Movie Reviews - 2012 postsWednesday June 19, 2013
Movie Review: Not Fade Away (2012)
There’s an early scene in “Not Fade Away,” written and directed by David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” which encapsulates much of what we are about to see.
It begins with three teenagers on a summer night in 1964 hanging behind a curbside sewer grating and bemoaning their existence in general and lack of girls in particular. The smallest one, Douglas (John Magaro), says the following:
Nothing has ever worked for me. I got this skinny physique. I got this skuzzy complexion.
CUT TO: The Rolling Stones singing “I Just Want to Make Love to You” on Hollywood Palace.
Great transition. The Stones provide Doug with an answer not only on how to get girls, with his skinny physique and skuzzy complexion, but what to do with his life. He can become a musician. He can join a band. He can become … a rock star.
More, Chase keeps the camera rolling, as it were, so we see the cultural divide the music and the hair engender. Doug’s father, Pat (James Gandolfini), watching the show with his bowl of ice cream after a day of work, looks positively disgusted by the Stones, and his reaction is echoed by, of all people, the host of Hollywood Palace, Dean Martin, who says, “Rolling Stones! Aren’t they great?” and then rolls his eyes to laughter from the crowd. He adds:
They’re going to leave right after the show for London. They’re going to challenge the Beatles to a hair pulling contest.
More laughter from the crowd and a conspiratorial smile from Pat. But their world is about to change.
“Not Fade Away,” which became the Stones’ first hit stateside, is about a band, Doug’s, that not only faded away but barely formed in the first place. It’s a slice of life about the haphazard path life can take. It’s universal in this regard, but, because it’s culled from Chase’s past, it’s specific to place (New Jersey) and time: that moment when everything the greatest generation strived for was upended by their children, the boomer generation, for whom it was striven, and who had in them an unreal idealism and an overwhelming sense of privilege.
It starts out about a girl, Grace Dietz (Bella Heathcote, looking very Heather Graham circa 1998), who is always in Doug’s sites but out of his reach, not to mention out of his league. But time is on his side. Doug is asked to join the band of his friend, Gene (Jack Huston), who has a bit of a following, as its drummer; then he has to take over lead vocals when Gene, smoking pot, swallows a roach. Doug does well. In fact, he does better than Gene. A source of future conflict. His hair grows out and frizzes, he starts wearing Cuban-heel boots, he begins to look more and more like “Don’t Look Back”-era Bob Dylan. And he gets Grace.
Then he blows it, of course. She has a past? She sucked whose what? He gets into fights with his father, while his mother, Antoinette (Molly Price), an early version of Livia Soprano, is forever crossing herself. The Vietnam War is brought up, and each side takes the most inane position. It’s ill-informed pragmatism vs. lofty idealism. Is that part of the problem with the movie? We get inanity from both sides of the generation gap. Meanwhile, the best version of both sides is represented by the same family: Doug and his father. Everyone else can go to hell.
Pat is a sympathetic figure here: hair-trigger temper, sure, but hard-working, suffering cancer in silence, and sticking by his crazy wife. Doug takes the best of his father, his work ethic, and tries to push the band toward success; but his mates already have an idea of what they are and what they will be. Gene keeps wanting to do covers because that’s what “his fans” like, but he says it at his day job doing itinerant construction. Meanwhile, Wells (Will Brill) has the stages of the band’s success already worked out in his mind. He reminds me of members of the band Visiting Day from a first-season episode of “The Sopranos,” who talk about which of their lousy songs will be their first hit and which will be the second. They, and he, are about to go nowhere but in their minds.
As a slice of life, a slice of culture, and as cinematic memoir, “Not Fade Away” reminds me of a not-quite-as-resonant version of Olivier Assayas’ “Apres Mai.” Assayas’ counterpart, Gilles (Clément Métayer), goes from would-be revolutionary and into film production, while Chase’s pursues rock ‘n’ roll dreams until he cuts out for California and film school. The movie is about why the first dream doesn’t happen from the perspective of the second dream, which happened.
It’s a good movie, evocative, with great music and production values. Why doesn’t it quite work? Do we get too much of Grace’s crazy sister, Joy, and their central-casting square and conservative parents (Christopher McDonald in plaid golf pants)? The bookending narration, provided by Doug’s sister Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu), feels unnecessary, too, and her final ‘60s-era dance, in the middle of the Sunset Strip, while fun, doesn’t exactly illuminate. Maybe we needed a greater focus on Doug and Pat. There are moments when Pat looks at his son, sprouting hair like a chia pet, and has no idea who he is. We feel the same.
Movie Review: Go Grandriders (2012)
The most interesting aspect of “Go Grandriders” for me is less the tour of the coast of Taiwan—as 17 geriatrics, averaging 81 years old, ride motorbikes from Taichung, south along the west coast, and north along the east coast—than the stories they tell. Particularly the World War II-era stories.
Taiwan has a fascinating history in this regard. From 1895 to 1945, it was a Japanese colony, and during the war many Taiwanese actually fought for the Japanese, whose rule on the island was less problematic (read: genocidal) than it was on the mainland. Many Taiwanese actually liked Japanese rule. But the war ended, Taiwan reverted back to Chinese rule, and two years later Communist forces pushed Nationalist forces, the Kuomintang (KMT) led by Chiang Kai-shek, off the mainland and onto Taiwan, where the KMT stayed in power for decades. Thus, on this small island, you had native folks who spoke mostly Taiwanese and didn’t mind the Japanese, rubbing elbows with mainland folks who spoke mostly Mandarin and hated the Japanese. The 228 Incident, in which the KMT massacred Taiwanese citizens protesting government policies, didn’t help.
So I’m glad Hua Tien-hao made his documentary now rather than 10 years from now. In 10 years, most of these stories will be gone, but here, in “Go Grandriders,” a not-bad, mostly cute, sometimes too cute portrayal of 80-year-olds and their dreams, which became the highest-grossing documentary in Taiwan’s history, we have, among the 17, a man who trained Kamikaze pilots for the Japanese, as well as a former Nationalist soldier who came over in ’48. At one point, this is discussed: how, during World War II, one might have tried to kill the other. But quickly, too quickly, it’s swept aside, amid effusive smiles and declaration and handshakes. Inwei, shr bu hao yisi.
Too bad it wasn’t delved into deeper. That history won’t be around much longer.
The trip is not without its comedy. “If you are currently on medication,” the riders are told at the beginning, “please bring it with you.” One man shakes his head because his wife packs 17 suits for him. Another injures himself because he falls asleep during the first leg.
The gung-ho, ja-yo captain of the trip, 87 years old, a former policeman, can’t make it past the first leg. He has a stomach ulcer, and the shaking of the motorbike causes internal bleeding. He’s hospitalized, then meets up with the participants a few days later. But he’s hospitalized again, and feels shame as they all visit him in his room. Even though he recovers in time to greet the riders at the finish line, the whole enterprise must have been bittersweet for him at best.
Another man, on the perilous eastern leg of the trip, with the highway reduced to two lanes, winds up hospitalized after what we assume is a collision with a truck. (I thought: Right, Taiwan traffic. Maybe two minutes on that phenomenon would’ve been good for international audiences.) Others are greeted as heroes at a local nursing home.
You get ordinary scenes. One man hides from the others with an ice-cream cone, another checks out how his stocks are doing in the local paper. You get touching scenes: One man makes the journey with a framed portrait of his deceased wife in his wire basket. Whenever they arrive in a new town and are greeted with flowers (wrapped in plastic, of course), he puts the flowers in the basket for his wife.
Is it all too ordinary? There’s some talk of death. “If no one died,” one man says, “it would be a crowded world.” I like that. But it’s as deep as the documentary gets.
Movie Review: Kapringen (A Hijacking) (2012)
Tobias Lindholm’s “Kapringen” (“A Hijacking”) is such a straightforward, tense, felt rendition of the contemporary hijacking of a Danish cargo ship by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean that afterwards you feel as if you’ve been held hostage, too. In a way you have. For two hours. Which makes you wonder whether or not you actually liked the movie. Is it as good as you think? Or is your reaction some cinematic version of the Stockholm Syndrome?
Named best Danish film at the 2013 Bodil Awards, “Kapringen” opens with the three-beep sound of a ship-to-shore phone, as Mikkel Hartmann (Pilou Asbæk), the cook of the MV Rozen, talks to his wife. He’s got some bad news. Instead of being home on the 15th he won’t arrive until the 17th. She’s upset until he sweet-talks her, charms her. Then he charms us by talking with his daughter. Afterwards we see Mikkel making food for, and joking around with, the men. He’s gregarious but has his solitary moments, too. There’s a nice scene of him on deck, watching the ocean during magic hour with coffee and cigarette.
Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, we see the CEO of the company, Peter C. Ludvigsen (Søren Malling), do his thing. A subordinate, Lars Vestergaard (Dar Salim), is having trouble negotiating with the Japanese. They won’t bring down their price. Stuck at $19 million, Ludvigsen wants them under $15, and when he begins negotiations he offers $10. They look shocked, laugh. They reiterate 19. He thanks them and stands to leave. At the door, they say 17. Progress. He turns around. In the end, he gets what he wants.
Both men, by the end, will irrevocably changed.
Mikkel and Peter
We never see the Somalis board the ship. They’re just there, making demands, sticking their semi-automatics in the faces of the men. The captain goes down quickly with a sickness (ulcer), so it’s up to Mikkel—who, as cook, still has to work—to negotiate with the pirates for, say, bathroom privileges. Three of the seven men are holed up in a small cabin. They are forced to pee on the floor. They talk of the stink. We smell it. It’s that kind of movie. Eventually they get a bucket. After weeks, they are allowed bathroom privileges.
The chief negotiator for the pirates is a man named Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), who claims not to be a pirate, who takes umbrage at the suggestion. He’s a businessman, same as Peter. The pirates wants $15 million, Peter initially offers $250K, and the rest of the movie, and the hostage crisis, revolves around which side will move, and who will live and who will die.
It would be easy to make Peter the villain in all this. He’s a businessman, a CEO, a negotiator with little apparent emotion in his face. Malling’s eyes are so wide-spread he almost looks reptilian. Plus he never gives in. He keeps negotiating. One could say it’s not in his nature. But he too is held hostage. Throughout the movie, throughout the various negotiations, we never see him leave his temperature-controlled gray offices of Copenhagen. He’s stuck.
An Irish expert in hostage situations, Connor Julian (Gary Skjoldmose Porter), gives him advice, including hiring an actual negotiator to deal with the pirates. But Peter says it’s his company; he will negotiate. Connor is wary of this—emotions don’t help—but he allows it. And the days pass. Day 7, Day 25, Day 39. Each number seems impossibly large. How long could it go on? Where’s Ted Koppel? Where’s the Danish government? Where’s Interpol? We’re also waiting for Peter to either rise to the situation or for his hubris to get the better of him.
To be fair, the situation gets the better of him. Months in, Omar allows Mikkel what he’s always wanted—to talk to his wife—then betrays and uses him. The barrel of a gun is put to his head and his head is forced onto the table and he’s ordered to say the following: “You call the company and tell them to pay or they are going to kill us all!” She does this. She talks to Peter. At which point Peter stops taking Connor’s advice. He gets emotional. He raises his offer even though the Somalis haven’t countered yet. He gets angry and shouts. Omar shouts back. Then gunshots are heard. Then nothing.
In the shock afterwards, director Lindholm does a very smart thing: he keeps us in the room with Peter. He keeps us in the building with Peter. Everything’s silent. Peter’s thinking, brooding, wearing the heaviness of the situation on his face and in his posture. Has he caused the death of a man? He stays in his office through the night, and in the morning his wife arrives, buoyant, with coffee, and pastry, and a smile. He lashes out at her. The truly brilliant thing is we want to do the same. Her buoyancy in that moment is repugnant. She’s from another world. Her presence in the midst of this excruciating, slow-drip horror is an insult. We know what he does is wrong but it’s our impulse, too.
On the cargo ship, a few of the men get closer to a few of the pirates. It’s an unequal relationship, of course. One side is always this close to being humiliated, or this close to being killed. They run out of food, catch a fish, sing “Happy Birthday.” The one song everyone knows. But as the days grind on things get bad. Mikkel isn’t shot but he is psychologically abused. A skinny pirate follows him around, keeps placing the barrel of a gun on his neck, keeps pulling the trigger. Click. Remember the “Mao mao” guy from “The Deer Hunter”? Like that. We want to kill the guy. Mikkel goes the other way. He breaks. Pilou Asbæk gives a stunning performance. In the beginning, in his gregarious stage, he reminded me of a scruffy, bearded Joshua Jackson. By the end, with his thousand-yard stare, I kept thinking of Michael Shannon. Either nobody’s home or the person that’s home is curled up in a corner in the basement. And be careful about ringing the doorbell.
Celebrating a robbery
It ends well and not. There’s a payment ($3.3 million) and a death. The deal is only struck because Lars, the subordinate, offers the solution that Peter, the CEO, can’t think of. The student has become the master. But at least Peter is not responsible for a death. In a way, Mikkel is.
When the cheers go up that the deal is made, I thought, “They just paid $.3.3 million to not have men killed.” That’s part of the point, I’m sure. By the end, we’re celebrating a robbery. We don’t even need that final death to make it awful. It’s already awful.
You can’t help but compare the movie to the Hollywood version. Since Mikkel is a cook, I thought of “Under Siege,” the wish-fulfillment fantasy in which terrorists take control of a US Navy battleship, but the cook (Steven Seagal), a former SEAL, takes it back. I also thought of “Captain Phillips,” the true-life, Tom Hanks Somali-pirate movie, which will be released this October. Directed by Paul Greengrass, it looks to have some verisimilitude—it’s not superhero stuff—but it’s still wish fulfillment. It still has its happy ending.
From “A Hijacking”’s IMDb message board, American version:
Hard to believe the Dane's [sic] didn't prep/train for pirates. They were Vikings, at one time. The take away [sic] seems to be, hope for best, prep for worst, keep a Seal Team on retainer.
All Americans are cowboys in their heads but the world is brutal in ways we can’t imagine. It’s also poignant in ways we don’t portray. The faces of Hollywood heroes hide everything but amidst the inhumanity of “Kapringen” there is great humanity.
Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), near the end.
Movie Review: The Last Sentence (2012)
In 1996, Swedish director Jan Troell (“The Emigrants”; “Everlasting Moments”) made “Hamsun,” a biopic of the latter years of famed Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun (Max von Sydow), who infamously sided with Nazi Germany during World War II. It’s a tragedy.
Last year, Troell made “The Last Sentence” (“Dom over dod man”), a biopic of the latter years of famed Swedish journalist Torgny Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen), the editor-in-chief of Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning (GHT), who was one of the strongest, most strident, and earliest voices against Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. It, too, is a tragedy.
The lesson? Apparently it’s tough to have a happy ending in Nazi-occupied Europe. Also being on the right side of history doesn’t mean you’re not an asshole.
Two opposing ideas
When I first saw Segerstedt watching newsreel footage of Hitler, I thought, “That’s our hero?” He has a shock of white hair, prominent cheekbones, and something severe and uncompromising in his face. He looks like a drag. He is. Shortly afterwards, we see him at a dinner party giving an overlong toast about “the truth.” He does this while also conducting a public affair with the publisher of GHT, Maja Forssman (Pernilla August, Anakin Skywalker’s mom, y’all). “The sleeper does not sin,” he tells his wife, Puste (Ulla Skoog, in a great performance), before the party. “As you should know,” she replies. “You hardly sleep.”
For the first third of the film, in fact, Troell mostly ignores Hitler and history and focuses on Segerstedt’s infidelity. The cuckold, Segerstedt’s friend Axel Forssman (Björn Granath), handles it all with equanimity and a kind of sad Swedish acceptance, but Puste is less forgiving. She’s full of self-pity but receives little from others:
Puste: What does she have that I don’t?
Ingrid Segerstedt: A newspaper, mother.
And from us? We certainly feel sorry for her. How awful to take a back seat in your husband’s affairs—to not even be able to sit next to him at parties—to be usurped and forgotten in this manner. But any pity we have for her is laced with something else. There’s a quiet moment when Puste sits at Segerstedt’s desk. It’s her way of getting close to him. She doesn’t have him but she has his things. It’s a bit creepy but mostly sad. Then it just becomes creepy. She opens the desk drawer and finds a picture of a girl—“Maja, age 16,” it says on the back—and her face hardens and she tears it up. When she next visits Segerdtedt in his den, stepping over his dogs to bring him tea, and he’s brusque and distracted, she pours scalding water on the dogs.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still be able to function.” Troell manages this with his characters. Our thoughts, our feelings, are forever conflicted about them. Sure, Torgny should pay more attention to his wife … but she’s such a pain. Yes, he ignores her … but wouldn’t you?
Writing in sand
What’s amazing abut Segerstedt, why a biopic was made in the first place, is not just that he saw the dangers of Nazi Germany; it’s how early.
After the opening newsreel, he writes a screed-like editorial that ends with the line, “Herr Hitler is an insult.” Shortly thereafter, GHT receives an admonishing telegram from Hermann Göring himself, which they celebrate receiving, and which leads to another editorial. About 10 minutes of screentime later, we get news of a fire at the Reichstag building.
Me in the audience: Wait, Segerstedt wrote editorials against Hitler before Reichstag? Wow.
The second half of the movie, after Puste’s death, is more historically relevant but less emotionally resonant. The world closes in: Anschluss, annexation, appeasement, invasion of Poland, yadda yadda. At one point Segerstedt receives a phone call from a Swedish fascist who threatens his life. Segerstedt invites him over for tea. “After that, you can kill me,” he says. His maid, Pirjo (Maria Heiskanen), worries he’s being too flippant but he dismisses the threat. He feels anyone who threatens a man over the phone is a coward and won’t show his face. He’s right. But then one of his dogs is found dead on the grounds from strychine poisoning.
As both Denmark and Norway are invaded, Segerstedt’s voice against Hitler remains strident, and he’s cautioned by the authorities—including, eventually, the King—to tone it down. “You do danger to Sweden,” he’s told. “You are blinded by your hatred of the Germans.” “I don’t hate the Germans,” he responds calmly. “I hate the Nazis.” In a less calm moment, he slaps the face of the foreign minister.
There’s a kind of bitter joke here. Segerstedt warns early and often about Hitler but Sweden is one of the few countries that’s never engaged in World War II. It’s never invaded; it remains neutral. Instead, or maybe as a result, Segerstedt’s battles become internecine. The Swedish police raid the GHT offices and Segerstedt’s voice is muted. An odd banquet is held for him by leftists, in which he’s hailed as a truth-telling knight, and made to ride a horse and carry a lance, but he comes off more buffoon than hero. Finally, his battles become internal. Puste dies, but he hangs on. Maja dies, but he hangs on. He’s haunted by the women in his life: we see them black-veiled and vaguely amused, like Jessica Lange in “All That Jazz.” Then he’s haunted by the purposelessness of his life. He wrote thousands of articles—to what end? “How quickly it passed,” he says. “I have written in sand,” he says.
In the end, he simply wants to outlive Hitler but doesn’t get to do this, either. Sick, bedridden, stubbornly hanging on, the great truth teller is lied to. “Hitler? Is he dead?” he asks. “Yes, he is gone,” he’s told. But it’s March 1945. Hitler has another month to go. Segerstedt does not.
The test of a first-rate movie is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still function. “The Last Sentence” does the former but it doesn’t quite function. Moments resonate (“I have written in sand”) but the whole just sits there. In the end, it’s a movie better in the reviewing than the viewing.
Movie Review: Kon-Tiki (2012)
When I was a kid in Minnesota in the 1970s, Thor was god. Thor Heyerdahl.
I read “The Ra Expeditions” when it was published in the early 1970s, and I might have seen the documentary, “Ra,” at the local movie theater. Both book and doc focused on Heyerdahl’s attempt to captain a boat made of papyrus from Morocco to the west to prove that ancient peoples could have done the same. The first boat, Ra (named after the Egyptian sun god), didn’t make it, but the second, “Ra II,” did, all the way to Barbados.
But eventually I got bored with it. The adventures were only so adventurous and the ethnography went over my head. I also didn’t get how it proved anything. If you showed that something could be done, how did it prove that it was done? Plus the notion of groups of people shifting continents thousands of years ago freaked me out. It made me feel small and meaningless, which I was, I just didn’t want to know it.
I knew about “Kon-Tiki,” of course, Heyerdahl’s attempt, in the late 1940s, to prove that Polynesia was populated not from the west, as was the prevailing theory, but from the east, specifically Peru. So I was excited when I heard last year that Norway, Heyerdahl’s country, where he’s still a god, had made a movie about this adventure. I was less excited to hear that they made two versions—in Norwegian for Norway, and in English for the rest of the world—but I was excited again when it was nominated for best foreign-language feature at the 2012-13 Academy Awards. It had to be good then, right?
It’s OK. It looks beautiful but it’s a fairly cookie-cutter biopic. We get the following:
- The childhood scene indicating the man he’ll become: He takes risks on an ice floe, falls in icy waters, is saved by a friend, and refuses to tell his parents he’ll never take such risks again.
- The early adventure that leads to the quest: In the 1930s, Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) lives in Polynesia with his wife, Liv (Agnes Kittelsen), and comes to realize that the prevailing theories about how Polynesia was populated are wrong.
- The Powers-that-Be getting in the way of the quest: Publishers won’t publish his book, the National Geographic Society won’t hear him out, he barely gets into the Explorers Club in New York, all of which indicate our hero’s underdog status.
- The wife objecting to the quest: Surely the most tedious aspect of any of these stories. Someone please apologize to Ms. Kittelsen for the thankless role.
- The quest itself: The bulk of the movie: sailing a raft, with the wind and the tides, 5,000 miles from Peru to Polynesia, with five other men.
- A happy ending: Bien sur.
At some point, mid-ocean, I leaned over to Patricia and said, “It would be nice if they made one of these things about someone who was wrong.”
Patricia actually liked the movie less than I did. That doesn’t happen often. And this one is mostly handsome, blonde men, half-naked on a raft, surrounded by beautiful blue water and various fish and mammals. Yet it wasn’t enough for her.
“Couldn’t they have had better conversations on the raft?” she asked as we walked away from the theater. “I know it’s supposed to be tedious, but good god.”
Admittedly, there were few conversations that stand out. Here’s one that does. At one point Herman (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) falls into shark-infested waters and is being left behind by the Kon-Tiki, which can’t turn around, which is subject only to the wind and the tides, and one of the men (apologies: they’re not very distinguishable) jumps in with a rope to save him. The others throw chum in the water to move the sharks away and both men are saved in thrilling fashion: flailing legs leaving the water just as the sharks arrive. Afterwards, this man talks about how many he killed during World War II and how it weighs on his conscience. Then he thanks Herman. “You saved my life,” Herman reminds him. “I know,” says the man. “Thank you.” That’s a nice moment. Good dialogue. But overall Patricia is right.
“And did they all have to be so stupid?” Patricia asked. “Heyerdahl can’t swim, the one guy puts tomato soup in the water thinking it’s shark repellent, the other guy [Herman] harpoons the whale. I mean, c’mon.”
This bothered me less. The idea that Heyerdahl embarked on this journey, 5,000 miles across the Pacific on a glorified raft, even though he couldn’t swim, indicates his mania to prove his theory. The other stuff is there to create tension, conflict. Or, as with the tomato soup, it’s comic relief. Of a kind.
“Plus they telegraphed everything,” Patricia said. “You knew exactly what was going to happen.”
One scene they don’t telegraph occurs right before Herman goes in the water. Throughout the journey, they’ve had a parrot named Lorita on board; but here she suddenly flies off and lands in the water and a shark gets her. (There was a parrot on the Kon-Tiki, by the way, but storms got her, not sharks.) The camera then focuses on Lorita’s caretaker as he moves with determination around the raft. I assumed he was becoming aware that they were surrounded by sharks, a sea of sharks, and the camera would pull back and reveal them churning in the water. Instead, at a key point, he reaches down and hooks the shark that ate Lorita and brings it on board, where it flails helplessly and is then killed. It’s a revenge scene of a kind I’ve never witnessed before.
But overall Patricia’s right. They did telegraph too much. I should have let her write this review.
The right stuff
The movie also overstates Heyerdahl’s role in bringing back the notion of “adventure” in the post-war world, crediting him with inspiring the test pilots that led to the space program. But these pilots were already doing what they were doing in the California desert long before Heyerdahl put together his raft.
Even so, I liked the movie well enough. Yes, there’s not enough complexity, and yes the men aren’t distinguishable enough. But it’s beautiful to look at, the adventure is a great adventure, and Heyerdahl is still a bit of a god to me. Plus the scene with the whale is just majestic. Its immensity. The way it dwarfs us.
I’m curious, though, what backlash, if any, awaited Heyerdahl when he finished the 5,000-mile journey and wrote his book. Did any other ethnographers and anthropologists react the way I reacted when I was young? Just because you showed something could be done doesn’t prove that it was done. Or did all the other evidence (pineapples, stone idols) seal the deal?
As for being nominated for best foreign language film at the 2012-13 Academy Awards? I would’ve gone with “The Deep” from Iceland.
Movie Review: The Deep (2012)
I kept trying to place Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, the star of “The Deep,” the 2012 movie that was nominated for 16 Edda Awards, Iceland’s Oscars, and won 11 of them, including best picture, director, and actor. It was the second best actor in a row for Ólafsson, even though he’s hardly leading man material. He’s overweight, frumpy, and in Hollywood would be typecast as a villain or the best friend; but in Iceland he’s Tom Hanks. Except he was reminding me of someone else.
At first I thought of Clancy Brown, who played the sadistic guard in “The Shawshank Redemption. I sorted through other options, including Chuck McCann, whom I knew best from the Saturday morning live-action show, “Far Out Space Nuts, ” before it hit me: Vincent D’Onofrio. Both men are charismatic when they want, intense when they want, and both of these factors are important in playing Gulli, a national hero in Iceland, an ordinary man who, one horrible evening, defies the sea, human nature, and, ultimately, science.
Gulli is a fisherman on Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands), an archipelago off the southern coast of Iceland best-known for a 1973 volcano eruption that forced a month-long evacuation of the entire island. Gulli was a teenager at the time—we see him in flashback—but now it’s 1984 and Gulli’s a young, aimless man. He’s part of a crew of six on a fishing boat, the Breki, but seems to lack the passion or focus of the others. One is a family man, with a wife and two boys, another has an extensive LP collection and a dog, a third loses himself in drink, a fourth in women. Gulli? He’s just there. At the local bar on a dark frigid evening, he teases the new cook, then comes to his aid when a fight breaks out. His temper, we see, is fierce, but he’s a decent sort. There’s a girl, too, pretty, and a suggestion of a history, but Gulli doesn’t act on it. He still lives with his parents. He still drinks milk from the carton.
He also seems fairly impervious to cold. On a frigid December morning, when the crew of the Breki is going out despite a recent winter storm, and everything from cars to ropes creak with frost and cold, Gulli is hanging out hatless and gloveless, wearing an unzipped jacket with an open flannel shirt underneath. He’s just hanging.
Going in, we know the boat will capsize but we don’t know why. Is it the weather? Palli (Jóhann G. Jóhannsson), the family man, places a damp drawing his son made for him on a heater. Will that start a fire? We get bits from the crew: the alcoholic throwing up in the engine room; the cook unable to make a good cup of coffee for the captain; the watching of “Jaws” on Betamax and a discussion about thow they need to switch over to VHS.
Early in the day, the fishing nets get caught on something on the bottom of the ocean and the boat tilts precariously before extricating itself. So it’s not that. But it happens again in the evening, and the captain, not wanting to lose the nets, which are new, doesn’t order them cut loose. The boat tilts, and tilts, and finally goes over. The men go in. Most die quickly. Three cling to wreckage: Gulli, Palli, and the Captain. But the wreckage keeps getting swamped. The air temperature, we’re told, is 27 degrees, the water temperature 41, and they’re three miles out. “I’m so cold,” Palli says. “We can’t just die here!” the Captain says, panicking, “we have to start swimming.” He does, leaving the other two, but he doesn’t go far. Gulli spots a nearby boat, shouts and waves, but isn’t heard, and in that moment Palli dies, too. “If you make it … ” he begins to tell Gulli. Then nothing. Then his hand goes limp. Gulli, alone, begins to swim. At which point the camera pulls back and we see a lone man bobbing up against a vast, cold blackness.
On his painful journey, he talks to seagulls, tries to tell jokes (but can’t remember the punchlines), remembers the past, makes promises for the future. He gets angry. He prays. He promises that if he’s given just one more day this is what he’ll do. He won’t drink milk from a carton but from a glass—to please his mother. He’ll visit Palli’s wife and kids and tell them how he died—nobly, and thinking of them. He’ll visit his friend’s dog. He’ll pay off his motorcycle so he’ll have no debts. Then he’ll visit the girl from the bar, the one with whom he has a history. This time he won’t just walk past her house. This time he’ll go in. If he’s given just one more day.
And here his troubles began
One of the most horrifically ironic subtitles I’ve come across is from Art Spiegelman’s “Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale,” which, after the first volume of various Nazi horrors culminating in husband and wife taken to Auschwitz, is subtitled, “And Here My Troubles Began.”
I thought of this when Gulli makes it to shore. It’s still night, it’s still dark, and he’s been through hell. But shore, when he reaches it, is a horror of pounding waves and sharp rocks that lead to a cliff face that can’t be scaled. So he has to go back. He has to go out into the surf again. When he finally finds a cliff face he can scale, and reaches its top, he sees nothing but desolation. The ground is cooled lava and cuts his bare feet. He has to fashion socks out of the arms of his shirt. He keeps throwing up all the salt water he’s swallowed. When he reaches a town, a kid thinks he’s a drunk. When he’s finally taken to a hospital, his body temperature is below 93 degrees. He has no heartbeat. Yet he lives.
There’s confusion at first. He said the boat went down where? And he swam how long? That’s impossible. But they find the wreckage where he said it was. A Reykjavik scientist hears of the tale and is intrigued, since what’s being talked about is scientifically impossible. A man can’t survive that long in temperatures that cold. Studies are done. When they prove inconclusive, Gulli is taken to London where more studies are done. With monitors all over his body, he’s placed in a tub filled with ice with three chiseled members of the Special Forces. Their best lasts 19 minutes. He lasts hours. It’s survival of the unfittest. His body fat is like seal fat, we’re told, but even that doesn’t explain it. He still shouldn’t have lived.
In a way he’s not. His survival is not triumphant at all. He suffers survivor’s guilt, and seems halfway between the living and the dead. And the day he promised if God let him live? Where’s that?
Bring warm clothes
“The Deep,” written by Jón Atli Jónasson and Baltasar Kormákur, and directed by Kormákur, is a quiet, matter-of-fact film that’s as unpretentious as the people it portrays, and much recommended. It’s spare. No real answers are given for what happens, but at some point Gulli has had enough of the tests and he returns to Vestmannaeyjar; and he has that day he promised God. He visits his friend with the LPs and the old dog, who doesn’t respond to him until he puts on the music. Then the dog is his. He visits Palli’s widow and her kids and gives them a kind of closure. But he doesn’t find his. He still doesn’t visit the girl. That’s the part he can’t do. Instead he returns to fishing. He goes out to sea again with another crew. Does he go like Superman? Like someone the sea can’t kill? No. He goes like Gulli.
Did I want more from the end? Yes. But it works. “The Deep” is a movie about blunt facts: what the sea does to you; what the cold does to you. At the end you’ll feel chilled to the bone. Bring warm clothes.
Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, the Tom Hanks of Iceland, before the plunge.
Movie Review: Renoir (2012)
Leave it to a great painter like Pierre-Auguste Renoir to make my father look good. Whatever ways my father embarrassed me when I was growing up, he never described my girlfriend’s tits in exquisite, loving detail the way that Pierre-Auguste (Michel Bouquet) does to his son, Jean (Vincent Rottiers), two-thirds of the way into Gilles Bourdos’ slow, painterly film, “Renoir.”
“Titian would have worshipped her,” Pierre-Auguste says. “Flesh! That’s all that matters! In art and in life!” And, weary in his old age, and suffering from decades of rheumatoid arthritis: “I’d give my right arm for her tits.”
The tits in question belong to Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret), model and muse to Auguste in art, and instigator and muse to Jean in his film career. Muse and instigator for writer-director Bourdos as well.
“I made the film for Andree Heuschling,” Bourdos told The Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “She is someone who was the link—the junction between the world of painting and the world of cinema, and between the world of Renoir the father and Renoir the son. I think by using her as a focal point, it enabled me to enter the world of these men.”
That’s a great idea, and the movie is beautiful to look at, and there are moments that resonate. But the movie itself doesn’t resonate.
It opens in 1915 along the Cote d’Azur. It’s peaceful but, as Andrée bikes along a country road, there are signs of less-peaceful events taking place elsewhere. Up in the trees Andrée spots a Hun hung in effigy. As the movie progresses the war gets closer. We see injured soldiers by the side of the road. The Renoir estate will be turned into a boarding house for officers. And one soldier will return home.
Andrée, on this day, is simply biking to the Renoir estate to ask after a job as model to the famous painter. She claims Renoir’s wife sent her but a disgruntled angry boy, in a sleeveless shirt and carrying a stick as a weapon, informs her Renoir’s wife is dead. He calls her a liar and runs away. This is Coco (Thomas Doret, “The Kid with a Bike”), Renoir’s third and last son, who will remain angry and disgruntled throughout the movie; but the source of his anger is never fully explained, nor, for that matter, much noticed by others. Is it too much, being the son of Renoir? (At one points, he tosses dark blue pigment over André’s naked body while she dozes on a chaise lounge.) Is it too much, as an adolescent boy, hanging around all of these beautiful naked women? (“Show me your tits,” he says, at another point, to Andrée. Is he still angry over the death of his mother, or the dismissal of his father’s previous muse/model, Gabrielle (Romane Bohringer)? Coco is intriguing but a secondary character.
Despite the lies about Renoir’s wife, if they are lies, Andrée gets the job but seems remarkably unimpressed by her surroundings. She’s upset Renoir is painting apples rather than her. She wants more money. Renoir is amused, enchanted. That night, sleeping, dreaming, he thanks his dead wife for sending him Andrée. “Her skin drinks in the light,” he says.
Andrée first approached the Renoir estate filmed from behind, as does Jean, on crutches, returning from the war. His return is cause for celebration, for both father and help, and for us, too, to further along the story, but the story doesn’t get much further. Renoir continues to paint, his son continues to help, Jean and Andrée eventually fall in love, or into mutually convenient lust, during which Andrée pushes the young man, who had considered a career painting ceramics, toward film, the medium with which he will become an artist himself (“La grand illusion,” “La règle du jeu,” “La bete humaine”).
But we only get suggestions of this later life. Here? Jean heals, and, against the wishes of both his father and Andrée, returns to war, this time in the Air Force. His father, wheelchair bound, stands to hug him goodbye. The movie, like Pierre-Auguste, doesn’t make it into the 1920s. The rest is afterword.
Moments stand out.
There’s a great shot of the artist dipping his brush in water while the paint swirls slowly down in an orange cloud. I also liked a picnic along the river, during which we see what Renoir is painting, in close-up, and then the camera pans left to what he is painting. It’s all blurry and shadows. The portrait of the artist as an old man with feeble eyesight. “All my life,” he tells Jean, “I got caught up in the complications. Today, I simplify matters.” When Jean suggests rest rather than more painting, his father objects. “I have progress to make!” When his doctor asks what he’ll do when he can no longer hold the paintbrush he responds, “I’ll paint with my dick.”
The old man is driven, as is the young woman, who talks of seizing every chance life offers. But is she too modern? Her body type is right for the period, and for Renoir (veering, as much as modern movies allow, toward the zaftig), but her sauciness, and her look, feel closer to this era. Bourdos may have made the movie for her but he also made her a pain. When Jean, in the beginning of their relationship, finds her flirting with another soldier, he sends her to the kitchen to remind her of her status, and there she struggles uselessly. She demands food, berates the staff, throws Renoir-etched dishes on the floor. When in the middle of their relationship, Jean informs her he’s re-enlisted, she abandons the estate and returns to prostitution. It’s up to Jean to retrieve her.
Would we have been better served seeing how the young Renoir entered the film industry with Andrée, his actress-wife, whom he wanted to make a star and didn’t? Why did he only become a true artist after his separation from her in 1931? Maybe she was his last connection to his father, and he needed to kill his father completely before becoming truly, artistically, himself?
Is that Andrée’s tragedy: serving only as muse to great men? Or is that enough? Most of us have done much, much less.
There’s a great story in here somewhere but it’s not here.
Movie Review: No (2012)
What does the title refer to?
That should be a no-brainer. In 1988, international pressure led the Chilean leader, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had come to power in a CIA-backed coup in 1973, to agree to hold a plebiscite, on Oct. 5, on whether or not he should remain in power. Vote YES for Pinochet, vote NO and real elections follow.
René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) is a former exile, the son of a leftist and ex-husband of a leftist, who now works in advertising, and who agrees to advise the NO campaign.
For the 30 days leading up to the vote, both sides, YES and NO, are given 15 minutes to make their case each night on state-run television, and most of the NO folks, including Patricio Alywin, who will become the first president of Chile after Pinochet, want to focus on Pinochet’s past crimes: the hundreds of thousands exiled; the tens of thousands tortured; the thousands executed and disappeared. Saavedra sees this and says “Is that all?” He says, “This … this doesn’t sell.” So he and his team set about crafting a product that might win the election. They create a campaign that is sometimes serious, sometimes humorous, and almost always about the happiness that a true democracy will bring. Because, he asks, what’s happier than happiness? Nada, he answers.
“This is the true story,” the international trailer tells us, “of a marketing campaign that sparked a revolution!”
So it’s obvious what “No” refers to. It refers to the moment when a people told a dictator, “No!”
But might it also be referring to René Saavedra? Is the movie actually saying “No!” to its hero?
What’s happier than happiness?
We first see René, in the movie’s old-school video format, making a pitch to the makers of a cola, “Free,” which involves MTVish dancing girls and mimes and silly stuff. “What you’re going to see now is in line with the current social context,” he says. It’s a sentence he will repeat twice more in the movie.
In the middle of this meeting he gets a visitor: José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco). “The communist?” he’s asked. “Do you know him?” He shrugs it off but is clearly uncomfortable, or at least annoyed, by the presence of Urrutia. Maybe he doesn’t like having a pitch interrupted? But then Urrutia makes a pitch to him: Would he help with the NO campaign? René gives it a moment and then says, “No.”
What changes his mind? We’re not quite sure. After work, he visits the police station, where Veronica (Antonia Zegers), his ex-wife, is being jailed after another political protest. He watches as she gets punched in the face by the cops. Is that what changes his mind? That’s what we assume. But what happens next? He heads home to make dinner for his son, Simon (Pascal Montero), and to work on a campaign for a microwave oven. The wife, who lives elsewhere, comes home later, as he’s taking the boy to bed. They talk in muffled tones, she asks to kiss Simon, and as she leans close, René almost breathes her in. You can see pain of lost love on his face. Look closely. It’s one of the last times you’ll get any emotion out of René.
The NO campaign comes together bit by bit. Initially, there’s an almost “Barton Fink”-like joke, since René’s first pitch is remarkably similar to his pitch for Free Cola. It’s as if he has just one pitch in him. But he’s more adaptable than that. At one point he’s conversing with his mentor, who arrives with the CIA-like phrase, “I’m not here,” and they’re talking in muffled tones, trying to suss out the answer. How do you win this? What sells? “We need to have a product that is sufficiently attractive,” they say. They ask René’s maid why she’s on the YES side. She shrugs. I’m fine, she says. My kids are fine, she says. So how do you combat “fine”? Not with fear. With happiness.
Someone suggests folk songs? He counters with jingles. Veronica tells him his campaign is a joke? He changes the subject. The opposition talks up the wealth of the supposedly impoverished characters in the NO campaign? He brushes it aside. He knows it doesn’t matter. He tells his people to add more jokes. He makes the campaign fun and dazzling.
Sure, he gets pressured by Pinochet’s goons. Graffiti is spraypainted on his home and car. His housekeeper is threatened by soldiers on the streets. The ad team is watched, followed. He receives a late-night phone call. “How are you, René? How is Simon? I like your train.” Click.
His boss, Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), is working on the YES campaign, and the two square off numerous times. Guzman tells government ministers, “We’re going to fuck them up,” and he says it to René, too. René says it back. Guzman implies he’ll fire him and René dares him. “Go ahead, fire me,” he says. The tension between the two men feels personal and political but it’s neither. We’re surprised, for example, when halfway through the movie René is still working for Guzman. He’s working for him in the end as well. So if it’s not personal or political, what is it?
It’s competition. They both want to win. Maybe that’s all René ever wanted.
The tension between form and content
From the beginning, most of those involved in the NO campaign think the entire referendum is a sham, since, no matter the vote, Pinochet won’t let go of power. We assume the opposite, since the movie has been made. But we’re still on the edge of our seats.
The key event, really, occurs election night, Oct. 5, when the generals of the various armed forces don’t back Pinochet’s attempt to rig the election. They keep it fair. That’s really how that dictatorship crumbles. The NO campaign helped, certainly, but without the generals the rigged vote would’ve simply been one more lie during 15 years of lies.
Instead, NO wins: 55 to 45 percent. For a moment, they’re all stunned. Then they begin to celebrate. And as politicians make speeches and people shout and dance and sing, René picks up Simon and weaves his way through the crowds. At one point his eyes get a little misty. Does he smile? I don’t recall. Is he happy? One assumes so but we have no evidence. Does he celebrate with everyone? With anyone? No. He just walks through the crowd, holds onto his son, and thinks. It’s what he’s been doing for the entire movie, really. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lead character think so much onscreen.
This is the movie’s high point but it doesn’t end here. It continues. We watch René, on his skateboard again, on his way to work again, where he makes a pitch to a soap opera using the same language he used before: “the current social context,” etc. And that’s our end.
What’s changed from the beginning of the movie? Nada. Todo y nada. So why end like this? Why focus on René? Why make him the way he is? Without seeming motivation? Without seeming emotion? Why film the movie in video with its ugly, boxy (1.33:1) aspect ratio?
Throughout, I felt a tension between the movie’s form and its content. What René pitches, what he sells, is the opposite of what writer-director Pablo Larraín is saying and selling.
“No” is an art flick but its hero is selling Hollywood endings. He’s selling glamour even though he’s filmed in unglamorous locations using unglamorous video. The movie has a right to be happy—“a marketing campaign that sparked a revolution!”—but it doesn’t indulge in its happiness. It’s dour. It’s gray. René would not approve. He would look at the movie and say, “Is that all?” He would look at Larraín and say, “This … this doesn’t sell.”
So what is Pablo Larraín selling?
The current social context
In 1985, cultural critic Neil Postman wrote “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” in which he argued that of the two dystopian novels of the first half of the 20th century, George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” it was the latter, not the former, that is the more accurate depiction of the modern western world. Our problem isn’t totalitarianism but capitalism. We don’t suffer from a lack of choices but an abundance of them. We haven’t become a captive culture but a trivial one. We aren’t controlled by the threat of pain but by the promise of pleasure. We keep voting for happiness.
Pablo Larraín’s “No” is about the return of democracy to Chile, and that’s a glorious event, but the movie doesn’t indulge in the glory. It recognizes that even as one tyrant is overthrown, a lesser tyrant emerges. Chile loses “1984” and gains “Brave New World.” It says “No” to Pinochet. But saying “No” to René? Well, why would we even do that? Why would we say “No” to the promise of happiness?
“What you’re going to see now,” René says at the beginning of the movie, “is in line with the current social context.” Yes. Yes, it is.
Movie Review: On the Road (2012)
Near the beginning of “On the Road,” the adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s seminal 1957 novel by screenwriter Jose Rivera and director Walter Salles, Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) is saying good-bye to friends Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) and Dean Moriarity (Garrett Hedlund), who are leaving New York for Denver, and the three gather in a photobooth for a picture. Back then, apparently, you only got one photo, not four, so Dean takes out a razor blade and cuts the picture in half. Meaning he cuts Sal in half. Then he gives Sal the half with his picture on it (plus half of Sal) and keeps the half with Carlo (plus half of Sal).
You could say this represents the great bifurcation of Sal Paradise, who is trapped between the writing life, as represented by Carlo (read: Allen Ginsberg), and the wild, mad life on the road, as represented by Dean (Neal Cassady), and only much later, near the end of the movie, when the two halves are brought together again, does Sal see a way out of his dilemma. He joins the Dean and Carlo halves of his soul by taping together many hundreds of 8x11 pieces of paper until he has a whole roll; then he just cuts loose on the keyboard. In mad-to-live, mad-to-talk bursts, he reproduces their life on the road on paper. Which is supposedly how Kerouac created his masterpiece.
I was never a fan, by the way.
The white boy looks at the black boy looking at the white boy
I read “On the Road” for the first and only time in my early 20s, which is when you’re supposed to read it and fall in love with it, but I didn’t. I was a careful kid. Too careful, really, but I knew what I liked. I liked Salinger, Roth, Doctorow, and Irving, who wrote beautifully about things that mattered. Kerouac, it seemed to me, didn’t write beautifully about things that didn’t matter. The adventures he described were episodic and dull. His voice felt like someone trying to push a Volkswagen up to 150 mph. I found the characters Sal and Dean and Carlo, based upon Kerouac and his friends, frenetic and pretentious.
I wasn’t the only one.
In the essay, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” from the collection “Nobody Knows My Name,” James Baldwin takes Kerouac apart. First he quotes him at length:
At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I so drearily was, a “white man” disillusioned. All my life I had white ambitions. … I passed the dark porches of Mexican and Negro homes; soft voices were there, occasionally the dusky knee of some mysterious sensuous gal; and dark faces of the men behind rose arbors. Little children sat like sages in ancient rocking chairs.
Then he lets him have it, keying in on one of Kerouac’s favorite words:
Now, this is absolute nonsense, of course, objectively considered, and offensive nonsense at that: I would hate to be in Kerouac’s shoes if he should ever be mad enough to read this aloud from the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater.
Salles’ movie, however, is quite good. Yes, it’s still episodic, and, yes, it merely builds toward dissolution—toward that moment when young friends are pulled in different directions, and they give up the mad life, or the chance at the mad life, and instead of seeing jazz in sweaty Negro clubs they see it at Carnegie Hall wearing suits and ties. But then the movie pushes past all that toward creation, Sal’s creation, or recreation, his melding of the two halves of his soul so he can write it all down. I like that.
We also lose, for the most part, Kerouac’s voice. This is generally a negative for movies adapting great works of literature. Who’d want to give up Fitzgerald’s voice in “The Great Gatsby,” Nabokov’s in “Lolita,” Proust’s or Joyce’s anywhere? But with Kerouac it’s a plus. I don’t have to hear him pushing his Volkswagen up to 150. I don’t have to hear him romanticize about dusky knees and lives he knows nothing about. Salles edits him. He makes Sal seem less of an asshole.
What they do with it
Watching Salles’ movie, I got a real sense of the narrow niche, in time and place, that allowed this story to occur. At one point they hop a train and I thought, “Fifteen years earlier, they would’ve been hobos in the Depression.” They rock out to Negro jazz and scat and I thought, “Ten years later, would it be rock n’ roll? And, if so, could they see themselves on the stage in a way they don’t now? Would they form a band, ‘The Beat Generation,’ with their Top 40 hit, ‘Mad to Live, Mad to Love’?” Their story happened the way it happened because it was after the Depression and after the war, but before the country was unified by television and the Interstate Highway Act of 1956.
Was the madness here a consequence of the war? A consequence of the bomb? Sal in the novel is ex-GI but I don’t think we get much war talk in the movie. One can assume these were kids raised during great economic dislocation, who, in adolescence, were geared toward war, propagandized daily, but who suddenly found themselves at the height of their energy and strength with no World War and no Depression. The rest of the world was licking its wounds, rebuilding from the rubble, but America was fairly untouched and affluent, and what did you do with that?
This is what Dean and Sal and company do with that:
- Get high
- Go to jazz clubs
- Drive fast
- Have lots of sex with lots of partners
- Have pseudo-intellectual conversations
They’re the model for every annoying undergraduate since.
They crisscross the country. At first, it’s Sal, alone, with his thumb, and he hangs with Carlo and Dean in Denver, then continues onto California, where he hooks up with Terry (Alice Braga, niece of Sonia), who is part of a migrant-worker community there. Everyone picks cotton, gets their dismal pay, but only Sal pauses before The Man with a look on his face. He can afford to. In voiceover he tells us, “I could feel the pull from my life calling me back.” He has that option. He gets to play at being a migrant worker and then leave. The others don’t. Hence Baldwin’s anger, above.
All of the characters love Dean. He’s handsome and vibrant and sexual. He wants, wants, wants, but without consequence, and there are always consequences. He wants the freedom to flit, but flitting means abandonment. It means betrayal. He’s a con man. I like when he gets the girl for Sal, Rita (Kaniehtiio Horn), and, with Carlo, the four of them are partying and drinking and dancing, and Rita says, “Bless me, Father, for I will sin.” Then we hear moaning from the bedroom, and the camera slowly pans left, to Carlo and … wait for it … Sal, dazed on the couch, where Sal wonders aloud: Wasn’t the girl for me? But all the girls are Dean’s.
The main girl is Marylou (Kristen Stewart), who is supposed to be 16, but Stewart hardly looks it. There’s also Camille (Kirsten Dunst), Dean’s wife in San Francisco. They have a baby, another on the way, when Sal shows up and Dean asks to go out with him by asking Camille along, too, knowing she can’t. She calls him on it but off he goes. When he returns at dawn, she demands he leave. There’s a great look on her face, panic as she gets what she wants, which isn’t what she wants. She wants him to stay, to beg her to stay, but that’s not him. So he leaves her there with one baby and another on the way. How bad must you be when William Burroughs (Old Bull Lee, played by Viggo Mortensen) calls you irresponsible?
The final abandonment is of Sal, with dysentery, in Mexico.
Marylou at 81
So “On the Road,” the movie, is better than “On the Road,” the book. It actually makes all the sex and drugs and travel look pretty bleak. The cast is good, and Hedlund, he of the deep voice, is a future star.
As I was writing this, though, I kept wondering about Marylou. If she was 16 in 1947 she’d be 81 now. Does she think back on those days? Does she remember sitting between two guys in the front seat of a ’49 Hudson shooting through Arizona, all three of them naked, and jacking them both off at the same time? What smile flits across her creased face then?
That’s the distance that matters to me. That’s the road the matters. We’re all on it.
Movie Review: Tabu (2012)
From the first frame I felt trapped. I watched the safari adventurer standing there in his pith helmet and moustache, slouched, torpid, and looking nothing like a safari adventurer, as Africans paraded past carrying equipiment on poles, with the jungle around him, what’s supposed to be the heart of the dark continent, looking more like the sparse woods near your home, the clumps of trees and wild grass next to Minnehaha Creek in south Minneapolis, for example; and it was all so flimsy, so devoid of life, and filmed in black-and-white with an old timey aspect ratio (1:37: 1), that I merely thought one thought: “Oh no.”
I might have left right then but I was with friends, whom I’d dragged to this. I’d heard good things. Some critics put “Tabu” in their top 10 for 2012. A few made it their No. 1 movie of the year. But from the first frame I feared their idea of what’s art, or storytelling, or truth or beauty, wasn’t mine. Not close.
For the rest of the movie I hope my first impression was wrong. I hoped I’d get interested.
It wasn’t. I didn’t.
The opening scenes are from an old movie, a story of lost love and ghosts and crocodiles on the African continent, which Pilar (Teresa Madruga) is watching in modern-day Lisbon. She’s 60s, a good, God-fearing woman living alone in an apartment. Her neighbor is Aurora (Laura Soveral), older and with a hint of faded glamour, but beginning to lose it. We get an interesting scene in a casino where Aurora talks of a dream set in Africa, with a husband with hairy arms pretending to be a monkey, and the background keeps shifting in the telling. Writer-director Miguel Gomes does more interesting things with that background than he does with anyone in the foreground for the rest of the movie.
