit, in front of everyone, that he hates God. Which leads to Josh’s final trump card:

How can you hate someone ... if they don’t exist?

That’s the final straw for the straw man. He folds. And that’s when the class, in a “Spartacus” moment, all stand and say the film’s triumphant title: “God’s not dead.” Then they all go to the Newsboys’ concert and party while, nearby, Prof. Radisson dies after being hit by a car. No, it’s not vindictive. At the last moment, Radisson is converted by Rev. Dave (Christian movie staple, and bad hair-dye model, David A.R. White). Radisson accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Because there may be atheists in college classrooms, but there are none on deathbeds.

Nice and comfy
What a sad thing this is. I’m agnostic but this will convert no one. It’s a tepid bath for true believers.

I did like one scene. Near the end, the asshole lawyer, Mark, finally visits his addled mother in the old folk’s home, and wonders aloud why he, who is the worst person he knows, has a great life, while she, the most devout, has been turned into a living vegetable. At which point she suddenly starts talking:

Sometimes the devil allows people to live a life free of trouble because he doesn't want them turning to God. Their sin is like a jail cell, except it is all nice and comfy and there doesn't seem to be any reason to leave. The door’s wide open. Till one day, time runs out, and the cell door slams shut, and suddenly it’s too late.

She says all of this staring straight ahead. When she’s done, she blinks a few times, then her dementia returns. “Who are you?” she asks her son.

Look, I get it. “God’s Not Dead” is popular with Christian conservatives because it’s their wish-fulfillment fantasy. Within its world, secularists are awful and tyrannical, believers are victimized and humble, but God has a plan. And in the end, the wicked are punished and the faithful prosper. It’s all nice and comfy. Why, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to leave.

Posted at 06:40 AM on Apr 09, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Saturday April 05, 2014

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The directors of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” Joe and Anthony Russo, heretofore best known for directing failed comedies (“You, Me and Dupree”) and a critically acclaimed sitcom (“Community”), have a new line of work. Because they’ve just created one helluva superhero movie.

Last July, I ranked 65 of the 100 or so superhero movies that have been made, and I’d put this one in the top 10. It’s better than “The Dark Knight,” but I’m not much of a fan of “The Dark Knight.” It’s not as fun as “Iron Man” (not many movies are), but it does have its light comedic touches. (See: “Shall we play a game?” and “The path of the righteous man...”) More, it’s got gravitas. It tackles the issue of the 21st century, freedom vs. security, and all but uses Ben Franklin’s famous line as its epigraph:

Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

S.H.I.E.L.D., by the way, is the entity interested in safety; Captain America is the man interested in liberty.

Of course, the decks are stacked. The bad guys are double agents for a fascistic organization, Hydra, which is creating the circumstances that will allow it to take over. Too bad. Captain America: The Winter SoldierImagine if those circumstances, terrorism and the chaos of the world, were outside their control. Imagine if Hydra’s mouthpiece, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), was not a double agent but simply someone with a different worldview. Redford, thankfully, plays him that way. He plays him as someone so strong on defense that he goes on offense. He’s Dick Cheney. Ten years ago, in the debate between Pierce and Captain America, many Americans, maybe most Americans, would’ve agreed with Pierce.

Many still do.

This isn’t freedom
Captain America was born in 1941 as a superpatriot, but he was reborn in the 1960s to the left of the superpatriots. When he woke up, he woke up and questioned America. For a time, around the Watergate period, he was so disappointed in the U.S. he gave up being Captain America and became Nomad, Man Without a Country.

This Captain America is similar. Shown S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new high-tech helicarriers, which will be used to spy on the world and neutralize threats before they happen, he says, “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.” He says, “This isn’t freedom; this is fear.” This is Steve Engelhart’s Captain America. It’s my Captain America.

“Winter Soldier,” written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, from a story by Ed Brubaker, begins quietly and smartly.

Two guys are jogging around the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., and the second is running so fast he’s lapping the first. “On your left,” he says. “On your left,” he says again. The first is Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), recently returned from Iraq. The second is Captain America, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), recently returned from saving the world from Loki, et al., in “The Avengers.” They’re strangers, these two, but bond over their shared experience of being soldiers: how, after the hardness of life abroad, the beds at home are too soft to sleep in. Then Sam recommends music for the man who was famously on ice for 70 years. Typically, it’s someone well-known: Marvin Gaye. Atypically, it’s not “What’s Going On,” or “Let’s Get It On,” but the jazz-influenced album in between these two: “Trouble Man.” Dutifully, Steve writes down the title in his notepad next to other historical/cultural artifacts he needs to catch up on, including “Star Wars” and “spicy Thai food.” At which point, the Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) vrooms up in her sport car, mentions going to the Smithsonian to “pick up a fossil,” and she and Cap, and the movie, are off.

