Movie Reviews - 2014 postsTuesday March 31, 2015
Movie Review: Listen Up Philip (2014)
Philip, indeed. The title graphics alone—using the font of Philip Roth’s early’70s bestsellers, particularly “Portnoy’s Complaint”—give it away, even if the story hadn’t.
A Jewish-American writer in New York City, with a unique voice and acerbic attitude, leaves his girl and the city to sit at the feet of the great man, who lives in a rustic cabin in the goyishe woods with a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty. But instead of short-story writer Nathan Zuckerman sidling up to E.I. Lonoff, who has a graduate student, Amy, staying with him and his wife (and who may or may not be Anne Frank!), as in “The Ghost Writer,” one of Roth’s best novels, we watch two-time novelist Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), genuflecting before Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), who has his daughter, Melanie (Krysten Ritter), staying with him.
Another difference: Roth is funny.
More than that. Roth’s characters, from Portnoy to Zuckerman, were nice Jewish boys for whom things (libido and ego, generally) got in the way. There was conflict there. This Philip? Writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s version? We first see him lambast an ex, who is 25 minutes late for a lunchdate at a corner coffeeshop; and rather than feel any sense of guilt, he feels free. He’s the literal “freed-man.” So he acts the dick again with another old friend—a contemporary who didn’t live up to the promise, and who (punchline) is in a wheelchair—and then spends most of the movie in this frame of mind. Zimmerman’s the same way, and initially seems to be warning Friedman in a better direction. I.e., “View the error of my ways,” as Lonoff essentially tried to warn Zuckerman. But Zimmerman is worse than Friedman. He’s cantankerous, his talents aren’t what they were, he rails at friends and family. Even as he basks in Friedman’s admiration, he has to take him down a peg. He and his friend Norm get the 25-year-old Scotch; Friedman gets the 10. Zimmerman is forever telling him, “I did it better.” Friedman, who abuses others’ niceties, accepts this abuse. It’s his idol, after all.
There’s a vague argument in the movie that for these writers to create their art they have to distance themselves from the rest of humanity, who are, more or less, chatter, interruptions, annoyances; and maybe in so doing (I’m extrapolating here), in distancing themselves, they plant the seeds of their own destruction, eventually losing the necessary elements, the necessary humanity, to continue to create their art. Actually, scratch that second part. It’s not here. And normally I’d like that. Our popular stories are full of comeuppance for men behaving badly when the real world shows us the opposite—that success almost requires ruthlessness. So it would be nice if our art owned up to that unpalatable observation, and “Listen Up Philip” kinda does. Zimmerman has his great successes, Friedman will have his.
But that leave us with ... what? Again, where is the conflict? Roth gives us the tension between nice and venal, and that drives his narratives, while Friedman is Zuckerman laced with Mickey Sabbath (sans the sex), and so never particularly interesting. He says little that’s witty or insightful. He doesn’t grow, doesn’t shrink. This is a great novelist? He seems more Hollywood/movies than New York/novelist. He ends the film as he began it, walking the streets of New York, alone, bumping into people, with successes ahead and a scowl on his face. I wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with him, let alone 90.
Movie Review: The Salvation (2014)
“The Salvation,” a Danish film set in the American west of the 1870s, is a purer western than most Hollywood westerns.
An Easterner (way east: Denmark) and war veteran (the Second Schleswig War, 1864) winds up in the Old West, where he loses wife and child in brutal fashion and seeks revenge. The town is full of cowards, the mayor/undertaker and sheriff/minister are either weak or collaborators, and the villain who runs things is surrounded by henchmen, bullies and rapists.
Each trope is slightly skewed yet powerfully realized. The film’s foreign pedigree helps with both. Hollywood westerns are all about revenge but the work of prolific Danish screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen (“In a Better World”) is about the consequences of revenge; the consequences of standing up to a brutal world. What happens when you match the world’s brutality with your own? Doing so, in Hollywood’s version, is necessary and clean and usually the end of the movie; for Jensen, it’s necessary but never clean and usually the beginning of the movie. Sunsets are a Hollywood contrivance.