“Tabu” is split in two parts. The first deals with a bit of Pilar’s life, including a Polish exchange student who abandons her on sight, and a would-be artist who attempts to romance her. But mostly she gets involved in the decline and fall and eventual death of Aurora. On her deathbed, Aurora gives Pilar a name, Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), who is the key to the second part of the story, the earlier part of the story, set in the days of Portugese colonialism in the shadow of the fictitious Mt. Tabu in Africa. He tells it to Pilar and Aurora’s live-in maid, Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso), while we watch. It’s a tale of adultery and searing love. It recalls the line of narration from the pith-helmet movie that opened the film: “You can run as long as you can, and as far as you can, but you cannot escape your heart.”
I like some of this narration. I like some of the photography. But there’s no life here. The faces of the characters are as blank and deadpan as the faces of commuters on a city bus. Remember John Ford’s admonition to film the most interesting thing in the world—a human face? Gomes gives lie to this. He shows the opposite. In his hands, a human face is the least interesting thing in the world.
So why do other critics like “Tabu” so much? Here’s Richard Brody in The New Yorker:
In Gomes’s ingenious vision, the smoothed-out, tamped-down, serenely cultured solitude of the modern city, with its air of constructive purpose in tiny orbits, rests on a dormant volcano of passionate memories packed with adventurous misdeeds, both political and erotic. Filming in suave, charcoal-matte black-and-white, he frames the poignant mini-melodramas of daily life with a calmly analytical yet tenderly un-ironic eye. If today’s neurotic tensions come off as a corrective to past crimes, even a form of repentance, Gomes’s historical reconstruction of corrupted grandeur is as much a personal liberation as a form of civic therapy.
That’s some heavy lifting. Me, I need more life in my films. I need to be able to breathe. In “Tabu,” from the first frame, I felt entombed in something that wasn’t true or beautiful or worth what little time I have left in this existence.
Movie Review: Amour (2012)
Returning from a piano concerto, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) comments to his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) about the scuff marks on the lock to their beautiful high-ceilinged Paris apartment. They’re screwdriver marks. Someone has tried to break in. He dismisses the would-be thieves as amateurs, not professionals, but for the rest of the movie this feeling of imminent invasion and theft never goes away. It always feels like someone or something is about to come through the door because something is. The movie is about the most professional thief of all. The one we can’t keep out. The one who, in the end, takes everything.
If most movies lie to us or ply us with wish-fulfillment fantasies (we are handsome, good and victorious), the movies of German writer-director Michael Haneke do the opposite: they lay bare, in the starkest way, our greatest fears: We are not safe (“Funny Games”), we are not good (“The White Ribbon”), we have no privacy (“Caché”). Plus we have no idea what’s going on (all of the above).
With “Amour,” he focuses on our greatest fear: We are going to die. And death, when it comes, won’t be easy and it won’t be pretty.
Hurts hurts hurts
The above concert, performed by Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud), a former student of Anne’s who is now internationally acclaimed, is the first and last time we see Georges and Anne outside their apartment. The next morning during breakfast, in the midst of casual conversation, Anne suddenly stops talking and stares into space. Georges can’t get a reaction out of her. She’s upright but not there. He puts a towel to her face and neck. He returns to the bedroom to change out of his pajamas to get help. Then he hears the water in the kitchen stop running. It’s Anne. She’s back but doesn’t remember being gone.
We get medical terminology. Something stopping the flow of blood somewhere. People arrive, help out, including Georges and Anna’s daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), and the concierge and her husband, and then workmen installing a medical bed. When we next see Anne she’s in a wheelchair. She’s having trouble moving. A stroke? Is it just her right side? Yes and yes. “Please, never take me back to the hospital,” she tells her husband. He promises. “Don’t feel guilty,” she tells him. “I don’t feel guilty,” he responds, confused.
He helps her with her physical therapy. He tells her stories about his youth. He reluctantly goes to the funeral of a friend, Pierre, but, in the reporting, criticizes the event: the eulogy was bad, the music chosen, “Yesterday” by the Beatles, was maudlin and provoked laughter from the young, the urn stood on a stand meant for a coffin. Anne doesn’t want to hear any of this. I suppose Georges is her Michael Haneke, telling her unpalatable truths. “You’re a monster sometimes,” she tells him, “but very kind.” Haneke shows us monsters. The kindness we get here is new.
Anne’s former student, Alexandre, turns up, initially full of himself, and Anne is happy to see him but he’s obviously shocked by Anne’s state. Days later, when he sends along his latest CD, the note talks of “the beautiful and sad moment” of his visit. Anne’s face closes off. During his visit, she’d requested a number, and he’d filled the room with beauty. Now she tells Georges to turn off his CD. His visit, I’m sure, was a high moment for her, and now it’s tarnished by the word “sad.” She doesn’t want pity. She wants to maintain a certain level of dignity. But time keeps slipping in and stealing things.
She wets the bed. Eva visits again, this time with her British husband, Geoff (William Shimell), and by now, Anne, bedridden, can only speak gibberish. Apparently there was a second stroke. She has to wear a diaper. She’s fed mush. Wasn’t it just a few scenes ago where she was eating dinner with her husband in the kitchen? Steak and vegetables? At that time, her world seemed narrowed but now that moment feels full of possibility. One thinks of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illych.” The world keeps shrinking and shrinking. Time keeps taking and taking. Anne is Georges’ whole life now. He hires one nurse, then another. The second one is incompetent, obtuse in her cruelty. She brushes Anne’s hair too hard, then forces her to look into mirrors she doesn’t want to look into. Georges fires her. She doesn’t get it. Georges explains. She refuses to see it. She calls Georges names. “You’re a mean old man,” she says. More Beatles.
George tries to feed Anne but she’s obstinate and angry. “If you don’t drink, you will die,” he says. “Do you want that?” She does. He forces water on her. She spits it out and he slaps her. Both are horrified by what they’ve become.
She moans a lot. “Money for concert,” she says at one point, remembering, no doubt, something from childhood. “Hurts, hurts, hurts,” she says more often. He returns to her bedside, pats her hand to calm her, tells her another story. She calms down. Then he grabs a pillow and against her struggles smothers her to death. It’s not just what she wants, it’s what we want, too. Make it fucking end.
What nightmares may come
We actually watch the entire movie waiting for the moment of death. In the beginning, before the concert, we see the police and concierge break down the door to her bedroom, where Anne lies, as if in state, on a bed amid flowers. Her face is slightly shrunken and the men hold handkerchiefs to their noses and open the windows. Otherwise the place is empty. As a result, throughout the film, we’re wondering how it gets to that point. Why does Georges leave her this way? And where does he go?
He drifts. After Anne’s death, he gets flowers. He prepares her. He seals up her bedroom. Pigeons often get into their apartment and he works to shoo them out but now we watch him close the window on one pigeon and trap it with a blanket. We assume the worst (it’s Haneke) but he simply strokes it beneath the blanket. He’s lonely. At least that’s how I read it.
When he leaves the apartment, at Anne’s urging, is that the moment of his own death (she returns to get him) or the moment when delusion trumps reality? Is he dead in the apartment or does he wander the street, perhaps to die there, or to be found and put in a hospital, where he’ll die, amid the tubes and the diapers and the slow closing off of the world? This is kindler, gentler Haneke (that pigeon wouldn’t have survived in “The White Ribbon”), but he still leaves us with questions. He doesn’t round off his ending. It’s as frayed as ever.
In the theater lobby afterwards, with everyone trying to exhale and live again, a woman in her sixties turned to me. “I have two words for that movie,” she said. “Assisted suicide.” I nodded, paused. “I have four words for that movie,” I said. “I need a drink.”
Neither her two words nor my four words relieved the horror. On the walk home I saw a little girl, 5 maybe, skipping in an alleyway between her parents, and wanted to yell at her. “Don’t you know what’s going to HAPPEN?!? The awful fate that awaits you!?! Yes, YOU!” Is this what it’s like being Michael Haneke? How does he sleep? What nightmares does he have? Or does he put them on the screen for the rest of us and sleep like a baby? Many people see me as a cynic, a grump, a curmudgeon before my time; but compared to Haneke I feel like the most wide-eyed Pollyanna that ever skipped the earth.
The dude’s a cold genius, but there’s little warmth and not much beauty in his vision. I think of Bill Cunningham’s line from last year’s documentary: He who seeks beauty will find it. Where is the beauty in Haneke’s vision? Where is the joy? Surely there’s joy. Once in a while?
If this is “Amour,” and I get why it is, please, Michael Haneke, don’t show us “Haine.”
Movie Review: Rust and Bone (2012)
I want the movies to stun me. I want to walk out of the theater in a daze. Hollywood didn’t help much in this regard this past year. They left it to the French to pick up the slack.
“De rouille et d’os” (“Rust and Bone”) is a beautiful film about tragic circumstances. In the hands of a lesser writer-director, it would be melodrama but Jacques Audiard (“Un Prophete”) makes poetry out of it. A bloody tooth, loosened during a fight, spins in slow motion on the pavement as if in dance. A woman whose legs have been cut off above the knee returns to the ocean, whose warm waters glisten. Later, with metal legs and cane, she walks down the steps at Marineland, where she once worked, and stands in silence before a large glass tank. She pats the glass once, twice. After a moment, a monster looms into view. An Orca. The Orca? The one who took her legs? One assumes not. One assumes that one has been killed but you never know and Audiard never says. We simply watch the whale move with her movements. It’s been trained, and she was one of its trainers. She’s confronting her past, finally, but it’s also a moment steeped in silence and mystery and beauty and forgiveness. It’s the best scene of 2012.
Being watched, getting bored
“Rust and Bone” is a tougher story to tell than Audiard’s previous film, “Un Prophete,” and not because Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) loses her legs a half-hour in. “Un Prophete” was about one man: Malik. The camera follows him. Easy. This is about two people, Stéphanie and Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), and for half the movie they’re not together. Audiard has to juggle their storylines. He has to bring them together, and apart, and together, in a way that feels real.
They don’t meet cute. He’s a down-on-his luck Belgian boxer with a five-year-old son, Sam (Armand Verdure), who comes to stay with his sister, a cashier, in a clapboard, motel-like apartment complex in Antibes, near Nice, on the southern coast of France. We watch him scrounge for food, steal, hitchhike. He’s not the best father. He often seems lost in thought but one can’t imagine the thought. He’s mostly just there.
Through a friend of his sister’s he gets a job as a bouncer at a club, L’Annex, and later that night there’s a fracas and Ali is restraining a guy who’s causing trouble. We see a woman’s legs, supine, on the dance floor, then her bloody nose. Did the dude punch her? Aren’t there laws against that? Not against punching women in general but Marion Cotillard. That’s like digging an elbow into the Mona Lisa or taking a hammer to Michelangelo’s David.
On the drive home, she’s drunk and distant, he’s matter-of-fact and clumsy. He mentions the way she dresses. How do I dress? she asks. He fumbles a bit. He doesn’t have the word. Actually he does, and uses it with a shrug: whore. She can’t quite believe him. This pattern will repeat itself.
It’s significant, of course, that we first see her as legs. It’s significant that he stares at her legs on the ride home. It’s significant that he goes up to her place to ice his knuckles, since his knuckles will have a rendezvous with ice later in the film.
After she’s lost her legs, and after they’ve begun what they’ve begun, we’ll get a better understanding of what might have happened that night at L’Annex. She makes this admission to him:
I liked being watched. I liked turning them on. I liked getting them all worked up. But then I'd just get bored.
Past tense. She obviously misses it—and doesn’t. She obviously doesn’t particularly like the person she was—but misses it.
We get a soupçon of her life before the Marineland accident, and at the hospital we see the result before she does. We see the absence and wait uncomfortably. This has been a famous scene before, notably in “King’s Row” with Ronald Reagan. “Where’s the rest of me?” he says. It’s probably the best acting he ever did. Cotillard blows him away. She grounds an unreal scene. Her trauma is overwhelming. “What did you do with my legs?” she says over and over, on the floor, crawling, because there are no other words. There are no other words for a long time.
Do you even realize?
Would Stéphanie and Ali have gotten together without the accident? There are barriers of class and attitude between them. He’s working class, she’s middle class or higher. She’s educated, he’s not.
But he’s exactly what she needs because he’s without pretense or pity. He does what he does, wants what he wants, shrugs away the rest. She’s been holed up in a state-run apartment for months when he first visits her. He wants to go outside; she doesn’t; they do. He wants to go swimming; she doesn’t; they do. “Do you even realize?” she says when he first suggests it. Do you even realize? He doesn’t. That’s his charm. On the boardwalk, she whistles for him, like a dog, and he carries her closer to the water, and then into the water, where she’s tentative at first—she doesn’t know how well she’ll swim without the bottom half of her legs. Then she feels it. Then she knows she can do it. In the audience I worried she’d try to swim away and drown herself but Ali has no such worry. He actually dozes on the beach, and she has to whistle for him again to come get her. “Fuck, this feels good,” she says.
It would be reductive to suggest she tames and trains this beast of a man, this mixed martial-arts fighter, the way she tamed and trained whales. He’s not much of a beast, for one. He has kindnesses. He’s just a lunk. He’s generally a considerate lunk but other times not. He’s impatient with his son, non-committal with his sister. He doesn’t think of the consequences of his actions. This helps with Stéphanie, initially, because others are walking on eggshells around her and it’s the eggshells that hurt. One day she talks about not having had sex since the accident, not knowing if it even works anymore, and as they’re doing dishes he brings it up:
He: You want to fuck?
He: To see if it still…
She: Just like that?
Just like that. I like a scene, at the gym where we trains, where he watches a woman leading others in aerobics or yoga; then the two are outside smoking cigarettes and he says a word of greeting; then they’re fucking. Just like that. This tryst causes him to be late picking up Sam at school, for which he’s admonished by an administrator. Third time in two weeks, he’s told. Do you even realize? After a mixed martial-arts victory, he and his crew, including Stéphanie, go to L’Annex, but he leaves with another girl. She goes to the bar to drown whatever she’s feeling, and a clumsy, overbearing dude tries to pick her up. Then he sees her metal legs. Then he’s on eggshells. His apology implies this: I should have pitied you instead of lusted for you. He gets a drink in the face and a bloody nose. We’ve come full circle. The next morning she lays out the rules with Ali, who chafes under rules. But she’s matter-of-fact about it:
Let’s show some manners. I mean consideration. You’ve always been so considerate to me. We continue but not like animals.
One doesn’t expect much from his fight career but he’s good. He thrives on it. After one victory he’s so pumped he needs to expend more energy and bursts out of the van for a run. Some of the best moments in the movie are the small moments: the confused pride on Stéphanie’s face when she’s nonchalantly dismissed as “his girlfriend”; the way she jerks imperceptibly when he’s taken down; the look of amused pride on her face when she takes over as his manager and deals successful with the rabble of noisy, bartering men.
Of course, to me, any moment with Marion Cotillard’s face in it is a good moment.
Just like that
Things fall apart in a way that feels aesthetically pleasing. Ali helps his manager, Martial (Bouli Lanners), who is silent, bearded and gruff, install camera equipment at stores. Not to spy on customers but workers. It’s illegal, they’re found out, photos are taken by angry employees, and Martial has to leave town to avoid prosecution. But as a result of this work, Ali’s sister gets canned for taking expired foods that have been tossed by the company. Imagine: She takes in Ali, takes care of his son, and he gets her fired. Do you even realize? There’s a scene. There’s a shotgun. He leaves. Just like that.
Is the ending hurried? Suddenly Ali is training for national tournaments in the snow, and the sister’s boyfriend brings Sam to the camp for the day. They’re skating in their shoes on an iced-over lake, and Ali turns to take a piss. Behind him we see Sam disappear through the ice. Eventually Ali runs to the hole but finds his son some distance away, trapped beneath the ice. It’s a horrific image. He begins to pound on the ice with his bare fists. Something begins to crack but we don’t think it’s the ice. “Rust and Bone” is such a tactile movie. I doubt many people in the audience breathed during this scene.
In a voiceover we’re told about bones breaking and healing but how afterwards, as Hemingway said, some are stronger in the broken places. Not the bones in the hand, though. You feel those breaks the rest of your life. So I assumed his career was over. I assumed the movie was about a swimmer who loses her legs and a mixed martial-arts fighter who loses his fists, but in the final shots he’s with Stéphanie and Sam at a Warsaw hotel before a big, international match. So that’s not it. So I suppose it’s about the pain. It’s about continuing with a pain that won’t go away. I suppose that’s why we get, as the credits roll, Sigur Rós’ “The Wolves (Act I & 2)” sounding like a benediction:
Someday my pain
Someday my pain will mark you.
Harness your blame
Harness your blame and walk through.
I left the theater in a daze. I walked and walked and didn’t want to lose the feeling the movie gave me like a gift.
Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Does it or doesn’t it?
That’s what I wanted to know last month and I couldn’t get a straight answer from the myriad critics and commentators and clowns who had seen the film. They all disagreed. Detractors called it morally reprehensible. Advocates brought up the fact that the U.S. government under Pres. George W. Bush did in fact torture people, as if that were the controversy. But this was the controversy:
Does “Zero Dark Thirty” suggest that torture led to the intel that led to Osama bin Laden?
If so, I argued, then it disagreed with the facts as we knew them.
I finally saw the film the other day, and I left the theater thinking it did something worse: it dramatized not just the efficacy of torture but its necessity. Yes, it makes torture look pretty awful, and the Americans who torture become depleted as well. But torture becomes the thing that needs to be done in order to achieve the film’s goal, which is getting Osama bin Laden. It’s how our heroes get their hands dirty, unlike those folks back in Washington, D.C., who sit behind desks. This is a conceit of many Hollywood action movies. The audience shares a knowing wink with the heroes on the screen. We’re all adults here; we know how the world works. Think of the way Pres. Lincoln bribed lame-duck congressmen to pass the 13th amendment in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” To do good, you need to do a little bad. Except this time it’s torturing people.
But I saw no direct link between that torture and the intel to get bin Laden.
Then I got home, read some of the commentary, particularly Glenn Greenwald’s in The Guardian, and realized I’d missed it. There is such a link. Suddenly I had sympathy for all of those critics who couldn’t give me a straight answer last month. An hour after seeing the movie, a movie in which I’d searched for this very thing, I couldn’t give myself a straight answer.
So I went to see the movie a second time.
This particular story
One wonders why screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow went with this particular story. They had so many options.
They could have made the movie about the U.S. Navy Seal team, Team Six, that actually went into Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed bin Laden. Instead they’re the tail-end of the film and we hardly get to know them. They’re virtually interchangeable. They’re scruffy and wear fatigues and—for much of their time onscreen—night goggles. They seem like insect creatures in an alien land. We don’t see their faces. Is that the Aussie dude from “Warrior”? Or is that the other bearded guy? Or that third bearded guy? The assault on the compound is fascinating for how dull it is. Bigelow doesn’t use quick cuts or pulse-pounding music. It is not triumphant. Far from it. It’s done with a whisper, professionally, almost in real time. Back in Afghanistan, there are congratulations, and shouts of joy, but also a 10-year-long exhale. The ending, with Maya (Jessica Chastain) on the military plane being asked where she wants to go, and stopping, and tears welling up, is like the ending of “The Graduate” or “The Candidate.” What do I do now? We don’t know who we are anymore.
The movie begins with a minute of blackscreen audio from Sept. 11, 2001. We hear screams. We hear conversation between someone in the towers and a 911 operator. “I’m gonna die.” “No, ma’am, stay calm.” “It’s so hot, I’m burning up.” Then just the operator: “Can anyone hear me?” Then it’s two years later and we’re at a black ops site where old-hand Dan (Jason Clarke) and newbie Maya are torturing Anmar (Reda Kateb) to get information about the next attack.
It’s a long movie, 157 minutes, and in each segment Maya partners with a different person, or group of people, in the intelligence/military community, to get bin Laden. Maya is the driving force, the laserlike focus, but mostly it’s the others who gather the intel. Dan gets Anmar, after two years, to give up the name “Abu Ahmed,” a nom de guerre, which Maya carries with her through the years, through rumors of his death and arguments with Jessica (Jennifer Ehle, Rosemary Harris’ daughter), who thinks bribery trumps ideology, until Debbie (Jessica Collins), a newbie in the Pakistani office, finds Abu Ahmed’s real name in an old file. Maya then convinces Dan, back at Langley, to get a Kuwaiti contact to find the family, whose phone is then tapped. She convinces Larry from Ground Branch (Édgar Ramirez of “Carlos” fame) to use his limited resources to search for the son who keeps calling from phone centers near Islamabad. It’s another analyst, Jack (Harold Perrineau), who brings the news that this son, surely Abu Ahmed, has bought a cellphone, and they’re able to track its signal; and in this manner, and despite the fact that this man always calls at odd hours and on the move, they manage to get a photo of him, which their Pakistani sources use to track his movements through the city. Which is how we wind up at the complex in Abbotabad.
But is bin Laden there? Now that debate begins, mostly in D.C. Maya’s there for it, of course. In a meeting with the CIA director (James Gandolfini), never named but obviously Leon Panetta, others, including Dan, offer weak probabilities, 60 percent maybe, that bin Laden is in the compound. Then Maya pipes up. She’s 100 percent certain. After a second she amends it to 95. Not because absolute certainty is impossible but because she knows it scares the shit out of her colleagues. The director smiles. He likes her toughness. We like it, too, or we’re supposed to, but Maya never annoyed me more than at this moment. There’s a scene in the second “Godfather” movie, the Hyman Roth birthday-cake celebration on a rooftop in Cuba, in which Michael correctly predicts the Cuban revolution. It’s a cheap device: having fictional characters get real history right with the 20/20 hindsight of screenwriters.
Eventually they follow Maya’s lead, we meet Seal Team Six, and … you know.
The facts as we know them
Did you miss the link between torture and bin Laden in that synopsis? I missed it the first time I saw the movie because I forgot how Abu Ahmed’s name was first introduced. I thought Maya came armed with it. Instead it emerged after two years of torture.
Last month I said such a link would dispute the facts as we know them. I said it would be a lie. In the movie, Dan keeps telling Anmar, “When you lie to me, I hurt you,” and I think critics and pundits are saying the same thing to Kathryn Bigelow. When you lie to us, we hurt you.
But is it a lie? Last week, Acting CIA director Michael Morell wrote an internal memo in which he talked up the film’s inaccuracies. In so doing, he actually muddied the waters. He said the film’s impression that enhanced interrogation techniques were key to finding UBL is false. Then he wrote:
As we have said before, the truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well.
In refuting the film’s falseness, he actually lays bare its truth.
In The Washington Post, meanwhile, Jose Rodriguez, Jr., a 31-year CIA veteran who headed up some of these programs, says that both the film and the film’s critics get it wrong. Enhanced interrogation did lead to intel that led to bin Laden. But it wasn’t the kind of interrogation shown onscreen. They waterboarded with small plastic water bottles, for example, not rusty buckets. He also objected to the Jessica subplot. Maya’s friend and rival, Jessica, thinks she has a mole in al Qaeda and agrees to meet him at a U.S. military outpost in Afghanistan. She’s portrayed as giddy, almost silly, baking a cake for his arrival. It’s as if it’s a date. She’s worried he won’t show. When he does, she’s worried that the guards at the gates will scare him off, so she gets them to stand down. Then she, and he, and several military officers are blown up. The character, says Rodriguez, is based on a real CIA officer. He writes: “The real person was an exceptionally talented officer who was responsible for some enormous intelligence successes, including playing a prominent role in the capture of al-Qaeda logistics expert Abu Zubaida in 2002. Her true story and memory deserve much better.” Not knowing this agent at all, I agree. The movie’s long as is, and this makes it longer, and it’s all telegraphed. Why make her seem like such a giddy girl on a date, for example? To make Maya look better? Does she need that? Doesn’t she have “100%”? Doesn’t she have “motherfucker”?
Yet the larger point remains. According to both of these CIA officers, enhanced interrogation, or torture, led to intel that led to bin Laden.
But is this right? Senate investigations are now being called to find out what Bigelow knew and when she knew it; what Bigelow was fed and how. At the moment, the truth isn’t out there.
But even though we don’t know the truth at the moment, is the movie still wrong?
The lesson of the Central Park Five
To me it’s wrong because of what we learn in “The Central Park Five.” That documentary, which was also released in select cities in 2012, is about five kids, ages 14 to 16, who confessed to the infamous assault and rape of a jogger in Central Park in 1989, but who were innocent of the crime. Why did they confess? They got tired. They got worn down. They wanted to go home. After 14 to 30 hours of interrogation, none of it enhanced, the police were able to get innocent people to confess to horrific crimes. They got misinformation and it led to tragedy. The real rapist continued to rape and kill for another few months before he was caught. These boys were put away for 5 to 10 years. Nobody won.
In “Zero Dark Thirty,” we never have the wrong people. We always have the right people. And they always break. The movie’s right about that. Everyone breaks. Innocent people probably break sooner.
Mark Boal recently defended his film at the New York Film Critics Awards ceremony. He said: “I think at the end of the day, we made a film that allows us to look back at the past in a way that gives us a more clear-sighted appraisal of the future.” What’s that appraisal? I would say it’s this: Torture works. It’s a little immoral and a lot effective, and it prevents great tragedies. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, we get our hands a little dirty. But in the end we got bin Laden and that’s what matters. Because we never torture the wrong people.
A few years ago, I wrote an article on a civil rights lawyer named Robert Rubin. One of his cases involved a man named Hady Omar, whose story goes like this:
On Sept. 11, 2001, Omar’s flight from Florida was grounded in Houston, but he made it back to Fort Smith, Ark., and his American wife, Candy, in time for the FBI to pick him up the next day. He was targeted for: a) being Egyptian, and b) buying his plane ticket from the same Kinko’s in Boca Raton that one of the hijackers used. The FBI had questions but Omar wasn’t worried. The next day he took a lie detector test, passed, but instead of going free, the INS took him, in shackles, across state lines, to an office in Oakdale, La., then to a prison in New Orleans, then to a federal penitentiary in Pollock, La. There, while someone videotaped him with a camcorder, he was ordered to strip. There was a body cavity search, and jokes were made, and guards, including female guards, laughed. Finally he was placed in shackles in a 10-foot by 10-foot cell. He told officials he didn’t eat pork so he was served pork twice a day. His hot water was turned off so he stopped bathing. Days turned into weeks turned into months. He lost 20 pounds. He had thoughts of suicide. Finally, after 73 days without charge, he was freed. By then he’d lost his job and many of his friends—the front page of the Fort Smith paper on Sept. 13 featured a four-column photograph of Omar being led away in handcuffs under the headline: “Terror Strikes Home.” He and Candy were forced to sell their car and furniture; they moved in with her father. That’s when Rubin got involved.
Hady Omar got “lawyered up,” as they say in the movie.
Boal and Bigelow don’t show authorities incarcerating and interrogating men like Hady Omar, but it would’ve been easy to do so. There’s a perfect moment for it. When Debbie finds Abu Ahmed in a file folder, Maya wonders aloud why the information never got to her. There’s a discussion of all the misinformation flying around after 9/11. It’s implied that this misinformation came from other countries, probably Pakistan, who pretended to help but hurt. It would’ve been the perfect moment to bring up the innocent people who wound up in the detainee program. But for some reason Boal and Bigelow didn’t want to allude to that story.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…
So how was the movie?
“Zero Dark Thirty” can be a slog. We never get to know our main character because she has no personality besides getting bin Laden. Most of the others are background figures. The most intriguing is Dan, who does his job well, and who has something of a thousand-yard stare in his eyes. He goes back early. He says he’s seen too many naked guys. It’s gallows humor. Jason Clarke does a great, understated job with the role.
I’ll say this: “Zero Dark Thirty” goes for veracity and mostly achieves it. But it screws up in this most important area. It misrepresents the efficacy of torture. It does so, at the least, by withholding information from us. And when you withhold information from us, we hurt you.
Movie Review: Anna Karenina (2012)
I was worried I’d be bored with it since I already knew the story: Russia, married woman, affair, train. But I became intrigued by the purposeful staginess and theatricality from director Joe Wright. Or was that in the screenplay by Tom Stoppard? Of course it was. That’s a Stoppard staple.
It begins in a theater, on stage, with the words “Anna Karenina” on the curtain. I expected such theatricality to fall away, as it tends to in movies, and it does, at times, and we’re “in the scene” rather than “in the scene of the scene.” But it takes awhile to do this and the theatricality almost always returns—sometimes at unexpected moments, such as at the end when Anna (Keira Knightley) is trapped by love and jealousy and society and doesn’t know which way to turn until she sees a way out. It was unexpected at this point in the story because I’d already equated this theatricality with the airs, theatricality and stagecraft in 19th-century Russian high society, of which Anna, here, was no longer a part. So why remind us? Someone with more time on their hands can go scene-by-scene and suggest why this scene dropped the cinematic illusion and this scene maintained the illusion. I’m sure Wright and Stoppard had their reasons.
I got tired of the contrivance, to be honest. I’ve never been a fan of it. I suppose I think it’s the job of the storyteller to put me in the story and it’s my job, as listener or viewer, to take myself out of it. There’s a tyranny and pomposity to this kind of post-modernism as well as pointlessness. It’s weak tyranny. I will tell you when and where you will be taken out of the story, thereby weakening the story. I search for engagement with the story rather than removal from it. I object to the author’s strong hand on the back of my neck.
That said, there were times when the contrivance worked. I’m thinking of the moment Vronsky’s horse falls off the stage during the race—that was powerful—or when Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) gives up Moscow society for his country estate and leaves the suffocating artifice of the stage for the cold, harsh reality of the Russian winter. He turns, steps outside, and it’s as if we can breathe again. It’s as if we didn’t realize how much we were suffocating until that moment.
It’s been decades since I’ve read “Anna Karenina”—final quarter of college, spring 1987—and I’d forgotten a lot of it. Levin, for example. Completely. Even though he’s half the story. He was my guy back then—in love, searching for meaning—but I found him harder to take here. I’m older, of course, and harsher. I watched his dull, youthful stabs at love and rolled my eyes. I almost felt like Levin’s Marxist brother, Nikolai (David Wilmot), who, dying, rails against the privileged classes, saying, “Romantic love will be the last illusion of the old order.” In 1987, that line would have pained me, as it no doubt pains Levin. Now I just shrug: “Maybe.” But I lack Nikolai’s conviction for what comes after. I saw the mess Nikolai’s brethren made of it.
At the same time, I was charmed by the flirtation, and the held-breath, of the game of blocks Levin has with his unrequited love, Kitty (the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, with whom I was also charmed), later in the movie. By this point he’s suffered, she’s suffered (she loved Vronsky), and they’ve both matured. He’s in her parlor, visiting, and there are blocks there, and they play a game, almost like “Wheel of Fortune,” in which one side asks a question or makes a statement using only the first letter of each word, and the other side tries to guess what it is. In this way, this safe way, they reveal their feelings. DNMN, for example, from Levin, means, “Did No Mean Never?” referring to his earlier marriage proposal. TIDNK, she says, meaning “Then I Did Not Know.” And now? he asks. She asks, via the blocks, for his forgiveness for the way she was. He responds with these letters: ILY. No translation needed. That’s a sweet moment, and recalls the various wordgames from Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”
In Tolstoy’s novel, I remember having more sympathy for Anna and less for Karenin, who seemed a prig to me. But as the movie progressed, I found myself less and less sympathetic with Anna, who gives up her child, etc., for her one great love, Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of “Kick Ass” fame). But Vronsky is, for the most part, shallow and callow. It’s a game to him, until it’s not, and Anna seems a fool for falling in love with him as completely as she does. Meanwhile, her husband, Karenin (Jude Law), publicly cuckolded, seems a decent, moral man who mostly tries to do the right thing.
Our sympathies here are no small matter. Milan Kundera, in the last pages of his book of essays, “The Art of the Novel,” writes the following:
When Tolstoy sketched the first draft of Anna Karenina, Anna was a most unsympathetic woman, and her tragic end was entirely deserved and justified. The final version of the novel is very different, but I do not believe that Tolstoy had revised his moral ideas in the meantime; I would say, rather, that in the course of writing, he was listening to another voice than that of his personal moral conviction. He was listening to what I would like to call the wisdom of the novel. Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work.
But what is that wisdom, what is the novel? There is a fine Jewish proverb: Man thinks, God laughs. … Because man thinks and the truth escapes him. Because the more men think, the more one man's thought diverges from another's. And finally, because man is never what he thinks he is.
Maybe the movie needed more drafts. By the end, Anna, never particularly likeable, is insufferable. She’s mad with love, mad with jealousy, mad with loneliness. She thinks she can go out into high society again, and pretends it doesn’t matter what people think. It’s a shock when it does. By this point, I began to feel sorry for, all of people, Vronsky, who has to put up with her histrionics. Finally she sees her way out. She met Count Vronsky on a train and ends her life beneath one. It’s this story in a newspaper account of the time—woman throws herself beneath train—that led Tolstoy to write “Anna Karenina” in the first place.
“Anna Karenina” looks beautiful, is filmed gorgeously, and I loved Matthew Macfadyen as Oblonsky. But the story’s dilemma is truly the dilemma of another time and place. Attempts to bring the story to our time should bring some of its wisdom with it.
Movie Review: The Central Park Five (2012)
If they’d made a feature film rather than a documentary about the Central Park Five—the five teenagers who were convicted in the brutal assault and rape of an investment banker jogging in Central Park on the evening of April 19, 1989—Jack Klugman, who recently passed away, and who played Juror No. 5 in Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men,” wouldn’t have been a poor choice to play Juror No. 5, Ronald Gold, in the 1990 trial of three of the five. At the least, his casting would have highlighted the difference between the U.S. justice system in its ideal and its reality. In “12 Angry Men,” Juror No. 5 is the second man to come over to Henry Fonda’s side on the movie’s ultimate path toward justice and a “Not guilty” verdict for the black man wrongfully accused of a crime. In the 1990 trial, Juror No. 5 was the lone holdout, the reason the jury deliberated as long as it did (10 days), on the court’s ultimate path toward injustice and a “Guilty” verdict for the five black kids wrongfully accused of a crime. The movies, even serious movies like “12 Angry Men,” are still so much wish-fulfillment fantasy. Hooray for Hollywood.
As for why did Juror No. 5 changed his mind and voted to convict? It’s the same reason, ironically, the Central Park Five confessed to the brutal rape in the first place.
14 and 15, mostly
I remember the Central Park Jogger case well. I remember hearing about it on Sunday morning talk shows, sitting in the living room of my father’s house in South Minneapolis in April 1989. I’d just spent a year abroad in Taipei, Taiwan, and was preparing for grad school at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, but the thing I was doing most that spring? Dating a girl. A girl who liked to jog at night. As a result, the thought of random acts of violence, particularly gang rape by packs of kids, self-professed “wolf packs” engaged in the sport of “wilding,” terrified me. I never even thought to ask if it was true. It was on the Sunday morning talk shows, after all.
“The Central Park Five” by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, begins with an audiotape confession. “I’m the one that did this,” it says. It’s chilling. Questions immediately present themselves. If these five kids didn’t do it, how did they get accused in the first place? How was this injustice done?
In ordinary ways, it turns out. In ways that will feel familiar to any viewer of “The Wire.”
The five were in Central Park that night. Raymond Santana, Sr. remembers sending his son there. He told him there was too much trouble on the corner, that the park was safer. This parental concern ruined Raymond Jr.’s life. Raymond Sr. knows it. You can see it in his eyes. He lives with it every day.
I’d forgotten how young the kids were—if I ever knew. Korey Wise was the oldest at 16. Raymond Santana, Jr. and Kevin Richardson were the youngest at 14. Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam were both 15.
They each became part of a gang of kids, anywhere from 25 to 32 in number, who, that evening, messed with people on the north side of the park: throwing rocks at cars; knocking over cyclists; beating up a homeless person. Each of the five, in the doc, claims he wasn’t doing any of the messing; each professes a kind of shock that this behavior was even going on. But they stuck around and the cops came, and Kevin, Yusef and Raymond Santana, among others, were detained at the Central Park Precinct and questioned about the incidents. They were about to be released when a homicide detective working on a rape case across the park telephoned. “Hold onto those guys!” he said.
A homicide detective was working the case because the jogger was in coma; she’d lost three-quarters of her blood. They didn’t think she was going to make it. But at least they had suspects. They had 25 to 32 of them. Within a day, five had confessed.
Why the innocent plead guilty
There was an article in The New York Times the other day about a rape case in West Virginia in which DNA evidence now suggests that the man who had been convicted of the 11-year-old crime, the 19-year-old who had confessed to it back then, didn’t do it. Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project condemns the prosecution. An assistant prosecutor fights back. “Raping an 83-year-old lady is about as bad as it gets,” he says. “Why would someone plead guilty and say they were sorry several months later if they really had no participation in it?”
That’s what we want to know watching “The Central Park Five.” Why would these kids, if they didn’t do it, confess to this horrific crime? The answer we get sheds a little light on the world. It helps explain not only the Central Park case but the West Virginia case. It explains why Ronald Gold finally voted to convict. It explains why we went to war in Iraq.
The detectives interrogated the kids for 14 hours, 20 hours, 30 hours. They said they’d already been fingered by other kids in the gang. They said, “Hey, these other kids say you did it. Now we know you didn’t, but…” They offered them deals. They demonstrated anger and conviction. They didn’t let up.
“I just wanted it to stop,” one of the Central Park Five says.
“I just wanted to go home,” says another.
They were 14 and 15 years old and thought if they confessed to parts of the crime—the holding the woman down, say—they’d be able to go home. Instead they walked out of the police station and into a media maelstrom. Feelings were hot. Grandstanding took place. Donald Trump placed an ad in the local papers demanding the return of the death penalty. Members of the mainstream media called the boys “sociopaths” and “mutants.” Even many in the black community went along. “Many of us were frightened by our own children,” says Rev. Calvin O. Butts III.
All of this created a momentum for conviction. Yet without their videotaped confessions, which were quickly recanted, there was no evidence linking them to the crime. The New York Police Dept.’s own timeline placed the boys about a mile from the ravine at the time the rape took place. The trail of matted grass from the path to the ravine was only 18 inches wide, meaning they’d had to walk it single-file. Most telling of all, despite the ferocity of the attack, they’d left none of their DNA behind: not in the woods; not in the woman. The police had DNA, yes, but it was someone else’s. “I felt like I’ve been kicked in the stomach,” prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer told a colleague when she discovered this.
But the case continued; it had momentum. At the trial, on the stand, the police denied that they had coerced confessions; they denied making deals. And they had the confessions. “It was hard to imagine why someone would make up [a guilty plea when they were innocent],” Ronald Gold, Juror No. 5, says in the doc. He was the lone holdout for conviction. He says the other jurors even called him a rat for holding out. So, he says, “I went along with it in the end.” He says, “I was wiped out.” He voted guilty for the same reason the boys lied about being guilty. He got worn down. He just wanted to go home.
A modest nod
Most of the Central Park Five got 5 to 7 years. Korey, the eldest, was put away for 10 years. He was still there, at Riker’s Island, in 2001, when he crossed paths with Matias Reyes, who had been arrested in August 1989 and convicted shortly thereafter on multiple rape charges. He was known as the East Side Rapist. He did horrible things. He also raped and assaulted the jogger that night in Central Park. When he saw Korey still in prison for his crime, something in him stirred, and he confessed, the confession we hear at the beginning of the doc. When his DNA was compared with the DNA found at the scene, it was an exact match.
In December 2002, when the state of New York vacated the convictions of the five, I was working as a freelance writer in Seattle. I was probably working on a story for Washington Law & Politics. I was plugged in. But unlike April 1989, I don’t remember hearing about the case. “These were five kids who we tormented, we false accused, we pilloried in the press, we invented phrases for the imagines crimes” says historian Craig Steven Wilder. “And then we put them in jail. And when the evidence turned out that they were innocent, we gave a modest nod and walked away.”
“Central Park Five” is a straightforward, well-researched, powerful documentary, although I would’ve like a subtler ending. I also would’ve liked more on what led to the term “wilding,” which never existed until the police mentioned it in connection with this crime. How did it come about? David Dinkins mentions Emmett Till as historical reference point but no one brings up the Scottsboro Boys? That’s what I kept thinking. I kept thinking that for all the distance we’d traveled, we hadn’t gone that far.
But this is really less a story of race than coercion. It’s about the powerless, yes, but it’s a warning to the powerful. When you’re powerful, and committed, and you go searching for something, you’ll find it. You’ll find it because you’re powerful and committed. Even if the thing you’ve found is the wrong thing. Even if the thing you’ve found is the opposite of the thing you were searching for. Here, for example, we went searching for justice.
Movie Review: Django Unchained (2012)
The slaughter of Native Americans? The rape of Nanjing? The near-genocides of Josef Stalin or Pol Pot? What is the next historic horror Quentin Tarantino will turn into a spaghetti-western-style revenge fantasy? In the 1990s, QT gave us three complex, pulpy crime stories (“Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Jackie Brown”), and in the aughts three female revenge fantasies (“Kill Bill” I and II and “Death Proof”), and now he’s given us two revenge fantasies of an historical nature: the rising up of the historically downtrodden. “Inglourious Basterds” showed us Jews killing Nazis, including Uncle Adolf, once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France. Now, in “Django Unchained,” a freed slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), kills slavemasters in the deep South—or more specifically, as it’s scrolled across the screen in big 1950s type, M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I—in 1858. “Two years before the Civil War,” QT adds helpfully.
It’s a great idea. History is nothing but groups of people being fucked over, while the movies are all about wish-fulfillment fantasy. So why not meld the two? The Bible is full of revenge fantasies as well. Maybe that’s the next direction? “Quentin Tarantino’s The Bible.” That’s a title he’d dig. He’d dig it the most, baby.
The more-or-less true story of the bounty hunter
Question: Who holds the power in a Quentin Tarantino story? More than the one with the weapon, it’s the one with the story. His movies are conversations punctuated by violence, and the one who holds the floor holds the power.
This is apparent more than halfway through “Django Unchained” when Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) momentarily loses the conversational thread to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz actually looks confused at the dinner table. Someone is telling a story and it’s not him. He should know that when the talking is done a gun will be pointed at his head, since that’s how he usually ends his stories. It’s really this, getting one-upped in storytelling, more than the dogs tearing apart the runaway slave d’Artagnan (Ato Essandoh), that later bothers Schultz. That’s why he: a) insults Candie, and, b) shoots and kills him. He must know he’ll die as a result. But he has to do it. The man can’t abide getting one-upped in storytelling. I’m sure Tarantino, an inveterate storyteller, feels the same way.
The storytelling is what’s right with “Django.” It also indicates where Schultz, or QT, goes wrong.
The power of Schultz’s stories is that they’re more-or-less true. In the beginning, he really is interested in buying the slave, Django, from the slave traders who are moving Django and four others across Texas in 1858. He comes upon them in the middle of the night, driving his absurd little stagecoach with the large plaster tooth bobbing comically on top. The tooth is subterfuge, since he hasn’t worked dentistry in five years. But he is interested in buying Django for a fair price. He’s a bounty hunter, tracking the three Brittle brothers (great name), but he’s never seen them. Django has. That’s why he wants him. But the two white men, the slave traders, aren’t interested in his long-winded story, nor his fancy-pants European vocabulary, and they try to cut his story short, not to mention his bargaining, at the point of a gun. That’s our first shootout. Schultz kills one, leaves the other beneath his own horse, but still pays for Django. Because his story is true.
His next story is even better because every element of it, in the telling, seems crazy, but in the end it all pulls together.
Schultz rides into Daugherty, Texas, accompanied by, as everyone says, “a nigger on a horse.” That freaks them out right away. Then he actually brings Django into a saloon, which is closed for another hour. When the saloonkeeper flees, he pours himself and Django beers and tells him of his plans. He says he’s against slavery, but, for the moment, somewhat guiltily, he’ll use it, and Django, to get the Brittle brothers and the bounty on their heads. After that, he’ll set Django free. Deal? By this time the sheriff, Bill Sharp (Don Stroud), shows up, and Schultz, while explaining matters, shoots and kills him in the muddy Texas street. Now everyone’s freaking. But rather than attempt to escape, Schultz nonchalantly returns to the saloon, keeps telling his story to Django, and let’s opposition forces, led by the local Marshal (Tom Wopat), gather outside. When the Marshal demands he give himself up, he first exacts the concession that no one will shoot him on sight; that he’ll get a fair trial before being hanged by the neck. The Marshal reluctantly agrees. So he walks outside into the gauntlet of guns, unarmed but with a story. Their sheriff? Bill Sharp? He isn’t who they think he is. He’s a wanted man, with a bounty on his head, and Schultz is a court-appointed bounty hunter, and that’s why he killed him. He has the piece of paper in his pocket to prove it. “In other words, Marshal,” he adds, trumping everyone, “you owe me $2,000.”
Nice. And the main reason it works is because it’s true.
The mostly false story of the Mandingo slaver
In this manner, Dr. King Schultz and Django move through the Midwest and South telling stories, killing men, collecting bounties. Sometimes the stories aren’t enough, as when Django kills two of the Brittle brothers in the presence of Big Daddy (Don Johnson), who then gathers a posse, an early version of the Ku Klux Klan, to kill the nigger and the nigger-loving German. But King knows when his stories aren’t enough and he’s ready for them, with dynamite (patented in 1867, but whatever). The purpose of the Kluxers is comic relief. Before they ride, they complain about the hoods with the eye slots. How they can’t see. How they can’t breathe. Can they just not wear them? It’s the funniest part of the movie.
King even tells Django a story around a campfire. It’s the story of Brynhildr. It resonates because Django’s wife, who was whipped by the Brittle brothers and resold into slavery, is named Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). She was raised by Germans, speaks some German. That’s an interesting coincidence, by the way. The slave that the native German bounty hunter needed to collect a bounty has a wife who speaks German. Here’s another: Schultz learns, by and by, that the slave he bought and freed also turns out to be the fastest gun in the South. Too many coincidences like these can get in the way of a good story. We begin to question the things we’re hearing or watching. Where was that chain gang of slaves going at the beginning of the movie anyway? How did Dr. King Schultz find them in the middle of the night in the middle of Texas? And how did he find them coming the other way? If he was pursuing Django, wouldn’t he be catching up to them? Too many coincidences make us wonder if the storyteller is a bad storyteller; or if he’s just lying to us.
The power of Schultz’s stories in the first half of the movie is that they’re true. He goes wrong—and you could say Tarantino goes wrong—when he begins to lie.
Schultz and Django, partners now, discover that Broomhilda has been sold to Calvin Candie, of Candieland (great name), in the deepest part of the South: M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I. How to get her back?
Schultz gives a quick reason why they don’t rely on some version of the truth. I forget what it is. I also don’t understand why they don’t use the story he uses in the end: He’s German; he misses speaking German; might he, perchance, buy the slavegirl who speaks German? Calvin Candie isn’t an unreasonable sort. He’s also a bit of a slave to Southern hospitality. I’m sure he would’ve acquiesced to this request for a fair (or unfair) price. Using this scheme, Schultz wouldn’t even have had to bring Django with him to Candieland. And since the heat between Django and Broomhilda is what tips off the house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who alerts his master, leaving Django back in town, or up North, might have averted the bloodbath that follows.
But that’s the thing. Schultz, the storyteller, is interested in averting bloodbaths. Tarantino, the storyteller, is not. In fact, he needs the bloodbath or the movie isn’t a Tarantino movie. It’s just full of words. It’s not cool. A few years ago, in “Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!,” a documentary about Australian exploitation movies, Tarantino said the following about how the low-budget thriller, “Patrick,” nearly influenced “Kill Bill”:
I always remember that actor. I thought he was amazing-looking in that movie with his eyes just wide open and everything, and in the original script [for “Kill Bill”] I had it written like that. Then I showed it to Uma and she goes, “I'm not going to do that,” and I go, “Why?” and she goes, “You wouldn't have your eyes open like that if you were in a coma! That's not realistic.” I go, “Actually I never thought was it realistic or not, it's just Patrick did it, alright, and it looked really cool.”
That’s always been the problem with Tarantino. Given the choice between realistic and cool, he always goes for really cool.
The battle of the remaining storytellers
So Schultz concocts the false story, the made-up story, of wanting to purchase a Mandingo wrestler, while his companion, Django, a freed slave, is his advisor in the matter. Eventually they’re uncovered. The rest of the movie becomes, in a sense, a battle of the storytellers.
First, Calvin Candie, discovering the subterfuge of Schultz and Django, doesn’t just go into the dining room with guns cocked; he goes in there with a story. It’s a story meant to reassert white superiority over the Negro. It involves a hammer, and a skull, and dimples in an area of the skull, and it ends with the hammer coming down.
After Candie and Schultz have been killed, our next storyteller is Stephen. By this point, Django has killed many white folks, which, yeah, you don’t do in M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I, and the question becomes what to do with him. The white folks have the same old ideas: lynching, castration, dogs. But Stephen has a thought. Lynch Django and he becomes a legend for everything he’s already done. But force him to live out his days in subservient toil, for, say, the LeQuint Dickey Mining Co. of Australia, until he dies old and frail and useless, well, that will lessen his legend. It will change the trajectory of his story. That’s how he even puts it to Django. He imagines the day when Django finally keels over from overwork in the mines and tells him, “And that will be the story of you.”
And it might have been. But “Django Unchained” isn’t just a revenge fantasy. It is, to use the German, a bildungsroman, in which our protagonist, Django, mentored by Dr. King Schultz, moves from the darkness of slavery and into the light of absolute, fuck-you freedom. From Schultz, he learns about bounty hunting and guns. He learns how to dress and how to kill. And by the end, he’s learned how to tell a story, too. Sold to the Aussies, he uses this power. He tells them they’ve been lied to by the folks at Candieland, who claimed Django was a slave; he tells them that there is bounty-hunting wealth beyond imagination back at Candieland if they just want to go back and claim it. This story has the advantage of being mostly true, and the other slaves, too dim and scared to lie, corroborate it. So the Aussies, straight out of an Ozploitation movie, set Django free and die. And Django returns to rescue Broomhilda and put a final end to Stephen, the house nigger, and to Candieland itself. He blows it up, puts on his sunglasses, and rides off into the sunset with his girl.
And that, says Tarantino, is the story of him.
The story of the storyteller
So what’s the story of Tarantino? It’s changed over the years, hasn’t it?
First, it was the story of the videostore clerk who became a hot screenwriter and director. Then it became the story of the auteur who employs favorite or forgotten actors. He started with Travolta in “Pulp Fiction,” moved onto Pam Grier and Robert Forster in “Jackie Brown,” and never really stopped. “Django Unchained” gets its name from the great spaghetti western “Django,” starring Franco Nero, so we get Nero, of course. He’s the dude at the bar at the Cleopatra Club who asks Django how his name is spelled. “The ‘D’ is silent,” Django says. “I know,” Nero says with a proud smile. Another cool, false moment for QT.
Other forgotten actors in “Django” include the aforementioned Don Johnson, Tom Wopat and Don Stroud; Dennis Christopher of “Breaking Away” as the Cleopatra Club owner; Lee Horsley of TV’s “Matt Houston,” and Ted Neeley, Jesus Christ Superstar himself, as one of the trackers whose hounds tear apart the runaway slave d’Artagnan. Neeley hasn’t acted on screen since 1985.
More recently, though, the story of Tarantino for me is the story of the auteur who never really lived up to the promise of “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction”; who, when given the choice between realistic and cool, always goes with cool, no matter how false it may be. He needs to learn the lesson of Dr. King Schultz. When you tell your story, try to make it more-or-less true. Make it so true that you can end it, and trump your enemies, with a piece of paper rather than a gun. Because in the end that’s cooler.