A ship has been hijacked in the Indian Ocean by Algerian pirates and 25 people are being held hostage, including S.H.I.E.L.D. strategist Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernandez, late of “The Americans”). So Cap, after some banter with Natasha about girls he might date (a recurring bit), jumps out of the plane and into the ocean, climbs aboard the ship, and, in one of the better action sequences in superhero movies, or any movies really, takes out half the terrorists. Remember those complaints about the fights in “Batman Begins”? How you could never tell what was going on? No longer. You get a real sense of Cap’s speed, stealth and strength here. In the big fight scene on the ship with the superpowered terrorist leader, Cap performs an over-the-top leg kick that got half the audience at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle Friday night to sound like Keanu Reeves: Whooaaaaaaaa!

But there’s a wrinkle. The ship was S.H.I.E.L.D.’s, it was trespassing, and the purpose of the mission seemed less to save hostages than gather intel. Cap confronts Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) about all of this and receives this bit of advice: trust no one. Then he’s introduced to Project Insight: three helicarriers that need never come down; they can hover forever in the skies above us, watching us. That’s when we get the freedom vs. security discussion above. Cap says Project Insight is like “holding a gun to everyone in the world and calling it protection.” Later, he visits Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) in a hospital, now aged and suffering Alzheimer’s, and tells her he just wants to do right but doesn’t know what that is anymore. Interestingly, this echoes Robert Redford’s 1975 thriller, “Three Days of the Condor”: “You miss that kind of action, sir?” “No, I miss that kind of clarity.” 

I liked all this early stuff. I liked Steve visiting the Smithsonian and the Captain America exhibit, and going “Sssshhh” to the kid who recognizes him. I liked seeing where he lives. The thing with the neighbor, Kate (Emily VanCamp), doing her laundry, was a bit odd. Shouldn’t she be starstruck? But overall I liked the troubled calm before the storm.

I was just a bit disappointed when the storm actually hit.

Don’t trust anyone
Nick Fury gets it first, attacked in broad daylight in his souped-up van. Oddly, the attack takes place on an apparently deserted D.C. street but as soon as the car chase occurs they encounter tons of traffic. But we’ll let that go. The faceless minions attack first, since that’s the way, saving the ultimate assassin, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), for when Fury makes a wrong turn. We’ll let that go, too. Ultimately Fury is killed, or we see him die on an operating table, but he offers Cap these parting words: “Don’t trust anyone.”

But you gotta trust somebody, particularly when S.H.I.E.L.D., with all its high-tech weaponry, is trying to kill you, so Natasha is the one he goes to. Then they go on the run, to Wheaton, N.J., where Steve, the 4F, first trained, and where they discover in its dusty databanks the disembodied intelligence of Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones). Of course, like all movie villains, Zola takes this moment to reveal his great scheme.

According to Zola, Hydra realized long ago that “Humanity could not be trusted with its own freedom.” Unfortunately, when they tried to take it away during World War II, humanity fought back. So Hydra further realized you couldn’t take the freedom by force; you had to get humanity to surrender it willingly. How? By creating a world “so chaotic people are willing to sacrifice freedom for security.” And that’s what Hydra has done.

It’s also infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. and the U.S. government in the form of Sen. Stern (Gary Shandling, bloated beyond belief now). Project Insight? That’s Hydra, baby. Those helicarriers get in the air and Zola’s algorithms will take out 20 million of Hydra’s enemies in an instant. So it’s up to Cap, and Natasha, and Sam, who is, of course, the Falcon (and a cool-looking Falcon), to prevent the launch, save the 20 million, and keep Hydra from taking over the world.

They do this with the usual tri-part whiz-bang ending that I first saw with “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi” and that has infected all of these big-budget extravaganzas. You know how it goes. Cap battles the Winter Soldier, who is really his childhood friend Bucky Barnes, atop a helicarrier. Cut to: Sam battling agents of S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra on the ground. Cut to: Natasha infiltrating the office of, and trading barbs with, Alexander Pierce. Then keep cutting between each.