There’s a moment 60 minutes into this 90-minute film that’s indicative of why it works. Jon, the Dane (Mads Mikkelsen), has been strung up in the courtyard of the villain, Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but rescued by his brother, Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), and both are pursued through the countryside by Delarue’s brutal men. Does Jon even know he’s been rescued? He’s out cold for most of it, and his brother has to leave him behind with a rifle. When Jon wakes, he crawls to a pond, drinks, then hears horses approaching. He crawls behind a rock again, grabs his rifle, waits in a panic. The horses go past. He sees that. He also sees they’re dragging something behind them. Peter. Dead.
At this point, the camera closes in on Jon’s face, and on the pain he feels. The music doesn’t well up; it’s quiet, soft. There’s no sudden determination in his eyes at the end, either. Just pain. The whole scene makes you wonder what our westerns would’ve been like if men like Clint Eastwood had been better actors, or had a touch of humanity in their performances.
The first 20 minutes are tough to take, by the way.
A prologue tells us that Jon and his brother Peter (Miakel Persbrandt), following the defeat of Denmark to Prussia/Austria in the Second Schleswig War, left for America, and created a life in the town of Black Creek. Then Jon sends for his wife and son. He first mistakes a woman alighting from the train as his wife but she’s actually behind him; we see her first. On the stagecoach, she tells him in Danish, “You not only look like them, you sound like them.” “You will, too,” he replies consolingly, but she doesn’t mean it as a compliment. And in the stagecoach, two men will prove her right. If John Ford’s stagecoach was a microcosm of civilized society, the version by Jensen and director Kristian Levring is the opposite.
Later in the movie, imprisoned in town, Jon will be chastised by the Sheriff/Minister of Black Creek, Mallick (Douglas Henshall), thus: “If you’d just shown a little compassion for Delarue’s brother instead of killing him, then Mrs. Borowski and Mr. Whisler and Joe No Leg, they’d still be here.” Except he does show compassion. That’s the problem. Even after the two men pull a gun on him and try to rape his wife in front of him (and her son), and Jon gets the upper hand on them, he doesn’t kill them immediately. He shows that little bit of compassion, little bit of civilized behavior. And because of that, it all goes wrong. Lester (Sean Cameron Michael) puts a knife to the boy’s neck, Paul (Michael Raymond-James) grabs the wife again, and Jon is forced to put down his gun. Then he’s kicked out of the stagecoach and into the black night.
He tries to catch the coach, but nobody can outrun horses. Even so, he’s able to follow its tracks to a deserted area, and finds bodies along the way: the stagecoach driver; his son. And there’s the coach next to the woods, with Lester standing guard, rocking back and forth.
Welcome to America.
The revenge is swift. That was unexpected. Lester gets it in the forehead, Paul runs out of the stagecoach, pants between his legs, is shot down. He pleads for what he didn’t truly appreciate before: mercy. “She’s not dead!” he cries. “She’ll be fine!” But Jon keeps pumping his rifle until there are no bullets, and no life, left; then he goes to the stagecoach. We don’t see what he sees; just that he sees it.
This should be the end, right? Twenty-five minutes in. Instead, there are consequences: As alluded, Paul is the brother of Delarue, who runs the town, and who exacts revenge (until the true killer can be found) by taking two lives for his brother’s life: an old woman and a drunk. Not content, he also kills Mr. Whisler, husband and father. The town elders simply watch. The Mayor/undertaker, Keane (Jonathan Pryce), is actually in collusion with Delarue, who, it turns out, isn’t bullying the town simply from pleasure; he’s driving people out so Standard Atlantic Oil Company can buy up all the land. There’s a reason the town’s called Black Creek: the stuff bubbles up from the ground. “It’s that sticky oil,” Jon says later in the movie, by way of explanation for all the bad that’s happened. “Delarue believes it’s gonna be worth thousands.”
I love that. Thousands.