Movie Review: This is 40 (2012)
I laughed a lot during “This is 40,” Judd Apatow’s comedy of middle-aged angst, but he needs to rein in his performers. Or himself. Too many times it felt like people were doing bits, for which they had commitment, for which their commitment to the bit was the whole point, rather than simply being characters in a story that was moving forward. As a result, the story didn’t move forward. It stalled. The movie clocked in at 134 minutes. You could watch “Annie Hall” in that time and still have 40 minutes left over for pizza.
Here. At one point, Pete and Debbie’s daughter, 13-year-old Sadie (Maude Apatow), has a dust-up on Facebook with classmate Joseph (Ryan Lee), which Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) become aware of. Debbie subsequently runs into Joseph at the school when she’s having a bad day and lets him have it. She calls him a little hairless wonder, compares him to Tom Petty, says his hair looks like a Justin Bieber wig on backwards. Then she adds:
So next time you think about writing something nasty on my daughter’s Facebook page, just remember me. Remember me. I will come down here, and I will fuck you up.
A few days later, when Pete is having a bad day, he runs into Joseph’s mom, Catherine (Melissa McCarthy), things escalate, and we wind up with this:
If he insults my daughter again, I’m going to hit him with my car. Got it? In fact, if you insult my wife again, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to show up at your house when you’re sleeping, and I’ll take your iPad and your iPod or your iMac and I’ll shove them up your fucking iCunt.
Eventually everyone is called into the principal’s office, where Pete and Debbie play dumb, or sweet, or innocent, or all three. Now it’s Catherine’s turn, or Melissa McCarthy’s, to push the envelope. She threatens Pete and Debbie:
I’d like to rear up and jackknife my legs and kick you both in the jaw with my foot bone.
She insults the principal:
Fuck you, Jill. You’re a horrible woman. This is why everybody hates you. This kind of shit. Ineffective. Bullshit hair. And I’m glad your husband died. Because you’re a fucking asshole. He probably killed himself.
As a result, Pete and Debbie get away with it, leave with smirks, and it momentarily draws them closer together. I like that idea, the awfulness of grown-ups, but none of it feels real. It feels like performers trying to outdo each other at a celebrity roast. It feels like comedians pushing the envelope.
During one of his denials, Pete says this: “That’s ridiculous. Who talks like that?”
People in Judd Apatow movies.
People like us
Let me add that it is a pleasure to see a movie about a couple who shares the same bathroom. They’re tired of each other. They know each other’s bad habits. She sneaks cigarettes, he cupcakes. She shaves off years, he hides bankruptcy woes. His father (Albert Brooks) keeps asking for money, her father (John Lithgow) is rich and distant.
It is a pleasure to see a movie where parents argue with their plugged-in children over screen time. Where they get rid of the Wi-Fi. Where they take away the iToys. Where Sadie, arguing with her father over her obsession with J.J. Abrams’ “Lost,” brings up his obsession with “Mad Men,” and how stupid that show is, which the father momentarily defends until he realizes how absurd the whole thing is and makes a frantic hand-washing gesture before ending the discussion.
A lot of it felt like life. But it felt like life as viewed through a privileged L.A. prism. Which it is.
Debbie is turning 40 and feels unattractive, but she’s only unattractive because she’s working next to Megan Fox, the real Megan Fox, who plays Desi, an employee in Debbie’s clothing boutique. That’s an L.A. problem. That’s a consequence of living in and working among stars in Hollywood. People like Fox don’t exist anywhere else. They may grow up in South Dakota or Minnesota or Tennessee but they all wind up in the movies and away from the rest of us. They turn two-dimensional. Anywhere outside of L.A., Leslie Mann at 40 is the hottest girl in town.
Every one of their complaints, in fact, their “real life” dilemmas, could be followed by a “fuck you” from the rest of us.
- Debbie’s turning 40 and looks like Leslie Mann?
- She’s stuck with a husband who looks like Paul Rudd? And who cheats on her with cupcakes?
- They have financial woes but live in that house?
- They have financial woes because he loaned $80,000 to his father?
- They have financial woes because her boutique business, at which we rarely see her working, is only breaking even?
- They have financial woes because in the middle of the global financial meltdown he left a well-paying job at Sony to start his own record label, at which he signed favorites from his youth, like Graham Parker, who never sell anymore, even though he knows that the entire music industry is going through the digital toilet? And we rarely see him even working at this place? Or breaking a sweat? Or going to clubs to check out new acts?
All together now: Fuck you.
Apatow calls this a sequel of sorts to “Knocked Up,” which grossed $148 million in 2007 ($171 million today), because Pete and Debbie showed up there as cautionary tale to Ben and Alison (Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl), and because a few other folks from that universe make it into this one. Not Alison and Ben. They’re referenced, but vaguely.
Instead we get the soft-talking Jason (Jason Segel), who is now a personal trainer, creating “Bodies by Jason,” and who soft-talks Megan Fox’s character into, we imagine, bed. There’s also Jodi (Charlyne Yi), who also works at the boutique, and who blames the missing $12K on Desi. Turns out she’s the thief. During the big reveal she gets to overcommit to her own bit. Another 30 seconds down the drain.
Despite these overcommitments, Apatow gets good performances from his actors. Both Mann and Rudd feel natural and effortless—although Rudd’s late-movie anger didn’t do it for me. Albert Brooks has most of the funny lines that feel like lines someone (someone funny) might actually say. Lena Dunham and Chris O’Dowd and Jason Segel do a lot with small moments. Even Megan Fox, now seemingly relegated to playing the hot, obtuse girl in middle-aged comedies (“Friends with Kids”), gets off some good line-readings. I was impressed.
I was also impressed with the acting of Apatow’s daughter, Maude, who totally seems like a semi-privileged, somewhat smart teenage girl here. This is her third movie. She played Sadie before in “Knocked Up” and Mable in “Funny People.” In each, her sister plays her sister, and her mother plays her mother, and all three are written and directed by her father, who always inserts a handsome dude into his role as husband and father: Rudd here, Eric Bana, whom the “Knocked Up” boys talk up as the great Jewish hero of “Munich,” in “Funny People.” It’s got to be a joke around the Apatow household. Who do we get next time, dear? Hell, it might make a good idea for a screenplay.
Again, I laughed out loud at “This is 40.” It’s a movie that tries to cut through the shit. But Apatow overindulges. He needs greater commitment to his characters and less to their bits.
Movie Review: Les Misérables (2012)
I cried during Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” which director Tom Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen filmed beautifully in a single shot, uncut, like in musicals of old, with a close-up on her face, her distraught face, singing live. The story of Fantine may be the most miserable part of “Les Misérables,” and Anne Hathaway breaks your heart in the telling. It’s the pinnacle of the movie, really, and the most representative moment of its themes, and it comes too early. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is full of anger and intensity, then guilt and fear, and he’s certainly beaten down by life, particularly in the beginning; but he’s not beaten down the way Fantine is beaten down. She loses her job, her child, her place, her hair, her teeth, her virtue and finally her life. She is the true symbol of les misérables. When you have nothing, the world still keeps taking what’s left.
That’s the problem I had with all the talk of revolution and “the people” in the second half of the film. Sure, the authority figure, Javert (Russell Crowe), is an unsympathetic, bootstraps type, who expects, and maybe even hopes for, recidivism out of every convict, since it reaffirms his narrow worldview. But the worst things that happen to Fantine and Jean Valjean result from the actions of other people. No wonder they don’t rise up on cue. They’re too busy pulling teeth from the poor and deflowering the destitute. Do I hear the people sing? Yes, and it’s not pretty.
“Les Misérables” is full of such mixed messages. Jean Valjean, after spending 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child, can’t get on his feet, and, despite his massive strength, he’s beaten down and resorts to stealing again. He’s taken in by a kindly bishop (Colm Wilkinson), fed, kept warm, and he responds by stealing silver. Of course he’s caught and brought back. But the Bishop lies for him. He says he gave him the silver. The Monsignor adds that in his haste Jean Valjean forgot the silver candlestick holders. Please take them, he says, and make a new life.
Jean Valjean does. The next time we see him, nine years later, he’s successful, a man of the world, respected, a mayor of a small town even. But what is he really? He’s the owner of a sweat shop that employs a foreman who sexually abuses his female employees and allows poor Fantine to be tossed out into the street. Surely not what the Bishop, let alone God, had in mind.
Love love love, money money money
Victor Hugo’s story is a bit of a jumble this way. It’s 19th-century storytelling. It sprawls. It contains an eight-year jump and a nine-year jump. The first third of the story belongs to Jean Valjean (one of the great names in literature), and then increasingly to others: Fantine for a time, then her daughter, Cosette, who becomes ward of Jean Valjean, and then to the revolutionaries, Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Enjolras (Aaron Tvelt), particularly the former, who becomes Cosette’s lover and eventually her husband. It starts out about the poor, becomes a tale of would-be revolution and sacrifice, and turns into a story about love and marrying up. It gives the people, which is us, what we want: mixed messages.
I haven’t read Victor Hugo’s novel. I’ve seen two film versions of the novel, both French: the classic version from 1934 starring Harry Baur; and a 1995 version starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and set during the first half of the 20th century. I’ve only seen parts of the musical. My nephew Jordy, then 9, was in an award-winning version put on by Southwest High School in Minneapolis, and I saw parts of the DVD of that show.
In other words, I’m not as steeped in the source material as some and I’ll leave it to them to grade Tom Hooper more eruditely for his version. But overall I was impressed. Hooper kept the story moving, gave us sweeping shots, overhead shots, many close-ups. There’s criticism for the close-ups, but why? It’s the human face. As John Ford said, it’s the most interesting thing that can be photographed.
Best of all, Hooper had his performers singing live, rather than to a studio-recorded playback, and that, to me, has made all the difference. There’s power in these songs, and from these actors, that you don’t normally get from lip-synching to playback. You definitely feel it in Hathaway’s signature song. You feel it in Hugh Jackman’s early numbers, too, with his red eyes burning into you (“What Have I Done?), and in Redmayne’s great song of survivor’s guilt, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” which is my second-favorite number in the movie.
There’s been criticism of Crowe’s singing but I thought he was a perfect Javert: stolid, thick, relentless. If his numbers were stiff, well, Javert is stiff. Crowe’s major failing, for me, was in the final number, the suicide number, where you want greater emotion. You want to feel the reason he jumps. You don’t.
Really, all the actors impressed. Aaron Tvelt feels like he could be a budding star. Ditto Samantha Banks, owner of the world’s tiniest waist, as Éponine, the poor girl who loves the rich boy, Marius, but loses him to the would-be rich girl, the cosseted Cosette. In a smaller role, just a few lines, George Blagden as Grantaire impressed.
Meanwhile, post-Fantine, Jean Valjean keeps doing the right thing. Another man is being tried as Jean Valjean? He admits his subterfuge and saves the man. Fantine has a child? He cares for her, keeps her from harm, and away from Thénardier and his wife (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). When he learns of the love between Cosette and Marius, he storms the barricades to save Marius. There, he also saves his enemy, Javert, then pulls Marius through the muck of the sewers of Paris to safety, only to be faced with Javert again. But he refuses to bend. He walks away. Unable to kill, Javert is left to kill himself for his true crime: lack of sympathy.
Valjean keeps doing the right thing, in other words, he keeps putting others before himself, and for his trouble he dies aged and alone. No, wait! Cosette and Marius show up on their wedding day. They’ve found him, and greet him with tears and joy and gratitude, and he is able to bask in this warmth at the moment of his death, where, in the afterlife, he is greeted by Fantine, cleaned up and happy. And among the living, as the music rises, we return to the barricades, and the waving flags, and the red and the black, as if this, revolution, were the lesson of Jean Valjean’s life. But it’s not. It’s not even close.
The lesson of Jean Valjean’s life is the lesson of Jesus: do the right thing and get crucified. The rest (resurrection, basking in Cosette’s warmth) is just prettying up around this story.
Sorry to be a pain in the ass. “Les Misérables” is worth seeing. It has moments of incredible power. I enjoyed it for most of its 158-minute runtime. Musicals are worth making. Please star Anne Hathaway in the next one, please.
Movie Review: Barbara (2012)
“Barbara” is so quiet and hushed it’s as if the movie is afraid someone is listening. It is. It’s set in East Germany, 1980, and we don’t know whom to trust, and we wait for information that never comes. Our title character, Barbara (Nina Hoss), a Berlin doctor, now lives and works in a provincial town near the Baltic Sea because of something that attracted the attention of the Stasi, the secret police. She probably tried to escape but we never find out for sure. She’s not revealing much—to us or to the other people in the town. She’s a bit distant, a bit Deneuve. One of her patients tries to kill himself by jumping out a three-story window and the fear is he’ll lose his memory; but his memory turns out just fine. It’s his emotions that are lost. He feels nothing. One assumes he’s a symbol for the country.
That Catherine Deneuve reference isn’t tossed off lightly, by the way. Hoss is stunning, distant, sexy. I could watch her neck for hours, which I get to do here. I also wondered to what extent the film’s accolades owe to Hoss’s looks. Would we care as much about Barbara’s story if she were fat and dumpy, with dark, straggly hair? And would we agree with the ending if the West German lover she decided to abandon was the handsome bearded man with amused eyes (Ronald Zehrfeld) and the East German doctor she returned to was the bland company man with the receding hairline (Mark Waschke)? Just how shallow are we?
The movie begins with Barbara being jostled (on the bus) and then being watched (from the second-story window of the hospital) by two men, one Stasi, the other bearded with amused eyes, who turns out to be André, the chief of pediatric surgery at the hospital. It’s her first day but she’s smoking a cigarette on a bench outside the hospital. “She won’t be one second too early,” the officer says. “If she were 6, you’d say she was sulking.”
André tries to inculcate her into the hospital life but she trusts no one. The others think she’s stuck-up, Berlinish. “You shouldn’t be so separated,” André warns her, driving her home one day. But he fails to ask for directions to her place, which she picks up on. “You’re groomed,” she tells him. “And here’s where I separate.”
No one trusts anyone. The Stasi keep showing up, led by the bland, bored Klaus Schütz (Rainer Bock), to turn her room and search her body cavities. The apartment manager, Mrs. Bungert (Rosa Enskat), is abrupt and suspicious and domineering and put-upon. At night, imperious and annoyed, she leads Barbara into the basement storage facilities, where Barbara finds a bicycle tire, flat, which she fixes in her bathtub. The bike gives her a degree of independence. It allows her to stay separate.
Where is she going? We have no idea. At this point we’re just following. She takes the bike to a train, and then walks to a restaurant. She asks for the restroom and spies, on the way, all the waitresses on their backs with their legs elevated against the wall. It looks absurd but they’re just fighting varicose veins. One of the waitresses then gives her a thick package, money it turns out, which Barbara hides in a gravestone near her apartment. The Stasi soon return to toss the place.
In this manner we piece together her plan to escape to West Germany, but many things escape us—or at least me. We’re supposed to know that her lover, Jörg (Waschke), is already in West Germany, but I didn’t. The have a rendezvous in the woods, with an official standing by his Mercedes, fending off the interests of a local. How did this come about? How does a West German schedule a rendezvous in East Germany? Money, I suppose. Money greases all wheels. But initially I didn’t pick up on this, so I mistook the local’s interest for mere nosiness. Maybe it was. Maybe he was less interested in a whiff of the freedom and riches of West Germany than in wondering how a bit of West Germany wound up so near his home.
Helping the dying
During this waiting period, Barbara draws closer to André. She demonstrates her medical prowess by correcting him on a meningitis case; then she demonstrated her well-hidden warmth by caring for a girl, Stella (Jasna Fritz Bauer), and reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to her by her bedside. Is André smitten or spying? He shows up at Barbara’s apartment, laments the poorly tuned piano she was requisitioned, sends her a tuner to fix it. During a night shift he lets her sleep, then wakes her with coffee. He tells her how he wound up there. A woman covering his shift in Berlin misread the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales on an incubator for premature babies. Pressure built up, the babies’ retinas became detached, they were blinded for life. This was the deal he was offered. She questions him about the incubator: the make and model. “Was my story too long?” he asks, sensing her skepticism. “Is the story true?” she asks later. Neither answers the other. Everything hangs heavy in the silence between these shorts bits of conversation.
But his small acts of kindness wear her down. She begins to trust him. She becomes attracted to him. When she searches for him in town, she finds Schütz of the Stasi there. Turns out he’s caring for Schütz’s wife, who’s dying of cancer. We get this exchange:
Barbara: Is this usual for you?
André: Helping the dying?
Barbara: Helping assholes.
André: When they’re dying, yes.
Throughout Christian Petzold’s “Barbara” I was reminded of the Iranian film “Goodbye” (2011) by Mohammad Rasoulof. An attractive professional woman (lawyer in Iran, doctor here) is involved in the slow machinations of escape from an oppressive regime, and hearing, too often, those loud knocks on the door. It doesn’t work for the pregnant Noora. At the end of “Goodbye,” she’s caught and arrested. It could’ve worked for Barbara. But at the end, she sends Stella, pregnant, across the Baltic Sea in her place. She gives up what she’s been striving the entire movie for. To be with André? To help with the dying.
Hoss: a bit distant, a bit Deneuve.
Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
It took me weeks to drag myself to this movie. It just didn’t appeal. Maybe it was the trailer: He’s off, she’s off, now it’s on. It’s like what Rocky says about his relationship with Adrian: I got holes, she’s got holes, together we fill holes. That was my thought even before I knew “Silver Linings Playbook” was set—pungently—in Philadelphia.
It starts out OK. Pat (Bradley Cooper) is in a psychiatric facility in Baltimore. He’s been there eight months and we see him involved in various activities: group therapy, where he enthusiastically talks up silver linings; pill taking, where he hides his medication under his tongue and spits it out later like Randle Patrick McMurphy in “Cuckoo’s Nest.” He exercises all the time. That’s good. He has the word “EXCELSIOR” taped to his wall. That’s his mantra. He tells us, in voiceover, “What, are you kidding me? I love Sundays.”
Right back where he started from
Then his mom (Jacki Weaver) shows up out of the blue and discharges him. At this point we get a bit of backstory. He was a substitute history teacher, bipolar apparently, overweight apparently, who came home early one day to find his wife and another history teacher (full-time) in the shower together. Beat the shit out of the dude. For a long time, his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), had wanted him to lose weight and get psychiatric help, and now he’s done both, kinda sorta, so after he leaves the institution he expects them to get back together. Despite the restraining order. Despite the fact that he’s not taking his meds. Despite the fact that he’s living in the very facility that created him and his problems in the first place. He’s living with his parents.
Mom has a tendency to lie to avoid confrontations. Dad, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), is basically a rung below the son. He’s OCD: about his envelopes, about the TV remotes, about his beloved Philadelphia Eagles. He bets on them, too. He used to work at Eagles Stadium but got into too many fights there. Now he’s banned from the place. Just as Pat is banned from Nikki.
That’s one of the things I liked about “Silver Linings Playbook”: You see why Pat is the way he is, and you see that others aren’t much better. His brother, Jake (Shea Whigham of “Boardwalk Empire,” destined to play brothers), is a bit of a dick: listing off how well his life is going compared to Pat’s. His pal Ronnie (John Ortiz) lives in fear of his wife, Veronica (Julia Stiles); at times, he says, he can hardly breathe. Veronica has a sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose husband recently died. Their sex life dried up so he was coming home with some lingerie from Victoria’s Secret when he stopped to help someone with car difficulties. He got hit by a car. Now she’s fucking everybody. To make up.
But meds are meds, and without them, things fall apart quickly for Pat. He tries to see Nikki, meets up with Tiffany, desperately searches for his wedding video in the middle of the night. As things escalate, he accidently elbows his mother in the face and punches his father in the face. In his shrink’s waiting room, his trigger song, “My Cheri Amour” by Stevie Wonder, is piped in. It’s a test. It was his wedding song. It was also the song playing when he found his wife in the shower with the history prof. Pat doesn’t pass the test.
To be honest? Pat’s the most interesting guy in the room … and he’s not that interesting. But Tiffany likes him—likes likes him—since after eight months in the stir he looks like Bradley Cooper. So she cons him into partnering with her for a dance contest at the Ben Franklin Hotel. She dangles the prospect of connection with Nikki and he jumps. We watch them practice, talk, argue, practice, yell at each other. It’s not bad.
Then it all falls apart.
Pat doesn’t fall apart. He’s actually taking his meds now. It’s everyone around him. Particularly his immediates.
Pat Sr. wants to start a restaurant—something about Philly cheese steaks—and he bets all the money he’s been saving on an Eagles-Giants game, to which, for good luck, he sends Pat. That’s why Pat and brother and friends are tailgating, having a good time, when a busload of Indian-Americans, including Pat’s shrink (a face painter), shows up, and the party grows. But some racist clowns can’t deal, a fight ensues, Pat gets involved, he’s banned from the place, the Eagles lose. Pat Sr. blows up. It’s one of those scenes where half the neighborhood is in the house, and everyone’s yapping about stupid shit, and I wanted to get out of the place. Can’t imagine what Pat felt. And we can’t. He’s suddenly the sanest man in the room. Then the movie doubles down on Pat Sr.’s disease. Tiffany encourages him to go double-or-nothing on Eagles-Cowboys plus Pat and Tiffany have to get a “5” in the dance competition. If both things happen, Pat Sr. gets his money back.
Right there I lost all interest. For most of the movie, the thrust is Pat and his problems, which the film acknowledges. For the last third, the focus becomes Pat Sr. and his problems, which the film doesn’t acknowledge. Plus, a “5” in the dance competition? You think you have to attach a number to dance to get us interested?
Long story short: Nikki shows up at the dance, Tiffany drinks, but they dance OK for them. The numbers come in: 4.8, 4.9, 4.9 … 5.4! For a grand total of 5! Pat Sr. gets his money back! (Which he’ll lose again next week?) Tiffany runs away when she sees Pat with Nikki! But, wait, he’s only whispering to Nikki! We know he loves you! And he does! And he runs after you to say so! And you kiss! And you kiss at the end of the movie, on a Sunday, football Sunday, which Pat tells us he loves! Like he said at the beginning! Full circle!
Earlier in the movie, after Pat read Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” and lamented the sudden sad ending and its lack of a silver lining to his parents, he said the following:
The world’s hard enough as it is. Can’t someone say, “Hey, let’s be positive? Let’s have a good ending to the story?”
Someone does say that. They say it all the fucking time.
Movie Review: How to Survive a Plague (2012)
At first you think it’s Dan Savage even though you know it can’t be Dan Savage. He’s too young for this time period and since when did Dan live in Greenwich Village? But there he is. That’s gotta be him, right? No. It’s not him. Dude turns out to be Peter Staley, who went from being a closeted Wall Street broker in 1987—with a homophobic mentor who tells him fags get what they deserve for taking it up the ass—to an AIDS activist and member of ACT-UP, who in 1988 argues with Pat Buchanan on CNN’s “Crossfire” about access to AIDS drugs. Pat Buchanan winds up agreeing with him.
Then there’s the other dude, Bob Rafsky, the PR exec with a young daughter, and an ex-wife he calls the greatest romance of his life, even though, you know, he’s gay, and out now. He came out at 40. We see him in the low-def video of the day, a T-shirt-wearing activist who seems more serious than the noisy folks around him. His every word, his every action, says: This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around. It’s as if his life depends upon the outcome.
How about that third dude, the snob, the one with the nose almost literally in the air, who can’t make an internal PSA without lighting a cigarette and taking a deep drag on it? Mark Harrington. Of whom Larry Kramer, a talking head in the doc, says, “Right away Mark digested [the scientific literature] as if by osmosis and within a few weeks he had come up with a glossary of AIDS treatment terms.”
Kramer, famously pugnacious and controversial, is one of the first talking heads we see in “How to Survive a Plague.” We also see a few scientists and doctors, and a few other activists. But slowly it dawns on us who we’re not seeing: Mark Harrington, Bob Rafsky, and Peter Staley.
That’s the tension for the viewer in David France’s documentary. In this way it’s as suspenseful as any war movie. We’re worried about the characters on the screen. We’re worried about who lives up to the film’s title. We’re worried about who lives.
And you behave like this
“How to Survive a Plague” is less about the AIDS crisis than it is about the gay community’s reaction to governmental indifference to the AIDS crisis. The Reagan and Bush administrations ignored and played down. The gay community acted up.
The doc reminded me of my own indifference to the direct actions of ACT-UP back then. I remember watching on the news (ABC World News Tonight, kids) one of ACT-UP’s protests outside of NIH or FDA headquarters, in some Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., and thinking, What are these people protesting? That cures don’t exist? I thought it was silly. I seem to remember conversations with smarter friends that went something like this:
She: No, they’re protesting that the FDA isn’t releasing AIDS drugs.
Me: Which don’t exist.
She: They exist. You can get them in Canada.
Me: Really? Canada has a cure for AIDS? I’m surprised we haven’t heard about that.
She: They have drugs that help some people slow down the disease. But the FDA won’t release them.
Me: I assume because they’re not safe.
She: Safe? When the alternative is dying?
That was the early struggle that “Plague” documents. How do you get the drugs? Why were drugs available in Canada but unavailable in the U.S.? Didn’t anyone care?
The U.S. government certainly didn’t. One wonders all over again what would’ve happened if the AIDS crisis had exploded during a more sympathetic time with a more sympathetic administration. “We are in the middle of a fucking plague!” Larry Kramer shouts during an internecine battle between ACT-UP and its offshoot organization, TAG (Treatment Action Group). “And you behave like this!” His words could just as easily have been directed at the Reagan and Bush administrations. At Jesse Helms. At me.
This schmuck behind a curtain
The doc starts in 1987, Year 6 of the crisis, and updates us annually on worldwide AIDS deaths: from 50,000 in 1987 to nearly 10 million in 1996. But they’re just numbers. We’re interested in the people.
There’s Staley getting arrested outside NIH headquarters. There he is giving a big speech in San Francisco to scientists and researchers. He’s putting a human face on the disease.
There’s Rafsky in 1992 confronting then-candidate Bill Clinton during the U.S. presidential campaign. He shouts, “What are you going to do about AIDS? We're dying!” Clinton strikes back. At the next ACT-UP meeting, hands in the air, Rafsky admits a kind of defeat. “Never get into an argument with a Rhodes scholar,” he says. But their exchange made headlines. It brought AIDS back into the headlines. For a day.
Their protests and their speeches bring movement. The scientists agree. A direct action in Bethesda gets the FDA panel to change its mind and approve the drug DHPG. Harrington is nonplussed. Off camera, he says something that reminds me of what Deep Throat said about the White House in “All the President’s Men”: these aren’t very bright guys, and things got out of hand:
It was really an amazing encounter, but it sort of felt like reaching the Wizard of Oz. Like you’ve got to the center of the whole system, and there’s just this schmuck behind a curtain.
It’s no surprise that things diverge. Direct actions only do so much. Too many voices invariably dilute the message. Not enough people of color on the FDA panel? Really? Who do you want on there and how smart are they? Because meanwhile people are dying.
The internecine battle between ACT-UP and TAG, unfortunately, takes place off-camera, and, save for Larry Kramer’s outburst, in sotto voce. It feels almost swept under the rug. Afterwards, we lose track of the TAG fellows and get a bit too much of Bob Rafsky. That’s awful to say. He dies in 1993, ’94. He has an extended monologue at the funeral of another AIDS activist that goes on too long. That’s awful to say, too.
Then TAG asks the FDA not to approve drugs too quickly? Isn’t that the opposite of their original message? There’s a sense of floundering. There’s a sense that every early victory was counterproductive. “1993 to ’95 were the worst years,” says David Barr, ACT-UP’s lawyer. “It was a really terrifying time. Then we got lucky.”
It happened in 1996. Oddly, I don’t remember the news. Maybe I was confused by it. Maybe I thought it was like AZT and simply delayed the inevitable. But the triple drug therapy that scientists came up with saved millions of lives. Including….
Life during wartime
It’s at this point that David France gives us, one after the other, silent at first, the rest of the talking heads: Staley and Harrington and Barr and Jim Eigo and others. They lived. It’s a glorious moment but there’s no real celebration in it. Staley, whose first words in the doc were, “I’m going to die from this,” now has survivor’s guilt. “Like in any war,” he says, “you wonder why you are here.”
Shouldn’t there be more of a celebration? Shouldn’t there be a party, a disco, some foolin’ around? At a Democracy NOW conference about the doc earlier this year, Staley said the following:
Triple drug therapy in 1996 saved my life. And those therapies came about because the government spent a billion dollars on research, starting in 1989, 1990. And that all came about because of pressure from advocacy. So I’m alive because of that activism. And I hope people will see this film. It’s about how when—it’s about people power being able to actually create change and to change things for the better. It’s not just an AIDS story. Anybody who’s involved in the Occupy movement should run to see this film. Anybody that wants to change the world should run to see this film.
That message is slightly undercut in the doc—if it was even David France’s intention. We don’t get enough about the unbroken line from activism to policy change to cure. That line feels broken here. “How to Survive a Plague” is winning year-end awards but it didn’t blow me away. Once again, as with many of the documentaries I’ve seen this year, I thought: great subject, OK film.
Movie Review: Lawless (2012)
Whoever decided to make a movie out of Matt Bondurant’s “The Wettest County in the World: A Novel Based on a True Story,” a story of bootlegging brothers in Franklin County, Virginia circa 1931, probably thought they could turn it into a kind of backwoods “Godfather.”
Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), like Vito Corleone, is the family patriarch who refuses to join the safety of a collective and gets his throat slit halfway through … but lives. Howard Bondurant (Jason Clarke) is the hotheaded, chick-banging brother a la Sonny. And Shia LeBeouf’s character Jack? Both coward and heir apparent. So both Michael and Fredo. If you can imagine Michael and Fredo as one man.
Here’s the big problem with “Lawless.” It focuses on Jack rather than Forrest, and Jack is a pain in the ass. He’s a coward who thinks a tough-guy image can paper that over. He has two older brothers to emulate, boys who save his ass time and again, but he chooses to emulate big-city gangsters like Al Capone and Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). When he finally gets a big score, he flaunts it. He buys expensive cars and expensive suits and gets his photo taken on the running board of his automobile with guns in his hands. He drags his friend, Cricket Pate (Dane DeHaan), who has a limp from childhood rickets, into the business and gets him killed. He drags a lovely girl, Bertha (Mia Wasikowska), a preacher’s daughter, Mennonite, I assume, to his still across town, and nearly gets her killed. He is given the chance time and again to prove his mettle and doesn’t but never owns up to it. He never owns up to his culpability. He never offers us, or the universe, a mea culpa.
The movie opens with young Jack, the youngest of the three, unable to shoot a pig at the family farm, forcing Forrest to do it. Then we get the status quo in Franklin County, Virginia, circa 1931. The Bondurants distribute moonshine in mason jars all over the county. So do others. But everyone respects each other’s territory. Particularly the territory of the Bondurant boys. Howard is an ass-kicking miracle while Forrest is a slow-moving, barely talking monstrosity with brass knuckles. He’s Bane without the iron lung and with a slightly better haircut. Then there’s Jack. Never mind. You know kin.
Forrest has a theory that the Bondurants are indestructible. During the Great War and Prohibition, everyone around them died and they were left standing. He carries this sureness with him wherever he goes.
But into this status quo, shaking things up, comes Virginia Commonwealth Attorney Mason Wardell (Tim Tolin), a powerful fat man in the backseat of a car, who wants a cut of the profits. He’s got with him, from Chicago, Special Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce), a bully dressed like a dandy: perfumed, a shaved part to his slicked-back hair, cufflinks and shiny shoes. Something’s gotta give.
It does. Rakes’ men cause a ruckus at Forrest’s place, a gas station/diner in the middle of nowhere, and get the brass knuckle treatment; but they remain behind and in the middle of the night slit Forrest’s throat. Oddly, at this point of vulnerability for the Bonderants, no one descends. Instead, Jack, on his own, sells moonshine at a greater profit to Floyd Banner, and he and Cricket Pate almost die for their trouble, standing in an unmarked grave. But when Banner finds out that Jack is a Bondurant, kin to that hothead Howard and his mule brother who walked 20 miles to a hospital with his throat sliced, he agrees to cut a deal. He even gives them the address of where Rakes’ men are staying. After Forrest and Howard descend, there’s not much left of the two, and they send Jack to deliver a package: the testicles of one of the men in a mason jar.
So at this point do we get all-out war? No. We get a montage of the Bondurants raking it in and whooping it up from their deal with Floyd Banner, along with a little unnecessary narration from Jack. I’m thinking: Really? Montage? It cuts the tension, for one. Besides, do both sides think the other is done? Do the Bondurants think Charley Rakes will go on home now? They’ve up the ante. Surely he about to up it back. Or at least call.
He does, just as Jack is showing off to Bertha. But thanks to Howard, Charley Rakes loses the upper hand, and Jack has the opportunity to kill him. He doesn’t. Did he just run out of time? Is it the pig all over again? Does he just not have it in him? Instead Rakes’ men find Bertha and Cricket Pate, return the former to her father, but allow Charley to walk off with the latter and kill him. No one in the county cottons to that, nor to Charley Rakes, who looks down on them all. And in the end, on a covered bridge, with his brother Howard backing him, and Forrest on the road with three or four bullets in him, Jack Bondurant is finally able to kill the pig.
Not with a bang but a whimper
“Lawless” was written by Nick Cave (yes, that one) and directed by John Hillcoat, the team who gave us the great Aussie western “The Proposition” in 2005. It’s beautifully art directed. It includes some of my favorite actors of recent years: the cooler-than-cool Tom Hardy, the stunning Jessica Chastain, the always lovely Mia Wasikowska. Dan DeHaan (“Chronicle”), a sickly-looking Leo DiCaprio, is an up-and-comer, either a future star or a perennial character actor. I’m always interested in what he’s doing on screen.
All for naught. I’m buying less and less the kind of cool Tom Hardy brings to the screen, but I’ll still buy it in the service of a good story. This isn’t that. There are too many characters for the time allotted. Chastain is wasted, as is Oldman.
Most of all: Fredo ain’t your lead. Actually Jack isn’t even Fredo. Fredo was self-aware and that made him interesting. Jack isn’t and isn’t. He’s as frenetic and shallow as Sam Witwicky. He’s a hollow man who thinks he’s full. I actually cringed as he courted Bertha. I cringed as he made his plans for wealth and fame. I cringed at the echo of “Goodfellas” in the end. Franklin County, Virginia deserves better.
Movie Review: Life of Pi (2012)
Promises are made at the beginning of Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi”—or at least one big promise. An unnamed writer (Rafe Spall), who is about the become the listener of the story we are all there to see—about a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean—has heard that this story will make him believe in God. Since he is by extension us, one assumes the story will make us believe in God, too.
Good! I thought. Sitting in the theater, a fundamentalist agnostic in the middle of a long, tired week, I was ready to believe in something.
So did it work? Did I come out of the theater believing in God?
Of course not. In fact, the fantastic story we hear, which may or may not be an illusion, but is certainly an allusion, almost discounts this belief.
Pi keeps going
But before we get to that story we hear other stories about a young Pi Patel (Gautam Belur, Ayush Tandon) growing up in India. We get his early flirtations with religion: growing up Hindu; being perplexed and then attracted to the self-sacrifice inherent in the story of Jesus (“Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ”); feeling calm when praying to Mohammed. The boy collects religions the way I used to collect baseball cards.
But the best story is the story of his name.
The Writer assumes Pi’s father was a mathematician, but the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan), in the middle of making him lunch, says the story is a bit more complicated. As good stories often are.
Pi had an uncle, Mamaji (Elie Alouf), who was born with water in his head, and the doctor whipped him around and around to get rid of it. From this, he developed the thin legs and broad chest of a swimmer, and a subsequent fixation on swimming pools. Whenever he traveled he had to check out the swimming pools in the area. His favorite was in Paris: Piscine Molitor. And when Santosh (Adil Hussain) and Gita Patel (Tabu) had a second child, a boy, that’s what they named him: Piscine Molitor Patel.
Pi loved his beautiful French name until one day in middle school when it morphed, at the hands of schoolboy wits and bullies, into the vulgar English verb pissing. He suffered for a year under that nickname. Then he came up with a plan. At the start of the new session, when the teacher called out the roll before each class, young Piscine would walk to the front of the classroom and tell everyone the new foreshortening of his name: Pi, as in 3.14, etc. But the schoolboy wits and bullies weren’t having it, and insisted he would still be Pissing. Pi anticipated that reaction. So in his last class, the math class, he not only gave a rudimentary definition of pi; he not only wrote “3.14” on the board, but he kept going. He wrote out, from memory, dozens of numbers, hundreds of numbers, in the equation pi. And it caused such a sensation that he accomplished his goal: he became Pi.
Now that’s a story.
Pi’s family runs a zoo in the former French quarter of Pondicherry, India, and young Pi, now 11, is fascinated with a Bengal tiger there, who was originally named Thirsty by Richard Parker, a hunter, but due to a clerical error the names were reversed: Thirsty, the hunter, brought in Richard Parker, the tiger. At one point Pi tries to feed Richard Parker meat from his hand. “You think the tiger is your friend?” his father yells at him. “He is an animal, not a playmate.” Pi insists animals have souls; he’s seen it in their eyes. So the father gives Pi something else to see with his eyes. He ties a goat to the bars of Richard Parker’s cage and forces his son to watch what happens.
In college, Pi (now Suraj Sharma) reads literature, feels restless, falls in love. Then his family is forced to move. They have to sell the animals and for some reason ride with them on a Japanese steamer to their new home in Canada.
This gets us to the story we’re expecting to see: about a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean.
The tiger under the tarp
But not immediately.
The big storm that sinks the boat and almost everyone and everything in it, washes up, onto Pi’s lifeboat, which is half-covered with a tarp, not a tiger but an injured zebra, a seasick orangutan named Orange Juice, and a hyena who keeps trying to finish off the zebra. Pi tries to maintain control of the situation but he’s a boy without a weapon. It’s Orange Juice who finally does it, by bonking the hyena on the head. For a second we’re relieved. We laugh. Then the hyena attacks Orange Juice. Pi screams. And from under the tarp, Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger, finally emerges and swiftly kills the hyena.
And just like that it’s the two of them: Richard Parker, patrolling the lifeboat, and Pi hanging onto a makeshift float of oars and lifejackets tied to the lifeboat. In this manner they drift and get hungry. At one point, the tiger, hungry, jumps into the ocean to get at the fish but then swims toward Pi, who, panicking, pulls himself up on the lifeboat. He’s about to kill the tiger, clinging to the side, but can’t, for he sees the soul in his eyes. Instead he creates a kind of ladder that the tiger ascends to safety.
The story becomes increasingly hallucinatory. The ocean turns luminescent just as a giant whale leaps into the air and thunders back again. They are suddenly inundated, pelted, with flying fish, who fill the boat with themselves. Half-starved, they bump into a floating island, teeming with meerkats and vegetation, which, Pi determines, is a living thing, and carnivorous, and would eventually eat them. So off they go again. Finally, after 227 days, they land on the shores of Mexico. Pi drags the boat onto the beach and collapses. Richard Parker leaps onto the beach and heads for the jungle, which is conveniently nearby. He pauses right before he enters it again. Pi, barely able to lift up his head, is hoping for a final look of farewell from this companion, this tiger whom he tamed and loved, but it doesn’t come. Instead Richard Parker simply vanishes into the woods.
That’s basically the story. Except no one believes it. Hyenas and tigers and zebras, oh my? A floating carnivorous island? A boy and a Bengal tiger? Is this Calvin and Hobbes?
No. But it may be “Fight Club.”
The tiger inside Pi
In Mexico, the Japanese steamer company sends two representatives to find out how their boat, with all its precious cargo, sunk. Other than “Storm,” Pi can’t really tell them why. He can only tell them the other things, about Richard Parker and the carnivorous island, which are not only fantastic but completely irrelevant to what they want to know. So he tells them another story. In this one, the animals are played by humans. The orangutan is Pi’s mother, the zebra is a sailor with a broken leg, and the hyena is the asshole cook we met on board (Gérard Depardieu). It’s a lie for those too grounded to believe the fantastic.
But then the Writer makes the connection between Pi and the tiger—that Pi was the tiger—and, as the Writer realizes it, so do we: This is the true story. Pi is the tiger who kills the hyena (the cook) who kills the orangutan (Pi’s mother). Transposing the story with animals is Pi’s way of dealing with the tragedy. In this manner, the tiger is both Pi’s Hobbes (his companion) and his Tyler Durden (himself). It’s also why it took so long for the tiger to show up on the lifeboat. He wasn’t emerging from under the tarp; he was emerging from within Pi.
Neither version, by itself, is satisfying. Each has holes. If it’s the version with the tiger, how does Richard Parker, a tiger, hide under a tarp, and why would a hyena hide there with him? And if it’s the version without the tiger, then it’s a version without the tiger. That’s no fun. Instead of a story about a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, it’s a story about a boy on a lifeboat who slowly goes crazy with grief and isolation. But the two versions, each unsatisfying, each full of holes, complement each other.
As for the early promise about believing in God? At the end of this long tale, the mature Pi asks the Writer which story he prefers and he admits the one with the tiger. To which Pi responds: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”
The Writer smiles at this but in the audience I was simply confused. Wait a minute, what did he say? Goes with God? What does that mean? And prefer? Preference isn’t belief. How does this make us believe in God? Is Pi, a man who collects religions the way I collected baseball cards, saying that humans prefer the story of God the way that we prefer the story of the tiger? Because it’s a nicer story? And because it keeps the other story, the story about the horror humans do, at bay?
This isn’t a story that makes us believe in God, in other words. This is a story about why we believe in God. Or why our belief in God is generally a lie.
The tiger or Gérard Depardieu?
A friend of mine refuses to see this movie. He saw the trailer and thought it looked like pap. A boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean? Puh-lease. My friend didn’t know he was already in the movie. He was a representative of the Japanese steamer company, there to file a report. And, in that report, even they, the reps, prefer the story about the tiger. Who doesn’t? It’s got a tiger in it.
“Life of Pi” is interesting in this way. It appears to be a tough-but-gentle wish-fulfillment fantasy about a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. But the further I move away from it, the darker, and less gentle, it seems; and the more I see, not the tiger growling majestically, but Gérard Depardieu, the hyena, lording it over the injured people in the small lifeboat. Until he’s brought low.
Movie Review: Dark Shadows (2012)
“This thing is spectacularly off,” I said.
“I keep waiting for it to find a rhythm,” Ward responded, “and it never does.”
We were halfway into Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows,” surely one of the worst movies of the year. The cast was good, the trailer looked funny, the reviews were OK. In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis called it enjoyable; on Salon, Andrew O’Hehir trumpeted Michelle Pfeiffer’s return to the screen (after only a year away?), while on Slate, Dana Stevens wrote, “[Burton] and Depp, both avowed childhood fans of the original series, seem to be in their element and having a grand old time.” Turns out these positive reviews were in the minority. Among top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, “Dark Shadows” garnered a 37% rating, which, to me, is still 37 percentage points too high. It’s an abysmal movie.
It opens with 10 minutes of backstory. In the 18th century, the Collins family, including young Barnabus, leave Liverpool, England, for the wilds of Maine, where they start a fishing empire, create the town of Collinsport, and build the stately, gothic mansion known as Collinwood.
Barnabus, of age now, and played by Johnny Depp, is about to diddle the servant, Angelique (Eva Green), who asks if he loves her. He cannot tell a lie: he doesn’t. Hell hath no fury like a woman—or, in this case, witch—scorned, and she uses her powers to kill his parents by falling steeple. Distraught, he descends into the black arts, but manages, through the pain, to find his one true love: Josette (Bella Heathcote, this decade’s Heather Graham). Ever jealous, Angelique compels Josette to throw herself off Widow’s Hill, turns Barnabus into a vampire, then turns the town against him. A torch-wielding mob descends, chain him in a coffin, and bury him alive for 200 years. Cue credits.
It’s now 1972. A young woman on a train, who looks like Josette (same actress), is obviously hiding something (she changes her name, per a Victoria, B.C. travel poster, to Victoria Winters), and heading for a job as a governess at Collinwood, now decrepit. There, she and we meet the modern, dysfunctional Collins family: matriarch Elizabeth (Pfeiffer), who is starched and overly proper; her eye-rolling teenage daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Mortez); Elizabeth’s brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), a weak, shallow man who ignores the needs of his son, David (Gulliver McGrath), whose mother died at sea three years earlier. David claims he still sees his mother; he claims he still has conversations with her. That’s why Collinwood has an in-house shrink, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter, of course), who arrives at evening meals frequently plastered. There’s also a disgruntled butler/handyman, Willie (Jackie Earle Haley), who is frequently plastered, and whose every joke falls flat.
Only after meeting all of them, as well as the ghost of Josette who plagues Victoria, do we get the resurrection of Barnabus by a night-time construction crew, each of whom screams, runs and crawls from this nightmare. Barnabus then goes to Collinwood and we meet the family all over again: Elizabeth, Carolyn, Roger, et al. Elizabeth wants to keep Barnabus’ secret—that he’s a 200-year-old vampire—from everyone, including the family, so she introduces him as Barnabus III. From England. All of these jokes fall flat. Then Barnabus meets the new governess, Victoria, who looks exactly like his long-lost true love, Josette, and discovers that his nemesis, Angelique, has survived all of these years and is now running the town.
What does he do? Get revenge on Angelique? Court Victoria, who looks like his one true love?
Neither. He sets about restoring the family name and reputation. We get a montage—backed by the Carpenters’ “Top of the World”—of workers sprucing up Collinwood and the Collins Canning Factory opening its doors again. When Barnabus finally meets Angelique, she makes a pass at him; the second time they have rough sex. He also sucks the blood out of a band of hippies in the woods. Then he kills Dr. Hoffman, who, under the pretense of curing him of vampirism, and wanting eternal youth, tries to turn herself into a vampire. Before this, she goes down on him. Later, Barnabus throws a ball headlined by Alice Cooper. “Balls are how the ruling class remain the ruling class,” he says.
His revenge? Forgotten. His one true love? Whatever. What should be driving the story forward isn’t, and what is driving the story forward isn’t funny.
Occasionally we get bits where Barnabus grapples, to humorous effect, with 1972 mores. He sees the golden-arched “M” of McDonald’s as a sign of Mephistopheles. He wonders over the sorcery of television and yells at Karen Carpenter, singing on a variety show of the day, “Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!” In Dr. Hoffman’s office, he shakes his head and says, “This is a very silly play.” Cut to: an episode of “Scooby Doo.”
But most of the movie is scattered, pointless, painfully tin-eared.
All of it leads to a final confrontation between the Collins family and Angelique, where we find out, in a pointless third act reveal, that long ago Angelique turned Carolyn into a werewolf. We also find out that it was Angelique who killed David’s mother at sea. At this point David’s mother finally reveals herself, in all her howling fury, and destroys Angelique.
Why didn’t David’s mother do this sooner? Why didn’t Barnabus? Why do the Collinses consider Barnabus worthy of the portrait over the fireplace when it was Barnabus’ father who built up everything? And since when do witches turn men into vampires?
The fault isn’t Depp’s: his line readings; his reaction shots, are generally good. But nothing anyone else does is worth a damn. Tim Burton lets his freak flag fly. He paints Johnny Depp chalky white again, as in “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Willie Wonka,” and “Sweeney Todd.” He has the living and the dead raise a family again, as in “Beetlejuice.” But there’s no juice here. Burton’s always been a lousy storyteller, sacrificing plot and plausibility for imagery, but even the imagery here feels stale. Burton’s love of the dead finally feels dead.
My favorite moment? The end. And not because it’s the end but because of the Hollywood hubris it represents. As Barnabus and Victoria, both vampires now, kiss on the rocks beneath Widow’s Hill, the camera dives underwater and heads out to sea, where we come across the body of Dr. Hoffman in cement shoes. And her eyes suddenly open. Ping! The end. It’s a set-up for a sequel that will never be made. It’s an ending that assumed a success that never came.
Movie Review: Lincoln (2012)
You know the saying that laws are like sausages—you don’t want to see them being made? Tony Kushner says, “Grow up.” Steven Spielberg says, “We’ll loin ya.” Their movie, “Lincoln,” is not only the greatest story ever told about the passage of a law—in this case the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which formally, legally abolished slavery—it’s a joy for anyone who cares about great acting, writing, and drama. It’s what movies should be.
In 1915, Pres. Woodrow Wilson called “The Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s Confederate-friendly epic, “history written with lightning,” but I wouldn’t call this movie that. It’s history written as carefully as history should be. It’s well-researched and made dramatic and relevant. Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), the most saintly of all presidents, isn’t presented here as a saint but as a smart, moral, political man, who, under extraordinary pressure from all sides, does what he has to do in order to do the right thing. His machinations aren’t clean. It takes a little bit of bad to do good. Progress is never easy. There are always slippery-slope arguments against it. Sure, free the slaves. Then what? Give Negroes the vote? Allow them into the House of Representatives? Give women the vote? Allow intermarriage? The preposterousness of where the road might take us prevents us from taking the first step. Then and now.
Nobody does it better
I once said of Jeffrey Wright’s Martin Luther King, Jr., that no one would ever do it better; I now say the same of Day-Lewis’ Lincoln. He only has to talk about his dreams to his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), with his stockinged feet up on the furniture, a kind of languid ease in his long-limbed body, and I’m his. He only has to quote Shakespeare one moment (“I could count myself a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams”), and, in the next, ask Mary, in a colloquialism of the day, “How’s your coconut?” and I’m his. I remember when I was young, 10 or so, and we were visiting my father’s sister, Alice, and her husband, Ben, and when we had to leave I began to cry. Because I didn’t want to leave Uncle Ben. I liked being near him. He had a calm and gentle spirit that I and my immediate family did not. It felt comfortable to be around. I got that same feeling from Daniel Day-Lewis here. How does he do that? How do you act a calm and gentle spirit?
His Lincoln exudes charm. During a flag-raising ceremony, he pulls a piece of paper from his top hat, says a few quick words, then looks up with a twinkle in his eye. “That’s my speech,” he says, and returns the paper to his top hat. He gives his cabinet, reluctant to spend political capital on another go at the 13th amendment, which the House failed to ratify 10 months earlier, a primer on the legal difficulties of the Emancipation Proclamation. If slaves are property, then… If the Confederacy is not a sovereign nation but wayward states, then… Finally he apologizes for his long-windedness: “As the preacher said, I would write shorter sermons but once I get going I’m too lazy to stop.” He says it with a twinkle in his eye. His stories are there for purposes of instruction and/or distraction. Maybe he does it to distract himself. In the war room late at night, waiting on word about the shelling of Wilmington, Va., a blanket around his shoulders and a cup of coffee in his hand, he launches into an anecdote about Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen, and Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill), loudly objects. “You're going to tell one of your stories! I can't stand to hear another one of your stories!” He leaves. Too bad. He missed a great story. Added bonus: You get to hear Day-Lewis, an Englishman, acting as Lincoln, an American, imitating an Englishman.
If this Lincoln is human-sized so is the presidency itself. Petitioners line up outside Lincoln’s office to ask for favors. His cabinet is full of men who think they should be president and aren’t reluctant to share their opinions. His wife has her complaints (their son, Willie, dead now three years), his son Robert has his (he wants to leave law school for the war), Negro soldiers have theirs (they’re getting paid $3 less per month than white soldiers). Both political extremes mock him. Abolitionists consider him cautious and timid, a lingerer and a buffoon, while the Northern Democrats malign him as a tyrant enthralled to the Negro. They thunder about him in Congress. “King Abraham Africanus!” they cry. A president considered too conciliatory by friends and an African tyrant by foes? Plus ca change.
Peace v. Freedom
Ultimately “Lincoln” is about the choice between peace (for all) and freedom (for a few). “It’s either this amendment or the Confederate peace,” Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), tells the president. “You cannot have both.”