Cap’s strategy is three-fold: 1) convince enough S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to battle the Hydra agents, which will allow him to, 2) upload an algorithm (created by whom?) to counteract Zola’s algorithm: instead of the helicarriers killing 20 million, they’ll train their guns on each other. Meanwhile, Natasha will 3) disseminate all S.H.I.E.L.D. intel to the world. Meaning S.H.I.E.L.D., which Cap destroys, is basically the NSA, and he and Natasha are basically Edward Snowden.

We live in interesting times.

Fifth columnists everywhere
I owe Chris Evans an apology, by the way. His Johnny Storm was the best thing in “The Fantastic Four”—which isn’t saying much—but I initially objected to his casting as Captain America. Wasn’t he too thin? Too brash? And shouldn’t actors just play one superhero at a time? But he’s been perfect. He’s the boy scout with gravitas, the perfect-bodied virgin, the confused soldier after the war. I like this early exchange with Peggy Carter (probably because it reminds me of me):

Peggy: What makes you happy?
Steve (long pause): I don’t know.

Some of the best parts of the movie, in fact, are not just him moving (as on the hijacked ship), but him thinking (as in the glass elevator, when he realizes he’s about to be attacked by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents). And he has good chemistry with both Johansson, who’s friendly/flirtatious with him (no woman tries to set you up unless she sees something in you in the first place), and Mackie, who’s steadfast but with a twinkle.

Evans’ greatest chemistry, though, may not be with a person but an object: his shield. Captain America fans have waited a long time for this. In the 1944 serial, Cap didn’t even have a shield; he carried a gun instead. In 1979, the shield was clear plastic, and doubled as his motorcycle windshield. It came into play more in the awful 1990 Cannon Films version, but with the usual low-budget quick cuts and over-the-top sound effects. But here? It’s like an appendage. It’s like his companion, his dog, his horse. I felt outrage whenever the Winter Soldier used the shield against him. It was like someone turning Silver against The Lone Ranger.

Sure, some of the chases go on a bit much, the big emotional battle with the Winter Soldier isn’t that emotional, and Natasha’s appearance before Congress is lame and unnecessary. I’m also a bit tired of the internal enemies trope. I think it fuels paranoia and Americans are paranoid enough. The greater enemy is almost always external but Hollywood almost always makes it internal. They should know better. (See: Red-baiters accusing Hollywood of being that internal enemy during the McCarthy era.)

Even so, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a smart, fun, thoughtful movie. I also appreciated its more nuanced approach to another Hollywood action-movie trope: the idea of never compromising. The people who compromise or negotiate in movies tend to be politicians, who are either quislings, spies, or just generally weak-willed, and whose negotiations (fools!) play right into the hands of the enemy. Then the uncompromising hero has to step in and save the day. Here, we begin with something similar. When the hostages are rescued, Stinson says, “Told you: S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t negotiate.” We get a story about an early Nick Fury saving lives in Bogota because he didn’t negotiate. But not negotiating turns out to be the strategy of Hydra. Not negotiating actually plays right into the hands of the enemy. So if not negotiating is the strategy of the enemy, should negotiation be our strategy?

Nuance in a superhero movie? Somewhere, surely, Steve Engelhart is smiling.

FURTHER READING:

Posted at 12:02 PM on Apr 05, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Sunday March 30, 2014

Movie Review: Noah (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

When I went to see “Noah” it was raining. When I came out the sun was shining. On my way to dinner, there was a rainbow in the sky. Was God giving me the rainbow sign? No more “Noah” ... just relax and get some bún chả.

Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” is an odd little movie. Or an odd big movie. It’s based upon three short chapters, 68 verses total, in the Book of Genesis, but it lasts two and a half hours. Expect extrapolation.

Is the Christian community embracing “Noah”? I think they suspect it. It comes from Hollywood, after all, and you know what those people are like. Hollywood needs to find a way to promote religious movies as if they’re the religious movies Hollywood doesn’t want you to see. There’s a trick in that. Mel Gibson figured it out.

It helps that Gibson made his “Passion” culturally conservative. His Jesus was an action-hero Jesus. After being whipped, he rose again (only to be whipped again). After crucifixion, he rolled back the rock to a martial drumbeat. “Passion of the Christ” is basically the first third of a revenge movie where the final two-thirds plays out in the minds of religious conservatives everywhere. People like me and Bill Maher suffer for all of eternity in their imaginations.

