Movie Reviews - 2009 postsSunday December 18, 2011
Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)
WARNING: THE SPOILERS ARE AFOOT
What if the character ‘Sherlock Holmes’ had been an original 21st-century creation of this film—of Guy Ritchie and Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg and (whew) Lion Wigram, as well as Robert Downey, Jr., of course—instead of a 19th-century creation of Sir Athur Conan Doyle? How well would the movie have done with the critics and how well at the box office and how well with moviegoers after they’d plunked down their $10 plus and had a day, a week, a month, a year to mull it over?
I was mulling this over because, after two years of a self-imposed embargo, and as prep for the sequel, I finally watched “Sherlock Holmes” and for the most part enjoyed myself. It’s well art-directed, Downey, Jr. and Jude Law (Dr. Watson) have great chemistry, Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler) is always a pleasure, and the movie zips. It zips too much for me, of course, and for top critics, whose approval rating wound up at 56% on Rotten Tomatoes, but not too much for moviegoers in general, who spent $209 million on it in the U.S., $524 million worldwide, and who, having mulled it over, have given it a 7.5 rating (out of 10) on IMDb.com—akin, among Downey’s work, to “Wonder Boys,” and better than “Chaplin” (7.3) and “The Soloist” (6.7).
So what would’ve happened if this thing called “Sherlock Holmes” had been an original creation? I think its box office would’ve dropped, but not astronomically (no name recognition but everyone likes a roller coaster ride), its IMDb numbers would gone up (to 7.7 or possibly higher), because its top critics ratings at Rotten Tomatoes would’ve soared. I think the critics would’ve loved it.
“A cerebral roller-coaster ride!”
Christian Science Monitor
“A brilliant throwback to the 19th-century battle between magic and science!”
New York Magazine
“In Sherlock Holmes, we have the first Asperger’s detective.”
The New York Times
But we really can’t play that game. Sherlock Holmes has been an icon for more than a century. You can’t just wipe that away. As much as they tried.
How much did they try? Ritchie, a Brit, is the first man to turn Sherlock Holmes into both an American and a Hollywood action hero.
The real Sherlock Holmes used his mind to solve crimes and mysteries. This one uses his mind, yes, but just as often, maybe more often, his fists. In the opening scene, as a female sacrifice writhes on a table (sexy!), Holmes and Watson take on a roomful of baddies as if they’re Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
The real Sherlock Holmes used the power of deductive reasoning to solve crimes, as does this one. But in the original stories, the evidence was there for us if we wanted to put it together ourselves. We rarely could. (Or I rarely could.) When Holmes did, however, we almost always went, “Of course!” Here, the evidence by which things are deduced is simply told to us after they’ve been deduced. Zip, zip, zip, zip. Get a move on. What’s that? You want to try to solve it? Just munch your popcorn, Einstein. Roller coaster’s pulling out of the station.
The real Sherlock Holmes was a cocaine user and violinist. He compared the brain to an attic—there’s only so much room, so you’d better be careful that what you put up there doesn’t crowd out worthier stuff. He had a smarter brother, Mycroft, and a nemesis, Prof. Moriarty, and a partner, Dr. Watson, who was sharp but not as sharp as Holmes, and he had informants, street kids, called the Baker Street Irregulars. He was a solitary man but found Watson’s help “invaluable”—which, to my 12-year-old ears, associating the prefix “in” with “the opposite of” (ex: “inconceivable”), sounded like the gravest insult when it was really his greatest compliment. He smoked a pipe. He wore a deerstalker cap.
This one? His plucks his violin, bowless, and smokes a pipe, ocassionally, and mentions Mycroft and sniffs some questionable substances. But cocaine and the attic aren’t mentioned, the deerstalker hat isn’t worn, and holy crap is he ever needy. The main personal tension within the film is his pain over Dr. Watson’s impending marriage to Mary (Kelly Reilly). He needs Watson with him whenever the game’s afoot. You get the feeling Irene Adler, Holmes’ love interest, shows up not only because it’s the movies and you need a girl but to quiet suspicions that Holmes might be gay.
My favorite bit was early on. Holmes is in a restaurant waiting for Watson and Mary. The other patrons talk, their cutlery clinks, and the noises intensify until it becomes almost unbearable for Holmes. It seems like Asperger’s. That would’ve been an interesting direction to go in. Of course it would’ve been less lucrative so they dropped it. Too bad. It would make sense of his seclusions. The world is too much with him. The acute senses that help him solve crimes also make it difficult to live in the world.
To the plot! Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, who went on to play every villain in every movie made since) is the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Rotheram (James Fox), head of a Freemasons-like secret society. Blackwood is responsible for the murder of several women—all writhing, one assumes—captured by Holmes, sentenced to death. But there’s something steely and menacing about him even behind bars or with the hangman’s noose around his neck. A week later, someone sees him rise from the dead. Then he’s killing again—not least his biological father.
Turns out he uses science and chemicals and whatnot (Holmes' wheelhouse) to appear magical and foster fear. He’s a 19th century terrorist. His goal is to take over Parliament and then—perhaps to ensure American audience interest—to reclaim Britain’s former colony across the pond. Amid a lot of running, fighting, explosions, and sniffing substances on his fingertips, Holmes stops him.
All the screenwriters mentioned above earned their pay; we get some fun stuff. There’s a giant Frenchman, Dredger (Robert Maillet), the “Jaws” of his day, whom Holmes must battle twice, and with whom he has the following exchange after Holmes’ weapon proves ineffective:
Dredger: Cours, lapin, cours. (Run, rabbit, run.)
Holmes: Avec plaisir.
Bailed from prison, where he has been regaling criminals with jokes and stories, Holmes has this exchange with the always incompetent Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan):
Lestrade: You know, in another life you’d have made an excellent criminal.
Holmes: And you, sir, an excellent policeman.
I also like this exchange with Watson's fiancee:
Mary: Making these grand assumptions out of tiny details.
Holmes: That’s not quite right, is it? In fact, it’s the little details that are most important.
The filmmakers do the “Batman Begins” thing of saving the iconic villain (Joker/Prof. Moriarty) for the sequel. All tentpole movies do this now. They’re all hoping for a “Dark Knight.” Good luck with that.
“Sherlock Holmes” is fun but it’s another part of our day-to-day disconnect. It’s a movie about a man of supreme concentration with which we distract ourselves for two hours. That’s the true game and boy is it ever afoot.
Movie Review: Le Concert (2009)
WARNING: SPOILERS IN D MINOR
“Le concert” is French, so I assumed refined, about classical music, so I assumed refined again. Plus it was nominated for le meilleur film at the ’09 Cesars. But it’s a rather broad comedy about a group of Russian misfits who pretend to be the Bolshoi Orchestra, and whose concert in Paris looks to be a disaster until they come together and play like a team. It’s basically a misfit baseball movie (“Bad News Bears”; “Major League”), but with Tchaikovsky instead of horsehide.
Andrey Simonovich Filipov (Alexeï Guskov) is the one-time conductor of the Bolshoi Orchestra, who, because of a run-in with Brezhnev in 1980, is now its janitor, bossed around by a bald Khruschevian blowhard. We later find out he has a reputation abroad, not only as a great conductor but as a man of conviction who stood up against anti-Semitism and despotism and suffered for it. He’s the Alexander Solzhenitsyn of conductors! So why is he still schlepping 20 years after the Iron Curtain fell? Why not move to Paris or New York or, hell, Milwaukee? Doesn’t he know his reputation?
For the purposes of this broad comedy, though, he’s still schlepping at the Bolshoi when, in the office of the current director, a fax arrives from the Châtelet Theater in Paris requesting a one-night performance. Filipov, scheming, takes the fax, deletes the corresponding email, and puts together the old team: his right-hand man Sasha (Dmitri Nazarov), a Russian bear of a man; Ivan Gavrilov (Valeriy Barinov), the KGB officer who fingered him, but who is needed for his French language skills and management capabilities; and various Jews (Viktor: Aleksandr Komissarov), Gypsies (Vassili: Anghel Gheorghe) and misfits. A deal with Paris is struck, passports and visas forged, and a gangster/beneficiary found to pay for airfare. Bienvenue a Paris!
Turns out many of the characters have ulterior motives for going: Gavrilov to hook up with the French communist party; Viktor and his son Moïse to sell caviar; and Filipov, most of all, to connect with his soloist for the concert, the beautiful violinist Anne-Marie Jacquet (Mélanie Laurent), who is the daughter of .... ?
It’s tricky. At first, I thought she was Filipov’s daughter—the result of a liaison with the wife of a friend. That would explain why Jacquet’s handler, Guylène de La Rivière (Miou Miou), initially turns down the offer to play with Filipov. It would also explain why Filipov keeps all of Anne-Marie’s recordings and press clippings and why he gets all moony-eyed around her. It would also explain why he takes her out to dinner and why he is hesitant, initially, to explain why he chose her as his soloist.
He could reply, “Because you are the best.” Instead, when she asks, he launches into the tale of his undoing: how, at the Bolshoi, he had a great Jewish soloist, Lea, with whom he was going to achieve greatness in music, but how they were stopped halfway through a Tchaikovsky concert by Gavrilov for illegally employing Jewish musicians; how he was ruined and how Lea and her husband subsequently denounced Brezhnev and were sent to Siberia, where they died.
What she should say: “I still don’t see what this has to do with me.”
What she says: “You’re nice, but sick, and I refuse to play with you.”
What she’s really saying: “We need some false tension for the last third of the film to go with the false tension of who my parents are. Everyone knows I’ll play with you.”
Intercut with this broad drama are scenes of broad comedy: clashes between noisy, grasping Russians and cultivated French. The Russians disperse, like the satellites of the Soviet Union itself, around Paris, and can’t be bothered to show up for practice even though they’ve never practiced together.
Meanwhile Sasha tells Anne-Marie, over the objections of Guylène, that if she plays for Filipov she may find out who her true parents were. (She’s been told they were scientists or something who died in a plane crash in the Alps.) So she shows up. As does everyone else. Well, Viktor and Moïse turn up late. You know Jews.
Initially, yes, the orchestra sounds like crap, and there are titters from the cultivated French crowd, and exasperation from the stuffy French critic, and worried looks back home, where the concert is being shown live on television. But Gavrilov, the former KGB man, reveals his worth by sacrificing his communist-party commitment to lock the true Bolshoi director, the Khruschevian blowhard, who shows up at the 11th hour, in an underground room; then he, this Godless communist, prays to God that the musicians will come together and make beautiful music.
Which they do. The Tchaikovsky is beautiful, the Châtelet is beautiful, and the filming augments the beauty of each; and through the music, and through Filipov’s impassioned conducting, Anne-Marie realizes her parents were, yes, Lea and her husband, who sacrificed so much; and though she is not reunited with them, though they are still as dead as the parents she thought she had for the first 28 years of her life, she is somehow filled and satisfied and made whole. As is Filipov, who goes on to fame and fortune.
“Le concert” is not a good movie. It’s not even as good as those misfit baseball movies I referenced earlier. The original “Bad News Bears” and “Major League” sketch their secondary characters better, and you see them practicing together, which is why they wind up succeeding. “Bad News Bears” even has the 1970s-era message that it’s about the performance, not the winning, which is a message Hollywood doesn’t send much, or we don’t receive much, anymore. “Le concert” implies you don’t need to practice, just wing it, and maybe with a prayer to God ... voila!
Plus: Why the subterfuge about Anne-Marie’s parents in the first place? Why didn’t Guylène tell her, particularly when she became a musical prodigy, that her parents were Soviet musicians who died heroes’ deaths? Why create and maintain a lie that has less meaning than the truth?
Admittedly, there is something admirable about making classical music accessible to the masses via a broad comedy/drama like this; but that doesn’t make the film meilleur. It doesn’t even make it bon.
Movie Review: Vincere (2009)
Once, in my fiction writing days, I contemplated a story about a character who became famous, after which he would no longer be seen with the third-person omniscient voice. From then on, the reader would only experience him in the third person, and only through a media filter. It would be as if he went into another realm. I suppose that’s how I see the famous: in another realm.
“Vincere,” written and directed by Marco Bellocchio, does something similar but better.
The first half of the movie focuses on the torrid romance between Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and a young, Socialist journalist, Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi), in Milano in the 1910s. They get married, have a child. Then she discovers he’s already married. As he accrues power, she is shunted to the side. Once he becomes prime minister, he disappears from the story. We only experience him through a media filter: in newsreel footage and newspaper photos. It’s as if he disappeared into another realm.
Here’s the “better.” Ida is eventually put into an insane asylum, where she keeps insisting she’s the wife of Benito Mussolini. Initially, since it’s her story we’re watching, we think this is a gross injustice. But at some point we wonder: Wait a minute. Did the first half of the film, that fevered dream, happen? Or did it only happen in her mind? That Mussolini is played by Timi as a young man and himself in newsreel footage furthers our doubt.
This doubt, I’m willing to concede, could be reserved for people, like myself, unfamiliar with her story. Or his.
That surprised me. I don’t know much about Mussolini, do I? I just know the bald, strutting clown on the balcony, head tilted up, bottom lip pouted, arms akimbo. But that he was once a journalist? And a socialist? And had hair?
Timi plays him intense, with love and sex as distractions from the greater game of politics and power. Mezzogiorno plays her distracted by love and sex. Mussolini becomes her all, her reason for living. She slips him notes in the middle of political protests and sells her business to promote his. This is in 1914. Another scene takes place in 1907, as the police break up a nighttime protest, and she pulls him over to the side, kisses him, strokes the back of his head ... which is covered in blood. It’s like a scene out of a horror movie. Is this where they meet? Or does she first see him during the opening scene, a theological debate between a priest and the young Socialist. Mussolini asks for a watch and then challenges God to strike him dead in five minutes to prove He exists. Mussolini lives. Ergo...
This jumping around from place to place, from year to year, adds to the sense of a fevered dream. How do they hook up again? He always seems there. His voice is thunderous during protests but in private he hardly speaks to her. Is she there? Is he?
And why so many scenes in movie theaters? While watching newsreel footage of the beginnings of the Great War, he cries out “Viva Italia!” and helps cause a riot that mirrors the violence on screen. In the hospital, wounded, he watches Giulio Antamoro’s “Cristus” and probably gets ideas—as if he needed them. She sees ... is it a jungle movie? ... and the kids in the audience act the apes.
Life is mirrored on the screen. Then life becomes the screen. Suddenly he’s prime minister, and at the theater Ida’s view is blocked by all the young Fascists standing and saluting his image, huge now, and one-dimensional. She has to share him with everyone.
First he looks down at her from his balcony with contempt ...
... then she looks up at his image during the newsreels ...
... where everyone stands and salutes ...
... his huge, flickering, one-dimensional image.
Her brother-in-law, with whom she’s staying in Trento, tells her, “Resign yourself.” She says, “I can’t.” She says, with a fierce intensity in her eyes, “I was the first to believe in him ... I’m the mother of his first-born son.”
Attempting to meet Mussolini’s functionary in Trento (she’s reduced to that), she’s beaten by black shirts and interred in a mental hospital in Pergine. She fits right in. “I’m Mussolini’s wife!” she cries. “And I’m Napoleon’s!” another woman answers. Then the stakes become known. “My son is waiting,” she says. Everyone just stares.
The inmates of Pergine.
The nuns of Pergine.
There is no figure more sympathetic than a mother kept from her child, but initially Ida doesn’t have ours. In practical terms, she chooses her lover, who is one of the great criminals of the 20th century, over her son, who is an innocent. She turns totalitarian eyes toward him. The secret police tear him from her sister’s family and place him in a private school, where he can be watched. It’s a heart-rending scene. “Uncle, help!” the boy shouts as the uncle is held back and the car speeds away. Maybe I found it heart-rending because I’m an uncle.
Yet her uncompromising stance is both her tragedy and her triumph. Most of us resign ourselves to the ways of power, even in a democracy, but she doesn’t bend even to Fascism. Powerful people visit her, this powerless inmate, but she has the truth like a fire in her eyes and she’s not willing to give it up. She’s shuttled around. A sympathetic doctor in Venice cautions her to play along, to compromise, so she can get back to her son, then shows her Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” to drive the point home; but even then she’s only willing to go so far. Dragged back to Pergine, sitting before an array of doctors, she seems willing play her part—everyone just wants her to play her part—but at the end she adds, yes, that her son is the first-born child of Benito Mussolini. Negotiations commence. “Senora, just admit you lied.” “Then I would be released?” “In due time.” Pause. “No, no. This questioning ... is a farce.”
There’s a beautiful scene, a Christmas scene, where she climbs an iron fence and sails out letters to her son amid the swirl of snowfall. It’s a fruitless act but it feels like a necessary act. Her circumstances are specific but it seems a universal gesture. We are all trapped in some way. We are all just trying to get word out to someone we love.
“Vincere” is beautifully filmed and powerfully acted but its story is uneven, its ending unsatisfying. Did Bellocchio need to focus on the elements he focused on? Were there no better scenes? Were some cut? We get seven fewer minutes in the States than they got in Italy. What did we miss?
That was my first reaction. But I find myself warming to its unknowability. It feels like it’s trying to communicate something important but I can’t fathom it. It feels like a letter sailed out into the night.
Review: John Rabe (2009)
After nearly 75 years of ignoring the topic, two films about the Rape of Nanjing, one Chinese and one German, were released in 2009. Both suffer the same melodramatic impulse. It’s not enough to show atrocity, we have to show uplift. The music has to well. Good people have to march onward even as what they leave behind is so unspeakable as to shatter faith in God.
The Chinese film, “Nanjing! Nanjing!,” is reviewed here.
The German film, “John Rabe,” focuses, no surprise, on the German, John Rabe (Ulrich Tukur of “Seraphine”), a member of the National Socialist Party (NaSi or Nazi), who, at the start, has spent years in Nanjing building a dam for the German company Siemens. It’s his pride and joy.
But it’s December 1937. The Japanese have attacked China and are approaching Nanjing (literally: southern capital), and anyway Rabe’s been recalled by Siemens to Germany. He and his wife are to leave in two days.
Rabe is not exactly a warm figure here. He calls the Chinese “good for nothing” and “children,” he has made no effort to learn their language, and he assumes he’s safe from the Japanese. “After all, they are allies of the Reich,” he says. When Japanese Zeros begin to bomb his compound, he unfurls a large Nazi flag and has everyone hide beneath it. That night he writes in his diary: “The Japanese are indeed good allies. They hold their fire as soon as they see the flag. Very honorable.”
This is one of my favorite parts of the movie. It’s so easy, in historical dramas, to make protagonists more cognizant of future events than their peers, and most filmmakers can’t resist the impulse (see: Michael Corleone in “Godfather Part II”), so it’s nice when they do. The present’s messy and uncertain. We know we’re watching a movie about an unimaginable holocaust, but unimaginable holocausts are unimaginable. No one thinks they’ll live through one today, tomorrow, or next week.
Unfortunately, we begin to get intimations of something warmer about Rabe. He’s certainly a nicer man than the Siemens exec, Werner Fleiss (Mathias Herrmann), who’s been sent to replace him. Fleiss berates Rabe for allowing a portrait of Hitler to be covered up, and for not flying his huge Nazi flag—literally and figuratively. Then he lowers the boom. He’s not just replacing Rabe: Siemens is shutting down the project. All Rabe’s hard work—gone. “The dam,” Rabe tells his wife, “would’ve been my legacy.”
To which we think: Ah, but he’ll have a different legacy.
In a stiff ceremony, Rabe receives an award as “a hero to the Chinese people,” which is greeted with catcalls from a drunk American, Dr. Wilson (Steve Buscemi), who thinks little of the Nazi businessman. He mocks him. “Hero to the Chinese people,” he says sarcastically.
To which we think: Ah, but soon he WILL be a hero to the Chinese people.
As the Japanese move into Nanjing, an international contingent, including Valérie Dupres (Anne Consigny of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), a woman with whom Rabe has a subtle flirtation, attempts to establish a “Safety Zone” for both themselves and their Chinese workers. Against Rabe’s wishes, he’s made its president. The music wells up heroically. A day later, Rabe attempts to flee. At least that’s what the others fear, since they see his name and the name of his wife on the passenger list of the last ship leaving Nanjing. They rush down to the dock. There’s tension. Then they see him and his wife making their way through the crowd. It’s true! He’s leaving!
Except there is no tension. We know he’s not leaving. Otherwise we wouldn’t be watching the movie we’re watching.
His wife gets on the ship, yes, but he stays behind, absurdly holding a bird cage, and standing on the top step of the elevated stairs as the ship pulls away. A moment later, Japanese Zeros strafe the ship. He screams her name. For some reason, in this crowded port, no one is near him. He’s all alone watching this attack. Because they couldn’t afford extras? Because it suggests how alone he is now? It’s China, kids. No one is ever alone.
First he loses his legacy, then he loses his wife. This is a big moment in the film. How does he pick himself up? We don’t know. He just does. You could argue he’s on a suicide mission. Medical supplies, including insulin, are low or nonexistent in the Safety Zone, but he tells no one he has diabetes. He simply channels his German efficiency into helping the Chinese rather than Siemens. Instead of building a system to hold back water, he’s building a system to hold back the Japanese.
The horrors get worse. Executions of Chinese men are rampant. Chinese girls cut their hair to seem like boys to prevent rape. Nanjing 1937 is, in fact, one of the true horrors of he modern age, and we should get a sense of these few foreigners propping up the last bit of sane ground in an insane world. But we don’t. Instead we get subplots. Rabe and Wilson bond over drink. Dupres confesses to Rabe she’s housing a whole platoon of Chinese soldiers in a secret room. Rabe and Wilson and Dr. Georg Rosen (Daniel Bruhl of “Inglourious Basterds”) argue over protocol. There are even intimations of romance between Rosen and a Chinese girl. He leaves her a dress. She puts it on. They talk on a couch. Seriously? We need a love story? Are we that pathetic?
There’s one great scene. While Rabe and the others are hat-in-hand at the Japanese embassy, Rabe’s driver, Chang (Ming Li), walking around his car and smoking, is confronted by an angry Japanese guard, who demands, in Japanese, that he stay in his car. But Chang doesn’t speak Japanese. When Rabe leaves the compound, Chang is nowhere to be seen. He searches for him, yells his name, finds him in a fenced-in area with other Chinese who are in the process of being decapitated. It’s a contest sponsored by a Japanese newspaper: What honorable Japanese soldier can decapitate the most Chinese? Rabe tries to get them to stop, to rescue his driver, but Chang is decapitated before his eyes. A Japanese official later says the driver wasn’t following the rules. “He didn’t stay in the car?” Rabe answers. “His head was cut off!” To compensate him for his loss, Rabe is allowed to choose 20 Chinese to take with him, but this is a Faustian bargain. He has to decide who lives and dies. He does it with German efficiency and something like horror in his eyes.
This scene is a rarity, though. Too often, writer/director Florian Gallenberger gives over to melodrama. Near the end, the Japanese want to clear out the Safety Zone and remove evidence of their atrocities before an international contingent arrives, but Rabe and the others stand in the way; they stand in front of more Chinese who are about to be killed. The Japanese begin to go through with the executions anyway: “Ready... aim...” Then the deus ex machina: the sound of the ship arriving with the international contingency. Rabe wins but the movie loses. God, ex machina or otherwise, should not show up here.
The ending is even worse. Rabe is forced to step down as president of the Safety Zone and return to Germany, and, as he makes his way through a throng of grateful Chinese, they chant his name and shout good-bye: “Tzi jien! Tzi jien!” At the other side of this throng, just outside Nanjing, a walled city, stands his wife, still alive, and he rushes to greet her, and they embrace, and a cheer goes up from the Chinese throng. Yay! The German guy is back with his wife! Yay! We’re all about to die! Yay!
How much more effective, how truer, if, after all the good he’d done, he’d left unceremoniously, as alone as he’d been at the port. What group of people recognizes individual good as it’s being done? Don’t we need historians to piece things together? Hell, I’m even cynical about that proposition.
And cheering him? Wouldn’t the remaining Chinese have clawed at him to get him to stay? Or to take them along? Or to take their babies with him so they wouldn’t be skewered by the Japanese?
Instead the Chinese act as audience for this German couple in a story that is about the atrocities that happened to them.
The Rape of Nanjing is a horrific story worth telling. We just keep telling it wrong.
Review: “Harry Brown” (2009)
WARNING: MAKE-MY-DAY SPOILERS
Is “Harry Brown” screwing with us?
The movie came to the States last spring, a Brit “Gran Torino,” another “Death Wish” about men near death. Since there were rave reviews, since it garnered a 66% on Rotten Tomatoes, I thought it might be more character study than vigilante film, but it’s not. No one’s a character here. Everyone’s a type. Count them off:
- The vigilante
- The friend who dies
- The ineffectual, sympathetic cop
- The ineffectual, grandstanding police captain
- Those horrible hoodlums
Screenwriter Gary Young and director Daniel Barber simply move these pieces against various backdrops and let them play out. There’s patience in the pacing, some shots are effective, I liked a few lines, but don’t fool yourself into thinking this is more than a genre film.
Which is why the dialogue at the end comes as a bit of a shock.
It’s in the middle of the grand finale. Because hoodlums rather than single moms or pensioners are now being killed in this particular low-end estate (read: projects), the grandstanding police captain, S.I. Childs (Iain Glen), ignoring the preposterous theory from sympathetic but ineffectual D.I. Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) that the hoodlums are being killed by a pensioner named Harry Brown (Michael Caine), whose best friend, Len (David Bradley) was killed by the same hoodlums a week earlier, decides to storm the estate in grand, militaristic fashion. It sets off a conflagration. The hoodlums, numbering in the single digits for the first three-quarters of the film, swell to dozens, and beat back the cops with Molotov cocktails. Destruction is rampant. The streets are on fire.
Into this chaos arrive Frampton and her ineffectual but unsympathetic partner D.S. Terry Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles). Attacked, left bleeding and injured, Frampton opens her eyes and through the haze sees...could it be?... Harry Brown running towards her. In his 70s (Caine was 76 when the movie was released), with emphysema, and recently self-released from the hospital from a gunshot wound, he somehow carries both cops into the local pub, run by the sympathetic Sid (Liam Cunningham), who, we later find out, is not-so-sympathetic. He’s the uncle of Noel (Ben Drew), one of the main gangbangers, and a nasty piece of work himself. Before the evening is out, he’ll betray Harry and viciously beat him. But he’ll get his.
Before that betrayal, though, Frampton and Harry have a conversation.
Harry is a former, much-decorated Marine, who was once stationed in northern Ireland, and Frampton, despite the chaos surrounding them, pleads in her usual ineffectual way for him to stop taking the law into his own hands:
Frampton: It’s not northern Ireland, Harry.
Harry: No, it’s not. Those people were fighting for something. For a cause. To them out there, this is just entertainment.
He means the gangbangers. But there’s no way the filmmakers didn’t hear the echo: how it could apply, even more so, to us out here, the audience, watching these horrors for fun. In the middle of a genre film, it’s an indictment of the entire genre. It’s the hero of the story telling the audience they’re like the villains.
Caine, by the way, is as good as ever. There’s fear in his hooded eyes but also steadiness in his voice and hands. I wouldn’t pay to watch him read the phone book, as the old saying goes (even as phone books have gone), but I’d pay to watch him in a “My Dinner with Andre” type film: Caine, and another man, or woman, shooting the honest shit. Which is to say: I would’ve liked more of the pub conversations between Harry and Len. But they only gave them so much to say. The pieces needed to be moved about.
One camera shot stands out for me. After being informed that Len has been killed by the gangbangers, we cut to a funeral procession of many, many cars. The camera follows the cars for a bit, then allows them to continue on as it alights on Harry and a young priest before an open grave. That funeral procession was for someone else. Len, an old man, just has the one friend and a priest too young to know.
One line of dialogue stands out for me. Harry’s already killed one gangbanger, stabbing him, and now he’s after guns, which are hard to get in England. So he goes to the source, the gangbangers, specifically a house run by the perpetually high Kenny (Joseph Gilgun) and the spooky Stretch (Sean Harris), whose lean body is a cross hatch of scars and tats interrupted by nipple rings. The two take Harry through several hellish rooms, including a greenhouse of, one assumes, pot, and into the back room, where a video plays of Stretch screwing a strung-out girl. That girl is still strung-out on the couch—she seems barely alive—and when Stretch tries to entice Harry with the worst of his culture by offering the girl, Harry tries to entice Stretch with the best of his culture by suggesting they call an ambulance. But there’s no cultural exchange. Stretch gets pissed off by the mere suggestion of a kind act. So when Harry gets the guns he shoots Kenny and then chases Stretch back through the greenhouse, where he lays, with a gut wound, helpless. Earlier, Stretch had Harry in his sites; but he’d also been using his gun as a bong and it misfired, and now Harry has him. Calmly, almost sympathetically, Harry says, “You failed to maintain your weapon, son.”
I love that “son.” So much better than Eastwood’s clenched-teeth “punk.” I love the old-fashion lesson inherent in the line, too. Be ready. Use a thing for what it’s for. Maintain it.
But that’s mostly what I liked about “Harry Brown.” The rest is stupid—and gets stupider in order to maintain the tropes of the vigilante film.
Mortimer is useless. She was cast to be useless. Why else cast Emily Mortimer as a cop? She spends half the movie, mouth agape, unable to argue back against the idiocies of her captain or partner.
The captain is useless. He has a desultory scene just to show how he, and the system, are screwing up. To justify Harry’s actions.
The hoodlums are cackling idiots without a trace of the better angels of our nature. We want them shot. We get our wish. The movie shows us our fears and, one by one, eliminates them.
To do this, Harry almost becomes supernatural. One gangmember, Marky (Jack O’Connell), suddenly finds himself hooded and tied to a chair. How did Harry get him there? Marky then gives up video evidence of Len’s murder. Why doesn’t Harry take it to the police? Instead, Marky, feet and hands bound, but on a short leash (literally), is let loose 10 feet into the graffitied subway where the gangbangers hang out, and where two of the leaders are sloppily making out with young girls. They see Marky but don’t see who’s holding the leash. He’s still in the dark. They pull out their guns. Why doesn’t Harry shoot them first? Why does he toy with them?
To them out there, this is just entertainment.
“See the way we're lit? This is a hellish environment, son. 'ellish.”
Review: “The White Ribbon” (2009)
WARNING: ARE THERE SPOILERS IN A MICHAEL HANEKE FILM?
I should’ve known.
I saw the trailer with its exquisite black-and-white photography, beautiful, rising choir music, and the faces of serious children saying, in German, “Forgive us, father,” “Please forgive us,” all of it interspersed with Palme D’or awards and quotes from critics (“It feels like a classic even as you’re watching it for the first time.” — Scott Foundas, LA WEEKLY), and I thought: “I gotta see this.”
Last Friday I finally got the chance. Five minutes in, I realized, “Oh, wait. This is a Michael Haneke film, isn’t it? Fuck.”
The choir music may rise, in other words, but nothing is uplifting.
Haneke’s films (“Cache,” “La pianiste,” “Le temps du loup,” “Funny Games”) don’t really educate so much as remind. They remind us of two things in particular: “People are brutal” and “You don’t know why.”
Those who agree with that first sentiment often make exceptions. They’ll say, “Well, people may be brutal but children aren’t.” They’ll say, “People are brutal now, but in the past, in a simpler time, we were better.”
To which Haneke replies, “Let them come to ‘Das weisse Bande: Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte’” (“The White Ribbon: A German children’s story”).
The film is set in a German village in the year before the Great War. The villagers are known by their occupations (The Farmer) or their relationship to someone with that occupation (The Farmer’s Wife). Only the children have names.
It’s basically a crime mystery in which we guess the criminals at the outset, have that guess strengthened throughout, then leave the theater without an answer. It’s wholly atmospheric, and the atmosphere is one of dread barely held in check. It’s one of tight-assed propriety masking something monstrous.
Our narrator is the School Teacher, voiced as an old man (Ernst Jacobi) but viewed as a young one (Christian Friedel). “It all began, I think,” he says, “with the Doctor’s accident.” He’s still using the language of the village, since the “accident” occurs when the Doctor (Rainer Bock), returning from an afternoon horseride, is cut down by a wire strung across the gate at knee length. The horse is killed, the Doctor goes to the hospital, the wire goes missing.
Village life centers around the Baron (Ulrich Tukur), who owns more than 50 percent of the land and for whom many in the village work, but our village centers around the Pastor (Burghart Klaubner) and his family, particularly his children, particularly the eldest two: Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragas), an upright, handsome girl, with something like defiance in her seemingly respectful stance, and Martin (Leonard Proxauf), a striking boy with bags under his eyes and something like shame oozing from every pore. We first see them together the evening of the doctor’s accident when they face their father’s quiet wrath for being late for dinner. They ask for forgiveness, as in the trailer, and don’t get it. “I don’t know what’s worse: your absence or your coming back,” the Pastor says. He passes sentence—10 strokes of the cane the next evening—and they are made complicit in their punishment. “Do you agree?” the Pastor says. When the punishment comes, the boy is made to get the cane and the whipping occurs behind closed doors. This is a village where things occur behind closed doors.
As the summer progresses, things get worse. The Farmer’s wife dies, a victim of an accident at the Baron’s factory, and when we finally arrive we hear one man counsel another: “Careful, it’s all rotten.” What’s all rotten? Our mind is filled with the worst possible images until Haneke, taking his sweet time, pans over to the rotten wooden floorboards that gave way and ended a life.
But it is all rotten. Things are whispered and people’s minds are filled with the worst possible images. It’s said that the Baron is to blame for the accident, and during harvest celebration one of the Farmer’s sons takes revenge by destroying the Baron’s cabbage patch. It’s a clumsy, known event that shames the Farmer. Later that night, the Baron’s curly-headed son, Sigi (Fion Mutert), goes missing, and is found at 2:30 a.m., hanging upside-down in the barn, whipped and in a state of shock. Later still the barn is burned. What undercurrent, whose undercurrent, is controlling events in this village?
The following year, the Steward’s daughter confesses to the Teacher that she dreamed something horrible will happen to Karli, the mentally disabled son of the Midwife. Has she dreamed it? Or has she been told it? And why? Why would someone do such a thing to Karli? The Midwife, we know, has been having an affair with the Doctor—we see him schtupping her without pleasure upon his return from the hospital—but he ends their relationship brutally, telling her she’s ugly, old, flabby, has bad breath, and when she doesn’t get it, declares, “My God, why don’t you just die?” Shortly after, his son, Gustav (Thibault Sérié), four or five years old, wakens one evening to find his older, teenaged sister, Anna (Roxane Duran), gone from their bedroom. He goes downstairs, scared, calling her name. He opens doors. Behind one of them he finds his father and sister. Her nightgown is pushed up, exposing her thighs. She’s getting her ears pieced, she says. She doesn’t seem scared. Haneke is putting us in the position of the villagers. We just get glimpses behind closed doors. Our minds are filled with the worst possible images.
Eventually something horrible does happen to Karli. He’s tortured, blinded, tied to a tree, and a note is left behind quoting Biblical text about the sins of the parents being visited upon the children, even unto the third or fourth generation. One assumes the Pastor’s children are responsible, as one assumed from the beginning, with Klara the ringleader and Martin the reluctant participant. But why the Midwife’s son? Because of the Midwife’s affair with the Doctor? Because of the rumors that she and the Doctor killed the Doctor’s Wife five years earlier?
The Pastor keeps punishing his children by making them wear ribbons of white, the color of innocence, to remind them of the purity from which they came, but it hardly helps. We see Klara killing the Pastor’s favorite bird and leaving the evidence on his desk. He knows she did it. Or: We suspect greatly that he suspects greatly that she did it. But when the School Teacher comes to him with accusations of their crimes, the Pastor protects what’s his and threatens the School Teacher. By this point, the Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated and the Great War begun. You could say we are unto the third or fourth generation still suffering from those 1914 sins.
Is there any innocence in Haneke’s vision? Any beauty beyond the cinematography? The School Teacher begins a relationship with Eva (Leonie Benesch), who’s working as a nanny, and they have a kind of halting, stammering sweetness together. But the relationship is mostly marked by its difficulties. This is a world where kindness is difficult, brutality easy and total.
Perhaps the most instructive scene occurs between Gustav and Anna at the breakfast nook after the death of the Farmer’s wife. Earlier Gustav had worried about their father’s absence and Anna had assured him he would return. Remember when you got sick last winter? Then you got better? It’s like that. But now he asks about death. She tries to explain it. “Does everyone die?” he asks. Yes. “Everyone really? But not you, Anni?” Me, too. “But not Dad.” Yes, Papa. Then he makes the big leap. “Me, too? It has to happen? ... And Mom? Is she dead, too?” Anna couches her answers with the comfort of time, which is actually the enemy. Mom died a long time ago, she says. He, Gustav, won’t die for a long time. But Gustav is making the connection all of us make, and that may mark the true end of innocence and the true beginning of brutality: the knowledge, which we carry all of our lives, that everyone and everything, including us, dies. And he angrily sweeps the dishes onto the floor. It’s a great scene.
If “The White Ribbon” sounds like an interesting film, it is. It’s interesting to write about, interesting to talk about, but less interesting to watch. It’s not that I disagree with Haneke’s vision, I merely think it’s devoid of light. He’s incomplete. What he's missing is a glimmer of anything that makes life worth living. He’s a child angrily sweeping the dishes onto the floor.
“Bitte verzeihen Sie.”
Review: “The Last Station” (2009)
WARNING: WAR AND SPOILERS
It’s odd scribbling critics’ notes while watching Michael Hoffman’s “The Last Station,” which is based upon Jay Pirini’s novel on the last days of Leo Tolstoy, since several characters on screen are also taking notes and it’s not exactly positive. More like the scuttling of rats. You want to apologize to other audience members for doing what you’re doing. I’m not a bad person; I’m just a critic.
I was never a Tolstoyan in believing exactly what he believed, or going through the crises he went through, but for a time, in my early twenties, I read him thoroughly and wholeheartedly. Not only was he one of the great 19th century writers but his writing gave birth to the better part of the 20th century: the non-violent movements of Gandhi and King. He’s so identified with the 19th century, in fact, that it’s startling to see the date at the beginning of the movie: 1910. Did Tolstoy really live that long? He did. Long enough to be filmed at Yasnaya Polyana, the estate where he was born, lived and was buried. He died elsewhere. But I’m getting ahead.
The movie opens with that most awful of 20th-century encounters: the job interview. Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) is being interviewed by Vladimir Chertkov (a perhaps-too-smarmy Paul Giamatti) about becoming private secretary to Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). Valentin is a Tolstoyan through and through. He’s both vegetarian and celibate, he says. He’s read Tolstoy’s philosophy and wants to live it completely—which is to say: narrowly. He’s been shown the path and wants to stay on that path, and no other, and when he gets the job he tears up from joy, and afterwards continually breathes out from repressed joy, scarcely believing his luck, even though Chertkov makes it apparent that he’s hiring not just a secretary but a spy. He warns Valentin that the Tolstoyan movement has many, many enemies and lists them off: the Russian Orthodox Church, the Tsar’s police, and the Countess Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren), Tolstoy’s wife. This last one is key. He gives Valentin a diary. “Write. Everything. Down,” he says.
Valentin has the peculiar (and dramatically facile) habit of sneezing whenever he’s nervous, and at Yasnaya, which is divided between a commune of workers and the estate of the Tolstoys, he sneezes a lot. At the commune, where he sleeps, he meets a 20th century girl chopping wood, Masha (Kerry Condon), who stares at him boldly, amusedly, and not without interest, and encourages him to speak his mind, despite Sergeyenko (Patrick Kennedy), the tight-assed man running the place. “This is a place of freedom,” Sergeyenko says after listing the rules. “We are all equals here,” he says without joy.
At the estate, where Valentin works, he’s greeted by another woman, yelling down at him from the second floor. “You!” she says. So much for equality. This is Tolstoy’s daughter, Sasha (Ann-Marie Duff), who, after he apologizes and sneezes his way into an explanation for his being, tells him to wait in the library. Nothing, of course, could make him happier. Tolstoy’s library! Tolstoy’s books and papers! Then Tolstoy himself arrives, welcomes him, engages him, causes him to cry with happiness. “I am no one and you are Lev Tolstoy,“ Valentin says. ”And you ask me about my work.“ As do all great men. It may be the definition of great men.
Yasnaya is not only divided between workers’ estate and the Tolstoy's estate but between those who believe in the movement (and see Tolstoy as a prophet), and those who are less enamored of equality and fraternity (and see him as a man). The former group includes daughter Sasha; Dushan the doctor (John Sessions), forever scribbling in his notebook; and the initially absent Chertkov, under house arrest elsewhere. The latter group includes, well, the Countess. Tolstoy is caught between groups. Our man, our eyes, Valentin, intellectually sides with the movement but has an open heart. It’s what saves him from the absolutism of the others.
Mirren, by the way, is amazing: annoying yet sympathetic, haughty yet fragile, comic yet tragic. She’s afraid her husband will sign away the copyrights to his work (which he does); she’s afraid that he’s moving away from her (which he is), so she clings, cajoles, seduces. She upbraids him for dressing like a man who tends sheep, then calls herself “his little chicken” and calls him “her big cock” and gets him to crow happily in bed. She reminds him that she bore him 13 children and wrote out “War and Peace” six times and how could he betray her like this? With Valentin she’s equally blunt, telling him he’s “rather handsome in a sort of peculiar way.”. She asks him, while they walk, if he’s a virgin, and when he stutters and sneezes and begins to quote Tolstoy to her, she says breezily, “You know, when he was your age he was whoring in the Caucasus.” Then she gives him a diary and tells him to write down what he sees. “What. You. See,” she says.
Valentin goes for walks with Tolstoy, too, and when Tolstoy asks him the deep questions of life, Valentin quotes Tolstoy to Tolstoy, which is the last thing Tolstoy wants. “I know what I say,” he says pleasantly, “but what do you say?” Valentin admits he doesn’t know. Tolstoy replies, with a touch of helplessness, “Neither do I.” It’s a poignant scene.
Things come to a head (a headier head) when Chertkov is released from house arrest and arrives at Yasnaya. From outside he greets his nemesis, the Countess, who’s on the second-floor balcony:
Chertkov: I’m happy to see you.
Countess: And I’m happy to make you happy.
Chertkov (wearing the tightest of smiles): Ha ha ha ha.
But the tighter she tries to hold onto Tolstoy the more he slips away from her. Meanwhile Valentin is the passive and nervous and then joyful recipient of the advances of Masha, who, like in an adolescent male fantasy, comes to his room at night, silently climbs atop him, and removes her gown. Basically she knocks him off his narrow path and widens his world. Condon, mousy in the HBO series “Rome,” where she played Octavia, the innocent daughter of the villainess, Atia, is stunningly sexy here. Bravo for boldness. McAvoy is also a surprise. He was forgettable to me in “Last King” and “Atonement,” for which he won raves (and BAFTA nominations), and unforgettable here, where every emotion reads visibly, humanly on his face. (Put it this way: He didn’t need the sneeze—except for comic effect.) Yet no one’s mentioning him and the awards season has already passed him by. So it goes.
“The Last Station” is straightforward, enjoyable storytelling, with great performances, that is, on a personal level, whollly evocative. I kept thinking of the last chapter of Philip Roth's near-perfect novella “The Ghost Writer,” entitled Married to Tolstoy," on the difficulties of living with a writer. As Tolstoy gets more and more fed up with his wife, threatening to leave her and Yasnaya Polyana, I also flashed back to my college roommate, Brian M., reading about this incident and laughing uproariously at the image of Tolstoy basically running away from home at the age of 82. It’s less funny here. He only makes it as far as Astopovo, the last station of the title. One feels, as the world gathers to hear of his death, that he’s simply an old man being used.
All of this takes place exactly 100 years ago. As the 20th century progressed, Tolstoy’s views, via Gandhi and King, became more and more important, even as his station in life, the writer’s station, became less and less so. He was born the year after the French government patented the fountain pen, he was 45 years old when the first typewriter with a QWERTY keyboard became commercially successful, and by the time he died, well, he was one of the most famous men in the world. Writers mattered. As the century progressed it became easier to write, and easier to publish, and so more people did, and so it mattered less. And now we’ve got what we’ve got. The egalitarianism Tolstoy sought has played out in the craft he perfected—to the craft’s detriment. We're all equals here.
Review: “Crazy Heart” (2009)
WARNING: UNBUTTONED SPOILERS
Generally in stories about a down-on-his-luck artist attempting redemption through a woman and a comeback through his art, the work of art in question, which everyone in the movie says is great, stunning, worthy of turning a life around, is actually fairly ordinary. In “Crazy Heart,” written and directed by Scott Cooper, the work of art is a country song, “The Weary Kind,” written by Ryan Bingham and produced by T. Bone Burnett. Two things: 1) it’s great, stunning, worthy of turning a life around, and 2) it only turns around the life of the artist, country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), so much. It indicates a direction but it doesn’t necessarily get him home.
Blake, 58, is overweight and a drinker. As the movie begins, the country legend is driving the American Southwest in his ’78 Suburban, Bessie, and playing in dives. Because the first place we see him play is a bowling alley, and he arrives long-haired, dissheveled, bearded and unbuttoned, ordering a drink at the bowling-alley bar, one can’t help but think of Bridge’s most famous character, the Dude from “The Big Lebowski”; but that’s where the similarity ends. The Dude was happy in bowling alleys but Blake takes one look and says aloud to his absent manager, “Jack, you bastard.” He doesn’t get a bar tab (his reputation has preceded him), isn’t interested in rehearsing with his star-struck back-up band (including Ryan Bingham as Tony), and near the end of his set flees the stage to throw up in a back-alley garbage can. That night he sleeps with an aging groupie, one of 20 or so fans who bothered to show up, then he sneaks out of Pueblo, New Mexico. The question for the viewer: Is this bottom?
We find out he hasn’t written a song in three years. He also has a former partner, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who’s a big star, but with whom Blake refuses to play anymore. One assumes bad blood and betrayal.
The next gig is a little better, a real bar, and he arrives mid-afternoon to hear a man playing the piano and playing it well. Blake gives him a nod of compliment and the man returns the favor and then asks for another. His niece is a reporter with the Santa Fe paper. Would he give her an interview?
The niece is Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and they meet cute. For the interview she gives a quick rap on his motel room door and opens it... to find him sitting in a towel and watching chicas on his motel-room TV.
It’s meeting cute but it’s meeting false. Who barges into a stranger’s motel room with hardly a knock? For a journalist, too, her questions are fairly generic, as if she’d done no research at all. Who were your influences? Did you ever want to be anything else? In today’s world of artificial country music, who’s real country? His answers are good, particularly on wanting to be a baseball player until someone threw him a curve ball (“Figured I’d stay with the guitar. Sonuvabitch stayed where it’s supposed to”), but that doesn’t excuse the questions. She also sleeps with her subject, which is a whole other matter.
She becomes, of course, the love interest, and one of the sources of Blake’s redemption, but I was rarely interested in their relationship. It felt icky. Because of the age difference? Because I didn’t quite get what she saw in him or he in her? Because her journalism is questionable? Because I knew he would let her down in some awful way?
His relationship with other people, meanwhile, always intrigued me. He finally lets his manager book him as the opening act for Tommy Sweet, who used to open for him, and one expects an egotistsical, grandstanding upstart. Instead Tommy’s appreciative and admiring of his former mentor. All this time, the problem had been Blake and his pride, his old lion’s pride, which is still on display when Tommy sneaks onstage, to squeals from the crowd, 12,000-strong, during Blake’s opening number to sing a duet with the legend. There’s a frozen disapproval in Blake’s face and body language, and there are subtle tensions when the two talk backstage, and all of that is a joy to watch because it feels real; because it makes you wonder about both men. Hell, I liked the back-and-forth Blake has with the sound-man, Bear, during the sound check:
Blake: Bear, Bear, Bear! I need kick and snare, turn down the damn guitar, you’re drowning out the lyrics.
Bear: Mix is good, man. You can’t hear what I’m hearing out here.
Blake: Bear, I’m an old man, I get grumpy. Humor me.
Tommy wants a longer tour, and songs, from his former partner, and after Blake gets into a car accident and winds up recuperating at Jean’s place, he begins to write the one that will become “The Weary Kind.” In lesser films he’d realize what he has and keep it and record it for himself and become a star again (that, in fact, is the story the trailer implies). In this film, he realizes what he has and mails it off to Tommy anyway, who, down the road, will make it a hit, which will make Blake a little sum of money. There’s a matter-of-factness to all this. It’s how life is.