Almost everyone pushes Lincoln toward peace even as he moves, in his methodical, searching manner, toward freedom. He gave himself the power during war to proclaim all slaves free, but what happens in peace? Won’t slavery still be legal in the South? Couldn’t the Civil War just happen all over again over the same issue?
The 13th amendment has already passed in the Senate and it’s just 20 votes shy in the House. So early in January 1865, even as he sends moderate Republican Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) to Virginia to set up a potential peace conference with secessionist delegates, Lincoln hires, or has Seward hire, three scallywags (read: lobbyists), gloriously headed up by James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, to more or less buy the votes of lame-duck Democrats, losers of the 1864 election, who have nothing to lose and gainful employment to gain.
That’s the true drama of the movie. Can Lincoln, in the midst of pulling back the South to the Union, hold together enough of the disparate elements that remain to abolish slavery at the federal level before the South returns and gums up the works again? We get a few key moments, several dramatic scenes. The Northern Democrats attempt to goad thundering abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, into proclaiming on the House floor that he believes in the equality of races (anathema at the time) and not just equality before the law.
You know all of those “100 Greatest Movie Insults” compilations on YouTube? They need an update. This is Stevens’ rejoinder:
How can I hold that all men are created equal when here before me stands, stinking, the moral carcass of the gentlemen from Ohio, proof that some men are inferior, endowed by their maker with dim wit impermeable to reason, with cold, pallid slime in their veins instead of hot, red blood. You are more reptile than man, George! So low and flat that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you.
What fun. The language here is beautiful. I also like it when Lincoln calls his cabinet “pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters.” We need to bring that back: “pettifogging.” We need to bring back erudite insults.
But the key scene in the movie contains no thunder, and the key man who needs convincing isn’t a Democrat; it’s Lincoln himself.
As with the Ethan Allen story, it takes place in the middle of the night in the basement of the White House. Lincoln is about to send a message in Morse code about the “secesh” delegates, and ruminates out loud with several officers. Up to this point he’s been pursuing two paths, one leading to peace but not passage, the other pointing to passage but not peace, and this is the point where the paths diverge and he has to choose which to walk on. He begins down the path of peace: bring the delegates to Washington. But before the message is sent, he engages the two men in conversation.
One of them, it turns out, is an engineer. Lincoln asks him if he knows Euclid’s axioms and common notions, and then regales them with the first: Things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other. “That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning,” he says. “It’s true because it works. Has done and always will be.” He seems to be talking out loud. But there’s a moment, an epiphanic “huh,” when Lincoln realizes the point he’s talking toward:
In his book, [huh] Euclid says this is self-evident. You see, there it is, even in that 2,000-year-old book of mechanical law: It is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other.
The beauty of the scene? Kushner and Spielberg draw no line to the Declaration of Independence. They assume we’re already drawing that line ourselves. They assume it’s self-evident. They just give us Daniel Day-Lewis saying “Huh.”
At which point he rescinds the order sending the peace delegates to Washington, and thereby changes history.
To the ages
“Lincoln” isn’t all glory. The screenplay by Tony Kushner attempts to demythologize history, the presidency and Lincoln, but Spielberg, fore and aft, can’t contain his myth-making tendencies.
In the beginning, sitting on a raised platform, Pres. Lincoln engages four soldiers, two black and two white, and seems halfway to Memorial already. Three of the four soldiers have the Gettysburg Address memorized already, as if they were 20th-century schoolkids (Dan Roach and myself in fifth grade) rather 19th-century soldiers. We hear tinkling music as if in a Ken Burns documentary. It’s all rather unnecessary. We could’ve begun with Lincoln’s bad dream and stockinged feet and gotten on with it.
Then there’s the ending. Spielberg has always had a problem with endings. From behind, with music swelling, we watch Lincoln leave the White House, on April 14, 1865, late for Ford’s Theater. “Not a bad end,” I thought. But it’s not the end. We go to the theater, but it’s a different theater, one his son Tad is attending, which suddenly closes its curtains to announce the awful and inevitable. Then there’s a deathbed scene: Mary wailing, the doctor declaring, blood on the pillow, someone saying, as someone maybe said or maybe didn’t, “Now he belongs to the ages.” The end? No. Spielberg has to include the second inaugural: “With malice toward none, with charity to all…” Meanwhile I sat in my seat, feeling not very charitable.
But those are my only complaints about “Lincoln.”
Movie Review: Hitchcock (2012)
It’s been quite a year for Alfred Hitchcock, hasn’t it? His film, “Vertigo,” a box-office bomb when it was released in 1958, was voted the greatest film of all time by the 846 critics, distributors and academics commissioned by Sight & Sound magazine, supplanting “Citizen Kane,” which had ruled atop that prestigious list for decades. Then HBO premiered its movie, “The Girl,” about Hitchcock’s obsession with Tippy Hedren, his star of “The Birds” and “Marnie.”
If “The Girl” focuses on the girl and was a drag, “Hitchcock” focuses on Hitchcock and is fun. It begins and ends fun anyway. Near the end, Mrs. Hitchcock, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), tells her husband (Anthony Hopkins) that they’ve been “maudlin” with each other for too long. Indeed. That’s the problem with “Hitchcock.” It, like Hitchcock himself, has a maudlin middle.
Why are the Mr. and Mrs. maudlin? Because after 30 years Alma is suddenly upset by her husband’s obsessions with his leading ladies, the so-called Hitchcock blondes, including Madeleine Carroll, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, and now, here, Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson). To get back at him, she succumbs to the attentions of hack-writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who adapted “Strangers on a Train” for Hitchcock (apparently poorly), and who is now working on a project called “Taxi to Dubrovnik,” which, in real life, was published as a novel in 1981. At a beach cottage, she agrees to collaborate on it with him. She likes the way he flirts with her. She likes the attention he pays to her. Attention must be paid. But her absence distracts the great man from his work, the film “Psycho,” for which they, the Hitchcocks, are mortgaging their house. It also distracts him from his obsessions, such as peeking through the blinds of his Paramount office at the would-be Hitchcock blondes walking by. Instead, Hitch becomes obsessed with Alma.
Even before Alma began disappearing up the coast, though, Hitch hardly seems obsessed with his leading lady. He doesn’t stare at her 8x10 glossy the way he does with Grace Kelly’s. He doesn’t spy on her in the dressing room through a peephole, as he does with Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), prefiguring, of course, Norman Bates’ own voyeurism in “Psycho.” He isn’t upset with her, disappointed in her, the way he was with Miles, whom he was going to make a star in “Vertigo,” until she betrayed on him, cheated on him you might say, by getting pregnant. He doesn’t maul her in the backseat of a limo as he does with Tippi Hedren in HBO’s “The Girl.” You know what he does? He shares candy corn with her in the front seat of her Volkswagen. Cute. So what’s Mrs. Hitchcock’s problem? That’s the real disconnect of the movie. It doesn’t answer one of the main questions of drama: Why now? If anything, everything points to it not being now. Everything they own is riding on “Psycho.” Shouldn’t Alma be riding with it? Instead of succumbing to the fatuous flirtations of Danny Huston?
The wrong man
Worse, Alma’s sad beachfront needs distract us from what may be a better movie. Because while Hitchcock is acting the perfect gentleman with Ms. Leigh, or the cuckolded husband with Alma, he is having imaginary conversations with none other than Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the Wisconsin mass murderer on whom Norman Bates is based. That’s pretty creepy. Ed Gein is to Hitchcock here as Humphrey Bogart is to Woody Allen in “Play It Again, Sam.” He gives him advice. He taunts him to action. Ed Gein. Yet Hitch remains toothless despite it. He remains a charming but naughty waddler of a man. It seems you should go one way or the other: deeper into the similarities and differences between Gein and Norman and Hitchcock (and us, by the way; they keep leaving out us, the movie audience, the true voyeurs, as Hitchcock never did); or maybe you replace Gein-as-counselor with Norman Bates, who, being fictional, would be lighter, and fit better into the overall tone of the movie.
Instead, it’s a movie of distraction. It’s a movie that keeps skimming surfaces.
In a way, it’s about how the French were wrong after all. Hitchcock wasn’t an auteur the way they said. He needed Alma, and he needed Bernard Hermann’s score (Wirt! Wirt! Wirt!), and he needed all the other talent around him, not least Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. But mostly he needed Alma. He owns up to this at the premiere of “Psycho.” Alma, who is used to staying a few paces behind the great man, is here called forward to share in the acclaim, and they have the following conversation that sums it all up rather neatly:
Alfred: I’ll never find a Hitchcock blonde as beautiful as you.
Alma: I’ve waited 30 years for you to say that.
Alfred: And that, my dear, is why they call me ‘The master of suspense.’
It’s a charming bit that I didn’t believe at all.
The movie begins and ends similarly, with Ed Gein murdering his brother with a shovel in 1941, and the camera panning over to, yep, Alfred Hitchcock, who, in “Alfred Hitchcock Presents…” fashion, speaks to us directly about Cain and Abel, and brotherly murders, and the connection between Gein and “Psycho,” and what we’re about to watch. It’s the macabre served with a wink. The movie ends happily, with Hitchcock in front of his southern California home, which, with the success of “Psycho,” he gets to keep, and wondering over his next project. He’s looking for inspiration. “I do hope something comes along,” he says. At which point a crow settles on his shoulder. “Good evening,” he says to us.
Now that’s fun. Hopkins is fun. He’s less one-note than two-note, but both are fun notes.
Mirren is good, too, but most of her notes—her various carping, her hope for an affair with Danny Huston—are not fun, and at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie.
It’s a shame because I liked almost everything else in “Hitchcock”: the battles with Paramount head Barney Ballaban (Richard Portnow); the battles with censor Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith); Hitchcock’s conversations with legendary agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), who deserves a movie of his own. I liked all of this backset intrigue. I left the theater with a smile.
But the movie is a little like Alfred Hitchcock, the man, divided into thirds. We got a bit of the head (the dry wit), and a bit of the lower depths (the peeping voyeurism; the Scottie Ferguson dress-up games), but too much of that overweight, maudlin middle.
Movie Review: Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
WARNING: SEV-2 SPOILERS
“Wreck-It Ralph” is about what happens to video-game characters after you leave the arcade. It’s “Toy Story” for the digital age.
Not as good, of course. It’s got some wit and laugh-out loud moments. If you’re a parent and your kid wants to go, I’m sure you’ll appreciate it. If you’re a gamer or computer geek, I’m sure you’ll appreciate it on a deeper level than I did. But I’m neither parent nor gamer so I thought it was merely … OK.
Our protagonist and title character is Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), the low-brow, fist-heavy bad guy of the 30-year-old arcade game “Fix-It Felix Jr.” In pixilated low-def, Ralph wrecks a building and Felix (steered by the user, and voiced by Jack McBrayer of “30 Rock”) fixes it; then the residents of the building give Felix a medal, pick up Ralph, and throw him off the roof and into the mud below.
Problem? Ralph is tired of being the bad guy. Even at the end of the day, when the kids go home and the characters are free to do what they want, Felix is feted by the building’s residents while Ralph drags himself to the nearby dump and sleeps on a pile of rocks. He airs his complaints at Bad-Anon, a support group for video-game villains (including one of the ghosts from Pac-Man), who end each meeting with this affirmation:
I’m bad and that’s good.
I will never be good and that’s not bad.
There’s no one I’d rather be than me.
But he’s still lonely. When the building’s residents hold a 30th anniversary party, he crashes it, gets into an argument with Gene (Raymond S. Persi), the mustached fussbudget, and splatters the celebratory cake everywhere with his massive fists. Then he declares he’ll win a medal like Felix and show everyone.
A few rules of this universe. If a character dies outside their video game they die for good. No regeneration. And if they don’t make it back to their video game in time, they risk the dreaded “Out of Order” sign, which is a step away from being unplugged; then they’ll be forced to fend for themselves in a kind of video-game port authority, with surge protectors policing the area and unplugged characters, such as Q*bert, begging for handouts. Finally, if you try to insert yourself into someone else’s video game, that’s called “going Turbo,” after the character Turbo, who headed up the most popular racing game of the early ’80s. Then another game became more popular so he tried to take it over, which led to both games being unplugged. Lesson there.
Which Ralph, being Ralph, ignores. He learns a medal awaits the winner of “Hero’s Duty,” a high-def, first-person shooter game, and he immediately steals the dark-metal spacesuit of one of its soldiers, then mucks up the game. Worse, he rides, or is ridden by, a spaceship with a Cy-Bug attached, and they wind up in Sugar Rush, a brightly colored, girly, racing game, where the Cy-Bug begins to lay eggs and Ralph quickly loses the medal to a sassy sprite named Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). She sees it as a coin with which she can enter a race, which she’s never done since she’s a glitch: fading in and out of view. But she feels racing is in her code.
For a time they team up. Ralph helps Vanellope train so she can win the race and get his medal back. But then the ruler of Sugar Rush, King Candy (Alan Tudyk doing Ed Wynn), warns him that if Vanellope wins or places, she’ll become a user choice; and when she glitches they’ll complain; and the game will be unplugged and everyone will be forced to leave. Except Vanellope, who, as a glitch, can’t leave the game. She’ll die with it.
Burdened with this news, Ralph, stricken, does what he does best: his big fists wreck Vanellope’s car. It’s his first heroic act of the movie but he’s never felt more like a bad guy.
Worse, when he returns to his own game, an “Out of Order” sign is taped to the window. His absence was noted by gamers, the sign affixed, and Felix Jr., a kind of gee-whiz good guy, went in search of him. Now everyone’s gone. Everyone but Gene, who fussily commends Ralph on his medal before leaving for good.
This is about when the movie got interesting for me. Up to this point, Ralph has been an unsympathetic character in pursuit of a pathetic goal. But when he heaves his medal against the “Out of Order” sign on the opposite side of the glass, it tilts, and beyond it he sees Vanellope’s face on the “Sugar Rush” game. And a light goes on. If Vanellope was a glitch, why would she be pictured on the game? Now Ralph’s got a better motivation than getting a medal. He needs to find out what King Candy is up to and save Vanellope in the process.
Ready for the big spoilers? King Candy is really Turbo, Vanellope is really a princess, and during the big race the Cy-Bugs hatch and attack. Sugar Rush is defended by Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the hard-ass fem-babe of “Hero’s Duty,” and, most of all, by Ralph, who, through the magic of coca-cola and Mentos, eliminates the Cy-Bugs and Turbo. Order is restored. Felix and Calhoun kiss. Everyone lives happily ever after.
But it’s not clever enough. It’s got clever bits but Pixar movies are steeped in it. This feels like a corporation, the Disney corporation, using its corporate mentality to try to ape the individualistic, artistic sensibility of a company like Pixar. A lot of what they come up with is derivative, a lot is broad, too many opportunities are missed.
The voicework, particularly by Silver, Brayer, Lynch and Tudyk, is fantastic. But our main character? Ralph? And John C. Reilly’s voice that went with him? Annoyed me throughout. I never liked him. I never even felt sorry for him. And I’ve felt sorry for some pretty despicable characters in the movies.
In another lifetime I worked in the video-game industry. I was a software test engineer in the early days of Xbox, working on Xbox-specific sports games like “NFL Fever” and “NBA Inside Drive.” I was the non-gamer in the group, there by accident, a kind of glitch myself, and my job was to find bugs and label them according to severity or “sev.” Sev 1 bugs crash the game, sev 2 bugs halt it in some fashion, sev 3s are annoying, sev 4s are merely suggestions that tend to get ignored by the developer.
I’d label Ralph somewhere between a sev 2 and sev 3 bug. He’s annoying and he halts the movie for me. He’s bad and that’s not good.
I know. By Design.
Movie Review: Flight (2012)
“Flight” has an obvious double meaning: both Southjet flight #227, with 102 passengers on board, which Capt. Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) lands in a Georgia field after a mechanical failure, saving all but six people; and Whitaker’s subsequent flight from the knowledge, the lifelong knowledge, that he’s a drunk and an alcoholic, and that he landed the plane under the influence, and now people know.
The trailer really plays up the hero angle, doesn’t it? I went back and looked at it again. It implies that “Flight” is a movie about a heroic pilot who saves 100 lives in a derring-do, upside-down, crash landing—thrillingly filmed by director Robert Zemeckis and DP Don Burgess—and then runs into some bullshit. But the movie’s about the bullshit. And it’s not bullshit.
The movie opens at 7:14 AM—an homage to Babe Ruth or “Dragnet”?—as Whitaker is awakened by his iPhone. His bed partner, flight attendant Nadine (Katerina Marquez ), is awakened, too; and while he staggers his way through a conversation with his ex-wife, she walks back and forth, stunning us with her nakedness. At one point she bends over. “I’ve been up since … the crack of dawn,” Whit says to his ex-wife. It’s his first lie in the movie. At least it’s a witty one. Is there a reason for this nakedness other than the “wow” factor? Is it designed to make us feel guilty? Distracted? We thought we were seeing a Denzel Washington character study and suddenly we’re waylaid by this naked beauty.
At which point Whip hangs up, finishes his beer, snorts some cocaine and gets ready to fly an airplane in bad weather. Yeah, “Flight” won’t be your in-flight movie anytime soon.
So we know his problem from the get-go. Would the movie have been better if, like the trailer, it had engaged in a little subterfuge? If it had begun with Capt. Whitman entering the cockpit, the conversation there, the cup of coffee? We think we’re watching the story of a hero and object when the railroading begins. Until we realize it isn’t railroading.
The straightforward approach has the advantage of being straightforward. It has the disadvantage of not surprising us much.
The soundtrack doesn’t help. Whip’s drunk/coked-up walk to the airplane is accompanied by Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright (Not feeling too good myself).” His first visitor in the hospital is Harling Mays (John Goodman), friend and drug dealer, whose entrance is accompanied by the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” As foreplay at Whip’s farm? Marvin Gaye.
Sympathy for the Devil
Harling is an interesting character. He’s essentially a bad person, the man who keeps Whip on the wrong path, but we like him because he’s John Goodman. He bosses around the nurse, calls her “Nurse Ratched,” and, when she’s gone, leaves Whip some smokes and “stroke mags.” He would’ve left vodka, too, but Whip tells him to take it with him. He’s in shock at this point. He’s trying to change. Six people died on his watch, including Nadine. And now the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) knows about his problem. They took blood from the flight crew, including those, like Nadine, who didn’t survive, and they know about the booze and coke. What we don’t know, what we don’t find out until a late-morning meeting between the pilots’ union rep (Bruce Greenwood), Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), a quiet-but-tough Chicago lawyer, and Whip, is that Whip’s blood-alcohol level was .24. That’s three times the legal limit to drive. A car. He’s facing criminal negligence and manslaughter charges.
Pursued by the media, pursued by his demons, Whip tries to remove all evidence of his problem. At the family farm, where he learned to fly in a Cessna 172 crop duster, he gets rid of all the booze: beer, wine, hard liquor. He gets involved in a relationship with Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a red-headed masseuse and heroin addict whom he met in the stairwell of the hospital, and whose story, pre-crash, had been intercut with his. She goes to AA meetings. He falls off the wagon in a bad way. If he was ever on it.
As bad as we thought he was? He’s worse. Denzel is amazing here. The overwhelming confidence he brings to his characters is cut in half, and laced with doubt and guilt. He’s overweight and out-of-shape but you see it more in the way his face crumbles. His mouth doesn’t work right and his chin recedes. Screenwriter John Gatins is an alcoholic himself and he gets all the excuses right. “What, you want to count the fucking beers?” he says to Nicole. “I choose to drink,” he says to everyone, particularly himself. Watching Denzel, I got flashbacks to the alcoholics I’ve known. It’s not like Goodman. There’s no charm here. There’s just sadness and disgust.
The movie builds toward a public hearing before the NTSB and we find ourselves in Whip’s shoes, rooting for him to get away with it. I caught myself doing this several times and consciously reversed course. No, get caught, motherfucker. For you and the people who know you.
The reckoning is predictable, and of Whip’s choosing. He has his “one too many lies” moment. He can’t tell another. In the end he can’t lie about Nadine, the girl he was with in the beginning, and who never made it out of Flight #227.
What’s Going On?
There are some great supporting performances here, particularly Goodman, Cheadle, Melissa Leo as the NTSB investigator and James Badge Dale as a cancer patient, and of course Denzel dominates, but the movie’s too long. 138 minutes? I would’ve cut Nicole’s whole backstory—shooting up, trouble with the scuzzy landlord, blah blah—as well as Whip’s final scene with his son, and ended it with him talking to his fellow prisoners: “For the first time in my life I’m free.” When he said it I thought: Good end. But the movie kept going.
The bigger problem? Stories about alcoholics are not that interesting. You either continue on your downward trajectory, hit bottom and struggle back up, or die. That’s it, and that’s not enough. Is there a way to make them better? Everyone carries around something that weighs on them, some shame, but most of us are able to live with it. We function in a way alcoholics can’t. Thus there’s no public reckoning or admission. Is another group of people involved in this kind of public confession? With like-minded people? It’s like coming out of the closet but without the celebration. Maybe there should be more celebration. There’s the shame of your life being controlled and consumed, but there’s courage in the confession.
Movie Review: Chasing Ice (2012)
WARNING: IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT, AND FOX-NEWS FEELS FINE (SPOILERS)
The great unasked question in the climate-change debate is at what point in the near-future do we string up Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and all of the other global-warming deniers from what’s left of the tallest tree? At what point will all of us, and not just scientists, know, with every fiber of our being, that the carbon emissions mankind has been adding to the atmosphere over the last 150 years is creating a greenhouse effect that is in fact, and not in theory, warming the planet, melting the glaciers, rising sea levels, and creating weather-related havoc around the globe? Before it’s too late? After it’s too late? And if the latter, how will we view those who have denied all along that it was ever occurring?
Last week, these same guys kept denying the poll numbers of statisticians like Nate Silver until Barack Obama, their bete noir both figuratively and literally, was reelected president of the United States. Silver has a book out called “The Signal and the Noise.” It’s about polls and poll numbers but the title could be about the greenhouse effect and global warming. For decades scientists have been listening to the signal and climate-change deniers have been providing the noise, but the question no one asks these guys, the Hannitys and Limbaughs, is this: If you’re wrong, and if we move too late, how will you not be viewed as the greatest villains in human history?
‘The story is in the ice somehow’
Forgive the screed but the other night I watched “Chasing Ice,” a documentary by Jeff Orlowski about National Geographic photographer James Balog, who, with a young, international team, has spent the last five years documenting, via time-lapse photography, the melting of glaciers in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and Montana. This melting is speeding up. What took 100 years in the 20th century is taking 8-10 in the 21st. They also record, through luck or patience, the “calving” of huge chunks of glaciers. The first time we see it, early in the film, we don’t quite get what we’re watching. The glacier is rumbling and shifting, almost as if it’s alive, as if it’s rousing itself, but in what direction? Then suddenly we understand. A monumental slab of ice breaks away, shifting forward at the bottom, and falling backward. It almost looks like it’s lying down for a nap. Then it just disappears. The last such slab we see disappearing in this manner is the size of Manhattan.
Balog began life as a scientist but didn’t like the fussy calculations, the stultifying lab-ness of it all, and at the age of 25 reinvented himself as a nature photographer. He didn’t know anything about photography, but, he says, “Youthful brashness can take you a long way.” He was particularly interested in how humans and nature intersected. For a time he focused on endangered wildlife. He liked taking shots at night for its absence of sheltering sky. The vastness of the night sky reminds us of what we are and where we are and what we’re on. It reminds us of the fragility of our existence.
He began as a climate-change skeptic. He couldn’t see how humans, despite their number, could have an impact on something as vast as the world. But he became interested in ice—in photographing it, in the beauty of it—and came to the story that way. “The story is in the ice somehow,” he says in the doc.
He was visiting one glacier, I believe the Solheim Glacier in Iceland, and noticed how much it had receded since the last time he was there: 100 feet per year, he estimated. That’s how he got the idea for the time-lapse photography. He created an organization, the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), and he and his team set up 25 cameras, in hostile conditions, in March 2007. Six months later, in October, they returned to find … nothing. Some cameras were buried or damaged. Batteries exploded. There’s talk about voltage regulators. At one camera, Balog, who seems fairly even-keeled up to this point, lets loose with a burst of swearing. At another he begins to cry. “If I don’t have pictures,” he says, “I don’t have anything.”
Like watching La Sagrada Familia melt
I saw the doc with friends and some in the group, particularly the women, were put off by Balog. They felt the doc was too much about him when it should have been about it. They thought he took too many unnecessary risks for photographs that don’t have anything to do with global warming. For a time in the doc, the focus even becomes his knee. He’s had two surgeries on it, gets another, is told he can’t hike anymore. Yet there he is back in Greenland and Iceland and Alaska, traipsing through the snow to his cameras, and rappelling down ravines for that perfect shot. Until he can’t anymore. All of which is gloriously beside-the-point. If we’re talking about the end of the world as we know it, what’s James Balog’s knee in this equation? Nothing. The knee is only there for false drama. It doesn’t matter who goes to the cameras, as long as that evidence is got. If we have pictures, we have everything.
And we have pictures. We know we will. Otherwise why are we sitting in a theater watching this thing? The documentary wouldn’t have been distributed without them.
When we finally see the time-lapse photographs of the glaciers melting, it’s horrifying. It’s like watching beauty and grandeur melt away. One feels sick to one’s stomach. One wonders why it isn’t on the news and in the newspapers and on the web. But of course it is. It’s just not central to the news and the newspapers and the web. It’s not trending.
Global warming has always had trouble as a cause because it’s a completely abstract phenomenon. Every few months we’ll get a natural disaster, which may or may not be attributed to climate change, but that’s about it. It’s a slow process, whose ends are unknown, which we may or may not be causing. What Balog does is provide specific evidence. He makes it real. This is what’s being lost. These glaciers. This beauty. It’s like watching the Louvre and La Sagrada Familia and the Great Wall of China melting because of something we did, and do, and don’t care enough to stop.
‘We don’t have time’
Here’s what I’ve never understood about climate-change deniers. Global warming came to us as a theory in the 1970s, or maybe as early as the 1950s, when scientists realized we were adding carbon to the atmosphere and wondered what that might do. From a New York Times editorial in 1982:
The greenhouse theory holds that carbon dioxide, the waste gas released by burning coal, oil and gas, does for the planet what glass does for a greenhouse - lets the sun's warmth in but not back out again. Until the industrial revolution, excess CO2 was absorbed in the oceans. Now the gas is accumulating rapidly in the atmosphere. The climatologists predict that present levels of CO2 will double in the next 50 to 70 years, raising global surface temperatures an average of three degrees.
This was the hypothesis but there was no evidence to back it up. In the above editorial, called “Waiting for the Greenhouse Effect,” the Times’ editorial board wrote, “There is no cause for panic, but there are plenty of reasons for prudence.” They wrote, “Until there is indubitable proof of a global warming caused by CO2, the greenhouse effect must remain a hypothesis.”
Now we have evidence that the planet is warming, but there’s still a contingent of denier who says, “Yes, but…” Yes, but the planet’s temperature has always fluctuated. Yes, but there’s no evidence that this warming is the result of increased C02 in the atmosphere. It’s like a game in which the rules keep changing. You tell us A and we’ll ask for B, and when B arrives, decades later, we’ll ask for C. “We’ll be arguing about this for centuries,” one of the talking heads in the doc says, citing our arguments about evolution. “We don’t have time,” he says.
For all its false drama (Balog’s knee, etc.), “Chasing Ice” is a worthy doc and worth seeing on the big screen. For the few people who see it, it will, for a moment anyway, move the issue of global warming into a more central part of their psyche, which is, at the least, what we need. Just as all of us have contributed to the problem, bit by bit, all of us must contribute to the solution, bit by bit. The first step is interest.
Movie Review: Skyfall (2012)
Was I the only one who was bored by this? Who thought the slow bits weren’t intellectually engaging enough and the fast bits weren’t fun enough? We get the usual whiz-bang chase sequences in exotic locales around the world (and London and Scotland), and feints at soul searching (without much soul or searching), but it’s hardly fun. And what’s the point of being James Bond if there’s no fun in it?
Craig’s Bond has turned into a bore. He’s a drag. He has no twinkle in the eye, just a long, slow smolder. He lives in a post-9/11 world where he’s always on guard. He stands there, in his too-tight suit, ready to pop. In this movie he’s offered a new way of looking at the world and doesn’t take it. One gets the feeling he doesn’t have the imagination to take it. Or see it.
Yes, the pre-title motorcycle chase scene over the rooftops of Istanbul is glorious. Yes, the photography, particularly of the Scottish countryside, is beautiful. Yes, director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”), and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, give us one of the great villain introductions: the long, still shot of Silva (Javier Bardem) coming down the elevator and into frame as he tells his tale of a giant hole of rats eating each other until only two survive; and these two rats, who now have a taste for rat, are set free because they will keep the island free of other rats. It’s a horrific tale that resonates. Silva is speaking of himself and Bond. He obviously feels a kinship with Bond. He’s selling himself short.
M stands for Micromanager
Here’s the description of the movie on IMDb.com:
Bond's loyalty to M (Judi Dench) is tested as her past comes back to haunt her.
I would say it’s not tested enough. M, let’s face it, is a lousy boss. She’s a micromanager. Here are some of the decisions she makes during the course of the film:
- During the pre-title sequence, M tells Bond to leave behind an injured MI6 agent, Ronson (Bill Buckhurst), knowing Ronson will die, to pursue Patrice (Ola Rapace, Noomi’s ex), who has a disc with every undercover and embedded agent on it. You get a flash of disagreement from Bond here but I’m with M. The disc is more important. The bigger question is who created the disc in the first place? Hey, let’s put all of our secrets in one place, where they’ll always be safe and no one will ever find them.
- M continues to bark orders throughout the high-speed pursuit. She then tells Eve (Naomie Harris), a relatively new agent, to shoot Patrice as he fights with Bond atop a speeding train on a trestle high above what I assume is the Black Sea. Eve is worried she’ll shoot Bond but M orders her to “take the shot” anyway. Meaning M puts more trust in a new agent than in her best agent. Not smart.
- When the MI6 network is hacked, and its headquarters bombed, she moves the agency underground, into caverns left over from … is it the Blitz? But this plays right into Silva’s hands.
- When Bond returns from the dead, and from a self-imposed exile, she clears him for duty even though he fails every test. He’s not psychologically ready. He’s not physically ready. He can’t shoot straight. But what the hell. Apparently she doesn’t have anyone else.
We also learn of the horrible decision she made that led to the present circumstances.
Bond = Batman; Silva = the Joker
Silva, you see, is former MI6. Years back, during the Cold War, M traded him for six agents. Were there extenuating circumstances? Did she just like the numbers? I forget. Silva was tortured but divulged nothing. He tried to kill himself with a cyanide capsule but didn’t die. The cyanide ate away at his insides and turned him half-insane. He stayed alive for revenge. On M. So all of this, the entire movie, is about M. MI6 isn’t saving the world from bad guys anymore; they’re eating their own. The chickens have come home to roost.
Bond has his own issues with M. He didn’t like leaving Ronson behind and he didn’t appreciate M’s “Take the shot” directive. M didn’t trust him to finish the job and it nearly finished him. “Nearly.” It should have finished him. He’s shot twice and falls hundreds of feet into the Black Sea. M and MI6 actually think he’s dead. We know he’s not because it’s the beginning of the movie and he’s James Bond. He’s our plaything. We can drop him from the moon and he’ll survive.
So what does James Bond do, being thought dead? This may be the most disappointing part of the movie for me. He sulks. He hangs out on a tropical beach, has rough sex with a local beauty, plays rough drinking games with scorpions, and loses his edge. He only returns when he hears of the terrorist attack on MI6. It gives you an idea what he’ll be like in retirement. A drag.
At this point the question of the movie becomes: Can Bond regain his edge? He’s weaker now. His hand shakes when he shoots. Losing this, he loses everything. Until he gets it back, of course. Which he does later in the film. We knew he would. We can drop him from the moon, remember.
Bond could be Silva. That’s how Silva sees it anyway. But Bond couldn’t be Silva because Bond isn’t smart enough. Silva is not only a trained MI6 agent, in the Bond mold, but he outwits the new Q (Ben Whishaw). Even when Silva’s captured, halfway through the film, he’s not really captured. He’s in a glass booth in the middle of a guarded room, like Hannibal Lector in “Silence of the Lambs,” but we know he’ll escape. Hell, he wanted to be captured. It was part of his master plan. It took me a moment to realize why this scenario—the villain, incarcerated, holding all the cards—echoed. It’s the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” He too felt an affinity with the hero, and the hero, Batman, was too dumb and humorless to see it. The dynamic is the same and it’s dull. It’s dull because the hero is dull and the villain has all the fun. Used to be the reverse for Bond. Used to be the villain humorlessly stroked cats while Bond stroked other things.
The real Bond girl
Speaking of: Where are the girls? All the movie’s pre-publicity trumpeted Bérénice Marlohe as Sévérine, but she’s killed halfway through the movie. The tropical, rough-sex beauty lasts about five seconds. There’s a fling with Eve, discreetly implied with old-fashioned fireworks, but by the end she’s a pal. By the end she’s Moneypenny. Literally.
No, the Bond girl in this movie is M. She’s the girl being fought over by hero and villain. Near the end, during the assault on Skyfall, the home in Scotland where Bond grew up and was orphaned, she’s injured and in pain, her hand is red with blood, but I felt nothing for her. Are we supposed to have sympathy? I think the filmmakers want us to. But all of this is because of her. The chickens are coming home to roost on her. There should be soul searching throughout London, and Great Britain, and the world. There isn’t. The enemy is us but we either don’t realize it or don’t care.
M dies but we get a new M (Ralph Fiennes). Bond could die but we’d just get a new Bond. We will get a new Bond, eventually, world without end. When we do, a request. Please make him a little less superseriously American, like Batman and Ethan Hunt and Jason Bourne, and a little more British. Because: Please, he’s British.
Movie Review: Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
“Searching for Sugar Man” is a good documentary about a great story.
In the 1970s in South Africa, so the story goes, there were three albums in every white, liberal (read: anti-Apartheid) home: “Abbey Road” by the Beatles; “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel; and “Cold Fact” by Rodriguez. Everyone listened to Rodriguez. “He was the soundtrack to our lives,” says record-shop owner Steve Segerman, known to his friends as “Sugarman” after Rodriguez’s signature song. It just took awhile for South Africans to realize that they were the only ones listening. It took them awhile to realize that while everyone knew the Beatles, nobody anywhere knew anything about Rodriguez.
Legends about the man grew. Creation stories were perpetuated. Apparently an American girl with a South African boyfriend brought the first Rodriguez cassette tape into the country in the early 1970s. End times were debated. Apparently in an early 1970s concert he’d poured gasoline on himself and lit himself on fire. No no, he’d greeted the indifference of a tepid crowd by putting a gun to his head and blowing his brains out.
Searching for Rodriguez
Decades later, in 1996, Segerman wrote the CD liner notes to Rodriguez’s second album, 1971’s “Coming from Reality,” and, after owning up to the complete lack of information about the man, asked, “Any musicologist detectives out there?” There was: journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, who had his own list of stories to pursue, the fourth of which was: How Rodriguez died.
This is what he had to go on: a dead record label; a few grainy photos; lyrics. They assumed Rodriguez was American but didn’t know which city. “Inner City Blues” contains the line, “Going down a dusty Georgian side road.” So maybe the South? “Can’t Get Away” referenced being born “in the shadow of the tallest building.” So maybe New York? Bartholomew-Strydom follows the money, like Woodward and Bernstein, but it dead-ends in southern California.
He was about to give up when he honed in on another line from “Inner City Blues”:
Met a girl from Dearborn, early six o'clock this morn
The sad thing isn’t that Bartholomew-Strydom had to look up Dearborn in an atlas when almost any American could have told him it’s in Michigan; the sad thing is that that the documentary has already told us that Rodriguez is in Michigan. Early on, we hear interviews with his Detroit record producers, who lament what happened to him. We talk with people who knew him from the streets of Detroit. They say he was kind of a wandering mystic: a cross between a poet, a shaman and a hobo.
So why does Malik Bendjelloul begin his doc this way? It leaves the audience in the awkward position of waiting for its heroes, Segerman and Bartholomew-Strydom, to come up to speed.
Maybe Bendjelloul begins this way because the lamentations of colleagues reinforce the notion that Rodriguez is dead. Because that’s the big reveal halfway through the doc: He’s not dead. He’s alive. He’s been working construction and renovation in Detroit never knowing he’d become a music legend halfway around the world.
For South Africa, it’s as if Elvis has turned up alive. Most refuse to believe it. Most think it’s a hoax. Because how can Elvis and Jim Morrison and John Lennon still be alive? The world doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t give us that gift.
In subsequent interviews with the documentarian, Rodriguez, born Sixto, reminds me of artistic types I’ve known who have an ethereal matter-of-factness about them. He’s not there but amazingly present. He seems disconnected but connected to something bigger. Asked if he enjoys construction work, he says, “It keeps the blood circulating.” Asked if he knows that in South Africa he’s bigger than Elvis or the Beatles, he replies, “I don’t know how to respond to that.”
The rest of the doc is, in a sense, recognition, at long last recognition, as well as reunion, or, more accurately, union, since he and South Africa have never known each other. In 1998, he travels there with his daughters for a concert. At the airport, limos pull up and the Rodriguezes stand aside for the VIPs before realizing they are the VIPs. They expect small venues and play to rapt, screaming crowds in sold-out arenas. He goes from being a loopy, wandering guy who does construction (in America) to being a music legend (in South Africa). But he stays in America. He keeps working construction. He keeps the blood circulating.
Searching for why
That’s the story, and it’s a great story, a powerful story, a story that couldn’t exist today. South Africa needed to be isolated from the rest of the world, via Apartheid, and the world needed to be not-yet-connected, via the Internet, for the story to work: for a legend to grow in isolation.
But here’s what the doc doesn’t answer:
- What happened to all the money South Africans spent on Rodriguez’s albums? He never saw a cent of it.
- Why did Rodriguez catch on in South Africa? Some of his lyrics are mentioned, particularly “I wonder/How many times you had sex” as an eye-opening notion. Yet South Africa did have the Beatles. They had the Stones. Weren’t their eyes already open?
- Why didn’t Rodriguez catch on in black South Africa? A consequence of Apartheid? A consequence of his music?
- Why did he never catch on in the States?
This last one is the main one for me. The doc, focusing on South Africans, and created by a Swede, isn’t curious enough about the lack of curiosity in America about Rodriguez. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for a solid month now and love it. It’s kept me going through the ups and downs of the 2012 presidential election. It feels more relevant than most contemporary music.
At times Rodriguez comes off like a soulful Bob Dylan, and, in 1970, that should’ve worked in his favor. That’s what everyone was looking for. John Prine, Steve Forbert, Bruce Springsteen: they were all new Bob Dylans. Rodriguez is so obscure he’s not even mentioned in Loudon Wainwright’s song, “New Bob Dylans.”
OK, let me admit that, yes, there’s no better lyricist than Dylan. He’s at another level, and Rodriguez, while good, is several levels below. But Rodriguez has his moments. The awfulness of war and the thanklessness of medals has been batted about by artists for a century. In Dylan’s “John Brown,” it’s the protagonist’s mother who urges her son off to war to get medals. There, he realizes he’s a puppet in a play and when he returns, injured, he tells her so. This is the last stanza:
When he turned away to go, his mother acting slow,
As she saw that metal brace that helped him stand.
But as they turned to leave, he pulled his mother close,
And he dropped his medals down into her hand.
Rodriguez’s take, from “Cause,” is also about mothers and sons, but feels truer and more poignant:
Oh but they’ll play those token games
On Willie Thompson
And give a medal to replace the son
Of Mrs. Annie Johnson
I keep thinking of these lines, too, from “Crucify Your Mind.” Any artist does. Any person does:
And you claim you got something going
Something you call “unique”
Thirty years later, Rodriguez still sounds vibrant and true. In “Searching for Sugar Man,” the people who knew, his record producers, still rack their brains about why he didn’t catch on. Should have I added more strings here? Less there?
But at one point, someone, I forget who, mentions his name: Rodriguez. They wonder if that’s the issue. They wonder if people dismissed him as Latin music. There’s no way to measure this, of course, or prove such a negative, but that’s my bet. I bet Americans thought that if they listened to someone called “Rodriguez” they would get Jose Feliciano, so they didn’t bother. But halfway around the world, people with less options had more open ears.
To me, that’s the great irony of the story of Rodriguez that “Searching for Sugar Man” doesn’t underline enough. A kind of veiled racism doomed Rodriguez in his home country; but talent and circumstances allowed him to prosper in a country that had the one of the most racist governments, and one of the most segregated societies, in the world.
Cause they told me everyone’s got to pay their dues
And I explained that I had overpaid them
Indeed. But the ending is happy, for both Rodriguez and South Africa. And for us.
Movie Review: Cloud Atlas (2012)
Every Hollywood movie believes in true love but only “Cloud Atlas” posits an explanation: reincarnation. We’re simply meeting someone we already knew in a previous life. The movie suggests a continuity from life to life, and an existential moral authority in which justice is meted out in this life or the next.
My thought throughout: Isn’t it pretty to think so?
Admittedly “Cloud Atlas” is ambitious and unconventional in its storytelling. It gives us six stories from six eras, with the same actors playing different roles in different eras. They, it is suggested, are the reincarnated souls. Thus:
- In the Pacific Islands in 1849, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is trying to get home to San Francisco and his wife, Tilda (Doona Bae), but doesn’t know he’s slowly being poisoned by his friend, Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks).
- In 1936, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), leaves his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), to become assistant to one of the world’s great composers, Vyvaan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent), only to have his ideas stolen by the great man.
- In 1973, journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) investigates a nuclear power plant run by Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant), but all of her sources, including an aged Rufus Sixsmith (still D’Arcy) and Isaac Sachs (Hanks), wind up dead. Is she the next target?
- In 2012, a publisher, Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent), owes royalties to a gangster-novelist, Dermot Hoggins (Hanks), so his brother (Grant) agrees to hide him in a hotel; but the place turns out to be an old folks home run military-style.
- In Neo Seoul in 2144, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a replicant waitron, born and bred for the purpose of serving the customer, is helped by a pureblood, Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess), to ascend to greater knowledge and thus transform the world.
- In a post-apocalyptic future, “106 winters after the fall,” a superstitious islander, Zachry (Hanks), aids one of the last remnants of our technologically advanced civilization, Meronym (Berry) up a mountain peak in search of Cloud Atlas, an outpost and communication station, where she can contact humans living in space. For what purpose I never really understood. To make things better, I suppose.
Writer-directors Andy and Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix”), and Tom Tykwer (“Run, Lola, Run”), intercut these stories like an MTV video. They even offer an early, meta explanation for their method. As Cavendish writes his comic tale of escape, he talks up his general distaste for flashbacks and flashforwards but considers them necessary evils. He promises, “There’s a method to this madness.”
I can think of only one flashback in Cavendish’s tale (to his true love, of course), so the line is meant more for us than Cavendish’s imaginary readers. I found it either too cute or unnecessary handholding. I wasn’t confused by the cross-cutting. I was sadly unconfused. I got it all too quickly.
Each era leaves something behind: a story for the next generation. So the goddess worshipped in the far-flung future is Sonmi-451, whose escape was inspired, in part, by an old digital/film version of the memoirs of Cavendish, who publishes, or stupidly rejects (I forget which), a novel based upon the adventures of Luisa Ray, who reads the 1930s love letters between Sixsmith and Frobisher, the latter of whom, while collaborating on his Cloud Atlas Symphony, reads “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.” We are bound to each other by our stories.
But this is the best, most poetic way to describe the movie’s philosophy. It’s what Sonmi-451 says to the unseen masses of her time:
Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future.
Sometimes this future is birthed in another lifetime. It’s karma. Broadbent’s character traps a man in one lifetime only to be trapped himself in another. Hanks’ character is corrupt first-worlder amid the island natives in 1849, then island native in a far-off future dealing with first-worlder Halle Berry (the incorruptible). When Berry and Hanks meet in 1973, he falls for her (easy to do) because he senses he already knows her (though, chronologically, their paths have yet to cross). When Berry and Whishaw, the proprietor of a 1970s record/head shop, listen, entranced, to a very rare 1930s recording of the “Cloud Atlas Symphony,” both feel they’ve heard it before. They have: he as composer, she as wife of corrupt collaborator.
More often, though, the future, and the karma, is birthed within one’s own lifetime. The kindness Ewing shows the escaped slave Autua (David Gyasi) is returned to him when Autua saves him from the machinations of Dr. Henry Goose. The kindness Cavendish and the others show by returning to save Mr. Meeks (Robert Fyfe) is returned to them when Meeks, finding his voice in a pub, rallies football hooligans to save them from Big Nurse (Hugo Weaving). Zachry twice saves Meronym’s life, despite a voodooish demon, Old Georgie (Weaving), whispering in his ear; and in the end, at the last moment, when all hope seems lost, she returns to save him and his daughter from marauding cannibals.
In fact, every story but one (maybe two) has a happy, Hollywood ending. Ewing, saved, returns to San Francisco, stands up to his father-in-law (Weaving), and becomes an abolitionist. Luisa Ray publishes her scoop about oil companies conspiring to create a nuclear disaster. Cavendish escapes the old folks’ home and is reunited with his true love (Susan Sarandon). Zachry and Meronym become husband and wife and perpetuate the species with children and grandchildren, to whom Zachry tells his tales around a campfire.
The two less-than-happy endings? In 2144, Sonmi-451 discovers that replicants, rather than “ascending” to a higher place, are killed, skinned, and served as food to the purebloods. “They feed us to us,” she says, stunned. This echoes similar sentiments in other eras. “The weak are meat and the strong do eat,” says Dr. Goose as he attempts to kill a weakened Ewing. “Soylent Green is people!” Cavendish shouts during his first failed attempt at escape. Plus the cannibals of the post-apocalyptic future. This fate awaits Sonmi-451, too. But first she gets word out to the masses. She changes the world. It would be more poignant, however, if we understood why Hae-Joo Chang saw her as “The One.” What is it with the Wachowskis and “The One” anyway? Can’t they get off that fucking horse? Can’t Hollywood? Can’t … all of us?
The other sad ending is from the 1930s, when Frobisher, the talented gay guy, for no good reason, kills himself. Someone alert Vito Russo.
But each story mostly builds toward happy endings; and the movie leaves us in the far-off future with humanity returned to its natural state: telling stories around campfires.
“Cloud Atlas” is, again, ambitious, and often beautiful. I think of Tykwer’s shots of Luisa Ray going over the bridge and into the water, then ascending. I was rarely bored. The nearly three-hour runtime went by like that. And a lot of the words, which come from David Mitchell’s novel, are just glorious.
But for all its unconventionality, each story, by itself, is utterly conventional, as is the connective tissue between the stories. “Cloud Atlas” takes our most unknowable questions, about life and love, and makes the answers obvious. In this way, it’s like almost every Hollywood movie ever made.
Movie Review: The Five-Year Engagement (2012)
When did I give up on this movie? I guess about halfway in. That scene where Tom Solomon (Jason Segel), who has sacrificed a rising career as a sous chef in San Francisco to follow his fiancée, Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt), to Michigan (where she is a Ph.D. student in social psychology), is babysitting Violet's 3-year-old niece and takes his eye off her for a second to watch a cat video on YouTube. The girl goes missing. She winds up in the kitchen behind Tom’s cross bow. (“Cross bows don’t clean themselves,” he explains to Violet as to why it’s on the kitchen table.) Then the girl shoots Violet in the leg. Then her parents return, and we get anger and recrimination and blame. And a close-up of the wound.
It just seemed a bit much.
By this point we’re seeing how low Tom can sink. In Ann Arbor, instead of running a foodie joint by the bay, he’s making sandwiches in a local deli and hanging with other, neutered faculty husbands like Bill (Chris Parnell), who knits sweaters and hunts deer. The knitting is for something to do. The hunting is, one assumes, to replenish his disappearing manhood. Tom finds himself following suit, first with a rifle and then with a cross bow. He begins to display flowing, Civil-War-era facial hair. He wears the draping sweaters Bill knits. He begins to make mead from honey. He serves his wilderness fare in fur-covered mugs.
The niece is the child of his goofball friend, Alex (Chris Pratt, Scott Hatteberg of “Moneyball”), and her sharp-tongued sister, Suzie (Alison Brie, Pete Campbell’s wife from “Mad Men”), who met at Tom and Violet’s engagement party and then quickly zipped past them in making a life together. She got pregnant, they got married (with a beautiful ceremony), had the kid, then another. When Tom followed Violet to Michigan, Alex, the screw-up, got the job running the clam bar that was meant for Tom.
Violet, meanwhile, is enjoying her work at the University of Michigan, but her fellow grad students, Vaneetha, Ming and Doug (Mindy Kaling, Randall Park and Kevin Hart), are all one-note sitcom characters, while their advisor, Winton Childs (Rhys Ifans), is obviously making a play for Violet. We wait for it to happen. It does. We wait for the eventual breakup. It occurs. We wait through their new, awkward relationships until they get back together and get married. They do. At the end. Two hours into the movie.
Two hours? For a rom-com? A clue right there.
I liked “The Five-Year Engagement” at the beginning. It felt true and slightly original. Segel and Blunt have great chemistry and are generally sweet together. Plus there are great laugh-out-loud lines. When Violet talks about hurrying up the wedding plans, her sister tells her, “Hey, it’s your wedding. You only get a few of these.” When they worry what the relatives will say when they delay the nuptials, Tom declares, “They’ll live.” Cut to: a funeral.
But there’s too much. They keep pushing the envelope unnecessarily. One of Violet’s fellow grad students is obsessed with masturbation; another with blood and chicken feathers. When Tom gets angry at Vi, he winds up with a crazy girl who wants food-fight sex … or something. He leaves that encounter half-naked, winds up sleeping half-naked outside in winter, and loses a toe to frostbite. Funny. When he opens a foodie taco truck back in San Francisco, to raves, the guy waiting in line can’t just tell him how much he likes his tacos; he has to ask him for a hug. Grandparents have to keep dying, her father has to keep marrying younger Asian women, his mother has to talk to him about her vaginal reconstruction surgery. After a while, it feels like everyone is doing standup rather than serving the needs of the story.
Some envelopes aren’t meant to be pushed. Some bits need a little less commitment.
Movie Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is a surprisingly good film about the first awkward steps of high school and the even more first awkward steps of love. I liked it, and was moved, even though I’m about to turn 50. I felt long-ago pangs and longings. I felt this despite being painfully aware of the film’s central lie: that the perks of being a wallflower generally don’t include Emma Watson.
Off the wall
Charlie (“Percy Jackson”’s Logan Lerman) is about to start his freshman year of high school, friendless, in a suburb of Pittsburgh in the mid-1980s. He’s a shy kid but with an inner determination. He’s also known tragedy. His best friend killed himself the previous spring. His favorite aunt, Helen (Melanie Lynskey), died when he was young. He keeps flashing back to her death. A car accident? A suicide? He’s not quite right in the head. Incidents are alluded to. He’s aware that his parents (Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh) are worried he’ll “get bad again.”
High school is certainly the place to get bad again. We all know the casual cruelty there. Despite a good pedigree, including a way-too-hot older sister, Candace (Nina Dobrev), and a handsome older brother, who now plays college football (Zane Holtz), he sits alone at lunch. In English class, a girl makes offhand, nasty remarks. Moments after Charlie bonds with his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), a senior grabs his book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and tears the cover in half with a “Whaddaya gonna do about it?” look on his face.
In shop class Charlie quietly admires the outgoing Patrick (Ezra Miller, from “We Need to Talk About Kevin”), an obviously gay guy who obviously doesn’t give a fuck. At the high school football game, Charlie works up the courage to sit next to Patrick, who, oddly, considering his rebel status, is cheering boisterously for the home team. Patrick’s step-sister, Sam (Emma Watson), then stops by. Since she looks like Emma Watson, Charlie’s dazzled. There’s a moment, a kind of camera wobble, that indicates a sudden shift in Charlie’s life, that love-at-first-sightedness, even as what she’s talking about isn’t exactly romantic:
Sam: Could anything be more disgusting than the bathrooms here?