Why Christians should embrace this movie
Darren Aronofsky's NOAH“Noah” fails in its cultural conservatism. Sure, the Watchers, angels who help Cain in the land east of Eden, and who are thus punished by the Creator by being turned into giant rock creatures, experience, just before the Flood, a kind of rapture, where they shed their earthly form and ascend into the skies. And, sure, the sons and daughters of Cain live in a figurative hell and are punished in the Flood. They cling to mountaintops and cry for help. And help comes not. And the world is cleansed of them.

But the ultimate message is environmental and vegetarian (read: soft and leftist). The sons of Cain slaughter the animals and leave clear-cut devastation in their wake. The sons of Seth are more benevolent. They are caretakers of the world. Unfortunately, the sons of Cain have taken over the world, while the sons of Seth have been reduced to one: Noah.

Even so, Christians should embrace this movie, if only because it makes religious doofuses like myself get our Bible again.

Adam and Eve bore three sons? Cain, Abel ... and Seth? Yes. Genesis 4:25: “And Adam knew his wife again; and she bare a son, and called his name Seth.”

And Noah, and thus all of us, are descendants of Seth and not Cain? Yes. Genesis 5:1-32. Basically it goes like this:

  1. Adam, who lived to be 930 years old, begat Seth, who lived to be 912.
  2. Seth begat Enos, who lived to be 905.
  3. Enos begat Cainan (910)
  4. Cainan began Mahalaleel (895)
  5. Mahalaleel begat Jared (962)
  6. Jared begat Enoch (365)
  7. Enoch begat Methuselah (969)
  8. Methuselah begat Lamech (777)
  9. And Lamech begat Noah

So it took nine generations for God to get sick of us.

But the Watchers stuff is bullshit, right? I mean, giant rock creatures?

Well, yes and no. Genesis 6:4 does say “There were giants in the earth in those days.” No mention of rock, but there were giants. That’s Biblical, baby.

Dramatic tension, pre-Flood
You know the story: wickedness, ark, animals, flood, 40 days and 40 nights, dove, olive leaf, new beginning.

Here’s how the story is presented by writer-director Darren Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream,” “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan”) and writer Ari Handel.

The children of Cain have taken over the world while the children of Seth have almost died off. It’s just father and son, Lamech and young Noah (Marton Csokas and Dakota Goyo). Then it’s just young Noah when Lamech is slain by a young Tubal-cain (Finn Wittrock), who will grow up to be bad news: Ray Winstone. Thankfully Noah grows up to be badder news: Russell Crowe. He will marry Naameh (Crowe’s “A Beautiful Mind” costar Jennifer Connelly), and begat three sons: Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll). They also pick up a stray girl nearly killed by marauders, Ila, who will thankfully grow up to be Emma Watson, the mother of us all. (Which begs the question: If Emma Watson is the mother of us all, shouldn’t we be better looking?)

Then: dreams and visions of apocalypse by water. Noah travels to the green mountain where his grandfather, Methuselah, lives (Anthony Hopkins, of course), and realizes what he’s supposed to do. Methuselah gives him a seed of Eden, which he plants, and which grows, in the arid desert around them, a vast forest with which to make an ark with the help of the Watchers. And that’s what he does. For several years.

The movie handles the animal thing well. Everyone always wondered about that. How does Noah gather all the animals? How do they live on the ark? Why don’t they eat each other? What about all the piss and shit? That’s gotta be a stinky place after 40 days and 40 nights.

Here, the animals come to him unbidden (Genesis 6: 20), go into the ark, which is a massive, rectangular creation, and immediately fall to sleep. They hibernate. So no food, no fights, no defecation. Easy peasy.

The bigger question is this: What’s the dramatic tension in the movie? Pre-flood, it’s threefold:

  • Will Ham, a moody little shit, find a wife to take on the ark?
  • Will Ila, who is barren, frigid or both, open up to Shem?
  • Will Noah finish the ark before Tubal-cain, self-proclaimed king of this region, takes it over with his army of men?