Pride, though, was only one thing holding Blake back. The other was drink. Artistically he may have hit bottom at that bowling alley in Pueblo, but alcoholics have deeper, harder bottoms. In Santa Fe, Blake takes Jean’s four-year-old son, Buddy (Jack Nation), to the park for the day, and Jean returns to a darkened home. No Buddy. No Bad. She panics for five seconds until they walk in the door, Buddy with stories already spilling out of his mouth, Blake, looking a wreck, assuring her, “Nobody died.” This prefigures a later scene in Houston when Blake loses Buddy in a mall. Blake had a son from a previous relationship, a grown man now and understandably uninterested in his father’s attempts to reconnect with him, whom Blake last saw when he was four. The man has a bad habit of losing four-year-old boys.
Buddy’s found in the mall but Jean is unforgiving and cuts things off with Blake for good. And that, after another bender, is Blake’s bottom.
“Crazy Heart” could be subtitled “The Partial Redemption of a Country Legend.” That’s really all it is. Its appeal lies in the peformances—particularly Bridges, who is both monumental and as ordinary as any day in our lives—and in the details. I like the size of Bridge’s mangled fingers next to Buddy’s. I like how, saying good-bye in Santa Fe, Jean grimaces away from Blake’s alcoholic breath. (“Mustard gas and roses,” Kurt Vonnegut used to call it.) I like the small scene, after he sobers up and after Jean still rejects him, where he’s cleaning his place and finds Buddy’s Superman t-shirt under the bed. He picks up the phone. Then he pauses, sets the phone back down, folds the little boys’ t-shirt in his lap. It’s such a small shirt and that emblem is so big and says so much. Will he mail it back? Will he keep it? We don’t know. We just know he won’t use it as an excuse to inject himself into her life again. It wasn’t easy being Bad, but it’s even harder being decent.
The movie has some false notes but the music doesn’t. The songs this country legend sings are actually good songs:
I used to be somebody
Now I am somebody else
Who I’ll be tomorrow
Is anybody’s guess
They’re as matter-of-fact and down-to-earth as the movie, which almost didn’t get distribution. Now it’s out in a handful of theaters making a little sum of money. It’s how life is.
Review: “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009)
WARNING: CUSSIN' SPOILERS
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a joy to watch because it’s both a Wes Anderson movie and a George Clooney vehicle.
Its Wes Andersonness is obvious. It gives us deadpan humor, father-son conflict, characters associated with one absurd and outdated mode of dress. It tosses up chapter titles (“The Go-For-Broke Mission”) and tosses in a tinkly soundtrack and bouncy-but-obscure, British-invasion-era music (“Let Her Dance” by Bobby Fuller Four). In 2007 I wrote the following about the essential Wes Anderson lesson: Exclusion isn’t necessarily the problem but inclusion is almost always the solution. That’s still true for his films—whether we’re talking Fischers, Tenenbaums and Zissous or foxes, badgers and weasels.
Where “Fox” differs from a typical Wes Anderson movie is in its hero. Anderson’s protagonists generally pretend to be something they’re not: great playwrights, great oceanographers, caring patriarchs. Eventually their true nature is revealed and they’re excluded from where they want to be. Only in returning, chastened and wiser, do they become the very thing they were pretending to be.
The movement for Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is the opposite. His persona is basically the George Clooney persona—the hyper-articulate, know-it-all whose charm resides in not always knowing it all but mustering through with grace and style anyway—and this persona, Mr. Fox’s persona, hardly changes during the course of the movie. For a time he denies his true nature, but he does so for others, not himself, and it’s a mere blip of screentime. It’s not the Anderson cycle of pretense/exclusion/genuineness. It’s the Clooney promise: Get on board, boys, we’re going for a ride!
The reason Mr. Fox is forced to deny his true nature is the reason many of us are forced to deny our true natures: he starts a family. One moment he and his wife are stealing squabs from a nearby farm, the next they’re trapped by a cage. Before they can escape, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) announces she’s pregnant, and elicits a promise from Mr. Fox that he’ll settle down and never steal squabs and chickens and the like again.
Out of one trap and into another.
For two years (12 fox years, we’re told), Mr. Fox works as a newspaperman and lives with Mrs. Fox and their son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), in a comfortable hole, until one day he says he’s tired of living in their comfortable hole. He’s got his eye on a tree that they can’t afford. Except he really wants the tree because of it overlooks Boggis, Bunce and Bean, three farms producing, in order, chickens, turkey and cider, and run by “three of the meanest, nastiest, ugliest farmers in the valley,” according to Fox’s lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray), who counsels against purchase. Fox ignores him. He tells himself he’s after one last job, by which he means three last jobs, one for each farm. For the first two he drags along Kylie, the passive, not-bright, handyman opossum (Wallace Wolodarsky), who is essentially the Pagoda of this film, and both jobs go off, give or take an electric fence, without a hitch.
For the final job, at Bean’s cider farm, Ash tries to tag along but is sent home; instead Fox relies on Ash’s cousin and rival, Kristofferson Silverfox (Eric Anderson), a meditating, martial-arts-training natural athlete who is staying with the family. Again, give or take a rat guard (Willem Dafoe), and the appearance of the very masculine-looking Mrs. Bean (Helen McCrory), the job goes off without a hitch. The problem: of the three nasty farmers, Bean (Michael Gambon, brilliant here) is the nastiest of the bunch. Also the smartest. And he organizes Boggis and Bunce into bringing the fight to Mr. Fox.
Thus begins a war of escalation. First they attempt to shoot Mr. Fox but succeed only in blowing off his tail (which Bean wears as a tie); then they destroy the Fox’s tree home with bulldozers (shades of “Avatar”!), but discover the Foxes have dug down to safety. When they try to dig them out, the Foxes simply dig deeper, and further, and eventually back into the Boggis, Bunce and Bean farms, from which they steal everything. By this time, other animals have been swept up in the war, and they all gather at a large underground dining table to celebrate. But just as Mr. Fox is delivering his toast of triumph, a rumble is heard. The rumble of cider. They’re being flooded out of their homes and into a sewer, from which there appears no escape.
But there is an escape. Earlier, when Mrs. Fox learned of her husband’s treachery, we got the following dialogue:
Mrs. Fox: Why did you lie to me?
Mr. Fox: Because I’m a wild animal.
Meanwhile, Ash, who likes to wear a cape, and who doesn’t even have a proper bandit mask but uses a reconstituted tube sock, is dealing with others’ perceptions, and his own perception, of his difference.
And that’s their salvation. They’re all wild animals and they’re all different. Mr. Fox, calling everyone by their Latin names (Oryctolagus Cuniculus! Talpa Europea!), uses the talents of each species for their final plan of attack, their final salvation. Exclusion isn’t necessarily the problem but inclusion is almost always the solution.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is delightful on many levels—it’s funny, quirky, tender, adventurous—but it resonates long after you leave the theater for the following reason. The convention of children’s stories is to have wild animals talk, wear clothes, and engage in human professions, and “Mr. Fox” certainly adopts those conventions. Then it upends them by having the wild animals realize the absurdity of not being what they are: wild animals. Wes Anderson, in other words, dresses up his animals as people so the people watching can realize that they, all the lawyers and high school coaches and newspapermen in the audience, are animals. All of us, in small ways, in the clothes we wear or the jobs we have, are denying our true natures. The joy of “Mr. Fox” is that Vulpes Volpes gets to reveal his true nature. The bittersweetness of Homo Sapiens is that, generally, we don’t.
Review: “Precious” (2009)
WARNING: GIFT-OF-THE-UNIVERSE SPOILERS
“Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” is set in Harlem in the 1980s, a hopeless period for both race relations and social progress in America. If the 1960s was the two steps forward, the 1980s was the one step back. One image from the period, and the film, is particularly weighted with hopelessness to me. With all of the crime in the streets, with all of the crime in the homes, there in the classroom is a poster of McGruff the Crime Dog, a cartoon hound in a trenchcoat, urging kids to “Take a bite out of crime.” How exactly? By speaking up? By getting an adult? And if the adult is the crime? McGruff is a harbinger of the very thing he fights. He shows up only where crime is rampant and offers nothing. He’s a symbol of impotence.
He’s also a symbol of one of the three universes of “Precious.” All of them are depressing.
The first and worst universe is the brutal, everyday world that Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) lives in. She’s 16, fat, black, illiterate. Sexually abused by her absentee father since age 3, she’s now pregnant with his second child. The first child, who has developmental problems, is being raised by her grandmother, while her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), lives off welfare, watches TV all day, and is emotionally and physically abusive to Precious. She tears down Precious every day with a stream of verbal abuse; if Precious is unresponsive she resorts to the physical kind. Precious is also attacked in the streets and ignored in the schools. There is nowhere she is safe.
Except in the second universe, her fantasy universe, where she often goes after being physically abused. Here she wears feather boas and is photographed on red carpets. She’s on BET and magazine covers. She’s beautiful, important, and loved by a light-skinned boyfriend, but the universe is depressing for being so distant from her reality, and for being a slightly more glamorous version of the empty, cheesy shows her mother watches. Who would even want to live in this universe? Only someone whose reality is the first universe.
The third universe is the solution. When administrators at her public high school discover she’s pregnant with her second child, most likely sexually and physically abused, and virtually illiterate, they release her to a special program in an alternative school, “Each One, Teach One,” which is run out of the 11th floor of the Hotel Theresa. Her intro there is inauspicious. The receptionist puts personal phone calls ahead of administrative duties, doesn’t even expect Precious (though there’s hardly a clog of humanity at the place), and needs copies of a phone bill and her mother’s budget to complete the bureaucratic process. Precious’ second day begins even worse. She needs money for food but her mother is masturbating in bed and ignores her. So Precious steals a bucket of fried chicken and eats most of it on the way to school, before throwing it back up in a school garbage can beneath a sign reading: “Try for a better future.” There are such self-esteem signs all over the school. One reads: “Determination.” In another, the following words form a circle: “feeling good about yourself will lead to more reasons for” and back to the first word. Plus there’s McGruff. That harbinger of good times.
When Precious finally enters the classroom (via white light?), the feeling-good-about-yourself times continue. The students, five or six girls, are asked by their teacher, who goes by the name Blu Rain (Paula Patton), to talk about something they’re good at. After the movie, walking down Broadway on Capitol Hill, my girlfriend Patricia commented with amazement on how “all of those girls were so different.” One’s a tough Chicana, one’s a lesbian, one’s from Jamaica, etc. “That’s the point,” I replied flatly. “I know,” she responded, “But...” She liked it. She was caught up in it. I wasn’t. I also wondered about casting. If the classroom was supposed to be feel-good, how did Paula Patton wind up as Ms. Rain? She’s pretty enough to make Halle Berry feel like something the cat dragged in.
And so our first and third universes battle for the soul of Precious. The caring teacher vs. the uncaring mother. One props up, one drags down. “You’re special, Precious.” “You think you’re special, Precious?” Ms. Rain has the students write every day, and the book, “Push,” by Sapphire, is in the first-person, so you get a sense of the progress Precious makes through the writing itself. That might be interesting. On the other hand, it is reminiscent of “The Color Purple,” which was a best-seller, and then a hit movie, a few years before the time “Precious” is set in. Aspects of “Precious” also reminded me of “The Bluest Eye,” Toni Morrison’s first novel, which was published in 1970, and which I read around the time Precious was first walking into that classroom, when Sapphire herself was a remedial reading teacher in Harlem and dealing with girls like Precious every day. I guess every generation needs their version of this story; I guess it’s why it felt old to me.
No, it’s worse. Parts of it feel like a lie. Even as Ms. Rain tells Precious it’s OK to be fat and black (but not illiterate), the good people in the film—Ms. Rain, Nurse John (Lenny Kravitz), and, to a lesser extent, Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey)—are thin, good-looking, light-skinned. That’s what good is in this universe. “But you’re still beautiful, Precious.”
The movie’s villain, meanwhile, is fat and black. Mary allows her child to be sexually abused and then blames the child for taking away her man. She’s also an argument against welfare—wasting her life in a small cluttered apartment and watching the worst TV has to offer. There are few cinematic moments more depressing than Mary doing a bump-and-grind while smoking and watching Florence Henderson give clues on “$100,000 Pyramid.” The horror of our culture is in that moment. The waste... The waste...
Mo’Nique is smart enough to play Mary as the victim—that’s how she sees herself. It’s a great performance and Mo’Nique deserves her accolades. Put it this way: I believed Mary. I believed Ms. Weiss, too. She’s fighting the good fight but she also has the tired, thousand-yard stare of the career bureaucrat. With the world the way it is, you can only care so much. After her appointment with Precious, she has one with, say, Angela, and another with Bettina, and Clarice, and on and on until five o’clock, at which point she gets to punch out and grab a drink, and then do it all again tomorrow. Five days a week, 52 weeks a year. With that schedule, how much emotion do you put into your 10:15? Carey plays her right. But Ms. Rain? She cares. Deeply. Particularly about Precious. Because Precious is precious? No, because we’re watching Precious’ story rather than Rita’s story, or Rhonda’s or Jermaine’s or Joann’s or Consuelo’s. Ms. Rain has to care more about her because we care more about her. “Your baby loves you,” she tells Precious. “I love you.” In a gritty, horrific story, Ms. Rain is wish-fulfillment. That’s why I didn’t believe her. Or the movie.
Review: “Broken Embraces” (2009)
WARNING: NONE-SO-BLIND SPOILERS
Pedro Almodovar’s “Los abrazos rotos” (“Broken Embraces”) begins with a movie being filmed. We’re seeing through a camera as technicians fuss around the female star, who stands in the center, lost in thought. She might be bored. At one point, she charmingly gives her lips a Chaplinesque back-and-forth waggle. Then she’s replaced by Penelope Cruz. The original girl wasn’t the star but the stand-in. One anticipates doppelganger themes, or themes of perception, for the rest of the film. The person you’re watching isn’t the person you think you’re watching.
Indeed, after the opening credits, we get a close-up of a female eye with the face of a man visible in the pupil. The man who’s being seen can’t see. He’s writer-director Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), who gave up the name, and the directing half of his profession, when he lost his sight 15 years earlier. Now he goes by the nom de plume Harry Caine.
The owner of the eye (Kira Miro) is reading to Harry at the breakfast table about the death of a businessman, Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). Is she his nurse? After quizzing her about Martel’s death, he says he’s not interested in the news; he’s interested in her. What’s she like? He asks for her measurements (36-26-36). He asks her to describe her looks. He asks if he can touch her face with his hands. He does. And he works his way down. And her breathing gets heavier. And he lifts the thin straps of her chemise and squeezes her breasts.
Me in the audience: Pedro, you are my favorite gay man.
They have sex on the couch, which Almodovar films discreetly but sensually, as he pans slowly across the back of the couch, revealing a hand there, a foot there. Afterwards, with the woman in the bathroom, another woman, Judit Garcia (Blanca Portillo), arrives and looks disapprovingly at Harry. He senses her disapproval and tells her: “Everything’s already happened to me. All that’s left is to enjoy life.” The reader of the newspaper isn’t his nurse after all; she’s simply somebody who helped him across the street. And Judit? Is she maid to Harry? Assistant? Friend? Ex-wife? One senses a history. And the handsome young man, Diego (Tamar Novas), who shows up a minute later? He’s her son, but what is he to Harry? He almost seems like a son to him, too. Much of the movie is sussing out such relationships. What do these characters mean to each other? You could say that’s the question each of us asks every day. What do we characters mean to each other?
By the way: Harry’s wrong. Everything hasn’t happened to him. And it’s the death of Martel that sets things in motion again.
Harry tells Judit a story he wants to make into a film. The playwright Arthur Miller had a son with Down Syndrome whom he cut out of his life; but the son grew to a man and forgave him, going so far as to tell him, at a fundraiser for people like himself, “I’m proud of you, papa.” It’s a story about an overwhelming act of forgiveness, but soon Harry is visited by a young filmmaker, Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano), who wants to make a film about the opposite: filial unforgiveness. A father who couldn’t abide a gay son, who made the son ignore what he was. Bitterness emanates from Ray—it’s obvious he’s talking about himself—but Harry detects even more, and, with Diego’s help, realizes that Ray is the son of Ernesto Martel, and Ernesto Martel is the man who ruined Harry’s life.
Much of the rest of the film is flashback—told by Harry to Diego.
In 1992, Lena (Penelope Cruz), not an actress at all but secretary to Martel, is overwhelmed because her father is dying of stomach cancer and the health-care system is spitting him out. Martel is sympathetic, allowing her the afternoon off to attend to him. But things get worse for the father. He’s in agony. At one time Lena was a budding actress but went nowhere except into the role of sometime, high-class prostitute, and she contacts her former madam to get some quick money to help her father. Except a client phones her at home and that’s not the way it works. The madam admits, with a shrug, that one wealthy client insisted that if Lena ever returned to the business he would get her home phone. The client, by the way, is Martel. Initially we wonder if it’s all a fantastic coincidence. Then we don’t. As solicitous as he initially seemed, he’s always had his eye on her. After he helps her get her father into assisted care, the two walk away together, not touching. One senses debts about to be paid.
Two years later she’s his mistress. Meanwhile director Mateo Blanco is making a comedy, “Chicas y maletas” (“Girls and Suitcases,” recognizable as a spin on Almodovar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”), and Lena wants to try out for a role. She does, and there’s an immediate spark between the two. Judit, who’s around even then, is jealous. Martel is jealous. He gets his son, Ernesto, Jr., the future Ray X, hampered by bad skin, bad hair and big glasses, to film them as they film the movie; then he employs a lip reader to tell him what they’re saying. Initially it’s all work stuff. But behind closed doors, away from Ernesto, Jr.’s camera, we find out it’s more. They’re hot and heavy in love. Martel suspects it and takes Lena away for a weekend.
I’m not a huge Almodovar fan but I love the way he allows us the time and space to figure things out. At this point in the movie, for example, we see two people making love under the sheets. For a second the sheets seem like a shroud. Are they? Is this sex as death? Yet the two seem to be enjoying themselves. Is it Lena and Mateo? No, when the sheets are removed, it’s Lena and Martel, away for the weekend. So maybe she loves both men?
Then she goes into the bathroom and throws up. It was sex as death. The sheets were a shroud.
The following Monday, having spent all weekend acting with Martel, her acting before the camera suffers, and when Mateo questions her she complains about Martel, calling him a monster. Of course it’s all filmed by Ernesto, Jr., and said aloud by the lip-reader. And now Martel knows.
This is where Almodovar loses me. He’s always had a bit of Douglas Sirk in him and I’ve never liked grand-staircase melodrama. But that’s what we get. Lena returns to say her final goodbyes, and, just as she’s heading down the grand staircase, he pushes her, she falls, she can’t get up. Now she’s in a cast. How can they film the rest of her scenes? They improvise. Then she shows up at Mateo’s with bruises on her face, and, with the film in the can, she and Mateo go away for a month and only return to Madrid when their movie opens to critical pans. Mateo must find out what they did to ruin his film in his absence.
During the course of watching this film, Almodovar’s film, we assume Lena’s dead, since she’s not in the present; so we wonder how she died and how Mateo went blind. That’s in the last act. On their way back to Madrid, Ernesto, Jr., looking sinister, is on their trail again, thanks to information he and his father received reluctantly from Judit. He’s filming them as they kiss in their car at an intersection; and he’s filming them as they pull out into the intersection and an SUV slams into the passenger’s side, killing Lena, blinding Mateo.
In other words: Someone meant them harm, harm was done, but the two aren’t related. It was all a horrible accident.
In the end, Harry and Diego—his son, he learns, 90 minutes after the rest of us figure it out—work together to re-make “Chicas y maletas,” which Martel had purposely sabotaged. Ray X is helpful, too. Forgiveness, the point of the Arthur Miller story, abounds.
I’m all for forgiveness but “Broken Embraces” ranges too far with its story and themes and feels weak as a result. I expected, even as I wrote this, for the film to coalesce in some way, but it didn’t, or hasn’t. At the start, the people you’re watching are not the people you think you’re watching: the movie star who’s a stand-in; the nurse who’s a fling. For the rest of the film, everyone is exactly who you think they are. I guess I wanted something a little more melodramatic, or at least surprising, from Mr. Almodovar. I didn’t want twists so obvious even a blind man could see them.
Nurse? Assistant? 36-26-36?
Review: “New Moon” (2009)
WARNING: PENSIVE, TORTURED SPOILERS
Near the end of “The Twilight Saga: New Moon,” as the Volturi, the council that enforces vampiric law, is arguing over what to do with vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and his human girlfriend Bella Swann (Kristen Stewart), one of the members of the council, Marcus (Christopher Heyerdahl, distantly related to Thor Heyerdahl), stands and declares, “Let us be done with this!”
Me in the audience: Amen, brother.
“New Moon” is painful. It's as painful as listening to a girl lament about some unsolvable problem everyday for a year. Bella and Edward start out tortured together (Bella: “I can’t even think of someone hurting you.” Edward: “Bella, the only thing that can hurt me is you.”), and they soon become tortured separately. She thrashes in bed. She sleepwalks through her day. Basically she’s waiting, which means basically we’re waiting. At one point the kids debate which movie to see at the local theater, “Love Spelled Backwards is Love” or “Face Punch,” and Bella opts for the latter, declaring, “Guns, adrenaline, that’s my thing.”
Me in the audience: Then it’s a good thing you’re not watching your movie.
It begins well enough with the image of a new moon that slowly fades to a half-moon, a quarter, sliver, all the while revealing the title. Then we get a dream/nightmare from Bella. She’s at the edge of the woods looking over an open field toward more woods, where an old woman, her grandmother, stands. She’s with Edward, and, though she warns him, he walks into the sunlight, revealing his vampireness (vampirity?) to her grandmother; so she walks with him into the open field to introduce the two. But when she speaks her grandmother speaks, with the same voice, using the same words. She looks over at Edward, confused. When she looks back, she’s looking into a mirror. Her grandmother is her. She’s aged, Edward hasn’t, and she’s an old woman now. Then she wakes up. A year older. It’s her 18th birthday.
Everyone wants to celebrate it except her, and one gets the feeling it’s not just the nightmare. She’s just built that way. People do shit for her and her response is blank confusion. She’s a bit of a downer.
When she first sees Edward, at school, in the parking lot, he walks toward her in slow motion. That’s how love is revealed these days: via slow-mo. In the old days it was through words, words, words, and in English class we get one such example: “Romeo and Juliet.” Which means after hearing the Bard’s dialogue, and after Bella is nearly attacked by one of Edward’s clan and the Cullens decide to leave Forks, we get Stephenie Meyer’s dialogue:
Edward: You just don’t belong in my world, Bella.
Bella: I belong with you.
Edward: No, you don’t.
Bella: I’m coming with you.
Edward: Bella, I don’t want you to come with me.
Bella: You... You don’t want me...?
He goes, she’s bereft. And bereft and bereft. At one point she realizes that whenever she's in danger she sees Edward's face, so she keeps putting herself in danger. She becomes an adrenaline junkie, and her friend, Jacob (Taylor Lautner), helps her rebuild some junker motorcycles to help her newfound need for speed. She enjoys his company but he’s got a crush on her. Plus he’s a werewolf—part of that Native American wolf pack that has treaties with vampires. When she learns this she manages to rise above the emotional minutia of her life and wonders whether all of the stories she heard as a child, of fairies and trolls, are true; but then, poof, that moment is gone, and it’s back to Bella Bella Bella. Me, I wondered if this meant there was some Frankensteinian clan living over by Lake Quinault. Fire, bad. Rain, good.
As awful as the dialogue was before the revelation, it gets that much worse after it. Here’s Bella and Jacob walking on the beach:
Bella: So. [Long pause.] You’re a werewolf.
Jacob: Yep. Last time I checked.
Werewolves, we find out, are warm, 108 degrees, which is why these wolf-boys run around shirtless in the Pac Northwest winter. (BTW: Are there girl werewolves? Is there a Title IX issue for them somewhere?) Like the Cullens, this wolf pack leaves humans alone. They prowl after bad vampires. They like cliff diving. They eat muffins. As wolves do.
“Twilight” fans are apparently divided between Team Jacob and Team Edward, and, with no rights in the matter—not having read the books, disliking the movies, and being, you know, a straight guy—I’ll still cast my vote for Edward. Maybe because he’s more learned. Maybe because his powers are tempered by shame. Probably because Pattinson’s the better actor.
Much of the movie is Jacob mooning after Bella, who is mooning after Edward, but in the last act she travels to Rome to save Edward. He thinks Bella’s dead and, like Romeo, he’s thinking of suicide. Which, for a vampire, means revealing himself to humans so the Volturi will kill him. He’s about to do this when Bella arrives in the nick of time and saves him. (Take that, Shakespeare!) But the two are led before the Volturi anyway, and the council debates the whole ugly matter. Should they kill him, whom they can’t trust, or her, who knows too much? Him? Her? Him? Her? She shocks them when she offers her life to save his. A human? Doing this for one of us? Well, to be fair, Aro (Michael Sheen), a good-looking one of you. You might do better with the girls, too, if you dressed snappier and didn’t look so creepily bug-eyed all the time.
By the end we’re back in Forks. All of that turmoil just to get Edward to see the logic of turning Bella into a vampire—which she contemplates the way other girls contemplate losing their virginity: “I was thinking maybe after graduation?” So the movie is less love story than an excruciatingly long and pointless pause in the love story. It sets up the love triangle that really isn’t a love triangle. Poor Jacob. He’s got the bod and the sincerity, but you can gauge each couple by what it watches. Bella and Edward get “Romeo and Juliet.” Bella and Jacob? “Face Punch.”
Review: “A Single Man” (2009)
WARNING: MODEL-HANDSOME SPOILERS
“A Single Man” is a serious film with a one-joke premise. It’s a day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a professor of literature in Los Angeles in October 1962, and he’s spending it planning his suicide. His lover has recently died, he’s alone, he can’t go on. The Falconer cannot hear the falcon. But throughout the day, people keep intruding upon his plans. His divorcee friend, Charley (Julianne Moore), insists he come over for dinner, he runs into a hot Spaniard outside the liquor store, a cute student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), questions him, compliments him, insinuates himself into his life, goes skinny-dipping with him in the surf. By the end of the day George has an epiphany, a moment of clarity, and he’s ready to go on living. Then he has a heart attack and dies. Badda boom.
It’s an atmospheric film. Too atmospheric. It was directed by fashion designer Tom Ford from a Christopher Isherwood novel, and we get a lot of slow-motion shots of people too beautiful to exist against backdrops that feel designery—the Hitchcock “Psycho” painting on the brick wall, for example. George’s squabbling neighbors are beautiful, his students are model-beautiful, the secretaries at the university are done up just so, while Carlos at the liquor store could make even straight men gay. Even Colin Firth, who’s never exactly been Paul Newman, looks great in his designer eyeglasses and Tom Fordish suits. Thank God for the maid: She looks like a maid.
The movie opens with George dreaming he’s drowning. He dreams of a car accident in the snow and crawls up to a sprawled, bloody body and kisses him on the lips. Then he wakes up, and, in voice over, tells us how it hurts to wake up, how long it takes him to become George again, how each day is a haze. How today will be different.
In flashbacks, we get some of his life with Jim (Matthew Goode), starting with the phone call informing him of Jim’s death in a car accident. The caller, Hank, is a sympathetic member of Jim’s family—the other family members voted against even passing along this information to George—but Hank’s sympathies only go so far. When George, distraught, asks about funeral arrangements, he’s told, in effect, Don't bother, the services are for family only. It took a moment to place the voice: Jon Hamm, Don Draper of “Mad Men.” So even the voices are shockingly handsome.
The best-actor talk for Firth begins with this phone conversation, particularly after he hangs up, when his face crumples into a myriad of emotions: horror, fear, pain, disgust, anger, guilt, horror. It’s heartbreaking. The rest of the film seems a disservice to this moment.
Do we know when the car accident happened? How far in the past? The film, like George’s days, is a haze. The film is also like George in that both miss Jim. When we see him in flashbacks, with his amused eyes and love of life, we want to follow him, but we’re stuck with George, who’s cramped and internal and too persnickety even to kill himself properly. There’s certainly humor in the situation. He leaves his financial information in neat piles on his desk (to save someone the trouble) and lays out the suit and tie he wants to be buried in. “Tie in a Windsor knot,” he writes. He’s about to blow his brains out but he wants the Windsor knot. Then he can’t even do this. The pillows aren’t right, he worries about the mess, he tries it within a sleeping bag. Finally, fed up, he heads over to Charley’s for dinner.
Julianne Moore is also getting Oscar buzz, deservedly so. Charley’s still beautiful, but she’s aging and knows it, and she’s alone and feels it, and there’s pain in her smile and laugh. Their dinner together is sad. He counsels against living in the past and she responds, “Living in the past is my future.” His goal, of course, is, as he says earlier, to let go of the past “completely, entirely and forever.” And not in a carpe diem kind of way.
Before he takes another pass at blowing his brains out, though, he needs some Dutch courage and heads down to the local bar. There he runs into Kenny again, the cute student who’s been stalking him, and, with a kind of “fuck it” manner, he loosens up, goes skinnydipping, takes Kenny back to his place, and puts him to bed without bedding him. He has his epiphany staring at the stars. He’s feeling something like happy. And then he has the heart attack. Carpe diem indeed.
I’m curious about Isherwood’s novel now, since “A Single Man” feels like the kind of story that’s so internal it only works as a novel. Tom Ford and Colin Firth give it a go and create a fashionable failure.
Review: “Nine” (2009)
WARNING: SPOILERS HERE...HERE...AND...(MMM)...HERE
I’m no marketer, so who am I to tell the Weinstein Co. how they should—or should've—marketed “Nine,” the Rob Marshall musical based upon the Broadway musical based upon Federico Fellini’s 1963 classic “8 1/2.” But given the film’s weak opening box office, here’s a thought. Instead of the tagline, “This Holiday Season: Be Italian,” why not plaster the poster with one of those sexy shots of Penelope Cruz and use these lines of hers from the movie?:
I’ll be here.
Waiting for you.
With my legs open.
When I sat down in the theater I knew I’d be seeing a lot of sexy women wearing sexy things and saying sexy lines but that was the jaw-dropper for me. I think I coughed in surprise when she said it. I may have whimpered. Her lines, her presence, complicate the life of film director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), but my thought, and probably the thought of every guy in the audience: I should have such problems.
“Nine” looks great but suffers from two problems: 1) Most of the songs are so-so, and 2) the drama is internal and circular. It’s tough enough for movies to dramatize the creative process. How do you dramatize the non-creative process?
Guido Contini is a director whose earlier films redefined Italy for much of the moviegoing world in the early 1960s but whose latest films flopped. Now it’s 1965 and he’s a week away from starting film no. 9, titled “Italia,” but he has no idea what the story will be. He fakes his way through a press conference, he fakes his way through talks with his producer, he ignores calls from his muse and star, Claudia (Nicole Kidman). His costume designer, Lilli (Judi Dench), tells him, as he lays prostrate on her desk, that directing isn’t that tough. “You just have to say yes or no, what else do you do? ‘Maestro, should this be red?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Green?’ ‘No.’ ‘Yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘yes,’ ‘no.’” She tosses her hands in the air. “Directing.” Unfortunately Guido has no answers, no yes/ no. Eventually he flees Rome down the coast of Italy in his light blue Alfa Romeo. My thought, and probably the thought of everyone in the audience: I should flee in such style.
Guido flees into the arms of his mistress, Carla (Penelope Cruz). He thinks she’ll clear his head but she clutters it. Worse, the production company follows him down. Worse, his wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard), follows him down. She sees Carla, sparks fly, Carla is banished, Carla tries to kill herself. What’s a man with so many women to do?
As responsibilities and women tug at him in all directions, Guido’s life, certainly his creative life, swirls uselessly away. Nothing gets the attention it needs. He’s not stable husband to Luisa nor steady paramour to Carla; he has no work for Lilli or Claudia. Each woman has her own musical number but most of these are hardly show-stoppers and most don’t move the story further along but simply reiterate what we already know. The one show-stopper, the song you hum coming out of the theater and wish you could sing with the full-throated passion the singer does, is “Be Italian,” sung by Saraghina (Fergie), the whore from Guido’s youth who would show the neighborhood boys this and that for coins. She’s his first lust, the woman who started him on this journey of loving women too much and not enough, and she tells him, she sings to him:
Be Italian, be Italian
Take a chance and try to steal a fiery kiss!
Be Italian, be Italian
When you hold me don’t just hold me
But hold this! (clutches her breasts)
He’s stopped listening to this advice. He takes no chances and steals no kisses. Acclaimed and idolized, he’s the pursued now rather than the pursuer. Even a reporter from Vogue magazine, Stephanie (Kate Hudson), tries to get him into bed. Is the film suggesting a correlation between women and creativity? That when it becomes unnecessary to pursue the former, one is unable to pursue the latter? Fame has made Guido weak in the art of the pursuit.
Fergie, the one true singer in the bunch, belts it out, while the two main women in Guido’s life lock horns memorably. Cruz is pants-wettingly sexy while Cotillard is pained and effective. Her second number, “Take it All,” is staged as a burlesque, a sad striptease in which she gives up everything (the clothes are a metaphor) for this man who gives nothing back. Meanwhile, Dench, in her musical number, “Folies Bergeres,” flashes cleavage and seems completely French (in conversation she’s completely British). She seems to be having a great old time with the role.
The others? Hudson works fine, but the role is meaningless. Sophia Loren, playing Guido’s mother, has nothing to do. Kidman is an afterthought.
And Day-Lewis? It’s critically sacrilegious to write this but he may be wrong for the role. It’s not much fun watching him run circles in his head without having the decency to turn something into butter. Or, as Brando suggested, to get it.
The movie’s definitely missing oomph. Like Guido, it ignores the wisdom of Saraghina. Its British star is surrounded by actresses from France, Spain, Australia and America, leaving no one important to be Italian.
Review: “The Blind Side” (2009)
WARNING: BLITZING, 350-POUND SPOILERS
Nothing about “The Blind Side” pleased me more than its opening shot: grainy footage from a 1985 “Monday Night Football” game in which Lawrence Taylor sacked Joe Theismann, fractured his leg and ended his 11-year career. I was pleased because that’s how Michael Lewis’ book begins. “From the snap of the ball to the snap of the first bone is closer to four seconds than to five,” Lewis writes in his opening sentence; and in those five-closer-to-four seconds Lewis sets the scene, pulls back, writes about fear as a factor in the NFL, writes about the fear that Lawrence Taylor created and the fearlessness with which Joe Theismann played, and then circles back to the incident:
Theismann has played in 163 straight games, a record for the Washington Redskins. He’s led his team to two Super Bowls, and won one. He’s thirty-six years old. He’s certain he still has a few good years left in him. He’s wrong. He has less than half a second.
It’s the most famous injury in football history because the reverse-angle instant replay shows the bottom half of Theismann’s leg, between his knee and ankle, bending and snapping beneath Taylor’s weight, exposing the bone. The player who blocks the Lawrence Taylors of the world, by the way, is the offensive left tackle. He’s the guy who protects the quarterback’s blind side. And since free agency came to the NFL in the early 1990s, the second-highest-paid position in the NFL, after quarterback, is not running back nor wide receiver nor even middle linebacker (Lawrence Taylor’s position), but offensive left tackle. You pay most for the most-important position. You pay second-most for insurance for the most-important position.
Great offensive left tackles are highly paid because they require a set of physical characteristics that almost contradict each other. These guys have to be bigger than big and quicker than quick, and, let’s face it, the bigger-than-big usually aren’t quicker-than-quick.
And all of this leads to the story of Michael Oher—the story we came to see.
So I was pleased seeing the “Monday Night Football” footage, and hearing Sandra Bullock’s faux southern accent reading Lewis’ lines. But then writer-director John Lee Hancock, or Alcon Entertainment, or Warner Bros. Pictures, decided not to show the reverse-angle instant replay. They shied away from that harsh reality. It was a sign of things to come.
Michael Oher, one of 13 children born to a crack-addicted mother, grew up on the west side of Memphis in the projects known as Hurt Village. He drifted from apartment to apartment, school to school, barely getting by, when, at 14 or 15, a friend’s father, Big Tony, made an appeal to a rich, white, Christian private school, Briarcrest, to take both his boy, and his boy’s friend, Big Mike. Big Mike didn’t exactly fit in at Briarcrest—and not just because of his size or the color of his skin. He had a 0.6 GPA, he spoke to no one, he wore the same clothes day after day. Soon, though, he was being helped along, in particular by the Tuohy family, and in particularly by Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock). Eventually he came to live with them. Eventually they adopted him. And eventually he became a football star, one of those bigger-than-big, quicker-than-quick athletes who make great offensive left tackles. He starred at Briarcrest, then at Ole Miss, the Tuohys’ alma mater, and just this year he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens with the 23rd pick of the first round. He’s now a millionaire.
It’s a feel-good story. So why is Michael Lewis’ book so good and John Lee Hancock’s movie so feely?
Sometimes it’s small differences. Here’s Lewis on a crucial moment in the story:
That day Leigh Anne went out and bought a futon and a dresser. The day the futon arrived, she showed it to Michael and said, “That’s your bed.” And he said, “That’s my bed?” And she said, “That’s your bed.” And he just stared at it a bit and said, “This is the first time I ever had my own bed.”
That’s nice. Poignant without being pitiful. Here’s Hancock’s version:
Michael (running his hand over the futon): This is mine?
Leigh Anne: Yes, sir.
Michael: I never had one before.
Leigh Anne: What—a room to yourself?
Michael: A bed.
The way that Aaron portrays Oher doesn’t help. Reading Lewis’ book, I imagined Michael as a blank, possibly a stoic, not outwardly pathetic, but that’s the way Aaron portrays him. There’s a “woe is me” quality. His eyes are sad, constantly sad, staring-at-the-ground sad. It’s Sad 101.
Basically Hancock takes what is already a sentimental story and sentimentalizes it. In the book it takes the Tuohys months to give Michael a home; in the movie it takes a day. In the movie, Michael is scary to the kids on the playground because he doesn’t smile when he talks to them; in the book, in reality, the kids were actually fascinated with this gentle giant, but were scared because, when they spoke to him, he didn’t talk back; he just stared.
Hancock personifies the dangers of Hurt Village in one gangster and the prejudices of the white community in the ladies-who-lunch, when both the dangers and the prejudices are more diffuse. I understand why Hancock does it. I also understand why it rings hollow—particularly when Leigh Anne shuts this gangster up by mentioning her gun and membership in the NRA.
Bullock’s the star, so much of the story has to be invested in her character at the expense of other characters. As a result, one of my favorite scenes in the book is gone. It’s the scene where the high school football coach’s assistant, Tim Long, who was an offensive lineman in the NFL, finally tells Coach Freeze that, with Michael playing, they don’t need all the fancy plays Freeze likes running. They can win with just one play: “We can run Gap,” he says. Meaning the quarterback hands off to the running back, who runs behind Michael Oher, who clears the field. Two weeks later Freeze adopts it. Lewis writes:
Seven plays into the game the score was 14-0 and they had done nothing but give the ball to their stumpy five three running back...and told him to follow Michael Oher’s right butt cheek. ... By the end of the first half, Briarcrest had scored 40 points.
Wouldn’t that have made a great scene? Instead Leigh Anne tells Michael, who’s not doing so well in practice, to protect the quarterback like he’s family, like he’s her. Then she chastises the coach, the fictional Coach Cotton (Ray McKinnon), for not knowing his players better. “Michael scored in the 98th percentile in protective instincts,” she says. Protective instincts? They test on that?
When the movie was first released, right-wing cultural bloggers—surely the whiniest people on the planet—complained about a quick George W. Bush gag and recommended like-minded folks stay away. They haven’t, of course. “The Blind Side” had a production budget of $29 million, expected to make two or three times that, and will soon make over $200 million domestically. It shows no signs of stopping. It’s got legs like Sandra Bullock.
What’s not to like for these folks? It’s a story about a southern Christian family who demonstrate real Christian values, and whose gestures of good will come back to them two-fold. The Tuohy family changes Michael’s life; he changes theirs. If anything, Hancock mutes the Democratic angle. The “Charge of the Light Brigade” scene is a good scene in the movie, but, again, it reads truer in the book. Sean Tuohy (Tim McGraw), taking over momentarily from Michael’s tutor, Miss Sue (Kathy Bates), who’s a Democrat, teaches Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem to Michael:
Their’s not to make reply
Their’s not to reason why
Their’s but to do and die
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred
Sean and Michael talk about what this means. They talk about loyalty and courage. And in the book, from the next room, Miss Sue suddenly shouts out, “Michael Oher, if there’s a war broke out, you head straight to Canada! You hear me?” Now don’t tell me Kathy Bates wouldn’t have nailed that line. Instead: nothing. Maybe because it didn’t fit in with the scene as they imagined it. Maybe because they didn’t want to upset folks. Maybe because. But there’s tons of stuff like that. What gives texture to the book is removed from the movie.
I hope a few of the people who love this movie seek out and read the book. I know it’s not revolutionary to say but the book’s better—for the reasons listed above. Maybe for this reason most of all: John Lee Hancock, backed by millions of dollars, major actors and a major studio, isn’t as good a storyteller as Michael Lewis is, backed by a keyboard.
Review: “Me and Orson Welles” (2009)
WARNING: FRIENDS, ROMANS, COUNTRYMEN, LEND ME YOUR SPOILERS!
Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles” has one of the best supporting performances of the year wrapped in a fun if slightly tinny story with a weak lead.
I don’t say this out of spite. I root for Zac Efron. He’s near the center of our culture (at the moment) and I root for our culture. I want it be worth it. Nearly 50 years ago a bunch of girls put the Beatles at the center of our culture and that turned out pretty well.
So I was rooting for Efron to be better than I thought he was. He plays Richard Samuels, a high school student in 1937 who is enamored of acting, the theater, singing and art. He wants to create. We see him for a moment at school, studying the 16th century, before the movie lets him loose in Manhattan, and he quickly meets an aspiring writer, Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of Elia). She’s even more enamored of art than he is—she has that solipsistic quality peculiar to artists: forever lost in her own mind—and she’s trying to get a short story into the already hallowed pages of The New Yorker. Outside, she talks of a writing teacher who would critique her work by waggling his hand back and forth and saying, “Possibilities,” and, just before the two part, she, forever thinking like a writer, says, “Wouldn’t this be a great scene for a story? Two people meeting like this and no more?” Richard waggles his hand back and forth. “Possibilities,” he says.
It’s a nice scene, but it lays open the Efron problem. Richard doesn’t have that artistic/solipsistic quality. Gretta is deeply into what she wants. What is he after?
Later that afternoon Richard comes across a group of actors spilling out into the streets, joking, preening, and one of them, Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), attempting a drumroll. Richard offers his drum expertise and pulls it off, even as the director of these actors, 21-year-old Orson Welles (Christian McKay), emerges from the building. Spotting the new blood, he asks him to sing, then asks him if he can play the ukulele, then hires him on the spot to play Lucius in their production, the Mercury Theater’s production, of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” In the quiet after Orson leaves by ambulance (as is his wont, because it gets him where he wants to go faster), Richard asks what became of the previous Lucius:
“He had a personality problem with Orson.”
“Meaning he had a personality.”
The film wants Richard to be an observer to the unfolding events—the chaotic manner in which a theatrical masterpiece is created—but he doesn’t have the nothing quality of a mere observer. Inside the theater, with his position small and tentative, he moves like someone who’s used to being center-stage. He follows Orson but not sycophantically. He spends time with Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), who works in the office while calculating to meet David O. Selznik, and he flirts with her, sure, but he doesn’t seem to set his sites on her until the other actors in the troupe, adults all, act jealous that he has entré with the woman they’ve dubbed “The Ice Queen.” He takes things for granted but not in the way the young take things for granted. It feels off.
There are some nice moments. We worry how he’ll do with this role he’s lucked into, and during first rehearsals he says his line (“Here is the man who would speak with you”), exits incorrectly, then correctly, then breathlessly asks a guy backstage how he did. “I cried,” the guy dryly responds without looking up from his magazine.
But the nice moments don’t add up to a whole. His family worries about the hours he’s keeping but nothing comes of it. He falls asleep at school but nothing comes of it. He takes Sonja out to dinner, runs into Gretta again, follows Orson to a radio broadcast. Eventually he sleeps with Sonja at Orson’s place. At first he seems nonchalant, then nervous, then petrified. He’s obviously never slept with a girl before, and Efron pulls it off, but this knowledge clatters among everything else we know, and don’t know, about Richard. His parts don’t add up to a whole, either. “Tell me who you are,” Sonja asks at one point. Yes, please.
We also don’t get a sense of what a breakthrough this “Caesar” is for the Mercury Theater and Orson Welles. Does anyone even mention that it’s set in Mussolini’s Italy? That the death of Cinna the Poet comes at the hands of the Secret Police rather than a mob?
The night before “Caesar” opens, with the show still in chaos, Orson beds Sonja, Richard reacts badly (like a cuckold), and Orson fires him: “I hope you enjoyed your Broadway career, Junior, cause it’s over.” Richard is stunned to find out he doesn’t matter, then stunned to find out he does. Welles has to woo him back for this small part. It works. Opening night’s a big hit. But in the excitement afterwards, Richard feels himself cut off from the rest of the cast. It’s up to Joseph Cotten (a perfectly cast James Tupper) to relay the bad news that he’s been fired after all. “It’s Orson,” Cotten says. “He can’t be wrong.”
McKay, by the way, should get a best supporting actor nomination. He not only offhandedly sounds like Welles, he displays the energy and fierce intelligence that Welles displayed onscreen. When his eyes light up with an amused, thick-as-thieves look, I thought: Harry Lime lives. Then there's opening night. Welles is backstage listening to the waves of applause, and says, to no one in particular, “How the hell do I top this?” A second later you see his mind begin to work on that question. We already know the answer but you get the feeling he doesn’t—yet. That’s how good McKay is.
“Me and Orson Welles” is, as I’ve said, a fun movie, but at times it has an artificial, tinny quality that I associate with latter-day Woody Allen. It’s if the characters are less characters than puppets to be moved around the stage to make the point the author wants to make. Events feel externally rather than internally driven.
Yet it’s not without its poignancy. At the end, Richard runs into Gretta again, and she thanks him—not enough—for helping get her story published in The New Yorker. The two, flush with their momentary successes, talk creativity and art. “It feels like it’s all ahead of us,” she says, and it was, then, 70 years ago. But we know their successes, if they have successes, will be small and short-lived, even as we know Welles’ successes, while gigantic, will lead to Paul Masson commercials in the '70s and “Transformers” voiceovers in the '80s. In Gretta's earlier story, the word “possibilities” is, both to her and her writing teacher, pejorative. By the end, seeing these people in a moment before everything plays out, one feels the sadness of choices made; and one appreciates the beauty of possibilities.
Review: “Avatar” (2009)
WARNING: EYE-OPENING SPOILERS
James Cameron’s “Avatar” is the purest adventure story I’ve seen at the movies in a long time.
It’s also the most subversive blockbuster released during this long, ugly decade. Hell, it’s not even subversive. It states its apostasy out loud. “We will show the sky people they cannot take whatever they want!,” Jake, the avatar, shouts before the final battle. “This is our land!”
Psst: We’re the sky people.
The movie begins as a tale of twins. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a U.S. Marine who loses his legs in an unnamed war, and he has a twin brother, Tommy, a Ph.D. scientist scheduled to work on a moon light years away named Pandora. The human scientists on Pandora use avatars, which match the scientist’s DNA with alien DNA, to study the native Na’vi people, who are nine feet tall and blue-skinned. Then Tommy dies, rendering his avatar useless. Unless of course someone can match his DNA. Hey!
When Jake arrives on Pandora, there’s a balance of power among the human population there, and each has its own agenda. The scientific community, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), wants to learn about the Na’vi; the business community, led by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), wants to exploit the unobtainium under Na’vi land; and the military community, led by Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), wants to kick some ass. But they all need each other. Science needs the funding business provides. Business needs the knowledge, and the diplomacy, science provides. And if it weren’t for business and scientific interests, the military would have no opponent—at least on Pandora.
Jake’s a man without a community. The scientists don’t want him because he’s a jarhead, and the jarheads dismiss him as “Meals on Wheels.” But Col. Quaritch sees a use. “A Marine in an avatar body,” he says. “That’s a potent mix.” He asks for reports. If Jake does his duty (again), he’ll get him his legs back. Meaning the technology was always there, they just didn’t think him worth the expense. Nice.