It all plays out the way we expect but it’s really well-done. The sheriff/minister not only captures Jon for the murder of the two men, not only chastises him for his lack of mercy, but justifies his own collusion in the name of the Lord. “Your death is going to bring us some time,” he says. “Sometimes you have to sacrifice a single sheep to save the rest. I’m just a shepherd guarding the flock.” In an Eastwood movie, Mallick would’ve been brought low in some way; he would’ve realized the error of his ways; he would’ve embarrassed himself. Here, even to the end, he’s allowed to see himself as the shepherd, the hero. He’s even given the last line of the movie.
In the end, Jon leads an assault on Delarue’s place with the grandson of Mrs. Borowski. The kid tries, but he’s no soldier. But Jon has another partner: Madelaine (Eva Green), the mute widow of Delarue’s brother. Except despite all the fine feelings he has for his brother, Delarue rapes her, and after she tries to flee, he gives her to his men to rape and kill. That’s about when Jon begins his assault and kills everyone but (of course) Delarue. And he’s about to be (of course) killed by Delarue when (of course) Madelaine puts a big hole through Delarue. And in the smoldering aftermath, the Sheriff/Minister arrives to survey the damage and praise the survivors. Except he’s rebuffed, and so offers these parting words to our two heroes: “May the Lord have mercy on both your souls,” he says.
That’s the last line of the movie. Well, last spoken line. As the movie ends, the camera pulls back, and we see all the wooden oil wells on the property, looking like ancient ruins, or newfound gods.
Question: What exactly is the salvation of the title?
Movie Review: The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (2014)
“The Internet’s Own Boy” has the advantage of a good title and a great subject.
Aaron Swartz (no “ch”?) was born in 1986 and was 10 when the Internet took off; as a prodigy, he took off with it. He co-founded Reddit, helped develop RSS, founded Demand Progress. By the time he was 15 he counted among his friends Lawrence Lessig, Harvard professor and social activist, and Timothy Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web. He was part of the open source movement and helped stop SOPA, the “Stop Online Piracy Act,” which could have shut down websites charged with copyright infringement and thus had a chilling effect on the Internet as we know it. In 2008, he downloaded millions of court documents from PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), which charges 8 cents per page, but ultimately wasn’t charged himself, since the documents were supposed to be free. In 2010, he did the same with academic journals from JSTOR, a digital repository, via an unguarded network switch at MIT. That act was more problematic. He was charged and indicted on wire fraud and computer fraud, among the 13 charges eventually leveled against him. After plea deals fell through, he took his life on Jan. 11, 2013. He was 26.
The doc is a good primer on who Swartz was and what he stood for, but it fails for me in its final third because of one word:
That word keeps getting tossed around—in the “... so the government cracked down on Swartz” sense—but its meaning is vague. Are we talking about: 1) Stephen Heymann, assistant U.S. attorney for the district of Massachusetts, who was apparently interested in a career-making case against Swartz; 2) various fed departments, such as Homeland Security, which were determined to make an example of Swartz, a benevolent figure, in its losing battle against digital terrorism; 3) corporate-governmental collusion, which didn’t appreciate Swartz’s SOPA work; or 4) Pres. Obama himself, whose administration has looked less kindly upon whistleblowers than even the Bush administration?
All of the above are either said or implied. Mostly implied. There’s no attempt to parse out who exactly is doing or saying what. It’s sloppy work. Talking head and Salon columnist David Sirota implicates Pres. Obama, but shortly after the Obama administration stands with Swartz against SOPA; dramatically, it makes little sense.
I actually found myself wanting to engage with the people on the screen, or at least writer-director Ben Knappenberger (“We Are Legion”), over both hacktivism and the open source movement. A wide-open Internet is all well and good for those who can write code, and make a million dollars off of sites like Reddit, as Swartz did. At the same time, entire professions are being wiped out via digitization and the “free” exchange of ideas. At least be aware that this is happening.
I also don’t get hacktivists who are shocked, shocked when their hacking inspires fear and retribution. For most people, they are wizards. Whether they are good or bad wizards is irrelevant to those who don’t have the power, and who suddenly feel very, very vulnerable.
Again, “The Internet’s Own Boy” is a good title and a not-bad primer. I just wanted less romanticization of hactivism, and less demonization (or at least more clarification) of something called “government,” which, after all, started the internet in the first place.
Movie Review: Selma (2014)
First, yeah, it screws up LBJ.