In recent years, Russell Crowe has become a kind of punching bag for some critics, but I always enjoy seeing him on the screen, and “Noah” would be a much lesser movie without him: without the force of his face and the quiet in his voice. I’ve written about this before. Not many actors can convey strength with a whisper. He does. “Why don't you dance with a man for a change?” he whispers in “L.A. Confidential.” “Doctor Wigand,” he whispers in “The Insider.” In “Noah” it’s: “I’m not alone.” At 1:10 in the trailer:

Tubal-cain: I have men at my back. And you stand alone and defy me?
Noah: I’m not alone.

I always assumed he meant God but he’s actually talking about the giant rock creatures, who reveal themselves at this strategic point and allow the work on the ark to continue. When the rains come, the descendants of Cain rush the ark, which is again defended by the rock creatures, who are then raptured. But one descendant of Cain (besides Ila) gets on board. Guess who? Right. Tubal-cain is injured, but he makes a friend in Ham, who is bitter that his father didn’t save, against impossible odds, a pretty girl he’d just found. So he wants his revenge.

And that’s part of the dramatic tension in the second half of the movie: Will the mark of Cain revisit us even as the earth is being cleansed of the sons of Cain?

Dramatic tension, post-Flood
The fundamental question on the ark is an interesting one: Is man worth saving? Or is the world better without us?

Noah, on the ark, seeks an answer from God and either doesn’t get it or it comes back in the negative. We are a plague. Better we should die off.

Ah, but a wrinkle. Thanks to Methuselah back at the foot of the mountain, Ila was cured of both barrenness and frigidity, and is now pregnant. What to do? Noah declares his answer: a boy can live, a girl will be killed. So like China in the 1980s.

It turns out to be twins. Girls.

So at this point:

  • Noah wants to kill the babies.
  • Tubal-cain, a stowaway, wants to kill Noah.
  • Ham, still pissed off, wants Tubal-cain to kill Noah. Maybe. He’s a bit wishy-washy on the subject.
  • Shem wants to kill Noah before Noah kills the babies.

It’s a bit much. Did we really need Tubal-cain here? Couldn’t it have simply been a conflict within the one family who had found grace in the eyes of the Lord?

Obviously Tubal-cain is killed by Noah and/or Ham. (I’ve already forgotten.) And Ila runs with her babies to the top of the ark, where she is followed by Noah, who has the knife in his hands. But it’s not his knife that is lowered, it’s his head; to kiss and bless the babies, even as he thinks he does ill in the eyes of the Lord.

That’s the final dramatic tension in the denouement. When the waters recede, Noah drinks homemade wine, and hides himself from his family in a cave, and is naked (Genesis 9:20-21, more or less). He has defied God’s will. He must punish himself. But lo, Ila spaketh unto him, saying God hath given him a choice, and within he found goodness and love and mercy. And so it shall be for the children of Shem, and Japheth, and even Ham, the wanderer. Unto them the choice shall be given. And unto them the choice shall be made.

Nature, grace, et al.
Let’s face it: It’s a tough gig doing the Bible, let alone Noah’s ark. In the long history of film, Crowe is only the 33rd actor to play Noah, and most of the others were supporting parts (John Huston in “The Bible: In the Beginning...” in 1966) or in animated shorts (Disney’s 19-minute-long “Noah’s Ark” from 1959). Even 1928’s “Noah’s Ark” is really about World War I.

Obviously CGI animals are easier to deal with than the real kind, so it should be easier now, but the story of Noah is more problematic than that. Aronofsky’s version, for example, ends with Noah blessing his family as God blessed them in Genesis 9:1: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” But the second verse of God’s covenant with man is, in the movie, the philosophy of its villain, Tubal-cain: “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you.”

Both Noah and Tubal-cain see man in opposition to nature: either below it (as a plague) or above it (with dominion), but neither point of view is particularly interesting to me. Or correct. Dominion gives a license for greed, which man hardly needs. And Nature itself is hardly benevolent. It’s cruel. It’s X eats Y eats Z—like a giant restaurant, as Woody Allen once said.

During all this, I kept flashing to a more profound movie, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” where the mother, in voiceover, presents a greater dichotomy than “Noah” does:

The nuns taught us there were two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.

Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.

Nature only wants to please itself. Gets others to please it, too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

In the end, “Noah,” a big, grand film with a nice lead performance by Crowe, is just too busy with subplots. It doesn’t quite resonate.

But it did force me to get out my Bible again.

Posted at 08:40 AM on Mar 30, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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