“One life ends, another begins,” Jake says of his brother and himself, but he could be talking about himself and his avatar. He has a new twin now, and, during the course of the movie, his avatar is taken through the hero cycle. He’s wobbly the moment he wakes up, but soon he’s luxuriating in the thrill of what Jake’s real body can no longer do. Standing. Walking. Running. Digging into the dirt with his toes.
In the jungle, after a thrilling stand-off with a hammerhead titanothere (think: elephant/rhino), and an even more thrilling chase through the woods by a thanator (think: huge, armor-plated tiger), Jake, separated from the scientist/avatars, is saved from a pack of prowling viperwolves (think: super-panthers) by a Na’vi, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who, afterwards, contemptuously dismisses his gratitude. “You don’t thank for this,” she tells him before the body of a dead viperwolf. “This is sad. Very sad only.” She blames him for the death of the viperwolves. “You’re like a baby, making noise, don’t know what to do.” When he asks why, then, he bothered to save her, she responds, “You have strong heart. No fear. But stupid.” It’s a good back-and-forth. Those who remember only Cameron’s “Titanic” dialogue may be surprised.
She’s lying, by the way. The reason she saved him, the reason she didn’t kill him herself when she had the chance, was because the seeds of a holy tree, looking like aerial, benign jellyfish, floated in front of her arrow. A sign from Eywa, her God. And as they argue in the jungle, more of these seeds float by, alight on Jake, and amaze her. Which is when she decides to take him to back to her tribe, where she is a princess, the daughter of tribal leader Eytukan (Wes Studi) and spiritual leader Moat (C.C.H. Pounder), and betrothed to Tsu’tey (Laz Alonso). They know Jake’s a dreamwalker, an avatar of the “sky people,” but they let him live because he’s a warrior (and thus one of them), and because they hope to learn about the sky people through him. They also appoint Neytiri to teach him about their ways.
Reluctant at first, calling him a moron throughout, Neytiri teaches him how to ride a pa’li, or direhorse; how to climb; how to fall from great heights using giant leaves to break the fall. All the while Jake is reporting back to the Colonel. Eventually Grace gets wind of this and moves the entire operation to the floating mountains of Pandora, where, in the flux vortex, they’re harder to contact, and where their research can continue uninterrupted. They have only three months until the bulldozers arrive to tear down Hometree.
“Avatar” is 160 minutes long yet there’s little fat in it. Cameron expertly guides us through long set pieces (Jake’s first day and night in the jungle), to shorter montage scenes (Jake’s Na’vi training), and back again. Bit by bit, Jake’s avatar fills out and grows stronger. He learns the rudiments of the language and the religion, which involves the flow of energy and the spirit of animals, and which he calls “tree hugger crap” even as he’s swept up in it. The Na’vi literally bond with animal and plant life through live tendrils in their braids. One of the last tests before he can become a man, and thus take another step in the hero cycle, is to bond for life with an ikran, or banshee, all of which nest in the floating mountains. And how will his ikran choose him? “It will try to kill you,” Neytiri answers matter-of-factly. “Outstanding,” Jake, the jarhead, answers.
Jake and Neytiri both have this spirit of adventure—as does the film. And when Jake finally gets his ikran, he and Neytiri soar through the air together—menaced only by two things: the huge red toruk, the baddest thing in the Pandora skies; and time. Their three months are almost up.
“Everything is backwards now,” says the human Jake, his jarhead cut grown out, scratching his beard. “Out there is the real world and in here is the dream.” So it is with us in the audience. Jake’s avatar initially seems bizarre, but, over time, it’s the avatar, the Na’vi Jake, that appears normal, while his human self seems small and undefined. So it is with the 3-D technology. Initially it seems obtrusive. After a while you don’t even notice it. Earlier this year, Cameron told a French journalist. “It's not just about literally seeing [the Na'vi] but about perceiving differently —perceiving through the eyes of the other person. That's what cinema's all about to me.” And that’s what it is here.
When the “Avatar” trailer hit the Web in August, an almost universal cry of pain went up among the geekish: That’s it? they asked. They felt its plot was too reminiscent of “Dances with Wolves”—military man sent to watch indigenous people and sides with the indigenous against his own—but of course “Dances” was a good movie, and this is an old plot anyway. Think “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Pocahontas” or “The New World.” Think especially Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars,” since that’s the story that influenced Cameron the most. Published near the turn of the last century, Carter, a Virginian and a Captain in the U.S. Civil War, dies, or “dies,” in a cave in Arizona and wakes up re-embodied on Mars, where he becomes a warrior-savior among its humanoid inhabitants. During the course of the stories, he keeps traveling back and forth between Earth and Mars, between his two selves. Like Jake.
What Carter doesn’t share with Jake is a sense of guilt; a sense of almost constant betrayal. When the bulldozers arrive, Jake’s the first to stop them, betraying the humans. But the intel he provided allows the military to destroy the Na’vi’s home, the gigantic Hometree, which comes crashing down like one of the twin towers. Neither side can forgive his treachery. The Na’vi tie up the avatar Jake while Selfridge pulls the plug on the avatar project and the Colonel’s men toss the scientists, and the human Jake, into the brig. What balance of power existed is gone. It’s a military-industrial complex now.
But an iconoclastic chopper pilot (Michelle Rodriguez) springs the scientists, and flies them, and a makeshift lab, to the Tree of Souls, the Na’vi’s most sacred place. Jake is returned to his avatar body, which has been left behind after the destruction of Hometree, and he walks among its ashes. It’s a poignant scene—particularly if one recalls his earlier joy at kneading the dirt with his toes. To win back the trust of the Na’vi he knows he must do something spectacular and foolish, and it involves the toruk, the baddest thing in the skies, which Neytiri told him has only been tamed (ridden) five times in Na’vi history. But Jake figures if you’re the baddest thing in the skies you have no natural predators, and thus no need to look up. Which is why, on his ikran, he divebombs the toruk. I love the logic of this. I love how Cameron films it, too. Just as Jake leaps, we cut to the Na’vi chanting to Eywa at the Tree of Souls. Then a shadow appears. They cry and scatter in terror (it’s a toruk!)... and then in wonder (it’s a toruk... ridden by Jake!). Cue incendiary battle speech. Cue final battle scenes.
Of course the Na’vi, with bows and arrows, have little chance. They gain an advantage with a surprise attack but lose it because of the humans’ superior firepower. How do they gain it back again? Through a deus ex machina. A literal deus ex machina. They have God on their side.
Most adventure movies inevitably end with a final confrontation between hero and villain, and Cameron’s are no different, but his tend to involve like battling like. In “Aliens,” it was two matriarchs. In “Terminator 2,” it was two terminators. Here it’s two avatars. Jake, as a Na’vi, takes on Col. Quaritch, outfitted in the same kind of mechanized, supersized warrior suit Ripley wore at the end of “Aliens.” Neither avatar does the killing, though. Neytiri does. And this time it’s not sad only.
James Cameron has done an amazing, ballsy thing with ”Avatar." Yes, he imagines an entire world and creates it in meticulous detail. Yes, he sends his main character on a hero’s journey through this world. But within this framework, this age-old story, he critiques the worst aspects of our own culture. “When people are sitting on something you want, you make them your enemy,” Jake says near the end, summing up the sad history of the human race. It’s not an abstract or ancient history, either. It’s current. The villains in “Avatar” use the language of this decade: “Shock and awe”; “fighting terror with terror”; “balance sheets.” They are us. “Dances with Wolves” was set in an historical timeframe, more than 100 years earlier, in which everyone knew the Native Americans would fight and lose. Not here. Here, in this future setting, the humans not only lose but they’re sent back to Earth—to their dying planet that has no green on it. They lose because God literally isn’t on their side.
That James Cameron could get such a message into a fantasy epic, a Hollywood blockbuster, is truly more astonishing than any of the astonishing computer graphics within it.
Review: “Where the Wild Things Are” (2009)
WARNING: WILD-RUMPUS SPOILERS
Both Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and I were born in 1963, and by the time I was Max’s age it was hugely popular but I wasn’t a fan. I guess I didn’t have much of a wild thing in me. I was a sickly kid, and fairly obedient, so not the type to tackle the family dog or start a snowball fight with bigger kids—both of which Max (Max Records) does in the first 10 minutes of Spike Jonze’s adaptation and expansion of Sendak’s work. It’s a brilliant first 10 minutes. Before we see anything we hear Max, humming, and before we see Max we see his handiwork: all of the movie-studio logos, from Warner Bros. to Legendary Pictures, have been defaced, the last one reading M-A-X. Then we get Max himself, in wolf costume, chasing and tackling the family dog, at which point Jonze freeze-frames and gives us the title in childish script. At which point I went: “This is going to be good.”
The photography is so muted, the colors so washed out, that the movie not only feels like it takes place in the 1970s but was filmed in the 1970s. Max is a rambunctious kid, possibly friendless, living with a teenaged sister and a divorced mom (Catherine Keener). When friends come to pick up his sister, he attacks them with snowballs and then gleefully runs back to his newly made snow fort. But they’re wild things, too, and bigger, and they follow and collapse the fort, leaving Max tearful—probably less physically hurt than emotionally hurt. His sister watched the destruction and did nothing. In revenge, he runs into her room, stomps the snow off his body, rips up gifts he’s made for her. Anger spent, regret sets in. This cycle of creation-destruction-regret continues throughout the movie.
We see him briefly at school. His science teacher is offhandedly explaining that the sun is a fuel source, and, like all fuel sources, will eventually expend itself and everything in our solar system will die. Attempting to cover up this awful fact, he digs deeper: He talks up the ways mankind will destroy itself before then. More creation-destruction-regret cycles. More callbacks to the 1970s. Back then, in the midst of my own parents’ divorce, it seemed I was surrounded by destruction scenarios, and one in particular stuck with me: an “In the News” report (sponsored by Kellogg’s) shown between Saturday-morning cartoons, in which it was reported that a graduate student wrote his doctoral dissertation on how to build an atom bomb. The meta-message: If one individual can do it, what country, with many individuals at its disposal, can’t? The knowledge was out there and couldn’t be bottled up. It made you feel small and powerless. It made you cling to fantasies of being all-powerful.
Max clings to such fantasies. His sister’s on the phone and his mother’s entertaining a man who’s not his father. Everything’s moving away from him, he has no say, and he’s bored. So he rebels. He acts bratty with his mom, then fights with her, then bites her—the act, not only of a wild thing, but of the powerless. Then he runs away. He finds a boat in a creek, gets in, and sails away to the island where the Wild Things are.
In his journey, Jonze emphasizes the smallness of Max against the vastness of the ocean, the deserted beach, the steep cliff face, and, finally, the Wild Things themselves, who crowd around and talk of eating him until his cry of “BE STILL!” stuns them into silence. Then he declares himself their king. In essence, this restores things to the way Max perceived them early in life. He’s small and powerless, surrounded by big, powerful beings, with big heads and big mouths, but he rules.
On the island, events unfold that, one imagines, mirror events in Max’s real world. Carol (James Gandolfini). a defacto leader of the Wild Things, and both father and buddy to Max, is estranged from KW (Lauren Ambrose), who’s off with Bob and Terry. “What about loneliness?” Carol asks Max during his coronation. “Will you keep out the sadness?” So even in Max’s fantasy there’s an immediate sense that things are not whole. But in the midst of their “wild rumpus,” as they run, jump, howl at the moon, KW returns, and they all hogpile together and sleep together, rather than in the separate cocoons (literal and metaphoric) that Carol was smashing earlier. “We forgot how to have fun,” Carol says as they drift off to sleep. Max showed them.
The next day, in a journey across the desert, Carol shows Max his secret cave with his model city, and Max declares that they will build their own city, a real city, where only things that they want to happen will happen. This city, this home, winds up looking like the cocoons they were smashing earlier, but big enough for everyone. Shortly after, though, Max follows KW across the desert to meet Bob and Terry, two owls whose wisdom is incomprehensible, and she brings them back to the new perfect home, setting in motion its destruction. “Why did you bring them here?” Carol asks Max angrily. “This was supposed to be for us.” For a time, Max distracts everyone with a dirtball fight but it mirrors the earlier snowball fight, ending badly with hurt feelings. Everything is breaking up again. The Wild Things demand that Max use his powers to make everything right but his powers turn out to be a robot dance with which, earlier in the movie, he’d tried to cheer up his mother. “That’s what we waited for?” they ask in disbelief. Carol’s anger can barely be contained. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” he says. “You were supposed to keep us safe.” Others counsel acceptance: “He’s just a boy pretending to be a wolf pretending to be a king.”
In this way Max’s fantasy of absolute power and absolute safety turns into a fable of acceptance. Every Wild Thing has faults. Carol is fun but with a hair-trigger temper, KW is maternal but keeps bringing in agents of destruction, Judith (Catherine O’Hara) is carping and critical but often correct. Ira (Forest Whitaker) can make great holes but he’s passive. Alexander (Paul Dano) is a goat no one listens to. And Max is a boy, made king, made parent, and made to recognize the limits of parental power and authority. Things break up. Things change.
Is “Where the Wild Things Are” a movie for kids? I don’t know. My nephew, Ryan, 6, liked it, while my nephew, Jordan, 8, didn’t. But it’s definitely a movie for adults. It has the feel of a classic. Then there’s this high praise from a friend, a mother with two sons: “It helped me understand boys.”
Review: “Invictus” (2009)
WARNING: SEPARATE-AND-UNEQUAL SPOILERS
Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” begins with a rugby team—the national rugby team of South Africa, it turns out, the Springboks—practicing on lush green fields bordered by a sturdy, iron fence. Just across the street, black kids are playing on scabby, dusty fields bordered by a cheap chain-link fence. So it goes. Then a caravan approaches on the road between them, and, as it continues past, the black kids cheer while the white players stand in stony silence. It’s February 11, 1990, and Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), unseen in the caravan, has just been released after 30 years in prison on Robben Island. The scene is basically a metaphor for the divided country: At that moment, Mandela is the only one traveling in the divide between the two separate and unequal societies.
Four years later Mandela is elected president of South Africa. On his first full day on the job, he takes a 4 a.m. walk with his security team then shaves. We see him staring at himself in the bathroom mirror, white foam covering half his face, doubt in his eyes. His face is basically a metaphor for the country: half-white, half-black, unsure of what lies ahead.
By the end, as two pairs of hands, one white and one black, hold aloft the World Cup trophy, I couldn’t help but think I was back in 1959 watching a Stanley Kramer movie.
It’s a shame that Eastwood underscores this particular point so much because there’s a lot I liked about, and learned from, “Invictus.” I didn’t follow Mandela’s career after he was released from prison, and, as an American, I knew nothing about rugby. I got to learn something of both.
Mandela in his first days in office is reminiscent of Barack Obama in his first days in office. The outgoing power structure, who excluded, expect similar treatment from the incoming power structure, but Mandela keeps offering inclusion. His openness, his forgiveness, is, yes, immediately pragmatic—the Afrikaners, Mandela tells his aide, Brenda, still control the police, the army, the banks—but it’s hardly soft. “Forgiveness liberates the soul,” Mandela says at one point. “It removes fear. That’s why it’s such a powerful weapon.” Forgiveness as a weapon? I’m sure Dirty Harry would have a quip about that—“It hardly beats a Magnum .44”—but Clint hasn’t been Dirty Harry for a while. His revenge/forgiveness motifs have evolved.
Others in South Africa are not so willing to forgive. The Springboks have long been viewed as a symbol of Apartheid. Black fans root against them and black kids refuse to wear their jersey. As a result, the National Sports Council, now run by blacks, vote unanimously to change the teams’ name, colors and emblem. They are going to eradicate the bastards and stick it to the Afrikaners. Until Mandela shows up and reminds them that by acting in such a manner, “We prove we are what they feared we would be.” His argument wins the day—just barely—and afterwards, in the back of the limo, his aide argues with him over expending his political capital in this manner. “So this rugby is a political calculation?” she asks. “It is a human calculation,” he answers. That’s a nice line. One of many nice lines early in the film.
There is already a backlash against the initial raves for Morgan Freeman. Many movie fans are understandably wary that, in the wake of Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin and Sean Penn as Harvey Milk—i.e., in four of the last five years—yet another “real life” performance will win the Oscar for best actor. At the same time, Freeman is impeccable here. He is rail-thin and fragile, burdened by the affairs of state, and yet lit from within. He is, as ever, beautiful to watch, in a role that’s worthy of him.
But we begin to lose him halfway through as the focus shifts to the Springboks. He has team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) over for tea and talks to him about inspiration. The World Cup arrives in South Africa, and the Springboks, expected to fare poorly, particularly by a snide sports reporter (the nearest thing to a villain in the movie), begin to win, and, in that winning, begin to unite the country. These rugby scenes are fascinating to me because, except for a small training session the team gives to shantytown kids—in which it’s explained that the ball can’t be passed forward, only sideways or backward—the games happen without explanation. Yes, much of it is familiar. It’s another sport played on a rectangular field, with two goals, a ball, and a time limit. But the subtleties are lost, and Eastwood doesn’t help. For a time I didn’t even know if there was a clock, since Eastwood never cuts to it. The team simply, suddenly, raises its arms in victory. “We win!” Really? Oh, good. Then they play France in the rain and appear to be losing. No, they suddenly raise their arms in victory. “We win!” Really? Oh, good.
In this manner the Springboks reach the finals against a fierce New Zealand team.
Allow me to play the nattering aide in the back of the limo for a moment. “Invictus” might have worked better if Eastwood hadn’t spent his artistic capital on the irrelevant. After a great introduction of Mandela’s security detail, in which the white guards may have once incarcerated the black guards, these guys are mostly played for laughs. They deserve better. We get two red-herring attacks on Mandela (the van at the beginning, the airplane before the finals) and both could’ve been dealt with more subtly. We didn’t need to cut between the van and Mandela, for example; just show us the van squealing to a sudden stop in front of Mandela. That would’ve worked. Similarly, why get us into the cockpit of that airplane? That just confused.
Eastwood also goes for the estranged-daughter subplot again (see: “Absolute Power” and “Million Dollar Baby”) and spends too much superficial time with the Pienaars and their black maid. He spends too much superficial time on all manner of racial politics. During the finals, in shots worthy of Ron Howard’s “EdTV,” Eastwood gives us white people in white bars, and black people in black bars, all watching the same thing, all becoming united by the screen. He gives us a black scrounger edging closer to white cops listening to the game, being shooed away, edging closer again, and finally, in victory, being tossed in the air in celebration. Fans spill out into the streets, whites and blacks, celebrating together. White and black hands hold the trophy aloft. It’s all too much the same. It’s all too much.
Review: “Up in the Air” (2009)
WARNING: UNCOMMITTED SPOILERS
Halfway through Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) explains the delicacy of firing people, and thus putting them between jobs, this way: “We are here to make limbo tolerable.”
Bingham is good at this because he enjoys limbo. He lives in limbo. The previous year he was on the road 322 days and in a voiceover he tells us that everything we hate about travel he loves: the recycled air, the bad sushi, and, mostly, the lack of connection. The other handful of days he spends in the home office in Omaha, Nebraska, where he stays in an apartment that has the blankness of a motel room. There’s nothing unique about it: no pictures, mementos, nothing that says Ryan Bingham except for the fact that there’s nothing that says Ryan Bingham. Bingham gives self-help seminars, too, across the country, entitled “What’s in your backpack?,” where he tells the audience to imagine everything they own in a backpack (photos, dishes, couches, cars), and to feel the weight of all that on their shoulders; then he encourages them to burn it all, starting with the photos. He tells them to do the same with their relationships, tossing in a joke about not necessarily burning them, but adding a warning that those relationships are the heaviest things they own. Life is better, he suggests, by traveling light and alone, as he does. He’s Nathan Zuckerman without the angsty Jewishness. He’s happy.
He’s also a prick.
On the one hand I liked it: a Hollywood movie makes their main character a truly unlikable person. His job is to travel around the country and fire employees at companies where the bosses are too cowardly, or too uncaring, to do it themselves. And he’s good at his job. “Anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world sat where you are right now,” he says to the distraught, the broken, the angry. “And it's because they sat there that they were able to do it,” He tells people that this is their chance to follow their dreams. It’s a smart ploy. Most of us wound up working at places we didn’t imagine, doing things we don’t enjoy. The subtext of his message is basically: You and I both know I’m doing you a favor.
But at this point in the story Bingham seems too smarmy and self-assured to be good at his job. Even in the act of firing people, he still has that small George Clooney smirk on his face. One wonders why he hasn’t been busted in the nose yet.
Soon he and all the other corporate downsizers are called back to the home office at Integrated Strategic Management (ISM), where they’re introduced to Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a business-school grad, who’s come up with two strategies to increase efficiency and profitability. The first strategy will take Bingham off the road; the second will downsize him.
ISM’s biggest expense is travel. So why not, in the Internet age, fire employees remotely? There’s a logic, and a kind of horror, to it. The act of firing someone is inhumane. Companies make it moreso by having a stranger do it. ISM makes it moreso by having a stranger do it remotely. One wonders where the inhumanity ends.
Not at her second strategy. For a century businesses have tried to figure out how to replace the skilled (and compensated) with the unskilled (and uncompensated). This strategy, in fact, may well define American business in the 20th century, and it’s a morally bankrupt, bottom-line, and, I would argue, dead-end strategy. And now it’s Natalie’s. Bingham has a skill. He knows what to say to keep the newly fired calm and get them out the door. So Natalie works on a flow chart, which can be given to the unskilled, who can then they say what Bingham would have said. At a fraction of the cost.
In this way employees would not only be fired remotely, and not just by a stranger, but by a stranger working robotically off of a flow chart. Its inhumanity makes Bingham seem humane. Which is why we begin to warm to him.
Fortunately Bingham demonstrates to Natalie, in front of their boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), that she knows nothing about firing people. Unfortunately Gregory sends the two on the road together so she can learn. Basically Bingham will teach Natalie what he knows, she’ll translate that knowledge to the flowchart, and Bingham will become expendable. Another reason we begin to warm to him.
The two meet bickering and continue bickering, with Bingham, the older and more articulate, always winning the day. Their greatest arguments are personal, not business. He successfully argues against marriage as another unnecessary connection, the heaviest thing in that backpack (“all the arguments and secrets and compromises”), and she seems distraught, comically distraught, that she can’t defend it. In a lesser film the two would get together but thankfully we hardly get a glimmer of that here. She’s got a boyfriend—we see them briefly kissing good-bye at the Omaha airport—while he’s got a fuckbuddy, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a female version of himself whom he met in Dallas earlier in the film. There’s a great scene where they compare and contrast gold cards as foreplay. “We’re two people who get turned on by elite status,” she says.
In a Miami hotel lobby, Natalie finally breaks down, sobbing that her boyfriend broke up with her via text message (“That’s like firing somebody over the Internet,” Bingham deadpans), and collapses into Bingham’s arms—just as Alex arrives for another session. Instead the three gets drinks and talk over relationship expectations: Natalie’s (high) and Alex’s (low). They talk about settling or not settling. In Natalie’s description of her ex, one senses, not the love she argued for earlier, but a grocery list of positives she wants in her cart. Jason Reitman nicely refuses to underscore the point.
Then they crash a company party, where they drink, dance, go out on a boat, get stranded, arrive on the beach at dawn with their pantlegs rolled up and carrying their shoes. Bingham and Alex begin to seem like a couple. They begin to act tender with one another.
In his travels Bingham’s got his eye on a prize: 10 million miles, and super-elite status, on American Airlines. He’s also recently carting around a cardboard cutout of his sister and her fiancé, so that, like the gnome in “Amelie,” or like Flat Stanley, they can be photographed against various famous backdrops. It’s a cute thing for their wedding. Bingham photographs them, grumbling all the while (what a thing for his backpack!), but, as he warms to Alex, he warms to the charms of the task; and when the wedding approaches, he asks Alex along.
These two, used to super-elite status, acquiesce to the humble digs of this northern Wisconsin town. He reconnects with his sisters, shows Alex his old high school hangouts, and talks the fiancé, who gets cold feet, into commitment—a first. It changes him. So much so that in Vegas, giving his usual self-help seminar about the backpack, he smiles to himself, abruptly leaves the podium, and hops a flight to Chicago, where Alex lives. He’s ready, as the film’s poster says, to make a connection.
All the while I’m thinking: Really? This is it? This film, which I’ve heard so much about since the Toronto festival, and which is a clear front-runner for best picture, is going to take a guy who’s nasty and make him nice, empty and make him full, single and make him en couple?
Cue record-scratch. Because when Alex opens her door she’s surprised but not in a good way. Then we see kids running up the stairs behind her. Then we hear a voice calling out: “Honey? Who is it?” And Bingham’s face falls.
And I’m thinking: Niiiiice.
A second later I’m thinking: Wait. So why did Alex act the way she acted in Miami and Wisconsin? Like she was falling for him? It could be that I misread her, as Bingham misread her. She wasn’t concerned he wasn’t interested; she was concerned he was. I’d have to see the movie again to suss this out. At the same time it’s undoubtedly true that, since Miami, Bingham and Alex became less raunchy fuckbuddies than charming couple. Which is movement away from what Alex supposedly wanted Bingham for.
On the return flight he gets his 10 millionth mile; it feels hollow. Then an employee that Natalie fired, backing up a threat, kills herself, and Natalie quits and her program is dismantled. Bingham is on the road again. But is it what he wants? Can he acclimate others to limbo if he no longer enjoys it himself? One of the last shots is Bingham, at the airport again, staring up at the arrivals and departures board. It makes us think of all of our arrivals and departures in life—with jobs, friends, family; life and death. Staring up at the board, though, is something we’ve never seen Bingham do. He always knew where he was going before.
“Up in the Air” is a good, smart movie that’s getting the traction it’s getting because it’s timely. Unemployment, in the wake of the Global Financial Meltdown, is at 10 percent, and this is a movie about firing people. In fact, except for a few semi-famous faces (J.K. Simmons, Zach Galifianakis), the faces of the fired, explaining their feelings abut being fired, are the recently fired. “The filmmakers put out ads in St. Louis and Detroit posing as a documentary crew looking to document the effect of the recession,” IMDb tells us. “When people showed up, they were instructed to treat the camera like the person who fired them.” A good touch. A moral touch.
The movie also has smart, sharp dialogue. It’s a movie for adults. It treats business as it should: as an amoral, possibly immoral, enterprise. There’s always talk of company loyalty (to American Airlines, for example), when companies are loyal to no one. I laughed out loud when Natalie began her initial presentation to ISM employees: “If there’s one word I want to take with you today it’s this: GLOCAL.” Only at a company where everyone is worried about keeping their jobs would everyone not laugh at that. But I’ve heard worse in real life.
Should the movie have focused more on Natalie’s second strategy—replacing the skilled with the unskilled—or would such a focus have inevitably gotten too preachy? I suppose it’s enough that it’s dramatized. In the end, Bingham’s skills at downsizing aren’t downsized. His boss tells him, “I need you up in the air,” which is where the movie, appropriately, leaves him and us.
Review: “Red Cliff” (2009)
WARNING: HEN DUO SPOILERS
John Woo’s “Red Cliff” is work. The movie is based upon the Battle of Red Cliffs, which took place in 208 A.D. and helped bring an end to the Han Dynasty. The period that followed, the Three Kingdoms, while short (approximately 70 years), has been romanticized in Asian culture via operas, novels, even TV shows and video games. As a result, most people in Asia know about this battle and its main characters. They don’t need them explained any more than we would need someone to tell us who Robin Hood and his Merry Men were.
But for us poor westerners? Friar who? Little what? It’s tough keeping everybody straight.
OK, so Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) is an imperial minister/general who intimidates even the Emperor of the Han dynasty into getting what he wants, which is full-fledged battle against rebel warlords Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen), and a battle quickly ensues against Liu Bei’s army, which includes master strategist Kong Ming (Takeshi Kaneshiro), grizzled, bad-ass fighter Zhang Fei (Zang Jinsheng) and...what’s the name of the other warrior? The one who can’t save Liu Bei’s wife but saves his baby by tying the kid to his back so both hands are free to fight off a half-dozen of Cao Cao’s soldiers? That’s a cool scene. Love the way he says to the baby, “Wo men zou” (literally: “We go”) before the fight begins. But in protecting the peasants, Liu Bei loses the battle and his army heads south where... Wait a minute. Only now, when Kong Ming shows up hat-in-hand, does Sun Quan consider rebelling against Cao Cao? I thought he was already doing it. And yet in this scene he’s still dithering. In fact he leaves the final decision to his viceroy, Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) at Red Cliff, but at least that’s the title of the film, and at least that’s the star of the film, so hopefully we’ll stay put and won’t have so many new characters to memorize. Ah, no such luck. Even here we’re introduced to the he spunky younger sister of Sun Quan, Sun Shangxiang (Wei Zhao), an ex-pirate named Gan Xing (Shido Nakamura), and Xiao Qiao (Lin Shiling), the wife of Zhou Yu, who seems delicate and self-satisfied in that annoying way of Chinese cinematic heroines (pouring tea, practicing calligraphy), and who may be the real reason Cao Cao pushed for battle in the first place. Cao Cao saw her once when she was a child, and even then she was beautiful, but did he really engage his million-man army against these rebel provinces for her? And why is his name pronounced “Chao Cao” when it’s spelled “Cao Cao” in the subtitles? And why is Kong Ming listed on IMDb as “Zhuge Liang”? That’s not even close.
The movie didn’t need to be this much work. It clocks in at 2 1/2 hours but the original was twice as long, and released in two parts, over a six-month period, in Asia. Thus a lot of exposition has been removed, particularly, I assume, from the first battle, the Battle of Changban, with all of its peasants fleeing, etc. These cuts add to, rather than detract from, the confusion for western audiences. We’re introduced to too many characters too quickly, and not enough of it sticks.
I didn’t know I was watching a truncated version until after I’d watched it, and, of course, I immediately felt cheated—in the same way I felt cheated when I found out that the pre-“Sgt. Pepper” Beatles LPs I listened to in the states weren’t the same ones the Beatles produced and released for British audiences. At least there I knew enough to blame the greedy bastards at Capitol Records, but who to blame here? Summit Entertainment, the international distributor? Magnet Releasing, the genre arm of Magnolia Pictures, which was the U.S. distributor? Was it a western decision or an eastern decision? Or did the twain meet? Businessmen, after all, speak an international language. Worse, while cutting so much, they still added footage. That scene in the beginning where Cao Cao intimidates the Han Emperor? That’s for westerners. Its use of sudden, extreme close-ups, indicating extreme emotions, is right out of schlock 1970s-era Hong Kong cinema, and, initially, I assumed John Woo meant it as homage. But did he even direct this additional scene? Now everything is in question.
Despite all of that, “Red Cliff” is worth watching. It might even be worth seeing this bowdlerized version even if you plan on someday, somehow, seeing the uncut Asian version. The movie is truly epic.
Its story is as simple as any in Hollywood. A group of benevolent underdogs take on a corrupt, brutal establishment, and, against impossible odds (a 50,000-man army vs. a million-man army), win. And it’s true? No wonder they keep retelling it.
In fact, this is how popular the underdog story is: Even when they don’t need it, they use it. In the second battle of the film, in which Sun Shangxiang lures Cao Cao’s army into Kong Ming’s elaborately devised tortoise defense—where soldiers, hiding behind almost-man-sized shields, are placed in the pattern of an intricate tortoise shell, trapping and dispatching those lured inside—even here, rather than having the many (the good soldiers) slaughter the few (Cao Cao’s soldiers), the many stay in formation and let the superlative few—Zhang Fei, Gan Xing, Zhao Yun, Zhou Yu himself—take on dozens at a time. It’s tough letting go of the underdog motif.
As cool as these battle scenes are—and I particularly like Zhou Yu yanking an arrow from his shoulder, running at the horse-bound archer, and then spinning and plunging the same arrow into the back of the archer’s neck—my favorite moments in the film are how the two sides strategize. Woo cuts between the solitary general, Cao Cao, matching wits from afar with the group dynamic of, mostly, Kong Ming and Zhou Yu. Will Cao attack by land? What’s the best way to get 100,000 free arrows? Early on, Kong Ming dispatches Sun Shangxiang to spy for him and she sends back word, via pigeon, that Cao’s men are dying of typhoid...just as these dying or dead men are sent down the Yangtze, on rafts, by Cao, so that the peasants and soldiers on Kong Ming’s side will strip the bodies of valuables and catch typhoid themselves. Pretty smart. Cao is a worthy adversary. That’s part of the fun of the film. The typhoid epidemic even leads to the withdrawal of Liu Bei and his army. Meaning Sun Quan’s men were basically lured into a war and then abandoned. Meaning now the odds are worse. Meaning they’re even bigger underdogs than before. Let the final battle begin.
How many genres are included in this one movie? It’s obviously a war movie. It’s also a martial arts movie, since Zhao Yun, Zhang Fei, Gan Xing, and Zhou Yu are all masters. And don’t forget romance. Xiao Qiao is a kind of Helen of Troy here. She’s the face that launched a thousand CGI ships down the Yangtze River.
Weather plays a key role in each battle, and Kong Ming either reads weather well or controls it. To get 100,000 arrows, they need fog and they get fog. For the final battle, they need the winds to shift and the winds shift. They also need an elaborate tea ceremony, which is where Xiao Qiao, who turns up at Cao Cao’s camp at this key moment, comes in. She’s carrying Zhou Yu’s child, and one wonders if they will come to the same fate as Liu Bei’s wife and child at the beginning of the movie. Can both survive this time? Neither? Xiao Qiao has hinted that the child will be named Ping An, meaning “peace,” and so the question of their survival is also metaphoric. Will peace be born after the final battle?
Epics are tough to do (see “Pearl Harbor,” “Troy,” “Australia") but John Woo, whom Hollywood wasted, pulls it off spectacularly with his first Asian film in 15 years. He gives us a worthy melodrama, featuring interesting, boldly-drawn characters, on a wide and expansive canvas. The main characters aren’t dwarfed by the canvas and the canvas doesn't seem irrelevant because of our focus on the main characters. There’s balance between the two.
Here's an example of that balance. This is how Zhou Yu is introduced, and, to me, it rivals the great character introductions in movies. Before the two rebel armies have been unified, Kong Ming and Zhou Yu sit before Zhou Yu’s army, and the former watches them display, in that expert, martial-arts manner, this formation and that formation. “The goose formation,” Kong Ming whispers to a compatriot. “Unfortunately outdated.” He seems worried. Zhou Yu, whom we haven’t seen yet in full view, overhears his comment and seems annoyed. Nearby a boy plays a flute. Everyone stops and listens. Everyone is mesmerized. Everyone but Zhou Yu. His seat is now empty save for his goose-feather fan, and suddenly, quietly, he’s standing before the boy, holding out his hand. “Gei wo,” he says. (“Give it to me.”) The boy does. Then Zhou Yu takes out a knife...and carves a slightly bigger hole at one end of the flute and hands it back. The higher pitches were slightly off.
I would’ve liked more of this. Thankfully there is more.
Review: “Twilight” (2008)
WARNING: AWKWARD, LONGING SPOILERS
I actually know Forks, Wash., or towns like Forks, Wash., since Patricia’s mom used to live in Joyce, Wash., further north and east on the Olympic peninsula. We used to go there every August for the Blackberry Festival. Patricia’s mom organized the local art show at The Grange, Patricia’s brother, Alex, a marine biologist from Port Townsend, was sometime-judge in the blackberry pie contest, and Patricia herself sometimes helped out at the cotton candy stand. The highlight was always a noon-time parade down main street, or the only street, Agate Beach Road, filled with vintage '30s cars and vintage '30s men (VOFWs) and usually something high-schooly. We watched near the Joyce General Store, which sold candy I thought ceased to exist in 1968. There were no vampires.
But it’s a brilliant conceit that a vampire clan would hang out on the Olympic peninsula to avoid the sun—which, in this universe, doesn’t destroy them but merely turns their skin all sparkly. The peninsula also works as a hangout for the Cullens because, well, it’s isolated, there’s game in the forests, and it’s already full of weirdos. The peninsula’s the place Washingtonians go when Walla Walla gets too crowded.
Bella (Kristen Stewart), our heroine, arrives in Forks from Phoenix, Ariz., cactus in hand, in March, because her mother and her new husband, Phil, are heading to Florida for spring training. Phil, according to the mother, is “a minor league baseball player.” Since Bella is 16 or 17, her mother would have to be, what, 32-35 at the youngest? Which means she’s either a cougar (to go with the Native American wolf packs), or Phil needs a new job. Generally if you don’t make the bigs by 30 you don’t hang around.
For a new girl in town, Bella does surprisingly well. In fact, she has to do little. Her father gives her a truck, the kids flock to her, she’s popular just by sitting there and, um, not knowing what to say or, um, maybe not caring what to say. The other kids fill her in on the Cullens, who seem good-looking and aloof, like Duran Duran in 1983, and she and Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) exchanged slow-motion, smoldering looks, like they’re in a “Hungry Like the Wolf” video. She also winds up sitting next to him in biology class. Biology. At first he ignores her, can’t seem to stand the smell of her, but then he’s charming and curious, and before you know it they’re in love, and before you know it she figures out that he, and all of the Cullens, are vampires. It takes about a week? Doesn’t say much for the rest of the folks in Forks, does it? Or do they already know and accept it as part of the usual peninsula weirdness? “Cassandra Starlight here used to be named Peggy Jones until she hit 54 and decided to change it, Zeke’s got a bumper sticker on his pickup saying ‘My real president is Charlton Heston,’ which he put on during the Bush years, and Dr. Cullen and his family? Well, they’re vampires. But kindly folk.”
It's been much-written, but, yes, Edward is the dream boyfriend for teenaged girls who are curious about but afraid of sex: He and Bella can’t have it because he might lose control. He might literally want to tear her apart. So romantic! There’s also a “gift of the magi” quality to their relationship: She loves him enough to become a vampire, he loves her too much to make her one, and so there they are, staring into each other’s eyes, longing. If anticipation is greater than consumption (see: “The Tao of Pooh”), then theirs is one great relationship. But it’s still a teenaged relationship, and, even though he’s a 100-year-old teenager (he became a vampire during the influenza outbreak of 1918), it’s full of awkward, teenaged conversations. Let me speak for the adults in the audience: Thank you for those moments when the camera pulls back, the music wells, and we just see them talking. It's lazy writing, sure, but still appreciated.
What else about Edward appeals to teenage girls? Basically he’s James Dean (the brooding, handsome, tortured loner) but superfast and superstrong and with the ability to read everyone’s mind but hers. So she’s as much mystery to him as he is to her. She’s mysterious and he’s curious. One wonders if that’s why he loves her in the first place. If true, it seems like an unromantic reason to me. I only love you because I don’t know you.
Their relationship also allows her, for all her spirit, to be the damsel in distress. No ass-kicking girl here. The good and bad vampires, the wolf packs, could tear her apart before she could blink so she gets to be rescued without guilt. Feminists, of course, are up in arms, but is this the secret desire of girls, as rescuing (particularly if you’re superstrong) is the secret desire of boys? This is not to discount lines like Edward’s: “I don’t have the strength to stay away from you anymore.” I know that has its appeal, too.
The movie does a good job with the locale, by the way. The kids go to La Push and Port Angeles, they reference Kitsap County sheriffs, and the men drink Rainier beer and watch Mariners games. There's a lot of cloud-cover and drizzle. It’s all very Pacific Northwesterny.
“Twilight” isn’t as horrible as I thought it’d be and it’s kind of fun to watch with a girl, or even a woman, to see what she likes about it. That should be its appeal for boys. Most of us are like Edward—we have no clue what you’re thinking—but the big question is if “Twilight,” by giving us that clue, is helpful, or just slowly, vaguely horrific.
DVD Reviews: 1 Win, 1 Loss, 1 Tie
I've been down with a cold for the last five days and wimping out when it comes to movie choices. Last week Patrick Goldstein mentioned that when he's sick, which he is, with the H1N1 virus, he goes for the comfort food of old John Wayne westerns. Not sure what my cinematic comfort food is. Woody Allen? Bogart? I nearly watched “The Insider” again last night but instead went with “Visions of Lights,” the 1992 documentary on the history of cinematography, since I didn't know if I could last the length of “The Insider.” BTW: I'd love to see an expanded version of “VoL.” I could watch cinematographers talking about their craft a good while longer.
I've also been catching up with a few cinematic also-rans from this past year that, if I weren't sick, I probably wouldn't have bothered with. As I said: wimping out. Wasn't as bad as I thought: 1-1-1:
- The Win: The Taking of Pelham 123, with Denzel Washington and John Travolta. Didn't do particularly well with critics (53% from the-ones-who-matter), and did equally so-so with audiences (opening third, behind “The Hangover” in its second week and “Up” in its third, with $23 million, on its way to $65 million domestic—which, by the way, is less than “New Moon” took in yesterday). Jeff Wells over at Hollywood Elsewhere, a fan of the new “Pelham,” has been thrashing around ever since at the idiocy of both critics and audiences. He even recently recommended it for best pic. I wouldn't go that far but it's a good movie: tense, fun, surprisingly relevant. The critics probably turned against it in comparison with the '73 version, and that was certainly my reaction upon seeing the trailer in May. I wrote: “I’m a fan of the original, so this hypercharged version, with cars crashing and malevolent, tattooed villains spouting threats, just makes me feel sad and wish for 1973 New York.” Which may have been the problem, box-office wise: the car crashes were designed for kids, the actors for adults, and the twain didn't meet. It also loses me near the end—you're a civil service dude, Denzel!—but it's a good movie with solid, fun performances. Not best pic but worth renting. Put it this way: It's fun watching actors acting.
- The Tie: Valkyrie: This one did slightly better with critics-who-matter (57%) and slightly better with audiences ($83 million domestic, $200 million worldwide), but as a story it suffers from what “Inglorious Basterds” did not: we know how it ends. Some too-dramatic flourishes by director Bryan Singer (the Wagner record; the cry before execution) but, given the aforementioned, you still get sucked in. Plus the cast is a who's who of British actors you like to see in movies: Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branaugh, Tom Hollander. Also impressed with German actors Christian Berkel and Thomas Kretschmann in small parts. Kretschmann looks like he could play Liam Neeson's younger brother in some future movie. (Check it out.) As I watched, I remembered more about the assassination attempt on Hitler—even the day it happened—and I'm surprised they didn't bring up why it didn't succeed. From what I remember, the table under which the bomb was placed was just too thick and protected those above it.
- The Loss: The Land of the Lost: I went in thinking it couldn't be as bad as critics (21%) and audiences ($65 million worldwide) thought it was and came away wondering how any critic could've given it a positive review. I mean I'm sick but not that sick. I also wondered what they could've done to make it work. What if they'd kept the kids kids? What's the point of turning the two characters into adults? And aren't the characters played by Will Ferrell (who always makes me laugh) and Danny McBride (who never does) too similar anyway? And who wants Will Ferrell in a romance? Yes, I got two or three belly laughs out of it (as I said, Will Ferrell makes me laugh), but most of the movie is startling unfunny and as slow-moving as a Sleestak. Don't be like me. Don't rent it thinking, “It can't be as bad as everyone says.” It is. If you're sick, it'll make you sicker.
Oh, and if anyone's got thoughts on movies to watch when you're sick, by all means...
Addendum: Meant to give a shout-out to my main companion—after Jellybean and Patricia, of course—during this sickness: E.L. Doctorow, whose book, World's Fair, I'm reading again after 20 years. I'm loving it. It feels, in tone, similar to Willa Cather's My Antonia. There's not much greater praise than that...
Review: “2012” (2009)
WARNING: END-OF-THE-WORLD-AS-WE-KNOW-IT SPOILERS
Imagine you’re a divorced father with an 11-year-old son named Noah and you take him and his sister camping in Yellowstone Park, but he’s sullen the whole time because he still blames you for the divorce, and he’s already bonded with mom’s new live-in boyfriend, a breast-augmentation surgeon named Gordon, who’s given him a cool new cellphone with which he won’t stop playing. But imagine during this camping trip the lake that was once there is now all dried up and guarded by the U.S. military, and imagine via the ramblings of a rogue radio DJ you figure out that the earth’s core is heating up, and, days later, via the snide remarks of the kids of the Russian billionaire for whom you chauffer, you figure out there’s a giant spaceship that the best and brightest and richest are all getting on in order to survive this global cataclysm, which is coming, yes, right now, so imagine you return like a madman to your ex-wife’s house and get the kids and the ex-wife, and, yes, even Gordon, and you all pile into your limousine as California shakes and the earth crumbles behind you, right behind you in the rearview mirror, and in order to get away from it all you have to drive around slow grandmas and falling telephone poles and through falling skyscrapers, but you do it, you get your family to an airport, and you convince Gordon, who’s had one or two flying lessons, and is dithering even as the world breaks up, to fly the family up and out, and you all watch in horror as half of California sinks into the sea.
Then imagine you fly back to Yellowstone in Wyoming because the rogue DJ has a map that shows where this giant spaceship is being built, and to get this map you have to drive a camper crazily up an down a small mountain, and then around more falling trees while, again, the earth crumbles in your rearview mirror. But you get the camper back to the airfield in time and you search and search and, yes!, find the map, but, no!, just then the crumbling earth catches up to you and the camper falls into the widening crevices and it looks like you’re toast. But with your family watching, and with Gordon urging everyone to just leave you behind, you somehow crawl out of the crevice, map in mouth, and then run and catch the plane as it gathers speed and takes off with you breathlessly on board and Wyoming literally opening up and bursting into flames below you. But you’ve got the map now so you know where to go to save your family. Holy shit! China!
Then imagine you’re in the Vegas airport, which is where you head even though, let’s face it, it’s closer to the west coast and the disasters you left in the first place, but you don’t have time to think about any of that, you just need a bigger plane, one that can take you and your family (and Gordon) all the way to fucking China, and lo and behold!, you run into your Russian billionaire, who has such a bigger plane, but who needs a co-pilot, which you have, in Gordon, and a deal is struck, and the two families take off in this giant Russian jumbo jet with its large cargo hold filled with expensive automobiles instead of, you know, hundreds of the people below who instead of being saved die horribly as Nevada, too, succumbs to earthquakes and upheavals and destruction.
Them imagine this same plane, damaged during your miraculous takeoff, makes it all the way across the Pacific Ocean but suffers final engine failure and has to crash in the Himalayas, but everyone survives because of two people: 1) the Russian pilot, who gives up his life, and 2) you, because, as the plane is near-crashing-landing, you drive everyone in one of those expensive automobiles out the cargo hold, down a ramp, and onto the snow and ice of the Himalayas at, what, 150 miles an hour, before the final, fiery crash of the plane, but you do it, you do it again, you save your family (and Gordon) again.
Then after the Chinese military drops in and picks up the Russian and his kids—because they’ve paid their way on board the spaceship, leaving you and your family, not to mention the Russian mistress, in the snow-capped mountains to die—imagine you manage, at the last instant, to flag down a Tibetan Buddhist family driving a truck to, quel coincidence!, the same secret spaceship. where they have a family member who’s a guard and who’s allowing his family to stow away on board. And imagine because they’re Buddhist they let you and your family stow away on board, too, and you do, you’re inside!, you’re finally inside the spaceship!, even as the Russian and other billionaires are mere rabble below, about to be left behind in the devastation of earth’s final moments.
Except imagine that the powers-that-be have a change of heart, and decide to let those billionaires actually board the ship, and they lower the ramps, and you and your family, not to mention the Russian mistress and the Tibetan family, who are stowed away in there, are caught in the gears of this lowering and raising of ramps, and though the Chinese guard’s foot is crushed in the machinery you manage to save him, but you can’t save Gordon, poor Gordon, and he’s crushed and gone, allowing you to finally reunite with your family, and with your wife who still loves you.
But imagine the devastation of the earth has created tsunamis that have now reached the mountainous levels of the Himalayas, and they come crashing onto your ship, which isn’t a spaceship at all but an ark, an ark to travel these new oceans. Except, in the raising and lowering of the ramps, something, and not just Gordon, got caught in the gears, and is preventing the final ramp from being raised, and water is pouring in, ocean water, one imagines freezing ocean water, although arguments can be made that this water, too, has been heated enough by the earth’s core so that those drenched in the water, which is you and yours, do not suffer from hypothermia. But now imagine the powers-that-be, aware of you, and aware of the problem with the ramp, need a volunteer to swim down and remove the obstruction, even as they define such a mission as “a suicide mission”; but with a final farewell to your ex-wife, who now loves you, and your kids, who now admire you, you go, you swim down further into the cargo hold, and your son, your formerly bratty son, actually follows, and the two of you remove the obstruction that allows the ramp to close, which allows the engines to start, which prevents the ark from crashing into Mt. Everest and dooming all. Instead everyone is saved. Everyone. Because of you. And guess what? It wasn’t a suicide mission at all. You and your son survive.