Second, it gets almost everything else right.
Let’s start with the casting. I kept going “That’s got to be...” and every time it was: Andrew Young (André Holland), John Lewis (Stephan James), Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson). Nigel Thatch looks more like Malcolm X than anyone who’s ever portrayed him on screen. Wendell Pierce isn’t exactly a dead ringer for Hosea Williams, but he brings that Wendell Pierce “shit is fucked/I got your back” spirit with him. Check out the scene where he calls John Lewis—who put his body on the line during the Nashville sit-ins, the Freedom rides, and as president of SNCC—“young blood.” When it’s announced that Harry Belafonte is coming to Selma, Hosea leads everyone in a rousing version of “Banana Boat Song.” Seriously, who wouldn’t want to hang with Wendell Pierce?
Then there’s Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King (David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo). Screenwriter Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay make them real people again. They give them a sense of intimacy. It’s hard to view a man as a saint when you’ve seen him put a plastic lining in the trash bin under the sink. Watching “Selma,” I had this obvious thought for the first time: “He really did marry up in the looks department, didn’t he?”
We get that sense of intimacy right away. It’s December 1964, and King and Coretta are in their room in Oslo, Norway, where he is about to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s trying to practice his speech but he spends more time fussing with his ascot. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like the message it sends back home. She argues for it. It’s the miniscule details of the scene, the subtle tensions, the promises he makes to her that we know (and he knows, and she knows) he won’t be able to keep: about becoming a pastor in a small church somewhere, and teaching a class, and raising their kids in a home they own rather than rent; about leading a regular life rather than leading a movement that brings death threats and the hate of half the country down on them. I was immediately won over.
Eyes on the prize
“Selma” is divided into three basic types of scenes: attempts to undercut movement leaders from outside; attempts to bolster movement leaders from within; strategizing among groups. The strategizing scenes are best.
Undercutting: The FBI spies on King, calls his house, plays sex tapes for Coretta over the phone. It tries to bring down the movement by getting between him and his wife. “That ain’t me,” he tells her, as they listen to two people in the throes. “I know,” she says quietly. “I know what you sound like.” Another humanizing moment.
The most unnecessary bolstering scene involves Coretta. Martin’s in jail, and Hosea and the others are going “uh oh” because Malcolm X just arrived in town. What will they say to him? What will he say? We don’t get that. Instead, we cut to an older black woman walking with and giving advice to Coretta. Aren’t we undercutting the drama here? We don’t even get to hear Malcolm X give the speech he gave, but at least we get to hear Martin and Coretta arguing over Malcolm X. Another nice scene.
The best bolstering scene starts out poorly. It’s after the first two Edmund Pettus bridge incidents: a police crackdown that horrified the country, and the one where MLK led everyone away from confrontation. Had he lost courage? Faith? John Lewis, still scarred from the first bridge incident, talks to him about the beating he took in the Freedom Rides. At first I didn’t buy it. Is John Lewis schooling Martin Luther King on the history of the movement? But no. He’s telling him about how, at that moment, Lewis began to lose faith, and King propped him up with a sermon. “What did I say?” MLK asks quietly. I love that. He’s forgotten, of course. For him, it was just another day; another sermon in 10 years of sermons.
Both of those types of scenes are fine; but the strategizing scenes is where the movie, and history, come alive.
A good reminder: It wasn’t just Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) who didn’t want MLK in Selma; SNCC didn’t want him there, either. Lewis and James Orange (Omar J. Dorsey) had been in Selma two years already, working on registering voters, and the worry—and it was always a worry, of which King was painfully aware—was that MLK would come in and grab the glory and the headlines. Plus SNCC was the younger generation. It was getting tired of waiting and tired of marching. It was moving away from MLK, nonviolence, and the civil rights movement, and toward Black Power. Interestingly, in ’63, Lewis was “young blood.” He was the firebrand, demanding to say use the word “black” instead of “Negro” during his March on Washington speech. A year after the events in “Selma,” Lewis would lose the SNCC chairmanship to Stokely Carmichael for being too middle-of-the-road; for siding too much with King. You see some of this dynamic in his arguments with Orange. The movement is already fraying. Black Power will end it.