Patrick: Yeah, it’s called the men’s room.
There are several good—but not too good—lines like this. Sam says she isn’t a bulimic but a bulimicist. When Charlie tells the two he wants to be a writer but doesn’t know what to write about, Sam suggests he write about them. “Call it ‘Slut and the Falcon,’” Patrick adds. “Make us solve crimes!”
Is Charlie really a wallflower? He introduces himself to Patrick, after all. And at the Homecoming dance he forces himself off the wall and onto the floor, where Patrick and Sam are dancing boisterously to Dexys Midnight Runners’ “Come on Eileen.” He’s welcomed there. Joyously. It’s a joyous moment.
How little we know
I graduated from high school five years before the kids in this movie, 1981 versus 1986, a lifetime in cultural terms, but I kept feeling odd moments of resonance. Sam and Patrick do this counter-rotational dance that reminded me of a dance two Chinese girls did to R.E.M.’s “End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” at a Taipei club in 1987. Charlie winds up dating the wrong girl in his group of misfits, the outgoing, smart, vaguely punkish, Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), just as I did in my group. He has a bedroom moment with the right girl, Sam, that is less about sex and more about the held breath of first love, and then its release. I once tried to write a novel centering on such a moment.
I kept having to remind myself how little I knew, how little we all know, in high school. Mr. Anderson gives Charlie extra books to read, including “The Great Gatsby” and “The Catcher in the Rye.” Really? I thought. Charlie doesn’t know these books already? Then I added up. I didn’t read Salinger until 10th grade. I didn’t read “Gatsby” until college. Sam likes to stand in the back of Patrick’s pick-up truck with her arms spread wide as he speeds in the tunnels and over the bridges of Pittsburgh, and we, and Charlie, watch her do this to one song, which they then spend the rest of the year, and movie, trying to find. They don’t recognize the singer, David Bowie, or the song, “Heroes.” Really? I thought. Bowie? They don’t know Bowie? That one definitely seems wrong.
But there are so many little things the movie does right. Mr. Anderson never becomes more than Mr. Anderson: a good teacher who gives out good books and good advice. At the end of the school year, Charlie hugs him and he responds with a tentative, one-armed back-pat, as if he’s wary of the administrative lines being crossed. Earlier, he gives Charlie the line Charlie repeats back to Sam: “We accept the love we think we deserve.” That’s why Candace accepts her jerkoff boyfriend (until she doesn’t), and Sam accepts hers (until she doesn’t), and Charlie accepts Mary Elizabeth (until their relationship, and his relationship with everyone else in the group, implodes). And that’s partly why it takes so long for Sam and Charlie to get together. What he feels for her, and what she seems to feel for him, is too meaningful. So it waits until she’s about to go off to college and there’s no more room for waiting. That’s generally when we find the courage. When there’s room for nothing else.
Charlie is an interesting character for being so passive. He’s a little more messed-in-the-head than we realize. He’s not just shy; it’s as if he’s carefully walking a very narrow path because he doesn’t like what he sees on either side. He is, in E.L. Doctorow’s phrase, a small criminal of perception. “There’s so much pain,” he says near the end. “And I don’t know how not to notice it.”
These are the little things the movie does right. But there are three big lies that go with this smaller, truer story.
The first lie is the aforementioned wallflower perks that include Emma Watson.
The second lie is how Charlie returns to his group’s good graces after his messy break-up with Mary Elizabeth. Patrick has secretly been dating a football player, Brad (Johnny Simmons), but they’re found by the Brad’s father, who beats the boy. At school, to protect himself, Brad becomes even more homophobic, and, at one point, calls Patrick “faggot,” then does nothing when his fellow football players begin to beat up Patrick. But Charlie does something. He stands, moves forward ... and the screen goes black. The next images we see are football players beaten on the ground, and Charlie, dazed, staring at his clenched fists, which are bruised and bloody. He did all that. Without knowing he did it. Skinny freshman Charlie against three senior football players. It’s a great wish-fulfillment fantasy, finding your inner Hulk, but it’s just that.
The final big lie is found in the final lines of the movie—and in its tagline.
Before the next school year starts, before Sam returns to U Penn and Patrick goes off to Seattle (to participate, it’s implied, in the nascent grunge scene), the three party one last time. Charlie has finally found that Bowie song for Sam, “Heroes,” and they play it again in the tunnel leading to the bridges over the three rivers of Pittsburgh; but this time it’s Charlie who stands in the back of the truck and spreads his arms wide to take it all in. Throughout the movie he’s been narrating to us, in the form of writing a letter to a friend named “Friend.” (Chbosky’s novel, upon which Chbosky’s movie is based, is epistolary.) And of the moment in the back of the truck, he tells us, “I am here and I am looking at her and she is so beautiful.” Nice, I thought. Great last lines, I thought. But those aren’t the last lines. The pickup truck begins to move away from the camera and toward the lights of the big city and Charlie adds: “And in this moment, we are infinite.”
In the audience, I grimaced. “And in the next moment,” I thought, “You are nearly 50.”
Movie Review: Argo (2012)
Ben Affleck’s “Argo” is the type of movie Hollywood never makes any more: a thriller for adults, steeped in history and humor. The tension at the end is so heightened I almost got a headache. But it’s what they do at the beginning that is particularly noteworthy.
“Argo” is about a true-to-life, supersecret CIA mission, declassified in 1997, in which a lone operative, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), flies to Iran in January 1980, in the midst of the hostage crisis, to rescue six American foreign service officers who have taken refuge in the Canadian embassy.
And how does the movie begin? With context.
Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio, and Warner Bros., have the audacity to show us, in storyboard fashion, a short history of Iran and its shahs, and of the election in 1950 of Mohammad Mosaddegh, an author and lawyer, who nationalized British and U.S. petroleum in his country, and who was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by MI6 and the CIA three years later. His replacement was Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whom we all knew as the Shah of Iran, whose lifestyle was profligate, whose police force was ruthless, and who attempted to westernize his country, angering Islamic clerics. This helped lead to his own coup d’etat in 1979, which brought to power the Ayatollah Khomeini. Later that year, Iranian students overwhelmed the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Thus began, in a sense, our modern age.
The crowd looks a little bigger today
“Argo” begins on that day, Nov. 4, 1979, with demonstrations outside the U.S. embassy, and embassy officials inside saying things like, “The crowd looks a little bigger today, doesn’t it?” Then one Iranian jumps the wall. Another. A stream. Metal cutters arrive to cut the chains of the gate and the students flood in. They pound on the doors of the embassy. They break windows.
There’s an obvious innocence to the people inside. They don’t know that history is being made. They don’t know the modern age is about to begin. So while some officials shred documents, and a security officer, aware of the lessons of My Lai and Kent State, warns his subordinates not to fire at anyone in the crowd, and then blunders outside thinking he can actually calm the crowd, six officials, helping Iranians obtain U.S. visas, debate whether or not to leave. One of the six finally says, “If we need to go, we need to go now,” and they exit the building with the visa-seeking Iranians, then find themselves on the streets in a hostile country. When Washington D.C. gets the news about the embassy takeover, they, too, don’t know the modern age is about to begin. In a bout of early optimism, one official says of the Iranian president, “Bani Sadr says it’ll be over in 24 hours.”
Then the screen goes black. Then these words appear: 69 days later.
The best bad idea
At this point we’re introduced to Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), calm in demeanor, prone to drink, and with stylized hair and beard similar to Michael Douglas in “The China Syndrome.” In a motel room full of Chinese takeout boxes and crushed Miller High-Life cans, with the TV on, he’s sleeping it off, fully clothed. In a bad leisure suit. It’s the 1970s.
When Mendez arrives at a meeting at Langley, he finds out about the six, and the various idiot schemes being propagated by officials. No. 1? Airlift in bicycles and have the six bike the 300 miles to the Turkish border. “Or you could just send in training wheels and meet them at the border with Gatorade,” Mendez responds.
It’s an OK line but give Affleck credit. He gives most of the best lines to his stellar supporting cast. At one point Mendez’s CIA superior, Jack O’Connell (Bryan Cranston), says, “Carter’s shitting enough bricks to build the pyramids.” When he pitches Mendez’s movie scheme to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance (Bob Gunton, temporarily freed from warden duty), Vance’s contemporary, played by Philip Baker Hall, asks, “You don’t have a better bad idea than this?” and O’Connell responds, with deference, “This is the best bad idea we have. Sir.” There’s something very American about that. We are a country made up of best bad ideas.
Mendez then contacts a friend, legendary Hollywood makeup man John Chambers (John Goodman), who guides Mendez through the Hollywood scene and who finds him a producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), who declares, as they go through scripts, “If I’m going to make a fake movie I want it to be a fake hit.” They find one: “Argo,” a sci-fi flick. He and Chambers begin a running gag about the title: “Argo fuck yourself.” If there’s any justice, you’ll be hearing that a lot this fall.
But even in Hollywood we get serious moments. Mendez is separated from his wife and kid, and, in a moment of camaraderie, he asks Siegel about his family. Siegel says he has two grown daughters whom he sees once a year. He says, with no self-pity, “I was a terrible father.” He gives this excuse without excusing himself. “It’s a bullshit business. You come home to your wife and kids, you can’t wipe it off.” Great line. Great line reading. You don’t have to live in Hollywood to identify.
So the plan is for Mendez to travel to Iran as a Hollywood producer, scouting exotic locations (sand dunes, etc.) for a post-“Star Wars” sci-fi flick. There are write-ups in the trades, storyboards created, publicity, a meeting with potential investors at the Beverly Hilton. In the distance, the Hollywood sign is crumbling.
At the Canadian embassy in Iran, Mendez is greeted less as rescuer than as the man who will get them all killed. But authorities are closing in. Iranian officials already know six embassy officials are missing. They’re piecing together shredded documents, like pieces from a jigsaw puzzle, that will reveal names and faces. They don’t know it but they need to get out now.
Is the tension at the end too much? Too heightened? Too unreal? At the airport, an angry bearded official doesn’t believe them and checks out their story, as, back at the U.S. embassy, the face of one of the six is pieced together and tied to a clandestine shot of “the movie crew” going through Tehran’s market. Officials then storm the Canadian embassy, phone calls are made, and police cars and jeeps roar down the runway after the Swiss Air jet about to take off with our heroes. It’s all very Spielbergian.
Why the terrorists won
It’s also effective and fascinating and witty and historically important. It’s a feel-good story about a feel-bad time. I remember those times. I was in high school. The sense of impotence the country felt because of the hostage crisis led directly to the election of Ronald Reagan and his own-brand of Hollywoodish feel-good fantasies. We’ve been doubling down on those fantasies ever since. In this way the terrorists won.
How about Ben Affleck? After “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” he’s now 3 for 3. “Argo” is a fun movie for smart people. Argo fucking see it already.
Movie Review: The Master (2012)
Five years ago I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” and was disappointed. Last week, I watched it again and was stunned by how good it was. This week I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” and was disappointed. Will I be stunned by how good it is if I see it again in five years? Or will I see it the way I saw it this week: a powerfully directed film whose story doesn’t resonate?
What’s your name?
Both movies focus on a clash between two men, one of whom is religious or quasi-religious, none of whom is likeable. The battle in “Blood” is between capitalist forces, represented by oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis), and spiritual forces, represented by preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), and it’s never much of a battle. Plainview has too much will; he’s the triumph and tragedy of it. He dominates the movie and dominates Eli. By the end, the masks both men wear—Plainview pretends to care about community but despises humanity; Eli is a weak-willed charlatan—have fallen to the point where Eli admits to living in a Godless universe while Plainview commits murder (again) without repentance. Thus capitalism crushes us all. With a bowling pin.
In “The Master,” the clash is between Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a Navy serviceman broken by World War II, and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an L. Ron Hubbardish figure whose cult Freddie wanders into five years after the war. What’s their clash? Initially, it’s drawing out Freddie. It’s understanding him and his problems. There’s a great scene where Dodd, with his repetitive methods (“What’s your name?”; “What’s your name?”; “What’s your name?”), finally gets Freddie to open up. And he does. Freddie reveals himself. He says his father’s dead from drink and his mother’s in an asylum and he had sex with a family member, his aunt, three times, and he left behind a girl in Boston whom he never went to see after the war and he doesn’t know why. It’s an exhilarating scene, for us and for him. We all wear masks; we are all trapped by our past. Saying the truth can momentarily set us free.
But revelation for Freddie does not lead to rehabilitation; his problems persist. He remains childishly obsessed with sex. He remains violent. He continues to drink his awful, war-era drinks of Lysol and gasoline and paint thinner. One such drink kills an old Filipino man in Salinas. That’s what Freddie’s running from when he stows away aboard the Alethia (“truth”; “disclosure”), Dodd’s ship bound from San Francisco, through the canal, and to New York City. But it’s not Dodd’s ship.
Peace is here
“The Master” opens to a soundtrack full of discordant music from Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood. We’re on a Pacific island beach waiting out the end of the war, and Freddie, one Navy man of many, is already isolated from the rest. He’s cutting coconuts while the other men wrestle on the beach. They make a sand woman on the beach, hair flowing, legs open, and Freddie gets on top and starts pumping away. It’s funny for a second, then gets embarrassing fast. Freddie gets too into it. There’s too much need there. When we hear the Japanese surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, Freddie and other men are aboard their ship searching for, I believe, gasoline, from the ship’s missiles. To drink. “Peace is here,” the announcer intones. You look at Freddie and think: No, it’s not.
Freddie’s early, peaceless, post-war drifting is fascinating. A military shrink, smoking away, gives him a Rorschach test, telling him there are no right or wrong answers. Freddie’s first three responses to the ink blots are thus: 1) a pussy; 2) a cock inside a pussy; 3) a cock upside down. The psychiatrist sighs. Apparently there are right and wrong answers.
In a perfectly rendered, late 1940s department store, Freddie becomes a portrait photographer. America has just gone through a global depression and a world war and everyone wants to put all that shit behind them and display its best face to the world (“Get thee behind me, Satan” sings Ella Fitzgerald on the soundtrack). That face turns out to be a false face. It’s cute kids and young couples and there’s strain in every smile. Freddie, a young man, takes their pictures, but he already looks like an old man. Phoenix’s performance is amazing and Oscar-worthy. It’s like they took him, broke him in half, and put him back the wrong way. He’s hunched and painfully thin. He keeps his arms akimbo like a chicken, like he’s holding up his back. The post-war male sex symbols, Brando and James Dean and Elvis, were slouched men with curled lips and unruly hair slicked back, and Freddie has elements of each of these but there’s nothing sexy about him at all. He’s the anti-sex symbol. He drains sex from any situation. Martha the salesgirl (Amy Ferguson), whose job it is to walk the floor displaying dresses for sale, displays more to Freddie in a back room, and he pokes at her nipples like a 4-year-old, and pouts when she puts them away. He’s old in appearance and adolescent in his prurience, and he loses his job when he starts a fight with a fat man who’s getting his picture taken for his wife. He’s FUBAR.
This doesn’t change aboard the Alethia. He affects normality among the youngish men and women untouched by war (it’s 1950 now) but he has no place. There’s a hilarious moment when, surrounded by women listening to a taped recording of Dodd’s book, “The Cause,” in which Dodd intones, again and again, that Man is not an animal, that we are not part of the animal kingdom, that we are not ruled by our emotions, Freddie makes eyes at all of the women, then writes one of them a note: “Do you want to fuck?”
He remains violent but now he’s violent for The Cause. During the course of the movie he attacks anyone who attacks or doubts Dodd, including a New York party guest, John More (Christopher Evan Welch), surely named after St. Thomas; Dodd’s son, Val (Jesse Plemons), who tells Freddie, “He’s making it up as he goes.”; the Philadelphia police, who come to arrest Dodd; and Bill William (Kevin J. O’Connor), an acolyte who feels Dodd’s second book is a failure and could’ve been edited down to a three-page pamphlet.
“Peace is here”: Freddie Quell celebrates the end of WWII
So what is The Cause? Anderson keeps it sketchy. Dodd claims, among other things, that our problems in this life are caused by unresolved issues in previous lives. Apparently our previous lives go back thousands or trillions of years. Yes, trillions with a “t,” sir, Dodd says to More at an upper east side New York coming-out party. More says that some of Dodd’s methods sound like hypnosis, to which Dodd responds that it’s de-hypnosis. He says that man is asleep. It’s a good line. But he is increasingly agitated at being questioned. More reminds him that “Good science, by definition, allows for more than one opinion. Otherwise, you merely have the will of one man, which is the basis of cult.” Dodd’s response begins well but he winds up ruled by emotions: “If you already know the answer to your questions, why ask them—PIG FUCK!” Cut to: our group, in the elevator, on the way down.
If Freddie is a wrecked man, prone to bursts of sex and violence, Dodd is an ebullient man who cannot abide dissent. Others call him ‘The Master’ but he lives in a post-World War II democracy that has just swept away the would-be masters of the world. Dissent lives. Dodd is the master of a small domain forced to live in a larger one, and he and his group, like all beginning religions, are forced to wander in the wilderness: from San Francisco to New York to Philadelphia to Phoenix, where The Cause, he hopes, will be reborn. But it’s a downward trajectory. All the while, thanks to Dodd’s outbursts, they’re losing adherents.
Except it can’t be Dodd’s fault, can it? He’s the Master, isn’t he? So they look for someone else to blame. And there’s Freddie. Erratic, chicken-winged Freddie. In an inner-circle, dinner-table pow-wow after Dodd returns from a Philadelphia lock-up, Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), she of the sweet face and bitter, iron will, counsels excommunicating him. The inner circle accuses Freddie of being what he is (erratic) and what he isn’t (a spy). Dodd’s daughter from a previous marriage, Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), accuses Freddie of desiring her sexually, when, we see, she made the pass at him. Once more, we accuse others of our own crimes. World without end.
But Freddie isn’t tossed out of The Cause; he leaves. He flees. In Phoenix, Dodd’s second book, “The Split Sabre,” is unveiled, to disappointment among adherents, including Bill William, whom Freddie pummels, and Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern), whose largesse they relied upon in Philadelphia. She comes to Dodd with a great, strained smile on her face, and asks about page 13, where the language for “the processing”—the near-hypnotic state Dodd puts adherents under—has been changed from “Can you recall...[past lives]” to “Can you imagine...[past lives].” She feels this is muting the Master’s message. The Master explains, vaguely, and we get this exchange:
Helen: But if the new—
Dodd: WHAT DO YOU WANT!?!
The outburst shocks her; then she gives him the dirtiest of looks. Scales have fallen, as they have fallen from others’ eyes. It’s shortly after this, riding motorcycles in the desert, that Freddie leaves the group.
Members of “The Cause” on the elevator down. Like Lonesome Rhodes before them.
Maybe in the next life
Should the movie have ended there? I wonder. Instead, Anderson shows us Freddie, still full of tics and mannerisms and small lies, finally returning to the girl in Lynn, Mass., but the girl, Doris, doesn’t live there anymore. Her Irish mother tells Freddie she’s married, to Jim Day, and now lives in Alabama. We get a great line from Anderson, and a great line reading from Phoenix: “Jim Day, Jim Day, that Jim Day?” Freddie suddenly realizes the girl of his dreams is now named Doris Day, like the movie star in Hollywood’s dream factory, and he chuckles over this. In the very next shot he’s asleep in a cinema balcony while a “Casper the Friendly Ghost” cartoon plays; and he dreams of getting a phone call from Dodd inviting him to England. As dreams go, it turns out to be fairly accurate.
Oddly, The Cause, which seemed in its death rattle in Arizona, is now flourishing. It’s institutionalized. It resides in a big schoolhouse, and Dodd reigns from behind a grand desk in a gigantic room with 50-foot ceilings, and we get our final confrontation between our two protagonists, just as we got our final confrontation between Plainview and Sunday in the bowling alley in “Blood.” This one is less bloody. The brutality is in the words:
Dodd: If you leave here I don’t ever want to see you again... Or you can stay.
Freddie (grins): Maybe in the next life.
Dodd (serious): If we meet again in the next life, you will be my sworn enemy and I will show you no mercy.
There’s a kind of knowing gentleness, almost grace, to the way Freddie says his “next life” comment. He doesn’t believe in it but he’s throwing it out as a gift to Dodd, who throws it back in Freddie’s face. The people of The Cause, pampered and puffy and immaculate, need to look to previous lives for answers to their problems. Freddie, rail-thin Freddie, doesn’t. He’s seen the horrors in this one. His problems have resulted from this one. He knows.
Then we see him walking down an English path. We see him hook up with an English girl. He uses some of the lines Dodd used on him back on the Alethia. We get a flashback to his sand woman in the Pacific, and we see the progress he’s made, from sand woman to real woman, and the movie ends and the lights go up.
And we go: “Huh.”
Lancaster Dodd: pampered, puffy, immaculate.
Slow boat to China
What’s the movement in the movie? Freddie goes from being massively fucked up to being slightly fucked up, while the cult he joins seems on a slow, downward trajectory—rootless and wandering and full of sophomore slumps—until it leaps, off-screen, into an established institution in England. How did that happen? How did Dodd make that happen? We last see him losing disciples in the desert and then suddenly he’s a massive success in England. Why? And why England? Isn’t this the more interesting story? How come it doesn’t interest P.T. Anderson?
There’s a good quote from Norman Mailer on the nature of art:
Art obviously depends upon incomplete communication. A work which is altogether explicit is not art, the audience cannot respond with their own creative act of the imagination, that small leap of the faculties which leaves one an increment more exceptional than when one began.
Unfortunately, Anderson’s communication is too incomplete. We leave with nothing but questions:
- After the Dodds speak of excommunicating Freddie because he’s beyond help, they force him to walk between a wall and a window for an unspecified amount of time. Is this to a) drive him out; b) drive him crazy; c) control him; or d) something else?
- In Philadelphia, Dodd sings his “a roving” song, and suddenly all of the women in the room are naked. I assume the nakedness is in Freddie’s head. But was Elizabeth Dodd’s pass at him also in his head? If it wasn’t, why did she do it? To get him to stay? To repay him for attacking More? Are there elements of Sam Peckinpah there?
- Does The Cause do Freddie good? Does he need it? Does it help?
- What does the accuracy of Freddie’s movie-theater dream about Dodd’s phone call say about our unconscious lives? Or what does it say about what P.T. Anderson thinks of our unconscious lives?
- Is Lancaster Dodd a closeted homosexual?
This last would explain why Dodd keeps Freddie and his erratic, animal nature around. It would help explain several scenes.
During the naked “a roving” scene, Peggy, pregnant and naked and in the background, stares at Freddie with something like concern in her eyes. Does she see his lust? Is that it? And does she assume the lust is for Dodd, who’s center-stage? And does she already suspect that Dodd reciprocates? Because in the very next scene, Dodd is in the middle of his nighttime ablutions, brushing his teeth, when Peggy comes over and jacks him off, telling he can do whatever he wants with whomever he wants just so she doesn’t hear about it. Initially I assumed she was referring to the women in the cult. But Freddie is a more likely culprit.
Then in the final scene Dodd suddenly sings to Freddie, and Freddie sheds a tear. This is what he sings:
I'd like to get you
On a slow boat to China
All to myself alone
Is this Dodd’s moment of revelation? Or does he never truly reveal himself the way that Freddie does, or the way that Plainview did? You could argue that Anderson doesn’t show us Dodd’s true nature because that is the basis of cult: never to truly reveal yourself. Or you could argue that that is the basis of Paul Thomas Anderson and his movies.
“The Master” is deeply felt and rendered, beautifully shot and art-directed, and acted by artists and professionals. It’s also a failure in terms of story. But I would still rather watch it again than almost any movie released this year.
Get thee behind me, Satan: Our strained, post-war innocence.
Movie Review: Looper (2012)
The great technological innovation in Rian Johnson’s “Looper” isn’t the time travel that allows criminals in 2074 to dispose of enemies by sending them back to 2044, where assassins, known as “loopers,” await to blow them away; it’s the CGI/prosthetics that allow Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing young Joe in 2044, to look like Bruce Willis, who plays old Joe sent back from 2074. It helps that JGL also does a pretty good Bruce Willis imitation: that pursed, amused smirk; the whispery low tone.
Thirty years is a long time but Bruce Willis has been a star almost that long. “Moonlighting” went on the air in 1985 and in 1988 we got “Die Hard.” For a guy whose fame seemed like a fluke, and who’s had his share of bombs (“Bonfire of the Vanities” and “Hudson Hawk” were released in back-to-back years), he keeps on keeping on. He also makes movies that will be remembered: “Die Hard,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable.”
Letting your loop run
The movie opens with a stopwatch, young Joe’s, because he’s awaiting another victim from the future to blow away. We also get young Joe’s voiceover explaining the situation. In 2044 time travel hasn’t been invented yet. In 2074 it has but it’s been outlawed. Our first message is an NRA message: outlaw time travel and only outlaws will use time travel.
We get bits of Joe’s life in Kansas in 2044. He’s studying French. He chats up Beatrix, a waitress at his favorite diner, and parties at night with his looper buddies, and gets wasted with eyedrop drugs. He sees a good-looking whore occasionally, Susie (Piper Perabo), and the next day he starts the cycle again. Kansas looks like a futuristic Hooverville but Joe feels nothing for the people around him. He’s a looper, after all. He kills folks for a living.
Every once in a while, a looper kills his older self, sent back from 2074, and he’s cashed out of the biz. This is known as “closing the loop,” we’re told. Every once in a while, a looper can’t kill his older self sent back from 2074, and allows him to escape. This is known as “letting your loop run,” we’re told. The latter happens to Joe’s friend, Seth (Paul Dano), who is also a TK, meaning he has mild telekinesis powers. When he lets his loop run, Seth shows up in Joe’s place and begs for help; he gets it, grudgingly. But then Joe is pulled in before Abe (Jeff Daniels, bearded), the 2070s gangster who runs the operation, and he give up Seth. When young Seth dies, old Seth disappears. Bit by bit. Nose first. Let this be a lesson.
It isn’t. Old Joe shows up and young Joe hesitates before killing him. The hesitation is all. Old Joe decks his younger self, runs, and our battle is engaged.
How did young Joe become Old Joe? He’d been studying French (“nous avons... vous avez...”), but, redirected by Abe, he wound up in Shanghai, where he lived off his looper earnings. He partied, did drugs... I guess that’s about it. That was his life. Then he went back to gangstering. Then he met a girl (Qing Xu), whom he loved, and who weaned him from eyedrop drugs. They built a life together. Then the bad guys came and took it all away. A gangster named Rainmaker, whom we never see, but who came to power by himself, without associates, is sending back all the old loopers to be killed by their younger selves; and when they grab Old Joe they kill Qing Xu, too. At the time-travel launch pad, Joe turns the tables and kills his captors. At this point why doesn’t he run? Why does he still send his sorry ass back to Kansas 2044? So he can find Rainmaker as a child and kill him and thus save Qing Xu.
Letting your loop run amuck
At this point, we get all kinds of fun time-travel shit. Young Joe sets up a meeting with Old Joe by burning the meeting place (“BEATRIX”) onto his arm, which will suddenly appear as a scar on the arm of old Joe. That kind of thing.
Though little is known of Rainmaker, Old Joe knows when and where he was born. He also has the addresses of the three kids who were born on that day and in that place, and, like the Terminator seeking out all the Sarah Connors of 1984, Old Joe seeks out all the kids who might grow up to be Rainmaker. The first is a curly haired tyke returning from school. He turns. There’s Old Joe with a gun. I know I’m a dick but it’s a shame they didn’t show the killing, which needs to be done, but which involves showing Bruce Willis actually blowing away an innocent five-year-old. I’m sure the filmmakers, or the studio, or Bruce Willis’ agent, decided we have to maintain some sympathy for the character, not to mention our aging star. The killing is merely suggested.
The second child turns out to be the son of Susie, which is an unnecessary coincidence. The third child is at a farm near fields of dry sugar cane, where young Joe, who got the address from Old Joe, lies in wait. He still wants to close his loop so he can continue to live his life for another 30 years. Until, you know, he kills himself.
The farm is run by the no-nonsense Sara (Emily Blunt), who is a bit of a TK. Her boy, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), takes a shine to Joe and less so to Sara, whom he claims is not his real mom. He says he remembers his real mom. “When I was a baby,” he says, all pudgy cheeks and fierce eyes, “I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t stop her from getting killed. I wasn’t strong enough.” It’s poignant and the boy is quite good. He gives off a scary, “Twilight Zone” vibe here.
I’ll cut to the chase. The boy is an all-powerful TK who can blow apart people with his mind, and who, yes, becomes the Rainmaker. Old Joe shows up at the farm after killing Abe and his men, and he and young Joe have a showdown. Old Joe gets the upper hand, or at least enough of one to have both Cid and Sara in his sites; and it leads to this epiphany from young Joe, our narrator, who tells us he sees it all happening: Old Joe killing Sara; a motherless Cid forced to raise himself in a brutal world until he comes of age and takes his awful revenge upon it. But Joe sees a way out of this unending cycle. He turns his shotgun on himself and pulls the trigger. Old Joe blips out of existence, never having been, while Cid now has a chance to use his powers for good. Or something.
Letting your loop run off at the mouth
As I said, “Looper” is clever at times, but I still got bored. I wanted less action, more talk. There are so many possibilities during the scene at the diner. Old Joe chastises his younger self, lays into him and calls him stupid, as most of us would do if we could face our younger selves. (Think Morgan Freeman’s speech in “Shawshank.”) It would have been fun to see more of this. But that would’ve been a different movie.
Some moments don’t make much sense, either. I’m not talking about the inevitable time-travel paradoxes—e.g., if old Joe never existed, how did young Joe wind up on Sara’s farm with the motivation to shoot himself? No, my quibbles relate more to matters of logic. Such as:
- If criminals in 2074 send their enemies back in time to die because it’s impossible to dispose of a body in 2074, why don’t they kill the enemy first and send back the body for disposal? Why not time-travel it to a graveyard? Wouldn’t this be easier? Less expensive? Allow for fewer fuck-ups with the space-time continuum?
- Is time travel also location travel? Old Joe is zapped from Shanghai 2074 to Kansas 2044 rather than Shanghai 2044. If so, can you do one without the other? And is location travel allowed in 2074? Would help with the commute, certainly.
- Is Old Joe prevented from killing the second kid? If so, why doesn’t he return to finish the job?
- Can Old Joe reset the time pod? If so, why doesn’t he? He could show up earlier. He could kill Cid more leisurely.
- How can Old Joe take his younger self hostage at the diner? Isn’t that like this scene from “Blazing Saddles”? Shouldn’t Abe’s men laugh and kill both men? Or just kill young Joe and let Old Joe blip out of existence?
- Why the term “looper”? These guys aren’t looping anything. I kept thinking of the way Big Bird mispronounces Mr. Hooper’s name on “Sesame Street.” I went into and out of the theater with Big Bird’s voice in my head.
Some critics feel “Looper” is deep. I think it has the chance to be so; I think it just stayed pretty close to shore.
Movie Review: Trouble with the Curve (2012)
Remember all of those aging decrepit scouts in “Moneyball” who didn’t know shit compared with the sabermetric whiz kid with the computer (Jonah Hill)? Well, they’re back, baby, but this time they’re the heroes, with the lead scout played one of the most iconic figures in Hollywood history (Clint Eastwood), while the whiz kid with the computer is now played by the asshole who cuckolded George Clooney in “The Descendants” (Matthew Lillard). Consider it “Moneyball II: Revenge of the Aging, Decrepit Scouts.”
There’s great irony in all of this, which I’ll get to by and by.
Eastwood hasn’t acted in a movie since “Gran Torino” in 2008, and he hasn’t acted in a movie he didn’t direct since Wolfgang Petersen directed him in “In the Line of Fire” back in 1993. So what’s he doing in this mediocre piece of nothing? Did some big-name director lure him in? Hardly. This is Robert Lorenz’s first movie as director. But Lorenz has been assistant director on 26 pictures, including eight of Clint’s (“Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby,” among them), so I assume Eastwood’s thanking the kid or throwing him a bone. Which is a nice move.
Or maybe Eastwood was drawn in by the script? It’s another estranged daughter tale, to go with Laura Linney in “Absolute Power” and the unseen daughter in “Million Dollar Baby.” Clint likes being trailed after by young, smart, talkative women who allow him to do his incredulous, almost Vaudevillian slow burn. Think Tyne Daly, Geneviève Bujold, Bernadette Peters, Rene Russo, Laura Dern, Hilary Swank.
Now it’s Amy Adams as Mickey (named for Mantle), whom Gus (Eastwood), a legendary scout in the Atlanta Braves organization, more-or-less raised himself when his wife died young. Well, “raised.” Now and again, he shunted her off to relatives, which is why she’s in therapy and has trouble committing to men. But at least she’s a top-notch lawyer on the partner track. Unfortunately the name partners at her firm are led by Bob Gunton, the guy who played the asshole warden in “Shawshank Redemption,” so you know she’s going to get the old scroogie, even though it’s 2012 and this law firm doesn’t yet have a female partner. Like it’s 1981 or something. Like it’s a Hollywood studio or something.
Gus, who signed Ralph Garr, Dusty Baker, Chipper Jones and Tom Glavine—basically anyone worth a damn in the Braves system— is in his 80s now, and there are these nerdy sabermetricians hanging around with their computers, and, oops, his ophthalmologist diagnoses him with macular degeneration just as the organization sends him to North Carolina to scout a potential first-round draft pick. Does he fess up? Nah. He puts himself before the organization. He goes. But Director of Scouting and good friend Pete Klein (John Goodman) figures out what’s up and sends Mickey after him even though she’s, you know, estranged and all, and needs to close a big deal to make partner. But she goes, fuming and checking her Blackberry.
While in North Carolina, they run into Johnny (Justin Timberlake), a former flame-thrower whom Gus scouted back in the day, but who tore his rotator cuff after being traded to the Boston Red Sox. He’s now scouting for the Sox, and, for some reason, despite being a newbie, and despite wanting to be an announcer, he’s there to check out the Sox’s potential No. 1 draft pick. Seems everyone is after this kid. Or at least the Red Sox and the Braves, who have the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks, respectively.
As for the dude they’re all scouting? Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill)? We quickly find out the following:
- He’s a major asshole.
- He’s a bit tubby for someone in their late teens. Five-tool? More like five-meal.
- His homeruns are hardly mammoth. Despite the aluminum bat, they only land a couple rows deep.
Gus and Mickey, meanwhile, stay at The Grey Squirrel Motel, run by a nice Hispanic woman who has two sons: one about 8, the other, named Rigo (Jay Galloway), about 18 going on 25. At one point, Rigo, selling peanuts at the local stadium, has to toss some to Bo, who’s being an asshole, and he throws them pretty hard.
See if you can guess where this is going.
My early guess: the asshole sabermetrician will want Bo, Gus will see some problem (maybe that he has ...I don’t know... trouble with the curve?), and recommend against, but offer up Rigo, the flame-throwing Hispanic kid, instead.
All of this comes to pass. Or nearly. Gus, with macular degeneration, hears that Bo has trouble with the curve, which is confirmed by Mickey, who sees his hands drift. Gus counsels against Bo, and even tells this to Johnny, his rival. For some reason, the Sox listen to the kid and pass on Bo; but the Braves’ GM, Vince (Robert Patrick), ignores both Gus and Pete Klein, and assumes Phillip Sanderson, the asshole sabermetrician who cuckolded George Clooney, knows what he’s talking about, and picks tubbo. The Sox, thinking they’ve been cuckolded, fire Johnny, which leads Johnny to think Gus and Mickey tricked him, which leads to scenes and recriminations and revelations, including the real reason Gus shunted off Mickey to relatives. For some reason this doesn’t bring father and daughter closer together. But it allows Mickey the moment to hear, and then see, and then catch, Rigo, the nice, flamethrowing Hispanic kid; and it’s Mickey who brings him to Turner Field to face Bo, who is hitting batting-practice pitches into the stands for the local press. It take Rigo all of five pitches (two fastballs, three curves) to dismantle the Braves’ No. 1 pick. In the process, Rigo is compared to 1) Sandy Koufax, 2) Steve Carlton and 3) Randy Johnson, and Mickey, who, yes, got the old scroogie from the warden at Shawshank, becomes Rigo’s agent. Johnny returns, he and Mickey kiss, and we get our happy, Hollywood ending.
It’s a long, slow trek to the obvious. It’s painful to watch.
It's also ironic, since it unintentionally disproves its point about scouts. “Scouts, good scouts, are the heart of the game,” Gus says. “Anyone who uses a computer doesn’t know a damn thing about the game,” Gus says.
Yet haven’t these guys been to this town in North Carolina before to scout kids? They’re creatures of habit, too. They sit in their same seats, go the same dive bars, and, one assumes, check into the same motels. Which means Gus, and maybe some of the other old-timey scouts, including Ed Lauter, Chelcie Ross and Raymond Anthony Thomas, have hung out before at The Grey Squirrel Motel. And they never noticed the hulking lefthander, close cousin to Sandy Koufax, playing catch with his little brother?
The stats vs. scouts argument is an ongoing one among baseball nerds. I’ve written before that I think Billy Beane, the protagonist of “Moneyball,” was right in adopting the sabermetric lessons of Bill James, but wrong in interpreting the lessons of his own life, including his aversion to scouting. I’ve written that a more balanced approach between the two is probably the best approach. But one area where the Moneyball people have it over scouting people? “Moneyball” was a major league movie. This thing can’t hit its way out of A ball.
Movie Review: End of Watch (2012)
This is what I knew going into “End of Watch.” It’s what I’d read on IMDb.com a few hours before showtime:
Two young officers are marked for death after confiscating a small cache of money and firearms from the members of a notorious cartel, during a routine traffic stop.
So you wait for that story to begin. You see our guys, Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena), from the perspective of their patrol-car camera, chasing suspects and engaging in gun battle. You see them return to duty after a month-long investigation that clears them, even as the Captain reminds the troops that “an on-the-job shooting is always considered a homicide.” In this manner, Brian and Mike go back on patrol. At one stop in south central LA, Mike gets into it with an old-time gangster (Cle Shaheed Sloan) and fights him—Brian laughing all the while—but earns his respect by 1) winning, and 2) not pulling rank. At another stop, Brian and Mike guard an abandoned, burned-out SUV used in a drive-by shooting. It’s Mexican gangsters taking over from African-American gangsters just as homicide detectives take control of the crime scene from Brian and Mike, who are given police-tape duty. Everyone has their turf battles. They guard the scene for two hours while the detectives work. “Comfortable footwear,” Mike tells Van Hauser (David Harbour), the cop who relieves them. “Policing is all about comfortable footwear.” You see them investigate a missing kids case, finding two stoned adults in the living room and the kids duct-taped in a closet. Afterwards you see Brian in a distant shot overlooking LA, crouching. It’s a kind of exhale.
Brian often films what they do, so a lot of what we see is of the found-footage variety. He’s ... pre-law? Dating various girls. But he’s tired of it. Date 1, they kiss by the door. Date 2, they get it on. Date 3, they have nothing to say. “I want a smart girl,” he says. Mike, the voice of the men in the audience, has no sympathy. What Brian sees as his problem—too much sex with too many women—is not a problem; it’s the wish-fulfillment fantasy of the men in the audience.
But Brian finds his smart girl, Janet (Anna Kendrick), with a master’s in fluid hydraulics, and we get this exchange:
Mike: Did you run her?
Brian: Yeah, she’s clean.
Love that. Googling for cops. We see Brian and Janet sleep together, and the next morning she films herself going through his wallet. A list of girls’ numbers? “You won’t be needing this anymore,” she says, plucking it out. Love that, too.
On night patrol, Brian and Mike face down some partying Mexican gangsters, the ones who did the drive-by, including Big Evil (Maurice Compte), with his blank death stare. Just a Mexican/American stand-off but one assumes it anticipates a third-act confrontation. Later they bust one of his men, carrying drug money in a soup pot and a glittery AK-47 in the back of his pickup. “Liberace’s AK,” they call it. Brian talks about the three essential food groups of patrol: money, drugs and guns. Now they just need the drugs. “The ghetto will provide,” Mike says, not unhappily.
At this point in the story it’s all very episodic. Brian and Mike save kids in a burning building, receive medals of valor from the city, and afterwards, on patrol in a convenience store, talk about how they don’t feel like heroes. Both Janet, and Mike’s wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez), chastise their men for risking their lives to save other people’s kids. But that’s the job. Brian takes Janet to the Philharmonic. Mike and Gabby have a kid. Brian and Janet get engaged, then married. “You’ve got a lot of heart hooking up with a cop,” Mike tells Janet during the wedding toast, adding, “We’re all happy you can make a man out of Brian because we’ve about given up.”
All the while, our two heroes, who don’t know who the true villains of the movie are, bust each other’s balls on patrol while busting perps. And each time they go out, we wonder: OK, is this when the story starts?
In this home, they find illegals imprisoned in a backroom, and a towering DEA agent descends upon them, saying, “You guys fucked up.” In another home, they find a 70-year-old woman in a plastic bag in a back closet. Further in, they come across a room of cut-up bodies, like a scene out of “The Killing Fields.” They find cocaine, too. Shortly afterwards, via infrared camera, we see and hear the drug cartel leader, most likely in Mexico, talking on the phone. “This is just two city cops,” he says. “Take care of those assholes,” he says. Is the DEA doing the filming? Will they warn our guys? They don’t. The original gangster, whom Mike fights at the beginning, does. He heard from a dude in prison. They laugh it off. “We’re cops. Everybody wants to kill us.” Then they forget it. They’re back to shooting the shit. They’re being tailed and they’re arguing about rubber bands.
By the time the final showdown occurs, way into the third act, we’ve realized, “This is the movie.” It’s them in the patrol car and them doing their jobs and them living their lives. After the final showdown, after the shooting gallery and the police funeral, Brian, arm in a sling, looking wrecked, has to speak at Mike’s funeral—just as Mike spoke at his wedding. “He was my brother,” Brian begins, then pauses. The pause continues and fills the room. Finally, he leaves the podium. Even if he could say more, that’s all that needs to be said.
Even after all that, we get them one more time on patrol: a flashback to the day of the shooting. One braces oneself. Will it explain things retroactively? Give a clue to the doings of the Mexican drug cartel? Perhaps indicate a betrayal? No. It’s just them shooting the shit and laughing. It drives home what the movie is, and it’s a reminder of what was lost.
“End of Watch,” written and directed by David Ayer (“Training Day”; “Harsh Times”), is powerful, original, funny and terrifying. It feels as authentic as anything that’s been filmed about cops. It’s the coppiest of cop movies without being close to a copy. True, our guys run into more trouble in a year than most cops do in a lifetime; but the tone is right, the dialogue and acting so natural they verge on improvisational, and the vernacular so specific to police work you almost need a lexicon to understand what’s being said.
As for the Mexican drug cartel? It keeps on. Mike dies, it lives. He dies not even knowing the story he was in.
One wonders if this isn’t a healthier ending than the wish-fulfillment fantasies Hollywood provides, or the kind of catharsis Aristotle recommended. We get no catharsis here, no justice, so maybe we search for it elsewhere. Maybe we try to make it happen elsewhere. At the least, “End of Watch” is a movie everyone who funds the illegal drug trade should see. Because no matter how much damage drugs do to you, the real damage isn’t done to you.
Movie Review: Battleship (2012)
The big question in alien invasion movies is generally: What’s their major malfunction? In “War of the Worlds,” it was bacteria. In “Signs,” water. Here? They’re biped lizard creatures so they’re vulnerable to ... wait for it ... sunlight. For creatures attacking Earth, that’s a little less dopey than water but not by much. Sunlight is bad for them so they go to Hawaii? What’s the matter with Seattle? Even Edward was smart enough to hang on the Olympic peninsula.
I’d heard “Battleship” had been unjustly sunk by critics and audiences. I’d heard it was better than that. Or at least better than the “Transformers” movies. Which is like saying a number is bigger than zero.
IMDb.com is actually helpful in this regard. It lets us know that People who liked this also liked ... and then a list: Ang Lee’s “Hulk,” “Battle Los Angeles,” “I Am Four,” and “Green Lantern.” A film festival in hell.
So why do these aliens come here in the first place? Because scientists send a signal into outer space inviting them. Stupid scientists. Brainiacs. With their brains.
Who’s our protagonist? An impetuous ne’er-do-well named Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), who has an older, steadier brother in the Navy, Commander Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård), and who, because he’s trying to impress a girl in a bar who looks like a supermodel (supermodel Brooklyn Decker), winds up with a choice between prison and the Navy. He goes Navy with his brother. He also goes with the supermodel. She’s actually a physical therapist. She’s also the Admiral’s daughter. For a change.
Then the aliens land and everything that was wrong about Alex turns out to be right. He’s the wrong guy in peace but the right guy in war. His steady brother buys it early (loser), his Japanese antagonist, Capt. Yugi Nagata (Tadanobu Asano of “Ichi the Killer” fame), becomes his comrade, and he hangs with a petty officer who looks like a supermodel (supermodel and singer Rihanna). Together they take on the aliens.
The assumption, made early and often, is that the one alien ship that burned up entering our atmosphere was the communication ship; so the aliens are going to use our communications system to contact the home planet with the message, “Bring more. Easy pickings.”
How do we know this is the message they want to send back? We don’t. How do we know they’re not scared and asking for help? Because that would involve empathy, dude, and they’re fucking lizard creatures. In fucking warships. What are you—a fucking scientist? A brainiac? With your brain?
Still, one wonders at what point the aliens’ message would continue to be: easy pickings. After they’ve lost one ship? Two? Four of the five? Just before their final ship is blown up by a decommissioned battleship, the U.S.S. Missouri, and its crew of hotheads and supermodels and geriatric war veterans? It’s all so stupid. We’re paranoid that the aliens are going to attack in greater numbers with their superior technology, but their technology isn’t superior. They get beat by octogenarians.
So, rah rah, we win. Hopper gets promoted, Rihanna gets wet (no umber-ella), the crippled war vet finds a purpose, and the cowardly scientist demonstrates a modicum of courage at the right Han Solo moment.
Brainiacs with their brains fuck it up but gung-ho military sorts sort it out. Yet another liberal message from the liberal folks in liberal Hollywood.
Movie Review: Cosmopolis (2012)
In 10th grade I wrote a small play, full of symbolism, a new word for me back then, about a kid who takes a ride on a department store elevator, which we performed in Mr. Wolk’s English class. The different floors were supposed to represent the different stages of the kid’s life, etc., until he arrived at the top floor, where, of course ...
I think I got a B-.
“Cosmopolis,” directed by David Cronenberg, and based upon a novel by Don DeLillo, is a dreamlike limousine ride through New York City that is representative of a life. During the course of the day-long journey, the 28-year-old billionaire assets manager in the backseat, Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), loses everything—tie, jacket, wife, fortune—then arrives at the end of the line, where, of course... Or I should say maybe...? Cronenberg doesn’t pull the trigger.
I’ll give him a B-.
Packer is in a stretch limo in the first place, with bodyguards patrolling the perimeter, to get a haircut across town. But he keeps running into obstacles. The president is in town (“The president of the United States,” he’s told, when he asks which president), so traffic’s a bitch. Then there’s an anti-corporate protest against corporate mucky-mucks like him—more Battle in Seattle than Occupy Wall Street—and a funeral for a Sufi rap star. As a result, the limo, moving slowly downtown, becomes his rolling office. People enter and exit like they’ve been waiting on the sidewalk all day.
His first seatmate is his start-up partner, Shiner (Jay Baruchel), who feels left behind. He can’t keep up. Neither can we, really. There’s technobabble talk of a “bot” that keeps getting faster and faster in exploiting market inefficiencies, until it, and Packer, never live in the present. They’re always in the future. Or futures. Doesn’t he say this? “Why can I see the future?” Packer asks. Or does he say “can’t”? Early on, Packer sounds like Holden Caulfield with the ducks when he wonders where all the white limos go at the end of the day. Shiner sounds like Fenwick in “Diner” when he says, “You ever get the feeling you don’t know what’s going on?”
Other seatmates include a 22-year-old whiz kid who’s still excited by the numbers (Philip Nozuka); a doctor there for Packer’s daily checkup; and an older French mistress (Juliette Binoche), whom he fucks in the backseat, and who tells him of an available Rothko when he’s interested in a chapel, an entire chapel, that he wants to buy and put in his condo. Whole. They talk over the efficacy and morality of this.
She: People need to see it.
He: Let them buy it. Let them outbid me.
Packer always asks his seatmates “What else?” because he feeds off information even though the most basic information—the president’s in town, one of his favorite singers has died—escapes him. “What do you do exactly?” Elise (Sarah Gadon) asks him at one point. “You know things. I think this is what you do. I think you acquire information and turn it into something awful.” She’s his wife, we find out. At first I thought she was merely a taxi-cab pick up. Then I realized: no, she’s his fiancée. At the diner, she’s his wife, and by the end they’re divorced. A life together in a limo ride. Modern life.
Some of the conversational back-and-forth is fascinating. (“When I was four,” he tells Elise, “I figured out how much I weighed on all the planets in the solar system.”) Other times, it merely sounds like clever tweets. (“Talent is more erotic when it’s wasted.”) Throughout, nobody really listens to anyone. It’s like a “Seinfeld” conversation except dreamy, gloomy, and not funny.
Let’s ask the basic question of Packer that we ask of all of our protagonists: What does the guy want? I don’t know. I’m not sure he knows. He seems to be a man trying to feel something again. That’s why the limo ride to the haircut in the first place. It’s where he got his haircuts when he was a kid. Since Packer lives in the future, or futures, where nothing can be felt, he tries to feel via his past. His present certainly isn’t doing it for him. In the backseat of the stretch limo, which looks like the inside of the Batmobile, and which he initially rides as if he’s Capt. Kirk on the U.S.S. Enterprise, he does whatever he can to feel something. He screws his mistress (Julie Binoche) and has a lengthy prostate exam (his prostate is asymmetrical). Later he screws one of his security guards (Patricia McKenzie) in a nearby hotel, which Cronenberg films as if it’s as cramped and claustrophobic as the limo. When anti-capitalist forces rock the limo, Packer doesn’t react. As he’s losing his fortune, Packer doesn’t react...much. Some critics blame Pattinson for this but it’s obviously the point. What can make him feel again? Why not get out of the limo and walk? He’s the boy-king, trapped, and eventually he kills his bodyguard and dismisses his driver and stands in the dirty streets where an assassin, Beno Levin, (Paul Giamatti), an ex-employee, takes potshots at him. Only then does he come alive again. For a moment. But the confrontation with Levin is a letdown. Levin’s motivation, he says, “is not original.” Eventually Packer shoots his own hand. Then he feels something. But not enough. The awful dreamlike state continues. Until it doesn’t.
Cronenberg does dreamlike well, of course, and the movie’s themes (wealth inequality, living the future, creating a life that speeds past us) are all extremely relevant. But early on I didn’t care what was happening, and I never got back to caring. The man who feels nothing is a dull protagonist. Other people’s dreams are a drag. I also felt about Packer’s ride the way Packer felt about Levin’s motivation. It’s not very original. See: “The Swimmer,” “Heart of Darkness,” “A Face in the Crowd,” and my 10th-grade play.
Movie Review: Premium Rush (2012)
Did it have to be a fixie? That distracted me right away. Dude’s a bike messenger in New York City, zipping along and through massive amounts of traffic, and he has one gear and no brakes? I’ve never understood the appeal of fixies. People ride them even in Seattle. I can’t imagine the leg strength it takes to bike up, say, Queen Anne hill in one gear, or the balls it takes to bike down, say, Fremont hill with no brakes. What’s the advantage? Why take the risk? Is it for the ... premium rush?