And now imagine it’s 27 days later and you’re one of 4,000 people left alive on earth, but everything is stabilizing faster than anyone anticipated, and—better!—it’s discovered that Africa has risen several thousand feet, and is habitable, and that’s where everyone is headed, toward the Cape of Good Hope, ah yes, Good Hope, and for the first time in 27 days the ark doors are opened and people get to breathe fresh air, and you and your wife, who loves you again, and your kids, who admire you again, all of you stand on this platform like a family on vacation and lean on the railing and look out at the placid ocean that you’re plowing through in this brave new world that barely has any people in it, and your son looks up to you and says:
“Daddy? When are we going back home?”
Question: Do you smack the kid around? Or do you smack around the writer-director who wrote that shitty line?
There were many instances in “2012,” particularly in the second half, when I wanted to smack around writer-director Roland Emmerich. To be honest, the first half of the movie isn’t that bad. At least it’s better than I thought this type of movie would be. Emmerich is a good roller-coaster operator and he gives us a helluva ride. Here’s his problem: He thinks he has something important to say about life. And he has nothing important to say about life.
The action-hero father described above is novelist Jackson Curtis, played by John Cusack. When I first heard Cusack was going to be in this disaster flick, this update of “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno” but with an all-star cast fleeing, not a upside-down boat or a burning skyscraper but the entire planet, I blanched. Really? Lloyd Dobler? In this? But he’s the best thing in it. He makes us care. Someone else has written that Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Adrian Helmsley, a scientist who is among the first to figure out that solar flares are heating up the earth’s core, which will cause cataclysmic shifts in the year 2012, are the two best things in the movie, but it’s really just Cusack. Sorry. Normally I love Ejiofor, but the scientist role is a drag role unless you do something like Jeff Goldblum did in “Independence Day”—another Emmerich project—where he always seemed not quite there because he was always two steps ahead of everyone else. Ejiofor doesn’t give us that. His scientist isn’t even particularly smart. He doesn’t figure out what’s happening to the earth’s core (his scientist-friends in India do that) and his timeline for when the cataclysm will occur is off by months or years (which is why the panic at the end). But he cares. That’s his redeeming quality; he cares. And there’s nothing worse, during an environmental cataclysm, than a scientist who doesn’t know science but who cares.
Plus he’s given one of the worst speeches any actor has ever been given to read.
Let me back up. So in 2009 scientists in India discover the earth’s core is heating up, and, in 2010, the President of the United States, Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover), announces the bad news to other world leaders, but everyone keeps it secret. And in secret they build their arks. And in secret they finance the building of the arks by offering the richest people in the world a seat on board. Cost: 1 billion euros per. And in secret they gather the best that humanity has created (this DaVinci, that Picasso) along with the best that God has created (“of clean beasts and of beasts that are not clean, and of fowls, and of every thing that creepeth upon the earth”), to try to preserve something of what has been.
And when do they tell the rest of the world? They don’t. Because they don’t want to start a panic. Which you kind of understand. But still.
Plus anyone who knows about the world ending and tries to tell the rest of the world? They kill them. Boom. Dead. Which you kind of understand. But still.
When the apocalypse finally happens, Pres. Wilson decides to stay behind in D.C.—to go on the air and let the people finally know what’s happening—and the vice-president, well, he dead, and so Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), doing his best jowly Al Haig impersonation, takes charge on one ark. And when it’s discovered that Helmsley’s calculations are wrong again, and, instead of hours, they have a mere 28 minutes before a tsunami hits them in this, one of the highest places on earth, Anheuser orders the ramps of the arks raised, dooming the hundreds of people in the holding area still clamoring to get on board.
And that’s when Helmsley, this simple scientist who can calculate nothing correctly, overrides Anheuser, the cutthroat career bureaucrat who didn’t even tell his own mother the cataclysm was coming, and talks directly, via “Star Trek”-like viewscreens, to the world leaders in the other arks, about those hundreds of people below, and about what it means to be human. And how the best in us involves risking ourselves in order to save others. And how if we begin this enterprise, this brave new world, by an act, not of sacrifice but of selfishness, then we have doomed the enterprise from the outset.
And there is silence. And there is silence.
And all the world leaders say with contempt: “Who the fuck is this guy?”
No, they agree with him. And so the ramps are lowered and the rabble are allowed to board. And the people are saved. And by extension, through this act of sacrifice, we are all saved.
The problem? Those rabble are all the rich fuckers who paid a billion euros a seat and told no one else, including their own mothers, that the world was ending. They’re the richest of the rich, and the selfish of the selfish. And they’re the ones who are going to start our brave new world?
The time for that Helmsley speech was 2010, when every backyard mechanic and carpenter and welder could’ve attempted to build his own ark, for his own friends and family, but the leaders of the world didn’t allow this to happen. The enterprise, in other words, began with the most monumental act of selfishness possible. And nothing Helmsley could say in 2012 could right that.
But Roland Emmerich needs his moment of hope. Even if it makes no sense within the story he’s created. Even if it’s such a lie that instead of raising hope it raises bile.
All of which raises a disturbing question. Most of the movie is about the rush to get to a safe place, the ark, which, yes, is safer than Yellowstone, safer than Vegas. But is it really safe? It’s one of the three vessels floating on the oceans of a dangerously different world, and filled to capacity with rich bastards, politicians, monarchs, bureaucrats and schemers. In some ways, give or take a cute John Cusack family, they’ve managed to gather the worst people in the world into this one place. And some of these people, remember, were nearly left behind in the Himalayas, and so know not to trust the people in charge. Which is who exactly? Who is policing matters? What rules of government are being adopted? Who is ensuring that food is shared, and property isn’t stolen, and women and children aren’t taken? Who is making sure these arks don’t turn into floating versions of “Lord of the Flies”?
I know. It’s just a movie. By which people always mean: It’s not supposed to make sense. It’s just supposed to make us thrill at all of the destruction. So in “2012,” along with everything mentioned above, we get to watch the Vatican crumble, God and Adam on the roof of the Sistine Chapel torn asunder, the Washington Monument collapse, and the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, risen by a tsunami, obliterate the White House. Fun! And if it all feels a bit derivative, well, at least Emmerich, the man responsible for “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” is stealing from himself here. But did his dialogue have to be derivative, too? Did Jackson Curtis, on first meeting the wacky DJ, have to say “I have to get back to...earth”—like Woody Allen to Christopher Walken in “Annie Hall”? Did he have to say, upon discovering their destination was China, “We’re gonna need a bigger...plane”—like Roy Scheider in “Jaws”? Are these homages or lazy writing?
And don’t get me started on the scene where, in the quiet of the cargo hold of the Russian plane, with the world being destroyed below them, Jackson turns to his ex-wife, played by Amanda Peet, and asks, “Do you think people change?”
Do I think people change? I think solar flares change and the earth’s core changes and tectonic plates shift, and, yes yes yes, I think people change, or at least are capable of changing, every single moment of their short, sad lives, but at the moment I just think people die, as they are doing right now below us.
The only one who doesn’t change, apparently, is Roland Emmerich, who keeps giving us this, the dumb epic disaster film brightened by the last, false moment of hope, and who deserves, for the ten bucks and 160 minutes he just cost us, to be smacked around, yes, just a little.
Review: “The Horse Boy” (2009)
How far would you go to help your child? To grasp at a final straw that may help your child? How far would you go?
“The Horse Boy,” a documentary by Michel O. Scott about a couple living in Texas with their autistic four-year-old boy, gives one answer: Mongolia.
Actually that’s not even the real question-and-answer. The real one is this: How far would you go in your mind to help him with his? Would you go so far as to believe that a visit to shamans in Mongolia, and to the reindeer people in upper Mongolia near the Russian border, would help him with his autism? As uncommon as “The Horse Boy” is, in other words, it’s still a common story. When life throws us a gigantic curveball, and western society/medicine shrugs its shoulders, what cure won’t we try?
Rupert Isaacson, a long-haired Brit, met his future wife, Kristin Neff, a down-to-earth Californian, in India in 1994. For seven years they traveled together before getting married and settling down near Austin, Texas, where she was a professor and he was a travel writer. A son, Rowan, was born in December 2001. A few years later he was diagnosed with autism. It was, says Rupert, narrating the film, “like being hit across the face by a baseball bat.
“We tried everything,” he adds, but the child couldn’t or wouldn’t speak. He had tantrums, inconsolable tantrums, several times a day, some lasting for hours. We watch footage of some of these tantrums, and we both sympathize with the parents and want to get away from the child. And if we, watching one meltdown for 10 to 15 seconds, feel such a tension between sympathy (which moves toward) and flight (which moves away), imagine how the parents, who had to deal with this 24/7, feel. It’s a wonder they didn’t break.
Then one day Rowan ran onto a neighbor’s property and up to a horse named Betsy. Rupert was a horseman himself, a good rider, but he kept Rowan away from horses for obvious reasons. The child is small and fragile and doesn’t know it, and the horse, big and strong, doesn’t know the fragility and importance of the child. Both beings are potentially volatile.
But there was an immediate connection between the two. Betsy’s reaction to the boy was gentle and submissive, and Rowan, on Betsy’s back, calmed down and actually began talking. “This is a nice horse,” he says. Rowan, it turned out, had an affinity with animals, particularly horses, particularly Betsy.
And this is when Rupert makes a giant leap of faith. In his travels, he’d encountered shamans in different parts of the world, and he searches for a place that combines healing and horses. It’s the area of the world where horse-riding began: Mongolia. And off they go.
No easy task. A trip with Rowan to the local supermarket can easily turn into a disaster and now they’re taking him across the world? It doesn’t help that the Mongolian city they land in, far from Rupert’s expectations, is a depressed post-Soviet city; an urban slum.
With a van they soon trek to nearby mountains and visit nine shamans there, who examine the three, and chant, and declare that the problem is an ancestor on Kristin’s side, her mother’s mother, who is clinging to Rowan. They say a black energy had entered Kristin’s womb during Rowan’s birth. Meanwhile, Rowan is crying and crying, Rupert expresses his doubts. “Did I really have his best interests at heart here?” he wonders. Then both parents are lashed by a shaman to release evil spirits.
The whole thing seems insane.
“And then something happened,” Rupert reports. There’s a lot of this. Something is always happening in the doc, and this time it’s Rowan laughing and playing with another boy, the son of their guide, across the steppes of Mongolia. He had never played with other children before. To the parents, it’s a giant step forward.
But for every step forward... The plan is to trek across Mongolia by horse to upper Mongolia, and the reindeer people there, but, on a horse with his father, Rowan throws tantrums in a way he never has on a horse, shouting “Car! Car! Car!,” and much of the trip has to be made by van, where Rowan is consoled by the plastic animals—his horses and cows and pigs—he’s brought along. By the familiar.
Talking heads throughout the doc try to explain to us what autism is (a disorder of neural development), how it manifests itself (obsessive, repetitive, uncommunicative behavior), and what advantages it may have (the ability to focus). It’s posited that some of our most brilliant minds may have been mildly autistic. It’s posited that shamans may be mildly autistic. One of the talking heads, a professor, turns out to be autistic herself, and says she wouldn’t trade it, and the clarity of its focus, for what other folks supposedly have. Another talking head states that we need to move in the direction of viewing autism not as something other than normal but simply as another way of being.
Whatever loftier goals Rupert and Kristin had at the outset—i.e., possibly “curing” Rowan of his autism—are, halfway through the trip, simpler: Rupert wants Rowan to ride a horse by himself; and Kristin wants Rowan to poop properly. There are autistic adults who still shit in their pants, and that’s one of her great fears: cleaning up shit every day for the rest of her life. At bottom is the great fear of the parents of all autistic children: If the child doesn’t learn to function in society, if he can’t interact with others, what will happen when they, the parents, die? Who will care for him then?
Emotions careen with Rowan’s moods. At one point Rupert says, “Don’t put the camera on me. I just want to cry.” The final trek is made, up grassy mountains, and Kristin has a harder time of it than Rowan. The Reindeer people are found. The shamans are visited. Rituals are performed.
The takeaway is this: By the end of the doc, both parents get their wish, and Kristin, back in Texas, says the difference between Rowan before the adventure and after is night and day. Now he poops by himself. Now he plays with other children. So was it the adventure? Was it the shamans? I have a touch of Hamlet in me—There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio... —but ultimately I’m a cynical man who knows people will believe what they want or need to believe. Kristin, down-to-earth, leans toward the adventure; Rupert, always vaguely hippyish, leans towards the shamanism. Both agree the why isn’t so important as the progress Rowan made.
The importance of the doc for the viewer, meanwhile, is, yes, this dichotomy between what we don’t know from science and what we don’t know from religion, and the ways we fill the gaps—the chasms—between the two. The unknowability of what Rowan is helps us reflect upon the unknowability of what we all are.
But its true importance is simpler. We spend 90 minutes with an autistic boy. We watch him at his worst. And in the end, we see him riding Betsy, bareback. by himself. Smiling.
Review: “An Education” (2009)
WARNING: COMING-OF-AGE SPOILERS
You could say Nic Benns’ brilliant title graphics are at odds with this story.
“An Education” is about a smart girl, Jenny (Carey Mulligan), raised by careful, working-class parents in post-World-War-II England, who, when she’s 16 going on 17, and Oxford is in sight, gets involved with an older, wealthier man and almost chucks it all because his life is so much more interesting than her life of Latin, math and cello-playing. “My choice is to do something hard and boring for the rest of my life or go to Paris and have fun!” she says.
Then there are the title graphics. Backed by the bouncy, piano-heavy, early rock n’ roll beat of Floyd Cramer’s “On the Rebound,” animated drawings of books shift into diagrams of microscopes, and these change into cells dividing and DNA patterns and music notes, and on and on, subject by subject. Hard and boring? Education never looked so fun.
It’s 1961 and Jenny’s a girl on the cusp. She’s cute, with deep dimples on fresh cheeks, and she’s filled with over 10 years of education that she doesn’t quite know what to do with yet. She’s more mature than her classmates, savvier than parents and teachers. She’s interested and interesting but with an air of What’s it all about, Alfie?
Enter David (Peter Sarsgaard), who pulls up in his Bristol car while she and her cello are waiting for the bus in the rain. First he disarms her with forthrightness (he knows she’s not supposed to accept rides from strange men...), then misdirection (...but he’s a music lover and he’s worried about her cello) and finally charm. The boys in her school are tongue-tied around her, but this man—this man—makes her laugh.
He sends flowers. They meet again and he proposes a Friday-night Ravel concert with dinner afterwards. She says there’s no way her parents, particularly her no-nonsense father, Jack (Alfred Molina), will allow it. But David shows up anyway and charms them, too. “I didn’t know you had a sister, Jenny,” David says, as he kisses her mother's hand. Check out Jenny’s reaction. Did he just say that? Did her parents just buy that? Can you really get away with that?
Much of the movie is learning just how much one can get away with. At the concert they meet David’s friends, Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike), and attend dinners and nightclubs and auctions. They make weekend trips to Oxford and Paris. In her first encounter with Helen, a tall blonde, tres chic, done up almost like Deneuve before Deneuve, they’re waiting to check their coats and Jenny drops a few lines of French, just as I’ve done, something about trop cher. Helen stares at her placidly:
“What’s that you said?”
“I said it was too expensive.”
“But those weren’t the words you used.”
“I was speaking French.”
At first I thought Helen was mocking Jenny’s schoolgirl pretensions, her need to trot out her French; but it turns out Helen is as dumb as a stump. At the same time, she’s not mean. She’s rather sweet.
Even as Jenny's caught up in the whirlwind of David’s playboy lifestyle, she gets clues about him. Some seem positive: He has Negro friends, or at least clients, in 1961. Some seem icky: the odd talk he instigates before sex. Some reveal the chasm between them: At Oxford, David says to the group, “I spent three years here,” to which Danny responds, “Oh God.” The institution she’s spent her life trying to get into is, to these folks, simply a dreadfully dull place.
Is that why they need her around? Because life is all so dreadfully dull and they need fresh eyes with which to view it? She has a gas bidding for a pre-Raphaelite painting, and so do they, because she has such a gas. “That’s why you’re here,” David tells her later. “To save us from ourselves.”
Other shoes drop. On the way back from Oxford the two men go to an open house and steal a beautiful, framed map. “Liberating it,” they call it. She finds out David’s real job: He moves Negro families into neighborhoods, gets the scared old ladies to sell to him cheap, then moves the Negroes out and reinflates the price. It’s a brilliant scheme, playing on the prejudices of the era (and probably this era), but it's awful. He's a con man; charming, yes, but a con man. But this shoe doesn’t drop hard enough. Now Jenny knows he cons old ladies, and he cons her parents, but somehow she thinks she's immune.
Amidst this whirlwind, her studies falter, Oxford dims, and her dowdy coats and hair are replaced by things sophisticated, swept-up, elegant. In subtle ways, she becomes dismissive of teachers and parents, who aren’t in on the con. You can get away with so much in life. She leaves school altogether—with her father’s blessing—when David proposes marriage, but this turns out to be the biggest con of all. His name isn’t David Stewart but David Goldstein, and he’s married with children. When Jenny arranges to surreptitiously meet the wife (Sally Hawkins from “Happy-Go-Lucky”), the wife immediately figures out who and what she is. “You’re not in a family way, are you?” she asks. “Because that’s happened before.”
But now what? There’s a heart-breaking scene where her father talks to her outside her bedroom door. He had a very regimented life set up for her, to get her into Oxford, but he succumbed, perhaps even more than her, to David’s charms, dazzled by the possibilities of her life away from all this: from the penny saved: from the bit-by-bit; from the pinched existence. The earlier Oxford trip had been greased by a promised meeting with C.S. Lewis—“Clive,” as David had pretended to call him—and in a bar we see David signing Jenny’s copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as “Clive,” with everyone, including Jenny, amused. Now outside the bedroom door, the father talks about listening to a radio program the previous week, which mentioned how C.S. Lewis left Oxford in 1950, and how he thought, “Well, they’ve got that wrong. My Jenny...” The thought trails. He believed his daughter over the radio. His lack of bitterness at being conned, his solicitude for her in her heartbreak, makes the scene extra poignant. “All my life I've been scared,” he admits. “And I didn't want you to be scared.” He leaves her tea and biscuits.
“An Education” is based upon the memoir by Lynn Barber, which was adapted by Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity”; “About a Boy”) and directed by Lone Scherfig (“Italian for Beginners”; “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself”). It’s an impeccable film, beautifully acted, wonderfully written, hilarious at times and sad at times. Everything feels exactly right within the confines of its story, but it doesn't resonate much beyond that. Most of us already know the lessons Jenny needs to learn. Plus the movie leaves unanswered its most fundamental questions. During her engagement, Jenny tells her school’s headmistress (Emma Thompson, in a killer cameo), “It’s not enough to educate us any more, Miss Walters, you’ve got to tell us why you’re doing it.” It’s a good question, but Miss Walters never really answers it—nor does the movie. Instead, after Jenny’s been derailed, she spends the rest of the movie struggling to get back on the rails. To what end? Because that's what we do? As people? In this society? If she really feels that way about education why is she doing it? What's it all about, Jenny?
Ultimately, I guess I just don't buy the film's separation of education and fun. Education can be as fun as a Floyd Cramer rock n' roll number; “fun” can be as dull as a weekend with Peter Sarsgaard.
The last line of the movie does resonate. We see Jenny, finally at Oxford, biking with a classmate, and we hear her in voiceover: “One of the boys I dated—and they were boys—suggested we go to Paris, and I said I'd always wanted to see Paris. As if I'd never been.” It suggests so much. A pretense to innocence that's no longer hers. A time before she was conned. A kind of con of her own.
Review: “The Damned United” (2009)
WARNING: BRI-ISH SPOILERS
“The Damned United” is the third time in the last three years that Michael Sheen has starred in a movie written by Peter Morgan, and it goes something like this. His job is to play a fairly decent, somewhat intellectual and usually vainglorious man on the rise (Tony Blair in “The Queen,” David Frost in “Frost/Nixon” and Brian Clough here) who butts heads with established power (Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Nixon, Don Revie/Leeds United) and winds up bruised. The confident eyes become lost, the telegenic smile turns frozen and embarrassed, and he loses his way. Basically he starts out American and becomes British. But only by becoming British (that is, embarrassed) can he overcome what he needs to overcome (the American part) to be successful.
I thought of this at the end of “The Damned United.” Clough struggles throughout the movie but before the credits we’re told he went on to manage Nottingham Forest, where they won unprecedented back-to-back European Cups in 1979 and 1980; now he’s considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, manager in football history. Immediate thought: Why didn’t we watch that? Immediate guess: Because there would be less drama? Secondary guess: Or because it would be less British?
This movie is totally British. It starts out in 1974 when Don Revie (Colm Meany) leaves the all-powerful Leeds United professional football team to manage...England? In some European-y thing? We don’t have anything like that in American sports. The closest is the Olympics or the World Baseball Classic, which are off-season, irregular gigs, not permanent gigs like this one.
Clough is tapped to replace him. Apparently he had success elsewhere. Apparently he doesn’t think much of Revie or Revie’s style of play, which is brutal and suspect, and he says so on the telly. “Football is a beautiful game,” he says, “and it needs to be played beautifully.” He battles with the players—who loved Revie and his dirty style of play—and he battles with the board, who want him to shut up already. A key moment comes early. Clough, in a conference room with the board, points at Revie’s photo on the wall and says his goal is to make Leeds United so all-powerful that it’ll wipe away the years of success Revie had with the club. He wants to make Revie look like a piker. He wants to make him irrelevant.
I kept translating it all into American. OK, so Revie’s like John Madden and Leeds is like the Oakland Raiders, except more successful than those bastards ever were. Maybe like the ‘70s Yankees? The Bronx Zoo? But who’s Clough then? Billy Martin? A little. But Clough feels less working class, and certainly less crazy and combative, than Martin. Clough takes shit from his players. They physically hurt him.
At the same time there’s an advantage to watching this as an American. Since it’s all new, you have no idea how it will turn out. The disadvantage is you don’t know how it began. Why does Clough hate Revie so?
Then the movie tells us. We go back to 1967 when Clough and his assistant, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), managed Derby (pronounced “Darby”), a team at the bottom of the second division. (Leeds was at the top of the first division.)
Through some kind of lottery system, Leeds winds up playing a match with Derby, in Derby, and Clough preps the stadium as much as his team. He makes sure the crew repaints this and that, and cleans here and there. He scrubs the hallway floor himself. He places oranges on the towels for the players, and breaks out a good bottle of wine and two wine glasses in anticipation of sharing it with Revie. Then Leeds rolls into town, rolls over Derby, and leaves. No wine is shared. Revie doesn’t even shake hands with Clough after the match. A fire is lit. He’s like a spurned lover. Now he wants to win.
With Taylor as his source for talent, and going over the head of his board of directors, he assembles a good football team and they rise in the rankings and make the jump to first division. They lose again to Leeds, but he buys even better players and they rise further and beat Leeds, both in a match and in the division. They come out on top! Which means what? Are there playoffs?
The more successful he gets, though, the mouthier he gets, and the more trouble he has with the board. “I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the country,” he says, “but I am among the top one.” Muhammad Ali, via footage, warns him to shut up, that only he is the greatest and mouthiest. Such scenes are interspersed with the present (1974), where Leeds plays far from beautifully and keeps losing. Clough is without Taylor, his source and his brain, and we intimate something disastrous happened between them. Eventually, after only six weeks, with Leeds near the bottom of Division I, their worst start in 15 years, Clough is fired. Afterwards he goes on a British TV show expecting kid gloves, but is seated next to Revie and they have it out. He comes off as the sad, spurned lover, and Revie gets in the last harsh word. Except Clough warns him fortunes may change. “Let’s see where we are in a year’s time,” he says. “Let’s see where we are in five years’ time.” It feels hollow, a desperate lunge, but it turns out to be amazingly prescient, since, in five years’ time, Clough will have won the European Cup with Nottingham while Revie, having left England to manage, of all teams, United Arab Emirates, will be banned from the sport.
In this way, Clough’s prescient warning to Revie is reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth’s prescient warning to Tony Blair: “You saw all those [negative] headlines and you thought: ‘One day that might happen to me.’” the Queen says. “And it will, Mr. Blair. Quite suddenly and without warning.” As it did. But that scene worked. It works less well here. Maybe because it worked so well there? Put another way: Peter Morgan needs to stop predicting the future from the past.
No, that’s not it. It worked well there because the Queen wasn’t so much predicting the future as presenting the universal. Even the best leaders misstep, and when they do the press will be on them. That’s the way of leaders and the way of the media. But where you and I will be in five years? That’s unknowable.
“The Damned United” does a lot of things right—from Colm Meany’s hair (a masterpiece of 1974 coiffure) to its startling efficient method of detailing some of the lesser matches (the sound of cheers, a giant moan, and then flashing the final, sad score). The colors often look washed out, as in photos of the era, and the walls of every other room are half-covered in wood-paneling.
I particularly love one shot. It’s the big fight between Clough and Taylor in ’73, after they’ve left Derby amid controversy and signed on with Brighton. Then comes the offer from Leeds. It starts out amusing. “What do we care about Brighton?” Clough says. “Bloody southerners. Looks where we are. We’re almost in France!” Indeed, they’re on a dock at the beach. But as they continue to argue, things get nasty. Taylor accuses Clough of too much ambition, Clough accuses Taylor of too little. He disrespects Taylor’s role in his own rise. He says he’s nothing. Nothing. He calls him history’s fucking afterthought. The camera then cuts to a long shot of the two men on the dock, seen at the bottom of the screen, and they’re both on the left side. Taylor storms off, exiting stage right, with Clough following to get in his last, nasty words. Then he retreats back to the left. Then you see him beginning to regret what he’d said and tries to call Taylor back, but it’s too late. He’s just a lone man on the left side of a long dock.
Here’s what the movie does wrong: I don’t get what makes Brian Clough a good coach. He buys better players from other teams, and he works them hard, but if there’s more to it we don’t see it here. I also don’t believe that his monumental drive to succeed was borne of Revie’s refusal to shake his hand. It feels prissy and belittling.
Still, “The Damned United” is a fun movie, better than those forgettable American sports movies released every January: about the underdog, misfit team that no one thought... but with the can-do coach... and the montage... and the rise... and the last-minute shot. I’m no soccer fan, but standing up during the credits I realized its 97 minutes went by like that. There was never a moment when I wasn't interested. I just wish it meant more. Brian Clough learns his lesson about hubris but the lesson should’ve gone deeper. He was actually right what he said to Taylor, but he should’ve included himself, not to mention you and me, in the charge. We’re all history’s fucking afterthought.
Review: “This Is It” (2009)
WARNING: INCOMPLETE SPOILERS
“This Is It” was going to be the title of Michael Jackson’s fourth and final world concert tour and instead it became the title of a documentary featuring rehearsal footage from that fourth and final concert tour, but the folks at Meridian 16 in downtown Seattle didn’t even bother with it. On the tickets, on the internal marquees, they stuck to the essential. They called it “Michael.”
The doc starts out reminiscent of “A Chorus Line,” with back-up dancers telling us their brief histories and what Michael means to them. They often get teary; they can’t believe their good luck. “I’m from Australia,” one dancer says, and that’s enough to break him down. Another begins, “Life’s hard, right?,” then he talks about how he’s looking for something to shake him up and—cue title—“This is it.” We even get the classic “Chorus Line” shot of a stage full of dancers being whittled down to a handful. Then the announcement: “And the Michael Jackson principle dancers are...” Silence. No names. If the point of “A Chorus Line” was to draw out all the nameless people in the chorus line, the point here is to keep them nameless. Only one name matters.
Michael, 50, more painfully thin that ever, with a face more wrecked than ever, doesn’t always sing or dance his heart out here. He can still do it—we see and hear him do it—but he’s obviously pacing himself. “I’m trying to warm up my voice,” he says at one point, apologetically. He’s the anti-Elvis: way too thin rather than way too fat; too much the perfectionist rather than the doped-up Vegas performer stumbling over his lyrics. We watch him coach his musicians, dancers, producers. “You gotta let it simmer,” he says of the music for “The Way You Make Me Feel.” When there’s not enough funk in one song, Michael has this back-and-forth with the keyboardist:
Michael: It’s not there.
Keyboardist: It’s getting there.
Michael: Well, get there.
He says it kindly enough, in his usual falsetto, but there’s a bit of steel in his voice, too, that’s surprising and welcome. He wants it how he wants it.
All of this footage was meant for Michael’s private library, which raises two questions: 1) Why does someone need hundreds of hours of rehearsal footage for their own private viewing?; and 2) What would he think of his private footage becoming this very public documentary? Wasn’t Michael too much of a perfectionist to let the process of perfecting the product become the product? AEG Live and Sony sure didn’t let this one simmer, did they? There was money to be made and they’re making it—over $100 million worldwide opening weekend. But even as you’re feeling badly that Michael no longer has a say in which of his products gets used, you watch, on the screen, the making of a short film that would’ve accompanied the “Smooth Criminal” number, in which Michael, all gangstered-up 1940s style, interacts with Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. The dead, particularly the famous dead, never have a say.
The outpouring of affection when Michael died on June 25, 2009, was immediate and, to me, a little sickening. We’re such necrophiliacs. We appreciate nothing until it’s gone, even though things are always going, and so there’s always the opportunity to pause and appreciate the things that are still here—while we’re still here. Only the wisest do this and I’m hardly among the wisest, but I do have an aversion to the pile-on. Part of why I never wrote about Michael until now.
He was always part of my landscape. Me and my brother, Chris, watched him and his brothers, Jackie, Jermaine, Tito and Marlon, every Saturday morning on their early '70s cartoon show. We watched the Jacksons pitch Alpha Bits cereal during the commercials. I even bought a box of Alpha Bits because there was a Jackson 5 single on the back. Unschooled in patience, I poured all the cereal into a big bowl, cut the record out and tried to play it on our small, kiddie turntable. But it was made of thin cardboard, with only a veneer of vinyl, and it played warped: slow and deep. The cereal got stale. An early lesson in waste.
I doubt we saw the famous “Ed Sullivan” performance, but we certainly saw the brothers on “The Flip Wilson Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show,” and performing lame skits on “The Rich Little Show.” I remember those. I remember the thrill of watching Michael dance, so slippery it was like liquid, and trying to move like him, and imagining I was coming close. He brought the funk to a south Minneapolis basement. In a way I wanted to be like him, but in another way, a sadder way, he wanted to be like me. An argument can be made that Michael was the most representative American figure in the second half of the 20th century. In a country finally dealing with its racism, and its history of white performers stealing from black performers, a black singer finally emerged as the most popular singer in the world. Then he slowly turned white. If you made this shit up no one would believe it.
I missed “Off the Wall” when it first came around, but like everyone I was there for “Billie Jean.” And, yes, I watched “Motown 25” when it first aired. I was 20 and still thrilled by his slippery, seemingly effortless movements. “Beat It” and “Thriller,” and their accompanying videos, broke him wider, and got him on the cover of Time magazine (a big deal back then, kids), but they didn’t do much for me. I didn’t care for the whole Broadway-style dance number; I wanted Michael dancing alone. By himself he was electric. Others, I felt, hemmed him in.
Curious: Did he ever dance the way Fred Astaire danced, with a partner, where the point was give-and-take, push-and-pull, male and female? Instead he went solo or—with his brothers or back-up dancers—fronted multiple echoes of his own movements. Somehow that feels significant.
People think it’s sad that he left us at 50 but I think it’s sad he left us at 30. Sure, he seemed bizarre in the mid-‘80s—one white glove and the epaulets and the huge sunglasses—but no more bizarre, sartorially, than Prince or Bowie or Elton John. But around “Bad” you really began to wonder what he was doing to his face. Fans can talk all they want about the vitiligo and the lupus but they can’t argue past the plastic surgery: the disappearing nose and lips; the widening and painted eyes; the long, straight, scraggly hair. By the time of “Black and White,” I winced looking at him. By the mid-‘90s I had to turn away. And not just because of the child molestation charges.
His persona in videos became the way he combated the rumors. Too weak? He played gang- or gangster-tough in “Bad” and “Smooth Criminal.” Too asexual? He kept grabbing his crotch near a pretty girl in “The Way You Make Me Feel.” It all felt hollow. He kept trying to be what he wasn’t—“Bad” and “Dangerous”—while his anger felt real but misdirected. He shouted at the world to no or amused effect. Why was he angry? What did he want? World peace? Get in line. The pretty baby with the high heels on? Then kiss her already! You’re Michael Jackson! His marriages in the ‘90s seemed shams. As a child he sang of a “baby” and a “darling” (“Oh, baby, give me one more chance”/”Oh, darling, I was blind to let you go”), but as an adult did he ever have a baby or a darling? One hopes. In the doc, he talks a lot about love but without much heat or light. It’s a word people use.
“This Is It” is supposed to be a celebration but to me it’s just sad sad sad. How did so much talent go so horribly awry? It’s also inevitably incomplete. In these types of docs, rehearsals lead to final shows, and the absence of a final show here is deafening.
Michael spoke of the tour as his final curtain call, so one assumes he meant the double meaning in the title. “This is it” can be used to revel in the now—what we’re living through here is what we’ve waited for: this is it—and to anticipate departure. No more. That’s all. This is it.
The documentary makes lies of both of these meanings. It doesn’t revel in the now but in a past in which Michael lives; and as long as anything connected with Michael makes money, we know this won’t be it. They’ll keep it coming.
Review: “Coco Before Chanel” (2009)
WARNING: SIMPLE, ELEGANT SPOILERS
A story has a dramatic arc, a life doesn’t. That’s always been the problem with biopics. So you understand why filmmakers such Anne Fontaine, who directed and co-wrote “Coco Avant Chanel,” decide to dramatize a portion of the life rather than the whole, long, messy thing. You also understand why Fontaine chose this portion of Chanel’s life: the portion—for those whose French is worse than mine—before she became a fashion icon. People like watching people rise. Audiences are made up of folks with unfulfilled dreams who enjoy sitting in the dark watching someone with whom they can identify fulfill theirs.
So why doesn’t the movie work? Does the title character remain too unknowable? Is her love affair with Arthur “Boy” Capel too uninteresting? Are the clues to how she will eventually transform the fashion world, and thus the world—having women dress for women, and for comfort, rather than in the confining corsets and plumy hats and long heavy dresses of the period—too facile? Does the movie not care enough about why she matters (fashion and proto-feminism) in favor of why she doesn’t (love love love)?
Is it all of the above?
The movie begins when Gabrielle Chanel, age 10, all big dark eyes, is deposited at a Catholic orphanage and casts a final, bewildered glance at the carriage driver, seen in quarter-view, who, one assumes, and assumes correctly, is her father. Historically, this orphanage was where Gabrielle learned to be a seamstress, and where, one suspects, the austerity and simplicity of the nuns’ habits made an impression on her fashion sense, but we only get glimpses of this. We mostly take away a sense of powerlessness and loneliness in echoing hallways.
Cut to: A music hall during the belle époque, where Gabrielle (now Audrey Tautou) and her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain), perform the song “Qui Qu’a Vu Coco,” before rowdy crowds, then mingle with the guests, mostly upper-crust military officers and barons. Gabrielle, quickly dubbed “Coco” after the song, is a lousy mingler, but she pares (and pairs) nicely with Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), who is rich, cynical, out for a good time, and amused by Coco’s bluntness. Coco’s sister becomes the mistress, possible wife, of one Baron, but Balsan leaves for his estate in Compiegne, near Paris, without proffering an invitation to Coco. So she simply shows up.
The belle époque was la belle époque (the beautiful time) for aristocrats like Balsan, not poorhouse candidates like Coco, and she bristles under the strictures of their unequal relationship. So do we. It’s pretty icky. At first he keeps her hidden. When she comes out anyway, he wants her to perform. She disapproves of the waste and frivolity of the upper classes, and wants work, but wonders what she can do. Sing and dance? Become an actress like Balsan’s frequent guest, and former lover, Emilienne d'Alençon (Emmanuelle Devos)? All the while Coco becomes known for her simple, more freeing, more boyish fashion sense. Emilienne keeps asking about her hats. Can you make me one? Here’s my rich friend. Can you make her one?
The story is obviously moving in this direction but the title character doesn’t seem to realize it. Is this good? An example of life happening while you’re busy making other plans? Or is it bad: The filmmaker’s assumption (film-in-general’s assumption) that audiences are only interested in what Gore Vidal famously called love love love?
Yes, Coco falls in love, with British coal magnate “Boy” Capel, and off they go for a weekend by the sea, where she gets the inspiration for the striped sailor’s shirt and the little black dress. Nice weekend! There’s a good scene in the tailor shop where she lays out her black-dress specifications, resisting, all the while, the tailor’s polite push toward the conventional. Him: It should be peach tones. It should have a corset. It should have a belt. Her: Non, non, non. Her stubborn insistence reminds me of many women I’ve known. They like it how they like it. Of course most women I’ve known aren’t inventing the little black dress.
Coco’s happy with Capel but he’s got a secret—he’s marrying British money—and Balsan spills the beans, partly from jealousy, partly because he cares about Coco and doesn’t want her hurt. Balsan’s role throughout is reminiscent of the role of Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) in “Out of Africa”: the disreputable man the heroine is stuck with but uninterested in, even though he’s the most interesting character onscreen. Neither man is particularly attractive, either, but both have a laissez faire bluntness that’s fun to be around and vaguely sexy. Balsan even proposes to her.
Instead she starts a hat shop in Paris. Finally! one thinks. Ten seconds later, a woman says, “Look, a gentleman.” Oh no! one thinks. Yeah, it's “Boy” Capel. More love-making. More promise-making. They’ll have two months by the sea. Then he dies in a car accident. She sees the wreck. She cries. Then she makes dresses, puts on a fashion show, and everyone applauds. FIN.
Really? That’s it? I know the title is the title, but... The movie is based on a book by a woman, written and directed by a woman, yet it almost feels sexist in how much it ignores why Chanel’s relevant.
Maybe fans already know too much about her career and wanted the gossip. Maybe people always want the gossip. Me, I knew little about her going in so it was all news, but the movie left me wondering to what extent she was part of a trend and to what extent she was way ahead of the trend. Did she single-handedly put women in pants? In this fact alone you see the redefinition of beauty in the 20th century. Voluptuous women tend to look better in dresses, thinner women in pants. Thus, with women in pants, western society’s definition of beauty shifted from the voluptuousness of the belle époque toward the straighter lines of Twiggy and Kate Moss. Coco was not considered beautiful, then helped redefine beauty closer to how she looked. Not bad! This shift also led to anorexia. There are corsets in the mind no fashion designer can remove.
In the end, “Coco Avant Chanel” has some of the realism of French films (she prostituted herself to get ahead) but more often the glossy, hazy, dishonest feel of Hollywood films. Coco apres Chanel once said, “In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” This one isn’t, and it's disposable.
Review: “More Than a Game” (2008)
WARNING: DRAINING 3-POINT SPOILERS FROM THE LINE
“More Than a Game,” Kristopher Belman’s documentary about five friends, including a hanger-on named LeBron James, who become high school basketball stars at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio in the early 2000s, should appeal to fans not only of basketbal and LeBron, and not only to coaches everywhere, but to anyone who has to create a Superman story. The dramatic problem with Superman has always been his invincibility. Who can possibly stop him? The dramatic problem halfway through this documentary, as St. V’s Fightin' Irish regularly demolish teams by 40 or 50 points, is the same. Who can possibly stop them?
This question is answered twice. The first answer is indicative of human nature. The second answer is indicative of a sadder, tawdrier aspect of American culture.
They were the “Fab Four” of Akron basketball—LeBron, Sian Cotton, Willie McGee and Dru James III—who first came to national attention in 1997 when, in junior high, they played at the AAU “Shooting Stars” Boys Basketball Tournament in Florida. “We were a team from Akron nobody’d ever heard of,” LeBron remembers. They wound up in the finals but lost, 68-66, to the previous year’s champs from southern California, when LeBron’s half-court shot at the buzzer bounced off the rim. He’s interviewed about it in the doc. He still looks pissed.
By this time LeBron was already distinguishing himself from the others, and everyone assumed he would play for John R. Buchtel High School, a mostly black public school with a powerhouse basketball program; but he didn’t even decide. Dru did. Entering ninth grade, Dru was still under five feet tall and Buchtel wouldn’t have him so he wouldn’t have them, and his friends, loyal to a fault, followed him to St. Vincent, a mostly white, Catholic school without much of a basketball program. With the help of Coach Keith Dambrot and assistant coach Dru James, Little Dru’s father, who had coached the boys in “Shooting Stars,” they gave it one.
That’s what this doc is about, really: loyalty; teamwork. One may rise above, he may even get on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior, but he can’t win a team sport without a team.
It’s also about disloyalty, or perceived disloyalty. After the “fab four“—and, with the addition of Romeo Travis, the “fab five”—win state titles in their freshman and sophomore years, going 23-1 and 27-0 respectively, Coach Dambrot, forgetting promises made to the boys, puts his career or family first, and takes a job with the University of Akron. “I never even talked to him again,” LeBron says. Coach Dru became their head coach.
The doc, too, is no one-man show. It draws out the others. Willie is the quiet, mature one; Sian the funny, fat one. Romeo doesn’t really fit in at first. He’s selfish and angry, but I like his admission that, “I never thought basketball would be my future. I just wanted to play because it’d get you girls.” My guy, no surprise, is Little Dru, all 4’ 11” freshman year, but determined to overcome what he couldn’t control, sinking threes the way other guys sink layups. His dad was also the coach, and tougher on him for that reason, which led to issues of its own—despite the fact that the dad only became coach for the son. Coach Dru was actually a football guy. He had to learn basketball.
So halfway through the doc, St. V becomes a Divsion II school, and Coach Dru puts the boys on a national traveling schedule. Keep in mind: These are five guys from the same neighborhood competing against high school powerhouses that draw talent from all over the nation. And they’re winning games 100-50. One reporter calls them the greatest team in high school history.
So what can possibly stop them? Hubris. That’s our first answer. They don’t practice as hard. (Why should they? They're not going to lose.) They don’t listen to Coach Dru as much. (What does he know that they don't?) Their games are so popular they have to play at the local university arena, and the games are still sold out, and tickets are scalped. They’re like a rock band: Groupies follow them and parties anticipate them. And in the finals of the state championship their junior year, they lose, stunningly, 66-63. Everyone blames the first-year coach, who couldn’t win a state championship with juniors who won it as freshman. It’s unfair but in a way he agrees. “I got caught up in the winning and losing,” Coach Dru says. “My job wasn’t about basketball. It was about helping them become men.”
The next year he does. Plus LeBron, who can’t stand losing, is now more determined than ever. Can you imagine? A team that routinely wins 100-50 is now more determined? The amazing thing, truly, given the media attention, the girls and the talent, isn’t that hubris stopped them once; it’s that it didn’t keep stopping them. It’s that they, and particularly LeBron, didn’t let their good fortune lead to bad. He kept a level head. The doc makes it clear that this happened, in part, because of his early bad fortune. He was born to a teenage mom and never knew his dad. “We probably moved 12 times,” he says. “The hardest thing for me was meeting new friends, [and] I wanted to have some brothers I could be loyal to.” He found them. He kept his friends close and his enemies at bay.
Of course enemies always gather. We build up to tear down in this country—buildings and people—and after the build-up of LeBron came the tear-down. Wait, why was this high school kid driving around in an $80K Hummer? Turns out his mom bought it for him via bank loan based upon her son’s future earnings. That’s icky but legal. But wait! LeBron accepted two retro jerseys (Wes Unseld and Gale Sayers) for appearing on the wall of a sporting goods store? We can’t have that. And with only a handful of games left in the season, and the team climbing the national rankings—from 23 to 19 to 16 to 11 to 9—the Ohio High School Athletic Assocation stripped LeBron of his eligibility.
That’s the second answer to what can stop them. File it under the smallness of people. At the same time the doc needed this dilemma to give its story drama. Every hero needs a villain, and sometimes the villains don’t show until the hero does. Wasn’t that what “The Dark Knight” was all about?
St. Vincent did play one game without LeBron. They still won, 63-62. Then LeBron went to court (the other kind) and the judge reinstated him. And that’s the last thing that stopped them.
Comparisons will inevitably be made to “Hoop Dreams,” the 1994 documentary about two inner-city high school basketball players, William Gates and Arthur Agee, and how injuries and circumstances kept them from their dreams; but the two docs couldn't be more different. Should I trot out Roger Kahn again? You may glory in a team triumphant (“More Than a Game”) but you fall in love with a team in defeat (“Hoop Dreams”). What stopped William Gates in “Hoop Dreams”—injuries—isn’t even an issue in “More Than a Game“—any more than a knee injury would be an issue to Superman. We glory in LeBron but he came from another planet. We also know how he ends (well), so we watch knowing the ultimate end, as we watch most Hollywood blockbusters knowing the ultimate end. “Hoop Dreams,” in comparison, is a small, indy character study. Gates and Agee? We don’t even know if they live.
”More Than a Game" skirts issues that might have proven interesting—including questions of race and religion at St. Vincent. Were any of the “fab four” Catholic in ninth grade? Were any in 12th grade? It also tries to exalt Coach Dru, who seems like a decent man, but whose halftime pep talks are hardly out of “Knute Rockne: All American.”
But it’s fun and it ends right. For 90 minutes we’ve watched these kids grow from not-bad “shooting stars” to incredibly talented, between-the-leg-dunking, on-the-verge-of-the-NBA superstars. At the very end, though, we see Dru coaching a new batch of kids. Sixth graders? Younger? They’re doing lay-up drills, and missing, and they’re small and clumsy, and that basketball is so big in their hands. And it begins again.
Review: “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” (2009)
YOO HOO! SPOILERS!
I’m a big fan of “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” documentarian Aviva Kempner’s unabashed love letter to the 1930s Detroit Tigers’ slugger, so I thought “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” Ms. Kempner’s unabashed love letter to radio and television pioneer Gertrude Berg, “the Oprah of the 1930s,” would be right up my alley.
I left wondering if maybe Kempner wasn’t too close to a subject I knew too little about.
“The Goldbergs,” a daily radio show created by Berg (nee Tilly Edelstein) from old skits she performed at her father’s Catskills Mountain resort in Fleischmanns, NY, debuted on NBC radio the week after the October 1929 stock market crash. It concerned the comings and goings of a Jewish family—mother Molly (Berg), father Jake, children Sammy and Rosalie, and Uncle David—in a Lower East Side tenement, as they tried to both assimilate in America and not lose old world values.
Verisimilitude was big with Berg. She often visited the Lower East Side for ideas and dialogue, and out of this came Molly’s habit of calling up the airshafts to her neighbor: “Yoo hoo, Mrs. Bloo-oo-oom!” If Molly cooked eggs in her kitchen, Berg cooked eggs in the studio. During the Seder after Kristalnacht, a rock was thrown through the Goldbergs’ window. During World War II, families often referenced boys off fighting or relatives left behind in Nazi-occupied Europe.
It was a hit. The show became the second-most-popular show on the radio, after “Amos n’ Andy,” while Berg was voted the second-most-respected woman in America, after Eleanor Roosevelt. At the same time, the doc reminds us of the anti-Semitic touchstones of the period: Kristalnacht, Father Coughlin, bund rallies in Madison Square Garden.
This shouldn’t be a disconnect—Rush Limbaugh has the most popular radio show in an America that still elected Barack Obama—but it’s enough of one to raise questions. “The Goldbergs” was the second-most-popular show...in all of America? Including the South? What year or years? And what year or years was Berg voted the second-most-respected woman in America, and by whom?
Basically Kempner shows us this square peg but doesn’t tell us how it fit into the round hole of 1930s America. She posits “The Goldbergs” as unique—the first family sitcom; the only ethnic show where creative control was held by that ethnicity—but doesn’t tell us what it was unique against. I’m sorry but I'm blank on 1930s radio. The talking heads, mostly Jewish, mostly female, give a ton of love but not much perspective. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, for example, says everyone she knew growing up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn listened to “The Goldbergs,” but that hardly feels like news. How did it do in Wisconsin? That’s what I want to know.