I love the way the history of the movement is subtly layered into the strategizing sessions. The protests of Albany, Ga., in 1962 didn’t work because Chief Pritchett kept his cool; they did in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 because Sheriff “Bull” Connor didn’t. So the big question for Selma: is Jim Clark a Pritchett or a Connor? Orange and Lewis admit, reluctantly, that he’s a Connor. So the SCLC stays. So the protests and marches begin.
(Related: In the Obama years, do you think the Republican party has been a Chief Pritchett or a Bull Connor? There’s a good discussion there for the GOP to have with itself; or for Roger Ailes with his self.)
As King and the movement strategizes, so do—separately—Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) and his deputy (Stephen Root), and President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and his (Giovanni Ribisi). The former is interested in defeating King, the latter in deflecting him. LBJ is the voice of restraint here. He’s the institutional voice saying “Wait” on voting rights.
Which I suppose brings us to the LBJ question.
A change (is gonna come)
I’ve read less about Selma than other civil rights hotspots (Montgomery, Nashville, Birmingham), but I know that when Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 he told an aide, “We’ve lost the South for a generation.” Not only was he right, he was optimistic. (It’s been two generations.) So if anything, Johnson wanted blacks in the South to vote. To give the Democratic party a chance there.
Here are two excerpts from “Eyes on the Prize,” the companion book to the seminal documentary on the civil rights movement. The first backs up the movie’s portrayal; the second doesn’t:
- “In his State of the Union address, President Johnson articulated the goal of eliminating ‘every remaining obstacle to the right and the opportunity to vote,’ but voting rights came seventh on his list of domestic priorities.” (pg. 258)
- “On the day of Malcolm X’s speech [early February 1965], President Johnson held a press conference. ... It was his first direct response to Selma and a welcome surprise to the activists. ‘I should like to say that all Americans should be indignant when one American is denied the right to vote,’ said Johnson. ‘The loss of that right to a single citizen undermines the freedom of every citizen. That is why all of us should be concerned with the efforts of our fellow Americans to register to vote in Alabama. ... I intend to see that that right is secured for all our citizens.’” (pg. 262)
At this point in the movie, DuVernay actually implies that LBJ was silently conspiring with J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to undercut MLK via the FBI sex tapes.
Here’s DuVernay herself on the subject:
The script was the LBJ/King thing, but originally, it was much more slanted to Johnson. I wasn't interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma. ... Johnson has been hailed as a hero of that time, and he was, but we're talking about a reluctant hero. He was cajoled and pushed, he was protective of a legacy—he was not doing things out of the goodness of his heart.
Goodness schmoodness. Let’s ask the Watergate question: What did the president say and when did he say it? What did the president do and when did he do it?
Here’s a transcript of LBJ strategizing with MLK on January 15, 1965, before most of the events in the movie. He hardly seems the reluctant ally DuVernay makes him.
The greater insult might be how dull she makes him. For all his faults (and there were many), LBJ was still one of the gladhandingest, craziest, talking-your-ear-off-while-he’s-sitting-on-the-crapper control freaks to ever occupy the Oval Office. He dominated rooms and people and the world. He went out of his way to control inflation. Color TVs too expensive? Talk to RCA. Egg prices up? Tell the Surgeon General to issue a warning on high cholesterol. But for most of the movie, he’s back on his heels, fretting in silence over newspaper headlines, taking guff from George Wallace of all people. George Wallace! Every report I’ve read of their meetings ends with Wallace as soft putty in LBJ’s giant hands—at least until he gets back to Alabama—but here Wallace stares down the President of the United States and doesn’t blink. Was Wilkinson wrong for the role? Was Roth? Should Southerners protest that they’re constantly being played by Brits? Maybe DuVernay just doesn’t know how to direct white people? They’re certainly the weakest part of her movie.
We shall overcome
Look, I get it. Hollywood’s been awful on the civil rights movement. It’s made heroes of historical obstructionists: the FBI in “Mississippi Burning”; southern whites in “The Help.” “Selma” is actually the first theatrical release to feature MLK as the main character. How awful is that? That it took more than 50 years to get him front and center and in the theater?
