Movie Reviews - 2014 postsWednesday November 26, 2014
Movie Review: Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (2014)
People who don’t know Gore Vidal should check this out. For the rest of us? Which I guess is about 100 now? (See: this.)
Sure, it was nice to finally check out footage of a 10-year-old Gore flying that airplane for his father and the newsreel cameras, which he’d written about in “Screening History.” I knew about Jimmie Trimble, of course (“Palimpsest,” “The Smithsonian Institution”), but I didn’t know much about Vidal’s longtime companion Howard Austen, so it was nice getting that. Vidal was closer to Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward than I’d realized. I was also unaware of the Christopher Hitchens angle: How Hitchens was the heir apparent, in both is own mind and Vidal’s, and then 9/11 and Iraq happened. Hitchens pumped for war, Vidal blamed America. He wrote a book without a trace of wit in the title, “Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta.” The Bushies were so bluntly preposterous they stupefied us all—even Vidal.
But otherwise what was new here? We got his love for his grandfather, his hatred of his mother, his WWII service; then “Williwaw” and acclaim, and “City and the Pillar” and the New York Times homophobic reaction. Years in the wilderness. So TV and teleplays, “The Best Man” and Hollywood. The friendships: Tennessee Williams, the Newmans, the Kennedys. The rivalries, on air and otherwise, in the ’60s and ’70s: Capote, Buckley, Mailer. The house on the Amalfi coast. Myra Breckenridge. The history books and the religious books and the declining health and the return to the states.
It’s basically the Cliff’s Notes to Gore Vidal. But in this bluntly preposterous world, he’s still nice to come home to.
Add another quote and make it a gallon
Vidal, with Mailer and Baldwin, was the last of the great novelist-essayists of the 1950s; now they’re all gone and haven’t been replaced by newer models. Novelists don’t do long think pieces on history and culture anymore, and essayists don’t do fiction.
On the day Vidal died, I combed his books on my shelf and posted about 20 or so quotes that I liked. The doc also liberally sprinkles his quotes throughout. Interestingly, I don’t think we have any matches. That’s how much wit you had to choose from. Among the quotes here:
- “Love is a fan club with only two fans.”
- “In America, the race goes to the loud, the solemn, the hustler.”
- “A writer must always tell the truth as he sees it, and a politician must never give the game away.”
- “Since the property party controls every aspect of media, they have had decades to create a false reality for a citizenry largely uneducated by public schools that teach conformity with an occasional advanced degree in consumerism.”
(Although they really shouldn’t have missed this one: “Put bluntly, who collects what money from whom in order to spend on what is all there is to politics, and in a serious country should be the central preoccupation of the media.” Or this one on Reagan. Or this on Kennedy/Clinton. Or...)
He often went far afield. He was a conspiracy theorist on FDR and Pearl Harbor, but not, thankfully, on Bush and 9/11, since he didn’t believe the Bush/Cheney team was actually smart enough to pull such a thing off. (My view.) Early on, he says of JFK, “He was really the most enjoyable company on Earth—terribly funny,” but later dismisses his presidency as one of the worst ever. But he said this in the 1970s before the great turnaround. He was brutal on Reagan. And on Bush, Jr.? “We’ve had bad presidents in the past, but we’ve never had a goddamned fool,” he says here.
He was the great class traitor. He grew up in D.C. amid power and wealth, was trained at St. Albans, saw himself as a man of the people although he never was. He wanted a new U.S. Constitution. The doc doesn’t go into that. He felt the great betrayal was codified in 1947 with the creation of the national security state. We gave up a Republic, he felt, for an Empire.
His grandfather, Thomas Gore, a blind U.S. Senator from Oklahoma, and one of only a handful of men who didn’t vote for our entry into World War I, told his constituents, “I will never rob your cradle to feed the dogs of war.” He was promptly voted out of office.
That’s the disconnect, isn’t it? The thing doesn’t work no matter what. A new U.S. Constitution, which would be the greatest roll of the dice ever, and we’ll still wind up with us, the propagandized masses. “We forget everything,” he says here—hence the title—but Vidal seems to forget this. Or he dismisses it for better game: the ruling classes; his people.
Someone to laugh at the squares with
At the end, you get the feeling everyone wanted one more bon mot. They waited on it like they waited on the toothless insult from an elderly Groucho. Vidal obliged. “The four most beautiful words in the English language,” he tells the camera at the end of this doc: “I told you so.”