Eventually, the show was cancelled, in 1945, but was reborn in the new medium, television, on January 17, 1949. Was it the first TV sitcom? The first domestic TV sitcom? Did Berg introduce the nosy neighbor? That’s what people who love the show imply. Do we believe them? Ehh. By surrounding us with fans of the show, Kempner is actually shortchanging the show.
The episodes themselves, which ran live, are fascinating to see. Each began with Molly (Berg again) talking directly to the camera as to a neighbor, welcoming us in. “Greetings from our family to your family,” she says. She pitches corporate sponsor Sanka, and, via window-conversation with her neighbors, introduces the episode’s conflict. Then we go indoors and watch it all unfold.
But a conflict about the show—about America, really—turned out to be more compelling than any conflict on the show.
Broadway actor and union activist Philip Loeb, who played Molly’s husband, Jake, was one of the 151 entertainers listed in “Red Channels,” the 1950 anti-communist tract about supposed communist influence in the industry, and in Sept. 1950, General Foods, which sponsored “The Goldbergs,” told Berg, “You have two days to get rid of Philip Loeb.” Berg resisted, and the doc makes much of this resistance. But a few months later CBS cancelled “The Goldbergs.” When it returned, a year and a half later and on a different network, there was a new actor playing Jake. When he didn’t work out, a third actor replaced him. Three years, later, as “The Goldbergs” wound up its run, being filmed now rather than performed live, and with the family assimilated in the Connecticut suburbs rather than struggling on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Loeb took his own life in a New York hotel room. Twenty years later, he became the inspiration for Zero Mostel’s Hecky Brown in “The Front.”
These revelations are so stunning—to me anyway, a longtime fan of “The Front”—that they almost upend the documentary. One wonders: Should this have been the focus of the doc? Should “Red Channels”?
It doesn’t help that Berg, so innovative in the industry, hardly seems present in her own story. What do we learn about her? She dressed nice. Her father disapproved of her work and her mother wound up in a mental institution. She was a workaholic. But how she felt about Loeb? How she felt about anything? Who knows? There doesn’t seem to be much there there.
In terms of tone and structure, “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” is similar to “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," but it shouldn’t be. There was no Philip Loeb to sour Greenberg’s story. And if Greenberg’s personality wasn’t exactly dazzling, well, he was a ballplayer. He wasn't supposed to have personality. Besides, you still walked away from the doc with a sense you knew him. Not so with Berg.
Most important, Hank Greenberg is forever—people who know baseball will always know his name—but Gertrude Berg is not. That, in fact, is the doc’s raison d’etre: “The Most Famous Woman in America You've Never Heard Of,” reads the tagline. So why did Berg fade while contemporaries, such as Jack Benny and George Burns, did not? Were they funnier? More talented? More male? Less Jewish? It should be the doc’s main question yet it’s hardly asked at all.
Love letters are well and fine; but this one could’ve used a little more letter, a little less love.
Review: “A Serious Man” (2009)
WARNING: FARMISHT SPOILERS
For most of my adult life I’ve suspected myself of being fairly Jewish for a gentile kid from Minnesota. I blame the usual suspects: Roth, Doctorow, Mailer, Bellow, the Marx Bros., Woody Allen, Seinfeld. I’ve been made an honorary Jew by Jewish friends, been told by gentile friends that I’m the most Jewish gentile they know.
Friday night, halfway through the Coen brothers new film, “A Serious Man,” I had the following epiphany: I have no fucking clue.
First they get all Hebrew on my ass. A gett? Hashem? Haftorah? Shabbos? Then they go Old Testament. “Actions have consequences,” Prof. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stahlbarg) tells Clive (David Kang), a Korean foreign-exchange student attempting to bribe him to get a better grade. “Yes, often,” Clive quickly agrees. “Always,” Gopnik tells him.
Don’t even get me started on the prologue with the dybbuk.
It’s 1967 and Gopnik is a professor of physics who teaches the uncertainty principle and then lives it when his wife asks for a divorce, a ritual Jewish divorce, or gett, so she can remarry within her faith. To Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed). “Sy Abelman?” Larry asks incredulously. He seems more perplexed for her reasons than her actions. So are we when we finally meet Sy. He’s bald and bearded, hardly Gregory Peck, but he’s controlling in a moist, maternal way—he’s forever hugging Larry—rather than being controlled by, as Larry often is.
Gopnik is the kind of man who timidly obsesses over small details—such as the property line with the Brandts, his stoic, hunting-happy Minnesota neighbors—and misses the big picture. Not only is his wife leaving him but his kids have left him. His son, Danny, is a mess of sixties contradictions: he has that classic Beatles haircut (redhaired version), smokes pot, listens to Jefferson Airplane, but only cares to talk with his father when the reception for “F Troop,” the lamest of ‘60s sitcoms, comes in fuzzy. His daughter, Sarah, only talks to her father to complain about Uncle Arthur, Larry’s brother, hogging the bathroom to drain the cyst in his neck. When Larry gets banished from the marital bed, Arthur is the reason he doesn’t even get the couch in his own home—Arthur’s already there—he gets a cot next to the couch. Everyone wants something from Larry but never Larry. “We should wait,” he says at the dinner table when Uncle Arthur hasn’t arrived yet. “Are you kidding?” Danny responds and everyone starts in. Soon Larry is the one they don’t wait for. He and Arthur have been banished to The Jolly Roger, a nearby moto-lodge.
That’s at home. At work he’s being considered for tenure but letters arrive denigrating him. Dick Dutton from the Columbia Record Club, that great ‘60s scam, keeps calling abut money he owes. Then Clive’s father shows up accusing Larry of 1) defamation, because Larry accused his son of a bribe, and then pleading 2) cultural differences, because Larry didn’t accept the bribe.
Larry’s helpless before this kind of illogic. He can’t extricate himself from it. Life has the quality of a nightmare: Everything’s repetitive—Sy keeps hugging him, the Brandts keep playing catch, Arthur keeps draining his cyst—and everything’s unknowable. Dream sequences in other films are usually easy-to-spot but in the Coens’ films they blend almost seamlessly with life, so we in the audience are in the position of the dreamer: We don’t know what’s dream until it’s over. And even then. By the pool last night—did that happen?
Once Larry establishes that nothing is established—that everything he thought was one way is another—the film can be divided into three parts, or three solutions to this dilemma, based upon the three rabbis he visits at his temple, the “well of tradition” he tries to draw from.
The first, and youngest rabbi, is Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg), who counsels seeing everything—everything—as an expression of God’s will. To see it all anew. This is the closest of the three to a Christian vision of life. “Look at the parking lot, Larry!” Rabbi Scott announces proudly, peeking through his horizontal blinds at the asphalt outside. Larry tries to carry this Pollyannaish mood to the office of his divorce lawyer (Adam Arkin), who looks at him as if he’s crazy. Then during the meeting he gets an emergency phone call from his son. What’s wrong, Danny? That pipsqueak voice: “F-Troop” is fuzzy again, Dad. How can we look at life anew when it’s so repetitive? This section ends when Larry gets into a fender-bender after cursing out Clive on his bicycle, while, at the same time, Sy, trying to make a left turn into a goyisher country club, dies in a car accident. Actions have consequences. Always.
The second, middle-aged rabbi, is Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner), who tells Larry stories that at least seem headed toward the direction of eternal questions. He tells about the goy’s teeth, for example, a story about a dentist, Dr. Sussman, who, after making a mould for Russell Kraus, finds the phrase, ‘Help me, Save me,’ in Hebrew on the back of his incisors. He searches other people’s mouths for messages and gets nothing. He translates the letters into numbers and gets nowhere. And the Rabbi sits back, pleased with his story. Gopnik’s confused. “What did you tell Sussman?” Gopnik asks. “Sussman?” the rabbi answers. “Is it relevant?” “What happened to the goy?” Gopnik asks. “The goy?” the rabbi answers. “Who cares?” Told that you can’t know everything, Gopnik finally loses it. “Sounds like you don’t know anything,” he says, voice rising.
At this stage, more of life becomes unknowable. Detectives come looking for Uncle Arthur, for gambling. Cops bring home Uncle Arthur, charged with sodomy. Gopnik suspects his wife of draining their bank account. He gets high with his sexy neighbor, whom he’d seen nude-sunbathing from his roof. An old lawyer, about to reveal the secret to the Brandts’ property line, suddenly drops dead of a heart attack. “I am not an evil man!” he tells a colleague. “I’ve tried to be a serious man,” he tells the world. And there’s our title. We first heard it used to describe Sy Abelman at his funeral. A serious man. An able man. As opposed to a Gopnik? What is Larry’s crime? Not to God but to the Coens—who are, admittedly, the gods of this universe. Is it the foolishness of the assumption that good fortune follows good deeds, and thus bad fortune must follow bad deeds, and yet—he keeps asking himself—what bad deeds? Is it the foolishness of the “Why me?” question, when the universe, if it could answer, would simply answer, “Why not you?”
The final rabbi, the eldest and wisest and most difficult to see, is Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), and Gopnik isn’t allowed to see him. He’s as silent to Gopnik as God is. But we get to see him. After his bar mitzvah, Danny, still stoned, visits Marshak, who, slowly, Yiddishly, delivers this pearl of wisdom:
When the truth is found to be lies
And all the joy within you dies
The boy smiles, recognizing the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” which the rabbi first heard after Danny’s transistor radio was taken from him at the beginning of the film. “Be a good boy,” the rabbi finally says. Is this doddering wisdom or ultimate wisdom?
Who knows? There’s a scene early in the movie where Larry ascends the roof of his ranch-style house to fix the antenna so Danny can watch “F-Troop,” and he checks out the view over the other, ranch-style homes in this flat Minnesota neighborhood. It’s the shot on the poster, in which Larry looks decisive. He’s less so in the movie: all dress shoes and highwaters on a slanted roof, and the view isn’t exactly revelatory. Until he sees his neighbor, nude-sunbathing, and forgets everything else. That antenna on his roof only picks up so much—now this channel but not that channel—and all of us are pretty much the same: We only receive so much, and usually we go for “F-Troop” or get distracted by the nude sunbather. There’s an old proverb—“Man thinks, God laughs”—and much of the Coens’ work feels built upon this proverb. Their characters are helpless trying to fathom it all.
Give the Coens this: They get the details right. I was born in Minnesota in 1963 and seeing this film gave me flashbacks. I got as dizzy as Gopnik got on his roof looking at his nude neighbor. Mr. Brandt, the detective, the cop: they all have these classic, bland, Harmon Killebrew-type Minnesota faces from the period. The burnt orange Larry’s sexy neighbor wears is the exact right burnt orange for the coming age of Aquarius. The iced-tea glass she gives Gopnik is the exact right iced-tea glass. There’s a scene at a lake, Uncle Arthur at a neighborhood lake, and Gopnik on the shore complaining to a friend that he doesn’t deserve the miseries that are being visited upon him, and even that lake, somehow, feels exactly like a lake in 1967. I don’t know how they did that. The iced-tea glasses I can see; they can be manufactured or bought at a Value Village. But where does one get a lake from 1967? Is it the clothes and the bathing suits people are wearing, the landscaping that was done, the angle of the light in which the DP chose to film it—like the light of a slightly faded photograph? Is it all of the above? Nothing the Coens do is frivolous and yet little of it makes sense.
The ending of “A Serious Man,” which is a film about unknowability, and which is written and directed by the brothers who gave us the uncertain end of “No Country for Old Men,” shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, although it will, I’m sure, lead to debate. It’s already led to the internal kind.
Gopnik, assured of tenure, seemingly back with his wife, and the father of a son who’s now a man, gets the bill for his brother’s criminal defense attorney, Ron Meshbesher—who is, in reality, one of the more famous criminal defense attorneys in Minnesota—and it’s exorbitant. And he thinks about the envelope full of Korean bribe-money still in his desk drawer and eyes Cliff’s grade in his gradebook. The weather’s turning. In Hebrew school, Danny and others are being led outside because of one of Minnesota’s numerous tornado warnings, but the rabbi has trouble unlocking the door to the shelter. And as Gopnik in his office changes Cliff’s grade from an F to a C-, Danny sees the dark tornado funnel heading their way. THE END.
My first reaction: Aw, crap.
My second reaction: OK, unknowability, uncertainty. Way to emphasize the point, boys.
Third reaction: Or maybe it’s the opposite. Actions have consequences—always—and this disaster is what Gopnik’s slight indiscretion has wrought. By accepting the bribe, changing the grade, he loses his son—and anyone else in the tornado’s path. It’s Old Testament, baby. It’s Malamadic. The problem with Gopnik isn’t that he assumes that good fortune follows good deeds; it’s that he doesn’t assume it enough. He doesn’t live his life by it.
Fourth reaction: Or is the tornado metaphoric? Gopnik is feeling settled again in his life in suburban Minnesota in 1967 but there’s a tornado coming his way and our way: the rest of the sixties. A tornado that will upend everything.
Final reaction: I think, the Coens laugh.
Review of “Bright Star” (2009)
WARNING: ODE TO SPOILERS
The Uptown Theater in Seattle’s lower Queen Anne neighborhood unintentionally helped its audience empathize with John Keats (Ben Whishaw), the doomed protagonist in Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” during its first show the other afternoon. As Keats coughed from tuberculosis, shivered in the rain and fled to the warmer weather of Naples and Rome, we in the audience sat for two hours in the cold, seemingly unheated theater. By the time Keats succumbed, we were chilled to the bone. Right there with ya, bro.
“Bright Star” is a lovely film about doomed love told at a leisurely pace, which raises—at least in me—the following questions: Does love need lethargy to bloom? Does it inspire lethargy? If you’re deeply in love, what else do you want or need besides your love? What do you pursue? The world is too much reduced. Maybe in this sense all young loves are doomed. We either lose the love or lose the world.
The key to “Bright Star,” though, as with all love stories, is less the love than the forces that keep the lovers apart.
Initially young Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), expert seamstress, and John Keats, failed poet, roundly savaged by the critics of his day, are strangers in Hamstead Village, London, 1818. They meet, talk of wit, talk of fashion, become intrigued. His brother dies, she sympathizes. She’s headstrong, as are all cinematic heroines during this period, and she buys and reads his book of poems, Endymion, which begins:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Nice thought! She doesn’t quite know what to make of it. “Are you frightened to speak truthfully?” he asks. “Never,” she replies, headstrong. Then she confesses she doesn’t really know poetry. He confesses he doesn’t really know women. They solve their mutual dilemma by having him teach her poetry.
The main aesthetic principle attributed to Keats is negative capability, “when man,“ he once wrote, ”is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Shakespeare was the master, he felt, and in the film he describes the principle to Fanny via metaphor. Why do you dive into a lake? To swim to the other side? No. It’s for the experience of being surrounded by water. And that’s what poetry is.
These lessons take place over the protestations of his housemate and contemporary, Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), who, either from pettiness, jealousy, or genuine worry that Fanny will distract the great man, is one of the forces trying to keep them apart. He has the equally thankless role of playing Salieri to Keats’ Amadeus: the contemporary who recognizes the unrecognized genius and knows he’ll never measure up. Plus he chases after dull maids and knocks them up. Dude's a piece of work.
But there's a greater force keeping them apart: He’s a poet whose books don’t sell. He has no means of support.
Still, despite the mores of the time, they fall in love. Her family—mother, gawky silent younger brother, cute button of a red-haired baby sister—move into the duplex Keats and Brown share, where Fanny and Keats now have nothing but a wall separating them. Sometimes, rarely at the same time, they press their faces against this wall. It's the physical representation of all those forces keeping them apart.
These forces are no match for Spring. The weather warms, the bees flit around the flowers, and Mrs. Brawne says, “Mr. Keats is being a bee.” Indeed. He and Fanny go for a walk, and he tells her of a dream and talks of lips. “Whose lips?” she asks teasingly. “Were they my lips?” They kiss. The kiss comes as a shock. We get that? They get that? The film, quiet anyway, drops to murmurs. The music overwhelms. Is it Mozart? Baby sister fetches them and they play a game on the way back, freezing in their tracks when she turns around. Fanny lays on her bed, the breeze billowing the curtains. Life is suspended and buzzing. It’s opened up—all senses—but reduced to the next walk, hand hold, glance. Campion is close to brilliant here. Her film isn’t just about first love; it feels like first love.
But being in love is never the story. So Keats travels to the Isle of Wight to write, to try to make a living, and Fanny is left behind. Ah, but the letters. He writes, says he wishes they could be butterflies, living three perfect summer days and expiring, and she and her siblings collect butterflies and fill her room. “When I don’t hear from him,” she confesses to her mother, “it’s as if I’d die.” One can't help but remember one's own first love. Mine took place in the late 1980s, and, though 170 years had passed, the means of communication, give or take a telephone, were more or less the same. Twenty years later, they're not. Do young lovers today still send letters? How does one clutch an e-mail to one’s chest? There is no more daily waiting for the postman. Now the wait is 24/7. Has she written? Has she written? Has she written? I think I’d go crazy. Or crazier.
When the Isle of Wight doesn’t change his fortunes, Keats seeks them in London, and the dead butterflies are swept up. But he keeps returning in all kinds of weather. Does anyone go to “Bright Star” not knowing Keats’ end? Watching, I kept thinking of that Seymour Glass poem from J.D. Salinger’s “Seymour: An Introduction”:
Please put your scarf on
When Brown says, “Mr. Keats has gone to London with no coat,” I knew this was it. But even death is drawn out in the 19th century.
My disappointment with the film is in its end, dealing, as it does, with the pain of those left behind and not with the mystery of the final barrier. Does Keats have his face pressed to that wall or is he dissolved like the butterflies? The film should’ve dove into those mysteries, surrounded us with them. What happened to him and her and their love? Did it pass into nothingness or is it a joy forever? Or am I irritably clutching after?
“Bright Star” is a wholly evocative film. See it not to find out what happens. See it for the sensation of surrounding yourself with it.
Review: “The Invention of Lying” (2009)
WARNING: JUST-THE-FACTS SPOILERS
The big problem with Ricky Gervais’ comedy “The Invention of Lying” is this: Lying isn’t funny. The truth is funny. Uncomfortable truths. Blunt truths. It’s funny—in this universe where people haven’t yet developed the gene to lie—when Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner) greets Mark Bellison (Gervais) at the door by admitting she’d just been masturbating and he responds, helplessly, “That makes me think of your vagina.” It’s funny when she tells her mother, who phones during their date, and within earshot of Mark, “No, I won’t be sleeping with him.” It’s particularly funny, because it’s particularly uncomfortable, when the old folks’ home is named: “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.”
But saying to a bank teller that you’ve got $800 in your account when you have $300, or telling a cop that your friend isn’t drunk when he is, or even telling your scared, dying mother that there’s a beautiful place we go when we die—all of which happens after Mark develops the gene for lying—none of that is particularly funny. It’s sometimes poignant, and certainly ballsy, but it isn’t funny. Thus the movement of the film is from funny to less funny. By the end, there’s hardly any laughs at all.
“The Invention of Lying” is basically a magic realism film like “Liar, Liar,” and “What Women Want,” where an extraordinary thing happens to an ordinary man. Here the extraordinary thing—being able to lie—makes Mark more like us rather than less. He’s also a nicer guy than the main characters of those two films. The extraordinary thing happens to Jim Carrey and Mel Gibson so each will become a better man. It’s the “Christmas Carol” pattern: 1) jerk; 2) extraordinary thing; 3) OK dude.
Not here. Mark is actually a decent sort. Sure, he lies his way to riches, and, yes, initially he almost lies his way into bed with a beautiful woman, but at the last instant, because he’s a decent sort, he backs out. (Every guy in the audience is going, “Nooooooooo!”) Then he immediately does good deeds. He doesn’t wait for the third act. He steals money for a homeless man. He helps a bickering couple. He stops a neighbor from killing himself. And, yes, as his mother trembles at the prospect of dying, of not existing, he invents...heaven. So she can die happy. If anything, he’s trying to make the rest of the world as decent as he is.
There’s audacity in this. In a world without lying, there isn’t religion, there isn’t God. It’s up to Mark, pressed into service after word of “heaven” spreads, to invent these things. So he invents the Man in the Sky, and the Good and the Bad Place, and he tells everyone that if the Man in the Sky sends them to the Good Place they will get a mansion. Since people can’t even fathom the concept of lying, everyone takes everything he says as fact. One wonders why it doesn’t lead to a rash of suicides. We don’t have them because we have doubt, and, for true believers, suicide is against God’s will. But what’s to stop these folks? The undiscovered country is not only discovered, it’s mapped.
This element of the film, yes, is audacious, but everything else feels small and predictable. Why are magic realism films always like this? Mel Gibson can read women’s thoughts and he uses the power...to create a better ad campaign? Ricky Gervais can lie in a world where no one else can and he uses the power...to get his old job back? He’s a screenwriter for Lecture Films, which is exactly what it says it is. Films in this world consist of professorial lecturers sitting in armchairs and reading history to the camera. Mark has been stuck with the 13th century, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to exciting storytelling. But with his newfound power he creates a screenplay about aliens and adventures that everyone takes—must take—as fact, and reduces people to tears. It’s called “The Black Plague” and it’s a big hit and wins awards, but, beyond the insider-Hollywood stuff, what’s the point? He’s the most powerful man in the world! Whatever he says is fact because there’s no concept of non-fact. “I’m your husband.” “That’s my house.” “I’m the president of the United States.” Rob Lowe plays his nemesis? Mark could reduce him to nothing. “He’s been fired.” “He’s been evicted.” “He wants his head shaved.” Instead Mark suffers his presence throughout the film.
Worse, the film becomes about the most conventional of conventional tropes: getting-the-girl.
Anna (Garner) eventually comes to love Mark for his unconventionality but can’t bear the thought of having kids with him because they might look like him: i.e., fat, with snub noses. She wants a better genetic partner. Everyone does. Everyone is shallow in this world. Everyone goes out of their way to say the meanest things. Admittedly we are a rude, shallow species but is that all we are? I’m running through my day, thinking about what I’d say not only if I couldn’t lie, but, as here, and as in “Liar, Liar,” if I felt compelled to say every truthful thing that came into my head. So, yes, there’d be “Man, you’re annoying,” “God, you talk a lot,” “My, I’d like to sleep with you.” But there'd also be: “Man, you’re smart,” “God, you’re fun to be with,” “My, I’d like to sleep with you.” I don’t think we’re as bad as Gervais implies.
Critics are already setting up in knee-jerk camps. Kyle Smith of The New York Post says the film takes “outspoken atheism” and “dump[s] it all over an unsuspecting audience,” while hipster critics dig its attack on organized religion. But its greater attack is on human nature. In the world according to Gervais, the truth doesn’t set us free; it makes us jerks. Meanwhile, lies—including religion—make us better people. The film might as well be called “The Invention of Decency.”
There are some impressive cameos here: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ed Norton, Jason Bateman. (We also had Jeff Bezos in the audience at the Regal Meridian in downtown Seattle.) But the film is too conventional for its unconventional premise, while its unconventional premise goes against the grain of what's funny. The truth may not set us free, but it does make us laugh.
Review: “'Surrogates” (2009)
WARNING: LUDDITE SPOILERS
At first glance “Surrogates” didn’t look like much, particularly when I saw those online ads of scantily clad, sexy women with exposed robot parts. Then I read some synopses and became intrigued by the premise. Then I went to see it.
Trust your first instincts.
The premise is from the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele. In the near-future, near-perfect robots, attuned to individual brain patterns, are created initially so the handicapped and debilitated can move around more easily, and then in place of soldiers in time of war, and then, well, because it’s fun for everybody. You lay in a chair at home and feel whatever your better-looking, younger-looking, stronger surrogate is doing out in the world. You experience life virtually. All the fears you may have of the outside world—death, germs, stubbed toes—are gone. You’re safe. You’re out in the world but you’re not. You’re living but you’re not.
So it’s kind of like TV. It’s kind of like this thing. It’s kind of like video games and avatars and fill in the blank.
But it’s not. It’s just silly and ultimately hugely naive about human nature.
During the titles, we get the 14-year history of surrogates. How they were created by a wheelchair-bound man named Canter (James Crowell: uh oh!), and how the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of surrogates “in daily life” (making “with all deliberate speed” sound like the most precise language possible), and how the conglomerate VSI became the leading manufacturer of surrogates, but how seven years ago they had a falling out with Canter, and how three years ago an anti-surrogate movement began, led by a man named The Prophet (Ving Rhames in Rastafarian wig), and surrogate-free zones were created in major American cities like Boston.
The story proper begins in the back of a limousine, where an obvious surrogate, and more obviously the son of Canter, is on his way to the opera. Off the phone with dad, he heads instead to a club, meets a beautiful blonde, makes out with her in an alleyway. He’s also been followed by a sinister guy on a motorcycle—or a guy on a motorcycle who inspires sinister soundtrack music—and this guy promptly kills the two in the alleyway. Because the surrogate revolution has led to a 99 percent drop in crime, we know we’re watching an unprecedented homicide.
Surrogate FBI agents arrive: Greer (Bruce Willis, with blonde hair and a plastic, wrinkle-less face) and Peters (Radha Mitchell, looking as beautiful as she tends to look in movies), and they find out that the beautiful blonde was surrogate to a fat bald man—nice touch—who’s had his brains scrambled in his chair. Young Canter, too. It’s the first time such safety walls have been breached.
Then everyone clams up fast. The FBI chief, Stone (Boris Kodjoe), imposes a total media blackout, Canter is distraught and enigmatic, the folks at VMI are toeing the company line.
Greer plays good cop with Canter, bad cop with the lawyers at VSI. “I hate lawyers,” he says. But he’s friends with the agency tech geek, who, in yet another nice touch, doesn’t rely on a surrogate, but who, in a crushingly obvious plot device, has access, from his little room, to every surrogate/operator in the world. That’s basically the gun in the first act, isn’t it?
Through the tech geek, Canter learns the killer’s name (Strickland) and whereabouts. Surrogate cops go after him, surrogate cops drop—as do their operators. Greer almost gets it, too, but crashlands in a surrogate-free zone. Even as he pursues Strickland, he’s pursed by a hillbillyish mob, who, just as he’s about to get Strickland, get him. They crucify him—the surrogate—as a warning to all...surrogates.
Questions at this point in the story:
- Why would surrogacy lead to a 99 percent drop in crime? If surrogacy is similar to going online, wouldn’t we be even less civil as surrogates, as we are online? Wouldn’t it be easier to fight and kill, because it’s all just a game now, as it’s easier to fight and kill on Xbox or PlayStation? And what happens when a surrogate, driving recklessly, say—as one does in a video game—kills a real person? Wouldn’t that happen a lot? The behavior the filmmakers foresee is the exact opposite of the behavior inherent in their metaphor.
- If your surrogate doesn’t have to look like you—as seems to be the case—does this mean a million Angelina Jolie-ish girls are walking around—as in the poster? Wouldn’t this be confusing? How about a million Batmans walking around fighting non-existent crime? Don’t tell me Warner Bros., which owns the copyright to BM, wouldn’t jump on that profit-making venture.
- Why are all of the luddites, the “dreads,” fat and ugly? Wouldn’t these be among the first people to embrace surrogacy?
- The surrogates have a blanched, creepy look because the film is ultimately anti-surrogacy. It’s supposed to make surrogates less appealing to us in the audience, but it doesn’t answer the question of why surrogates are appealing to them in the movie. And surely there are kids in this future, ironic hipsters, who would want an old/fat/ugly surrogate? Just to thumb their noses at the rest of society?
- Why do the posters of The Prophet, with LIVE printed below, remind me of the Obama HOPE poster? Is this another right-wing message from the right-wing folks in Hollywood—like Bruce Willis?
- With all the looks in all of the world to choose from, how did surrogate Bruce Willis wind up with that hair?
There are many ways the movie could’ve been less conventional and more interesting, but the filmmakers always opted for more conventional and less interesting. Example: When the agents first question Canter, I thought, “Why aren’t they questioning the real Canter?” until I realized, duh!, everyone in the room is a surrogate. The real world is the virtual world. But my original thought arrived because, while surrogates for Willis and Mitchell look like Willis and Mitchell, Canter’s surrogate doesn’t look like James Cromwell. So wouldn’t it have been more interesting and off-putting—and increased our awareness of surrogacy—to have the surrogates not look like Willis and Mitchell? Wouldn’t it have been cheaper for the studio, too? “We'll pay you half-salary for half a film.”
In the wake of the mob crucifixion, the real Greer—bald, wrinkled, goateed—is momentarily surrogateless and taking baby steps in the world again, but there’s a half-heartedness to him. He’s father to a son who was killed (baseball glove and Red Sox posters fill his still-pristine room), and husband to a wife who relies on her surrogate to get through her day. In fact, he seems more interested in connecting with his wife than in connecting-the-dots of the case. He’s more interested in making the filmmakers’ case (surrogacy sucks!) than his own.
Maybe because the criminal case isn’t that interesting. Three villains to choose from: Canter, VSI, Stone. Who’s guilty? All of them. VSI invented the weapon that breached the safety wall but tried to hide it, Stone has been promised a cushy gig at VSI if he can bring it back, but it’s in the hands of Canter, who, sickened by what he’s created, wants to undo his Frankenstein monster by killing its billion operators. He’s even behind the whole “dreads” movement, whose Prophet is actually a surrogate, controlled by Canter. Question: Wouldn’t Canter himself have made a better prophet than his Prophet? Wouldn’t he have immediate authority in the matter?
In the end Canter kills Peters and controls her surrogate to breach the room where the tech geek has access to all surrogates and operators, so he can kill them all. “They were dead the day they plugged in,” he snarls. Greer tries to stop the countdown and we get the following exciting dialogue from the handcuffed tech-geek: “Hit enter! No, wait! Shift enter!” Is this what all of our action movies are going to sound like now? “Control-alt-delete, motherfucker! Oh shit, you’re on a Mac keyboard? Command-option-escape! No, the command key is the one with the apple on it! With the apple on iiiiiitt!”
One of the saddest moments I’ve experienced at a movie this year came at the end of “Surrogates,” when Greer, given the option to reconnect or disconnect operators around the world, chooses disconnect, and a billion surrogates—and planes, trains, automobiles?—drop to the ground. In the theater someone actually applauded—so loudly and insistently I wondered if he wasn’t a plant from the studio/production company. If he wasn’t, more's the pity.
Why was he applauding? Because Greer defeated not only the bad guys but the concept of surrogacy. Operators—that is, us—came out of their homes, blinked, and looked around. It was a new day. But it wasn’t. If anything the scene reminded me of a power outage, when everyone suddenly leaves their homes and mingles with their neighbors...until the power is restored. Then they return to whatever surrogate life they were living: TV, Internet, video games. The same would’ve happened in the movie. Power outages do not change human nature. The filmmakers want the ending to be uplifting when they know it’s not.
Here’s the sadder part. Why was this guy really applauding? Because his surrogate for the last 90 minutes, the actor Bruce Willis, defeated the concept of surrogates in this movie he was watching. That’s the disconnect, isn’t it? That’s the lie the filmmakers are smoothing over as expertly as VSI smooths over its lies. That's why the best lines of the movie are the first lines of the movie: Ving Rhames' contemptuous voice against a dark screen: “Look at yourselves. Unplug from your chairs and get up and look at how God made you.” Not only you, the operators in the movie, but you, the audience watching the movie. Unplug yourselves.
No one did.
Review: “The Informant!” (2009)
WARNING: SPOILERS LACED WITH LYSINE AND GLUCONATE
“The Informant!” is a movie set in the 1990s but designed for the 2000s—with title graphics from the late 1960s and a soundtrack from...the 1950s? When were kazoos popular? It has, in other words, a real chance to be a cult hit. It’s probably too quirky to be popular. It’s too original.
Matt Damon, looking as horribly ordinary as movie stars are allowed to look, plays Mark Whitacre, a vice-president at Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM), a conglomerate based in Decatur, Ill., and, if memory serves, a company that perennially supports PBS public affairs programming. But its main business is taking cereal grains and oilseeds and putting them into food and feed.
As the film opens, there’s a virus eating both the lysine in the ADM plants and the profits that the conglomerate demands, and Whitacre’s getting the blame from the son of the boss, Mick Andreas (Tom Papa), for not solving the problem. It’s amusing but unfair—in the way that sons-of-bosses always seem amusing but unfair. Then Whitacre gets a call from a Japanese colleague who says an ADM mole is responsible for the virus and he’ll reveal the name for $10 million. Rather than pay off, though, the higher-ups at ADM bring in the FBI, who tap Whitacre’s personal line to find out more. This bothers Whitacre—first a little, then a lot—and, with his wife’s prodding, he reveals to FBI agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula), that ADM and the Japanese are involved in price-fixing the international lysine market. Which is how Whitacre turns informant. “Mark, why are you doing this?" Shepard asks at one point. “Because things are going on that I don’t approve of,” he says. “They’re making me lie to people.”
Hold that thought.
Whitacre is obviously a bit of a joke. He's dumpy with an out-of-date moustache, yet “secret agent” music plays as he drives up to his house or to his office, as if that's how he sees himself. When he’s wired he provides a running commentary on his day, and greets everyone by full name and occupation: “Good morning Liz Taylor, secretary.” At one point he calls himself 0014 because “I’m twice as smart as James Bond.” He ain’t dumb—at one point, a Japanese businessman blocks the FBI’s hidden camera, and Whitacre deftly gets him to move, and then deftly gets everyone in the room, the price fixers, to say the magic word: “agree”—but there’s something off about him.
He’s our narrator, too, providing a running commentary on...what exactly? He gives us asides, trivia, tidbits of information. Initially these asides have something to do with the action—all the corn, for example, that ADM puts into its products, our products, and how they use corn and chemicals to bring chickens to maturity in a fraction of the time that nature intended—but soon he’s talking about Central American butterflies, and how he likes an indoor swimming pool for its “year-round usage,” and how he thinks his hands are his best feature. I could see the movie again just for these asides.
He also keeps shifting his position. After his initial confession to the FBI he avoids its agents, insisting that the virus is gone and the price-fixing is over and can't they just leave him alone? Then he has delusions about what will happen after the big reveal. “How can you possibly stay [at ADM] when you’ve just taken down the company?” his wife, faithful to a fault, asks. “Because they need me to run the company,” he insists. There’s a logic there that manages to ignore the entirety of human nature. It’s a void so large one doesn’t know what to make of it.
Throughout we think we’re in on it but we're not. That's the true beauty of the film. After the big reveal, we get a lot of little reveals, and Whitacre, who has kept his secrets for so long, can’t shut up. Everyone tells him not to say anything and he says everything. He tells other ADM employees about the FBI raid before it happens. Once it happens he talks to lawyer 1, lawyer 2, The Wall Street Journal. He’s been outed as a rat and merely says, “Did you see my stipple portrait? Pretty good.”
The second big reveal comes from an internal ADM investigation into Whitacre. While he’s been informing for the FBI he’s also been taking kickbacks—leaving his agents open-mouthed and the agency shifting its focus to him. First he denies everything. Then he blames the corporate culture. Then he says, “I only took a million and a half dollars.” This figure keeps rising. Seven million, nine million, eleven million. “But Mick knew about that!” he insists, as if that makes it OK. He blames a bipolar disorder—but doesn’t suffer from it. He takes refuge as an orphan—but isn’t one. He wears a toupee. Nothing about this guy is true. He may have been responsible for planting the lysine virus in the first place. And yet there’s no mea culpa. Even as he goes to prison, he’s still prevaricating. He’s still off. You get the feeling he doesn’t get what he's done wrong. He still sees himself the hero, the white hat, of his own movie, which is why he’s the perfect hero for this one.
Damon, by the way, is blissfully obtuse as Whitacre, and there’s a supporting cast to die for. At one point I wondered, “Is that the guy who played Biff Tanen in ‘Back to the Future’?” Later I realized, “No, it’s the guy who played the guard in ‘Shawshank.’” Later still I realized it was both actors, they’re both in it. Tom Smothers shows up as ADM’s CEO, Dick as a judge. Giants’ fan Patton Oswalt is in there, plus a Cusack sister, plus Candy Clark. Scott Bakula, as the main FBI agent on the case, is needy, dismissive, impressed and ultimately betrayed—the most ordinary FBI agent ever filmed.
Whitacre did his deeds in the nineties but he’s obviously a protagonist for our time. He lies and prevaricates and lies some more. One can’t even keep up with it all. One wonders, as with so many of our public figures, if he even knows who he is. There’s no there there. There’s not even there enough to care that there’s no there. It’s a tragedy, filmed as a comedy, and the tone is exactly right. Welcome back, Steven Soderbergh. Break out the kazoos.
Review: “The Cove” (2009)
WARNING: WHISTLING, CLICKING AND SCREECHING SPOILERS
Movies aren’t known for their great first sentences the way books are—for obvious reasons— but “The Cove” gives us a great first sentence. I forget if anything’s on the screen, or if it’s black, but you hear director Louie Psihoyos in voiceover:
“I do want to say that we tried to do the story legally.”
That story is relatively simple. Every year in Taiji, Japan, fishermen drive thousands of dolphins toward shore and into a cove, where the best are chosen for “Sea World” type shows around the world, and the rest are driven to a secret cove, where they are secretly slaughtered.
The hero of the story is Ric O’Barry, whom we get piecemeal. Each piece is fascinating. He was supposed to be the featured speaker at a conference on dolphins that Psihoyos was attending but got pulled because the sponsor of the conference, SeaWorld, wanted nothing to do with him. O’Barry’s an activist. He frees dolphins, including SeaWorld dolphins, in captivity. “How many times have you been arrested?” Psihoyos asks him. “This year?” O’Barry answers.
Eyebrows go up—mine did anyway—when you find out that O’Barry’s not just any activist; he was the original trainer on “Flipper,” the 1960s TV series that’s responsible, in part, for the popularity of dolphin shows at places like SeaWorld. The family’s house on “Flipper” was his house, and he guest-starred in one episode. In fact, he captured the five female dolphins who played Flipper.
Near the end of the series, though, one of the dolphins playing Flipper, Cathy, swam into his arms and killed herself. She just stopped breathing. The next day O’Barry was arrested trying to free a dolphin. He hasn’t stopped since.
He says their acoustic sense is so well-developed that the finest sonar in the world is nothing in comparison. Thus loud noises and enclosed areas—like at a Sea World show—are stressful. They get ulcers. They die. We capture them because we love them, then we give them what kills them. “The dolphin smile is nature’s greatest deception,” he says. “It creates the illusion they’re always happy.”
After they meet, O’Barry takes Psihoyos to Taiji, where O’Barry’s as known—and as wanted—as he is at SeaWorld. Authorities stake him out, watch him, question him through the fog of a foreign language. The brunt of the story’s here. The goal of the two men is to film the killing that goes on in the secret cove—to let the world know that it goes on—but it’s not easy. Local authorities harass them. Local fishermen harass them, including a particularly annoying and bespectacled man whom they dub “Private Space,” because that’s what he’s always yelling. The cove is surrounded on all three sides by high, private cliffs. There is no public vantage point from which to film. And they are harassed.
Great movies have been made about the assembling of a team—think “Asphalt Jungle,” “Dirty Dozen,” the first season of “The Wire”—and “The Cove” simply gives us the real-life version. Friends at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic use their expertise to fashion faux-rocks around hidden cameras. Two of the world’s great freedivers join the team, along with a couple of dudes up for a good cause and an adrenaline rush. It's “Mission: Impossible.”
The question arises: Why are they killing the dolphins anyway? Not even the Japanese eat dolphin meat. Ah, but the Japanese are eating dolphin meat, unknowingly, because it’s often packaged as something else. The Taiji city council even proposes adding dolphin meat to the diet of all Japanese schoolchildren. This, too, is secret, but two councilmembers who have school-age children and know the dangers of eating such meat—with its high concentration of mercury—come forward and tell the tale. Most of the doc is like this. It’s about revealing what is secret and hidden. To do so, our heroes hide what reveals. At night, they trespass, swim into the cove at night, position the cameras (disguised as rocks) and leave. Then they wait for the killing to begin.
At its high point, in early August, “The Cove” played at 56 theaters in the U.S., but quickly fell off. It’s barely made over half a million dollars. Jeff Wells, a big proponent, suggests that part of the problem with this low turnout is that women who care about dolphins can’t bear to see a doc in which dolphins are slaughtered. That was exactly my experience. It opened in early August at the Egyptian, a mile from my home, but when I suggested it to Patricia—thinking she would leap at the chance—she turned it down cold. Said she couldn’t bear to see dolphins killed. Which is why I didn’t see it until a late weekday September afternoon, in a small theater at the Metro—about five miles from my home—with about four other people. Two days before it skipped town. It even skipped The Crest, the second-run theater in north Seattle that is currently showing the year’s big hit: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” At one point in “The Cove,” it's suggested that dolphins are not only smart, they’re actually smarter than us. Doesn’t seem that difficult.
A mammal that always smiles, with Ric O'Barry, who rarely does
So how bad is the killing? Most of it takes place underwater, so you don’t really see it. You hear the dolphins’ screeches—which, to my ears, doesn’t sound much different than their “happy” screeches—and you see the water turn red. And I’m not talking a little red. It’s like the scene in “The Ten Commandments” when Moses changes the Nile to blood. It’s Technicolor red.
Still, the most memorable scene to me, the one I took away, is footage of Mandy-Rae Cruikshank, the world class freediver, swimming with dolphins, and rubbing one on its belly, like it’s a dog or a cat, and the dolphin staying close, and luxuriating in the touch. In the wild. It’s remarkable.
Bottom line: “The Cove” is a good doc that’s doing good work. Apparently the dolphin killing in Taiji has stopped. At least for this year.
Review: “Tyson” (2009)
WARNING: HEAVYWEIGHT SPOILERS
The most surprising admission in “Tyson,” James Toback’s documentary about former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, isn’t that Tyson was scared heading into the ring, nor that he wanted women to protect him—him, the baddest man on the planet. It’s this: When he was young, Mike Tyson was Woody Allen.
The revelation comes early in the doc, which consists almost exclusively of old fight footage and present-day Tyson interviews. Tyson, bald now, Maori warrior tattoo sweeping one side of his face, and dressed in a pressed, button-down shirt and slacks in a Hollywood mansion, tries to explain who he is by explaning where he came from: the Brownesville section of Brooklyn, where, he says, it was “kill or be killed.” He talks about getting picked on. He talks about getting money stolen from him—quarters and change—by neighborhood gangs. Then he talks about how someone once took his glasses and broke them. The image that comes to mind is Virgil Starkwell forever having his glasses stomped on by bullies in “Take the Money and Run.” Mike Tyson was Woody Allen? Who knew?
A second later you narrow your eyes. Wait a minute. Glasses? Did Tyson need them as a kid? Did he stop needing them as an adult? You believe Tyson when he says, of the man who lived with his mother: “He might have been my father... I believe he was my father... I was told he was my father”— a sequence that Toback splices together to great echoing effect. But the glasses thing?
Or was he talking about sunglasses?
That’s part of the challenge of “Tyson.” How much do you buy into what he’s saying? When is he bullshitting us? When is he bullshitting himself? And when is James Toback putting too personal a stamp on Tyson’s story? Half the film is rise and half is sad fall, and Toback ends the first part with Tyson saying, “Once I’m in the ring, I’m a god. No one can beat me.” Then we get a slow fade and a slow open on Robin Givens. The implication is that everything began to go wrong with her, but, truly everything began to go wrong with the “god” comment and the hubris it represents. Pride, as always, goeth.
Tyson was trained by Cus D’Amato—who deserves his own doc, and who died in November 1985, a year before Tyson knocked out Trevor Berbick in the second round to become heavyweight champion of the world. Then he was trained by Kevin Rooney, but Tyson fired him in late 1988. He was managed by Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton. But Jacobs died in March 1988 and Don King suddenly insinuated himself into the picture, fighting and apparently beating Cayton over Tyson’s contract. Why did Tyson go along with this? What part did racial politics play? And why doesn’t the doc focus on it more? Toback blames the lack of training, the partying, the women, but all of this is related to a larger issue: Tyson stopped dancing with those who brung him.
Tyson is surprisingly kind to Givens. He calls her “this young lady.” He says “everyone was in our business.” He says “We were just kids, just kids, just kids.” He doesn’t know why she lied to Barbara Walters on national television—Givens, with Tyson hanging over her shoulder, tells Barbara, and the country, that Mike, the heavyweight champion of the world, is a manic depressive, that their marriage has been pure hell, that “it’s been worse than anyone could imagine”—but in this doc he more or less gives her a bye.
Not so with others. “When I was falsely accused of raping that wretched swine of a woman, Desiree Washington, it was the most horrible moment in my life,” he says. He calls Don King “just a slimy, reptilian motherfucker” who would “kills his own mother for a dollar.”
He’s also hard on himself. He owns up to a lot. That he likes strong women whom he can sexually dominate. That when Cus D’Amato first takes him to his mansion, he’s thinking of robbing him: “I could rob this white guy,” he thinks.
He breaks down on camera talking about Cus. It seems the most important relationship in his life. At the same time he says, “I was like his dog. He broke me down. He broke me down and rebuilt me.” Cus also gave him speed, power, confidence. The doc is separated between those who built up Tyson’s confidence (D’Amato, mostly) and those who tore it down (Givens, Washington, King).
Remember how fierce he was? He had 15 fights in 1985 and won all of them by KO or TKO, 11 of them in the first round. He was built like a bullet and seemed just as unstoppable. He was so tough he inspired the toady in other men. Hell, I even felt it from afar, joking about his prowess in the ring, luxuriating in his power as if it were in any way related to my own (lack thereof). Or maybe I simply liked how much of a unifying concept he was in an increasingly fragmented world. He unified all the heavyweight belts that had been scattered to the four winds. For years no one argued over who the best boxer was. The only question was the question the announcer asked after Tyson destroyed Michael Spinks at 1:31 in the first round in a heavyweight bout in 1988: “Who in this world has any chance against this man?”
Himself. He was not a god. Gods don’t have to train, but he did, and he lost to Buster Douglas in 1990 in one of the greatest upsets in boxing history. We kept waiting for him to unify things again but he kept stumbling. First the rape charge, then the conviction. He lost three years. When he came out of prison, he was a Muslim. This too seemed sad, like it was part of someone else’s story, as it was. It was Malcolm’s and Muhammed Ali’s. Tyson was clinging to cliches.
I’d forgotten that he won the heavyweight championship again in the mid-1990s. I didn’t know, in the infamous ear-biting match with Evander Holyfied, that Tyson claimed Holyfield headbutted him first. I’m not a boxing fan so I didn’t know. But I knew so much else because Tyson seeped through to the general culture in a way no boxer has since. Who’s even the heavyweight champ now? I had to look it up. A Russian and two Ukranian brothers. Three Great White Hopes. Scattered to the four winds.
“Tyson” is an untraditional doc in that there are no other talking heads. Would it have been better with other voices? Maybe. Would it have been better without Tyson walking along a Malibu beach? Yes. That Hollywood home, it turns out, was rented by Toback. So where does Tyson live? Why didn’t they film there? Why this fake Hollywood backdrop?
It’s still effective. The former champ seems lost in the way of former champs. “Old too soon, smart too late,” he says. “”What I’ve done in the past is a history, what I’ll do in the future is a mystery,” he says. The final shot is a freezeframe on his battered, confused face. He once thought himself a god. Now he’s just another man who can’t make sense of his life.
Review: “District 9” (2009)
WARNING: OBVIOUS METAPHORIC SPOILERS
“District 9” is as stupid from the left as “Transformers 2” is from the right.
“Transformers 2” is about sleek, metallic aliens who ally themselves with the U.S. military, and, despite the meddling of a petty bureaucrat, help protect the planet. The aliens stand tall, talk bland, ring hollow. They’re glossy and soulless. They’re basically metaphors for weaponry. That’s why the film feels of the right.
“District 9” is about slimy, crustacean-like aliens who ally themselves with a petty bureaucrat to protect themselves from the military. They scavenge, disregard property rights, spray gang graffiti. They’re soulful but gritty. They’re obviously metaphors for an oppressed minority. That’s why the film feels of the left.
These metaphors don’t reveal each film’s stupidity, just its politics. The stupidity comes, particularly for “District 9,” from adherence to the metaphor.