Bad title, by the way. I’ve forgotten it about five times since I saw the thing.
No one in this movie gets why Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) rides a fixie, either. Not fellow messenger and sometime-girlfriend Vanessa (the superhot Dania Ramirez, last seen, by me, as Alex on “Entourage”), and not fellow messenger and obnoxious rival for her affections, Manny (Wole Parks). But Wilee has a secret that keeps him safe. He’s the Sherlock Holmes of bike messengers.
You know how the modern cinematic Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) can play out events in his superfast mind before they happen? He can calculate, without really knowing his opponents, which martial arts skills it takes to bring them all down? And then things happen exactly that way? Wilee does the same thing at dicey traffic intersections. This path? Crash 1. That path? Crash 2. The other path? Safety. It’s always the third path. As with jokes.
I admit I was vaguely intrigued by the trailer. Bike messenger has a package, or envelope, or ticket, that he’s supposed to deliver across town, and bad guys (led by Michael Shannon), want it. What could it be?
The movie, jumbled chronologically, begins with Wilee flying silently across the screen and crashing onto the pavement after a bike accident. Drivers are horrified. Vanessa crouches before him teary-eyed with worry. We’re told it’s 6:33 PM and then we flash back to 5:00 PM and Wilee doing his rounds. A slight flirtation with a receptionist. Manny being Manny (i.e., a dick). Wilee and Vanessa on the outs. A last-minute call, or ticket, that Wilee takes. Hey, it’s at Columbia University. Hey, it’s for Vanessa’s roommate, Nima (Jamie Chung). Hey, she seems nervous. Hey, why is this demented, big-headed dude after me?
At Columbia we learn Wilee went to law school but never took the bar. He didn’t want the office life, man. Why make $250-$500 an hour wearing a suit when you could make like $15 an hour riding in the open, polluted air. Vanessa doesn’t get this aspect of him. They’re on the outs because he missed her “school thing,” which turns out to be college graduation, which he thinks isn’t important. I’m with her. For all of Wilee’s hipster accoutrement, his attitude is basically white and privileged. She’s ready to grasp opportunities while he’s coasting on charm and letting opportunities pass him by, because, as a member of the majority group, he can afford to. Dude, just use your knowledge. Pass the bar. Hang a shingle. Help those who need help most. You don’t have to be a corporate lawyer. You can help the Vanessas and Nimas of the world. You know: pretty girls of all races.
Instead, he’s zipping uptown followed by that nutjob Robert Monday (Shannon), who’s trying to kill him. At one point Wilee gets a smartphone photo of the dude’s license plate and takes it to the nearest police station to register a complaint. And who walks in? Monday. He’s a cop. A detective. He’s got a gambling addiction. Another flashback. He’s playing Mah jong in Chinatown and losing bad and owing big. Nima’s ticket represents $50,000. Some Chinese dude tells him about it. How does the Chinese dude know? Do we ever find out?
Soon both Monday and a bike cop (Christopher Place), who must be the fastest bike cop in the world, are racing after Wilee, but our hero gets away using some Danny Macaskill maneuvers (stunt double: Danny Macaskill), then punks out and returns the ticket to Columbia. Not even to Nima. To the receptionist. When Nima finds out she’s distraught. Because that money? She’s been saving that money for two years, working three jobs, in order to ... wait for it ... bring her son to the United States.
In my seat I immediately deflated. The movie’s two big mysteries are: 1) a corrupt cop with a gambling addiction; and, 2) a mother and child reunion. All the fixies and tats in the world can’t make that shit seem new.
But now Wilee is ready to help. Except Monday has recalled the order to a flower shop on 28th rather than Chinatown, and Manny’s picked it up, and he refuses to listen to Wilee. But he will race him. He wants to show him up. So off they go, through Central Park.
This isn’t where the accident happens, by the way. The accident happens after Wilee, being wily, puts the ticket inside his bike handlebars for safe keeping, then comes to a red light that allows no Sherlockian safe path. Boom. Crash. Dead? No. Cracked ribs. Monday rides with him in the ambulance and basically tortures him to get information. Oddly, Wilee doesn’t send him across town. He sends him to the exact spot he sent Vanessa, the police impound lot, where, cracked ribs and all, Wilee grabs another bike and gets away using some serious Danny Macaskill maneuvers (stunt double: Danny Macaskill), and then, in the magic-hour light, on the bike cop’s bike, rides to the Chinatown restaurant.
Monday is there waiting for him, boiling with frustration, while the Chinese flee inside like it’s a remake of “High Noon.” Who doesn’t flee? Bike messengers, dude. They take their tats and dreds and gnarly rides to that same spot, yo, and mess with Monday. But the final blow comes from the gun of a Chinese gangster. Shannon gives us a nice death scene here—it almost makes up for some of his earlier scene-chewing—and Wilee is able to deliver the ticket in time, at 6:59 PM, or 26 minutes after the crash. We should all pack our half-hours with such activity.
David Koepp, best known as a screenwriter (“Jurassic Park,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Spider-Man”), tends to direct, when he directs, the forgettable movies of established stars: “Ghost Town” with Ricky Gervais in 2008; “Secret Window” with Johnny Depp in 2004; “Stir of Echoes” with Kevin Bacon in 1999. Add Joseph Gordon-Levitt and whatever the hell this movie is called.
Movie Review: Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)
I wonder if it’s more fun making these things than watching them. I hope so.
Roarke, AKA the Devil, bestrides the Earth again in the guise of another actor (Ciarán Hinds, replacing Peter Fonda), and he wants his son, Danny (Fergus Riordan, the best thing in the movie), back from his mama, Nadya (Violante Placido), and thus sends a team or mercenaries, led by pretty-boy Ray Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth), to retrieve him.
In their way? Moreau (Idris Elba), a French, motorcycle-riding priest with a taste for wine, who, as the film opens, warns priests that Danny isn’t safe at their monastery. They dismiss his fears. They’re wrong, of course, get theirs, but Nadya and Danny, distrusting Moreau all the while, make their escape. Moreau decides he needs more help. He needs the Rider.
They always call him “The Rider” in these things. Is “Ghost” too silly? Did it not sample well? Is the term too associated with a ridiculous 1970s-era Marvel Comics character with a flaming skull and a flaming motorcycle who sells his soul to the Devil, then fights the Devil, even as he eats souls ostensibly for the Devil? I never did get this guy.
And where is the Rider, Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage), these days? The All-American white-trash hero is holed up in Europe, lingering in the shadows, and clutching his right hand to let us know he’s tortured. He offers lines like the following in tortured, sotto voce narration: “It likes the dark places. The Rider.”
When Moreau shows up, he and Johnny have the following conversation:
Moreau: You will save [Danny].
Johnny B: I don’t ... save ... people.
Until he does.
Just when Ray Carrigan and company have Danny and Nadya cornered in a junkyard, here comes the Rider, flying into action on his flaming motorcycle. But he’s distracted by eating again (souls), gets blasted, and the bad guys get Danny. The Rider wakes up in a hospital and Nic Cage gets to do crazy Nic Cage shit: asking for morphine and pills and yadda yaddas. When he and Nadya hook up, Nic Cage gets to say a few crazy Nic Cage lines: “No, I get it. You’re the devil’s baby mama.”
To be honest, there’s not enough of this. Nic Cage has built the second-half of his career around intentionally stupid shit (example), and some of that would’ve been preferable to the paint-by-numbers plotline we get here. At a diner, for example, after he and Nadya rescue Danny, and after seeing a father and son bonding at the diner for a few seconds, Johnny decides he wants to bond with Danny, too. His need is so palpable that Danny tells him, “Dude. You’re way cooler than the guys she hangs out with.” This, sadly, pleases Johnny. Is there anything worse than an adult who need the approval of a child? Who want to be cool in the eyes of children?
But then Danny is more grown-up than the overacting adults around him. He actually raises the question we’re all wondering. Aren’t I the Devil’s son? Isn’t that bad? To which Johnny tells him:
The power we have comes from a dark place. but it doesn’t mean we’re bad. We can do good. We can help people.
I thought the Rider didn’t ... help ... people? Oh right, that was a half-hour before.
“Ghost Rider 2” keeps doing this. We’re told that Roarke isn’t powerful walking the Earth; he only has the power of the deal. But we never see him make a good deal. He turns Johnny into the Rider to do his bidding, but the Rider never does his bidding. Ray actually reneges on his deal with the Devil, asking for more dough, and gets no comeuppance. Instead, after the Rider kills him, the Devil revives Ray as Blackout, a demon with the power of “de-CAY.” At the same time, at a far-out monastery with bald dudes with spirograph tattoos on their faces (head dude: Chris Lambert), the Devil is finally exorcised from Johnny. He’s himself again! Ah crap. Just when Danny needs him.
You see, the priests have this crazy idea to kill Danny, since he’s the Devil’s son; but then Blackout shows up, kills them, and takes Danny back to Roarke, who plans to transfer his soul into Danny’s body, effectively killing Danny and making himself stronger than ever.
So how do these three—the devil’s baby mama, a French alcoholic priest and a white-trash stunt rider without powers—save the boy from this coven of chanting yadda yaddas? Danny, who has the same power as his father, gives Johnny his power back, and, in a lengthy car-truck chase down European highways, Ghost Rider kills Blackout, growls “Road kill,” then lifts Roarke high in the air and sends him crashing through the earth. “Go home,” he growls.
It’s not cool, it’s not gloriously stupid. It’s just way, way tired.
So isn’t Johnny in the same place he was in the beginning? Clutching his right hand and bemoaning the dark places? You would think! But apparently the Rider was originally an angel named Blah-Blah and Johnny now feels that angel and so yadda yadda. He’s not yellow-flamed anymore but blue-flamed, and that’s good. Mother and Damien are reunited. The Rider is a hero. Or at least better. Or at least he doesn’t have to clutch his right hand.
“Ghost Rider 2” got made because the first, awful “Ghost Rider” grossed $115 million domestic, $228 worldwide, back in 2007. Never mind that in the U.S. it barely grossed twice its opening weekend total ($45 mil), indicating either a puny fanbase or lousy word-of-mouth. The studio thought it had a hit. It didn’t. This one grossed $22 million opening, $55 million total. Road kill.
Movie Review: The Campaign (2012)
“The Campaign” made me laugh out loud but so do cartoons.
There’s a scene where Cam Brady (Will Ferrell), the incumbent Democrat from the 14th district in North Carolina, and his Republican challenger Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), having just finished a televised debate, push and pull and shove one another on the path toward, in the political tradition, a baby ripe for kissing. As they get close, Marty improbably has the upper hand, which so infuriates Cam he decides to coldcock his opponent from behind. But Marty senses this, moves at the last instant, and, in slow-motion, with the horrified faces of everyone in the room reacting, Cam decks the baby instead. In the face, as they say.
I roared when I first saw this scene on “The Daily Show”—and again during the film—but afterwards I couldn’t shake a disquieting thought. Well, that’s the movie then, isn’t it. What candidate can recover from punching a baby in the face in front of the entire press corps?
This one can. Because we’re watching a cartoon. If Jerry drops a safe on Tom’s head, Tom doesn’t die. He just gets back up for the next round. Same here.
Cam, who usually runs unopposed, first gets into trouble when he leaves a sexually explicit message on a family’s answering machine, indicating frequent infidelities, and, rather than wreck him, his numbers simply plummet from 62% to 46%. That’s how Marty, backed by the Koch-inspired Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), joins the race. He’s tubby and fey, with a bad moustache, but he comes from a connected family (Brian Cox is his disappointed father), so he’s tapped for the campaign.
The two trade stupid insults for a few weeks (“He has Chinese dogs”/”He believes in Rainbowland”). Then the Motch brothers send a diabolical campaign manager, Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), to shape up the Huggins family and sharpen Marty’s claws. We get tit for tat. Cam punches the baby, then Uggie the dog from “The Artist.” Marty gets Cam’s son, who never sees his father much, to call him “Daddy” on tape. In response, Cam screws Marty’s wife and builds a campaign commercial around it. In response, on a hunting trip, Marty shoots Cam in the leg. He gets Cam drunk then calls the cops. Cam steals the police car and crashes it. Etc.
Back and forth they go, Tom and Jerry, forever dropping safes on one another and surviving. Some of it is funny, most of it is dumb, but all of it bears only the slightest resemblance to any kind of political reality. Just as Tom approximates a cat, and Jerry a mouse, so Cam and Marty approximate modern American politicians.
Ferrell is basically filtering his W. shtick through a John Edwards filter and turning it up to 11. Galifianakis is reprising his fey “Due Date” character with a touch of sweetener. The Democrat sleeps around (you know), and the Republican is backed by powerful, moneyed interests (you know), who want to make the 14th district a province of China, import cheap Chinese labor, ignore environmental regulations, and thus save on transportation costs. That’s why they’re backing Marty. Of course they don’t tell him until the 11th hour, and of course he rejects their plan. Which means they shift their money and support to Cam. Because it’s all the same. It doesn’t matter. Dem, Repub, whatev. You know. Besides, the electronic voting machines are manufactured by the Motch brothers so they can’t lose. Unless Cam and Marty somehow team up for the greater good of the 14th district...
The movie can’t even get its epigraph right:
“War has rules, mud wrestling has rules—politics has no rules.”
--Ross Perot, presidential candidate, 1988
1988? Perot wasn’t a candidate in ’88. He ran in 1992 and 1996. Or are they suggesting he said it in 1988? That’s wrong, too. He said it in 1996. Besides, it’s hardly a quote worth repeating. War doesn’t have rules, for the victors, and politics does have rules, most of which are unwritten. You can’t slug a baby and keep going, for example. Unless you’re a cartoon.
“The Campaign,” directed by Jay Roach (“Austin Powers”; “Meet the Parents”), and written by Chris Henchy (“The Other Guys”) and Shawn Harwell (“Eastbound and Down”), is political comedy for morons. It wants to show us how dumb the political process is, but, in dumbing down everything, particularly Cam and Marty, they show us how dumb we are. We need characters this stupid in order to be able to laugh at them.
Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy (2012)
In the last “Bourne” footage we saw, from “The Bourne Ultimatum” in 2007, a silhouetted figure floats in the water. We think he’s dead but he’s not. He’s Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and after a moment he swims away. The End.
In the first shots of “The Bourne Legacy” we see another silhouetted figure floating in the water. We think he’s Jason Bourne but he’s not. He’s the new guy, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), who is in the midst of survival training in Alaska, and after a moment he swims away. The Beginning.
It was an interesting choice not to reboot the “Bourne” series (which admittedly would’ve been dull stuff), or simply tap Renner to play Bourne (a la the Bond series). Instead, writer-director Tony Gilroy, who wrote the entire “Bourne” trilogy and now gets to direct his first action movie, has his characters, in essence, “tag off” like in a wrestling match. As Jason Bourne tags off to Aaron Cross, above, so the douchebag government bureaucrats (heretofore: DGBs) tag off. We get reintroduced to such forgotten figures as Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn) and Dr. Albert Hirsch (Albert Finney), as well as the more familiar Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) and Pam Landy (Joan Allen), only to say good-bye to them. They’re replaced by Ret. Adm. Mark Turso, USN (Stacey Keach) and Ret. Col. Eric Byer, USAF (Ed Norton), who have to quell the repercussions of not only the CIA’s “Treadstone” program, which created Bourne, but also “Outcome,” a more sophisticated version of same under the auspices of the Dept. of Defense. And by “quell” I mean, yes, kill everyone involved. As with Watergate, the cover-up (killing U.S. agents) is much worse than the crime (creating U.S. agents to protect America).
The movies tag off, too. During the first half hour, as Cross battles snow and wolves and mountains in Alaska, and arrives at the checkpoint in record time, we get most of the previous movie from Byer’s perspective. He and his DGBs help kill that Guardian journalist in London. They’re up in arms when Bourne shows up in New York. And they’re busy killing their own creations before they too become little Bournes. Outcome #1 gets it in Pakistan, Outcome #4 in Seoul, Outcome #6 in D.C. They all take these pills as part of the program, blues and greens, and they’re simply given a new pill that causes them to bleed from the nose and die. That ends that. Noting more to worry about except our souls.
Except in Alaska. There, two agents, Outcome #s 3 and 5 (Oscar Isaac and Renner), hang in a cabin and warily watch one another. Our man Cross is a little more down-to-earth in his wariness, encouraging chatter, asking the other guy if he has any chems. Blues, specifically. He’s low. Apparently that’s bad.
Then they head outside. “You hearing that?” Cross asks. (We don’t.) “We should spread,” Cross says. A few seconds later, as he’s making his way toward higher ground, a missile obliterates the cabin. When the DOD kills someone in Alaska, they don’t have to be subtle about it.
At this point, all of Cross’ bio-engineered training clicks into place, and he runs, and blinds a drone airplane with a rifle shot, and covers up the tracking device in his hip; then he surgically removes it and force-feeds it to a wolf (I know), who is ultimately the one, poor critter, to go sky-high when the drones come calling.
The ‘Charly’ Legacy
What motivated Jason Bourne? He was a superagent who developed amnesia and needed to find out who he was, then tracked his creators to their lair. He’s basically Frankenstein. He’s the chickens coming home to roost.
What motivates Aaron Cross? He needs pills, man. It’s panic in pharmaceutical park. Apparently if he doesn’t get them, he’ll revert to his old self, which was a bit of a dim bulb. It’s “Charly” as action movie.
I.e., if the point of Bourne was to get closer to who he was, the point of Cross is to keep his old self at a distance.
So he heads back to the lab in D.C., where he got his pills, but which, he reads in the newspaper, has suffered a recent tragic event. One of the doctors there went nuts and killed every other scientist—save one. The pretty one, thankfully: Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz). Yes, this is Byer’s handiwork.
There’s a good scene, post-shooting, at the old home Marta is renovating in the isolated woods of Maryland. Federal agents show up, including Dr. Connie Dowd (Elizabeth Marvel), who mixes faux concern for Marta’s state of mind with real concern for the company’s bottom line, which will ring true to anyone who’s ever dealt with a corporate HR dept. That’s the brilliance of the scene. They’re planning on killing her but first they make her twist a bit. They invade her space mentally, then physically, then they’re forcing her gun to her temple and she’s crying out and we’re hoping for a savior. Hey! Here comes one. I mock now but it’s well-done. Aaron arrives and in lickety-split fashion takes out the agents. Then he burns down the house.
Now they’re on the lam together. He needs pills, she wants to live. They argue. He’s got some low-key working-class resentments, which I like. But Gilroy gives us way too much exposition here, which I don’t. Gilroy is the writer-director who can’t kill his little darlings. He needs us to hear them. So we get talk about “viral-reception mapping” and the like. We also get a bit of a lie—the idea that Marta has to stick with Aaron rather than go public with her story. “Could you ever sing it loud enough or fast enough to make sure they won’t kill you?” he asks. Me in the audience: Yes. Let’s face it: Marta, at this point, is not just anyone. She’s national news, the survivor of the lab shootings, and her house has just been burned to the ground. That alone should twitch any reporter’s antennae. If I were her I would walk in the front door of the Washington Post or Baltimore Sun or CNN. No, I would email Andrew Sullivan or upload a video onto YouTube. I would tweet or status update: U.S. government trying to kill me. Jennifer S.: “Doing your taxes? LOL.” Come on, Hollywood. It’s 2012. Get with it. Turn on, plug in, upload.
Instead we head to the Philippines. There are no more blue pills, apparently, but in the lab there, with the original virus, she can “viral off” Aaron’s need for blues and make the effect permanent. It’ll take nearly a day to get there, sure, but they have a headstart because the DGBs think both of them are dead.
Until they don’t. The DGBs figure it all out by combing through every surveillance cam in the Maryland/D.C. area, spotting her, and, eventually, in passenger manifests, they find... oh my god! Cross! Immediately they know where they are and why, and contact both the med-lab plant in Manila and a Bangkok assassin to fly there and take him out. Government agencies are never so frighteningly efficient as in Hollywood movies.
By this point she’s already viraled him off (cough); but there’s a fever, and by the time it subsides the assassin, LARX #3 (Louis Ozawa Changchien), is blocks away, sniffing, even as the Manila police, alerted by the U.S. government, close in. We get rooftop chases and footraces and zipping motorcycles through Manila traffic. I’m not much of a fan of the car chase but this one’s done well. The surprise? It’s the end. LARX buys it, they are bruised and shot, but they chart a boat for open waters. There, safe, Marta suddenly acts flirtatious. “Are we lost?” she asks. “No,” I was looking at our options,” Aaron says, suddenly serious with maps. “I was kinda hoping we were lost,” she responds with a smile. Camera pullback. Gorgeous scenery. The end.
It’s a shock because nothing’s been resolved. OK, one thing: Cross won’t revert back. But that’s it. It’s open-ended.
The Bourne weight
I should say, again, that I like Renner. He’s got verve, and snap, and a human face; I wouldn’t mind seeing him in some Jimmy Cagney roles. There’s a good supporting cast, too: Isaac in the Alaskan cabin, Marvel as the agent/HR director, Corey Stoll (last scene as Hemingway in “Midnight in Paris”) on Byer’s team. I like what Shane Jacobons, pungently Aussie, did with his throwaway role as the lab foreman in the Philippines.
But there’s too much weight from the previous trilogy, and Gilroy, as good as he is, loves his expository darlings too much. And where do we go from here? Will the next movie involve more amoral, relentless pursuit, a la Javert, or will Cross turn and attack his creators, a la Frankenstein, or will we get both? And would any of this be new?
Here’s a way to make it new. The movie’s tagline is “There was never just one,” and that’s true at the end. Jason Bourne still lives. Time to team up. Either that or have Cross email Andrew Sullivan. Get the fucking story out already. See if anyone gives a shit.
That’s what I’m waiting for, actually. These types of movies hinge on the notion that immoral government acts must be hidden, swept away, before the press, and thus the American public, find out. But what if a scandal broke and nobody cared? Is it still a scandal? That’s the cinematic moment I want: When the Byers of the world realize the carte blanche given them by the American public’s boundless ability for distraction and apathy.
Movie Review: Haywire (2012)
“You like her?”
“I love her.”
That was Patricia on Gina Carano, a kickboxer and mixed martial artist from Dallas, Tex., playing Mallory Kane, a black ops specialist and soldier-for-hire in Steven Soderbergh’s indie-actioner “Haywire.”
Question: Has any leading lady, in one movie, kicked the ass of so many handsome leading men? Carano goes off on Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor. Antonio Banderas is implied.
Further: Has any low-budget actioner had such an acclaimed director working with such a stellar cast? Too bad the results are mixed martial arts. We wind up with the slow pace, jumbled chronology, and general murkiness of an indie combined with the dull tropes of an actioner.
It begins well. Kane, sporting fetching scars on her beautiful face, crosses a winter road in upstate New York and into a roadside diner. She takes a back booth, orders tea, sips. Then she sees Aaron (Tatum) pull up. “Shit,” she says. He joins her, orders coffee, and the two talk in vague terms about him being on vacation, and Barcelona, and what went wrong there. Basically: she’s accused (of something), he’s there to bring her in, but she doesn’t want to go. So we get our first fight. Not only does she win but she takes a hostage, Scott (Michael Angarano). As they drive, she tells him her story, or backstory. We get to watch.
She’s a soldier-for-hire, working for Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), who is often contracted by State (Michael Douglas). She and her team, including Aaron, extract a Chinese journalist from Barcelona for Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas), who has a relationship with State. Or is he with State? It’s all rather murky. As it’s supposed to be.
The job goes well enough. She chases down one loose end because she doesn’t like loose ends, and because it gives us a good footchase through Las Ramblas, then beds Aaron and returns home. But Kenneth is there, too, with another assignment. Something about accompanying Paul (Michael Fassbender) on a job in... is it Dublin? It’s an easy gig. The job requires a power couple and Paul needs a better half. Despite her assets, she’s there for looks. “I don't even know how to play that,” she says. “I don't wear the dress. Make Paul wear the dress.”
But she acquiesces, shows up, gets suspicious. Why? Not sure. Maybe she’s always suspicious. She plays the tipsy wife but tracks Paul’s cell and discovers, under a bed in a stable near a swanky hotel, our Chinese journalist. Dead.
Then Paul tries to kill her. Then she’s on the run.
Some not-bad chase scenes. Chance and serendipity play a bigger role than usual. At one point, she winds up in a blind alley and waits to attack her pursuers (hapless garda), when the back door of a nearby restaurant opens, a bus boy with trash, and she bolts inside. At another point, as she and Scott, her upstate New York hostage, are in the midst of escaping the police, she runs into a deer, which is how she’s caught.
There are several showdowns. Basically she moves up the ladder of murky accountability. Paul gets it in Dublin, Kenneth in South America, and Rodrigo, the true mastermind, back in Spain. “Shit,” he says when he sees her. Which is how the movie ends. Using the word with which it began.
But what’s the unraveled story again? Someone wanted the Chinese journalist dead; Kenneth feared Mallory leaving his company and taking his clients with her. So two birds. The Chinaman gets it (making who happy?), and the crime can be blamed on Mallory. But, in the tradition of actioners, she fights back.
The dialogue from Lem Dobbs, who has worked with Soderbergh before (“Kafka” (1991) and “The Limey” (1999), is David-Mamet minimalist with a tendency toward smartness. “I like the idea of me doing my job,” Rodrigo says, “more than the idea of someone else doing my job.” Later in the movie, when talking motivations, Kenneth says, “It’s always about money.”
But there are loose ends and I don’t like loose ends. Why is Mallory telling Scott her story? Why does he seem to care about her? And why is the Chinese journalist killed in Dublin? Why not do it in Barcelona and take her out there as well? Why the necessity of bringing her along on a second mission to blame her for the first?
And why call it “Haywire”?
Miss Carano, whose voice was lowered post-production, is enough of a hit to get Patricia’s appreciation, but there are just too many misses. The movie’s first word is “Shit,” its last word is “Shit,” and there’s too much shit in between.
Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
As it begins, one thinks “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is about deprivation but it’s actually about defiance and celebration. One thinks, “How sad that people have to live like that,” when they battle everything—governmental agencies, sickness, global warming, and, yes, prehistoric beasts unleashed by global warming—to keep living like that. This is our home, they’re saying. We shall not be moved.
Me? I’d move in a second. All that garbage and mud? Those shacks? That sickness and drunken nothingness? As a result, I was at odds with the movie’s emotional core. I’m way too fastidious. I wanted to flee the very place they embraced.
The heart of the movie is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a fierce, independent, six-year-old girl living on the wrong side of the levee in a bayou about to be swept away by global warming; but she is inculcated by her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), to keep living there. At one point Wink takes Hushpuppy out in a homemade boat, patched together from what others have thrown away, and they gaze at factories and smokestacks on the other side of the levee. They’re outsiders but not envious. “Ain’t that ugly over there,” he says, adding, “We got the prettiest place on Earth.”
Left unspoken is the fact that those ugly factories and smoke stacks are contributing to the global warming that’s about to wash away their home, which is the prettiest place on Earth.
We get their story by and by. Writer-director Benh Zeitlin tells us little, shows us more. Here’s Hushpuppy, walking around in white rubber boots, and listening to the heartbeats of the animals they keep in their ramshackle home. Here’s Wink, drinking and talking with neighbors about a storm coming and waters rising. Here’s another harsh lesson from Wink to Hushpuppy: “Every animal is made out of meat,” he says. “I’m meat. Y’all ass is meat.” Hushpuppy tries to make sense of this. She tries to balance sympathy and survival. She knows, without the protections she’s had from her father, “I wouldn’t even be Hushpuppy. I’d just be breakfast.”
Then Wink disappears. Has he fled? Has he been killed or incarcerated? When he shows up again, angry and stumbling, he’s in a blue hospital gown with a plastic ID bracelet around his wrist. He’s sick but doesn’t want their cure. He doesn’t want Hushpuppy’s help. The fierce independence he drums into her—that he feels she needs to survive—comes from him. “Who’s the man!” he yells at her at one point. “I’m the man!” she shouts back.
When the storms come, and Hushpuppy is scared, Wink goes outside to rage against it—to show her there’s nothing to be scared of. The waters rise. Some survive. Against the instincts of a maternal teacher in the bayou, Wink and others, using an alligator stuffed with dynamite, lead a nighttime assault that blows up a portion of the levee. The waters recede. We see the residents sort through what’s left. We see Hushpuppy find medicine for her father, which she dribbles onto his mouth while he’s sick and sleeping. Then the authorities come and suddenly we’re in a clean hospital. Hushpuppy is wearing a little blue dress and her beautiful wild hair is tamed. “It didn’t look like a prison,” she says in voiceover. “It looked like a fish tank with no water.” Prison or not, they still need to break out, and do. They still need to make their way back home.
Early on, from the maternal teacher, we hear a story of prehistoric beasts called aurochs, and as the polar ice cap melts we see these beasts, looking like giant warthogs, trapped in the ice, then free and roaming, and snuffling, and thundering closer and closer. At first I thought it was a metaphor for all the bad shit going down and coming down. It’s not. As Hushpuppy and three other girls make their way back to the bayou, the thundering gets louder, they look behind them, scream and run. All but Hushpuppy. She stands her ground. She faces down these beasts, to whom she knows she’s breakfast, and tells them, in essence, she’s Hushpuppy, daughter of Wink, and will not be moved. It’s a great scene: this tiny fierce face against this vast monstrosity. You can still call it a metaphor—it certainly works as a metaphor—but it’s most obviously wish fulfillment: ours and Wink’s. It’s also the film’s climax: Wink’s work is done. He can die now, knowing Hushpuppy can survive without him.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” arrived in Seattle with a kind of thunder of its own, Manohla Dargis’, who declared in The New York Times that the film was “among the best films to play at Sundance in two decades.” I went in hoping to be blown away. I wasn’t.
Quvenzhané Wallis is stunning and should hear Oscar talk. Dwight Henry is good. The filmmakers mix elements of both Katrina and global warming into a “We shall not be moved” ethos. But I wasn’t moved. I wanted the movie to crack me open, like a levee, but it didn’t. I remained an outsider. I looked at the muddy, ramshackle place they loved, the prettiest place on earth, and thought, “Ain’t that ugly over there.”
Movie Review: Ted (2012)
There are belly laughs in Seth MacFarlane’s “Ted” but afterwards I felt depressed and unclean.
“Ted” is a movie about a miracle that gets usurped by the worst 1980s pop-culture crap. It’s about putting away childish things when the main character doesn’t. The two central characters, John Bennett and Lori Collins (Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis), are both nice, good-looking people but most everyone around them is a douchebag, a sap, creepy, or depressingly stupid. A nighttime chase scene winds up at Fenway Park and I thought, “Can’t we have one movie set in Boston that doesn’t wind up at Fenway Park?” Retahded.
But it’s mostly the pop-culture crap, and the waste it signifies, that got me down.
The movie opens in a nice middle-class neighborhood. It’s Christmastime. Snow is falling gently on the ground, the kids are building snowmen, and it’s that time of year, we’re informed by the narrator (Patrick Stewart), when all the little children ... beat up on the Jewish kids. Little John Bennett is the nice kid in the neighborhood who leaves his house as it’s happening, as four gentiles are beating up on a curly-haired Jewish kid, and he asks, innocently, if anyone wants to play. Everyone pauses in the beating to tell him to get lost—including the Jewish kid. “Yeah, Bennett,” he says, “Get lost!” That’s the first time I belly laughed.
For Christmas John gets a teddy bear, and that night he wishes it could talk to him for real, that it could be his friend for real. A shooting star goes by. Next morning, this miracle has happened.
Initially we wonder if it’s going to be a “Mr. Ed” thing, where nobody will see Ted walking and talking but John. Nope. His parents see and freak. Next thing we know, Ted is on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. He’s a hit. He’s a celebrity. Which is when Patrick Stewart informs us of the first rule of celebrity: “Eventually nobody gives a shit.” And that happens to Ted.
We cut to 2012 and John, now 35, and Ted are hanging out on the couch, getting high, eating Sugar Pops cereal and watching Sam Jones in the 1980 camp classic “Flash Gordon.” Ted, voiced by Seth MacFarlane, talks about how ugly Boston girls are. He does a bit mocking the Boston girl mid-orgasm: “Hahdah, hahdah.” The two talk about how “Flash Gordon” is the all-American movie: a football quarterback goes into outer space to save the world. What could be better? They both agree Patriots QB Tom Brady could totally do that. Then John realizes it’s 9:30 and he’s already late for work at Liberty Rent-a-Car, where he’s hoping to hang on long enough to make a $37K a year job. Since he’s too high, Ted drives him there.
Can I pause for a moment? I just hate this kind of thing. I hate it when a movie gives us a transformative event but doesn’t recognize it as such. The filmmakers are so intent on their own metaphor, or have so little faith in humanity, that they assume we’ll see the transformative event as akin to, I don’t know, the iPad, or “Home Alone,” and, after a flurry of activity, we’ll forget about it.
So in “District 9,” the transformative event is aliens landing on Earth, the metaphor is “aliens as persecuted minority,” and that’s what they become, and that’s all they become. So in “Ted,” an inanimate object becomes a living, sentient being through prayer. In the real world, entire religions would be built around him. Thousands would descend upon John, demanding that he pray for them, too. The law would get involved (does Ted have civil rights?), as would science (exactly how is he alive?), and the military (can John animate other inanimate objects—like weapons?). But writer-director Seth MacFarlane (“Family Guy”) would rather wallow in gags about ’80s pop culture. Ted, a true Christmas miracle, simply becomes a fuzzier version of Gary Coleman: a cute star in the 1980s who struggles to find his way in the 2000s.
MacFarlane steeps us in ’80s nostalgia. During John’s first date with Lori, four years earlier, they watch “Octopussy” together. When he recalls the party where they met on the dance floor, it’s an almost frame-by-frame remake of the “Saturday Night Fever” parody sequence in “Airplane.” “Flash Gordon” keeps getting referenced, and Sam Jones, its star, eventually shows up, and they all party and do coke together, which causes Lori to break up with John, who tries to win her back by crashing Norah Jones’ concert and singing “All Time High,” the theme from “Octopussy,” to Lori in the audience.
There are also references to Sinead O’Connor, Tom Skerrit, “Top Gun,” “T.J. Hooker,” and “Aliens,” while the villain, Donny (an incredibly creepy Giovanni Ribisi), who covets Ted, wants to buy him, and then kidnaps him, dances to Tiffany singing her mall-hit, “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
We see the conflict between Lori and Ted coming a mile off, and, to MacFarlane’s credit, he doesn’t draw it out. Lori wants Ted out, John is straightforward with him, Ted gets his own place and a job as a cashier at a supermarket, where he bangs the cute cashier, Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth, who has an early Denise Richards thing going) on top of the produce in the back. For which he gets promoted.
There are funny bits. Ted tells off the grocery store manager, who admits he’s not used to being talked to that way. “That’s because everyone’s mouth is usually full of your wife’s box,” Ted replies.
There are sweet bits. Lori says, “I know I’m not a talking teddy bear but at least you didn’t have to make a wish to get me.” John replies, “How do you know?”
Wahlberg is, again, quite good as another sweet, laid-back dude who can throw a punch when he needs to. And the look of pure joy on his face when he first sees Sam Jones is adorable. But he’s playing a guy who eats Sugar Pops and gets high all the time and he still looks like Mark Wahlberg? Please. Plus I wouldn’t mind seeing him show the fire he showed in “The Departed” again. At least once. In a leading role.
Ultimately “Ted” is a celebration of stupid people liking stupid shit. One assumes that MacFarlane, as funny as he is, is one of these people. He has the chance to say something about miracles, or the emptiness of nostalgia, but we don’t even get the “putting away childish things” lesson. During a chase, Ted gets torn, and dies, but he’s brought back to life by Lori, who makes her own wish on a shooting star. Apparently this is the only wish God grants: Bringing Ted to life. So he can make pussy jokes. Plus jokes about Mexicans and the Chinese, who are, like, totally hilarious. The way they talk.
If it’s any consolation, I don’t like “Family Guy,” either.
Movie Review: Casa de mi Padre (2012)
I don’t think I’ve laughed less at anything Will Ferrell’s been in: any skit on “Saturday Night Live,” any cameo in a Ben Stiller film, any video on the “Funny or Die” site.
Once again, the trailer has all the best bits. By which I mean the muted, forced chuckle of Ferrell as he and his compadres, on horseback, watch the cattle graze. That made me laugh. Did anything else in this movie? I’m drawing a blank.
Ferrell plays Armando Alvarez, the sweet, somewhat stupid, and somewhat cowardly son of land-rich patriarch Miguel Ernesto (Pedro Armendariz, Jr.), who favors his younger son, Raul (Diego Luna), who, unbeknownst, is a drug dealer in a festering rivalry with Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal). Raul has also returned with a bride-to-be, the beautiful Sonia (the beautiful Genesis Rodriguez), who may or may not favor Armando.
There are a lot of jokes based upon the poor production values of Mexican cinema. It’s not like these don’t translate; it’s that they’re not funny. They’re tepid. Either push the joke further or eliminate it. Here, they’re stuck in this bland middle ground. They almost feel tacked on.
I’m sure there are in-jokes about Mexican cinema that I just didn’t get. God, I certainly hope so. At the same time, I recall at least being charmed by another Mexican film parody from Hollywood, “Nacho Libre” (2006), starring Jack Black, and directed by Jared Hess of “Napoleon Dynamite” fame. It was sweet, and funny, and focused on that bizarre Mexican cinematic fixation with masked wrestlers.
There’s no similar charm in “Casa.” The girl is hot, Ferrell is amusing in a few scenes, and I liked the campire singalong, “Yo no se,” with his compadres. Basically I got five minutes of enjoyment out of an 85-minute film.
Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
It’s too soon.
That’s the big problem with Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man.” It’s been only 10 years since we last saw Peter Parker get bit by a spider and develop super-powers, and watch Uncle Ben die, and wrestle with issues of power and responsibility as he fights bad guys and gives up those he loves to protect them from those who hate. Just 10 years. And they pretty much got it right the first time. So what’s the point of “The Amazing Spider-Man”?
Sixteen years separated Tim Burton’s “Batman” and Chris Nolan’s “Batman Begins,” and during that time major innovations occurred in filmmaking and CGI and politics and superhero storytelling. We went from a Cold War world to a post-9/11 world. We went from mail to email, from daily newspapers to aggregate sites. We went from a world of DC moviemaking (“Batman”) to Marvel moviemaking (“X-Men”; “Spider-Man”). But from 2002 to 2012? What’s really happened? Obama. iStuff. Our phones got smarter as we got dumber. Otherwise?
Should we reboot the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy now? Harry Potter? Shrek? The Dark Knight? How infantile are we becoming?
Tell us that story again, Daddy.
At least director Marc Webb (thwip) and screenwriter James Vanderbilt do their best to tell the story in a new way. They give us Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), not Mary Jane Watson; Captain Stacy (Dennis Leary), not J. Jonah Jameson; the Lizard (Rhys Ifans), not the Green Goblin. They don’t graduate Peter from high school. They never have Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) utter the famous phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Instead, he tells Peter, “Not choice, responsibility.” Hey, maybe they’re trying to prevent another disaster like “Spider-Man 3,” whose great lesson was, “We always have a choice.” And maybe that’s why they show us the cash-register thief (AKA, the Burglar) actually killing Uncle Ben, so no future director can give us retcon bullshit that undoes Spider-Man’s entire raison d’etre. Yeah, I’m still pissed off about it.
They make Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) sexy and cool. That’s new. Instead of a wide-eyed, sweet geek, which is what Tobey Maguire gave us, he’s practically James Dean here. He’s troubled, and slouchy, and conflicted, and his hair goes every which way. He wears a hoodie and rides a skateboard and when he first develops super-powers, and is being chased by punks, he bounces off the walls and over metal railings like Sebastian Foucan on steroids. He’s Peter Parkour. He should be in a Mountain Dew commercial.
This Peter Parker stands up to bullies like Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) before he even gets super powers. A good touch. I always thought it wrong that Peter never fought back until he had the overwhelming power to do so. If he can’t stand up to people whose strength is greater than his own as Peter Parker, how does he develop the courage to do so as Spider-Man?
Do they, in fact, make Peter too exemplary? Smart and sexy and courageous? There’s a scene halfway through where two science nerds debate the propensities of Spider-Man’s web, and Peter follows behind them with a kind of smirk on his face. He’s not them, he’s apart from them. But didn’t he used to be them? They’ve skipped the Steve Ditko version of Peter and gone straight to Johnny Romita. First, Clark Kent went model handsome in “Smallville”; now Peter here. We’re losing our secret-identity nerds, kids. Everyone’s cool now.
At the same time, Peter’s kind of a little shit, isn’t he? He steals into an Oscorp internship tour by taking the badge of Rodrigo Guevara (Milton Gonzalez), who probably worked hard all of this life to make it there. Adios, amigo. Then Peter plagarizes the cross-genetics work of his own father, Richard Parker (Campbell Scott), in order to impress his father’s old partner, Dr. Curt Connors of Oscorp. The formula is supposed to solve problems with the decay-rate algorithm, or whatever, and Dr. Connors thinks it works, but it doesn’t. The experimental mouse turn into a half-lizard and Dr. Connors turns into the Lizard. In this manner, the villain creates the hero (Peter gets bit at Oscorp) and the hero creates the villain (decay rate algorithm). Shades of Tim Burton’s “Batman.”
The Uncanny Valley
OK, something else happened in the last 10 years that affected this version of Spider-Man. “The Dark Knight” happened. It broke box-office records, grossed $533 million in the U.S., and became the first superhero movie to pass $1 billion worldwide. Ever since, studios have tried to duplicate its formula. Specifically, they’ve looked to “Batman Begins” to see how Chris Nolan set up “The Dark Knight.”
“The Amazing Spider-Man” does the same. It:
- goes dark, gritty, and realistic;
- keeps the costume off the hero for the first half of the movie;
- merely suggests the hero’s true nemesis (the Joker, the Green Goblin) at the end, to set up the sequel.
You could even say the spray-painted red spider on the alley wall is the low-rent, underground version of the bat signal at the end of “Batman Begins.”
Let’s look at the realism first. In terms of web-slinging through Manhattan, the first trilogy took its cue from the comic book and assumed there was always something above Spidey for his webbing to latch onto. That’s not the case. Like anything else in Manhattan, you have to work the angles and the sides of buildings. It’s not an amusement park ride, kids. Trucks get in the way. Spiders get squashed.
The costume is kind of real, too, in that it’s less cool. The Maguire version of Spider-Man was proportionately perfect, the suit impeccable. He was my Spidey brought to life. This one’s a bit tall and gangly ... and slouchy. Slouch is only cool in a jacket, preferably with the collar up, not in a skin-tight unitard. At times, I was even reminded of the 1970s TV-version of Spider-Man. That’s not good. And what’s with the sparkle? It’s Spidey does Vegas. It’s Peter and the technicolor spidersuit.
Realism only goes so far in superhero movies anyway. In fact, I wonder if superhero movies don’t suffer their own version of “the Uncanny Valley,” that theory from robotics and 3-D animation stating that the closer the product comes to seeming realistic, the less realistic, or at least more uncomfortable, it becomes.
Shouldn’t, for example, what happens to Dr. Connors freak out Peter? Just a little? Dr. Connors’ DNA is crossed with a lizard’s and he turns into a giant lizard. Peter’s DNA is crossed with a spider’s, so shouldn’t he, I don’t know, worry about turning into a giant spider? Shouldn’t he look in the mirror every two seconds for any evidence of bug eyes and extra limbs? I know I would.
And, really, in the long history of Oscorp, has no one else been bitten by these experimental spiders? And how do the guys chasing Peter Parkour keep up? Peter’s climbing walls, they’re climbing stairs, yet they meet him on the roof. Really?
And no one at Midtown High knows that Peter Parker is Spider-Man? Did you see him dunk? Did you see him keep the ball from Flash Thompson? Like he had superglue on his hands? Like it was stuck there? With, like, spider stuff?
Becoming rather than being
At least they don’t rush the origin. Becoming is so much more interesting than being. When I was young, twentyish, I read Philip Norman’s book, “Shout: The Beatles in their Generation,” but the portion I read over and over was the part of the story from the launchpad (January 1963 and “Please Please Me”) to the burst of world-wide fame (February 1964 and “The Ed Sullivan Show”). That’s the sweet spot of becoming, the cresting of the wave, and it was fascinating to me. Still is. And that’s what Webb and company try to give us here.
In Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” after the spider-bite, Peter develops a fever, goes to sleep, and wakes up superstrong, and, it’s implied, with bigger testicles. That’s about it. In Amazing Fantasy #15, he just gets strong: “I crushed this steel pipe as though it were paper!” Here, every sense becomes super-attuned and he doesn’t know his own strength. He keeps yanking knobs off doors and breaking glass and mirrors. He stays Peter for a long, long time. Even after Uncle Ben dies, he has no idea what he’s doing. He needs Capt. Stacey’s dinner-table speech about heroism to finally see himself as a hero and act accordingly.
My favorite scene in the movie may be the first post-bite scene, when he falls asleep on the subway and some lout, for a gag, balances a beer can on his head. Then a drop of condensation trickles down the can and plops onto his forehead and he wakes with a start and jumps onto the ceiling of the subway car. Everyone stares in amazement for a second, or two, until, like Wile E. Coyote, he realizes that what he’s doing is impossible and falls back to earth. Oddly, even after this bizarre demonstration of power, they keep messing with him. The lout’s girl (Tia Texada) complains about the beer spilled on her blouse, and Peter, a clumsy gentleman, tries to help, and of course his hand, now as sticky as a spider’s, gets stuck. Eventually off comes the blouse, making louts of us all. What I particularly liked was how, throughout, Peter keeps apologizing. As the blouse is ripped off, as he takes down the lout and his loutish friends without trying, he keeps saying, “I’m sorry ... I’m really sorry!” That’s a good bit.
The distracted protagonist
I keep wondering how much I would’ve liked Webb’s version if Raimi’s trilogy had never existed. I’m sure I would’ve been impressed. But “The Amazing Spider-Man” doesn’t quite work not only because it’s too soon but because it’s a distracted movie and its hero is a distracted protagonist. What does the guy want and how does he get it? That’s the point of most of our stories. Not here. As the movie begins, Peter wants to find out about his parents. He never does. Then he wants to bring Uncle Ben’s killer to justice. He never does that, either. Then he wants a girl, particulary Gwen Stacey, and he gets her. But she has to do most of the heavy lifting. Plus he promises a dying Capt. Stacey to stay away from her. Which, it’s implied, he won’t do.
Of course it’s not his fault. The filmmakers are waiting to resolve these issues in the sequels. That’s the kind of movie culture we live in now. We’re back to the cliffhangers of movie serials. Instead of next week, it’s two or three years from now. Stay tuned. Don’t miss the next thrilling chapter, “My Dad worked for the CIA!” Summer 2015.
Including Peter’s parents was perhaps the biggest way Webb differentiated his movie from Raimi’s, but it's a mistake. Because nobody gives a shit. Parents in superhero stories are there to get out of the way and/or die. Think Thomas Wayne, Jor-El, Uncle Ben. Do we care who Reed Richards’ parents were? Ben Grimm’s? Bruce Banner’s? Ang Lee cared about Banner’s father and look where that got us. Stay away from the parents!
They’re not going to. Halfway through the credits, in perhaps the lamest teaser ever, we watch Curt Connors in prison talking with a shadowy, malevolent figure, most likely Norman Osborne, who will become The Green Goblin. “Did you tell the boy the truth about his father?” the shadowy figure asks. Ah, the truth. About his father. I’m on tenterhooks.
Dr. Connors, who regained his humanity by saving Peter’s life, responds with the movie’s final line. It’s an ironic line, given that this is a reboot of a 10-year-old product. He says this:
You should leave him alone!
Try telling that to Columbia Pictures.
Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
WARNING: BAT SPOILERS
Is Gotham City worth saving? One wonders if Batman ever wonders that.
Thomas Wayne tried saving the city in “Batman Begins,” but he and his wife were killed by a petty criminal, Joe Chill, in a back-alley mugging, and the city was overrun by organized crime and corrupt law enforcement. It took Wayne’s son, Bruce, alias Batman (Christian Bale), to save it from both the slow, sad death of corruption and a quick, mad death ordered by Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and the League of Shadows. In this, there is one good police, Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman), and one good prosecutor, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), and that’s about it.
In “The Dark Knight,” the Joker (Heath Ledger) tries to prove that the moral code of the citizens of Gotham is a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble, and does. He holds the city hostage by demanding that: 1) Batman unmask himself; 2) a petty functionary of Wayne Enterprises be killed; and 3) two ferry boats engage in a test of wills, or souls, to see which blows up the other. In this, the citizens of Gotham: 1) agree; 2) start shooting; 3) redeem themselves by not acting, which, given Gotham’s history, is less ferry-boat ending than fairy-tale ending. The good citizens, Lt. Gordon and Rachel Dawes (now Maggie Gyllenhaal), are joined by Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a white-knight district attorney whose face is eventually mangled into the grotesquerie of Two Face, and who goes mad from pain and loss. His crimes are then pinned on Batman, by Batman, who believes that Dent’s true, sad end would be too much for the delicate natures of Gothamites, who would lose all hope.
Now, in “The Dark Knight Rises,” the League of Shadows is back, in the form of Bane of the basso profundo (Tom Hardy), who, in a master stroke, blows up all but one of the bridges connecting Gotham to the rest of the world, and, with a nuclear device holding the city hostage, becomes its defacto warlord, urging “the people” to take back from “the rich” what is theirs. They do. In a flash, law and order crumbles, Gotham becomes Paris in 1789, and our old pal, Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), becomes the sentencing/hanging judge. Chaos reigns.
So one can forgive Batman for thinking, “Really? Again? You can’t...? OK. But seriously, this is the last fucking time.”
Or maybe it’s the citizens of Gotham who should be doing the wondering. Specifically: Why does this always happen to us?
The answers as revealed in each movie in the Dark Knight trilogy: 1) because the League of Shadows wants to wipe out your city, which is hopelessly corrupt; 2) because the Joker wants to prove your city can be hopelessly corrupted; and, 3) because the League of Shadows wants to wipe out your city, which is hopelessly law-abiding.
One can forgive Gothamites for asking for a little consistency from its supervillains. Or its writer-director.
That’s Gotham’s true problem—and ours. Christopher Nolan, the writer-director of the Dark Knight trilogy, loves, too much, the needlessly complicated schemes of his supervillains.
This is just part of Bane’s plan in “Dark Knight Rises”:
- Using Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) to lift a fingerprint of the now-reclusive Bruce Wayne, eight years after the events of “Dark Knight,” so it can be used to bankrupt him. In this manner, Wayne Enterprises, which includes a potential nuclear weapon in its basement, can be taken over.
- Defeating Batman and throwing his broken body into the horrific third-world, underground prison from which Bane emerged.
- Dozens, maybe hundreds of men, working in Gotham’s sewers for months, without anyone knowing, in order to create the explosives necessary for the takeover.
- Having all of these explosives go off at the exact moment that 99 percent of Gotham’s now squeaky-clean but fairly incompetent police force are searching the sewers for same, effectively trapping them below ground, and leaving Gotham ripe for 1789-style anarchy.
Let’s face it: a helluva lotta luck goes into 3) and 4), not to mention 2). Any of these go wrong—Batman beats Bane, some bum discovers the men in the sewer, the cops don’t go underground at that exact moment—and the plan goes bust.
But was 1) even necessary? Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) wind up blocking unethical corporate raider and Bane benefactor Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) from gaining control of the company, which winds up in the hands of rich socialite and super-hotty Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). But Bane takes the nuke anyway. So why the financial machinations when things can just be taken?
Don’t even get me started on the kidnapping of Dr. Pavel (Alon Aboutboul), supposedly the only man who can arm the device. It involves Bane pretending to be a CIA prisoner, and members of the League of Shadows rapelling from a bigger plane to the smaller CIA plane in order to blow it apart. Really? You can’t kidnap one Indian dude off the street? You have to wait until he’s in the sky?