Except he didn’t. He told them, but without the “so.” In his lifetime, most things—save racial matters, gender matters—got worse. How sad to hear him in the 1960s argue with William F. Buckley on the unfairness of a system, our system at the time, in which the top 5 percent owned 20 percent of the wealth. Would that we were still there. By 2007, the top 1 percent owned more than 34 percent of the wealth, and the top 10 percent owned 80 percent of it. And they continue to rob the cradle to feed the dogs of war. Because we let them.
I met him once, in 1999, during a book promotion for “The Smithsonian Institution.” I’d interviewed by fax and met him before the event at Seattle’s Town Hall. He was taller than I’d anticipated, but heavier, and with halitosis. I had trouble conversing with him because of that. Also because he was Gore Vidal and I was a too-polite kid from Minnesota. But even then he was in his elderly Groucho phase. Everyone was ready for the bon mot. Everyone was ready for some dry, acerbic culture. Why not? The alternative, what we normally get, the blunt stupidity of the Bushies, leaves you feeling hollowed out. Gore, he was someone to laugh at the squares with.
Movie Review: Citizenfour (2014)
As the world was learning about Edward Snowden, Edward Snowden was trying to fix his hair.
It’s early June 2013 and he’s in his Hong Kong hotel room, where he’s been holed up for days giving information to both Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill of The Guardian, who then slowly report that information to the world. The story has gone from the NSA getting metadata from Verizon, to the NSA getting metadata from ISPs, to, yeah, there must be a whistleblower out there. And here he is.
But while the world talks about Snowden, Snowden tries to fix his hair. First he puts too much gel in it. Then he wipes some of it off with a towel. Does he wipe off too much? Is he simply frustrated? Is he trying to distract himself from the fact that his life has irrevocably changed? He thought he knew what he was getting into, but now he’s in it, and it’s irreversible, and he’s having doubts.
Up to this point, he’s been pretty straightforward. He’s got chin stubble, an embarrassed, almost pained Seth Rogen smile, an air of an Andrew Garfield character—which it to say, a brave, sometimes failed attempt to stay within himself: to be doing the thing for the thing and not the perception of the thing. He’s coming forward, he says, because it’s no longer the elected and the electorate in America; it’s the ruler and the ruled. We’re the latter, and the former is lying about what they’re doing. The U.S. Patriot Act lowered the threshold for domestic surveillance without court order, but a threshold existed; and the NSA, under both Bush and Obama, obliterated that threshold. They’re spying on all of us.
Snowden wants the story to be about the story (what the NSA is doing) and not about him (the whistleblower), but he knows the media, playing to our need for personality, will make it about him. At the same time, he doesn’t want to appear afraid to come forward. Fuck skulking, he basically says. He wants it out there. On June 9, they finally reveal his name. And the world goes crazy.
Once the world begins to close in, once The Wall Street Journal is metaphorically banging on his door, a look comes into his eyes. Not fear, exactly. More like dread. Documentarian Laura Poitras notices and asks how he feels. He shrugs. “What happens, happens,” he says. “If I get arrested, I get arrested.” Almost everything he says is repetitive in this manner. His language turns back on itself, as if trapped. The look of dread in his eyes doesn’t go away.
When I remember “Citizenfour” I’ll remember the silence of it—the background almost thrums with silence—and the whiteness.
Snowden, who’s tech-geek white, and whose name itself implies whiteness, is first filmed wearing a white T-shirt and sitting on a bed with white sheets and leaning against a white cushiony headboard. Poitras says she initially hated all the white but now feels it works. George Packer compares Snowden here to “a figure in some obscure ritual, being readied for sacrifice.” Me, I was just hoping it wasn’t some precious arty thing: that he starts out wearing white and gradually gets dark. Which is kinda what happens.
The white T-shirt is his uniform for the first few days of interviews. Then, as stories break, we see him in a gray T-shirt, then a grayer dress shirt. By the time he leaves the hotel room, a hunted man, he’s wearing a black shirt and a black jacket.
Intentional? God, I hope not.
I know. Snowden didn’t want this to be about personality and here I am talking hair gel and T-shirts. I’m part of the problem.
I was part of the problem earlier, since I was somewhat dismissive of Snowden’s revelations. The NSA is gathering data on all of us? So safety in numbers, right? Right. Unless, of course, the federal government decides to target you and glean what info they can from that metadata. According to Glenn Greenwald, who has a new NSA whistleblower, 1.2 million (Americans or anyone?) are on the NSA’s watchlist.
For all the good this doc does, we’re still not getting the post-9/11 discussion we need. What I wrote at the end of my review of Jeremy Scahill’s “Dirty Wars” is still relevant. It’s freedom vs. safety, or, in the language here, privacy vs. security, and the post-9/11 argument is that we can’t have both. The deeper argument is: Are we giving up one (privacy) for only the illusion of the other (security)? Or this: Are we simply giving up someone else’s privacy (the 1.2 million) for the sake of our own security—real or imagined?