We quickly learn, for example, that 20 years ago an alien ship appeared over, not New York or D.C. or Paris or Beijing, but Johannesburg, South Africa. My thought: Cool! Plays off our movie assumptions. For three months nothing happened, the ship just hovered, and when we finally cut our way in we found the aliens malnourished and afraid. Interesting. They’ve traveled the galaxy but seem to have contracted a disease or something. So we transport the remainder of these aliens, over a million strong, into a neighborhood below, District 9, where they quickly become just another despised minority in just another slum on our planet. Um... Wait a minute.
Here’s where the metaphor overtakes logic. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp wants the aliens to be a despised minority so that’s what they become. And that’s all they become. Despite the fact that they’re aliens and—I can’t stress this enough—the existence of aliens changes everything. It’s a Copernicus moment.
So the craft hovers over Joburg. I like it. But the U.S. government, not to mention the E.U. and Russia and China, leave everything to petty South African bureaucrats and private military contractors? Please. Blomkamp and I are both cynical, we’re just cynical about different things.
Do we learn anything from these aliens—about their galaxy and home planet and technology? Apparently not. Does the aliens’ existence change the religions of the world, or our various views of God, in whose image we are supposedly made? Apparently no. Does it alter the U.N.? Foreign relations? Our planetary defense systems? Nope. The only thing that happens, apparently, is the ho-hum, the paperwork, the disgusted shake of the head that these creatures live in our midst.
In this way the film is in line with Blomkamp’s short films, including “Tempbot,” in which functioning robots become metaphors for office drones. Our big, modern problem, in other words, is our tendency to reduce the extraordinary (aliens, robots) to the mundane and subservient. That’s Blotkamp’s calling card and it’s a good calling card. It feels true because it’s what we’ve done with ourselves. The fact that we exist at all, in the forms we exist, is itself extraordinary, and we should be humbled and grateful for the opportunity no matter how we view this opportunity: as a fluke, a temporary aberration in a gigantic void, or as something central and eternal to existence. Instead we reduce it in the ways we reduce it. Life is big and we make everything small.
So I agree with the calling card. But Blotkamp mangles it in order to make it fit this longer format.
Again: It’s 20 years after the arrival of aliens—now disparaged as “Prawns”—and they’re about to be relocated from District 9 to a newer ghetto: District 10. The man put in charge of this relocation, Wikus Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), is the son-in-law of one of the higher-ups. He’s gloriously unsuited for the task but takes to it with the enthusiasm of the obtuse functionary he is.
Yet at the exact same hour—in one of the film’s many fantastic coincidences—two aliens, apparent leaders or captains, have finally developed the fuel necessary to get their ship going and return them to their planet. Until, that is, Wikus stumbles upon the fuel and gets sprayed in the face with it. Then it does what fuel often does when it’s sprayed in someone’s face. It begins to mutate him into an alien.
Once Wikus’ secret is out, the military-industrial complex he works for, MNU, carts him to a secret lab, where their scientists have been dissecting and experimenting on aliens, and where they learn that his Prawn-hand can fire advanced alien weaponry, which human hands can’t. They figure this information is worth billions. Believing, I suppose, that the melding of human and alien DNA gives them an “in” they didn’t have with their previous experiments, the scientists plan on dissecting Wikus. But he breaks free. Because they never sedated him. Why sedate someone you’re about to cut open?
There’s tons of this stuff. Nobody’s smart in this movie. Wikus, a bore from the start, keeps his cellphone, not realizing that MNU can track him with it; but then MNU doesn’t do a particularly good job of tracking him with it.
In another fantastic coincidence, Wikus flees back to the same shack where he got sprayed in the face, and the alien there, “Chris Johnson,” lets him know what happened. The only way the metamorphosis can be reversed, he says, is with more fuel, but alas it’s gone. But wait! Wikus knows where it is! He’s seen it—back in the lab—and the two of them, like in a mismatched buddy movie, grab some alien weaponry and storm the lab.
In any film this cynical it’s almost required that one of the heroes be monumentally naive. As if the only way to be good in such a world is to just not know. And the one who doesn’t know here is “Chris Johnson.” Who should know. For 20 years he’s seen how humans have treated him and his family and his friends. And yet, in the lab, when he finds the carcasses of fellow aliens who have been experimented on, he slows and stares. And stares. And stares. We’ve seen this before, in movies with human characters, so, though he’s a CGI alien, we know what he’s going through. He’s shocked, shocked that human beings do this, and even when the military barges in and engages in a firefight with Wikus, he stands in the crossfire, just staring. So dumb. That’s naive moment no. 1.
Here’s naive moment no. 2. Back at his shack, Chris decides that, rather than converting Wikus to a human, he’s going to use the fuel to immediately leave the planet and return in three years. He’s seen what humans do and can’t let them continue to experiment on his fellow aliens. Fine. The problem? He tells this to Wikus. Who promptly knocks him out and takes his ship. Unfamiliar with alien technology, attacked by his own military, and not very bright to begin with, he crashes the thing.
More fighting. In the end Wikus backs the Prawns against the humans, allowing Chris to escape, and the chief military villain is torn apart by Prawns.
A few years ago I wrote a piece for MSNBC on the history of alien invasion movies, and “District 9,” fits with a particular subgenre: the crashlanders: “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “E.T.,” “Starman.” Aliens who are essentially lost children, pursued by government forces, and trying to find their way back home. But, watching, I was reminded less of these (good) movies and more of absurd b-pictures from the ‘70s, such as “The Thing with Two Heads,” starring Rosie Grier and poor Ray Milland. A white bigot’s head on a soul brother’s body! This one's “The Thing with the Alien Arm”: A bigoted bureaucrat sprouts an alien arm! It’s integrationist literature: “Prawn Like Me.”
The faux-documentary style of the film, generally used for exposition, wearied me, too. What does it mean that we frame more and more of our stories through this extra media lens? And what kind of awful documentary are they making in the future anyway? Who, in that world, needs to be told all the details of when aliens arrived on earth? Oh right, I forgot. That moment wasn’t extraordinary, it was a nuisance. My bad.
Blomkamp leaves the ending open. Will the aliens return? Will they return angry? If so, none of the talking heads seem worried. The final shot is Wikus, completely transformed into an alien, thinking of his wife. It’s supposed to be poignant but it made me feel like a crashlander. I just wanted to go home.
Review: “Inglourious Basterds” (2009)
WARNING: SPOILERS ARE A-BOOMIN’
Here are the problems with Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” It distorts history to a degree no filmmaker has ever done with World War II. It makes the Allies as morally repugnant as the Nazis. It introduces fascinating characters only to kill them off, and, in doing so, doesn’t give us near enough of the Basterds themselves. George Will once dismissed football as nothing more than “committee meetings punctuated by violence,” and one could say that “Basterds” is nothing more than tableside meetings (over milk, over strudel, over scotch) punctuated by violence.
But I loved it. Tarantino’s films open my mind—in a way that few films do—as to the possibilities of storytelling. You can do that? I think. That’s allowed?
The opening title card should’ve been a giveaway: “Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France,” it read. Tarantino’s telling a story here. He’s not interested in history. Or the only kind of history he’s interested in is cinematic history. Everything else is a prop.
Watching, I kept wondering what he was up to. Why is he aping Sergio Leone in the opening scene? We’re in Nazi-occupied France not the Old West. Why the Mike Myers cameo and the David Bowie music and the Sam Jackson narration? Doesn’t he want to ground this thing in time and place?
No, he doesn’t want to ground this thing in time and place. That, it turns out, is the exact opposite of what he wants to do.
The opening scene give us the first of those dramatic tableside confrontations (over milk), while introducing both the villain, Col. Hans Landa of the S.S., known as the Jew Hunter (Christoph Walz), and the heroine, Shoshanna Dreyfuss (Melanie Laurent), who is last seen running across the countryside, the blood of her family splattered all over her body.
Then we get the Basterds and their raison d’etre: killing Nazis. The team consists of Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), known as Aldo the Apache, and 8-10 Jewish soldiers, most of whom are interchangeable. I thought we would get their exploits piecemeal but Tarantino takes us from introduction to legend in 30 seconds. These guys open heads with Louisville Sluggers and whoop it up. They carve swastikas into flesh. They scalp heads. The violence, oddly, is both felt and cartoonish. I can’t think of another filmmaker who can do both at the same time.
As a screenwriter, Tarantino is almost a playwright. He’s not interested in moving from place-to-place. He’s interested in getting us to a place, an enclosed place, and having his characters talk. And talk. And talk. And then shoot guns. Each scene begins like “My Dinner with Andre” and ends like “Taxi Driver.”
The rest of the movie is quickly set up. Shoshanna, passing as a gentile, runs a cinema in Paris, where she’s pursued by a young German private, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a cinephile who, it turns out, is his country’s Sgt. York: a sharpshooter who single-handedly killed over 200 enemy soldiers. “Nation’s Pride,” a film starring himself, has been made about the experience, and Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, is setting up its premiere in Paris. But Zoller, trying to impress Shoshanna, gets them to change venues to her cinema, where, with her black lover, she plans on burning to death members of the German high command using old, explosive, 35mm film reels stored in the basement. This plan becomes even more important when she learns Adolf Hitler himself will be there. “Getting to whack ol’ Uncle Adolf,” as Raine says later in the film, “makes this a horse of a different color.” Indeed.
The Allies, learning of the premiere (sans the Hitler part), launch their own plan, “Operation Kino,” and dispatch film historian Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) behind enemy lines, where he’s to rendezvous with both the Basterds and Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a German actress and double agent. But “Kino” goes awry during a dramatic tableside confrontation (over scotch), and some of our most memorable Basterds are killed. Meanwhile, von Hammersmark, Cinderella-ish, leaves a telltale shoe at the scene, alerting Col. Landa to her likely double-agent status.
But so what, right? We know the plan won’t work. Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and Bormann are all at the premiere, and it’s June 1944, and this isn’t the way they go. Hitler and Goebbels kill themselves in their bunker in April 1945; Bormann, it’s assumed, died trying to escape the Red Army in May 1945; Goering killed himself with cyanide after being sentenced to death during the Nuremberg trials in 1946. We know they won’t die here. At the same time we wonder how Tarantino will handle it. How will he let the Nazis get away but still make it satisfying for us?
Here’s how he handles it: He kills them all. In June 1944. He changes history.
Watching, you think: OK, it’s a double of Hitler, right? It’s a stand-in whose face Sgt. Donny Donowtiz (Eli Roth) machine-guns into a bloody pulp. It’s not supposed to be the real Hitler.
But then the movie ends and you realize it wasn’t a double. In this movie, Hitler died, and World War II ended, in June 1944. What fun!
Then you think: Tarantino can’t do that, can he?
He can and did.
You could argue that Hitler’s merely a prop to him, a movie villain, the way that, say, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a movie villain. He can kill him any way he wants. And this is the way he wants. This is the way that suits his story rather than history.
Or you could argue on a deeper level. The greatest villain of the 20th century escaped our clutches. Yes, he took the coward’s way out in that bunker—and it was a coward’s way out—but we didn’t begin to get our revenge for all of the death and destruction he caused. The movies have recreated that moment, that horribly uncinematic moment in the bunker, time and time again, but they’ve always played by Hitler’s rules. They always gave him the end he chose. Until Tarantino. Who machine guns his face into oblivion in June 1944.
The audacity is almost breathtaking. That’s why all that other stuff helps—the oversized pipes and Mike Myers cameos and David Bowie music. The film is a 20th century hodgepodge. It’s not history. The only history Tarantino cares about is movie history. That’s the one he gets right: From the flammability of early film, to the great 1943 French film “Le Corbeau” that Shoshanna is advertising on her movie marquee, to having German actor Emil Jannings, who won the first best-actor Oscar, and who is best remembered today for his incredible performance in “The Blue Angel” with Marlene Dietrich, show up at the premiere of “Nation’s Pride.” Initially I thought this unfair to Jannings. But after the movie I did a little Internet research and discovered, big surprise, Tarantino was right: Jannings supported the Nazis. He made Nazi films. He actually died in 1950, but he gets it here too in that crowded Parisian theater in June 1944. Auf Wiedersehen.
Some are objecting to the moral equivalency of “Inglourious Basterds.” The greatest cruelties we see in the movie are the cruelties the Basterds visit upon the Germans. But Tarantino told us he was making a spaghetti western set during World War II, and he didn’t lie, and spaghetti westerns are all about moral equivalency. When I first saw “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” I thought, “OK, who is ‘the Good’ again?” Because no one in the movie seemed good to me. There was just cool and not cool. Same with Tarantino. He’s never been interested in the good, only the cool.
Still, since there are few wars less morally equivalent than World War II, it makes sense people are objecting. Americans, Jewish-Americans, lock Germans into movie theaters and machine gun them and burn them. The Germans claw at the doors, like Jews clawed at the doors in the gas chambers. The Germans in this movie are Jews, and the Jews are Germans. Some people in the audience want to feel morally superior but Tarantino doesn’t let them. He only wants to feel cool and victorious.
The question with Tarantino, as always, is: How much is he playing with us? The Jew Bear (Roth) knocks out a Nazi’s brains and the Basterds cheer like they’re watching a movie. The Germans watch a movie about Pvt. Zoller and they cheer at each Allied death. We watch this movie and cheer as each German is slaughtered. Or do we? I certainly had mixed feelings. At the mangling of history. At the moral equivalency. Once the Germans became Jews, how can you cheer for their deaths? Tarantino gives us nothing clean. Every gift he gives is smeared in blood.
It’s surprising how much of the movie is subtitled, isn’t it? An American movie? A Hollywood movie? “Any of you Americans speak another language?” von Hammersmark asks snidely at one point. Nope. Our language expertise is limited to catch phrases and hand gestures. To finger food. As in real life. Yet Tarantino casts international actors with international tongues and American moviegoers attend en masse: $38 million opening weekend. He gets away with what everyone says you can’t get away with. Why not? He’s the man who ended World War II in June 1944.
That cast, by the way, is wonderful. Melanie Laurent as Shoshanna plays it straight, Brad Pitt as Aldo Raine plays it for laughs, and Christoph Walz as Col. Landa, who won awards at Cannes and who will probably be up for an Oscar, plays it in-between. And it all works. It all meshes together. I was also impressed with Michael Fassbender as Archie Cox, who, particularly in his British duds, reminded me of a young Laurence Olivier, and the knee-weakeningly beautiful Diane Kruger, who, like Laurent, plays it straight.
Bottom line, “Inglourious Basterds” is a fun movie. It’s fun to watch and it’s fun to talk about afterwards. Getting to whack ol’ Uncle Adolf makes this a horse of a different color. Indeed.
Review: “In the Loop” (2009)
WARNING: EASY-PEASY-LEMON-SQUEEZY SPOILERS
I think war is unforeseeable.
That’s the big joke in “In the Loop,” a British comedy about the insane and petty circumlocutions and politicking in a ramp-up to a U.S.-led war in the Middle East that will otherwise go unnamed. All jokes in the film stem from this one.
Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the minister for international development, is on a bland British radio show, dealing with the bland issues in his field; then he’s asked about the impending war, says the above line, and all hell breaks loose.
“He did not say ‘unforeseeable,’” says Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the hilariously profane Scottish director of communications at Number 10 Downing Street. “You may have heard him say that but he did not say that.” And there’s our modern political world in a nutshell. You didn’t hear what you heard. You didn’t see what you saw. Or turn it on its head: You know (ex: WMDs) what you don’t really know. You can probably divide politicians into these two camps. You can probably divide people into those two camps. Those who know what they don’t know, like Tucker, and those who don’t know what they know, like Foster. The former are full of passionate intensity while the latter lack all conviction.
Foster, lacking all conviction, backtracks while talking to Tucker:
Foster: I don’t think war is unforeseeable.
Tucker: What is it then?
Foster: I don’t know. Foreseeable?
Tucker: No. No!
The beauty is that Foster is right on both counts. In general, war is unforeseeable, since so many factors going into its creation. On the other hand, this war is foreseeable, since the big dog, an unnamed U.S. administration, is hell-bent on having it.
Which leaves Foster nowhere to go. He’s stuck on the tiny island of his statement and winds up spouting gibberish to reporters the next day:
Look. To the plane, in the fog, the mountain is...is unforeseeable, but then it is suddenly very real and...foreseeable.
Because his original line is perceived as anti-war, he attempts, in this follow-up, to sound more martial:
To walk the road of peace sometimes we have to be ready to climb...the mountain...of conflict.
Disaster. But within the U.S. administration, he’s suddenly seen as both anti-war (the original statement) and pro-war (the follow-up), and both sides try to use him for their purposes. An anti-war general, Miller (James Gandolfini), talking with an anti-war assistant secretary of state, Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), predicts, “You’re going to use him like a little meat puppet.” Meanwhile, Linton Barwick (David Rasche, doing a pitch-perfect Donald Rumsfeld), tapes the “mountain of conflict” line onto computers all over his department.
U.S. officials request Foster’s presence in D.C. for planning sessions, but even as he arrives with a go-getting assistant, Toby Wright (Chris Addison), he’s kept out of the loop. Most of the activity within the film, from Foster and almost everyone else, is to try to get in the loop—but only for the sake of being in the loop. So that one appears powerful. So that one appears to matter. Once there, though, and once called upon: disaster. No one, in the end, can use Foster because all of his energy is spent trying get to a place of consequence in order to act in an inconsequential manner.
“In the Loop” is good satire, necessary satire, but parts of it feel like weak tea. I went in with the highest of expectations (critics were comparing it to “Dr. Strangelove”), and they weren’t met. Don’t know whether to blame the expectations or the film. In other sharp, political satires (“Strangelove,” “Wag the Dog”), the characters (“Buck” Turgidson, Pres. Merkin Muffley, Stanley Motts) felt vivid in a way that these don’t, and it was a kind of “Ah ha!” moment when I discovered that the film was a spin-off of a British TV series, “The Thick of It,” about the inner workings of the British government. The film made me want to watch the series, but the fact of the series made me realize why the film seems small-screen.
I still admire it. I still recommend it. It’s sharp, it’s funny, it’s right. One of my favorite moments comes late in the film, when the pious Linton Barwick bumps heads with the profane Malcolm Tucker, in, all of places, the U.N. Meditation Room. Barwick, unable to swear, calls Tucker “a useless piece of s * * t,” pronouncing the last word, “ess-star-star-tee.” Tucker, unable to not swear, counters, “You are a boring old eff-star-star-CUNT.”
I roared. Brilliant.
Review: “Julie & Julia” (2009)
WARNING: SPOILERS DELICIEUX
Has a movie ever been made, in which past and present are juxtaposed, where the present is not found wanting? “The Godfather—Part II,” “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” “Lone Star,” all say, more or less, the same thing: We suck.
“Julie & Julia” says it, too, although, one asssumes, unintentionally. It’s less the point of the juxtaposition than a consequence of it.
Sure, there are similarities to the title characters' stories. Off-hand comments by husbands push each onto their respective journeys. Julia Child (Meryl Streep), unsure what to do with her life in France in 1949, learns French cooking and, in collaboration with two French chefs (OK, one French chef), writes a French cookbook for Americans that sweeps the nation. Julie Powell (Amy Adams), unsure what to do with her life in Queens in 2002, spends a year cooking all 524 recipes in the Julia Child cookbook and writes a blog about it that sweeps the blogosphere.
Those are the similarities. Here are the differences.
Julia Child begins by looking inward: What do I want to do with my life? Julie Powell begins by looking outward: My friends have successful lives; why don’t I?
Julia Child spends years, literally years, writing and rewriting and testing her cookbook, before a publisher finally agrees to publish it. Julie Powell spends months, literally months, blogging about Julia’s recipes before she’s written up in The New York Times and offers for book deals come flooding in.
The great impediment to Julia’s cookbook involves the national tragedy of her time, McCarthyism, which ensnares her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), and spins the couple from this to that foreign service assignment in this and that country. The great impediment to Julie’s blog is either her own self-absorption, which ensnares her husband, Eric (Chris Messina), and spins him away from her for a night, or the national tragedy of her time, the 9/11 attacks, since her day job is to listen to and direct complaints and ideas about the fall of the twin towers. But she feels she’s above it. In fact, the whole point of her blog is to avoid that day job; to avoid the national tragedy of her time.
Most importantly, Julia Child has a joie de vivre that’s infects even the most dour French merchant and brightens any room. Julie Powell has a solipsistic petulance that infects even the most supportive of husbands and drags down any conversation.
As a result, you want to be with the former and you want to run from the latter. You care about the former’s story, less so the latter’s.
Location helps. Paris in ’49, c’mon. Plus that wonderful relationship with Paul. Plus all that wonderful food. Plus Meryl. No modifier necessary. She’s always good, but you watch her in a role like this and you’re amazed all over again. A reviewer wrote that she inhabits the role, and she does. She takes a real person, who has been caricatured for decades, and humanizes her by moving toward the caricature rather than away from it. There’s a triple joy here: the joy Julia brings into the room, the apparent joy Meryl has playing her, and the very real joy we have watching her play her. I didn’t want those scenes to end.
We learn a lot about someone we thought we knew. Eric, Julie’s husband—who looks like every boyfriend that ever appeared on “Sex and the City”—delivers a key line: “Julia Child wasn’t always Julia Child.” And she wasn’t. But a file clerk with the OSS? Who knew? It’s where she met her husband, a designer, and after the war he got stationed in Paris and she looked for something to occupy herself. “Shouldn’t I find something to do?” Meryl says in that high sing-song. She wanted to have children but couldn’t, which the movie deals with touchingly and efficiently. A glance in the park and a letter from her sister. Not a word spoken but a lifetime said.
She was a fighter. She had to fight her way into Le Cordon Bleu, she had to fight her way through drafts of the cook book, she had to fight the feeling it wasn’t worth it. She was all about taking the time to make it right, but we get a sense of where things are heading for our poor country when executives at Houghton Mifflin turn down her book as too imposing, too difficult for 1950s American housewives. Housewives, they implied, wanted quicker meals. But you speed up the timeframe and the meal isn’t the same. You speed up the timeframe and the life isn’t the same. We get 10 years of Julia’s life and one of Julie’s. Julia’s life is spread out like a ten-course meal while Julie’s is crammed into a Stouffers bag. Maybe that’s part of the reason Julia objected to Julie’s self-imposed year-in-the-life. The point isn’t to cram into; it’s to open up.
“Julie & Julia” is more than two hours long and I wanted more. I wanted to see how Julia got on TV. I wanted Julia, in her 90s, to appear at some moment in Julie’s life. I wanted more Julia, obviously, and more Meryl, who should get another Oscar nomination for this, and maybe, finally, that elusive third statuette. Our time comes off wanting, sure, but it is. But in that wanting, in that juxtaposition, a truer path is revealed. There’s no way our culture will take this truer path—the momentum is all in the other direction—but it doesn’t meant you and I can’t.
Review: “Funny People” (2009)
“Funny People” is a naturalistic comedy the way that musicals about singers and dancers are naturalistic. It makes sense when those guys sing and dance, and it makes sense when these guys—stand-up comics at various stages of fame in Hollywood—are funny. That’s what they do. They don’t laugh much, either. They might nod and say, “That’s good,” but they don’t laugh. We do, though. I did. Harder than at any movie I’ve seen this year.
Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a stand-up comic turned world-famous movie star, who, at the outset, learns he has a rare form of leukemia, and there’s little chance he’ll survive.
Confronted with his own mortality, he retreats to his Malibu mansion and watches, on five televisions, five versions of himself at various stages of his career. In the center image he’s young and doing stand-up comedy, and this makes him smile wistfully. The next time we see him he’s making a guest appearance at one of the local improv clubs. But his material is unfunny and solipsistic: “Who’ll make you laugh when I go?” etc. He hasn’t told anyone yet that he’s dying so maybe this is his way? Maybe he can only be serious through comedy? But it merely leaves an uncomfortable silence in the room. In true improv fashion, though, he tries to riff off that silence. “You hear that?” he whispers. “I think I can hear the freeway.” He’s pushing into the uncomfortable in search of the humorous but doesn’t find it. The amateur following him, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), whose own material isn’t working, does. He comments upon the weirdness of the George Simmons appearance, and everyone laughs, and by the bar you see Simmons’ face fall. He’s become the butt of the joke rather than its teller.
In the parking lot the two encounter each other—Simmons has been crying in his SUV—and while Ira acts the fan (“We kinda grew up on your shit”), Simmons is both complimentary and insulting, and he offhandedly offers Ira a gig writing jokes for him before insulting him one last time and driving off. The next day Ira’s at home. He has two roommates. Mark (Jason Schwartzman) is making big bucks on his crappy “inner city” sitcom, “Yo, Teach!,” while Leo (Jonah Hill), who had a more successful set at the improv club, is getting millions of hits on YouTube with his trojan-horse kitten videos. Meanwhile Ira is working the deli counter at Otto’s grocery store. Until George Simmons calls. George is serious about the writing gig, which he offers to both Ira and “the triple XL version of you”—Leo—but, with hardly a glance back at Leo, Ira says his friend is too busy but he’ll take it himself. He fucks Leo over, in other words. This is this world.
Ira now enters Simmons’ world, where his job is not merely to write jokes but to be Simmons’ friend. But Simmons is where he is because he’s quick and brutal, and now he’s quick and brutal and rich and famous, and used to getting his way, and Ira is none of these things. It’s a tough go. He becomes the guy who holds Simmons’ hand while he’s falling asleep; the one who, with a perfect 2:2 babe-to-Jewish-schlub ratio, winds up alone. He’s also the guy who writes Simmons’ lines for a MySpace appearance but uses the material himself when forced to open. Apparently all’s fair in love and stand-up.
And he’s the guy to whom Simmons reveals his disease. One wonders: “Doesn’t Simmons have anyone else?” The short answer is no. He’s rich in money, poor in friends. The anti-George Bailey.
The trailer makes the film’s characters out to be fairly heartwarming but they’re not. It makes it seem that Simmons’ brush with death makes him a better person but it doesn’t. After Ira enters his life, George contacts friends and family he’s lost touch with—including Laura (Leslie Mann), the girl who got away a dozen years ago. When the experimental drugs work and the disease goes into remission, he is determined to get Laura back—despite her husband, Clarke (Eric Bana), and their two girls. Like most things in life, George gets what he wants. And like most things in life, he fails to appreciate it. Laura, ready to leave her husband, shows George and Ira footage of her eldest daughter singing a song from “Cats” at a school function. While Ira is overwhelmed, George spends his time checking his blackberry. As soon as he does, we know he’s doomed. Many things happen in the interim, but this is the true reason Laura retracts her offer and stays with her husband. Why risk everything on such a selfish prick?
On the ride home George tears into Ira, and that ends that. Life returns, more or less, to where it was at the beginning. George is not sick, Laura is with Clarke, Ira is working the deli. But we do get some small reconciliation. George shows up at the deli, apologizes, and he and Ira talk stand-up. They spitball ideas. They feed off each other, and the camera pans back and the movie ends. It’s a sweet scene.
Everyone keeps saying that Apatow’s films go on a half-hour too long, and they do, but it’s interesting why they do. Most films give us superclean plotlines. The filmmakers assume we know where the third act is going and take us there without the stickiness of life. Apatow is all about stickiness. He knows that any kind of change, particularly positive change (toward responsibility), is full of starts and stops and stutter-steps. One of the most off-handedly funny things “Funny People” gives us is the George Simmons oeuvre—crap comedies like “Merman,” “My Best Friend is a Robot” (with Owen Wilson) and “Sayonara, Davey!”—and we see scenes from, I believe, two of them. In “The Champion,” Simmons is stuffing his face in a hot-dog-eating contest and the camera pans to the audience where a young boy shouts out, “Dad! This won’t bring Mom back!” (Even writing it down makes me laugh.) In a longer scene, from “Re-Do,” Simmons plays a man who wishes to be young again but is turned into a baby by a wizard. It’s Simmons’ head on a baby’s body. You might’ve seen the footage making the internet rounds a few months back. At one point he gets into an argument with his son (Justin Long) and then comes to this realization: “You know, it took me becoming a baby to realize what it means to be a man. ... Now let’s go find that wizard!”
This is devastating satire on the schlock psychology and easy epiphanies of Hollywood movies, and it’s what Apatow’s fighting against. He knows there are no easy answers. He knows comedy isn’t heartwarming. “Funny People” is an anti-Hollywood movie. It's an anti-movie movie. It's like Eisenhower's farewell address. It's a warning from inside.
Review: “(500) Days of Summer” (2009)
WARNING: SPOILERS THAT WERE MEANT TO BE
Here’s how difficult it is to do a love story. “(500) Days of Summer” is one of the smarter, more original romantic comedies released in some time and yet it still reminds me of other love stories. The jumbled chronology, the attempt to remake a magical moment (“Our sink is broken”) and the bittersweet end all recall “Annie Hall.” The architect showing the girl his favorite buildings is like Sam Waterston in “Hannah and her Sisters.” The characters talking directly to the camera, documentary-style, about the time they fell in love, is reminiscent of “When Harry Met Sally,” which itself is reminiscent of “Annie Hall,” while the protagonist’s relationship with his overly mature little sister is straight out of the Holden/Phoebe School—a school that, let’s face it, should’ve closed a while ago.
But at least I was reminded of good stories. More, and to the film’s advantage, I was reminded of my own story—and to an uncomfortable degree. When I was young, like Tom Hansen, the greeting-card writer/architect played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I was short, sensitive, and somewhat passive, and I was once in love with a girl with long dark hair and wide eyes—a girl with whom the world seemed to be in love, too. One difference. 500 days, Tom? Piker.
The poster gives us fair warning. “This is not a love story,” it says. “This is a story about love.” So we expect the end but we still root against it. We want things to turn out right in art, as Alvy Singer says, because they rarely do in life. Also we’ve been conditioned by a million other movies: boy meets girl, loses girl, gets girl. How many movies does that describe? “We sell lies,” Tom says of the greeting-card company he works for, New Hampshire Greetings, just before he quits, and he could be talking about Hollywood. He is talking about Hollywood. “What does that even mean—love?” he says. “And we’re responsible. I’m responsible. We do a bad thing here.” This movie is a corrective. It’s Hollywood’s latest mea culpa for feeding us the lies we want to believe in.
Theirs is an unremarkable relationship, isn’t it? Maybe that’s part of the mea culpa. The things Tom and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) do together are the things city couples do together. They go to museums and mock the modern art; they go to IKEA and make jokes about living there; they go to art houses (“The Graduate”) and shop at hip record stores. They have memorable snatches of dialogue. “Nobody loves Ringo Starr,” he says. “That’s what I love about him,” she says.
They already feel bored. I’m sorry. Even at IKEA, a high point in their relationship, they feel heavy and unremarkable together. It’s not like the lobster scene in “Annie Hall,” which is memorable and funny. Maybe it’s because they’re shopping. We see Annie and Alvy cooking together, being together, while we see Tom and Summer shopping together. Shopping is not being.
What’s the most memorable thing they do as a couple? You remember Tom’s magical musical number, his dance with the world after they consummate their relationship; and you remember the world turning gray and dissolving after she breaks up with him. But what happens in between? IKEA? “The Graduate”? Ringo Starr? “Penis”? You could say nothing becomes their relationship like its breaking up.
The movie again offers the male perspective. I hate to keep referring to “Annie Hall” but it's a compliment. You could say there are four tiers of contemporary movies: bad; good; good enough to compare to the best and found wanting; good enough to compare to the best and belong. “(500) Days” is third tier. Not bad. For some youngins not already steeped in “Annie Hall” it may even seem fourth tier. They’ll learn.
So one of the nice things about “Annie Hall” is that we get Annie Hall. She’s a real person. We see her clearly even as she develops, even as she changes. Maybe especially because she changes. The problem with Alvy is that he doesn’t change. His famous line about relationships being like a shark could be self-referential. A person has to keep moving forward or he dies, and Annie keeps moving forward and he doesn’t. He dies. Particularly when he tries to move backward via the second lobster scene.
But who’s Summer? She begins as an unknown and ends as an unknowable. Why does she do what she does? Why is she the way she is? The third-person narrator is no help, either; he tells us about him but not her. The movie buys into her beauty (spiking sales of Belle & Sebastian records; double-takes on the bus) and then implies it’s all in Tom’s head and heart. Do we have to go back to Tennyson to explain her? “Oh if she knew it/To know her beauty might half undo it.” She’s oblivious to her charms but not completely. Maybe she uses her obliviousness as armature—to keep the world out—and maybe that’s why the world keeps trying to get in. Or why Tom does.
The scene at her party is devastating—the true bookend to his magical dance number. Tom tries to tamp down his expectations but the film gives us both, expectations and reality, in a split-screen format. At first reality is a muted version of expectations; then it veers off humorously; but as soon as Tom sees her with the guy, obviously her boyfriend, then showing off her engagement ring to another friend, the difference between expectation and reality isn’t funny anymore. The questions he asks her later at the park bench are the correct questions. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you dance with me if you were going out with someone else?” The unasked question is the question we keep asking: Who are you?
Their relationship is framed by discussions of “the one,” the “meant to be,” the soulmate. He buys into it and she doesn’t. He’s the romantic and she isn’t. There’s a sweetness, I suppose, to the fact that, when she first meets her husband, and falls for him, she thinks of Tom and their discussions. “You were right,” she tells him at the park bench. “It just wasn’t me you were right about.” Tom wins the argument but loses the girl.
After that scene on the park bench, the last scene with the two of them together, we keep following him but I’d rather follow her. What is she like in that relationship? How does she differ from the way she acted with Tom? Him we know. He has to move on, as he does, with an impossibly good-looking girl named Autumn. Seasons change. Cute.
It’s a good movie. Third tier. It should be getting a wider release than it’s getting. Smart kids will like it. It’s not a lie, like greeting cards, like most Hollywood love stories, but it is one-sided. Its omniscient narrator wasn’t so omniscient as to fathom girls.
Review: “The Hurt Locker” (2009)
WARNING: IMPROVISED EXPLOSIVE SPOILERS
In 10th grade, we watched a short film in history class about a soldier trying to survive World War I. I remember little about it except that he was handsome, died hours before peace was declared on November 11, 1918, and one of the girls in class moaned with sorrow when it happened. He was so close, so close. It’s a common trope, seen just as often, if not moreso, in police stories: The older detective getting killed just days from retirement.
The makers of “The Hurt Locker,” writer Mark Boal and director Katherine Bigelow, are aware of such melodramatic tropes. From the start they give us a countdown: 37 days left; 16 days left; 2 days left. Time ticks away, like the IEDs in Iraq, and we expect an explosion. It’s a great framing device because it plays into our expectations but doesn’t deliver on them. It upends them. “The Hurt Locker” is a suspense story interested in a different kind of suspense. It’s an heroic story interested in a different kind of hero. It takes our tropes and skews them ever so slightly so we don’t quite know what we’re watching.
It skews them right from the start. The scene is familiar: a dusty street in Baghdad 2004, where a U.S. Army company, Delta Company, arrives and sets a bot (a small, droid-like robot) in motion to uncover and then disarm an IED. But the bot malfunctions and the star of the movie, Sgt. Matt Thompson, who looks remarkably like Guy Pearce, puts on “the suit,” reminiscent of astronaut gear, and goes to work disarming it himself. Several Iraqis are watching from the sidelines and one of them pulls out a cellphone. Immediately Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) leaps into action, yelling orders at both Sgt. Thompson (to get away from the IED) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who advances on the man with weapon drawn, yelling at him to put down the cellphone. In the audience I’m thinking, “Aren’t they overreacting?” But they’re actually underreacting. Most movies give away too much, and in such clearly delineated fashion, that courses of action are obvious. Not Boal and Bigelow. We in the audience are in the same situation as the men in the movie. We don’t know citizen from terrorist, and the guy with the cellphone is a terrorist who uses the cellphone to detonate the IED. As Sgt. Thompson is knocked over by the blast, one sees, or thinks one sees, blood splatter in the glass of his helmet. Is he wounded? How badly? A scene later we get our answer: He’s dead. That was Guy Pearce, and he’s not the star of the movie. The star of the movie, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), arrives to replace him.
Within minutes we’re back in the same situation—IED in the middle of a dusty, Baghdad road—but the caution Sgt. Thompson and Sanborn exercised is tossed away by James. He ignores the bot. He straps on the suit. Then he walks down that Iraqi road less like a clumsy astronaut than with the swagger and purpose of an All-Star walking out to centerfield. We’re on tenterhooks but he’s relatively cool, and disarms one device, then follows the wires until, in the shot captured on the movie poster, he uncovers half-a-dozen live IEDs encircling him. It’s a horrific moment for us but not for him. He almost seems delighted. Urged to flee by Sgt. Sanborn, he instead sits down and disarms them all, then walks back to the HUMVEE and enjoys a quiet cigarette.
The epigraph at the beginning of “The Hurt Locker” is a quote from New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges that war is a drug, and that’s the case for James. He’s an adrenaline junkie. He gets high off danger. He’s also good at his job. Most of us gravitate toward what we’re good at, and James just happens to be good at something that could kill him at any second. How good? After he takes off the suit to disarm a complex car bomb (“If I die, I want to die comfortable”), a nearby colonel (David Morse) corrals him, admires his courage, and asks how many bombs he’s disarmed. He deflects the answer. He’s asked again. “873, sir,” he says. Then the colonel asks him what’s the best way to disarm one. “The way you don’t die, sir,” he responds.
Many critics have admired the supposed “heart-stopping action” of the film, and obviously there are certain tensions when watching someone defuse a bomb—particularly with friendlys or unfriendlys in the area. Why does that guy have a camera? Why aren’t those guys waving to us? Are they waving to us? Or are they waving at the cameraman? Yet after one or two IEDs, the action isn’t so heart-stopping. Either the thing blows up or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, there’s another tomorrow.
No, to me, the real drama is in the tensions between the three men. James is reckless, Sanborn is procedural, Eldridge is guilty. Eldridge knows Sgt. Thompson would be alive if he’d only shot the cellphone-carrying Iraqi, and he carries this with him every second. A desk colonel, John Cambridge (Christian Camargo), tries to get him to open up but Eldridge will have none of it. He demonstrates what’s wracking him by shooting his now-empty rifle. Dead. Click. Not-dead. Dead. Click. Not-dead. Then he guilts Cambridge into coming out of the Green Zone, where, of course, Cambridge gets killed. Yet another thing for Eldridge to carry all his life. He can’t win.
James can. He’s the hero but he’s not. At one point, while exchanging macho stomach punches, Sanborn pulls a knife on him and lays it at his throat. James leans into it. When Sanborn asks him, “Do you think I got what it takes to put on the suit?” James replies, “Hell no.” Which makes us wonder what it does take. Which delivers this answer: A lack of concern about living.
In a way the movie doesn’t go deeply enough into this tri-part relationship. I wanted to know more about Sanborn. I wanted a better discussion of procedural vs. reckless. Might not reckless actually be safer? We saw procedural at the beginning and it sure wasn’t safe for Thompson. Using the bot allowed crowds and enemies to gather. Better to act like James and walk down the street like you’re walking to the beach. Either the thing blows up or it doesn’t.
Boal and Bigelow keep playing with tropes. James befriends, in an offhand way, an Iraqi boy who sells blackmarket DVDs; but when he finds him dead on a table, cut up into a human bomb, he loses it. He goes after the boy’s boss, he breaks into a Baghdad apartment, he runs through the streets of Baghdad after midnight. Then the boy turns up. The dead boy was not his boy. We were already wondering how stable James is and this gives us a better idea. Something ain’t working there.
The best trope in the film is still the countdown to being shipped home. In “The Deer Hunter” there’s that great transition where one moment our boys are partying in rural Pennsylvania and the next moment they’re in a deadly firefight in Vietnam. Boal and Bigelow do the opposite. There’s two days left, James has just met his match with a human IED (although James survives), and our boys are in their HUMVEE getting pelted with rocks from Iraqi children. The next second James is standing in an American grocery store, frozen food aisle, muzak in the background. He’s wearing civilian clothes. He looks ordinary. The grocery store, particularly compared to the bright heat of Iraq, feels cold, devoid of life, awful. It feels like a dream but not a pleasant one. You feel the cultural dissonance James must feel, the dislocation, the difference between that and this. And as awful as that was, this feels worse. The fluorescent lights are not real lights, the music is not real music, the food is not real food. Everything is false. And yet this is what we’re fighting for. It’s one of the best scenes of the year.
It also prefigures James decision to re-up and return to Iraq. The final shot of the film is James swaggering down yet another dusty street in his moonsuit. He could be a cowboy in the Old West. 365 Days Left. But until what? Until the deadness of the frozen-food aisle again. There is no safety.
It’s probably dangerous to see Sgt. James as more than just Sgt. James but I can’t help it. Is he representative? Does he represent us? In other words, is our incessant foreign adventurism the result, in part, of having a home life, and a home culture, that feels like a lie? American culture isn’t what we’re fighting for; it’s actually what we’re running from.
Too broad a stroke, I know. And yet. And yet.
Review: “Public Enemies” (2009)
WARNING: PUBLIC SPOILERS
So to the obvious question: Was Michael Mann initially interested in John Dillinger because he’s a typical Mann anti-hero, or did Mann turn the historic Dillinger into a typical Mann anti-hero?
In the film’s first scene, for example, we see Dillinger (Johnny Depp) entering prison in handcuffs. Turns out he’s not being led in; he’s breaking other guys, including gang boss Walter Dietrich (James Russo), out. Mid-break, though, one gangmember gets a little too rifle-butt happy on a guard, and shots are fired alerting the other guards in the towers. Before it’s all over, Dietrich is shot, dragged by the escape car, and finally succumbs and dies. Dillinger ain’t happy. The hood that got rifle-butt happy? He doesn’t last a mile from prison. Dillinger punches his face in and kicks him out the door. The dude is basically the Waingro of the movie: The unprofessional one who alerts us to the professionalism of the others. It’s a constant Mann theme.
Depp’s Dillinger is also, like most Mann heroes, a man of few words; a man who focuses on the essential. After meeting hat-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) at a dinner club, we get this non sequitur:
Billie: How come you don’t know how to dance?
Dillinger: Frechette. That French?
Unfortunately, there’s also this. At a fancy restaurant, Billie feels awkward in her three-dollar dress and Dillinger looks around at the customers:
Dillinger: They’re all about where people come from. I only care about where they’re going.
Billie: Where are you going?
Dillinger: Anywhere I want.
In the theater I blanched at this conversation but in retrospect it works. Dillinger is at a high point here. He busts guys out of prison. He robs banks at will. Top of the world, ma. But tectonic plates are shifting around him. J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) is accruing power as the head of the FBI and places Melvin Pervis (Christian Bale), the man who killed Pretty Boy Floyd, at the head of a Dillinger task force in Chicago. Meanwhile, Dillinger’s sometime-ally, Al Capone’s former gang, now the National Crime Syndicate under Frank Nitti, is going corporate. They’re making money hand-over-fist, coast-to-coast, through wire-service gambling, and since they’ve paid off the cops to leave them alone, the last thing they need is the sensational bank-robbing antics of men like Dillinger attracting attention and possibly shining a spotlight on them. They make Dillinger an offer but he refuses and they cut all ties with him. Safe houses are closed off. Friends turn. This is the movie at its most intriguing. Dillinger isn’t simply a crook pursued by cops. He’s a man being squeezed by two corporate forces. He’s the last individual standing. And in this new world he finds he can’t go anywhere he wants.
The casting is intriguing. Depp, Bale and Crudup could play brothers they look so much alike. Dillinger and Purvis, in particular, are both professional men heading outfits that aren’t always professional or competent. They’re both guys doing jobs, but Dillinger is having more fun with his. Purvis, one feels, begins to lose his soul in the process. He places corporate results ahead of moral methods. He tortures out information. He’s basically us this decade. Crudup, meanwhile, still handsome, somehow suggests the fleshiness Hoover will grow into.
Depp is a revelation. I didn’t think he could do gangster but there’s always something hard and immovable in his eyes. Dillinger was supposedly one of the more graceful of bank robbers, and Depp demonstrates it, vaulting beautifully over a bank counter, machine gun in hand. I could watch “Public Enemies” again just for the dreamy, eerie scene where Dillinger is extradited back to Indiana. It feels like a mirage to me. I want to grasp at its meaning but it eludes me. Maybe its beauty is its meaning; maybe it wasn’t meant to be grasped.
Did Mann miss an opportunity by avoiding a tri-part structure and relegating Purvis and Hoover to secondary status? Is there too much a focus on Dillinger? Aspects of his story bored me. The romance. He meets her, wants her, gets her; then, of course, she worries he’ll be killed. “Dillinger: Wanted dead or dead,” one gangmember jokes, but it’s not a joke to her and she complains. But it’s a boring complaint, one we’ve heard in too many movies. It’s only in the second half of the film, when the FBI is watching her, bugging her phone using primitive phonograph technology, that this relationship becomes interesting. It’s even better when she’s caught and tortured for information. Cotillard is outstanding in these scenes.
Once Dillinger is squeezed by both the FBI and the Syndicate, he’s forced into partnership with less professional men like Baby Face Nelson, who promises big hauls and doesn’t deliver, kills unnecessarily and draws unwanted attention. The FBI closes in. More gangmembers go down. Eventually Dillinger is as alone as Frank was in “Thief.” He’s the last individual standing in a corporate world. There’s a great scene near the end when Dillinger drops off a girl downtown, then spies the Chicago Police Station across the street. He doesn’t just go into the police station, he goes into the Dillinger squad room, large, like a football field, and looks at all the photos they’ve taken, all the memorabilia they’ve gathered, all the equipment they need. To get him. Amusement shines in his eyes. The squad room seems empty, but slowly, dreamily, we realize, no, the men are just gathered at one end near a radio, listening to the ballgame. Dillinger stops, watches them, asks a question. They answer without looking up. He continues to smile. Tectonic shifts have occurred but he’s still a man who goes anywhere he wants. Even here.
I’m still gestating the film. I need to see it again. At the screening yesterday, someone brought a toddler and the kid talked through crucial scenes, distracting everyone. And since it was at a multiplex, a corporate AMC entity, there was no one there to complain to.
But I want to see it again. Maybe that’s comment enough.
Review: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (2009)
WARNING: PRIME SPOILERS
Watching “Transformers: The Revenge of the Fallen,” in which two sects of ancient machines—Autobots (good ones) and Decepticons (bad ones)—battle each other over the future of the human race, and realizing that this horrifying spectacle of nonsense made $60 million at the box office last Wednesday, breaking almost all one-day records and so forever dooming us to more of the same, I began to root for the Decepticons. I figured if we are dumb enough to give this thing primacy in our culture, better to end it. Finish us off now.
Did 46-year-olds back in 1977 think this way when they first saw “Star Wars”? I doubt it. “Star Wars” was not just futuristic whiz-bang stuff but a throwback. It recalled the excitement and cliffhangers of 1930s and ‘40s movie serials. “It even has a swing across a chasm!” a friend of my father’s said that summer, defending the film (from him). It was also populated with archetypes: the naive, dreamy hero; the bad-ass rebel; the tough princess; the wise father; the bad guy in black. Characters steeped in history and myth.
“Transformers” deals in stereotypes: characters steeped in our shitty, throwaway culture. There’s already controversy about Skids and Mudflap, the trash-talking, hip-hop (and, for whatever reason, ugly) Autobots used as comic relief throughout the movie, but they’re just the start. What about the small, ratty Decepticon, who seems voiced by Steve Buscemi but isn’t (Buscemi should sue), and who is last seen humping Megan Fox’s leg? What about the empirical British Decepticon-turned-Autobot who actually uses a cane to get around? What about Optimus Prime, whose voice is so grand and bland and devoid of personality he sounds less like a hero than a satire of a hero?
The humans in the movie are even more reductive. Army men are brave, smart and loyal; glasses-wearing bureaucrats are dumb and meddlesome. Most everyone is comic relief, particularly if they’re ethnic. Actually it’s interesting to consider who’s not comic relief. Sam (Shia LeBeouf) generally plays straight man. So does Major Lennox, the handsome white army dude. So does the white army general and Optimus Prime. Meanwhile, Sam’s college roommate, a Hispanic Web site operator and professional blowhard, acts cowardly, tasers himself with his pants around his ankles, and winds up inadvertently nestling with Agent Simmons (John Turturo). The Friday-afternoon crowd I saw this with thought all of it hilarious. They roared with laughter.
Plot? Do we go there?