I also get that LBJ’s reluctance to go along with the Selma campaign gives the movie its dramatic structure. We spend most of the movie waiting for two things to happen: the march from Selma to Montgomery to go forward and the Voting Rights Act to get pushed through Congress. The march is stymied by troops first, and MLK second, before Judge Frank Minis Johnson (Martin Sheen) declares it lawful; then it goes. The Voting Rights Act is stymied mostly by LBJ’s reluctance; but then he has a change of heart (somewhere), gives the big speech in front of Congress, and appropriates the movement’s signature phrase: “And we shall overcome,” So: happy ending. But I think there are better—and more honest—dramatic structures. I think more could have been done, for example, on why King led the march away from the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
(Sidenote: According to movement leader C.T. Vivian, when Johnson said “We shall overcome,” Vivian looked over at Dr. King and saw a tear running down his cheek. In the movie, King is dry-eyed. Because DuVernay didn’t believe Vivian? Because dry-eyed is more dramatic? Because that’s the way DuVernay wants it to be?)
I do think some of DuVernay’s choices weakened the movie. I suppose she’ll just have to settle for directing the best film about the civil rights movement ever made.
Movie Review: Belle (2014)
Here’s how our concerns for the title character—what we and she worry about—keep shifting in “Belle.”
It’s 1761, and an impossible pretty black girl named Dido (initially Lauren Julien-Box, eventually Gugu Mbatha-Raw), is brought by her white father, Capt. Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), to his uncle’s estate in England, where slavery is still legal. Her African mother has died and Lindsay is about to go to sea again. Someone needs to care for the girl.
That’s our initial concern: Will this impossibly pretty black girl find a place to live in superwhite England, or will she be left to the wolves?
She finds a place to live. (Whew.) The reluctant aunt and uncle, Lady and Lord Mansfield (Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson), agree to bring her up on their estate—along with her cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Maden), whose mother has also died. So these two girls, one black and one white, grow up together—laughing and chasing each other around trees, as girls in period pieces are wont to do.
But then the increasingly engaged grandaunt and uncle worry: What happens when we die? Dido will be penniless (and left to the wolves)!
Except her father dies first. And leaves Dido his fortune. Second problem solved.
But we're still in England in the 1770s, and Dido, while impossibly pretty, is still black. No one, certainly no one in society, will be interested in her as a wife. So that’s the next worry: She’ll wind up an old maid like Lady Mary! (Lady Mary, by the way, is played by Penelope Wilton, the annoying Isobel Crawley of “Downton Abbey,” whom no one ever wants to be like.)
Except ... aha! ... a handsome man, John Davinier (Sam Reid), arrives on the estate, and he and Dido meet cute. She’s polite to everyone but him, which means, in movie terms, that she totally likes him. Plus he’s interested in the Zong case—about the destruction of property (read: slaves) aboard a ship, and what it means for insurance law, not to mention English law. Dido’s own uncle, Lord Mansfield, and the Lord Chief Justice, is the man deciding the case.
Not only that, but cousin Elizabeth, who can’t play the piano as well as Dido, is being pursued by James Ashford (Tom Felton, forever Draco Malfoy), and he’s got a taller, handsomer brother, Oliver (James Norton), who’s totally interested in Dido, and not in a creepy way, either. Which is good because Davinier impetuously blows it with Lord Mansfield and has to leave the estate forthwith. Plus Davinier is a mere vicar’s son. It never would have worked.
And there’s no need! In London, Oliver proposes marriage! So this problem is now solved. She won’t wind up an old maid like Lady Mary!
Except ... does she truly love him? Like with John Davinier? Which leads to our next and final worry: Will she wind up with the right man? Also known as: Will she find TRUE LOVE?
You can guess the ending. (She does!) Oh, and the Lord Chief Justice rules properly on the Zong case, paving the way for the eventual abolition of slavery—or at least the slave trade—in England in 1807.
I was bored throughout. The movie is glorified BBC: the heroine ascending the ladder of worries until she winds up with everything. It’s “Masterpiece Theater” with a tan.