To me, the discussion begins here; I don’t know where it ends.
Snowden, whose code name is “Citizenfour,” picked both Greenwald and Poitras as his contacts because both are on the watchlist. We get maybe 10 minutes leading up to the June 2013 interviews, and then nearly an hour in that claustrophobic hotel room. Then Greenwald drops away—shadowed everywhere by the media—and he’s replaced by an international human rights lawyer, who spirits Snowden away. Poitras films him leaving the room, and that’s it. Then he’s gone. Off to ... where was it again? Brazil? But stuck in Moscow.
There are a few missed opportunities here. I laughed out loud at footage of Piers Morgan grilling a federal official about the awfulness of intruding upon privacy—as if he’d never been an editor for News of the World. Who isn’t spying on us? If it’s not governments, it’s the media; if not the media, corporations. We’re being spied on by algorithms. Search for a book on one site and it’ll pop up as an ad on another. Maybe the notion of privacy itself will become an outmoded concept in the digital age.
Then there’s the ending. We visit Snowden briefly in Moscow, where he’s now living with his girlfriend. Glenn Greenwald brings him up to date on all he’s learned, but writes down, rather than speaks, the most relevant material, since they all assume he’s being bugged. By Moscow? By us? By Murdoch? But the questions I’d like to ask Edward Snowden aren’t asked. What’s it like being so plugged in—as he was at the NSA—and then being completely unplugged, as he is now? Did he think the reaction of the world was commensurate with the problem as he saw it? I’d ask “The Insider” questions: Was it worth it? If he could go back, would he still come forward? Would he still blow the whistle?
Are we worth it?
These are some of the thoughts I had as I left the theater. Also this: the terrorists won.
Movie Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)
The central joke in “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is how the main character, Albert (writer-director Seth MacFarlane), is really a 21st-century man stuck in the American West of the 1800s. It’s not a time travel movie. Albert just reacts to everything around him as if he were, you know, Seth MacFarlane, born in 1973, raised in relative safety and security, allowed to get soft on TV and pop culture. He can’t shoot a gun, doesn’t have much courage, mopes around a lot. He doesn’t hate where he is so much as when he is.
His vernacular is 21st century but his surroundings are 19th. A big block of ice crushes a man transporting it. “Oh, that went South so fast!” he shouts. When he gets a song stuck in his head (the inspired “Moutache Song”), his friend, Anna (Charlize Theron), tells him to think of another. “How?” he says. “There’s only like three songs. And they’re all by Stephen Foster.”
At one point he says, “I’m not the hero. I’m the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero’s shirt.” Which is true. Basically he’s the moviegoer or the TV watcher. He’s us, suddenly stuck in the movie.
That’s the central conceit, the central joke.
Why doesn’t it quite work?
I laughed out loud a lot, sure, but then we’d get some scatalogical bit that would just make me wince. Or the plot would pick up unnecessarily and transport us to the obvious place.
The story has a classic, dull structure:
- Boy loses girl (Amanda Seyfried) by chickening out of a gunfight.
- Boy is nursed back to health and some semblance of courage by hotter girl (Charlize) and Native American mysticism.
- Boy gets girl (Charlize) by winning gunfight.
The movie, in other words, still buys into the wish-fulfillment fantasy, and blah for that. Did Woody Allen, in his early films, have his character, his schlemiel, become “brave”? Did Woody’s movies begin as parodies of the genre only to buy into the tropes of the genre? When is Hollywood going to stop doing this? You’d think MacFarlane at least would know better.
At the same time, I still thought the movie would be popular. The trailer was funny, MacFarlane (“Family Guy”) has his rabid following, his first feature, “Ted,” grossed $218 million two years earlier. Instead, “West” was one of the summer’s biggest box-office bombs: More than 3,000 theaters, a Memorial Day weekend release, but only $42 million total.
Because the West, I assume. Because we don’t know Westerns anymore. Because we don’t care for them. The title is about the million ways to die in the West but its box office showed us the million-and-first.
Movie Review: Interstellar (2014)
Here, in no order of importance, are some of the big questions we ponder while watching Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”:
- Will our heroes find a sustainable planet in time to save the human race?
- Will Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) make it back to Earth in time to see his daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy)?
- Why is Brand (Anne Hathaway) such a bitch?
- Who’s the “they” that are leaving mysterious messages for us, as well as opening up wormholes?
- Did anyone in the audience trust Dr. Mann (Matt Damon)?
- What’s causing the dust storms that are making Earth uninhabitable in the first place?