Even so, for most of its 164-minute runtime, I was enjoying the dark opera that is “The Dark Knight Rises.” I felt pain, a kind of childish pain, watching Batman fall, and seeing his armory raided for the purpose of subjugating rather than liberating Gotham.
I continued to be impressed with Gary Oldman’s low-key performance as Gordon: the ordinary man caught in extraordinary events.
I liked Joseph Gordon-Leavitt’s stolid police officer, Blake, who, despite an upbringing at St. Swithins orphanage, in which he talks about the masks one needs to wear to survive, is the most straightforward character in the movie. It feels like he gave up on bullshit long ago. He also figures out Bruce Wayne’s secret without breaking a sweat, which, yeah, seems a bit much.
And I loved Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, who doesn’t merely ride Batman’s motorcycle fetchingly (giving added meaning to the movie’s title), but plays whatever woman she needs to play—mousey, frightened, sexy—in order to get what she needs from the nearest man. She also has some of the movie’s best lines.
Lucius: Fox I like your girlfriend, Mr. Wayne.
Selina Kyle: He should be so lucky.
So I was enjoying myself. Then the 11th-hour reveals began.
All al Ghuls all the time
First, we find out that Bane’s master plan isn’t Bane’s at all. It’s Miranda Tate’s. Because she’s really Talia al Ghul, Ra’s’ daughter, getting revenge on Batman and Gotham in the name of her father.
As a result, Bane—a one-note villain, yes, but a pretty cool note—goes from mastermind to guard dog in a flash. His eyes dim and he stands around waiting for commands. A few moments later he’s shot and killed by Catwoman. Hey, how come no one tried that before? You know. When Bane was terrorizing everybody?
So Nolan undercuts the villain once again. He did it with Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) in “Batman Begins,” who, it turns out, was controlled by Dr. Crane, who, it turns out, was controlled by Ra’s al Ghul. The al Ghuls keep getting in the way. In the entire trilogy, only the Joker is Ghul-free.
Then we get the extended backstory. It was Talia, not Bane, who escaped that horrid third-world prison as a child. She’s the love child of Ra’s al Ghul, whose lover, unbeknownst to Ra’s, was placed pregnant into that third-world pit as part of a deal that allowed him to escape. There, the mother is killed, but Talia, with the help of Bane, survives, and, with the help of Bane, escapes; then she and her father return to rescue what’s left of Bane. But the father resents the benefactor and excommunicates him from the League of Shadows. Does Talia not resent this? Does she not resent her father for abandoning her and her mother? Apparently not. Apparently she’s still willing to risk everything to carry out his mad plans.
And what’s with that prison anyway? Why is the mother, the daughter, and Bane attacked, and Bruce not? Why do inmates chant “Rise” as Bruce attempts to escape? Did they chant “Rise” for Talia? If so, why attack Bane afterwards? Why aren’t they high-fiving each other?
And if it’s Talia who masterminded everything, when exactly was she going to reveal this to Batman? After she nuked Gotham? Via the TV hookup or in person? Did she have her “slow knife” line ready for such an encounter? Because surely she’d want Batman to know who brought him low.
And if she truly wanted to bring him low, shouldn’t she have done nothing at all? He was wasting his life, a gimpy recluse, before she and her plan made him interested in the world again. That’s quite a gift. He should’ve thanked her.
And she’s League of Shadows? She shows no stealth. What happened to that organization anyway? Its members are a little less shadowy these days. Bane and Batman, in particular, are bruisers. Their fights are like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed in the 14th round. The promise of ninja-stealth from “Batman Begins” is long forgotten.
As is, by the way, summoning bats with the sonic device in Batman’s boot. Seriously, if I were Batman? I’d be doing that shit every time I showed up.
Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb
Anyway, that’s the first 11th-hour reveal. Talia is the mastermind; and Bane, reduced to functionary, is removed with a single bullet.
So now we follow her. She is helped into the passenger seat of the truck carrying the nuke, and when the driver is killed, and it crashes, and Batman and others arrive at the scene, she, like in some soap opera, ekes out the words, “My father’s work is done,” then does the head-tilt-to-the-side to indicate death. Lame.
But it sets up our dramatic end, the final sacrifice of the Batman. In the trailer and in the movie, Batman and Catwoman have this exchange:
Catwoman: You don’t owe these people any more. You’ve given them everything.
Batman: Not everything. Not yet.
So we go in expecting the death of Batman. And that’s what we get. Batman, in his batplane, hooks onto the ticking nuke and flies it over open waters, where it explodes far enough away to save Gotham and its citizens. (Look for future mash-ups with Adam West’s famous line from the 1966 “Batman” movie: “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”)
The second 11th-hour reveal is that Officer Blake, who throws away his badge in disgust after the battle is over, has a seldom-used first name: Robin. After Bruce’s death, Wayne Manor is transformed into the Thomas and Martha Wayne Home for Orphans, and Blake, working there, discovers the batcave. The legend lives on.
At first I liked this. Gordon-Leavitt’s face and body type are almost perfect for the role. Plus, as played here, he’s cool, which means Robin would actually be cool for the first time in his long, sad history. But then I realized the folly. “Wait. Bruce Wayne trained for seven years for this. Dude’s a ninja. Robin’s not bad in a fight, but he ain’t no ninja. At the least, he has at least one Nepalese trek in his future or he won’t last long.”
The third and final reveal is that Batman isn’t really dead. Autopilot, remember?
This was immediately disappointing. I suppose I wanted the finality of his death. I suppose I wanted his earlier lines (“Not everything. Not yet”) to have meaning. I suppose I wanted to see something different in a blockbuster movie.
Besides, it means that Bruce Wayne at the end of the movie is in a predicament similar to Bruce Wayne at the beginning of the movie. Sure, he’s away from Gotham City, as Alfred long advised. Sure, he’s with Selina Kyle, who’s totally hot. Sure, it’s like he’s on vacation, sitting there at the outdoor cafe in ... is it Italy? But what is he going to do with his life? And what do these two, the bat and the cat, do all day? Have sex? Go to museums? Read books? Take a breath after the relentless pace of the last three movies? How long before they get bored with it? How long before they come up with a plan to do something?
Whatever that plan, I hope it isn’t needlessly complicated.
Movie Review: Men in Black 3 (2012)
“I’m getting too old for this,” Agent J (Will Smith) says early in “Men in Black 3.” Yes, he is.
“The prerequisite for a joke is that it be funny,” he admonishes his fellow agents later in the movie. Indeed.
It’s been 15 years since the first “Men in Black,” 10 years since the second, and during that time Will Smith has gone from rising star to worldwide superstar to MIA could-be scientologist. He’s gone from playing an agent for a supersecret organization obsessed with aliens to possibly being an agent for a supersecret organization obsessed with aliens. He’s also gone from 28 to 43 and he’s lost his groove. “MIB 3,” his first movie in four years, doesn’t get it back.
The movie relies on the tired device of time travel, and there’s a moment after J travels back to July 1969 when both he and K (Josh Brolin, doing an inspired Tommy Lee Jones imitation) have to explain their situation, which is basically the plot of the movie, to doubting military officials. It gets them into further trouble: dropped on the pavement and handcuffed and such. Because no one believes them, it’s all too absurd, ha ha. Question: why does this never happen to whomever pitches the movie in the first place? How come director Barry Sonnenfeld, say, or writer Etan Coen (no relation), didn’t wind up decked and handcuffed on the Sony lot?
“MIB 3” opens with a woman (Nicole Scherzinger ), wearing FMBs, bustier, and sporting deep cleavage, bringing a cake, which jiggles even as her cleavage does not, into a maximum security prison for her boyfriend, Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement, of “Flight of the Concords,” another inspired casting move). He’s been locked up for 40 years but seems more dangerous than ever. Of course the jiggling cake contains a small creature, or weapon, that lives in Boris’ hand, and with this, and a few less-organic weapons, he blasts his way out of prison, which turns out to be on the moon. We see him bounding past the American flag planted there in July 1969. Cue credits.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, as they say, Agents J and K (Tommy Lee Jones) are going through the motions. K is as emotionless as ever, and J, after 14 years, is suddenly unaccepting of it. At the funeral of Agent Zed (Rip Torn), K offers almost nothing in his eulogy that’s personal or meaningful or emotional, and J reacts as if this is news, as if he hasn’t been working with the guy for 14 years. It’s not funny and Will Smith’s timing is way off. He seems sluggish. Did he have a cold during filming? The flu? Nothing clicks. “How did you get to be like you?” he asks K. Since we know where we’re heading, into the past, where we’ll meet a young K, we assume we’ll find out. Everything will be explained.
During an investigation into a restaurant in Chinatown, J and K battle Boris, and in this manner, and others, we discover the following:
- Boris lost his arm 40 years ago battling K, who put him in prison. K now regrets it. He thinks he should’ve killed him.
- Boris is the last of the Boglodytes, a violent race that subsumes other planets. Or something.
- Boris gets a hand-held time machine from a stoner at a guitar shop with the purpose of going back to July 1969 and killing K before K can incarcerate him and doom his planet.
So we know what Boris means when he tells K, “You’re already dead.” K doesn’t. He and J have a falling out—J in his apartment playing video games, K in his study talking on a landline—and then he gets ready for Boris with a spacegun. He’s got it aimed at his door when everything shimmers and warbles and he simply vanishes. Boris has gone back to July 16, 1969, the day of the moon launch, and killed Agent K. So little imagination here. Why not go back to his birth? Why not go back to his father or grandfather? And why pick on the poor Apollo program? Didn’t “Transformers 3” already do that?
J shimmers and warbles, too, but he still remembers K while everyone else has forgotten. The new head of the agency, however, Agent O (Emma Thompson, horribly wasted), who had a possible thing, or fling, with K back in the day, realizes something’s amiss, and directs J to the stoner in the guitar shop, where he gets a thingamajig, and, with the no-longer-extinct Whatchacallums now attacking Earth, jumps from the top of the Chrysler Building and back to July 15, 1969, to prevent Boris from killing K and changing the course of you-know-what.
A few things in the movie work. I like the fact that the filmmakers don’t ignore racial matters in 1969 (just in 2012). I like Brolin and Clement, and I particularly like Michael Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man”; “Boardwalk Empire”) as Griffin, an alien who perceives all of the different possibilities in any moment in time. As a result, he’s never sure which reality he’s in. Is it the reality where Boris bursts through that door and kills him? Whew, no. Is it the reality where the New York Mets, the perennial doormats of Major League Baseball in the 1960s, win the World Series in 1969? Maybe. He gives J and K a window into that October 1969 reality from an empty Shea Stadium in July. We, and they, see a sunny, packed, October Shea Stadium, where Jerry Koosman pitches to Davey Johnson, who pops up to Cleon Jones, and the 1969 “Miracle” Mets become the champions of baseball. Griffin waxes philosophic on this. He talks up the imperfections in that final baseball, because the woman who manufactured it in 1962 was having an affair, and thus wasn’t paying enough attention to her work, and thus the ball floated a few centimeters too high, allowing the pop-up to happen. He talks up how Davey Johnson became a baseball player rather than a football player because his father didn’t have the money for a football, and how Cleon Jones was nearly named something else. He calls it all a miracle.
“A miracle is what seems impossible,” Griffin says, “but happens anyway.”
All of which is nice but beside the point. Davey Johnson, or any player, flying out isn’t a miracle. It’s about as routine a play as you get in baseball. It would’ve been far more miraculous if, in that instant, he’d hit a homerun to tie the game, and the Orioles had fought back from a 5-3 deficit in Game 5, and a 3-1 deficit in overall games, to win the 1969 World Series over the upstart New York Mets. But the movie has its themes and goes with them. And we go to Cape Canaveral, the site of the first moon launch, and the battle with the two Borises.
Of course the small glowing device, which will become the Arcnet Shield that will save all of Earth from the Boglodyte attack, gets knocked out of K’s hand and dangles off the arm of the Apollo 11 launchpad, while K fights young Boris and J fights old Boris. Will they save themselves, and Earth, in time? (Psst. They will.)
J and K only get onto the launch pad in the first place because a colonel (Mike Colter), apparently the head of security for Apollo 11, is given a window into a possible reality by Griffin and so lets them in. Earlier, J made passing reference to his father—how he didn’t know him, how his father just disappeared and all that—and when I saw the Colonel, I thought, “This isn’t going to be J’s father, is it?” Of course it is. So J kills old Boris, K kills young Boris—seeming to disrupt the time continuum, but whatever—but not before young Boris kills the Colonel. Which is when a young boy pulls up in a car, a young J, and older J gets misty-eyed as he realizes, yes, this was him, and this was his father, whom he doesn’t remember because K uses the neuralizer to wipe the boy’s, or his, memory rather than have him deal with the trauma of a lost father, and the whole thing becomes a sappy, lost-father (Colonel)/found-father-figure (K) storyline in which J and K reconcile in present time.
Except ... how does this explain the way K is? Something traumatic was supposed to happen to him at Cape Canaveral. Is this it? That the Colonel was killed and the boy’s memory wiped, and K has carried this knowledge like a heavy stone all through his 14-year relationship with J? But why does this make him more distant and emotionless? And why, in present time, does J show him the watch, the watch that was the key to his relationship with his forgotten father, and thank him? Shouldn’t he be angry? Shouldn’t he say, “You took my father from me; you took from me what makes me me”? Instead, the movie shimmers and warbles to its happy end and the audience leaves the theater effectively neuralized. You will think you had a good time. You will tell your friends it’s an OK movie. If you’re a critic, you’ll give it a 69% on RottenTomatoes.com.
Yeah, I’m getting too old for this.
Movie Review: Prometheus (2012)
The first half of Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” a prequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror masterpiece “Alien,” raises some fun and intriguing questions. The second half gives us some lame and unsatisfying answers. It’s a smart sci-fi film that gets dumb fast.
In the latter part of the 21st century, archeologists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) stumble upon 5,000-year-old cave paintings from different parts of the world that include the same image: a giant man pointing to a five-planet solar system that isn’t visible from Earth. This solar system has a planet, or a moon, which is semi-inhabitable for humans, although its atmosphere, we’re told, would be like sucking on an exhaust pipe. Meaning in 2093 we’ll still have cars with internal combustion engines. Bummer.
But, badda-bing badda-boom, a mission to this planet, funded by the Weyland Corporation, is underway. We see the ship, Prometheus, en route, with its 16 human crew members in stasis, while its lone android, David (Michael Fassbender), studies ancient languages, shoots baskets while riding a bicycle, and watches both the dreams of Ms. Shaw and David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” He styles his hair in the fashion of a young Peter O’Toole and quotes one of the movie’s more famous lines: “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” Apparently even our robots want to be like movie stars. Or so the movies tell us.
A few months ago, online, I saw a clip from “Prometheus,” in which Weyland Corp. founder Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), in 2023, gives a TED talk. It’s a good clip, although the “talk” doesn’t quite hold together:
So Weyland expounds on “Lawrence” and “not minding”; on the titan Prometheus, who gave us fire (and thus life), and who was punished by the gods by having an eagle rip out his stomach and eat his liver every day for eternity; and by the fact that, in creating androids, in creating life, “We are the Gods now.” But this clip didn’t make the movie. Too bad. The talk doesn’t quite adhere but the scene provides connective tissue for the movie. It lets us know why, for example, David is watching “Lawrence,” and how, for example, the giant men in the cave drawings might be ancient aliens thought to be gods, and how, for example, the legend of Prometheus, with his ripped-out stomach, might be our first “Alien” story. I.e., it wasn’t an eagle ripping into a stomach; it was an alien ripping out of it.
As in “Alien,” as opposed to the optimistic “Star Trek” world, there are class distinctions aboard Prometheus, and, as in any corporation, a battle for power. Who’s in control of the mission? A hologram of a wizened Peter Weyland (Pearce in make-up) tells the crew that the scientists, Shaw and Holloway, are in charge, but the robot-like Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), who, out of stasis, does push-ups while those around her are regurgitating, and who has separate, lavish quarters, obviously objects. Then there’s the captain of the ship, Janek (Idris Elba), but he seems to know his place as employee and glorified chauffeur. “I’m just the captain,” he says more than once with a smile.
There’s also David, who, like almost all androids in sci-fi movies, has ulterior motives.
So they land, quickly find the alien stronghold, along with giant, godlike images of humanoids (thank you, H.R. Giger!), and evidence of a massacre: bodies piled high by a doorway. But they insist on poking stuff, goo and slime, that we know better not to poke. We, viewers of countless “Alien” movies, know what’s going to happen. They don’t.
Well, some do. David, for example. How does he know? Is he literally reading the writing on the walls?
It all comes apart fast—both mission and movie. Two scared scientists who are left behind, the Shaggy and Scooby of the crew, come across a snake-like alien life-form emerging from a blackish goo, and one insists on practically cooing to it. Bad move, Scoob. It, of course, wraps itself around his arm, breaks it, and when the other scientist tries to cut it off, he gets the alien’s acid-blood sprayed in his face. In seconds, both are mangled toast.
Meanwhile, David has mixed some black goo into the drink of Holloway, who, inexplicably, is distraught that in a few hours time in the alien stronghold they didn’t uncover the secret to life. This guy’s a scientist? Doesn’t he know the slow, plodding nature of the discipline? Earlier, Shaw calls the aliens in the cave painting “engineers,” and assumes, without evidence, that they engineered us. When asked why she assumes this, she echoes her father’s comment about why he believes in an afterlife: “It’s what I choose to believe,” she says. She might as well be a Young Earth Creationist.
Holloway perks up when Shaw informs him that the DNA she recovered from the site matches human DNA exactly, and the two celebrate the way humans do, with booze and bed, but the next morning his eyes are red and he doesn’t feel himself, and during the mission to the site he bends over and his skin starts breaking apart and he pleads to be killed. Vickers, who doesn’t want to be contaminated, obliges. Everyone, it seems, has their agenda. Hers is staying clean. She seems to know instinctively that there’s bad shit out there.
Back on the ship, just after seeing her lover torched in front of her, Shaw is informed, by David, almost maliciously, that though she thought herself sterile, she is in fact pregnant. Three months along. How is that possible? Oh, we know how it’s possible. And we know it’s not human. At which point we get the film’s best, most harrowing scene: Shaw performing computer-aided self-surgery to remove the alien before it gets all Prometheus on her ass (or stomach). There’s a great tension between a sense of urgency (hers and ours) and the computer’s decided lack of it. Once she survives, freezes the alien life form, and makes her way, stumbling down the hallway with a stapled stomach, I, like most in the audience, realized, “Right. She’s this movie’s Ripley.”
This takes us to the third act, where we discover that a) Peter Weyland is alive and on board, b) Wickers is his daughter, and c) David has uncovered a chamber where a giant humanoid lies in stasis. That’s why Weyland is there. He’s hoping to meet his maker.
He does. Awakened, surrounded by puny humans, the giant humanoid listens as David talks to him in what we assume is his own language. Whatever David says, it enrages the giant, and David loses his head (literally), and Weyland meets his maker (figuratively), and the humanoid, with whom we share DNA, starts up his massive, c-shaped spaceship, still working after all these years, to bring it, and stomach-popping aliens, to Earth.
Apparently the giant humanoids are developing these aliens like weapons of mass destruction for the purpose of... wiping us off earth? So they can populate it? Or something? They’re not our engineers, in other words; they’re our engineers of destruction. “We were so wrong,” Shaw says.
She figures all this out pretty quickly, informs Capt. Janek that he needs to stop the alien ship or “There won’t be any Earth to go back to,” and, amid lines of bravado, which they snort like lines of cocaine, he and his remaining crew perform a kamikaze mission and bring the alien ship down. The crashing ship promptly crushes Vickers, who has jettisoned onto the desolate planet in a desperate attempt to survive, and nearly crushes Shaw, who rolls out of the way in time.
So is she the sole survivor on this desolate planet? Nope. The giant humanoid survives as does one of the stomach-popping aliens; and she gets away from the former by releasing the latter.
So now she’s alone? Nope. David, head removed from body, is still functioning, and he informs her there’s another alien ship, which he can pilot. But she doesn’t want to go back to Earth. She wants to go forward to the planet of the giant humanoid aliens. She wants to learn more. As do we. In this way the prequel sets up a sequel that doesn’t lead to the original. Two stories diverged in a movie, and she, she took the one less traveled by, but we don’t get to see if it makes all the difference for another two years or so. Thanks, Ridley.
Movie Review: Hello I Must Be Going (2012)
I miss the Marx Brothers. I miss their centrality to our culture, as they were central in the 1970s, 40 years after their cinematic heyday, when Epstein and Horshack would imitate Chico and Harpo on “Welcome Back, Kotter,” and everyone from Michael Jackson to Hawkeye Pierce to kids on McDonald’s commercials would imitate Groucho. We could all use a little duck-walking and cigar-waggling and leering now and again. We could all use a little poignant nonsense. Last year I asked a twentysomething colleague how much she knew about the Marx Brothers and she revealed her ignorance with her Google search: March brothers. Chico would be proud.
A long way of saying I went into “Hello I Must Be Going” hoping for some knowing Marxian references beyond the title.
I got a few. The film’s protagonist, Amy, (Melanie Lynskey), three-months divorced from her entertainment-attorney husband in Manhattan, and now living with her parents in Westport, Conn., used to watch the Marx Brothers with her father when she was a kid. Now she’s watching them again. We see clips from “Duck Soup” and “Animal Crackers,” with Groucho singing the title song, the absurdity of which I’ve always liked. I laughed out loud when I heard this again:
I’ll do anything you say!
I’ll even stay!
But I must be....going
It’s one of the few times I laughed out loud at this April-June romantic, relationship comedy.
The movie opens with Amy getting up at noon, slumping off to the kitchen for crackers, and then returning to her room to watch “One Day at a Time” reruns on TV. Her mother, Ruth (Blythe Danner), half encourages her, half chastises her to get moving again. She tries to buck her up but brings her down in the peculiar way of mothers. She talks about a friend’s daughter who is now apparently on anti-depressants, or depressaunts as she calls them, Frenchifying the word, legitimizing it, and implies that maybe this is the path for Amy. “Amy, you haven’t left the house in three months,” she says, seeming concerned. Then her real concern emerges. Important guests are arriving for an important dinner. “Honey, I need you to shape up a little. Get something nice to wear.”
To be honest, I only had so much sympathy for Amy. Her circumstances are tough but not that tough. She’s had heartache but no more than the rest of us. She’s been lying around for three months, wasting her life, wasting her parents’ time and money. At some point, you need to look for something to do and do it. You need to find a place, and a talent with which you can make money, or for which someone will pay you, and then do that. Or you do the thing that makes you money and then you do the other thing that fulfills you, which is what most of us do. It can be hard, particularly in our current culture and economy, but Amy and I are still living in America in the 21st century. The luck heaped upon us is still overwhelming.
At the dinner party, which involves a potential client for her lawyer-father Stan (John Rubenstein), the son of that client, 19-year-old Jeremy (Christopher Abbott of HBO’s “Girls”), is the only other person at the table, besides Amy, who looks uncomfortable with the glib, wine-infused conversation. Occasionally he’ll make eyes at her. Eventually he follows her into another room and makes a pass.
Thus every road back to wholeness begins with the distraction of romance.
At some point, fairly early in the movie, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if she wound up where she started: groaning at the start of the day and watching tired re-runs on TV?” I thought: Why does she have to realize her self-worth? What is it about her self that’s worthy? That she’s nice? That she takes photos of rivers? She was going to publish a book of her river photos once. Apparently she got distracted by her attorney husband. What was she doing all the time she was married anyway? Was she working? Where? How did she fill her days?
In “Hello I Must Be Going,” written by first-time screenwriter Sarah Koskoff and directed by third-time director Todd Louiso, Amy never finds a job, or a purpose, but she finds enough value in herself to demand alimony from her ex. That’s her big self-esteem moment. Then she and her mother travel the world together. She’ll take pictures of her mother. And, one assumes, rivers.
Groucho: Do you suppose I could buy back my introduction to you?
Amy: slowly dying on her road to self-esteem.
Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Wes Anderson’s latest film, “Moonrise Kingdom,” opens with a painting of a house, shifts to a close-up of a dollhouse, then moves onto the activities within the house, the actual house where the painting is hung and the dollhouse is located, the several-storied, precariously placed home of the Bishops, Walt and Laura (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), who live on the northern, Summers End portion of New Penzance Island off the coast of New England in early September 1965. Yet in true Wes Anderson fashion, the actual house seems like a dollhouse. It’s a plaything. There’s an unreality to it, a right-angled, two-dimensionality. Walt and Laura are always in different rooms, the three boys play board games on the floor, while eldest child Suzy (Kara Hayward), on the cusp of adolescence, walks around in short skirts and white knee socks and reads her books (“The Francine Odysseys,” “Disappearance of the Sixth Grade,” “The Girl from Jupiter”), and from the top floor scans the horizon with a pair of binoculars as if she’s in a crow’s nest. Which, in a way, she is. She feels at sea. She’s searching for land.
On the other side of the island, with equal right-angled, two-dimensional precision, Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton) of Camp Ivanhoe rises with the morning, chastises his khaki scouts for minor infractions, then sits down to breakfast, with everyone on one side of the picnic table as if it’s a painting of the Last Supper. But one scout, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), is missing. In his tent, behind a poster, Ward finds a perfectly cut hole. “Jiminy Cricket,” he says, confused and slightly hurt, “he flew the coop.”
The two stories are not unrelated. Sam, with his Barry Goldwater glasses and Davy Crocket coonskin cap (he’s like the mid-1950s), is off to retrieve Suzy, with her miniskirts and raccoon eye makeup (she’s like the mid-1960s), whom he met the year before at a church production of “Noah’s Flood”; and the two, both of whom still have one foot firmly planted in childhood, are running off together to create their own, better world.
Unfortunately, we’re informed by the narrator of the film (Bob Balaban, clad in a Zissou-like red stocking cap) that one of the worst storms of the decade is only three days away. Will the kids be found in time? Will they survive the storm? Is another flood on the way?
During their footloose period, Sam and Suzy fend off an attack from the other khaki scouts, get into their first squabble, make up, read novels, paint, swim, dance to French music, and learn to French kiss. When they’re discovered in a secluded cove, which, in a later watercolor Sam names “Moonrise Kingdom,” they’ve created their own, better world: a world of art and young love.
Exclusion as problem; inclusion as solution
Five years ago, I wrote a piece for MSNBC, “Wes Anderson’s Bruised Souls,” in which I stated the lesson implicit in Anderson’s movies:
Exclusion isn’t necessarily the problem but inclusion is almost always the solution.
I was thinking of Max Fischer in “Rushmore,” and Royal Tenenbaum in “The Royal Tenenbaums”: misfits who don’t mind their misfit status but who must accept their enemies (Herman Blume, Dr. Peter Flynn, Magnus Buchan, Henry Sherman) in order to find final redemption.
For Sam and Suzy, though, exclusion is part of the problem. Neither has friends. Sam is an orphan who lives with uncaring foster parents at a kind of orphan farm. When he goes missing they not only don’t care, they don’t want him back. At Camp Ivanhoe, the other kids, led by the handsome but mean-spirited Redford (Lucas Hedges), don’t like him. This bothers Sam, despite his deadpan expression, more than it ever bothered Max. Max had his crew but Sam is all alone. Near the end of the movie, he confronts Redford, who has, in the interim, been abandoned by his compatriots—who now gather around Sam as the beginning of his amateurish crew—and we get this exchange:
Sam: Why didn’t you like me?
Redford: Why should I? No one else does.
In a typical Wes Anderson story, Redford (and, please, is there a Sundance-related anecdote to that name?) is the enemy Sam must forgive to find redemption. Here, Redford remains an outsider. He knows no forgiveness. Sam has to forgive no one.
Inclusion, however, is still the solution; it’s just not up to Sam and Suzy to provide it. It’s up to the others to include Sam and Suzy. For the first time in a Wes Anderson movie, the world actually adapts to the misfits rather than vice-versa. It makes a place for them. Sam is adopted by Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the law enforcement officer on the island, who abandons his affair with Laura Bishop, the realization of which had sent Suzy into the morally ambiguous world of adulthood in the first place, and Sam winds up wearing the same kinds of nerdy clothes as Captain Sharp. (Compare with: the Zissou crew; and Chas and his boys in “Tenenbaums.” Anderson loves his misfits but he loves them more in uniform and at attention.) The real family sucks but the extended family is glorious.
Question: is this a less-profound message than the one found in Anderson’s earlier films? Max and Royal and Mr. Fox all revel in their differences but still grow to accept others; they became more expansive and open. Sam remains the same; it’s the world that becomes more expansive and accommodating. The lesson feels both Pollyannaish and passive. It feels like a step back.
Give me someplace flat
Let me admit, first, that I’m always excited by a new Wes Anderson film. His movies, full of color and quirks and small joys, are uniquely his. At the same time, as I leave the theater and work through what I’ve just seen, I’m invariably disappointed. He has a love of flatness—in character, in cinematography—that I find visually interesting but intellectually stagnant.
When Laura Bishop, for example, searches for Suzy in their home, she calls with her bullhorn to her left, then straight up to Walt on the second floor. Everything is at a 90-degree angle. When Sam outruns the other boys in a clearing, he doesn’t trace a serpentine path. He heads straight out, makes a sharp right, makes another sharp right, then another. Rather than cut corners and catch him, they all follow haplessly behind. His characters can’t cut corners. They’re condemned to right angles.
In this way, his moviemaking accentuates the flatness of the screen by employing head-on shots and profiles and right angles. A Wes Anderson movie using 3-D technology would be an interesting experiment. Would we even be able to tell?
At the same time, what does this two-dimensionality mean? Is Anderson attempting to make a movie seem like a book? Because he loves books? Because his characters love books?
His characters are similarly flat. There’s a deadpan rigidity to them. Anderson needs particularly good actors to bring them to life. Gene Hackman is the classic example. Ed Norton is now another. There’s a sweetness to Scout Master Ward that comes through as he loses, first, one Khaki Scout, then his whole troop, then his commission. As he sinks, as he loses everything, his humanity grows. As a result, he, and not Sam, the protagonist, learns the Wes Anderson lesson in “Moonrise Kingdom”: in losing the world, he gains the world. Sam? He’s too busy creating his own perfect world, which, by its very nature, will be temporary, and as precarious as a big treehouse atop a tall, thin tree.
Maybe this is the key to understanding Wes Anderson. With each film, Anderson, like so many of his characters, creates his own perfect world; then he presses it flat, as if in the pages of a book, to preserve it and keep it for as long as possible.
Movie Review: The Revolutionary (2012)
WARNING: GANG OF SPOILERS
“You missed it.”
That’s what Ben Bradlee tells Woodward and Bernstein after reading one of their early Watergate stories in “All the President’s Men,” and that’s what I thought leaving the world premiere of “The Revolutionary,” a documentary, locally produced, about 91-year-old local Sidney Rittenberg, who, as a high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party from 1946 to 1980, was once called “The most important foreigner in China since Marco Polo.”
Rittenberg was a labor lefty out of Charleston, South Carolina in the 1930s, when everyone in labor was a lefty, before the politics of resentment meant resenting those with less rather than more; and then, like everyone else, he was drafted after Pearl Harbor. Unlike everyone else, he was taught Chinese and sent to China. After the war, Chinese party leaders asked him to stay. “We need an engineer to help us build a bridge from the Chinese people to the American people,” they said. He asked to be a member of the party. He stayed. He felt content. “I’m doing what I should be doing,” he felt.
He had his own long march to Yan’an in 1946, where he met Mao Zedong for the first time. “It’s like a picture out of history,” he remembers thinking, “and I’m now part of that history.”
This is big for Sidney Rittenberg: being part of history.
He’s told Mao wants to spend two days talking about America but we don’t get that conversation. He says Mao wanted good relations with the U.S. because he didn’t want to be dependent on the U.S.S.R. He says the U.S. was thinking ideologically here and Mao wasn’t.
There’s a nice interlude about the Hollywood movies Mao, Zhou Enlai and other party leaders watched each week. Laurel and Hardy movies were favorites.
Then Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang are driven to Taiwan, the Communists come to power, and, when the dust clears, Rittenberg, a man who had Mao’s ear, is suddenly imprisoned as a capitalist spy. He winds up in Beijing Prison No. 2, in solitary confinement, for six years. His Chinese wife divorces him. He nearly goes insane. “Every day,” he says. “you’re sitting there with your own potential madness sitting across from you. Watching you. And you know it’s either you or him.” He was finally released, he believes, “Because Josef Stalin did the best thing he ever did in his life: He died.”
A more far-seeing man, or a man less enamored of China and/or communism, might have left Communist China at this point, but Rittenberg was not that man. He went to work for Radio Beijing, got remarried, had four kids—who mostly go unmentioned. We hear from his wife briefly in the doc.
That may be the doc’s biggest problem. Except for a minute’s worth of monologue from Wang Yulin, his second and current wife, this is a single-source news story. It’s just Rittenberg talking in a chair, or in front of his book shelf, or at other strategic points in his home in the Pacific Northwest. Every once in a while the camera pans over a period photo or a propaganda poster. But we get no footage from China, no supplementary interviews with people who knew him, no references to the newspapers of the day. Did Rittenberg’s defection, such as it was (he never renounced U.S. citizenship), make the newspapers back home? He’s not mentioned in The New York Times, for example, until Linda Charlton does a write-up upon his return in 1980: ‘Son of America’ Is Home to Tell About Chinese In-Laws. (But I had to look that up after the screening.) Did the Charleston papers write about him when he was in China? Did The Daily Worker? Did the CIA?
If Rittenberg was a wiser, more insightful man, the single-source issue wouldn’t be such an issue. He says of Mao, “He was a great hero and a great criminal all rolled into one,” which feels true to me, but of his own life, at least as relayed in this doc, there’s an odd disconnect. He, or documentarians Lucy Ostrander, Irv Drasnin and Don Sellers, can’t seem to connect the fragments of his life into a narrative that makes much sense.
As a foreigner in Communist China, which became increasingly xenophobic as the Great Leap Forward leads to the Cultural Revolution, he seems self-deluded or myopic. When he’s put into solitary confinement again in 1967, he concocts his own Confucian saying: “Man who climbs out on limb should listen carefully for sound of saw.” He says he couldn’t hear the sound of the saw until it was too late. But he could never hear the sound of the saw. That’s his problem.
He remained in solitary until 1977.
What was the appeal? That’s what I still don’t get. Was it the communism? Was it China itself? Was it both? Was it being part of history? Does he regret those days? Is he a communist now? A socialist? A capitalist? Is he capitalist now the way that China is capitalist now? What happened to his four kids when he was in solitary and Wang Yulin was being reeducated? Did they become members of the Red Guard? Did they denounce their parents? Were they denounced themselves for being half-American?
I’m also not a fan of the narration, performed by Irv Drasnin, a former news correspondent, because his voice has the deep, faux authority of a former news correspondent. At times it reminded me of the narration in those 1950s Disney nature films that we were forced to watch in elementary school. It’s a voice both deep and cloying. It has all the answers and it’s there to tell us the way the world works. It grates.
The story of Sidney Rittenberg and his time in China is a good story. I hope someday a documentarian will be engineer enough to build a bridge between it and an audience.
Movie Review: The Revisionaries (2012)
Don McLeroy, the Bryan, Tex., dentist and young-Earth creationist who served on the Texas State Board of Education from 1998 to 2010, including a stint as its controversial chair from 2007 to 2009, is a genial, garrulous boob. Bald, moustached, and portly, he has a “gee whiz” quality to him. His face often resolves itself into a self-satisfied smile after he makes what he thinks is a telling point at BOE meetings, but mostly his smile is open and unaffected. He tends to preach his creationist doctrine to those who can’t answer back—dental patients with tubes in their mouths; Sunday School kids at Grace Bible Church—and he’s pretty darn enthusiastic about it. “Were there dinosaurs on the Ark?” he asks the kids, then answers his own question. “Sure there were!” He’s the kind of man who likes to answer his own questions.
He’s also the man most responsible for the recent rightward shift in our nation’s textbooks—and he’s pretty darn enthusiastic about it.
“We want to make sure our children are taught good, solid American history,” he says to a phalanx of reporters during Scott Thurman’s documentary, “The Revisionaries.” He believes that evolution is bunk, that the Earth is 10,000 years old, and that history and science experts don’t know what they’re talking about. “Somebody’s gotta stand up to experts!” he says during a speech at a Texas Tea Party convention. To applause.
So how did McLeroy, and the people of Bryan, Tex., who kept voting him into office, get to decide the standards for our nation’s textbooks?
Basically: Publishers craft their textbooks to the standards of the biggest buyers, and Texas is currently the biggest buyer. According to a University of Texas study, between 45 and 85 percent of classrooms use Texas state textbooks.
“The Revisionaries” is mostly a character study. If you come in knowing, as I did, something of the power and the cultural make-up of the Texas SBOE, you come away knowing faces, and places, and a little more about the debate itself.
You learn there are 15 board members. They sit in high-backed chairs. There are two black members and one Hispanic member but the board is mostly dominated by white conservative Christians like McLeroy and Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer and teacher at Pat Robertson’s Regent University, who believes, among other things, 1) the founding fathers created a Christian nation; 2) government should be guided by the Bible; 3) public education is a “deceptive tool of perversion”; and 4) the establishment of public schools is unconstitutional. And she’s helping decide on the standards for those public schools.
There are progressives, or at least non-reactionaries, such as Ron Wetherington, a professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University (i.e., an expert), and Kathy Miller, the no-nonsense president of the Texas Freedom Network, an organization fighting religious-right initiatives. They have their say. But every progressive step forwards seems to involve two culturally conservative steps back.
The doc opens with a SBOE debate on whether to continue talking about “strengths and weaknesses” of the theory of evolution. It’s voted down but a moment later a new amendment is added to include “all sides” of the debate, which, from a scientific perspective, is meaningless. But that passes.
In 2009, the Texas legislature removes McLeroy from his post as chair of the SBOE. Yay! But this simply frees him to offer amendment after amendment to the social studies standards. Boo! We get a flurry of them: that Margaret Sanger, the birth-control pioneer, be included because she “and her followers promoted eugenics”; that language be inserted about Ronald Reagan’s “leadership in restoring national confidence” in the 1980s. At one point, in a laugh-out loud moment, McLeroy suggests eliminating the phrase “hip-hop” and inserting the words “country music.”
Unfortunately, too much of this debate is without context. What do the textbooks say now? What did they say 10 years ago? Twenty? What did they say when I was growing up? I seem to remember, as I got older, learning that what I’d learned in, say, elementary school, was a simplification or outright fabrication: George Washington and the cherry tree and Abe Lincoln walking a mile in the snow and the sole heroism of Paul Revere’s ride. How necessary are these simplifications? Is there a danger in them? There’s something to be said for learning the standards before taking apart the standards, but are our textbooks ultimately too anodyne to foster curiosity and a thirst for true knowledge? Do they instead foster a desire for myth and absolutes? Is that the good, solid American history McLeroy wants taught?
The great unspoken in the doc is that textbooks have always been dull beasts. I was a kid who actually liked school, but even I groaned with boredom when textbooks were opened. How do we make sure our kids don’t groan with boredom?
Also unspoken: What McLeroy wants to do with the science standards is the opposite of what he wants to do with the social studies standards. He wants to foster doubt about the theory of evolution, and he wants to foster certainty about American exceptionalism. Can’t someone ask which he prefers: doubt or certainty? Can’t someone suggest that we do to Ronald Reagan what he wants to do to Charles Darwin? Talk about “strengths and weaknesses”? Give “all sides”?
Moot point: By the end of the doc, McLeroy is gone, at least from the SBOE, because he finally loses an election by 400-some votes; but he keeps popping up elsewhere: on “The Colbert Report,” in the pages of USA Today. And others have picked up his SBOE mantle and are carrying it forward. To where? That’s the key. In 2000, then-presidential candidate George W. Bush, a product of Texas public schools, asked, “Is our children learning?” Now we have to ask, “What is they learning?”
“The amount of power I have,” McLeroy says at one point, referring to his chairmanship of the Texas State Board of Education, “boggles my mind.”
Movie Review: A Checkout Girl's Big Adventure (Les tribulations d'une caissière) (2011)
“A Checkout Girl’s Big Adventure” is hardly a cashier du cinema.
Here’s a scene three-quarters of the way through that exemplifies its monumental stupidity, its arc de stupid, its tour imbecile.
Our title character, Solweig (Déborah François), a cashier at a Target-like store, is being followed into the women’s locker room (cashiers have locker rooms in France?) by the creepy, petty floor manager, Mercier (Jean-Luc Couchard), who has just found out—ah ha!—that the mysterious blogger, misscheckingout.com, who has gotten over a million hits expounding on customer-service matters, and whose posts have led to the beginning of a nationwide strike by checkout girls in France (are there no checkout boys in France?), is, in fact ... Solweig! She’s the one who’s making the lives of management miserable! So what does he do with this information? How does he handle Solweig, who, he now knows, has the ear of the nation and a forum with which to talk to millions about every aspect of her day? He sexually assaults her, of course. Wouldn’t anyone?
But wait! At that moment, passing by, is a young, handsome man dressed in a Santa Claus suit. (It’s Christmastime.) He’s named Charles (Nicolas Giraud), and he has a thing for Solweig, and she for him, because one night when it was snowing as prettily as it snows in snowglobes, she, in the midst of breaking up with a boyfriend we’ve never seen, slips in the snow and Charles emerges from a limo to help her up. Like in a fairy tale! He also gives her his phone number, which is subsequently besmirched and made illegible by her bratty 10-year-old brother, whom she is raising alone, so of course she can’t call and make a date and continue along the path of young love. Fortunately, he finds out about her, since her store ID card slips from her purse as she’s leaving a tutoring gig, where the tutee, another bratty thing who thinks it’s cool to talk in hip-hop slang, just happens to be ... wait for it ... Charles’ brother! So now he knows where she works. He can ask her out. Except he delays. He’s wondering: Is she a teacher? Is she a cashier? What is she? And rather than ask, he dresses up as Santa Claus so he can spy on her without revealing himself. But when Mercier attempts to rape her, he reveals himself: he bursts in, head-butts Mercier, gapes at Solweig, then flees.
But wait! Our heroine, who is sweet, pretty and rather self-satisfied for someone with such a shitty job, almost without personality really, has just been revealed as a hugely successful blogger, then assaulted by her scummy boss, then saved by the man of her dreams. What does she do? She follows the man of her dreams into the parking lot to thank him, of course. No no no, that would make too much sense. She follows him out into the parking lot ... to berate him for making her lose her job. Seriously. “Now I’ve lost my job!” she wails. “I’ve lost everything because of you!” Because of him? Because he saved her from rape? From her boss? She can get fired for that?
Besides, doesn’t she get it? A million hits. Talked about on the nightly news. Fomenting a national strike. How can she not see the upside of all of this? Surely it means a book deal. Maybe even a best-seller. Perhaps called, as this film is called, Les tribulations d'une caissière. Because we can see it. We can see it a mile off.
Instead, she berates, she leaves, he follows. He catches up, explains, pleads. She leaves, he follows. He begs, she leaves. She returns. They kiss. I yawn. I squirm. I feel physical pain at the weight of the stupidity of this film on my consciousness.
“Checkout Girl” could’ve been good. Its topic is a relevant one. Many of us have been there. I worked as a cashier for a number of years at a bookstore in Seattle, and I too was driven crazy by the mindless, endless repetition, the sometime-nasty customers, the often insipid management. I once wrote a short story called “Bags” about a cashier who anthropomorphizes the bags he’s supposed to give away; who treats the bags as more human than the customers. It began:
The question about the bags was the penultimate part of an eight-step procedure Scott Widdershins repeated 240 times a day, 4800 times per month, or approximately 28,800 times in his first half year at the Pine Avenue branch of R & R Books. The procedure began with a greeting (“Hello”) and segued into a request for a form of payment (“Cash, check, or charge?”); then, while the purchases were being rung up, and though it was not recommended in The R & R Employees Handbook, Scott usually attempted some kind of conversation with the customer (about literature, or the local sports team, or, daringly, politics); afterwards, credit card slip signed, driver's license number confirmed, change given, Scott asked about the bags. “Would you like a bag?” he asked. There were five types at R & R Books--small, medium and large (paper), medium and large (plastic)--and if the answer was affirmative, and once a preference for paper or plastic was sorted out, Scott slipped their purchases into the properly-sized bag, thanked them, and turned to help the next customer coming down the line.
(Sorry about Widdershins.)
“Checkout Girl” has some of that. In her blog posts she writes about the weight of all the goods they scan every day: a ton, she says; an elephant’s worth of stuff. But her posts, at least translated into English, seem too general and obvious to garner any kind of attention, let alone a million hits, let alone the ear of the nation.
But of course it’s a fairy tale.
The biggest part of the fairy tale? That she’s trapped in her job. She’s blonde, with movie-star looks, and a hugely popular forum. What can’t she do? Her checkout mates include a heavyset black woman with two jobs and too many kids; a peppy Muslim girl with two jobs and one kid and another on the way; and a middle-aged white journalist for a nefarious magazine who is trying to uncover misscheckingout.com. When she does, when she exposes Solweig as a star, she, in a sense, releases both white girls from the checkout-girl trap. They go on to better things. The colored girls remain behind. Your fairy tale isn’t everyone’s fairy tale.
“Les tribulations d'une caissière” was apparently recommended for the Seattle International Film Festival this year by a sponsor, the French embassy in San Francisco, and for that I’d like to thank them. Because it’s a movie that furthers cultural understanding. It reminds us that French films aren’t always as good as “L’Heure d’ete,” or “Un Prophete,” or “Des hommes et des dieux.” Some are as awful as the worst crap coming out of Hollywood.
Movie Review: Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines (2012)
Why does feminism bore me so?
The documentary “Wonder Women!” is subtitled “The Untold Story of American Superheroines,” but I would’ve settled for a better-told story. Example: Wonder Woman’s creator, Dr. William Moulton Marston, is generally treated positively here. We get passing mention of the bondage fetishism inherent in 1940s “Wonder Woman” comic books without mention of the bondage fetish of Marston, or the fact that he lived with his wife, Elizabeth, and his mistress, Olive, a former student. He had two children by each. One of Elizabeth’s children was named Olive. Empowering? Feminist? Creepy?
The drift of post-World War II “Wonder Woman” comics into romance is dealt with in isolation rather than as part of an industry-wide phenomenon that swept up Batman, Superman and Captain America. Frederic Wertham’s anti-comics diatribe, “The Seduction of the Innocent,” is portrayed pejoratively even as we’re shown the misogyny inherent in many 1950s horror comics. Can Wertham get no love? Can no one say, “He was an idiot, but...”?
Worse: We’re about an hour into this 72-minute doc before the narrator tsk-tsks over the hypersexualized versions of super heroines ... and Wonder Woman gets a pass. To me, this is the point when you go back to talking-head Gloria Steinem, for whom Wonder Woman was a role model, and who put the Amazonian on the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine, to talk about this hypersexuality. You get the women who grew up on Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, and maybe even Carter herself, to talk about her hypersexuality. What are the negatives of this? Are there any? Do girls, when they hit puberty, feel they don’t measure up? Did I? I read comic books, with all of its various strong-jawed, superstrong, male role models, yet, at 15, when I looked in the mirror, I saw a skinny, sunken-chested, weak-jawed kid. What effect did this have on me? Have I recovered?
Hey: What are the long-term consequences of a society awash in wish fulfillment fantasies? “Wonder Women!” wrings its hands over the dearth of female superheroes but might this not be a positive? The Republican party, for example, tends to play on wish-fulfillment fantasies more than the Democratic party, offering up wannabe cowboys as candidates, and mouthing catchphrases such as “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” and “Make my day” and “Read my lips,” and offering up fantasy economic policies (tax cuts + greater spending = balanced budget), and men more than women buy into it. They vote Republican. Women are more clear-eyed. They vote Democrat. Because they never saw themselves in Superman and Batman and can sense the bullshit in Reagan and Bush? The point beyond immediate politics: Aren’t the very role models the filmmakers would wish upon young girls in many ways deleterious?
Instead “Wonder Women!” gives us a fairly typical storyline. Strong female role models lead to strong girls and women. There is a dearth of these role models and anyway 97% of creators are men. So Reel Grrls, a Seattle filmmaking organization, among others, is empowering young women in cinematography, script-writing, blah blah blah.
I’m sorry but all of this bores me.
Is the doc about female superheroes or general female empowerment? The filmmakers make it about both. It starts with Women Woman, expands, in the ‘70s, to include Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, Lindsay Wagner’s Bionic Woman, and Charlie’s Angels (but no Mighty Isis), then gives us reductive visions of every subsequent decade. The ‘80s were testosterone-y and Reaganish. The ‘90s gave us riot grrls, co-opted into Spice Girls, but ... we’re talking rockers now? Should we double back and catch up with Aretha and Janis? And if the doc wants to cover all media images of women, why start with Wonder Woman? Why ignore the strong women of 1930s cinema? Why ignore Pam Grier then complain about the lack of strong black women in the media?
Here’s my favorite reductive moment: Apparently two of TV’s 1990s superheroines, Xena and Buffy, both died in 2001. I forget which talking head brings it up—Trina Robbins?—but she lays the blame squarely on ... wait for it ... George W. Bush. He’d just been elected president (kinda), that was the zeitgeist, and so strong women had to die. No one refutes this. The documentarians, director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and producer Kelcey Edwards, give her this forum. They have 72 minutes to make their case and they spend time on this.
One of the talking heads is Andy Mangels, a comic-book writer who has created the annual “Wonder Woman Day” in Portland, Oregon, to raise money for domestic violence programs. He’s also gay. So bring him into the hypersexualized conversation. Superman and Spiderman weren’t hypersexualized to me growing up. Were they to him? Then broaden the discussion. Women in our society are more often judged by their appearance than their actions; so can you ever have a female superhero who isn’t sexualized? Who’s ugly the way Hulk is ugly? Would an ugly Wonder Woman have influenced Gloria Steinem? What do you say, Gloria?
Perhaps the great irony of “Wonder Women!” is that it’s making its appeal for more super-heroines at a time when such an appeal has never been less necessary. Lisbeth Salander and Katniss Everdeen are both hugely popular heroines, brave and tough, who rescue good men and beat bad guys in completely convincing ways. To me, they’re game-changers. They’re super without being super. Compared to them, Wonder Woman and her magic lasso feel like relics out of a silly, fetishistic past.
Review: Lola Versus (2012)
It’s not quite there, is it?
Lola (Greta Gerwig), the title character of “Lola Versus,” is cute and quirky and not quite there herself. She’s a Ph.D. student working on her dissertation on the use of silence in 19th century French literature but she doesn’t seem like a Ph.D. student working on a dissertation. She’s living with her boyfriend, Luke (Joel Kinnaman), a painter, who doesn't seem like a painter, and who proposes, but I don’t get much chemistry from them, and I never get him, particularly when he backs out of the wedding at the 11th hour, then returns abjectly, then... whatever. The various ways they keep him in the picture. Lola has a neurotic, Jewish female friend, Alice (Zoe Lister Jones), and a mellow, Jewish, male friend, Henry (Hamish Linklater), who is destined to become the Love Interest, and she’s cute and relatable and ... who cares? That’s what I thought about an hour in. The movie wasn’t true enough to hold my interest. There weren’t enough honest moments. There was too much Fox and not enough Searchlight.
After the screening at the Seattle International Film Festival, writer-director Daryl Wein and his co-screenwriter (and domestic partner) Lister Jones, in town for the screening, talked about how they based their screenplay on the dating horror stories of their single, female friends in New York. There was a Q&A, which I didn’t participate in, but if I did I would’ve asked this: How many of those horror stories are embodied in the character of Nick (Ebon Moss-Bachrach)?