Apparently Transformers need a substance called Energon to survive, and one way to get Energon is to destroy a sun. (And you thought we were wasteful.) Most Transformers refuse to destroy a universe with life in it but some don’t care. These two factions clashed on Earth in 17,000 B.C., and the Autobots, sacrificing themselves for primitive humans, hid the “matrix key” that works the “sun harvester machine” from the Decepticons. Transformers have been living here ever since. But what exactly does a Transformer transform into in, say, 5,000 B.C.? A spear? And why have we evolved during the last 19,000 years but Transformers stayed the same?
That’s backstory. The story proper begins when a “shard” from the previous film’s “cube” is loosened from Sam’s clothes, and all sorts of small, cackling Transformers are created, recalling “Gremlins.” They’re quickly stopped by Sam’s loyal Autobot, the Chevy Camaro, but the incident hardly slows Sam or the movie down. He’s about to leave for college and he’s dealing with a crying mother, a girlfriend above his paygrade, and a wish to lead a normal life. He can’t be bothered by creatures that nearly destroyed the world.
Once at college, he’s confronted with the aforementioned Hispanic roommate, a hot girl who keeps coming onto him but who is actually a Transformer (and a ripoff of “Species” and “Terminator 3”), and the fact that, in an already infamous quote, “Megatron wants what’s in my brain!”
Megatron, chief villain in the earlier film, begins this one dead on the sea floor but he’s soon resurrected by other Decepticons. So why does he, and his master, the Fallen, want what’s in Sam’s brain? Because apparently Sam has knowledge of where that matrix key is located. How did he get it? Who knows? Can he access it? No. Instead he spouts gibberish and draws ancient symbols on his dorm walls. Is Megatron making him do this or is it the knowledge itself? Again: Who knows? Never ask “why” in this thing.
The Fallen wants to return to Earth to get his revenge but Optimus is in the way. Apparently only a Prime can defeat the Fallen. (Why? Oh, right. Sorry.) So once Optimus, the last of the Primes, is killed protecting Sam, Earth is wide open and the Fallen returns. I believe he lands in Paris while Megatron alights on the Met Life Building in New York City, declaring, to no one in particular, “It’s time for the world to know of our presence! No disguises! No mercy!” Then Decepticons destroy New York.
Whoops, sorry, they don’t. In fact, by the time we return to New York, with Sam and Mikaela (Megan Fox) and the Hispanic dude, who are searching for someone to translate the symbols in Sam’s head, New Yorkers are hanging in a deli, calmly ordering food. Apparently Decepticons decided to show Poughkeepsie no mercy instead.
But wait... Decoding the symbols in Sam’s head? Won’t that lead to the matrix key and play into Megatron’s plan to destroy our universe? Well, yes. But Sam assumes the matrix key will also revive Optimus. At one point we get this exchange:
Sam: Everyone’s after me because of what I know. And I know this is going to work.
Mikaela: How do you know it’s going to work?
Sam: Because I believe it.
Characters who know something because they believe it are part of a long tradition in Hollywood movies, and not just Christmas movies, but not many are willing to risk the entire universe on the assumption. Not that anyone raises this point with Sam. Even after they find the key and it turns to dust, Sam still gathers the dust, runs through the desert with it—dodging Decepticon fire all the while (they’re lousy shots)—but is finally struck down. At that point he’s visited in his mind (or his soul?) by Autobot Elders, who reward him for his sacrifice to Optimus by reviving him. Then the key is revived. Then Optimus is revived. Then Decepticons steal the key anyway and try to turn off our sun.
This synopsis, by the way, doesn’t begin to reveal the soul-numbing stupidity of this thing. Transformers have the ability to regenerate themselves with parts of other, dead Transformers, and that’s how this movie was made—from plot points and storylines of other movies grafted onto this one without any sense of style or logic or genuine emotion. On the run, and knowing that the universe might end because of the knowledge in Sam’s head, what do Sam and Mikaela talk about? Whether Sam should kill himself to keep this knowledge from Megatron? No. They argue about which one of them is going to say “I love you” first. (See: “The Fifth Element.”) It’s as if they know they’re going to survive. Which they do. Michael Bay is almost postmodern in this respect. His characters aren’t characters but devices. The question is never “How would people in this situation react?” It’s always “How can people in this situation entertain the movie audience until we reach the conclusion we all know we’ll reach?”
OK, maybe this will give you an idea how bad “Transformers 2” is. During Optimus’ first death-battle with Decepticons, when he finally topples near the woods of the west coast, sacrificing himself for all of us but particularly for Sam, the music wells up majestically, tragically, because that’s what movies do at this point in the story. But it’s so obviously aping other movies, and so fantastically off, that it made me question the legitimacy of all movies. By substituting a gigantic, stentorian hunk of metal for a human being that we might actually care about, Michael Bay is revealing the absurdity of the medium itself.
In a perfect world, this thing would be a b-movie, playing in drive-ins somewhere, and eventually mocked by MST3K for its absurdities. Instead, it made over $200 million during its first five days, ensuring its continuing status as a centerpiece of our culture.
With apologies to Allen Ginsberg: America, go fuck yourself with your “Transformers 2.”
Review of “Food, Inc.” (2009)
WARNING: ORGANIC SPOILERS
My girlfriend, Patricia, who can barely tolerate meanness let alone cruelty to animals, saw the documentary “Food, Inc.” with me last night, and there were moments when she had a rough go of it. Caring boyfriend that I am, I wish she’d had it rougher. I wish she’d run screaming from the theater. I wish we all had. Maybe we would have if we’d been able to get a closer view of those big factory farms and slaughterhouses. It’s astonishing, when you think about it, that we can’t. This is a public interest issue, a public health issue. What have they got to hide? Special sauce? Secret recipe? One of the farmers, selling to Tyson, says his chickens never see the light of day. In a way, neither do we.
Yes, I’m already the converted—I’ve read Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation,” reviewed Greg Critser’s “Fat Land,” saw “Super Size Me”—but I still need to be preached at. You begin to forget if you don’t take communion. Just the other day I had two cheeseburgers at Dick’s. I thought: Why not? Then last night I watched an industry executive bragging about the ammonia they put in meat filler, which is in 70 percent of meat sold in this country. I thought: Oh, right.
“Food, Inc.” doesn’t take cheap shots but I wanted it to hit harder. Sometimes it goes for the soft, lefty emotional appeal. Here’s the mother of a 2 1/2 year-old boy who was killed by E coli in 2001 and who now lobbies Congress (fruitlessly) for greater regulations in the meat industry. Here’s an immigrant family that can only afford the fast food that is making them sicker. Both stories are sad. So are billions of others. Give me facts. Show me footage. Make me throw up.
Filmmaker Robert Kenner got my attention right away. He strolled us down the clean aisles of a modern supermarket in haunting, dreamy fashion—like something out of a David Lynch movie—while the narrator (Eric Schlosser) said the following:
The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000.
That’s scary enough. Then I realized I’m 46. My entire lifetime encompasses this warped timeframe.
They give us facts. In 1970 the top five beef producers produced 20 percent of the nation’s beef. Now the top four produce 80 percent of it.
A chicken in 1950 took 90 days to reach maturity. Now it takes 49 days. And they’re twice the size. Some have grown so large so quickly they can’t even walk. We see them stumbling. It feels like we’re messing with the plan—Nature’s or God’s, take your pick.
Our government subsidizes corn, which is put into almost everything we eat, and which is shipped around the country to feed cattle. An organic farmer points to his cows in a field and talks about the natural cycles. The cows eat the grass, then shit on the grass, which fertilizes the grass, allowing the grass to grow so they can eat it again. We’re messing with this plan—Nature’s or God’s, take your pick. Now we truck in tons of corn to feed tons of fenced-in cattle and truck out tons of manure. Industry claims this is an efficient system, but it’s not as efficient as God’s or Nature’s. It also leads to disease.
We get footage of the E coli breakouts. Remember Jack in the Box in 1993? That was a big deal. Then, in rapid fashion, and for diminishing attention spans, we get breakouts in ’98, ’01, ’02, ’06. Unless we’re directly involved, we've stopped paying attention. It used to be just meat. Now it’s spinach. Runoff from factory slaughterhouses is making even our vegetables deadly.
Kenner has trouble focusing because the subject, like the runoff, gets into everything. So NAFTA legislation allows a flood of cheap, government-subsidized corn into Mexico, which puts 1.5 million Mexican farmers out of work, which forces many north, here, to work in our factory farms and slaughterhouses. Until of course the illegal-alien thing becomes hot. Then they’re rounded up and shipped back, in careful intervals, so as not to disturb production. The labor issue is definitely a consequence of the bigger subject—why and what we’re eating—but it still feels peripheral. It still feels softy lefty.
Here’s the focus. Industries are now cloning animals but they’re not required by the FDA to label the product “cloned meat.” The California legislature passed a resolution requiring the labeling but Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed it. Hasta la vista, baby.
Here’s the focus. Monsanto created and, in the 1980s, successfully patented a genetically-altered soybean called Roundup Ready, which is resistant to their herbicide Roundup. They own the seed. In 1996, 20 percent of soybeans in the U.S. were Monsanto’s; by 2008, 90 percent were. They sue any farmer who keeps one of their seeds, or onto whose farm a genetically altered seed is blown by the wind. Other soybean seeds are now disappearing (forever?) in favor of Roundup Ready. Monsanto is putting God out of business.
Here’s the focus. In 13 states, the food industry can sue people—such as Oprah in ‘96—who make disparaging comments about their products. It’s called veggie libel laws. To fight you need Oprah’s money. Imagine if the film industry could sue a critic who disparaged its product. The mind reels.
Here’s the focus. For much of the last 20 years, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, industry regulators (heads of the FDA, etc.) have been of the industry. They have ties to the Monsantos of the world. Their interests are not our interests. Military-industrial complex? Pikers.
That’s the kind of thing I wanted more of. I wanted a concentrated, close-up look at what our food is and why.
At the same time, maybe it’s better that Kenner didn’t hit too hard. “You’ve got to hold something back for pressure,” Robert Frost said of poetry. Kenner does. He leaves it to us to provide the pressure.
Here’s mine. Here’s me letting off steam. If a company like Monsanto can patent a genetically altered soybean, then force them to call it something besides a soybean. In all of their packaging, in all of their marketing, the term “soybean” cannot be used. Because a soybean is God’s product, Nature’s product, not Monsanto’s product. Let them call it a crapbean. Let’s pass that legislation.
The scariest people in the doc tend to be industry people who speak their mind, who have no broad overview. “Everything we’ve done in modern agriculture is to grow it faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper,” one says. This is how business people think, and should think, but there should be balance from elsewhere and we’re not getting it. Why we’re imbalanced.
The business of business is to speed up the assembly line, to push things through the system at a faster and faster rate, and in doing so, they’ve created a product that is not the product. This is everywhere, in all business. So rather than wait for homeowners to pay off their mortgages, we’ve turned mortgages into mortgage securities, which banks sell to investment banks, who then sell them to investors, which frees up the banks to lend again. Ad infinitum. Until infinitum comes calling. So with our food. We’re pushing chickens and soybeans through the system at a faster and faster rate, but what we’re pushing through is no longer chickens and soybeans. It’s something else. Ad infinitum. Until infinitum comes calling.
The doc ends with a plea for individual responsibility. Everything you buy and eat is a vote. Be careful how you vote. I agree. But more needs doing. Government needs to be on the side of consumers rather than just business. At the least, we need to be able to know what’s in our food. “Food, Inc.” is a start for those who need a start. It’s communion for those who don’t. Check it out. The situation is worse than you think.
Review: “L'emmerdeur” (2008)
WARNING: AS MANY SPOILERS AS FRANCOIS PIGNONS
As you watch “L’emmerdeur” (“A Pain in the Ass”), the latest comedy from Francis Veber, and as you’re enjoying the typical Veberian patterns—the comedic clash between an emotional, obtuse man (the feminine), and a tough, professional and slightly dangerous man (the masculine)—you realize, after about 45 minutes, that most of the action is taking place in two adjoining hotel rooms. And you think, “Hell, this could’ve been a play. How odd that Veber wrote such a play-like film so late in his career.”
At least that’s what you think if, like me, you really don’t know Veber. Afterwards I learned that “L’emmerdeur” is a remake of a 1973 film of the same name, which was based upon Veber’s 1969 play, “Le contrat,” which was also the basis for Billy Wilder’s last film, “Buddy Buddy,” in 1981. It's been told a lot, in other words. Is it worth revisiting?
The set-up still works. A hitman, Jean Milan (Richard Berry), attempting to kill a high-level witness, takes an adjoining hotel room with a man, Francois Pignon (Patrick Tims), trying to kill himself. And the incompetence of the latter disrupts the super-competence of the former.
Pignon’s wife has left him for her shrink and he’s a puddle. He calls her, declares his suicidal intentions, then tries hanging himself from the bathroom shower. It breaks, alerting the hotel clerk in Milan’s room, who wants to call the police. Since the last thing Milan needs is cops flying around while he’s trying to assassinate someone in the plaza below, he takes responsibility and shoos the clerk away. But now he’s responsible. The cops would’ve been easy in comparison.
Tims is the 8th actor to play Pignon, the nom de choix for the feminine half of Veber’s buddy comedies. Others include Gad Elmelah in “La doublure” (2006), Daniel Auteuil in “Le placard” (2001) and Jacques Villeret in “Le diner de cons” (1998). But the most famous and probably the best to take on Pignon was Pierre Richard in two Veber comedies with Gerard Depardieu in the 1980s: “Les comperes” (remade as “Father’s Day” in the U.S., with Robin Williams in the Pignon role) and “Les fugitifs” (remade as “Three Fugitives” in the U.S., with Martin Short in the Pignon role). You could add “Le chevre” (1981) to the mix, too. Veber wrote and directed it, Depardieu starred as the tough guy, and Richard played the hapless half named Francois...Perrin. Basically the same deal.
Not to be mean but Tims made me long for Richard. Pignon is such a bothersome character that one invariably roots for the other guy, even if, as here, the other guy’s a professional killer. Because at least he’s professional. But Richard had a dreamy quality that made his Pignon palatable. There was something crisp and determined about his dreaminess, too. He may have been wrong, but he was only wrong because the world is wrong. You need Depardieu’s headbutting ways to get by, and Richard’s Pignon only half-understood this. In a way he seemed determined not to understand this. He preferred his brand of idiocy to the world’s.
The Pignon of “Le diner de cons” worked in a different way. In that film, which was the highest-grossing film in France in 1998, the set-up was so horrible—a group of successful, professional men inviting the biggest idiot they could find to a dinner, at which a champion idiot would be crowned, with Pierre Brochant, of course, choosing Pignon—that we had no sympathy at all for Brochant, and in fact cheered on Pignon as his genial idiocy slowly ruined Brochant’s life. Brochant asked for what he got. He invited it in.
Tims’ Pignon is not dreamy and he’s not genial, and the hitman Jean Milan never invited him in. Plus the notion that this schlumpy Pignon was ever the husband of the gazelle-like Louise (Virginie Ledoyen, 16 years Tims’ junior) seems too absurd even for comedy. I could see her marrying Richard and his brand of dreaminess. But what does Tims bring? What’s his redeeming factor? Does he have one? That’s one of the main problems with the film.
A side-note. Could the Veberian dynamic (the masculine-feminine “buddy” film) work with an actual female in the Pignon role? I doubt it. It would disrupt the comedic dilemma. I.e.: What does a professional tough guy do when forced into partnership with an emotional puddle who is not a woman? You turn the character into a woman and you sacrifice comedy for romance.
There’s a phrase I use a lot as an editor, and I first thought of it while watching the final scene of Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby”: a soft landing. It’s a shot that brings us back to earth with nary a bump and yet is so resonant that it glides us along even as the credits roll. It’s a beautiful thing when done right and Veber’s the master. Even his disappointing films, such as “Le chevre,” give us soft landings, and “L’emmerdeur” is no different. The cops, finally alerted to trouble, shoot a tear-gas canister into Milan’s room. On the bed, Pignon, stronger now, taking charge now, puts his arm around the undone professional killer and assures him that, even in prison, he will always stick by him and never abandon him. He says this as clouds of puffy gas fill the room, slowly enveloping the two. And in that shot we finally get the dreaminess we needed all along.
Review: "Wind Blows in the Meadow" (2009)
You get the feeling something has been lost in translation in the Iranian film “Wind Blows in the Meadow.” The meadow, for example. “Wind Blows Through the Woods” would be a more accurate title but the subtitles screw even this up, calling a patch of snow- and ice-covered trees near a northern Iranian mountain village a “jungle.” Too bad. The wind that blows in the woods is one of the film’s key symbols. It loudly and ominously loosens ice and snow onto the people below. It portends disaster.
The movie begins simply. A man goes into the woods and cuts down a tree with a chainsaw. He’s cutting off its branches when he suddenly screams. It’s rolled over onto him.
A young woman with beautiful dark eyes buys supplies at the local store, then says “Put it on my account,” and gets a nasty look from the proprietor. Outside a young man with Down syndrome tries to give the girl some jewelry, but she regards it, and him, with something between horror and hatred. What’s going on?
Everything falls into place in the next scene. The woodsman, Taleb, is bedridden and in debt, and so he’s promised the hand of his daughter, the dark-eyed Shouka, to Shokrollah, the boy with Down syndrome. No, wait, she’s been promised to his father, the old but tough Nasir. No, she has been promised to Shokrollah, who is horribly smitten and wants to kiss her, while she can only regard him with disgust.
OK, so not everything falls into place.
I have to admit, after the family patriarchs finalize the upcoming marriage, and after Shouka’s mother (mother-in-law? aunt?) chastises the girl for refusing to come when called, and then Shouka does, standing there beautiful and defiant, I kind of rolled my eyes. I thought: OK, this is one of those Lifetime-Channel movies for the indie filmgoer. They go pretending to embrace the foreignness of the film but truly embrace its western aspects: in this case, the defiance of a beautiful woman in a backwards, patriarchal (and horribly, horribly foreign) setting. Plus aren’t her scarves gorgeous?
I also knew, from the synopsis, that the plot concerns a Romeo and Juliet type relationship, and so, like women everywhere, I sat back and waited for Romeo to show up.
The film is better than that. It’s more foreign than that. At a tea house, a tailor, Rafie, agrees to do the wedding up fine—suit for the groom, dress for the bride—and one assumes his assistant, Jalil, a vaguely handsome young man with dark hair and high cheekbones, will play Romeo, as he does. But he’s not much smarter than Shokrollah, and he’s slow to realize his role in the story. He’s also not that handsome, or interesting, or courageous. You think: She could still do better.
Once Jalil overhears Shouka’s complaints, though, and then sees her in her wedding dress, he concocts a scheme to delay the wedding long enough for Shouka to talk to her aunt, who talks to Taleb, who calls off the wedding. But it turns out the old man, Nasir, and Yahya, his brother (eldest son?), are not to be trifled with. Hell, Jalil barely looks at Shouka before Yahya is threatening him with a knife. Things get fairly lawless, and one wonder if this is a lawless society or if Nasir and Yahya are like the Iranian-village version of the Mafia. That would make Rafie the tailor a kind of Enzo the Baker who performs a favor for the local don...that goes horribly awry.
I like the fact that I don’t know. I don’t know Iranian society, let alone Iranian mountain-village society, so I miss all the cultural signifiers. I’m dropped in the middle of this story, which, sans a chainsaw and truck, could’ve taken place 500 or 1,000 years ago, and am forced to feel my way around.
It’s its very foreignness, in other words, that intrigues. At the same time, what kicks the story into high gear are two of the more ancient and universal lessons we know: beautiful women are coveted; and men are brutal.
Now That's Good Writing: Denby on “Up”
“Up,” which begins in the nineteen-thirties, is steeped in the style of that period, with its gee-whiz appreciation of exotic adventure and its worship of heroes who have journeyed to strange, distant places. A little boy, Carl, watches newsreels at a theatre, and sees an explorer, Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), first celebrated then humiliated: no one believes the skeleton of a large flightless bird that Muntz has brought back from South America is authentic. When Carl leaves the theatre, he imagines the newsreel narrator describing his walk home, turning his stepping over a crack in the sidewalk into a vault over a canyon. It’s a gracious moment: the co-directors, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, who also wrote the screenplay, pay affectionate tribute to daydreaming as a noble and necessary human activity. In dreams begin responsibilities, and in dreams begin movies, too.
—David Denby on “Up” in the June 8th New Yorker. Read on and discover why Denby feels Pixar at its best is better than Disney at its best.
Review: “The Hangover” (2009)
WARNING: OUTRAGEOUS SPOILERS
“The Hangover” isn’t the funniest movie I’ve seen this year—“Up” is—but it’s got some laughs and a smart structure. Instead of showing us four guys partying wildly in Vegas for a night, it shows us three guys trying to figure out what happened—and where the fourth guy is—the morning after partying wildly in Vegas for a night. It has a purpose, in other words. It gives these guys a goal. It also makes them sympathetic. We see them confused and regretful (and concerned about their friend) rather than rowdy and asinine (and concerned about nothing).
The four friends are types. Stu (Ed Helms) is a henpecked dentist with a shrewish, girlfriend who cheats on him. Phil (Bradley Cooper) is a public school teacher still trying to get by on looks and charm, and still giving off whiffs of asshole. Doug (Justin Bartha) is the bland nice guy who goes missing, and who’s supposed to be married the next day in L.A., making it necessary to find him within a certain timeframe. These guys have been friends for a while, and, though they’re obviously different, they seem like they’ve been friends for a while. There’s a camaraderie there. The conversation and shit-giving during the car ride to Vegas feels comfortable and familiar.
The fourth guy is Alan, Doug’s future brother-in-law, played by comedian Zach Galifianakis, and he’s one of the reasons “Hangover” has such great buzz. He’s not a type. When we first see him—trying on tuxes with Doug—he seems a schlemiel. Then Doug asks him to come along to Vegas with his friends, and he slowly wraps Doug in a long, creepy hug...wearing no pants. He professes discomfort waiting in the car outside Phil’s workplace, because, he says, “I’m not supposed to be within 200 feet of a school.” At a gas station an old man admires his car. Alan tells him not to touch it. Then not to look at it. Then to walk away. Then he calls him out.
So who’s Alan? He’s the guy who does whatever’s necessary to make each situation more uncomfortable. He’s the envelope-pusher. Meaning he’s a lot like the actor playing him. From a profile on Galifianakis in the New York Times last week:
A typical hourlong set might meander from carefully composed, conceptual one-liners à la Steven Wright to profanity-drenched tirades against members of the audience to slapstick to solemnly tacky musical interludes (Galifianakis is an able pianist) to Andy Kaufman-esque attacks on the genre that seem less concerned with eliciting laughs from the crowd than with confounding its notions of what comedy or, for that matter, entertainment ought to be.
Some of the more memorable lines in the film are not only his but truly his. On the ride to Vegas, for example, he talks up card-counting, and, when told it’s illegal, he counters that it’s more frowned-upon than illegal. “Like masturbating on a plane,” he says. The others exchange glances and agree you can’t do that on a plane post-9/11. Alan pauses. “Thanks a lot, bin Laden,” he says.
That’s great, and, according to Bradley Cooper, it wasn’t in the script. It was all Galifianakis. So is: “I didn’t know they gave out rings at the Holocaust.” So is jerking off the baby. So is the blowjob shots at the end.
More and more comedies, particularly comedies about and for guys, rely on this brand of outrageousness. They’re designed to get buzz. You won’t believe what they did!, etc. Think of the naked scene in “Sarah Marshall,” the blackface and “Simple Jack” storylines in “Tropic Thunder,” almost anything Will Ferrell or Sacha Baron Cohen does. But it means Alan is less character than comedian. He doesn’t make sense.
So on the roof at Caesar’s Palace the four friends toast each other with jagermeister. “To a night the four of us will never forget,” they say. Then they forget. It’s morning, they’re lying on the floor of their suite, while the detritus of the evening’s debauchery is slowly revealed to them and us: a clucking chicken, a smoking chair, a tiger in the bathroom, a baby in the closet. They remember nothing. Stu, the dentist, is missing a tooth. Doug himself is missing.
Sorting it all out, things just get worse. When the valet brings their car it’s a police car. When clues lead them to a Vegas chapel they discover Stu married a stripper named Jade (Heather Graham). When they get their own car back and hear a rumbling in the trunk, they open it expecting Doug; instead they’re attacked by a naked Chinese man (Ken Jeong).
This is where a lot of the humor comes from. We’re watching fairly normal guys reacting to evidence of the outrageousness they, without remembering it, caused.
Unfortunately the filmmakers double down on outrageousness. Visiting a doctor, his patient is an old man with wrinkled, formless skin, and the punchline is his wrinkled, formless ass. Outrageous! The naked Chinese man turns out to be not just a gangster, and not just gay, but flaming. Outrageous! The wedding singer sings inappropriate songs with raunchy lyrics. Outrageous!
But not. Each of these moments stopped the movie cold for me. Maybe it’s necessary to have one designated envelope-pusher per film. Galifianakis here. Everyone else should underplay.
Adventure stories have often been about returning home, and so is this one. Our guys get to the wedding in the nick of time, changed men, their more pungent qualities tempered. Stu is no longer a doormat and Phil seems ready to embrace the role of father and husband. The wedding—the singer notwithstanding—is a sweet scene, as they sit back and reflect on their wild two days. Even if they don’t remember most of it.
Review: “Up” (2009)
WARNING: MYRIAD, COLORFUL, FLOATING SPOILERS
“Have you seen ‘Burden of Dreams’?”
“About Herzog. About the making of ‘Fitzcarraldo.’ At one point, Herzog, a little mad, directs locals in the Amazon rain forest to move a houseboat from one navigable river, over a mountain, to another navigable river. He didn’t need to do it that way but he did. And it becomes the heavy, physical representation of his dreams—and the price other people pay for them.”
“I want to do the same with a house.”
“You want to move a house over a mountain?”
“I want a house to represent dreams. And the burden of dreams.”
“I thought we were talking about a cartoon.”
“We are. Initially it’ll be glorious. The house will rise up, powered by a mass of colorful balloons, out of an American city, because the owner of the house, an old man, doesn’t want to sell out to developers and this is his only way to escape.”
“Wait a minute. Old man? I thought we were talking about a cartoon. For kids.”
“He’ll have a stowaway. A kid. A boy scout. And together they’ll float all the way down to South America.”
“’Like America...but south!’ That’s a line we already have.”
“They’ll land...but on the wrong side of Paradise Falls. And through a series of misadventures the old man will be tethered to the house, which will float slightly above them. And he’ll have to drag that floating house across this great expanse to Paradise Falls.”
“You want an old man. To drag a house. For hours.”
“Because he wants it in a certain spot. That’s his dream. And that’s the burden of his dreams.”
“I thought we were talking about a cartoon. For kids.”
“But he has to give up a lot to get the house in that spot. And once he does, once he realizes his dreams, he’ll realize his dreams weren’t worth it. That it was the other stuff that mattered more. So he starts throwing shit out of the house to get it light enough to fly again.”
“Please tell me you don’t say ‘shit’ in this movie.”
“Of course not. It’s a cartoon. For kids.”
“What happens in the end?”
“They live happily ever after.”
“I like that part.”
Or so I imagine the pitch for “Up.” Does Pixar even have to pitch anymore? To whom? Disney? Those losers? They’ve got a lousy recent track record, while no one’s recent track record is better than Pixar’s. The director of “Up,” Pete Docter, directed “Monsters, Inc.,” which made $250 million in the U.S. and over $500 million worldwide. The screenwriter of “Up,” Bob Peterson, wrote “Finding Nemo,” which made $339 million in the U.S. and $864 million worldwide. This decade, none of their movies has made less than $200 million in the U.S. and $400 million worldwide. Their movies have the added advantage of being spectacularly good.
“Up” is no different. It begins with a 1930s newsreel, “Movietone News,” focusing on an Errol Flynn-like adventurer named Charles Muntz who extols his young viewers, “Adventure is out there!,” and it ends with the notion that it’s not our adventures but the mundane things in life that matter.
On his way home from the “Movietone” theater, Carl Fredrickson, a young, would-be adventurer, hears a voice talking up the same kind of Charles Muntz-like adventures he’s imagining in his head. It’s a girl, a very talky, very tomboyish, almost Peppermint Patty-like girl named Ellie, and the two of them plan great adventures together, including following Charles Muntz down to Paradise Falls in South America. She has an adventure book, into which she’s pasted a few items; then she’s written STUFF I’M GOING TO DO. The rest of the pages are blank. There’s a life to be lived.
Then we see it lived. Carl and Ellie get married. They buy a house. She works at the zoo and he sells balloons at the zoo. They want kids but can’t have them. Then Ellie dies, and Carl is 79, alone, and living in the house they fixed up together, surrounded by a massive development project to which he refuses to sell out. After he accidentally attacks one of the construction workers, he’s declared a public menace and is scheduled to be put in a home. They come for him the next morning. At which point he releases the balloons, and the house, tearing itself from its moorings, soars away toward South America. It’s a great, glorious scene.
But he’s got a stowaway—a kind of modern update of who he used to be. Russell is a talkative, enthusiastic wilderness explorer in troop 54 who needs only to “assist the elderly” to become a senior-grade wilderness explorer. “The wilderness must be explored!” is his credo. He’s also hapless. Earlier Carl sent him on a snipe hunt, and stowing away was a mistake, and he’s got absentee-father issues. But now he’s along for the ride.
Let me just say that I laughed out loud a lot during this movie. I mean belly laughs. They weren’t cheap laughs, either, but imbedded in the small details of life. The way Russell, seeing pictures of young Carl and Ellie in their aviator/adventure gear, says “Goggles,” like he’s swallowing a laugh midway through. The way, post-storm, he pokes a sleeping Carl, then says, “Whew! I thought you were dead.” The way the rare South American bird, who is named “Kevin” by Russell even though it’s a girl, squawks at Carl.
Most modern cartoon franchises try to be hip. They ape the cheaper aspects of our culture by having animated animals shake their booty, or sing, or party, or try to be famous. It’s as if the entire world, even the animal world, is made up of dopey 14-year-old boys. Which, of course, is the studio executives’ worldview.
Pixar movies focus on cultural moments rather than pop-cultural moments: that early 1960s period when astronauts replaced cowboys as heroes for boys everywhere; the difference, and similarities, between 20th-century “adventurers” and 21st-century “wilderness explorers.” Pixar doesn’t need to point to a pop-cultural phenomenon (that has nothing to do with the film) to get laughs. Two of the moments mentioned above were funny to me simply because they reminded me of my cat: the way she pokes us, incessantly, to wake us up; the way she squawks at me when she doesn’t get her way. It’s funny when she does it and it’s funny when Russell and Kevin do it. The humor is part of life, not apart from it (i.e., on television). Put it this way: In “Up,” there’s a dog, a talking dog named Dug, and he’s more real than most live-action dogs on screen. What makes him funny isn’t that he’s not like a dog—that he stands on his hind legs and sings a rap song, for example, as he might in other animated features—but that he’s exactly like a dog. Pixar finds humor intrinsically within the object.
And drama. And sorrow. At Paradise Falls, Carl, burdened by his house, chooses the house, and what it represents, over Kevin, and Dug, and even Russell, and what they represent. Then he sits in it, alone, his longstanding dream finally realized, and he looks through Ellie’s old adventure book, and the unfulfilled promise of STUFF I’M GOING TO DO. But the pages beyond that page aren’t blank; he’s shocked to find they’re filled with the life he and Ellie lived together. This fact recalls something Russell said earlier about his father: “I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember most.” That’s what Ellie filled her pages with: the boring, everyday stuff we discount but that means the most. On the last page Ellie includes a note to Carl: “Thanks for the adventure. Now go have a new one! Love, Ellie.” And as he does, as her words inspire him to throw out most of the stuff in his house to get it aloft again, to get back into the adventure, I sat there, a 46-year-old, tearing up.
Is it a lie? Pixar tells us an adventure story that tells us it’s not the adventures that matter.
I don’t think it’s a lie. I think they’re getting at one of the more profound things movies can say.
A good movie leaves us with a mood. Last week I left “L’Heure d’ete” feeling that life is sad, and the stuff we accumulate, that seems precious to us, is just a burden to others, even when it’s legitimately, aesthetically precious. Remember the last lines of “American Beauty”? Lester talks about how, now that he’s dead, he’s grateful for every single stupid moment of his life. But that’s not the mood the movie leaves us with. It leaves us with a wish for that feeling.
“Up” actually leaves us with that feeling. I left the theater grateful for every single, stupid, boring moment of my life.
Near the end of the movie, Russell says to Carl: “Sorry about your house, Mr. Fredrickson.”
“It’s just a house,” he responds.
“On m’appelle Monsieur Tibbs!”
When I first heard about the book I wondered why Harris chose ’67 and its mix of old Hollywood (“Dr. Doolittle”; “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”) and new (“Bonnie and Clyde”; “The Graduate”), with “In the Heat of the Night” coming down the middle to win. Seemed arbitrary. Seemed too close to the period John Gregory Dunne covers in “The Studio.” Why not pick, say, 1970, where the difference between old Hollywood (“Love Story”; “Airport”), and new (“M*A*S*H”; “Five Easy Pieces”), feels even starker? And with “Patton” still coming down the middle to win?
But it makes sense. The inspiration for these five movies began in 1963, or earlier, and the cultural difference between ’63 and ’67 is huge. Particularly in racial matters. Particularly in youth matters. Harris’ period also includes the heady influence of the nouvelle vague (when it was nouvelle) as well as the end of the production code. The influences are too fascinating to ignore.
(On the other hand: 1970 would’ve given you Altman and Nicholson, and an American culture in which the anti-war movie “M*A*S*H” outperformed the war biopic “Patton” at the box office. But still...)
At the moment I’m simply dealing with the difference between 2001 and now. Eight years ago I wrote a little something about “In the Heat of the Night,” and reading it over today, it lacks, let’s say, a largeness of spirit. But it’s not necessarily wrong.
My big problem with "Heat" this viewing? The dance is too extreme.
There’s a murder. Tibbs is pulled in and charged for it. He didn’t do it, and he can prove he didn’t do it, and he’s a homicide detective from Philly who knows more than these crackers ever will about police work. So how do you get him to stay in Mississippi to help, when he’s called “boy” and “nigger” and he’s arrested him for being black at the train station? In Mississippi? Hell, they filmed in Sparta, Illinois because Sidney Poitier didn’t want to set foot in Mississippi—and you can’t blame him. So how do you get Virgil Tibbs to stay there?
Here’s the dance:
1. You must stay! Tibbs is ordered to help by his Philadelphia superiors.Basically you have a two-hour dance between one intent and one reluctant partner. But they keep changing roles. There’s rarely a moment when both are reluctant—because that would end the dance—and, after a time, the lack of stability feels absurd.
2. No, you must go! Gillespie captures suspect no. 1 (Harvey) and dismisses Tibbs. (Even, briefly, arrests him.)
3. No, you must stay! Colbert’s widow wants Tibbs on the case or she’ll move her factory elsewhere.
4. No, you must go! After Tibbs slaps Endicott (back).
5. Really, you must go! B-grade KKK chases Tibbs and Gillespie captures suspect no. 2 (Sam Wood).
6. Why are you still here? Gillespie and Tibbs learn of Purdy’s pregnancy, which leads to Tibbs solving the case.
I would’ve liked more of Tibbs in the black community, too—which they cut—as well as another scene between Tibbs and Endicott. Not sure what it would entail. “I know you didn’t do this. But I know what you did do. Everyone knows.” Something.
You could actually remake this movie today—without the racial element. Blue state vs. red state. It would work. There’s always a divide in this country. We’re too big not to have a divide.
Review: “L’Heure d’ete” (2008)
WARNING: BEAUCOUP DE SPOILERS
“L’Heure d’ete,” pluralized to “Summer Hours” in the English translation, would make a good double-feature with “Rachel Getting Married.” Both films depict family tension surrounding a major event: a wedding for “Rachel,” a death for “Summer.” If someone thinks up a good birth movie, we’ve got our triple bill.
The film begins with kids and dogs racing through the woods, and into the backyard of a cottage house, on a treasure hunt. It becomes a story about giving up treasure.
The owner of the cottage house is Helene (Edith Scob), and everyone’s gathered for her 75th birthday. Along with Eloise, the housekeeper, we see five adults eating, drinking and smoking around the backyard table, and can surmise, without explicitly being told, which are Helene’s kids and which are in-laws. Maybe it’s the way Helene’s kids sit, or speak, or speak more, but we understand by merely observing who’s who. There’s Frederic (Charles Bering), the eldest, who has something weary about him; Adrienne (Juliet Binoche), the New Yorker, who has something hard about her; and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), the youngest, who lives abroad in China, working for les baskets Puma.
Even as Helene enjoys the company, and the chaotic life the kids and grandkids bring, she’s preparing for her own death, and takes Frederic, the only child still living in France, through the house, detailing which precious object should go where. Every family has precious objects but these are truly, prestigiously precious: paintings by Corot, a Hoffman armoire, vases by Bracquemond, and pieces of a sculpture by Degas, which, sometime in the past, Helene’s kids broke while playing. Her uncle, Paul Berthier, was a great artist (and, we find out later, her lover), and these are the remnants of the family’s artistic past. Helene counsels selling this, giving that to the Musee d’Orsay, but Frederic, who has trouble talking about the death of his mother with his mother, assumes everything will stay the same: the kids will keep the house and the works of art. She assumes otherwise. She counsels otherwise. Why have this weight on you? Start anew.
In cinematic time, her death comes swiftly and without drama. Frederic—a Parisian economist who’s written a book that’s not well-received—goes into an office building where someone expresses their condolences and they pick out a cemetery plot. And that's it. Driving to the cottage house, Frederic stops the car and cries, while Adrienne, with her American boyfriend, sheds a few tears in the hospital, but that’s the extent of the outward emotion. Everything else is inward. And business. And choices.
The mother was right: the kids vote to sell the place. Adrienne is getting married to the American and doesn’t know how often she’ll be back, while Jeremie has agreed to a five-year commitment with Puma in Beijing, and his family plans to summer in Bali. Frederic acquiesces to all of this, sadly, but without much of a struggle. There are no villains here, just life spreading out, going where it goes, and the rest of the movie is disillusion of the cottage and its precious artifacts. At one point, Eloise, the housekeeper, returns for a visit and sees strangers—art dealers, reps from the Musee d’Orsay—removing this painting, taking that exquisite desk. Basically messing up the place she cleaned up for decades. It’s a sad sight. “For the family, it must be sadder,” she adds, but one wonders. Eloise seems to have a deeper connection with the place, and with Helene. She has no kids of her own, just a nephew, a taxi driver who drives her around. He loves her, hugs her, then leaves her at the doorstep of her apartment—the same way Helene, earlier, was left at the steps of her house after the kids and grandkids left.
The grown-up siblings have both familiarity with, and distance from, one other. They assume they know each other but there’s also curiosity. I love you, but who are you again? Or now? When Adrienne rushes into a taxi after a meeting with their lawyer, the two brothers, walking to a cafe, comment on how she’s like their mother:
“She’s running from something,” one says.
“Not us, I hope,” the other says, and both laugh.
So no villains here, but writer/director Olivier Assayas, who has made movies about global disconnect before (“demon lover”), seems to be commenting upon some aspect of specifically French dissolution. Two-thirds of Helene’s kids live abroad, the grandkids are “into America,” the artifacts wind up in museums. What aspect of French culture is still part of French daily life? Where and what is the treasure now?
“L’heure d’ete” is suffused with sadness but not nostalgia. Life expands, life contracts, life ends, life goes on. Assayas could’ve ended the film at the Musee d’Orsay, with the desk on display, looking “caged,” according to Frederic, but chose, instead, a more ambiguous end. He takes us back to the cottage house, where Frederic’s kids throw a huge, loud summer party. At first one is appalled that Helene’s place has been taken over in this fashion. But is this better? It's vibrant. It's life. The final shot is of the eldest daughter and her boyfriend, young and unburdened, running away from the camera and toward whatever it is they’ll create, and collect, and leave behind.
Review: “Angels & Demons” (2009)
WARNING: SPOILERS OF BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS
Once again director Ron Howard, adapting a Dan Brown novel, with Tom Hanks in the lead, tries to split the difference between the two great forces fighting for control of our world:
Movies and literature.
OK, it’s science and religion. But part of the absurdity of “Angels & Demons” is seeing Howard fit a literary mystery, with tons of exposition, into the storytelling technique of modern movies, which demands a rush of narrative in an increasingly short time-frame. Here it’s less than 24 hours. And here his protagonist is the bookish and scholarly Robert Langdon of Harvard. Which means we get a flurry of action and violence, and then... “Back to the library!”
The movie opens with a close-up of a ring, which a young Irish priest (Ewan McGregor), sadly destroys. It’s the ring of the fisherman, which means the Pope has died and we’re entering sede vacante, the time of the empty throne. McGregor, the progressive and beloved Pope’s favorite, is Camerlengo, or “Chamberlain,” and in charge until a new pope is selected.
Ah, but trouble’s brewing. In Sweden. A group of international scientists are trying to create anti-matter, and do, and in the excitement afterwards the lead scientist, looking grim, and aping Robert Oppenheimer, says, “We’re in God’s hands now.” His assistant, Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer, last seen by me in “Munich,” and missed all the while), rushes down to his lab to celebrate, and as we watch her pass through the hallways one thought occurs: “Well, I guess he’s dead.” Otherwise why take the time to show her in the hallways? And he is dead. She enters his locked lab by having her eyes scanned but comes away with blood on her chin. It gets creepier. Inside she finds an eyeball on the floor, and, further in, she finds the scientist, with an empty eye socket, dead on the floor. Which raises the question: Why did the killer need the eyeball? If the scientist was already in the room then the killer must’ve already been in the room, too. And if the scientist had been outside the room, why cut out the eyeball in the first place? Couldn’t the killer have just held the scientist up to the scanner? The crowning touch is that, after all this, Howard’s camera drifts to and then holds on the spot where the anti-matter had been. To show us that it’s empty. To nudge us. I think he thinks we’re not that smart.
So. Prof. Robert Langdon (Hanks) is corralled from Harvard and brought to the Vatican because now trouble’s brewing there. Four cardinals, all preferati (i.e., possible popes), have been kidnapped by a group claiming to be Illuminati, or enlightened ones, the progressive, scientific Catholics of the 18th century who were supposedly brutally suppressed by the Church. Now they’re back for vengies. Plus they have the anti-matter, which, as Vittoria Vetra (also at the Vatican) explains, is known as The God Particle. “It’s what gives all matter mass,” she says. But if it’s allowed to... whatever (defrost?)...it’ll trigger a reaction that will destroy the Vatican. At exactly midnight. Which is like six hours away. Hurry!
Langdon listens to the tape the Illuminati sent and discerns, from an off-hand reference, that they’re alluding to a path the Illuminati created in Rome way back when, and more clues are searched for and found. It’s a treasure hunt! It’s basically “International Treasure.” So, for example, a “503” doesn’t mean 503. Think of it roman-numerically: DIII, or D3, or Book D, volume III of such-and-such a book. And off we go! See the way that Bernini statue is pointing? That’s the direction. And off we go! Earth, Air, Fire, Water: It all makes sense now! Life's a puzzle; you just need to find the pieces.
At the least we get to see Rome. Here’s the Pantheon (my favorite), here’s St. Peter’s Square, here’s the Piazza Navona. The four cardinals, representing the four elements, are to be killed on the hour every hour at one of these sites, until, at midnight, we get the big bang. Or re-bang. We see the killer at work and he seems a professional, which he is. There’s talk that the Illuminati have infiltrated the Vatican and we have, basically, three suspects: the young, progressive, good-looking Irish priest who’s friendly with the protagonist; and two grumpy, old, and old-European dudes who do everything they can to impede the investigation. One thought occurs: “Well, it would be nice if it was one of the obvious guys—i.e., the impeders of the investigation—for a change.” Two hours into the movie...it is! Well, that’s refreshing. Then, when the movie should be ending, Vetra begins poking around the desk of the now-dead head of the Swiss Guard. No, don’t do that. A computer pops up and Langdon has a key. No, don’t do that. And in a flash—and a flashback—everything unravels, and it turns out the culprit was the nice, unobvious one after all. Which, these days, means the obvious one. I didn’t say making movies wasn’t hard.
Alright, out with it. I am so tired of these last-minute reversals. Appearances can be misleading, yes, but usually they’re not. Put it this way: If the Bush administration were a movie, and with the camera continually panning between Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, we would have discovered that the true culprit of the Iraq War was... Colin Powell! But of course! The one man it couldn’t have been!
I like some of the early dialogue. The priest asks Langdon if he believes in God, and, after equivocating a bit, Langdon replies, humbly, “Faith is a gift...I have yet to receive.” That’s nice. In the Vatican library, which Langdon had been petitioning 10 years to get in, he tells Vetra, “A few days of this and I could’ve finished my book...and sold dozens of copies.” That made me laugh out loud. But it’s as if the screenwriters, Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp, ran out of good lines and resorted to clichés. “God answers all prayers,” says one character near the end. “But sometimes the answer is no.” “And when you write of us,” another tells Langdon at the end, “and you will write of us, do so gently.”
I wish I could.
“Star Trek”/“Star Wars” Parallels
Anyone else notice the parallels between the latest “Star Trek” and the original “Star Wars”? Examples:
- Opening battle between a small ship and a GIGANTIC ship, which immediately has us rooting for the small ship—the underdog. Meanwhile, what escapes from the small ship is the key to the eventual destruction of the gigantic ship.
- The fatherless, seemingly parentless, farmboy gazing up at the stars, at what he might be.
- The destruction, a third of the way through the film, of an entire planet and its billions of souls, which affects several main characters greatly.
- The discovery of the hooded wise man in the cave, who teaches the young buck the proper way and his proper destiny.
- The destruction of the bad guys by the two archetypal characters: in “Star Wars,” innocent and rebel; here, extrovert and introvert, emotion and logic. In both films, these two characters start out enemies but become fast friends.
- In the end, the triumphant farmboy is feted at a medal ceremony in front of the entire fleet.
That's just off the top of my head. More? Anyone?
ADDENDUM: In this construct, Uhura has the Princess Leia role: the feisty girl the farmboy is after and the other guy winds up with. In the original “Star Trek” series, the threeway was between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, with Kirk listening to input from both logic (Spock) and emotion (McCoy) and then deciding on the best course of action. But in this film, Uhura seems to have a bigger part than McCoy. Part of the “Star Wars”izaton of the series? Who knows?
ADDENDUM: Via a back-and-forth on Facebook, we got this:
Spock: Jim, the statistical likelihood that our plan will succeed is 4.3 percent
Kirk: Spock, it'll work.
C-3PO: Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1!
Han Solo: Never tell me the odds!
ADDENDUM, 8/7: “Star Trek: Confusion”
Review: “Star Trek” (2009)
WARNING: MASSIVE SPACE SPOILERS
You knew it wasn’t going to happen, just as, when Sulu’s life was imperiled, you knew he was going to be fine because he’s Sulu. So, yes, the Romulans drilled into Planet Vulcan, and, yes, the Romulans prepared “the red matter,” which, we find out, will cause the planet to collapse upon itself, and this is all supposed to happen in a matter of minutes. But you leaned back and waited for the deus ex machina. Because it’s the Planet Vulcan. That’d be like blowing up Earth. Ain’t gonna happen.
Then it does.
And you think, “Holy crap.” Pause. “Oh, they’re not gonna do one of those cheesey reverse-time things, are they? Where we wind up going back to this moment in order to reverse it? And everything’s the same? And fine?”
It’s not until the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise is talking about all of this, and Uhura says that these all-powerful Romulans, who are from the future, have created “an alternate reality,” that the other shoe drops.
This “Star Trek” movie isn’t just a reboot—a chance to update popular and still-lucrative characters with young stars and updated special effects. This is an alternate reality. A new reality. The new reality.
In other words, J.J. Abrams and friends have created a rationale for doing whatever the hell they want with these characters—blow up Vulcan, have Spock and Uhura get it on, give Scotty a cute little sidekick—and the hardest-core Trekkie/Trekker can’t really object because it still plays within the rules of the “Star Trek” universe.
Abrams & friends can tell Trekkers: Look, your universe is fine—where the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise meet the salt creature and Mudd’s women and the Gorn and Finnegan and Joan Collins and 1920s Chicago and Wyatt Earp and Abe Lincoln. That’s all still there. But that’s the alternate universe now. Or this one is. And this Capt. Kirk and his crew are on a different path and there’s nothing you can say about it because it plays within the rules Gene Roddenbury originally created. And you can’t go against Roddenbury, now, can you?