Here are your answers: 1) Yes; 2) Yes, but she won’t be Mackenzie Foy; 3) Bad writing?; 4) Us; 5) No; 6) Global warming, one assumes, but Nolan never says.
“Interstellar” is an epic ride but a bloated disappointment. McConaughey is good but the others aren’t, particularly. I figured out way too early who the ghost was, and that Mann wasn’t trustworthy. The science and cosmology went way over my head while the plot points were way too telegraphed. I knew where the movie was going but not the reasons for our getting there.
Then that ending. “I don’t care much for this pretending we’re back where we started,” Cooper says, sitting on his porch with a beer. “I want to know where we’re going.” That’s why I think the daughter storyline was a mistake. It was the lifeline back to Earth we didn’t need. We just needed to go.
Plan A is to TOS as Plan B is to DS9
“Contact” did this, too, didn’t it? Jodie Foster traveled across the universe just to find Daddy again. Here, Cooper goes into space, through a wormhole into another galaxy, down onto several inhospitable planets, and into the heart of a black hole, only to find ... his daughter. Or himself. He’s the thing that sent him on the mission. He’s the ghost in Murphy’s bedroom. It’s like everyone in Hollywood has read too much e.e. cummings:
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
The movie opens with the Earth in a dustbowl, crops dying (there goes okra), and Major League Baseball surviving by barnstorming (I like the “World Famous” in front of “New York Yankees”). During a parent-teacher conference, Cooper finds out Murph has gotten into fights for insisting that, per her daddy’s book, not to mention her daddy, we actually did land on the moon in the 20th century; it wasn’t a hoax as the official Texas textbooks insist. (Another favorite moment. Cf., this.)
Murphy, a sensitive child, is also teased for insisting there’s a ghost in her bedroom behind the bookcase. Her father, a man of science, insists that there’s not, but encourages her to accumulate the data. Later he says this: “Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.” Immediately you pick up on “ghost.” Shortly thereafter, the other shoe drops: “If he’s the ghost as a parent, then is he the ghost in the ... Right.”
A message left in the dust in binary code leads Cooper to coordinates which turn out to be the remnants of NASA, the outfit he worked for before it all went bad. Guess what? They’ve been sending scientists into space on the sly. Its mission? To seek out new planets for new civilizations; to quietly go where no man has gone before! And now they want to send Cooper. He’s perfect for the role—the last great astronaut. Although one wonders if he was so perfect, why they didn’t seek him out on their own. He was just down the road.
That’s Plan A, by the way: seeking out new planets for new civilizations (TOS’s storyline, basically). Plan B is a space station (DS9’s storyline). Except, well, the man who’s running the whole program, Prof. Brand (Michael Caine), later admits, on his deathbed, that he lied his way through the whole thing. He doesn’t have the data to make Plan B work. And Plan A? They’re never coming back. Combine Brand with Dr. Mann, the cowardly, sweaty schemer, and scientists don’t come off looking too good in this thing, do they?
Anyway, amid many tears, many promises to return, and many version of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gently Into that Good Night,” the team—Cooper, Brand, Romilly (David Giassi), and Doyle (Wes Bently from “American Beauty”)—go into space in a 1960s-style Apollo rocketship, dock with the spaceship Endurance, and spin their way into the wormhole on the other side of Saturn. And the grand adventure begins.
That’s the part I liked best—when I was reminded of a slower, grittier, less fantastic version of “Star Trek,” the original series, season one. That sense of going down to a planet and not know what you’d find. On this planet, time speeds up—an hour is seven years—and that mountain in the distance? That’s a wave. (Probably the coolest moment in the movie.) On that one, our great man, Dr. Mann, awaits in stasis. But is his data trustworthy? Is he? (Cue: creepy TOS music. Then cue battling TOS music.)
I probably wasn’t truly bored until Brand, female version, started talking about love love love. She’s been battling with Cooper from the get-go, she just caused the death of Doyle by moving too slowly in the face of a mountain-wave (not to mention the loss of an extra 15 years, Earth time), and with two planets left to check out, she insists on going to the one with Edmonds, who is her lover, rather than the one with Mann, the most respected of the scientists, who has sent back positive reports about his planet. “Love is not something we invented,” she says. “Love transcends dimensions of time and space.” Blah. Thankfully, she loses the argument, they go to Mann’s planet, but of course Mann (a symbolic name?) makes it all go bad.
So apparently we should follow our hearts. Or something.
To be honest, the daughter was such an unforgiving character, and Brand such an awful character, that I began to backdate Nolan movies. Does he have a problem with women? Are his female characters either haunting presences forever out of reach (“Memento,” “Inception”), or are they in-your-face and in love with someone else (Rachel Dawes)? Here, Murphy is the ghostly, disappointed presence, Brand the shrill one.