Nick is actually one of my favorite parts of the movie. He’s so creepy in such an off-kilter way. The way he stares a second too long and deeply. The way he pauses. His pretentiousness. His tighty-whities that aren’t even white and which seem more like girls’ panties than anything. He gives me the SHIVERS.
“I didn’t want to be a prison architect,” he says over dinner at his place. “That just kind of happened.” He’ll be remembered by most moviegoers as the incubator baby—it’s why he’s so big, he says—but to me his creepiness exudes throughout the performance, and I wondered how much of it came from the script and how much came from Moss-Bachrach, who seems like the real deal. I’m assuming at least 50-50. At the same time, for the movie’s sake, shouldn’t we have gotten a montage of bad dates? First date could be prison architect, second date tighty-whities, third date incubator baby. Instead they’re all merged into Nick. They make him too big not to fail.
The movie has a vague, indy spirit, and sometimes the comedy is witty and intellectual. A pretentious, avant-garde theater piece is overdone, sure, but I burst out laughing at its title: “Pogrom!” When Nick rollerblades away, saying, awfully, “Have a blessed day,” Henry, who’s been waiting at Lola’s stoop with scones, turns on her and they have this conversation:
Lola: If it’s any consolation, his dick was so big it hurt my back.
Henry: That’s a consolation? You should go into the greeting card business.
But the Hollywood formula is visible, like a coloring-book outline, and Wein and Lister Jones mostly stay within the lines. Lola has, Lola loses, Lola tries to recover, Lola comes to a realization about life and love. It’s actually a good realization for a change. Throughout, she’s relied too heavily on her friends, and takes them for granted, and objects too strongly when Alice winds up with Henry, but in the end she has her epiphany. She tells Alice she’s always been told that to love other people you have to learn to love yourself; but she’s found it’s the opposite. To love herself she has to learn to love other people. It’s a nice moment. It’s a push away from the sometimes solipsism of youth, and the inevitable solipsism of storytelling—the focus on one character—and into something larger. Then the movie shrinks it back again.
Should I talk about the end? Lola turns 30, bookending her 29th birthday party at the beginning, and throws a re-birthday party for herself at which Luke tries to win her back. But she’s fine without him now. She’s fine by herself. And we got a scene with her, later, wearing a nice outfit, and happily buying flowers from an outdoor flower shop. She’d already talked to her mom (Debra Winger) about how Cinderella messes girls up, and makes them obsessed with shoes, and she’s wearing an impressive pair here: white, with heels an inch or two tall, and as she walks away she stumbles on the sidewalk and crumples to the ground. Attempting to retain some dignity, she picks herself up and continues on her shaky, careful way.
That’s your ending.
But it doesn’t end there. They give us another scene where she returns to her apartment, puts the flowers in water, and looks around at her small, neat place with a small, neat smile. The End.
Too bad. It shouldn’t have been about the self-satisfied smile; it should have been about continuing after the stumble. Because that's what it's about.
Movie Review: Under African Skies (2012)
Early in Joe Berlinger’s “Under African Skies,” a documentary about the making of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and his return to South Africa 25 years later to perform a concert with the various South African musicians with whom he worked—including drummer Isaac Mtshali, guitarist Ray Phiri, and vocalist Joseph Shabalala of Lady Blacksmith Mambazo—music is compared to both religion and to the voice of God.
“It’s only 12 notes, man,” Quincy Jones says to Simon, both old men now, sitting on a couch in 2011. “That’s what music is—the voice of God. Don’t you think?” Simon pauses a moment before answering, sincerely, “Yes, I do.”
I don’t know about the voice of God but it makes me happy. Paul Simon’s music makes me happy. This documentary certainly made me happy. I left the theater with a stupid grin on my face, went home, and immediately downloaded a digital version of the album. I had it back when, as either LP or CD or cassette tape, but had neglected it during the crossover into MP3s.
Politics vs. girls in short skirts
Remember the controversy it caused? A different time. Nelson Mandela was in his 22nd year of 27 years of captivity, F.W. de Klerk was president, Apartheid was enforced by police truncheon and gun. In response, the African National Congress, or ANC, initiated an economic and cultural boycott of South Africa. Simon, by showing up for two weeks in 1985 to record his album, and by employing black South African musicians, broke that boycott. You don’t play Sun City and you don’t work with Lady Blacksmith Mambazo. Simon was condemned in South Africa, London, and at Howard University. During the “Graceland” world tour, there were protests outside concert halls and bomb-sniffing dogs inside concert halls. It was, says Dali Tambo, the son of then-ANC president Oliver Tambo, “an issue.”
To be honest, I never got it. An economic boycott of black musicians to protest the oppression of black people? Wouldn’t that be like boycotting Ray Charles in 1955 to protest Jim Crow laws? It feels like the wrong people were being punished. Or, as Ray Phiri says here, about his own reaction to the controversy, “How can you victimize a victim twice?”
The doc tries to sort through the controversy—then and now—while presenting, via archive footage and talking heads, the long process of how the album came together. Here’s how we got that accordion riff at the beginning of “The Boy in the Bubble.” Here’s how Ladysmith Black Mambazo came into the picture. At one point Simon wondered whether these songs shouldn’t be political, since he wasn’t blind to what was going on. He felt the tension in the country and in the room. Shouldn't the album reflect this tension? So he asked the South African artist, General M.D. Shirinda, about the song that became “I Know What I Know,” which was based on one of Shirinda’s songs. What were its original lyrics? Shirinda responded thus: “Remember in the sixties when girls wore short skirts? Wasn’t that great?” So much for politics.
The lyrics, interestingly, weren’t written until Simon returned to New York. He agonized over them. He came up with “There’s a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline,” but recognized its very New Yorkness. How did it fit with the African rhythms? He kept coming back to a riff, “I’m going to Graceland,” tried to shake it, couldn’t, then threw up his hands and decided he’d better go to Graceland. At one point he realized—as I never did in 1987—that Graceland didn’t have to mean Elvis; it could be a metaphor for a state of grace, a place where “we all will be received.”
In this way, the album came together. One gets a sense of the arbitrariness of it all. It could’ve easily have gone another way.
Greater good vs. greater music
Some of the more touching moments in the doc are about the opening of the world to these South African musicians, most of whom had been working odd jobs until Simon came along. They didn’t know who he was. For some, he was their first white friend, the first white man they hugged, a revelation. “Who’s this guy hiding himself in America?” Joseph Shabalala remembers thinking. “He’s my brother.” They were flown to New York to finish the recording and a limo with a white driver met them at the airport. They wanted to go to Central Park and asked “Where do we get a permit?” They wound up on “Saturday Night Live” singing “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and became a sensation. A world tour, plagued by the ANC controversy, followed.
Dali Tambo, now with an odd 19th-century-style moustache, happily provides the ANC’s perspective. He and Simon sit on another couch, this one in Tambo’s home in South Africa, for a discussion/argument on what happened. Basically: the ANC felt the greater good was served by subsuming the individual to the nation’s needs; Simon felt the nation’s needs were served by giving the world individual faces and voices. The oppression was no longer an abstraction; here were the people being oppressed.
Mostly, though, he just wanted to make good music.
“It’s the same event but everybody’s story is different,” Simon says at the outset, but of course the doc gives us his story rather than Tambo’s. Even the talking heads favor the artist since they’re artists themselves: Philip Glass and David Byrne and Peter Gabriel and Paul McCartney. Oprah Winfrey talks about how she heard of the controversy and determined to avoid the album; then she heard the album. “It’s my favorite album of all time,” she says now. She became more deeply interested in South Africa because of “Graceland.” You could say Simon wins his argument with Tambo right there.
49 vs. 13
There are a few cloying moments—the close-up of Simon’s white hand in Tambo’s black hand—but mostly the movie is joyous: a celebration of music and artistry and creativity and brotherhood. It’s also a celebration of a time when music seemed to matter more than it does now. What gets big now isn’t necessarily worthy of big. Feel free to dismiss that as the perspective of a 49-year-old curmudgeon.
Of course, once upon a time, I was a 13-year-old curmudgeon, arguing with friends that Paul Simon’s music was better than the Bee Gees’ music. I don’t have such arguments anymore; they seem ridiculous to me. I like what I like and I know what I know. And who am I to blow against the wind?
Movie Review: The Avengers (2012)
WARNING: EARTH’S MIGHTIEST SPOILERS!
This is the one.
Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” is the superhero movie we’ve been waiting for. It’s imbued with the same spirit that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought to comic books in the early 1960s, saving, or at least altering, and certainly growing, the industry. Comics under Stan and Jack grew like Bruce Banner under gamma radiation. They grew not only in sales but stature. They grew up. There was a new seriousness—superheroes had problems, superhero teams fought each other like family members—but there was also that pizzazz, that lack of seriousness, that insouciance. Jack’s drawings brought the gravitas and Stan’s personality the lighter-than-air pizzazz. Stan had his tongue in cheek when he called it “the Marvel Age of Comics,” but soon that’s what it was. Face front, true believers! Make Mine Marvel! All for only 12 cents an issue.
Whedon’s “The Avengers” has that same spirit. It’s fast and fun and contains laugh-out-loud moments. It’s epic and smart and never gets bogged down. I saw it at an IMAX theater, in 3-D, and beforehand we were told by theater employees that the movie was two and a half hours long. I practically groaned. Two and a half hours? Really? Then it started and picked up and kept going, and at one point I looked at my watch and nearly two hours had passed. Foosh.
The Alfonso Cuaron of superhero directors
“The Dark Knight” doesn’t have this spirit. Comics became darker in the 1980s under Frank Miller and Alan Moore. They became almost Nietzschian: Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster. Our heroes were still heroes but they became heavy with monstrosity, and that’s the spirit of “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” and 2003’s “Daredevil,” and somewhere young men, in their teens and 20s and 30s, who should know better, still get off on this crap. They think it’s cool seeing a silent sentinel staring down at a corrupt city, cape flapping in the breeze. Me, I get bored. I wonder where the fun is. I wonder what Stan is up to.
Standing in line, I wondered if “The Avengers” had shot its wad in the trailers. Were all its best lines, its best scenes, used up? What could be better than Tony Stark saying to Loki “We have a Hulk”? But Whedon and company keep them coming.
- “I thought his first name was Agent.”
- “The last time I was in New York I kinda broke...Harlem.”
- “I am a God, you dull creature, and I will not be bullied by a—”
- “That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.”
- “And Hulk? Smash.”
This is the movie that finally saves the Hulk. It moves us away from the lonely wanderlust of the TV series and from Ang Lee’s humorless Freudian angst and brings the fun. What did Hulk have to smash before? Puny humans? Scene-chewing father figures? One abominable drag of an enemy? Here he gets to fight Thor, and a giant alien army, and Loki, bragging, above, to which Hulk’s reaction is just ... perfect. Lesson #1 from the Marvel Age of Comics: Don’t mess with Hulk.
How about the scene where all the aliens go after him? Twenty on one. How about that long, epic, tracking shot that shows us each Avenger in the midst of battle, like some two-page, single-panel extravaganza from Jack Kirby or John Romita or John Byrne? Christopher Nolan in his Batman movies uses quick cuts like he’s directing an MTV video for our distracted age. Whedon seems to be asking himself: How much epic battle can I contain in one tracking shot? He’s the Alfonso Cuaron of superhero directors.
Loki vs. mere mortals
Are there false notes? The way that, you know, Obadiah Stane is suddenly everywhere at the end of “Iron Man,” and the way the Joker is suddenly everywhere at the end of “The Dark Knight”? And every second of both “Fantastic Four” movies? Because I’m not recalling any such problems in “The Avengers.” Sure, the Hulk as part of a team, that’s always problematic. How do you point the Hulk in the right direction? How do you make sure he doesn’t go off in your face? (See: Thor.) Hulk knows no team, really, which is why he eventually left the comic-book “Avengers.” But at least they bring him on board because of Banner’s brains rather than Hulk’s brawn. S.H.I.E.L.D. needed his expertise in gamma radiation. We needed to see him flop Loki around like a rag doll.
Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is actually a weak villain, isn’t he? There’s great malevolence in him as he stares, captured, in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s cell, but his desires are puny. They’re large, in that he wants to take over the Earth, but they’re puny in that he wants subservience, and that’s the province of weak men. The two who inflict the most damage on Loki aren’t super; they’re mere mortals, and they do it with mere words. Loki escapes his cell, runs his blade through Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who, dying, tells him:
Coulson: You’re going to lose.
Coulson: It’s in your nature.
That gets to the heart of it. He keeps losing to Thor, his brother, and Odin, his father. He’s powerful but it’s not enough, it’s never enough, because losing is in his nature. He needs so much to make up for all that losing.
Earlier Loki gets some mucky-mucks at a black-tie affair in Stuttgart, Germany to bow down to him. An entire plaza full of people. He tells them, “You were made to be ruled,” which is a good line. He tells them that they don’t really want freedom, which is another good line. We don’t, sometimes. Having so many choices in life? It’s hard, sometimes. But then Loki goes too far, and one man, looking like a concentration-camp survivor (Kenneth Tigar), stands up, and refuses to take a knee. He talks about men like Loki and Loki laughs, knowing himself to be a god:
Loki: There are no men like me.
German man: There are always men like you.
That’s so fucking smart. Loki says his line because he’s not a man and the German says his line because there are always dictators borne of smallness: Pol Pot and Hitler and Napoleon and Ozymandias. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” they say, but the lone and level sand stretches far away. That’s what our German survivor knows. Loki knows it, too. The loser.
All the best battles take place in New York
Plot. What we used to call the cosmic cube, but is now apparently called “The Tesseract,” is being used by S.H.I.E.L.D. in a lab to create weapons of mass destruction. Then it starts operating independently. Loki arrives, takes out half a dozen agents, and makes several, including a bow-and-arrow assassin called the Hawk (Jeremy Renner), who used to be called Hawkeye, and the scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), do his bidding, literally glassy-eyed. Time for the Avengers initiative.
But what do they really have in the beginning? Iron Man and Captain America and Black Widow and the Hawk ... with the Hawk on the wrong side for much of the movie. The two strongest members of the Avengers are accidents. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) arrives because of Loki and Hulk arrives because of Bruce Banner’s big brain. Is this a false note? Or is the assembling of the Avengers team like what directors call the movies themselves? A series of happy accidents.
The Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) gets the best intro. Tied to a chair somewhere in Russia, being interrogated by three leering men, being watched by millions more. Except, of course, she’s doing the interrogating. She’s not giving, she’s extracting. This becomes apparent when she gets a call from Agent Coulson. She almost rolls her eyes, then takes down these guys 1, 2, 3. The twiddling-the-thumbs look Coulson has on the phone as he waits for her to take care of business evoked laughter. Clark Gregg will be missed.
S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t very smart with Captain America (Chris Evans), is it? The man’s frozen for 65 years and they have him working out with heavy bags rather than, you know, learning the last 65 years of history and technology. Puny Steve Rogers wasn’t a dim bulb, after all. He had smarts. But it sets up the most interesting of the potential sequels: Captain America, coming up to speed; trapped in a world he never made.
The intro of Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is peppy and witty, and contains a cameo from Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). It’s also relevant. Tony Stark, former weapons manufacturer, working now with clean energy, lights up the new Stark Industries building in midtown Manhattan with an arc reactor. “Like Christmas but with me,” he says of the STARK building. And that’s where Loki and Selvig, needing a strong energy source, will set up their Tesseract-created portal to allow an invading Chitauri army to enter our realm. Which is why the battle takes place in midtown Manhattan, which is where we want it. In the Marvel Age of Comics, all the best battles took place in New York.
Mark Ruffalo is the third man in a decade to play Bruce Banner, and I like what he brings. There’s a halting intelligence that meshes well with Robert Downey’s frenetic intelligence. He also knows he’s the biggest implied threat in the world. Mess with him and you mess with “the other guy,” as he calls the Hulk. He can’t be threatened.
Initially I assumed the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier was simply a cool transportation device but it’s really the setting where much of the action in the movie takes place. There, members of the Avengers bicker, and we get a few actual fistfights (Thor vs. Iron Man), but there’s also bonding (Stark, Banner). Much of the bickering is the result of Loki’s staff, no, which is stored in the lab, and is somehow bringing out the worst in everybody. At the same time, this kind of bickering/making up is not only classically Marvel but the movie’s theme. In times of peace, we bicker. In times of crises, we bond into a functioning team. You could say it’s the vision America has of itself. It may even be true.
Our imaginations onscreen
Let me add this about the battle royale finale: If someone had shown me these scenes in 1974, when I was 11 and collecting comic books, and relying on Saturday-morning fare like “Shazam!” and Electric Company’s “Spidey’s Super Stories,” I probably would’ve wet my pants. I might’ve had a heart attack. At 11. This is stuff that’s never been seen before except in our imaginations. “The Avengers” is our imaginations onscreen.
So I went into “The Avengers” shrugging and left after two and a half hours feeling giddy and high. The question with Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” isn’t whether it’s good; it’s whether it’s the best superhero movie ever made. Many will argue “Dark Knight” but I say, as I’ve always said, Make Mine Marvel.
Stan 'the Man' Lee, who made mine Marvel, at the premiere of “The Avengers” (2012).
Movie Review: Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012)
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is an inspirational movie but not in the way most movies are inspirational. Most movies, if they inspire us, inspire us to dance, to fight, to do whatever the protagonist is doing. “Jiro,” the documentary, and Jiro, the man, inspire us to keep plugging away at whatever it is we’re doing.
“Once you decide on your occupation you must immerse yourself in your work,” Jiro Ono, the 85-year-old master sushi chef tells us early on. “Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success.”
At least that’s the secret to his success. Which , thanks to documentarian David Gelb, isn’t much of a secret anymore.
“Only one can be best; I buy that one.”
Jiro’s been working with sushi for 75 years. He’s called an artist, a symphony conductor, a maestro. He runs a nondescript countertop restaurant that seats eight in a Tokyo subway; but it’s a two-month wait to get a seat for a sushi meal that costs ¥30,000. (About US$369.) His is the only counter joint that has a three-star Michelin rating. Other sushi chefs tremble in his wake.
And he hasn’t perfected it. He’s still working at it. Hell, he works at it at night. He dreams of sushi. Thus the title.
We watch his methods in action. His sushi is bought fresh every day. He buys only the best tuna, only the best rice. Most octopus tastes rubbery so Jiro has his octopus massaged for 45 minutes. It used to be 30 minutes but he kept improving it. “If 10 tuna are for sale, only one can be best,” says his tuna guy. “I buy that one.” Then Jiro buys it from him.
He strives for simplicity and balance: just the right wasabi, the right sauce, the right pressure—like holding a baby chick—as the sushi is assembled. He used to serve appetizers but no more. He wants nothing to get in the way of the flavor of the sushi. The meal ends with tamagoyaki, a kind of small omelet, and we hear an apprentice talk about how he was finally allowed to make the tamagoyaki after 10 years of service. Even then he made it wrong. Only after 400 tries did Jiro nod and tell him he’d succeeded. That success, he said, made him want to cry.
Sacrifices are made, obviously, but one gets the feeling Jiro doesn’t see them as sacrifices. “Jiro dislikes holidays,” says Yamamoto, a food critic prominent in the documentary. “They are too long for him.” One of Jiro’s sons recounts how, when he was a small boy, he saw his father sleeping on the couch and called to his mother about the strange man sleeping in the living room. Does Jiro regret it? So little time spent with his kids? We’re not sure. His mask in this regard is old-school and inscrutable. “I wasn’t much of a father,” he admits, but adds, “I let them graduate high school.” How nice. Both sons are now in the family business. The eldest, Yoshikazu, 50, fetches the fish at the morning market on his bicycle and basically runs things. The youngest, Takashi, knowing the restaurant would be bequeathed to Yoshikazu, started his own sushi place at a nearby mall. Both are successful men but both live in Jiro’s long shadow.
That’s part of the drama of the doc: What’s it like to follow in that wake? A former apprentice sympathizes with or pities Yoshikazu. How awful to not have your own place at 50, he says. How awful to live in that shadow. He doesn’t think Yoshikazu will ever get out from under it. “Jiro’s ghost will always be there, watching,” he says. But Yoshikazu seems less haunted than this former apprentice. Indeed, at the end of the doc, we’re informed that when the Michelin food critics were served, it was Yoshkazu serving them. It was his sushi that earned the three-star rating.
The doc has holes. What did Jiro do during World War II? What did he think? Do we see his wife? Is she mentioned? Is she alive?
More, the secret to Jiro’s success—find the thing, keep doing the thing, keep perfecting the thing, until you die—are justified because, well, he’s a success. There is reward for his hard work. There’s recognition and honor and customers. There’s this doc. But how was he recognized? How did it become known that his was the best sushi in Tokyo, in Japan, in the world? We don’t get that. How long did Jiro toil without recognition? And during this time, did he have doubts? Did he ever feel like he was wasting his life focusing on this one thing?
In this way, Jiro’s story feels like the flip-side of Anvil’s, those middle-aged, Canadian, heavy-metal rockers profiled in another excellent documentary, “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” from 2008. Those guys kept doing the one thing, perfecting the one thing, but, after a time, they were no longer able to make a living at the one thing. They had their fans, almost like a cult, but never broke the way you need to break. They kept on but they had to get other jobs, and struggled, and kept trying to break through at an unseemly age. You left the theater wondering whether they were inspirational or delusional. You left feeling slightly sick to your stomach.
You don’t wonder this with Jiro. The mood of the doc is of a life well-spent rather than a life wasted. The soundtrack is classical, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 35, rather than hair metal. It feels timeless and proper. I’m sure Jiro is a better artist with sushi than Anvil is with music. I wouldn’t be surprised if he tried harder, too, and gave up more. But the secret to his success isn’t necessarily a route to success for others. Doing the one thing, over and over, guarantees nothing.
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is still worth seeing. It’s a tonic for a certain kind of American moviegoer like me, since it celebrates patience, and experience, and the pursuit of perfection. It celebrates things that are given merely lip service in my increasingly loutish and cruddy country.
Movie Review: Wrath of the Titans (2012)
Is there some cinematic law whereby the more lifelike the mythological creatures the less lifelike the human counterparts? The greater the special effects, the lesser the story? Let’s call it Michael Bay’s law.
There’s no Kraken that can be released in “Wrath of the Titans,” but we do get fire-breathing lion-dragons, giant cyclopses, and—finally!—the titular titans, which appear to be whirling devil dervishes that land as meteors and battle Greek forces with two or three bodies on one trunk. While whirling. It’s actually pretty cool.
The main villain, meanwhile, isn’t Ralph Fiennes as in the first movie, but his father, Kronos, who is portrayed as a giant lava man that growls. He’s CGI. And he erupts and he fulminates and he takes out dozens of lesser characters, but there’s no personality there. There’s no there there. What’s his goal? Revenge upon his sons, who imprisoned him? Then why does he take out dozens of Greek soldiers but miss Zeus and Hades? And why are they humanoid while he’s, you know, a giant lava man? Basically he serves the function of the Kraken in the first movie. We hear about him, and hear about him, and then he appears, giant and monstrous, and causes chaos for a minute or two; then Perseus (Sam Worthington) unleashes the necessary weapon—Medusa’s head in the first movie, the combined weapons of Zeus, Poseidon and Hades in this one—and takes him out in like 10 seconds. You blink and it’s over. Crisis averted. Except for the crisis in popular cinema.
Perseus, the demigod, last seen killing the Kraken, is living a simple life as a single father to a 10-year-old boy, Helius (John Bell), and as a humble fisherman, on the Greek coast. His wife, Io (Gemma Arterton), died between movies. We see him genuflecting by her tombstone. It reads: “I’m not doing the sequel. I can’t go into it. I’m just not.”
Then up pops biological Dad Zeus (Liam Neeson), who confesses that with people praying less, the gods are weakening. This means all of their work is being undone, including the underworld prison Tartarus, which holds both titans and Kronos. And if they escape? “The end of the world,” he intones.
Perseus shrugs and goes back to fishing and gazing with pride and love at his son. End of the world, schmend of the world. He doesn’t connect “end of the world” to his world until a two-headed dragon shows up and threatens his son. Then it’s off to battle.
Too late. Another disgruntled, jealous son of Zeus, Ares (Edgar Ramirez of “Carlos”), along with Hades (Ralph Fiennes), who has never forgiven his brother for condemning him to the underworld, have teamed up with Kronos, the giant lava man, and taken Zeus captive. He’s chained in the underworld now. His arms are slowly turning to lava while his hair is quickly turning white.
Thus when Perseus prays to the gods at the Mount of Idols, only Poseiden (Danny Huston) shows up, tells him what’s going on, and gives Perseus his task. Then he dies. Poor Danny Huston. He must’ve had five lines between the two movies.
The task? Gather all the demigods in the world for a frontal assault on Hades. Sorry, that’s not it. That would make sense. No, he’s instructed to gather just one demigod, the half-human son of Poseidon, Agenor (Toby Kebbell, who is our comic relief but isn’t funny), along with a more battle-ready Andromeda (Rosamund Pike taking over for Alexa Davalos), plus a few meaningless others, and, with this rag-tag team, travel to a distant island to battle giant cyclopses and get Hephaestus (Bill Nighy), the architect of Tartarus, to hand out blueprints. Unfortunately, at the last second, Ares arrives and kills all but Perseus, Andromeda and Agenor, who, together, stumble, for what seems like an eternity, toward hell.
Meantime, in hell, Hades and Zeus are bonding. I guess they just needed quality time together.
The big battle takes place on Earth. Kronos erupts, here come the Titans, and the Greek forces (HOO-ah!), along with Agenor and Andromeda, and eventually Zeus and Hades battling side by side, do their best to hold them back, while on the Mount of Idols, Perseus fights Ares to get the final weapon with which to destroy Kronos.
Early in the movie Zeus tells Perseus, “You will learn that being half human makes you stronger than a God.” Then he adds, “not weaker,” so we know what stronger means.
But it’s total bullshit. On the Mount of Idols, Ares, a full god, kicks Perseus’ ass. It’s not even close. He could break him in two. Why doesn’t he? It’s not in the story. Perseus has to become the underdog before he can win. He has to overcome great odds, and even greater pain, to become the demigod version of Rocky Balboa or John McClane. Because that’s what we want. We want the folks—like us, we imagine—who keep coming and coming despite the odds. Perseus isn’t a character. He’s a copy of a copy of a copy. We get faint outlines and actions but everything else about him is blurred. It’s the CGI that’s sharp and in focus.
On the IMDb boards, people are asking if this movie is better than “Clash of the Titans,” which has to be one of the saddest questions ever. Is it smarter than George W. Bush? Does it taste better than poop? Do I like it more than banging my head with a hammer? The sadder answer? “Clash of the Titans” was horrible but “Wrath” is worse. At least in the first we had Mads Mikkelsen and Liam Cunningham. They added something. This one gives us uncomic comic relief, a battle-ready Andromeda who can’t battle, and a Perseus who forgets his entire raison d’etre from the first movie. In that film, Hades killed his adopted parents and sister, and Perseus burns to take him out. He has the chance here. Zeus is dead, Hades is weak, Perseus eyes him. With revenge? Will he take him out now? Will he even reference his raison d’etre from the first movie? No. “All my power is spent,” Hades says. “Who knows? I might be stronger without it.” Then he walks away. Perseus watches him and smiles.
Oh, Hades, you old so and so. Nothing will keep you down, will it?
Then Perseus goes and kisses Andromeda. Because he’s supposed to. He’s a copy of a copy of a copy.
The era of the gods is ending, we’re told in “Wrath of the Titans,” but it’s also true of our movie gods. We have characters by committee and corporation now. They’re copies of copies of copies of copies. Pray for them.
Movie Review: John Carter (2012)
I’m surprised “John Carter” is as good as it is.
It really shouldn’t work. Writer, director and creative force Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “Wall-E”) adapted a 100-year-old sci-fi/fantasy story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which was serialized in 1912, before world wars and the modern assembly line and women’s right to vote, and made a good 21st-century adventure yarn out of it. Sometimes that yarn is a bit threadbare, sure, but mostly it’s solid. Given the source material, it has no right to be.
Yet Disney is going to lose $200 million on it. It’s the biggest bomb of the year, the decade, the century. This. Not any of the “Transformers” movies, not any of the “Twilight” series, but this. That’s what I don’t get. It’s not that audiences decided to stay away from “John Carter”; it’s what they go to.
Battle of the HBO stars
I admit I cringed during the opening. We watch a mid-air battle, very swashbuckly, while a voiceover attempts to sort out who’s who on Mars. Zodanga? Barsoom? Helium? It made me long for a “Star Wars” crawl so I could read it all myself. It made me long for simple phrases like “Rebel” and ”Empire” so I’d know who to root for:
Mars. So you name it and think that you know it. The red planet, no air, no life. But you do not know Mars, for its true name is Barsoom. And it is not airless, nor is it dead, but it is dying. The city of Zodanga saw to that. Zodanga, the predator city. Moving, devouring, draining Barsoom of energy and life. Only the great city of Helium dared resist, stood strong, matched Zodanga airship for airship, holding fast for a thousand years. Until one day the rulers of Zodanga became cornered in a sand storm and everything changed.
Sab Than (Dominic West) seems set upon, and he’s played by that McNulty dude from “The Wire,” so I should root for him, right? Wrong. He’s from Zodanga, the predator city, and he’s cornered. But then Matai Shang (Mark Strong) appears, and gives him a crackly, veiny blue weapon from “the Goddess,” with which he routs the Heliumites. Because it’s Mark Strong, we know it can’t be good. Does that guy ever play someone who’s not totally evil? Can’t a brother get a romantic comedy now and again?
At this point we get title, JOHN CARTER, boom, and cut to Earth, New York City, 1881, and a “Sherlock Holmes” vibe. We see our title character (Taylor Kitsch) sending a telegram to his nephew, and introducing himself in James Bond fashion: “Carter. John Carter.” He’s also being followed. Then all of sudden he’s dead, and his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabra, who has a kind of Paul Dano vibe), is directed to read his journal. Which is how we get the rest of the story.
It begins, truly begins, in Arizona in 1868, when, instead of being a rich sonofagun, John Carter is a former Confederate cavalryman, and current gold prospecter, who simply wants more supplies. But he’s mocked at a supply outpost by two rowdies and a fight ensues. Then the U.S. Army shows up, tries to take him, and a fight ensues. Stanton uses humor and quick cuts to give us a sense of who John Carter is. He’s a fighter, humorless but hapless. His instinct, when threatened or trapped, is to punch and bolt. He’ll do this for much of the movie. It’s a good bit.
The Army, in the person of the equally hapless Col. Powell (Bryan Cranston), wants Carter to re-up, but John Carter is through with war. Civil War? Indian wars? He doesn’t care. But when several cavalrymen are set upon by a group of Indians, Carter returns to save Powell and we get this well-worn exchange. Powell: “I thought you didn’t care!” Carter: “I don’t!” Not a good bit.
They’re chased into a cave, the legendary Spider’s Cave, it turns out, which Carter has been searching for; and inside he finds what he was searching for: gold. He also finds a being with a crackly, veiny blue medallion, whom he kills. As it’s dying, he repeats its dying word: Barsoom. Poof! He’s transported to a different desert, a Martian desert, where the gravity is so light he has trouble walking. His tendency is to leap.
Freedom is short-lived. He’s quickly captured by Tharks: 10-feet-tall and green, with four arms, two tusks, and no noses. Their leader, Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), tries to communicate with the odd, jumping creature. He introduces himself, in the Thark language, then John Carter does the same in English: John Carter of Virginia. For much of the movie, he’ll be called “Virginia.” Another good bit.
Pretty soon we have our scoresheet filled out:
- The Zodanga is the bad city, led by Dominic West of HBO’s “The Wire,” but really led by the villainous Mark Strong of “Sherlock Holmes,” who is a a kind of shapeshifter. He, it turns out, is the leader of the Therns, who feed off the wars of other races—like that alien entity Capt. Kirk and Kang laughed at in “The Day of the Dove” episode of “Star Trek.” Maybe Jerome Bixby was an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan.
- Helium is the good city, peopled by tattooed folks who starred in HBO’s “Rome” (Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy). Ciaran, as Tardos Mors, is the leader, but he’s leading a losing war and is listening to offers, from Sab Than (“Wire” dude), for the hand of his daughter, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). She’s hot and smart and wants to keep fighting. She totally hates the “Wire” dude.
- The Tharks are a semi-brutal race who live in the desert. In the overall metaphor, they’re the Indians, the neutral observers in the civil war between the Martian city-states. They want the humanoids to destroy each other and leave them in peace.
Tharks have their own issues, of course. Thark babies appear to be born, or hatched, in an incubator in the desert. Those who don’t hatch on time are killed. “They are not our kind,” Tars Tarkas says of the slow hatchers. I love this detail. Most moviemakers would leave out such moral complexity but not Stanton. And Tars Tarkas, by the way, is the good one.
When the Martian civil war enters Thark territory, John Carter, using his super power, his amazing strength and jumping abilities, gets involved against his better judgment. He battles Sab Than, saves Dejah Thoris, discovers that he’s on Mars, gathers clues for how to get back to Earth. Then he and Dejah Thoris, and John Carter’s ostracized handler, Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton), along with a big lumbering animal that is akin to a dog, with a monstrous head and a big blue tongue, are exiled to the barren Barsoom landscape. It’s a motley, bickering crew. Fun.
Is it a “Wizard of Oz” crew? “Oz” metaphors are overdone (see: “Star Wars”) but it seems to work here. The dog is the Cowardly Lion, Sola is the Scarecrow, Dejah is the Tinwoodswoman—her heart is revealed in the end—while our Dorothy, John Carter, somehow wound up in this strange place, where the rules don’t apply, and just wants to go home.
The world’s first superhero
I had no clue where the story was going. I liked that. Sure, I knew that JC and Dejah Thoris would get together; and I assumed he would eventually choose a side in the Martian civil war, despite his earlier admonitions against such actions, and that the side would most likely be Dejah Thoris’; and he would defeat McNutty and somehow get back to Earth, since, you know, we saw him there. I also began to wonder if maybe his death on Earth in 1881 wasn’t really a death. Another teleportation to Mars maybe?
But in terms of the A, B, C of the story, the “this-then-this,” I had no clue. This world was as new to me as it was to John Carter. Something to be said for that. “Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty,” said Andrew Stanton in his TED talk earlier this year. That’s what he gives us.
Apprently Stanton pitched the movie as “Indiana Jones on Mars,” and it’s true: freeing himself from one trap, JC, like Indy before him, always winds up in another. Makes sense, too. Both “John Carter” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” are based upon serials, magazine or movie, which foster this tendency as a means to encourage return visits by customers. The 1966 “Batman” TV show satirized this formula; we were too smart for it then. A decade later, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg streamlined it and popularized it for a whole new generation and we were hooked. We haven’t escaped their trap yet. We’re still living in their world.
In a sense, we’re still living in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ world. Much of “John Carter” points to the past—the Civil War, the swashbuckling. the princesses—but it also points to the future of cinematic storytelling: interplanetary travel and superheroes. Was John Carter the world’s first superhero? An argument can be made. He’s a reverse Superman 25 years before Superman. His powers increase away from Earth. He leaps tall Martian buildings in a single bound.
And yet: biggest box-office bomb of the century. Moviegoers go for its descendants: “Indiana Jones” and “Star Wars” and “Superman.” The original of what you want isn’t what you want. Someone should do a study.
Movie Review: The Hunger Games (2012)
WARNING: MAY THE SPOILERS BE EVER IN YOUR FAVOR
Why didn’t anyone tell me “The Hunger Games” was a sequel to “Winter’s Bone”?
Jennifer Lawrence is once again playing a tough girl acting as mother to a younger sibling in an Ozarks-like land of poverty and muted colors, where she has to risk everything, particularly herself, to ensure her younger sibling’s survival. It’s a dystopian future rather than our dystopian present, but otherwise it’s “Winter’s Bone” all over. J-Law has a right to wonder: Where the hell are the moms in my movies? Do I have to do fucking everything?
She plays Katniss Everdeen, elder sister to Primrose (Willow Shields), whom she comforts from nightmares, and to whom she sings lullabies, before sneaking into the woods to hunt for food. She’s a whiz with a bow-and-arrow and has a deer in her sights when guy-pal Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) shows up to commiserate, flirt, and above all scatter the deer. This is supposed to be a brutal world, kill or be killed, but the filmmakers want to keep Katniss as sympathetic as possible, and you don’t do that by shooting Bambi’s mom. Too bad. I was intrigued for a moment. Are they gonna...? No. They’re gonna fudge it.
Psst. They fudge it for most of the movie.
Katniss and Primrose live in the 12th of 12 districts surrounding a glitzy metropolis, where, every year, each district holds a lottery to choose two tributes, a boy and a girl, between the ages of 12 and 18, to battle to the death in the nationally televised “Hunger Games.” Twenty-four kids go into the woods, one comes out, and everyone watches on big-screen TVs in the public square. Apparently no one can afford their own TVs anymore. Apparently the authorities think it’s safer to gather the masses into a mass, where, you know, they might rebel.
Why “The Hunger Games” in the first place? We get an inkling in a conversation between President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the show’s producer Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley):
Snow: Seneca, why do you think we have a winner?
Seneca: What do you mean?
Snow: I mean, why do we have a winner?
Snow: Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. Spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.
Snow: So ... contain it.
The “it” that needs containing is, of course, Katniss.
This is the first year Primrose is eligible for the Games—thus the nightmares—and, oops, she’s chosen. Distraught, Katniss volunteers in her place. The second D-12 tribute isn’t Gale, thank God, but Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a local baker boy, whose name I assumed was “Peter” throughout; and off they go, by train, to the Capitol, where everyone dresses in bizarre Tim Burton/“Wizard of Oz” fashions: teeny hats and curlicue beards and excessive makeup. It drives home the phoniness and effeminacy of the Capitol’s inhabitants. They’re the Haves. Have Nots? Dance.
In the Capitol, mentors are assigned—including, for Peeta and Katniss, former District 12 winner, and current drunk, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). The tributes are then trained, primped for the crowds, and made to compete for “sponsorships” that might aid them in time of need.
All tributes aren’t created equal, by the way. Tributes from Districts 1 and 2, including Cato (Alexander Ludwig), Marvel (Jack Quaid) and Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman), have trained for this since birth. They’re the Cold-War Eastern Europeans in the Olympics but they act like asshole rich kids in any high school movie. They’re Socs. They’re Cobra Kai: tall, white, good-looking, and deadly, and they develop alliances a la “Survivor”: banding together to take out the weak kids. What kind of strategy is that? Shouldn’t a strong tribute form alliances with weaker tributes to take out real potential rivals? Instead, Cato roams the woods, cocky and bullying, as if he can trust Marvel and Clove standing behind him with knives in their hands.
As for our heroine? Once the games begin, it’s the deer all over again. She kills only in self-defense, and only those who deserve killing. She bonds with an adorable 12-year-old girl, Rue (Amanda Stenberg), who has no chance, and who is killed with a spear by one of the Cobra Kai. She bonds with Peeta, who is injured, and nurses him back to health. Here’s how my 10-year-old nephew Jordy put it in his review:
You will care for the characters that the movie wants you to care about, and you will hate the characters that the movie wants you to hate.
That sentence describes almost everything Hollywood makes, but it’s particularly true, and particularly annoying, here. The characters don’t act as they should given the circumstances. They act for us, the audience, so we’ll either like them or hate them. They dance for us.
Watching awful people watching the story we’re watching
So what’s the meaning of all of this? Analogies abound.
There’s the reality-TV analogy, in which “The Hunger Games” is a deadlier version of “Survivor” or “Fear Factor,” and other people’s pain, or death, is aired for our entertainment. There’s the business analogy, in which, after training, 12-18 year-olds are set loose in the bigger world, where, as Bill Gates knows, there can be only one winner. There’s the 99% metaphor referenced above, in which the masses dance for the few. There’s even the Tea Party metaphor, in which the plain, honest folks of the country are controlled by the painted, effeminate fools of the city.
Of these, the reality-TV analogy is most obvious. It’s also the most problematic.
Before the Games, the tributes are interviewed by smarmy TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, dressed as an Oompha-Loompa), who tells their stories to his TV audience. It’s similar to the way Bob Costas tells us, during the Olympics, that this athlete’s father is dying of cancer, and that one cared for her dying mother. It gives the audience rooting interests. Katniss’ heart-tugging story is obvious: she volunteered in place of her sister. Awwww. Peeta’s? That he’s actually in love with Katniss. Oooooo!
The reduction of the individual to a rootable storyline is presented as a form of phony manipulation and pageantry when the movie does the exact same thing. What Caesar Flickerman feeds to his audience is just slightly more reductive than what writer-director Gary Ross feeds to us. Both audiences lap it up. We just take ours with a extra dollop of hypocrisy. We watch a story about awful people watching the story we’re watching. How awful those people are.
I should add that the gender reversal is pretty interesting. The boy is all mushy love, the girl is all “meh”; and in the end the villain uses the boy as a hostage to bargain with the obviously stronger girl, who has him in her sights, bow drawn. J-Law makes it believable, too. Katniss is another Lisbeth Salander. Our strong, silent types are now girls.
But the movie fudges too much. I say this as someone who hasn’t read the books. I say this as someone who didn’t even know, going in, that “THG” was a trilogy. All I knew, from the trailer, was the stuff leading up to the start of the Games. So I wanted to know what most people want to know with a story: What happens next? I wanted to know if they could make what happens meaningful.
Early in the Games, Katniss travels far afield and waits things out. She’s safe. So the production folks create a forest fire to drive her back to the battle. They know how to deal with this contingency. But they’re completely flummoxed by a contestant who refuses to kill in cold blood? They never ran into that contingency? I don’t buy it. As a result—in part, as a sop for the audience, who supposedly likes the “star-crossed lovers” storyline—they change the rules in the middle of the game: two contestants are allowed to live. This is not only a cheat in their reality but a cheat in ours. Author Suzanne Collins’ and director Gary Ross may blame the rule change on the two-faced nature of producer Seneca Crane, with his munchkin beard, but I blame them. They couldn’t come up with a better ending.
Movie Review: 21 Jump Street (2012)
“21 Jump Street” is the kind of movie that garners an 87% rating on RottenTomatoes.com because 87% of movie critics, most of whom are guys, think it’s pretty good. Hey, it’s kinda funny. It’s got funny bits here and there. I laughed. As did I. But nobody’s overwhelmed. Most everyone knows it’s a not-bad bromedy, another light comedy with tons of dick jokes, that doesn’t really go anywhere. The only one that sounds enthused, really, is that 87% rating on RottenTomatoes.com.
Its humor is scattershot. It’s best when it’s aping its genre—the same way that “The Other Guys” was best when it was aping its genre—but eventually it gives in to the genre’s demands. All mainstream satires do. It’s Hollywood eating its cake and having it, too. It’s the movie business spending 45 minutes telling us, “Oh, you’re too smart for this,” and then telling us, for another 45 minutes, “OK, you’re not.”
It’s right both times.
Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum, in his third movie this year) are recent Police Academy grads on bike patrol who long for something better. After a bust of a drug gang, the One Percenters, goes awry, they’re scuttled off to another unit. “Where do we report to?” Jenko asks. “Down on Jump Street,” Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) declares melodramatically from behind his desk. “37 Jump Street.” Pause. “Wait, that doesn’t sound right.”
Hardy gets in another good line. Since the squad is a revival of an undercover program from the 1980s, he adds, “All they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us not to notice.” A few people in the crowd at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle laughed knowingly at that one. For a few minutes, we hold out hope.
We get a few more of these in-jokes, these “You’re too smart for this” lines and moments. I suppose my favorite is when our boys are being chased on the LA freeway by a motorcycle gang, and, one by one, gang members crash into things like, you know, trucks full of gas canisters, or they slide, sparks flying, into a leaking oil and gas tanker, and Schmidt and Jenko tense, anticipating the ensuing explosion. But nothing happens. They’re constantly amazed that nothing blows up. Until the very end when almost everything does. That’s the “OK, you’re not” part.
(Why, by the way, do cinematic explosions appeal to the Big Jim McBobs and Billy Sol Huroks of the world? Does anyone know? I get nothing out of it.)
The “Jump Street” squad—for those unfamiliar with the ’80s TV series that propelled Johnny Depp to fame—uses baby-faced cops to infiltrate high schools where drugs are being sold and crimes committed. More in-jokes here, since Tatum, 32 in April, hardly seems credible as a high school student. Hill, 28, is a bit better. And it helps, of course, that the other high schoolers are also played by twentysomethings: Dave Franco, 26, plays Eric, the popular kid who’s dealing the drugs, while Brie Larson, 22, plays his kinda girlfriend, Molley Tracey, who winds up with the hots for Schmidt. Yes, Schmidt.
That’s another ongoing gag. Way back in 2005, both of these guys were seniors in high school, where Jenko was the stupid popular jock and Schmidt was the Eminem-loving, unpopular nerd, who was the sole member of the Juggling Society (“One man, three balls.”) Apparently times have changed. Today’s kids, besides texting instead of phoning, and putting up party invites on something called “Facebook,” appreciate the following: reading comic books; environmental awareness; being tolerant. They don’t like bullies. Schmidt prospers and hangs with the cool kids; Jenko is ostracized and hangs with the science geeks.
But shouldn’t the science geeks...?
I like a line of Schmidt’s early on, when he realizes his path away from high school has led him back to high school: “It was too fucking hard the first time,” he says, shaking his head. Most people can identify.
Part of the point of the film is that, no matter your age, no matter your maturity level, when you return to high school you become as childish as you were in high school. I like that concept ... but Schmidt and Jenko are never mature. They never stop being childish. They’re doing drugs as bike cops. They’re shooting guns in the air in city parks. It doesn’t take high school to turn them into adolescents, they’re already there. Would it have worked better if our heroes had been mature when they first arrived? Or would it have just cut back on the comedy.
Many of the original “21 Jump Street” stars get their cameos, including one hilarious shocker, and we get the usual hip comedy alums, such as Rob Riggle of “The Daily Show” and Ellie Kemper of “The Office” as a teacher with the hots for Jenko. The movie has its share of laughs. But that sound you hear throughout is the sound of cake eating itself.
Movie Review: Chronicle (2012)
WARNING: FOUND SPOILERS
“With great power comes great responsibility,” Ben Parker tells his nephew, Peter, in “Spider-Man” (2002).
“A weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power,” Dr. Carl Erskine tells Steve Rogers in “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011).
Cue Josh Trank and Max Landis (son of Jon), the first-time director and screenwriter of “Chronicle,” clearing their throats.
They imagine a Peter Parker raised by an alcoholic, abusive, former firefighter instead of kindly Uncle Ben. They suggest that a weak man knows the value of strength because it’s been used against him his entire life. And once that strength is his? He might not be so nice as Peter Parker.
I suggested as much in my review of “Captain America” last year. After quoting Erskine’s line I wrote:
I could raise an objection here, and did so, silently, in the theater. I thought of a line from college: “The worst taskmasters are former slaves.” I thought of myself, a skinny Steve Rogers-type most of my childhood, and of my many subsequent resentments. Did Steve have none? Was he that good?
So I should be a fan of what Trank and Landis, both of whom will turn 27 this year, have done with “Chronicle.” They’ve reimagined a superhero storyline in which three teenagers gain powers through telekinesis, and then, rather than put on costumes and fight crime, act like assholes. They film themselves pulling pranks in a toy store: lifting a teddy bear in the air and having it dance before a frightened girl. They move a woman’s car in the parking lot so she has trouble finding it. They do impossible tricks at their high school talent show to become popular. Then they begin fighting each other.
Their story is told through found footage, the point-of-view of the young (and of January/October releases), which means someone, usually Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), our weak teenager who knows the value of strength, always has to be filming what we see. Initially this worked. It lets us know how lonely and abused Andrew is. But the deeper we go into the story the more problematic it becomes. Really? He’s filming this argument? He’s filming this funeral? He’s filming himself crushing this car in the junkyard? If the traditional superhero tends to hide his identity from the world and do good, Andrew tends to film everything for the world and do bad. He’s Peter Parker as supervillain. He’s a male “Carrie” with a camera.
Our other two leads are Andrew’s handsome cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), who likes to pretend he’s not shallow by quoting philosophy 101; and Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan), the popular black guy who’s running for class president. Andrew is the pick-upon one. But one night he goes to a party, with camera, and Matt and Steve find a hole in a valley in the woods and bring Andrew along to film what they find. Inside they discover ... well, probably a spaceship. But then things go crazy and zzzzttt, the camera stops working, and when we’re back to filming again in someone’s backyard (with a different camera?), the three teenagers are able to move things with their minds. And Andrew is the strongest of the three.
If they push themselves too far, they get nose bleeds. Sometimes if Andrew pushes himself too far, Matt gets the nose-bleed. So they’re linked symbiotically. At one point, for example, Andrew uses his telekinesis to fly into the sky during a lightning storm, and Steve just senses he’s there and joins him and tries to talk him down. Sadly, this is the moment Steve gets zapped and dies, and Andrew, blamed by Matt, turns more inward.
Andrew also has a sick mother, like Aunt May, who needs medicine, like Aunt May, but it costs: a $700 co-pay. So where can a boy with super-powers find $700? Well, first he robs the local drug dealers but it’s not enough. (Lousy drug dealers.) Then he robs the local food mart, but the proprietor comes out with shotgun blazing, sets the gas pumps aflame, and sends Andrew to the hospital.
I.e., for a nerdy boy with superpowers, Andrew isn’t the brightest bulb. So what is he?
This may be the biggest problem with “Chronicle.” It’s not that the three teenagers never worry about long-term health issues after exposure to the radiating alien spaceship. It’s not that, with their great power, comes great irresponsibility. It’s not that, of this irresponsibility, none of it is the kind most randy, teenage boys would pull—i.e., removing the clothes of girls, a la “Zapped”—meaning the film feels false even as it strives for authenticity.
No, the biggest problem is that the boys don’t have any identity beyond the initial one. Steve’s the popular black guy, Andrew is the unpopular nerd who likes to film shit, Matt is somewhere in between. And that’s all they ever are.
Does Andrew like comics? Sci-fi? Is he a “Star Trek” or a “Star Wars” guy? Does he read science or poetry? Who knows? He’s just a picked-upon virgin. He has resentments. In one of the movie’s better, creepier moments, he films himself in a bathroom stall analyzing the brutal removal of a bully’s teeth: how that tooth broke in half, too bad, but this one remained whole, which is how you want to do it. A second later the plot kicks in and he’s searching for the $700 and winds up in the hospital, where his father lets him know that his mother died, for which the father blames the son, for which Andrew blows a hole in the side of the hospital and drops the father 10 stories. But Matt’s there to save the father and battle Andrew high above the city of Seattle (Vancouver, B.C.).
At least by this point Andrew has stopped filming. The found footage is now culled from various sources: hospital tapes; the video-blog of a local girl; all of the folks with their cellphones at the top of the Space Needle. This was my first found-footage film and I always assumed the footage in question was found in the same camera. But some imaginary editor obviously went to extraordinary lengths to piece together something fairly shallow.
Yes, Trank and Landis do some smart things with “Chronicle.” The moment when Matt saves Andrew’s father recalls that great scene in the original “Superman: The Movie” (1978) when Superman first saves Lois Lane from the helicopter crash atop the Daily Planet buidling. There, though, the revelation of a superstrong being who can fly was triumphant, and greeted—absurdly, I would argue—with applause from the crowd below (See: No. 2 on this list.) Here it’s kind of creepy. There’s nothing triumphant about it. Everyone’s like ... WTF?!? ... because their world is upended. As it is.
So “Chronicle” has its smart moments. Unfortunately they’re few. Dane DeHaan is a good young actor that has something of a young, sickly Leo DiCaprio about him. Unfortunately he’s playing a shallow character in a lightweight enterprise. One wonders if the movie’s lack of depth is the result of the found-footage formula or the fact that its creators are 26 years old and just aren't that deep.