And you pause for a moment, balanced in that thought.
And you think: Wow, that’s pretty smart.
As for the film itself? It zips, baby. But it’s not as smart as the above.
They bring back miniskirts and black boots. I’m a fan.
Chris Pine makes a dynamic Kirk. Zachary Quinto makes a spookily accurate Spock. Hell, all the casting by April Webster and Alyssa Weisberg is well-done. Among the second-tier characters, I particularly like Simon Pegg as Scotty, Zoe Saldana as Uhura and Bruce Greenwood as Capt. Pike. At times, Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy seemed a bit much—like he wasn’t doing DeForest Kelly so much as Dave Thomas doing DeForest Kelly on the old “SCTV” show. To trot out my nerd credentials. Not to mention my age.
Here’s the story if you want it: Next-Gen-era Romulans, who have witnessed the destruction of their planet, go through a hole in space, and, with their high-tech weaponry, destroy the U.S.S. Kelvin. But George Kirk, captain for all of 12 minutes, manages to hold them off to allow the rest of the crew—including his pregnant wife, who gives birth to a baby boy en route—to escape. Then these Romulans wait around for 25 years until Amb. Spock, whom they blame for Romulus’ demise, comes through the same hole in space. Apparently no one knows they’re out there. Helluva cloaking device. Helluva lotta patience. Very little imagination.
In the meantime, baby boy Kirk grows up to be a badass. After a barfight with some cadets from Star Fleet Academy, Capt. Christopher Pike gives young Kirk a pretty good speech (“Your father was the captain of a starship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives. I dare you to do better”), and the next day Kirk signs up for Starfleet.
He makes passes at Uhura, makes friends with Bones McCoy, makes enemies with Spock. We see Kirk faced with the unwinnable Kobayashi Maru test, which, in this universe, Spock created (rather than, say, Kobayashi Maru), and which Kirk defeats by cheating, and for which he’s almost tossed out of the Academy by Tyler Perry doing the guest-star gig. (Hey, how about Madea as captain of a starship? Or on one?)
Then: lightning storms around Vulcan, Federation ships sent to investigate, blown apart by the Romulans, who are busy getting their revenge. The Enterprise, thanks to Kirk, survives, but Vulcan is blown up and Capt. Pike is captured and one of those slug things that was put in Chekhov’s ear in “Star Trek II” is put in Pike’s mouth here. Num.
Even though we’re in an alternate universe, we still get tons of echoes from the old one. Sulu tells Pike he has extensive combat training experience, and when Kirk asks what kind, Sulu replies, “Fencing.” Spock repeats several of his famous lines, once as Quinto (“When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”), once as Nimoy (“I have been, and always will be, your friend”).
But there are holes in the plot as big as the holes in space that the Romulans went through. Sure, I’ll buy that the Romulans can do whatever they want to Vulcan. One assumes the Vulcans, those peace-loving bastards, don’t have much of a defense system. But Earth? C’mon. We’re way too paranoid not to be defense-ready. And are Spock’s actions really logical throughout the film? I mean, shooting Kirk into space in a pod? Is that standard procedure? Or is it merely a way to get Kirk on that Class-M ice planet, where he’ll run from this alien and that alien and into the arms—almost literally—of the old Amb. Spock? And how about old Spock? Turns out he’s responsible for the destruction of his entire planet. Ouch! Even with the alt-universe thing, I doubt Trekkers will take kindly to that.
I like certain touches. The long-faced alien trapped between Kirk flirting with Uhura at the bar. The sensation of actually being blown out into the deadly silence of space.
And the movie zips. And it’s fun.
Is it too zippy? Too fun? When the movie ends the way we knew it would, with the new crew seeking out new blah blah blahs and new yadda yaddas, I looked at the new, alt-universe Kirk and thought, “But what’s your point?”
In the original series, particularly its first season, there was a mystery, and a creepiness, to what they might find out there, always augmented by that great background soundtrack of creepiness. (I can do four original series background tracks: “Spock’s low bass-guitar blues”; “romance”; “fighting”; and “creepiness.” “Creepiness” is my favorite. Whoever did the music for TOS was genius.)
By “Next Gen,” most of the mystery had been drained away, replaced by a kind of humorless military discipline. But then you got the Borg, and “Best of Both Worlds,” and, wow, that was pretty creepy. “Resistance is futile...Number One.” Great line. More, it was tough defeating the Borg. It took a whole summer, from May to September.
There’s very little mystery or creepiness or difficulty left. Now aliens sit longfaced between us at bars in Iowa, and now we bed Orion animal women like that (even the sex is easier: Sorry, Bill!), and now we warp to Vulcan and warp back again, lickety-split, and defeat the enemy just in time, and get our command at 28 (Pine’s age) as opposed to 35 (Shatner’s age in ‘66). Most of the new crew is in their early 30s but they look so much younger, so less adult, than the original crew, who were in their mid-30s and 40s, that they almost seem like tiny toons versions of same. And it’s all so easy and weightless, as it generally is for tiny toons.
I guess I thought “But what’s your point?” because for most of the movie, the goal of James T. Kirk was to become a starship captain and outdo his father, which he did, by saving the entire frickin’ planet and maybe the entire human species. Nice! But now what? What’s Kirk’s goal now? To seek out new life and new civilizations? That takes work. He seems too breezy and solipsistic for that. As does our film industry.
There are still stories to be told out there, that add to the mystery rather than paving it over, but you’ve got to drop out of warp-drive, and pause, and look around, and reflect, in order to tell them properly. And I doubt Hollywood’s interested in that.
What's Rotten on RottenTomatoes?
A friend told me that "The Soloist," which I obviously liked, got a mediocre, low 60s rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and I checked it out. Worse than he thought: 56%. At the same time I noticed that "State of Play," which I obviously didn't like, did much better:
"The Soloist": 56%
"State of Play": 85%
These are the ratings for "T-Meter critics" (all critics), which is the default setting on Rotten Tomatoes. Click on the tab for "Top Critics" (or critics from top newspapers) and the fortunes of the two movies reverse:
"The Soloist": 71%
"State of Play": 63%
Meanwhile over at metacritic, which some movieogers supposedly favor, but which feels less crisp than RT, "The Soloist" gets a 61 to "State of Play"'s 64.
All of which reminds us there are still a few bugs in the quantitative (and possibly qualitative) critical system. It also makes me worry over the state of movie criticism when those top critics at those top newspapers disappear, and we're left with the Wallys from wallysworld.com.
Review: “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009)
You like overhead shots of the protagonist kneeling by the body of a loved one and screaming up at the heavens?
You like scenes when a superhero has to choose between killing a villain and letting him live? A dilemma that reveals his “true” nature?
You like dialogue such as “We didn’t sign up for this,” and “If man were meant to fly he’d grow wings,” and — after a would-be-partner shows up just in time to save the hero — “You miss me”?
Then “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” is your movie. Bonus: You get two of those overheads shots of the hero screaming up at the heavens. Three if you count a flashback.
Admittedly, the filmmakers were hampered from the start. “Wolverine” is a prequel, which means they had to end it with the title character in a vaguely similar place to where he was at the beginning of “X-Men” (2000), which is to say: alive, with an adamantium skeleton, and with no real memory of who he is. That’s tough: to have your ending before your story even begins.
The movie opens in 1845 in the northwest territories of Canada, where the boy who will become Wolverine, then called Jimmy, is sick in bed, watched over by his scowling brother (half-brother?) named Victor, the boy who will become Sabre Tooth, as well as his father, who, in a flash, is killed in the foyer downstairs. The trauma awakens Jimmy’s “berserker rage,” and his claws — skeletal at this point — are unleashed, and he kills the killer, who, it turns out, was his real father. Oops. Victor and Jimmy then flee. “Keep on running,” Victor says. “Don’t look back.” And they don’t. Through the entire credit sequence, in which you see them fighting in 1) the U.S. Civil War, 2) WWI, 3), WWII, and, 4) Vietnam. Questions immediately arise. Did they skip the Spanish-American War? And what did they do between wars? And why are they fighting for the U.S. anyway? Aren’t they Canadian? Actually the most important question is: Do they ever worry over the increasing might of military technology? Let’s face it, in 1845, or at least by the time they reach adulthood in 1860, nothing on earth — on earth! — was as powerful as they were; but during their lifetime they witnessed the introduction of the repeat-action rifle, the machine gun, the airplane, the missile, and the atom bomb. Don’t they ever think, “Wow, these humans are becoming more powerful than we are!”? Don’t they ever think? What have they learned in 120 years? Anything?
The story picks up — that is, the credits end — after the brothers have been shot by a firing squad for killing their own during Vietnam. They live, of course, and are recruited by Maj. William Stryker (Danny Huston), the man who will become Brian Cox. “I’m putting together a special team,” he says. For whatever reason, these mutants, including Victor and Jimmy, now called Logan, follow this human. Because they like killing? I don’t understand. Can’t they kill on their own? A few scenes later, Logan draws the line and tells his brother, “I’m done.” His brother responds, threateningly, “We can’t let you just walk away.” Then he and five other mutants stand around and watch him walk away. Smart.
Six years later, Logan’s in a 1973 made-for-TV movie. He’s a lumberjack in the Canadian Rockies, he’s got a pretty, long-haired girlfriend who’s a schoolteacher, and everyone knows they’re doomed. They kiss. Seventies music tinkles in the background. The audience gets restless.
Thank God Stryker shows up. “Your country needs you,” he tells Logan. Canada needs him? Oh, right, the U.S. Logan refuses but later tells his girlfriend the reason they want him is because “I’m the best at what I do. But what I do isn’t very nice.” It’s a famous Wolverine line, penned in the 1980s, but it doesn’t work here — particularly after Victor/Sabre Tooth kills the girlfriend and then defeats Logan. Apparently our boy isn’t the best at what he does.
Worse: Stryker convinces Logan to get all adamantiumed-up to get revenge on Victor. “I can give you the tools to defeat him,” Stryker says. Logan becomes Wolverine, in other words, because he’s a lousy fighter. Who knew? Almost feels cowardly. You’d think he’d try a martial arts class before getting his skeletal structure replaced.
I could go on. Every little element in this movie is just plain dumb. During the adamantium transfer, for example, Logan’s heartrate increases exponentially, then falters, and everyone’s urging him on: “Live, damnit!” When he flatlines, people turn away. And we wait... And we wait... As if there’s any suspense. He’s Wolverine! He lives! We know! Get on with it!
He goes to Three Mile Island, where he’s heard they’re holding mutants for experiments, to get revenge on Stryker and Victor; but when he discovers his girlfriend lives, that she fooled him, he walks away. Uh...dude. The imprisoned mutants? That are still being experimented on? Of course he returns and eventually frees them, and they leave, about 20 of them, scared and huddled together and hiding from the soldiers with their guns. Aren’t we sick of this yet? Why are they acting like malnourished boat people rather than, I don’t know, the most powerful people on the planet?
There’s a moment when we’re in the office of John Wraith, who runs a boxing gym in Vegas, and, in the background, there's a matchcard with upcoming bouts featuring ‘70s-era fighters. And I thought about the care that went into that small detail, and in the creation of the office, and Hugh Jackman’s insane workout regimen to turn his perfect body even more perfect. I thought of the inspired casting of Danny Huston and Liev Schreiber, and I thought, “It’s all for shit if you don’t have a story.” And this one’s for shit.
Admittedly, the filmmakers were hampered from the start. We begin knowing basically where we’ll end. But that’s a reason to open up your imagination, not close it off.
Review: “The Soloist” (2009)
“The Soloist” is much better than I thought it would be when I sat down and not quite as good as I hoped it would be halfway through. But it’s still very, very good. The best Hollywood release so far this year.
You probably know the story. You might’ve seen the “60 Minutes” segment on Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.), columnist for The Los Angeles Times, and one of his column subjects, Nathaniel Ayers, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a homeless man he finds beneath a statue of Beethoven playing a violin with only two strings, and who, it turns out, attended Juilliard for two years in the ‘70s only to drop out when mental problems overwhelmed him. You might’ve read Lopez’s book about the experience. Hell, you might’ve seen the trailer for the film last fall, when the release date was November and Downey was being talked up for an Oscar nom. Then — boom — the film was pulled until April. “Uh oh,” I thought. Springtime for a serious film generally means death. It means it ain’t good enough for autumn.
I began to relax — began to realize how smart this film was — while hearing the early voiceovers from Downey: either writing his column on available scraps, recording it into a tape recorder, or, best of all, just writing it in his head as he’s walking. That’s it, isn’t it? That’s what we do. At the same time, the story is moved along.
The film is remarkably integrated this way. It includes, among other riffs, dying newspapers, the homeless, Hurricane Katrina and Neil Diamond, but none of these things seems heavy or extraneous. Everything is integral. The flashbacks to Nathaniel’s earlier years don’t interrupt the story but continue or augment it. Yes, the movie borrows from “Amadeus” — using music to shut out the world — but why not? That’s what music does. That’s what any art does. Even if you’re not a true artist, the point is to have the world fall away for a time. It keeps us sane.
Nathaniel is not. We get conversations like this, as Nathaniel and Lopez watch a plane fly overhead:
Nathaniel: Are you flying that plane?
Lopez: No, I’m right here.
Nathaniel: I don’t know how that works.
Nathaniel’s can’t separate things. Everything blends together. Even his words come in a stream-of-consciousness style reminiscent of Robin Williams’ comedy. One thing leads to the next leads to the next. Yet, for a time, this almost seems...sane. For a time, everything seems part of the same big pattern — a pattern we can’t quite see — even though director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) keeps pulling back for overhead shots that let us take in, if not the pattern, then at least a pattern. The one we’ve created.
Is there any actor I’d rather watch think than Downey, Jr.? Everything he does here has energy and intelligence. When he was a younger actor (and, yes, on coke), it was as if there was too much he was trying to convey too quickly. He needed to age in order to slow down, in order to become palatable.
His Steve Lopez is divorced, lives alone, has trouble with raccoons. He’s the other soloist, the man who keeps the world at a writerly distance, or who, through whatever circumstances, has wound up alone. But he’s straightforward. When he finally reaches Karen, Nathaniel’s sister, and she asks why he’s interested in her brother, he doesn’t bullshit:
Lopez: I’m going to write a column about Nathaniel.
Lopez: Because that’s what I do.
One column leads to another. Nathaniel’s true instrument is the cello, and an elderly woman who reads these columns sends hers. Of course Nathaniel can’t keep such an expensive item in his shopping cart — it could be stolen, he could be hurt or killed during the theft — so Lopez arranges to have it kept at Lamp, a nonprofit homeless shelter for the mentally ill. Initially Nathaniel objects to such a plan. When we finally see the place, so do we. The area outside Lamp is filled with refugees, like it’s a scene from a post-apocalyptic film; like it’s Los Angeles’ own Katrina, whose images flicker on background newsroom televisions. Lopez, more than Nathaniel, feels justifiably threatened there — among the mentally ill and drug-addicted.
There’s a great scene — maybe the best scene in a movie full of great scenes — where, once again, Lopez has made the difficult 30-foot, nighttime journey from Lamp offices to the safety of his car, and, inside, he breathes a sigh of relief. We’ve all been there. The camera holds on him and you wonder: Is someone going to attack him now that he feels safe? That’s a Hollywood staple. But no. The camera just holds. And a realization comes over him, some fundamental change, some silent recognition of responsibility or awareness of artificial boundaries (between, say, the car and the street), or maybe just an awareness of his own fears, and he gets out again and walks and searches — part of the crowd, now, not apart from it — and finds Nathaniel bedded down for the night and joins him. That’s another column. These columns lead to change, as the mayor promises $50 million for the homeless and Lopez is feted at a black-tie affair.
One wonders where the movie will go from here but I like where it goes. Two forces are at work within Lopez. He tries to help Nathaniel — getting him an apartment and a tutor — and he also wants to wash his hands of him. These seem like opposite forces but are part of the same impulse. By making him independent, he’s no longer responsible for him. Or he’s responsible for him only in the way that each of us is responsible for each other. Which is to say: Not at all.
When someone tells Lopez that he’s the only thing Nathaniel’s got, he responds, “I don’t want to be his only thing,” and, again, we know where he’s coming from. How much does he have to do? How much does he need to care? How much do we?
The script by Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) is full of great dialogue. “I don’t want to die in here,” says Nathaniel, freaked out by his new apartment. “Don’t,” Lopez replies matter-of-factly. Earlier, outside Lamp, Nathaniel says: “I hope these children of God will be okay tonight. They’ll sleep and dream as humans do.” That’s nice. Don’t know if it’s Grant or in Lopez’s book, but it’s nice.
Great supporting cast — particularly Nelsan Ellis as the man at Lamp, and Catherine Keener, an editor at the Times, who, we find out, was once married to Lopez.
A few elements feels clunky, or political, only compared to the smoothness of the rest of the film. The ending, for example, includes both voice-over and revelation, but it needed only one of these.
Even so, “The Soloist” comes close to being a remarkable film. I want to close with another great scene, an almost throwaway, that feels, without trying, without dotting its “i”s, to be integrating all of its parts. Keener is in her office as an offscreen higher-up is letting someone (her?) go by talking up the company’s “very good exit package.” Out her window, several stories high, she sees Lopez helping to push Nathaniel’s shopping cart up a hill. They’re heading to the L.A. Symphony to listen to a rehearsal, but she doesn’t know that, she only knows what she sees. And she smiles a wistful smile. There’s great balance here: the comedy outside and the tragedy within; one man helping another while a company, part of a dying industry, lets go of another employee. It doesn’t draw too fine a point — as I fear I might be doing — it just feels part of this big shifting pattern we all create. It’s worthy of Keener’s beautiful, wistful smile.
Review: “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” (2008)
I’m not a fan of heavy-metal music. The opposite. I spent my teenage years trapped in a household with a heavy-metal-banging older brother, who, when no one was around, or only I was around, would close all the windows in our house, turn up the volume on the record player, and, with the rake we used for our lime-green shag carpet as his microphone, sing along to Zeppelin or Sabbath:
Generals gathered in their masses!
Just like witches at black masses!
I always gave him shit about those lyrics. “Nice rhyme,” I’d say.
So I wouldn’t seem the ideal audience for “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” a documentary about the little heavy-metal band that couldn’t (break through).
And yet, as with Randy the Ram of “The Wrestler,” another dude with whom I have nothing in common, I wound up not only caring but identifying. The two original members of Anvil, Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner, are in their 50s now and still fighting the good fight. Actually that’s one of the unanswered questions in the doc: Is it still a good fight?
“Anvil” begins with footage from a 1984 heavy-metal tour of Japan, which featured bands such as Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and the Scorpions — all of whom would go on to sell millions of records — and Anvil, who would not. Various talking heads, from Lemmy of Motorhead to Slash of Guns N’ Roses, then talk quickly about Anvil’s antics on stage (Lips playing his guitar with a dildo), how influential they were, and what the hell happened. “Everyone sort of ripped them off,” Slash says, “then sort of left them for dead.”
Cut to: modern-day Toronto in winter. Lips, his thinning hair still long, his eyes wide with optimism, a half-smile on his face, is driving and matter-of-factly talking food — meatloaf and shepherd’s pie — and we’re wondering if he’s driving to where he eats or works. It’s the latter. He’s a delivery guy.
Reiner, with the irony-infused same name as the director of “This is Spinal Tap,” the irony-infused monster of all heavy-metal mockumentaries, works construction. He has a quality similar to U2’s Edge — like he’s the last guy in the world to get angry — and he and Lips are still friends, and still pal around Toronto. We see them play a gig at a sports bar for Lips' 50th birthday. A couple of longtime fans are there, headbanging and singing along.
They’ve had new bandmates since ’95 and ’96, and overall they’ve put out a total of 12 albums, but this is their life. It’s like most of our lives: Not bad, but full of What Ifs.
Then (even in documentaries there’s a “then”) Lips gets an e-mail from a female fan in Europe, Tiziani Arrigoni, who offers to manage the band for a European tour, and off they go. One hopes for success, one fears she’ll rip them off, but the reality is somewhere in between. She has a good heart but she’s not a professional. Things keep going wrong. They miss a train. They play dives for peanuts. Their fans are fervent but few. Late to one gig in the Czech Republic, they’re told the place is “jam fucking packed” but they get there and rock out before fewer than 10 fans; then the club owner refuses to pay them — because they were late — and we see the first of several eruptions from Lips, who quickly loses his half-smile and, spittle flying, nearly goes off on the dude. Their next gig should be a natural heavy-metal highlight — a rock show in Transylvania, with a 10,000-seat capacity — and as they make their way to the stage through narrow hallways, one bandmember, an obvious “Spinal Tap” fan, shouts “Hello, Cleveland!” Unlike Spinal Tap, Anvil finds its way to the stage. The crowd doesn’t. Only 174 show up. Cut to: Toronto in winter.
And so it goes. We learn more about the (Jewish) family history of each. Lips’ father was at odds with his career choice (everyone else in his family is a successful professional), while Robb’s father, who survived Auschwitz, was fine with whatever his son wanted to do. Robb also paints in the style of Edward Hopper, whom he likes for his sense of quiet. Apparently even heavy-metal drummers want quiet.
You get the feeling Robb could give it up, but Lips, eyes bugging with perpetual optimism, half-smile beginning to strain after all these years, keeps pushing. They’re going to put out a 13th album, this time with legendary producer Chris Tsangarides, but they need money. A scene where Lips tries telemarketing is painful to watch. Each hurdle jumped, or stumbled over, leads to another. Will they raise the money? Will they be able to stay together long enough to record the album? Will they be able to sell it to a record company? Will anyone listen?
All the while they wonder over what went wrong. Was it management? Was it production? Lips in particular embodies the schizophrenia of the semi- or un-successful artist. One moment he’s ready to swear off music-making completely; the next he’s telling himself that it’s the doing — the creative act — that matters, regardless of the response it engenders. Talk about hitting home. This internal dialogue is my own. Every day.
The doc, which zips along, will be compared to “Spinal Tap,” and, yes, there are funny moments in it, and, yes, even the title, with its conscious repetition, is funny. But filmmaker Sacha Gervasi, a fan and former Anvil roadie, who also wrote the screenplay for “The Terminal," does his subjects the courtesy of taking them seriously. He presents them in raw and real and complex fashion.
The blurbs in the poster above mention that the film is “inspirational” and “a hymn to the human spirit,” but for me its strength lies in its ambiguity. You walk away not knowing if these guys are inspirational, or delusional, or both. The answer to Lips’ internal dialogue, in other words, is as unanswerable as our own, and, finally, the answer may not be what matters. I keep going back to what Van Morrison sings in “Summertime in England”: It ain’t why why why why why why why. It just is. Same here. In both this doc and in this room where I’m writing about this doc.
I’m not a fan of heavy-metal music. The opposite. But “Anvil” floored me.
Review: “State of Play” (2009)
Old old old. Everything about this movie feels old.
Its heroes are newspaper reporters, or at least a grizzled old newspaper reporter, Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), and a svelte blogger, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), and of course these two, initially at odds, have to work together to break the story, which is still, for some reason, and despite the obvious online presence, “on deadline,” as if print were the only way to break the thing. Old tropes die hard.
The paper is the Washington Post-like Washington Globe, and it’s run by the Katherine Graham-like Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), but I can’t remember if she’s supposed to be the publisher or the editor. If the latter, where are her editors? Worse, where are her values? At one point she says she’s going to run a story that’s not finished (so much for the old “two sources” rule) and the next day she’s refusing to run a piece that sheds light on the biggest, juiciest story of the year, because the higher-ups at MediaCorp, which apparently recently bought the Globe, and who have no on-site representative, told her so. This little side-plot is supposed to represent another example of corporate villainy — those awful conglomerates buying up our First Amendment sources! — but that, too, is an old trope. The new trope is that no one’s buying them. They’re just dying.
The film’s villains, meanwhile, are the Blackwater-like PointCorp, a private company making billions off our wars and being investigated by young Pennsylvania congressman, and Gulf War veteran, Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). Again: feels old. Feels Bush era.
Of course if this were the only problem with “State of Play,” it might not be bad. But it’s bad.
The movie begins, in a manner reminiscent of the superior “Enemy of State,” with a scared but speedy black man racing through the streets of D.C. Eventually he’s shot and killed by someone who knows how to shoot and kill, who then shoots a passing, bike-riding, pizza-delivery guy who saw too much. The slovenly, junk-food-eating Cal pursues the story.
Meanwhile a young redhead waits for her train at the D.C. Metro. Is someone following her? Has he pushed her under the train? Yes and yes.
Turns out she’s Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer), the chief investigator on the committee run by Rep. Collins looking into PointCorp. When the congressman announces her death at a hearing, he breaks down, and the press, and the blogosphere, including the Globe’s Della, have a field day. Were the two having an affair? Did she commit suicide because of him? Della then tries to get a quote out of Cal, because he and the Rep. were, of course, college roommates.
That evening the congressman visits the reporter — “You’re the only friend I’ve got,” he says — and the reporter acts like a PR rep. He’s less interested in the facts of the story than in ways to revive the congressman’s career. Then he gives Della the story. Of course he can’t write it himself — conflict of interest — but why feed the facts to a blogger for whom he has contempt? Why not another grizzled reporter?
There’s more, of course. The congressman was having an affair with Sonia. But then Cal was having an affair with the congressman’s wife, Anne (Robin Penn Wright), who is able to meet Cal at a nice D.C. restaurant, unpursued by paparazzi, the night after Sonia’s death. Neat trick. This second affair adds almost nothing to the story but detracts from it a great deal. Poor Robin Penn Wright.
The black guy/pizza guy killings? Turns out they’re linked to the Sonia Baker killing.
Sonia? Turns out she was initially working undercover for PointCorp. Until the affair. Then she turned.
So did PointCorp kill her and make it look like a suicide to besmirch, and quiet, Rep. Collins? And how did Sonia wind up on his staff anyway? Could it have something to do with Collins’ friend, the more senior, and more religious, Rep. George Fergus (Jeff Daniels)?
Reveals keep coming. Then at the end there’s a final reveal.
Know what would make a great reveal? No reveal. Just saying.
The movie is based upon a BBC miniseries and feels exactly like a soapy miniseries crammed into two-plus hours. New technologies are mentioned but they don’t alter the investigation the way that, say, cellphones altered (read: jumpstarted) the chase in “Casino Royale.” Here, they’re simply grafted onto old technologies. We get a montage, for example, of Della getting doors slammed in her face. It’s supposed to represent Della’s progress from blogger to reporter — she’s getting the Woodward and Bernstein treatment! — but the door-slamming doesn’t feel tied to anything important. Hell, every meeting between reporter and source in this thing is face-to-face. Because it’s more “dramatic” that way? Look, if you’re going to steal from “All the President’s Men,” why not have Stella work the phones the way that Woodward (Redford) worked the phones? That was plenty dramatic. Then ask yourself this. Can you update it? Can you quicken it? Can you tie it to something important?
Parts of the movie work. I like the location shooting. I like Cal’s visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a D.C. landmark, and the handmade sign listing the people who can eat there for free: Bill Cosby...and nobody else. Crowe, as always, is good, but nobody else is given anything. All the female roles are thankless, while Affleck, so perfectly sad as George Reeves in “Hollywoodland,” feels stiff and unresponsive again, while his Philadelphia accent should give some slight redemption to Kevin Costner’s British accent in “Robin Hood.”
Near the end, in one of the film’s many lurches toward relevance, Globe publisher Lynne suddenly shouts to her reporters, “The real story is the sinking of this bloody newspaper!”
She’s right. Too bad the filmmakers didn’t listen to her.
Review: “Seraphine” (2008)
“Seraphine” begins with a series of short, quiet scenes in 1914 Senlis, France. In the moonlight, as crickets chirp, we see a hand gliding through the water. In the daytime, a stout cleaning woman at a boarding house is told by the owner to open the rooms downstairs. “I have a new tenant,” she says. This cleaning woman is both devout (singing hymns in church slightly off from the masses) and a sensualist. She sits in trees and basks in the breeze, and it’s her hand, we realize, that glides through the water. She’s obsessive — humorously so. She’s doing laundry for five sous here, cleaning rooms for ten sous there, but she doesn’t respond much to human interactions. “Bon jour” and “Merci” bring out nothing in her. In the back of a butcher’s shop we see her steal cow’s blood in a small glass jar and bring it to church. For what bizarre ritual? Then we realize she’s not pouring blood out; she’s pouring melted wax from the candles in. Which is when the other shoe drops. She’s making paint.
Let’s face it, by the time most of us sit down to watch “Seraphine,” we know a few basic facts about her story: She’s a painter who lived in France at the turn of the last century. But this fact may trump all: She’s important enough that 100 years later we’re watching a film about her. The mere fact of the film acts as a kind of redemption for her and a kind of guide for us. We see her scraping by to paint at night but we know, by virtue of the film, that she succeeds. We know, when the boarding-house owner demands to see her work and then dismisses it because the apples don’t look like apples (“They could be plums,” she says), that the woman is a philistine. We know, when dinner-party guests chuckle knowingly about how Seraphine left the convent because she felt God “called her” to paint, that they’re bourgeoisie with lousy bourgeois taste.
The thrill we get, then, is as old as the thrill we get from the Gospels: These people don’t know who’s in their midst. They don’t know how special she is. It’s not a stretch to say we wait for her recognition as surely as we wait for our own.
Thankfully, for Seraphine, the new tenant turns out to be Wilhelm Uhde, a German art critic and collector, one of the first purchasers of Picasso and a champion of Rousseau. Their early encounters are awkward — he doesn’t know why Seraphine’s in his kitchen, she doesn’t know why he likes tea — but she softens when she sees drawings on his bed (a Picasso sketch, it turns out), and his handwriting, which she thinks is beautiful, and which makes her, charmingly, almost coquettish with him. Perhaps most importantly, she finds him in his room crying. “When I feel sad,” she tells him, later, with childlike intensity, “I go for a walk in the country and I touch the trees. I talk to the birds, the flowers, the insects, and I feel better.” That she's devoted to both God and Nature is a stark reminder just how idiotically divisive the U.S. — where you’re devoted to one or the other — has become.
One gets the sense that Uhde is bored and anxious in Senlis, and never moreso than at that bourgeois dinner party where the guests compliment each other’s talents while dismissing out-of-hand the kind of art that enthralls him. Then he becomes enthralled. He sees, in a corner, the painting of apples that could be plums, and is shocked to discover it’s by his cleaning woman. The next day he asks Seraphine to see more. He’s overwhelmed with discovery. She’s overwhelmed to be discovered. This is 40 minutes in and we wonder — with the “reveal” revealed — where the story will go from here. She keeps scrubbing his floors, for example, and when he insists that she not, she quotes St. Teresa of Avila: “Be ardent in your work and you will find God in your cooking pots.” One wonders if she needs manual labor in order to do the artistic kind. Will this be the source of the film’s future conflict and tension?
Non. It’s 1914. As summer continues the war heats up until Uhde, a “Boche” to Senlis’ residents, is forced to flee — less from the French, so this French film tells us, than from the invading Germans, who would shoot him as a deserter. He leaves behind many of his paintings, including Seraphine’s, and Seraphine, on the verge of being discovered, returns to her cramped existence as cleaning woman by day and painter by night.
Thirteen years go by. It’s 1927 and Uhde, his sister, and his latest discovery, take a house in a different French village, while he goes about the messy business of retrieving his collection, tossed to the winds during the war. He talks the primitif moderne to visiting Parisian journalists and worries over his discovery, and lover, a young man suffering from tuberculosis. Seraphine seems forgotten. It’s not until the sister reads of an art exhibition in nearby Senlis that we hear her name again. Uhde, who assumed Seraphine was dead, visits and walks through the exhibition with trepidation until he turns a corner and sees two of her works hanging there, big and beautiful, and finds her in the same dark flat. The story, tossed to the winds by the war, picks up again.
Uhde’s art-exhibition walk is important — at least for me. As viewers, for reasons already mentioned, we have a sense of superiority over the philistines of Senlis who don’t recognize Seraphine’s talent. But watching Uhde search for Seraphine’s work at the exhibition, rejecting with barely a glance the other works there, I realized I had no clue either. Why is this painting art and that one simply a pretty thing for a relative to hang on the wall? I truly have no idea. I only have the received wisdom of the ages telling me what is or is not art, and from there I choose what I like, but it’s not the same thing as doing what Uhde does.
Then I did further internal inventory. The artistic medium in which I feel most comfortable doing what Uhde does, is this one, writing, probably because it’s the only medium in which form is as important to me as content. I’m OK with film, but I don’t look at film with a director’s eye. Yes, I feel the artistic weight of some directors — Kubrick, Malick — but generally the story’s more important to me than what shots were chosen. With writing, what words were chosen is more important to me than what the story is. Generally.
That said, certain shots in “Seraphine” are as beautiful as paintings, and the final shot, silent and two minutes long, gives us a soft landing to what is a hard tale. The film delineates the creative process — or at least a creative process, her creative process — better than almost any film I’ve seen, and drives home the point that artistic talent is fluid, that it must be worked like anything else. It’s always in a state of becoming. I like the scene where Uhde stares intently, and with wonder, at one of her paintings, asking this and that, and she, behind him, says she only sees the mistakes. I like the montage where she shows off her work to friends, standing behind her paintings and often only visible from the nose up, like Kilroy. Some of these paintings are gorgeous. Even a philistine like me recognizes that.
This past February “Seraphine” won 10 Cesars (French Oscars), including best actress and best picture, and will get a limited release in this country in June. A shame it’s not wider. The film, while remaining distinctly French, reminds me of the best pictures we used to make, and see, in this country — historic, beautiful, accessible — before we stopped making and seeing best pictures.
Review: “Observe and Report” (2009)
More than halfway through “Observe and Report,” the new dark comedy written and directed by Jody Hill, Det. Harrison (Ray Liotta) is delivering the bad news to mall cop Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) that, because he failed the psychological portion of the police exam — because he’s basically loons — he’s not going to become the cop he always wanted to be. Ronnie breaks down. At this point another detective, whom we’d seen entering Harrison’s closet laughing and ready to listen in on the bad news, emerges straight-faced. “I thought this was going to be funny,” he says, “but it’s actually kind of sad.”
The line is almost a toe-hold for reviewers. You go in thinking “Observe and Report” is going to be funny, but it’s actually kind of sad.
I don’t even know whether I like it. It’s hard to like. Ronnie is partly sympathetic. He suffers from bipolar disorder, lives with his alcoholic mother, moons after a dim, jewelry-counter girl, Brandi (Anna Faris).
More often, though, he’s just unpleasant. He’s the kind of guy who, when others are laughing, he tries to slip, laughing, into the conversation. He — whoops! — let’s slip big-deal news in order to seem a big deal. He obviously feels small but it’s hard to care since, within his fiefdom, he’s a petty dictator. He chews out subordinates with one foot up on a chair. One of the proprietors at the mall, whom Ronnie calls Saddam, actually has a restraining order against him. When a flasher begins to stalk women at the mall, Ronnie sees it as his chance to matter, but after a night-time theft, an actual detective, Harrison, is brought in to investigate. A bigger dog has entered his yard and Ronnie spends most of his time yapping at him, screwing up his investigation, until, with one big “woof!,” Harrison lets him know just how small a dog he is.
That’s when Ronnie decides to become a cop himself and demands an impromptu ride-along with Harrison as part of his training. Fed-up, Harrison abandons him, in the most dangerous part in town, his big white tennis shoes gleaming like a beacon. Soon he’s surrounded by crack dealers and gangbangers.
In a certain sense the movie is about the distance between the lives we lead and the lives we lead in our heads, and here we think this distance is going to come crashing down on Ronnie. A gun is pulled. He goes down on his knees. He’s begging for his life. But no. It’s all a ruse to get a weapon, and, with martial-arts skill, dispatch five gangbangers. He can be as heroic as he imagines himself to be.
Which makes us wonder: So what’s the point? That an annoying, petty bully can be a hero?
And that’s exactly the point. The filmmakers have put a very unpleasant guy in the traditional action-hero role. As much as anything, the film’s a send-up of Hollywood conventions — and how these conventions screw us, the audience, up.
The tropes are all there — loner, protects the weak, goes too far and loses his badge but, with a “go after your dreams” speech from mom, still manages to bring the bad guys to justice — they’re just made small and pathetic. After Ronnie loses both the possibility of the cop’s job and his mall-cop job, the flasher, dick flapping, returns and Ronnie chases him through the mall. Just as the flasher is about to pounce on Brandi, Ronnie shoots him, wounding him. Then he hauls him through a phalanx of cops, including Det. Harrison, standing in front of the police station, where he deposits him, turns on his heels, thrusts a fist in the air, and announces, “I win!”
It’s a great moment because you know, in his head, Ronnie sees himself as Dirty Harry. A few cops even applaud him, as they would Dirty Harry in a Dirty Harry movie. But we don’t thrill in Ronnie’s victory. The filmmakers manage to keep him small and pathetic. That’s impressive. It’s rare in a film when the audience is able to see so clearly this disconnect between the life led and the life in the head.
So what’s my problem? Why aren’t I giving this movie a ringing endorsement?
I could argue the missteps — those scenes when Ronnie stops being the petty dictator and, following a subordinate, lets loose his petty anarchist — but it’s bigger than that. Ronnie may be small and pathetic but so is everyone else. You get the feeling that Jody Hill and company just don’t like people much.
Everyone’s awful: the mall customers and the mall employees. Nell, the traditional “other girl” — the sensible one who likes the protagonist, and with whom he winds up in the end — wears a purity ring. But when Ronnie asks her if she’s a virgin, she responds, “Well, technically I’m a born-again virgin.” Ick.
Everyone has this disconnect between the lives they lead and the lives they think they’re leading, and our culture widens this gap. The rap song blaring in Brandi’s car, right before she’s flashed, includes the lyrics, “I’ll show him mine if he shows me his.” Feminists are up-in-arms over the date-rape scene but they miss the point. This is part of Ronnie’s disconnect. When the flasher first shows up, Ronnie warns Brandi, who wants nothing to do with him, “Everyone thinks they’re going to be fine — until someone puts something they didn’t want in some place they didn’t want it.” Turns out he’s that guy...and he doesn’t even know it. He thinks he’s the hero when he’s really the villain.
Which, I suppose makes “Observe and Report,” for all its misanthropy, a worthy film for our time. We think we’re the hero when we’re often the villain. We think we’re ridding the world of terrorism when we’re making pyramids out of naked Iraqis.
It’s actually kind of sad.
Review: “Duplicity” (2009)
Please accept the usual SPOILERS alert
“Duplicity” is a film with two gorgeous stars (Clive Owen, Julia Roberts) who have great chemistry. Their dialogue is smart, the film itself is sexy and lighthearted, and there’s a slow-mo scene between two feuding CEOs (Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson) that’s among the funnier things I’ve seen on a movie screen in a while. Critics like the film (66 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), A.O. Scott loved it (here), as did Patricia when we saw it Friday evening. So what the hell’s my problem?
Is it the name? The theme? The fact that the world’s a wreck now thanks to the duplicitous dealings of people like Bernard Madoff, and so distributing a sexy, light-hearted thriller using such people as heroes seems, at best, inopportune, and, at worst, a con game within a con game?
The writer/director is Tony Gilroy, the man who wrote the “Bourne” movies and wrote/directed “Michael Clayton,” which is also about people gaming each other, but which feels consequential. It seems like it matters. This doesn’t.
There’s a good article on Gilroy in the March 16th issue of The New Yorker, by D.T. Max, which references a conversation that Gilroy’s characters, Ray and Claire (Clive and Julia), have at a Lord & Taylor in midtown Manhattan. Five years earlier, when Ray was with MI-6 and Claire was with the C.I.A., she seduced him, drugged him and stole from him, and so when they meet at Lord & Taylor, both of them now in private industry, she the mole for one company whose contact in the other company is him, he’s got some shit to get off his chest. Moreso when she says she doesn’t know who he is. “I’m not great on names,” he tells her. “Where I’m solid? People I’ve slept with. That’s been a traditional area of strength for me.” It’s a great conversation and a great scene.
Then we hear it again, two years earlier in Rome, and again, and again. “The success of ‘Duplicity’ hinges,” Max writes, “on whether the audience will experience this sensation as pleasurable. Gilroy told me that he knew of no other movie where the same dialogue gets used five times for five reversals.”
Maybe that’s my problem. I enjoyed the dialogue so much the first time, it was a downer to hear it again this way. I felt cheated.
Also, let’s face it, once we hear it a second time, we know: 1) the Lord & Taylor scene is bogus, which means 2) the two are play-acting for someone, which means 3) they’re probably being bugged and are aware they’re being bugged. Thus the next time we hear the dialogue (played on a mini tape-recorder by Ray’s compatriots), it’s hardly a reversal. We already know the conversation was taped. The final time we hear it, as Ray and Claire practice the dialogue in her apartment before the first Lord & Taylor meeting — sounding less like secret agents than writers and directors arguing over word choices and line readings — yes, it’s another reversal, the biggest reversal of all. Because we discover, even if they don’t, that her place is bugged by Howard Tully (Wilkinson). Their scheme is really his scheme. Or, rather, his scheme trumps theirs.
Problem? Her apartment’s bugged? Kind of pedestrian, isn’t it? Isn’t she too smart, or tech-savvy, or paranoid for that?
You could argue that that’s the point. She thinks she’s too smart for that. He thinks he’s too smart for that. Thus their comeuppance. The New Yorker article makes it apparent that Gilroy believes in comeuppance. He thought he let Jason Bourne off too easily in the first film (he’s a professional assassin, after all) and so in the second film he’s forced to meet a girl he orphaned and deal. Same here. And that final scene, a slow pullback while they deal, is quite good.
Problem? You have four main players: Claire, Ray, Tully, and Richard Garsik (Giamatti). All are duplicitous. All deserve comeuppance. Yet Tully wins. Where’s his comeuppance?
You could extrapolate beyond the ending. You could argue that once Garsik is forced out as CEO for announcing a miracle product that doesn’t exist, he could, with nothing to lose, tell the truth. Say the whole thing was Tully’s scheme. Say Tully spent millions of his company’s money, and who knows how many man-hours, on a personal vendetta. Not to gain market advantage but out of petty revenge. And thus Tully could be forced out as well. Then nobody wins. You could extrapolate that. Maybe it’ll even be in the DVD extras. But it’s not here.
Besides, the main problem the film tries to resolve is whether Ray and Claire, two people who have made careers out of duplicity, can learn to trust one another enough to love one another. And despite the characters being well-written and well-acted within this framework... I guess I didn’t care. Maybe because I knew that even with non-agents, even with folks living the day to day, the answer to that problem is more fraught with reversals than anything Tony Gilroy could possibly imagine.
It’s almost unfilmable. If you stay true to Alan Moore’s original graphic novel, as director Zach Snyder did here, it’s almost unfilmable.
“Watchman,” the graphic novel, was created during the 1980s, when Europeans in particular were paranoid that between Reagan and Russia (which is where they were, literally), the world would end. Given human nature, and given the destructive power of these two countries, human beings were doomed. How to prevent it? Moore’s solution was to blow up New York, blame a third party (aliens in the graphic novel, Dr. Manhattan in the movie), and thus unite humanity against this third party. Sacrifice millions to save billions. Create an illusion of an Other to save ourselves from ourselves.
There’s logic in this. The problem? It’s 2009. No matter how nihilistic you may be, the doomsday scenario Moore and others feared didn’t happen. Which means sacrificing millions wasn’t necessary.
At least in our universe. Fans will argue — have argued — that the “Watchmen” universe is not our universe. Their America “wins” Vietnam. Nixon gets elected to a third, fourth, fifth term. So maybe in that universe, it’s argued, the sacrifice is still necessary.
Doesn’t matter. We’re stuck in this universe. And for moviegoers stuck in this universe, particularly those who have never read the graphic novel (which is most moviegoers), watching the machinations in “Watchmen” is like watching a contemporary action flick set in 1999 in which the hero —Will Smith, say — sacrifices the world financial order to save us all from Y2K. Audience reaction will generally be: “What the hell...?”
Fans, those pesky SOBs, will argue that the Watchmen are not Will Smith — that the whole point of the Watchmen is that they’re not Will Smith. They’re dark, complex, full of faults. Night Owl II is weak and ineffectual. Rorschach is like a short, masked Dirty Harry. Ozymandias is amoral, Dr. Manhattan disconnected. The Comedian is a murdering, raping fascist. “Complex.”
Yeah. For me, the lack of anyone between Rorschach’s paranoid activity and Night Owl’s shrugging passivity (or, in sexual terms, between the assaults of the Comedian and the impotence of Night Owl) means we’re in an adolescent realm where extremes rule and an unrelenting darkness is often confused with complexity. “It’s all a joke,” the Comedian says. It may well be, but he’s not in on it.
Why “The Comedian” anyway? That’s an odd name for a superhero who isn’t funny. Why “Ozymandias”? Why would the smartest man in the world, a powerful and pompous man, choose for his superhero name a figure representing the ultimate lesson in power and pomposity? To remind himself not to be pompous? Or maybe in this universe, Percy Shelley never wrote “Ozymandias,” and so its lessons were never imparted to the smartest man in the world, who took the name just because. This “other universe” thing is always a helluva argument.
OK, here’s why they chose those names. They didn’t. Alan Moore did. They come to represent those names (ironically), but there’s little in their characters that would make them choose them at the beginning. Well, maybe The Comedian; he’s got a sick sense of humor. But Ozymandias? That’s the author imposing his heavy (and symbolic) hand on the character. And Alan Moore’s got one heavy and symbolic hand.
Questions linger that we can debate forever. Why does Dr. Manhattan fight in Vietnam? Can’t he see where this will lead? And if, 14 years later, Manhattan is so disconnected from humanity he’s choosing non-life over life, wouldn’t he, by 1971, at least have divested himself of nationalism?
I like the rise of the costumed superheroes in the late ‘30s — which is when they first appeared for us in comic magazines. I like their ascendance during World War II, and how they began to get knocked off after the war — which is when superhero comics began to be replaced by westerns and romance and horror. The graphic novel, more than the movie, gives us a sense of both the Golden Age (Minutemen/Watchmen) and the Silver Age (Watchmen II) of comic books, while the movie fudges the Silver Age. We really only get the second generation (Silk Spectre II, Night Owl II, Rorschach) in their dotage. By the way: Can we imagine a less likely duo than Night Owl II and Rorschach?
Ultimately the biggest problem with the movie (and maybe the graphic novel) is this: After the opening scene, we are left with five superheroes: Dr. Manhattan, Silk Spectre II, Night Owl II, Rorschach and Ozymandias. What is the storyline for each? What is each of them seeking?
Manhattan is increasingly disengaged and building things we don’t understand. Ozymandias is a non-entity until his machinations are revealed — then he seems insane. Night Owl is a schlub. Silk Spectre wants, like Daisy Mae, a man. Only Rorschach is really after anything and it turns out he’s wrong.
This is why I never really got into this story. I need characters interested (in something) in order to find them interesting.
Two-Minute Review: The International (2009)
When I first saw a trailer for “The International” it seemed like a thriller for our time: corruption at a bank, money being lost, people getting screwed. Turns out it's a thriller for the exact opposite of our time. It's about an Interpol agent trying to bring down an all-powerful bank at all costs, while in the real world we're busy trying to prop up our weak and hemorrhaging banks. Yes, at all costs.
The movie has some nice moments. We get to travel the world: Berlin, Lyon, Istanbul, Milan. Director Tom Tykwer shoots agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) entering, and dwarfed by, these gigantic financial institutions — the way Raoul Walsh filmed Joel McRae against a western backdrop in “Colorado Territory.” The great set-piece is a shoot-‘em-up down the circular floors of the Guggenheim in New York. Armin Mueller-Stahl, playing the inside man with a conscience, gives us his usual solid performance and delivers the film’s best line: “This is the difference between truth and fiction; fiction has to make sense.”
Unfortunately this fiction makes little sense — reflecting its difficult birth and German/Hollywood parentage. It’s too slow to be an action thriller and not cerebral enough to be an intellectual thriller. As implied, its villain (an international bank) is, in our world, on life-support, so as Salinger relentlessly pursues the executives of this bank around the globe, you almost want to reach out a hand and stop him. “Everyone is involved,” Mueller-Stahl warns Owen about the bank. Well, now anyway.
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