And what was the point of all that drama back in Texas? The fight between Murphy and her older brother (Casey Affleck)? That plot leads nowhere.
The movie begins to spin out of control about the time the Endurance does—into a black hole—and Cooper winds up floating in some vague physical representation of time, on the other side of his daughter’s bookcase, trying to get his message across. After that, he wakes up in Cooper Station, revolving around the late, great planet Earth. Plan B has worked, thanks to the data he sent his daughter via wristwatch, and outside the hospital they’re playing baseball again. He sees his daughter on her deathbed (cameo: Ellen Burstyn), and sees his home as museum piece. Then he has his moment with the beer on the porch. So off he goes to find Brand. But hopefully not to set up a sequel.
I had hopes for this one, but too bad. The lesson, one last time, Hollywood:
For wherever we go (into the blackness of space)
Let’s find something more than our own stupid face
Movie Review: Million Dollar Arm (2014)
The story’s about what the movie is.
As sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) and Major League Baseball attempt to tap into an underutilized region of the world (India) in “Million Dollar Arm,” so with “Million Dollar Arm” Walt Disney Pictures attempts the same. Bernstein wants Indian pitchers, Major League Baseball wants Indian fans, Disney wants Indian moviegoers.
Or, to put it another way, they all want Indian dollars.
None of them succeeded particularly well. Just don’t tell the movie that.
Bucks for Bucs
It’s a feel-good movie, soft around the edges. Early on, Bernstein, down on his luck, is watching TV with his assistant Aash (Aasif Mandvi), and cricket comes on. Bernstein rattles off a few reasons why it’s not a real sport; Aash just stares and sputters. I wanted to hear why it was a good sport. A smarter movie would’ve given us those reasons in the same amount of time but “Million Dollar Arm,” despite being written by Tom McCarthy (“Station Agent,” “Win Win”), isn’t a smart movie. It’s a warm bath of a movie.
You see where things are going early on and the movie takes its time getting there. Bernstein loses the big client, the creditors are nipping at his heels, then switching back and forth between Susan Boyle on “Britain’s Got Talent” and a game cricket, he comes up with a scheme. “How fast do they pitch in cricket?” he asks Aash. “Fine. How fast do they bowl in cricket?”
Apparently it’s based upon a true story. In reality, it became a reality show in India: “The Million Dollar Arm.” In the movie, it’s more grassroots. Bernstein travels from Indian city to Indian city with a sleepy scout (Alan Arkin, who could do the role in his sleep), a shrugging, bureaucratic Indian assistant, Vivek (Darshan Jariwala), and an over-eager Indian assistant, Amit (Pitobash). They find two handsome kids who can throw in the low 80s, Rinku and Dinesh (Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal), and Bernstein brings them back to the states to train under Tom House (Bill Paxton). That’s the first half.
The second half is equally transparent. As the boys need to become better players, Bernstein needs to become a better person. In the manner of Hollywood movies, these coincide. I.e., the boys are only able to display their true talents once Bernstein cares enough to let them. Once he tells them to just “have fun,” once he allows Amit to give the inspirational speech, once the tryout becomes a real tryout (on a ballfield before a few scouts) and less sideshow (in a parking lot, before cable-TV cameras), then they flourish.
Well, “flourish.” They throw in the low 90s, are signed to minor league deals by the Pirates, and ... that’s the end. The movie would have you believe signing kids to minor league deals saves a sports agency. Nope. The kids don’t bring in the bucks until they make the Bucs.
And they didn’t. In real life, Dinesh Patel pitched a few games in the Gulf Coast league—the lowest rung of the minors—before returning to India. Rinku Singh stuck it out, made it to Class A ball for a few years, didn’t do poorly (overall: 10-6, 2.99 ERA), but was done by 2012. Not bad for a kid who never picked up a baseball until he was in his 20s, but he’s not saving anybody’s bacon.
This is just business
We get a few OK moments in the movie’s two-plus hours. Paxton is believable, Arkin—as I said—can do the role in his sleep, and Lake Bell, as Brenda, the doctor-in-training tenant next door, is refreshing. Her character seems like she has a life beyond the movie’s storyline. “She seems like a real person,” Patricia said as we watched.
I like a line of Vivek’s: “Don’t lose patience, J.B. You are going to need it in India.” I laughed out loud at a line from one of the scouts: “I’m sorry, but they’re not for the Mariners.”
Otherwise, it’s a squishy, sunset movie. It’s a multibillion-dollar business telling us that “This is just business” is a line bad people say ... after they take our money.